Dr. Foster’s Winter Cock-Up

February 4, 2015

“Dr. Foster’s Winter Warmer” was the official name of the ride I’d signed up for. But quite a lot of things that could have gone wrong, did go wrong. Somehow I didn’t care too much.

So C, my erstwhile riding companion, has swapped North-East Scotland for South Wales. There aren’t many 200km brevets in January, and one of them starting from Cardiff seemed like a good opportunity to catch up over a weekend. C said he wouldn’t join in the ride, but a friend of his, D, got in on the act. A companion, N, would join us for the weekend but would also not be riding. It seemed a well-made plan.

We weren’t particularly discouraged when D snapped a crank on his way to Paddington to get the train on Friday evening. Less than twelve hours from the start of the brevet, without a bicycle. A 7 a.m start time meant no bike shops were going to be providing assistance, while London’s cycle emporia gained points for late opening, but lost them when they were useless at providing the needed parts. On arrival, it was decided that D would borrow C’s bike, with its ludicrously high fixed gear ratio (52×15). D has limited fixed-gear experience and had certainly never undertaken a long-distance ride on one, but needs must.

Saturday morning started with some coffee and caramel waffles at 5, and we set off not too far behind schedule for the ride out to the event start. N’s plan to join us didn’t get past the first street corner, but I wasn’t for stopping and waiting because I was keen to make the eight miles to the start in good time. I forced the pace a little on the quiet early-morning roads, but it came to nothing when a sizeable flint punctured my (brand-new) back tyre. At the event start in the car park of a Toby Carvery by a motorway service station, D grabbed brevet cards while I swapped inner tubes and begged a track pump from a fellow participant. Only twenty minutes after the bunch we set off. Our first destination, however, was to return to C’s place and swap my back tyre for a spare one borrowed from D’s stricken bicycle. A few mechanical adjustments, assisted by N, were also needed before we could actually begin the event proper, an hour behind schedule.

Where D’s enthusiasm seemed if anything enhanced by the goings-on, I had already left all of mine by the side of the road with the puncture. Continuing was a matter of obligation rather than genuine willingness. And yet you continue, if only because it would be too sad to spend the day thinking about what you might be doing. I knew that completing the brevet would be difficult, that getting around in thirteen-and-a-half hours with my non-existent physical form was going to require everything to go right and most things that could had gone wrong already. Still, it was a beautiful, clear, sunny winter’s day by now, so we set off for the Severn Bridge with determination.

Shortly after crossing the river into England it became clear that D had far better speed than me and should continue alone. His was undoubtedly the story of the day: he would go on to easily complete the 200km in the allotted time, unfamiliar and high-geared fixie notwithstanding. While his choice of Crunchie bars and Lucozade as performance nutrition is not something I can approve of, the result commands respect. So I will salute his achievement, and continue with my own account.

The route wound slowly from the Severn Bridge to Gloucester through a succession of country lanes, which were strewn with the evidence of the preceding night’s rain: puddles and copious mud. These lanes are, apparently, frequented by local cyclists, of whom I saw many both in groups and singly. They are also frequented by horse riders. Cylists leave an unmistakeable trace of their passage in the form of wheel-tracks in the mud. The trace of the passage of a horse, however, is thicker, heavier, and smellier, and it was all over these narrow roads. I wasn’t in the mood to appreciate it, nor the twists and winds of the route, which took in two sections of canal towpath as well as a number of apparently meaningless diversions from anything that could be considered direct. Gloucester I don’t think I saw the best side of. I’d never been before, but for a first visit to a city the circumstances weren’t ideal. All I was interested in was navigating the city’s main roads and finding my way out on the A40 as quickly as possible.

It was by now early afternoon, and the next phase of the ride managed to combine the most beautiful weather of the day – late-afternoon pale winter sunlight – with the best scenery. The route headed generally south-west, skirting the Forest of Dean before plunging into the Wye Valley. Although I’d heard of it, I’d never before been to this corner of Herefordshire and Monmouthshire, and it made a very strong first impression. Rolling hills and, even in January, endless greenery, the river winding through a corridor of trees and shrubs, tranquility and a sense of timelessness. A sign for the ‘Penny Farthing’ pub offered temptation but not distraction. Eating an energy bar gave rise to the idea that the best thing to do was to eat another one, immediately. I would get through six of them on this ride, the monotony of the diet offset by the steady flow of calories.

At no point did I feel really tired, yet at no point did I feel the need, or desire, or ability, to ride hard. Trying to hold D’s wheel as he fell in love at first pedal re-awakened me to sensations that I’ve been happy to be away from during my recent absences from serious cycling. I’ve spent enough time in my life burying myself trying to hold the wheel of a faster rider. Sooner or later, you will blow up, and all your effort will be wasted, so I didn’t bother. I should say a word about my own bike, in fact there should probably be a post about it at some point, but suffice it to say that I am well convinced of the virtues of titanium for making forgiving, easygoing, relaxed long-distance machines. As long as I ride at my own rhythm on this bike, I am convinced I could keep riding indefinitely.

Shortly before Monmouth came the return to Wales, and shortly after that town, night fell. Underprepared and underslept, I was struggling to cope with the route sheet’s directions, which just never seemed to correlate properly with the map. Darkness did not help the situation. What helped with the darkness was my new hub-dynamo powered lighting rig, which combines being able to see where you’re going with not having to worry about when your battery will run out. It was a great aid to me as I wound through country lanes, over a relatively long hill and down the other side, and into the Usk valley for the run down to Newport. Returning to streetlights and urbanisation, I checked my phone for the time, for the first time since Monmouth. It was ten past eight. There were still another eight miles left in the ride and the cut-off time was half-past eight. I called the organisation and told them that I would be a non-finisher, then picked up a bottle of red wine on my way back in to C’s house. We spent a pleasant evening toasting D’s remarkable success, and my failure.

I had not felt any urgency during the ride, and I also felt no disappointment at failing to complete it in time. I probably would have without that puncture, and the time taken to change the tyre, but these things happen and since the opportunity was there, I’d rather take that time than ride 200km worrying about my back tyre. Honestly, if I’d spent more time before the ride with map and cue sheet, I wouldn’t have lost so much time en route staring at the map wondering where I was supposed to go. The point, as far as I was concerned, was that I had spent an entire day on my bike, for the first time in a long time. It had been beautiful weather, and the discovery of some entirely new territory for me. Scenery and solitude are two of the great attractions of cycling for me, and I was satisfied with my experience of both.

To conclude: the dodecaudax has not yet begun, since according to the rules, you have to finish within the time limit for the ride to count. I fully intend to persevere, and hope to post a report on February’s 200km in due course.

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