Winsley Hill – Begging the Granny

Despite stories of heavy rain and floods over the South of England (Gloustershire is not too far away) it was a lovely afternoon and evening here in Somerset. With the sprogs asleep and the Tour de France coverage over I thought it high time I had a crack at Winsley Hill. This is the hill opposite Brassknocker Hill, the A36 disappears into a sort of hole, once you are in it you have to cycle up steep hills in every direction to get out. The least steep is towards London Road in Bath, John Hayes and I cycled down that gradient when we did our first ‘Mountain Stage’ of our Tuesday Rides. So I cycled out of the village towards the main road. That lovely fresh stretch of tarmac is already starting to show signs of wear, probably as a result of all the rain. It was still pleasant to ride on though, and I guess it will remain so at least until the winter frosts start etching their mark into the asphalt. Right at Woolverton and onto the A36, not too much traffic, but in any case visibility was good and I was fully kitted out in my hi-viz gear. There’s a lot of up and down on that road, but I was shifting gear nicely and getting into a strong rhythm. Even so I had drank half my bidon by the time I reached the top of the hill by the Freshford turnings. Though I didn’t stop turning the cranks, the descent refreshed my legs. It felt like the bike knew where it was going and was driving the chainwheel of its own accord. A smooth road surface and some nice cambers made for a fast and exciting drop into the valley. As I was going 33 mph in a 30 area the car behind was in no hurry to overtake, in fact I managed to get some distance from it on the last switchback before the hill despatched me out onto the viaduct and up to the traffic lights. A mini trackstand while I waited for the traffic (about two seconds, my rubbish top limit for trackstands) then across the road towards Winsley. There was a bonfire smell in the air, I guess it was the houseboats on the canal.

On the stretch of canal between Bath and Bradford-on-Avon there is a halfway point were a large group of alternative houseboats have set up home. Here you will find a sort of commune like atmosphere, a lot of dreadlocks, bongos, didge and constant cooking smells. A few years ago a colleague and I were cycling down the canal path to get some practice in for a charity ride. As we passed the hippyish flotilla a gypsey-esque girl stepped out of one of the house boats wearing a gingham headscarf, and a shirt knotted underneath her somewhat ample bosom. My colleague, riding right behind me, called out “Cor! More tea Vicar?” at which point I reminded him that we had to go back the same way. Needless to say there were scowls aplenty on our return, not to mention a small pack of dogs which followed us at 16mph, barking and snarling for a good quarter of a mile. As far as I was concerned, our joint training was over, the next time I rode with him it was for the actual charity ride itself.

Back to today, for now I am at the bottom of Winsley Hill having just past under a bridge. My word it got steep quickly, this made Black Dog Hill feel like a minor slope. Without the ability to weave all over the road as I did at Iford I thought it best to resort to the much maligned granny gear, the small chainring on my triple. How John will laugh as he reads this, knowing my disdain for the granny gear, how I see its use as a failure when it is nothing of the sort. Even with the ultra-low gearing it was hard work. Mind you the Lemond Etape is a terrific climber, the stiffness of the Aluminum gives complete transferance of energy into the road, nothing is absorbed into the frame. The geometry is such that it’s easy to get over the bottom bracket when standing or when locked into the saddle, it feels comfortable and lighter than the 22.1lbs it weighs out of the box (with pedals and straps). The Hill goes on for quite a while and winds around the contours. On reaching the top, I saw that a sign warns motorists that the gradient is 12%, not horrendous, but challenging enough thank you very much. Iford hill on the Westwood side is 17%, but much, much shorter. I recovered quickly as I rode and was soon blasting past Church Farm at a reasonable 25mph. Bradford-on-Avon itself was quiet and I was able to open up on the descent into the town centre, this is one of the most polluted roads in the country, mainly due to the high walls on both side of the road, folding the fumes back into the miasmic cutting. It really did stink of internal combustion, but luckily I wasn’t taking in big lung-fulls of the reeking air. Out of this black-bricked, sulphurous canyon, tyres bouncing over the worn-down yellow markings of the box junction, past The Shambles and the Swan Inn, right at the roundabout and into the clean air over the Avon.

The gudgeon weathervane

There was a lovely breeze blowing as I stood up to ride the town bridge, I half imagined the Bradford Gudgeon weathervane swinging on its mounting as it guided the fresh zephyrs in. Going too fast to see the swans and signets, but time seemed to slow as the edge of an elderly Asian woman’s white, cotton headscarf blew outwards from where she stood at the kerbside, translucent as it hung in the air with the evening sun behind the material’s frayed edges. I thought it might brush my face as I cycled past, but it hung an inch away, repelled by the turbulence of my approach. It seemed to me to be a beautiful moment. Out of the town, still in the middle chainring but the cadence felt right, fast but easy into the headwind. Standing on the pedals again to get up the hill by Sainsbury’s nee Budgeons, that corner is tight and I wanted to get past it quickly. Settling into the ride homewards, the spinning of the cranks broken only at the Wingfield crossroads. Standing at the lights I looked to the right at the wooden cross that stands as a wayside shrine. The flowers were in full bloom, their glorious scent drifting over the crossroads, belying the agony of the crucified oaken Christ. A photo, black and white, Eddy Merckx kneeling at prayer in a chapel in full racing gear. Have I imagined this image? Where in my cycling books does this photo exist? Have I miss-remembered a picture of a Columbian rider from ‘Kings of the Mountains’? Who tends this wayside shrine?

The lights have changed as I stood in a reverie, there is no traffic so I amble over as they hit amber again, feet searching for the straps and clips. Boring straight bit of road at Wingfield, cars always too fast, too close together. It doesn’t bother me, they give me a wide enough berth.

Back at the house, sobered by the hill. I think I will need the triple chainring for Brassknocker Hill after all… …and John will need his Mountainbike.

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