Flying solo for the first time

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For me, cycling alone usually means commuting to work, or just getting from A to B in Bristol. Whenever I get out on a leisurely ride at the weekends, I’m with Adam, or another group of people. It’s a lovely and social way to spend my time on the bike, but I am aware that I’ve become rather dependent on other people to show me the way. I naturally fall behind the group, or my companion, and allow myself to be led.

It means that when I do finally set out somewhere my own (and it could be a really simple in-town journey like Kingswood to Bedminster), I find myself worrying about getting lost, because even though I’ve done it countless times before, I’ve allowed myself to ride blindly behind someone else, trusting them to get me to where I need to be, and not really learning the routes for myself.

Yesterday was a day of firsts for me. My first time attempting a new and challenging route, my first time clipping in, and my first solo adventure. I was so nervous in the lead up to it, because I knew I’d get lost. I knew I’d get stuck. I had no faith in myself, really. I was too dependent on others. But I also knew that I needed to do it. I needed to get out and discover things for myself, to let myself explore, and let myself be pushed to the limits, in order to really learn how I deal with those situations.

I did learn a lot about myself on this ride, like where my limits are, where I get my thrills, and what terrifies me. I also learned what I’d do if I was lost and stuck on a treacherous, flooded, muddy dirt path in the middle of nowhere. Spoiler alert, I completely froze up. I remember at the Women and Bicycles festival, either Lee Craigie or Emily Chappell (I can’t remember which now) kept saying that when you find yourself in these dire situations, you’re not going to just lie down and die on the side of the road, you’re going to keep pushing. I found myself questioning my own ability to push through, yesterday.

But I’ll come back to that. Let’s talk about the ride!

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I set out at about 8:30am and made my way to the Bristol-Bath Railway Path, where I changed into my SPD shoes and had a go at clipping in. I spent the first 10 minutes or so clipping in, riding, slowing, unclipping, stopping, and repeating. I actually took to it very quickly, and thankfully the day was incident-free! Also, how satisfying is that sound? Every time my cleat engaged with the pedal I felt a tiny bit more smug.

And so my journey began. I rode out towards Bath, turning off at Saltford to join the 410 Avon Cycleway. At this point, everything became unfamiliar, and my challenge to survive on my own began. One thing I can say is, thank goodness for the National Cycle Network! I found it so easy to get to where I needed to be, just by following the signs for route 410. It took me through some beautiful countryside, and I didn’t feel the need to keep stopping and checking my map. I trusted in the signs and they delivered me to where I needed to be. It was great to feel that sense of independence.

The 410 took me through Compton Dando, Pensford (where I saw the most amazing viaduct), Stanton Drew and Chew Magna. Reaching Chew Valley Lake was a highlight for me, because I’ve been talking for the last 6 months about how much I want to ride there, but waiting for someone to say, “okay, let’s go today.” I went by myself, and I felt really proud. Unfortunately the glory-basking was short-lived, due to the plague of locusts (or lake-dwelling, flying insects) that greeted me. I’ve honestly never experienced anything like it – any description I give will sound like a huge exaggeration, and I didn’t stop to take photos because I was literally covered in them as soon as I stopped my bike. In the end I just had to get out of there.

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From this point, I’d planned to get creative, following route 3 down to Priddy, turning off towards Cheddar, and then having lunch in Axbridge before joining the Strawberry Line. This didn’t happen, so maybe it’s one for another time. Instead, I hit a wall going up Harptree Hill, which is super steep, and 1/4 mile long. I had nothing left in me, so I stopped by the side of the road, ate, and checked the map for a shorter route back to the Strawberry Line.

There was a very surreal moment where a cycling club flew past me down the hill in waves, and I stepped out to see how many of them were coming. At that point I heard a voice shout ‘HI MILDRED!’ and I was left feeling utterly perplexed at who could have recognised me in all my cycling gear, in such a split-second. It turned out to be Katherine!

I have to admit that I walked up the rest of Harptree Hill. I was deeply ashamed and felt like a total failure, but that hill just defeated me. I’d already been out riding for about 3-4 hours at that point and hadn’t really eaten or rested. I didn’t expect to come up against such a climb at that point. But anyway, once at the top, I gathered myself and cycled in the direction of Charterhouse. This was where I left route 3 and decided to go it alone. This is also where I got very, very lost.

I came out onto a junction where the only option was to turn left or right. The road sign pointed to Cheddar on the left, and had been broken off on the right. My map was telling me to continue straight ahead. Across the road I could see a small opening that could have been a bike path, or could have been a path to someone’s driveway. I wasn’t sure. In the end I decided to find out. Once across the road I found myself on the most beautiful path:

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Don’t be fooled by the beauty… treachery lies ahead.

I bumped into three women looking at a map, and decided to check if I was going in the right direction, to Charterhouse. They were also lost and on their way to Cheddar, but confirmed that I was indeed on the right path, so I continued.

The path became increasingly rocky, and then muddy, and then at last, completely flooded. I found myself staring at a huge, boggy and deep puddle, for about 5-10 minutes. I just froze up. I didn’t want to ride through it clipped in, because I had visions of slipping and ending up lying in the middle of it. I also didn’t want to ride through it on the flat side of the pedal, because if I slipped and put a foot down, that was me ankle deep in mud. For that same reason I didn’t want to walk through it. I just kept looking back at the way I’d come, and then squinting up past the puddle to see if it got any better. It didn’t.

So my reaction to this situation wasn’t great. On reflection, had I been on the right path and left with no other choice, I should have just cycled through it. My bike was made for these types of things, and I need to learn to trust it. There were many other parts of the ride where I forced myself to trust in the bike, because I didn’t trust my own abilities as a cyclist.

As luck would have it though, I got off lightly this time. The three women reappeared, heading back in the direction they’d come, and told me that they’d read the map wrong. They’d actually taken a wrong turn 40 minutes beforehand, and I needed to go back to the main road and take that right that wasn’t signposted. I used a stick to pick all the mud out of my cleats, and gratefully rejoined the tarmac road.

From there, it was a straightforward ride through Shipham to Sandford, where I joined the Strawberry Line and rode to Yatton to get the train back to Bristol. Once I was on that path, I felt reinvigorated. The weather was glorious, it was really quiet, and I was feeling really accomplished. Clipping in was becoming second nature, and I started to feel like I’d at last levelled up to ‘Proper Cyclist’.

I just need to work on my courage, somehow.

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