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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Cheesy Riders: In which we meet dogs that hated John, are shadowed by a mystery rider, eat two full english breakfasts and ride a three mile climb out of a gorge

On Sunday the 17th of August I joined John and Andy on a ride to Cheddar. John had the map, Andy had some sort of electronic mapping device/speedometer/cadence/heartrate doo-dad, and I had an enormous flask of tea. In a fit of actually attempting to be a proper cyclist, I had mixed up a ‘sports drink’ and was taking regular sips. Needless to say it was absolutely revolting, but oddly compelling and as I didn’t feel tired on the ride, I guess it must have worked. We paused briefly at Farleigh Castle for a departure photograph.

Rarely has there been a more mismatched group of cyclists

The Cheesy Riders: Rarely has there been a more mismatched group of cyclists

A chap slowly overtook us on his bike as we prepared to set off again, we were to see him again and again throughout the ride seemingly defying all laws of physics and logic as he continuously appeared in front and behind of us, emerging from side junctions or turning off the road we were on.

We settled into a pace of sorts, well below Andy’s expectations for average apeed, he was off the front for a lot of the way waiting for us to catch him up. Every now and again John would stop to get the map out or I would call for a photograph, affording us a nice break. The weather looked moody and unpredictable with the threat of a soaking ever present, a ying yang sky, half black clouds, half deep azure blue. A few miles in and I’m sure we saw the chap on the bike turn off left some way ahead of us on one of the straights.

We rode through Faulkland, past the enigmatic standing stones that were probably once part of a circle. Past the Lavender Farm, but the heavy bovine stench of muck-spreading quickly masked and canceled out the faintly perfumed air before we could get a good lung full. There was plenty of up and down, giving some cause for concern as to how I would get back up the hill after forty or fifty miles of riding.

Some of the ups - John crests a Somerset hill

Some of the ups - John crests a Somerset hill

At a crossroads on the main road we stopped to consider whether we should continue on the main road (very busy) or turn left towards Priddy along a much quieter, but longer route. John took the map out again, some dogs in the garden of a house at the crossroads were going berserk, throwing themselves at the fence, barking furiously. I snapped a pic of the chaps considering the route, and didn’t notice until later that the mysterious rider was in there.

The mystery rider about to hang a left as the chaps look the other way

The mystery rider about to hang a right as the chaps look the other way

John rode a little way back the way we came in order to check that the sign pointed to Priddy, immediately the dogs ceased their cacophony. Andy and I moved forward, they could see us, but just panted and stared. The rabid barking started again, announcing John’s return. Curious.

We turned left towards Priddy along open heath while buzzards called and circled overhead. To the East we could see rain clouds brewing up so we upped the pace a little. At Priddy itself, there was some sort of sheep fair being set up, hazel hurdles were being unloaded from the backs of farm trailers, and sheep dogs skulked panting in the shadows of landrovers. We passed them all and rejoined the main road, but not before we saw the mystery rider appear from a junction ahead of us.

Flood waters, Priddy

Flood waters, Priddy

Now we began the long descent into Cheddar Gorge, it went by so quickly. Everywhere there were cyclists coming up the hill, walkers on the steep sides, buses labouring up, engines straining. We shot into the gorge itself, the steep sides and rocky outcrops were awe-inspiring. John and Andy shot on ahead, with John nearly ending up on the bonnet of an ascending car after he swung out a little wide on one of the switchbacks. Down, down, down we went, and all the way one thought stayed with me… “How the hell will I climb out of this?”. The spectacular scenery gave way to the worst kind of tourist tat as we hit Cheddar itself. garish shop fronts, tacky souvenirs, cheese, ‘authentic olde english’ cafes, the very worst that British tourism could produce, lining the narrow streets as we glided in looking for safe haven.

We parked up outside a wasp-struck tearoom, replete with white plastic garden furniture and laminated menus. Ensconced safely by the congested road, but with the calm of the river to our side, we set about ordering our victuals. Andy elected merely to have a coffee, but John and I decided on the full English breakfast, with extra toast and jam. It was too much for Andy, combined with the enormous flask of tea in my panniers and John’s musings on where to purchase the best souvenir cheese, it overloaded his senses. It was not cycling as he understood it, he could only watch in dismay as two full Englishes arrived and an unholy display of consumption took place.

At this juncture, I must point out that like Andy, my body is a temple. However whereas his temple is tended by enlightened priests of restraint and quiet contemplation that ensures a body at the height of its power is kept in fine fettle, my temple is an atavistic bloodbath where constant animal sacrifice is the norm. Behold the libations!

A full english breakfast about to be sacrificed to my cavernous maw. Andy can't watch.

