Sunday, 28 April 2013

Thames/Chilterns Ramble

In the spirit of trying to maintain rediscovered momentum, I am going to try and post blogs on consecutive days this week. Only if I have something interesting to say, though - blogs that talk about nothing are pointless, right? Isn't that what diaries are for?

Anyway, the old legs are just recovering from my Sunday ride, which is always the longest of the week according to my London Revolution training plan. This week's long ride was a loop of the Thames Valley and Chilterns with my good buddy, Sankey. He lives down in Egham on the edge of Windsor Great Park, which is a useful spot for striking out west or down into the Surrey Hills. A crucial part of training I find is to vary routes as much as possible. Riding the same circuits week in-week out can be a useful yardstick to progress but can also get dull quickly, whereas varying routes keeps cycling feeling like an adventure which is one of the main attractions for me.

The training plan stipulated a four hour Sunday ride of low intensity this week. As usual, the focus is more on maintaining steady pace, decent cadence and consistent effort than on breaking any speed records, which suits me fine. They even stipulated a 15 min cafe stop this week, which was nice. Through the wonders of Garmin Connect, I found a 70 mile loop starting near Egham which looked like it would fit the bill nicely - closer to five hours than four at current average speed maybe but good to have something to aim for.

For various reasons we didn't end up leaving Egham until 14:00ish, one of those various reasons being that Sanks had only just picked up his summer bike from its winter hibernation up in Kenilworth. It's a Giant TCR Composite that I call the Stealth Bomber because it's black and quite evil-looking. He'd also just taken delivery of a new rear wheel and swapped cassettes so his flat was strewn with various oily bits when I arrived.

We set off across hallowed Runnymede (famous for the Magna Carta of course amongst various other historic sites including the JFK Memorial and the Commonwealth War Graves Commission's very moving Air Forces Memorial) and into Windsor. Riding past the castle is always quite spectacular although also hazardous with so many tourists wandering across the roads, fixated on their viewfinders and not the traffic. Crossing the Thames via the Eton footbridge, we then picked up a section of Sustrans National Route 4 (NR4), which these days runs all the way from Greenwich in SE London to Fishguard on the Pembrokeshire coast via the Thames Valley, Bristol and South Wales. I am a big fan of Sustrans and would love to work for them one day. As an aside, I think every cyclist in the UK whatever their stripe owes it to themselves to support this organisation as it's doing so much good work building and maintaining a proper national network of often traffic-free cycle paths across the country, all of which will hopefully encourage more cycling and reduce reliance on motor transport in the long run. You can make one-off or regular donations here.

It is always such a pleasure to be riding on traffic-free cycle paths after dicing with cars through somewhere as bustling as Windsor. This stretch of NR4 was no exception, using smooth gravel paths that are perfectly navigable on skinny tyres and idiot-proof waymarking to quickly bring us to Dorney Lake, Eton School's reassuringly-upmarket rowing lake, now enshrined forever as a host venue for the glorious London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games, of course. Swinging onto the lake's apron road, I could almost feel my bike accelerate beneath me - I originally bought it back in 2008 for the Eton Supersprints triathlon at Dorney and it was enjoying the opportunity to ride their roads again. One slight irritation was managing to reset my Garmin by accident whilst trying to locate the route, which would cock-up my stats for the day but not the end of the world. GPS is a fantastic thing for the travelling cyclist and without Garmin Connect we'd never have stumbled upon this lovely route out of Windsor along the river, so not the end of the world. Ironically, despite Sankey living down this way for years and having often ridden around here with him, we'd never managed to find this route before so there is a lesson in the benefits of sat-nav. Mention must also go to Sanks managing to negotiate his bike Martin Ashton-style over a particularly technical switchback Thames footbridge without falling over in his clips - a challenge I set him based on the promise of me picking up the cafe bill later on. His bike-handling skills (or should that be frankly worrying willingness to do anything for free cake?) are vastly superior to my own ham-fisted efforts and I decided not to follow suit as almost certainly would have embarrassed myself in front of the ramblers. This whole riverside stretch was really lovely, though, evoking two of my very favourite books The Wind In The Willows and Three Men In A Boat despite not being the fastest terrain for a road bike. I am so going to get me a proper tourer one of these days and do more of this kind of riding, especially now I have the other essential accessories of a beard and CAMRA membership.

From there we ducked south of Maidenhead, still using NR4 and passing through a succession of idyllic Thameside villages including the gastro-mecca of Bray, where Heston was doubtless hard at work concocting his Waitrose ready meals. Another advantage of Sustrans routes is seeing the kind of places you'd easily miss by car - the background hum attested to the number of vehicles speeding obliviously through this area on the nearby M4 and I was reminded again on Hemingway's famous quote about seeing the contours of a country best from a bicycle.

