Are we sitting comfortably? Then I’ll begin…
Having completed a few centuries now, and with a previous ‘best distance’ of some 130 miles already bagged, I was going to have to come up with something decent as my next challenge. But planning isn’t really my strong point, and all my ideas for long rides seemed to lose credibility when closely examined. Mainly because I like to “fly solo”, as no-one I know has both the time AND the inclination to hit such big distances whilst being happy to slow their pace down to accommodate mine.
The problems though, are almost all logistical. I simply cannot (or at least prefer not to) carry all that I’ll require on the bike or in my pockets from the start. I also like to ride quiet rural routes which, as many of you will no doubt have experienced, means shops and cafes are pretty thin on the ground at the best of times. Creeping home through the darkness inevitably means that any shops in villages on the route will be closed by the time I pass them. So it’s a balancing act to carry enough to cater for the gaps between planned stops or larger towns.
Fast forward, then, to Friday 1st September 2017. I’ve come up (just the previous evening, in fact) with some harebrained scheme to ride from Farnborough to Bournemouth and back in a day. I broach the subject with my wife, announcing the plan with “tell me if you think this is a stupid idea”. Not a great start. The look on her face says it all. But bless her, she plays along and gives me permission to stay out past my bedtime if necessary. I’ve consulted Strava already, and the Route Planner feature has come up with a 152 mile route to follow.
The plan is to start early. 0730 hours at the latest, just as soon as get home from dropping my wife at work. This is a good plan, because it gives me a ‘fudge factor’ on top of the 12 hours that Strava’s route is forecast to take me. Sadly, the thing with plans is that I’ve never seen a plan that could survive first contact with the enemy. And so it was with this plan.
Admin, not an alien concept to me as an ex soldier, seemed to have deserted me. I couldn’t find stuff. Basic stuff. Where is it? I’m sure it was here yesterday. Who’s moved my slap-wrap reflective bands? Where are the charged spare batteries from the cupboard? Who’s eaten all my bleedin’ cereal bars? Where are those bottles I put down not more than five minutes ago? Arrrrrrrgh!!
Sit down. Breathe. Make more coffee…
There now! Isn’t that a whole lot better? One thing at a time. Bike OK? A quick pump of the tyres, and give everything a shake. Yup. That’s all good. Now lights. We’ll be back after dark, so the usual lights were charged last night and fitted. Extra lights from the household cycling “community chest” are found, filled with freshly charged batteries, and fitted. A quick tot-up reveals four front, and four rear, plus some ‘dire emergency’ lights too. We don’t want a repeat of the Combe Gibbet debacle after all. Eventually the slap-wraps and velcro reflective arm bands are located too. Two 710ml bottles are filled and added to the cages and the Garmin secured in the mount with rubber bands (it’s broken – don’t ask!) The bike is ready! Woohoo!
But what about me? Lycra needed. No phone box available so it’s back upstairs to change in normal time. Then the ceremony of the filling of the pockets can begin. Nutrition isn’t something I worry too much about. I don’t use gels or proprietary energy bars, so it’s off to the kitchen. The ‘pump sock’ goes in first. Vital that, CO2, pump, patches, multi tool, all wrapped conveniently in an old grey ‘trainer sock’. Next the little jacket, some cereal bars, a couple of peanut butter sandwiches, phone, ID, cash, camera, spare batteries…
All that in three jersey pockets? Nope! Not going to happen. Jacket out, and dangled off the back of the saddle. Jiggle some bits about, push hard on the peanut butter sandwich, and Hey Presto! It’s all in, after a fashion.
By now it’s very nearly 1000 hours. Two and a half hours later than planned. With some stops, if I keep to the Strava plan’s schedule I’m looking at a midnight finish. Lucky I got those lights together then. It’s OK. No-one really knows the plan, so if needs be, I can bail out in the New Forest, turn for home and call it a round century, and no-one will know any better. The preparation has been stressful. Very much last minute and a bit manic. I roll out down the driveway and begin to relax. Get to the start of the Strava route, “Course Found”! Reach up to clear something from the corner of me eye. Noooooooo! Glasses? Where are my shades? I can’t ride without them. Retreat, recover glasses (two pairs, clear and dark tint) and off again. Obviously the first 30 miles or so are quite familiar, but even so I go “Off Course” compared with the planned route. But I know better than Strava/Garmin, so I’ll cut back onto the route via this quieter, better detour, instead of that horrible ‘A’ road. I’m enjoying myself now. Getting into a rhythm, appreciating the beautiful weather and the scenery.
