Photos – Cycle Camp in Normandy, France

Amazing cycling with the Explorers in France, during April. One thing I will say though, going from Cherbourg to Caen is the wrong direction when it’s that windy.

We took the fast ferry over to Cherbourg on the Thursday morning (little did we know that as we were setting off, a certain volcano in Iceland had gone a bit explodey) arriving in Cherbourg in plenty of time to get lost coming out of the port. Eventually we broke free from the endless ring roads and wheezed up a steep hill into the glory of the Normandy countryside. Thereafter the rides were superb, the French courteous, the food amazing, and the time had good. We rode about 40 miles maximum each day, staying in municipal camp sites for most nights, except for the second night where we found an amazing little site run by a family, where we could camp out of the wind, and order breakfast to be delivered from the bakery. We visited several of the major sites of D-Day. The Explorers in particular knew little of the battles and were just astonished by the scale of loss of life, it really shook them up finding graves of soldiers who were younger than some of them.

As is traditional on our continental rides, my wheel went wrong. This time a full buckle 8km from Bayeux necessitating a long lone run to the town with my bike, and a frantic hunt for a bike shop. A quick repair, and I was on my way again, another 10km to join the team at the final camp site.

The next morning saw the tents crusted with ice and a low fog all around. Within hours though we were riding through blazing sunshine to Pegasus Bridge and the ferry. We had failed to notice the lack of airplanes in the sky, but we did notice the sheer amount of passengers on the boat, and the fact that many of them were sleeping on their luggage on the floor, and that many of them looked more grimy and worn out than us, and we’d been cycle camping. It wasn’t long before we found out about the volcano. Thankfully we were first off the boat so managed to avoid the long queues as every single passenger went through a full passport check.

There’s a lot of photos here, so more appear after the first one if you click the read more link.

Cycling in France

On the road - each tree along this road represents a German soldier killed in Normandy in WWII

(more…)

Published in: on May 19, 2010 at 10:14 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Guest Blogger – Yalda Davis: Cycling round Suffolk

In an historic first for The Highway Cycling Group blog, we have a guest blogger. Regular readers will be familiar with Yalda’s vintage Raleigh bicycle, but now Yalda has provided a splendid write up of her recent few days cycling round Suffolk, and supplied some terrific photographs that will have you longing to get on your bike and explore the countryside.

Rattlesden church

Rattlesden Church - Suffolk

Having been desperate to get out of London for several weeks, I finally booked my tickets to go to Suffolk with my bike for a couple of days, regardless of the weather – but hoping I would be lucky! Which indeed I was. But first things first – the 6.5 miles from the train station in Stowmarket to my parents’ house (where we always spent holidays when I was a child) I always found a particularly punishing ride – I defy anyone to tell me East Anglia is flat after doing that journey! On a one-gear bike at least…. Well, this time I had a pleasant surprise as it didn’t seem nearly so bad as before – all those 16 mile round trips to work and back with the long hill up to Manor House (London) along the side of Finsbury Park must’ve done the trick! Even the not-so-nice B1115 felt like a treat with the vast expanses of green on either side, and my rats must’ve liked the country air as they slept soundly in my bike basket (in a box of course!) all the way home despite the odd bumpy patch!
The following morning I set off for Punchard’s Farm, otherwise known in our family as the Jersey cows (for obvious reasons) – a favourite place of mine ever since I can remember. On the way I passed the brilliantly named (but only recently signposted) Louse Lane.

Louse Lane on the way to Punchard's Farm

Louse Lane on the way to Punchard's Farm

I was hoping to see some babies of one sort or another, it being the right time of year, and I wasn’t disappointed – a foal about 6 weeks old, and 6 fluffy kittens about 3 weeks old in the barn, in the cosiest little den I’ve ever seen, made of straw bales.

foalkittens

After that I carried on northwards to Rattlesden, a village with a lovely church and pretty thatched cottages. I then had to turn around to head southwest towards Lavenham, intending to take a narrow turn off on the same road as the farm I had just come from, as it is my favourite road in Suffolk (so far anyway!) However I managed to take a different route back for most of it, which satisfied my rather over-zealous determination never to return by the same road where possible!

