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 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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Heavy Spillage on the Birthday Ride

Bear with me, for I’m still blogging about September, now we’re up to the 21st. One of my eldest son’s friends was so proud of his new bike that he wanted to have a ride with his chums to celebrate his birthday. His father being the avid cyclist that he is, was naturally delighted with that idea, and when he explained the idea to me I volunteered to help out with haste – even though I had not been asked. My eldest son, is by a long way the youngest child in his year – in fact his pal who’s birthday it was is almost a full year older than him. You may recall that he had only learned to ride a few weeks ago, and at that time was not yet tall, or confident enough to ride his BMX. Consequently I found myself helping load his bike onto the top of the minibus and suddenly realising his wheels were half the size of his peer-group’s.

We drove down narrow country lanes – heading out towards radstock to join up with the Collier’s Way. This is an old railway line that has been given over to a cycle and walking path. The minibus duly crushed as far into the hedge as we could get it, we unloaded kids and bikes and set about the perilous task of managing a group of overexcited 5-7 year olds as they prepared to race off into the distance. It was a truly lovely day weatherwise, unseasonably warm, blissful after the wet and windy summer the U.K. has endured.

It quickly became apparent that all three adults were needed as the group became strung out. Like the old drovers or a group of cowboys, we needed one at the back to round up the stragglers, one in the middle with the bulk of the group, and one off the front with the young steers who have broken away from the herd. Within minutes one lad was off his bike, a black BMX, and in tears by the side of the path. He was more shocked than injured and he quickly recovered. My son rode at the rear, his tiny wheels held him back and it was rapidly made clear to him that his helmet was cool, but his bike, most certainly was not, at least not in the eyes of his contemporaries. I remembered how delighted he was with the bike when he got it for his birthday two years ago, but now I could sense his frustration and dismay as the others waited for him to catch up. I felt bad that his confidence was being knocked so hard.

We rode on at a gentle pace, stopping briefly for juice and biscuits. One little chap slipped off the saddle and onto the crossbar – as he put it ‘squashing my woodpeckers!’ in the process. More tears, and a much slower pace. In the meantime, my son had realised that if he pedaled twice as hard as the others he could keep up with them, and soon he was making his way up the field.

3.5 miles in, we turned around and headed back for the mini-bus and the prospect of a roast chicken dinner. Now many members of the group started to tire, especially the little chap with the squashed woodpeckers. My son was pedaling so fast he looked like he was on fast-forward. We stopped again, this time for blackberries and the remainder of the jaffa cakes. The three adults gathered round the thermos and supped tea tinged with plastic. With everyone rested and stained with blackberry juice we set off again. Even though he was keeping up, some of the other boys continued to make mock of my son’s bike. This spurred him on into ever more bouts of furious crank-spinning, hunched over the bars he gave it a Merckx-esque effort, drawing from something deep inside inside of him. I was impressed by his stamina and his sheer determination. He barely noticed the derelict guard’s van on the rusted tracks as we passed it, he overtook leisure cyclists – tinging the tiny bell. I let him go a little way ahead with the others in his wake, wondering when he was going to tire and have to fall back, It didn’t happen. Our breakaway group of five (including myself) raced on ahead, taking turns on the front, knowing nothing of drafting, but each of them would force his way to the front then get a few cranks ahead before the others increased the pace and reeled him back in. The sprint, when it came was brief and difficult, being as how it was up the ramp to the road. My son was pleased with his second place, and as the lads stood astride their machines, panting, it was clear we had managed to ride a long way ahead of everyone else.

But then, disaster!

My son decided he would ride down the path and see if he could see them coming. Before I could react or turn my bike round he had launched himself down the ramp and cranked the bike up to a ridiculous speed down the steep hill. I could see the tiny wheels skittering around, see the speed wobble, and got my mouth open and the breath ready to shout “brakes!” when the bike just fell to the ground underneath him with appalling suddenness, catapulting him over the handlebars. He flew through the air and landed horizontally, skidding down the tarmac with the bike following him, until they both came to rest a good three meters ahead of the actual crash site.

There was a moments silence, and I was acutely aware that my heart had stopped beating. I threw my own bike down and ran down the path. His right hand came up feebly and a high keening wail came out of him. I chucked the bike off him and looked him over. A big scratch on the mouth guard of his full-face helmet, a scrape on his elbow, but he seemed ok. I stood him up, got him to wiggle his feet and his fingers as I held his skinny body. He wrapped his spidery arms round my neck and cried that his side hurt. Gently I lifted up his t-shirt to reveal a huge, angry, red patch of missing skin. As I lifted him he collapsed his whole body into me and held on as he cried his eyes out. The others arrived, and soon I was surrounded by concerned children. Luckily the birthday boy’s mum works for the NHS, so my son, happy with her qualifications, let her see the injury. The first aid kit didn’t have a big enough plaster, so he ended up with his shirt off, and a bandage wrapped round his middle holding on a pad. The others were all on the bus as he was bandaged up, and between sobs he said:

“It’s been the worst day, first everyone laughed at my bike and then I fell off and hurt myself!”

My heart felt heavy, and I felt so sad for him. I had spent a lot of my childhood feeling like I was less than my friends, knowing that my toys and clothes were secondhand, or second-rate compared to theirs. Feeling that everything went wrong for me, or that even the most wonderful experience had the potential to turn sour in a moment. This wasn’t what I wanted for him, it wasn’t how wanted him to feel.

I took a deep breath, and told him that he had proved himself as good as or better than the others because he had smaller wheels, he had had to pedal twice as hard. Imagine what he could do when he got on his BMX! And the reason he was hurting, was because he had rode so hard, and without fear, that the crash was enormous! No one else had dared to ride like that today! No one else would have tried to ride down the ramp that fast! No way!

He looked down, no longer crying, but his breath came in shudders.

“No” he said “It all went wrong, it’s the worst day”.

We got on the bus, immediately his friends were wide-eyed asking him questions, now that he could speak again.

“How fast do you reckon you were going?”

“How much did it hurt?”

“Can I see the injury!”

“Woah look at the bandage, awesome!”

“How did you get your bike to go so fast”

It suddenly dawned on him that he was the centre of attention, and he was getting some serious respect and concern from his friends. By the time we arrived back in the village, he was beaming from ear to ear and enjoying his new found status as the daredevil speedmeister of the group.

That roast dinner tasted pretty good.

A few days later he learned to ride the BMX, now at last he has a bike that looks like it’s the right size.

daredevil speedmeister

Daredevil speedmeister

Published in: on October 16, 2008 at 8:43 pm  Comments (3)  
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