Tuesday, 19 July 2016

Cotswold Bike and Bivi

It was a three day weekend originally meant for a five person Trans-Wales crossing, however, unfortunate injury circumstances dictated my good friend Mark and I were left to fill the weekend. There were options: attempt the route and deal with the logistic hassles of a one-wayer, or draw up something new.

With a new bike, literally test ridden the evening before we were due to set off, and still being packed at midnight, I was glad we had gone with the 'something new' option - a Cotswold based bike and bivvy tour. Drawn up the week before, it was a mix of known and unknown, on and off-road, urban and rural. A bit of everything with plenty of options to vary or reduce the route. 

But never mind the practicalities, here’s some photos and a brief overview of a brilliant trip we ended with. I say overview, for there are so many memories from the three days, it would fill a book to recount them all. 


The bikes, packed. Yet again mine tail heavy (frame bag on order), but the excessive touring weight (around 60lb) was manageable. That's not as a result of the new bike build by the way which is surprisingly light (I need to weigh it on it's own to get a figure). No, it was a result of my luxurious packing. We weren’t adventure racing, and thus the loose leaf tea and strainer was indeed a necessity. The extra sleeping bag, not so much, but hey ho, better to have it and not need it, than leave it at home and be cold. 

There may be a little work to do on streamlining packing, I admit.


The fully loaded beautiful new custom Sturdy made it to the top of the Beacon for his inaugural photo. I am going to detail the custom build process and first trail ride in a separate blog, although, the frame could probably be summarized in a handful of words……..I love it more than life itself, and it’s turned out to be absolutely perfect for the job of touring, and, surprisingly, as a unburdened trail hardtail. I cannot believe just how much fun it was on the Thursday test ride, it's springy, fun, jumps amazingly well, and is the fastest bike to pedal uphill I have ever owned. Sometimes bikes take a while to move from being a thing you own, to being a thing you love (and some never make it). Two rides in and this one is already at the top of the infatuation list.


It was great to give Mark a quick tour of the heights of Malvern before we set off on the longer journey, with a stop to eat carrot cake in St Ann's Well cafe as we waited out the only rainstorm of the whole three days.


The cake fueled us over the hills, and far away. Here Mark looks back to Malvern from Hill End after traversing the flatlands on gravel lanes and bridleways.


The route was old school XC, with gates, bridges, fords and an unpredictability that had us both smiling with the satisfaction of perfect trails, and giggling with the stupidity of the barely passable terrain. Such a pleasure to ride with someone who is happy to wing it, and doesn't get frustrated if the going gets (very) tough!


It wasn't all tough going though, this was a tour, after all. The jet boil was in much use! We stopped at Bushley, on a bench outside the cricket club, watching the line-marker work. He was happy to let us use the facilities and chat about our trip. In fact, it seemed everyone we met was interested in our trip, and had a great story of their own.



After passing through Tewkesbury on the cycleroutes, chatting for a good time to a mountain biker outside of Morrisons and picking up some pretty tasty veggie chicken slices, we crossed through fields to Bredon Hill. Panniers are indeed a 'wide load' and they made a wonderful swish-swish noise rubbing against the crops on the way.


It was Mark's first time on Bredon, and it was a pleasure to give him a tour, and drink yet more tea, sheltering from the strong winds by the rocks. Such a suntrap, we sat looking over the Severn Valley for quite some time before the hunger hit.


So many flowers and seed heads this year. This thistle was particularly beautiful.


We headed down off the hill to find the first pub we could, and, luckily for us, it was a fabulous one, serving Thai sweet and sour deep fried tofu, chips and ice-cold drinks. Proper food needed. It may have only been a relatively short day (around 65 kms), but it had been pretty hilly in the morning, again after crossing the valley, and we still had to climb again to find a bivvy spot. Calories, much needed!


We found the perfect bivvy spot, in a quiet area, away from the normal footfall and on some scrub already flattened somewhat (maybe by other campers? who knows).


Mark's inventive use of bike wheel and forks to support his tarp took a little longer than putting up my luxury Deschutes, but, to be honest, his probably far more impressive to proper hardened-outdoorsey-types.


I feel a bit of a fraud having such a glamorous shelter - being able to sit upright, cook, read and, if wanted, zip up the front. It is like proper camping, not roughing it. Can't say I'd change it though. The shelter was so warm I left the front unzipped all night and slept half out the lightweight sleeping bag. It's the first time I've been properly warm on an overnighter. Having the wind reduced on three sides makes so much difference.


