Old School Shorts – Cycling Short Film Special – Riding home on moonbeams

On the last Friday of every month, the studio where I work most of the week puts on a short film night. As we’re based at the Old Church School in Frome, we call it Old School Shorts. With the Cobble Wobble looming close we though we’d ask the race organiser, Andrew Denham, to curate the event.

Andrew Denham is part of the Black Canon Collective – a group of mountain bikers who are often to be seen bombing around the forest at Longleat – sometimes dressed as superheroes – always with big grins on their faces.

Andrew chose the films for the middle section of the night. There were some crackers, from Minibike battles in Portland, to mad tricks on Scottish Streets. We managed to watch the brilliant RSA/Rapha film Two Broad Arrows by Adrian Moat (it’s no longer up on the Rapha site). As ever, we peppered the evening with music videos, vintage adverts, and amusing cat films. All projected up big on the wall of studio while we lounged around on sofas and swivel chairs, munching on pizza and nibbles and drinking beer.

Old School Shorts bicycle film night

All in all we had about an hour and half of films with two intervals. It was great to finally meet @westfieldwanderer from Radstock who I’ve been conversing with on Twitter for ages. We had a good chat about bicycle commuting, local hills and AtoB magazine.

Afterwards, Ed took some photos of the old bikes and parts that Andrew had collected to be donated for The Bristol Bike Project and we returned to the studio for music videos, Guess who games, more food and drink and good chat. People took turns on the VJ ing and we watched a myriad of films, from helmetcam madness, to Bats for Lashes videos via Vanilla Ice and Guns & Pork, my favourite part of the VJ section was a film of Andrew putting his shed up on his allotment.

Things wound up just after midnight, and I loaded up the Brompton for the ride home.The streets of Frome were doubly quiet, because I was suffering from a bit of a head cold, my hearing in my left ear had disappeared. As I’m half deaf in my right ear anyway, this meant that I could barely hear a thing. Not that there was much to hear, I didn’t see a single car moving until I left the town. I took it slowly through the streets, freewheeling wherever I could, and gently riding up the hills in the lowest gear.

On leaving the town I suddenly noticed the moon, not yet full, but incredibly bright. The wooded hill down to Oldford, normally a pitch-black potluck ride of guessing where the kerb might be, was transformed into a gently lit flight through a luminous forest. As I turned up the hill towards Beckington I pulled over to look out over the valley – gloriously rolled out before me in and picked out in sharp electric detail by the witchlight. The stark black of the distant hills, the sulphurous streetlamps of Frome itself, the deteriorating skeleton elms that lined the slope, all seemed so vibrant and hyper-real, and I was struck with an unsettling feeling that the same scene by daylight was not the true view, but merely a reflection of what I was seeing now.

I continued up the hill, my blocked up ears meant all I could hear was my own breath and the creaking of my jaw. I felt, rather than heard the steady trundling squeak of my faithful Brompton’s cranks as I spun the pedals. In the hedge to left there was a brilliant white blaze of light, as I inched closer it resolved into the shape of an old milestone. I had never noticed it before, despite passing it many, many times, yet here it was glowing fiercely under the lunar influence.

The air on the slope down into Beckington sucked the warmth from the bare skin of my arms, I had enough momentum to get halfway up the hill on the other side. Past the 24hr garage – devoid of customers, over the roundabout, devoid of traffic, past the place where the gypsies camp and hard left before the boundary stone. Ursa Major was a few degrees off horizontal, far to the West a few low and long clouds stretched themselves out above the land, the lights of a distant plane flickered on and off in the space between cloud and earth as it tracked towards the orange glow of Bristol. The lane was narrow, and the moon flung her beams directly over it from left to right, pools of moonlight settled on the tarmac, punctuating the ink-black shadows that leapt from the trees and hedges and hid the stones and cracks in the road. My Wheels seemed to find them without any trouble.

I felt I could ride on into the dawn, but the glamour of the moonlight would have worn off quickly, leaving me cold and tired to endure the long hour before daylight alone.

The village was still and silent, not even the blue flicker of a television set could be seen. The restored clock on top of the Cross Keys softly chimed one o’clock as I folded the Brompton, bid the moon a goodnight and closed the door.

Salisbury bike lanes, a study

As I had yet again left it too late to get my car tax done in time, I decided to ride my Brompton into Trowbridge and take the train to Salisbury. The morning was wreathed in mist as I hurtled down the A361, surrounded by the terrifying thunder of huge trucks squeezing past me. It barely took me any time at all to reach Southwick, but I came up short against the big dip in the road. I still arrived at the station with ten minutes to spare, enough time to note that the price of a ticket had gone up by 30% again.

