Monday, 20 June 2016

Audax Out, Tour Back

I was lined up in an ultra-marathon supporting role this Saturday, for a friend racing in Snowdonia. However, due to unavoidable circumstances, his race never started and thus neither did my feed station duties. Suddenly I was in possession of a three day weekend, all to myself, as the other-half disappeared off on a lads weekend to watch the Motocross GP. Boyz only, no wimmins, they spoil the fun. 

Good job I am perfectly content in my own company, and, in fact, was pretty happy with the entire turn of events. A plan was quickly scrabbled together. Get the 200 km Audax done for June with a DIY route to Mum's, stay the night there, then tour back at leisure. The return journey had no plans in place at all; no distance expectation, no route and no firm location for the overnight bivvy. 

The Audax route was an easy 200 km, with only about 1400 meters of elevation as it wasn't clear how I would cope with the weight of the luggage on the bike. I did not travel light. 

As it turned out, I was a little dumbfounded how easily the bike rolled with so much weight on the back. I suspected the 'flat effect' played a part as I am just used to tough hills, but still, it was like an oil tanker. Once up to speed it felt like the bike just kept on rolling, not at turbo speed, but a steady effortless trajectory. Past hedges, hedges and more hedges. The route was quaint, but, in all honesty, you don't see a lot in the summer months on flat roads, other than, well, those bleedin hedges. I was so excited to see a field through wire fencing I had to stop and take a photo! 

To be fair, the scenery wasn't that bad, I had mixed it up as much as possible and some urban higgldypiggldy cycleroutes dropped the average speed but upped the interest significantly once in the Gloucester-Cheltenham conurbation. Criss-crossing the M5 never got old, even after the tenth time. Bridges always make me smile.  

I also had a smug sense of satisfaction knowing I was self sufficient. Such a strange feeling, to know, if I wanted to, I could literally disappear off into the unknown. Work wouldn't be too happy of course, but the feeling of freedom is everything. Knowing you have the choice to leave the rat-run is normally the best way to realise that, in fact, being in a good job with all the luxury it brings is exactly where you want to be......(to fund your expensive bike habit).

Tea duties fell to the Jetboil as I sat listening to a radio documentary through the cleaner's open van window. An extended complex review of the nationalism that led to the formation of Nazi Germany was a rather surreal soundtrack as I sipped Earl Grey with the English flag by my head. Large scale war and unrest, spreading far right views to counter religious ideologies, it seems these things are unavoidable side-effects of human nature, and they increase in scale concurrent with globalization.

Everyone should probably just sit down and have a cuppa. It makes everything feel better.  

Not that I needed to feel better. I felt positively great. The miles just ticked off easily and before I knew I was 30 km from Mum's. Short of water though, and I pondered stopping, but the skies were threatening. It was time to actually do a little endurance training and push through dehydration. It's all good suffrin. My pace slowed as my mouth dried, but it was no doubt just psychological. Audax teaches me one thing, and that is tolerance of discomfort. Dehydration is the worst of all.

Of course it was hardly the Marathon Des Sables and before I knew it I was rehydrated, sat in the bath at mums as the loudest thunderstorm hit. Mum shouted 'I bet you're glad your not out in this' and I smiled knowing she was right, and there was a reason I had pushed on for those last few kilometers and ignored the corner shop in Sharpness.

After a relaxing evening, comfy bed and steady morning I was back on the road and ready for some proper adventure. No pink line to follow, no plans, just head in a general northerly direction, do as I please and find a nice place to camp. 

First things first though, visit a camp shop, obtain some cheap Jetboil fuel, half pound of strawberries and some purple sprouting broccoli to throw in the evening's cookpot. Why? Why not! I was still in the amazed-stage of how easy it was to handle the weight of the bike, so why not add some more comforts. Touring mode had begun in earnest and it never stopped. 

Over the next flat 20 kilometers I sipped coffee, took photos, stopped to take clothing off, take more photos and got excited watching the pivoting road bridges over the canals. No discomfort now, just total relaxation.

