Cycling from A to B

The route!

The last few weeks I’ve been working in a nose-to-the-ground sort of way that left me feeling a little brain-dead. Having met several deadlines close together, and with a quiet(er) weekened of work planned, it seemed like the perfect time to escape the university bubble and do something I’ve never done before: cycle back to my parent’s home solo.

I’ve always cycled A to A routes — looping circles that take me out and back — but never a straight route from A to B (over any great length). A friend and I had planned a mega 130-mile trip to his family’s home in Weymouth last year, but poor weather (and even poorer kit choices) meant we bailed at the last minute. While we’ll have to wait for summer to attempt that again, the comparatively short distance back to Sussex seemed totally manageable.

I live and study in Oxford, 67 miles as-the-crow-flies from my parents home near the South Coast. Making sure to avoid any particularly long stretches of A-roads, my Strava-plotted route was 82 miles long with just over 4000ft of climbing. The route would take me out over the Chilterns, through to the top half of Surrey before hitting the North Downs, with a final undulating section through Sussex lanes. It promised to be a varied route with a solid amount of climbing to blow away the winter cobwebs.

The night before I set off for Sussex, I was pretty apprehensive. While the distance did not phase me, my typical routes have the convenient property of being no more than about 20 miles away from home — an expensive taxi ride if anything went wrong, but a taxi ride nonetheless. Cycling from A to B would be totally different: every mile in a mile further away from home. Getting stuck halfway with a mechanical in the countryside would have hardly been ideal!

My parents (read: Mum) immediately expressed their displeasure at me doing this ride when I proudly announced the plan over Skype. “Are you sure it’s a safe route? Don’t you want to try find someone else to cycle it with you?” Despite their concerns, I told them I’d be fine and not to worry: I’d check-in when/if I stopped and I’d be back in time for lunch. From here on in, having pulled the “I’m and independent adult” card, I knew I’d blown the chance for a lift if, in fact, I did suffer a mechanical.

Brill Windmill, near Oxford — sadly, not on the route.

I set off on a Friday morning, and since I didn’t have to stay in a BnB, I packed as if for a sportive: a few gels, two bottles of water, a sandwich and a couple of inner tubes. I didn’t take a rucksack and left all my gadgets (except phone and Garmin) at home. Leaving at about 9am I was late enough to miss the rush-hour while still being able to reach my parents with the afternoon to spare. I’m not a rapid cyclist by any means, but planned for an average of 18–19mph given my previous times over this sort of distance.

The first 12 miles I knew were going to be fairly underwhelming, they always are! The B480 is a pretty drab road: long, very slightly inclined stretches with moderately-fast traffic both ways. The only redeeming feature usually is the promise of the Chilterns at the other end, and the occassional red kite circling above! On a quiet Friday morning, however, the road was pretty clear and I managed to keep a good pace, reaching the village of Watlington (my gateway to the Chilterns) earlier than expected.

Instead of going up my favourite climb at Watlington, I chose the alternate Howe Hill (which I’ve only ever ridden down before). This would take me up onto the ridge, from where I could follow a single road all the way down into Henley. For someone used to cycling in the North Downs, the boon of the Chilterns is that you can cross the entire ridge by summitting just one hill. Invariably, however, Howe Hill felt much longer and steeper going up than it ever had coming down. The base of the hill is pretty steady, a very gentle climb with some nice scenery. Suddenly, however, the road turns upwards onto a steep section and maintains a double-digit incline until the very top. I was definitely more puffed than I expected by the time it levelled off and I’ll need to return at some point to post a more respectable Strava time!

From the top of the ridge I wound my way down the beautiful Pishill descent. It is a long, satisfying run with banked fields either side of the road being planted as vineyards (climate change *gulp*) and some nice twists and turns. From here on I was in unchartered territory, as the road carried on towards Henley. It was along this stretch of road that I felt the stress of the ride slip away as my bike fizzed along the tarmac. It was reminiscent of the scenes in Breaking Away where Dave Stoller, cycling in the forests of Indiana, bursts into euphoric song. Only the trees will ever know whether I, like Dave, broke out into mock-Pavarotti.

