Ride, ride against the dying of the light

One thing the Rode and District Nocturnal Velo Club cannot be accused of is “going gentle into that good night”. The Wednesday after the wildly succesful Rode Village Festival – the committee met in The Cross Keys pub to have a post-fest meeting. This being done, and the libations and rituals of preparation being completed (i.e. no small amount of ale, lager and spirits consumed), the ride could take place. This time we had the Rev Philip Hawthorn, curate of Hardington Vale with us. It always pays to have a man of the cloth around when riding the darkened lanes of Somerset and Wiltshire in the gloaming. For these are old roads, and it is an old darkness we ride through. No matter what armour to superstition and fear your sensibilities and beliefs have provided in the warm glow of the day, it all turns to rust when riding beneath the pale ghostlight of a waxing moon.

Anyway, Phil rides a rather splendid Specialized, a large frame as he is long of leg, and a keen cyclist to boot.

At 23:30 the last embers of the sun had long burnt out beyond the horizon. Only the dull orange glows of nearby towns tinted the furthest reaches of the sky. We headed out of the village via crooked lane, drifting briefly from the old sideroad across the A36 and onto the road to Rudge, as a lost spirit might materialise from a wall covering a long forgotten passageway and glide across a landing before vanishing into the opposite wall.

With four lights blazing we shot down the hill at Rudge, hung a left at the bottom and continued toward Brokerswood, turning right at the tin tabernacle and headed for the railway bridges. We took turns at the front, and as we approached Old Dilton, Mike made clear his intent to go up… The Hollow. In truth, there was nothing we could do, Mike had spoken what we all surely felt, this malevolent slope was sucking us in like a black hole, its gravity was too strong to ignore this far past dusk. We crossed the double roundabouts by the church. The only mercy was that night had mercifully becloaked the upward gradient in its mantle – that we would not be overawed at the hills severity. The pools of light cast forth from our bikes darted about the tarmac and the banks as the slope took hold. Spotlit glimpses of branches, thorns, earth and asphalt flashed about us as we wobbled our way up. Every now and again we caught sight of one of our companions in the bikelights, an afterimage of a rictus grin of grim determination burnt onto the retina when the light fell away to crazily dart around the banks as we struggled to maintain our upward course.

Then, against all odds, the ground leveled out – not only had we taken The Hollow at speed, it seemed incredibly short compared to the other times we have ridden it. Too numbed to change up gear, we spun the cranks crazily fast on the flat and hungrily gulped down great lungfuls of air as if we had emerged, crazed with the bends, from exploring the crushing darkness of an oceanic abyss.

Turning right at the top proved to be an alarming choice as more than one car shot past us with seeming scant regard for our safety. The noise of their passing all the more alarming given the quiet country lanes we had emerged from.

Rode and District Nocturnal Velo Club

We crossed the A36 and disappeared into the cthonic darkness of the lanes around Frome. Mike led out on the descent towards the town, Marcus pumping his legs like mad at the back to keep up on his mountain bike with its smaller wheels and heavier tread. The streets of Frome were near deserted and we had the sulphur glow of the streetlamps to ourselves, our shadows flickering about us as we passed from one pool of light to the next. Taking up the whole road we freewheeled together, the nocturnal peleton (or nocaton as Phil called it) shot through the narrow streets and into the town centre with incredible speed. Another hill up out of the town, past Iron Mill Lane and then left towards Lullington. The Creamery was lit up as milk was churned into the small hours. Up the hill we rode, a skeleton oak stood stark on the horizon, a warning of the hill we were approaching. Marcus and I rode far off the front racing each other down the final dip, a foolish act of faith as we rode faster than the eye could take in the tiny spotlit area ahead of us. We waited at a crossroad to take the picture below:

Rode and District Nocturnal Velo Club

Rode and District Nocturnal Velo Club

Finally we wheeled our way back into the village via The Mill, Mike peeling off down his farm track before Marcus and I said goodbye to Phil who powered off up Nutts Lane.

Around 20 miles accomplished, a good workout and a magical ride.

If you are local and you wish to join us on a Nocturnal ride – leave a comment below and we’ll try and arrange something.

Per Noctem Volamus

Rodeanddistrictnocturnalveloclubinvert

It seemed like a good idea at the time. The meeting being finished before 10pm, Mike suggested some spurious festival business that would enable myself, him and Marcus to cycle around in the dark. By the time I got the bike and reflective gear out, and Marcus had pumped up the tyres on his under-used mountian bike, the festival business had evaporated with the discovery that we were out of festival posters (for details of Rode Village Festival go here). The dark had gathered around us and it was ten thirty before we set off, the gloaming having passed, we were into the night.

