To Ride a White Horse

Bratton Camp, Westbury

Bratton Camp, Westbury

Sunday last, and of course the clocks here in the UK leapt forwards an hour, making the the 0745 start for the ride all the more painful. Mike fancied heading out towards Westbury, but he needed to be in Frome for a football match by 10:30. This certainly meant we would be riding at least 25 miles. I had thought that in preparation for our Belgian/French cycle ride, we would be riding with full panniers, so I stacked mine to the maximum and even carried the track pump. Mike of course had completely forgotten, so he just had a single pannier with a flask of coffee in.

We rode out through Rudge, turning left at the Full Moon pub, then passing the Kicking Donkey. Even with the full panniers I was able to ride at a pretty reasonable pace. We shot through Westbury Leigh then headed for Bratton, passing underneath the mighty Westbury White Horse. This is one of the oldest of the white horses cut into the hillsides of Wiltshire. We don’t really know what the original horse looked like, but we do know that in 1778 someone called George Gee decided that it didn’t really look like a horse so he had it recut and reshaped until he was satisfied that it did. Towards the end of the 18th century it was recut again, then in the 20th century someone thought it would be a hell of a lot less work if the thing was concreted over and painted white. So what you are seeing as you take the road beneath Westbury Hill, is not a horse made of chalk, like say Cherhill or Uffington, but a load of painted concrete. The concrete horse drifted out of sight behind us as we continued along the road. The tarmac was beautifully smooth and there was barely a vehicle about. As we entered Bratton, we swung hard right up the promisingly named Castle Road. This turned out to be a very long hill. Mike switched on his legs and pulled far in front, leaving me wobbling up with my now extremely heavy panniers. I passed some other cyclists on MTBs, they had dismounted and were walking up. I was barely going much faster than them, and I was relieved to see that Mike had stopped at the summit and was sittting on the ramparts of the Iron Age hill fort Bratton Camp. I propped the bike up against a fence and wheezed over a gate to join Mike. As we sat and surveyed the counryside a skylark drifted past trilling and warbling it’s beautiful liquid song. The sky had clouded over, but a strong shaft of sunlight struck a yellow freight train causing it to glow as if alight. It was the most glorious and luminescent colour.

At the summit of the camp, the car park was full of vehicles brought up here by people who were now walking their dogs. Electing not to go past the red flag denoting that the army was shooting stuff on Warminster plain, we instead dived down the hill next to the White Horse and found ourselves catapulted into Westbury at speed. We now needed to get to Frome, so we took the road to Dilton Marsh then carried on to the A36. Thankfully we were only on that hellish road for a couple of hundred yards before we turned off onto a ghost road that led to Frome. For the first mile or so it still had the worn out cats eyes that told of its glory days as a main route. Now it was reduced to carrying tractors and us. It didn’t take us long to reach Frome, we struggled up the main hill in the town centre and thought about getting some bacon in the cafe at the top, but Mike was going to be late for his son’s football match so we passed up the porcine goodness.

By the time I got back to the house I had completed just over thirty miles with full panniers. Great training for Belgium, I hope.

Published in: on April 3, 2009 at 10:37 pm  Leave a Comment  
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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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Wednesday Ride III – against the zephyrs

I was pushed all the way to John’s house in Trowbridge by an insistent tailwind, this did not bode well for this week’s Wednesday Ride. I dismounted and pushed the bike past the wheelie bin in the narrow alley leading to John’s secret garden. Not long after I arrived, the sound of someone squeezing past that same bin announced Brad’s arrival. He had been suffering from a ‘dodgy tum’ for the whole week, it was my secret hope that this would scrub some speed from the super-fit whippet, of course I would barely notice any dip in performance as his form is lightyears ahead of mine.

We set off in a row into some fierce winds, but on turning towards Melksham the wind moved behind us and sent us speeding down the road with considerable urgency. Then into Melksham itself, via the bikes and buses only route, which as it was devoid of traffic, saw us cycling three abreast. This fine stretch of tarmac is crying out for some bike activities under the cover of darkness, something like Sprint Club in Richmond Virginia.

