Off the back of a lorry

Spotted from the passenger seat. The lifting device looks a little extreme for getting the bike on there. But it’s a nice bicycle!

bike on back of lorry

bike on back of lorry

bike on back of lorry

Published in: on June 7, 2010 at 9:22 pm  Comments (2)  
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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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The need for bacon compels me to ride.

The very next day after riding to the Railway Bridges, I had great need of bacon in the morning.

Ah Bacon, food of kings, breaker of vegetarians. Oft have I longed to partake of a sandwich stuffed with thy fulsome bounty, eaten fresh from the pan in a room redolent with the sweet whiff of thy preparation.

So I saddled up the Brompton and rode out into the splendor of the day in search of the magical pig product. The sky was deep blue, laced with gentle white and wispy clouds and the verges were humming with a chorus of grasshoppers and crickets, an insect orchestra performing a glorious symphony in praise of Summer. The sound took me back to cycling holidays in France with the original Highway Cycling Group. Glass bottles of Coca-Cola, handfuls of warm baguette broken from the stick of bread hanging off the panniers on my father’s bike. Poring over a michelin map, on the verge, dry white grass-stalks, heat haze, shimmering mirages on the dusty tarmac, and the steady insect hum from the crickets and grasshoppers.

Riding out of the village I passed the fields of sunflowers, now in full bloom, their faces seeking the light. The main road was busy and I was relieved to pull off into the local farm shop. Then, loaded up with sweet, sweet bacon, I rode back through Beckington to the village, where the bacon was then cooked and consumed.

Why, I even made you a little film of the ride using my compact digital camera. I’ve added some music by My Two Toms, I’m not sure what this track is called, it may even be unreleased, you lucky people.

Getting the miles in

I am currently three rides behind on the blog – it’s 00:01 on Saturday morning here in the UK, and the computer is on, so I’ll make a start on rectifying the situation.

Chippenham 18 mph

On Tuesday I worked right up until the bell, before getting the bike ready at the last minute. John and Brad arrived outside the front gate in a squeal of brakes, sending a small spray of chippings into the wooden fence. At the time, I was adjusting the panniers on the bike, they looked on in disbelief “What have you got those on for?” “Are you joining the CTC?” etc. etc. I wheeled the bike out to more mockery this time directed at my plus fours, Brad and John were of course lycra’d up from head to toe, clipless pedals, energy drink branded bidons, shades, the works. “Meh” is pretty much my response to that sort of attire. The mocking being completed we saddled up and rolled out to the A36 heading for Bath. The road was now open to traffic, fresh tarmac slipped easily under the tyres and we took control of the road on the descent into Limpley Stoke, with the speed limit on forty no one was going to overtake us on the hill. We took the corners fast and wide and arrived on the viaduct with big grins and verbal high-fives.

Unfortunately the unrepaired stretch of the road to Bathampton was a nightmare of frost-smashed chippings, potholes and cracks that jarred our hands and arms and sucked the life out of the wheels. Hurtling towards Bath on the downslope put me in mind of an old bomber command style war film, flack exploding around a Lancaster Bomber as it heads for the target, the pilot desperately trying to keep the plane pointing in the right direction as the fuselage is breached and the air is wracked with turbulence. The bike threatened to bounce off its line or suffer a buckled wheel, smashed on the anvil of the A36, it was a relief when the tarmac became smooth again. Rounding a switchback corner I saw a  Jay rise from its perch on a fence on top of the bank, a brilliant flash of colour from the wings as it took to the air. Across the toll bridge, riding behind Brad, I noticed him standing on the level cranks to deal with the crumbling road and slewed across to draw level with him.

“You can always tell a mountainbiker, level cranks on the rough stuff” I shouted into the wind of our forward motion. Then a cross voice sounded from just behind me:

“You can always tell a roadie, because they cut you up” – exclaimed John. I had thought him a good five metres behind when I drifted across the road, instead I had moved clean across his path as he was about to race in between Brad and myself. Whoops, bad road etiquette.

We cranked out the miles towards Box, entering the village then turning up a long, long hill. Not steep, just long, almost two miles long. On the way up I slipped in behind John and changed gear whenever he did. The hill was long enough, and shallow enough to generate a reverie as I spun the cranks and concentrated on maintaining my distance to John’s back wheel.

