Riding an Elephant (Bike) Over the Pennines


Über Member
Sheffield, UK
With a ridge of high pressure moving in over the bottom half of the UK, the associated weather window offered the chance of a ‘snap’ tour. I’ve been keen to try something which may or may not come off; the clue’s in the title.

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A while ago I picked up one of the Pashley Mailstars that the Royal Mail - our postal service in the UK - were selling off. This was done through a charity, Krizevac, which acquired and began refurbishing the fleet for resale. The £250 purchase price paid for your bike and funded one to be sent one to people and communities in Africa. You can find more details (and how they became known as ‘Elephant Bikes’) here or in this vid:

These bikes are … robust! But with a 3-speed Sturmey Archer hub gear and drum brakes front and rear, perhaps not ideally suited to touring. Or are they? That’s the question I hoped this snap tour might help with. As a load lugger, they’re tough to beat, but that solidity comes at the cost of weight. I haven’t (yet) put mine on the scales, but other folks have suggested over 20kg. Sounds about right. Hauling a bike of such proportions, also loaded with touring kit up and down hills might pose a few questions. We shall see! Given that these bikes were designed to haul large loads back and forth within the neighbourhood (and I’m not casting aspersions on ‘postie’s’ proportions here), the gearing is naturally set rather low and has a fairly narrow range. On the flat and in top gear, my legs are spinning like little dervishes once the speed gets up above 16mph or so. Then again, bottom gear is not particularly low when compared with a touring or mountain bike, thus making gradients of anything above about 18% quite a challenge.

Crossing the Pennines should prove quite interesting then. I’ve done three of England’s C2C routes previously: here, here and here. There are some incredibly tough sections, even on a bike geared more appropriately for the gradients. I was pretty sure I wouldn’t make it up them on the Elephant Bike, at least not without resorting to Shanks's Pony. In an attempt to avoid that, I’ve devised a (hopefully) less demanding route linking the seaside resorts of Blackpool and Bridlington - west to east of course! Avoiding the high moorlands has inevitably required compromises to be made, so in places I’ll be on roads I would otherwise have avoided. Nothing too severe, but not always the quieter lanes I prefer. I’m also making use of my Camping and Caravan Club membership to stay at their sites and benefit from slightly lower rates as a member. This also clearly influenced the route, but we shall see how wise my choices have been.

Getting to the start will necessitate a train journey <groans!>, or to be more accurate three separate trains. Train journeys are rarely plain sailing (if you’ll forgive the somewhat inappropriate metaphor!) even with a ‘normal’ bike. Once you factor in panniers, things get a little more complex. So with the Elephant Bike, I have all that, plus a massive basket setup on the front. What could possibly go wrong?! Oh and on the last day, if all goes to plan, I’m also facing a further train journey home. Lovely!
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Über Member
Sheffield, UK
Day 1 (14-09-2019, 36 miles)
To catch the first train an early start was in order, so at 5:30 when the alarm clock insisted, I sprang into action. OK, so I reluctantly crawled out of bed and headed for the kitchen. One bowl of cereal and one cup of tea later, I performed my ablutions, donned suitable cycling apparel and loaded up the Elephant. [Started thinking it needs a name, but reluctant to settle for the obvious] I took my waterproof from my pannier and slipped it on as an extra layer against the chill. Although a clear morning, the sun was long off even thinking about making an appearance. As a consequence lights were also needed, but by the end of the short couple of miles to the station, we'd transitioned to twilight rather than darkness.

As I interrogated the ticket machine for a single to Blackpool, it insisted I go via Stockport, offering no other options. Here was my first train journey-related banana skin. Trains from Sheffield (where I was first headed) to Manchester via Stockport mostly go onward to the airport and are packed with holidaymakers and their enormous suitcases; no place for a loaded touring bike, let alone an Elephant! I bought the ticket, boarded the 6:35 to Sheffield which I knew would be trouble free, electing to resolve matters later. When the conductor came to check tickets, I sought his advice. He confirmed my fears but also suggested an alternative Manchester train which would arrive slightly later, but still in time for my Blackpool connection. Fingers crossed!