It was still amazingly warm, the tarmac retained more than just residual heat from the baking hot day. Earlier I had noticed that the tar painted on the telephone poles in  the village had started to melt, dribbling onto the notices pinned to the dark-stained wood.

We raced out of the village and crossed the A36, still fairly busy even at this late hour, but the lanes were empty, the only sound was the chirrup of crickets, the ticking of the freewheels and, less pleasingly, an irregular knocking from the bottom bracket of my bike.

Various chitinous bodies whirred around our heads, or thumped into our faces as we rode at breakneck speed towards Laverton before turning down hill for Buckland Dinham. Our velocity seemed magnified in the darkness as the road dipped into steep banks, cutting out the moonlight. Round twisting corners we hurtled, sharp shadows of long dead elms raked the road, hiding the potholes and stones.

A particularly spooky ghost story I was telling as we rode was spectacularly ruined when Mike ran over a rat, sending him briefly and dangerously off course with a yelp of surprise. Somehow he stayed on the bike and took the hill into Buckland at a breathtaking pace, leaving myself and Marcus trailing.

Mike in the dark

Mike in the dark

We stopped beneath the light of some public building, before turning towards Mells. Somewhere on that route my chain flew off. Bravely I proclaimed that the others should go on and I would catch up, but to be perfectly honest I was expecting some chivalrous response such as “Never! One for all and all for one!” or “No one gets left behind” rather than “Ok, see you at the top of the hill”.

Having caught up with them and delivered some choice blue language, we continued on what had turned into the inaugural ride of the Rode & District Nocturnal Velo Club. Giddy with excitement we hurtled down Ironmill lane, by day a nerve-shredding experience as cars scream down this rat-run between Mells and Frome, by night a beautiful piece of silky smooth tarmac devoid of all vehicular activity save three whooping cyclists. We took a left onto the Frome road, but then immediately turned left again and drifted up the hill towards Lullington, turning right at the folly entrance and towards Woolverton. The moon sailed behind a cloud making the long dip where the lane crosses a microvalley an interesting experience, all of us taking the crumbling tarmac at a much higher speed than we should have.

The A36 was silent as we skipped briefly onto its surface before peeling off left just as we crossed the River Frome and up the hill toward the village. The Moon resurfaced so our shadows rode beside us, picked out sharply on the asphalt in the silvery luminescence. The Nocturnal Peloton rolled into the village side-by-side a no doubt eerie and inspiring sight, had there been anyone or anything save a startled cat to witness its triumphant arrival as the commerative clock atop The Cross Keys struck midnight.

The motto of The Rode & District Nocturnal Velo Club is snaffled from a Vulcan Bomber Squadron (no.9) that a friend of mine’s father was a flight engineer for

Per Noctem Volamus – We fly through the night.

Anyone local fancying a night ride – apply here to join us.

Brother and Sister ride through the rain

My sister and her family came to visit today, only the second time they have all been at our house togther, and, like their first visit, the weather was awful. The rain lashed hard at the window, driven into needle points by a gusting wind. This wouldn’t have been too much of a problem normally, but my sister had come over especially to try out my Lemond Etape with a mind to borrow it for her first triathlon. She has a bike on order, but it’s very unlikely that it’ll arrive in time for her race. She’s been practicing on a mountain bike, a completely different experience from riding a road bike, even an entry-level racer like mine. Finally, having consumed incredible amounts of pizza, there was a break in the weather, and even though the sky was black with boiling angry clouds, and the wind was still blowing hard, my sister and I set out through the lanes, she on my Lemond, and I on the Brompton.