On arrival at Salisbury, rather than shoot up Fisherton Street I took some of the little bike lanes on the Avon Cycleway, come let us ride them together:

I like this bit with the complex sluice and weir, that chap is about to ride over the little bridge

I like this bit with the complex sluice and weir, that chap is about to ride over the little bridge

I'm still following him, now we weave right.

We're still following him, now we weave right.

They've generously carved out some of the carpark for us here.

They've generously carved out some of the carpark for us here. Nice to see the double yellow lines

Now we're being taken out to Castle Street, the lane gets smaller and there are cars sharing the road

Now we're being taken out to Castle Street, the lane gets smaller and there are cars sharing the road with us. Careful.

Oh a nice orange shopper on Scots Lane! Check out those whitewall tyres

Oh, let us stop to admire a nice orange shopper on Scots Lane! Check out those whitewall tyres

Ah this is more like it, later on, heading down the nice stretch by Waitrose, the river on the right.

Ah this is more like it, later on, heading down the nice stretch by Waitrose, the river on the right.

Not really the sort of riding that builds up the strength in preparation for the continental ride.

France and Belgium 4-7 April

we’ll be setting off at 0530 in the morning. We’re driving to Dover in the scout minibus. Loading the bikes onto the ferry to Dunkirk. We’re riding from Dunkirk to Ypres, then next day we’re going to head down into France towards The Somme. We’ve no idea how far we’ll get, but on Monday evening we need to be in Amiens to catch a train to Boulogne Sur Mer. Tuesday morning will see us riding along the coast to Callais and the ferry to Dover.

Oh yeah, and we’re camping!

I might try and do bits of bloggin while I’m over there if I can find some wifi. Otherwise, if you are so inclined, please keep updated with my Twitterfeed http://twitter.com/ghostorchid though again, I’m not sure how much tweeting I’ll be doing.

Wish me luck!

Published in: on April 3, 2009 at 11:10 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Howard’s way

Your author about to make an unfortunate wrong turn

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

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

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

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

On the railway path

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A quick ride around Highway on a borrowed bike

After work today, I took my youngest son over to my sister and brother-in-law’s new house in Hilmarton. During the course of the afternoon, my brother-in-law opened up his shed and pulled out a couple of mountain bikes. One of them, a Trek full suspension, was a bit of a frankenbike, with Alivo shifters and XT rear mech. Manitou front forks and v-brakes where there had once been discs. The cranks were mismatched and the cogs worn down, but the frame looked good. The other bike was a blue Claud Butler. Everything looked pretty new on it, in fact it had only been ridden a few times in the two years since it was bought. This was clearly a crime. I asked if I could take it for a quick spin, and promptly rode the three miles to Highway, the spiritual home of the Highway Cycling Group.

This tiny linear hamlet in North Wiltshire is where the genesis of the group took place. My father lived in a semi-detached 1930s cottage here in the eighties, and as he was the founder member of the Highway Cycling Group (or Cycle Group, it changed almost daily)  it was from here that we struck out on many club outings. Not much had changed in the hamlet, apart from there being more cars parked on verges, I guess nowadays the two or three car family is a normal thing. There were still daffodils lining the road by the farm, the old barn had rusted further and seemed to contain more holes. The farm track next to it that leads up to the ridge looked the same. Taking that track will lead you six miles to Avebury stone circle without touching a road.

After the barn the road turns left and then the rider is on Highway Common. This supremely straight stretch of road was a joy to cycle, it still is. The Highway Cycle Group would ride side by side or strung out chatting. very rarely did any cars appear, but they could be spotted over a mile away and evasive action could be taken with ease. In the summer this road is heavy with chalky dust from the dried up mud on the verges, as teenagers the boys in the Highway Cycle Group would hold sprint races here, and great clouds of dust would follow in our wake. Ideally, a rider would pull such a terrific skid that the dust would obscure him from view for a few seconds, only to reveal the rider posed heroically with one foot down and a defiant look on his face. More often than not the dust would clear to reveal the rider sitting on the road next to his crashed bike, wheels still turning.

This road is the antithesis of the typical winding, steep banked, occluded country lane. On Highway Common one can see uninterrupted for maybe a mile or more.  A real treat, was to ride this stretch by the light of a full moon, when the dust seemed to glow and sparkle. Long shadows would reach across the fields, and perhaps, if a rider was lucky, he or she might see a barn owl or a hare.

