Saturday Independence Ride #1: Pill, Failand, Long Ashton loop

I said last time that I would start riding solo on Saturdays, as a way of building some independence and confidence on the roads. That’s exactly what I did at the weekend, though admittedly the ride wasn’t quite what I’d initially planned. A late night on Friday and afternoon plans for the Saturday meant that I was tired and on a time limit, so I decided to take it easy on myself. I definitely will ride to Westonbirt Arboretum, but perhaps on a day when I have no other commitments so I can actually get my money’s worth when I arrive.

This was my first time using the Garmin myself (Adam was in control last time) and I spent some time in the morning creating an almost-figure-of-8 loop on Ride with GPS which took me along some new paths but wasn’t too rigorous for my fragile state.

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It was about 20 miles, finishing in town so I could decide later on what I wanted to do. The idea was to go along the towpath along the Avon Gorge to Pill, which I was aware of but had never actually ventured down. I also wanted to cut through Ashton Court and cycle across the Clifton Suspension Bridge. After spending about an hour trying to figure out how to get my rides to show up on the damn thing (turns out if you rename the file without .gpx at the end, it changes the file type completely, making it unrecognisable to the device), I got moving.

To get to the towpath I had to cut through a cemetery towards Feeder Road, which gave me the creeps. I’ve noticed a lot of bike routes take me through there – is it acceptable to cycle through a cemetery? I always feel like it’s quite inappropriate. There were people visiting graves, and what not. I felt very intrusive.

I had to compete with some pretty fast moving traffic on the main roads after that, so it was a relief to turn off into Greville Smyth Park and onto the towpath towards Pill. It is absolutely stunning, I can’t believe I’ve never been down that way before! I was too busy enjoying it to take photos, unfortunately. That’s one lesson I still haven’t learned yet. Stop and enjoy the views (and then document them for the blog).

It’s an undulating shared path with a gravelly surface: perfect for confidence-building with Regina. It takes you along the River Avon, underneath the Suspension Bridge and all the way along the Avon Gorge.

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The towpath takes you along the bank of the River Avon, through the woodland on the right. Photo stolen from zzzone.co.uk

I had a couple of slightly surreal experiences along the way. The first was when I was taking a narrow part of the path quite slowly*, and became aware of a man running directly on my heels. When I turned to look at him, he reassured me that I didn’t need to let him pass, and that he was just going to run a little further before turning back. We exchanged pleasantries. He asked where I was riding to, and we talked about the towpath and how lovely it is. Then all of a sudden he wished me a good day and turned on his heels.

The second was when I descended a short, sharp decline and rounded a corner at speed, to suddenly be faced with a large group of hikers with matching bright orange hiking poles. They’d gathered together to consult a map, and upon seeing me, called “bike!” and parted to form a path down the middle. As I rode through them, they all smiled and cheered me along, in one of the weirdest accolades I’ve ever experienced (not that I’ve experienced many).

Once I arrived in Pill, the towpath ended and I joined a quiet road next to a fishing lake, climbing a hill that took me through some quiet residential streets. I cut through some local parks, keeping to cycle paths, and found myself faced with a couple of ridiculously steep and narrow uphill paths with chicane barriers at the bottom. This was the first awkward part of the ride where I had to dismount and walk.

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…No thanks. Google Maps doesn’t do the gradient justice. Also the path actually led to steps anyway!

At the top, I joined the Avon Cycleway and kept to the main roads from there, cycling to Failand and then through to Long Ashton. There was a mighty climb (466ft over 4.5 miles), which took me up to the most beautiful road, surrounded by woodland and bluebells. I wish I could have stopped to take a photo, because it was gorgeous. Unfortunately it was spoiled by the endless tirade of drivers who were in such a hurry to pass me, they squeezed through ridiculous gaps at high speed, putting me, themselves and oncoming drivers in danger. Impatient people in cars can really spoil a chilled out Saturday morning ride.

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Just an idea of what it was like… Stolen from Google Maps.

Moving on though, the mighty climb was followed by an even mightier descent (-433ft in 1.9 miles), and would you believe, I loved every second of it! I swear, when it’s smooth tarmac, I’m absolutely fine. It was awesome.

From there I’d planned to cycle through Ashton Court and over the Suspension Bridge, into Clifton and then into town. Unfortunately the Garmin sent me on a route that went through the deer park, which doesn’t have access to bikes. Second awkward moment dismounting the bike. In the end I decided to go it alone, and switched it off, only to find it froze, so I just rode on with a ‘save or discard’ screen staring back up at me the entire time.

