Off Road on a Racer – Near Miss at Woolverton

Another lovely evening after a rainy day. I took the Lemond Etape up and down the hills past Telisford to Farleigh Hungerford. On to the B road, round past the castle and up a really tiny lane just after the bridges. No qualms about using the triple chainring, I didn’t fancy sweating it out. What I was looking for was a route my wife and I had ridden many years before that linked us up with the Canal Path. I knew there was a bridleway off that road somewhere, but when I reached Westwood Manor it was apparent that I had gone too far down the road. On seeing my bemused expression, an old chap cutting his hedge asked if I was lost. “No” I replied “I know where I am, I just wasn’t expecting to be here”. With that I turned back down the road searching the hedges for the opening. About half a mile down the road there it was, public bridleway. A sodden path that started off with a huge clay mudbath and a pool of brown water that covered the whole width of the track. The racer’s tyres clogged pretty quick so it went over my shoulder as I waded through. It didn’t get much better as the route descended into some light woods, rocks, loose soil, roots and mud, much more mud. In fact the route was so mucky I was half expecting a group of Belgian racers to come heaving past me at any minute. Beneath the tree canopy all was dark, the silence broken only by flutterings amongst the leaves and the bubbling of water. It was only about quarter to half a mile long, but I’m glad the Etape only weighs around 22lbs. I rode the last bit as it flattened, but not dried, out, exploding onto the road in a shower of mud. Hold on, this hill looked familiar, I was halfway down the scary 17% run into Iford, nothing for it but to point the front wheel down and go for it. Unfortunately there was a car coming up. I was amazed and relieved to discover there was just enough room on his right to get past without skidding or falling off, though I didn’t actually know that until I was past him, at least there was a tiny verge to bail onto if I’d got it wrong. A cheery wave to Britannia on the bridge at Iford, she was looking the other way and didn’t acknowledge me. Then up the nasty hill on the other side. Ha! John had fixed the triple chainring so I could get down into the granny gear, the hill, although long, was therefore possible to climb without stopping or vomiting. As far as I could see, that wasn’t the right bridleway I had carried the bike through, so I decided to call it an evening. Out onto the A36 which was full of traffic and heading back for the village.

By the Woolverton house hotel there is a staggered juncttion where I wanted to go left. Waiting on the other junction that goes off to Norton, was a silver estate. There was no other traffic around and I was hitting 27mph (in a 30mph area) when the driver just pulled out in front of me, I kind of guessed he might so I was already moving to the left and braking so I was right next to him when he got over the road and not slamming into his side. But then he slowed, turned left into my path as I was right next to him, THEN signalled! I braked harder, the back end of the bike slid out, but I controlled it, ending up just easing around his right side as he turned side on. I wasn’t angry, it was a middle-aged couple and to be honest I’ve got used to assuming someone is going to do something stupid like that so I was absolutely ready for it. The only thing was that I wasn’t even certain he had seen me at all, even though I was right next to his car at one point, then behind and finally on his right. He went on ahead and I carried on down the road. When I got to the Mill I could see them parking up so I wheeled into the car park and politely said “excuse me” I then went on to say he had cut me up very badly and had he not even seen me? the chap was very apologetic and said he HAD seen me, but didn’t realise bikes could go so fast so he thought he had lots of time to pull out in front of me and turn left. He admitted that he hadn’t checked his rear or side mirror when turning left and only signalled as an afterthought, it was only his wife saying “Watch the cyclist” that made him signal. I told him that a huge amount of accidents are caused by people overtaking cyclists and turning left suddenly, not to mention the lovely mess I would of made on the side of his car at 27mph if I hadn’t been ready. As I said, I was polite, and so was the chap, he asked if I was ok and said that it was a close shave and it would teach him to always check his left mirror before any left turn “I told him ‘you never check your mirror'” said his wife. Luckily it was a case of no harm done and we wished each other a pleasant evening.

Every time I approach a junction I’m looking out for a car doing something like that, even so, 27mph is a lot of speed to have to scrub off on a bike AND retain control over such a small distance. The moment of anger I had during the actual encounter had passed so quickly, I’ve found that’s happening a lot now. I used to shout something like “WATCH OUT YOU TWAT!” in a driver’s window when they did something like that, but there’s no point really. Do that and all you’ll get is a shocked look, the two-fingered-salute or worse. I’ve only ever been run off the road once, when I was a teenager on my way to my friend Nick’s house, someone forced me onto the verge where I crashed, I was too busy going head over heels to get even a make of car. It was white, that’s all I know. I have, however, had more than my fair share of drivers overtaking and turning left, sometimes signalling left AS they overtake, incredible, but after a while I’ve got used to it and have even come to expect it to happen.

Anyway, back at the ranch, the bike was hosed down, washed, degreased and re-lubed ready for the next ride. That’s another 10 miles, giving me 121 this week.

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.

Iford Manor, Britannia on the Bridge.

I missed out on getting a VIP pass to the prologue of the Tour de France by a brake-cable’s width. I was due to go as part of a company hospitality package given to a friend by another company who he does business with. Unfortunately, the company giving out the tickets decided to cut the allocation and cancel the hospitality. Needless to say this left my friend in the very embarrassing position of having to tell me that the amazing lig he had invited me on had been pulled. Of course I was gutted, but it was after all a freebie and it wasn’t my friend’s fault at all. He now feels terrible about it, but he really shouldn’t, this sort of thing happens and it’s just rotten luck. Many, many thanks to him for inviting me on it in the first place.