My mood was momentarily lowered when, in the centre of Henley, my Garmin succumbed to an annoying bug that has plagued my rides recently. A bit like a fainting goat, it gets confused by the route and tries to save itself by playing dead and switching off. After some cajoling, I managed to reset the route and continue on my way, but from this point onwards I was forever having to calculate how far I had already cycled and how much further there was to go.

From Henley I cycled south-east, down the side of the Windsor Estate, skirting around Bracknell and Ascot too. This was a fairly flat section with only the occassional short hill. The majority of the time I was on quiet country lanes, but the further south I went the more roads I had to use that were busier than I would normally cycle on. One of the limiting factors I find when plotting (circular) routes, is at some point you will hit a road that looks a bit too busy. But having now cycled on a few of them, I find the traffic around me isn’t much of a bother. Maybe it was a fluke — who knows — but I only had one or two “close passes” along the whole ride. Of course, my cycling sixth-sense for callous drivers coming from behind never quite switched off.

I came across the only other cyclist cycling the same direction as me all day as I was heading into Woking. Passing him I said hello only to be met with silence. Unfortunately, Woking was pretty busy and we were both held at the next set of traffic lights. We awkwardly shared the next ten minutes navigating stops without sharing a word, before our paths eventually diverged. His bike had downtube gear shifters, so I guess my bike and I were too conventional for him.

At about mile 54 I stopped in a little nature-reserve car park to eat my (now-warm) sandwich that I’d stuffed into my jersey pocket. At this point I had made good time and was well into Surrey having passed through Chobham. Based on how far (I thought) I had cycled, I estimated about an hour and a half of cycling left and was well on track for a 19mph average. What I didn’t realise was that my cheery spirits were in fact the early stages of bonking. I’d only eaten a single gel since setting off and had been sipping my water (with electrolytes) fairly slowly. Although I typically eat/drink less than the normal rider, given this was my first “proper” ride of 2017 I should have been more mindful of what I was taking in.

At the foot of the South Downs—in 2016 when I was much fitter!

My energy crashed on the aptly-named Hungry Hill Lane. A prelude to the much steeper Staple Lane, HHL and then the Ripley Road have an average incline of just 1.6% but (for now obvious reasons) this section was particularly sapping. As I crossed the A246 onto Staple Lane and faced the “proper climb” I didn’t think I would have the energy to get up it. I knew the next section would be hard even on a good-day: two 400ft testers within a couple of miles of each other. Add in the fact I was hungry, the first climb was just grim. Pedalling in the lowest gear I had, I resorted to switching my Garmin to the elevation screen and just pushing the tracker further and further up the elevation spike. It didn’t help that it was an unseasonably warm day for February and I was soon baking in my fleece-lined jacket.

Only my pride kept me going to the top, at which point I decided I should just plough on and try and forget the bonk. In typical Surrey fashion, all the elevation I gained was lost in an instant as I wound my way down the other side of the hill. There were a couple of hairy moments around some very tight bends on -15% incline, but I was largely able to treat the descent as a chance to recoup. By the time I started the second climb up Hound House Road I felt much better. Despite being the highest point on my route and having a similar gradient to Staple Lane, this second ascent was much easier and I was over the top and heading towards Ewhurst before I knew it. I was back on familiar roads and about ten miles from the finish.

By the time I reached my local town of Horsham I was knackered and desperate for some proper lunch, but felt pretty good considering. I arrived home about twenty minutes later at 2pm, just in time for lunch. The ride took me 4hr 48mins in total, at an average of 17.1mph — slower than I had wanted, but I was still pretty satisfied.

On the way back on the train, I read “The Wheels of Chance” by H.G. Wells, written in the nineteenth century when bikes first became popular. My Dad had found it on his bookshelf and suggested I give it a go. The book tells the story of a young man, Mr Hoopdriver, who takes his “machine” on a cycling holiday from London to Surrey. In fact, some of the key roads Mr Hoopdriver rode on his own journey were the very same roads I’d been on only a few days before. Despite all the differences between Wells’ world then and ours now, the fact there is an enduring love of cycling is quite remarkable. My A-B route was less impressive than Mr Hoopdriver’s own, but that we both shared an adventure through the same British countryside is pretty cool.

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