Old School Shorts – Cycling Short Film Special – Riding home on moonbeams

On the last Friday of every month, the studio where I work most of the week puts on a short film night. As we’re based at the Old Church School in Frome, we call it Old School Shorts. With the Cobble Wobble looming close we though we’d ask the race organiser, Andrew Denham, to curate the event.

Andrew Denham is part of the Black Canon Collective – a group of mountain bikers who are often to be seen bombing around the forest at Longleat – sometimes dressed as superheroes – always with big grins on their faces.

Andrew chose the films for the middle section of the night. There were some crackers, from Minibike battles in Portland, to mad tricks on Scottish Streets. We managed to watch the brilliant RSA/Rapha film Two Broad Arrows by Adrian Moat (it’s no longer up on the Rapha site). As ever, we peppered the evening with music videos, vintage adverts, and amusing cat films. All projected up big on the wall of studio while we lounged around on sofas and swivel chairs, munching on pizza and nibbles and drinking beer.

Old School Shorts bicycle film night

All in all we had about an hour and half of films with two intervals. It was great to finally meet @westfieldwanderer from Radstock who I’ve been conversing with on Twitter for ages. We had a good chat about bicycle commuting, local hills and AtoB magazine.

Afterwards, Ed took some photos of the old bikes and parts that Andrew had collected to be donated for The Bristol Bike Project and we returned to the studio for music videos, Guess who games, more food and drink and good chat. People took turns on the VJ ing and we watched a myriad of films, from helmetcam madness, to Bats for Lashes videos via Vanilla Ice and Guns & Pork, my favourite part of the VJ section was a film of Andrew putting his shed up on his allotment.

Things wound up just after midnight, and I loaded up the Brompton for the ride home.The streets of Frome were doubly quiet, because I was suffering from a bit of a head cold, my hearing in my left ear had disappeared. As I’m half deaf in my right ear anyway, this meant that I could barely hear a thing. Not that there was much to hear, I didn’t see a single car moving until I left the town. I took it slowly through the streets, freewheeling wherever I could, and gently riding up the hills in the lowest gear.

On leaving the town I suddenly noticed the moon, not yet full, but incredibly bright. The wooded hill down to Oldford, normally a pitch-black potluck ride of guessing where the kerb might be, was transformed into a gently lit flight through a luminous forest. As I turned up the hill towards Beckington I pulled over to look out over the valley – gloriously rolled out before me in and picked out in sharp electric detail by the witchlight. The stark black of the distant hills, the sulphurous streetlamps of Frome itself, the deteriorating skeleton elms that lined the slope, all seemed so vibrant and hyper-real, and I was struck with an unsettling feeling that the same scene by daylight was not the true view, but merely a reflection of what I was seeing now.

I continued up the hill, my blocked up ears meant all I could hear was my own breath and the creaking of my jaw. I felt, rather than heard the steady trundling squeak of my faithful Brompton’s cranks as I spun the pedals. In the hedge to left there was a brilliant white blaze of light, as I inched closer it resolved into the shape of an old milestone. I had never noticed it before, despite passing it many, many times, yet here it was glowing fiercely under the lunar influence.

The air on the slope down into Beckington sucked the warmth from the bare skin of my arms, I had enough momentum to get halfway up the hill on the other side. Past the 24hr garage – devoid of customers, over the roundabout, devoid of traffic, past the place where the gypsies camp and hard left before the boundary stone. Ursa Major was a few degrees off horizontal, far to the West a few low and long clouds stretched themselves out above the land, the lights of a distant plane flickered on and off in the space between cloud and earth as it tracked towards the orange glow of Bristol. The lane was narrow, and the moon flung her beams directly over it from left to right, pools of moonlight settled on the tarmac, punctuating the ink-black shadows that leapt from the trees and hedges and hid the stones and cracks in the road. My Wheels seemed to find them without any trouble.

I felt I could ride on into the dawn, but the glamour of the moonlight would have worn off quickly, leaving me cold and tired to endure the long hour before daylight alone.

The village was still and silent, not even the blue flicker of a television set could be seen. The restored clock on top of the Cross Keys softly chimed one o’clock as I folded the Brompton, bid the moon a goodnight and closed the door.

