My Final Ride of 2008

Perhaps it was unwise, given the predicted drop in temperature, to arrange to meet local smallholder Mike at 9am for a ride. I wrapped up warm, and pedalled down to Mike’s farm. After a slight delay in which Mike fed the chickens and I supplied a trackpump to get our tyres up to the regulation 80+psi, we quickly left the village and headed out down crooked lane. Frost crusted the grass on the verge, and muddy ice was scattered across the tarmac. The air was still and dry, and it seemed as if the cold was drifting down and settling on us from the sky. The orb of the sun hung limp and weak amid the grey, a perfect dull circle, devoid of heat and ferocity, that could not even leave an after-image burnt into the retina.

We were in good spirits, riding in the knowledge that this winter was slowly on the wain, but the cold was already nipping at our fingers and toes, forcing our pace up a little. Mike is a fit chap, and he could maintain an even cadence on hills and straight alike. Before we arrived at Dilton Marsh, I was already struggling a little and decided that I would walk up the hill of The Hollow. However, when it came to it, I found the hill to be less steep in real life than it had appeared in my head, and I was able to ride up all the way. Over the crossroads at the top and into the back of Warminster via a ghost road. Out of Warminster at Bishopstrow, and into Sutton Veny. By now, my toes were aching, my lips were cracked and my fingertips had gone numb. We had thoughts of a cup of tea at the farm shop in Boyton, and possibly, dare we imagine, a slice of cake.

We continued along the beautiful Wylye Valley in the direction of Salisbury, and a slight breeze built up, sucking the warmth from our faces. Passing a stream, Mike paused to work out the drop on a weir, he is obsessed with the idea of hydroelectric power and takes every opportunity to investigate a weir or mill race. As we discussed the pros and cons of increasing the height of wier on his farm by 25cm, we rounded the final corner, elated to see a sandwich board outside the farm shop that clearly said “we are open”. Joy turned to disbelief as we appraoched the entrance and discovered that the sentence continued “…Wednesday to Friday”. As it was a Monday, it left us with freezing cold toes and no prospect of a cuppa. We hopped around to try and warm ourselves up, and I cracked open the Jelly Belly energy beans I had found in my stocking on Christmas morning, thus fortified with sugary goodness and a minimum of warmth we remounted and set off for Warminster, swearing that we would locate a purveyor of cake and coffee to ease our malaise.

We followed the road into Warminster and crawled into the town centre, it was pretty busy and there was no small risk involved in drifting acorss the road after the central traffic lights to arrive at the Cafe des Journaux. Mike had his pannier and a lock so we tied up the bikes to the nearest lampost before walking inside the tiny coffee shop and taking a seat, right next to the heater.

The heater
Mike did the honours, and within minutes we had coffees and cakes (and I had managed to knock a bowl of sugar packets onto the floor). Mike even located a copy of The Times and we spent a restful few minutes sipping coffee, eating cake and commenting on various news stories in the pleasant shop.

coffee and cake

When we left the cafe, it suddenly seemed considerably colder, I never thought I’d say this, but thank goodness for that hill out of Warminster town centre, it warmed us up nicely. As Mike was going to be late home, we decided it would be best to take the A36. Although this was quicker, it turned out to be a bit of a grind, the windchill and the traffic made it an unpleasant experience. My lack of recent exercise began to take its toll, and I fell far behind as Mike raced to the farm shop to pick up some shopping. I caught up with him as he was locking his bike up. I decided that I’d better stay outside, not least because I needed to find a convenient location to ‘view the plough’ and ease the pressure on my bladder that had been building up for the last four miles, but because I didn’t want to warm up in the shop only to step outside into the chill again. I ate some more energy beans.

energy bean

We saddled up for the last time and headed back to the village. A good, if cold ride to finish the year, clocking up 35 miles in total.

See you in 2009!

