I’ve wanted to ride this road for years. A while back I used to drive along it a fair bit, a cross country B road from the motorway to my dad’s house that was always a joy in the Mk2 Golf, hit that corner with the right gear change and the engine note was just so, and the way the countryside opened up in front of you as you swept round that bend and the road dropped down off the ridge was never not the epitome of England, Vaughan Williams in my head. Every time I drove that road I promised myself I’d come back to ride it one day. That was over twenty years ago and finally here I am, in the pre-dawn light dark, grinding into a rainy headwind, the invisible rise ahead of me a tired grunty effort with 300km in the legs. There is a crunch as I slowly roll over a snail. It’s not really what I had in mind for revisiting this road, be careful what you wish for.
I’m somewhere at a mutteredswear low point in the Apidura Parallels, a global self-supported riding event punted forward by the bikepacking brand that took place over the northern hemisphere’s Summer Solstice. It’s a simple premise; ride as far as you can in a 24-hour period over the solstice weekend, but here’s the stinger, your distance will only be measured as a straight line between your start and finish points rather than overall distance. There’s a certain amount of clever route planning to be done if you wanted the winning numbers then.
There is an immediate issue for me in that I live right on the south coast so half the map is inaccessible, as always, unless a pedalo counts. If I head straight north I have to go through London which I definitely don’t want to do and if I strike out east I run out of country in about 100 miles. Even if I do head somewhere northish or westish and ride for a day there’s the logistical and time issues of the return journey. Trains are problematic in the current situation so to ride back is the only option which is likely to take longer than the day it took to get there and several days on the road feels awkward right now. Luckily Apidura have realised that a long straight line might be an unrealistic challenge to some so are willing to offer creativity in route choice as a viable alternative. I’m more into experiences and stories than stats and distance so this suits me fine.
Because we live in interesting times this venture brings with it enough challenges as it is. We need to be distant from people (for some it was ever thus, and this kind of riding is very good at it), the usual opportunities for resupply aren’t necessarily available or desirable so the bikepacking bags that are normally filled with clothes and suchlike are crammed with snacks. I’ll be traveling through the night so it’s handy to have something to hand to combat the midnight munchies anyway, these would normally be picked up along the way but the usual emergency 24hr petrol stations will be less of a reliable standby. Turns out a day’s food is surprisingly weighty. As an extra worry the option of an emergency Plan B in taking a train or cadging a lift if something goes wrong are less desirable right now, or even permitted, in case of disaster the only way out will be through. Take extra just-in-case spares.
Thinking along the lines of straight lines, but different, my mind meandered into the idea of Ley Lines, imaginary (levels of which depend upon who you talk to) lines of energy that criss-cross the country connecting historic sites and prominent landmarks along the way. Looking at a map of them bisecting the UK it’s easy to concoct any number of routes along them, and there’s a nice hippy midsummer connection to go with them too. Whilst considering all this I remembered that just up the hill from me is a sarsen stone that no one really knows why it’s there, it’s the same stuff that Stonehenge is made of. I love it when a plan slips into place with this many layers of vague reasons to do it, it’s like, cosmic.
Head inland from the coast to run north of the South Downs, follow the ley line that stretches from Eastbourne to Glastonbury and because I’m not really the Glasto type turn right where two lines cross at Old Sarum just outside Salisbury and head north on this to Stonehenge and from there to Avebury. Keep going and veer east on the Ridgeway past Wayland’s Smithy and down Uffington Hill on a small detour to see my dad and then follow a ley line south east back towards home via the well known supernatural alignment site of Basingstoke. All that adds up to a round trip of straight lines of just under 450km which is going to be a long longest day out if I manage it.
Thanks to world events and government guidelines and not being a dick about things it’s been a while since I covered any sort of meaningful distance on the bike, and flicking through the cancelled diary this time of year would have already seen some impressive mileage in the legs. So the days preceding are punctuated by sicky waves of anxiety about heading out for 24+ hours on the bike and the temptation to sack it off and go for a slightly less longer ride was quite the distraction.
