Never ride the route of a ride planned for a Sunday morning when it’s a Thursday lunchtime

Never have I encountered so many lorries, buses and impatient drivers as during a recent ride with my sister. She was due to take on the Trowbridge Triathlon and wanted to get an idea of the route before the day. So, as she works nights, and I work for myself a mere half a mile from my house, we decided to go out along the route on the Thursday lunchtime, a few days before the triathlon (which was on the Sunday). The first half of the ride was a nightmare as the A361 was heaving and angry, people squeezing past, dangerous overtaking and in some cases almost pushing us off the road.

Turning off the A36 was a relief, and it went well on the backroads around Dilton Marsh, until my sister failed to unclip from her SPDs at a junction, but still stopped. Crash Clatter Ouch!

We arrived back at Trowbridge sport centre 16 miles after setting off on the loop and met our stepmother, who took a photo.

After the nervewracking ride down the A361 in heavy traffic

After the nerve-wracking ride down the A361 in heavy traffic

Still it must have helped because my sister did not come last in the triathlon.

Published in: on August 9, 2009 at 6:58 pm  Comments (4)  
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On the trains again

On Wednesday, I cycled to Trowbridge, caught the train to Salisbury then rode to the office.

The Brompton on the platform

The journey there was pretty uneventful, except for the sheer pleasure of riding my bike. I didn’t even have to rush as I had plenty time to spare. On the return trip a chap at the station, a fellow Brompton rider, asked me about my Brompton bag, he’d been trying to track one down for a while.

At Warminster, a girl, probably in her mid-teens, got on the train with a bright red bmx. It was a nice bike, with a 360 gyro, and she backed it into the corridor and sat on the saddle for the whole journey. Earphones in, she lent forward over the handlebars and adjusted the front brake a little. On arrival at Trowbridge, I was impressed to see that she didn’t dismount at any point, she freewheeled the bmx off the train and pushed herself along the platform with her feet, in clear defiance of the no cycling on the platform rule. I thought she might be headed for the new bmx and skate park right next to the station, it was packed out with kids having a great time, pushing hard to create new stunts and tricks, grinding wheels and pegs off bars, attempting ludicrous jumps and flips, failing, sliding down quarterpipes on their knees before trying again and again. It was a joyous sight and one in the eye for the nay-sayers who claim kids don’t want to exercise or play outside anymore. The girl was in front of me as I headed past the hurtling bikes and boards, but she turned into town, accelerating over the bridge as I rode the other way and headed down the A361 for home.

Published in: on June 28, 2008 at 10:14 pm  Leave a Comment  
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The Simple Pleasures of a bike-train-bike commute

I woke too late to bike commute the whole way into Salisbury, so I hauled myself into the shower, got into some trousers so enormous it was like wearing a tent, and prepared the Brompton for a sprint down the A361 to Trowbridge station. Still yawning, I wove up the hill, crested, and put the bikes hubs to the test on a fast descent down the other side. The Brompton is a skittish ride at the best of times, at 30+ mph downhill it’s a study in terror, yet somehow I made it to the junction in one piece. Then it was simply a case of pointing the front of the bike down the road and turning the pedals. On arrival at the station (terrific skid up the ramp and onto the platform – no mean feat with brompton brakes), I discovered I’d missed one train and had forty minutes to wait for the next one. The bike took me into the town centre and located a coffee shop for me. Soon I was ensconced at an outside table drinking a latte and reading a book. This seemed mighty civilized, and it was a great shame to have to knock back the coffee and zip back to the station.

I thought that with the current high fuel prices it would be more economical to go the 31 miles by train, but no, I discovered that the price of the journey had gone up 33% in the last seven months, incredible!

The beauty of the journey soon erased the price from my memory, this is the same route I cycled when I rode to Salisbury a couple of weeks ago. The road crosses and dives under the track all the way to Wilton, sometimes mere feet from the track, other times it moves away, dipping behind an embankment or veering off to visit a lonely farm before rejoining its symbiotic partner, the railway track. I sat back and imagined my doppelganger riding at a speeded up pace level with the train. All those little milestones on the journey compressed into a blur of memories, the train moving too quickly to allow the mind to dwell on things like the toad crossing sign, the concrete bridge, the post office, the ox-eye daisies in the hedges, the constant pedal freewheel pedal freewheel rhythm of the rolling lanes. Train journeys seem to be a kind of time travel, you sit down, there is constant noise, but the feeling of motion is barely perceived. Very quickly (hopefully) you arrive at your destination. Strange, yet completely normal.

