Sunday, 27 December 2015

The Sunday Staple - Long Steady Distance

A late start for a long ride, but then, what is a long ride? 6 months ago 60 kilometers would have seemed like a snippet of a day, and rides only fell into the 'long' category when there was no time for anything other than sleep. How quickly perceptions change, and eating breakfast at mid morning I was uneasily pondering the fact I may have to ride in the dark on the way home.  We evening-ride twice a week at this time of year and I've ridden non-stop through many a night. So why the sense of doom?  Who knows? The mind is a funny thing.

The 29er and rucksack were laden with water, lights, spare lights, tools, food, GPS and a map.  Oh and a camera.  Plus a phone. Some good luck charms. An additional waterproof coat. No sign of a kitchen sink, nevertheless the 'lightweight packing' thing has never been a forte, Perhaps time spent on exposed terrain many miles from the nearest help has left me rather paranoid regarding self-sufficiency. "Worrying about a few grams seems pointless and it's all good training carry stuff" I mumbled, heaving the rucksack on my shoulders.

Tentative plans were to head out on a quiet lanes, bridleways, urban cycle routes and unknown forest trails, aiming for a large area of woodland around 25 km from home. There is no way woodland that large would be devoid of decent mountainbiking, or at least, that was the theory.

Firstly though, there was a trip over Wellington Heath.  One of my favourite of places, I love it.  It has an enigmatic feel about it, particularly the road cutting which encloses the lane, making it feel dark and mysterious.

All sense of time was already lost, just 10 kilometers from home and I was rolling along looking out over Herefordshire and finally switching off.

This part of the county is rather devoid of legal bridleways and I had taken the decision to follow a footpath marked lane after assessing on Google satellite imagery as a safer alternative to the A449.  It was nice, the forest roads were easily pedalling over hardcore put down for the heavy lorries, the views were good, and there wasn't a person in site.  Good job as the last 100 meters turned into a private road with the typical 'Englishman's Castle' NO CYCLES signage.  Ah well, I was through and gone before anyone saw.

It turns out the small market town of Ledbury has a surprising number of cycle paths, 'town and country' trails and even some muddy bridleways. There is very little better than plotting a route on GPS software and translating it in real time on the ground, never knowing what to expect.  One minute graveled commuter paths, the next, red Raglan grassy mud adjacent to bolting winter crops.

The sun tried, and failed, to break through the thick cloud as I trundled through the 15 km of lanes soaking up the scenery and practicing my relatively new ability to ride no handed whilst getting the camera in and out my coat pocket to grab shots.  The Olympus TG-4 turns out to be a one of the best Christmas presents ever.  Shockproof, waterproof and easy to use on the move. Perfect for someone who hates stopping, has already broken 4 cameras in 2015 and who spends far too much time soaking wet and muddy.

Eventually the destination came into site. Acres and acres of woodland with a massive mix of wide gravelled forest roads and walking paths, hidden singletrack, tiny bridge crossings over drainage ditches and even the odd jump.  Clearly mountain bikes ride here, although there wasn't a lot of tyre tracks. Neither was there a lot of walkers and it was gratifying heading solo into the depths of the weald, just blindly following trails until the trees thinned and the abutting fields came into view.

Several sections were foot deep clay and unrideable, but, astoundingly, much of the singletrack remained hardpack, albeit with an exceptionally slippy 'Teflon style' surface.  This place will run well in the summer, there is no doubt about that.

The M50 underpass provided a good place to stop for food.  

Stollen, kindly provided by my Dutch friend Billy, who tells me this stuff is breakfast food.  I say no, anything containing marzipan is 'at any time, any place' food.  A whole 37 years having never experienced Stollen, I just didn't know what I was missing.

The journey back was a little easier, with assistance of a tailwind and I flew along the lanes, stopping only for horses and slowing only to grab a quick shot of a random boat miles away from any water. Boats in the countryside, always amusing.  Although with the horrendous flooding at the moment, I imagine there are some who wish they had such a luxury.

For a bit of mental training, I decided to head up onto the Malvern Hills once I was close to home. It's always harder to finish with some tough climbs after a relatively flat ride, and even tougher when hungry and wanting to get home to homemade lentil soup.  Mental strength though, that must never be underestimated and I was chuffed to get up into the clouds of the Worcestershire Beacon. Well, until I realised that packs of walkers, 5 deep, were taking over and it was just far too busy to ride, so I dropped home the fun way to a welcome hose pipe and hot shower.  And it wasn't even close to nightfall.