Two rides with John – ‘Eight Snorkers and a Naughty Ferret on the way to Heaven’s Gate’ And ‘How we took the canal path home despite John’s grumblings’

I really am appallingly behind with this blog, weeks behind in fact. So much has happened in that time, Team GB dominated Olympic Cycling – with riders from all the corners of this sceptred isle winning medals; I went to Wales and smuggled my Brompton over the border to sneak in a dusk ride on a deserted mountain road; John, Andy and I rode to Cheddar and back, including about a three mile climb out of the gorge on a full English breakfast with 1.5 litres of tea in my panniers and a slab of cave matured cheddar cheese.

But, friends, let us start with a couple of rides I went on with John. the first was a Tuesday ride. Unfortunately, my father in law had fed me from his barbeque that evening. In my lust for nosh, I had consumed no less than eight sausages of fine pedigree. As I eased onto the tarmac with the bike I knew this was a mistake. John took us round the back of the Longleat estate, and didn’t need much persuading to make a short detour to The Bath Arms and a pint of Naughty Ferret. Then we slipped into the Longleat house grounds and took a right to tackle Heaven’s Gate Hill. In the gathering dusk I struggled up in John’s wake, my ribs were near bursting with agony and those eight snorkers(1) were banging about in my stomach. Somehow, I made it to the top where John stood looking out over the landscape. Here are some pictures of that ride:

Naughty Ferret and a Guinness Please

Naughty Ferret and a Guinness Please

Riding towards Longleat House

Riding towards Longleat House

The view from the top

The view from the top

On the way out of Longleat

On the way out of Longleat

The next ride was, I believe, a Friday ride. We took to the lanes around Melksham – and were bullied into the verges by endless streams of fast traffic. So fed up did I become of cars screaming past too close, or overtaking on blind corners, that I persuaded John to ride back to his house along the canal path. He was not happy about this at all. Worries about puncturing proved unfounded and we were soon safely ensconced at the table back at his garden. To my great surprise and delight, he pulled out the tea set and some biscuits. Cue endless jokes from John about proper strength tea.(2)

Manor house

Manor house

By the MOT Centre - Outskirts of Melksham

By the MOT Centre - Outskirts of Melksham

Proper Tea (3)

Proper Tea (3)

Footnotes

(1) My use of the word Snorkers when referring to sausages can be traced back to this article in Fortean Times about the Wild Man of Sutton, known locally as Bark Foot:

“Patrick Sheehy told how his cousin Oliver was jogging through the 2,400-acre (970-ha) nature reserve one morning last May and was cutting through one of the holly groves when he collided with a man crouching over a pan full of sausages as he put out a fire. The man’s breakfast went flying. Oliver apologised and quickly departed as a gravelly voice shouted: “My snorkers are ruined!”

(2) Note that, as we shall see in later posts, John returns time and again to the issue of proper strength tea. One feels that he may be unable to move on from the whole ‘tea not strong enough’ incident. Had I known it would have scarred his psyche so deeply, I would certainly have checked the tea strength before pouring.

(3) Why did Chairman Mao and Karl Marx drink herbal teas? – Because all proper tea is theft.

Will sprint for tea

Signs

Crossing the A36 was a matter of cycling twenty yards and signaling right in front of a near blind corner, John almost came a cropper when a barely in control Range Rover hurtled round the bend while he was side on to the traffic. It was close, too close, and cycling up the tiny lane towards Laverton we hastily made small talk about mountain biking on order to quickly forget the near miss. Ten minutes beforehand, John, fresh back from mountain biking in North Wales, had turned up at the gate early that Tuesday evening, I was eager to show him the roads out towards Lullington so we ambled out of the village towards Woolverton and took that nasty right turn. We needn’t have bothered with the blase chit-chat, the leafy lanes themselves soothed us and drew us gently into the comfort of the Somerset countryside. The roads were so quiet that when we were set upon by a couple of over excited farm dogs, their noisome barking and yelping seemed explosively loud in the calm of the evening. We were in no danger, but we hastened away, standing up to put in some acceleration up the hill until the dogs receded into the distance, last seen standing in the middle of the road yapping madly. We dropped down into Lullington, cycling at a gentle enough pace to talk Tour de France, North Wales and a blow by blow account of John’s holiday. A gentle pace became a snails pace, then we stopped for a spot of photography:

Trundling slowly past the dairy, John took over the navigation as we crossed into what looked like someone’s drive, but turned out to be a tiny lane pointing towards Standerwick. We eased ourselves up the hill as the road became thinner and thinner. We were in lanes even John had not visited in his extensive bicycle travels. Over a small bridge and… we were suddenly confronted by what was without doubt one of the most appalling cases of fly-tipping I had ever seen:

This had clearly been hastily thrown off the back of a van. Big plastic crates with ‘corrosive!’ written all over them, stacked full of junk, old trackies, soggy books, plastic toys. It looked like the aftermath of a terrorist attack on a village jumble sale.

