Despite being followed around the campsite by all the wild ponies (I was the only one up at the site this morning so they seemed to think I was their best bet) I managed to pack and leave by 6.30am. Straight away I could tell that a hard day’s cycling was in prospect. Even with the cover of surrounding forest the wind was chilly and blowing squarely from the North.
Now I know I had a few harsh words to say about Southampton on Day 1 (and local boy John Mills seemed to agree), but I’m going to redress the balance a little bit in its favour here. The cycle paths are actually pretty good, especially the ones that go through local parks, along rivers, and some of the main road ones too. On this trip I’ve been using my Wahoo Element bike computer to select the main route, which I then change when necessary, and it tends to follow National Cycle Paths where possible. One big surprise of the trip has been how much of this network is really good quality and well chosen. There are massive gaps of course, and head-scratching moments of disbelief when your path runs out in the middle of a dual carriageway, which is why we’re so far behind countries like Holland. But it’s not all bad news, and the National Routes are an asset we should value more highly. Road bikes with skinny tyres beware, though. Even in town the smooth tarmac can change to gravel and potholes in a moment. In Canada I’m still wondering about trying some of the incredible Kettle Valley Rail Trail in the Rocky Mountains (see below), but if the weather turns, or there’s a rockfall, it can be a very hazardous. And the scale is so vast that if you get into difficulties you might be stuck a long way from anything. So I’m probably going to play that by ear once I’m in the mountains.
Owing to a problem reloading my route in reverse to go home, I decided to make a long stop in Winchester to sort it out safely, recharge various batteries in one go, write up yesterdays blog and have coffee. You know how you shake or tap a packet of sugar, or pepper, or whatever, to sort of loosen it up? This dad held out his brown sugar packet in front of his hugely-grinning son, tapped it several times on the lad’s forehead, then poured it in his tea. The kid clearly knew all about this routine, and laughed loudly, wriggling with excitement. When that fun was over he hopped down, walked over to me and started throwing his digger on the shiny floor to see how far it would skid. After a while I got so used to the sound of the digger hitting the floor that I was able to carry on typing undisturbed.
Leaving Winchester, freshly re-routed on the sat-nav, I then blundered into the most ridiculous circumnavigation of the Winchester M3 interchange (trying to find the nice safe cycle paths) you could imagine. Here’s a birds-eye view, courtesy of Strava, of what ended up taking me 20 minutes. My route is all the blue stuff:
Finally exiting from top right, I immediately turned around and took the following picture. You’d never even know the M3 was there.
Back on the road again it was becoming increasingly clear what an effort this big ride home was going to be today. I probably wasn’t at my most energetic anyway, but felt ok. It was the cold headwind that made every turn of the pedal an effort. With four fully-loaded panniers I’m about as aerodynamic as a London bus. On one long and exposed steep hill I really struggled to keep my bike moving forward, and as I looked at the verge to my left I saw that I was cycling at the same speed as a pheasant walking idly through the grass. That’s my new slowest bike-speed acronym, WPP, or walking pheasant’s pace. Every glance at my feeble mileage lowered my spirits, and I realised that it was time to take an early lunch break. I had not loaded any food on the bike this morning (apart from emergency peanuts and some gels) as I thought it simplest to shop en route. Village after village went by, none of which had shops. After about 10 miles I found one with a shop, but it was closed. I was getting a little demoralised now, not wanting to stop properly until I had food to eat. Then, rounding a bend in a place called Preston Candover, I saw this:
It was a tiny village Post Office, tucked right back from the road behind an outbuilding. Almost my happiest moment of the day was sitting on the step outside, in the weak sun and out of the wind, knocking back a scotch egg and some crisps. Whilst there I got talking to a chap called Tim, who I believe is now following the blog, about a bike journey he attempted when he was just 11 years old. He had planned to cycle from Hemel Hempstead to Slimbridge Wetland Centre (where my younger brother Seb was Senior Research Officer for many years). Total projected distance on my bike computer: 109 miles. He said he went via Wendover, a beautiful route that I’ve cycled often, heading first for Oxford, but got his bag caught in his derailleur and chainring and wrecked them – journey over! I think Tim said that his parents came and got him and he tried again, but I can’t recall the outcome this time. If you’re still there Tim, what happened? Anyway, hats off to the adventurousness of youth, and those great schemes we hatch at that age. We then parted company, as Tim was off to take aerial photos using a drone and it was time for me to hit the road. Having a bite and a chat before restarting my struggles gave me a great boost, so thanks Tim! Also I want to say how much I enjoyed chatting to Terry outside Coffee 1 in Dorchester a few days ago. He was a long-distant walker, currently rather immobilised by a hip problem, who has done some amazing walking trips of his own, as well a writing his own blog. I hope you’re back on the trail asap Terry!