The Dark Beneath The World

Inside Rear Chamber looking back down the creepway, Stoney Littleton Long Barrow

Inside Rear Chamber looking back down the creepway, Stoney Littleton Long Barrow

27th of September, a solid Autumn day, still wreathed in mists by ten in the morning. I rode out once more in the direction of Laverton, Faulkland and Stoney Littleton past fields covered in a thick grey, foggy shroud. Tiny beads of moisture gathered on the creases of my hoodie and crusted like rime as I cut through the damp air on the Lemond Etape. Still clean, and fully lubricated, the bike seamlessly moved through the mists, parting the air which flowed around me and reformed in my wake as though I had never disturbed it. I was a spectre, speeding over the landscape on empty ghost-roads. The world seemed to be in another, much earlier time – indeed I was on the trail of the antediluvian that day – the long barrow at Stoney Littleton.

I had recently felt its call; first when riding these lanes in the darkness, pursued by farm dogs, transformed into the Cŵn Annwn, scucca, or shuiks. There was no moon that night, just a feeble silver ley where the beam from my front lamp fell onto the mangled tarmac. The dark that can be found in the heart of the ancient barrows had seemingly seeped out into the evening. A sepulchral darkness that comes when the human spirit is at its weakest, the long hour before dawn, the last hour; the longest mile. And again when I rode out last with John, I saw the barrow on the skyline, silhouetted against the last embers of the daylight. Then it seemed to hold a more gentle darkness, the Long Sleep, the rest that waits for us all; the quiet dead.

Now I was riding in the direction of the ancient mound, rolling over the Somerset hills on roads devoid of traffic, where only the muffled caws of rooks and the croaking of solitary crows disturbed the quiet of the day. Entering the deep valley that cups Wellow Brook in its folds I almost came off the bike when I hit the bottom of the hill. Water had torn the road to pieces as it rushed across from verge to grassy verge.

The landscape bucked and heaved me up and over another rise, Spinning the cranks on the drop down the hill I almost missed the turn off to the right. The sound of hammering accompanied me past a house with a man on the roof intently working on the slates. He didn’t see me as I freewheeled down the road. A world war two pillbox had been absorbed into the hedge and fence of his garden, guarding the entrance to an extremely narrow lane. If a car chose to take this road as I rode down it, I would have to dismount, haul the bike onto the tiny grass verge and push myself back against the barbed wire to avoid being clipped. But no engine disturbed the air, and no one was on the lane save me. Small clumps of Japanese knotweed sprung out from the grass, only a few years old, but already voraciously making their way along the edges of the field and into the ditch. The bike glided softly over a crumbling red brick bridge and along the lane until I saw the layby where one must cross the brook. The tyres crunched over the gravel for a couple of yards then I stepped off and wheeled the Lemond over the thin wooden footbridge. On the other bank I turned left guided by the musical brook and a metal sign pointing towards the ‘Ancient Monument’. The bike was used as a steadying post as I forded an overflowing channel of water before scrambling over a stile. Then up the hill, following the ruts in the path before swinging left into a field with closely grazed grass. Along the contours of the hill then, until another stile appeared on the skyline above me and I walked the bike upwards again.

Heaving the bike over into a small enclosure of long grass I could finally see the barrow. From the side it is an unassuming grassy mound seemingly sitting on a drystone wall. I approached it widdershins (against the sun, anti-clockwise), only on rounding the final curve to the front of the barrow is its true nature revealed. Here the flat stones guard the portal, two shaped mounds flank the entrance on either side, and the way in is small and dropped below the level of the surrounding ground. The grass gives way to a bare patch of earth at the threshold. On the right hand side is a piece of Victorian lettering, now barely visible explaining with typical bluster and arrogance of the time how fantastic the excavations were and how accurate the restoration was.

On the left hand ‘doorpost’ is the familiar spiral of a giant ammonite fossil, beautifully preserved in the stone, every detail of it’s shell picked out perfectly. Surely this had significance to the mound builders, leading them to ensconce it here at the threshold between states.