Villages come and go. Odiham, Upton Grey, Weston Patrick, Herriard. A long gap to the Candovers. A shop stop in Preston Candover when I spot a sign pointing to the village shop just back out of sight of the road. Fluids only as there’s not much food in the fridge. A bottle of Oasis isn’t going to get me far, but I’ve realised I’ve put a big dent in what I brought with me already. The rest of Preston Candover, Chilton Candover, and Brown Candover are dispatched quickly, mostly downhill after my climb to what my GPS trace suggests was the highest point of the route. This is most definitely NOT a “climbing day”. Northington is next, heading South before turning right through Itchen Abbas, over the M3 motorway into Abbots Worthy. The Worthys? There’s surely a joke in there somewhere. But before we hit Kings Worthy and Headbourne Worthy the Garmin Edge 500 curse strikes! You see, I’m following a ‘breadcrumb trail’ with no base maps, and about 50% of the time it gets to the route screen and simply refuses to draw the route for me. I guess, and guess wrong, heading onto the A33 Winchester Bypass. Thankfully though, I realise my error before it becomes a fully-fledged four-lane dual carriageway. Bail out onto the shared use cycle path, roll to a crossing point, and head back up to the correct turning. Plain sailing into Winchester city proper now, a slight downhill until the turn to climb up Romsey Road from the Great Hall. Up and up we go, passing the Hospital and the Prison. This is where I pass Keith (more on him later) as he breaks for lunch in a cafe at The Rifles Museum. Now it’s opening up. Pitt, Standon, Hursley, past Nan Trodd’s Hill, Ampfield, skirt the northern edge of Romsey. We’re off the Downs, and into the Test Valley. Old Salisbury Lane to Shootash, and on to the A36.
Well this turns out to be a mistake. Getting across the A36 is harder than it sounds. It’s still holiday season, and the road is very busy. I need to get over a right/left dog-leg into the New Forest National Park. It takes patience, and a few precious minutes, but I manage to make a small gap work for me. This is it! Cover me, I’m going in! (To the New Forest, that is).
I’ve been covering new ground since The Candovers, and this is another first for me. I’ve never cycled in The New Forest before, and I’m in full tourist mode. A photo by the National Park sign just after the cattle grid? Yup, that’ll be me. At the crossroads with Furzely Road there is a sign for a place called ‘Nomansland’, and a trio of Donkeys milling about in the middle of the junction. Another photo stop. Donkeys, interesting place names, all cool subjects for poor photos (I have a very cheap camera for bike trips). It’s warming up nicely now, so before I get too hot I take off my long-sleeved base layer. This is where Keith (remember him from Winchester?) passes me on the road. I head off behind some gorse bushes for a ‘comfort break’, having chomped through half of my squashed sandwiches. As I wander back to the road I spot some free food. Foraging! Hooray! A big old handful of fresh picked blackberries later and I’m under way again, but not for long. I get to the far edge of Bramshaw and there’s a cyclist sitting on the grass. A slow to check all is well, he raises a hand in reply, and I roll on past. But something nags at me to stop. I turn around, and it dawns upon me that this chap is wearing a Farnborough & Camberley Cycling Club jersey. I stop to say hello, and this, it turns out, is Keith. We are properly introduced, as I’m surprised to spot a ‘home’ jersey at an ‘away match’. Turns out we’ve left from barely two miles apart, and are heading to exactly the same place. He’s loaded with bike luggage for an overnight stay, but our planned routes turn out to be identical. What are the chances, right? Anyway, we sort of fall into plodding along on the bikes again, chatting.
We’ve not worked out that our routes are identical just yet, but two junctions later, when we’ve prepared to wave one another farewell, we realise that we’re on the same mission. At this point I’m struggling, too. Mentally, rather than physically, but I’m struggling to keep my rhythm and maintain a decent pace. Keith is a hero here, and really rises to the occasion. We are by turns riding side-by-side, and with me dropping in behind him to grab his wheel when there are cars trying to pass. I feel bad for leaching off a chap already laden with luggage but Keith seems cool with it. We’re fairly motoring too. Just north of the M27/A31 and heading south west through Fritham, Linwood, and Poulner, into Ringwood itself. From here I have the advantage of a little local knowledge, as Bournemouth is my wife’s home town.
