Looking back before we set off

smallbadge1It’s the start of a New Year, a time for looking forward, but as all cyclists know, one must take a careful look backwards before we set off. With that in mind here’s the article I wrote on the origins of The Highway Cycling Group for The Ride Journal issue one in 2008. As that Journal is out of stock now I thought it would be a good time to publish it on the web. This is the unedited version, I think a few words were changed for the journal.

The Highway Cycling Group pedaled gently into existence almost as soon as my mother had given my father’s decrepit 1960s sit-up-and-beg roadster to a passing rag and bone man. Many of his other possessions, left behind when he moved out, had met a similar fate over the years, garnering no reaction from my father, but the death of the useless roadster was the excuse he needed to get himself a new bike. In the mid nineteen-eighties, it was drop handlebars or nothing and the brilliant-white, ten-speed tourer he took back to his house, rapidly became his pride and joy. My own steed was a black, heavy, five-speed ‘racer’ bought from a secondhand shop in Devizes after my father had bamboozled the assistant into parting with it for a third of the asking price. I cannot recall the maker’s name, but the word ‘ELITE’ was displayed optimistically on the down and seat tubes. With its nylon panniers, nasty red-rubber bar tape, kickstand and white plastic pump it lacked the grace of my father’s ride, but I loved it greatly.

Soon regular rides with family and friends struck out from his house in the tiny North Wiltshire hamlet of Highway. Down the long straight track of Highway Common, over the staggered junction crossing the Bushton Road, perhaps picking up more riders from nearby Hilmarton or Spirthill, so that a ride might start with two people, and end with seven or eight. Always a circular route, if there was no pub stop, there would be sandwiches in the panniers, or a stocking up at the Spar in Broad Hinton. Sometimes we would ride only three miles, sometimes thirty or more.

The roads were quiet and convoluted, weaving over the chalky landscape, five miles as the crow flies could be drawn out to twelve by the meandering lanes and switchback turns. The hills we attempted defined many of the rides; Charlcutt Hill, Snow Hill, walking up the steep monstrosity at Broad Town, the slow winding climb up to Bradenstoke; the exhilaration of hurtling down to Witcomb Mill, squinting into the rushing air, grabbing handfuls of brake, or even dragging feet along the road when the suicide levers couldn’t cope with the descent.

Gradually things became slightly more organised. The Highway Cycling Group official shirt was adopted for group rides, blue and white stripes edged with green, bought in bulk from C&A  in Swindon. A set of badges appeared, handmade by my father at a local school fete. And ultimately, at the pinnacle of the Highway Cycling Group’s ambitions, we started cycling abroad. Glorious holidays riding through France, Holland and Belgium, the ubiquitous stick of French Bread slung horizontally across the rear rack of my father’s bike.

There is one ride I remember well, not long before he left Highway, I rode the three miles from Hilmarton to see my father, and we headed out for the Marlborough Downs. The insistent whirr of the chains powering the hubs mingled with the continuous drone from the propellers of the transport planes flying out of RAF Lyneham. Up the awful hill at Clyffe Pypard, weaving over the road in an effort not to stall the bikes, out of the saddle, artlessly pushing the pedals because we had no straps or clips. At the top I felt lightheaded from the effort, my father riding next to me handed over his water bottle.  The roads were almost empty as we headed up towards The Ridgeway. As we crossed the prehistoric track, where it intersects with the Marlborough road we were at the highest point for miles, there seemed to be nothing but startling blue sky. Wordlessly we turned the cranks, pulling the horizon towards us.
My father’s move to Swindon effectively called a halt to the regular rides. His bike remained in his shed and in 1994 he became very ill with prostate cancer, dying at home in 1995 not long after his fiftieth birthday. It was over ten years before his wife Helen extracted the now rusted, white, ten speed from the shed and sadly took it on its final journey to the recycling centre.

Now, I find it nearly impossible to remember whole rides with The Highway Cycling Group, but occasionally, when I am out riding, a memory will rush forward, triggered by a feeling, or a sound: Riding alongside a train-track, the chirping of crickets, the ticking freewheel of a bike left on it’s side in the grass verge or the call of a buzzard circling ahead will send me back to the time of The Highway Cycling Group. A time when I had no concern about clipless pedals, average speeds, sports drinks, lycra, carbon fibre or fitness. When it was enough just to ride. I still enjoy group rides, meandering, pootling down country lanes in good company looking for a shop in the middle of nowhere, exploring the verge while someone checks the map or fixes a flat. But sometimes, all I want is to ride on my own, with just the cadence, the drone of the chain, and the feeling that there might be someone else riding next to me, matching my pace, ready to hand me his water bottle when I feel lightheaded.

Highway Common - late summer 2007

Highway Common - late summer 2007

Published in: on January 8, 2009 at 8:55 pm  Comments (3)  
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Wednesday Ride III – against the zephyrs

I was pushed all the way to John’s house in Trowbridge by an insistent tailwind, this did not bode well for this week’s Wednesday Ride. I dismounted and pushed the bike past the wheelie bin in the narrow alley leading to John’s secret garden. Not long after I arrived, the sound of someone squeezing past that same bin announced Brad’s arrival. He had been suffering from a ‘dodgy tum’ for the whole week, it was my secret hope that this would scrub some speed from the super-fit whippet, of course I would barely notice any dip in performance as his form is lightyears ahead of mine.