The Ammonite at the gate

The Ammonite at the gateway

Leaving the bike propped up covering the Victorian boasting plaque, I crawled into the creepway and shuffled along the stony floor of the barrow. This was a low creep, unlike at West Kennet long barrow, where one can walk in, stand in the chamber and still have room above ones head, Stoney Littleton long barrow requires that you humble yourself and approach the chambers with bended knee. The effect was extraordinary, I felt like I was no longer a tourist, I was a participant in an age old drama. I shuffled further forward, if outside the world was silenced by the mist, inside was beyond silence. My every breath seemed loud and unnatural, the rattling of stones as I crawled in was absorbed by the darkness. I stopped at the first junction, once again my bike light became my illumination, this time into the side chambers.

Now it felt wrong. I could go no further in, though I wanted to, I could not make my legs propel me onwards. The imagined weight of the stones and of their long history crushed me into immobility. What they might have meant to the mound-makers, what they meant to the generations who brought their dead here, what they meant when the great stone had been placed across the entrance excluding all light and sound and leaving the dead to their sleep. This was too much, I eased my way out, almost afraid to turn my back on the rear chamber. I had got not even a quarter of the way in before backing out again.

Now I wanted to leave the barrow and the hill. I picked up the bike and started to walk towards the stile. I had gone no further than four meters when I stopped again, and stood, frozen to the spot. I cannot remember what I thought then, I only remember that the cold and wet from the long grass was seeping into my feet through a process of osmosis. The slow chug of a tractor engine drifted over from somewhere on the opposing side of the valley and the odd whistling of a wood pigeon’s wings cut through the mist from somewhere behind me. The cold crawling up my ankles from my soaking feet was somehow pleasant. I knew then I was about to turn around and go back in the barrow.

Quickly I wheeled the bike over to the entrance and this time I laid it down on the grass, unclipping the front light in one movement as I strode to the entrance and, without stopping, ducked across the threshold and dropped to my knees again. I easily passed the junction where the fear had overtaken me not ten minutes before and continued down the creepway. The ceiling of massive stone slabs got lower as I pushed forward and the walls became closer.

At the final junction of the barrow creepway, about to enter the back chamber

At the final junction of the barrow creepway, about to enter the back chamber

Then I was in the back chamber and sitting quietly in the cthonic stillness. I switched off the torch and looked back down the creepway. The light from the entrance leaked some way into the barrow, and I could see my bike lying on the grass just beyond the threshold. I leaned back against the stones, slowed my breathing, closed my eyes and let my mind wander.

Evidence from other barrows suggest that these mounds were opened up and used again and again, over many years, even many generations, becoming a repository for the ancestors. The builders of these barrows and the megalithic remains scattered over the countryside hereabouts lived in a time that was further from the birth of Christ than we are now. Their life expectancy was short, and death was ever stalking them. Those amongst them that outlived a generation became revered and loved, even beyond the point of their deaths and interments in these mounds. What was the purpose of burying them here? What was expected? A resurrection? The stone to roll away? The importance of those ancestors to the mound builders, and the hopes and knowledge they carried perhaps cannot be overstated. In these Ur-times, they maybe kept faith with them, talking to them long after their demise, understanding perhaps greater than we do the importance of keeping their memories alive.

This led me to think of how little I know of my great grandfather beyond a sepia photograph and a name written in a gigantic welsh bible. Above his name are further names about which we know nothing at all, and below are the names of my grandparents, then my own father, then my name, then the names of my children. There is plenty of space below their names as the book is a massive thing, impossible to throw away, lose or destroy. It’s very fabric and solidity gives rise to a comforting illusion of permanence. Yet my own children have never heard my father’s voice, he died when I was 21, years before they were born, he is as remote to them as my great grandfather is to me. So I keep my father’s memory alive, not least with this blog, because he was the man who started the Highway Cycling Group, but also by carrying a simulacra of him in my skull. A ghost, an invocation that allows me to converse with him as if he were still alive. I think of what his ancestors meant to him. Not just the names in that bible, but how in the hours before his death from cancer, he reached out from his bed and looked through me with eyes clouded from morphine, but unexpectedly filled with surprise and joy and said;

“Dad, you are here!”.

This surely is the resurrection we truly long for. Not our own, torn from the sleep of death, but those who have gone before us, the ones we shall never see again, the ones who’s continued absolute absence leaves us crushed and desolate.

