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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Abbey Meads Cyclepath, Sunset, New Year’s Day

Hello and Happy New Year reader.

 2007 was a mixed bag for me, as I’m sure it was for everyone. Being off the bike from September onwards was a terrible blow, not least because I now need to lose at least one and a half stone to get back to fighting fitness. The ‘regime’, as my wife calls it, begins today. I am hoping to get on the turbo trainer once the little ones have gone to bed. My aim is to keep that machine humming steadily in the workshop well into the night as the first flakes of snow come down and my muscles howl their protest.

We spent New Year’s Day at my sister’s in Abbey Meads, Swindon. After an enormous feast we hauled our food-crammed bodies up to the top of a nearby hill to a play area where the children could race around madly. Running alongside the play area is a network of cyclepaths and bike lanes. We only saw a couple of cyclists out and about, but one of them was on a Brompton (it looked shiny new) replete with front mounted bag and a spaniel running gamely alongside. I was reminded of the day I received my Brompton, and how, once I had mastered the complicated folding and unfolding process, and learned to control the tiny wheels, the Brompton opened new avenues to freedom, more opportunities to cycle. I longed to be back on the bike.

As an aside here, I was very surprised that the cyclists didn’t deliberately run me off the path, abuse me or throw litter at my head. The anti-cycling press has been getting so hysterically worked up of late I wondered if it was safe to venture onto tarmac, so afeared was I that I might be hunted down and violated by packs of rampaging self-righteous cyclists outraged at my audacity at using feet or a car instead of their chosen method of transport.

Seriously though, I don’t really want to waste inches getting outraged at ill-informed ‘joke’ articles calculated to raise hackles, but the increase in anti-cycling press seems to be balanced by an increase in pro-cycling press. My guess is that we are entering some sort of transition period socially, a kind of prelude to the ‘tipping point’ when cyclists cease to be a minority and simply become ‘traffic’. Hopefully when that happens everyone will stop having tantrums and play nicely together.

Back to Abbey Meads The sun dipped below the layer of heavy cloud into some strange, clear area of tension existing between sky and ground, a no man’s land claimed by neither of the elements of air and earth, yet now populated by fire as the sun flooded the roofs and pylons of West Swindon with rich, golden light. The effect of seeing the glorious rays hitting the flat uniform sprawl of gigantic industrial units and homogenous housing was akin to watching a kind of alchemy. The base and unlovely made into something brilliant and precious. 

sunset over the cyclepath Abbey Meads  

More photos over at my flickr page.

Have a good New Year, I hope you’ll join me as I attempt to get into shape, with you watching I’ll try harder.   

Published in: on January 2, 2008 at 1:19 pm  Comments (2)  
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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  

Bicycles in disaster zones, Japan and Swindon

An old colleague of mine, Coop, is currently living and working in Japan where they recently suffered a very powerful earthquake. As soon as I read about it on the BBC news site I was straight onto her blog to check if she was ok. Luckily she had posted soon after the quake to reassure readers that she was fine. Although she did feel the quake, she was a long way from the danger zone. Some of the best bicycle stuff in the world comes from Japan (Nitto, Shimano, loads of small frame-builders outside Osaka etc) and they have a strong sense of the aesthetic in their bike-culture, Western Messenger/Fakenger chic looks sensible and conservative compared with the Japanese versions. It didn’t really surprise me then to see this brief article posted up on cyclelicio.us recently, showing how bikes can really come into their own in terms of getting things moving again in the affected areas in Japan.

bikes in Japan after earthquake

Here in Britain, only yesterday an entire month’s worth of rain fell in one day. My mother was on her way home from looking after my sister’s children when she found the traffic coming to a complete halt on the dual carriageway out of Abbey Meads, Swindon. She had been there a little while and assumed there was just a crash or something that would soon clear, but then she saw a young man on a bicycle heading up the road through the downpour, stopping at each car and talking briefly to the occupants. When he reached my mother’s car he told her that it was total chaos in the road ahead, the canal had just burst its banks and the culverts couldn’t take the water off fast enough, cars were stranded in a huge pool of water that stretched across all the lanes. People were stuck, unable to turn round, unable to go forward. The lad himself had lifted his bike above his head and waded through the water to tell the cars further down the road to turn back. He then went on to help direct the cars as they turned round. She last saw him disappearing in her rear-view mirror, standing in the pouring rain, stopping cars and turning them back. It took my mother three hours twenty minutes longer than normal to get home, going far out of her way and getting redirected twice by the Police. But if it wasn’t for the young man on the bicycle who had quickly alerted the stationary drivers to what had happened, helped them turn round then redirected the oncoming traffic, long before the police got there, she would have been sat in that car a lot longer. I don’t know when the police turned up, but I bet it would have taken a lot longer to sort out and extract the traffic jam if that chap on the bike hadn’t have taken the initiative.

Surely that has to count as a good mark for cyclists in general and it must cancel out a few ‘red light jumpers’?

More on the Swindon floods from the BBC.

Published in: on July 21, 2007 at 10:14 pm  Leave a Comment