The roads were slick and muddy, punctuated with sudden huge puddles. Unexpected gusts slammed into us as we passed gaps in the hedges, blowing us off course and spraying us with droplets from overhanging trees. A solitary crow bowled past us, tumbling rather than flying. We headed through Rudge, my sister getting the hang of mvoing the brake levers to change gear. I only intended to go three miles or so, but I found myself shouting to follow the road to the right at the Full Moon pub rather than turn back and soon we were crossing the A36 and heading towards Frome. Whenever my sister asked how far it was back to the village I replied two miles, which it kind of was… as the crow flies. We turned into the wind which slammed into us, forcing us down to a mere crawl. We turned off the main Frome road down a tiny lane criss-crossed by gigantic pylons. The wind shrieked and howled through the wires, tugging them backwards and forwards. As we reached higher ground we could see that the undulating grass in the fields was moving like a squalling sea, and beyond the electric steel sentinals the sky was furious and inky, long smudges of rain hung beneath the clouds, there was no way we could outride the deluge. We crossed a main road and passed Lullington creamery, climbing up towards the turning to Woolverton. With appalling suddeness the light dimmed to a dull grey and the clouds were upon us, however, they raced over without any rain falling. A huge dead tree, it’s bark stripped off, standing stark and white on the horizon on contrast with the raging clouds, marked the right turn towards Woolverton. Riding that quarter of a mile stretch, my sister foolishly stated that we had escaped the rain. Within a minute we were in the midst of a merciless soaking. The wind seemed to be coming from every direction, the rain stung our faces, as I hauled the bike down the linking track that would deposit us onto the A36 at the Laverton junction. There then followed a scary twenty seconds as we had to wait in the middle of the road while a bus passed on the opposite side. A car squeezed past my sister, barely missing her (my) handlebars. We rode passed the Red Lion, our faces either grimacing or stuck in a rictus grin of cold. Now only three quarters of a mile to the village.

We made 10.5 miles, my sister pointed out that I said it was two miles to home at 6.3 miles. According to the speedo we pulled 27.5 mph at our fastest, which may be one of the fastest speeds I’ve gone on the Brompton, nothing like a rainstorm to improve your average speed.

My wife took a picture of us as we stood on the back steps at the end of the ride. As you can see she had her new digital SLR set to ‘make husband’s head look a really weird shape’ when she took the photo.

My sister and I after our ride through a rainstorm. I promise you that my head is not normally this weird looking

My sister and I after our ride through a rainstorm. I promise you that my head is not normally this weird looking

Published in: on May 17, 2009 at 10:24 pm  Comments (1)  
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To Ride a White Horse

Bratton Camp, Westbury

Bratton Camp, Westbury

Sunday last, and of course the clocks here in the UK leapt forwards an hour, making the the 0745 start for the ride all the more painful. Mike fancied heading out towards Westbury, but he needed to be in Frome for a football match by 10:30. This certainly meant we would be riding at least 25 miles. I had thought that in preparation for our Belgian/French cycle ride, we would be riding with full panniers, so I stacked mine to the maximum and even carried the track pump. Mike of course had completely forgotten, so he just had a single pannier with a flask of coffee in.

We rode out through Rudge, turning left at the Full Moon pub, then passing the Kicking Donkey. Even with the full panniers I was able to ride at a pretty reasonable pace. We shot through Westbury Leigh then headed for Bratton, passing underneath the mighty Westbury White Horse. This is one of the oldest of the white horses cut into the hillsides of Wiltshire. We don’t really know what the original horse looked like, but we do know that in 1778 someone called George Gee decided that it didn’t really look like a horse so he had it recut and reshaped until he was satisfied that it did. Towards the end of the 18th century it was recut again, then in the 20th century someone thought it would be a hell of a lot less work if the thing was concreted over and painted white. So what you are seeing as you take the road beneath Westbury Hill, is not a horse made of chalk, like say Cherhill or Uffington, but a load of painted concrete. The concrete horse drifted out of sight behind us as we continued along the road. The tarmac was beautifully smooth and there was barely a vehicle about. As we entered Bratton, we swung hard right up the promisingly named Castle Road. This turned out to be a very long hill. Mike switched on his legs and pulled far in front, leaving me wobbling up with my now extremely heavy panniers. I passed some other cyclists on MTBs, they had dismounted and were walking up. I was barely going much faster than them, and I was relieved to see that Mike had stopped at the summit and was sittting on the ramparts of the Iron Age hill fort Bratton Camp. I propped the bike up against a fence and wheezed over a gate to join Mike. As we sat and surveyed the counryside a skylark drifted past trilling and warbling it’s beautiful liquid song. The sky had clouded over, but a strong shaft of sunlight struck a yellow freight train causing it to glow as if alight. It was the most glorious and luminescent colour.