Over the A36 again, with a considerably better line of vision to get across safely. Then we trickled amicably towards Rudge, having only gone about seven miles and wondering if perhaps we ought to think about doing some proper cycling. In an attempt to scupper that particular train of thought, I suggested ringing our friends Lou and Rob and seeing if they might put the kettle on. John did the honours and, yes, the kettle would be switched on for when we arrived. Unfortunately this had the opposite effect from what I expected. John suddenly turned into Eddy Merckx and started sprinting. Right, if he’s Eddy Merckx, then Je Suis Bernard Hinault et tant que je respire j’attaque! (as it says on my t-shirt).

So we dueled through the lanes until we reached Westbury, opting to take the old road. We arrived dripping with sweat, which was altogether pretty unpleasant for Lou who greeted us at the door and guided us round the back of the house, and through to Rob who handed us a steaming beverage each. Later on, having had a tour of the the work going on in the house and garden, we set off for home. Having had a nice combination of gentle bicycling and hell for leather cycling. Here is a short poor quality film from the pootling bit – sorry for the abrupt cut off, still getting used to the iMovie/youtube crossover. The music is Wind Forest from one of my favourite films, My Neighbor Totoro – but played by Grooploop – who I know nothing about.

Tuesday Ride XII – The fine art of getting lost

Last Tuesday, John turned up for the evening ride on his own. The distinct lack of Brad to relentlessly drive us on meant that it was a mere fifteen minutes before we were ringing around people we knew en-route who might put the kettle on for us or even offer us some cake. However everyone was rather thoughtlessly not at home, so by the time we go to Westbury, distinctly lacking in the tea and cake department, and no safe port available, we decided that perhaps we ought to do some cycling. John led me out along the road beneath the giant chalk horse carved into the hillside, but we quickly became fed up with motorists attempting risky overtakes or squeezing past us and forcing us into the verge. We turned left, racing downhill and I was quickly off my mental map and into uncharted territory. John’s curse is that he knows the backroads and lanes so well, even by name, that it’s very difficult for him to enjoy the simple pleasure of getting lost a mere few miles from home. However, once we had turned across ourselves a few times, double backed and taken some decidedly narrow lanes (at one point meeting a denim clad grey-haired hippy in a volvo head-on, he had a beard like an old testament prophet and some big aviators on. Without hesitation he put his car onto the verge to let us past on the road), even John wasn’t sure where we were. We found a hill that just took us down, down, down, and John started snapping pics on his phone as we drifted round the forgotten roads. This was blissful, our internal compasses were spinning wildly in the no-man’s land of the wiltshire backroads. Strewn with gravel and flood tidemarks, verges overgrown with grass overhanging the road, bending inwards to the grey, chalk-mud and dust smothered tarmac, these lanes sucked us deep into the landscape. These were old, old routes, cut deep into the Wiltshire soil by generations of feet, hooves, cartwheels and finally capped with tarmac. The road wound its way up again, passing skewed telephone poles and a distant church tower hoved into view. Sadly John now knew where we were.

Me on the lanes

Your author, lost in the lanes - one hand on his hip, freewheeling, bliss.

We crossed a busy road, the traffic seemed shockingly loud and abrasive after the calm of the lanes, then headed for Trowbridge. John and I parted at the pub near his house and I made my way home. As I wheeled the bike down the path at the side of the house, scimitar shapes raced between the gaps in the houses. Swifts diving and screeching at gutter height – beaks open as they hurtled through clouds of near invisible insects before wheeling away and climbing up and up, higher than any of their avian brethren dare climb.

Published in: on July 7, 2008 at 10:09 pm  Leave a Comment  
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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.

The Tuesday Ride is Dead, Long live the Wednesday Ride!

