Cycling through the witching hour

At the turning point of the witching hour I set out for an evening ride, I just needed to spin the cranks after hearing about Vinokourov being thrown off the Tour de France. A fast ride out of the village, the feeder lane spitting me out onto the A36, I didn’t know where I was going but as long as the cranks were turning I didn’t care. The sun was under the horizon behind me as I sped into the gathering shadows, very little traffic around. Pretty soon I found myself heading down the gradient towards the Frome bypass, flying insects smacking into my helmet and goggles, breathing through clenched teeth to avoid ingesting unwanted winged protein. More pylons, one steel foot practically on the road by the new Frome Flyer Harvester-style motel thing in the middle of nowhere, always a full car park, I never see anyone there. The light is fading fast as I turn back down the bypass and head now towards Frome itself.

A hiss of airbrakes, flashing orange indicator and a rush of air. Huge artic easing past me, plenty of room on the empty road, nightfreight on the A361. Off right and up Beckington Hill, easier now that I’ve been riding regularly, fast through Beckington itself then right again towards the garage.

The western horizon has cooled to a dull orange tinged with gold; black, wet inky clouds moving in with their promise of rain for the coming night. Now as I speed beneath each street lamp the sulphurous light throws a shadow rider onto the tarmac behind me, moving into sharp relief the angle changes as I cycle towards the next light, the ghost racer moves to my right, now in front, matching me pedal stroke for pedal stroke but going faster before fading into the road and being replaced by the next shadow from the next lamp. For quarter of a mile I cycle with this shadow peloton, each doppleganger riding up from behind and dropping me.

Past the roundabout there is only my bike light to guide me, but as I turn off the A361 onto a narrow backroad the half-moon struggles clear of the cloud blanket and illuminates my route. A silent white ghost crosses my path at head height, Barn Owl. Though I have seen many, the eeriness of its sudden, quiet manifestation shocks me and I briefly forget to pedal. Now pacing a flying bat, the moon giving enough light to see 11mph or maybe 14mph on the computer, things seem much faster in the dark. Beneath the canopy of trees lining the road into the village there is no light save the feeble blue-white disc thrown out by my front lamp, it falls uselessly on the road illuminating only a blur of gravel, eyes scrambling in the darkness for a foothold on any shape the brain can process before I reach it. But soon I am in the village itself, all evening meals and blue static flicker of televisions in front rooms. It’s only half nine but there is no one to be seen.

The gradient up to the house scrubs off my speed enough to comfortably get through the gate and past the bins without putting a foot down. Eight and a half miles, enough to read the internet headlines about the Tour’s latest doping scandal without feeling anger. The brief flame of anger is lost to the road, now there is just that strange breed of disappointment that only comes when you find your heroes have cheated.

Published in: on July 25, 2007 at 9:46 pm  Leave a Comment  

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.

Never try and equal your average speed if it’s windy and/or raining.

I took a spin along my 14.3 mile circuit through Dilton Marsh, Westbury, North Bradley and Southwick to try and get my average speed up. There was a heck of a wind blowing, but it rarely seemed to be at my back (John Hayes once said, we don’t get tailwinds, though we’re owed plenty), I skirted the edge of a dense black raincloud in the midst of delivering a sustained summer shower as I left the village, fat drops spattering the hot asphalt. Going up the A36 all I could hear was the wind, roaring in my ears like one long continuous peal of thunder, dipping my head to try and push it up over my helmet seemed to have no effect. Breathing in was no problem but it seemed to me that the wind forced the carbon dioxide back into my lungs and I was quickly gasping, running short on power. I hate wind, psychologically it’s so soul destroying, all that energy I put into the cranks for what? 20mph? 19mph? Standing up on the hill into Dilton Marsh the blasts were so strong I thought I’d stopped.

