Halfway through a Saturday bike ride with the Cappuccino Cycling Club, we’re comfortably seated in a courtyard cafe in the market town of Boroughbridge, cradling cups of steaming hot coffee.
Our route around Ripon has taken us on a brisk ride through sunny country lanes, crocus-filled villages and up a few town streets, before stopping off at the Old Foundry Kitchen.
Then the plates of cake arrive, but not just any old cake. They’re huge slices of coffee sponge sandwiched together with a thick layer of buttercream and topped with a generous coating of glacé icing.
My new me ntal calorie counter estimates each slice is probably around 400 calories. I hesitate for a moment. Have we used up enough kilojoules pedalling up that steep lane outside Ripon to justify such an indulgence?
“Absolutely,” says Sarah Sharp, organiser of the ladies’ section of the Cappuccino Cycling Club, as she picks up a fork. “It’s all about the cake.”
Mixing a tough 35 to 40 mile bike ride with a coffee stop and cake is proving a winning formula for the Harrogate club. The emphasis is on enjoying yourself while getting fit, and cake is very much part of the equation. We all tuck in energetically.
Started a year and a half ago, the women’s section of the club goes out every Saturday throughout the year and is one of a growing number of female cycling clubs across the country.
According to Sport England, nearly two million people now cycle at least once a week and it’s on the rise.
The golden summer of sport last year which celebrated Britain’s first Tour de France winner as well as cycling successes at London 2012, has inspired the nation to dust off their saddles and dash out for the latest Lycra tights and Gore-Tex overshoes.
We’re now a nation of cyclists. British Cycling reports a 29 per cent increase in competitive events in the last four years, with a 145 per cent rise in non-competitive organised cycling events, such as informal Sunday bike rides and social cycling clubs.
Though the sport is still male-dominated, more women are now taking up cycling. According to British Cycling, who launched the National Lottery funded Breeze programme in 2011, in the last 12 months almost 63,000 more women are now cycling regularly. Breeze trains volunteers to lead women-only cycle rides up and down the country.
It’s the combination of a good workout coupled with the chance to chat and meet like-minded people that is proving so popular. The ladies’ section of the club came about following a challenge from Sarah’s partner over whether she would be able to do the Manchester 100 Mile ride.
“He said I wouldn’t be able to do it and I said, ‘do you want to bet?’”
At the time she didn’t even own a bike but the next day she went out and bought a racing bike. She started training, short distances at first and then built up to 70 or 80 mile rides.
“I did the 100 mile ride in just over seven hours,” she recalls. “But I was on my own and it was dire. I thought there must be other women who want to go out on bike rides together.”
Sarah, 44, set up the original ladies’ section of the club with just one other female cyclist. There are five women on today’s ride, though up to 17 turn up during the summer months. Many of the women are fairly new to cycling.
Sarah says she’s noticed a lot more interest in cycling in the last year or so.
“The Olympics have definitely made a difference. I now get at least one enquiry a week. People are a lot more enthusiastic about cycling.”
Club member Lisa Dinning says she only started cycling two years ago. “What I like about it is that it’s open to everyone, it’s not too elite,” she says.
“I decided I wanted to take up cycling this time last year. I just bought a road bike and turned up. I like riding with the club but I’ve never been out on my own.”
The club try different routes each week, averaging 30 miles and cycle at a speed of between 12 to 15mph.
“We’re a very friendly club and we always make sure everyone gets round,” says Sarah. “We ride to the slowest rider’s pace.”
Some of the women enjoy the fact that they don’t have to bring a map. “Sarah has a built in Sat Nav,” laughs Liz Annetts, who is gulping down energy gel for the next part of the ride.
We head out of the cafe to collect our bikes. The club members all have gleaming, ultra-light, drop- handle road bikes. I wheel out my hybrid, which though new last year, looks heavy and cumbersome in comparison.
The club rule is that hybrids are welcome for the first three months, but as they are heavier and slower on the hills, members are encouraged to use a road or racing bike.
”You want to have the same pace as everyone else and it is harder on a hybrid,” explains Sarah.
“The general rule is you can stop on a hill but you’re not allowed to walk.”
Today’s ride is a 37 mile circular route from Harrogate to Ripon and back through Boroughbridge and Knaresborough.
Back in the saddle, we steam along country lanes, echoing with the sound of bleating lambs and bird song. The River Nidd looks spectacular in the spring sunshine and we stop to admire the intricate wooden sculptures carved into trees on Abbey Road, near Mother Shipton’s Cave in Knaresborough. We all agree it’s a lovely way to sightsee.
There are a few busier roads to navigate as we get closer to Harrogate, with the odd impatient driver honking on our tail. “There are drivers that can ruin it for others,” says Sarah.
“Some of the ladies are nervous about cycling in traffic which is why it’s good to go out as a club.”
But as we swerve to miss yet another gaping black hole in the tarmac, it’s clear that the traffic isn’t the only peril.
“The worst thing is the state of the roads,” shouts Sarah over her shoulder. “There are so many pot holes right now.”
Cycling campaigners still say the health benefits of biking outweigh the risks. The national cycling charity, CTC claims cycling is close to an ideal form of exercise.
Not only does it burn around five calories a minute, it is aerobic, causing the heart rate and respiration to increase. A study of more than 10,000 people found those who cycle at least 20 miles a week are half as likely to have heart problems as those who don’t cycle at all. It is also better for the joints than running, since it takes the body’s weight off the legs.
“I used to run,” says Sarah, “But I prefer cycling because it’s faster and you can see more than you would just pounding the streets. Cycling is better for your knees too.” Such is her enthusiasm she has signed up for the London to Paris cycle ride in September. She will cover the 300 miles in four days and will raise money for the Scout Association, for whom she volunteers as a Scout Leader.
As we slog up the final hill into Harrogate I can certainly feel it on my hamstrings, but the pain is made easier by thinking about the treats I can now reward myself when I finish. Sarah’s nifty little bike computer on her handlebar tells her she’s used nearly 2,000 calories on the morning’s ride.
“You feel great afterwards,” she says. I can have whatever I want for dinner and not feel guilty about it.”