Cycling through Salisbury was a joy, apart from the fool who stopped on the bikes only bit at the traffic lights on Fisherton Street.

Friday Ride – bike troubles

Folly LaneI don’t know what it is about John, every time he says “Do you mind if I bring a mate along?” it turns out to be a super-fit individual who leaves us puffing and panting in his wake. Friday 6th was no exception, John’s friend Andy joined the illustrious list of riders who have helped up our average speed. We met at the pub on the A361 then headed out towards Rudge and Dilton. Almost immediately Andy was complaining of a knocking from the pedal area which seemed to be going through his foot, but it was John who forced the first stop of the day in a routine that is becoming a regular on our rides, his spokes pinged out. Actually, Andy didn’t really drive us too hard, it had been a while since he and John had met up so we ambled along the lanes at a reasonable, though not stupid pace. As we headed past the trout farm by Dilton Marsh, we saw a weasel dart out in front of us, I say we, John missed it, he was looking at a dead squirrel.

The glorious sound of three chainsets working in unison was rather ruined by some creaking from the front end of my bike. Having just come up the Hollow (me at the back) the bike was protesting alarmingly. John suggested tightening the handlebars – which seemed to do the trick. We took the ghost road from Upton Scudamore to the outskirts of Warminster, effectively shaving off a corner of B-road and also saving us some pretty nasty traffic interaction. Zipping round the outskirts of Warminster, I had to stop when a client phoned, the others waited up ahead. Business taken care of we set off again, this time for the Wylye Valley. As Andy and John used to work in the same bike shop, they regaled and entertained me with various stories and bits of bike wisdom during the ride. It wasn’t long before we swung a ride into Five Ash Lane. Ah, now this was bicycling! This quiet wooded road was alive with bird song and festooned with gorgeous wildflowers. The forest perhaps once was a solid commercial venture, a plantation, but careful forestry work and management have broken the monotony of lines of timber trees. This woodland was alive in every sense, plenty of undergrowth, a variety of trees, airy space. Huge, lush green ferns and flowering rhododendrons lined the verge and the sun sparkled off the myriad leaves and dappled the tarmac with shade as we rode down the lane. Then suddenly the road dropped away and we were hurtling downwards, just missing some seriously bad potholes, we were disgorged onto a main road. A plan to head back via Chapmanslade was ruined by John puncturing. As we stopped at Folly Lane, I took the now standard picture of John repairing his wheel. Note also Andy examining his pedals.

Andy adjusts his pedals, John repairs his wheel and tyre - as usual

With time now very much of the essence (I needed to get back to the village to pick up the children) we abandoned the Chapmanslade plan and headed for the A36. The stretch towards the beginning of the Warminster bypass was dealt with quickly and at speed, we caned up to 28mph and that was going slightly uphill! Next, Black Dog and some pretty serious downward hurtling. Finally, the long, slow drag up to Beckington, and this was were I very much came off the back. Staying up all night on Wednesday to launch The Prince’s Rainforests Project website suddenly caught up with me, as did the lack of quality nutrition and energy in my garage bought lunch. I just slipped into a lower gear and pedaled through it. Andy had gone on way ahead and I didn’t see him until I finally caught up with John and we arrived back at the pub carpark we had set out from. For me it was 24 miles and a good ending to what had been a massively mixed week. We pledged to make this a regular thing of a Friday and parted ways, the others heading back to Trowbridge and me to pick up the kids, crucially, on time.

Cycling through a gale in search of a cup of tea


A distinct lack of teabags in the house saw me venturing out in the high winds in search of the magic leaves for a brew-up. The fact that I was freewheeling uphill suggested to me that the return trip, into the wind, might be a little difficult. I hurtled out of the village with a whirlwind of leaves, grass and twigs blowing around the road, onto the Wingfield Straight with the wind pushing against my left side. Luckily I presented a thin profile to the raging gusts and I kept my line on the road. Turning right at the shrine, I had the wind behind me and was blown along the road to Trowbridge itself. I raced past the roundabout for Broadmead and continued to where the Bradford road joins up, going all the way round the church that sits on a traffic island. My right pedal grounded slightly with an audible scraping sound as I leant hard into the bend, still pedalling. I cut across a no through road and took a hard left onto the bike path. Over another main road, avoiding the massive roundabout by the large Tesco’s, now I was in the backstreets.