Ride, ride against the dying of the light

One thing the Rode and District Nocturnal Velo Club cannot be accused of is “going gentle into that good night”. The Wednesday after the wildly succesful Rode Village Festival – the committee met in The Cross Keys pub to have a post-fest meeting. This being done, and the libations and rituals of preparation being completed (i.e. no small amount of ale, lager and spirits consumed), the ride could take place. This time we had the Rev Philip Hawthorn, curate of Hardington Vale with us. It always pays to have a man of the cloth around when riding the darkened lanes of Somerset and Wiltshire in the gloaming. For these are old roads, and it is an old darkness we ride through. No matter what armour to superstition and fear your sensibilities and beliefs have provided in the warm glow of the day, it all turns to rust when riding beneath the pale ghostlight of a waxing moon.

Anyway, Phil rides a rather splendid Specialized, a large frame as he is long of leg, and a keen cyclist to boot.

At 23:30 the last embers of the sun had long burnt out beyond the horizon. Only the dull orange glows of nearby towns tinted the furthest reaches of the sky. We headed out of the village via crooked lane, drifting briefly from the old sideroad across the A36 and onto the road to Rudge, as a lost spirit might materialise from a wall covering a long forgotten passageway and glide across a landing before vanishing into the opposite wall.

With four lights blazing we shot down the hill at Rudge, hung a left at the bottom and continued toward Brokerswood, turning right at the tin tabernacle and headed for the railway bridges. We took turns at the front, and as we approached Old Dilton, Mike made clear his intent to go up… The Hollow. In truth, there was nothing we could do, Mike had spoken what we all surely felt, this malevolent slope was sucking us in like a black hole, its gravity was too strong to ignore this far past dusk. We crossed the double roundabouts by the church. The only mercy was that night had mercifully becloaked the upward gradient in its mantle – that we would not be overawed at the hills severity. The pools of light cast forth from our bikes darted about the tarmac and the banks as the slope took hold. Spotlit glimpses of branches, thorns, earth and asphalt flashed about us as we wobbled our way up. Every now and again we caught sight of one of our companions in the bikelights, an afterimage of a rictus grin of grim determination burnt onto the retina when the light fell away to crazily dart around the banks as we struggled to maintain our upward course.

Then, against all odds, the ground leveled out – not only had we taken The Hollow at speed, it seemed incredibly short compared to the other times we have ridden it. Too numbed to change up gear, we spun the cranks crazily fast on the flat and hungrily gulped down great lungfuls of air as if we had emerged, crazed with the bends, from exploring the crushing darkness of an oceanic abyss.

Turning right at the top proved to be an alarming choice as more than one car shot past us with seeming scant regard for our safety. The noise of their passing all the more alarming given the quiet country lanes we had emerged from.

Rode and District Nocturnal Velo Club

We crossed the A36 and disappeared into the cthonic darkness of the lanes around Frome. Mike led out on the descent towards the town, Marcus pumping his legs like mad at the back to keep up on his mountain bike with its smaller wheels and heavier tread. The streets of Frome were near deserted and we had the sulphur glow of the streetlamps to ourselves, our shadows flickering about us as we passed from one pool of light to the next. Taking up the whole road we freewheeled together, the nocturnal peleton (or nocaton as Phil called it) shot through the narrow streets and into the town centre with incredible speed. Another hill up out of the town, past Iron Mill Lane and then left towards Lullington. The Creamery was lit up as milk was churned into the small hours. Up the hill we rode, a skeleton oak stood stark on the horizon, a warning of the hill we were approaching. Marcus and I rode far off the front racing each other down the final dip, a foolish act of faith as we rode faster than the eye could take in the tiny spotlit area ahead of us. We waited at a crossroad to take the picture below:

Rode and District Nocturnal Velo Club

Rode and District Nocturnal Velo Club

Finally we wheeled our way back into the village via The Mill, Mike peeling off down his farm track before Marcus and I said goodbye to Phil who powered off up Nutts Lane.

Around 20 miles accomplished, a good workout and a magical ride.

If you are local and you wish to join us on a Nocturnal ride – leave a comment below and we’ll try and arrange something.

Per Noctem Volamus

Rodeanddistrictnocturnalveloclubinvert

It seemed like a good idea at the time. The meeting being finished before 10pm, Mike suggested some spurious festival business that would enable myself, him and Marcus to cycle around in the dark. By the time I got the bike and reflective gear out, and Marcus had pumped up the tyres on his under-used mountian bike, the festival business had evaporated with the discovery that we were out of festival posters (for details of Rode Village Festival go here). The dark had gathered around us and it was ten thirty before we set off, the gloaming having passed, we were into the night.