Hands on the drops then, the tall town-houses into Westbury offering me some shelter I began some high cadence work in the upper gears, the legs felt good, but the lungs felt bad. Near snarling with the effort on the A350 I seared across the garage forecourt at Hawkeridge, skimming the backs of the road closed signs so I could avoid stopping at the roundabout. A brief moment of tailwind, my God! 29mph for half a mile. Under the red brick railway bridge past the soulless car sales centres whose associated brands I can’t even remember. Toyota? It’s always Toyota. Rain just fallen here, steam rising from the tarmac, this is bad air, too humid, too heavily laced with exhaust. Then turn left at the Rising Sun in North Bradley, smack into a wall of wind, 16mph, 15mph, 14 mph, 12… No! stand on the pedals, push, pull, push, pull, straps too loose to be efficient, bidon up, missing most of my mouth with the effort required to keep breathing while drinking. Anyone would think this was Paris-Roubaix not fourteen miles round the country lanes and A-roads of Wiltshire and Somerset. A361 is murder tonight, cars too fast and too close. Water on the road, a fine spray cooling my ankles, nasty road-film forming on the downtube and plastering the hairs on my legs (not a good enough reason to shave them). Not even a decent sunset. Legs aching now, pulling off onto Rode Hill at 23mph watching the average speed suddenly tumble downwards, stripped off by the gradient, my precious mph, so hard won, how quickly it all disappears! Freewheeling before I reach the top, trickle over the crest, no strength left to turn the cranks. Legs shaking as I put the bike away, stomach turning over.

It was windy, I should have just pootled, what was I thinking? Still, bang on 18mph average, it bodes well for a calm day.

Now will John ride tomorrow? I have had cryptic texts about chest infections and wrecked back wheels, will the Tuesday Ride VI even take place? Will my legs even work tomorrow?

Tuesday Ride V: of fast ascents, black dogs, buckled wheels, punctures and a cup of tea

the Black Dog

Temples throbbing, sides aching with a double stitch and the effort of trying to suck enough air into my lungs to keep me going, I could only watch as John shot past me on the way up the short but awful Black Dog Hill. Damn! barely five minutes earlier I had set a cracking pace into a headwind, pushing against the evening zephyrs at 18-20mph. Turning onto the A36 the lactic acid was seeping into the muscles of my torso and I was preparing for a slow and leisurely ascent of Black Dog, I really didn’t think John was going to put the drop on me. Cursing his name under my fast evaporating breath I dug in and prepared to chase him, ascending the base at 16mph, then a long stretch at 14mph. Hey this was impressive, normally we’re below 10mph by the time we pass the turn off for Black Dog Farm. My head felt so hot I had half a mind to tear off my helmet and fling it onto the bank to lie among the plastic wrappers, remains of the floral tributes laid to the many crash victims Black Dog has claimed as its own. With my front wheel now turning directly behind John’s back wheel I tried to find the miracle gear and cadence that would take me easily up the hill at this speed, and as usual on steep hills my mind wandered…

Black Dog Hill. It’s evil reputation is not just the result of the multitude of horrific crashes witnessed by its steep, treelined banks. This used to be Prickett Wood, or so it appears in an eighteenth century map, until a violent series of events took place here. There are two stories, one that a maid had two suitors who fought until one killed the other and the dead man’s black hound savaged its master’s killer to death. The maid (supposedly from Brokeway, now Black Dog, Farm) killed herself when she found their bodies. As a suicide she was interred at the crossroads to stop her spirit wandering, this became Dead Maid’s Junction at the top of Black Dog Woods. The other story is that a Highwayman lay in wait here, using the tortuous bends that were a feature of the road before it was ‘improved’ as ambush points. He had a huge black hound which would leap at the hapless coachdrivers, tearing them down from their exposed position on the coach while the Highwayman robbed the terrified occupants. A coachman got his blunderbuss up in time and shot the beast, its master was hung in chains at the crossroads, and the corpse of his hound strung up next to him. The upshot of the story is the same, the hound haunts the woods, prowling through the half-light in the witching hour, its eyes glowing ember red, its panting the sound of a death rattle, lead shot-punctured lungs wheezing as it eases its massive bulk out of the sodden earth. Look into its eyes and you will die within a year. In a curious epilogue to the tale, this area has developed a reputation for sightings of so-called Alien Big Cats, not big cats from space, but alien in the sense that pumas and panthers are not normally native to the west country. The Big Black Dog has morphed into a Big Black Cat, such is the way with folklore.

