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.

Crepuscular Riding

John turned up bang on six thirty as he said he would. I was, however, not ready. Astute and regular readers may remember that I flatted the rear tyre of my Lemond Etape at the end of my last ride. I did not remember so I was still waiting for the glue on a patch on the tube to set when John arrived. First thing he did was admonish me over the state of my bike. It’s true that it had not been cleaned for a long time, not only that but instead of maintaining the chain properly, I had simply been adding more oil. Mud caked the stays and saddle, the protective sticker on the rear stay had been smothered under a film of oil and the whole machine looked dull and sad. John was eager to get on, so he gave me a spare tube, then showed me an incredible way of putting the tyre and tube back on that I have never read in any book, or seen anywhere else. It was so easy! I will film him giving a demonstration in the near future and post it here.

With the bike roadworthy again we were soon riding at an insistent, but by no means taxing pace towards the main road. I elected to take us down the lanes I had got lost and chased by dogs along a few weeks back. The evening was yet young, but we knew we would be returning under cover of darkness. This time I took a map, and as we ambled along it afforded an occasional stop to get our bearings, with John hardly breaking his narrative stride while he filled me in with the details of his still new job at Moulton Cycles. There was a hint of cloud though the air was reasonably warm considering this was mid-September (yes I am that far behind in my blogging), and we hardly noticed the dusk slipping quietly around us as we made our way through Faulkland. As we headed towards Stony Littleton we put our lights on, John’s was on his helmet and incredibly bright, throwing my shadow to the grey blur of the road as I rode in front. The ground dropped away and shot us down a steep hill – this was the same valley I had been sucked into when I cycled road-shocked into Wellow, on this pleasant early Autumn evening it seemed less threatening. Certainly the omission of slavering farm dogs snapping at the pedals made for a much more pleasant ride. At the bottom of the hill John exclaimed ‘We’ve got to get up this slope somehow in order to get home!’. I ignored him, too busy trying to control the bike as it skittered over water-damaged tarmac – an impromptu and recent ford, not mentioned on my map. The slope bore us up again, past recently harvested fields of stubble and the road surface became ghostly smooth in comparison to the tarmac we had just ridden down. Now I was eager to see the long-barrow at Stony, so I coaxed John onto a rutted farm track. Now it was really getting dark, and as I dragged John grumbling over a field, we could see the ancient burial mound hugging the horizon.

John checks the map - Long-barrow on the skyline

John checks the map - Long-barrow on the skyline

The map was no longer any help, and we found our way to a wooden footbridge and crossed the small but fast flowing river. Having been dragged over a sodden field, John was in no mood to continue looking for a way up to the monument, he was already going to be later home than he said he would be. So I snapped a picture of this alarming sign here and we powered up the hill.

We were soon in Wellow, a picturesque village, seemingly deserted as we saw not a single soul. Out of the village underneath a viaduct that John tells me carries a cycle path to Limply Stoke, then, o Lord, up that hellish hill. One of those gradients that seems to go on forever. Where every horizon reveals a further horizon, unfolding like some fiendish trap or puzzle, first the lungs and then the legs (though for others I know it’s the other way round, jelly-legs then gasping for breath). John’s fitness has improved much in the last year that we have been riding, and he was able to pull way ahead, I’m pretty sure he was pushing bigger gears too. At the top we headed for Hinton Charterhouse and then on to Norton St Philip. The darkness had well and truly settled in now, the witching hour was over and we were in evening and heading for night time. On the main road, I hit a bump and lost my back light, which shattered as it hit the ground with a horrible plastic skittering sound. I spent a few minutes gathering all the pieces up and shoving them tinkling into my pockets. Luckily we were mere minutes away from my home, so by riding in front of John I kept up the illusion of law-abiding safety. Thank goodness for my hi-viz vest, which I imagine is visible from space when illuminated by headlights. A cheery farewell to John, who still had a five or six mile ride home to go and I was back at the house. We didn’t put in a huge amount of miles, but we did get a good workout on the hills. Crucially though, I had exorcised the shattering ride along the same lanes of a week or so before.

A couple of days later, I took the Lemond apart and carefully washed the whole bike, tyres and all, and vowed never again to let it get into such a poor and muddy state.

Cheesy Riders: In which we meet dogs that hated John, are shadowed by a mystery rider, eat two full english breakfasts and ride a three mile climb out of a gorge

On Sunday the 17th of August I joined John and Andy on a ride to Cheddar. John had the map, Andy had some sort of electronic mapping device/speedometer/cadence/heartrate doo-dad, and I had an enormous flask of tea. In a fit of actually attempting to be a proper cyclist, I had mixed up a ‘sports drink’ and was taking regular sips. Needless to say it was absolutely revolting, but oddly compelling and as I didn’t feel tired on the ride, I guess it must have worked. We paused briefly at Farleigh Castle for a departure photograph.

Rarely has there been a more mismatched group of cyclists

The Cheesy Riders: Rarely has there been a more mismatched group of cyclists

A chap slowly overtook us on his bike as we prepared to set off again, we were to see him again and again throughout the ride seemingly defying all laws of physics and logic as he continuously appeared in front and behind of us, emerging from side junctions or turning off the road we were on.

We settled into a pace of sorts, well below Andy’s expectations for average apeed, he was off the front for a lot of the way waiting for us to catch him up. Every now and again John would stop to get the map out or I would call for a photograph, affording us a nice break. The weather looked moody and unpredictable with the threat of a soaking ever present, a ying yang sky, half black clouds, half deep azure blue. A few miles in and I’m sure we saw the chap on the bike turn off left some way ahead of us on one of the straights.