It was still amazingly warm, the tarmac retained more than just residual heat from the baking hot day. Earlier I had noticed that the tar painted on the telephone poles in  the village had started to melt, dribbling onto the notices pinned to the dark-stained wood.

We raced out of the village and crossed the A36, still fairly busy even at this late hour, but the lanes were empty, the only sound was the chirrup of crickets, the ticking of the freewheels and, less pleasingly, an irregular knocking from the bottom bracket of my bike.

Various chitinous bodies whirred around our heads, or thumped into our faces as we rode at breakneck speed towards Laverton before turning down hill for Buckland Dinham. Our velocity seemed magnified in the darkness as the road dipped into steep banks, cutting out the moonlight. Round twisting corners we hurtled, sharp shadows of long dead elms raked the road, hiding the potholes and stones.

A particularly spooky ghost story I was telling as we rode was spectacularly ruined when Mike ran over a rat, sending him briefly and dangerously off course with a yelp of surprise. Somehow he stayed on the bike and took the hill into Buckland at a breathtaking pace, leaving myself and Marcus trailing.

Mike in the dark

Mike in the dark

We stopped beneath the light of some public building, before turning towards Mells. Somewhere on that route my chain flew off. Bravely I proclaimed that the others should go on and I would catch up, but to be perfectly honest I was expecting some chivalrous response such as “Never! One for all and all for one!” or “No one gets left behind” rather than “Ok, see you at the top of the hill”.

Having caught up with them and delivered some choice blue language, we continued on what had turned into the inaugural ride of the Rode & District Nocturnal Velo Club. Giddy with excitement we hurtled down Ironmill lane, by day a nerve-shredding experience as cars scream down this rat-run between Mells and Frome, by night a beautiful piece of silky smooth tarmac devoid of all vehicular activity save three whooping cyclists. We took a left onto the Frome road, but then immediately turned left again and drifted up the hill towards Lullington, turning right at the folly entrance and towards Woolverton. The moon sailed behind a cloud making the long dip where the lane crosses a microvalley an interesting experience, all of us taking the crumbling tarmac at a much higher speed than we should have.

The A36 was silent as we skipped briefly onto its surface before peeling off left just as we crossed the River Frome and up the hill toward the village. The Moon resurfaced so our shadows rode beside us, picked out sharply on the asphalt in the silvery luminescence. The Nocturnal Peloton rolled into the village side-by-side a no doubt eerie and inspiring sight, had there been anyone or anything save a startled cat to witness its triumphant arrival as the commerative clock atop The Cross Keys struck midnight.

The motto of The Rode & District Nocturnal Velo Club is snaffled from a Vulcan Bomber Squadron (no.9) that a friend of mine’s father was a flight engineer for

Per Noctem Volamus – We fly through the night.

Anyone local fancying a night ride – apply here to join us.

Will you go to Flanders: Day one

It was an insanely early start on the morning of the 4th April. I strode down to the farm where the Scout minibus was parked up, laden with the bikes we had tied on the night before. The sun had not yet crept over the horizon, and we were due to set off for Dover at 05:45. We were Explorer scouts and our mission was to place a poppy wreath at Menin Gate in Ypres, Belgium to honour the memory of a soldier born in our village who is not on our village war memorial. He was missing in action at one of the Ypres battles and his body never identified, consequently his name is carved into the Menin Gate along with the names of the 54,895 other commonwealth soldiers who died at Ypres and have no identifiable individual grave.

With the last of the three Explorer Scouts who were coming aboard the bus and myself, Mike and Howard in the front seats we headed for Dover. We unloaded the bikes at the ferry terminal in the midst of a scrum of drunken braying students, luckily they were not going on the same boat as us, they had barely made it out of the coach park by the time we were loaded up with panniers and tents and cycling towards passport control. Immediately we ran into technical difficulties as one of the lads’ wheels came off on the ramp. This did not bode well. We wove in and out of lorries looking for our lane to be loaded on the ferry. The sound of an ill-fitting wheel buzzing against a frame like the engine noise of a buggered moped accompanied us up to the front of the loading ramp where we were loaded first, right at the front of the ferry. A balaclava-clad ferry worker in a grimy orange overall lashed the bikes to the metal insides of the lorry bay. We went upstairs and consumed huge amounts of pasta salad, during the foggy crossing, carb-loading in anticipation of the day’s riding, which was to be, according to Mike, a mere thirty miles.

