The Winter Ride

It was January 7, 2021 and I needed some distraction. Had the craziness in the US reached its peak? (Spoiler: too early to tell) Was the pain in my chest trapped wind or something even more serious? (Spoiler: trapped wind) The weather forecast was for light cloud and temperatures around zero. There had been no rain for several days so despite the cold I could expect the roads to be mostly free from ice. That was good enough; I was going to ride my bike.

I chose a familiar 80 km route that heads north from Bath as far as Sherston before it turns west and south to skirt Bristol before joining the railway path back to Bath. The charm of this route is that all the toughest climbs are in the first 13 km when you are fresh. I set off in thick fog but it was still quite early and there was time for it to clear.

The first serious uphill is the Tadwick climb; a set of rising and rolling declivities that settle down into a long grind before finishing with a short steep ascent that brought me to the highest point of the route at 230m. I panted my way to the top, stopped and looked back. The sky was an unforecasted blue and the valley below was smothered in bright white creamy cloud. I could see right across to the Beckford tower at the top of Lansdown. Now I had to get across the A46 to reach the next valley, so the absence of fog was a relief. Maybe it was going to be a fine day after all.

Swooping down into St Catherine’s valley past the farms and the Monkswood reservoir cost me over 100 metres in height and plunged me back into the fog. Now I had to climb up to Marshfield via a short off road section. Unlike the Tadwick climb this one is steepest at the start; a narrow twisting high hedged road whose gradient reaches 18%. I can usually grind all the way up the steep bit but this time I had to pause to catch my breath. Generating power in the cold was harder and even the air felt thicker.

Once past the first section the road starts to open up and level out. The fog obscured any views but I was concentrating on the road anyway. It was mostly dry with just a few avoidable patches of ice. The cold was starting to creep into my fingers and toes even though I was working hard.

I reached Marshfield happy that the big climbs were behind me and I had banked over 100 metres in height that I would not have to draw on until much later in the ride. I complacently swung right down Sheepfair Lane and immediately lost traction on a patch of black ice. I hit the road and my bike slid away dragging at my still clipped in left shoe. Falling off a bike is quick and easy but it usually comes with a few milliseconds of dread as you transition from a moving object into a falling one. This time I was sliding along the ground before I knew it. The ice was unyielding but some of the force of hitting the ground was converted into the sliding making my sudden stop a little less of a shock. I lurched back to my feet and checked myself and the bike. Everything seemed fine both with me and the machine so I jumped back on and resumed my ride. It was only much later back at home in the warm that my injured wrist start to swell up and ache; an unexpected benefit of the cold I suppose.

From Marshfield the route now traversed some less extreme terrain. The fog was only a little thinner than it had been down in the valley but a faintly glowing orb was visible through it. Looked like it was going to clear up. I made my way to West Littleton without mishap after carefully navigating one rough and icy descent. Then came a fast and fun 2.5Km section of gravel. Although I was riding the winter version of the route that stayed mostly on tarmac this stretch was a crucial link. It is also a proper gravel road, wide and well drained with avoidable puddles and manageable bumps, unlike the churned up muddy turmoil of most UK off road routes in winter. It finishes at a stone-built set of farm buildings nestled into a hillside with a plummet to a narrow unwalled bridge. I took this very cautiously.

Back on the tarmac I turned north west towards the crossroads that marks the centre point of this figure of eight route. The future me would come south east towards the crossroads and turn south west. The present me was turning north east at the crossroads for the road to Burton. This 4 Km section is popular with cyclists because it’s short on traffic and intersections and high in gentle rolls and turns making for a fast and satisfying ride.

As I turned towards Burton the fog seemed to be thinning. On my left there was a continuous hedge with shrubs and larger trees. On my right, to the south, there were occasional clumps of trees. The low sun was now vapourishly beaming across the fields and, where it was uninterrupted, had melted all the frost from the hedge. Where the hedge was sheltered it was still coated in bright glittering white. I would have stopped to take a photo but the prospect of stopping, removing my gloves, fishing out my phone, and composing a picture was too daunting as the cold was now starting to engulf my fingers and toes. Instead I hoped to warm myself up by turning up the power. I failed and by the time I reached Burton the fog had closed back in, the sun had retreated, and the temperature was dropping even lower. Two cars without lights raced past me into the coagulating fog.

