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September 1, 2015
Four maps. Three shot glasses. One ball of wool. Cycle holiday 2015

Four maps. Three shot glasses. One ball of wool. Cycle holiday 2015

The bike trip is an annual ritual that’s now in its sixth year. It largely consists of cycling a reasonable distance over a well-marked route, with several stopping off points over the long August bank holiday weekend. This year there were a couple of differences – the trip was confined to two days, and Dave had foolishly ceded control of route planning to me.

So, meeting at Paddington station at 8 on Saturday morning, we boarded the 8:30 train to Bath for the start of the ride. The weather was beautiful – all blue skies and little in the way of cloud – but rain was promised for the second day. While there were options available for adjusting the second day’s route to suit the conditions, the 80-odd miles between Bath and Abingdon were largely non-negotiable.

Aiming to get underway quickly, we found a supermarket for Jon to pick up some water, had a quick pre-loading snack and we were away. Despite the shorter trip, I’d still managed to pack two panniers (largely because I’d felt a bit unstable with a D lock, 2 litres of water, snacks and clothes all hanging off one side of my bike); Jon and Dave had both packed more leanly.

The early miles led out along the canal, meaning the exit from Bath was somewhat flatter than we had braced ourselves for. At around 11am it was bright and sunny, bringing walkers and families to the gravel paths of the canal, which slowed us somewhat – although gave us the opportunity to appreciate the two entirely separate boatloads of pirates on the canal. Because you can’t distinguish between the sartorial choices of occasion of small children (in a rowing boat) and a stag do (barely hanging off a canal boat).

The route I had mapped was more complicated than our usual style, so when we came to a likely turning, we headed up the steep, winding road heading away from the canal without question. There hadn’t been a route sign, but it looked about right. Sadly, it was completely wrong, so after a short-but-gruelling climb we paused briefly to work out how we should rejoin the route. Not a disaster, but perhaps not the best start…

Once we got back on the route we should have been on, the signage improved significantly. The hills were much more rolling than the fierce wedges we’d feared, so progress was good, and we were tearing through idyllic country villages with thatched roofs and cottage gardens. Long stretches of shorn golden cornfields, dotted with tightly packed straw bales, punctuated by lush hedgerow bearing late-summer fruit. In the distance, a hazy nest of hills gradually nudged closer, a mood theme for the afternoon’s ride.

Although we were making good progress, we still had a long way to go, so when we made the next turn away from the well-marked route to the section that would take us through Swindon and over to the Ridgeway, the complete dearth of signage didn’t exactly fill us with confidence. We followed signs for Swindon, the roads becoming larger, less scenic.

We rolled on to the cycle paths around Swindon, through a residential area, before we landed up in a retail park and decided to call it lunchtime. It was super-hot, we were out of water, and it was about three in the afternoon. Time for a quick lunch, but nothing more.

Having found something vaguely edible in the worst designed Asda in the world, we sat on a parched clump of grass opposite the beer garden of a Harvester. Great fleshy lumps of men were toplessly tucking into a hearty lunch of four pints of Stella, lobster-glowing in the afternoon sun. We’ve had many better lunches in previous years, but none quicker.

Soon, we were back on our way, following cycle paths. Any cycle path. Generally headed east, unless we found ourselves heading south, but that was probably fine, right? Cutting and changing, Swindon flashed past us like a chase scene from Tom and Jerry, repeating itself in a heady repetitious blur. Were we getting out of town, or just riding round in a dreary circle, somehow unable to reach escape velocity? Eventually, the urban sprawl vomited us into Old Swindon, before flushing us out to the foot of the Ridgeway.

The Ridgeway is an ancient long-distance footpath, used by ancient travellers and traders, it trails the crest of a chalk hill for 87 miles. Our route hitched a ride on the Ridgeway for 10 or 15 miles before switching back off the hillside and pelting us through Didcot before arriving at our hotel in Abingdon. Needless to say, there was a bit of a climb.

It must have been close to 5 by the time we got up on to the chalk trails that would carry us over the undulating hillside. A long day’s ride already, we had something like 20 or 30 miles remaining, and a not insignificant amount of that over difficult terrain. We passed a guy having a whale of a time on his tough-suspension BMX. We had hybrid bikes at best. Jon was feeling the brunt of every gully, divot, rock and clump on his stiff-framed bike.

Broken Jon is broken.

Broken Jon is broken.

We reached a summit of sorts – one of many along the route – at the white horse. A medieval hill fort perched on top of the hillside, affording views of Oxfordshire. The remaining cooling towers of Didcot Power Station acting as a waypoint; somewhere in that direction we’d find a bar, beers, and bed.

Somewhere, if you squint, you'll see Didcot.

Somewhere, if you squint, you’ll see Didcot.