A gorgeous sunset finished the day off a treat.



A relatively early morning wake up saw the misty skies begin to lift across the fields and we cooked porridge and drank tea, packed up kit and headed off into the unknown. From that point, all of Saturday was new off-road, picked wildly from an OS map. Who knew what it would bring?


Level crossings. Never boring. Have no idea why. Maybe I should be a trainspotter.....


Oh, if it isn't my favourite commercial coffee company. We sat and drank lattes in the warmth of the morning sun, chatting to a family off on holiday to Devon, who were fascinated by the bikes.


We both had to catch our breath after a tough bit of bridleway. One thing I am learning quickly: flat bridleways are often much harder to ride than hilly ones, with horse hooves churning up the soil and undergrowth rarely being cut back. It seemed this one had been totally unpassable a few months before, judging from signage left on the gates. The council had done a great job with clearing and flattening, allowing public access again. We need stronger lobby groups to maintain so many of our lesser used rights of way, for funding is limited, and if no-one shouts loud enough, then nothing gets done.


This was just the start of the suffering for our poor mechs.....it got worse through the day!


That required a good half an hour's work with a penknife to remove, although I may have left it until I was sat in the campsite drinking tea. It's amazing just how much an XTR rear mech can go through, and stay working, it seems.


Our second day was a toughie, around 100 kms, and with some stiff climbs too. If Mark is on a 'get the tarmac over with' mission, he leaves me for dead on the flat. He's also much stronger on gentle gradient climbs. Strangely though, I am stronger on really steep climbs. Maybe it's not that strange; in Malvern, climbing steep stuff is all we do.


We stayed dry Saturday, despite a threatening sky at times. It was very warm all day and the gusty winds on the top of Cotswolds was much appreciated, even when it was a headwind.



Unfortunately, this picture fails to do justice to how beautiful this stretch of grassy bridleway was, lined with cow parsley and wild geraniums. Sometimes it feels like photos are a waste of time, although they will always act as a reminder for us, even if those who weren't there can't fully appreciate it.


Another tea stop in a Cotswold village. Well, why not?


We got a bit lost trying to follow a short cut and came across some ex-military land, and this mummified looking deer. Very strange. Worth the diversion, although I am not sure why. Just glad to have seen a weird part of the world we probably shouldn't have.


Oh, the fun started here, and didn't finish for quite some time, with us both having to half-ride, half-drag the bikes through a number of muddy sections, before trying to clean the mud off with sticks.


My feet were well and truly sinking whilst Mark was grabbing this pic!


Good job summer shoes dry out quick!


Finally we reached the edge of the Cotswold escarpment again, knowing it wasn't long until we'd be rolling down to the valley floor, to food and a pitch at a pub, with a hot shower and hopefully cold drinks.


Yet plenty of time to appreciate the meadow flowers of Cleeve Hill on the way, particularly pretty with pink, purple and white taking over the hillside as it dropped away from view.


Over the three days we had very few issues, however there was an hour on Cleeve Hill which was one of those 'learning experiences'. It all stemmed from a wrong turn (or not making the right one). I had pretty much tried to keep technical steep descents to a minimum, but managed to take us down a limestone slabby section off Cleeve rather than continuing the traverse along the contours of the top. It was a little slippy in places, mossy limestone always a tad unpredictable. Sure enough one of us was going down, and unluckily for Mark it was him. Still, a bit knee bruising seemed the worst of the damage and I encouraged him to take some anti-inflammatories to keep the swelling in the joint down as we re-corrected our route. Then, snap....Mark's chain broke, probably due to crash damage.


The Krypton Factor type challenge had really started. Mark hadn't packed his chain tool in the rush. I hadn't looked at mine for months. Sure enough, my battered and abused multitool was missing the really important spike to push out the pin. Magic links are no good if you can't remove the broken link to stick them in. We were stuck. We'd never make it to a bike shop before closing time, and still 12 miles or so from our pitch for the night. My normal rescue service (Steve) was racing motocross in Swindon and we were a long way from our cars, or home. Thus, an extended period of whittling away at the broken link with pliers occurred. I made tea, took photos and provided general encouragement that the pin would eventually come out with some leverage.

It did, eventually. It was most satisfying indeed and we were both pretty chuffed that the challenge (albeit a making of our own stupidity) was overcome. Don't forget your chain tool folks, and make sure it works!


A little more wonderful limestone singletrack was followed by an almighty roll-down to Tesco, and stop for provisions.