We set off in a row into some fierce winds, but on turning towards Melksham the wind moved behind us and sent us speeding down the road with considerable urgency. Then into Melksham itself, via the bikes and buses only route, which as it was devoid of traffic, saw us cycling three abreast. This fine stretch of tarmac is crying out for some bike activities under the cover of darkness, something like Sprint Club in Richmond Virginia.

Past the Waney Edge Cafe and over the roundabout, we hurtled through the outer edge of Melksham, until we pulled over to await another of John’s friends, Damian, who arrived almost as soon as we pulled up. The new addition duly linked into the chain, we set off again towards Seend and Devizes. I led off the front, pulling 21mph into a headwind. This proved to be utterly foolish, I was expecting Brad to come hurtling past and take over pulling at any second, but he never came. Then, even worse, we hung a right and smacked straight into a hell of a hill. I sat on the back behind John and just pushed and pulled my way through it, coming up a long time after the others. From then on in, it was a war of attrition with the wind. Damian was proving that he could keep up with Brad no trouble, and as usual it was up to John and myself to keep nightwatchman on the rear of the group. Then we turned directly into the headwind and the group started to break up. Brad was on the front and I hung onto his wheel for a few minutes, then fell off, unable to sustain 19-20mph uphill and into the wind (even with the shelter Brad was providing as I drafted him). I sat up to take a drink and Damian shot past, I watched them disappear around the first of many torturous switchbacks and double bends, before clamping down and digging in. My concentration was split between two things, maintaining an even, steady cadence and keeping breathing. The road got narrower and narrower, winding it’s way through tiny hamlets and villages. The verges became grassy, unfenced areas of common land, strewn with wildflowers, single cottages with beautifully looked after gardens unfolded from around blind corners. Eventually I stopped seeing glimpses of the two out front in the distance, and I was left alone with the roar of the wind and the sound of my own ragged panting.

The final straw came as the rain spattered down and I met a bus in the lane, the compulsory sudden stop as it squeezed past me, left my legs shocked into paralysis and I could barely turn the cranks. Luckily there was a junction for the main road and Brad and Damian were waiting there. Also luckily, John was a way behind and experiencing an enforced stop of his own with the bus, a white van and an old lady who had to reverse down the lane to allow the bus past.

All of this gave me time to recover and watch a Eurofighter screaming repeatedly overhead. John soon arrived, and we all took a bit of a rest and had a chat before stringing out again on the road into Westbury. One more stop at Westbury and I was wrongfooted, or wrongwheeled. When John caught up he just sailed past and the others shot off in hot pursuit. As I was the only one without clipless pedals, it took me a while to get clipped up, then there was a seemingly endless stream of traffic. By the time I got onto the road I had lost sight of them and took a wrong turn towards the Trowbridge road. Immediately I knew I had gone the wrong way as there was a long straight stretch down which I couldn’t see any cyclists. Cursing, I spun back round the mini roundabout and headed towards Westbury Leigh. This time they were waiting for me.

Finally, we got some tailwind as we turned towards Brokerswood at Dilton Marsh, the going became much easier from then on in, but the rain was starting to become a little more serious. Up through Rudge, I managed to bounce my foot out of a clip during a too fast gear change, leaving me pedalling slowly up the hill, with the odd scraping of metal on tarmac as the inverted clip hit the road. I was off the back again, and only caught up as we turned towards the village.

We bid each other farewell and I rode back to the house, the others rode the tailwind back to Trowbridge and Melksham. Total mileage 32 miles, soaked up the back, and legs pummeled into jelly. Now, in retrospect at 23:54, I say it was a good ride. It didn’t feel that way at first.

wet roads

The Tuesday Ride is Dead, Long live the Wednesday Ride!

Yes, it’s official, having sent an email to John after months without contact (“The days are getting longer, I’m not getting any thinner. Let’s ride!”) we were on the open road again. Occasionally Brad kept us company, but a lot of the time he was off the front, a mere speck in the distance that John and I worked in a chain gang to try and catch up with. Tuesdays are now off the menu, so it looks like we’ll be going out Wednesdays, and probably a little earlier than we have been. This will allow me to put in 25-30 miles and still get back to the house to help put the kids to bed.

This week, John and Brad led me all over the backroads around Trowbridge, Devizes and Melksham. We paused only to watch a Hercules fly slowly over Keevil airfield and drop a box onto the runway. One thing was made absolutely clear to me, I am still not that fit yet. Hopefully, with the discipline of a regular ride in company, that will change. Last year the Tuesday rides started to improve my metabolism and my breathing – especially when we went out with the human greyhound that is Brad.