Yes, it’s official, having sent an email to John after months without contact (“The days are getting longer, I’m not getting any thinner. Let’s ride!”) we were on the open road again. Occasionally Brad kept us company, but a lot of the time he was off the front, a mere speck in the distance that John and I worked in a chain gang to try and catch up with. Tuesdays are now off the menu, so it looks like we’ll be going out Wednesdays, and probably a little earlier than we have been. This will allow me to put in 25-30 miles and still get back to the house to help put the kids to bed.

This week, John and Brad led me all over the backroads around Trowbridge, Devizes and Melksham. We paused only to watch a Hercules fly slowly over Keevil airfield and drop a box onto the runway. One thing was made absolutely clear to me, I am still not that fit yet. Hopefully, with the discipline of a regular ride in company, that will change. Last year the Tuesday rides started to improve my metabolism and my breathing – especially when we went out with the human greyhound that is Brad.

John (foreground) and Brad (in front) sign at speed, West Wilts

It felt great to be out on the bike in company again, for me it’s a lot of what cycling is all about. We varied the pace, sometimes gliding along chatting away, other times drafting and pedaling hard (usually to try and catch up with Brad), sometimes we’d just be merrily trundling along, then suddenly someone would change up a gear and start sprinting, provoking a sudden burst of speed in us all, then we’d wind down again and go back to the chat. That lovely melodic sound of three chainsets whirring in unison was a pleasure to hear, as was the drone of three pairs of tyres over the tarmac.

Left John and Brad in Trowbridge and cycled back to the village solo, no energy by the time I hit the Wingfield straight, on the verge of The Bonk. Arrived back at the house with 33 miles on the clock for the evening.

Hopefully there will be many rides like this throughout the coming summer.

Tuesday Ride X: of stupidly fast descents, chasing mopeds and a stately home

Tuesday evening came round quickly this week, not least because I had spent much of the week suffering the effects of a debilitating illness, the details of which I will spare my reader, save to say that I lost nearly 4lbs over four days. Considering how awful this summer has been, the weather had remained uncharacteristicly dry so at seven-thirty in the evening I met with John and Bradley at the Bell Inn. The Lemond is starting to play up a little, the rear tyre had gone slightly flat and the bottom bracket was still knocking with every turn of the cranks. This matched Brad’s steed, his bottom bracket was squeaking with each revolution, John’s bike of course was fighting fit. We elected to go towards Longleat with some notion about climbing a hill or descending, I wasn’t sure which. Black Dog Hill had become a bit boring (neither John nor myself fancied watching Brad demolish us on the climb again) so we decided to go via Chapmanslade. There was no way we were going to get away without a climb of some sort, the first major one came just as we were overtaken by a moped. I was on point as it pulled past me, with Brad in hot pursuit. Pretty soon Brad was on his back wheel and the guy was looking behind in panic, trying to shake Brad off to no avail. It wasn’t until we got halfway up the first hill that the stricken scooter managed to pull away and Brad gave up with a laugh. Without the hill I’m convinced Brad could have sat one foot behind him for miles, it gave some indication of Brad’s fitness that the scooter engine was straining so much to put out the same amount of power Brad’s legs were generating as he churned the cranks in the big ring.

The road to Cley Hill was undulating with several short, sharp, shock hills splitting the riders up and giving our legs a going over. I’m finding the hills easier now, I can ride them faster with Brad off the front giving me something to aim at, even when he vanishes round a corner. Soon the mighty slopes of Cley Hill were rising to our left and the shadows were fading into the fast approaching night. We rode on past tiny turnings that promised to lead to places with names like ‘Longhedge’ and ‘Temple’, roads pointing up and roads dropping down. We stuck to the road we knew and took the roundabout up towards Center Parcs, the air filled up with the sharp scent of pine tar and freshly sawn timber as we climbed yet another hill. Soon we were turning into the barrier-controlled entrance to Longleat Safari Park. Now we were in cycle utopia, no cars, tarmac roads, beautiful trees and an amazing view. The distant lights of Frome burned hazily in the last embers of dusk, far to the West we could see the orange glow of Shepton Mallet.

