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Bristol to London(ish)

Having volunteered at one of the London Wales London audax controls last year I had decided to help out at the arrivée in Chalfont St. Peter for this year’s LWL. Unfortunately I then discovered it clashed with Bespoked so for the first time in five years it looked like I was going to miss Bespoked. I made plans to ride to LWL arrivée from Brighton on Saturday, help out overnight, and ride home on Sunday. Then I heard my new Transcon bike would be on display at Bespoked and I thought it would be nice to catch up with a few friends down in Bristol. I found a cheap train ticket for Friday afternoon and my original plans needed rejiggering. A quick message to see if I could crash over at friend’s and then scrapped the Brighton routes and plotted Bristol to Chalfont St. Peter instead…

– – – – –

My alarm goes off at 4am. Up and out early. El, Liam, and a friend of theirs are riding the 400km Brevet Cymru today and have to be 25km up the road in Chepstow by six. Hugs and handshakes in cold rain in the dark, they head north, I head east up the hill with a Radio 4 podcast in my ears. The same roads as when I rode back from here in February but colder, darker, wetter. I make sure I don’t miss the turnings I did back in February. Sunrise over Hinton Hill and familiar roads to Leigh Delamere services for Hailsham 600 flashbacks (Chippenham Pitstop a few miles further on would be my preference but it doesn’t open for another hour and a half). A more than disappointing coffee and sausage sarnie from Gregg’s is the only option at ten past six in the morning. The usual sideways looks as people try to work out how a bike got in here from the M4. I should get back outside and carry on but it’s warm in here and I’ve got all day to get to Chalfont. I stay until I get the feeling back in my feet and the piped pop music finally gets too much. I plug my ears into an audio book and wander outside.

The sky is clearing as the sun climbs higher, there’s hope the temperature may rise but for now it’s still cold, all the layers stay zipped up. I’m heading into places new to me but pass signposts for places I know; Malmesbury, Royal Wootton Bassett, Swindon. I can see the Wessex Downs to my right beyond the M4 which I’m vaguely tracing eastwards. Somewhere I skim the edge of Swindon, all new housing estates and traffic calming measures plus a couple of lumpy hills. Passing a coffee shop I stop for a third breakfast of coffee and cake. It’s still only 9am and I’ve covered more than a third of the distance.

In and out of a corner of Oxfordshire and back into Wiltshire where I cross the Thames as I skim the edge of Gloucestershire before once more across a county line and the land flattens into Oxfordshire. Every town and village for the last few miles has sold itself as the Gateway to the Cotswolds. The next few hours will be spent crossing the county until I hit the Chilterns. I don’t really know this part of southern England, I’ve ridden across parts of it on audaxes (LWL, Wander Wye, Gently Bentley) but it’s not familiar enough to recognise the landscape. I’ve routed myself this way to Chalfont via Oxford as on the map it was clear there’s a gap between the Cotswolds and Wessex Downs. Near Royal Wootton Bassett I could have picked up the London Wales London route all the way back but that way lay more hills. Somewhere I must overlap with the LWL routesheet (Brinkworth to Callow Hill, when I check later). I like this, the point to point ride with intent, A to B through new places.

I’m generally following the Thames on its flood plains but with no protection from hills the northerly wind makes its presence felt. The sun is shining but the air is still cool. With the wind and the straight roads I’m glad I stuck the aero bars back on for a bit of practice and to see how flexible I am. I need to do more pilates (I already knew this).  I pass a bakery and glance at the time. Elevenses. Brazilian Apple Tart and a fruit juice.

More straight flat lanes follow but these turn to busier faster roads the closer I get to Oxford. The Swinford toll bridge (free for bikes) over the Thames and soon I’m on the outskirts of the city using bus lanes and some sketchy cycle lanes. I planned to stop here for lunch but it’s still not quite midday plus it’s busy and noisy. I crack on through and start to look for a nice looking pub once I’m back out in the countryside.

It’s hillier this side of Oxford, I can tell I’m approaching the Chilterns. Rolling in and out of little valleys and through quaint villages I spot a pub in Little Milton. A pint of ale and a cheese ploughman’s lunch (i.e., proper cycle tourist lunch).

“Any dessert?”

“No, thanks”

I’ve already had two slices of cake today.

The roads start to roll a little bit more as the ridge of the Chilterns gets closer. I stop at a petrol station to buy a bag of Jelly Babies as it’s not a proper DIY audax without a petrol station stop for Jelly Babies. I start to spot red kites all over the place, skidding about the air just over houses and farmyards, right next to roads, they seem oblivious to people. Their agility is bewitching, the speed, the flicks of tails, darting back and forth.

Out of Chinnor the first of three proper climbs. This first one not so bad, up onto a ridge with a long fast ever so slightly downhill section before plummeting into a valley and steeply crawling back out the other side. That one was cheekily steep. The pattern repeats; another false flat road following a ridge then in and out of a valley. The Garmin battery is running low so I stop to charge it on a village green (I’ve knackered the USB port so charging on the go is a bit iffy). Looking eastwards I see dark clouds rolling in. I reckon about 18km to go, I’m not going to outrun them but I can try…

Five minutes down the road it gets dark and starts to tip it down but as quick as it starts it’s over, blue sky follows the cloud. The smell of damp woodland and bluebells hits my nostrils as steam rises from lanes heated by the sun all day until now. The rear tyres slips a little around a corner as the brake locks up on slippery tarmac. The roads tip downwards out of the hills towards the outer edge of London. Under the M25 and into the suburbs.

A few hours later I’ve had a shower, a short kip and got changed and ready to man the London-Wales-London arrivee. It’s going to be a long night but at least I’m not having to ride through it.

– – – – –

It turned out to be a great night seeing many old and new friends all trying to qualify for Paris-Brest-Paris. Tired smiles, stories, thousand yard stares, and couple of hugs. Many cups of tea were brewed and instant coffee tolerated, a huge pan of Dahl emptied, and every variation of toast, ham, beans, and cheese combined. By 9am Sunday morning I was shattered but it had been worth it. I gave up any thoughts of riding home or even into London for a train, and caught a train from a mile or so down the road.

I slept for 15 hours when I got home Sunday afternoon.

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