A full english breakfast about to be sacrificed to my cavernous maw.

Quite appalling. Andy had to get back to his wife, who it transpired was not well, so with a hearty farewell he eased up the road slipping in behind a tourist double decker bus. There was little doubt in our minds that he would be home before John and I had wheezed our way out of the gorge.

It was a long time and a lot of toast before John and I decided to make a move, wheeling the bikes 500 yds up the hill to a purveyor of cheeses to buy three different types of cheddar (saving the cave aged one for myself), then we wearily turned the bikes up the hill and headed out of the gorge. John led out and I’ll spare you the lung-searing details of the switchbacks, save to say that we miraculously found time for a photo opportunity on the way out:

The author pauses to admire the gorge (catch his breath)

The author pauses to 'admire the gorge' (catch his breath lest he perish)

It was deemed to early in the return trip for a cup of tea (having only gone about a mile of the thirty ahead of us) which meant I had to lug the full flask up the hill. Away from the switchbacks it wasn’t too bad, it was just long, I would say that the main hill was about 3.5 miles, if you take the full gradient it was probably five, but once the switchbacks were out of the way it made everything else feel like a gentle slope. That said, we were dropped on the way up by a woman wearing jeans and crocs and riding a mountain bike. We kept her in sight though, much to the distress of our stomachs, struggling with the full english breakfasts. She turned around at the top and went back down again… local.

At the top of the hill we stayed on the main road, passing a large temporary gypsy camp. Old 4x4s mingled with traditional caravans and groups of horses stood chewing grass, many of them untethered, content to wander the verge.

In the distance, could I see a solitary rider ahead of us, could it be..?

On we rode, up and down the rolling landscape, back the way we came earlier in the day. We paused only briefly to drink the tea and lighten the flask, I am sure John only did this as he felt sorry for me hauling the full flask four fifty miles, before continuing on our way. Strangely the hills didn’t seem as bad as we thought they might on the way back. At Farleigh Hungerford we said goodbye, I rode back through Tellisford, three hills to deal with and then I was home, sharing the cave-aged cheddar with the family.

John later told me that the mystery rider was last seen at the Wingfield crossroads drafting in his slipstream…

Andy’s electronic doo-dad recorded the route, here it is:

The route according to Andy's electronic thingamajig

The route according to Andy

Go Slow – with the Slow Bicycle Movement

Splendid work from those Slow Bicycle Danes, fresh out of Copenhagen and rolling laconically in your direction.

More slowness at The Slow Bicycle Movement.

Published in: on July 26, 2008 at 11:06 pm  Comments (1)  
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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 – 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.

We dwell in a kingdom of rains

As is now standard procedure for the British Summer, it’s been belting down with rain over the bank holiday. Monday itself saw an astonishing downpour that lasted well into the afternoon and filled all four of my garden waterbutts to overflowing in the space of a couple of hours. It was the ‘straight down’ variety of rain that I don’t mind cycling in, however, no chance of a ride as I was looking after the anklebiters and also – need some rain gear.

Now I have looked at jackets and whatnot – I can’t really afford to be laying out for the type of technical doodads that one needs on a waterproof when cycling. Even when I’m pootling I’m averaging about 13-14mph and I get pretty warm, I would need one of those wicking fabrics. The colours seem to be quite garish and there’s a lot of logos and fancy styling around. I’m all for fancy styling and brand names etc, I think that’s fair enough for those who want to be associated with The Discovery Channel team, or if you don’t mind having ‘Chris Boardman’ on your helmet when you’re wheezing up a hill at 8mph. To me it would make no sense to wear something that advertises that which I am not. That’s why I have bidons with Rivendell Bicycle Works‘ logo and a no-name top and shorts. I am not really an aspirational rider in that sense. I am willing to pay good money for something that is well crafted and will last (a Brooks saddle for example) but not to have a whacking great logo splattered over me. I chose my Lemond etape bike for a few reasons:

  1. It was at the top of my price range
  2. It looked well made and had good reviews
  3. It had a triple chainring and I’m a weed on hills
  4. It looked elegant and nicely styled, particularly the typography and colours
  5. Greg Lemond is a great rider – but it says ‘Lemond’ not ‘Greg Lemond’
  6. Lemond looks French – which for some reason looks really good on a road bike

Above all that, it was the only bike in the shop that didn’t assault my eyes with garish blocky logos and hyperactive colours.

I guess that makes me a bit shallow, but anyway with that in mind I have decided that my wet weather gear will be this:

As it drapes over the handlebars and attaches to the rider’s thumbs, the ventilation is second to none. It’s bright yellow, bloody cheap and crucially, it has a matching sou’wester!