Dunkirk loomed suddenly out of the sea-mist, alerted by the profusion of bouys in the shipping lane we had headed down to the freight deck, becoming momentarily lost in a maze of tightly parked lorries. Eventually we found the bikes and saddled up as the ferry doors slowly opened. Immediately we dismounted again, having been told we weren’t to ride off the boat, spoilsports.

Back in the saddle and off the ramp we were spat out into an endless stream of heavy freight. Like an overboard sailor all we could do was go with the flow, cycling at speed past chainlink fences, through gates and along long roads with no idea which way we were headed or even facing. The lad with the bust bike was in danger of losing his wheel again so we found a convenient area of blighted tarmac to effect a repair. Beneath the gaze of a brace of parked up Polish truckers, we searched for a bolt to secure his rack, the only one that fitted came off my rack extension for my rear light. A piece of sticking plaster took its place on my bike, most effectively it turned out. After much booting about, straining and choice words, the offending back wheel was bodged into place and we set off again.

For miles we cycled through a flat industrial landscape covered with serious looking factories, gigantic pylons and trainlines running by the road. After the trucks had gone, there was no traffic at all and the roads were dead straight disappearing into the distant fog without a kink or corner in sight. Finally we saw some gigantic wind turbines and headed for them, crossing a main road and leaving behind the industrial area, which we had cycled through for miles:

sdc16341

Now we were surrounded by fields without fences, here and there a long deep ditch lined the road or cut away at ninety degrees from us, cast iron sluice gates punctuated the waterways and crumbling farmhouses squatted near the tarmac, casually disgorging barking dogs as we rode past. Lapwings rose from the plough furrows, or pecked around amidst green shoots. The mist showed no sign of breaking and it was now four in the afternoon, but we were making good time because the roads were so flat. About an hour and a half later, I was plagued by a pinging sound from my bike, and it wasn’t long before I felt  the back brakes rubbing on the rim of the wheel, I pulled over and my fears were realised, the back wheel was not only buckled, but a spoke had broken, shearing by the thread. Another sticking plaster held the spoke in place and stopped it flapping about. We were miles from anywhere, I offloaded my tent onto Mike’s Dawes Super Galaxy, which if you know anything about bikes is a bombproof tourer on which you can carry anything (unlike my Lemond Etape). I arranged to meet the others in Wormhout, and sped on ahead to look for a bike shop, it was getting close to closing time! I raced through the countryside ignoring the wobble in the rear wheel and actually quite enjoying the speed and thrill of being on my own in another country. I passed through Esquelbecq, wasted fifteen minutes circling the town once looking for a bike shop, nothing, so I shot on for Wormhout. The road rose and fell so gently the incline was barely evident. The sun was starting to droop towards the horizon and now it was way passed closing time on a Saturday night. I burst into Wormhout and began asking about a bike shop around the town centre, incredibly no one I asked seemed to live in the town. I had been there about twenty minutes when I saw the others coming in on the Esquelbecq road. I passed a short man with grey hair and a ‘tache and asked him if there was a bike shop nearby.

“Oui, mais il est fermé”

Drat! He gave me directions to it anyway. The others gathered round as I was preparing to race off and the man noticed the wreath –

“Vous êtes britannique, viennent de trouver la tombe du soldat? Il est moi qui a bip bip à la jonctio et…”, he held up his thumb. The others nodded, we had already been exposed to the novelty of the drivers beeping us and cheering or giving us the thumbs up, a marked contrast to the UK.

I shot off for the bike shop, only to find that as expected it was shut. But, hang on, there was a light inside and someone moving about. I knocked firmly on the door and a tall young man wearing thin-framed glasses came to the door and opened it a fraction:

“Nous sommes fermés monsieur”

“Ah pardon. Quelle heure ouvrez-vous demain?”

“Nous ne sommes pas ouverts le dimanche”

“Oh, mon vélo est cassé”

He saw the worry on my face and stepped out into the street:

“Ce qui semble être le problème?”