In that moment, in his room, I felt the weight of my ancestry pressed around me, as I felt it now within the barrow. In my minds eye I imagined them filling the chambers and the creepway of the ancient mound, back through time and generations, beyond the names scratched in the delicate, dip-pen script of the family bible, beyond the birth records, beyond writing, beyond speech, beyond the trauma of what it is to be human, further back. So far back now that I realise there is only one person there. There only ever was and only ever will be one person.

Dad, you are here.

Dad, I am here.

Then I felt the peace. Blinking, I opened my eyes, startled by the light flooding in through the entrance of the mound. Crawling out along the creepway, I could see the mist had lifted somewhat. The bike seemed lighter as I picked it up and wheeled it down the hill.

The way seemed shorter on the way back. But then it always does.

Crepuscular Riding

John turned up bang on six thirty as he said he would. I was, however, not ready. Astute and regular readers may remember that I flatted the rear tyre of my Lemond Etape at the end of my last ride. I did not remember so I was still waiting for the glue on a patch on the tube to set when John arrived. First thing he did was admonish me over the state of my bike. It’s true that it had not been cleaned for a long time, not only that but instead of maintaining the chain properly, I had simply been adding more oil. Mud caked the stays and saddle, the protective sticker on the rear stay had been smothered under a film of oil and the whole machine looked dull and sad. John was eager to get on, so he gave me a spare tube, then showed me an incredible way of putting the tyre and tube back on that I have never read in any book, or seen anywhere else. It was so easy! I will film him giving a demonstration in the near future and post it here.

With the bike roadworthy again we were soon riding at an insistent, but by no means taxing pace towards the main road. I elected to take us down the lanes I had got lost and chased by dogs along a few weeks back. The evening was yet young, but we knew we would be returning under cover of darkness. This time I took a map, and as we ambled along it afforded an occasional stop to get our bearings, with John hardly breaking his narrative stride while he filled me in with the details of his still new job at Moulton Cycles. There was a hint of cloud though the air was reasonably warm considering this was mid-September (yes I am that far behind in my blogging), and we hardly noticed the dusk slipping quietly around us as we made our way through Faulkland. As we headed towards Stony Littleton we put our lights on, John’s was on his helmet and incredibly bright, throwing my shadow to the grey blur of the road as I rode in front. The ground dropped away and shot us down a steep hill – this was the same valley I had been sucked into when I cycled road-shocked into Wellow, on this pleasant early Autumn evening it seemed less threatening. Certainly the omission of slavering farm dogs snapping at the pedals made for a much more pleasant ride. At the bottom of the hill John exclaimed ‘We’ve got to get up this slope somehow in order to get home!’. I ignored him, too busy trying to control the bike as it skittered over water-damaged tarmac – an impromptu and recent ford, not mentioned on my map. The slope bore us up again, past recently harvested fields of stubble and the road surface became ghostly smooth in comparison to the tarmac we had just ridden down. Now I was eager to see the long-barrow at Stony, so I coaxed John onto a rutted farm track. Now it was really getting dark, and as I dragged John grumbling over a field, we could see the ancient burial mound hugging the horizon.

John checks the map - Long-barrow on the skyline

John checks the map - Long-barrow on the skyline

The map was no longer any help, and we found our way to a wooden footbridge and crossed the small but fast flowing river. Having been dragged over a sodden field, John was in no mood to continue looking for a way up to the monument, he was already going to be later home than he said he would be. So I snapped a picture of this alarming sign here and we powered up the hill.