Past a green, weed covered pond that looked like it might contain pike as big as coffins and twice as deep down, either that or some monster carp rolling lazily beneath the surface. My fishy reverie was disturbed by John shouting back “Check your maximum speed now!” before droppping off down the hill. The air accelerated past me with a deafening roar, Brad and John were way out in front but I could barely see through the water streaming from my eyes in the wind. Trying not to lock my arms was difficult as the speed sucked the warmth from my limbs, but the super-smooth tarmac kept the wheels running true, there was no vibration and the speed was incredible. Too late I saw the sharp right and just about managed to scrub some speed off before I shot onto the grass. Now I was riding for two hundred yards in a field as I struggled to point my errant steed back towards the tarmac, thank goodness there were no fences. Back on the road with the speed up, a cattle grid registered as a brief thrumming metallic chord beneath the tyres. The others were waiting in front of Longleat House and we compared maximum speeds. I had managed 46.5mph before coming off the road.

Longleat House at dusk, three cyclists in front

There then followed ten minutes of cycling round carparks, sporadic tannoy announcements that may or may not have been directed at us, and wondering if John actually knew were he was leading us. Past the adventure castle, the minature railway, the butterly house and the famous maze, onto a clearly defined track and yes John did know where he was going thank you very much, this was the way out of the park. More climbing, more descents, winding our way out of the valley and into the next one. Aroma of pub food mingles with stagnant water, orange glow of streetlights. The roads are busy, cars coming too close for comfort, not noticing three cyclists, time to stop and pull on the Hi-Viz Tron jacket in order to go nightwatchman at the back. Now the cars are slowing down, pulling wide as they see me. Onto the frome bypass, John’s rear light is fading but in his backpack he has spare batteries. As soon as he is recharged we head back onto the main road, now Bradley takes off but we don’t worry, we know he’ll wait at The Bell. Five minutes later we’re all grouped together, it’s the end of my ride but John and Brad have to cycle back to Trowbridge.

Next week, Bradley chooses the route – imagine the carnage!

Published in: on August 29, 2007 at 11:47 pm  Leave a Comment  

Tuesday Ride IX: bicycling round the backlanes

Bradley had to work in the evening so he didn’t come out with myself and John. This meant we could ease off the normal pace and enjoy riding round the back lanes or “proper bicycling” as John called it, not racing, pacing or rushing. It felt nice, just what both of us needed I think. My bottom bracket was making all sorts of horrible knocking noises and it sounds like it’s on it’s way out. We started by going through Rudge then skirting Dilton Marsh, thereafter I just followed John as he took us around the small roads. I lost track of where we were several times, only getting my bearings as we crossed main roads or saw familiar church towers in the distance. As the light faded, not even a view of Westbury White Horse or the tower of white smoke from the cement works could guide me, the night was starless and the darkness getting closer. Heading towards Seend we sped along a country lane teeming with bats, never had I seen so many of the flying mammals, the air was full of them and their strange squeaking.

John cycles through the dark

By now it was truly dark, our lights on full we turned towards Trowbridge. We had been riding for nearly a couple of hours but had clocked up only around 25 miles, such was the relaxed nature of our riding I had barely touched my water bottle. Easing into the suburbs of Trowbridge side by side and enjoying the rhythm of cycling over the speed bumps, there was a flurry of movement from a garden on our right and a young roe deer sprung out from the shrubbery and across our path, our bike-lights picking it out and framing it perfectly mid-leap. Saying farewell to John, I headed back towards the village with only the unnerving knocking from my cranks as company.

Published in: on August 27, 2007 at 9:26 pm  Leave a Comment  

Tuesday Ride VIII – Solo fifty miles, pouring rain, raging winds, Silbury Hill

John texted to say he couldn’t make the Tuesday Ride, so I decided to go it alone. I made up my mind to ride twenty five miles in one direction and then ride back again, giving me a fifty mile ride. The weather was foul, revolting, wind, rain, luckily it wasn’t too cold. I packed my backpack with a warm top, my cycle hat and a waterproof and set off at one pm. Thankfully there was some respite from the weather and as I rode out of the village towards Trowbridge and Melksham it was almost calm. electing to go through Trowbridge rather than the West Ashton bypass was a good idea, the buildings sheltered me from the rain and I got to ride on the cycles and buses only link road between Holt and Semington. I hit the bypass for the last stretch, beautiful new tarmac offering a fast ride into the outskirts of Melksham, thereafter I turned towards Devizes and into the wind. It was stronger than I thought and quite gusty, every now and again the skies opened up and the air was filled with rain, even so, the hedges offered some protection. I took it steady up the steep dual carriageway into Devizes itself, over the humpback bridge that jumps the canal and past the red-brick Wadworth brewery, homeplace of that most marvellous of Wiltshire brews, Wadworth’s 6X. The road through the town was fast and I was able to get past ranks of stationary traffic to Moonraker Pond. As I like to give you a little folklore from my rides, here’s the origin of Moonraker Pond’s name and also the reason why Wiltshirefolk are known as Moonrakers.