I didn’t know the French for broken spoke so I spun the wheel and it stuck against the brake. He nodded, and whipped the wheel off. Calling out a name that I didn’t catch he walked back into his shop and beckoned me to follow him. Another man stepped out from a door at the back of the shop rubbing his hands with a rag. I could see from the oil in his fingernails that this was the mechanic. He nodded once as the bepectacled man handed him the wheel and stuck it in a vice, removed the spoke and fitted another:

Fixing my wheel

Next, he put the wheel in a jig and carefully trued it. The whole exercise took maybe six minutes, I was thrilled to be having my wheel fixed in a French bike shop after hours, I was equally delighteed to see he had fitted a sliver spoke which stood out amidst the older black spokes as a permanent reminder. He took the wheel outside into the dusk and fitted it back onto the bike. It span beautifully. Total cost, five euros and profuse thanks in the most effusive manner I could manage with my broken French. The men waved me off with a bonne chance et bon voyage and I rode back into the town.

The others had not wasted their time while waiting for me, the hungriest of the Explorers had discovered a pizza van that, incredibly, had a massive log-fired pizza oven built into it. It was half an hour before we set off again, now it was getting dark and we were a long way from Ypres still. At some point we passsed into Belgium and immediately we were riding on cobbles. This was fantastic for about three minutes, then I realised why the Paris Roubaix is called L’enfer du nord, it hurt! A lot! And it was shattering.

As the dark came down the mist gathered strength again, we switched on our lights and slipped into the bike lanes. There was more traffic now, but it was always respectful and seemingly unhurried. We attracted more beeps, cheers, waving and thumbs up. As it became pitch black we stopped at some roadworks behind a small renault with music blaring out from its speakers. As the traffic lights seemed to be taking ages we held an impromptu rave, dancing about on our stationary bikes as a tractor pulled in behind us with headlights blazing, setting our lights to flashing mode only seemed to heighten the mood and we were on the verge of getting the tractor driver to step down and start grooving when the lights changed and we were off again.

The miles blended together and our existence shrunk down to a smear of light pooled on the blurring tarmac in front of us. Every now and then the lights from a roadside bar spilled out onto the road, a buzz of neon in the misty air, patrons at the door, laughter in the night.

Eventually we began to see signs to Ypres, or rather Ieper as it is in the Dutch, and at long last we pulled into the town. The night was filled with music and some sort of festival was afoot. Two dancers on ropes were dancing from the Cloth Hall, high above the heads of the enraptured crowd. Eventually we pulled away down more cobbled roads, until we slunk into the campsite, pitching tents in the damp dark at 22:00 before locking up the bikes and crawling into our sleeping bags. 49.82 miles on the clock, some 19 more than expected.

Published in: on April 10, 2009 at 11:06 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Night Riding to the Thankful Village

It’s not long until we go on a cycling camping trip to Belgium and France. I remain woefully out of shape, carrying at least a stone and a half too much weight, the majority of which seems to be round my middle forcing an inadvertant ‘whuff!’ noise to escape from my mouth whenever I bend down to pick anything up. With a barely suppressed sense of mounting panic, I decided that I’d better get another ride in before we go. So I arranged a weekend pedal once again with Mike.

The night before, I made an adjustment to the rack on the bike. I like to have my panniers quite far back so my heels don’t clip as I spin the pedals. Unfortunately this has the unwanted side-effect of obscuring any light attached to the rack. Also, with a tent slung over the panniers, a light on the saddle bag would be covered. So I fashioned an extension bracket out of an aluminum strip. In order to keep it flush to the rack I used my tap and die set to cut some threads into the metal, ensuring a nice snug fit with no wobbling. Using a hacksaw, I carved off a bracket from an old plastic light set and bolted it onto the metal. It worked perfectly, pulling the light out from under the pannier and, as it’s box shaped, remaining strong. I then added the HYmini wind charger to the handlebars, choosing to sling it underneath to keep the top clear of clutter.

As Earth Hour kicked off, I took the bike out for an eerie spin through the country lanes. The Bike Hut Ultrabright front light was certainly bright enough to ride with at speed and confidence in the dark, but it was a little leaky, throwing some of the powerful beams up into my face and ruining my night vision somewhat. However, this did seem to have the effect of underlighting my face in a demonic manner, which is always good. I spent the best part of an hour shooting around the roads, trying to make the rear light fall out of its new location and also testing out the speed I needed to be going to get the HYmini wind charger turning in order to create charge.

I stopped the bike at Tellisford crossroads and propped it up against a five-bar gate. I walked twenty or so yards away down the road and turned back to look at the light arrangement, trying to imagine the right eye-level to get a driver’s eye view of what my bike would look like in the dark. I was pretty pleased with the result. In combination with the Hi-Viz vest, and the stickers on my helmet I should be visible from space.