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The Manchester leg was uneventful; that is until we arrived at Piccadilly and I allowed the infirm travelers who had rather too much luggage to disembark first. By the time I managed to extricate the bike, the doors closed and we were off. Fortunately, the final train I needed also stopped at the next station so I could get off there. On the downside it was ten minutes late and I really began to feel the chill on the exposed Manchester Oxford Road platform. When the train finally arrived, it had come from the airport and was full of … you're ahead of me, aren't you? I squeezed the bike between the suitcases and stood for the hour and bit, but despite the mishaps, nevertheless successfully reached Blackpool only ten minutes later than I'd hoped. And it was sunny!

Dipping a wheel in the sea to officially commence a C2C route has never been a thing for me, so I swiftly set about navigating the back streets of Blackpool to seek more rural pastures.

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Within a couple of miles, I'd escaped suburbia and headed out along fairly quiet lanes with an acceptable minimum of traffic. Quiet villages came and went, but when a cafe stop threw itself in my path after only eight miles, I allowed myself to be waylaid. A mug of tea and piece of Rocky Road whilst sitting in a wonderful suntrap watching the world go by soon consigned earlier tribulations to the memory waste bin. Elswick, where the cafe plied it's trade, made a big thing of repurposing bikes as information posts. Not sure how I feel about that. Same when I see other brightly-painted examples forewarning of some cycle event or other. A similar fate could have befallen the Elephant had ‘Cycles for Good’ not come to the rescue.

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Bond's cafe at Elswick
A few miles later and just before crossing the Lancaster Canal followed by the busy A6, I spotted a familiar sight. Guy's Tavern offers interesting accommodation, refreshments and entertainment, as we found out on our End to End LEJOG journey over ten years ago when it became one of our overnight stops.

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Guy's tavern alongside the Lancaster Canal
To the east of the A6, the roads became quieter still as the flatlands out of Blackpool came to a close and the foothills of the Pennies began to make their presence felt. Fortunately nothing too demanding today; the gentle climbs were manageable even on an Elephant. However, I suspect the gradients tomorrow will ask more serious questions of my capability … and I suspect I may be found wanting! After tracking along the shoulders of the ridges which fringed the valleys, it was not long before Clitheroe and the campsite were reached shortly before 2 pm. On checking in I was informed most non-hardstanding pitches on the site were excessively damp owing to recent weather and the clay-heavy ground. My secluded pitch in a quiet corner was indeed 'damp.' Whilst pitching the tent I briefly kneeled on the tent footprint and after a few moments, the pressure began to draw through moisture. First time I've had that. Not sure whether it's a reflection on the ground conditions or the tent footprint; probably both.

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Clitheroe Castle
With my home for night set up, I headed off into town to seek a supermarket for some comestibles and after a quick visit to view Clitheroe's castle, found the Aldi I'd spotted when planning. A layered pasta salad, some tortillas and hummus, a banana and a yoghurt would do the trick. On returning to the site, and after a shower and a 'brief' washing session, I made a coffee and tucked in. Very satisfying sitting in the setting but still warm sun enjoying a picnic sitting outside your tent. Just enough breeze and just enough warmth to dry my unmentionables.

I'm trying my Alpkit Numo inflatable air mat this trip. With no foam core, it packs much smaller, but with no core, it needs a lot of puff to get it inflated. We'll see how it performs over the next few days. With sixty miles and a good few hills tomorrow, I hope I have enough breath left to attend to my sleep system. As I post this, it's still a lovely evening, but I see the forecast for tomorrow is not promising. What will be will be!
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Über Member
Sheffield, UK
Day 2 (15-09-2019, 63 miles)
Well, the sleep system certainly afforded me an excellent night's sleep. Comfortable, warm and decidedly peaceful. On the one occasion I stirred, there was the tell-tale patter of raindrops, although thankfully not too heavy. With a long day ahead, I rose early (for me) and on poking my nose through the tent flap was greeted by a rather dank, damp, dreary day. My Scottish forbears would doubtless have called it 'dreech.' At least it wasn't raining, although the forecast for later was none too optimistic. Breakfast done by 7:30 I began packing, though it was almost nine by the time I was ready to roll. The tent was decidedly wet, so it meant dropping the inner separately, then wiping off as much moisture as possible, not very successfully I might add.

