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 dĂ©nouement.

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.

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.

Friday Ride II: Of hills, bad tarmac, roadworks and weak tea

Friday Ride

The Friday Ride – L-R, your author, John, Brad, Andy. This was the only time I was out in front on this ride and then only for about forty seconds.

I’d managed to negotiate the afternoon off on Friday, although it turned out that due to a colleague being ill, I had to work up until the bell anyway, so at a quarter of an hour to go before I was meeting John and Andy, I shut up shop for the day and quickly got changed. My faithful Tesco plus fours had given up the ghost the night before – they were holed and torn as it was, but they split completely, unfortunately beyond repair. As I’ve lost a stone over the last month, I feel a lot less self-conscious about wearing the ol’ lyrca, so I felt fine donning the full length bib and my running top. My trusty IPath bigfoots had also gone the way of all threads, the sole having come away from the right shoe, so I wore my running shoes. This proved to be a bad choice, they have pretty aggressive grips and it made sliding in and out of the clips problematic. So now not only will I have to keep an eye out for some plus fours with a popper button for tightening the legs at the calves, but I will have to look for some cheap shoes with limited grips and a good profile and small tongue. Tricky.

I grabbed my Hi-viz waistcoat on the way out and ran the bike up the garden path, leaping on as I pointed the handlebars down the hill. I arrived at the pub car park a little ahead of anyone else, but within three minutes, first Andy, then Brad close behind rode up. It was good to see Brad out with us, and I think this is the first time in a long time that there would be four of us on the road together. John wasn’t too far behind, so he pulled into the carpark and we discussed the day’s ride. John wanted some hills so we elected to go out to Norton St Philip and then into Bath – coming down Claverton hill and onto the (hopefully deserted) A36. We quickly discovered the flaw in the plan. The A36 was closed at Limpley Stoke which, although potentially giving us some traffic free riding on that road, meant that the Norton stretch was an absolute nightmare. Not only that, but the road surface was appalling – Enfer du Nord stuff. I trusted the speed to carry me over the shattered tarmac, pushing hard to stay close to Brad and Andy as they led out. The bike jarred and skittered its way over the crumbling asphalt and chippings, the aluminum frame amplified each bump and crack sending shockwaves through my arms and shoulders. The traffic was angry and impatient, I watched in horror as the huge wing mirror of a truck passed mere inches above Andy’s head at twenty-eight miles an hour, causing Brad to sit up in disgust and shake his head. We pulled over at the hills crest to wait for John who had not yet shrugged off his cold so was wheezing and coughing as he come up. We stood breathing hard, sucking diesel fumes, our faces coated in a thin film of road-dust and sweat, Andy looked back at us over his shoulder, there was not enough room to turn the bikes around “I’ve just realised the size of the hill we’re going to be climbing” he said. He turned back to face the angry, bruised road, but even against the hard thrum of traffic I could hear him exclaim “shit!” – This was bad news, two weeks ago Andy had taken Brassknocker on his racer – a double chainring machine, if the forthcoming hill was daunting to him, what did that mean for me? I had ridden Midford Hill with John before and it was bad enough, but on that ride the traffic hadn’t seemed so angry and the road so against us as it did today.

John didn’t stop when he got level, but carried on and dropped down the hill. I was last out of the layby and watched the others hurtle down the slope, level with the traffic. With the motor vehicles restricted speedwise by the tight curves and steep slope it was easy to take command of the road and I left a white VW van far behind as I leaned into the bends, near grounding the pedal at one point. Brad and Andy had overtaken John, but even they were hammered into a crawl by the daunting climb that we now faced. I tried to hit the granny ring on my triple, but the cables must have stretched and the damn thing wouldn’t go down. Cursing, I locked in a good ten meters behind John, who was stood up and pushing hard to get the bike up. The others were around the corner. Traffic backed up now as we struggled up, as a Shogun passed me I seriously considered holding onto the back and getting a pull. I thought the others may have frowned on such behaviour.

Nevertheless, I crested as the others were just setting off again and we headed around Bath without incident, bar a moment when Brad suddenly took a corner at incredible speed and a weird angle, he’d actually got his finger trapped under the brake lever and couldn’t slow down.

Down Claverton hill, the others shot on ahead, all being accomplished descenders. I nearly came a cropper when a car suddenly lurched round a blind corner – the driver looked as surprised to see me, as I did to see her. Past that obstacle to the junction at the bottom where the others were touching the burning hot wheel rims. Then, oh yes, is it time for the usual shot of John repairing his wheel? Yes I think it is.

John's wheel repair as usualFor those not in the know, every week at some point during the ride, John’s spokes will go wrong or he will puncture. No one knows why this is, but it always happens. The wheels had even been rebuilt in between rides this time. It had been a pretty punishing ride for the bikes, those rough, crumbling tarmac stretches, followed by a long, hard ascent, then a screamingly fast downhill. In truth, it had been a punishing ride all round. Even the mighty Brad was not 100% having had to work some ridiculously long shifts through the night. Now we had come to our reward for the agonising ride we had suffered thus far. With the A36 closed at Limpley Stoke we should practically have it to ourselves. I was a bit worried about how we would get through the roadworks, but John said there was a path across the viaduct, then just a patch of roadworks that we would be able to cruise through and past.

We did indeed have the road to ourselves and road four abreast, this was more like it, the sheer magic of group riding, the melody of eight tyres thrumming on the road surface, the swish of the cranks and the click clack of a gear change, rippling through the group like a wave of wind across a cornfield. We took the roadworks, squeezing over the viaduct in single file, then walking the bikes past the tarmacing that was going on – acid stench of hot asphalt and heat of straining diesel engines as we remounted to take the long but relatively untaxing climb out of Limpley Stoke.

Crossing the viaduct - Limpley StokeOut of the roadworks - Limpley StokeA36 Riding the chain gang

I suddenly realised I had an hour spare, so suggested we head for the village via Farliegh Hungerford and Tellisford. As we trundled up the biggest and longest hill, I got the chain to drop onto the granny ring with a triumphant cry of “yes!” and sat back to watch everyone else weaving over the road with their double chainrings, all stood up out of the saddle. Something suddenly occurred to me, I had taken this hill with absolute ease on the Brompton – and it got me thinking… well I’ll save that for a later post, once I’ve done a few tests…

We arrived at the village, a full fifty minutes before I was due to be back, so I offered a cup of tea. We piled the bikes up on my lawn, and I made some tea while we all talked, bikes, bikeshops and John’s illnesses. Unfortunately, I had not made a pot of tea before with the new brand of tea bags I had been using. I am sorry to say that the tea was nothing short of weak, and much mock was made of the mugs of warm milk, while I tried desperately to squeeze more precious brew out of the ailing bags. In the end the tea was merely insipid, and a second round was refused, leaving me with the burning shame of serving up a poor cuppa, and no chance for redemption! A full enquiry will be launched to discover how this substandard tea got through the filter. Drat.

Weak tea scandal

John and Andy – clearly disgruntled at being served weak tea (mug of weak tea visible bottom left, note poor colouring and general milkiness).