A favourite lane

A favourite lane

Anyway this particular narrow country lane is my favourite for various reasons – first, it’s so narrow it has grass growing down the middle; secondly, recently I discovered that a farm from my (vague!) childhood memories (which I’d many times decided must’ve been either from a fairy tale, a dream, or else existed somewhere far away that I’d never remember the name of or revisit in my lifetime) was down this road: the low stone walls of the farm on one side of the road, and a pond full of ducks on the other. Nothing more supernatural about it than that, though still it retains that fairytale-like quality that it had in my mind for so many years. Thirdly, along this road is one of the most beautiful old houses that I’ve ever seen – which I now know is called Hill Farm! My fourth and equally satisfying discovery about this road was that there is a poppy field along it – and having not seen a poppy field for a long time, that was an extra special discovery.

Poppy Field

Poppy Field

After the delights of this road, I concentrated again on actually getting somewhere – Lavenham – in time for lunch. For anyone who doesn’t know Lavenham (plenty, I’m sure), it is an old wool town, with lots of crooked old beamed houses from the 17th century and earlier no doubt. It is popular with tourists, and being Sunday, with a French market on in the square, I probably could have picked a far better place to find a quiet country pub with a garden to eat in… Nevertheless, I found a table under a weeping willow, which though rather shady, created relatively successfully the illusion of peacefulness!

Afterwards I cycled the 6 miles back home, stopping at a stream on the way (my eternal quest to find nice rivers and streams in central Suffolk…), to complete a ride of 23 miles – rather longer than I anticipated!
The following day I decided on a less ambitious ride down through Kettlebaston (yet another of the strangely named villages round there….) – where, so the story goes (I wasn’t around to witness it!) my brother once cycled full pelt down the hill, didn’t manage to turn the 90 degree corner at the bottom and went flying into a hawthorn hedge – ouch! Then on to Chelsworth and Monks Eleigh. Chelsworth must be one of the most beautiful villages I know – it’s only minus point is that it lies on that infamous B1115 road where cars whizz past horribly fast. I visited its little church, tucked back behind a house, dating back to the 13th Century or possibly older. Here I did find a river to my satisfaction – I can’t believe I’ve never noticed it before – and I spent a while standing on a little bridge admiring it, reluctant to leave. Sadly all the riverbank seemed to be on private property so I couldn’t laze by it. In Monks Eleigh I enjoyed an icecream in the churchyard at the top of a hill and had a chat with the lady who had come to lock up the church – she seemed to find it odd that I was out cycling on my own!

The River at Chelsworth

The River at Chelsworth

This ride still came to 14 miles, which again was further than I thought this particular round trip would come to.

So – I was having such a wonderful time that I ditched my reserved ticket back to London and bought a new one for the following day – with the determination that I would definitely go there more often this summer!

Oh and on the way back to the train station I hit my record speed down a steep hill – 28mph, very satisfying!

Yalda Davis is a London cycle commuter, a fan of rats, and is Communications Officer for The Prince’s Rainforests Project: Add your voice to the call to stop tropical deforestation before it’s too late at www.rainforestSOS.org

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.

The Warminster Wobble is here!

This is a brief reminder to local riders that the Warminster Wobble weekend kicks off tomorrow with a series of bike rides in the Warminster area.

Wobble poster-handbill_Colour

Then on Sunday, it’s the wobble day in Warminster Town Park. There’s going to be loads going on, a ride (easy), bike maintenance, displays, stalls, bouncy castle, food… all things bikey. That starts at 11:00am and goes on until 5pm, get there early to ensure you don’t miss a thing. The Town Park is opposite Morrisons, off Weymouth Street.

I hope to see some of you there, I’ll be wearing my big green Highway Cycle Group badge (visible at the top of the right hand column on this blog) and possibly wearing a cycle cap.

It’s going to be great! But it needs you to come along, doesn’t matter what level of cyclist you are, athletic, fun, aspiring, commuter… come along, or where you’re from, come from Bath, from Norton, from Bristol, from Trowbridge, from Westbury, from Dilton Marsh, from Calne, from Melksham. Come by bike, by car, by bus, by train, just get there! There’s something for everyone! Make it a great day for local cycling.