Keith’s route wants to drag him down Matchams Lane. Not too bad in a car, but pretty grim for a cyclist. It’s just too narrow, and too busy. He decides to give my plan a whirl,so we drop south along the B3347 through Sopley and on to Christchurch. It’s not the prettiest road in the area by a long way, but there’s width and it’s not too twisty, so cars can pass OK without squeezing us to the verge. Somehow I’ve regained my Mojo, and I know that I owe Keith a favour. I lead us out, and stay in the wind all the way to the A35 roundabout. It’s a good workout. Keith is more comfortable ‘on my wheel’ than I was behind him, so I feel like I’m being pushed along by him. I nearly lost him on one small hill (he’s lugging 17 kg of kit with him remember) but i’m aware enough to rein it in and get him back on. We return a pretty decent joint 177/714 on the 7.1 mile “ringwood-christchurch” Strava segment at a shade over 20 mph average.
Nearly there, we relax a little, follow the cycle path along the A35, through the underpass, and on to Tuckton Bridge. As we reach the roundabout, and begin the climb up Belle Vue Road, we need our wits about us. To celebrate our arrival in town, the good people of Bournemouth have arranged for an air display by none other than The Red Arrows! Obviously this means that all eyes are cast skyward, with drivers craning their necks for a glimpse. We survive the climb, and the inattentive drivers, to arrive on Southbourne Overcliff Drive in time to catch a pretty decent chunk of the display.
Then the Red Arrows are over, as is my time riding with Keith. A proper gentleman, and an absolute pleasure to ride with, but we say our goodbyes as he heads toward Boscombe Pier, and I retreat toward Hengistbury Head in search of something to eat. A wander around some cafes turns up nothing promising. One is too busy, and I’ve not brought a lock, the other is dead quiet (the Air festival has killed trade inland this afternoon) and has stopped serving hot food. In the end I settle on ‘Simon’s Traditional Fish & Chip Shop’ on Broadway. Pie and chips and a drink, a little seating area fenced off to the side of the shop, so somewhere safe for the bike, and best of all the chips are close to perfect. Worth waiting 15 minutes for it to open in the end, but so annoying when you can see the lights on and the food going into the glass cabinet. I even catch a glimpse of the WWII B-17 bomber “Sally B” as she turns to land at Hurn while I’m waiting. Perhaps I should have stayed longer at the air show?
No. Not really. I’m behind schedule as it is. I’m riding faster than the ‘virtual partner’ in my Garmin is, but that’s just creating a buffer for my food and photo stops. No time to let my food settle, I’m going to have to crack on if I’m to get back on the same day I left the house. Yikes! Realisation is dawning. Best get cracking then.
I head off, same route back to Sopley. I turn too early for Bransgore (Garmin won’t draw the route again, so I’m guessing at times). No matter, I’m parallel with the palnned route and can get back on it easily at the next village. Sorted. But it turns out I’d have been better sticking to my incorrect route – correcting it has added some distance, and I’d have ended up in the same place anyway. Another Garmin refusal to give me a clue means another wrong turn. Quickly corrected but it’s all time penalties added on. Into Burley and another wrong turn. Damn you, Garmin! But this time it isn’t the Garmin’s fault. Damn you, Strava! It’s only gone and put me on an off-road section between Burley and Newton. To Hell with it, it’s not a massive issue. I’m still short on fluids, and there are signs for Lyndhurst. I’ll follow those to shops, I know Lyndhurst has shops. But this means a trip along the busy A35 in the growing darkness. Not the most pleasant route through the New Forest, but it all goes OK. Stop at ‘Forage’ to find that it’s a bit errrm? “Wholefoody”. There are no bottled soft drinks aside from locally produced touristy presses and sparkling juices. I tell the chap what I want, and he points me next door. A Budgens! Yay! Lifesaver. I order a coffee in Forage, they let me stash my bike in the garden out the back, and nip next door for still Lucozade, 1.5 litres thereof. Back to sup my coffee, use the toilet and wash my hands, and redistribute the stuff in my pockets. There’s great live music on too, but I can’t stay. I wait for The Real Raj to finish his track, give him some applause and a thumb-up, and I’m off again. Happy now that both bottles are full and I still have that squashed sandwich to keep me going.