It occurred to me how easy it is to change gear on a road bike now. A motion of the thumb or finger, barely lifted from the bars, an imperceptible movement only given away by the whirr and clunk of the chain moving over. How different it is from the cycling of my youth with the original Highway Cycling Group. Then, a gear change was a measured decision, involving the hand dropping to the down tube, a leaning forward and, eyes still on the road, the easing of the lever until the grating sounded and the chain went over. Maybe, if it had been a hastily snatched imperfect change on a steep hill, desperately hurried as every millisecond with a hand off the bar meant the bike was barely in control, the hand may need to return to the lever for some micro-adjustment to stop the chain rubbing or the deraileur ‘ticking’. I used to like making the change slowly; waiting for the moment when the chain would start to move over, which could be felt through the bike before it could be heard. I also used to love the feeling of cranking out the power and moving the hand down to change up, sometimes keeping my hand on the lever as the cadence increased, ready for the next change. I remember on the Highway Common, riding the length of it at speed, going up through all the gears until the bike skimmed over the chippings, and it was both hands on the drops and head right down; panting with the exertion, calves aching as I approached the ninety degree bend at the end at what seemed like an impossibly fast pace in top gear. Now it’s all so instant, indexed gearing means a single push and the gear changes immediately, the effort required somehow seems less than the physical effect achieved.

Still, I was glad that it was easy to change gear up and down willy-nilly on Box hill. It seemed to go all the way to Corsham. Brad was of course way out in front, both feet off the pedals, legs stretched out backwards superman style, clowning about. We were going at a cracking pace, helped by the steep drop into the back end of Chippenham. We turned for Melksham and more bad roads via Lacock. Heavy freight revved horribly close to us, drenching us in diesel fumes and blasts of hot engine air, the road throbbed with the weight of HGVs, the air pulsed with the sound of their gear changes as they overtook us. A moped whined past John and myself with an engine that sounded like an angry bee caught in the greaseproof liner of a cereal packet. I shouted to John “This’ll be good, watch Brad!” Sure enough as the moped drew level Brad stood on the cranks and applied the power, staying level as the moped rider tried to increase his speed. Point made, Brad slacked off and dropped back, then continued at his usual pace.

On arrival back at Trowbridge John offered me a cuppa and I gladly accepted, much in need of a rest before the final ride home. We sat outside in the gathering dusk with steaming cups of tea and talked bikes and bikeshops. Twenty minutes later I saddled up again, bid John farewell, and meandered home.

37.5 miles at an average speed of 16.4 mph, not bad considering we only managed 8-10mph on Box hill.

Duskriding: Of turnpikes, the Gnashermakers, dead badgers and being out of bounds

Daguerreotype of Lemond Etape Racing Bike

Monday evening stayed dry and bright, there had been a fair few smatterings of rain around, and as I pointed the Lemond towards Warminster I could see the dark sheets of a downpour hanging below distant black clouds on Salisbury Plain. A side wind was blowing them towards Shrewton, I felt little concern at the prospect of being rained on as I gently eased the bike up Black Dog Hill. At the top I took the time to examine two posts next to the flyover bridge at Dead Maids Junction. The smallest post was a milestone, similar to others in the area, carefully crafted, smooth and carved with great skill. The larger post turned out to have three small holes, perhaps for bars, and the words ‘Warminster’ and ‘Bath’ in a beautiful 18th century script. I think this must have been the post for the tollgate on the turnpike.

I traveled on towards Warminster, pausing at the garage on the outskirts to replace the batteries in my front light, although the sun was still up, it was slowly heading for the horizon, dipping into low lying clouds and setting them on fire. I went through the centre of Warminster itself, noting some thick redwood trees around the area of the church. These will have to be investigated at a later date. Two shops stood out in the town, both on the Salisbury side of the town centre, the first was the superbly named ‘Gnashermakers’ home of the Warminster Dental Laboratory. What kind of crazy dental maverick runs this place?

the sign of the gnashermakers

For a photo of the lab front click here.

The other shop was called simply ‘Ripoff’ and seemingly deals with bankrupt stock, catalogue clearance and Lord only know what else. The windows were blocked out, perhaps the shop has closed down but I rather suspect that the occluded views hint at nefarious goings on out of the public gaze. The layby in front of the shop was packed with motorbikes, mopeds and trailers. See picture here.

