Tuesday, 6 October 2009

Blue Remembered Hills

Into my heart an air that kills
From yon far country blows:
What are those blue remembered hills,
What spires, what farms are those?

That is the land of lost content,
I see it shining plain,
The happy highways where I went
And cannot come again. (A.E Houseman)

Shropshire is one of those counties that has always been too far away to ride to, but 'too close' to justify a day out in the car. After the experience of this ride, I would say that this has probably been a mistake. Despite the noncommittal weather, the "Beyond Shropshire" was an extremely pleasant ride.

An early start from home ensured an arrival in time for a cuppa before the start, and a good faff in advance of setting off with a swift group. As usually happens, I stayed with them until the first significant incline, when they rode away from the wheezing fat bloke. Never mind, this was a lot faster than my last ride along the road to Ironbridge in the foul weather of the Cambrian Audax after being up all night. First control at 23km in 51 minutes, job done.

Straight after the control came a reality check. Ironbridge is often referred to in terms of "Ironbridge Gorge". Gorges have steep sides. We rode up it. This set the tone for much of the day, greeting riders as they passed by with me grinding away in the granny gear. Still, at least I didn't have to walk all day (just). Much Wenlock heralded the arrival of the Wenlock Edge (more climbing) but in the little lanes beyond this, I set my top speed of the day. 63kmh on the flat!! It is worth mentioning at this point that a tractor towing a trailer full of spuds is an excellent slipstreaming opportunity. Regrettably after a couple of kilometres, the road had a slight incline, and I dropped off the back.

Arriving in Ludlow past the river we climbed the hill past the castle going sufficiently slowly to read about some of its history (ie very slowly) but the thought of a feed at the top of the hill kept me going despite the fact my legs were telling me it was steep. On the way down the road claims to be 1:4 (25%) but its nowhere near the steepness of the top of Mow Cop. Someone is telling porkies, but I don't know which. Mortimer Forest passed slowly whilst fully fed (more climbing with hairpins), but the rest of the leg to Crossgates in Wales was uneventful, so much so I can't much remember it. I do recall quite a bit of main road, though.

After Crossgates, the leg back through Clun is hilly. Very hilly. My legs were soon confirming this to be the hilliest Audax (in terms of AAA points) that I have ever done. I had harboured hopes that, since we were following the railway, it might be less hilly. I had not taken into account that the railway cheats by using cuttings, embankments and tunnels. Roads largely have no such luxury. Most surprisingly, the views over Clun on the final descent to the town reveal a landscape where the hills really are blue. Amazing.

Remarkably, despite the rough surfaces, loose chippings and liberal hedge trimmings (a factor of the time of year) I suffered no deflations, unlike my fellow riders who were visited by 'she-who-must-not-be-named' (you know, the p+n+t+r+ f+i+y) for it is on such country lanes that she is to be found. My time will come.

The Wheelwrights at Little Brampton administered toast and marmalade, and the refreshed cyclist set off back towards Upton Magna, with only a little thing called the Long Mynd in the way. Of course, we got to go up the steep side, at which point I considered it time to stop and put on my rear light. I was getting dusk, you see, and I was thinking of my safety. It had nothing to do with a prolonged section of 17% and me having one lung hanging out.

Reaching the top with 23km left, I was resigned to finishing in the dark, but the benefit of ascending the steep side is that you descend the gentle side. 5 miles of downhill later, and I was only separated from the finish by 15km of flat stuff. I eventually finished at 7:25 for 11:25 on the road, but for 208km with over 3,00m of climbing, I'll take that.

As for Housemans 'land of lost content', perhaps he never went looking for it on a bike. I believe its much easier to find that way.

Given that it was not completely pitch black, I could claim to have finished in daylight too, but it wouldn't quite be true. Winter, the time of leggings, long fingered gloves and lighting systems, is upon us.


Now, for most sane individuals, 'doing diy on a Sunday' normally involves power tools and at least one trip to B&Q (usually 2 or 3 in my case, because I can never get what I need in one visit). In my case, the day after the Welland Wonder 50, it meant designing and riding your own 200km course.

Luckily, the nearest Midlands Mesh node (and start point) is only 10km away at Measham so all of my rides so far have gone that way. On this occasion, the route was to be Measham-Alcester-Stow-Stratford-Home for a total of 213km and another 2 points toward my target of 50 for the year.

I sort of know the road to Alcester from Orienteering, and from those days when the commute to work doesn't go quite right, but I was surprised to find that the hills I expected to struggle on were going quite well. Approaching Lapworth Hill I noted a guy on a 'sit up and beg' style bike ahead up the slope. Those who know me are aware that I am not in the least competitive (NOT!) so I set off after him at a rate of knots. And didn't catch up at all. I gave it loads along the flatter section at the top. And didn't catch up at all. It was only on the descent toward Henley-in-Arden that the full force of descending lard ate into his lead, and I had almost caught up when he turned off at the bottom. Only to reveal that the bike was electrically assisted!! Lesson learned I slowed for a couple of miles whilst my lungs caught up with my heart rate, but it did lead to an earlier than anticipated arrival in Alcester, and a receipt from the ubiquitous Tesco Express.

Leaving through the town centre was pleasant and very half-timbered, and the subsequent drag past Ragley Hall very picturesque, as was the Avon crossing in Bidford on Avon. From there its a straight road south toward the edge of the Cotswolds and Saintbury Hill at 102km in. This is a 200m climb in just over 2km with a maximum gradient of about 1:6 and is a rude awakening. Nonetheless its better than Fish Hill which is gentler and longer but beset with traffic.

Having started at 6:20 I was please to reach Stow before 12 for a lunch stop at......Tescos (again), but soon set off back toward Stratford in an effort to get home at a reasonable hour. Stratford was busy with Classic Hot Rods leaving Long Marston after their weekend festival, but was soon left behind for the now familiar lanes back toward Tamworth.

200km came up in 9:12 elapsed time, and my time of 9:52 for the whole 213km is the fastest I have ever ridden a 200. Perhaps I should warm up with a 50km ride the day before all of them.

Or perhaps not.