We were soon in Wellow, a picturesque village, seemingly deserted as we saw not a single soul. Out of the village underneath a viaduct that John tells me carries a cycle path to Limply Stoke, then, o Lord, up that hellish hill. One of those gradients that seems to go on forever. Where every horizon reveals a further horizon, unfolding like some fiendish trap or puzzle, first the lungs and then the legs (though for others I know it’s the other way round, jelly-legs then gasping for breath). John’s fitness has improved much in the last year that we have been riding, and he was able to pull way ahead, I’m pretty sure he was pushing bigger gears too. At the top we headed for Hinton Charterhouse and then on to Norton St Philip. The darkness had well and truly settled in now, the witching hour was over and we were in evening and heading for night time. On the main road, I hit a bump and lost my back light, which shattered as it hit the ground with a horrible plastic skittering sound. I spent a few minutes gathering all the pieces up and shoving them tinkling into my pockets. Luckily we were mere minutes away from my home, so by riding in front of John I kept up the illusion of law-abiding safety. Thank goodness for my hi-viz vest, which I imagine is visible from space when illuminated by headlights. A cheery farewell to John, who still had a five or six mile ride home to go and I was back at the house. We didn’t put in a huge amount of miles, but we did get a good workout on the hills. Crucially though, I had exorcised the shattering ride along the same lanes of a week or so before.

A couple of days later, I took the Lemond apart and carefully washed the whole bike, tyres and all, and vowed never again to let it get into such a poor and muddy state.

Hellhound On My Trail


It was already dark as my bike and I hissed along the wet country road, though the sun was not due to dip below the distant hills for another half hour. A thin blanket of leaden cloud had clotted on the horizon, diminishing fingers of golden light dripped damply down from the smothered orb suffocating in the greyness. I rode lost in the lanes through this premature, sodden dusk, the day was choking in its final hour, an undignified ending. Barely six miles from home, but turned around by these tracks that weave around each other through the landscape, I had no idea which direction I was facing or what the next village might be. The next village did not appear from around the next bend or crossroads, nor from the junction after that. These were bad, bad choices of direction, the remains of rusted signposts were no help, one of them peppered with holes from a shotgun blast, the names of the villages lay in heap at the side of the road pointing mockingly into the centre of a muddy field. The rain came down, as did the blackness, and soon I rode along a line of silver in the road. This reflection from my lamp on the slick tarmac was my only source of illumination.

A farm on the corner, as I near, a coal-black shape detaches itself from the darkness of the hedge and runs towards me. A dog. Its barking is thunderously loud in the quiet of the evening, jaws hanging open, teeth bared, matching my increasingly panicked pace for twenty metres before I get enough speed up to leave it behind. But then at the next house, another loose dog, huge, angry. The bike is almost in the hedge on the right of the road as I accelerate past the careering hound, it slips in the mud allowing me time to get away.

At the next unmarked crossroads I unknowingly make another bad decision, moving further and further away from any villages. The road goes up and up, I know this can’t be right:

I am in blood
Stepp’d in so far that, should I wade no more,
Returning were as tedious as go o’er;
– Macbeth

Cresting the horizon, the rain works its way into my clothing and a farm sits on the switchback. This time I sense the dogs before I see them and am already going at speed before they come hurtling, barking out of the open gate. The wheels slip on the mud, my guiding silver trail is gone, I ignore two turnings off to the right, because to cross the road would mean slowing enough that the dogs would catch me. Suddenly the road drops away and I am sucked down a hill and into the inky blackness of a wooded, steep-banked track. I let the bike go for a while as the dogs disappear into the distance behind me, but then I can see or sense nothing. All light ceases save for the weak smudge of silver given out by my front lamp. It falls into blackness, useless. Down, down, always down, the poor bike rides over and through the potholed and water-damaged lane, and I hold on, as a mariner might grip the shattered stub of a mainmast and pray to ride out the storm that hammers his ship. Now the wheels are locked and I am sliding down the hill, mud, leaves, shit… SHIT! I nearly overcook a corner and hurtle over a staggered junction with no time to make an informed choice of road, always down.

Until the bike is at rest, sitting on the raised ford at Wellow with the waters lapping at my feet.

A long walk up the other side of the hill, I turn right, hoping that I am heading for Norton St Philip, and not deeper into Somerset. Under a viaduct, and up a long boring hill, grinding out each metre as the bike fails to find the granny ring. At the top I am in Hinton Charterhouse and heading in the right direction. Tired and hungry the rest of the ride is a blur, clipping the curve at Woolverton, back tyre deflating as I pull into the village. A mere seventeen miles on the clock for two hours or so of riding. Exhaustion.

And the day keeps on worring’ me, there’s a hell-hound on my trail,
Hell-hound on my trail, hell-hound on my trail.