Going the only way I was familiar with, I came out the other side of Ashton Court, along Festival Way, back through Greville Smyth Park and went into the town centre to get a mountainous box of falafel salad to take home. All in all it was a good ride.

I unfortunately won’t be doing much riding aside from commuting for the next couple of weeks, due to getting tattooed next weekend, and attending a wedding the weekend after. But they will be back, and I promise they’ll be longer and more challenging.

*A quick note. Not too long ago I became aware that I was struggling with uneven terrain namely because my eyesight is quite poor, and I can’t always see very far ahead to plan my route. I recently had my eyes tested and it turns out I have astigmatism in both eyes, with my right eye being particularly shoddy. I’ve been prescribed glasses, which I’m collecting on Friday this week. Hopefully after then, this won’t be an issue, and I can pick up the pace, and increase my confidence!

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Transition, and taking one’s time

These past couple of days have felt a bit like being in limbo. I finished at my job on Thursday – a job that I’d loved doing, for a company I’d loved working for, but was pretty much driven out of by an appalling manager. Tomorrow I begin a new job, for a new company, which I’m excited about and have high hopes for.

But the transition from one to the other has been a strange one, emotionally. While I was applying for jobs and attending interviews, I was absolutely adamant that I needed to get out of my situation, but as my notice period came to its end I felt a deep sadness at leaving behind something that I wasn’t quite ready to give up.

Friday was my one and only day of official unemployment, so I spent a good part of it riding my bike. It was the best thing I could have done for my state of mind. My boyfriend and I rode into town in the morning, indulged in soya lattes and banana bread from Small Street Espresso, and then off he went to work. I popped into Roll for the Soul briefly and bumped into a couple of familiar faces, then slowly made my way up to Clifton with an hour to kill before I needed to be anywhere.

Always in a hurry

One of the things I struggle with when riding, is riding slowly. While I consider myself to be a ‘cyclist’ I’m for the most part a ‘commuter cyclist’. I’m also terrible at time-keeping, which means that generally when I’m commuting, I’m also rushing around like a maniac. I very rarely take the time to slow down and actually experience the ride.

Another reason for my maniacal riding is the fact that when I first took up cycling to work, it was purely driven by a need to somehow squeeze exercise into my daily routine. Therefore when I was cycling I had to be sweating, and any pootling or freewheeling downhill was a no-no.

Now I go to the gym, I take spinning classes, Body Pump, I’m training for a half marathon and just generally am very active. I have no problem burning an average of >2,000 calories a day, and yet when I mount my bicycle I automatically go into manic exercise mode.

Riding it out

Friday was different. For once, I had time on my hands. Plus I’ve been battling with the ill, so I’m allowing myself some time off from obsessive calorie counting and burning. For what felt like the first time (in a very long time), I simply pootled around Clifton’s side streets and took in the views.

I learned some road names and got my bearings, found myself cycling past a house where my friend used to live, noticed a lot of old church buildings now converted into flats, and also some of the strangest modern architecture I’ve seen in Bristol. I took nearly every turning that I came upon, shifted down to my granny gear so I could slowly climb the hills, and then allowed myself to freewheel back down them. For once I was actually just joy-riding my bike, with nowhere in particular to go.

That continued into yesterday, when I found myself with errands to run but again no real rush to get them done. I took a slow ride into Kingswood to pick up a parcel (my wondrous Vaude panniers which I’ll be writing about soon), and then wandered over to Easton to buy some food for the week. With my panniers loaded with more vegetables than I could physically carry, I had the perfect excuse to take an even slower ride back.

Throughout this pootling experiment I realised just how liberating cycling can be. Yes of course, it’s a way of getting around that takes you further than your feet can alone, but it’s also such a great opportunity to completely free your mind. I realised I was mindfully riding my bike, deliberately taking in the view, breathing the air, feeling the bitter cold on my cheeks and blinking the snowflakes from my eyelashes. I felt each turn of the pedals, thought carefully about my posture, and was completely aware of my surroundings. It was blissful.

New beginnings

So tomorrow I start my new job. I’m excited and nervous, and hopeful about the path that lies ahead. Most importantly, I’ve had time to shut down the old, and prepare myself for the new. By learning to slow down and take my time, I also allowed myself a period of much-needed mindfulness and meditation.

Now I feel ready to mount my bike and make the journey down a new path, and I’m going to take my time. Let’s see where it goes.