John (foreground) and Brad (in front) sign at speed, West Wilts

It felt great to be out on the bike in company again, for me it’s a lot of what cycling is all about. We varied the pace, sometimes gliding along chatting away, other times drafting and pedaling hard (usually to try and catch up with Brad), sometimes we’d just be merrily trundling along, then suddenly someone would change up a gear and start sprinting, provoking a sudden burst of speed in us all, then we’d wind down again and go back to the chat. That lovely melodic sound of three chainsets whirring in unison was a pleasure to hear, as was the drone of three pairs of tyres over the tarmac.

Left John and Brad in Trowbridge and cycled back to the village solo, no energy by the time I hit the Wingfield straight, on the verge of The Bonk. Arrived back at the house with 33 miles on the clock for the evening.

Hopefully there will be many rides like this throughout the coming summer.

My First ‘Proper’ Bike

My first proper bike, on a beach in France.

Everything about the bike looked heavy, from the metal mudguards and massive deraileur to the steel rack and thick tubing. The too-wide drop handlebars were covered in some strange deteriorating, rubberised red tape with suicide levers hanging limply and ineffectively beneath. Rust-spattered cables slewed off the hoods at awkward angles that spoke of improvised repairs by gradual shortening. Dull black paint-work, flaking decals and a maker’s badge so nondescript that my memory would eventually hold not even the faintest possibility of recalling it’s providence, even to my untrained eye the bike looked somewhat woeful. Yet as I stood watching my father begin his negotiations with the assistant in the secondhand shop, I was holding my breath and crossing my fingers, hoping the bike would shortly be mine. Earlier, having checked the bike over (a shake of the handlebars, a spin of the wheels, a surprisingly smooth run through the five gears followed by a tut as pulling on the brakes had no effect whatsoever), my father had surreptitiously removed the price tag and now, he was slowly screwing the card into a ball behind his back as he spoke, I watched the biro numbers disappear, £15, before he casually slipped it into his back pocket.

“So ten pounds is the asking price, yes” It wasn’t a question, the assistant looked confused.

“Uh, yes”

“But the brakes don’t work so let’s call it five”

Minutes later we were wheeling my ‘new’ bike towards the carpark in Devizes, my hand was almost shaking as it rested on the saddle.

Previous to this bike, I had owned only one bicycle, the one I learned to ride on, my Vindec. This was a sit-up and beg roadster with a nasty white saddle, but a firey red paintjob (this was let down by the mustard-coloured metal mudguards), basically I had killed it before I had outgrown it. This poor machine had been ridden it into not only the ground, but various trees, rocks, hedges and streams. It was the mid-eighties, bicycling for the early teens in the Wiltshire village of Hilmarton had revolved around straight handlebar roadsters with a single sprocket freewheel. One or two of the group had a Sturmey-Archer three gear hub, and one lucky bastard from a well off family had a BMX. Our main pastime was riding these heavy bikes at speed down the bridleway that led out of the village, down a steep, root-infested mud and gravel singletrack and out the other side onto a country lane. We stripped the mudguards off so the wheels wouldn’t jam when clogged with mud and lowered the saddles to keep them out of the way when we stood up to allow our legs to absorb the ruts and bumps on the trail. None of us had seen or heard of a mountainbike and we rarely ventured beyond the confines of the village on our bikes.

My ‘new racer’, as I called it, (though clearly it was an absolutely bottom-end tourer), opened up the surrounding roads to me, suddenly I had five gears, a rear rack, a kickstand and a place to put a pump. Not only that, but, as my father pointed out sternly, this bike would have to be locked up when I went into a local shop. It was that desirable!

This bike, riddled as it was with faults, from its regularly snapping cables, its grinding bottom bracket, to its rattling front mud-guard (ripped off in the end), carried me for a good many years, and hundreds of miles with The Highway Cycling Group. Finally it rusted through, abnout two weeks after I rode it into the English Channel from the French side, blissfully unaware that salt-water will eagerly devour metal.

I last saw the bike as it slid into the pile of rusted, mangled metal on the back of a rag-and-bone man’s lorry. Every three months or so this battered vehicle would slowly crawl through the village with a loud hailer mounted atop the cab, squawking “OldIronAnyol’Iron?OldIronAnyol’Iron?OldIronAnyol’Iron?” in a squealing tone that sounded like metal grinding on metal. Years before, the same lorry had taken away my father’s useless old roadster, prompting him to buy his ten-gear tourer and start The Highway Cycling Group.

The rear wheel of my bike span slowly as it was absorbed into the mass of tangled scrap, the lorry continued on its way, finally disappearing round the corner into Church Road. I stood for sometime on the pavement with my hands in my pockets as the metallic voice, laced with feedback, gradually faded into the warm summer air, absorbed by the distant melancholy sound of reversing propellers from a transport plane taxi-ing on the runway at RAF Lyneham four miles away.

I cannot remember what I was thinking at that moment, only what I saw and heard. Perhaps I felt sorrow, maybe acceptance, it’s possible I was wondering how I would get around without a ride as I can’t even remember if I had my next bike by then.
But I do think it’s true that you never forget your first ‘proper’ bike.

Rust In Peace.

Published in: on March 13, 2008 at 10:45 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.