Somer is a’cumen in

The weekend before last was the first of the recent baking hot summer days we experienced here in the UK. The day had been spent at a football tournament in Trowbridge where my eldest son had played his first proper matches as part of the team. I had lathered on the sunblock to the boys, but had forgotten about myself, so as I freewheeled down the hill out of the village, the evening suns rays fell onto the back of my burnt neck, causing a not altogether unpleasant prickling sensation.
The roads around Laverton were hot and dusty, deep tractor tyre ruts in the gateways had baked hard in the heat, and a thin film of clay-dust gathered on the downtube of the bike. Even at the end of the day the air was still warm, it was a relief to hear the sound of cold, water rushing over the weir at Lullington Mill, the very soundwaves seemed to me to have a cooling effect on my roasted neck, and overheating noggin. I rode into Lullington and leant the bike against the village pump while I rehydrated and read a notice compelling the locals to watch the local morris men who were due to dance in the village. Crickets chirped in the long grass and swifts sped over the houses, their shrill calls echoing around the otherwise quiet valley. This was idylic summer riding.

Lullington pump, where notices of impending morris men are posted

Lullington pump, where notices of impending morris men are posted

It was unfortunately just a short ride, a sort of brief goodbye to the Lemond Etape as my sister was to borrow it for her triathlon training on Monday. The back tyre was almost worn through and the brake blocks were non existent after the wet and gravelly rides around the backlanes over the winter and spring. She was going to take it for a tune up at her local bikeshop before putting it through its paces around the old haunts of the original Highway Cycling Group.

Published in: on June 4, 2009 at 12:05 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Howard’s way

Your author about to make an unfortunate wrong turn

Your author facing the wrong way, halfway down the wrong hill after an unfortunate wrong turn

A ride had been arranged for early Sunday morning, until it became apparent that it was of course Mothering Sunday and lie-ins would, quite rightly, be expected. So the ride was re-arranged for Saturday. At 07:45 I rode down the gravel track at the farm to meet with Mike. It was freezing; there had been an unexpected (by me anyway) frost in the night and cold hung in the air, numbing my fingers as I rode downhill. Seconds after my arrival, Group Scout Leader, Howard arrived on his hybrid. He had sensibly put a coat on and had full finger gloves and long trousers. Mike was immediately out through the door, zipping up his bright jacket and putting on his helmet, deciding on the route as he mounted up. Up the track and left over the mill bridge, then we were out of the village and heading for Colliers Way and Radstock. We followed the same route I took last Sunday, albeit at a slightly quicker pace than my meandering speed. Howard was going to take us through the middle part of the ride as he knew the route well. Howard is a keen cyclist, often to be seen riding the Tellisford-Farleigh Hungerford hills just for fun, he has a great level of fitness and an observer taking note of our riding from a distance would be hard pressed to place his date of birth in the 1950s. Mike was riding at his usual pace off the front, a nice steady 15-17mph, I’ve heard Mike described as a Mountain Goat by more than one other person. I flitted between them both, sometimes riding up with Mike, sometimes dropping back to chat to Howard.

Pleasingly I can feel my level of fitness improving after just a couple of long rides. This time I was not dropped on the hills and could actually take the lead on some of the steeper efforts. It just goes to show that you can quickly return to form (or something like form) after a short time off the bike, even if, like me, you are carrying two stone more than you should be.

The cold was starting to evaporate in the morning sun. Even so, there was a haze on the horizon that the sun had not yet climbed out of, and the shadows still sparkled with a light frost. There was no wind save the chill we created when pushing through the air on the way downhill. There was little traffic around save the odd tractor here and there, easing out of farm gates or chugging gently along the narrow lanes. The Buzzards were out in force, finding pockets of warm air and spiraling up high above the trees, calling to each other across the landscape. By the time we reached the Colliers Way cycle path it was really warming up. This is a short but really pleasant stretch of railway path, oddly with much of the railway track still left behind. Howard, a bit of a railway buff, told us it was because the quarry railway is still in operation at the terminus. Apparently, the plan was to open the railway line alongside the cycle track and have it as a tourist attraction, but it never happened. Now trees have pushed their way through the sleepers and brambles have crawled over the tracks.

On the railway path

We stopped at the top of a rise where the path departed from the tracks and mused on the navvies and men who had physically built the line. In the days of great engineering feats, behind every great man, there were thousands of other blokes who did the actual work.

We followed the path into Radstock, then Howard led us over and round the roads until we pulled into what seemed to be a carpark, but at the last minute it turned into a tiny route through to a main road. A few yards on the tarmac then a sharp right and we were suddenly on a lovely straight lane in the quiet of the countryside again.

