“Don’t you need it for Super Randonneur?”
“Yeah but if we don’t finish it means I don’t have to ruin a perfectly nice holiday to Cornwall by trying to ride all the way home in 24 hours. Or do a 600 in October when the weather is cack. Maccy D in Newbury and train home from Reading? We can get train beers.”
We lost Simon forty kilometres back because his knee was playing up. George has had a couple of punctures, we’re an hour or more behind schedule, the sun’s brief appearance has been extinguished, we’re getting cold and it sure isn’t going to get any warmer. Doing some quick sums we realise we are likely to get back pretty late, within the time limit but over schedule. Neither of us are particularly keen to ride for hours in the dark. From here we’ll catch the edge of the Wessex Downs, the black hills we can see rising on the horizon, which like a berm will jetison us down into Hurstbourne Tarrant from where I know the roads back home well. The section to Whitchurch is predominantly downhill apart from the last few k’s but then, depending how the legs feel, the bit to Petersfield is either rolling and pretty or a tedious up down up down grind.
“I can tell you now if we get that far it’s not going to be chatty.”
“That’s fine, I’ve got headphones.”
Like the sunlight the thought of riding all the way home is fading rapidly. We’ve ridden 140 kilometres of the planned 300, it’s another forty to Whitchurch. We’d have ridden 230 by the time we get to Petersfield and we’re both thinking there’s a very good chance that’ll be our limit for the day. In fact we are almost certain. Do we ride another eighty kilometres just to get a train anyway, or make the decision now whilst there are plenty of train options.
We set off a little after sunrise over Devil’s Dyke in wind stronger and colder than that forecast. We’re going to be pushing into this for the first half of the three hundred kilometres. Fortunately there should be enough woodland and hedgerow to shelter us from the worst of it. I’ve cobbled the route together from various chunks of audaxes; Ditchling Devil, Devil’s Punchbowl 100, Dauntsey Dawdle, Hailsham 600, and stuck them together with some of the ride to Lambourn when I volunteered at the London-Wales-London control a couple of years ago. The original plan was to get out to Oxford and back but I couldn’t find a nice way of doing it without going way over distance. However I worked out a route to Greenham Common and back that avoided big roads.
Ticking along nicely towards Billingshurst I abruptly notice I’m being sprayed by tubeless jizz from George’s rear tyre. Cue much innuendo. The tyre seals before too much air is lost and the first stop is planned when we get to Billingshurst in a couple of kilometres anyway. We’re bang on schedule. Coffees are purchased and a tyre reinflated. A short blast along the A272, pleasantly quiet as it’s still early, gets us to Wisborough Green and gently rolling roads and peaceful lanes with lots of tree cover from the wind.
Into Surrey and places I know from my youth, the days of 7-Eleven or Z jerseys with with nothing more than a puncture repair kit and 50p in the pocket for a toasted tea cake at a Little Chef. Through the ford at Frensham Small Pond where I fell off one winter and spent the rest of the ride with cold wet tights. The route is now undulating a bit more regularly and I notice Simon is drifting off the back on the hills, even the slopes that barely count, which is unusual. I ease back and he mentions he’s thinking about bailing, his knee is giving him grief. There’s a Coop with a coffee sign on a junction at Wrecclesham. We’re close to where I planned to next stop but here gives Simon easy train options if he’s going to stop. After crap vending machine coffees and deliberations Simon decides to head into Farnham. George and I chat, decide we feel alright, for now at least, and will carry on.
Over the M3 down from Fleet services, across the A30 near Hartley Wintney. Definitely on more roads I ragged about on a teenager. Over a small humpback bridge I get a flashback of a ride when my mate and I were joined by a squaddie from Aldershot, ‘Home of the British Army’, not far down the road, on a track bike who smashed us at every sprinting for signs opportunity. We cross the Reading Road at Mattingly which looks vaguely familiar, might be the Heckfield 10 time trial course. Somewhere George’s rear tyre finally deflates and needs a tube.
“Have you got your pump? I left mine at the first stop.”
A buzzard circles overhead. The sun comes out. A few villages later the tyre is looking quite squishy again. Another change needed.
“There’s a nice pub just round the corner, I’ve stopped there before.”
