The Tumble

Wales is a popular destination for cyclists from Bristol. In my usual awkward way, I have tended to stay south of the city, looping around the Mendips. My brief forays to the principality tend to involve a blast up from Chepstow to Tintern then back via Devauden. My main issue is that you have to trek along the Portway and then over the bridge and it means at least 40 miles of the ride is a bit grim. Nevertheless, this week I set out to try some new roads, heading up to the Tumble for the first time on a 100 mile round trip. 

The bridge is the fun bit and I bumped into one of the GBDuro 20 riders, heading to John o’ Groats as part of some intense off-road race thing. It’s the same race Lachlan Morton did last year – I interviewed him for the new book – and is the preserve of lunatics. The rules this year are extreme; they have to carry all their food with them and if something breaks and they can’t fix it they are disqualified. Personally I think these are a bit excessive, or shit. Adventure is one thing, being a fascist about it another thing altogether, not to mention enhancing, rather than minimising, risk. Why not insist they stuff their faeces in an apidura turd sack all the way to JoG and have done with it.

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It’s quite a hectic set-up. 

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I took a left at the top of Chepstow and immediately found myself on the good stuff, empty lanes, curving up and down across the Wye Valley then up into Shirenewton. I had an unscheduled bit of gravel to contend with which meant walking down a 20% scree slope with a furious tiny dog barking  through a wire fence. The main roads were very quiet, in contrast to Bristol’s clogged arteries of rage.

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Serious gravel

The Tumble is an iconic climb, primarily because of height gain. It’s 512 metres at the summit and it takes a good while to get up. It is also visible from  a long way out, so has that demented foreshortening effect that all good climbs have, looming  over you from twenty miles away, a nudge and a wink, a threat. It sits on the edge of Abergavenny and is in the ‘steep and unrelenting but not too terrifying’ category. It is long though, and took me (in gentle mode) getting on for twenty minutes from bottom to top. I notice the Welsh Championships are on there this year so may even revisit. The views are beautiful, out towards the Sugar Loaf and across to the hills above Blaenavon. It was worth the trek. The top is vaguely surreal. Just as Alpe D’Huez is a bit like a tacky seaside resort at the top of a mountain, the Tumble has its quirks. For one, there is an ice cream van at the summit. The strangest thing was a murky pond – and people were swimming. It was bizarre.

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It’s a great climb, right in the middle of a 100 mile ride. 

I dropped down into Blaenavon – I’ve been there touring before – and then across along the tops, before a very technical descent into the valleys. I hurtled around a corner and bumped into the GBDuro chap again. It made me smile. We had a chat and I wished him well for the terrors that lay ahead.

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Adam was fixated on eating; he was literally counting the minutes – 20 – until he was scheduled to eat again. 

There is one other nasty climb out of Usk which caught me by surprise. With 70 miles in the legs it had me vowing yet again  to put a compact on the front; I’m still rolling with a hubris-inducing 39:25.

It was a super day out, 100 miles on the dot, about 6,200 feet of ups. One particular highlight was rolling through Mamhilad, where my grandfather was born in the 1920s. I never met him, he survived the war as a Royal Marine Commando, getting injured in the Battle of the Scheldt, only to die a few years later in a tragic accident. I didn’t feel like riding through Mamhilad was a deeply resonant experience – it’s not that nice a place, more a sort of industrial and commercial zone on the edge of Pontypool, but I thought of him, maybe supping in the Star of an evening, and my Welsh heritage.

The benefit of doing all this on a Monday is it means your mileage for the week is all but chalked off. But of course, you then think ooh maybe I can chip off a 200 mile week… and so it goes.

Adam Colvin’s stories on instagram, and the thread of his ride, are well worth a look:

https://www.instagram.com/airborneelvis7/

The Wall of Shibden and other such delights

It was great to be in Yorkshire, notwithstanding the awful weather and threat of sudden localised lockdowns. We were staying north of Bradford, not far from Haworth where it is all rolling hills and grippy tarmac and cobbles and dilapidated mills. I love it there and visit regularly because it is where Mum lives and if I don’t visit then I’ll lose a third of my readership.

I planned my second ride to take into account alleged better weather. The wind dropped, but it was still pretty wet and miserable. I wanted to have a look at Shibden Wall, a famous cobbled climb which crests up above Halifax before throwing you down a cobbled descent into the town. Simon Warren rates it highly, it might even be in his first book of climbs. To get to it you need to drop down into a very steep sided valley, then up a glorious bit of smooth tarmac called Lee Lane. Halfway up there is a brutal transition into classic Yorkshire cobbles, right at the steepest bit.

