Riding the Ridgeway

This was a pretty special weekend for me, bike-wise. I rode the Ridgeway. It's one of these ancient walking/horseriding tracks, going across several counties in the general vicinity of Oxford (England). We started at Princes Risborough then headed generally southwest to Avebury. It's maybe 100 miles long, and I rode 80 miles of it (the part that is mostly bridleway and byway, where bikes are allowed, as opposed to footpaths, where bikes aren't allowed).

It was an organized ride, done by a company called Trailbreak that specializes in MTB weekend events. I drove to the starting point Saturday morning, arriving shortly after 8am. I signed in, handed over my luggage, and stood around talking to people. I met a couple guys in the parking lot: Andy and John. At 9am we all headed out. I passed alot of people going up the initial hill (including one guy with a suspension fork who was standing up and pedalling very unevenly, so the bike bounced dramatically with each pedal stroke). Then I tried to stay near the front group, which included Andy. But after awhile of this, I realized that I was being silly. The scenery was really nice-- hills, parts of the trail going through trees--and I was working too hard to enjoy it. So I eased off and went at my own speed, and soaked it in.

The day started off cloudy, but cleared up and got sunny. The trail was varied. Some of it was singletrack, some double track with lots of ruts, some of it very dry, some of it quite muddly, some in the open air, some under trees. It was all enjoyable, and refreshingly hilly after boringly flat Cambridge where I live. All of it was rideable, except for one very muddy section where I walked for about 10 meters because I was fed up of it.

Coming up to a water stop (Trailbreak provided water stops every 8 to 10 miles), I stopped only long enough to drink some and fill my bottles, and then headed off. I didn't need to rest since I hadn't been pushing myself. A group of people who had been ahead of me took off at the same time (among them was John), and we rode together. I kept up with them through some moderately technical stuff, but then the faster speed wore me down, and I dropped off again, just as we were coming up to the lunch point.

The lunch stop was a pub, the Bull, in a little town (Streatley) just on the other side of the River Thames. They had a bunch of picnic tables in back, and I asked a guy if I could join him. He said sure, and we ordered our food. I found him pretty easy to talk to. His name was Phil, and we headed out together, joined by John, when we were done eating. Phil pulled ahead on the up hill coming out of town, while John was content to hang with me. I noticed that John's saddle was way low, and suggested that he may find it more comfortable if he raised it. Phil waited for us at the top of the hill and gave us some interesting info as we rode on (he lives around there). When we came to the next water stop I again stopped only long enough to fill my bottles, and Phil came away with me, but John stopped for a rest. And so Phil and I went the rest of the way to the youth hostel near Wantage where we'd spend the evening, 50 miles from the start. It was 3:30, 6.5 hours after I started. My average rolling speed was 10mph, so I spent 1.5 hours stopped for lunch and at water stops.

Andy was there on the grass as we pulled in: I'd kept on seeing him during the day: he'd be at a water stop or the lunch place when I pulled in, but left soon after. I spent the evening reading MTB mags (which were piled up in the corners of the common room) and talking with Andy and Phil and others.

As we were getting bikes ready to go the next morning (Sunday), John told me that he'd tried raising his saddle, but the binder bolt broke! Luckily, there was a bike shop providing technical support, so a spare was at hand... He passed me at some point in the day. I asked him how he liked the new seat height, and he said it was better.

Andy and I started together that day. Phil soon joined us. I told them that I didn't feel like going very fast, and they might get frustrated, but they opted to ride with me rather than going at their own pace. They even allowed me to go in front most of the time so I could set the pace to something slow enough that I could look around and enjoy the scenery.

The second day's riding was mostly along a ridge, giving the trail its name. This was in large part a byway, which means that 4-wheel drive vehicles are allowed on it, and there were more ruts in those areas than you could shake a stick at. The weather started out with a bit of rain, but that soon cleared and eventually it got sunny.

I managed to crash twice the second day. Once was while coming down a slope that was basically clay, the surface of which had gotten very slick with the rain. I didn't pick the best line, and the bike slipped and I went down and rolled away from the bike. Phil rode between me and the bike, happily not hitting either. Andy was in front so there was no problem with him. I got up, shook myself off, and went down the rest of the hill much more slowly. At the bottom, Andy gave me an antiseptic whipe to get the dirt out of the scratches I'd gotten.

The second crash was while I was going down a grassy slope. I was going along a track about 6 inches wide with grass on either side, and I guess my wheel hit the grass on the side and caught. I went over the bars and landed on my back. Ooooof! This one really knocked the wind out of me, and I would have liked some time to just breathe a bit and recover. But we had just passed some hikers, and they were catching up, so I thought I'd better get out of the way so we wouldn't have to pass them again. So I hoppped back on the bike, rode down the hill and up the other side, and Phil and Andy followed. At the top of the hill I stopped to let my breath come back and recover from the crash.

At about the 17 mile mark we stopped to eat our lunch, which we'd picked up at the youth hostel in the morning. Part of my banana was very squished from landing on it a couple of times, but the rest was edible. We were very low on water, because we had stupidly breezed past the previous water stop, which was on a downhill. So we drank very little in the next 4 miles until the next water stop. Then it was the home stretch, and we rode to the end of the Ridgeway, and then on a road to get to Avebury, the finishing point of our ride. We arrived at 2:30, 4.5 hours and 30 miles after we started. My average rolling speed for that day was 9.3 mph, so we'd stopped for about 1:15 during the ride. Phil knew this section of the trail well, since he'd been here often, and was telling us plenty of interesting tidbits.

Andy had a friend meet him at the end of the ride, and Phil rode the 20 miles back home, so I chatted with other people as the rest of the group made it back. Finally by 4pm everyone was finished and we loaded our bikes onto a truck and ourselves into a bus, and we went back to the start point, and from there I drove back to Cambridge.

So now, on Monday, what aches the most, you may wonder? Actually, it's my upper back, near the shoulders. Those muscles just aren't used to supporting my upper body weight for such long periods of time. My legs ache a tiny bit, and the bruises and scratches are a bit sore. My butt doesn't hurt at all--I have a good saddle and shorts, and I've learned to sit with my sit bones taking most of the weight.

Will I do it again? Definitely.

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