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The topographic image for today's journey showed four significant climbs and set me wondering how I and the Elephant would cope. If the gradients weren't too stiff, I'd be fine. Too steep and I'd be walking. From Clitheroe out through the back lanes brought on my first climb which appeared in fits and starts rather than one long ascent. That meant lots of little ups and unfortunately one or two downs requiring that lost altitude to be regained. It wasn't too long before I hit the inevitable first dismount and push and it became clear what the limits would be for the Elephant and me. I could just about strain up a gradient of around 17%, but only for about 60 metres or so. Anything steeper or longer necessitated a dismount. The touring bike would have barely registered the presence of such blips, so it came as quite a surprise to have my limitations thrown back at me. Others who have trod this ground before me will also doubtless affirm that pushing a loaded bike is not a whole lot easier!

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This hill looks innocuous in the photo. They always do don't they. My legs said otherwise, especially after climbing it twice!
These back lanes were nevertheless delightful, spoiled only by the washed-out, leaden skies. Quaint villages added to the interest, though I'd rather not have strained (without pushing!) up this one twice, having committed a brief but costly navigational error.

After the hills it was down into Barnoldswick and onto the Leeds and Liverpool Canal towpath. These can be a real mixed bag and whilst I love the canals, the towpaths can be a real lottery; sometimes smooth, but often rutted, grassy or muddy. Despite being incorporated into National Cycle Network routes, they're not always conducive to enjoyable cycling. Lucked out on this occasion, with a good surface for the few miles to Foulridge where I knew there was a canal side cafe, having visited it when on a narrowboat tour a few years ago. Second breakfast - pot of tea and sausage panini.

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Bridge along the Leeds & Liverpool Canal
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Cafe stop at Foulridge alongside the canal
From Foulridge through Colne and onto an A road, the A6068 for several miles. When planning the route it was either this or a longer and decidedly more demanding alternative. Discretion rather than valour won the day. Fortunately, being a Sunday the road wasn't too busy and largely lacked the HGVs that might have troubled me on a weekday. This was also the second climb of the day, but the nature of the road warranted a less severe gradient. Phew! Crossing back into Yorkshire from Lancashire also feels somewhat like returning home. Win win on this section.

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The drop down the other side into Gisburn and Crosshills was a pleasantly extended affair. The robust architecture of the properties in Ickornshaw conveyed a solidity and resistance to the passage of time which I found incredibly enticing. Not sure I'd want to be living on the edge of the moors during even less clement weather however impressive the properties were.

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Looking back across Airedale towards Keighley
The next section took me around Keighley and along the Aire Valley, so these few miles were generally flat. That changed rudely as the third ascent up through Micklethwaite unfolded. Three pushing sessions in all left me somewhat fatigued by the time I was once more surrounded by heather-covered moorland.

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Felt and looked like the 'Hovis' lad whilst struggling up here!
On the long and sometimes steep descent into Otley and Wharfedale, at one point I hit a hole in the road I'd failed to spot until the last moment. Bang! Although I held onto the bike and it barely missed a beat, the contents of the front basket went airborne. Everything except my water bottle came to rest from where they had momentarily exited and the bidon was left clattering down the hill behind me. Gave the driver of the following car quite a start I suspect. Eventually my drum brakes pulled me to a halt in a safe place from where I could rest the bike while I trudged back uphill to retrieve what was left. Astonishingly, despite a few dings and battle scars in the aluminium, not a drop of water had been spilt. Perhaps I need to think about a cargo net cover of some kind for the basket?

Passing through Otley I spotted a cafe we'd stopped at on a previous tour, but having no fond memories, chose instead to press on and tackle the final climb of the day. This one didn't once want to let me be, first providing a long but gentle section before taking to the secret back lanes where it relinquished any respect for my dignity. Fortunately, no-one was around to witness my gasping struggles as I heaved the Elephant up the slopes.

Despite there being only a dozen or so miles remaining, I was getting ready for refreshment. The fruit bar and banana from my emergency rations only helped a little. I was also conscious that I'd be arriving in Boroughbridge after 5pm and that the site I was aiming for was a good walk out of town. Hoping Harrogate might provide the chance to stock up with an evening meal proved to be in vain. The route followed a cycle route skirting the edge of town and passed mainly through residential areas. Fascinating to see the range of wealth from middle class, recently built developments, into an area of social housing dated from the '50s, and finally to pass humbly through a district where to buy property must require incredible wealth … or debt?

