Jack Thurston is barrelling along with the unchecked enthusiasm of a man unburdened by complex assignments and tight deadlines.
“I’m just loving this ride,” he exclaims, as we hit the foot of yet another sharp climb in a part of England that he only half-jokingly, I think, calls the ‘Leicestershire Alps’.
There is, undoubtedly, a lot to love, with mile upon mile of pin-drop quiet lanes piercing this magnificently and, somewhat unexpectedly for me, undulating land. But that isn’t why Jack is so happy.
Well, obviously, in part, it is; this is an author who’s built a career on routing lanes exactly like this one for cyclists throughout his Lost Lanes series of cycling books, which is now a collection of five.
No, he is loving it largely because his work on his latest route compendium, short of a few media assignments like this one, is done.
The last time Jack was here, on a day last year that was even greyer and colder than this, he was deep into the work on the latest book of his series, Lost Lanes Central, released in May.
That meant coming up with a suitable route, and all the trial and error that involves, inside a couple of days.
There’s a pressure that comes with that and, now unshackled from cumbersome planning and logistics, Jack is able to enjoy the fruits of his labour. And enjoy them, we shall.
This isn’t our first encounter on the road with Jack, either.
Four years ago, we linked up with him in Bradford-on-Avon in Wiltshire, on the launch of Lost Lanes West, for a ride that had the misfortune to coincide with the ‘Beast from the East’ arctic blast of weather that brought the UK to a standstill.
Today, we exit Melton Mowbray via the back door, under granite skies leaching out unwelcome chilly rain.
Armed with nothing more than the famed produce of this town – the pork pie – in our jersey pockets, we set about riding a 55km loop south of Melton Mowbray.
In Lost Lanes Central this route is titled Higher Ground – the 25th of 36 one-day rides of varying difficulty, covering an expansive area of central England, from the village of Hope in the northern Peak District, to the Lincolnshire Wolds in the east and as far south as Cirencester in the Cotswolds.
Has Jack considered including multi-day rides in his books? Absolutely, he says, but he’s received little enthusiasm for the idea from his publisher, certainly in relation to his Lost Lanes series, which has been defined over the course of five books by rides that you can enjoy in a day.
This part of England has been perhaps a little under-represented on BikeRadar in recent years.
Perhaps it’s because it’s some distance from any national park or Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, but right from the start, climbing steadily out of Melton Mowbray, I am quickly disabused of the notion that there isn’t top-quality scenery and riding to be indulged in here.
Pretty much as soon as you hit the first gate – one of many gates that still exist on the lanes here – is where you realise you’ve struck upon a cyclist’s rural idyll.
“When was the last time we saw a car?” would be a refrain of Jack’s throughout the ride, and if avoiding motor traffic is a guiding principle of his book, he has surely struck gold here with Higher Ground.
There are some 250,000 miles – the distance from Earth to the moon – of road in the UK, he writes in Lost Lanes Central, which means that for even a country as densely configured as this one, there remain vast stretches of minor roads that are untouched, ever more so as bigger roads are developed.
With a lack of amenities on the route, and with only a small pork pie for sustenance, Jack takes us along a detour through the village of Great Dalby to a shed – which is far more exciting than it sounds.
Vine Farm Dairy Milk Shed houses vending machines – not with your usual array of Mars Bars, Walkers crisps and cans of Coke but a smörgåsbord of local dairy products, such as milk, milkshakes and cheeses.
It’s far too early for a wedge of blue cheese – is there ever a good time? – so Jack treats us all to a strawberry milkshake.
There are times early on in the ride, particularly on the longer downhills, when it’s hard to believe we are on the cusp of June.
I’m not helped by being inadequately dressed for the occasion, with just a thin, leaky jacket over my wool jersey, and the conditions seize upon my complacency.
Thankfully, the weather improves quickly, the monolithic grey skies breaking in favour of periods of warm sunshine – and occasionally bursts of even heavier rain.
It might have been dry by 25km, but we remain soggy so are keen to take refuge somewhere that can add coffee to our milk.
Our diversion to Tugby turns out to be fruitless, however, as Café Ventoux, one of the best cycling cafes in the region, is closed today because it’s moving location (within the same site).
This disappointing diversion added several more searing ups and downs to the route and it really was proving to be one of little respite.
If it’s one of the shorter routes in Lost Lanes Central, the climbs make it feel like a substantial ride that would eat up most of a morning, if you weren’t stretching it out with photos and chats.
