Two rides with John – ‘Eight Snorkers and a Naughty Ferret on the way to Heaven’s Gate’ And ‘How we took the canal path home despite John’s grumblings’

I really am appallingly behind with this blog, weeks behind in fact. So much has happened in that time, Team GB dominated Olympic Cycling – with riders from all the corners of this sceptred isle winning medals; I went to Wales and smuggled my Brompton over the border to sneak in a dusk ride on a deserted mountain road; John, Andy and I rode to Cheddar and back, including about a three mile climb out of the gorge on a full English breakfast with 1.5 litres of tea in my panniers and a slab of cave matured cheddar cheese.

But, friends, let us start with a couple of rides I went on with John. the first was a Tuesday ride. Unfortunately, my father in law had fed me from his barbeque that evening. In my lust for nosh, I had consumed no less than eight sausages of fine pedigree. As I eased onto the tarmac with the bike I knew this was a mistake. John took us round the back of the Longleat estate, and didn’t need much persuading to make a short detour to The Bath Arms and a pint of Naughty Ferret. Then we slipped into the Longleat house grounds and took a right to tackle Heaven’s Gate Hill. In the gathering dusk I struggled up in John’s wake, my ribs were near bursting with agony and those eight snorkers(1) were banging about in my stomach. Somehow, I made it to the top where John stood looking out over the landscape. Here are some pictures of that ride:

Naughty Ferret and a Guinness Please

Naughty Ferret and a Guinness Please

Riding towards Longleat House

Riding towards Longleat House

The view from the top

The view from the top

On the way out of Longleat

On the way out of Longleat

The next ride was, I believe, a Friday ride. We took to the lanes around Melksham – and were bullied into the verges by endless streams of fast traffic. So fed up did I become of cars screaming past too close, or overtaking on blind corners, that I persuaded John to ride back to his house along the canal path. He was not happy about this at all. Worries about puncturing proved unfounded and we were soon safely ensconced at the table back at his garden. To my great surprise and delight, he pulled out the tea set and some biscuits. Cue endless jokes from John about proper strength tea.(2)

Manor house

Manor house

By the MOT Centre - Outskirts of Melksham

By the MOT Centre - Outskirts of Melksham

Proper Tea (3)

Proper Tea (3)

Footnotes

(1) My use of the word Snorkers when referring to sausages can be traced back to this article in Fortean Times about the Wild Man of Sutton, known locally as Bark Foot:

“Patrick Sheehy told how his cousin Oliver was jogging through the 2,400-acre (970-ha) nature reserve one morning last May and was cutting through one of the holly groves when he collided with a man crouching over a pan full of sausages as he put out a fire. The man’s breakfast went flying. Oliver apologised and quickly departed as a gravelly voice shouted: “My snorkers are ruined!”

(2) Note that, as we shall see in later posts, John returns time and again to the issue of proper strength tea. One feels that he may be unable to move on from the whole ‘tea not strong enough’ incident. Had I known it would have scarred his psyche so deeply, I would certainly have checked the tea strength before pouring.

(3) Why did Chairman Mao and Karl Marx drink herbal teas? – Because all proper tea is theft.

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).

Cycling through a gale in search of a cup of tea


A distinct lack of teabags in the house saw me venturing out in the high winds in search of the magic leaves for a brew-up. The fact that I was freewheeling uphill suggested to me that the return trip, into the wind, might be a little difficult. I hurtled out of the village with a whirlwind of leaves, grass and twigs blowing around the road, onto the Wingfield Straight with the wind pushing against my left side. Luckily I presented a thin profile to the raging gusts and I kept my line on the road. Turning right at the shrine, I had the wind behind me and was blown along the road to Trowbridge itself. I raced past the roundabout for Broadmead and continued to where the Bradford road joins up, going all the way round the church that sits on a traffic island. My right pedal grounded slightly with an audible scraping sound as I leant hard into the bend, still pedalling. I cut across a no through road and took a hard left onto the bike path. Over another main road, avoiding the massive roundabout by the large Tesco’s, now I was in the backstreets.

Here the wind was less steady, less predictable; gargantuan gusts howled round corners of 1930s red brick houses. Frequent patches of waste ground spewed out clumps of dried, white, grass which skittered and raced about the hammered tarmac, Wiltshire tumbleweed. A scally crested the railway bridge in front of me on a full-sus mtb, his eyes alert, looking round intently, for what? Escape routes? Opportunities? On seeing me he looked down, spitting hard onto the ground  and rose from his saddle to pump the cranks before passing, eyes flicking up once, wolfish, then he was round the corner and away.

The bridge was in poor repair, crushed kerbstones and chipped caps that spoke of wide loads and tight-squeezes, back a bit, left hand down, steady, woah woah WOAAH! On the other side the road just gave up, disintegrating into gravel and bramble. Lamposts leant into the wind, which sang its banshee cry through sagging telephone wires. By the side of the tracks a trolley was choked in brambles, obviously it had been there much longer than the brand new, spike-tipped, galvenized steel fence dividing the walkway from the trainline. No one had thought to pull the trolley out while putting the fence up. An avenue of stunted blackthorns festooned with ripped plastic bags; tattered fruits, noisily flapping, funneled me into the maze of roads backing onto Tesco’s. White paint was splashed over the asphalt, a decorator’s accident, now etched into the surface of the road, white tyre prints radiated out thirty yards or so before fading to grey.

Into the relative calm of the store, emptier than usual. I had the Brompton and  the front bag in the trolley together, no need for a bike lock. Pretty soon I was back outside, the bag laden with groceries including some excellent quality tea. The return journey promised to be hard work, I spent as much time as possible weaving through the backstreets and houses while the wind probed at me where it could.

Finally, Trowbridge spat me out onto the A361 to face the gale, now at last the wind had me where it wanted me. Three miles of agonisingly pushing the pedals, moving forward slowly, almost down to walking pace. I kept with it, a steaming hot mug of tea appearing in my mind’s eye like some sort of grailquest vision. I guess I am a hardcore cyclist, not in the traditional sense of putting in lots of hours or miles on the bike, but I am hardcore in the sense that I will take on the A361 in a force 7-8 gale. The light over the fields appeared silvery where the grass was blown flat in waves, exposing the pale underleaves momentarily so that the landscape appeared liminal, even unreal. It kept my mind from over-thinking the sluglike pace I was crawling home at. Indeed, it seemed that soon I was slipping into the lowest gear and trickling steadily up Rode Hill.

You can be certain that the first thing I did on arrival back at base, was to switch on the kettle. Never, and I mean never, did a cup of tea taste so damn good.

Published in: on March 11, 2008 at 11:31 pm  Leave a Comment  
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