Two pints of coke, two packets of crisps, lots of chat. Our schedule is slipping and neither of us are entirely convinced we’ll get all the way round anyway but we’re having a fun day. Despite being in a busy part of the south-east crisscrossed by A-roads and motorways our route has been on beautifully quiet lanes, we’re enjoying unfamiliar places and the changing landscapes. The only sign of towns being the names on actual signs. It’s been a day of chat and laughter so far. We’ll head for the next scribbled-on-a-bit-of-paper-in-my-wallet stop at Newbury, about thirty kilometres away. We’ll decide what to do there as once past there bail options get trickier.
A pair of Chinooks hum over, a reminder that the MOD has a strong presence in this part of the home counties. There are two perimeter fences around the MOD base at Aldermaston, one barbed wire and a higher fence topped with swirls of razor wire, a narrow no man’s land between them “…so the dogs can maul you uninterrupted!” There are CCTV cameras at regular intervals and ‘No Stopping’ signs. There’s some secret squirrel stuff going on in there. I’d take a photo but I’m not entirely sure we’re not in the sights of snipers right now. I catch sight of something running alongside us.
“That’s a roe deer.”
“Nah, it’s a Spy Deer, the government breed them.”
Into the village of Aldermaston there are tracks into an estate shut off with barriers and concrete road blocks. It’s all very ‘Defence of the Realm’. I’ve vague recollections of CND marches and Aldermaston on the news in the 80s, and links to Greenham Common. I’ll later check what all the AWE signs mean: Atomic Weapons Establishment. It’s the main nuclear warhead factory and storage facility for the UK. That explains everything
The last tour of the Greenham Common Control Tower has just finished as we lock our bikes to a fence. There are kids on bikes, people walking dogs, and the Control Tower is now a museum and cafe. A bit different to when this was RAF base operated by the US Air Force and used to house nuclear Cruise missiles, a dark shadow cast by Cold War paranoia in Thatcher’s Britain, something else I remember from news reports of the Women’s Peace Camps when I was a kid. There’s a map that overlays the previous air base on the current open parkland, the once longest runway in Europe is once again common land, but the six shelters that once housed fully operational Cruise missiles are still present over the way. Seeing as they were built to withstand nuclear attack they’ll be here for a long while yet.
“Wow, look at that!?”
“Is that a kite?”
“Looks like it, it’s massive. What’s it doing hunting over a retail park?”
“Looking for rats.”
“It’s thirty odd k’s to Reading and we can get the Gatwick train. Looks like a chunk of A4 then some back roads.”
“Loads of audaxers use the A4. It’s not too busy, as the M$ runs parallel everyone in a rush gets that instead.”
“There’ll still be some dicks though.” (There is)
Back outside it feels colder. I pull knee warmers from my framebag – knee warmers at three in the afternoon on August Bank Holiday! Rattle back across the cattle grids onto Greenham Common and down to the A4, taking turns on the front in a two up time trial. We get to Reading in not much over an hour. The fastest hour of the day. I find a ticket machine and George goes to find some beer. Then we discover the trains are messed up due to signalling problems and sit around waiting. We wait for quite a long while. The already an hour late train is cancelled and next one delayed. It seems no one is really sure where the train actually is or when (if) it will get here. I ask if it’s possible to use our ‘not via London’ tickets on the Paddington service. “No problem, it’s not your fault there are no trains, it’s been chaos today” says the ticket chap as he hands over bike reservations for the fast service to London in ten minutes.
Before we know it we’re pulling into Paddington. Cans of San Miguel are decanted into bidons. Checking a map on my phone to remind myself of the way to Victoria I remember I’m with an ex-London bike courier. I chase George towards the Edgeware Road, filter into traffic that doesn’t want to be filtered into, shimmy between wing mirrors and cones, lean into Marble Arch, sprint down Park Lane, across Hyde Park Corner, bounce a curb, hack around Belgrave Square, hop another curb and dismount at the side entrance to Victoria, glance at the departure’s screen, fast Gatwick Express service in three minutes, go to the wrong platform, run round to the correct platform. That’s the quickest I’ve got from one train to another across London. We’ll be home by eight p.m., well up on schedule. Plus we’re warm and had a beer.