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Dropping down into the valley towards Lee Lane
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The big left-hander on Shibden Wall

It’s worth saying that people love a good UK cobbled climb, but a lot of them a pretty much a waste of time, namely the cobbled element is the only thing they have going for them. Shibden Wall isn’t one of those. It is steep – not overwhelmingly so – and long. It has two hairpins and it gets steeper all the way; classic hill climb fare. It is probably about 13%, that’s a guess, and I can’t be bothered to google it, but this is made much worse because you can’t really get out of the saddle and it’s right on the ‘get out of the saddle’ threshold. Essentially, you’re churning over the gear, sat down, and trying to find a line. It was wet and greasy like an old chip supper when I did it, just to make matters worse. To summarise, it was hard, beautifully technical and unlike any other climb. It was quite a joyous experience. Although there were plenty of people on  t’internet who suddenly started banging on about Trooper’s Lane, also of Halifax. By my reckoning there at least 4 or so beastly cobbled climbs in and around Halifax – the other side of the Wall is Ploughman’s Lane. Put it this way, I descended on the pavement.

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Ploughman’s Lane

I climbed up out of Halifax to the desolate moorland on the road to Rochdale. I’ve been up here before at Christmas time, with needles of ice on the pylons and a solid sheen of watery glass on the reservoirs. This time I wanted to ride down Cragg Vale, just for a breather. It’s a 5 mile descent to Mytholmroyd, dropping back into the Calder valley on the way to Luddenen, so is a real blast. I wanted to have another go at Luddenden Foot, a climb I’d been near in 2012. One way out of the village was used in the National Hill Climb about 20 years ago, a huge angry beast of road clawing up the side of a mountain. However, there’s another one called Stocks Lane which is really horrid and rolls up towards Mixenden. It climbs about 650 feet in under 2 miles and is a whopper. With the benefit of a tailwind I survived the experience, but it was a close thing.

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A right handed pylon, shifting the cables 90 degrees

The moorland up above Bradford, places like Denholm Clough and Ogden, is beautiful and at times eerily empty. Everyone craves space and solitude, now more than ever, but these wild places are as quiet as anywhere I’ve been. In fact, there is a route across the highest point, called “Cold Edge Road”, and it is a transcendent place, literally lifting you up above the landscape, the sea of current anxiety, of people and places, work and furlough, fear and loathing, to a place where no-one else goes. And it is surreal, because right up at the highest point of Warley Moor you can join the Halifax Sailing club.

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Wilderness and Warley Moor
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Above Oxenhope
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Should buff out

It was a good few days.

 

More Tours: Planning

I have another mini-tour planned. I wonder what constitutes a mini-tour; I guess it’s anything less than a full stage-race with panniers. Over a week, full tour? Or is it over a fortnight? Less than a week is definitely mini though, so on that premise I’m not going full tour bongo any time soon.

The plan is a loose following of the Lon Las Cymru. I won’t go right out to Anglesey because they eat their young and it’s kind of primeval, but I will roll down from my starting point in Llandudno, over Snowdonia and down towards Barmouth. From there, it’ll be through Machynlleth and along the Elan Valley, stopping at several places without so much as a vowel between them, Cwmystwyth and Ysbyty leading the charge. Swyddffynnon has a solitary vowel, a gorgon sharing an o in the absence of an eye.

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It’s going to be hilly. The Elan Valley has an odd pull; I keep seeing pictures of it taken by the ultranutters whilst they sleep in the outdoors, sheltering beneath the udders of a craven heifer from a swirling storm, for around 13 minutes before pressing on, on, on into the darkness, both of the night and of the soul.

I have a queue of mini-tours in my head. I want to do the ridgeway, then back on the kennet and avon canal. I’d like to do some sort of Jurassic Coast ridings, but have always been put off by a probably misplaced fear of middle England. I’d like to do the Devon sustrans coast-to-coast, it’s supposed to be almost all traffic free. I then have a queue of longer tours I fantasise about. These might require camping though, which I am diametrically, ethically, politically and morally opposed to. Chief among these is any kind of epic tour in France, crossing mountains and taking in everything the country has to offer. Maybe one day.

Flintham to Stratford on Avon

There are some salutary lessons to be taken away from the complex art of route planning. Primarily, by all means plan a 90 miler away from all conurbations and anything larger than an abandoned medieval hamlet, but don’t be surprised if you then find yourself wondering where all the shops are and panicking about what you’re going to eat.

Leicestershire is both prettier and lumpier than I anticipated. I think I ended up riding across the Wolds, a stretch of woldiness up above Loughborough. It is quaint and gently rolling. I found the remote village of Quorn, which is a pilgrimage of sorts to a vegetarian like me. I started slowly on account of some pangs of anxiety, my knee was hurting at the end of the previous day’s riding. It was fine. Once I got up around the 50 mile mark I pressed on and made up time. It’s interesting how distance changes when you embark on a long day in the saddle, or multiple long days. Once you crack the 50 mile ride there’s a ray of optimism, only 40 miles to go… It’s peculiar. You have to forget about distance and just tap along, looking at things and getting lost in the flow of the activity, the gentle pulse of the mind, ambling along in unison with the bike. It’s surprisingly easy to do long days, although I’m not sure how long a ride has to be these days to qualify as ‘long’. No sooner had I uploaded my three day epic than one of my chums spuffed out a 280km day ride just for the express purpose of shitting and giggling. These people (the Baineses, the Silvertons, all of Bristol Audax Club who thought it would be fun to ride home from Rome before tea –  you know who you are) shall from this day forth be known collectively as the ‘ultranutters’.

