A sunny early Saturday morning?? Not usually on the rides that I do I thought to myself as I polished off the complimentary bacon butty and lavazza coffee from the ‘Spoons Royal Hop pole in Tewkesbury, the start of the Pickwick March Madness 200km Audax. The 7.30 am start was upon us and I smiled as the vast majority of the 150 plus riders scrambled (not like their eggs) for their bikes in desperation for starting exactly on time. Myself and some other riders not so precious to gain those valuable extra minutes stayed and leisurely finished our porridge, bacon butties and coffee, and then I was off out into the early Gloucsetershire sunshine wheeling through the waking streets of Tewkesbury, over the rather narrow and lazy river Severn and out towards the first climb of the day, The Malvern Hills, I would see the Severn later on in the day in all its splendour at Chepstow.
The first 30 or so miles were pretty benign but lovely with meandering, quiet lanes that slowly wound around to the rather ominous lump of rock in front of me. And so it appeared, and with a sudden click down in front chain ring and up into my 30t cog I started to haul my not so svelte frame up to the top of the Malvern Hills, cresting at Little Malvern where I managed to take breath and look at the panoramic views of Worcestershire, Gloucestershire and Herefordshire that lay before and below me. A quick photo of the sunshine and scenery and I hurtled down the other side of the hill and on to Bromyard, the first control of the day.
Quick stop at the café in Bromyard, cake and coffee taken in the morning sunshine and then onwards to the info control at the Lord of the Rings sounding village of Mordiford and then the lunchtime control in the Forest of Dean at Lower Soudley. The ride up to Lower Soudley was again stunning with climbs and swooshing descents through the pine forest on tiny meandering lanes. The lunch time control was an interesting place nestled deep in the forest and inspiration for the childrens story and animation the Gruffalo, where the Gruffalo nature trail officially starts. Although that was of interest enough, the café was the main surprise when after pondering my lunchtime selection of sausage rol l, chips beans and an Americano coffee, the lady behind the counter donned a face mask, musket and tricorn hat demanding pretty much my life savings in payment for the modest meal that was presented before me! I was starving though and tanks of energy were running low so sans argument, I payed and shuffled off to a free table to update my facebook status to find that in the middle of nowhere, 3 and 4G does not exist. Oh well!
Bottles and body replenished I set off into Gruffalo woods to continue the day, over 100km done at this point and i thought, it must be count down to the finish….. well that was up to the moment I saddled up and the mother of all rain showers doused me and kept on dousing for about half an hour. Well it wouldn’t be a Bullock ride without rain would it? That coupled with the fact I was now climbing, ever climbing through the wooded lanes again eroded my new found, post lunch optimism quite rapidly. The hills kept on coming as the forest started to disappear and I found myself riding through an oddly named town called Bream. Bream in my direction kept on going up hill and kept on going up. Will these hills ever end? I cursed under my breath as an old chap shuffled past me in the opposite direction with a look of sympathy and a knowing nod.
After a little more climbing I glanced to my left and spied the Severn Estuary and the bridge I was due to cross at Chepstow. Optimism started to return despite energy leaking out of me like an old sieve. Another half hour passed and I was still riding with bridge and river very much out of view. The rain had started to come down again and it all got very cold and bleak. I was feeling the effects of cold miserable weather, no company and hills, oh those damn hills!!! For once I did start to consider why I was riding this in the first place and my mood darkened like the leaden skies above me. Tidenham Chase the presented itself before me which on a sunny day, which it once was, would have been stunning with the river Wye cutting a huge gorge in the landscape as it wound down to meet the River Severn at Chepstow. However the road through the Chase a reasonably busy B road undulated and never allowed for a really good pedalling rhythm needless to say at this point I wanted the ride to become easier. As I was thinking this the road crested with another stunning view of the Severn Valley back inland, northwards and after a breather, a cheeky photo I descended into Chepstow and a 10 minute excursion into Monmouthshire and the Land of My Fathers, Wales!
Picking my way through Chepstows streets I found my way on to the cycle path and then heading over the old Severn Bridge and back into Englands welcoming bosom. At this point I had covered just 35 km from lunch. It had been gruelling and very slow progress. I still had 80 km left to do. Oh I haven’t mentioned the eroding headwind too that had been my constant annoying companion for the best part of the day!
Well after rolling off the bridge the route turned back north, and the annoying headwind became my best buddy in the form of a tail wind, there are tail winds aren’t there?? And so it was that I encountered flat winding lanes and an extra push for the next 80 km back to Tewkesbury following the river as it started to narrow again. There are some unusually named villages in this part of the world, first of all I happened on a little place called Hill!! There was no hill as it was flat, but I did see a red telephone kiosk, unusual in itself but more unusual as I got nearer as it appeared to be full of items. As I got up close and personal, it had a sign saying Hill Book Exchange. Clearly the blight of anti social behaviour has not hit this part of the world as had it been located perhaps in the suburbs of Gloucester or Bristol I may have seen a smouldering heap instead. The book exchange was a first, I have seen them as defibrillator kiosks before but not this. I then continued through Ham, no book exchange here and into Berkeley where sits its historic castle. After 10 minutes chatting with my brother (whom I was originally doing the ride with but owing to acute illness was unable to partake) and enjoying a CO-OP reduced to clear sandwich and a tin of coke, I was on my way again. I have to say Berkeley was subject to some outrageous animal behaviour. A little black and white bird with no regard for its environment spent a good deal of time scuttling around by my brother hoping for a tasty morsel that he might drop as I scavenged in the CO-OP. The bird passed me in the street walking the other way without a worry that I was right beside it and I thought at the time it was rather tame. Then as I chatted to my brother gnawing on a mini soreen bar, a springer spaniel on leash came bounding by and I thought little of it as it passed only to feel a presence behind me and on looking down it had spied the soreen bar in my hand and was inches from nicking it out of my hand much to the amusement of my brother and the dogs owner!!
But back to the ride. A Quick brew and a comfort break at Saul control, I then had to negotiate Gloucester City centre still alone. On the outskirts I met another rider but quickly lost him and trying to stick to the route on the Garmin in the dark was impossible so I cycle tracked it along the A38 where I could find the route again to be joined by the same rider and this time we stuck together as we rode through the darkened, historic quarter, city lanes. Scooting by Kingsholme, the impressive stadium for Gloucester Rugby Union Club we then dropped on to the A road back to Tewkesbury. I lost my brother in arms for the negotiation of Gloucester City Centre at this point again and I was plunged into darkness save for the headlights of occasional cars relaying between Gloucester and Tewkesbury. Time for head down and grind on here for the last 10 miles and so it was that 30 minutes later I had my bike locked in the beer garden of the Royal Hop Pole, Brevet de Randonneur signed and sealed and verified by Mark Rigby the organiser and that was my ride over. Needless to say, this was ride 12 of the 12 month Randonneur Round the Year challenge for me.
Despite the feeling of desolation at Chepstow, this was a great ride, its hilly and a really good challenge with some fantastic scenery. Really I did enjoy it! The cycling in this part of the world is excellent and I heartily recommend Mark Rigbys offerings from Tewkesbury as they are full of variety and really well organised. This was my second one of his and I will be back for more hopefully with Jem, my brother and wingman for company again.