October commuting

Heading north to Derbyshire and Staffordshire, and maybe Cheshire, for the Tourist Trophy this weekend. However it’s not all about rides in other places, the occasional, the planned and mapped out. Most rides are within a few miles square, in those places between sleep and work, the day to day, the making it up as you go along. Where does that road go…home? Eventually. How lost can you get between the sea and the South Downs…


Tourist Trophy 2013 // Stage 9 // September // The Black Mountains

The YHA weren’t lying when they said the Wye Valley hostel was at the end of a “a steep unsurfaced road with a hairpin bend”. The first few hundred metres of the September TT ride was back up that steep driveway more suited to a ‘crosser or MTB. The hostel lies next to the River Wye which was shrouded in mist as I left, but directly above my head was blue sky. I was optimistic about the weather despite the fact I was heading to the Black Mountains in Wales. I’ve been to the Black Mountains quite a few times before for the Green Man Festival, and I’ve only ever not been rained on at one of them. And for two of them it was unbelievably sodden.

Heading west and over the Wye the first climb of the day (the first of many) was over Symonds Yat Rock towards Monmouth via the Forest of Dean. On the long sweeping descent back down towards the Wye at Monmouth I passed over a double border; Gloucestershire into Monmouthshire, England into Wales. At Monmouth I stopped for breakfast and to check my route notes against the map.

IMG_20130914_092028After a pot of tea and bacon sarnie I continued west towards Abergavenny on narrow lanes that rose and fell with regularity. In the distance I could see the Black Mountains, the edge facing me looking like the escarpment edge of the South Downs, but far more menacing. Not helped by the fact the mountain peaks beyond did indeed look black. In contrast the landscape around me was lush green (all that rain) and empty fields the hue of burnt sienna oil paint. Passing a farmhouse a couple of dogs snapped and barked at my cleats, patriotic hounds that could smell English blood?

IMG_20130914_204003Looping back and forth over the A40 and over a hill I was soon passing through Abergavenny and on my way to Crickhowell, crossing another double border into Powys and the Brecon Beacons National Park. Across the River Usk at Crickhowell I passed the Glanusk Estate, home to the Green Man Festival, and towards the first proper hills of the day: The Black Mountains.

River Usk at Crickhowell
River Usk at Crickhowell

The Black Mountains are the eastern most edge of the Brecon Beacons, a set of ridges separated from the rest of the Beacons by the Wye Valley and straddling the border of Wales and England. These lumps of sedimentary rock – sandstones, mudstones, siltstones – were to be my playground for the next couple of hours.

IMG_20130914_191515After passing back over the River Usk and then the A40 I started the climb towards the pass between Mynydd Llangorse and Mynydd Troed. I headed towards the town of Llangors before turning onto a narrow lane lined with high hedges, framing Mynydd Troed ahead of me.

IMG_20130914_190728The lane got narrower and steeper, the pain in my legs greater with each pedal stroke. Then rounding a corner I was at top. I glanced behind me and then had to stop to take in the vista. Down below was Langors Lake and the Brecon Beacons rising into the distance. The last mile or so had hurt but the tops of hills are fine places to arrive at.

IMG_20130914_180941 IMG_20130914_190142The view to the east was as good, and even better I had a good few miles of freewheeling back down to the Usk valley. Back over the river and I started the climb up Mynydd Llangynidr, an undulating plateau of yet more sandstone and limestone. However it was now the mountains’ turn to play with me. I’ve driven over this mountain before so I knew it was a long climb and the road over the top could be bleak depending on the weather. It wasn’t long before I realised that I hadn’t been refueling enough and had that ominous pre-bonk feeling. This wasn’t helped by the cloud that was rolling over the high moorland and the resultant drop in temperature and dampness hanging in the air. I stuffed jelly babies in my mouth, followed by a banana, which helped, but then as I looked down I saw “3km to top” written on the tarmac, which didn’t. However I did know that I would be turning back for Crickhowell before the top so maybe I only had 2.5km to go. That thought didn’t help me. I crawled over the first summit and the road started to descend offering some respite, and I could see I would be turning off before it started to climb again. I also know I would be stopping in Crickhowell for lunch. I shifted back onto the big ring, got my head down and hoped there would be no sheep in the road on the fast descent…

Autosave-File vom d-lab2/3 der AgfaPhoto GmbHIt is a really bad idea to order lunch just after you’ve nearly bonked. You order comfort food and way too much of it. In this instance burger, chips, onion rings, cup of tea. You know, the food that the pros eat. Then you eat it way too fast. Which leads to the weird feeling of still feeling weak, but stuffed and a little ill. Oh, and then a 1 mile 9% climb out of Crickhowell.