Much cheered by these unexpected shops, I pedaled out of Warminster towards the A36. Still no sign of that rain and the light was still good. As usual for evening rides I had my reflective vest on and my customised helmet stickers which make me look like I am from TRON. There’s a nice bit of open field on the lead out from Warminster, I was drawn off the road onto a chalky track up to an old red-brick railway bridge. The way across the bridge was barred by steel poles, the ground around the structure was crumbling and the whole thing looked very precarious. Now the sun was going right down, the fire on the horizon was spreading, already in the East I could see darkness and stars, the moon was almost half full and high in the sky. Back on the road, I elected to go a little further, here the tarmac was wet and slick from a recent shower, the tyres hissed over the surface, the road-smell after the rain. Left at the roundabout onto the A36, now I was entering the deathzone. Crashes abound on this road, crystals of shattered windscreen piled up in small drifts, tinkling beneath the wheels, here and there a wing mirror, a hubcap, a section of bumper, testament to speed beyond the capability of the driver. Hard against the verge, inside the white line almost 3ft across I hammered the road while the cars screamed past at excessive speed. Black skid marks, the scent of burnt rubber still lingering in the air though the incident had happened earlier in the day, etched into the road , a memory of sudden panic. All too happy to take the left at Knook camp where the road goes off over the plain. Here I decided was the turn back point of the ride, the corpse of a badger served as a warning, its mouth bore the remains of a snarl though I could see no other damage on its body. Fur slicked with rain, eyes almost completely closed, a melancholy sight. Behind me on the side road I had freewheeled down, there was a simple circular sign ‘out of bounds’. I took a photo of the long shadows drawn out over the landscape, mindful of the last half hour of the day’s light. There was no activity in view at the camp, only the hum of the main road behind the trees broke the stillness of the evening. I turned back, crossing the A36 as the dusk overtook me. Now I was cycling through the magic hour, everything seems faster in the gathering darkness. With the sun just out of reach, the air cooled rapidly making me glad I had long sleeves on. With the traffic thinned out, it was easier to ride home, even the artic lorries were a help, pulling me along with their slipstreams, the welcome warmth of a passing diesel engine running hot as it guns the gears to take the roundabout, the glowing-coal red of the tail lights I am chasing. Back on the country lanes, blackbird alarm calls, a single staccato note repeated over and over as I pass Yew Tree Farm. Then into Warminster itself, queues in the chip shop and the chinese, smokers standing outside the doors of the pubs, sharing their exile, Marlboro Country. Out the other side of the town, labouring up the hill under the sulphur yellow light of the street lamps. Now the slow gentle gradient up to the top of Black Dog, then down, down, down. Hands on drops, tucked in, mouth practically on the bars to achieve 41mph. I sat up at the end, opening my arms to slow myself down, for some reason I felt the need to shout “AIRBRAKE!” as I did it, there was no one around to hear me.

Lorries pulling over into laybys, bedding in for the evening, some with curtains already drawn. Then into the village, cycling alongside Cousin Philippa on her way back from her mum’s (age 93), she doesn’t recognise me at first, taking me for a friendly chatty cyclist. Then she laughs as she realises who I am. We amble into the village talking about bikes. She rides her hybrid in wellies, it’s served her well for years and she racks up the miles going to her mum’s every day. We bid each other a cheery goodnight at the top of Lower Street and soon I am back at the house. 26.5 miles.

Bicycling in the Spring

Before I get started on this one, it’s been pointed out that I’ve spelled Tellisford incorrectly, continuously. I really can’t be bothered to go back and change it all yet, but rest assured that when I say Telisford, I mean Tellisford.

Now the ride I am about to blog about was actually completed on Thursday the 27th March. However, I’ve just had so much work to do that every time I’ve turned on the computer I’ve ended up working instead. I’ve actually ridden out again since then, but let’s concentrate on 27th March first.

It felt to me as though it was the first proper Spring bicycle ride of the year, as I pedaled out of the village I surmised that perhaps I didn’t need my merino top, the air was warm. Plunging into the arched avenue of trees on the lead out quickly disabused me of that notion, in the shadows it was still very cold. My next door neighbour had just come back from her cycle ride (this is a very bikey street) and warned me to take my glasses, in the sun, the air was thick with freshly hatched flying insects and she had got an eyeful, several times. I felt like a bit of a meander so I headed over to the local farm shop, searching for a way through to the village that didn’t involve tackling the A36 or a roundabout. Past the farm shop is a no through road, in fact it’s the old main road, it still has the cats eyes.