I saw a hare today, some twenty feet into the field, it crouched down low to the soil when it saw me, ears flattened against its back. I had my compact camera with me and took some video footage as I rode through the hamlet and along the common. The result is posted below.

Then I was back onto the Bushton road. It was much busier than the golden years of the Highway Cycling Group, and I lost count of the cars that flashed past me in both directions. Where Highway seemed to have been in a state of stasis for the last twenty four years, the Bushton Road had been reworked and promoted. New signposts were dotted everywhere and the fields had been rearranged, hedges grubbed out and replanted, ditches drained and fences reset, only the route itself remained the same, the route and its memories..

Published in: on March 21, 2009 at 12:55 am  Comments (2)  
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Riding into Spring

Spring can be a messy time of year

Spring can be a messy time of year

I had a ride planned with local smallholder, home-brewer, engineer and cyclist Mike, however as the hours ticked down the evening before I suddenly realised that my Lemond Etape was locked in the shed at my in-laws, and they were away. As the ride was scheduled to begin at 0745 on Sunday morning, this meant I would be trying to pull my mountainbike out from under the accumulated junk in our storage shed at 0700. Before going to bed I looked at the weather forecast, absolutely filthy. Rain, wind, cold and more rain. Nothing was going to stop me from getting in the first ride of Spring, (not even a sore knee) so I sorted out my waterproofs before calling it an evening, leaving a choice of cape or light rainjacket on the chair along with my cycling plus-fours and merino wool top.

On waking I was amazed to see sunlight streaming in through the window. Stepping outside to retrieve the mtb provided further amazement as the sky was colouring up a lovely shade of blue with not a cloud in sight. I began the task of attempting to find my mtb in the storage shed, this turned out to be a bit of an archeological dig as I uncovered a veritable strata of garden tools, cardboard, ladders, planks of wood and children’s toys, beneath which lay my mountain bike. In common with an archeological artifact it was still caked in the mud from the time of its burial. As my road helmet was locked up with my road bike, I was relieved to see my trusty old mtb helmet amongst the associated grave-goods. Once the tyres were pumped up, the mud scraped off and the chain cleaned and re-oiled, the bike looked half decent.

I saddled up and rode down to Mike’s farm, passing the tall grove of bamboo by the driveway which was now beginning to sway and rustle gently in the light breeze, the morning calm was immediately shattered by Mike’s dog running out and barking in greeting. Mike just had to feed the chickens and chuck some oil over the chain of his Dawes Supergalaxy and we were away.

I took us past the redwoods at the manor development and towards Woolverton. There we crossed the A36 and headed into the empty back lanes. Speckling the hedgerows were tiny buds, a promise of Spring that presented a subtle, barely perceived green fuzz as we rode gently along the meandering lanes. It was still stark enough that a chaffinch flittering amongst the scrub created a riotous blaze of colour that stood out like a flashing beacon amidst the branches. The landscape pulled us into steep hollows, giving us enough momentum to be catapulted effortlessly up the hills, until gradually we were pitched up to a point were the view in all directions seemed endless. Far in the distance there was nothing but whitish haze where the horizon should have been, it might as well have delineated the edge of the world. We turned the bikes toward the sun, and hit the high gears. Chains thrummed, driving us along a rare stretch of straight and level road. The lane switched suddenly right, and the ground to our left fell away. Now we were riding on the highest ridge of a lopsided valley with the breeze behind us and the countryside laid out below in patchwork to one side. Gathering speed, we pedalled in bursts as the road surface became sketchy. Water had eaten away at the edges and dumped gravel everywhere. Mike’s bike skittered about a little, but my shirehorse of an mtb ploughed through it all with ease. The velociraptor tyres spat mud, water and stones in all directions including up my back as we turned right again and sped into Faulkland and past the derelict Faulkland inn, one of many pubs to have shut down recently in the county. Our tyres barely touched the main road before we were off into the lanes again. Now the road began to undulate heavily, before flinging us down in to the valley. With the confidence that a heavy bike and fat tyres can give I let the brakes off and hurtled down the hill, it was about the only time that I was in front of Mike for the whole ride. At the bottom I waited where the stream had torn the tarmac into shreds, gouging a channel of water into the road.