North now, heading for Bartley, via a missed turn off the A337. Garmin playing the fool again. Another missed turn! Pah! This is not helping at all. Ower. Past Paulton’s Park. Bad news. This road looks familiar. A3090 dual carriageway, in the dark, up hill, heading into Romsey. I’m now wondering what other surprises await, I should really have checked the route before saving it. Over the River Test, passing Broadlands, out of Romsey to Crampmoor and Ampfield. This is where I get back on the route i came out on. Easy-peasy now, surely?
Through Hursley, through Standon. Into Winchester, down that nasty hill you climbed earlier, but now without the hazard of traffic. Through the one-way system OK, and on to The Worthys. I clear Kings Worthy at 2100 hours. It’s been well and truly dark for some time now, so a stop to check lights are still lit, and that batteries are still providing power is in order. All is good.
Over the M3 again, and on to Itchen Abbas. I miss my left turn. The Garmin is in melt-down, telling me to go up into a housing estate. I know it’s wrong, as there’s a “No Through Road” sign. Up the road, turn left, still off course. Reverse the route. No use. The Garmin is now dead. Low battery warnings have been a regular thing this last half hour, but I had hoped it was just being pessimistic.
Ah well. I’m guessing now. Up the road, turn left, then right. It won’t be the road I planned, but the end result should be the same. Restart the Garmin. It lives! Albeit briefly. Come on Garmin! Give me more than 45 seconds at a time! All I need is for it to get me to the Candovers and I know the way home from there. So I battle on that ten miles or so, repeatedly restarting the Garmin hoping to keep the GPS trace alive. It’s costing me speed, but “if it isn’t on Strava…” – I need this damned thing to keep going for just another hour and a half. Northington comes and goes. I finally hit The Candovers. I’m still repeatedly restarting the GPS unit. Every time it comes back to life, records a little stretch, then promptly dies again. It’s also massively under-recording my mileage now. Only tallying up the parts where it’s actually on. It knocks my mental maths right out when it comes to how far I have left to ride, but it’s OK, because Strava will sort it out when I get back.
The Candovers. Southrope. Herriard. And still the Garmin comes back to life in short bursts. Maybe I’ll get ALL of this data back after all? Weston Patrick, Upton Grey, Odiham. All is quiet save for some Friday night drinkers at pubs in the town, and the Kebab van at the roundabout. It’s 2300 hours. Not far now, we’ve got this one cracked! Then it finally happens. The battery in the Garmin is so low that it cannot get beyond the initial start-up screen. Scarily it’s just looping round between blank, and the initial screen. I’m just short of Winchfield at this point, only 8 miles short of home. I’m also thinking that I’ve pushed my luck too far, and all the ride data will be gone too.
Ho-hum. That’s not what this is all about really. It’s been a really nice day out on the bike, I’ve ridden 148 miles with no mechanicals, no punctures, no cramps, nor any aches or pains. This truly has been a good day. So with no more tech to worry about, I set about putting the hammer down a little, and just enjoyed the silence of the night. Until Fleet, anyway. I dodged the town centre, with it’s associated drunks and crazy taxi drivers, and set a course for home. A few minutes later, and having passed the temptation of yet another Kebab van (Marmaris Kebabs at the Fleet Road roundabout – they’re really rather good) I arrived home without further drama.
I’ve got to say that I’ve felt a lot worse after shorter rides than this. I certainly felt that I could have tacked another 50 miles onto this one if I’d left myself enough time by leaving earlier. The weather was pretty much perfect too, and I’d dressed just right for it. I’d put my base layer back on in Lyndhurst, switched to full finger gloves, and resorted to a windproof packable jacket a little later, but only at the very end was I feeling a little chilly. I even had a few cereal bars and half of a very squashed peanut butter sandwich left, along with a full bottle.
Not bad at all for a long old ride that had only been conceived as an idea a little over 24 hours earlier. Proper planning and preparation? Phooey! Just get on your bike and ride…