Back on the hill, I could feel the hound’s baleful gaze on the back of my head, I knew it was padding up the hill behind me at an easy gait, in my mind the spectral voices of the beast’s victims spoke as one compelling me to turn and look into its eyes, to give up, slow to a crawl and put my foot down, let John go ahead, to continue was folly. I ignored them, then I could hear nothing but hideous wheezing, but thankfully it was coming from me and the hill was levelling out. Lungs seared, legs shot we had arrived at Dead Maid’s Junction. We stayed in lower gears, spinning the cranks gently we searched the air for enough breath to talk about the fast ascent. Had we really stayed above 10mph all the way up? It was only five weeks ago that would have been unthinkable for us. We recovered as we rode round Warminster by-pass, the A36 offering various qualities of tarmac from dead smooth to enfer-du-nord shabby where every turn of the cranks sent the wheels bouncing and skitting over cracks and stones. Through the back of Warminster, ascending the hill on the way to Westbury at 18mph then a fast descent and, uh-oh, a sudden wobbly back wheel from John.

He had a puncture and riding on the deflated tyre had knocked his wheel out of true.

Luckily we were very near Rob and Lou’s house and were able to drop in for a well-timed cup of tea and a choccy biscuit.

John and I have a cup of tea

While Lou took me up the scaffolding to show me the pointing, John set about replacing his innertube and straightening his buckled wheel. Not only did we get a cup of tea, but we persuaded Rob to come out with us again next Thursday on the mountainbike.

After the kind of highbrow, literary conversation that happens when four people who’ve all worked in books get together (we talked about baldness, flies, ghosts, drinking and roofing) John and I headed out into the dusk for home. There was a chilly breeze and without sleeves I was getting very cold. John and I parted ways at the Rising Sun in North Bradley, vowing to meet again next Tuesday.

I turned onto the A361 and pedalled hard, spinning the cranks fast with previously hidden reserves of energy. Head down so that I could not look into the gaze of the modern Black Dogs now trailing me. Their eyes were headlights growing from behind blurring into tail lights in front of me, reek of diesel and exhaust, the growl of every motor that passed me dopplered and faded into the distance, exorcised by the clean night air until all that remained with me for the remainder of the ride was my cadence, and the road.

John cycles through the dusk

Tuesday Ride IV: The Mountain Stage

A text popped up on my phone this morning, it was John Hayes “It’s the mountain stage today”, gulp! Was he going to take me up Brassknocker Hill? The Alpe d’Huez of Bath and North East Somerset? Thankfully not, he did, however, take me up every other hill available in the area. This was, in John’s mind, to honour the start of the Tour De France, but he was four days early. No matter, The Highway Cycling Group was up to the challenge.

The sky was semi-clear as we met up by the mill and ambled up the road, sporadic showers had been the characteristic weather of the day, but the clouds currently floating overhead seemed to be uninterested in delivering rain. We crossed the A36 and rode at a gentle pace through Norton St.Phillip towards Midford, only speeding up on the downhill into Midford village. John had fitted a new bike computer, he hit 44 mph on the descent and I hit 40 trying to catch him up. What he didn’t tell me was that we would be climbing Midford Hill as soon as we were in the village. I had just pedalled like mad in my highest gear to catch up with him and arrived breathless at the base of the longest hill of tonight’s ride. Damn! Next time we do this route (oh yes John, there will be a next time) I will work out the length of the hill because it seemed to go on for ever. Round about halfway up my mind started wandering as it often does on a steep hill, anything rather than thinking about how much further there is and whether or not I’ll make it. I couldn’t find a comfortable position on the bars, hands on the brake hoods? Hands gripping the straight part of the bars? Hands near the stem lightly touching the tape? One hand off as I tried to stretch my back? I began to think back to the birth of my first son, five years ago. By the time my wife had got to the birthing bed she was in so much pain from the contractions all she could do when they came was wriggle her legs around. She said later that her body was desperately trying to find a position that eased the pain, I think I was trying to do the same thing with my hands on this hill. Not that I’m equating climbing Midford Hill on a bicycle with the pain of childbirth you understand, more that it was one of those situations where I felt that if I tried to keep my hands moving it would hurt less, for the record I don’t think it did.