After Burton I continue on the road that runs alongside the M4 before taking a sharp left to duck under the motorway. I stopped under the wide bridge though it provided no shelter. After 26 Km I was losing contact with my fingers and toes. My fancy winter gloves were no help when my elderly hands were afflicted with whitefinger for there was no warmth for the gloves to trap. I resorted to a pair of handwarmers to restore feeling to my fingers. For my toes I had another solution; battery powered electric socks. After warming my hands and switching on my socks I got back on the bike. The time was around half past eleven and the temperature was still sub-zero. As soon as I started pedalling I could feel the wind chill on my arms and legs. White freezing fog was crystallising in the sleeve creases of my dark jacket.

Even with the wind chill I feel better moving. As soon as I stop the cold starts creeping around my body, seeking out any vulnerable spots. The battle between my ability to generate warmth and the cold sucking it away seemed more evenly balanced when pedalling. I am wearing garments designed for cycling that are made from fabrics mostly derived from petrochemicals. The jacket is windproof at the front and ventilated at the back. The leggings are stretchy and comfortable as well as keeping in just enough warmth for my legs to keep working.

The fog was thickening again so I advanced like a catfish snuffling through the mud at the bottom of a murky river all unaware of the brightness just above my head. Fortunately, like the electroreceptive catfish, I had extra senses to guide me. My rear light used radar to alert me to potential pursuing predators from 100 metres away and the light would flash faster as they approached to encourage them to give me a wider berth.

The alerts from the radar appear on my bike computer (otherwise unhelpfully known as a ‘head unit’), which also tells me speed, distance, gradient, temperature and shows me a map of where I am. Today all the familiar landmarks and turnings are hidden or obscured by the enveloping grayness but at every junction I just have to glance down at the screen to know the direction I should take. I am like a dung beetle navigating by the Milky Way as it rolls its precious cargo across the trackless desert.

I used to decry electronic additions to my bicycle. I liked the bicycle’s mechanical purity and the direct connection with the rider. The bike shop that built up my latest bike had persuaded me to use electronic gear shifting and I agreed despite the cost. Within three years I had two batteries fail leaving me gearless. Embarrassing. But the shifting is smooth under load, gobbles up my wide range cassette, and takes minimum effort even when I am tired and struggling.

My bicycle, the lightest I have ever owned, is now festooned with electronic devices networked together. The boring necessity of ensuring that they are all charged up is offset by their help when riding. Shifting, navigation, and traffic awareness are all that bit easier, which gives me more of those sublime merging with the bike moments.

I was now following tiny lanes all the way to Sherston. There was no one to be seen but then I could only see twenty metres or so. After the empty streets of Sherston more tiny lanes took me to Luckington via Sopworth, enabling me to avoid the probably-not-very-busy-at-all B4040. I stopped at a bridge to expose myself to a hedge, empty my bladder, and then warm my hands. Someone came jogging along the road. We exchanged looks.

Luckington is a strung-out sort of place but I only grazed it before turning down Cherry Orchard Lane and then joining Allengrove Lane, one of my favourite parts of the route. There’s a corner along here that marks the halfway point at forty kilometres. I usually stop for that reason but also because it is a quiet spot where there is no traffic passing by, no buildings to be seen, and just the sounds of birds and animals to be heard. There is a wooden gate to lean my bike against instead of the usual galvanised steel and on warm summer days its creosote aroma takes me back to my farm childhood. There was no madeleine moment today. I paused only to eat my oaty bar and to take my sole photograph of the trip.

It was twelve thirty and I had ridden just forty kilometres. Even by my standards this was slow progress so I hastened on. Now the route was taking me south and the road was wide, smooth and quiet. After Badminton I stay on the tarmac and skip the summer diversion onto woodland tracks. Spinning along with the wind chilling my face I realise that I can easily wriggle my toes. They are warm; almost, but not quite, too warm. This is strange but delightful and I decide to enjoy it.