The next 20 miles undulated through stunning countryside, dropping me into little wooded valleys and back up onto high ground, then over the Hereford road I climbed Campston Hill. The view from here was incredible, the edge of the Black Mountains disappeared to the north, the route of Offa’s Dyke, and to the south and east England spread before me as far as the Cotswolds. It was breathtaking and took my mind of the ache in my legs. Almost.

At Tregate Bridge I crossed the River Monmow and Herefordshire border back into England, three borders; one natural, and two linear borders printed on a map. The road started to immediately climb hitting 20% at times. I really didn’t need this now. I was out of the saddle and staring at the floor. There was a stern inner monologue. Some bad language was used. My legs really hurt but I knew I was only 10 miles from the hostel. I just had to get over this last climb and it was all downhill to the finish…

Except for the sharp climb back over the hill from Goodrich to the hostel. And the clattering down the “steep unsurfaced” track to the hostel didn’t do my aching calf muscles and arms any favours. I leant my bike against the door frame of the hostel, ordered dinner, bought a beer and headed for the shower.

This was probably the hardest but also most beautiful TT ride so far, as Jo* would say “no scruffy bits.” And that is saying something as Scotland, the Lakes, and France were all pretty spectacular, and Somerset, Dorset, Suffolk and Norfolk all had their moments. One day I’ll go back for a few days touring around the whole of the Brecon Beacons. I’ll just remember to eat more often.

* Jo Burt, instigator of the road.cc Tourist Trophy

Strava link: http://www.strava.com/activities/82402143


Miles ridden: 100

Feet climbed: 9000

Average speed: 13mph

Near bonks: 1

Ill thought through lunches consumed: 1

Counties: 4 (Herefordshire, Gloucestershire, Monmouthshire, Powys)

Countries: 2 (England, Wales)

Local ale consumed: Kingstone Abbey Ale

Cameras used: Holga 120 and Samsung Galaxy Ace/Instagram

Film used: Kodak Tmax 100asa

Autosave-File vom d-lab2/3 der AgfaPhoto GmbH

Tourist Trophy 2013 // Stage 8b // August // Norfolk

The next day I ride north into Norfolk to meet my friend James. I’ve not actually met James before, or even spoken to him, but he’s part of the Twitter cycling community and we’ve chatted (typed) online a fair bit. After zigzagging along some quiet lanes I pick up a main road north, through Dennington and Framlingham to the border of Norfolk at Harleston. The main road is quiet, as it is Sunday and still early, and is flat and easy. A high gear is chosen and spun at a regular cadence. With no traffic and no junctions to think about for a good few miles allows the mind to wander, finding its own thoughts. The sound of church bells ring as I pass through somewhere. Somewhere else along the way I pass a trucks parts dealer where upended lorry cab wind deflectors look like icebergs floating in a tarmac ocean. As I said my mind was wandering so I didn’t notice place names. I remember Framlingham as there is an impressive castle visible from the road across a lake.

IMG_20130818_214158I keep pedalling and barrelling along the flat roads. No hills make it difficult to read the landscape, but as my eyes adjust to the constant horizon I start to pick out lines of trees or hedgerows indicating the path of the road. Corners tend to be sharp 90 degrees following the boundaries of fields. The straight horizon meant the sky above appeared huge, as though a massive dome animated by clouds and sunlight had been placed across the land.

IMG_20130818_221718As I enter Norfolk the land seems to crinkle more and be more wooded. The roads rise and fall a little more, and lanes plunge into darkness as trees create verdant tunnels. All the way along today’s route I pass old bookcases and dilapidated cabinets of vegetables outside houses; beets, courgettes, runner beans, outside others eggs for sale. A thriving micro rural economy running parallel to the macro one all around.

IMG_20130819_131204After fording a river and crossing a busy main road I see James heading towards me, with his son Seb riding pillion. We say hello, scan the map and start to pedal eastwards towards the Roman remains to the north of Stoke Holy Cross. We spin along lanes chatting about bikes and stuff, and play spot the tractor with Seb. Around an hour later we look for somewhere to stop and get some lunch. The first place we stop is a fancy pub where we see fear on their faces as we walk on their polished floorboards in cleats. We don’t stay long. A mile or so up the road we find a hotel where we can grab sandwiches and tea and chat some more.

IMG_20130819_083845After lunch I part with James and Seb and start heading south again, for Bungay and on to Halesworth where I can pick up the National Cycle Network Route 1 all the way back to Blaxhall. I spot the silhouettes of castles and churches on the horizon, but realise as I get closer I’ve misread silhouettes of groups of trees. There are real castles and real churches galore though, and many churches that have the appearance of castles, bell towers with battlements, maybe a sign of a turbulent history.