Here the wind was less steady, less predictable; gargantuan gusts howled round corners of 1930s red brick houses. Frequent patches of waste ground spewed out clumps of dried, white, grass which skittered and raced about the hammered tarmac, Wiltshire tumbleweed. A scally crested the railway bridge in front of me on a full-sus mtb, his eyes alert, looking round intently, for what? Escape routes? Opportunities? On seeing me he looked down, spitting hard onto the ground  and rose from his saddle to pump the cranks before passing, eyes flicking up once, wolfish, then he was round the corner and away.

The bridge was in poor repair, crushed kerbstones and chipped caps that spoke of wide loads and tight-squeezes, back a bit, left hand down, steady, woah woah WOAAH! On the other side the road just gave up, disintegrating into gravel and bramble. Lamposts leant into the wind, which sang its banshee cry through sagging telephone wires. By the side of the tracks a trolley was choked in brambles, obviously it had been there much longer than the brand new, spike-tipped, galvenized steel fence dividing the walkway from the trainline. No one had thought to pull the trolley out while putting the fence up. An avenue of stunted blackthorns festooned with ripped plastic bags; tattered fruits, noisily flapping, funneled me into the maze of roads backing onto Tesco’s. White paint was splashed over the asphalt, a decorator’s accident, now etched into the surface of the road, white tyre prints radiated out thirty yards or so before fading to grey.

Into the relative calm of the store, emptier than usual. I had the Brompton and  the front bag in the trolley together, no need for a bike lock. Pretty soon I was back outside, the bag laden with groceries including some excellent quality tea. The return journey promised to be hard work, I spent as much time as possible weaving through the backstreets and houses while the wind probed at me where it could.

Finally, Trowbridge spat me out onto the A361 to face the gale, now at last the wind had me where it wanted me. Three miles of agonisingly pushing the pedals, moving forward slowly, almost down to walking pace. I kept with it, a steaming hot mug of tea appearing in my mind’s eye like some sort of grailquest vision. I guess I am a hardcore cyclist, not in the traditional sense of putting in lots of hours or miles on the bike, but I am hardcore in the sense that I will take on the A361 in a force 7-8 gale. The light over the fields appeared silvery where the grass was blown flat in waves, exposing the pale underleaves momentarily so that the landscape appeared liminal, even unreal. It kept my mind from over-thinking the sluglike pace I was crawling home at. Indeed, it seemed that soon I was slipping into the lowest gear and trickling steadily up Rode Hill.

You can be certain that the first thing I did on arrival back at base, was to switch on the kettle. Never, and I mean never, did a cup of tea taste so damn good.

Published in: on March 11, 2008 at 11:31 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Tuesday Ride VIII – Solo fifty miles, pouring rain, raging winds, Silbury Hill

John texted to say he couldn’t make the Tuesday Ride, so I decided to go it alone. I made up my mind to ride twenty five miles in one direction and then ride back again, giving me a fifty mile ride. The weather was foul, revolting, wind, rain, luckily it wasn’t too cold. I packed my backpack with a warm top, my cycle hat and a waterproof and set off at one pm. Thankfully there was some respite from the weather and as I rode out of the village towards Trowbridge and Melksham it was almost calm. electing to go through Trowbridge rather than the West Ashton bypass was a good idea, the buildings sheltered me from the rain and I got to ride on the cycles and buses only link road between Holt and Semington. I hit the bypass for the last stretch, beautiful new tarmac offering a fast ride into the outskirts of Melksham, thereafter I turned towards Devizes and into the wind. It was stronger than I thought and quite gusty, every now and again the skies opened up and the air was filled with rain, even so, the hedges offered some protection. I took it steady up the steep dual carriageway into Devizes itself, over the humpback bridge that jumps the canal and past the red-brick Wadworth brewery, homeplace of that most marvellous of Wiltshire brews, Wadworth’s 6X. The road through the town was fast and I was able to get past ranks of stationary traffic to Moonraker Pond. As I like to give you a little folklore from my rides, here’s the origin of Moonraker Pond’s name and also the reason why Wiltshirefolk are known as Moonrakers.

Lit by a beaming full moon, a group of Wiltshire smugglers were transporting some casks of contraband past the pond. Suddenly, the donkey carrying the casks was startled and the smuggled goods slipped into the pond.

The smugglers grabbed some hay rakes they found nearby and tried to hook them onto the casks underneath the water to retrieve the valuable goods. An excise man passing by on his horse saw them raking the pond, with the full moon reflected in the water. When he questioned them about their strange behaviour, their quick-witted riposte was that they were raking out the cheese they could see in the water. The exciseman laughed himself silly and told everybody about the stupid countryfolk – but he never knew that, in fact, they were the ones who had fooled him.