A stream across the road

Mike rode up and carefully picked his way over the ruined road surface and impromptu stream. Away from the flood damage the road pitched briefly upwards before throwing us down again, but this time I took us right before the bottom of the hill, pulling the bike into a skid to make the turning. The lanes became narrower as we passsed Stoney Littleton long barrow, climbing up Littleton Lane which suddenly deposited us into the top of Wellow. We found ourselves entering the village in the slipstream behind a huge, red front-loader, its engine gunning noisily as it took the gradient. We peeled off from it’s fumes and hot engine air and dropped down into the valley again, this time down to the Wellow ford. Mercifully it was not flooded this time. Unmercifully we now had to climb Baggridge Hill, a long, long slope, much given to drifting about and becoming narrow here and there where the fancy takes it. Mike was way, way off the front and I was puffing away in the granny gear. It probably would have been quicker to walk it, but with such low gearing there’s no excuse to put a foot down or dismount in shame. I wheezed my way to the top where Mike was just pouring out a couple of cups of coffee from a flask he had secreted in his single pannier.

We stood there for a while and talked about that elation a cyclist feels when, towards the end of climbing a long and infernally steep hill, the cranks spin faster and the gears start to move up again. That feeling of having made it, of getting up the hill, the light at the end of the tunnel.

We were off again, turning into the wind. Wind? Yes, the horizon had cleared and was being troubled by clouds, the breeze was becoming insistent. It mattered not to us, for above us was deep, calm blue and ahead of us, flat road, for the next two miles at least. We crossed the A366 at Tucker’s Grave Inn. The site of the interment of a suicide from 1747, one Edward or Edwin Tucker. As usual with folklore the facts are not easy to come by. If indeed there is a grave here though, it is safe to say that Tucker died in some abnormal way, as crossroads burial was certainly not the norm, and was said to be a way of pinning down or confusing the doomed soul that could not find rest in heaven.

With the clock counting down, we left morbidity behind trapped at the crossroads and shot towards Lullington, the next node on our ride. There was hardly any mishap en route, save the boulder in the road we both managed to miss, and my failure not to throw the chain, though that’s what happens when you try to get from the big ring to the little one without touching the middle one. We skimmed the A36, frantically spinning the cranks to get off the main road and away from the hurtling cars. Then back into the village, where Mike paused briefly to engage in the well-known Somerset practice of gate-leaning and striking a deal with a farmer.

Striking a deal with the farmer.

Striking a deal with a farmer.

Clouds had gathered and the wind was starting to rage as I arrived back at the house. By the time I had finished having a shower the rain was hammering down. The last gasp of winter, but Spring cannot be stopped now, here’s to warmer weather and more rides.

Brompton through Bristol

Sorry for the prolonged absence. More work. I now have a new office which has made me more efficient during the day, leaving my evenings free for blogging and other activities, and hopefully giving me more time to cycle.

That last post about cycling in Bristol? I’m pleased to say that the Brompton handled beautifully despite the sheer weight of the animation cel boxes I was carrying in the front bag. The hardest part of the journey was manhandling bike and bag up the steps of Bristol Temple Meads station. The ride to Tom’s house was easy, he lives only just off the Bristol/Bath cycle path. I was waylaid en route when I discovered the pasty emporium ensconced in the archway of a railway bridge, but soon I was weaving my way through the construction traffic towards the bike path. This is a weird area, gleaming new apartments sit amongst decaying scrap yards and builders yards. Here and there are forgotten scrublands, even a lost orchard which in the autumn spilled urban apples onto the pavement. Cobbles give way to tarmac, old tramlines and back again to cobbles sometimes in the space of a few meters. Freestanding walls were once knaves of churches or red brick warehouses, now standing stark against the sky, a facade on a movie-set for a film never to be made.

Into Easton where we were filming. The streets are a mishmash of cultures, East meets West; bollards and houses painted in vibrant colours, the local pub rubs shoulders with sikh temples and fish markets.

When I rode back to the station, dusk was falling fast. Cycling over Temple Quay Bridge was a brief but magical experience as it was lit up from underneath. It hung in the gloaming, floating like an apparition amidst the deprivation and grime-caked hoardings,  a bridge between old and new Bristol.

As it then led me to the station, it was a fitting end to the ride.

bristol bridge temple quay

Published in: on February 18, 2009 at 10:48 pm  Comments (3)  
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Highway Cycle Group + Warminster Cycle Group = Warminster Wobble

Had a meeting with Colin French of The Warminster Cycle Group yesterday to discuss a summer bike event for 2009. Colin and the Warminster Cycle Group are planning a bike day on Sunday 14th June in Warminster, Wiltshire to promote and celebrate cycling. It’s early days yet, but it promises to be a great event with something for everyone, from BMX displays to maintenance advice and riding masterclasses. There’ll be food, a cycle tour, trade stands, kids events and plenty of competitions and workshops. It’s going to be fantastic.