As it happened though, two things happened on the same day I got the news I wasn’t going to Le Tour that cheered me up no end and made me forget all about it. Firstly my eldest son’s joint birthday party, shared with two of his chums hitting the big zero five in the same week, we held it at Longleat after hours. An amazing time was had by all, after playing in the adventure castle and getting a soaking in the water fountains, we all picnicked on the lawn at the side of Longleat House. The weather had been filthy all week and in fact it was raining on Friday morning, but by the afternoon the sky was blue and dotted with beautiful fluffy white cumulus clouds. Crucially the temperature was warm enough to feel like late June and it was a splendid event.

The second thing was a terrific ride I took out on a loop to Iford Manor. Two weeks ago I took my mother and my youngest son there during the day to look around the garden. The road down into the valley is on a 17% gradient and it is seriously narrow. So narrow that I thought our standard size family estate was going to scrape the sides and my mum was on the verge of a panic attack due to the complete lack of passing spaces. We took the road out of the valley up the other side, it turned out to be narrower and around the same level of steepness. I thought to myself, I’ve got to ride it.

So Friday evening, the children being asleep and the sun still well above the horizon at 2030 I gave it a go. Nice and easy on the route to the hill down to Iford, racking up speeds of 27mph on the flat with the breeze behind me. Then the hill down itself. It Was Scary! More scary than in a car. having the brakes full on didn’t really seem to slow me down (must give them a good looking over), I’m sure I was slowed, it just didn’t feel like it. Flanked on both sides by a wall with no kerb there was simply nowhere to go if anyone was trying to rant up in a car in the other direction. To make things just a little more tricky, the tarmac was covered with chippings and stones, most of which appeared to have fallen from the crumbling masonry or been gouged out by pointy bits of car. Arriving at the bottom is a fantastic experience, the rider explodes out of the hill onto a junction with no road markings. To the right stands the magnificent Iford Manor. The house is mediaeval in origin, the classical façade having been added in the 18th century when the hanging woodlands above the garden were planted. It’s the site of the internationally reknowned Peto Gardens, built in the early part of the twentieth century by Harold Ainsworth Peto. He collected a great many artefacts from around the world in his travels, from fourteenth century bas-reliefs from Italian churches to statues of snarling hounds from Germany and stone lanterns from Japan. All of these are featured in the garden which is well worth a visit. Also the housekeeper’s tea-rooms do the most AMAZING scones with jam and cream.
I digress, leaving myself standing impatiently with one foot on the pedal, the other poised on tiptoe just touching the gravel strewn tarmac. So, straight ahead is a road that goes I know not where, meandering off into light woodland, stone wall one one side, fence on the other. Leaving only the road to the left. This climbs out of the tiny valley, crawling up through the countryside until it eventually joins up with the A36, but before the hill starts there is a wonderful old bridge, capped with an imperious statue of Britannia which glares down at the waters of the river Frome.

Britannia and your humble author on the bridge at Iford

The road towards the A36 quickly gets steep and narrow. So narrow was it, that although I was cycling in the middle of the road, my shoulder was stung by a nettle on the bank. Once again my front derallieur failed to find the granny ring so I thought I would try and stand on the peddles and take it in the middle ring. I got about two hundred yards then I experienced something that has never happened to me on a bike before, as the road got suddenly steeper the bike simply stopped. I just didn’t have any forward momentum, it wasn’t like it got hard then ground to a halt, it just stopped. Foot down, telltale oily print from the outer chainring on the inner calf of my right leg. This is a shameful brand, the mark of the beginner who must get off the bike to walk up hills. Well I wasn’t going to walk up the hill. I leant over and popped the chain onto the inner chainring, the so-called ‘granny ring’. With the bike in its lowest gear I set off again, just about getting enough speed up to enable me to slip my foot into the straps. Near wheelying with the force I was putting in, I crawled up the hill, my breathing speeding up, but not quite getting to the panting stage. After a quarter of a mile it started to get easier as the road began to wander off from side to side during it’s ascent of the hill, the climb was becoming quite pleasant. Soon an angry buzzing sound filled the air, accompanied by an oddly acidic smell, faintly redolent of sulphur, the A36, still busy with traffic from Bath even at nine in the evening. In comparison to the gentle arcadian tranquility of Iford, the road seemed perverse and utterly unlovely, though to be truthful, Iford is as much a product of humanity shaping the landscape as the main road I was now hurtling down. I hadn’t ridden this stretch since last year when I first bought the Lemond Etape. My first ride from Farleigh Hungerford and back along the A36 had been painful, necessitating frequent stops as a double stitch burned my sides leaving me hardly able to turn the cranks. It was an ignoble and sobering ride that had left me feeling awful and despairing of ever being able to ride in the same manner I had barely ten years before. Now, less than a year later, I am three quarters of a stone lighter, the stretch seemed comically easy and a stitch, even a double one, is something that can be ridden through. It was uplifting to be riding back to the village, feeling that progress in gaining fitness and losing fatness was being accomplished in such a small space of time. I hope this comes as some encouragement to anyone reading this who has perhaps started cycling again and fears they have a long way to go before feeling like they can ride comfortably fast and get fit.

I get a lot of hits at this blog from people looking for average bike speeds and I assume they are just getting into riding a bicycle, maybe they are a bit discouraged that they are only hitting 12-14mph on their rides. Just keep going, remember Eddy Merckx, who I consider to be the greatest racing cyclist ever, said the way to get better at riding your bike, is to ride your bike. I promise if you keep riding, you will get better, faster, fitter, thinner.

Ride like the wind; Be home for tea

The Highway Cycling Group Badge

Published in: on June 30, 2007 at 11:02 pm  Leave a Comment