We rode through Faulkland, past the enigmatic standing stones that were probably once part of a circle. Past the Lavender Farm, but the heavy bovine stench of muck-spreading quickly masked and canceled out the faintly perfumed air before we could get a good lung full. There was plenty of up and down, giving some cause for concern as to how I would get back up the hill after forty or fifty miles of riding.

Some of the ups - John crests a Somerset hill

Some of the ups - John crests a Somerset hill

At a crossroads on the main road we stopped to consider whether we should continue on the main road (very busy) or turn left towards Priddy along a much quieter, but longer route. John took the map out again, some dogs in the garden of a house at the crossroads were going berserk, throwing themselves at the fence, barking furiously. I snapped a pic of the chaps considering the route, and didn’t notice until later that the mysterious rider was in there.

The mystery rider about to hang a left as the chaps look the other way

The mystery rider about to hang a right as the chaps look the other way

John rode a little way back the way we came in order to check that the sign pointed to Priddy, immediately the dogs ceased their cacophony. Andy and I moved forward, they could see us, but just panted and stared. The rabid barking started again, announcing John’s return. Curious.

We turned left towards Priddy along open heath while buzzards called and circled overhead. To the East we could see rain clouds brewing up so we upped the pace a little. At Priddy itself, there was some sort of sheep fair being set up, hazel hurdles were being unloaded from the backs of farm trailers, and sheep dogs skulked panting in the shadows of landrovers. We passed them all and rejoined the main road, but not before we saw the mystery rider appear from a junction ahead of us.

Flood waters, Priddy

Flood waters, Priddy

Now we began the long descent into Cheddar Gorge, it went by so quickly. Everywhere there were cyclists coming up the hill, walkers on the steep sides, buses labouring up, engines straining. We shot into the gorge itself, the steep sides and rocky outcrops were awe-inspiring. John and Andy shot on ahead, with John nearly ending up on the bonnet of an ascending car after he swung out a little wide on one of the switchbacks. Down, down, down we went, and all the way one thought stayed with me… “How the hell will I climb out of this?”. The spectacular scenery gave way to the worst kind of tourist tat as we hit Cheddar itself. garish shop fronts, tacky souvenirs, cheese, ‘authentic olde english’ cafes, the very worst that British tourism could produce, lining the narrow streets as we glided in looking for safe haven.

We parked up outside a wasp-struck tearoom, replete with white plastic garden furniture and laminated menus. Ensconced safely by the congested road, but with the calm of the river to our side, we set about ordering our victuals. Andy elected merely to have a coffee, but John and I decided on the full English breakfast, with extra toast and jam. It was too much for Andy, combined with the enormous flask of tea in my panniers and John’s musings on where to purchase the best souvenir cheese, it overloaded his senses. It was not cycling as he understood it, he could only watch in dismay as two full Englishes arrived and an unholy display of consumption took place.

At this juncture, I must point out that like Andy, my body is a temple. However whereas his temple is tended by enlightened priests of restraint and quiet contemplation that ensures a body at the height of its power is kept in fine fettle, my temple is an atavistic bloodbath where constant animal sacrifice is the norm. Behold the libations!

A full english breakfast about to be sacrificed to my cavernous maw. Andy can't watch.

A full english breakfast about to be sacrificed to my cavernous maw.

Quite appalling. Andy had to get back to his wife, who it transpired was not well, so with a hearty farewell he eased up the road slipping in behind a tourist double decker bus. There was little doubt in our minds that he would be home before John and I had wheezed our way out of the gorge.

It was a long time and a lot of toast before John and I decided to make a move, wheeling the bikes 500 yds up the hill to a purveyor of cheeses to buy three different types of cheddar (saving the cave aged one for myself), then we wearily turned the bikes up the hill and headed out of the gorge. John led out and I’ll spare you the lung-searing details of the switchbacks, save to say that we miraculously found time for a photo opportunity on the way out:

The author pauses to admire the gorge (catch his breath)

The author pauses to 'admire the gorge' (catch his breath lest he perish)

It was deemed to early in the return trip for a cup of tea (having only gone about a mile of the thirty ahead of us) which meant I had to lug the full flask up the hill. Away from the switchbacks it wasn’t too bad, it was just long, I would say that the main hill was about 3.5 miles, if you take the full gradient it was probably five, but once the switchbacks were out of the way it made everything else feel like a gentle slope. That said, we were dropped on the way up by a woman wearing jeans and crocs and riding a mountain bike. We kept her in sight though, much to the distress of our stomachs, struggling with the full english breakfasts. She turned around at the top and went back down again… local.

At the top of the hill we stayed on the main road, passing a large temporary gypsy camp. Old 4x4s mingled with traditional caravans and groups of horses stood chewing grass, many of them untethered, content to wander the verge.

In the distance, could I see a solitary rider ahead of us, could it be..?

On we rode, up and down the rolling landscape, back the way we came earlier in the day. We paused only briefly to drink the tea and lighten the flask, I am sure John only did this as he felt sorry for me hauling the full flask four fifty miles, before continuing on our way. Strangely the hills didn’t seem as bad as we thought they might on the way back. At Farleigh Hungerford we said goodbye, I rode back through Tellisford, three hills to deal with and then I was home, sharing the cave-aged cheddar with the family.

John later told me that the mystery rider was last seen at the Wingfield crossroads drafting in his slipstream…

Andy’s electronic doo-dad recorded the route, here it is:

The route according to Andy's electronic thingamajig

The route according to Andy