Guest blogger Frank Burns joins 499 other cycling aficionados in a week-long bike rally through Wales, Shropshire and Cheshire, and is humbled by the achievements of these understated stalwarts of British bicycling...
As a fledgling cyclist, I joined the Cyclists’ Touring Club (CTC) on its 100th birthday in 1978, and promptly jumped into the centenary festivities by meeting up with 100 other riders in Manchester to ride 100 miles in 8 hours (then known as a reliability ride). It was the first century ride of my cycling career and last month (some 175,000 cycling miles later) I found myself mingling with a crowd of 500 other keen mile-eaters (many of a certain age) to celebrate the club’s 134th birthday. The event is known as the CTC Birthday Rides, a week-long rally that takes place every year in August in some carefully chosen location in the UK. This year our base was at Ellesmere College in north Shropshire, giving us immediate access to large tracts of hilly north Wales, the Cheshire lanes and the Long Mynd in Shropshire.
A remarkable thing about these huge gatherings is the demographic of the group. Many have been coming to these rallies for years (some as long as 40 years). The demographic may have changed little over the decades, but the age profile has advanced steadily ‘at a constant cadence’. Not for them shaven legs and faces. Not for them power bars, Gatorade and gels. Few sport the latest fashions in lycra, but demonstrations of club loyalty abound in the motley garments of attire. Not for them the latest in carbon fibre or titanium. You won’t see many 11 speed rear cassettes or the latest in Campagnolo or Shimano equipment. The predominant guide on the handlebars will not be a Garmin, Memory Map or smartphone, but a Maptrap that holds in place the written route instructions and a page torn out of a road atlas.
The Birthday Rides may not be a catwalk of the most recent ‘lip-smacking’ developments in the cycling world, but you will be entertained by the motley variety of people who have cycled the world, who will hold you spellbound by anecdotal tales of what happened to them in darkest Africa, or deepest China, or crossing the arid plains of the Atacama desert. You will hear of intrepid pedallers who have scaled some of the highest roads in the Himalayas, crossed the Atlas mountains on two wheels, cycled from one end of Japan to the other, and crossed the American continent.
Many of these people resort to tricks of understatement. When they talk about a ‘lumpy landscape’, they are really talking about high mountains and huge passes. A long day in the saddle to the average human being is about 1-2 hours. For these people 8-10 hours is commonplace. A journey of 10-15 miles would exhaust a lesser being, but many of these people have cycled many successive days in excess of 100 miles per day, and some will regularly do Audax rides of 200, 300, 400 kms with little sleep or rest. A shower of rain that would deter the fair-weather cyclist is nothing but a minor annoyance. They will don their waterproofs and ride all day and night if necessary……. after all, it’s only water!
If you look beyond the characteristic stoop of the life-long pedaller, the silver hair and beard, you will see the profiles of people who have been true adventurers in their own right, quietly and undemonstratively cycling to the far corners of the earth just for the sheer pleasure. It is a privilege to share a few miles with them, or sit at table over a leisurely meal and eavesdrop on their storytelling. None of them have been propelled by the lure of success on the race track nor the limelight of road racing, but by their own curiosity to discover the world and pit themselves against the forces of nature. The ultimate reward was no more than a deep sense of personal satisfaction at a job well done.
- Canal towpath outside Chester.
Early morning mass starts were carefully avoided. The lanes were far too narrow and potholed. Some surfaces were ‘decoratively adorned’ with the fresh cuttings of hawthorn hedges, thorns lying in wait for the unsuspecting wheeler whose tyres would gather them up and send the imprisoned air of the inner tube back into the earth’s oxygen bank. I heard that this happened to one group of riders midst one of those furious cloudbursts that sent an inch of rain down in less than 30 minutes. I wonder what expletives honoured the name of that local farmer?
You may think that 500 cyclists could get lost in a sea of rural tranquillity, but whatever route you chose (and there were at least 20 to choose from) you were sure to chance by several, join up with some, leave others behind in your dust (or be left behind in someone else’s dust), but generally sit down with someone in a far-flung café and share the stories of the road. I was in thrall of the longer routes that would take me 70-80 miles in several directions. Five days and five rides later, I had scaled the heights above Lake Vyrnwy (a reservoir built to supply Liverpool) and done its entire circumference, shrouded by woods and well protected from the winds; I then followed a northerly route to the historic city of Chester, followed the canal tow path to the heart of the city, and got completely drowned by the torrential
- Dam at Lake Vyrnwy
downpour on the way back; the Shropshire Hills beckoned another day, planting a massive climb of 20% on my way to the Stiperstones, where I learnt all about the history of lead mining at the Bog Visitor Centre, and sampled the honest delights of home baking in the café; then the infamous World’s End with its treacherous narrow descent to a river ford that will catch the unwary with its slippery under-surface; and the final day promised a steady climb to the recondite Pistyll Waterfall, in full flow after the recent rains, followed by the most stunning climbs through the Berwyn Hills, offering panoramic views that must be unequalled anywhere in Wales.
- Pistyll Rhaeadr Falls
But, as ever, accompanying any utopian description of riding a bike several hundred miles, you sometimes have to take the ‘rough with the rough’. Serious rain (the sort that would keep sane individuals firmly indoors) dampened our bikes and clothes, but not our spirits, on two days, and on the final day I checked out an aberration on my front brake, only to discover that the rim of my 20 year old front wheel was beginning to disintegrate (hardly surprising I suppose). A careful ride into Oswestry and the immediate attention of Stuart Berkley Cycles saw a new wheel installed in less than 15 minutes. My trusty Raleigh Apex has now done about 40,000 miles, and most of the original kit has now been replaced…………only the rider now remains!
- I thought this was in the Holy Land!
In the purist tradition of a bygone age, I decided to cycle to and from the rally at Ellesmere College in north Shropshire, carrying my own camping gear. A four day return journey, it added 300 miles to my grand total of 622 miles (1000 kms) for the week. Preparing for that journey made me rise to the challenge of pairing down my luggage to an absolute minimum. Not quite ‘ultra-lightweight’, but certainly lightweight. One lady at the rally saw my laden bike (carrying less than 10 kilos of luggage) and simply exclaimed “Impressive!”!
- With luggage, including camping equipment.
Impressive or not, I was simply determined to carry as little as possible. In this age of competitive cycling, the buzz-phrases we hear are “power-to-weight ratios” and “marginal gains”. To the humble long-distance rider with camping gear, that simply means carry less weight to go faster and further. Still there were several things that I had no occasion to use, which means that things can be trimmed even further on future ventures.