We rode on. Speeding up and slowing down as the terrain allowed, counting the junctions to try to work out when we could rejoin the roads, anticipating the downward sprint on smooth surfaces. Eventually, we got to the junction, turned left and took full advantage of the bliss of gravity and good road maintenance. Only to find that we’d probably left the Ridgeway a bit early – we should have joined another national cycle route, but instead appeared to be some way short of Wantage.

The sun was very much on its downwards trajectory, and we could sense evening closing in. Didcot was visible as either cooling towers in the distance of on road signs as we followed roads that may have not been the ones we intended to use, but which were at least in the right direction.

A roads are never the most fun to ride down. Perhaps less so when the light’s draining out of the day. But an A road was our quickest route, and damned if we weren’t taking it. Until I spotted a sign for Steventon, and quickly wheeled us off down a different road. Having lived in the area for a good few years, and having trained for a marathon on the roads around Abingdon and Didcot, I still had the useful runner’s sense of route-making.

We trundled through Steventon, Drayton and past the patchy few fields that separate Abingdon from the surrounding villages and we were done for the day, with the final dregs of daylight still hanging in the air. We’d knocked out 86 miles, climbed 3400ft and spent a total of 7 hours in the saddle. Only showers separated us from the several beers and massive curry that we’d thoroughly earned.

'Tell me about Arb-ing-don.'  'There will be curry, and beer, and you may rest your weary bones.'

‘Tell me about Arb-ing-don.’
‘There will be curry, and beer, and you may rest your weary bones.’

Day 2 was meant to be the biggie. Abingdon to Cambridge. 120 miles. And clearly wasn’t going to happen. We were tired, and had work the next day, and it was going to rain heavily from exactly 2pm according to various weather apps. Instead, as we worked our way through eggs and mushrooms and hash browns, we decided Windsor would be a good compromise. 50 miles, which we could easily cover off before the rain, and good pubs where we could have the luxurious lunch we’d missed out on yesterday.

‘And since we’re on the Thames,’ Dave said confidently, ‘and we’ll be ending on the Thames, there are no hills. In fact, there’s barely a bump in the road. And gravity will flow backwards if we need it to. And –’ he pointed a sausage-loaded fork in my direction ‘– there will categorically, positively, absolutely be none of that Ridgeway crap today.’

[Disclaimer: not Dave’s actual words or actions, but the gist of something he said was in there somewhere.]

We checked out, loaded up on water, and hit the road out towards Didcot. The towers getting closer and closer, and the path largely well-marked – until a corner wasn’t marked and we ended up down a dirt path with a chain-link fence blocked shut by great concrete bollards. Jon, to his adventuring credit, was up for scaling the fence, but reasoning that power stations probably didn’t take well to unexpected visitors, and that there was a perfectly credible turning we had cycled past, we turned back instead.

Passing under the hallowed concrete cooling towers of Didcot B was something of a moment for Jon and Dave, both – as it transpires – fans of domestic energy security. We took an early break to unleash a torrent of power station images on social media.

Admiring the cooling towers

Hashtag cycletrip15
Hashtag DidcotB
Hashtag domesticenergysupply

And then we were back on our way, the air cool, and the skies grey. The Cotswolds countryside passed in a cacophony of straw, thatched cottages, old brickwork, red phone boxes and trailing garden roses. We had a few short climbs as we skirted the Wittenham Clumps.

‘Nope, still don’t see any Ridgeway,’ Dave called across the road to me as we took a moment to admire the vista stretched out from the summit of a short climb.

The road descended, curled round, and there – wouldn’t you know it – was the Ridgeway, the road distinctly folding itself up across the wooded incline.

‘Urgh,’ said Dave.

It started to rain.

‘Urgh,’ I agreed.

Somewhere amidst the climb to the summit of the Ridgeway, the rain turned from a light smattering to full-on-sheets-drifting-down soaker. We were quickly drenched, and despite traipsing through some heavily wooded land, getting wetter. Water was spraying everywhere, and the day had taken on that set-in look, which clearly indicated no respite in the downpour in sight.

After swinging down a few residential roads, and heading distinctly downwards we started seeing signs for Reading. We took a moment to park our dripping selves under a bit of shelter by a shop and quickly agreed that there was much to be said for calling it a day here and now. We decided to head to the train station, find a pub nearby and then get on our way back to our respective homes.

Shortly after this decision had been made, our path took us back down to the Thames and a section of swamped temporary pathway. The combination of a tight corner, slick surface and lop-sided weighting sent Dave crashing to the ground in a fairly spectacular-looking tumble. Fortunately fine, barring a few grazes, the rain at least served to wash off the worst of the mud by the time we reached the station and could take the commemorative photo.

Muddy Dave.

Half Dave, half mud.

We drip-dried in a pub, before making our way back to the station, catching various stopping services and swiftly disbanding the year’s cycling venture. Perhaps not our most successful ride, but with no mechanicals and our longest ever single-day ride, I’d be loathe to call it a failure. Although perhaps next time we need to make sure the balance between impressive challenge and time to do anything other than sit in the saddle is balanced a little more in our favour.

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