I trundled alongside the Severn, diverting the long way round to avoid catching a large group of very steady female riders. I'd either have to sit behind at a pace I wasn't comfortable with, overtake and possibly offend, or gatecrash. I was tempted by the gatecrash and chat option, but in the end avoidance prevailed.

I doubt they would have ridden my route in the end anyway. Despite the major puncture paranoia (I have no idea how to get the wheel out with the rear rack on there...yet) the skinny towpath seemed like too much fun to resist.

It was much more challenging than expected, with the lightweight front end waggling in the narrow singletrack and the heavy rear end hanging up in potholes and puddles. There was quite some concentration going on, as I really didn't fancy ending up in the canal!

Storm clouds brewed as I got hungry but I plodded on until I was in view of the big-blue-bridge. It was good to know it was close enough to make a dash for shelter if a torrential downpour started, but other than a little spit-spot, nothing happened to interrupt eating of veggie sausage and tomato sandwiches. Mum's are great, aren't they? I think most of us value them more and more as we get older, and they age along with us. Mine is now 83 year young, but still active and fully independent.

After feeding crusts to the seagulls, and watching a pair of swans and their five cignet brood trundle past before diverting intelligently well in advance of an oncoming narrowboat, the journey continued on the, now wide and gravelled, cycleroute, Through Gloucester Docks. Past the empty, soulless shells of fire damaged buildings, cargo barges and into the hustle and bustle of shoppers walking through the pedestrianised Quays.

The sleek stone and polished surfacing of the shopping plaza didn't last and I was soon directed across historic cobbles and into a network of muddy purpose built 'cycleroute'. Trails that would justify a mountainbike, as they weave between the canal, city and river.

Once through the urbanisation and into the lanes of Newent, an executive decision had to be made. Find some hills immediately, see some views, and see how the weighted bike climbed.

Well, by immediately, I mean after drinking two full Jetboil's of Earl Grey tea sat on a step, watching a tiny rabbit nervously grazing with constantly twitching ears. It seemed he was listening unsuccessfully for the stranger he couldn't see. The tea was made with water from a strangely unlocked church hall; sparkily clean, with working facilities. The small porch penciled it in for late night cubby if the weather turned.

A road mirror selfie, just because.

Sitting around had been much fun, but I was having to be frugal with my reading. Not many pages left in the book I was carrying after getting a little too absorbed in yet-another circumnavigation account the day before. The situation had an easy solution, ride to Newent and pick up something else from the mad-cat-women's rescue. Actually I'm sure the lady serving was perfectly sane and not mad at all, probably. For 80p the reading material (and my increasingly heavy panniers) was substantiated with...yet another trans-siberian crossing. It may soon be time to expand my horizons on the literature front, there can't be many more Russian travel logs left, can there?

From Newent I found another motorway to cross and noted and expansive selection of potential bivvy spots in Dymock Woods. If all else failed, I'd surely find something there without a massive muddy trek from the road. It is definitely easy to find secluded spots with an off-road suited bike.

Then some proper uppy-downy stuff started. The kind of riding I know and love, and I still loved it, even with the weight dragging behind, the satisfaction of topping out and seeing views well beyond the limitations of hedges was utter bliss.

It's nice not being scared of climbing. Sure, them hills sometimes hurt, but they always pay back in reward.

Hills do, however, use resources a lot more than pootling along on the flat. The day before, riding that 200 km, I can't remember getting out of breath, and only needed a 6 biscuits, a few sweets and three little chocolate snowmen. Hills tho. Hills are something else. Booooom, glycogen use, calorie deficit and time for a sit down to finish those sausage sandwiches and chill in the warm sunshine.

Time was ticking away, the afternoon aging to evening and my hopes of camping on the common dashed when it was evident that the rough grass stayed waterlogged. I could've backtrack to some of the earlier options, but instead drifted aimlessly toward the river, stopping to buy lentil salad and pretzels before finding myself stomping up a really stiff climb on the way to sit and eat it.

At the summit was another cyclist, and we got chatting, about that climb, the lanes, bikes, bike technology, downhill, Le Tour....cycling really does bring people of all backgrounds together under a common banner and it's nice to feel part of a community. We wished each other a good journey as he left to continue his, and I waited out mine for five minutes longer, taking in the view from the top.