At the summit of the camp, the car park was full of vehicles brought up here by people who were now walking their dogs. Electing not to go past the red flag denoting that the army was shooting stuff on Warminster plain, we instead dived down the hill next to the White Horse and found ourselves catapulted into Westbury at speed. We now needed to get to Frome, so we took the road to Dilton Marsh then carried on to the A36. Thankfully we were only on that hellish road for a couple of hundred yards before we turned off onto a ghost road that led to Frome. For the first mile or so it still had the worn out cats eyes that told of its glory days as a main route. Now it was reduced to carrying tractors and us. It didn’t take us long to reach Frome, we struggled up the main hill in the town centre and thought about getting some bacon in the cafe at the top, but Mike was going to be late for his son’s football match so we passed up the porcine goodness.

By the time I got back to the house I had completed just over thirty miles with full panniers. Great training for Belgium, I hope.

Published in: on April 3, 2009 at 10:37 pm  Leave a Comment  
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A Curse on all Hedgecutters

On Saturday night, the wind had howled and hammered around the houses in the village, probing at the gaps under the doors, rattling the windows and throwing rain and hail at the glass, the eight o’clock morning ride local smallholder Mike and I had planned was looking unlikely to go ahead.  Yet on Sunday morning there I was pulling into the driveway of Mike’s farm then knocking on his door. It was cold, and a gentle but sharp wind edged over the hedges in the village, yet the sun had managed to lift itself over the horizon and seemed as surprised as us to find the sky was blue and clear with just a gentle smattering of whispy cloud.

Mike was eager to head out towards Wellow and Mells so we eased over the A36 and into that delightful tangle of backlanes and tracks that weave around the villages and fields on that side of the main road. Mud and water soaked the lanes, and dropping down to Wellow we found we couldn’t cross the ford as the river was in spate. Luckily for us there’s a narrow bridge next to the ford which we could stand on and gather our strength for the climb up the hill on the other side. A car arrived at the flooded crossing, nosed up to the water like a wary wildebeest at an African watering hole, thought better of it, then backed slowly up the hill and out of sight again.

Mike on the bridge at Wellow

The Ford at Wellow

The hill was painful, especially as I couldn’t find the granny gear, the chain slipping uselessly and clicking pathetically against the deraileur as I wove my way up the hill. Then up and down the various gradients of this part of Somerset. Mike likes to ride at a steady 17mph and maintains a strong even cadence even on hills, he spent much of the time off the front, pulling easily away from me. I was not as unfit as I have been, but I struggled a bit on the slopes. Heading down the hill at Radstock, my back tyre went flat. I called out to Mike only for the wind to whip my voice away, he dropped down the steep slope and round the corner out of sight. Mike purposfully doesn’t carry a phone, so with no means of getting in contact with him, I hoped he would eventually realise I wasn’t behind him and wait somewhere. It was a good five minutes before Mike inched up the hill and round that corner again, to find me with the bike upside down and with the tube hanging out. Next problem, the patches I had were for mountainbike tyres so were a little too large, the only spare tyre I was carrying was the layer of fat around my middle. Luckily Mike’s puncture kit had some smaller patches and soon we were heading down the hill again.

Mike’s unerring ability to sniff out a teashop would have paid off, had the teashop he found actually been open. Never mind, we made our way to the cycle track at Colliers Way (as featured on the excellent and always interesting Biking Brits blog http://bikingbrits.blogspot.com). As reported on that blog, there has been some fresh tarmac laid down, which always deeply pleasant a surface to ride.

As we rode along, we surmised that there might be some merit in selling off the railways sleepers and rails to raise more money for the cycle path, but then we both agreed that there was something pretty neat about riding next to a railway line that has trees growing out of it:

Colliers Way cycle path

About a half a mile after leaving the cycle path, we hit an enormous patch of hedge clippings strewn across the road, my front tyre started looking a little soft. Before I could make an assessment we rode into a river where the road should have been:

River where roads were

Once back on dry land we passed some horses, then over more hedge trimmings and, yet again as Mike shot off down the hill, I suffered a flat, this time on that front tyre. Sighing heavily, I turned the bike over again and set about locating the puncture. Mike drifted back, drafting a woman on a hybrid. Now it felt very cold indeed as with oily fingers I felt my way around the tube. Eventually I located a snakebite puncture and Mike whipped out the patches again:

A curse on all hedgetrimmers

The tube was stuffed back in, the tyre reset and pumped up, but then, the tell tale hiss of escaping air. Gaah! Off with the tyre and the other puncture was located, this time a thorn. Of course I should have realised that the thorn would have caused the tube to collapse leading to the snakebite. So that was a grand total of three punctures in one ride. As the final patch was applied, Mike told me that his tyres have never suffered a puncture in all the years he has been riding. I pumped the tube up to the distant sound of a hunt meet over the fields somewhere. Why one needs to shout so much when hunting is beyond me, with all the yelling, horns, cheers, clip-clopping and revving of four-by-fours it would be a wonder if anything were caught, were it actually still legal to hunt with dogs.

