There’s a spare room in my flat where I keep my bikes and riding kit. I can picture my lights in there, resting on the edge of a desk, neglected for the day. I’m thinking about them 70 miles into my ride around the Avon Cycleway, near the village of Wickwar; the sun is dropping ever lower towards the horizon. There’s still more than an hour to go on unlit, unfamiliar rural roads…
Although everyone on Cycling Plus does a lot of riding in the area around Bristol and Bath, in the whole time we’ve been based in the land of cider, cheese and floods, none of us have never ridden the Avon Cycleway in its entirety. It’s a well-marked route that circles Bristol, taking in some of the gert lush villages, rural landscapes and industrial sights surrounding the city. Signs for Route 410 (to give it its official name) are plentiful and obvious, but on weekend rides, sportives, commutes and trips to the shops, I’d never given them much attention. Today, I’ve decided to call in sick and spend the day following them.
It doesn’t take much to persuade my cycling friend Chris to come along. We plan to meet at nine and I picture a civilised ride around some idyllic countryside, home in time for Pointless and a cuppa. When I get up in the morning and look at the route, I’m convinced we’ll easily click off the miles. I know that a long ride is rarely that easy, but my relaxed attitude and complete unwillingness to prepare is too irresistible.
Leaving from Bath, we follow the Sustrans railway path to Saltford, where we pick up the Avon Cycleway, heading clockwise. We make good progress for the first hour, heading south of Bath and Bristol, and before we know it, our surroundings take on a more rural flavour. As the lanes get increasingly muddy, I get a taste of it every time I get too close to Chris’s back wheel; that rich, warm bouquet of silage expertly blended with the piquant notes of farm animal urine, expertly set against an etude of fertiliser. Very pleasant.
It doesn’t take long to reach Pensford, where a huge old viaduct, like an arm outstretched across the village, looms into view. As I ride under one of its giant arches, I get the sense of being in a cathedral as its weathered brickwork towers over me. I’m always hungry after visiting church – those little wafers never fill me up properly – so one hour later, when the cycleway delivers us to Clevedon, we make a detour to the seafront for lunch.
If you’re riding the cycleway, Clevedon is a pleasant place to stop for food, although you’ll have to leave the route for a couple of miles to get to the seafront. Fans of Broadchurch will notice that, as well as West Bay in Dorset, Clevedon played, well, Broadchurch. We’re about a couple of hours into the ride, and having covered just over 30 miles we’re feeling pretty good about our progress, so a 45-minute stop for lunch won’t hurt…
…until later on in the day. Chris gets a puncture near Portishead and I thinkthat at Pensford I should have stopped and made an offering to the gods of cycling; left an energy gel under the viaduct or something. Chris’s flat comes as we’re riding away from a farm and it’s inevitable that the road, and Chris’s wheels and tyres, are covered in cow crap. He fixes it swiftly, but precisely six minutes and 37 seconds later gets another. This time his front tyre is full of glass. The thought occurs for the first time that we might not make it back home before the light has gone. The long lunch stop and my inability to have foreseen that I’d need my lights might become a problem.
After Clevedon the route heads north, and instead of beautiful countryside, we’re riding though a series of industrial estates. This is the first time that the riding starts to get difficult; it’s not hilly or tough, just hard to get into a good rhythm. We seem to be constantly turning left and right, going down little stretches of poorly surfaced road or cyclepath. We pick our way through gates and instead of getting our heads down and bashing out some miles, we’re always on the lookout for signs.
I shouldn’t be surprised our progress has started to slow down. There’s no sign to indicate where the 410 goes out of Clevedon, so we miss the turning we need, and are unable to rely on my Garmin, which keeps getting confused. Once we’ve worked out the right way, we fire down the correct lane, making progress for a few precious minutes, but then the road narrows, and that’s as good a place as any to meet an old van, speeding towards us.
The guy behind the wheel stops in the middle of the road, looking bewildered at how this impasse might be broken. I call out a cheery “Alright my luvver, ’scuse I!” but he stares back blankly.
Reversing is obviously too exotic a prospect for him, so we squeeze down one side with our faces in the hedge. Chris gets through easily but my front wheel slips on some mud and I fall into the side of the van with my shoulder. The driver’s angry, and immediately gets out. As I ride away, I hear a heated pirate voice carrying towards me, so I shout an apology back while turning the cranks a little faster.
If I was poetically inclined, I’d write something like ‘an inauspicious portent hangs in the chilly air’, but I’m not, so I’ll just say that at this point, I wonder whether getting lost, making poor progress and getting shouted at by a man in a van are indicative of how the rest of the ride might turn out.
If you’ve never been to the western side of Bristol, to visit the factories between Clapton-in-Gordano, up towards Hallen, then cancel those seven nights in Malaga and come on down! As we head north, for a while a pretty little canal meanders its way alongside us. The flora and fauna are exquisite – with the water boasting a wide range of algae, and a large shoal of not-very-rare-in-these-parts Upside Down Fosters Can fish, which bob playfully among the plastic bags.
This section of the route reminds me that the West Country isn’t all cream teas and pig judging. The factories stick out of the ground like giant grey slabs, and the din of the M5, M4 and M48 all take turns providing the soundtrack before we head east again towards Thornbury. I don’t know whether Chris shares my opinion of this section of the route, but as we head once again into more rural settings, he punctuates this leg of the journey with a stylish crash, catching his rear wheel on some mud, which sends him drifting sideways towards the ground.
North of Bristol, the pretty town of Thornbury signals the start of a better rhythm, and we manage to cover a decent amount of ground over some faster roads as we head east, then eventually south. The light is becoming a growing concern, it’s getting dimpsey, but all isn’t lost because in my jersey pocket I have one pathetically weak front backup light. Neither of us has a rear, but at least we’ll be able to see one inch in front of us down all the pitch-black lanes we’ve still got to negotiate.
Around this point, fuelled by an increasing sense of worry, we get our heads down and make decent progress. Near Yate we barrel down a fast, sweeping country lane only to meet a huge tractor and trailer in the road. I squeeze my levers hard as I point the front of the bike left, aiming for the gap between the huge tyre and the grass verge. My rear wheel locks and steps out of line, probably by about 1cm, but it feels like I’m hurtling towards the tractor completely sideways. I easily get past, but my heart’s in my mouth and I bank the experience: must remember never to hoon down fast roads with near-blind corners in low light.
After getting lost again just north of the M4, we eventually manage to find our way back to the Sustrans railway path we left earlier in the morning. I ride down this most days, but I’ve never been happier to see it. By now it’s properly dark and because I have the only light, Chris has to sit on my back wheel for the 11 miles home. At my front door, my Garmin reads 101 miles, and just over 5500ft of climbing. I bring my bike indoors, back into the spare room, where my lights sit smugly on the table.
5 The Beach in Clevedon does good food and great cake, and there’s a tea room at the end of the pier. Thornbury has more food options including three pubs: the Wheatsheaf Inn, the Swan and the White Lion.