After a long rolling descent, a hidden gateway to a disused track caught my eye. Heavily overgrown, definitely workable, it was filed in amongst all the other 'potential spots' as I gave in to my Starbucks weakness and headed over to the cafe in the evening sun.

Other brilliant camp spots were eyed on the way, but all were on 'estate' land, and the chances of being moved on seemed high. I pondered the potential of this, and how the hell a dead canary ended up in the middle of a cyclepath, as I drank some sort of vastly-overpriced liquid ambrosia, with only a slight tinge of guilt that my self sufficiency didn't stretch to resisting cool lime refreshers.

The phone charged in the cafe sockets as I read, feet up, an eye half on the book, and half on the bike resting the opposite side of the window. It felt like I was waiting for something, and not just a thief to try and grab the bike. Once that drink was gone I was ready to be too, and headed straight back to my perfect pitch.

Checking first, for ground nesting birds and other wildlife, I flattened a small area of the scrub to make a level support for the mat, made good use of the wire fence to attach the tarp and dug out the Jetboil for food. Tarp erection, sounds easy, but in fact it turned into a bit of a mission to try and get some sitting upright space, maximise floor space and not loose the tiny titanium tent pegs amongst the long grass. I only spent 10 minutes looking for them. Or maybe 20....

It was a nice place to sit and read, eating couscous and drinking smokey tea. Comfy even, until I noticed I was on cold ground.

Oh. That is not a good feeling. 'Maybe it's the valve come loose?' Tighten valve, puff puff puff......hissssss. 'Nope, definitely a puncture'. 'Or maybe several?' Was it thistles in the grass I had flattened? Bramble? Who knows. Inspection luckily revealed just one hole and, totally out of character, there was no panic from me, just a calm consideration of the situation. I figured I may as well try a puncture repair patch, for the Syncros ones work extremely well on inner tubes. Sure enough, it sealed the leak completely and the repair lasted all night. Lesson learned, Alpkit mats are much more vulnerable than I had realised, and repair options will be required in future.

The night was a little restless to start with, I was too warm, despite having just the OMM 1.6 unrated bag and sleeping in a thin riding top. I woke up later, a little chilly, but not awake enough to realise that putting on some of the extensive volume of coats, long sleeved tops and socks I had overpacked would solve the problem. Instead I drifted in and out of sleep for a while, having nightmares about ripping sleeping bags and being hassled by locals. 

Eventually I dragged myself out of bed, put on some warm clothes and went properly back to sleep. Another lesson learned. If it's a clear night and I'm running hot when I got to sleep, I'll have extra clothing with me in the bivvy to put on if I chill. 

I woke up properly at 4:40 am as a skein of Canadian geese cackled loudly, flying just a meter or so above the pitch. Songbirds sung, phesants yaddered and somewhere, I swear, was a resident peacock. A decent night's sleep overall I thought, having been out for the count not long after 9 pm. Time to make tea, drink tea, read a bit.....

....get a tired looking selfie.....

.....look at the sunrise.....

.....appreciate the beauty of the flowering grasses against the pink sky.....

..and then?  Promptly fall back to sleep in a proper deep sleep to awaken again to cloudy skies, more tea and a steady 50 km pootle home. I let my pigeon sense direct me, and it worked wonders, finding new lanes in an area thought I knew every contour.

More pointless but amusing road-mirror photography. I have no idea why I find these things so satisfying. It's almost like they are a portal into a parallel life, or a reminder that I am exactly where I want to be

Some of my favourite local lanes pass through the sandstone bedrock of the Ketford-Bromsberrow area, 3 meter high walls of weathered sandstone cuttings, ancient routes now tarmacked and tunnel-like with the overarching vegetation.

The morning's ride was over before I knew it. Tempting though it was to ignore the forecast and keep riding, I knew the real world was calling me back and it was time to unpack. Still, this little baby was waiting for me as I arrived home, a refurbished Brooks Cambium C15 that I picked up for a good price this week.  It was a welcome reminder that the proper bivvy bike will be here soon and that longer adventures will also soon be in the post.