Now with much time wasted we headed for home. A final annoyance was my chain coming off on a hill, necessitating a short stop and more grimy fingers. We skirted through Mells, then touched on the main road into Frome before taking the hill into the back of Beckington and home to the village.

A mere 24 miles, but a masterclass in puncture repair. I think some new tubes may well be in order.

Published in: on January 21, 2009 at 11:18 pm  Comments (3)  
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My Final Ride of 2008

Perhaps it was unwise, given the predicted drop in temperature, to arrange to meet local smallholder Mike at 9am for a ride. I wrapped up warm, and pedalled down to Mike’s farm. After a slight delay in which Mike fed the chickens and I supplied a trackpump to get our tyres up to the regulation 80+psi, we quickly left the village and headed out down crooked lane. Frost crusted the grass on the verge, and muddy ice was scattered across the tarmac. The air was still and dry, and it seemed as if the cold was drifting down and settling on us from the sky. The orb of the sun hung limp and weak amid the grey, a perfect dull circle, devoid of heat and ferocity, that could not even leave an after-image burnt into the retina.

We were in good spirits, riding in the knowledge that this winter was slowly on the wain, but the cold was already nipping at our fingers and toes, forcing our pace up a little. Mike is a fit chap, and he could maintain an even cadence on hills and straight alike. Before we arrived at Dilton Marsh, I was already struggling a little and decided that I would walk up the hill of The Hollow. However, when it came to it, I found the hill to be less steep in real life than it had appeared in my head, and I was able to ride up all the way. Over the crossroads at the top and into the back of Warminster via a ghost road. Out of Warminster at Bishopstrow, and into Sutton Veny. By now, my toes were aching, my lips were cracked and my fingertips had gone numb. We had thoughts of a cup of tea at the farm shop in Boyton, and possibly, dare we imagine, a slice of cake.

We continued along the beautiful Wylye Valley in the direction of Salisbury, and a slight breeze built up, sucking the warmth from our faces. Passing a stream, Mike paused to work out the drop on a weir, he is obsessed with the idea of hydroelectric power and takes every opportunity to investigate a weir or mill race. As we discussed the pros and cons of increasing the height of wier on his farm by 25cm, we rounded the final corner, elated to see a sandwich board outside the farm shop that clearly said “we are open”. Joy turned to disbelief as we appraoched the entrance and discovered that the sentence continued “…Wednesday to Friday”. As it was a Monday, it left us with freezing cold toes and no prospect of a cuppa. We hopped around to try and warm ourselves up, and I cracked open the Jelly Belly energy beans I had found in my stocking on Christmas morning, thus fortified with sugary goodness and a minimum of warmth we remounted and set off for Warminster, swearing that we would locate a purveyor of cake and coffee to ease our malaise.

We followed the road into Warminster and crawled into the town centre, it was pretty busy and there was no small risk involved in drifting acorss the road after the central traffic lights to arrive at the Cafe des Journaux. Mike had his pannier and a lock so we tied up the bikes to the nearest lampost before walking inside the tiny coffee shop and taking a seat, right next to the heater.

The heater
Mike did the honours, and within minutes we had coffees and cakes (and I had managed to knock a bowl of sugar packets onto the floor). Mike even located a copy of The Times and we spent a restful few minutes sipping coffee, eating cake and commenting on various news stories in the pleasant shop.

coffee and cake

When we left the cafe, it suddenly seemed considerably colder, I never thought I’d say this, but thank goodness for that hill out of Warminster town centre, it warmed us up nicely. As Mike was going to be late home, we decided it would be best to take the A36. Although this was quicker, it turned out to be a bit of a grind, the windchill and the traffic made it an unpleasant experience. My lack of recent exercise began to take its toll, and I fell far behind as Mike raced to the farm shop to pick up some shopping. I caught up with him as he was locking his bike up. I decided that I’d better stay outside, not least because I needed to find a convenient location to ‘view the plough’ and ease the pressure on my bladder that had been building up for the last four miles, but because I didn’t want to warm up in the shop only to step outside into the chill again. I ate some more energy beans.

energy bean

We saddled up for the last time and headed back to the village. A good, if cold ride to finish the year, clocking up 35 miles in total.

See you in 2009!