The surface of the road is starting to break up, a few layers of tarmac have gone from the top leaving a tiny canyon landscape, spattered with microboulders. The centre of the road surface had split open and sprouted grass and mosses and at the edges the verge had blurred into a mat of creeping green and drifting twigs. I wondered how long it would take before the road is absorbed into the woods, ten? Fifteen? Twenty years. A few days after this ride I met a man in the village shop looking for Chapmanslade, he had lived here twenty-five years ago, but the roads had changed so much that he had started down the A36, hit the dual carriageway and had a sudden mental crisis, he had no idea where he was. None of the tunrings off the roundabout looked familiar to him and he had turned the car around, crawled back into the village and stumbled into the post office looking for some sort of directions. I showed him Chapmanslade on the map and he said “I know where it is, but the roads aren’t right anymore!”. I told him, up the Black Dog Hill and off at the top, it’s signposted. All he had to do was hold his nerve for four and a half miles. Perhaps this here was the road he remembered. Now it’s lost, there is nothing at the end of it,  it fades into a field of sheep becoming a mere footpath. How the sounds of the traffic screaming down the new road scant yards away must mock it, or maybe not. Maybe the road has served its time and is now content to fold back into nature, be sucked into the green oblivion, recorded only on ordnance survey maps from the 80s, a tarmac ghost whispering its fragmented memories of journeys to the steel phonemast at its terminus.

I found it impossible to believe that there could be no bridalway around there so I traced my way back towards the farm shop. Sure enough, right next to the pig pens a lichen streaked wooden sign pointed down an overgrown path. A public byway.  A glance down the track revealed a very overgrown pathway, with a little cutting back and care, it could be used for bikes. But where did it come out? It was too muddy down there to find out, especially since I was riding the Lemond Etape. This looks like a job for The Highway Cycling Group Expeditionary Force (who I’ve just invented). The HCGEF will take a Mountainbike and some branch lopperrs down there and see if they can find a way through. By my calculations the other end of the track could well be Scotland Lane in Rudge, if it is then it could be the passage through to the farm shop that the timid of the village have been longing for. No, they shall not have to brave the A36, nor shall they have to hang a right on the very busy roundabout at Beckington, for I shall blaze a trail through the overgrown byway for them! Can you see how I’m setting myself up for a fall here?

The location of the track duly noted, I set off again, once more with no idea where I should go. I took Black Dog Hill at speed, well 12mph anyway, searing my lungs in the process and electing to swing off at Dead Maids Junction. I passed a derelict garden centre, it still had its ‘open’ sign out.

This was another A road, though not as wide as the A36,cars were passing me pretty closely. I stopped to take a work call by a field scattered about with majestic redwoods, their glorious crowns towering above every other tree in the area. I skimmed down the incredibly steep Hollow at Dilton Marsh and hung a left at the railway bridge which tipped me into Penleigh. A range of goat breeds watched me drift past the house, their chewing was the only sound save for the soft whirr of my chain and the gentle hiss of rubber on tarmac. Over the delightful pair of railway bridges, set on an ‘s’ shaped road so that a rider can see the other bridge hove onto view as the first bridge is crested. Somewhere in the distance there is another two span arch bridge, but I guess it must be on a private farm track, it’ll take some courage to find it, another day perhaps.

Back into Rudge a little lost now, not used to coming this way. Passing old hand-painted lettering on the sides of decommissioned trucks. Here in the valley the air has a sharp chill where the Spring sun has not yet penetrated. Rudge Hill throws me over the road, left to right and back again, out of the saddle pushing hard on the cranks. Then a sharp descent back towards the village, rolling in past the post office standing on the pedals before a final sprint up the hill.

In total, 17.5 miles. Not bad for an hour or so of pleasant bicycling.