Robert Johnson

Published in: on October 2, 2008 at 11:17 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

Two rides with John – ‘Eight Snorkers and a Naughty Ferret on the way to Heaven’s Gate’ And ‘How we took the canal path home despite John’s grumblings’

I really am appallingly behind with this blog, weeks behind in fact. So much has happened in that time, Team GB dominated Olympic Cycling – with riders from all the corners of this sceptred isle winning medals; I went to Wales and smuggled my Brompton over the border to sneak in a dusk ride on a deserted mountain road; John, Andy and I rode to Cheddar and back, including about a three mile climb out of the gorge on a full English breakfast with 1.5 litres of tea in my panniers and a slab of cave matured cheddar cheese.

But, friends, let us start with a couple of rides I went on with John. the first was a Tuesday ride. Unfortunately, my father in law had fed me from his barbeque that evening. In my lust for nosh, I had consumed no less than eight sausages of fine pedigree. As I eased onto the tarmac with the bike I knew this was a mistake. John took us round the back of the Longleat estate, and didn’t need much persuading to make a short detour to The Bath Arms and a pint of Naughty Ferret. Then we slipped into the Longleat house grounds and took a right to tackle Heaven’s Gate Hill. In the gathering dusk I struggled up in John’s wake, my ribs were near bursting with agony and those eight snorkers(1) were banging about in my stomach. Somehow, I made it to the top where John stood looking out over the landscape. Here are some pictures of that ride:

Naughty Ferret and a Guinness Please

Naughty Ferret and a Guinness Please

Riding towards Longleat House

Riding towards Longleat House

The view from the top

The view from the top

On the way out of Longleat

On the way out of Longleat

The next ride was, I believe, a Friday ride. We took to the lanes around Melksham – and were bullied into the verges by endless streams of fast traffic. So fed up did I become of cars screaming past too close, or overtaking on blind corners, that I persuaded John to ride back to his house along the canal path. He was not happy about this at all. Worries about puncturing proved unfounded and we were soon safely ensconced at the table back at his garden. To my great surprise and delight, he pulled out the tea set and some biscuits. Cue endless jokes from John about proper strength tea.(2)

Manor house

Manor house

By the MOT Centre - Outskirts of Melksham

By the MOT Centre - Outskirts of Melksham

Proper Tea (3)

Proper Tea (3)

Footnotes

(1) My use of the word Snorkers when referring to sausages can be traced back to this article in Fortean Times about the Wild Man of Sutton, known locally as Bark Foot:

“Patrick Sheehy told how his cousin Oliver was jogging through the 2,400-acre (970-ha) nature reserve one morning last May and was cutting through one of the holly groves when he collided with a man crouching over a pan full of sausages as he put out a fire. The man’s breakfast went flying. Oliver apologised and quickly departed as a gravelly voice shouted: “My snorkers are ruined!”

(2) Note that, as we shall see in later posts, John returns time and again to the issue of proper strength tea. One feels that he may be unable to move on from the whole ‘tea not strong enough’ incident. Had I known it would have scarred his psyche so deeply, I would certainly have checked the tea strength before pouring.

(3) Why did Chairman Mao and Karl Marx drink herbal teas? – Because all proper tea is theft.

Blue skies and Brompton

Lucy was eager to get out on the bike today, so we dropped the kids off at their grandparents before slipping back to the house to get the bikes. We trickled out of the village to Rudge, taking it easy on the hills, just sitting back and letting the bikes do the work. Lucy was on her Diamondback and I took the Brompton. On the way back, I tried to shoot a bit of video on my phone. Getting it onto You Tube has meant the quality has been sucked out at every one of the three stages it went through to get there. The resulting very washed out, tinny vid looks more like a series of stills than a film. Anyway, I present it below. Music by the marvellous My Two Toms from Bristol.

***updated information, I’ve reloaded the vid at slightly better quality, the improvement is marginal at best***

Published in: on July 12, 2008 at 10:28 pm  Leave a Comment  
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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.

The Simple Pleasures of a bike-train-bike commute

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

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

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

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

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