All went well, until we came to a crossroads where the cycle route was clearly marked as straight ahead. Howard insisted that our path lay down the hill to the right, and it was a steep hill. Upon our, quite reasonable questioning of the navigation, Howard explained that he was 100% certain it was down the hill. Mike and Howard then launched themselves down the slope, followed by a fat barking dog lolloping down the hill in a garden parallel to their descent. I was yet to be convinced that this was the correct route so I hung back a little, knowing full well that what goes down, in the event of a mis-navigation, would have to come up again, probably in the granny gear. I dropped gently down to the next crossroads, in time to gaze down the awful slope and see that Mike and Howard were turning around on the bridge at the bottom. Slowly, they climbed the hill back towards me, standing up out of the saddle and wrestling the reluctant bikes so that the handlebars pointed up the dreadful slope. I took the opportunity to have a break and swig from the water bottle. I took a picture of my reflection in a handy convex mirror used by residents to check the road is clear before pulling out, then leant over the handlebars to watch Mike and Howard draw level. I let them puff past me, before ambling up in their decidedly slow-motion wake. The lardy hound was still in the garden bouncing around and barking with what seemed like delight, but in retrospect could easily have been apoplectic rage.

Howard explained his mistake, it was of course the next turning right, and indeed that’s exactly where the cycle route sign was pointing when we arrived at the correct junction. Luckily we saw the funny side. Actually, no we didn’t, at least not until we had our breath back.

A few more wiggles of the road, and to Mike’s and my surprise we emerged right next to the house by Stoney Littleton Long Barrow with the pillbox in the garden. Howard pointed out that pillboxes are usually in pairs, and sure enough there was another one on the horizon that Mike and I had missed last time we rode through. We rode into Wellow and I raised my head to see if I could detect a whiff of bacon, for I had a craving for its heavenly taste. Just as I thought I had perhaps caught the faintest hint of frying procine goodness, Mike peeled off to the right and downhill to the ford. This time we took the left fork and avoided the endless grind of Baggin Hill, electing instead to cruise to Norton St Philip. The road was beautiful and free of traffic. Winding uphill through some woods, I saw a photocopy of a map on the ground and stopped to scoop it up. It was for the exact area we were riding through, which makes perfect sense really.

There was a final hill up to the main street in Norton. It was unexpected and painful. Even my bike seemed to be protesting as I weaved back and forth across the narrow steep lane behind Mike the mountain goat and Howard. Finally we headed for Tellisford. As we passed an enormous pile of brown stuff in a field to the left,there was a horrific miasma, a foul and noiseome acrid stench that tore the breath from our lungs. Mike explained it was poo, human poo from the sewage works that would be spread on the tilled ground as fertiliser. The fug seemed to stay with us so we upped the pace and attempted to finish the ride at great speed. Down the hill we sped, first a weasel darted over the road in front of us, and as we neared the village, a blur of movement exploded from the hedge and crossed the lane mere feet before Mike’s front wheel. Persistence of vision had imprinted the tell-tale shape of a running hare on my eyes.

Mike slipped to the post office to pick up a paper (and no doubt a free cup of coffee and cookie for that’s what you get if you go to the post office on a Saturday morning) while Howard and I sped on ahead to his house to ready the all important finale of the ride, the coup de grace, the dénouement.

Mike joined us just at the hallowed point when the bacon was coming out of the grill and onto the bread, the perfect end to a great ride.

What I did in the snow

I rode out of the village in the snow to get a fresh coffee

I rode out of the village in the snow to get a fresh coffee

The snow was not deep, but the roads were slippy

The snow was not deep, but the roads were slippy

It didn't take me long to get to Mes Amis, best coffee in the local area

It didn't take me long to get to Mes Amis, best coffee in the local area

On the way back, the brompton stopped working!

On the way back, the brompton stopped working!

Somehow I had managed to throw the chain - simple enough to fix.

Somehow I had managed to throw the chain - simple enough to fix.

I was on my way home again quickly enough, crunching over the ice and snow

I was on my way home again quickly enough, crunching over the ice and snow

Riding in the snow, even if only for three miles, becomes an adventure!

Published in: on February 23, 2009 at 6:03 pm  Comments (7)  
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A Curse on all Hedgecutters

On Saturday night, the wind had howled and hammered around the houses in the village, probing at the gaps under the doors, rattling the windows and throwing rain and hail at the glass, the eight o’clock morning ride local smallholder Mike and I had planned was looking unlikely to go ahead.  Yet on Sunday morning there I was pulling into the driveway of Mike’s farm then knocking on his door. It was cold, and a gentle but sharp wind edged over the hedges in the village, yet the sun had managed to lift itself over the horizon and seemed as surprised as us to find the sky was blue and clear with just a gentle smattering of whispy cloud.