In Rome you long for the countryside; in the country you sing to the stars of the distant city.

Recently I have been reading so much about urban riding, mainly on Copenhagen Cycle Chic, that I have been feeling that I’m missing out by cycling in the countryside. I have been longing to put on a suit and ride a classic roadster, or swing down to the coffee shop and pick up a latte, perhaps meeting a friend, also on a bike. Walking a bike over a zebra crossing, signaling to rejoin the traffic, waving at a van who’d let me in. Maybe I would have a newspaper rolled up under my arm, or I would be balancing the coffee or doing something equally urbane and sophisticated.

But today all that went away in one ride through some arcadian country lanes. I had worked hard all day and was feeling drained and lethargic by the time the evening came, so much so that I couldn’t be bothered to change into my cyclewear, and just clipped up my jeans – slapped on a hi-viz vest (the sky was bruised and dark) – and put on a cycle cap. The helmet sat on the rack of the bike while I decided which way to go, in fact I forgot about it and it sat there for the whole ride. Leaving the village I headed over the mill bridge towards Bath, but turned left when I hit the A36. Almost immediately I turned right where a small sign indicated ‘Laverton’. and I was off the main road and into narrow country lanes. As I rode down the rough tarmac the sound of the A36 diminished then disappeared completely, to be replaced by the sound of the wind in the oak trees and the sweet singing of blackbirds, sparrows and finches. The hedges closed in and the banks rose up, more old roads, older than maps and carved deeply into the hills over generations. Massive oaks, stag-headed, leaned over me as I wended my way along what seemed more track than road. At every crossroad and junction I guessed my way as there were few signposts to guide me. It felt wonderful, the few signs pointed towards villages that I had not heard of, and I was only four miles from home. The hum of machinery from the open door of a farm building, the smell of a dairy, something I remember from my youth, cows, straw and sweet milk – mingled into a cascade of scent and memory. The road continued through farmyards, disappearing under mud and gravel, stones washed away from the banks in a flood and left high and dry in the centre of the track, here and there water seamed to be bursting from holes in the road where springs had worked their way up through the tarmac, memories of rivers, streams born again after the rains.

Every now and again, the road opened up at a corner and the verge disappeared into a morass of cow hoofprints where the animals had stopped to drink at a roadside spring on their way between field and dairy. These were drovers roads once, before the days of the cattle trucks animals were funneled down these steep banks and high hedges to market, even today the air was thick with their bovine-stink, surprisingly a not altogether unpleasant smell.

Cornfields near Lullington

Cornfields near Lullington

I worked out that I must be headed toward Frome, and the roads opened out a little, now meandering past golden fields of standing corn, or the green fuzz of maize. I saw a hare with black-tipped ears nibbling at the base of the plants, unconcerned as I watched from a gateway. Then down a hill, the road crumbling and eroded by water until suddenly I was in Lullington and passing what looked like a castle. The old village pump still stands, protected by a wooden shelter. This village seemed ancient, as old as the roads that lead the rider into its boundaries. The foundations of its buildings were laid long before even the mightiest of the mighty oaks that stood amongst the houses was a sapling or even an acorn. The clouds swept overhead in the strong winds, dappling the streets with occasional flashes of sun, giving the impression of time moving fast, speeding up while the village remained constant and unchanging. The bike carried me through it all, my own time machine descending toward the river. Then suddenly a huge modern dairy, all sheet metal, pipes and carpark, loomed up from around a corner. Cars flashed past at the end of the junction, the main road to Frome.

I knew where I was now, back in the 21st Century. On the way home I reflected back on the ride and realised that I am lucky to live out in the countryside.

“Romae rus optas; absentem rusticus urbem tollis ad astra levis.”

In Rome you long for the countryside; in the country you sing to the stars of the distant city.*

*Translation taken from the site Sweet Juniper

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.

Friday Ride II: Of hills, bad tarmac, roadworks and weak tea

Friday Ride

The Friday Ride – L-R, your author, John, Brad, Andy. This was the only time I was out in front on this ride and then only for about forty seconds.