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This is the first mini-tour I’ve done on my own, so it gave plenty of time for thinking, but unfortunately yielded no profound insights. I made some observations; inane things like how counties or areas become defined by their county towns in the imagination at least, For instance, I thought Leicestershire would be a bit of a shitty midlands sprawl because that’s what I think Leicester is (even if it isn’t), but it couldn’t be further from the truth, it’s a beautiful county. Once you get out of the towns and cities, weaving a stitched line along the OS map, it’s quite startling how English everything becomes. The rural landscape, imaginative, physical, demographic and imaginative, is very much middle England, punctuated by the flag of St George, villages in thrall to a vision of the past that is at once bucolic, refreshing, but clearly at odds with the more modern subjectivity of the city dweller. The gap is more of a yawning chasm, there is nothing within the villages of Quorn or Cerney or Wymeswold or Barnetby that links even remotely (no pun in intended) to the metropolis. When you ride through it, it’s not hard to see and feel the disconnect between the city and the countryside in terms of modern identity.

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PARTY TIME! EXCELLENT! WYMESWOLD! (very nice post box)

The closest I came too civilisation (which now sounds like a contradiction in terms) was the outskirts of Nuneaton. It was also the only place I saw a shop, and the only place I didn’t really want to stop and leave the bike, so i pressed on. I did ride up Gun Hill though, and wondered if it was the same Gun Hill which Harold Worthern and Vic Clark used to ride up in the early 1940s.

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Me, with a slightly odd, beadle-esque arm.

Stratford is nice, insofar as they have kept the bits that were important and linked in some way to old Shakey. I was expecting amazing medieval hostelries, but found only Greene King pubs. Mercifully, there is a micropub there, which is one of the best drinking establishments I have ever been to. It’s called the ‘Stratford Ale House’ and occupies an old health food store. Seems apt.

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Amazing exterior
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Amazing interior

day two

By about 9pm I was absolutely cream-crackered. It took two and a half pints over three hours to wipe me out completely. Hardcore.

Saddlebagging

It sounds slightly dubious. Like sandbagging, or teabagging (no hyperlink on this occasion). Maybe a combination of the both, sandyteabagging. With a saddle. Others call it ‘credit card touring’, on account of the lightness of the tour, i.e not going full touring bongo, front and back panniers, dynamo hub, SPD sandals and other CTC erotica. Either way, and whatever hankie you’ve got in your top pocket, I’m going on a short saddlebag tour. These are convenient and can be woven into a busy life, allowing a short glimpse of the outdoors without the kind of legal compromises that can ensue with the unexpected announcement of a forthcoming world cycling tour.

Previously I’ve done Devon/Cornwall. It was very hilly and very beautiful. We (me, Graham and Steve) missed a fatal helicopter crash by inches. It was very hilly. We went to a pub and were lucky to escape alive. The road out of Lynton was the most beautiful ride I think I’ve ever done. A pint of Exmoor Ale on Exmoor never tasted so good. Day two was enlivened by the three of us catching up with a clubmate who had been dropped in a road race. It was strange. Day one was way too hard. It was all absurdly hilly and incredibly beautiful.

I also did the Brecon Beacons and Gospel Pass with Will. It was very hilly. In fact, it was so hilly I think he had some sort of minor breakdown halfway up the climb to Foxhunters. We survived. We met with Jack Thurston and featured in his book about Wales.

This year I’m opting for a straight ride back, an A to B, from Withernsea (the Saint Tropez of the Holderness peninsula, said no-one ever) to Bristol, over three days. It’s big miles, but it hopefully should be relatively benign until I reach the Cotswolds.

The bike is ready to go.

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I’m using a Carradice Nelson on the back and a Carradice Barley bar bag on the front. It’s a nice set-up, and one I haven’t used before. In the past I’ve always opted for the super C, which is a total whopper of a bag, and nothing on the front. I like the option of having ready-to-grab things up front. It also means you can opt for the slightly smaller bag at the back. Accommodation is then provided by the good folks at Air B+B (a high-end shed in someone’s garden near Newark) and Premier Inn.

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The Super C. SUPER MASSIVE BLACK HOLE. 

I’ll try and keep people posted. Probably best for the three long-suffering readers of this blog to check out my instagram feed for live pictures of unending tarmac and the lincolnshire badlands. So excited.

 

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