Mike was eager to head out towards Wellow and Mells so we eased over the A36 and into that delightful tangle of backlanes and tracks that weave around the villages and fields on that side of the main road. Mud and water soaked the lanes, and dropping down to Wellow we found we couldn’t cross the ford as the river was in spate. Luckily for us there’s a narrow bridge next to the ford which we could stand on and gather our strength for the climb up the hill on the other side. A car arrived at the flooded crossing, nosed up to the water like a wary wildebeest at an African watering hole, thought better of it, then backed slowly up the hill and out of sight again.

Mike on the bridge at Wellow

The Ford at Wellow

The hill was painful, especially as I couldn’t find the granny gear, the chain slipping uselessly and clicking pathetically against the deraileur as I wove my way up the hill. Then up and down the various gradients of this part of Somerset. Mike likes to ride at a steady 17mph and maintains a strong even cadence even on hills, he spent much of the time off the front, pulling easily away from me. I was not as unfit as I have been, but I struggled a bit on the slopes. Heading down the hill at Radstock, my back tyre went flat. I called out to Mike only for the wind to whip my voice away, he dropped down the steep slope and round the corner out of sight. Mike purposfully doesn’t carry a phone, so with no means of getting in contact with him, I hoped he would eventually realise I wasn’t behind him and wait somewhere. It was a good five minutes before Mike inched up the hill and round that corner again, to find me with the bike upside down and with the tube hanging out. Next problem, the patches I had were for mountainbike tyres so were a little too large, the only spare tyre I was carrying was the layer of fat around my middle. Luckily Mike’s puncture kit had some smaller patches and soon we were heading down the hill again.

Mike’s unerring ability to sniff out a teashop would have paid off, had the teashop he found actually been open. Never mind, we made our way to the cycle track at Colliers Way (as featured on the excellent and always interesting Biking Brits blog http://bikingbrits.blogspot.com). As reported on that blog, there has been some fresh tarmac laid down, which always deeply pleasant a surface to ride.

As we rode along, we surmised that there might be some merit in selling off the railways sleepers and rails to raise more money for the cycle path, but then we both agreed that there was something pretty neat about riding next to a railway line that has trees growing out of it:

Colliers Way cycle path

About a half a mile after leaving the cycle path, we hit an enormous patch of hedge clippings strewn across the road, my front tyre started looking a little soft. Before I could make an assessment we rode into a river where the road should have been:

River where roads were

Once back on dry land we passed some horses, then over more hedge trimmings and, yet again as Mike shot off down the hill, I suffered a flat, this time on that front tyre. Sighing heavily, I turned the bike over again and set about locating the puncture. Mike drifted back, drafting a woman on a hybrid. Now it felt very cold indeed as with oily fingers I felt my way around the tube. Eventually I located a snakebite puncture and Mike whipped out the patches again:

A curse on all hedgetrimmers

The tube was stuffed back in, the tyre reset and pumped up, but then, the tell tale hiss of escaping air. Gaah! Off with the tyre and the other puncture was located, this time a thorn. Of course I should have realised that the thorn would have caused the tube to collapse leading to the snakebite. So that was a grand total of three punctures in one ride. As the final patch was applied, Mike told me that his tyres have never suffered a puncture in all the years he has been riding. I pumped the tube up to the distant sound of a hunt meet over the fields somewhere. Why one needs to shout so much when hunting is beyond me, with all the yelling, horns, cheers, clip-clopping and revving of four-by-fours it would be a wonder if anything were caught, were it actually still legal to hunt with dogs.

Now with much time wasted we headed for home. A final annoyance was my chain coming off on a hill, necessitating a short stop and more grimy fingers. We skirted through Mells, then touched on the main road into Frome before taking the hill into the back of Beckington and home to the village.

A mere 24 miles, but a masterclass in puncture repair. I think some new tubes may well be in order.

Published in: on January 21, 2009 at 11:18 pm  Comments (3)  
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Looking back before we set off

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Highway Common - late summer 2007

Highway Common - late summer 2007

Published in: on January 8, 2009 at 8:55 pm  Comments (3)  
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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!