IMG_20130818_215808Once on NCN1 I just have to keep an eye out for the red and blue signs, so the pace picks up as I don’t have to stop every few miles to make sure I’m going the right way. It’s easy to get lost on the flatlands of Suffolk, with no hills to use as markers.

Autosave-File vom d-lab2/3 der AgfaPhoto GmbHI can tell I’m back in Suffolk as there are a lot of pigs. Pig farms aplenty in Suffolk. Even an orchard that doubles as pig grazing, pigs wandering in and out of tree trunks. Soon I’m back on the road I started on this morning and heading around Glemham Hall Estate back towards Blaxhall. No dinner and pint today, just the front wheel off and bike thrown in the back of the car for the drive back to Brighton.

Strava link: http://www.strava.com/activities/75725119


Miles ridden: 97 (was tempted to ride around the block to make it a nice round 100)

Feet climbed: 2500

Average speed: 15.7 mph

Tractors seen: Many

Local cheese consumed: Smoked Dapple

Cameras used: Holga 120 and Samsung Galaxy Ace/Instagram

Film used: Kodak Tmax 100asa

Thank you: James for meeting up and shouting me lunch, and Seb for his tractor spotting skills and navigation.

Tourist Trophy 2013 // Stage 8a // August // Suffolk

Riding the coastal flat lands of Suffolk, an edge of England made from clay and sand, being slowly reclaimed by the sea, it’s so flat that it is like actually riding on a map. The edges of the paper can’t be seen, extending away in all directs. The map isn’t completely flat though, it ripples gently, as if the map has been scrunched up and then pressed flat by giant hands. Lanes crisscross the hinterland of the River Alde and the North Sea, heath land and farmland scattered with forest and woodland, I start to think about Graham Swift’s ‘Waterland’ and W.G. Sebald’s ‘The Rings of Saturn’. I didn’t get on with the latter, stopped about half way through, but think that maybe I should try again.

IMG_20130811_124019I’m aiming to ride from Blaxhall to Orford then up the coast to Dunwich before returning to Blaxhall. However there are a lot of rivers and obstructions along the coast, so I can’t simply ride along the coastline, I have to ride inland, then back to the coast, then inland again, and so on. It’s a coastal ride with only intermittent views of the sea. And then there’s the wind: Strong with even stronger gusts, sand lining the lanes is whipped up, sandblasting and stinging my legs. There are bridleways and tracks disappearing off across fields and into dark woodland. I start to wish I have a cyclocross bike with me.

IMG_20130817_202745IMG_20130817_200213I head Orford through Tunstall Forest and then fields and fields and fields of wheat. I get a faceful of chaff as I pass a field being harvested. Passing bookshops and cagouled tourists I find my way to Orford Quay, where boats wobble on the wind rippled River Alde. It’s a bit gloomy, a dark, flat landscape under a dark grey sky, but then I realise I’m still wearing sunglasses. I take them off. It’s still gloomy, but a brighter shade of gloom. In order to get to Aldeburgh which is probably about 5 miles up the coast I have to head inland via Snape and a giant pig farm making it about 15 miles. It’s carnival weekend in Aldeburgh so there is a funfair on the seafront, bright colours and flashing lights contrasting with the dark sky.

IMG_20130817_201039Further up the coast I can see the giant golfball of Sizewll B nuclear power station, which is my next stop after again heading inland via Thorpeness and Leiston. The cafe at the car park on the beach is called Sizewell Tea. We love a good pun in England.

Autosave-File vom d-lab2/3 der AgfaPhoto GmbHNext up is Dunwich via Leiston Abbey and Minsmere Level where I decide to off-road through the woodland to avoid another inland detour. After riding across the purple floored Dunwich Heath I arrive at the Beach a month after the annual Dunwich Dynamo. There is another cyclist here pitching a tent between a small wooden fishing boat and a storage hut. He is clearly going no further tonight.

Autosave-File vom d-lab2/3 der AgfaPhoto GmbHHowever I need to get back to the youth hostel so head off through Dunwich Forest before turning south and into the wind. Memories of the wind on the Military Road on the Isle of Wight come flooding back. This is not a good thing. Fortunately it’s not as bad as that, but then I accidentally take a turning I shouldn’t do and I’m tacking into a sidewind through fields of wheat, shining gold in the evening sun. Not long after I’m back in Snape and on the road to Blaxhall and to dinner and a pint.

Strava link: http://www.strava.com/activities/75725475


Miles ridden: 59

Feet climbed: 1250

Average speed: 15 mph

Hay bales seen: Many, many.

Pints of local ale: 2 x Cobbold Festival

Cameras used: Holga 120 and Samsung Galaxy Ace/Instagram

Film used: Kodak Tmax 100asa