There were stretches of road where we stood on the pedals and ground away, there were strecthes where we could sit, spin and take on water, but mostly it just seemed to be somewhere in the middle. John was in front all the way, when we reached the top I took the lead and gave him a brief respite from the headwind. We turned right at the double roundabout by Coombe and stopped at the beginning of Bradford Road for some Mint Cake and a photo.

Myself and John.

Then some fast riding through the outskirts of Bath, over the junction at the top of Brassknocker Hill, then onto Claverton Hill. The trees at the top of the hill curled and crowded over the road forming a dramatic archway, a maw about to swallow us down into a screamingly fast descent replete with hairpins and variable road width, true Tour de France stuff. Again John shot on ahead, he really is a fearless descender, particularly in the face of uncoming traffic, I just can’t open the bike up like that. On joining John at the bottom he told me to touch the wheelrim, the constant braking had left the rim incredibly hot, too hot to touch for anything more than a split second. A quick conference and we decided to head back along the A36 to where the Iford road joined, head across the valley to Westwood then turn for home. I decided to lead on the ’36, setting a cracking pace into the headwind (we decided that the wind changes as we ride, we always seem to be going into a headwind. Always!), but John reminded me there was one more hill before the turn off. Just after the lights on the crossroads at the bottom of Brassknocker Hill, the A36 winds it’s way up the hill past Freshford. I forgot how long the hill is and after timing the traffic lights perfectly I started taking it at 14mph, burbling on to John who seemed to have gone quiet, pretty soon I was down to 12 mph, I looked behind and John was in the distance. I had totally misjudged the length of the climb and now had to tough it out to keep my momentum. As articulated lorries heaved their way round me, throttles full open, I ascended seemingly ever upwards, John was a long way behind but my speed was dropping fast. John had said at the base this was our Ventoux, and I very nearly became our Tom Simpson, the post mortem would have shown large intakes of caffeine, bananas and two ibruprofen. We made it, regrouped, then John took us left off the main road and pretty much back down the hill (again John with the speedy descent) into Freshford and on a search for the mysterious ‘third road’ into Iford (see previous post). The road surface rapidly deteriorated and we were soon cycling through mud and gravel in the middle of the tarmac, the width of the road was diminishing at an alarming rate, particluarly considering the reckless speed we were going. An overgrown cast iron signpost with white paint peeling into flecks of rust told us we were headed the right way, and it wasn’t long before we were resting by the bridge under Britannia’s imperious gaze, admiring the manor house at Iford. More mint cake was taken on, fortifying us for the final and possibly shortest, but certainly steepest climb of the ride, the road out of the valley and up to Westwood.

We started well although it got steep terrifying quickly, all I could see in my head was that 17% gradient sign at the top. Then the strains of a string orchestra started playing, I asked John if he could hear it too, thankfully he could and the applause that followed told us there was a concert in the folly at Iford Manor. John suggested we imagine the applause was for us, he laughed, and lost concentration and momentum enough to have to put his foot down. I crawled on ahead, determined not to use the granny ring (it’s called Begging the Granny), in any case, I wouldn’t be able to get into it without stopping the bike, and stopping the bike would mean I was walking the rest of the hill. Unlike the other side of the hill which I rode up last time I was here, there is a bit of width to the road so I could move side to side on the tarmac, making the ride slightly longer, but also fractionally less steep. So zig-zagging away and breathing like an asthmatic hound I managed to get to the top, where I spent a good few minutes wheezing until John rode up.