I reach a curious junction where, as you carry straight on, the B4040 hijacks the road for three hundred metres, executing two sharp turns to do so. It is a relief to get back on the aboriginal road after completing a right turn in the face of any oncoming traffic, which is usually visible before it reaches the corner but today is cloaked. The B4040 might overwhelm my little lane but it soon learns its place in the road hierarchy when it crashes into the A46 a little further on and gets terminated. Meanwhile I head over the hill to the T-junction where I can go right to Tormarton on the Acton Turville Road or I can go left to Acton Turville on the Tormarton Road. I go right.

I push on through Tormarton, passing the scruffy looking church with its short squat tower, and heading for the bridge over the M4. The screaming stinking flow of metal is just a little more subdued than usual. A little further and I reach the crossroads where I intersect with the route of past me coming from the south and heading north east. I am now coming from the north and heading south west. Soon I will have to decide what to do about the A46 and I have a choice. If I stay on this road – Cotswold Way, which is a proper tarmac road and is also part of the Cotswold Way National Trail – I will come to the first intersection with the A46 south of Junction 18. The road here is often full of vehicles fresh from the motorway. There are two turning lanes so to get to the other side means crossing four lanes and navigating some traffic that might be slowing or stopped and some traffic that is hammering to or from the motorway. The alternative is to head for the next crossroads a little further south. Here the A46 is narrower with just one turning lane and fewer vehicles wanting to turn off. Gaps in the traffic are more frequent and the road is quicker to cross.

I decide on the southern crossing, which requires that I turn off Cotswold Way onto a track that goes straight up a hill, along the top, and down the other side. It is mostly exposed stone and the ride is bumpy but safe enough and I am not too apprehensive about falling off my bike again.

I reach the end of the track passing around the old threshing machine placed to block ingress and join the little lane that takes me across the A46 and finally links back up with Cotswold Way. Now I am approaching the hill where I will draw on the height I gained at the beginning of the ride. I’m looking forward to this because I decided to take the route through Hinton and avoid my usual turn down the narrow, steep, and potentially slippery Cock Lane. This diversion also adds a few kilometres that I have not ridden before.

But the road narrows as I near the hill down to Hinton and the fog is congealing between the high hedges so my alternative to Cock Lane does not seem so much safer. Avoiding an innuendo, I edge cautiously down the steep hill and through the sharp bends to Hinton village where finally the road opens up. Then I climb a little, take a sharp turn south and I am on Rookery Lane, a road along the ridge of the high ground between Feltham Brook and the River Boyd that then plunges down to Doynton. This road is new to me and on another day might have commanding views of the hills that hold Bath and Bristol apart. The rookery count is zero but I do pass a garden gate festooned with Star Wars figures. My unnaturally warm feet and the gradual loss of height made me feel that the remaining distance was melting away even if the frost was not. I cut through Wick and shortly afterwards took my only wrong turning of the day when I stopped paying attention to the chevrons.

After Doynton I head down towards Wick, grazing it before heading for the Golden Valley. The trend is still downhill but there is one steep uphill on Oldbury Lane and I have to deploy my lowest gear as well as some huffing and puffing to reach the top. At last I make it to the crossroads where I turn right towards Bitton and through the Golden Valley and then, after Bitton, I slip down a no through road and under a bridge. Beside is a steep stepped path that I can climb slowly with my bike over my shoulder to reach the Bath/Bristol railway path for the last easy ten kilometres back into Bath. I stop before heading back into the streets and check my socks. The batteries were exhausted but my toes were still warm. I could look forward to a shower that did not involve any moaning and crying as my feet came back to life.

I like to think that I never regret going for a bike ride. That sentiment was challenged by this ride, especially after I warmed up and the pain from my fall kicked in. I take a little comfort in the hope that the January 6 insurrectionists will have more regrets.