In The Box

In the box: adjective

State of being on the limit, head 'chewing' the stem, blurred vision, and unable to do anything but think about pedalling.

Over a second lunch at a five star hotel near Henley on Thames the idea was floated and agreed. We would meet again before Christmas and ride the Ridgeway, a trail in central southern England, as part of a cyclocross epic. Now the circumstances of the second lunch can remain undisclosed but the cast treading these particular boards are two experienced hitters from Wessex, the perfect foils to draw scribe into a false sense of security.

We met bright and early in the village of Kingsclere, nestled down a dark road somewhere south of Reading. At 7am in November everywhere is down a dark road. In fact we were never to see Kingclere in daylight. In the days prior the excursion had been touted as a “CX canal Epic” a 103 mile circular route and that didn’t sound that bad. So off we went. Three experienced cyclist totally unprepared for the day ahead!

Day(grey)break down a muddy lane.

100 miles on a road bike will take you over 5 hours if you’re going well. More like 6 with stops. If you’re going well. 100 miles on a CX bike? No idea. So we took lights. And some flapjack. Tom also brought a rice cake. Dave an extra gel. Scribe had a tube.

As the sun came up we descended down our first ‘sector’ which hurtled down a muddy ribbon through stinging nettles and brambles to link up with a couple of country lanes busy with the local building trade who were using them as cut throughs to wherever they were off to that day. We only got sworn at once, so we were winning already. Soon enough these joined the Kennet and Avon canal near Midgham. This much touted canal would take us west against the strong breeze that had been whipped up especially for our day out.

Sometimes you forget the waterways of this country, or maybe take them for granted, but they are there and they are very pretty even on a grey November day. This particular canal links London and Bristol and often the tow paths running alongside were in excellent condition. We were able to get up a decent pace and hammer a few early kms. Taking turns on the front after each gate or road crossing made for fairly light work. Some sections were however pretty brutal and all we could do was to try to not slide into the water in some sort of comedy manner. The struggle had begun. Our first natural break was taken outside of Newbury and already we looked like some strange cycling mud creatures. This would not get better and indeed we would be cultivating our Belgium tan for the rest of the day!

Newbury. It's nice! You should go! 

The coffee stop would be in the well-heeled town of Marlborough, the teenage staff at Costa were rightly more interested in the ladies strutting down the high street in cowboy hats, presumably coming back from the poshest midweek hen do of recent times, but they did find time to serve us and give us a place to rest our muddy bottoms.

“Right lads, now we get into the meat of it!” exclaimed an ever excitable Tom. 

Chalky double track. Close to the meat of it.

The Ridgeway is a broad track passing through the North Wessex Downs Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB) and is often quite a distance from villages or towns so Costa was our last food stop. There are some water points along the way, outside farms and alike. When you bear in mind our populated island the Ridgeway is surprisingly remote. Making the turn the wind was crucially now with us. If this had been the other way round we may still be out there, nothing but dinner for the foxes and carrion for the kites. We made the first climb and chortled to each other as we ate the last of our collective food. 

Simultaneously it was confirmed that three villages had lost their idiots.

The Ridgeway climbs and traverses some beautiful hills giving vistas across the region. Being in the vicinity of Newbury there are sections that seem to double as horse racing tracks or practise tracks with jumps. Some of the climbs are smooth but most are muddy tracks. Often the high flat sections were nothing more than multiple ruts where there was no best line as after a few yards it would turn into a mess and then the best line was now several ruts away. The whole experience required your full concentration unless you fancied getting wetter and muddier than you already were! When the mud or brief patches of shale path runs out the rest of the Ridgeway is mainly chalk. And where there is chalk there is flint. And where there is flint there are invariably punctures. And we had a few.

Water stop two. Puncture three.

This was however something we had prepared for. From memory we had four between us during the day, which was actually pretty good going. In the puddles lay some hidden sharp edges and some of the descents could be fairly rough. On the cross bikes it made for some exciting riding. You would imagine that if you took on the same route on a mountain bike it would be a bit tedious after a while, as well as being hard to complete the distance due to the lack of mobility on the road and easier sections. The CX bikes really shone here and you can see why the gravel/adventure market is really growing on both sides of the Atlantic. You can really cover some ground and even the simplest paths can be a technical challenge! 

The view from the Ridgeway out to the north. Tom and Dave slogging though another field.

In the meantime, between the grinding up hills, pumping from rut to rut, hopping about and general riding we were beginning to flag a bit.  Normally when this comes on the thing that comes to the forefront of my mind is food then I generally start to lose the feeling in my arms. I visualise what might be in the fridge or what might be easily accessible upon reaching home/cafe. However today there was only the odd tap on the Ridgeway. For a 47 miles stretch, no café, no tearoom, nothing. Recently I had eaten some Skittles for the first time in ages and I began to think of Skittles. Those little sugary nuggets would be just what I could do with. Then I was thinking about Yorkie bars. I'm not really into Yorkie bars as a general rule, but what if a walker had left one on the trail somewhere? And what if the guys just rode past it and didn’t see it sitting there, glowing in the grass. Or if they did maybe they would just offer it to me, out of the kindness of their hearts. That sentiment was as unlikely as finding the thing in the first place. If that was to have happened there would have been a sure fire fight to the death. In fact the conversation about eating Dave was only partly in jest. The only thing to eat here was inevitably my stem.

You can't see wind in pictures because you can't see wind. But if you could you would see a lot of wind in this picture.

If we were horses racing at Newbury that day the going would have been described as heavy. The climbs were hard going but it was the flat top sections that were the hardest to navigate. At least the climbs could be described as paths whereas the sections of plateau were plain hard work. The struggle was real and carried on for a while.

After discussing whether Stans fluid had any calories in it the final hill was in sight. We had been on the Ridgeway for five hours and over 40 miles. As the light faded we descended down from the last ridge on a path with some of the most savage drainage ditches on it, that would have been a certain death trap in the dark (i.e half an hour later). As it was we just got another puncture!

We finally stumbled into a café in Goring, a small town by the Thames and fortunately they let us in. It was 4:30pm. Nine hours after we had left and still 20 miles from home. The good lady owner must have seen the desperation in our eyes and we ordered anything we could see!

 Can you inject pasty?

With 20 miles left and finally full of a variety of goodness we started a pretty weary through and off back to the canal, this time fully illuminated. The route back to the village seemed a lot longer than it was this morning, mainly because now it was uphill! By now we had all had enough of riding our bikes and from the sounds coming from our collective drivetrains the feeling was mutual. As we rolled into Kingsclere Dave clanged into something and a familiar hiss accompanied us for the final few meters! A fitting end to an truly epic day.

The moral of the story is then to be prepared. But also to go out and do something fun, because fun is fun. It also might be to get a cross bike, maybe don't spend a whole heap of cash on it though because if you use it you'll probably trash it!  

So if you fancy ruining yourself here's the Strava route. Go for your life but take food.