A Ridgeway Epic

Sat, 12 September, 2015

When my wife asked what I would like for my upcoming birthday, I had my unconventional answer ready: “Could you give me a lift to Avebury one morning?” Pause. “Quite early. And then pick me up from Tring in the evening?”

Five of us who regularly ride off-road with CTC Wantage had our sites on our longest ever one-day ride. The Ridgeway in a day. 88 miles and 2000 metres of climb, most of it cycleable off-road, albeit with a few diversions for Footpath-only sections. Transport for the start and finish were the final piece of the planning jigsaw, and when my wife said “Yes I can” it slotted neatly in to place.

So 7am on the 22nd August found two Davids, two Richards and one Robin in the small car park at The Sanctuary just south of Avebury – the official start of Britain’s oldest road. “Quite early” had turned out to mean leaving home at 5:40am and I’d driven down, picking up three on the way. Richard P had made his own way. My wife took some pictures, waved us off into the cool morning mist, and headed for home.

The first stretch climbed the downs above Avebury. Mist hung in the wide valley. The trail was rutted and still wet after rain the day before, so required full attention when moving. But when we paused, we could just make out some of the stones in the ancient circle. So it was mystical as well as misty!

Eight miles later, climbing the stiff grassy slope to Barbury Castle I noticed a lack of traction, followed by noticing a lack of air in my back tyre. Shouting to the others and stopping, I noticed a hissing noise from the front too. I swapped the tubes and realised that bringing my smaller mini pump in a weight saving effort had been a mistake. Then one of my much-repaired tubes failed to inflate, so I had to borrow from Richard A – usually the least prepared of the group, but in this case very well supplied with inner tubes.

Three miles later following Richard A down a rocky slope I noticed a lack of anyone behind. Retracing my steps I found David Y’s bike upside down and him shoving in a rubber ‘worm’ to plug the hole in his tubeless tyres. Four punctures in eleven miles, and most of an hour behind our rough schedule – not a great way to start!

The next ten miles were thankfully eventless, though Richard A started lagging behind our preferred pace. He had already warned us about his ‘extreme tapering’ strategy, which meant that he hadn’t ridden a bike for any real distance since Mountain Mayhem, three months previously. It was clear that this slight lag was only going to get worse. Just before the climb up to Uffington Castle he told us to go ahead and he’d catch us up at lunch.

We continued, now on a roller-coaster section of big climbs and big descents, all on slightly damp chalk to give a bit of an edge to them. It became clear that our planned midway brunch was going to be lunch and I phoned ahead to warn the venue. Knowing that by mid-way we’d want a change from energy bars we’d decided to have a bit of a treat and go to Pierreponts Café in Goring. It’s a lovely place, having been set up by top class chefs trading down from the stressful life of the London restaurant scene, and at 42 miles in, it was almost exactly half way.

We arrived there about 1215 – an hour later than planned. After ordering (Smoked salmon, avocado and poached egg on wholemeal toast – perfect!) I checked my phone. There was a message from Richard A: soon after parting ways he’d got a puncture and while well supplied with inner tubes he didn’t have the right adaptor for his pump. At this point, he was near Wantage and quite close to home so he’d decided to call it a day.

I made one small mistake at this point: I got tempted by the pecan tart. Very nice it was, but it was very filling and sat in my tum for the next few hours meaning that I really wasn’t interested in energy bars and had to take on all calories in the form of sports drink. The temperature was in the mid 20s by now, so drinking wasn’t a chore!

The ten miles after lunch fairly flew by, being mostly flat and quite a lot on road. After that, just around Ewelme we started really feeling the effort. We stopped for a break and a snack at 52 miles, we stopped to lube our chains at 62 miles, and paused again at about 65 miles. This wasn’t helping our average pace, but gradually the miles fell away. The landscape shifted from the open chalky hills of the Ridgeway in Oxfordshire to the more wooded hills of the Chilterns.

A particular killer of a hill came after Princes Risborough. We turned up a steepish narrow track and climbed for 50 metres, then there was a big root and a step up of almost a foot, with a possible way round on the left. When less tired we might have had a go at it, but by this point it was a signal to get off and push for a while. This was a common mode over the next several miles: push up a hill, than ride over the crest, snake through some woods, and down the other side. I have to say that David B embarrassed us here by actually riding up some of the steeper climbs. It was all hard work, but eventually we came down into Wendover in need of refreshments.

The Londis provided us with drinks of all kinds, and a collection of snacks which varied with our differing appetites. I accompanied my coke with a bag of crisps, as I really needed something savoury, and a 5 litre bottle of water. The water refilled my backpack and a couple of others. The water to spare became a makeshift shower tipped over each other’s heads to cool down.

The trails after Wendover were more of the same: up and down. Our other Richard had planned on completing the ride and heading for the 1834 train at Tring. It was now clear we’d be running pretty close just to catch the train. I could see a couple of route options on the map and we fortuitously found that a footpath on a farm track had been upgraded in status to Permissive Bridleway. It was flat at last, and our average speed increased. Entering Wigginton, Richard spotted the sign for Tring railway station and he was off on a mission.

The other three of us followed, catching him and benefitting from his haste at speeds we’d be happy with on a road bike, let alone knobbly tyres after 80 miles. We got to Tring with 6 minutes to spare and thankfully the ticket machine and train were both in full working order. We waved goodbye to Richard, assuring him that this counted as a full traverse of the Ridgeway. He’d completed the full cycleable length and with a couple of extra miles before the start would roughly equal our 88.

Three of us continued. Our route diverged from the footpath-only Ridgeway again and on a Bridleway. Unfortunately after a mile it was blocked by a wire fence – the farmer disagreed with the Bridleway marked on the map and had taken matters into his or her own hands. This required a small detour and we were back on the road for a couple of miles. Then, finally, we approached Ivinghoe Beacon.

Ivinghoe Beacon, the official north and east end of the Ridgeway is a small steep hill – very steep from the side we approached. The easier way was from the other end, and although the sun was getting a bit low, we weren’t going to be stopped on the final stretch. We rode a little and then pushed our bikes up the last part of the hill. I really that this was it, we had made it – for each of us the longest off-road ride we’d ever done, having taken almost exactly 12 hours.

We admired the view – you could see for miles – and persuaded some walkers to take some pictures of us at the look out point. Then, inevitably, our thoughts shifted to the nearby pub. We found a steep chalky path down the hill, taken with a bit of care given our tiredness. Then it was a mile and a bit rolling down hill to Ivinghoe Aston and the Village Swan. Pints of ‘Proper Job’ seemed the most appropriate beer with which to toast our success. We also agreed on the choice of food – a ‘Dutch Satay’ involving big pieces of pork, smothered with peanut sauce and with chips on the side. Yum.

And, as we were tucking in my wife arrived in the car with the bike rack ready to ferry our exhausted bodies home. A ‘birthday treat’ that we’ll all remember for a long time!