People don't half stare when you sit on the floor outside the entrance of a supermarket, looking disheveled and covered in mud. No idea why........


From Tesco it was a flat 10 miles to the pub, although don't assume easy going. A significant stretch was on rough, tussocky, horse trodden and baked-rock-hard bridleway and we worked our legs off trying to keep the bikes moving forward. My saddle sore had passed the point of manageable (that will teach me not to bother changing the saddle) and I spent as much time as possible hovering above the seat, quads on fire, trying to keep the 29er wheels rolling over the lumps. The bike stood up to the abuse amazingly, the new frame taking the constant hard impacts and bash bash bash of the panniers against the rack, and through the frame mounts. If anything was going to break it, I suspect that would have been it. It was exhausting work, yet so rewarding to get to the end, knowing that, even after a couple of tough days in the saddle of these overloaded bikes, we both had the legs and head to keep pushing through. Such a relief to see the gate at the end and cruise the last kilometer or so on tarmac.


We pitched at a little pub by the River Severn, who had been happy for us to share a pitch when I phoned to make the booking earlier in the week. You wouldn't believe how many sites wouldn't. When looking for a campsite, for one night's stop for both of us, I was quoted between £12 for us both, and £25 each! Some sites would let us share a pitch, but demanded we had to pay for two nights at the weekend, even though we would be able to fit in anywhere. The '£25 each person' guy was adamant that our tiny tarps absolutely had to have separate pitches, because of 'elf n safety'. Really? I think not, mate. It's amazing how holiday season gives people free reign to try and rip customers off.



Anyway, the pub was OK. Not great, there were some, 'interesting' characters on the site, talk of stolen caravans, and only one shower. However, the shower was hot, our immediate neighbours were lovely, and the grass flat enough for Mark to perfect his wheel-supported tarp set up. Most impressive indeed!


With a bit of work, some very bent tent pegs in the stony ground, and use of a mallet borrowed from the nice man next door, the tarp was up, and we were chilling and cooking. I must admit, after seeing the work that has to go into heating anything with a meth stove, I am exceptionally grateful for my Jetboil. Couscous, cashew nuts and mange tout ready to eat in no time, and endless cups of tea. Although I do see Mark's argument that the ten minutes it takes to get his stove running is enforced 'chill time' ;)


Sunday was a lazy day. The original route scrapped for a trundle to Gloucester through golden fields, and cooling off in the Docks before heading to Halfords and obtaining a new chain tool.


Everything about Sunday was calm and chilled, from the extended coffee stop opposite the barges, to cruising along urban cycleroutes in the city. We were both amazed at how well the hardtails held the speed without effort on tarmac and easy routes. It begs the question, 'why wouldn't you tour on a mountain bike'? It's easy enough to hold 14-16 mph on roads, yet it opens up a million options to link between places without the restrictions that those skinny tyres of a road bike brings.


On the way home, we routed via Hartpury and visited the stunning bee shelter. It's quite some structure and we spent some time there, taking photos. I also managed a rather spectacular tactical dismount. One of my strict requirements for the new frame was 'no bends in the top tube or downtube'. In addition, I wanted the biggest frame bag area possible (frame bag is currently being ordered). I knew this would mean sacrificing standover clearance, but the frame still has enough when I am on flat ground. Note to self: not so much when on a grassy slope.... I stepped off the bike, got caught on the cross bar when the ground fell away further than I realised and I ended up in a heap on the floor. At least Mark's bruised knee was the result of challenging terrain haha. I'm sure I'll get used to it, and I know I certainly wouldn't change the frame at all now I have ridden it. It is perfect in every way.


Eventually the Malvern Hills came back into sight as the heat of the day continued to increase through the afternoon. A tea stop in Redmarley was most needed, and it was nice to find the village hall open for an event and be allowed to top up our water supplies. Sure, we were only 10 miles from home, but that's a long way without liquid in the heat of the summer.


Ooh, ride-past-double-mirror photography. It was luck, not judgement, to get us both in the picture!


The fords of Pepper Mill and Clencher's Mill cooled our feet, and set us up for the last significant elevation gain before home.


Although we were both ready to finish (maybe because the strawberry ice-creams were calling from the freezer), it was with a modicum of sadness. Suddenly, back to real life, and back to the rigmarole and duties of every day living. If only work life was as simple and laid back as bike touring.....I'm sure it could be, if we wanted it to be. I know one thing, I just can't wait to get back out again.