I'd forgotten I would also pass through Knaresborough, a place we'd based ourselves for the tour which took in Otley mentioned earlier. The dip into the gorge left me with my final push up the other side. An unexpected … pleasure! Especially as the rain which had been forecast arrived and proved the weather forecasting service could do its job. As I passed a petrol station with Co-op store providing Costa coffee, I could not avoid temptation, despite having only seven or so miles left. The coffee, sandwich and slab of parkin I had standing under shelter outside the store really hit the spot and meant I might not need a main meal later.

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Copgrave church
The rain continued to trickle, but by the time I'd reached Boroughbridge had thankfully halted, meaning I could at least pitch my tent without the discomfort of doing so in waterproofs. The camping field was almost empty and I had my choice of where to go, all for the princely sum of £6.50. I settled into the usual routine: unpack, shower, eat, journal, podcasts, zzzz.

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Although the site was generally quiet, a number of the caravans/motorhomes had dogs. I love dogs, but not when their owners allow them to yap, yelp and whine, unaware of how that's affecting other campers. Perhaps in their white plastic boxes they're unaware that noise passes outwards and that a few microns of sil nylon will do little to muffle it. To be fair, this didn't continue through the night, but what did intrude was an incessant drone from a nearby factory that interrupted my attempts to sleep, despite my fatigue. At least the traffic noise from the nearby A1 did not make its presence felt; well not until the morning, shortly before the dogs began yapping once more! Sheesh!
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Über Member
Sheffield, UK
Day 3 (16-09-2019, 28 miles)
I'm not entirely sure why, but today rated highly on my top ten touring days list, despite (or perhaps because of) cycling less than thirty miles. That's about the same as a day's commuting, though infinitely more preferable.

Knowing there wasn't so much ground to cover took all the pressure off and meant I could laze in bed for that little bit longer, even if the A1 traffic noise was driving me to distraction. When I do finally wrest myself from the pleasure of the sleeping bag, although it was the usual porridge and coffee breakfast, there was no sense of urgency willing me to wolf it down. Before even thinking about packing, I added a few lines to the journal, then decided to allow the sun to dry off the tent. It was around eleven by the time I began to roll.

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Boroughbridge town cross
A mile later I pulled into Morrison's supermarket for second breakfast and to collect some comestibles for later. Tonight's site is once more nowhere near anywhere to buy food. There's a pub in the village, but I'm rarely in the mood for that kind of cuisine, and risking a pint or two might necessitate multiple night time excursions later on. After scrambled eggs on toast, toasted teacakes and coffee, by noon the day's journey could start proper.

Only a few miles beyond Boroughbridge, I greeted a touring cyclist checking her map at a junction. A couple of minutes later she pulled alongside and we cycled together for the next eight or so miles. With 28 bikes in her stable, Jennifer was quite the enthusiast, but had only recently begun touring. Her destination for the day was Beverley, to the South of where I was heading; it needed to be as she was on her way from Newcastle to London. Her Soma touring bike was gorgeous, having classical touring lines, downtube shifters and a paint job to die for. Jennifer had bought the frameset and assembled the remainder herself. A fine job indeed [in retrospect, regretted not asking if I could snap a photo of it]. Our paths parted company at the junction in Graykes, and whilst it had been pleasant to share the road for awhile, I'd neglected my photographic duties. Some of the villages through which we passed were picture-postcard lovely.

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Jennifer clearly made the right decision as the road immediately began climbing in the only major ascent of this short day. We've been up in the Howardian Hills before, but I'd forgotten just how wonderful the cycling can be. Despite a couple of demanding sections, today was not one for pushing. Woohoo!

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Hovingham Green
After descending to Hovingham then onwards to Slingsby, the Garmin announced our arrival at a campsite with its usual ping. But this was not the Camping and Caravan Club site to which I was aiming. On retracing my pedal turns to the village, I spotted a campsite sign and followed it, this time successfully.

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After booking in for a little over £7, I had the delight of basking in warm sunlight whilst I pitched my tent. In fact after showering, I will confess to taking off my t-shirt whilst tapping out today's journal on the tablet.