The 2020 summer solstice was at 2243 on Saturday June 20th so my ride was to start at 1043 to make that the mid point of my ride for the sake of, well, nothing really, there was no plan to be at any significant specific point at this time, just being on the road would be enough. Leave the house with 15 minutes to spare, pedal up the hill, and teeter off road for a bit on an unsuitable bike to reach the Rest And Be Thankful sarsen stone, look west to where I’m heading, press go on the GPS, mince back down the dirt track to tarmac and turn right past Tescos.
There is a different mental state when you journey from your front door and away from your usual ride loops. The first hours are done almost on auto-pilot, you know every hill and how to measure each rise and fall in the road, and then you reach that junction where you usually turn for home and it becomes marginally less familiar, you may have come this way a previous time on a bigger ride and stretches of tarmac and angles of corner suddenly flicker as recognizable snapshots. Despite all the modern electronics and satellites to guide us around it’s still easy to navigate by stories and landscape features in what feels like the ancient way of getting around. This is that bit we got lost that time… there’s that café we had to stop in for emergency cake… I remember that tree… and that old car’s still there, a little more blended in with the countryside though.
After only 20km I have to stop for a minor mechanical; a front tyre that has been fine on this wheel for - sweeps arm through air - ages has decided that now would be the time to pop off the rim a bit and thopthopthop the ride. Sigh. Deflate, reseat, inflate, crack on. Why do you’ve-never-done-this-befores always happen on these rides?
My first scheduled stop is in Petersfield and as I’m sat on the grass trying to flick ants off my sandwich I see the muscles in my calf flutter and twitch and there’s a pain in my left knee. After only 75km these are not good signs. It’s definitely taking my body a while to settle back into this style of riding again and various bits hurt more than they probably should, but I think back to all the cycling adventures I’ve done in the past when my body hasn’t been feeling its best and decide it’s a manageable level of biomechanical issues and my body should level off and find some kind of equilibrium soon. Just pedal, it’s only riding a bike, how hard can it be? I’ve said this, and had this said to me, many times before.
I might not be traveling exactly along a lay line, merely following the rough direction of an imaginary line on a map, but despite the faux science of it all there is a lot of energy flowing along these roads, many of them I have ridden before so have laid down some effort and created a string of history, I’m counting that as a very real line of energy. I’m in sort-of-know-it territory now and while I’ve headed this way several times today’s route is not the same as before and I dip in and out of known roads and approach junctions from the wrong angle. The next dot on the map is the romantic Sutton Scotney petrol station, almost a traditional snack stop when heading through these parts and the usual position on the kerb is settled into. It’s good to be back. A quick nosey round the side upon leaving reveals a tap, so that’s handy for next time. A lot of this riding is about knowing where the taps are.
Wiggle towards Wiltshire and head up onto Salisbury Plain which means I’m nearing my first landmark, until my GPS decides to send me up a grassy track obstructed by a large ‘Road Closed’ sign tied to the gate. Pffft, a check on the map confirms it’s a bridleway so I skip round the side and continue up the valley, though overgrown it’s definitely well used and like it goes somewhere and I figure that the sign is there just to discourage any Stonehenge travellers as the monument is just over the hill.
The track eventually leads into a farm and I sneak through as quickly and quietly as I can aware that this is exactly not the time nor place to be confronted by an angry farmer. I pedal up the path of least resistance and before too long am off course and in front of a Private Road sign, so I backtrack to what looks like the right way and hoik my bike over a gate, through a field, through a gate with a frisky horse, across another field, over another fence, along a field of waist high crops, and over two more fences onto what looks like the continuation of the track I was on initially. If your GPS doesn’t direct you off road during a long ride away from home then are you even doing it right? I get a Garmin beep of recognition. Phew. It’s quite a tricky deeply rutted track through long grabby grass and I’m well aware of road tyres and electric gear components but I’m heading the right way and soon the squat silhouette of Stonehenge appears, approaching it in the evening light and off-road via a way most people wouldn’t have experienced is definitely worth the effort of being lost. I pause by the A303 to look at the stones and watch the solstice police guard watching me.
