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

Friday Ride

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Weak tea scandal

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

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.

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!

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.