Past the Waney Edge Cafe and over the roundabout, we hurtled through the outer edge of Melksham, until we pulled over to await another of John’s friends, Damian, who arrived almost as soon as we pulled up. The new addition duly linked into the chain, we set off again towards Seend and Devizes. I led off the front, pulling 21mph into a headwind. This proved to be utterly foolish, I was expecting Brad to come hurtling past and take over pulling at any second, but he never came. Then, even worse, we hung a right and smacked straight into a hell of a hill. I sat on the back behind John and just pushed and pulled my way through it, coming up a long time after the others. From then on in, it was a war of attrition with the wind. Damian was proving that he could keep up with Brad no trouble, and as usual it was up to John and myself to keep nightwatchman on the rear of the group. Then we turned directly into the headwind and the group started to break up. Brad was on the front and I hung onto his wheel for a few minutes, then fell off, unable to sustain 19-20mph uphill and into the wind (even with the shelter Brad was providing as I drafted him). I sat up to take a drink and Damian shot past, I watched them disappear around the first of many torturous switchbacks and double bends, before clamping down and digging in. My concentration was split between two things, maintaining an even, steady cadence and keeping breathing. The road got narrower and narrower, winding it’s way through tiny hamlets and villages. The verges became grassy, unfenced areas of common land, strewn with wildflowers, single cottages with beautifully looked after gardens unfolded from around blind corners. Eventually I stopped seeing glimpses of the two out front in the distance, and I was left alone with the roar of the wind and the sound of my own ragged panting.

The final straw came as the rain spattered down and I met a bus in the lane, the compulsory sudden stop as it squeezed past me, left my legs shocked into paralysis and I could barely turn the cranks. Luckily there was a junction for the main road and Brad and Damian were waiting there. Also luckily, John was a way behind and experiencing an enforced stop of his own with the bus, a white van and an old lady who had to reverse down the lane to allow the bus past.

All of this gave me time to recover and watch a Eurofighter screaming repeatedly overhead. John soon arrived, and we all took a bit of a rest and had a chat before stringing out again on the road into Westbury. One more stop at Westbury and I was wrongfooted, or wrongwheeled. When John caught up he just sailed past and the others shot off in hot pursuit. As I was the only one without clipless pedals, it took me a while to get clipped up, then there was a seemingly endless stream of traffic. By the time I got onto the road I had lost sight of them and took a wrong turn towards the Trowbridge road. Immediately I knew I had gone the wrong way as there was a long straight stretch down which I couldn’t see any cyclists. Cursing, I spun back round the mini roundabout and headed towards Westbury Leigh. This time they were waiting for me.

Finally, we got some tailwind as we turned towards Brokerswood at Dilton Marsh, the going became much easier from then on in, but the rain was starting to become a little more serious. Up through Rudge, I managed to bounce my foot out of a clip during a too fast gear change, leaving me pedalling slowly up the hill, with the odd scraping of metal on tarmac as the inverted clip hit the road. I was off the back again, and only caught up as we turned towards the village.

We bid each other farewell and I rode back to the house, the others rode the tailwind back to Trowbridge and Melksham. Total mileage 32 miles, soaked up the back, and legs pummeled into jelly. Now, in retrospect at 23:54, I say it was a good ride. It didn’t feel that way at first.

wet roads

Country Roiding [sic] Memories of Snow Hill

Having been out on the Brompton earlier on to pick up some vital supplies from the garage, I was in the mood for an evening amble over to Dilton Marsh to pick up a curry with rice from the Full House take-away. That’s BOILED rice, not fried.

me, Dilton Marsh Road

What amazing weather, it was as Summer should be, warm air given off from the road as it cooled, a gentle breeze barely stirring the roadside grass. The few clouds that could be seen were tiny, puffy and white, an unconcerned scattered flock grazing peacefully at the edges of the azure blue sky. Choosing the senic route was a good idea, low gears and an unhurried cadence meant I could hear every cricket’s chirrup as I sauntered down the lanes. New mown hay is one of my favourite smells and it was hanging heavy in the air. Through hedges and gateways I glimpsed cut fields, golden light raking across the hay drying in rows reminding me of happy hours bale-hauling in my teens.

