Mudfest; End of a Dream

the phonemast at the top of Scotland Lane

And so, the dream of a workable link between the village and the farm shop sinks into a morass of mud, puddles, brambles, fallen trees and deep hoofprints, but let us start at the beginning.

Tuesday, with a half hour left over from my lunch break I decided to haul my oft-neglected mountainbike out of the shed, pump up the tyres and go in search of the legendary lost route that links the village to the farm shop. To recap briefly, there is a fine farm shop and cafe very local to the village, less than two miles away. However, it is at the end of a no-through-road that can only be accessed by riding the dual carriageway or braving the busy Beckington/Frome roundabout. It seems mad that anyone who can’t ride in traffic has to get into the car for such a short journey, a car journey diminishes the idea of ‘local’. As I’ve said before, the village where I live is very bikey, but it’s hard to break out of the confines of the village if you can’t stand riding in traffic. In an effort to open up the possibilities for riders, I wanted to find a route through to the farm shop, the closest thing we have to a supermarket and crucially it sells local produce. Bikes and shopping locally? A match made in heaven. Two rides before this one, I had found the exit of the byway, now I wanted to try it out and see if it was passable.

Riding out of the village, I was amazed at how slow the mtb felt, it was like riding a big snail on the road. I was only on the tarmac for a few minutes though, just down the dual carriageway and to the farm shop. I pulled over by the entrance to the byway – of course if people were cycling from the village, they would be approaching from the other direction, riding through Rudge, but as I wasn’t 100% certain where the byway started, I thought it would be a good idea to trace the route backwards from where it comes out. Immediately, the bike was over the rims in mud. Not the end of the world I thought, from the sound of trickling water it sounded like the drainage had just got blocked a bit, easy enough to remedy at a later date, and after all, it had been very wet recently, with snow, hail and rain soaking the area. Brambles hung down from the trees, snagging in my jumper. No matter I thought, these could easily be chopped back. Then the track became even more muddy, narrower and massively overgrown, soon I was riding up what seemed to be a flooded ditch.

The trail was muddySoooo muddy

Soon I was pushing the bike as it just wouldn’t go forward through the water. It was calf deep mud. It occurred to me that about a hundred or so years ago, traveling out of the village in winter or early spring would have been hard work. These bridal ways and byways are a reminder of what it was like moving round the villages by the shortest, but not the easiest routes. A shattered elm lay across the track in a tangle of brambles, no one had been down here for a long while. There was quite obviously no way anyone could ride a hybrid or shopper with a basket on down this track, the dream was over, but the trail wasn’t. I clawed my way through the undergrowth, a padlock gate barred my way so I hefted the bike over before clambering up and over the rusted metal. Then I was out of the woods, but into a rough field, very rideable, but without suspension, pretty hard work, again no good for someone with shopping. Another padlocked gate, this one surrounded by an electric fence, ticking idly as I gingerly picked my way over. Finally I was on the road again, coming out exactly where I thought I would, Scotland Lane in Rudge. I stopped to take a picture of the phonemast there, and a buzzard took off as I snapped the pic (see top of post). Moving on again, I pulled a lovely huge skid to scrape some of the mud of my tyres. There’s something deeply satisfying about a long, childish skid. It seemed to clear away some of the disappointment of the uselessness of the trail from my mind, allowing me to ride home satisfied.

An elm had shattered and lay across the trackafter cycling through mud, I find a big skid is the best way to remove filth

Published in: on April 12, 2008 at 10:16 pm  Leave a Comment  
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My First ‘Proper’ Bike

My first proper bike, on a beach in France.

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

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

“Uh, yes”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rust In Peace.

Published in: on March 13, 2008 at 10:45 pm  Leave a Comment  
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The Salisbury Branch – Cycling in The New Forest

This just in from our Salisbury branch courtesy of Novemberfive blogger Jez. A brief write up of an excursion to The New Forest upon Mountainbike steeds. Read about it here.

Mrs Whitworth tackles some gnarly singletrack

Brompton in the Park

A bbq was booked for today with some of the founding members of The Highway Cycling Group, not that it was an official HCG event, because those simply don’t exist. My wife, having had a short go on the Brompton when I took it to Hilmarton yesterday, was keen for me to sling it in the boot again, I wasn’t going to argue with that. The weather was unpredictable, spotting with rain, sunny spells, windy, calm, it seemed to be going through the whole range of possibilities. The location was Lydiard Park in Swindon, a heavily refurbished country estate that has had a huge amount of money pumped into it by the local council, the result is an excellent facility for the town; wide open spaces, woodland, gravelled tracks, fields for bbqs, a country manor, church, cafe, amazing playgrounds and of course loads of great cycling. The sun came out, dappling the forest paths with dancing points of light. I quickly found out why my wife was so eager for me to pack the bike, she was itching to get round the park in a traffic-free environment. In common with a lot of cyclists she is put off riding by the proximity of so many cars on the roads and the speed at which they travel. To her, a cycle path or track is cycle utopia, so she was totally in her element zipping around on the Brompton and kept suddenly taking it off during lulls in the bbq. When I finally got a decent go on it myself I was amazed by the quality of the tracks on offer. Through arcadian woodland, grand avenues of trees, out into open fields, the variety of riding was highly pleasing. Various signs assured me that I could cycle to West Swindon, Hook or even Wooton Bassett. The further I cycled into the fields the fewer people I saw, a rider can quickly find solitude on the bike here if that’s what is craved. The crunch of gravel beneath the tyres and the whirr of the freewheel were the only human sounds as I eased the bike through a pastoral idyll of grazing white cattle and birdsong.