I’d managed to negotiate the afternoon off on Friday, although it turned out that due to a colleague being ill, I had to work up until the bell anyway, so at a quarter of an hour to go before I was meeting John and Andy, I shut up shop for the day and quickly got changed. My faithful Tesco plus fours had given up the ghost the night before – they were holed and torn as it was, but they split completely, unfortunately beyond repair. As I’ve lost a stone over the last month, I feel a lot less self-conscious about wearing the ol’ lyrca, so I felt fine donning the full length bib and my running top. My trusty IPath bigfoots had also gone the way of all threads, the sole having come away from the right shoe, so I wore my running shoes. This proved to be a bad choice, they have pretty aggressive grips and it made sliding in and out of the clips problematic. So now not only will I have to keep an eye out for some plus fours with a popper button for tightening the legs at the calves, but I will have to look for some cheap shoes with limited grips and a good profile and small tongue. Tricky.

I grabbed my Hi-viz waistcoat on the way out and ran the bike up the garden path, leaping on as I pointed the handlebars down the hill. I arrived at the pub car park a little ahead of anyone else, but within three minutes, first Andy, then Brad close behind rode up. It was good to see Brad out with us, and I think this is the first time in a long time that there would be four of us on the road together. John wasn’t too far behind, so he pulled into the carpark and we discussed the day’s ride. John wanted some hills so we elected to go out to Norton St Philip and then into Bath – coming down Claverton hill and onto the (hopefully deserted) A36. We quickly discovered the flaw in the plan. The A36 was closed at Limpley Stoke which, although potentially giving us some traffic free riding on that road, meant that the Norton stretch was an absolute nightmare. Not only that, but the road surface was appalling – Enfer du Nord stuff. I trusted the speed to carry me over the shattered tarmac, pushing hard to stay close to Brad and Andy as they led out. The bike jarred and skittered its way over the crumbling asphalt and chippings, the aluminum frame amplified each bump and crack sending shockwaves through my arms and shoulders. The traffic was angry and impatient, I watched in horror as the huge wing mirror of a truck passed mere inches above Andy’s head at twenty-eight miles an hour, causing Brad to sit up in disgust and shake his head. We pulled over at the hills crest to wait for John who had not yet shrugged off his cold so was wheezing and coughing as he come up. We stood breathing hard, sucking diesel fumes, our faces coated in a thin film of road-dust and sweat, Andy looked back at us over his shoulder, there was not enough room to turn the bikes around “I’ve just realised the size of the hill we’re going to be climbing” he said. He turned back to face the angry, bruised road, but even against the hard thrum of traffic I could hear him exclaim “shit!” – This was bad news, two weeks ago Andy had taken Brassknocker on his racer – a double chainring machine, if the forthcoming hill was daunting to him, what did that mean for me? I had ridden Midford Hill with John before and it was bad enough, but on that ride the traffic hadn’t seemed so angry and the road so against us as it did today.

John didn’t stop when he got level, but carried on and dropped down the hill. I was last out of the layby and watched the others hurtle down the slope, level with the traffic. With the motor vehicles restricted speedwise by the tight curves and steep slope it was easy to take command of the road and I left a white VW van far behind as I leaned into the bends, near grounding the pedal at one point. Brad and Andy had overtaken John, but even they were hammered into a crawl by the daunting climb that we now faced. I tried to hit the granny ring on my triple, but the cables must have stretched and the damn thing wouldn’t go down. Cursing, I locked in a good ten meters behind John, who was stood up and pushing hard to get the bike up. The others were around the corner. Traffic backed up now as we struggled up, as a Shogun passed me I seriously considered holding onto the back and getting a pull. I thought the others may have frowned on such behaviour.

Nevertheless, I crested as the others were just setting off again and we headed around Bath without incident, bar a moment when Brad suddenly took a corner at incredible speed and a weird angle, he’d actually got his finger trapped under the brake lever and couldn’t slow down.

Down Claverton hill, the others shot on ahead, all being accomplished descenders. I nearly came a cropper when a car suddenly lurched round a blind corner – the driver looked as surprised to see me, as I did to see her. Past that obstacle to the junction at the bottom where the others were touching the burning hot wheel rims. Then, oh yes, is it time for the usual shot of John repairing his wheel? Yes I think it is.

John's wheel repair as usualFor those not in the know, every week at some point during the ride, John’s spokes will go wrong or he will puncture. No one knows why this is, but it always happens. The wheels had even been rebuilt in between rides this time. It had been a pretty punishing ride for the bikes, those rough, crumbling tarmac stretches, followed by a long, hard ascent, then a screamingly fast downhill. In truth, it had been a punishing ride all round. Even the mighty Brad was not 100% having had to work some ridiculously long shifts through the night. Now we had come to our reward for the agonising ride we had suffered thus far. With the A36 closed at Limpley Stoke we should practically have it to ourselves. I was a bit worried about how we would get through the roadworks, but John said there was a path across the viaduct, then just a patch of roadworks that we would be able to cruise through and past.