Ah, bale-hauling for the Mitchinsons. I used to cycle to Freegrove Farm, about three miles from Hilmarton. The farm itself is old enough to be mentioned by name in the Domesday Book, and the layout of the fields suggests that not much has changed since the survey was compiled and pressed into King William’s eager hands. Although the route to work was short, it included Snow Hill, a legendary slope in the minds of the children of Hilmarton and Goatacre. If it snowed enough, the school bus couldn’t go up or down it so we would have the day off. To a teenage cyclist it was an imposing slope and riders would take a route round it, climbing up a much gentler gradient by Catcomb that leads through a hamlet with the improbable name of New Zealand, but adding another three quarters of a mile or so onto the journey. Amongst my peers, I was the first to cycle up Snow Hill, fed up of turning left at the bottom I carried straight on up with my friends behind me shouting that I would have to walk up and it would take me ages. I cycled solo all the way up, the gears going down lower and lower, every few pedal strokes; ‘Clunk! Whirrr! Clunk!’ no bidon in those days, no helmet either and probably a pair of cotton trousers or jeans. It seemed to take ages, but when I reached the turning for New Zealand none of my chums were there. It was a good five minutes before they arrived, having sprinted hell for leather round the long route with a mind to reaching the top of the hill and laughing at me as I walked up. It was heroic stuff, especially for me who excelled in no sport of note save a reasonable record when bowling in cricket and an inexplicable ability to do more sit ups in a minute than anyone else in my peer group. I remember well kids coming up to me and saying “‘Ere Ev, Rudder reckons you coicled up Snow Hill without walkin’. That true?’ and I had to repeat the feat with Andrew Wright posted half way up to make sure I wasn’t walking it as I went out of sight from the bottom. Even after I cycled up regularly, very few of my friends made it up. Strange because when I go back, it just doesn’t seem that bad, not that I’ve ridden it for about ten years or so. I’d love to give it another go now.

a diagram of the defeat of snow hill

Bale hauling was damn hard work, I was one of the few to stick it out for more than a week, in fact the only other people who stuck it out were a) the farmer, b) his son. The young master Mitchinson went on to be an accomplished cross-country runner, competing at national level, so you can see the sort of person who had the stamina to haul bales. I was very glad that it was mostly downhill all the way home, except for the hill up to Hilmarton itself. Luckily it was a short gradient, it certainly wasn’t sweet.

Straight off the bike and into the bath, soaking in hot water as the straw and dust floated to the surface. Three quid an hour, a reasonable amount to a teenager in need of new tyres and brake blocks from Ducks cycle shop.

Back in the present day, a splendid ride was made slightly longer by the fact that I had to cyle to Westbury Leigh to get some cash out before taking charge of the delicious takeaway. In Dilton I passed a pierced goth-girl and her beau, both dressed to the nines in black and chains, faces plastered with corpse-paint make up, most impressive considering this is a tiny Wiltshire village. It wasn’t long before I was pootling home, this time with a backpack instead of my trusty Hi-Viz vest to carry the tuck. Got the nod from a couple of roadies on full carbon steeds coming the other way. Just on the Wiltshire Somerset border a tabby cat darted across the road with what looked like a weasel dangling from its mouth, someone else with a slap up nosh for a Friday evening.

By the time I arrived back at the house I had completed another fourteen miles making my full tally for the week 136 miles. I felt I deserved that takeaway, and again may I say that the rice was boiled, NOT fried.

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!

Never try and equal your average speed if it’s windy and/or raining.

I took a spin along my 14.3 mile circuit through Dilton Marsh, Westbury, North Bradley and Southwick to try and get my average speed up. There was a heck of a wind blowing, but it rarely seemed to be at my back (John Hayes once said, we don’t get tailwinds, though we’re owed plenty), I skirted the edge of a dense black raincloud in the midst of delivering a sustained summer shower as I left the village, fat drops spattering the hot asphalt. Going up the A36 all I could hear was the wind, roaring in my ears like one long continuous peal of thunder, dipping my head to try and push it up over my helmet seemed to have no effect. Breathing in was no problem but it seemed to me that the wind forced the carbon dioxide back into my lungs and I was quickly gasping, running short on power. I hate wind, psychologically it’s so soul destroying, all that energy I put into the cranks for what? 20mph? 19mph? Standing up on the hill into Dilton Marsh the blasts were so strong I thought I’d stopped.

Hands on the drops then, the tall town-houses into Westbury offering me some shelter I began some high cadence work in the upper gears, the legs felt good, but the lungs felt bad. Near snarling with the effort on the A350 I seared across the garage forecourt at Hawkeridge, skimming the backs of the road closed signs so I could avoid stopping at the roundabout. A brief moment of tailwind, my God! 29mph for half a mile. Under the red brick railway bridge past the soulless car sales centres whose associated brands I can’t even remember. Toyota? It’s always Toyota. Rain just fallen here, steam rising from the tarmac, this is bad air, too humid, too heavily laced with exhaust. Then turn left at the Rising Sun in North Bradley, smack into a wall of wind, 16mph, 15mph, 14 mph, 12… No! stand on the pedals, push, pull, push, pull, straps too loose to be efficient, bidon up, missing most of my mouth with the effort required to keep breathing while drinking. Anyone would think this was Paris-Roubaix not fourteen miles round the country lanes and A-roads of Wiltshire and Somerset. A361 is murder tonight, cars too fast and too close. Water on the road, a fine spray cooling my ankles, nasty road-film forming on the downtube and plastering the hairs on my legs (not a good enough reason to shave them). Not even a decent sunset. Legs aching now, pulling off onto Rode Hill at 23mph watching the average speed suddenly tumble downwards, stripped off by the gradient, my precious mph, so hard won, how quickly it all disappears! Freewheeling before I reach the top, trickle over the crest, no strength left to turn the cranks. Legs shaking as I put the bike away, stomach turning over.