The Old Roads are the Best

My Saturday evening ride started early at five in the afternoon with the threat of rain. I was in the mood for some meandering, so halfway up Black Dog Hill I turned left onto a hitherto unnoticed, tiny, but steep track. It climbed up swiftly into dank old growth forest, the banks encroaching on the decaying road surface. There were regular bumps in the centre of the track, I suddenly realised that they were the indentions left from torn out cats eyes. Clearly I was cycling up the old Black Dog Hill Road, the winding, narrow route that the coaches had to crawl up, the drivers fearfully scanning the banks for the ruthless highwayman and his evil black hound. Standing on the pedals and crawling up the slope, it was easy to imagine the huge ghost dog slinking through the undergrowth. The shattered crumbling tarmac swung up and right until the way was blocked by a padlocked gate with a sign warning that my number plate had been noted. Beyond the gate a mobile phone mast now stood in the centre of the road. Stand and deliver.

the Old Black Dog Road

There was another road cut into the bank, this one was chippings, I cycled a little way up, but it seemed to turn into a farm’s driveway. I turned back and dropped down the hill, bouncing around on the mangled asphalt until I had to grab handfuls of brake to stop before being spat onto the A36, made a note to myself to get those brakes sorted. Back on the Black Dog Hill, I climbed up to Dead Maids Junction as the first fat drops of rain started to fall. A brief shower passed leaving steam rising from the warm tarmac and the distinctive smell of the road after rainfall. My legs felt strong so I just cycled round every little back-road I could find, Upton Scudamore, the road bridge over the A36, the edge of Westbury, the outskirts of Warminster. I didn’t turn back until I reached the roundabout at the Salisbury end of the Warminster Bypass. There I found more old road, the brambles were crawling all the way across, huge concrete blocks painted white stopped cars from going down. I took the bike a little way along, but it seemed to turn into undergrowth pretty quickly:

the Old Roads are the best

How long since the roundabout had caused this road to die? Ten years? Twenty? I suspect nature takes roads back surprisingly quickly. 43mph down Black Dog Hill, I was back home by seven, 34 miles, one whole bidon of water.

Published in: on July 30, 2007 at 10:21 pm  Leave a Comment  

Of Miasmic fields, weddings and sluggishness

The weekend was spent celebrating a wedding, my wife’s cousin was finally getting married and her family had a reputation for enormous parties to uphold. Consequently by the end of Sunday even my eldest son, normally so full of energy, was tired, moody and begging me to put him to bed an hour early. I seized the opportunity to get some much needed riding in as I hadn’t been out since Tuesday. During the weekend’s festivities I had consumed excessive amounts of cow and pig, now their vengeful spirits had become energy vampires, threatening me with lethargy and compelling me to collapse in front of the television. It was for moments such as these that I created this blog, knowing full well there would come a time when I would want to let it all slide back to the occasional three mile pootle around some quiet country lanes every month or so. Well no dammit, I won’t experience the shame of not blogging a ride for weeks. So it was with a heavy stomach and leaden limbs that I saddled up the Lemond Etape, slipped the Rivendell bidon into its cage, switched on the lights and eased up the path and out of the gate. By the time I hit the main road an apology of a drizzle had started, a continous patter of gentle rain on my helmet added pleasing percussion to the swish of the cranks and the hiss of wet tyres on tarmac. I spun through Rudge at an easy pace and carried straight on past the tin tabernacle and Brokerswood Country Park, now the rain was more insistent, dripping off the helmet and fogging my cycling glasses, the lethargy tugged at my limbs, trying to persuade me to turn back. Then in the middle of nowhere, I heard that fizzing, crackling and buzzing, to my right, the same line of pylons that crosses the A36 by Dilton Marsh was reacting noisily with the rain again. On a ninety degree corner there was a tiny lane off that simply had a dead-end sign, no placenames or destinations but it would take me right under the powerline. I turned down it onto poorly maintained, frost-shattered tarmac, the gravel in the centre and the washed out, undercut banks with their dying ox-eye daisies told of heavy flooding. Barely a car’s width this truly was a road to nowhere, and there, dead ahead stood the crackling steel colossus, its miasmic field buzzing and throbbing in the dusk.

pylon at dusk on a road to nowhere.

