Why Yorkshire cycling journalist Peter Cossins has written a book on the Pyrenees

Scarborough-born Peter Cossins has covered cycling for some 30 years. He tells John Blow about his latest book on the Pyrenees and his glee at Yorkshire’s love affair with the sport.

Roads in Central Pyrenees mountains close to Col du Tourmalet (2115m). Picture: Radu Razvan.

Long before cycling journalist Peter Cossins fell in love with the sport on a Continental visit and his native Yorkshire became a hot spot for spandex, it was column inches in his father’s newspaper that caught his attention.

Having enthusiastically combed through the Daily Telegraph for news of the Tour de France as a boy, it all came full circle when two of his books - Full Gas and The Yellow Jersey - won accolades at the publication’s own Sports Book Awards in 2019 and 2020.

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Now his Alfred Wainwright-inspired new book, A Cyclist’s Guide to the Pyrenees, has been released by Bradford-based Great Northern.

It covers one mountain range, three countries, 11 regions, 112 routes, 310 climbs, 10,716km of riding and 260,646m of vertical gain.

But, for all that, it’s the solitude and gentler routes between famous spots that may be what makes the area what he considers a “paradise” for those on two wheels.

He had been planning the route of a climb for friends who were staying at their home in...and realised that much of the joy in cycling the area was in the journey, not just the destination.

“Often when people talk about these climbs, they’re talked about in isolation as if as if you kind of somehow teleport from one to the next without there being anything in between,” he says.

“And of course, the kind of what’s in-betweens can be just as good as the climbs and not everybody wants to kind of flog themselves to death and climb, there are some beautiful roads in between, the Pyrenees has got stacks and stacks of the them. It’s a very empty part of France. The roads are very quiet, it’s not like the Alps in terms of like the kind of at the centre of Europe, it’s very kind of tucked away. All the main routes are kind of at either end of it. So once you get into the middle...for a cyclist it’s paradise, I think.”

Of particular note are the region’s Catholic castles, hugely dramatic landscapes, aforementioned unpopulated roads and, on the Spanish side, desert-like stretches that are “like the Grand Canyon in scale”.

It’s a long way from where Cossins was born, in Scarborough, before moving to Heckmondwike in West Yorkshire when he was two.

Cossins departed for the West Country a few years after that but after he married a Lancastrian he moved to Leeds in 1999 and then to Ilkley in 2004. He spent 12 years there before moving with their children in 2016 to the French Pyrenees.

It’s an area he estimates that he had visited every year since about 1990, either covering the Tour de France as a cycling journalist or getting out on to the roads himself.

He has been a cycling journalist since 1993. After working on Cycling Weekly magazine in London for a few years he moved on to various titles such as Cycle Sport and Procycling.

But what has really inspired him is the essentially democratic nature of getting out and about on two wheels.

“I’ve always been kind of more fascinated less in the personalities and more in the in the arena, I guess, that cycling takes place in,” he says.

“Unlike a football fanatic who’s never going to get a chance to run out at Wembley and or even walk on the grass at Wembley.

“I can go out and ride these or these famous climbs whenever I want, they’re kind of here for me and for anybody else essentially. I think that’s one of the great beauties of cycling as a sport, as a pastime, that you can go and...for some people it’s test yourself, but for others it’s just a case of seeing them and experiencing these incredible arenas that make cycling so extraordinary as a sport.”

Yorkshire, in recent years since the Grand Depart of the Tour de France from Leeds in 2014, has increasingly been seen as a must-do for cyclists - a phenomenon Cossins admits first left him “absolutely flabbergasted”.

He says: “I had no clue at all. I knew cyclists and I rode in Ilkley a lot, up into the Dales. My standard route would be from Ilkley up the back lanes to kind of Burnsall and Kettlewell and places like that, up towards Hawes or going up Wharfedale. And when I first started doing it, I don’t know, 15 years ago doing those routes, I’d barely see anybody. And then there was just a suggestion of the Tour coming, you saw a few more people up there and it got a bit busier.”

On the day itself, he started in Leeds then went over to Ilkley with his family.

“And it was like being at Glastonbury, I mean it was just absolutely extraordinary there was just people everywhere picnicking, when you saw the race go by people were 10 deep by side of the road. And I remember meeting a friend of mine in Riverside Gardens, and he was probably had a few beers too many, and I probably had as well, he just look we looked around and he just said, this is all for cycling - can you believe it? And we couldn’t.”

He adds: “The Tour’s an extraordinary event anyway and you always expect a lot of people to turn out, but what was perhaps even more wonderful was the way it triggered this passion for cycling. Obviously you’ve got the Tour de Yorkshire which has not happened the last couple of years because of the coronavirus crisis, but still there are a lot of a lot of people cycling and, I mean, it got to the point where there was so many people cycling, I would actually go out in the week rather than at the weekend because the roads were just packed with cyclists. It all became a bit overwhelming but I loved it and I’m the one thing I would say is, Yorkshire is a great place to ride a bike.

“You can cover big distances if you want to but from where I was going at Wharfedale you don’t have to ride very far and you’re kind of - a bit like the Pyrenees - you’re not quite as in the middle of nowhere as I am now, but you’re on you’re on quiet roads and it’s beautiful and you’ve got it to yourself.

“I probably wasn’t as concerned then about the weather as I am now, because the weather can be a very big factor when you go out riding here but I’d just go out all times of the year and I thought Yorkshire was a wonderful place to ride.”

After studying in London, Cossins spent six months in Spain in 1985, when he became “engrossed” in Robert Millar’s efforts in the Tour de France. In 1990 he took his first trip see the the race itself in the Pyrenees.

He later travelled through California, Mexico and Central America for eight months by bike.

“I can think back now 30 years to when I did this trip, I can think back to parts of Mexico and I think I know exactly what the geography is like there because it’s kind of hard-wired into my brain...I rode it,” he says. “And I think that’s the essential beauty of being on a bike - that it just connects you in all kinds of ways to the environment around you and it’s just an absolutely extraordinary mode of transport...”

A Cyclist’s Guide to the Pyrenees is out now.

Yorkshire's cycling stars

Peter Cossins says he’s glad to see Yorkshire role models in cycling.

He says: “Cycling, when I came into it, was an old man’s sport. I mean it really didn’t really seem to have a future in terms of when you compared it to football or cricket, where there were kind of young and iconic stars. But that’s changed a lot. We’ve had Bradley Wiggins come through, obviously he kind of had a real offbeat vibe to him, a very interesting personality.

“For Yorkshire we’ve got two fantastic role models in Lizzie Deignan, who is a world champion and from Otley, and obviously Tom Pidcock, who’s just extraordinary. I mean he really is a kind of a sporting superstar, or he will be.”

Much more women riders are coming through too, he says.