It was windy, I should have just pootled, what was I thinking? Still, bang on 18mph average, it bodes well for a calm day.

Now will John ride tomorrow? I have had cryptic texts about chest infections and wrecked back wheels, will the Tuesday Ride VI even take place? Will my legs even work tomorrow?

Tuesday Ride V: of fast ascents, black dogs, buckled wheels, punctures and a cup of tea

the Black Dog

Temples throbbing, sides aching with a double stitch and the effort of trying to suck enough air into my lungs to keep me going, I could only watch as John shot past me on the way up the short but awful Black Dog Hill. Damn! barely five minutes earlier I had set a cracking pace into a headwind, pushing against the evening zephyrs at 18-20mph. Turning onto the A36 the lactic acid was seeping into the muscles of my torso and I was preparing for a slow and leisurely ascent of Black Dog, I really didn’t think John was going to put the drop on me. Cursing his name under my fast evaporating breath I dug in and prepared to chase him, ascending the base at 16mph, then a long stretch at 14mph. Hey this was impressive, normally we’re below 10mph by the time we pass the turn off for Black Dog Farm. My head felt so hot I had half a mind to tear off my helmet and fling it onto the bank to lie among the plastic wrappers, remains of the floral tributes laid to the many crash victims Black Dog has claimed as its own. With my front wheel now turning directly behind John’s back wheel I tried to find the miracle gear and cadence that would take me easily up the hill at this speed, and as usual on steep hills my mind wandered…

Black Dog Hill. It’s evil reputation is not just the result of the multitude of horrific crashes witnessed by its steep, treelined banks. This used to be Prickett Wood, or so it appears in an eighteenth century map, until a violent series of events took place here. There are two stories, one that a maid had two suitors who fought until one killed the other and the dead man’s black hound savaged its master’s killer to death. The maid (supposedly from Brokeway, now Black Dog, Farm) killed herself when she found their bodies. As a suicide she was interred at the crossroads to stop her spirit wandering, this became Dead Maid’s Junction at the top of Black Dog Woods. The other story is that a Highwayman lay in wait here, using the tortuous bends that were a feature of the road before it was ‘improved’ as ambush points. He had a huge black hound which would leap at the hapless coachdrivers, tearing them down from their exposed position on the coach while the Highwayman robbed the terrified occupants. A coachman got his blunderbuss up in time and shot the beast, its master was hung in chains at the crossroads, and the corpse of his hound strung up next to him. The upshot of the story is the same, the hound haunts the woods, prowling through the half-light in the witching hour, its eyes glowing ember red, its panting the sound of a death rattle, lead shot-punctured lungs wheezing as it eases its massive bulk out of the sodden earth. Look into its eyes and you will die within a year. In a curious epilogue to the tale, this area has developed a reputation for sightings of so-called Alien Big Cats, not big cats from space, but alien in the sense that pumas and panthers are not normally native to the west country. The Big Black Dog has morphed into a Big Black Cat, such is the way with folklore.

Back on the hill, I could feel the hound’s baleful gaze on the back of my head, I knew it was padding up the hill behind me at an easy gait, in my mind the spectral voices of the beast’s victims spoke as one compelling me to turn and look into its eyes, to give up, slow to a crawl and put my foot down, let John go ahead, to continue was folly. I ignored them, then I could hear nothing but hideous wheezing, but thankfully it was coming from me and the hill was levelling out. Lungs seared, legs shot we had arrived at Dead Maid’s Junction. We stayed in lower gears, spinning the cranks gently we searched the air for enough breath to talk about the fast ascent. Had we really stayed above 10mph all the way up? It was only five weeks ago that would have been unthinkable for us. We recovered as we rode round Warminster by-pass, the A36 offering various qualities of tarmac from dead smooth to enfer-du-nord shabby where every turn of the cranks sent the wheels bouncing and skitting over cracks and stones. Through the back of Warminster, ascending the hill on the way to Westbury at 18mph then a fast descent and, uh-oh, a sudden wobbly back wheel from John.

