Breaking her in, not so gently

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I’ve introduced you to Dori, now I’m going to tell you about the awesome ride we went on at the weekend. You may have noticed it’s been a while since I wrote up a long ride, and it’s because it’s been a while since I’ve been on one!

Despite insisting that I was going to start riding every Saturday, life simply got in the way.

So on Sunday I decided it was high time I got back out on a long ride, preferably something not too hilly. I find the best way to plan a route is to seek out a point of interest and then find a way to get there and back. I set my sights on the Caen Hill Flight: a set of 16 locks in succession on the Kennet and Avon Canal, which rise 237 feet in 2 miles.

It’s a really lovely, mostly off-road route, which takes you along the Bristol-Bath Railway Path, and then along the towpath, following the canal into Devizes. It turns out towpaths really take their toll on you when you spend the whole day on them! We rode about 55 miles in total, and while it’s not a ridiculous distance, I was pretty knackered afterwards. The last 12 miles from Bradford on Avon into Devizes is particularly narrow and bumpy.

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We really should have left early in the morning, but decided to have a lazy start to the day instead, making a huge breakfast to fuel us: scrambled tofu with spinach and red pepper, spicy fava beans, mashed avocado and veggie sausages with toast and fresh tomatoes. The late return was worth it.

Setting off at around 1pm, we cycled to Bath along the Railway path, and then continued on the familiar route through Bath city centre. It’s a good one to start off with, while getting used to a new bike.

From there, we joined the towpath and followed the Kennet and Avon canal through to Bradford on Avon, and then onto Devizes.

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It was such a beautiful route to take. It was busy with pedestrians on a sunny Sunday afternoon, but nothing we couldn’t handle. We made some stops for refreshments and allowed ourselves to just take our time and enjoy it.

After Bradford on Avon, the last 12 miles towards Caen Hill Marina were a little harder on the wrists. The towpath became very narrow and bumpy, with quite a few points where you could easily end up in the canal if you’re not careful! It also involves a few steep trips up and over bridges where the surface is very loose and rocky. I didn’t like that part…

It’s all worth it though. Once you pass Caen Hill Marina, you cross a bridge and follow the canal up, through the ‘passage to Caen Hill Flight’ and round a corner to be met with the most astounding view. 16 locks, ascending one after the other, and a lovely gravelly path to follow alongside them. It’s quite a unique sight.

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I can’t imagine passing through that on a boat. You’d have to dedicate a whole day to just getting out of the marina!

Originally we’d planned to turn back and cycle down the hill, then come back the way we came. Instead we prioritised our rumbling tummies (it was 7pm by this point) and treated ourselves to some awesome pizzas in Devizes.

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From there, we re-joined a different part of the canal and cycled into Chippenham to get the train. We went along the Wiltshire Cycleway and route 403, which was a fantastic ride: lots of lovely wooded areas, fine gravel paths and beautiful scenery.

I won’t lie; there was one section that spooked me, involving a long and gradual descent over very loose rock. I don’t do that well on a good day, let alone clipped in and on a brand new bike, with slightly thinner tyres than I’m used to. I don’t think Adam enjoyed my company at that point!

He was good to me though, he taught me to come out of my saddle, hold the handlebars loosely, let go of the brakes and allow the bike to just take me where it wanted to go. After a while I gained a little bit of confidence.

We climbed quite a huge hill, which allowed me to test out my new gearing ratio (thank goodness for the triple chain set). I sat in my granny gear and spun my way up the hill, admittedly huffing and puffing, but I got up there nonetheless!

We were rewarded with quite a breathtaking descent (on tarmac, thankfully), clocking around 60km an hour. I have to admit I was quite flustered by the bottom, but I kept up with Adam and only feathered the brakes occasionally when approaching a bend. I’m definitely getting much better at tarmac descents.

Unfortunately we were in a hurry to catch a train (which we subsequently missed), so there wasn’t time to take photos of this part of the ride. I definitely want to return to that route and do it in the daytime. We eventually caught a train at 10:15pm, and gratefully collapsed into the soft chairs as we were ferried back to Bristol.

All in all it was a lovely day out. It was nice to have some parts that were familiar, and then to go off adventuring in a new place. I love riding alongside the canal, because it’s just so picturesque.

The surface takes its toll on you, but as long as your tyres are up for the job, you’ll be fine. We did bump into a guy on a very racy road bike with skinny tyres, who’d gotten himself pretty lost. He passed us along a really bumpy part of the route, and soon turned back and passed us again. His was not the bike for the job.

Dori did pretty bloody well.

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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!