As I approached I could feel the air quality change, the hairs on my arms stood up and everything seemed more… squeezed somehow. It didn’t feel pleasant, ahead on the road all I could see was an enormous puddle, perhaps that’s all there was, I didn’t hang around to find out, mindful of Valerie Mushroom’s email warning last week:

I skimmed your cycling blog and am concerned that you might have messed with your own head by going under pylons and power cables – it’s like that at Glastonbury – huge pylons and I’m surprised people were allowed to camp right under the cables especially in such wet and stormy weather. You can hear them hissing and whispering. I don’t like it. Maybe it affected me.
But I was glad to see there were a number of references to food so I know you are still your usual self so no harm done I suppose

I hurried down the hill to Southwick then took a turn off the road where a sign pointed to Scotland and Ireland. I was disappointed to find it was a short no-through road with a few big houses on it, not even a place sign saying Scotland and Ireland. The cow and pig sitting in my stomach whispered that I should just head back down the main road, but I had only gone six miles so I ignored them and turned back past Brokerswood and on to Dilton Marsh. I love cycling through Dilton, if I get overtaken by a car as I come into the village I can keep close contact with it until the other side, that is unless they are speeding. On exiting the village I was relieved to see that all the ox-eye daisies were going over, not just the ones in the sickly lane with the pylon. Now I really was pootling, low on energy but loving the ride I settled into a nice low gear and ambled up the dreary gradient towards the Beckington roundabout, even the traffic on the dual carriage way couldn’t be bothered to speed and I easily got across to the right hand lane without risking my life. To the west the setting sun had turned the sky into an inferno of red and orange clouds. I turned my front wheel towards it and headed into the broiling horizon, the angry sky contrasted with my good mood now that the pig and cow in my gut were finally silent and I had seventeen miles racked up, albeit at a reduced speed.

sky on fire as I head for home

Published in: on July 16, 2007 at 3:32 pm  Leave a Comment  

Iford Manor, Britannia on the Bridge.

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

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

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

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

Britannia and your humble author on the bridge at Iford

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

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

Ride like the wind; Be home for tea

The Highway Cycling Group Badge

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

Of Hill Circuits and Fresh Tarmac

Disaster, in the form of only one lolly in the freezer and two children wanting to eat it, was averted today with a quick scoot over to the local garage and a rummage in their chest freezer. A bit of a sprint but it wasn’t going to do for the day’s cycling by any stretch of the imagination. I had a bit of a sniffly cold and a headache, but careful ingestion of Lemsip was keeping the symptoms at bay (apart from a grumpy mood). After the sprogs had finally been dragged in from the garden, bathed, read to and put to bed I pulled the racer out of the workshop and changed into my cycling gear. As I wasn’t feeling so good I didn’t want to go too far, and in any case, I hadn’t had my tea yet (I didn’t want to suffer ‘the bonk’ any more than a couple of miles from home). As it happens there is a hill in the village which has two roads running parallel from base to crest. One of them is residential, the other skirts the outer edge of the houses and they are linked at the top and bottom, I thought it would make a nice circuit. It seemed sensible to cycle up the residential road and down the country road, they are both 30mph limits, but that way I wouldn’t have to cross any oncoming traffic as I would always be turning left. It’s a reasonable hill, not too steep, but fairly even, a sprint up it feels tiring by the time I reach the top and there’s just enough space on the downhill to hit 32mph before having to brake hard enough to make the left turn without ending up on the wrong side of the road. A left by the Green and a very tight turn back up the hill just where it starts to get steeper add a bit of interest.

I did five circuits before carrying on down the hill and out of the village into the dusk, along some freshly laid tarmac barely a few days old. For two weeks the route had been closed to traffic as work took place, the new road felt good to ride. With no traffic around I powered through the half-light sustaining 26mph for a mile or so before turning back. Where there had been wheel-eating potholes less than a fortnight before, there now lay a utopian cycling surface, gleaming, black and unworn. The day’s storms had left a rich, damp road-smell, heady and pleasing when mixed with the scent of rain-gorged roadside grass. Only the faintest hint of a breeze stirred the air and the warm-up on the hill had left my legs feeling strong. It seemed to me that my cold and headache had been left behind somewhere on the short ride, unable to keep up. Or perhaps the endomorphins that cycling creates in the body simply crowded the fledgling illness out sending it spinning to the kerbside. The only sounds were the squeals of swallows looping and diving over the corn, the swishing of the cranks, and the tyres humming contentedly as my bike carried me homeward.

Published in: on June 23, 2007 at 10:46 pm  Leave a Comment