He had a puncture and riding on the deflated tyre had knocked his wheel out of true.

Luckily we were very near Rob and Lou’s house and were able to drop in for a well-timed cup of tea and a choccy biscuit.

John and I have a cup of tea

While Lou took me up the scaffolding to show me the pointing, John set about replacing his innertube and straightening his buckled wheel. Not only did we get a cup of tea, but we persuaded Rob to come out with us again next Thursday on the mountainbike.

After the kind of highbrow, literary conversation that happens when four people who’ve all worked in books get together (we talked about baldness, flies, ghosts, drinking and roofing) John and I headed out into the dusk for home. There was a chilly breeze and without sleeves I was getting very cold. John and I parted ways at the Rising Sun in North Bradley, vowing to meet again next Tuesday.

I turned onto the A361 and pedalled hard, spinning the cranks fast with previously hidden reserves of energy. Head down so that I could not look into the gaze of the modern Black Dogs now trailing me. Their eyes were headlights growing from behind blurring into tail lights in front of me, reek of diesel and exhaust, the growl of every motor that passed me dopplered and faded into the distance, exorcised by the clean night air until all that remained with me for the remainder of the ride was my cadence, and the road.

John cycles through the dusk

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

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

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

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

John shows the way to the drop off

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

Me with a soaked botty

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

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

Tuesday Ride

In the afternoon I cycled into Trowbridge on the Brompton in order to gauge how long it would take me to get to the train station, 16 mins was the answer. As I don’t have a cycle computer on the Brompton I had to input the distance and the time into a distance calculator to find out how fast I went, I’m pleased to say that I did it at 15.5mph average speed even with a pair of enormous trousers on (though I was clipped up so I looked like a cossack). I nipped into Waterstone’s (Ottakar’s that was) to see my old chum John Hayes, a man so deeply into bicycles that he has pedals instead of feet. It transpired that:

a) Waterstone’s are starting a Tour-de-France promotion after the weekend

and

b) He would be passing the village at seven twenty in the evening so we arranged for me to tag along on the ride.

John didn’t do much cycling over the winter so by his own admission he’s carrying some extra weight, same as me really. I’ve been pushing some higher average speeds than him, but I suspect that he hasn’t really been cranking it, also he goes out mountain-biking on Thursdays and always ends up at the pub, whacking the calories he’s just burnt back on again.

The sprogs were playing up at bedtime, this in combination with the fact that it’s my wife’s mother’s final delivery day for her art degree and all the helping this entailed, meant that it was a close run thing. I sprinted through the village and found that thankfully he was still waiting for me by the pub.

We decided to head Warminster way. John led, but we found that with the extra wide margin on the A36 we could cycle side by side without getting in the way of the traffic. The going was easy and we could chat with no problem, that was until we hit Black Dog Hill. I took it at 12mph in a display of bravado and nearly killed myself. I freewheeled at the top by Dead Maid’s Junction, which gave time for me to stop wheezing as John caught up. Pretty soon we were on the Warminster bypass and enjoying the freshly laid tarmac. We got some respectable speeds going and I was even able to take a couple of snaps.

John and I on the A36, incredible speeds

We turned back into Warminster at the other end of the bypass, and John took me out along the industrial estates in towards Westbury. With a bugger of a headwind we took turns drafting, it’s amazing how much less effort you need when you are cycling on someone else’s wheel. I pulled away again on the hill into Westbury, but John hung back then snuck up at speed as I slowed for a roundabout, leaving me in his wake and having to put double the effort in to catch him on the uphill. I finally caught him in the centre of town, Westbury has a pretty fast flow of traffic and some quite nifty chevron covered corners, ideal for bikes going at speed. Back out along the A350, John’s bike is steel so he felt the mini Hell of the North that is the stretch by the cement works much less than I did. I took my turn at the front in the headwind and pulled us up the hill, then it was a fast gradient into Yarnbrook. John turned for home at The Rising Sun pub, with similar distances to go to finish the ride at our respective houses, we each put in 27.5 miles at an average speed of 16.6mph though John probably made it 30 by cycling out to meet me. We’re hoping to make this a regular Tuesday ride and maybe get a few others along as well. Cheers John.

Up early tomorrow to cycle to Trowbridge in order to catch the train.