We were spent, legs like jelly we rode through Westwood, parting at the crossroads outside Bradford-on-Avon. An excellent ride, but not one I would want to do on a regular basis.

I said to John, and I’m saying it here, that we will do Brassknocker Hill sometime during the mountain stages of the Tour de France. There John, I’ve said it, it’s here on the internet. We cannot back out now.

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

The Highway Cycling Group Badge

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

Tuesday Ride III – John’s Revenge, aka: Mud, Sweat and Gears

myself, John, Rob about to ascend to the white horse above Westbury

The Tuesday ride this week was a Mountainbike special. John wanted to take Rob Bunce and myself around some local trails, so I headed out to Westbury at 1910 and got the wrong carpark as the meeting point. By the time I found John and Rob I was pretty knackered and a little hungry, having only eaten a banana and drank a cup of ultra-strong coffee. Needless to say, Rob guarded his Crunchie, the only food between us, with great care. John led us up through Westbury to where the road suddenly turned into a muddy off-road trail. In the woods we found something pretty cool. A whole bunch of kids had spent ages making an amazing series of jumps and half-pipes, a secret BMX course carved out of the forest floor, this was a serious investment of time. In fact there were two kids there, they proceeded to show us up by jumping and racing around us, we poor fogies were left slipping and sliding through the mud in their wake. Then John showed us a, quite frankly, brown-trouser inducing drop off, it was near vertical and for one terrifying moment I thought he was going to take us down it. Thankfully it was decreed to be too muddy, phew!

We spent a while sliding through the woods trying to locate the track, ditching the kids in the process (or maybe they ditched us, probably the latter). Rob and I thought we’d found the trail leading down the edge of a field, but it turned out to be blocked by barbed wire. We could hear John on the other side merrily cycling along so we struggled through the wire and brambles carrying our bikes to join our leader. The way was muddy, rocky, rutty and errr more muddy, very hard going though not for John. We joined up with the road that leads upward to the white horse, paused for a group photo (above), then picked our way through the oncoming stream of chavs in souped-up cars towards the white horse. If people only knew that cyclists can’t actually make out what people shout at us through their open windows I suspect they wouldn’t bother. Having said that it’s probably for the benefit of their passengers who, I assume, are equally imbecilic. Guffawing at the witty abuse hurled our way by the driver when all we can hear is:
Anyway we crawled up the hill, actually I really enjoyed that bit and kept freewheeling back to get a bit more climbing in, until we reached the point where the track divided and turned into gravel. The views by the old chalk quarry were fantastic. A low blanket of cloud had enveloped the sun as it began its descent, but there was still a clear strip of sky above Trowbridge and Westbury. Golden highlights danced over the cornfields as the wheat swayed slowly in the breeze. Despite, or maybe because of the climb we all felt in great spirits as we raced down the track towards Upton Scudamore. We were accosted by a pack of weird, very hairy terriers. As we saw them approaching in the distance Rob thought they were pigs, but the yapping and over-excited bouding betrayed them as mutts. Quickly we adopted loose formation, an arrow shape with John in front and Rob and I flanking, just to make it harder for them to pick us off. As it happened they were friendly and the owners, who eventually meandered over the horizon, were very apologetic for the yapping. By a very scary sign (Military Firing Range, KEEP OUT), John stopped to brief us on the downhill and drop-off he was about to take us down.

John shows the way to the drop off

I was feeling pretty nervous, especially as John had said “it’s not too bad and there is a point were you can bail out before the drop off”. John went first, alarming us with his speed of attack, and I followed. It started off easily although it was fast and I was quickly locked into a tractor rut. I was just wondering where the drop off actually was, when suddenly… sh*t! I was over the lip with no chance to stop. The cranks were level and I slid back off the saddle as the bars followed the front wheel into thin air. Panic lasted but a moment and I had the presence of mind to choose my line out of the drop, hoping the left hand rut was the correct one and that it wouldn’t collapse into a hole or something. John had already got up the other side of the hill and I cycled, then walked up to join him. Someone was laughing and it turned out to be me, elated by the rush of speed and the fact that I had done something that, if I’m honest, I was quite nervous about doing. We watched Rob pick his way down. He got off at the drop-off, but then got back on again to finish up on the lead-out, good man. Through the gate at the top of the field with Rob’s bike bell tinging happily on an overhanging branch, then we rode out along a hugely puddly, rubble strewn track. The lack of mudguards meant that my bum was soaked and freezing by the time we hit the road at Upton Scudamore.