Lit by a beaming full moon, a group of Wiltshire smugglers were transporting some casks of contraband past the pond. Suddenly, the donkey carrying the casks was startled and the smuggled goods slipped into the pond.

The smugglers grabbed some hay rakes they found nearby and tried to hook them onto the casks underneath the water to retrieve the valuable goods. An excise man passing by on his horse saw them raking the pond, with the full moon reflected in the water. When he questioned them about their strange behaviour, their quick-witted riposte was that they were raking out the cheese they could see in the water. The exciseman laughed himself silly and told everybody about the stupid countryfolk – but he never knew that, in fact, they were the ones who had fooled him.

I stopped a little further down the road to report my progress to base. I had done just over 17 miles and my average was on 18mph. I needed to go another eight miles. I could feel the calling of the earthworks just outside Avebury, the monumental dod Silbury Hill was reaching out across the Marlborough Downs and I knew the direction I would take. Ride out of Devizes up a pretty steep hill and you are suddenly on the Marlborough Downs, huge fields, rolling hills dotted with burial mounds, clumps of trees hugging the skyline. This is an old landscape. The road seems incongruously straight, and perhaps this was indeed the old pilgrim route that took the Old Gods’ followers into the mighty Avebury complex and the heart of their faith. Now I was being tested, the Sky God, furious that I would seek to visit the Earth Goddess had torn open the air and filled it with piercing rain. The wind roared and blew at my back pushing me up to 31mph on the straight, but gusts came from all angles and it seemed to me that I was riding on a land-locked squalling sea throwing wave after wave over my bows. I held my nerve and arrived at Beckhampton roundabout swinging right and riding across the front of the Waggon and Horses inn. On turning the corner, the mighty mound of Silbury Hill heaved into view. This is the largest Man Made mound in Europe, its very existence calls into doubt the accepted view of Neolithic tribal life being nasty, brutish and short, punctuated with wars, raids and endless hunger. Only a settled society could build so remarkable a monument, when it is viewed in relation to the surrounding associated ritual landscape, the scope of our ancestors’ vision becomes all the more breathtaking. Who tended these places? How were the rituals overseen? Landscapes such as these light up the imagination, the lack of true knowledge about the time and people who built and lived amongst these incredible structures four to five thousand years ago, leaves a tremendous gap in our collective spiritual history. Was this place built in terror to appease some malign force, or in thankfulness for the bounty of the downs, or both?

The ancients couldn’t have foreseen that one day the hill would have a carpark, but there I stopped. Work is currently being carried out to stabilise the hill which has suffered serious erosion from previous archeological excavations but also from a constant troupe of visitors scrambling to the summit. The workforce caravans were powered by a diesel generator, it was giving off a huge amount of hot air so I stood next to it and dried out very quickly. On with the sweatshirt, waterproof and cycle cap, it was time to set off to West Kennet Longbarrow. In the layby to the barrow the odometer tipped over to twenty five miles, so I took the computer off in preparation for the walk up to the barrow. The Kennet was in full flow, pouring out from the ground at Swallowhead, fertile and swollen with the recent rains, the Sky God’s issue transformed in the belly of the Earth Goddess, now charged by the charms tied to the swaying willows by her followers, they whisper their desires and incantations to the flowing waters. Rolling the bike up the hill I met a hippy gentlemen on his way down, he tried to take my photo with my camera “Yeah man epic with the hill behind, don’t look at me, look into the distance”, the flash going off before he was ready. I took the next portrait myself with the self-timer, they will go up in my Flickr later.

West Kennet Long Barrow, Silbury Hill in the distance

Inside the barrow, corn rigs had been left and a freshly lit candle threw gentle, flickering shadows from an alcove, This had to be from the press-ganged photographer I had just met. A group of Americans looked round the inside speaking in whispered reverent tones. There is something about the barrow that makes one whisper. Back outside, the air was warm but ready to fill with rain again. I hastened down the hill and gave a quick phone call to say I was on my way back before easing out into the traffic.