As I said, a short day, but sweet nonetheless. Maybe there's a lesson I can take from this. I don't always need to be cranking out the miles to derive pleasure from my touring, and when it feels right to do so, taking it easy is the right strategy.
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Über Member
Sheffield, UK
Day 4 (17-09-2019, 48 miles)
Slingsby really was a blissfully quiet site and when I made my usual night time excursion, the clarity of the heavens afforded me a wonderful view of the night sky. With little cloud cover, the temperature dropped somewhat, reaching a chilly 8°C. This began knocking on the limits of comfort of my sleep system. I was OK, but had it been much cooler I would most likely have needed to add an extra layer … or rather 'a' layer!

With 38 miles to do and a train to catch, I couldn't afford the same leisurely approach as yesterday. The hourly train service from Bridlington towards Sheffield is regular, but it would be a matter of catching an early enough train so as not to get caught up with the evening commute out of the city. A fully loaded Elephant on trains where even standing room can be at a premium is to be avoided. My aim then was to reach Bridlington by 13:00, achievable if I got away by 9:00.

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Coneysthorpe near to Castle Howard
Up and at 'em then, breakfast eaten, packing done and a rather damp tent dropped. Wheels rolling for just after nine. Two significant climbs today, with the first commencing almost immediately as the route forged it's way back amongst the Howardian Hills, this time passing within the vicinity of Castle Howard, the stately pile which formed the backdrop to the TV series Brideshead Revisited, amongst others [so I'm told!].

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River Derwent in Malton
Thankfully the ascent was drawn out and never too demanding, so pushing was not required … yet! A similarly long, gentle descent took me down to the historic market town of Malton and onwards to Norton where I took the opportunity to grab a cuppa. The ‘Next Steps’ establishment was as much a community resource as a cafe and a steady stream of regulars passed through even in the short time I was there. Alongside the range of activities they seemed to run, they had a declared status of supporting more marginalised members of the community. Perhaps that was part of the reason their prices were so low. Had I not been on a mission, I'd have stayed for something more substantial from their menu and learned a little more.

Out of Malton the B1253 wound upwards, initially gently, but then with two successive declared climbs of 14%. Fortunately they were only 100 - 150m long as I was right on my limit of exertion; any steeper or longer and I'd have been obliged to dismount. The section which followed saw me descend into the Great Wold valley and pass through a series of small villages each of which displayed an information board with notable features and local history. Very thoughtful resources..

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East Lutton church
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Weaverthorpe information board
From in a valley, there's only one way to go, but the climb out through Thwing was none too severe and served to rewarm me. Despite wall to wall sun all day, the temperature in the breeze, or when cycling along, felt cooler than it perhaps should have. Autumn is clearly upon us. The topographic display on the Garmin suggested it was all downhill into Bridlington. Yeah, right! That’s the trouble when several miles are squeezed into little more than a couple of millimetres on small screen. The little ‘kicker’ hills of 50 or so metres barely register on the display, but boy do they become noticeable when your legs start to scream! Actually they weren’t the only thing screaming; the Elephant seems to be protesting too. A rather unsettling squeal seems to have developed in the bottom bracket, noticeable on each pedal stroke. It began late yesterday afternoon and picked up once more after the tea break today. Stripping down a bb is a job to address upon my return, rather than at the roadside, where I certainly lacked the necessary tools.

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Bridlington Station looking resplendent. Why can't they all look like this?
I successfully arrived at Bridlington station with time to spare to catch the 13:04 Hull train, from where I could pick up the next leg heading for Sheffield. Apart from my trusty but tired steed being corralled into a space poorly equipped to accommodate an Elephant, the journey and onward connection went smoothly. The second was a stopping train and after asking the ticket inspector what connection I could expect to catch for the final leg, it became clear I’d be landing in Sheffield just as the commuter period begins. I often used to travel at this time and know from experience how crowded these trains get. Folks end up standing in the aisles and where bikes would normally expect to fit. A fully loaded Elephant certainly wouldn’t. To avoid such mayhem I elected to get off early at Rotherham and cycle the eleven miles home from there. Being familiar with the terrain allowed me to decide the least worse route home; only certain options would be manageable without a pushing section and I wasn’t about to allow the day’s unblemished record to be sullied so close to home.

