Iford Manor, Britannia on the Bridge.

I missed out on getting a VIP pass to the prologue of the Tour de France by a brake-cable’s width. I was due to go as part of a company hospitality package given to a friend by another company who he does business with. Unfortunately, the company giving out the tickets decided to cut the allocation and cancel the hospitality. Needless to say this left my friend in the very embarrassing position of having to tell me that the amazing lig he had invited me on had been pulled. Of course I was gutted, but it was after all a freebie and it wasn’t my friend’s fault at all. He now feels terrible about it, but he really shouldn’t, this sort of thing happens and it’s just rotten luck. Many, many thanks to him for inviting me on it in the first place.

As it happened though, two things happened on the same day I got the news I wasn’t going to Le Tour that cheered me up no end and made me forget all about it. Firstly my eldest son’s joint birthday party, shared with two of his chums hitting the big zero five in the same week, we held it at Longleat after hours. An amazing time was had by all, after playing in the adventure castle and getting a soaking in the water fountains, we all picnicked on the lawn at the side of Longleat House. The weather had been filthy all week and in fact it was raining on Friday morning, but by the afternoon the sky was blue and dotted with beautiful fluffy white cumulus clouds. Crucially the temperature was warm enough to feel like late June and it was a splendid event.

The second thing was a terrific ride I took out on a loop to Iford Manor. Two weeks ago I took my mother and my youngest son there during the day to look around the garden. The road down into the valley is on a 17% gradient and it is seriously narrow. So narrow that I thought our standard size family estate was going to scrape the sides and my mum was on the verge of a panic attack due to the complete lack of passing spaces. We took the road out of the valley up the other side, it turned out to be narrower and around the same level of steepness. I thought to myself, I’ve got to ride it.

So Friday evening, the children being asleep and the sun still well above the horizon at 2030 I gave it a go. Nice and easy on the route to the hill down to Iford, racking up speeds of 27mph on the flat with the breeze behind me. Then the hill down itself. It Was Scary! More scary than in a car. having the brakes full on didn’t really seem to slow me down (must give them a good looking over), I’m sure I was slowed, it just didn’t feel like it. Flanked on both sides by a wall with no kerb there was simply nowhere to go if anyone was trying to rant up in a car in the other direction. To make things just a little more tricky, the tarmac was covered with chippings and stones, most of which appeared to have fallen from the crumbling masonry or been gouged out by pointy bits of car. Arriving at the bottom is a fantastic experience, the rider explodes out of the hill onto a junction with no road markings. To the right stands the magnificent Iford Manor. The house is mediaeval in origin, the classical façade having been added in the 18th century when the hanging woodlands above the garden were planted. It’s the site of the internationally reknowned Peto Gardens, built in the early part of the twentieth century by Harold Ainsworth Peto. He collected a great many artefacts from around the world in his travels, from fourteenth century bas-reliefs from Italian churches to statues of snarling hounds from Germany and stone lanterns from Japan. All of these are featured in the garden which is well worth a visit. Also the housekeeper’s tea-rooms do the most AMAZING scones with jam and cream.
I digress, leaving myself standing impatiently with one foot on the pedal, the other poised on tiptoe just touching the gravel strewn tarmac. So, straight ahead is a road that goes I know not where, meandering off into light woodland, stone wall one one side, fence on the other. Leaving only the road to the left. This climbs out of the tiny valley, crawling up through the countryside until it eventually joins up with the A36, but before the hill starts there is a wonderful old bridge, capped with an imperious statue of Britannia which glares down at the waters of the river Frome.

Britannia and your humble author on the bridge at Iford

The road towards the A36 quickly gets steep and narrow. So narrow was it, that although I was cycling in the middle of the road, my shoulder was stung by a nettle on the bank. Once again my front derallieur failed to find the granny ring so I thought I would try and stand on the peddles and take it in the middle ring. I got about two hundred yards then I experienced something that has never happened to me on a bike before, as the road got suddenly steeper the bike simply stopped. I just didn’t have any forward momentum, it wasn’t like it got hard then ground to a halt, it just stopped. Foot down, telltale oily print from the outer chainring on the inner calf of my right leg. This is a shameful brand, the mark of the beginner who must get off the bike to walk up hills. Well I wasn’t going to walk up the hill. I leant over and popped the chain onto the inner chainring, the so-called ‘granny ring’. With the bike in its lowest gear I set off again, just about getting enough speed up to enable me to slip my foot into the straps. Near wheelying with the force I was putting in, I crawled up the hill, my breathing speeding up, but not quite getting to the panting stage. After a quarter of a mile it started to get easier as the road began to wander off from side to side during it’s ascent of the hill, the climb was becoming quite pleasant. Soon an angry buzzing sound filled the air, accompanied by an oddly acidic smell, faintly redolent of sulphur, the A36, still busy with traffic from Bath even at nine in the evening. In comparison to the gentle arcadian tranquility of Iford, the road seemed perverse and utterly unlovely, though to be truthful, Iford is as much a product of humanity shaping the landscape as the main road I was now hurtling down. I hadn’t ridden this stretch since last year when I first bought the Lemond Etape. My first ride from Farleigh Hungerford and back along the A36 had been painful, necessitating frequent stops as a double stitch burned my sides leaving me hardly able to turn the cranks. It was an ignoble and sobering ride that had left me feeling awful and despairing of ever being able to ride in the same manner I had barely ten years before. Now, less than a year later, I am three quarters of a stone lighter, the stretch seemed comically easy and a stitch, even a double one, is something that can be ridden through. It was uplifting to be riding back to the village, feeling that progress in gaining fitness and losing fatness was being accomplished in such a small space of time. I hope this comes as some encouragement to anyone reading this who has perhaps started cycling again and fears they have a long way to go before feeling like they can ride comfortably fast and get fit.

I get a lot of hits at this blog from people looking for average bike speeds and I assume they are just getting into riding a bicycle, maybe they are a bit discouraged that they are only hitting 12-14mph on their rides. Just keep going, remember Eddy Merckx, who I consider to be the greatest racing cyclist ever, said the way to get better at riding your bike, is to ride your bike. I promise if you keep riding, you will get better, faster, fitter, thinner.

Ride like the wind; Be home for tea

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Published in: on June 30, 2007 at 11:02 pm  Leave a Comment  

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