Monday, 10 March 2014

On the road....

Wow! - suddenly it feels as though summer is here - spring?, well, spring seems to have been bypassed, we've jumped from the mildest winter for years straight into summer. After weeks of endless rain and high winds, ice-cream vans have made a comeback in these parts.

Okay - my observations may be a little premature, but this weekend I've been out both days... in my shorts. I've built up a sweat. I've felt the sun, strong and warm, I might even have started adding a little colour to my legs. And I wasn't the only one. It seems that cyclists, like insects and ice-cream vans, suddenly appear as soon as the temperature rises a few degrees. The roads here were teeming with mamils - I could barely pull out from my drive such was the continual procession of riders on Sunday. Yes - it's definitely looking good at the moment, and with the added attraction of the lengthening daylight it seems the season has finally started. The harbingers are apparent: hosts of daffodils in full bloom, people wandering around in tee shirts and shorts and have I mentioned ice-cream vans?

On Saturday I opted for a long ride - the longest by far this year. I set off at around 2.30pm, the sun shining and a clear, impossibly perfect, azure blue sky. Hikers, dog walkers, runners, birwatchers and many cyclists are all out in force. I opted for the old bike, for no other reason than it's early March - too early to dust off the new bike? My plan, to ride over to Barton under Needwood and visit my mother, hang around there for a couple of hours then cycle back in the dark, a distance of around 43 miles in total.

I set off a slow but steady pace, it would be a long arduous route with plenty of hills to overcome - no need for speed and excessive effort at this stage, take it easy, pace myself was the plan. The thing with the old bike is that although it is perfectly capable and suitable for pretty much any day-to-day cycling, it is definitely harder than the newer, lighter, carbon model. Average speed is at least a couple of mph slower, and my position is less comfortable generally. I tried to adjust the saddle height before departing - unfortunately the seat post seems to have combined with the frame in such a secure and final way that I couldn't shift it. The seat post is carbon, so too much force is ill advised - Google will provide a suitable answer but that's for another day.

As I made my way I noticed some builders working on a house not more than half a mile from my own home. Despite riding this same road since Christmas I've failed to notice how quickly the development has taken shape - it seems to be more or less finished, I never noticed it before? Further along the route I pass over the railway bridge as I drop into Congerstone - just as I approach the apex a steam train passes underneath me, the smoke and steam creating a fluffy cloud either side that quickly joins together creating an impenetrable cloud of vapour. The smell is wonderful though and I pass through in a second. There's quite a breeze as I make my through to Shackerstone and Snarestone and from there the long drag on the main road through to Measham. The wind requires extra effort, and combined with the steady uphill rise I quickly tire. A brief downhill freewheel allows me to regroup and then its a steady saunter to Netherseal, past my old house and through the village towards Grangewood. There's been a lot of tree planting I notice, possibly part of the National Forest scheme, either side of me is row after row of new saplings, all laid out in straight, even lines. It reminds me of a military graveyard, like the big ones in Normandy commemorating the fallen servicemen from D-Day. I try to imagine what it will look like ten, fifteen years from now, magnificent.

There is a diversion on the road down towards Coton, I ignore it and decide there's always a way through for a cyclist. I'm right, in fact I can't really see any reason why there needs to be a diversion at all - just some minor roadworks as far as I can tell. I pass a wedding taking place at the small village church in Coton - there is a solitary bell, ringing continuously, not the more traditional and infinitely more effective change ringing - perhaps there is only one bell? The guests are all gathered outside the church, taking photographs, throwing confetti, all smart suits and posh dresses - the powder blue sky and bright sunshine makes for a perfect wedding day.

It's not just people who are out making the most of a glorious day - I notice Jackdaws foraging in the horse pasture as I pass. And then as I ride along a sheltered stretch of road, warmed by the strong sun and sheltered from the breeze there is a cloud of gnats, midges, whatever - a rolling mass that I plough through and spit out the remnants.

I spend a couple of hours at Mum's, she provides an endless supply of tea and a welcome bacon sandwich - then it's time for the return journey. After a couple of miles and with dusk fast approaching I pause to switch on my lights before the climb up Walton Hill, this is always a tough one and today doesn't disappoint - in fact it feels steeper than ever. I make it to the top and roll gently for 20 yards to get my breath back. I notice then a marvellous spectacle; a huge flock of crows massing to my right, a graceful, flowing wave of jet black shadows, their wings slowly flapping and at the same time a cacophony of contact calls. The whole thing moves as one into the darkening blue sky, a glorious slow, black ballet of repeated shapes that sweeps into the trees on the horizon so that they become foliated by birds.

As I wind my way, wearily towards home in the darkness, my front light goes off. Just dead - no prior flickering, no warning - just pitch black. I press frantically at the buttons - no idea why - but nothing happens. I have to ride on - I have about 5 miles still to do. I consider that the roads are quiet, I can see any oncoming headlights from a mile away, and my back light is fine. It's tricky riding in the dark with no forward light - and no idea of what's in the road, contours, verges, nothing. The feeling is weird, there is the sensation of movement but no visual confirmation. I have a sudden brainwave - there is a flashlight feature on my iPhone - I can use that, hand held, it will be better than nothing. And that is how I made it home, holding the phone all the way, directing the light into the path of the few oncoming vehicles I encountered - it worked - I lived to tell the tale.

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