Me with a soaked botty

The sunlight was dying into embers behind the horizon as we sped along the main road into Westbury, exchanging waves with a Roadie as he passed us on his way out. We said our goodbyes at a handy junction, Rob’s bell tinging into the distance behind me as I raised a clenched fist in solidarity, then turned for Dilton Marsh and home.

Published in: on June 26, 2007 at 11:07 pm  Leave a Comment  

Tuesday Ride II

John and a Lorry

It seemed to be threatening to thunder pretty much all day today, but the weather was good enough for riding despite a middling headwind. My first ride of the day was on the Brompton, from Bradford-on-Avon back home having dropped off my car for its MOT. A nice easy ride along the Braford-Trowbridge cycle path and then along the Wingfield straight. Buzzards aplenty on the route, I saw four and heard a couple of others.

In the evening I met up with John Hayes for what is becoming a regular Tuesday evening ride. I had been feeling pretty lethargic all day, perhaps due to the closeness of the air, so I’d tried to pep myself up with a large mug of black Java. It hadn’t kicked in by the time we started riding. We had some vague idea about taking the A36 and the Black Dog up to Cley Hill then back through Corsley onto the Frome bypass, but the A36 was closed due to an accident (expect the usual ‘Horror Smash’ headline in the Wiltshire Times if it was a bad one), so we swung out towards Frome. The headwind was making things less fun so we decided to head through Frome town centre where we hoped we’d get some shelter before getting the wind behind us to blast round the bypass. That was the theory.

I mounted a Pantaniesque breakaway on the hill into the outskirts of Frome, but pretty soon had to sit down and start clicking through the lower gears in order to keep moving. Into town pretty much bang on the speed limit then up the town centre hill, a nasty, steep, curving climb. Once again I was cursing the front mech, but John gave me some gearing tips to cure the slow shifting from big to middle ring. I led the way out of town at 17mph, we had a breather and a chat at the Roundabout by Sainsbury’s, then we began our descent onto the bypass. John led and we clocked 41.4mph on the downhill which felt pretty nice, hands on the drops blasting the pedals round in high gear. However it rapidly became apparent that the wind had shifted and we were once again cycling into a sodding headwind. There was a tremendous amount of fast moving traffic on the road so we were able to slipstream some lorries (see pic above) in order to get up the gradients. By Rode we turned right off the A361 towards Rudge. Away from the wind we thundered round the lanes two abreast. It got a bit dangerous when we came across a 4×4 hurtling up the narrow hill we were trying to come down at 30+mph. My back wheel started skidding out into John’s path as I braked, but I managed to stop the drift and squeeze past the stupidly large vehicle without mishap.

We stopped for another chat at Southwick before we went our seperate ways. Our average was down to 15.6 mph, John had blown his legs the evening before at the Gym. Still, not bad for 23 miles.

Next week mountain-biking, hopefully with our chum Rob Bunce. It should be interesting because I haven’t ridden off-road properly for years and also, I’ve always been pretty poor at it anyway, seemingly spending more time falling off than actually riding. We’ll see what happens.

Tuesday Ride

In the afternoon I cycled into Trowbridge on the Brompton in order to gauge how long it would take me to get to the train station, 16 mins was the answer. As I don’t have a cycle computer on the Brompton I had to input the distance and the time into a distance calculator to find out how fast I went, I’m pleased to say that I did it at 15.5mph average speed even with a pair of enormous trousers on (though I was clipped up so I looked like a cossack). I nipped into Waterstone’s (Ottakar’s that was) to see my old chum John Hayes, a man so deeply into bicycles that he has pedals instead of feet. It transpired that:

a) Waterstone’s are starting a Tour-de-France promotion after the weekend


b) He would be passing the village at seven twenty in the evening so we arranged for me to tag along on the ride.