The eight miles into Devizes were the hardest, the wind was seriously against me and all I could manage was a paltry 12-15mph along that stretch, there was no shelter and no relent from the wind. It took me over half an hour to reach the down hill stretch into the town, even on that descent the wind was so strong I only reached 24mph and was being blown all over the place. Devizes itself was mercifully calm weatherwise, although heaving with traffic as it was just after five in the afternoon. I picked my way through the cars until I was heading downhill out of the wind towards Melksham. Now I was feeling tired, but strangely the length of the journey made the journey back to the village seem much, much shorter. The last ten miles flew by timewise, that’s not to say I wasn’t hurting, I don’t think I made it past 18mph on the final two miles, however, Rode Hill was no bother whatsoever. The Odometer flicked over to fifty halfway up the gradient so I arrived back at the house feeling jubilant, if somewhat knacked.

In total I was riding for three hours four minutes giving me an average speed of around 16.5 mph, not bad considering that headwind on the way back, it’s a good thing I took advantage of it when it was a tailwind. A great ride, not the furthest I’ve cycled in one day, but it still felt good none-the-less.

Tuesday Ride VII: of black cats, back lanes and cycling through the dark

It was 19:20 and I was supposed to be meeting John at that most evil of road junction types, the crossroads. However my youngest son was playing up and not going to sleep, so I sent a text to John telling him to ride round to the back of my house and I would put the kettle on while the kids settled down. John pulled into the garden with Bradley and his friend Simon. Simon looked like another super-fit chap, apparently Brad said he’d be slow because he was on a mountainbike, naturally this turned out not to be true. With the children finally in bed and the group fuelled up on fine teas, we set off up the hill, John muttered that when I had left them on the last Tuesday Ride, Brad had amused himself by sprinting after cars in Trowbridge “The thing was” said John “he was catching up with them”, I could well believe it.

Then it became apparent that I was truly messing things up as I had forgotten my bidons. I told everyone to go on ahead while I went back for the bottles, promising to catch up with them on the Wingfield Straight. With the two water bottles filled up I set off after the others, turns out Bradley and Simon’s definition of ‘slow’ is not the same as mine and John’s. I could see them in the distance but it took a sustained sprint of 24-26mph over about a mile or so before I finally caught up with them. Thereafter I was content to sit at the back all the way to Bradford-on-Avon in order to recover. John attempted to get a bit of a chain gang going, but every time Bradley moved to the front he pulled away, leaving John battling the headwind again. Through the centre of Bradford, up past the Moulton place and out towards Holt. These are fast roads with little room for cars to pass and I was glad when we turned left towards Chalisford. By then I was starting to get lost, last time I had cycled past Chalisford Manor I nearly ran over a swan, no swans in sight on Tuesday, but plenty of old folk taking an evening constitutional, all looking startled to see four cyclists hurtle into view, but ready with a nod nonetheless. On the trafficless backroads it was pleasant to hear the whirr of four chainsets working together, the different pitches of the chains on the various sprockets created a droning chord as we raced through the narrow lanes. Suffice to say that despite Simon’s 26″ wheels he was having no problems matching Bradley’s impressive speed, they kept shooting on ahead leaving John and myself to carry on at our own pace. At least John’s Brooks saddle was starting to break in. The route John had chosen was undulating to say the least and we were going very fast, pretty soon I had completely lost my bearings and given up all hope of even knowing which direction I was pointing. Various discussions ensued as to how far we were going to ride and it transpired that earlier in the week Bradley had cycled to Chippenham, Calne and then on to Avebury, impressive work. We decided to carry on to Chippenham and ride back via Melksham, John seemed confident we could get back by 22:00 and we all had lights, except Simon who only had a rear LED.