And now it’s on to today’s “Signs that are Funny”, and the first is from a very imposing gateway to a fancy mansion somewhere or other:
Talking of which, and before we go on to the next sign, back in Winchester I had a sign-related encounter with a local lady. I was rolling (slowly!) towards the Cathedral intending to go round the side path. There’s a big sign there saying “CYCLISTS DISMOUNT”, and I unclipped my foot from the pedal and stopped, starting to swing my leg over the bike. At this moment I was confronted by a woman who reminded me instantly of Margo Leadbetter from The Good Life, only she was less friendly. “Dis-MOUNT!!” she barked at me. I looked at her in disbelief and said “That’s what I’m doing!”. She looked very unhappy about that, and said, “Well! – harrumph,harrumph, harrumph!” I don’t know how else to describe, or spell, her reaction. I felt like Basil Fawlty putting up the moose’s head, only to be phoned by Sybil to ask if he was putting up the moose’s head yet. “I was just doing it and I put it down to be reminded by you to do what I’m already doing, I mean what is the POINT?”
I actually feel bad calling the next one a sign, because after hours of cycling and getting cold and fed up and possibly losing my grip a bit, I saw this chap standing patiently just by the road just outside Ascot as I waited in heavy traffic for the very slow lights to change. I said hello and started telling him about my day and we hit if off straight away. I said I liked his jacket and he just sort of gave this look, like “Yeah” so I said shall I take a pic? And he gave that look again, so I got off the bike and took this:
Whilst I was off the bike the lights changed and stayed green for about 3 seconds, so I missed them. I had another long wait as there was no pavement I could sneak along on, but it didn’t matter. I’d learnt a valuable lesson in patience from my new friend. I gave him one of my cards with this blog and the JustGiving details on, but he didn’t seem too fussed. Maybe he’ll have a look one day.
Shortly after that I found a comfy spot for one last rest before cracking on with the last, hilly, 20-odd miles to home.
It was such a relief to finish. Susie and Jacob gave me a big welcome as I cycled up to the gate. Susie had told me by text as I approached home that she’d made a big casserole for supper. I think that thought was my main motivation. I worked out that even allowing for more climbing on the way back and my tiredness, the wind had probably added about an hour and a half to the journey.
So that’s that. Thanks again for spending your valuable time reading this blog of my preparation ride for Canada, and do keep popping back here occasionally as I leave for Vancouver in a couple of week to stay with my old friends Gill and Stewart. They both, but particularly Stewart, have been absolutely fantastic in helping me sort out the start of my ride, as well as being unfailingly generous with their time, putting me up and coming up with great ideas. They are directly and indirectly my hosts for several nights whilst travelling through the Rockies, and I can’t wait to see them both again. I start pedalling in earnest on Monday 29th May, from the small fishing village of Ucluelet on Vancouver Island. It will be obvious to some that Ucluelet is a near-anagram of Ukulele, and of course I’ll be taking a bright red one with me.
Much more on all that to come.
BREAKING NEWS……..as I write this my iPad went “Kerr-ching” because a generous person (calling himself “Biddy Barclay” but I know who you are!!) had made a donation, taking the grand total to…..£1,975. Fantastic total but agonisingly close to a nice round number to end this long weekend. Is there anyone who hasn’t sponsored me yet that feels like taking the total to a whole new level??
It only remains for me to tell you the tune stuck in head whilst cycling for today:
The annoying little tune played by my bike computer when I go off route, then get back on it. An anxious little minor motif, resolving to a merry 1st inversion arpeggio showing you that it was major all along, and everything will be fine. I heard it far too often during my ride and haven’t found an “off” button.