Mixing it up

Lockdown life has had some benefits. Wherever you are in the country it’s been obvious the amount of people out on bikes and on foot has been, and still is at the time of writing, pretty staggering at times. At one point we even clipped a little cow bell onto the saddle of the cross bike such was the volume of walkers around where we are. This summer will undoubtedly be the summer of the “staycation” and there has never been a better time to connect with your surroundings. As cyclists we are generally pretty good at that but it’s exciting to see many other people getting out there whether on foot or by bike.

With little or no racing on the cards and with all the summers sportive and charity events being cancelled, there doesn’t seem to be a huge amount to train for and although some are still racing each other on Strava (or that other thing you do on your own in your garage) it’s a great time to go and explore what’s around you in other ways. No racing, just riding. Rediscovering why you got into cycling in the first place.

The original handlebar clipper.

And that’s what we’ve been doing. Just riding. Riding and finding routes and trails on our doorstep that haven’t been on our radar for whatever reason before. Let’s take Hag Hill as an example (regular followers of the twitter account and the blog will understand this one before others). Now Hag Hill was omitted from the first draft of the 100 Essex Climbs because frankly we didn’t know it existed. For whatever reason we had never been up it albeit being fairly local to us and having been past either end many times. After more than a dozen emails cursing its omission we have now and it forms part of a regular route from The Duckhouse. It seems even our own article has spawned our very own exploration.

What's on your doorstep that you didn't know about? This is on ours...

Then there’s route planning. On our own solo rides we are a little guilty of settling into the same handful of routes with some slight variations and on group rides we’re generally not given route responsibility so have tended, more often that not, to be in a following capacity. However in lockdown the Garmin has been revved up and we’ve been able to plot a few new routes and explore new lanes within the limit of a couple of flapjacks and a banana. The local internal atlas has been updated the better.

With restrictions now easing a touch it’s nice to have a few more arrows in the quiver and recently the quiver has been able to hold a few more arrows. We’re never been afraid of getting an OS map out and exploring routes from time to time but in this modern world some things do get used less often. Our reliance on little GPS screens and also previous knowledge has perhaps let complacency drip into all our lives. Then the most contentious thing outside of C-19 and politics happened. Strava raised the paywall.

Byways bring punctures. So be prepared! 

We have been using Strava for route planning for ages for a few reasons, mainly it always gives elevation and also it tends to plot a pretty decent route without chucking you up someones driveway which has been our experience with some other programs. It is also pretty simple and gives you popullar routes whch always seem to work out well. Now, behind the paywall, lies route planning with heatmaps which will show everyone where everyone has ridden. Not ideal for mountainbikers trying to keep secret things secret but great for commuters to find good routes, new cyclists developing their internal mapping and those of us looking for those passable bridalways, greenways and byways to connect routes without juggling maps, garmins and toggling different screens and ending up in a pig field.

This path does not end up in a pig field.

So with no racing or touring we’ve been plotting regular routes on the cross bike and taking in whatever off road segments we can. Already we’ve explored some great byways and bridalways that are ideal to ride at this time of year where largely they fit into the newly coined “gravel” category before they begin to resemble “cyclocross” in around October.

Of course you don't need anything fancy to find these gems, Garmins and online accounts are helpful but you can always use a map, and with "normal" still a way away here in The Duckhouse we would certainly recomend throwing training plans away and just getting out there on your pushbike.

There are endless little bits of our own county to explore and maybe one day we'll do 101 great gravel segments of Essex (oh no, we're gonna have to do that now!) but below are four areas that we know fairly well that will help you either have a great day as a stand alone day out in Essex or add a bit of variety to regular routes.

Epping Forest. 

Epping has miles of bridalways and dual use trails as well as a mix of lanes running through it. There's hundreds of hours of riding in there somewhere, anything from wide bridal paths to more challenging mtb trails, Epping can serve as a great regular ride, a meeting point or a cut through out of or into the city.

Graces Walk and Danbury (National route 1).

Taking in part of the canal from Chelmsford this small segment of National Route 1 runs from the middle of town, through Sandon Lock and up to Danbury and Little Baddow via Graces Walk. Route 1 will also take you on quiet roads out to Maldon which is a cracking ride and can be extended further if you are really adventurous to Goldhanger or even as far as Tollesbury.

Flitch Way.

The Flitch Way is based on a old railway line but is now a fully fledged mixed use trail complete with tea rooms at Rayne Station that runs for 8 miles between Braintree and Bishops Stortford. Flat and family friendly again you can take this as a whole entity or as a passage between a couple of places.

Thorndon/Hartswood and South Weald Parks.

Around Brentwood between these three there is plenty of  bridalways (gravel) to be explored that are great for seasoned cyclists as well as families. These again can be standalone rides or linked all together to make a longer ride on a mix of road and cross or mtb.