The event is called the Warminster Wobble and you’ll be hearing a lot more about it over the coming weeks and months. Keep that date in your diary free and stay tuned.

Poster for the warminster wobble 2009

Oh look, a rough poster I put together just for this post.

A Curse on all Hedgecutters

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

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

Mike on the bridge at Wellow

The Ford at Wellow

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

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

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

Colliers Way cycle path

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

River where roads were

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

A curse on all hedgetrimmers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Highway Common - late summer 2007

Highway Common - late summer 2007

Published in: on January 8, 2009 at 8:55 pm  Comments (3)  
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Of railway cats, cycle paths, ancient mariners, cancelled trains, films and rock n roll

Way way back in October I rode to Bristol for a great evenings entertainment courtesy of the Cube Cinema and my chum Tom Stubbs. I advertised the Rime of the Ancient Mariner (on bicycle) event a while back, but I didn’t mention that I was going to cycle there. I thought it would be poetic to arrive at a showing of a bicycle film by bike. Having set off a little later than planned, I realised that I would have to cycle considerably quickly to get to Bristol on time. Not a problem, despite barely cycling at all recently, I made good time on the road between the village and Bradford on Avon, before turning onto the canal path. It’s difficult to get speed up on the towpath, not least because of the danger to pedestrians, other cyclists and wildlife. There’s no reason to go fast on a towpath anyway and I knew I could make time up on the Bath/Bristol cycle path, so I just spun the cranks at a nice even pace and enjoyed the ride. Particularly pleasing was the scent of woodsmoke from the various barges and narrowboats. I was on the Lemond Etape, which provided a none too smooth ride over the various surfaces, cobbles, gravel, dirt, broken tarmac. Suffice to say that on arrival in Bath town centre I was wishing I’d decided to wear padded shorts. I had a change of clothes in my panniers (and a change of shoes), but had elected to leave the padding at home. Bath town centre proved easy to navigate, mainly because the cycle route is so clearly and regularly signposted. Quicker than I expected I was riding along the smooth tarmac of the Bristol to Path cycle way. For a long time this was (and may well still be) the jewel in the crown of Sustrans, a beautiful route following one of the old railway lines, dipping through meadows, woodland, over valleys and rivers, very picturesque in any season. The weather was good and the riding very pleasant. Leaves lay in drifts over the path and crunched pleasingly beneath the tyres. Here are two cats I saw en route:

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All the way along, the route was busy with cyclists and walkers. As I arrived at Staple Hill Tunnel, a postman slotted in behind me and began drafting close on my wheel. I yanked out my cronky ol’ camera, which was giving up the ghost the screen had malfunctioned, and took a bit of poor-quality video footage:

Music provided by My Two Toms, who I was to see playing later on that very evening.

I approached Bristol deep in the gloaming, necessitating the use of my lights. Many, many cyclists were using the path and in places it became quite congested, but unlike being in a car, it felt great. Everyone was all smiles and ‘after you’ ‘no after you’. Hipsters with messenger bags mixed with grannies on Pashleys.

It took me a while to understand Tom’s directions, but soon I was ensconced in The Cube cinema, enjoying some terrific films, chatting to people about cycling and listening to some splendid tunes courtesy of My Two Toms and Bucky. The film maker and artist Michael Smith stole the show with his introduction to the film he and Tom made, and also his drawing along live to My Two Toms music. It was a great evening, and nice to find out afterwards that a Highway Cycling Group reader, Mair had turned up and enjoyed herself.

Back at Tom and Katherine’s, we stayed up until three, drinking and talking. During an attempt to take a picture of Tom and Katherine’s bikes I dropped my ailing camera on the stone floor and destroyed it. Ah well, goodbye old friend. A few hours sleep, then we were out on a visit to the famous Bristol Sweetmart, then on to Tom’s studio. Finally, I cycled to the station envisioning a nice sit down on the train, only to find trains on that line were cancelled due to engineering works. Buses were supplied but they wouldn’t let my Lemond Etape on. Wearily I cycled the thirty two miles home. A great weekend.

Why, here are some pictures:

Great Pultney Street, Bath

Great Pultney Street, Bath

Cafe Kino Bristol

Cafe Kino Bristol

Tom and Michael Smith introduce their film

Tom and Michael Smith introduce their film

Bucky Unplugged - Joff wearing my Walz Cycling Cap

Bucky Unplugged - Joff wearing my Walz Cycling Cap

Tom with bikes my smashed camera in his hand

Tom with bikes, my smashed camera in his hand

Street scene - Bristol

Street scene - Bristol

The menu at the old station halt cafe

The menu at the old station halt cafe