Gardeners skipper Richard Higginbottom has to set himself targets in order to achieve anything in life. Generally he fails miserably but sometimes he gets close. Most recently he’s embarked on a big campaign to shed the pounds to get himself in shape for tackling the semi-legendary London-Edinburgh-London 800 mile cycle ride at the end of July 2013. This has been going pretty well and the latest stepping stone was to undertake a mere 252 miles from Chalfont St Peter in Bucks to the Severn Bridge and back again. Target time including all the necessary stops was 20 hours.
At 4.20 am the alarm sounded in the East Wing of Stevenage Towers. Unwisely the butler had been given the day off so Richard heaved himself out of bed and commenced trying to fool his body it was just another day, having a shave, eating breakfast, taking tea to the long-suffering Sandra. Quiet drive to Chalfont to join the other random headcases for the weekend’s challenge. 48 entrants but 9 had seen a challenging weather forecast and stayed in bed. Wimps. First section heads North-West … pretty good the wind is to the side and light; it’s cold but not wet. Get in a group of about 8 and we turn West onto the various B roads and minor lanes as the terrain starts to undulate in the Chilterns and we share the lead into a headwind. No serious climbs and the roads are in pretty good condition as the chatter is all things bicycle … I try to start a conversation about a large flock of starlings swarming in a field and get the silent treatment. After just under 3 hours we get to Woodstock where we had a time stamp at the Jimi Hendrix café (no not really, the Blenheim Tea Room). I was told that I hadn’t started the ride … then the man with the stamp said “but I see you’re here now and you’ve clearly ridden the 75km”. So obviously not looking fresh as a daisy.
Back on the bike and into the Cotswolds. Haven’t been here often. It’s in England and we don’t have any really steep hills …… blinking heck it’s like a roller coaster – and the wind’s got stronger – but at least the sun’s come out. Stow on the Wold … Wold – interesting word – Anglo-Saxon derivation meaning a circular bump-like hill in the landscape. Nothing like Southwold or Methwold (which I’ll now think of as NoWold and BabyWold respectively). Hard graft rewarded by a wonderful view across the Cotswolds at the top. Down and up, the headwind was unrelenting – unusually chasing down the hills towards us rather than giving us any respite. Well over 3 hours to get to the next Control Stop at the Bay Tree Coffee Shop in Tewkesbury. The husband-and-wife controller team told me I had started the ride so good to know of my reinstatement as an entity. Time for some proper refuelling (so far running on cereal bars plus the beans on toast in Woodstock). Lasagne and a coffee. Took 40 minutes to arrive … crikey I need a rest but this is getting really annoying. Bolted it down when it arrived at last. At least I avoided a heavy shower whilst I was in there ….
Back on the road and tried to overtake a caravan on leaving Tewkesbury; not enough space and ended up precariously riding on the kerb of the central reservation with the caravanner offering me free advice on how to ride my bike. Thought about offering to empty the contents of his chemical toilet over his head but realised I am but a puny potential victim as I climbed the steep hill out of Tewkesbury … a bit of a surprise as one of my riding companions told me it was relatively flat to Chepstow. No it isn’t!!! Climb and climb and climb and then as it turned into a high plain the hail arrived – making visibility a matter of guesswork which also meant I had to stop more frequently to clear my spectacles and check the route directions. Up hill and down dale as we approached the Wye Valley where the aforementioned “route consultant” had advised we’d be following the river closely. Er yeah, but the road closest to the river meanders up and down like crazy – and every downhill was hampered by the continuing headwind. At least the hail and ensuing rain has now given way to bright sunshine. Still cold though so not drying out very well. Overtaken by a mountain biker in civvies on the way up a hill. “Good afternoon!” he trilled. I grunted out “hello” but was so knackered (now at 180km) I didn’t consider damning his impudence by forcing the bike past him. 185km and Information Control … how many miles on the sign to Coleford … keep riding and find a place for a brief rest before the climb up Yat Rock (Symonds Yat) – a famed rock climbing centre. So I knew it would be steep. Crikey! I don’t often get off the bike and push but the final 100m had me beat … so tough the bike felt like 3 times its real weight as I completed the final push for the summit. Over the top and still its up and down as the Wye Valley continues all the way to Chepstow. Really beautiful scenery but I can’t say I was enjoying the views. Down-down-downhill (hurrah!) into Chepstow. Got a receipt (218km) at Tesco Filling Station and had my supper (it was now 5pm) of egg and ham sandwiches, banana milkshake and a Cadbury’s Twirl.