We crossed main roads, back-roads, lanes, we cycled up cats-eyed roads, singletrack hills with gravel strewn across the tarmac. We climbed short, steep rises, hidden dips and long dull gradients, we swooped down wide lanes with wildflower strewn verges, and I sat at the back on nailbitingly narrow descents taken at 27mph with no hope of avoiding oncoming vehicles (had there been any). Finally we dropped down onto a larger lane that actually seemed to be going somewhere. I was at the back so I got a good view as Brad and Simon’s descent terrified a black cat which shot off just missing John’s front tyre in its haste to be away from the wheeled steeds hurtling down the normally quiet lane. The light was fading, it was time for the flashing LEDs on the seatposts to come into play, I was glad I had changed the batteries in my front lamp at the same time as replacing my blown inner-tube that morning. With the Hi-Viz vest on, the reflective wrist bands and my customised helmet it was highly probable that I could be seen from space. Through a short tunnel by some traffic lights, a very weird and confusing junction where we just “went”, well everyone stopped for us so we assumed it was our right of way, no one beeped anyway. We were then on some main roads, bg roundabouts, orange streetlight glow and concrete bridges spanned by massive pylons whispering their electric songs into the gathering dusk. Here the crickets had stopped, the wildflowers given way to harsh cut back grass on the verge, the hot reek of diesel working through thundering engines; serious roads. Not for us though, we spun away from Chippenham having grazed its flank and made for Lacock. Ahead on the main road I could see the flashing red LED of Bradley’s bike, we struck out for it, reaching him just as we turned off onto more lanes. By now the dark had gathered all around us, loud laughter in the clear air as revellers stepped out of a pub, momentarily framed in the golden light spilling from the doorway, gone in an instant. Some gentle but insistant gradients saw us on our way into Melksham, all four of us spread out across the road standing on the pedals and racing over the speed bumps. The centre of town was quiet, but then I suppose it was a Tuesday, past the betting shop where only two weeks ago a fight had spilled out onto the road stopping the traffic, then out to the new road. Brown tourist signs promise there is refreshment on this route during the day, it’s a greasy spoon called “The Waney Edge Cafe”, closed at this time of night a small, unassuming building with net curtains and a seventies block-font for the sign, decaying tarmac carpark, pummelled by decades of HGVs and builders’ vans, it looks excellent.

Now we were on the home straight, split into two groups, Bradley and Simon just in view ahead of John and myself. John and I chatting as he wound down, we were near to the street he and Bradley live in and they would be home soon. For myself and Simon there was a little further to go. A needless beep from a car-full of twats saw John wishing out loud that for once the wankers would stop to make their point and he could debate their imbecilic behaviour in a way they would clearly understand. It was a good thing they didn’t because the next car was a police car. Everyone gave us a wide berth when I was at the back, no doubt because I was glowing as though I was a special effects reject from TRON.

We pulled into the carpark of a local pub to discuss the evening and make plans with each other for the next rides. I took the obligatory group portrait:

the end of the ride, I glow like TRON

Then as Bradley and John peeled off for their homes, I rode directly in front of Simon so his lack of front light wouldn’t be a problem. We shot through town at 25mph arriving at his street in time for him not to get into trouble. It was then left to me to make the ride back to the village, the legs felt good and even Rode Hill was no bother. John had designed the ride so that we all got 35 miles in. It was excellent, again I hope Bradley and Simon weren’t too bored having to wait for me and John all the time, it’s good for us to ride woth them as our pace is picking up dramatically.

Tuesday Ride VI: of energy bars, super-fit riding companions and Brooks Saddles

Hooray, the Tuesday Rides are back on. John was almost recovered from his illness, so at 1930 I was waiting on the kerb by the Bell Inn, hoping my food had gone down enough to allow me to ride without chucking it all back up. John turned up with one of his neighbours, Bradley. Bradley claimed to be unfit, but he was dressed in some pretty sporty gear, his legs looked strong and his bike was silky, a slightly under-sized black aluminium Cannondale with carbon forks and some tasty looking wheels. He looked like a pro, and actually it turns out he’s an excellent mountain biker. John was already on the Asthma inhaler and hadn’t ridden for two weeks, but as usual he was game and up for the ride. I started off at the front, pulling through the crosswind as we hit the A36, we took it easy to begin with, chatting, enjoying the dry weather and the bright evening. I pulled us to Black Dog Hill and started up at what I thought was a reasonable pace, then Bradley just flew past me. I was completely dropped by Black Dog Farm and I could only watch as he powered up the hill. I kept him in view, but it was little consolation. Looking behind I couldn’t see John at all. Then, oh the the shame, Bradley stopped and waited for us at the bridge. I slowed right down so I wouldn’t be wheezing as I arrived at the crest, as it happens I was only panting and not much good for conversation. John wasn’t too far behind, he’d taken it at a sensible pace, sensible chap. I don’t think John saw me get dropped, but I’m sure it would have looked impressive, it was an excellent burst of acceleration from Bradley and I had nothing to answer it with.