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.

The Tour so far

I must say that, despite the (very) faint whiff of doping controversy, I’ve really been enjoying the Tour de France this year. Vinokourov crashing so badly so early on seemed to have blown the whole thing wide open, when he finished the first proper mountain stage in tears of agony I thought he wouldn’t be in the start up next day. Then there was his crazy solo breakaway on stage eleven with only 2km to go. Were you, like me, suddenly on your feet willing him to win it? It seemed so futile, so mad, he was breathing fast, the bandages on his stitched up knees a blur of white. It was inevitable that he would be swallowed up back into the Peloton, but for a moment it looked like a miracle was happening. However I was pleased that Robbie Hunter won it in the end, the first Maillot Jaune for South Africa. The British have performed well this year, sure the riders aren’t hugely high up in the general classification, but I think they have given good account of themselves. Bradley Wiggins in particular is worthy of praise. Early in week one, a suicidal solo breakaway into a headwind that looked just briefly like it might get somewhere, what a brave ride, even if it wasn’t planned. And then today, he really upped the ante on a day where many riders probably wanted to take it easy and prepare for the mountains. He started the time-trial in the dry and rode at a cracking rate through a downpour to set a time that stood as the fastest until Vinokourov blew it out of the water. Sixth against such powerful riders and on such poor road conditions was a major achievement.

Bradley Wiggins - photo from BBC website

Millar put in a solid performance today as well. Now there’s no real telling which way it will go. Vinokourov moved up ten places on one stage, Rasmussen looks precarious, Cadel Evans is doing well, I love a Tour when you can’t tell who is going to win.

Here, according to this week’s Cycling Weekly, are the winner’s average speeds for stages 1-8

Stage 1 – 27.12mph (43.65kph)
Stage 2 – 27.46mph (44.2kph)
Stage 3 – 22.25mph (35.81kph)
Stage 4 – 25.9 mph (41.69kph)
Stage 5 – 24.64mph (39.67kph)
Stage 6 – 23.17mph (37.29kph)
Stage 7 – 25.1 mph (40.41kph)
Stage 8 – 21.23mph (34.17kph)

the first one hundred kilometres of Stage three was raced at an average of 19.7mph (32kph) according to Bradley Wiggins’ cycle computer.

Although these speeds look pretty fast to me (remember my 19.3mph over 14.3 miles? Rubbish!) they are slower than normal for the Tour de France. Rumours abound that this is because a general doping clean-up has finally happened.

I can hardly wait for the Pyrennes… although that does mean I have to ride up Brassknocker Hill this week. I did ten hill-circuits in preparation today, it’s not going to be enough training so I think I’ll try and ride Winsley Hill first in the next couple of days, gulp!

On riding to improve the average speed

The Tuesday ride was cancelled this week. John doesn’t have a chest infection, he does have a cold (or ‘man-flu’) and he sent me an inconclusive photo of his back wheel, which I am led to believe shows that it is ruined beyond repair. If he thinks this will get him out of riding up Brassknocker Hill then he is very much mistaken. To be fair he wasn’t looking well when I saw him on Monday.

So I had a rest day on Tuesday, especially needed after my gruelling ride through the wind on my 14.3 mile circuit on Monday.

Rode-Dilton-Westbury-Yarnbrook-North Bradley-Southwick-Rode

By the time the evening arrived on Wednesday the sky was looking clear and the wind had dropped considerably, so at 6pm I thought I’d have another crack at the circuit, pretty certain I could beat my personal best of 18.3mph average speed. I spun slowly out of the village, normally I get too excited and leave at around 25mph, which from cold always leaves me breathless for the little gradient up to the Beckington roundabout. This time I left at 17mph and continued at that speed until the downhill that leads under a railway bridge to the Dilton Marsh turn off. By the time I left Dilton Marsh I was averaging 20.1mph. It was important to build up a high average at this stage because there is nowhere to rest past the Yarnbrook roundabout and there’s a long faux plat leading up to Rode Hill, all those things will suck down the average speed. I find it best to head into that final quarter of the ride with a high average, knowing that I will lose a lot of it to the hills at the end. by the time I’d finished I had acheived an average speed on 19.3 mph, a full 1 mph faster than by previous personal best of 18.3 mph. I was very pleased and I think with a bit more work, I might be able to push 20mph in the not too distant future.

Interestingly enough someone asked me about average cycle speed earlier this week, and I know because of the tags I use I get a lot of people coming to this blog looking for what the average speed of a bicycle is, to this end I have created the Average Speed Page, click here to go there now!

Published in: on July 18, 2007 at 11:13 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?