Monster climb out of Chepstow before swinging South to find the cycle route alongside the Eastern Severn Bridge … wow that’s a long bridge. By Estuary Standards the wind was light so only had to lean gently to my right while crossing it. Considered hurling the bike into the river below and walking to the nearest railway station. Then turned East at the end of the bridge and at last a tailwind. Wheeeeee!!! Speed at last. Flatter too … for a while … ah now we’re into the Somerset hills – steeper than I remember (only been around here in a mini bus on Scout Camp donkeys years ago). Pedal pedal pedal up a 15% climb … then howl down the other side (didn’t quite hit 50mph but close). More terrifying than enjoyable. Got up to the Somerset Memorial … er not quite. Last 100m again looked like a wall – this time considered walking backwards up the hill so I could drag my bike up. At the top of the highest hill in Somerset and the glorious view helped me recover some composure. Whistled down the hill – then up another – up – down – then (joy) the Somerset Levels. I could see a storm coming at me. Beautiful range of rainbows as I edged across the landscape. Then the rain came down – like a cold shower. Not pleasant. Didn’t last long though – soon turned to hail. Ouch! Called up by my daughter who has recently discovered on-line gambling (yet another thing to worry about) telling me she’d won some money by backing Wigan in the cup final. Oh well good to hear some positive news. Through Wooton Basset and into Wiltshire. Going down a gentle hill and I’m getting slower and slower … having to change down … is it a puncture – no both tyres are as hard as at the start. Is something chafing on the wheels? Nope all good. Do I feel totally empty? Yes that’s it. Where’s my backup cereal bars? I must have eaten them all. Now in the middle of nowhere with half a bottle of water and no calories. Shall I knock on that door? No: the house is semi-derelict though appears inhabited. Turning the pedals so slowly I’m surprised the bike stayed upright … over a hill and … there’s a village below. Looks small, it’s nearly 9pm so nothing will be open … bag of crisps at the pub perhaps … yeah great – a bedraggled cyclist in dayglo orange on a Saturday night but quite frankly I don’t care. MIRACLE – CoOp at a set of traffic lights. A can of Starbucks Double Espresso and a packet of strawberry nutrigrain bars (I ate two and necked the can in 5 seconds). Rocket fuel! Up two steep hills and starting to shake. Forgot how cold and wet I was. Arrived 30 minutes later for the final control stop (Membury Services) just as the downside of the short-term energy burst wore off. Phew!
I planned carefully during the ride here to go to McDonalds and order Fillet-o-Fish, strawberry milkshake, apple pie, coffee. All at once so the apple pie and coffee could cool. Turns out its Burger King. No fish. So ordered a Chicken Royale. No milkshakes. No apple pies. Ice cream machine isn’t working (that was my alternative). No I don’t want the coffee or the chicken royale now. Goodnight. Starbucks instead and I had a tuna melt pannini (still not sure about tuna and cheese but the protein was essential), cappuccino and a cinnamon swirl. Took a 10 minute rest after eating; visited loo then put on helmet and gloves … ah the gloves are soaking wet and now they’ve made me cold and I’m starting to shiver … suddenly a whiff of intelligence kicks in and I’m back in the gents using one of James Dyson’s fine inventions with my gloves on. Three jets then off with each glove, open up the inside and another jet session into each glove. Toasty and dry! Give that man a knighthood … ah I see Her Majesty’s already worked that out. She must have got her white gloves wet at the Chelsea Flower show one year and found out how marvelous these powerful hand driers are.
Feeling incredibly tired … so I pedalled over to the travelodge to enquire about a room – then realised it’s not a travelodge any more but some form of mini conference centre which in any case is not open. So back onto the road with my headlight working well … that’s good it’s the first time I’ll need them on backroads in pitch darkness. Suddenly I feel much better – thank you Mr Starbuck for the swirl and coffee which I figure is the cause of my improved wellbeing. I’m well behind my target schedule now, but confident I can beat 22 hours.
The next 50km were fairly swift and uneventful; heard an owl attacking some unfortunate rodent, a fox mixing it with a pheasant and another owl darted across less than 2m above my head in search of prey. Then it’s back into the Chilterns and quite a few steep hills. Refuel! Found my missing stash of cereal bars (doh!) but opted to stay on the nutrigrains. Ouch – my left knee has developed a minor ache. Keep going and pretend that it’s fine. Into Marlow at about 2am and from more than 100m away I hear what is apparently a relationship breaking down in the centre of the town. “DAVID … NOOO! LISTEN TO MEEE! DAAAVID!!!” And quite a bit of screaming. The said David was staying quiet. Just as I got to the scene a pale and dumbstruck David turned towards me … I’m pleased to report it was neither Stead nor Holllingsworth … and I said “What have you done, David?” as I cycled past. He must still think he dreamed that bit.
Into Beaconsfield … nearly there, I know the way back from here … oh god he’s sent us up the steepest hill in the town … I huffed and puffed and questioned the route planner’s parentage. Nearly missed the last turn. DONE IT!!!! 407km in 21 hours and 20 minutes. That’s 10 minutes faster than my only previous 400km ride of 4 years ago.
I profusely thanked the organiser (who was giving me tea and a cheese toasty) for a “brilliant route with some challenging climbs”. Sometimes I think I can be too polite.