Away from the comforting pool of the bike lights, the darkness enveloped me. Thick cloud smeared the sky above the horizon cutting out the starlight and I suddenly felt very vulnerable and exposed. This crossroads and these lanes were old and filled with the weight of unspoken and unrecorded events. Mere yards away, the red LEDs on the rear of the bike blinked out an organic rhythm, moving in a line from left to right and back again. For some reason I enjoyed the frailty I felt then, the smell of damp turned earth, the way the searing white light from the front of the bike picked out freshly-exposed flints in the field beyond the gate, the silhouette of the tower of All Saints church.

Arthur Mee's King's England: SomersetTellisford was dark, perhaps because this was still Earth Hour, or maybe the owners of these big houses had retreated into some inner sanctum, unviewable from the outside. As we are going to be visiting some WW1 battlefields in France and Belgium on this ride, I recalled that Tellisford is one of the initial so-called ‘Thankful Villages’; thirty-two villages in England and Wales which lost no soldiers in World War One, all those who left to fight came home again. The writer Arthur Mee popularised the phrase in the 1930s when he wrote ‘Enchanted Land’, the first volume of the The King’s England series of guides. It is sobering to remember how so many communities lost so many people in that first ‘great’ war, what a huge vacuum the loss of so many young men must have created in a village. In WW1, villagers often enlisted as a group, and were kept together in the regiments. They trained, barracked, traveled, fought, and so often, died together. Tellisford truly had much to be thankful for in the return of all her young men from those killing fields.

Arthur Mee wrote especially of Tellisford “We do not remember a more charming place in all our journeyings”. So with that in mind, I remounted my bike and pointed it back through the darkness to my own village.

A quick ride around Highway on a borrowed bike

After work today, I took my youngest son over to my sister and brother-in-law’s new house in Hilmarton. During the course of the afternoon, my brother-in-law opened up his shed and pulled out a couple of mountain bikes. One of them, a Trek full suspension, was a bit of a frankenbike, with Alivo shifters and XT rear mech. Manitou front forks and v-brakes where there had once been discs. The cranks were mismatched and the cogs worn down, but the frame looked good. The other bike was a blue Claud Butler. Everything looked pretty new on it, in fact it had only been ridden a few times in the two years since it was bought. This was clearly a crime. I asked if I could take it for a quick spin, and promptly rode the three miles to Highway, the spiritual home of the Highway Cycling Group.

This tiny linear hamlet in North Wiltshire is where the genesis of the group took place. My father lived in a semi-detached 1930s cottage here in the eighties, and as he was the founder member of the Highway Cycling Group (or Cycle Group, it changed almost daily)  it was from here that we struck out on many club outings. Not much had changed in the hamlet, apart from there being more cars parked on verges, I guess nowadays the two or three car family is a normal thing. There were still daffodils lining the road by the farm, the old barn had rusted further and seemed to contain more holes. The farm track next to it that leads up to the ridge looked the same. Taking that track will lead you six miles to Avebury stone circle without touching a road.

After the barn the road turns left and then the rider is on Highway Common. This supremely straight stretch of road was a joy to cycle, it still is. The Highway Cycle Group would ride side by side or strung out chatting. very rarely did any cars appear, but they could be spotted over a mile away and evasive action could be taken with ease. In the summer this road is heavy with chalky dust from the dried up mud on the verges, as teenagers the boys in the Highway Cycle Group would hold sprint races here, and great clouds of dust would follow in our wake. Ideally, a rider would pull such a terrific skid that the dust would obscure him from view for a few seconds, only to reveal the rider posed heroically with one foot down and a defiant look on his face. More often than not the dust would clear to reveal the rider sitting on the road next to his crashed bike, wheels still turning.

This road is the antithesis of the typical winding, steep banked, occluded country lane. On Highway Common one can see uninterrupted for maybe a mile or more.  A real treat, was to ride this stretch by the light of a full moon, when the dust seemed to glow and sparkle. Long shadows would reach across the fields, and perhaps, if a rider was lucky, he or she might see a barn owl or a hare.

I saw a hare today, some twenty feet into the field, it crouched down low to the soil when it saw me, ears flattened against its back. I had my compact camera with me and took some video footage as I rode through the hamlet and along the common. The result is posted below.