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And with that a rather different C2C has been added to my tally.
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Über Member
Sheffield, UK
Although this was an impromptu brief tour making the most of a sunny weather window, it also provided a testbed opportunity. First and foremost could I nudge out the limits of what might be considered a touring bike, and secondly, whether off-season (and therefore cheaper) autumn touring would suit me now that that time of year is open to me? In both cases the answer was yes, but with reservations. Let me go through some of my thoughts, whilst acknowledging that this was a relatively short tour in duration and distance.

The Elephant Bike
As a second-hand, but well-restored bike costing £250, the Elephant represents excellent value for money. It’s general load-lugging capability, simplicity and reliability (so far) proved tough to beat. The rear rack is both larger than standard racks and forms part of the frame, making it arguably less likely to fail. The front ‘basket’ was really useful and provided a simple place to quickly pop things for easy retrieval, however, I probably need to source a cover or suitable cargo net to keep everything in place. I also need to find mounts for water bottles and pump, though that shouldn’t be hard with the popularity of bikepacking and the add-ons now available. Coming with a set of Marathon Plus tyres, drum brakes and a hub gear system meant that mechanical problems were unlikely, and so it proved (although I have yet to resolve the bottom bracket squeal). When I first acquired the bike I chose to swap out the standard comfort saddle for something more appropriate and settled on the tan-coloured ‘Charge Spoon,’ not knowing whether it would suit my rear end; fortunately things worked out well and I had no problems in that department.

If you’ve read the preceding posts, my comments regarding gearing would have been hard to ignore. Maybe three speeds would have been enough, but I definitely needed a wider spread. I could just about live with the top gear as it is - cruising at about 16mph on the flat was comfortable - but the bottom gear just can’t cut hauling such a load up steeper inclines. Changing a sprocket of course won’t help here, but I wonder whether the five-speed Sturmey might be an option … but then would I be straying too far from the bike’s history and integrity? This has an impact on route choice and although I did my best to find a Pennine crossing of low demand, those short, stiff gradients often don’t show up when working at the larger scales of touring routes.

For ‘fun,’ when I arrived home I measured how heavy the load was; bike plus kit came to 40kg. Ouch! Naturally when the bike needed to be lifted, such as when loading it onto a train, it took some effort. I was just glad that each of the stations where I needed to change platforms had a lift and I didn’t need to manhandle the bike up and down stairs. As you may have noted in the earlier photos, the front ‘basket’ provided further challenges with bike spaces on trains; these simply aren’t amenable to a bike of this style. The hanging hook versions would be completely impractical.

Although the weather was mostly good, I had of course chosen the slot for that very reason, the temperatures of autumnal night times are starting to push at the limits of what I’m happy with. My sleep system proved up to the job, but getting up in the middle of the night and tramping across a soaking grassy field is no joy at this time of year. On the other hand, sites are cheaper, less likely to be full and are mostly quieter since the young folks are back at school. I’ve been wondering whether hostelling - cheap, but somewhat more expensive than camping - might be one way to extend my touring season?

So will the Elephant be accompanying me on future tours? It certainly attracts attention and initiated a few conversations I might otherwise not have enjoyed. It’s practicality is also to be commended, setting aside the issues of weight and gearing. Perhaps I just need to be mindful about the places we choose to go. I’ve heard the Netherlands can be nice ...

Accommodation: £21
Rail fares: £42 (with Seniors railcard!)
Refreshments/food: £45


Excellent :smile:


Über Member
Sheffield, UK
@roadrash @sheddy @cisamcgu @raleighnut @tom73 @Cycleops @CharlesF
Thanks for the responses folks. Glad you enjoyed it.
I've been mulling over a name for while now, but struggled for something appropriate but not obvious. (Not sure I'm keen to go with @Cycleops suggestion of a psychopathic serial killer but hey, what do I know 😜) So I thought I'd seek t'Internet's help and found out about Lizzie, the Sheffield elephant. The connection with the city and steel seems to fit perfectly ... although I must confess I've always been more than a little troubled with enslavement of animals, especially ones so apparently sentient. Am I overthinking?
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