Lucy on the BromptonMe on the Brompton

My sister assures me that she has cycled to the park from her House in Abbey Meads, almost entirely on cycle paths, a distance of around six or so miles. That would be a nice ride to document.

Needless to say that my wife is now highly enthused at the possibilities of a folding bike in the car and traffic free riding. It’s just a shame that even secondhand Bromptons are so expensive.

Published in: on August 12, 2007 at 10:23 pm  Leave a Comment  

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 III – John’s Revenge, aka: Mud, Sweat and Gears

myself, John, Rob about to ascend to the white horse above Westbury

The Tuesday ride this week was a Mountainbike special. John wanted to take Rob Bunce and myself around some local trails, so I headed out to Westbury at 1910 and got the wrong carpark as the meeting point. By the time I found John and Rob I was pretty knackered and a little hungry, having only eaten a banana and drank a cup of ultra-strong coffee. Needless to say, Rob guarded his Crunchie, the only food between us, with great care. John led us up through Westbury to where the road suddenly turned into a muddy off-road trail. In the woods we found something pretty cool. A whole bunch of kids had spent ages making an amazing series of jumps and half-pipes, a secret BMX course carved out of the forest floor, this was a serious investment of time. In fact there were two kids there, they proceeded to show us up by jumping and racing around us, we poor fogies were left slipping and sliding through the mud in their wake. Then John showed us a, quite frankly, brown-trouser inducing drop off, it was near vertical and for one terrifying moment I thought he was going to take us down it. Thankfully it was decreed to be too muddy, phew!

We spent a while sliding through the woods trying to locate the track, ditching the kids in the process (or maybe they ditched us, probably the latter). Rob and I thought we’d found the trail leading down the edge of a field, but it turned out to be blocked by barbed wire. We could hear John on the other side merrily cycling along so we struggled through the wire and brambles carrying our bikes to join our leader. The way was muddy, rocky, rutty and errr more muddy, very hard going though not for John. We joined up with the road that leads upward to the white horse, paused for a group photo (above), then picked our way through the oncoming stream of chavs in souped-up cars towards the white horse. If people only knew that cyclists can’t actually make out what people shout at us through their open windows I suspect they wouldn’t bother. Having said that it’s probably for the benefit of their passengers who, I assume, are equally imbecilic. Guffawing at the witty abuse hurled our way by the driver when all we can hear is:
“VRRROOOOOMaaAAYAAAMMOOOOooooom!”
Anyway we crawled up the hill, actually I really enjoyed that bit and kept freewheeling back to get a bit more climbing in, until we reached the point where the track divided and turned into gravel. The views by the old chalk quarry were fantastic. A low blanket of cloud had enveloped the sun as it began its descent, but there was still a clear strip of sky above Trowbridge and Westbury. Golden highlights danced over the cornfields as the wheat swayed slowly in the breeze. Despite, or maybe because of the climb we all felt in great spirits as we raced down the track towards Upton Scudamore. We were accosted by a pack of weird, very hairy terriers. As we saw them approaching in the distance Rob thought they were pigs, but the yapping and over-excited bouding betrayed them as mutts. Quickly we adopted loose formation, an arrow shape with John in front and Rob and I flanking, just to make it harder for them to pick us off. As it happened they were friendly and the owners, who eventually meandered over the horizon, were very apologetic for the yapping. By a very scary sign (Military Firing Range, KEEP OUT), John stopped to brief us on the downhill and drop-off he was about to take us down.

John shows the way to the drop off

I was feeling pretty nervous, especially as John had said “it’s not too bad and there is a point were you can bail out before the drop off”. John went first, alarming us with his speed of attack, and I followed. It started off easily although it was fast and I was quickly locked into a tractor rut. I was just wondering where the drop off actually was, when suddenly… sh*t! I was over the lip with no chance to stop. The cranks were level and I slid back off the saddle as the bars followed the front wheel into thin air. Panic lasted but a moment and I had the presence of mind to choose my line out of the drop, hoping the left hand rut was the correct one and that it wouldn’t collapse into a hole or something. John had already got up the other side of the hill and I cycled, then walked up to join him. Someone was laughing and it turned out to be me, elated by the rush of speed and the fact that I had done something that, if I’m honest, I was quite nervous about doing. We watched Rob pick his way down. He got off at the drop-off, but then got back on again to finish up on the lead-out, good man. Through the gate at the top of the field with Rob’s bike bell tinging happily on an overhanging branch, then we rode out along a hugely puddly, rubble strewn track. The lack of mudguards meant that my bum was soaked and freezing by the time we hit the road at Upton Scudamore.

Me with a soaked botty

The sunlight was dying into embers behind the horizon as we sped along the main road into Westbury, exchanging waves with a Roadie as he passed us on his way out. We said our goodbyes at a handy junction, Rob’s bell tinging into the distance behind me as I raised a clenched fist in solidarity, then turned for Dilton Marsh and home.

Published in: on June 26, 2007 at 11:07 pm  Leave a Comment