Crossing the Thames again we soon started climbing up into the southern part of the Chilterns, my local hills in many ways as I grew up on their lee slope up in Hertfordshire. The chalky lanes definitely felt familiar, as did the succession of short, sharp climbs now facing us, nothing like ratcheting up a 20% incline to get the lactic going. Passing Twyford and Sonning just NE of Reading, we then reached Nettlebed where decisions had to be made. We'd been battling into strong headwinds all the way from Egham, rain was forecast for later and if we were going to attempt the full route we would definitely end up riding far more than the plan recommended. So after a quick conflab we decided to forego the long climb up from Watlington to Stokenchurch and instead turned back east towards Henley.

We were both starting to feel the effects of battling that nasty headwind by now and conversation had kind of descended to a series of grunts but swinging east the tailwind compensated for the fact we had now left the sanctuary of the lanes for the busy A4155 road into Henley. A civilised town not just in Royal Regatta week of course but given the need to press on we elected to postpone the promised cafe stop until Marlow so we could get a few more miles under our belts first. We'd ridden this road before but managed to forget the stiff little climb up past Danesfield House, which was the proverbial straw to the camel's back. It was time for a coffee. There are probably much nicer places to stop in Marlow than Costa Coffee - I normally try to avoid big chains as much as possible - but needs must at 5pm on a Sunday. The baristas were very accommodating to our carbon fibre weaponry and kind enough to refill our bidons whilst we tucked into the obligatory cake (my old service station favourite the raspberry and almond slice, fake them here) and amusing ourselves at some new age traveller types across the street who were apparently walking all the way to Glastonbury with their stuff in wheelbarrows and asking Costa's staff for some leftover sarnies despite also being exactly the kind of people who (commendably I should add) recently stopped the company opening a branch in hippy Totnes. Funny how one's standards slip when peckish but we're all guilty of that at times I guess.

Refuelled by Bakewell slice and caffeine we headed over to Bourne End and up the steep Hedsor Hill climb, which despite only being about 0.5 miles actually averages a bit more than Ditchling Beacon. It's a useful yardstick as Sanks and I really used to struggle up this one when we first explored these roads, on one infamous occasion I actually managed to detonate my entire rear mech on this hills necessitating evac by car, this time it felt if not painless at least steady which was a nice feeling. Recovering our breath past beautiful Cliveden, historic seat of the Astors set on its spectacular bluff above the Thames, we were soon freewheeling down through Taplow before crossing the busy A4 and rejoining our original loop at Dorney. The final run across Eton Wick with Windsor Castle looming majestically in the background is normally a highlight but by now the pesky wind had managed to wheel around 180 degrees to a chilly easterly that was right in our faces yet again. I love how the wind often seems to veer around like that in the UK, well I say 'love', actually when I'm on a bike I loathe its propensity to do so, give me light drizzle over headwinds any day of the week. At least we had to stop to let a herd of cows cross the road which gave the whole scene a rather bucolic aspect despite being within earshot of the M4 and right below Heathrow's flighpath.

Soon we were back in Eton just as a whole generation of future Tory leaders and (perish the thought) potential Prime Ministers streamed out of the chapel in their famous tails. Having been lucky enough to go to rather a historic (if rather less magisterial) school myself, I'm pretty confident none of the spotty youths fully appreciate the architectural splendour around them at their age but if I'm anything to go by, they'll return in 20 years time and be quite awestruck in retrospect at how beautiful their surroundings were. It is one of the great ironies of life that hindsight is almost always 20:20.

Passing back into Windsor, we picked up the road across Runnymede and I temporarily managed to shell Sanks out the back of the peloton in my keeness to stem the rising pain from my buttocks, which were acclimatising themselves to a quite uncompromising new saddle. We shall have to see how that one goes but suffice to say I have retained the receipt and might yet have to take Specialized up on its generous no-questions-asked saddle exchange offer. There is nothing like a sore bum for encouraging a sporting finish to a ride, however, and before long we were regrouping back in Egham for tea and medals or in this case post-ride pizza which Sanks offered to share in typically gentlemanly fashion. Guilt-free pizza is one the foremost reasons I ride a bike in the first place so he didn't meet much resistance.

Piecing together my fragmented Garmin stats I see that we ended up riding almost 101km in about 4h20m, so an average speed of around about 24km/h which isn't going to set the world on fire but it was supposed to be a low-intensity session and with the windy conditions and hills I will happily take that. Always satisfying to make triple figures, whether or not one buys in to the whole purist school of using km over miles.

All in all, a pleasant jaunt around the Thames reaches and lower Chilterns, which would have been made a lot more pleasant without that infernal breeze but can't have everything I suppose. At least the forecast showers held off. 'Train hard, race easy', or something like that...

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