Straight main road and straight main road and straight main road into Larkhill for a refreshments break, the sky is slipping into purple and now is always a good time to refuel and stock up, nighttime supply can be tricky and you’ve no idea what your stomach can stomach in the small hours so fill up now. I’ve done enough of these to be pretty efficient in a mini-market, press buttons on the coffee machine and while that’s gurgling grab sandwiches to supplement stowed snacks and grab extra for later, those chicken wraps fit perfectly in a jersey pocket, I know that from the TransAtlanticWay, pick the spicy ones because it makes a change from all the sticky sweet stuff and wakes your mouth up a bit. Sit on the kerb and ugly mash stuff into face whilst the world goes about their Saturday night and the checkout girl moves all the point-of-sale around me inside as she shuts shop. Ponder if I could manage some chips from five doors down, it would be a good time for some hot food, but the sad face through the window indicates they’re closed. Clip back in, wheel round and carry on. GPS screen flips to night mode.
There’s something special about riding into the night with the intention of riding out the other side. As traffic dribbles to almost nothing you know you’re going to be mostly alone with your thoughts and what appears in the bubble of your front light and you settle into the quiet sensory depravation meditative state of it. The dark hides speed and gradient and landscape, you rely on feel, effort and tarmac texture. I don’t do this enough, I haven’t done anything like this recently, I have missed this. The random moments like the flock of geese gathered politely at a junction as I wheel round to the left. Roads that you’d normally avoid for being daytime busy and dangerous are empty and speedy, good for making up time.
I’m following an arrow on a screen through the darkness I don’t know heading roughly north and I’m wishful that I might get to Avebury by the actual solstice but that moment is spent stood in the road somewhere waiting for a police van to turn round up ahead. I’m happy to wait and put a foot down and chat to the assembled constabulary who seem remarkably unbothered by my presence, I probably wasn’t the oddest thing they saw that night. It was hardly the spiritual stone based experience I was hoping for though.
Avebury takes its sweet time coming as it’s on top of a cheeky long climb but soon the stones of the West Kennet Avenue loom out of the ink of the night and the lights of people wandering around sprinkle the shadows. The centre of the village is busy for this time of day and I make my way to the main circle and sit in the lee of a large female stone to eat some food. By the stone left of me a man is performing a very personal ritual whilst to the right there’s some tuneless stringed instrument playing accompanying hushed chatter, it could be a zither, it could be anything the way they’re playing it. It’s hardly the spiritual stone based experience I was hoping for so don’t make excuses and leave.
The idyllic lights of Swindon appear over the horizon and I drop off the hill into the suburbs before immediately climbing back out again in a bit of a contour based routing error. On the plus side there’s a petrol station at the top so fill up on water whilst watching a pair of organic types point at things through the window for the hapless cashier to collect for them.
This weekend has, amongst other things, always been the one for the 24hr Mountainbike Race that I competed in for 20 years or so, so it feels right to commemorate that fact by getting a bit of dirt under my tyres and I veer off tarmac onto the Ridgeway which immediately seems a bad idea as it’s more off-road than I might like on this bike, in the dark. Still, I’ve done worse, carry on. The surface varies considerably, especially after the rash of recent rain, but I’m used to piloting bikes down inappropriate terrain and I’ve always enjoyed the ridiculous stupidity of doing something like this at night alone and when no one can see you, the dark laps of that 24hr race were always my favourite for the beautiful ludicrous of it all. This off-road section of ancient trackway also helps string this ride together as there’s an added connection to the old ways and I pass the Neolithic long barrow of Wayland’s Smithy somewhere in the blackness before dropping off the hill underneath the Uffington White Horse on a little detour to see my dad.
It’s Father’s Day now and whilst I’m in the area it would seem rude not to pop round and say hi, so I steer round the muscle memory corners into his village, pass by his old door and wave hello and head up the road to sit inside the tithe barn (the most capacious audax hotel in the UK) for a sit down, a think and more snacks. I’m making good progress with the Babybells. There’s noise outside and it’s the forecast rain making itself known, sigh, on with the Shakedry waterproof and after a picturesque tour of the Farringdon one way system I’m onto that road that I’ve wanted to ride for years.
