If you had been walking to the shops at 7am last Sunday you would have seen five local dads on bikes riding through the cool bright morning down Winchester Street. The Test Valley Cycling Club holds regular Sunday rides from 8am at the Town Hall, but this wasn’t one of them – these riders were going a bit further than Winchester for a coffee and Cake. The five were departing on the inaugural Whitchurch-Bath-Whitchurch Randonnée – a 150-mile / 245km one-day ride through some of Southern England’s most beautiful countryside, almost entirely on quiet country lanes forming the National Cycle Network.
The route headed down the Test Valley to Mottisfont Abbey, over to Salisbury, up the Wylye Valley to Warminster, then to Bath via the Two Tunnels path for lunch. Then out of Bath again via the Two Tunnels, through Trowbridge, past Caen Hill at Devizes, then following the Kennet & Avon canal back east toward Whitchurch, finishing by riding the length of the Bourne Valley.
The ride was planned in the depths of winter as something to look forward to and motivate people to get out the front door on cold days when riding a bike might be a distant fourth behind cups of tea, plates of toast and a Sunday paper. On average the participants clocked up 100km a week in ‘training’, including many stops for coffee, Cake and occasionally pints. The average value of bike used was just under £300 – most acquired from eBay. While technically those riding were male, some approaching or indeed firmly encamped in ‘Middle Age’ and due to the distance and temperature there was ‘Lycra’ worn, this was no ‘MAMIL‘ outing on multi-thousand-pound rocketship bikes at high speed. While a mobile phone was used to record the day’s trip using the semi-competitive cyclist’s favourite Strava, the pace was very deliberately ‘non-athletic’ – a sedate 20kph average was set (it’s cycling – so it’s in kilometers). Given the temperature was forecast to hit 28 degrees with no cloud cover, pacing was all-important to avoid cramp or the dreaded ‘hitting the wall‘. The team were well-equipped with copious quantities of ‘Nuun‘ tablets to add to waterbottles, replacing lost electrolytes to keep cramp and other nasties at bay.
The joys of the Test Valley down to Mottisfont via Longparish and Stockbridge are well-known to locals – especially the right-hand side of the valley away from the traffic on the main road. The first stop of the day was just beyond Mottisfont at the Lockerley Green Store, a quintessential local store run by a co-operative of residents. The coffee might not have been served by a barista but the pastries were lovely. From Lockerly over to Salisbury the route rolled amongst low hills, then joined an ‘almost Dutch’ cyclepath beside a busy A-road before swinging around the bottom of Salisbury and heading past the cathedral. The route picked up a quiet road out of Salisbury toward Wilton and the second stop of the day at Coffee Darling – a most excellent café who will store your bikes in a secure side alley as there’s no bike parking outside.
From Wilton the route headed up the Wylye Valley – easily a match for the Test in terms of beauty and quiet roads. All previous perceptions of Wiltshire being a blasted heath of hedgeless fields and A-roads were thoroughly debunked as village after hamlet rolled by. Carrying on up the Wylye valley people on bikes easily outnumbered cars ten to one. A great mixture of ages and abilities, from students on knockabout bikes to grandmothers to those in Tour de France lookalike outfits, all of humanity was out on two wheels in the sunshine. After another stop in Warminster at the highly-recommended Coffee #1 the scenery changed; more of the ‘Bath stone’ evident in the buildings, and more short, sharp hills in the topography. Bath being where it is there’s no ‘easy’ approach, and until the Two Tunnels opened your options were muddy-in-winter crowded-in-summer canal towpath, or first-gear car-clogged fume-sucking monster hills.
The Two Tunnels project opened a few months ago, forming a fabulous circular route from the centre of Bath via parks and greenways, through the lit and smoothly-paved tunnels, appearing on a quiet country lane to then join up with the Kennet & Avon canal at Dundas aqueduct. The path is shared between people on bikes, walking or in running shoes. The temperature as the riders approached the tunnels was soaring past 28 degrees, however the tunnels themselves were a gorgeously damp 17 – the feeling was like cycling into a fridge after hours in a hot kitchen, and the outflow of cool air could be felt some distance from the tunnel mouths. The longest tunnel is over 2,000 yards, with low lighting along the entire length for safety and to keep the resident bats happy. Occasionally you move past hidden speakers playing atmospheric music. All in all a thoroughly enjoyable way to end up in Bath. Lunch was at Society Café, and just as well there was a pre-order for the team as by 2pm they had sold out of food. Eating throughout the day to keep energy levels up hadn’t dented appetites for toasted bacon and cheese sandwiches, cake and lots of orange juice. Heading back out of Bath there was surprise at how easy the return up the hills that had been dreaded actually was – Cake, as always, is the answer.
Retracing the route through the tunnels and back up and down the hills on the outskirts of Bath, new roads were found heading towards Trowbridge. Somewhere in Trowbridge the phone’s Sat-Nav threw a hissy fit and decided to lead the team on a merry dance, which only ended when Min-the-Astute recognised the station recently cycled past – but from the other side. It is to everyone’s credit that only minimal ‘words’ were had, and most blame was attributed to ‘technology’. From Trowbridge the route headed into the Vale of Pewsey, by now past 4pm and legs, backs, shoulders and arms feeling the distance.
The route up the Vale of Pewsey roughly followed the Kennet & Avon canal, using quiet lanes and the National Cycle Network on either side of the valley. Cycling with the sun on your back in the late afternoon, surrounded by green waving fields made up for the fact that the day was already 10 hours long, with another four to go. Three further stops at pubs in The Strand, Honey Street and Wilton were made to refuel on Cake, refill waterbottles and stretch tired muscles. Publicans were more than happy to have their chefs prepare Cake for hungry people on bikes – it’s amazing what you can get if you just ask!
As the sunlight waned around 9pm the fields turned to a gorgeous green-orange, the coolness of the nearly-home Bourne Valley welcomed after many hours under the sun. The team rolled into the Red House carpark at 9:30pm on the dot, 14 1/2 hours after setting off. 152 miles or 243km under the wheels, with fortunately only one flat tyre amongst the five bikes. Pints of cider and ale, packets of crisps and peanuts at the Red House never tasted better. Finishing the distance earned the riders the Audax UK ‘Randonneur 200km’ award – the actual shortest possible distance to ride between the 7 official stops being 205km if the ‘scenic’ route is eschewed in place of A-to-B speed. Top Audax riders can cover many tens of thousands of km per year – people often seen at H’s cafe, bikes equipped with racks and pannier bags, in the middle of epic rides across England and beyond.
Whilst a ride of this distance in one day is a major achievement only to be recommended after months of ‘training’, it is something anyone can achieve with the right (low-cost) kit and some preparation. An expensive bike and tight lycra are not needed – just something sensible and suitable. Several riders were relatively new to cycling and have slowly built up their distances and speed, improving their bikes and kit as funds and need dictate. The Test Valley Cycling Club holds rides twice-weekly on Tuesday evenings at 8pm and Sunday mornings at 8am, for riders of all abilities. Whether you want to work up to a distance like the Whitchurch-Bath-Whitchurch Randonnée or a more sensible achievement like Winchester and back, it’s all at your doorstep and friendly advice is on tap. Visit the Test Valley cycling Club homepage or check out the Facebook page for more info. Thanks for reading, and maybe see you next time.