John didn’t do much cycling over the winter so by his own admission he’s carrying some extra weight, same as me really. I’ve been pushing some higher average speeds than him, but I suspect that he hasn’t really been cranking it, also he goes out mountain-biking on Thursdays and always ends up at the pub, whacking the calories he’s just burnt back on again.

The sprogs were playing up at bedtime, this in combination with the fact that it’s my wife’s mother’s final delivery day for her art degree and all the helping this entailed, meant that it was a close run thing. I sprinted through the village and found that thankfully he was still waiting for me by the pub.

We decided to head Warminster way. John led, but we found that with the extra wide margin on the A36 we could cycle side by side without getting in the way of the traffic. The going was easy and we could chat with no problem, that was until we hit Black Dog Hill. I took it at 12mph in a display of bravado and nearly killed myself. I freewheeled at the top by Dead Maid’s Junction, which gave time for me to stop wheezing as John caught up. Pretty soon we were on the Warminster bypass and enjoying the freshly laid tarmac. We got some respectable speeds going and I was even able to take a couple of snaps.

John and I on the A36, incredible speeds

We turned back into Warminster at the other end of the bypass, and John took me out along the industrial estates in towards Westbury. With a bugger of a headwind we took turns drafting, it’s amazing how much less effort you need when you are cycling on someone else’s wheel. I pulled away again on the hill into Westbury, but John hung back then snuck up at speed as I slowed for a roundabout, leaving me in his wake and having to put double the effort in to catch him on the uphill. I finally caught him in the centre of town, Westbury has a pretty fast flow of traffic and some quite nifty chevron covered corners, ideal for bikes going at speed. Back out along the A350, John’s bike is steel so he felt the mini Hell of the North that is the stretch by the cement works much less than I did. I took my turn at the front in the headwind and pulled us up the hill, then it was a fast gradient into Yarnbrook. John turned for home at The Rising Sun pub, with similar distances to go to finish the ride at our respective houses, we each put in 27.5 miles at an average speed of 16.6mph though John probably made it 30 by cycling out to meet me. We’re hoping to make this a regular Tuesday ride and maybe get a few others along as well. Cheers John.

Up early tomorrow to cycle to Trowbridge in order to catch the train.

Evening Milk Run

Well the wind dropped down to nothing, the rain stopped and we were out of milk. Having just come off from a skype call with my colleague and chum Jez, author of the blog Novemberfive, I siezed the moment and decided to take the Brompton out into the fading light to the garage. The Moon had just eased into the sky and was just hovering above the horizon, full, fat, a hint of red on its plump circle. The main road was deserted save a slumbering refrigerated lorry in the layby that joins the A36 to the hidden, near forgotten old Beckington Road, with its overgrown milestone and crumbling, dead elms. Apart from the light, it felt more like eleven p.m. than half past eight. The Brompton handled the hill easily. On the flat, you could pedal in a Brompton’s lowest gear furiously and the bike would probably just fall over, on a hill it glides up effortlessly; slowly, but effortlessly nonetheless. It wasn’t long before I had loaded up the stuffbag with goodies from the garage and was my way back. Dusk came down incredibly quickly, In the few minutes I was in the garage the moon had slimmed down and climbed high up, the cars all had their headlights and.. gulp! I had no lights. Luckily I had my Respro Super Hi-Viz vest. The greatest thing that I have discovered about the vest is that will easily carry a full portion of saveloy and chips in one pocket (see image for example).
Saveloy and Chips held easily in Respro super Hi-Viz vest
It also lights up like a Christmas tree if even the teeniest beam of light hits it.

Over the roundabout, first left and back into the village, bringing the milk back just in time for a cup of tea. Lovely.

Published in: on May 30, 2007 at 10:30 pm  Leave a Comment