Ask Jack to pick a favourite route from his books and he almost fires a blank: “It’s like picking a favourite child.”
Eventually, he settles on a ride just outside of London, which seems a personal choice given he grew up and spent much of his working life there, before leaving for Abergavenny in 2013 for a new life as a full-time author.
“The route is called Valley of Vision and was the very first route in my very first book. It takes in the Darent Valley, on the westernmost rural fringe of Kent, just outside the M25.
“As it is so close to London, a lot of readers found it a convenient ride to do, and many have got in touch to say how much they enjoyed it, how much of a revelation it was to find somewhere so tranquil and beautiful, so surprisingly rural, within an hour’s ride of central London.”
For Jack, writing his guidebooks is about contributing to Britain’s pool of knowledge when it comes to cycling routes.
His early days of riding were reliant on guidebooks such as Nick Cotton’s (no, not that one); Cycle Tours, published by Philip’s, were heavy on information but light on colour.
“They have a very practical format and some good routes, but I felt there was a need for a bit more in the way of exposition, some cultural, historical background to the rides, more evocative photography, to make it more alluring and seductive,” says Jack.
With Lost Lanes, he set out to redress this balance, though he retains his appreciation and fascination with these old spartan books and doesn’t make his books about him or his experiences. For Jack, the route is king.
He wants people to take them, run with them and use them as a jumping-off point for further exploration.
Tipping over into Rutland, the smallest county in England at 383 square kilometres, we’re still looking for somewhere to fill up our bottles and jersey pockets. Every pub we come across is closed, it being a Tuesday.
We can’t even find a tap in the local church at Belton-in-Rutland, though a tin of Quality Street with a ‘Help yourself’ Post-It note stuck on the top helps ease the hunger part of the equation with a much-needed caramel barrel.
Another 3km on, Jack hunts down a hosepipe on a farm, which he is far keener to use to fill his bottle than I am. A short while later, he’s heating it up for a round of coffees to wash down the pork pies in a bus shelter in Braunston-in-Rutland, in eyeline of yet another closed pub.
Jack’s far superior fitness is beginning to tell, as we continue to climb to the route’s highest point at Burrough Hill.
He’s in possession of a physique from a lifetime spent on the bike, with a couple of muscular pistons for legs languidly propelling a rangy upper body. None of this was achieved by trying to ride fast, however.
Anything that might involve racing against the clock is his kryptonite, unless it’s to make a dinner reservation at the end of a long day in the saddle. In Jack’s world, the bike is a tool for exploration, discovery, socialising and transport.
At one point he asks me how he could raise his base average speed by 1mph, but I suspect he’s just fine exactly how he is.
Burrough Hill, at 210m high, is home to an Iron Age fort that offers splendid views of Burrough Hill Country Park and beyond down below.
This part of Leicestershire also lays claim to being the birthplace of Stilton cheese, which I learn following the ride. Had I known that at the Dairy Milk Shed vending machine earlier, I still wouldn’t have bought it.
We take the fast, direct route off the fort, which means a perilously rough descent that very much finds the limits of my Specialized Tarmac, a bike not cut out for such battles.
There is around 3km of unpaved path across the route, and this section stands alone as by far the roughest.
And just like that, we are almost done, with only the short section that opens the ride left to negotiate, before we arrive back at the Melton Mowbray car park where we’d landed in the morning.
Jack rewards us with a Lost Lanes cloth patch, which we can attach to our clothing, like we did as children when collecting swimming distances.
I’ve also got plenty more routes to tackle in the book, which I definitely will. With Jack as our guide, we’re certainly in safe hands.
Distance: 34m / 55km
Elevation: 2,329ft / 710m
Route: Download the route on komoot
Getting there: Catch the train to Melton Mowbray or if driving, the Parkside car park is just a few 100m from the start.
Where to stay: There are a handful of options in Melton Mowbray, including the Best Western Sysonby Knoll and the Harboro Hotel.
Where to eat: For your pork pies, Ye Olde Pork Pie Shoppe (LE13 1NW) on the high street is the place to go. The Vine Farm Dairy Milk Shed (LE14 2HA) in Great Dalby serves hot drinks, cakes and milkshakes. The popular Café Ventoux (LE7 9WE) is just off route. For lunch, consider The Blue Ball (LE15 8QS) in Braunston, a 17th-century thatched inn.
Bike shop: Halfords (LE13 1JE) in Melton Mowbray
Lost Lanes Central: To buy this and Jack’s other books, visit Lost Lanes
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