John cycles up

I pulled through the headwind to the Warminster roundabout that starts the bypass, I considered that I had therefore done my work for a few miles so was quite happy to sit on the others’ wheels for a while. Having three people riding was great, drafting in third place meant I was putting in around 40% less effort than whoever was in front at the time. It was going well until we slowed down and started chatting, I clipped John’s back wheel, luckily only at seven miles an hour, but it was embarrassing none-the-less.

Then as we passed Cley Hill Roundabout with me at the back, I realised a Range Rover had slowed right down and was driving at the same speed I was riding. It was a little worrying, especially as the window started to wind down. Then a guy lent out and handed me an energy bar! Apparently these guys were working for, or ran, the company, Mule Bar that produces them and wanted us to try them. They drove on and passed a bar each to John and Bradley too. Cool! I got the opportunity to try mine a little further up the road when John’s new Brooks saddle (unbroken in and bashing his buttocks about like a meat tenderiser) worked lose when he hit a pothole. We pulled into a layby so John could affect an immediate repair, and I tried the bar, Hunza Nut flavour. It was very tasty, more so than the normal energy bars you get. Pleasingly the bars are also Fairtrade, full of natural ingredients and a logo proclaims that 1% of the company’s sales goes to environmental work. It was quite moist too so I didn’t have to drain my bidon to rehydrate as you do with some very dry bars. Nice! Visit the Mule Bar website here for more details of their products. I don’t know if those guys were actively out looking for cyclists to hand the bars to, or if they just happened to be passing us and thought “hey those guys look like top racing athletes, let’s give ’em some bars” or more likely “that guy on the Lemond etape at the back looks a bit fat and sickly let’s have mercy on him and give him a bar, also that chap coughing who’s obviously recovering from being ill. That bloke with the ponytail isn’t having any trouble but let’s give him a bar so he doesn’t get jealous”. Whatever the reason it was a pretty cool thing to happen.

When we set off again I thought I might try a sneaky breakaway by shooting down the left of the others on a layby, I powered out ahead of them, chuckling to myself, but on hearing some gears changing up, I looked over my shoulder there was Bradley, he said “left at the roundabout?” then he was away again. As John and I approached the roundabout he cycled back down the road to see where we’d gone, drat!

Thereafter we picked up the pace around Warminster, maybe it was the energy bars, or maybe it was the tailwind, but either way John was fully warmed up and his cadence was high, although he hadn’t ridden for two weeeks his recovery time was excellent. Out of Warminster up the hill towards Westbury. A beep from a twat in a car because we were riding in the dominant position, Bradley gave him the time-honoured signal for “there is plenty of room here good sir” (a hand held out to the right). Westbury was fast, damn fast! We entered the back pushing 40mph off the hill, then kept the speed high all the way through, leaning into the corners and pushing hard out of the bends. Riding in a group of three really increases the confidence, it’s like a mini-crtical mass in traffic and it was easier to control the road and keep things safe, fewer cars tried to squeeze past, knowing they’d have to get beyond all three of us at 26-28mph before moving back over. There was a bit too much chat for my liking on the approach to Yarnbrook, I like to be going about 23-26mph on that bit of road so I took to the front and on seeing me move off, the others didn’t hang around either. As we came up to the traffic lights they hit amber, Bradley urged me on and John, slightly behind us, raced across the garage forecourt and over the closed junction to avoid the lights all together. A nice move, well executed.

Again, maybe it was the energy bar, but I had plenty of legs left so I followed the chaps into Trowbridge itself, stupidly taking the bike lane. What a rubbish surface! Honestly! I quickly got back onto the road, shouted bye, and headed back for the village. Rode Hill was no trouble and by the time I put the bike away I saw I had put thirty miles on the clock, that makes 111 miles so far this week. I think I’ll have a day off from riding tomorrow.

The next time Someone tells John they are unfit I think he should ask for a BMI reading and a heart-rate! Having said that it was excellent having Brad along, he varied the pace, showed how far I have to go to get fit and wow it made the drafting easier. Basically it was harder work with someone pushing the pace higher, but there was more opportunity for resting by riding third in the group every now and again. I hope he wasn’t too bored with having to go easy on us and wait for us all the time as it would be great if he came out with us next week. Maybe we can work on becoming a proper chain gang, we may have to, John is threatening to bring some serious roadies along soon!