We start early, draughting down the A-road in order to get off it as quickly as possible. Drivers surge past, round blind bends, into oncoming traffic, squeezing us between verge and vehicle. We ease up at sensible overtaking spots, then put heads down and hog the road where sightlines mean that only the most impatient of drivers will risk passing us.
Finally we reach the turn off. A minor road, following the coastline. Up and down, in and out, tracing every inlet and headland. The trade off for the decrease in traffic is the increase in road surface trauma. Bicycle maintenance foul-ups means that only one of us has a gravel bike available. Since this one of us (me) is also the slower rider, the decision has been taken that we will both ride our road bikes – our ‘best’ bikes – rather than me on gravel tyres and heavier bike trying to keep up with Him on his skinny-tyred, superfast carbon bike. So we pedal on, more gingerly than before, the ride somewhat hardened by our tyres, pumped up to maximum psi for puncture avoidance.
Holes are not the only hazard. Scars of repairs, cracks not yet repaired, and corners with berms of gravel jolt our bones and our nerves. But it is a lovely day, and we pedal on, although I begin to suspect that if I’d brought my gravel bike it would be him struggling to keep up with me – at least on the descents.
It is unexpectedly sunny, and everything looks beautiful. We are miles from anywhere, and grateful we stopped to replace the lost mini pump. It would be a long walk to assistance. Keeping half an eye on the road, we pass islands, small jetties, rhododendrons, ‘Warning Squirrels Crossing’ signs, a sign marking a no through road. We ride on.
Traffic thins again as we pass a camp site, and we are free to ride side by side, separated by a mound of gravel along the centreline of the road. Occasionally we risk the dash across the gravel bund and back again to avoid potholes which would surely knock our wheels out of true.
Everything is lovely, made all the more so thanks to the weather, which is beyond our wildest expectations. We easily knock off the first 35 miles or so of our ride into the middle of beautiful nowhere. We are congratulating ourselves on our fantastic luck, when we run out of road. As chief route planner, this is my fault.
“Honest, the OS Map showed a road, one of those yellow ones with dashed sides” (later verification will show that it showed a track, one of those white ones, with dashed sides).
“I told you the road map didn’t have a road here.”
“Really, I’m sure the OS map said it was real. And the cycle route guide. Although there was a ‘no through road’ sign back there.”
The road ahead was possibly, once, a road. There is a padlocked gate, plus a gate for pedestrians, and twin strands of disintegrating tarmac remnants stretching off into the distance. We are faced with a choice: attempt to ride this section in order to reach the road (which I’m sure really is there) on the other side and continue our planned loop in the wilds; or return the way we have come.
We carry on. I am feeling fairly cavalier. I am a mountain biker. I don’t mind a few bumps. I also did not buy my rather sparsely spoked Campag wheels – they were a gift from Him. Not only did He buy my wheels, He also bought the Dura-Ace super-light-precious-only-to-be-saved-for-best-and-hill-climbs wheels that currently adorn His bike. He is not impressed with our impromptu gravel adventure. Little squeaks of anxiety escape his lips as he rolls over disintegrated tarmac edges, and stones ping into his carbon frame.
But after the first few hundred metres, we begin to relax. We are in one of the quietest places I’ve ever been, the views are terrific, and our road ride has suddenly become a #DirtyDropBarGoodness adventure. Bring it on.
Also, this terrain is a leveller. The fact that my quads are smaller and my waistline bigger than His no longer matters so much. Handling and nerve trump power. I am having fun. Lots of it. This might be pretty close to the most fun I’ve had on a road bike, and I’m not on the road. Well, not much of one. At one point the road appears to disappear, but in fact just drops off on what is a fairly steep and sharp bend – especially for one on slick skinny tyres. He dismounts and walks, very very carefully, down the hardest section. Concern for his carbon soled shoes and road cleats is combined with concern for his skin, as his feet repeatedly slide from underneath him and his bike shifts between zimmer frame and runaway train. The challenge is clear: I must ride this.
I climb on. I clip in – on one side. The other side is neither clipped in, nor quite free – probably the result of gravel in my cleats. I roll. I force myself to leave the brakes alone, avoid the hole, clear the gravel, and I’m down. Victory is mine, and to celebrate I continue on down the hill – for once it will be me waiting for Him.
A final few gentle bends through dry leaves and packed earth, through another pedestrian gate, and we’re back on the road. Normal service is resumed: he leads out, I draught. I can’t help but feel a little disappointed that the road has returned.
For more on riding road bikes off road, see the Swerve Brothers’ article in grit.cx issue 08.
How all the best rides end.