I stopped a little further down the road to report my progress to base. I had done just over 17 miles and my average was on 18mph. I needed to go another eight miles. I could feel the calling of the earthworks just outside Avebury, the monumental dod Silbury Hill was reaching out across the Marlborough Downs and I knew the direction I would take. Ride out of Devizes up a pretty steep hill and you are suddenly on the Marlborough Downs, huge fields, rolling hills dotted with burial mounds, clumps of trees hugging the skyline. This is an old landscape. The road seems incongruously straight, and perhaps this was indeed the old pilgrim route that took the Old Gods’ followers into the mighty Avebury complex and the heart of their faith. Now I was being tested, the Sky God, furious that I would seek to visit the Earth Goddess had torn open the air and filled it with piercing rain. The wind roared and blew at my back pushing me up to 31mph on the straight, but gusts came from all angles and it seemed to me that I was riding on a land-locked squalling sea throwing wave after wave over my bows. I held my nerve and arrived at Beckhampton roundabout swinging right and riding across the front of the Waggon and Horses inn. On turning the corner, the mighty mound of Silbury Hill heaved into view. This is the largest Man Made mound in Europe, its very existence calls into doubt the accepted view of Neolithic tribal life being nasty, brutish and short, punctuated with wars, raids and endless hunger. Only a settled society could build so remarkable a monument, when it is viewed in relation to the surrounding associated ritual landscape, the scope of our ancestors’ vision becomes all the more breathtaking. Who tended these places? How were the rituals overseen? Landscapes such as these light up the imagination, the lack of true knowledge about the time and people who built and lived amongst these incredible structures four to five thousand years ago, leaves a tremendous gap in our collective spiritual history. Was this place built in terror to appease some malign force, or in thankfulness for the bounty of the downs, or both?

The ancients couldn’t have foreseen that one day the hill would have a carpark, but there I stopped. Work is currently being carried out to stabilise the hill which has suffered serious erosion from previous archeological excavations but also from a constant troupe of visitors scrambling to the summit. The workforce caravans were powered by a diesel generator, it was giving off a huge amount of hot air so I stood next to it and dried out very quickly. On with the sweatshirt, waterproof and cycle cap, it was time to set off to West Kennet Longbarrow. In the layby to the barrow the odometer tipped over to twenty five miles, so I took the computer off in preparation for the walk up to the barrow. The Kennet was in full flow, pouring out from the ground at Swallowhead, fertile and swollen with the recent rains, the Sky God’s issue transformed in the belly of the Earth Goddess, now charged by the charms tied to the swaying willows by her followers, they whisper their desires and incantations to the flowing waters. Rolling the bike up the hill I met a hippy gentlemen on his way down, he tried to take my photo with my camera “Yeah man epic with the hill behind, don’t look at me, look into the distance”, the flash going off before he was ready. I took the next portrait myself with the self-timer, they will go up in my Flickr later.

West Kennet Long Barrow, Silbury Hill in the distance

Inside the barrow, corn rigs had been left and a freshly lit candle threw gentle, flickering shadows from an alcove, This had to be from the press-ganged photographer I had just met. A group of Americans looked round the inside speaking in whispered reverent tones. There is something about the barrow that makes one whisper. Back outside, the air was warm but ready to fill with rain again. I hastened down the hill and gave a quick phone call to say I was on my way back before easing out into the traffic.

The eight miles into Devizes were the hardest, the wind was seriously against me and all I could manage was a paltry 12-15mph along that stretch, there was no shelter and no relent from the wind. It took me over half an hour to reach the down hill stretch into the town, even on that descent the wind was so strong I only reached 24mph and was being blown all over the place. Devizes itself was mercifully calm weatherwise, although heaving with traffic as it was just after five in the afternoon. I picked my way through the cars until I was heading downhill out of the wind towards Melksham. Now I was feeling tired, but strangely the length of the journey made the journey back to the village seem much, much shorter. The last ten miles flew by timewise, that’s not to say I wasn’t hurting, I don’t think I made it past 18mph on the final two miles, however, Rode Hill was no bother whatsoever. The Odometer flicked over to fifty halfway up the gradient so I arrived back at the house feeling jubilant, if somewhat knacked.

In total I was riding for three hours four minutes giving me an average speed of around 16.5 mph, not bad considering that headwind on the way back, it’s a good thing I took advantage of it when it was a tailwind. A great ride, not the furthest I’ve cycled in one day, but it still felt good none-the-less.

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  

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 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.