Then I was back onto the Bushton road. It was much busier than the golden years of the Highway Cycling Group, and I lost count of the cars that flashed past me in both directions. Where Highway seemed to have been in a state of stasis for the last twenty four years, the Bushton Road had been reworked and promoted. New signposts were dotted everywhere and the fields had been rearranged, hedges grubbed out and replanted, ditches drained and fences reset, only the route itself remained the same, the route and its memories..

Published in: on March 21, 2009 at 12:55 am  Comments (2)  
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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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To the Maen Mawr and Cerrig Duon; Dusk riding a deserted valley road in South Wales

I made this ride at the beginning of August when we went to South Wales, but it has taken me this long to put it together and load it up. I smuggled the Brompton in under the luggage in the boot of the car, and one evening I walked it up the steep stone chipping track of the cottage where we stayed, out of the farm gates and turned the bike up-valley on a deserted unclassified road. The dusk was slowly gathering over the mountainside as the sun dipped beyond the horizon. The river Tawe, freshly sprung from the mountain and not yet the torrent that rages over the rocks two miles seaward, rushed past playing sweet, watery music as it danced from pool to pool, this was the only sound in the valley. Sheep moved slowly out of the way as I eased the Brompton over the crest of the hill. At a small gravel layby I folded the bike up then carried it down to the water’s edge, following the river toward its source, looking for a safe and easy place to cross. Eventually I elected to wade through where it widened slightly, the current was not too strong, but the water was freezing, a shock to the system as it numbed me from my feet to the knees. I scrambled up the bank, immediately my sodden trousers and trainers felt incredibly warm in contrast to the chill of the river. As I followed the tracks of a sheep trail I could see the standing stone known as the Maen Mawr appearing on the horizon ahead of me. When I reached the plateau on which the stone stands, I put down the Brompton and walked round the attendant circle, Cerrig Duon. This is a small circle, the largest stone being only about two foot in height, curiously it’s not actually a circle, more of an egg shape. What most people don’t realise about this site, is that there is an avenue of small stones nearby with the flat sides of the stones all aligned in one direction. With the flat plateau, the large stone, the circle and the avenue, it’s actually a significant complex, carefully aligned north to south (or south to north) and set up for processional ritual. The view down the valley toward Dan yr Orgof and Craig Y Nos was spectacular, a few lights glowed gently, marking out the country park buildings. Back the other way the sun had solidly set, but strangely left two areas of glowing golden light on the horizon due to the nature of the mountain, the effect in the sky was quite magical. I wondered if this was significant to the builders of the complex?

As the darkness raced silently over the mountain, the dew settled gently on the spiky grass and the sound of the river became clearer and sharper. A soft mist appeared above the river, even in the 21st century, the atmosphere became liminal, other worlds felt close by, within easy reach.

This was not at all unpleasant or eerie, I felt very comfortable there, but with the light disappearing I thought it best to wade back over the river and head for the road. By the time I reached the track there was no light to guide me in save starlight, and the warm glow of the cottage windows where the moths battered softly against the panes, the whisper of their wings audible against the ubiquitous piping music of water over stone.

Published in: on August 31, 2008 at 11:29 pm  Comments (4)  
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Quick Night Ride

Beneath the lamp

Took the Lemond out to the garage, I used my wife’s art bag, an over the shoulder canvas bag for carrying paints and brushes when out landscape painting, and rode off into the gathering darkness. The lane out of the village was haunted by moths, they whirred and fluttered through the inky twilight, heading for the roadworks checkpoint. A huge floodlight acted as a surrogate moon and the moths danced in it’s fierce radience, keeping time to the chug of a diesel generator. I paused beneath the lamp for a photo, the workmen in the background never turned round, their conversation fell about me, broken up into random words by the thump of the generator and the buzzing of the lamp. On to the garage, bread, drinks, crisps, stuffed into the bag and then I was away. Down the ghost road, a galloping shape in the middle of the lane bouncing over the blinded sockets of the catseyes. A young badger, as I approached it made itself larger and huffed loudly, but lost its nerve and dived for the hedge as I whispered past.

There’s something special about riding at night, other worlds seem close, memories push through the membrane of forgetfulness making their way to the front of the brain and standing revealed like a long lost relative. The air is sharper and the roads faster. I love riding the magic hour, just beyond dusk but not quite into night. One day I would love to just ride through the night, arriving home in time for the first rays of dawn.