Sunday, January 26, 2014

Whitchurch, Watership Down & Basingstoke loops: Hampshire Off Road Cycle Trails

Looking for somewhere else close to home to string a big off-road loop together, I happened across the Hampshire County Council's page dedicated to off-cycle trails.  Almost two years ago (my last ride before shoulder surgery) I did the Whitchurch loop & so had some idea of the terrain involved & what I would be getting myself in for - nothing horrific.  I also remembered that some of the loops connected to each other.  So with a bit of printing, I was ready to hit the Whitchurch, Watership Down & Basingstoke loops - I hoped that this would give me about eighty to ninety kilometres of mostly off-road riding through some nice villages & with a few more hills than last week's New Forest ride.

Being the least distance to drive to the loop (a shade under forty miles), I parked in the free car park in Whitchurch (Bell St, just west of the main junction in the village). The day was the pick of the weekend's forecast weather, so I was hoping to get around before the late-afternoon rain turned up. After all the recent rain, everything was sodden but it wasn't too hard going to start with. It was odd riding through villages & farms that I bothered to stop to take photos of two years ago. There wasn't the need this time.

The long downhill to cross the A34 was very tricky as it was extremely muddy, rutted & slippery. The trail actually crosses the busy dual-carriageway here - but there is a permissive bridleway along the edge of a field to an underpass. I thought this was a good idea until halfway through the puddle in the underpass. By the time I got off my bike, I realised it wasn't so much a puddle as a pond & I was standing in rather cold water up to my waist. Quickly hoisting my bike (large tyres sure help with buoyancy) out of the water I reassessed & ducked around to the right of the end of the tunnel & clambered up to the edge of the road through too much blackberry. End result was I had to ride the wrong way along the edge of the road, & my shorts were soaked. None of this was a problem - the largest inconvenience being that the maps in my pocket were now soaked; they were still readable, but required a little more care in folding & unfolding. My advice whatever the weather - see if you can cross A34 through the traffic - there is a gap in the median barrier; it'll save a tedious detour & perhaps getting very wet.

Soon I was climbing up to Watership Down & new trails. At marked point 11, I continued straight on Wayfarers Walk (instead of turning left on Meadham Lane) as this provided more bridleway & less road. It was muddy & slow. I was about halfway through the ride a little way into the Basingstoke loop, this is graded as moderate (not strenuous) so there's a bit more road & it was nice to get away from the mud for a while & the path crossed the Test and railway numerous times. Rejoining the Watership Down trail at Ibworth, the next section after Bailey Hall Farm was truly horrendous energy-sapping claggy mud for a mile and a half. Not much fun, but all ridable.

Stopping in the village of Kingsclere I had a few energy sweets (I ate very little on this whole ride, which is rather unusual) before heading off on the road towards Sydmonton & to finish the Watership Down loop & rejoining the Whitchurch one. I turned left before Sydmonton to miss out points three to seven on the map - because I don't like repeating bits if I don't have to & the wind was really picking up & a big black cloud was making its way ominously from the south east. Up on the ridge, the wind was rather extreme - I'm never a big fan of having to pedal downhill. Turning on to the Caesar's Belt of the Portway (part of the old Roman road that used to run from London to Weymouth - so it's dead straight), I turned in to the wind & it was a hard slog. Thankfully the rain that fell was only a light drizzle for a few minutes - not enough to put a jacket on.

There was a few miles of road back in to Whitchurch where I could load up the car & get out of the rather muddy clothes. A good day ride with plenty of mud to burn a bit of extra energy - and at eighty-five kilometres, my estimation proved correct.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

New Forest cycle tour

Not so long ago I stumbled across the new Forestry Commission map of cycle routes in the New Forest. I printed a couple of copies & put them to one side, not really thinking too much of it. But over the last few weeks successive people have come into my office & pilfered copies - so I keep printing more. Finally I got around to studying it a bit more closely last week & realised just how extensive the network really is - there's not much coverage in the corner of the Forest I live in, so I've never really investigated before.

With no real plans for the weekend, Sunday looked the better of the two days to be in the sun so I started to loosely plan an all-day ride. As it was, Sunday was a glorious sun-drenched day so I headed out early to make the most of it. The first part getting to the marked trails was ridiculously muddy & proper hard work - just as well it's flat; even so, it wasn't long before I had to shed a layer.

Mostly on the cycle trails, with a small amount on quite roads (except for crossing the very busy dual-carriageway A31 near Rufus Stone), I made steady progress and within a few hours I was pretty much on the other side of the Forest. This was not somewhere I'd ever considered riding before, so that was good going - and at sixty kilometres - about halfway through what I thought would be the day's distance.

There's never a shortage of nice pubs serving food on such rides, so at about one o'clock I happened on the Old Beams Inn & stopped long enough to actually take a photo. This one had the Sunday carvery going, which is quite popular; after only eating half a Clif Bar since setting out a huge plate of roast meat & veges really hit the spot. Pleasingly, I didn't get a stitch as I rode off.

While the first half of the day was mainly off-road, I'd planned the second half predominantly on-road as I was keen to get down to Christchurch or Highcliffe & see the sea. Heading south on the edge of the Avon flood plain, there was still an awful lot of surface water from the last weeks of rain on the lanes to ride through or avoid. I had a quick peak at Highcliffe Castle (didn't think to get the camera out) & enjoyed the miles of cliff top riding from Barton-on-Sea east towards Lymington as the sun slowly sunk. With just quiet country lanes left, the last twenty kilometres wasn't really as much of a struggle as I thought it would be. A great day out, not really rushing & with plenty of general exploring. While 125 km ranks as my longest ride in a day, it was nowhere near the hardest & I haven't suffered since with aching muscles - so that's a bonus.

Sunday, January 12, 2014

The Purbecks, again.

With the promise of a whole day of no rain, it made sense to use the money to drive over the Swanage & deliver my front wheel to the bike shop rather than post it. Of course, this gave the opportunity to ride more hills than there are at home. Scrabbling all the Swanage trails I could find together on my GPS, I was hoping I could get about 80 km done in six hours.

It was sunny, chilly in the northerly, proper muddy and all good fun. The cake & pasty stops in Corfe Castle were as good as always. Strangely on the Coast Path I bumped in to a couple of riders coming the opposite direction - I recognised them as I rode past, I rode most of my first MTB Marathon with them in Shropshire last summer. Fifteen minutes of catching up ensued before I did another loop & ended up back at the bikeshop for much talk about bikes (what else?).