We did indeed have the road to ourselves and road four abreast, this was more like it, the sheer magic of group riding, the melody of eight tyres thrumming on the road surface, the swish of the cranks and the click clack of a gear change, rippling through the group like a wave of wind across a cornfield. We took the roadworks, squeezing over the viaduct in single file, then walking the bikes past the tarmacing that was going on – acid stench of hot asphalt and heat of straining diesel engines as we remounted to take the long but relatively untaxing climb out of Limpley Stoke.

Crossing the viaduct - Limpley StokeOut of the roadworks - Limpley StokeA36 Riding the chain gang

I suddenly realised I had an hour spare, so suggested we head for the village via Farliegh Hungerford and Tellisford. As we trundled up the biggest and longest hill, I got the chain to drop onto the granny ring with a triumphant cry of “yes!” and sat back to watch everyone else weaving over the road with their double chainrings, all stood up out of the saddle. Something suddenly occurred to me, I had taken this hill with absolute ease on the Brompton – and it got me thinking… well I’ll save that for a later post, once I’ve done a few tests…

We arrived at the village, a full fifty minutes before I was due to be back, so I offered a cup of tea. We piled the bikes up on my lawn, and I made some tea while we all talked, bikes, bikeshops and John’s illnesses. Unfortunately, I had not made a pot of tea before with the new brand of tea bags I had been using. I am sorry to say that the tea was nothing short of weak, and much mock was made of the mugs of warm milk, while I tried desperately to squeeze more precious brew out of the ailing bags. In the end the tea was merely insipid, and a second round was refused, leaving me with the burning shame of serving up a poor cuppa, and no chance for redemption! A full enquiry will be launched to discover how this substandard tea got through the filter. Drat.

Weak tea scandal

John and Andy – clearly disgruntled at being served weak tea (mug of weak tea visible bottom left, note poor colouring and general milkiness).

31 mile commute

I decided to ride to work in Salisbury today, I estimated it would be a journey of 30 miles and it would take me about two hours. The route was through the Wylye Valley though I started off on the A36, it was just before seven in the morning and there was not much traffic on the road. I reckoned I would be out of Warminster and going through Sutton Veny by the time the traffic on the main roads started hotting up. The weather was beautiful, already at the early hour the day was warming up nicely, having said that, there was still a morning chill, not that I suffered, for I was wearing my Swobo merino wool jersey – cool in the heat, warm in the cold.

national cycle route 24 sign

Arriving at Sutton Veny I was locked right into National Cycle Network route 24, and a splendid route it is, wide roads and next to no traffic. Every car with any sense is on the A36 which runs near enough parallel to this route. The road weaves around, over and under the railway line like a tarmac double helix, the only thing to look out for are farm trucks, tractors, diggers and local buses. There even appears to be a weird deficit of 4x4s on the road. I made it door to door in exactly two hours, it was thirty one miles.

The return journey was into a nasty headwind which had sprung up at about 2pm, it had clouded over as well. I hadn’t eaten enough for lunch so by the time I reached Wylie I was suffering. The rucksack – my father’s mountaineering backpack from the 60s was damn heavy, to top it all off, the post office was shut for half day closing. I limped into Boyton and slewed into the farm shop there. Immediately I was accosted by an assistant urging me to try some lime curd. Of course, in my starved, low blood sugar state – the taste was as though heaven had flooded into the fibre of my very being, as the subtle flavour exploded over my palette I practically had a religious experience and immediately added it to the pile of cheese, meats and flap jacks I had already hungrily picked up. I rode down the road with my purchases, stomach gurgling and legs hardly able to spin the cranks. Collapsing into a grassed gateway I clawed open the bag of tuck and began to devour everything bar the lime curd. Ten minutes later I was sated and back on the bike. It was still heavy going but at least I had some energy. I cut through Heytsbury and into Warminster that way thinking it was a shortcut, but in the end it added another 1.5 miles to the total. I knew Lucy and her mother were at the curves gym in Warminster at some point in the evening, so I meandered hopefully into the carpark to find they had just arrived. Thankfully they were able to take the incredibly heavy backpack leaving me much lighter for the final six miles back to the village. I arrived at the boy’s grandparents’ house 2hours and 40 mins after setting off from Salisbury – a huge difference from the journey there. Total 64 miles.

Some pics from the ride: