Getting the miles in

I am currently three rides behind on the blog – it’s 00:01 on Saturday morning here in the UK, and the computer is on, so I’ll make a start on rectifying the situation.

Chippenham 18 mph

On Tuesday I worked right up until the bell, before getting the bike ready at the last minute. John and Brad arrived outside the front gate in a squeal of brakes, sending a small spray of chippings into the wooden fence. At the time, I was adjusting the panniers on the bike, they looked on in disbelief “What have you got those on for?” “Are you joining the CTC?” etc. etc. I wheeled the bike out to more mockery this time directed at my plus fours, Brad and John were of course lycra’d up from head to toe, clipless pedals, energy drink branded bidons, shades, the works. “Meh” is pretty much my response to that sort of attire. The mocking being completed we saddled up and rolled out to the A36 heading for Bath. The road was now open to traffic, fresh tarmac slipped easily under the tyres and we took control of the road on the descent into Limpley Stoke, with the speed limit on forty no one was going to overtake us on the hill. We took the corners fast and wide and arrived on the viaduct with big grins and verbal high-fives.

Unfortunately the unrepaired stretch of the road to Bathampton was a nightmare of frost-smashed chippings, potholes and cracks that jarred our hands and arms and sucked the life out of the wheels. Hurtling towards Bath on the downslope put me in mind of an old bomber command style war film, flack exploding around a Lancaster Bomber as it heads for the target, the pilot desperately trying to keep the plane pointing in the right direction as the fuselage is breached and the air is wracked with turbulence. The bike threatened to bounce off its line or suffer a buckled wheel, smashed on the anvil of the A36, it was a relief when the tarmac became smooth again. Rounding a switchback corner I saw a  Jay rise from its perch on a fence on top of the bank, a brilliant flash of colour from the wings as it took to the air. Across the toll bridge, riding behind Brad, I noticed him standing on the level cranks to deal with the crumbling road and slewed across to draw level with him.

“You can always tell a mountainbiker, level cranks on the rough stuff” I shouted into the wind of our forward motion. Then a cross voice sounded from just behind me:

“You can always tell a roadie, because they cut you up” – exclaimed John. I had thought him a good five metres behind when I drifted across the road, instead I had moved clean across his path as he was about to race in between Brad and myself. Whoops, bad road etiquette.

We cranked out the miles towards Box, entering the village then turning up a long, long hill. Not steep, just long, almost two miles long. On the way up I slipped in behind John and changed gear whenever he did. The hill was long enough, and shallow enough to generate a reverie as I spun the cranks and concentrated on maintaining my distance to John’s back wheel.

It occurred to me how easy it is to change gear on a road bike now. A motion of the thumb or finger, barely lifted from the bars, an imperceptible movement only given away by the whirr and clunk of the chain moving over. How different it is from the cycling of my youth with the original Highway Cycling Group. Then, a gear change was a measured decision, involving the hand dropping to the down tube, a leaning forward and, eyes still on the road, the easing of the lever until the grating sounded and the chain went over. Maybe, if it had been a hastily snatched imperfect change on a steep hill, desperately hurried as every millisecond with a hand off the bar meant the bike was barely in control, the hand may need to return to the lever for some micro-adjustment to stop the chain rubbing or the deraileur ‘ticking’. I used to like making the change slowly; waiting for the moment when the chain would start to move over, which could be felt through the bike before it could be heard. I also used to love the feeling of cranking out the power and moving the hand down to change up, sometimes keeping my hand on the lever as the cadence increased, ready for the next change. I remember on the Highway Common, riding the length of it at speed, going up through all the gears until the bike skimmed over the chippings, and it was both hands on the drops and head right down; panting with the exertion, calves aching as I approached the ninety degree bend at the end at what seemed like an impossibly fast pace in top gear. Now it’s all so instant, indexed gearing means a single push and the gear changes immediately, the effort required somehow seems less than the physical effect achieved.

Still, I was glad that it was easy to change gear up and down willy-nilly on Box hill. It seemed to go all the way to Corsham. Brad was of course way out in front, both feet off the pedals, legs stretched out backwards superman style, clowning about. We were going at a cracking pace, helped by the steep drop into the back end of Chippenham. We turned for Melksham and more bad roads via Lacock. Heavy freight revved horribly close to us, drenching us in diesel fumes and blasts of hot engine air, the road throbbed with the weight of HGVs, the air pulsed with the sound of their gear changes as they overtook us. A moped whined past John and myself with an engine that sounded like an angry bee caught in the greaseproof liner of a cereal packet. I shouted to John “This’ll be good, watch Brad!” Sure enough as the moped drew level Brad stood on the cranks and applied the power, staying level as the moped rider tried to increase his speed. Point made, Brad slacked off and dropped back, then continued at his usual pace.

On arrival back at Trowbridge John offered me a cuppa and I gladly accepted, much in need of a rest before the final ride home. We sat outside in the gathering dusk with steaming cups of tea and talked bikes and bikeshops. Twenty minutes later I saddled up again, bid John farewell, and meandered home.

37.5 miles at an average speed of 16.4 mph, not bad considering we only managed 8-10mph on Box hill.

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