There isn’t really a dawn, it just gets easier to see the rain, and it’s schlepping down hard enough now to make my GPS a worthless box as the screen is merrily skipping between functions and my saturated touchscreen means my phone doesn’t want to work either. I wonder if a condom would make a good waterproof GPS shield. I don’t really realise how much it’s raining until snoop around a pub looking for a tap and take the instant decision to hide in a covered seating area in the garden and sort stuff out. Find a less damp bit of clothing and wipe all devices dry, or drier, and poke in the saddlepack for breakfasty snacks. Stopping and sitting down has a wave of tiredness wash over me and glaring at the rain merrily bouncing down I unroll the bivvy-bag and set the alarm for half a hour nap on the concrete floor, use the time wisely. It’s still hosing down when I wake up and half open my eyes so I grab another 15 minutes by which point the wet seems to have eased enough to poke my nose out again.
It’s a midsummer morning and I’m in four layers of clothing, a Buff and long gloves and still shivering enough with cold as I descend a hill to induce a speed wobble on the bike. I stop to manhandle a deer that’s been hit dead by a car to the side of the road as an offering of a morsel of dignity, it’s surprisingly stiff and heavy. At least someone’s having a worse morning then me. A series of larger roads and roundabouts indicate that I’m somewhere on the outskirts of Basingstoke by now and I pull into a petrol station for a morale boost. Coffee, hot breakfast bap, maple and pecan twist (a Pavlovian long distance ride purchase) all shovelled in as I’m sat by the BBQ briquettes while weekend life slowly wakes up around me and I get the usual funny looks. I’ve missed this traveling life, dipping in and out of other people’s normality whilst you pursue yours.
This whole next section is not a pretty part of the country, but there’s a line to follow, and it feels like a tedious endless mess of satellite towns to weave through and sneak around housing estates and follow annoying fiddly routings down bike paths and alleys and underpasses but the sun comes out and so does the traffic for its Sunday paper, essential shopping and allowed relative visiting, but there are enough swooping down small country lanes to still make it fun, even if the recent rainfall has made them an unreliable surface. One of the side effects of riding through the night is not really knowing what time of the morning it is and hours evaporate under the constant pedaling, an effect not helped by gentle tiredness and the bitty nature of this part of the world, constantly switching between country and town and scruffy horsiculture. It’s not a part of the UK I’d necessarily meander through again.
1043 on a Sunday and my 24 hours on a bike stops ingloriously in a driveway halfway up a short rise a few kilometres east of Haslemere. Phewf. All in all that’s 385kms, annoyingly just short enough of 400km which would have been a nice tidy round figure. I could have not wasted the time needed to cover that 15km quite easily along the way (the probably pointless planned off-road bit, the pointless routing error off-road bit, the tactical nap to see out the rain, all the little time sucks) but as distance was never the be all and end all of this ride I’ll try not to let it bother me.
I have instead made some new stories, I have laid fresh energy along old ways, I have made acquaintance again with tarmac further away, I have been through new landscapes and I have paid long overdue visits to familiar but regretfully neglected places. As excuses to ride a bike go all of these will do and sit proudly on top of the original reason that Apidura threw out there. It’s good to have that nudge.
I have remembered that I really really love doing this sort of thing, it fills my heart. The self-contained unit, the self-sufficiency, the being a blip in other people’s lives, the thousand fleeting moments, the silent chuckles to self, the snooping around the sides of buildings hunting for taps, the eyeing up of every bus-shelter and covered area and mentally marking them out of ten for sitting down or napping suitability, the cosy familiarity of leaning of the bike against the newspaper stand outside the petrol station, the little pockets of the country that you know only this kind of riding will take you through, from the prettiest field in a valley to the discarded grubble round the back of an industrial estate. The going all the way over there and back again on a bike for no reason and all of them, and just the 50km home, the shortest way.
Jo Burt has spent the majority of his life riding bikes, drawing bikes and writing about bikes. When he's not scribbling pictures for the whole gamut of cycling media he writes words about them for road.cc and when he's not doing either of those he's pedaling. Then in whatever spare minutes there are in between he's agonizing over getting his socks, cycling cap and bar-tape to coordinate just so. And is quietly disappointed that yours don't He rides and races road bikes a bit, cyclo-cross bikes a lot and mountainbikes a fair bit too. Would rather be up a mountain.