Cycling around Britain: Why is this happening? 2,210km DONE // Southeast and southwest Britain COMPLETE12 minute read

On Tuesday, I kind of rolled into Bristol, after cycling 1,012 kilometres around the southwest of the country. That means that, since the easing of lockdown, I’ve pedalled the whole of the south of England: from Britain’s most easterly point at Ness Point in Lowestoft to its joint-most photographed signpost at Land’s End.

Combined, the two halves of the tour—southeast and southwest—have gobbled up 2,210 kilometres’ worth of tyre tracks. But one statistic is suggestive of the difference in my cycling experience. In the east of the country, my thousand-plus kilometres involved a little over 6,000 metres of climbing. In the west, my thousand kilometres dragged me up over 10,000 metres.

Update: Strava data puts my southeast ride at 7,742m of elevation and the southwest at 15,444m—almost exactly double the climbing over a slightly shorter distance. This data is much closer to my felt experience, but then I would say that!

The take home message is tourers beware! Komoot, Strava and RideWithGPS each appear to use very different maps to calculate elevation data, with variations of up to 50 percent in some parts of the world. That’s huge. This StackExchange post from 2013 concludes that Strava was the most trustworthy of those apps tested—but that might well depend on where you’re riding.

Devon and Cornwall are hilly: 10,000 metres is a Ben Nevis on top of a Mount Everest. But the statistics don’t really tell the full story either: these hills are sharp, up to 33 percent in places, on narrow, winding roads, with descents too dangerous to build momentum for the next.

Hence my twin fascinations this week with a) proper bike gears and b) everything happening for a reason. Hopefully the promise of b) will keep you reading even if a) makes your eyes twitch with boredom.

My round Britain rides since 17 July. You can scan more detail on Komoot

Why me, why now?

Eighteen kilometres from the finish line, riding in merriment along the shore of Chew Valley Lake. I was making good time—a friend called to ask would I be in Bristol for lunch?—and the rain, hard on my heels, flogged and foaming at the head of Storm Francis, was for now holding off.

The road alongside the lake had recently been resurfaced and there was a temporary 20mph speed limit to stop the loose gravel spitting out of car wheels and giving pedestrians and cyclists brain damage.

A car passed me at forty. I had scarcely finished my impotent admonishments, when my chain locked up. This wasn’t a mere clumsy shift: my cranks could spin neither clockwise nor anticlockwise. I skittered to a stop, looked down and saw a pretty pickle:

Among bicycle mechanics, this is technically known as ‘a right mess’. The rear mech has twisted at a screwy angle to the chain: like it had melted under tension.

At this point—so near and yet so far—it’d be easy to curse the heavens. I hadn’t cycled 1,000 kilometres over the past two weeks to finish like this!

But what if this frankly tour-ending disaster was all happening for me, not to me?

After all, I was lucky. This could have happened an hour ago, as I aquaplaned through rocky off-road puddles in the Mendips, a soggy trog from all civilisation. But it has happened here: around the corner from a cafe. I could eat some chips, call some friends and find a solution.

The cafe was closed.

But the toilets were open. Swings and roundabouts. I laughed. Then called some friends. We found a solution: I could unmount the rear mech, break the chain, remove half a dozen links and turn my bike into a fixie: a one gear wonder.

I laughed again: the wind whipped the sound up into the hills. Over the summer I’ve met a lot of people more or less new to cycling. These gentlefolk are often the beneficiaries of a forceful rant about the witless cupidity of bicycle manufacturers.

A forceful rant

As far as I’m concerned, any cyclist who wants to preserve their knees-up-Mother-Brown talents absolutely must have a bike with gears. Many gears, yes, but more importantly the right gears.

Gears are at least half of the miracle of cycling. When they were first invented, gears were banned at the Tour de France. They made the race too easy in the sadistic eyes of the demented organiser.

But most of us, our yellow jerseys faded in the wash, want cycling to be as damn easy as possible—and that means getting the most out of the genius of gears: a tiny front chainring and a decent spread at the back.

These are the kind of gears designed so that even the steepest hill can be tackled in the saddle, giving you and I about another twenty years of squatting potential before knee surgery.

But these are precisely the kind of gears that the big bike builders ignore in favour of a set that suits the show-off accelerate downhill suicide slalom brigade. Who will pay more for their wheels.

And the lack of education around gear mechanics means that your everyday common or garden cyclist also ends up chasing the wrong metric when buying a bike. Instead of thinking hard about the physics of bicycle locomotion, people are eased in the direction of a simpler rubric: kilograms.

Almost understandably, bicyclists believe that a lighter bike will be easier to ride. It might be, but the difference will be scarcely noticeable and cost a lot of money. Ease is in the gears.

It’s frustrating when friends ask me about spending hundreds and thousands (not the cake topping) on lighter frames when all they need to do is switch to a smaller chainring. Shaving a couple of kilos from your bike’s waistline is nice, but won’t give you the massive mechanical advantage that better gearing will.

Rant over.

Sorry—nearly over.

If you’re not a cyclist, do yourself a favour: learn more about gears. When you realise how easy cycling can be on all topography and terrain, maybe you’ll come around.

If you are a cyclist, do yourself a favour: learn more about gears. Hill climbing is no harder than cycling on the flat—slower, maybe, but not harder—so long as you have the right gears and know how to use them.

In Exeter, I did a quick hill-climbing test with a friend of mine, comparing the gearing on his bike with the gearing on mine. We found a short, sharp incline outside his house and I got him to ride up on his bike in the lowest gear.

‘Actually, this is pretty easy,’ he said as I watched his legs push hard down through the pedals.

‘Try mine,’ I replied, shifting it into the lowest gear. He swung himself onto the saddle, eased his feet down onto the pedals—and nearly fell off.

The gear ratio on my bike was so extreme that the cranks turned with barely any pressure: my friend had never dreamed that such mechanical advantage could make hills so comfortable.

Seriously: Alee Denham on Cycling About has a fantastic series of articles on the subject. Read them all.

Back to the story

As I pulled the ugly twisted metal that used to be Martin’s rear mech away from the hanger, I realised that it was still attached to the frame by the (new) shifter cable. I had no wire cutters and my teeth aren’t what they used to be. I inspected the scissors and wood saw options on my penknife. My penknife hid itself at the bottom of my bag and tried to look busy.

Then a man pulled up in a small white van: he was down here from pest control in south Wales to check on the toilets. ‘Sorry to bother you,’ I blurted at him, ‘I don’t suppose you’ve got a pair of wire cutters or pliers, have you?’

Smiling like the Mona Lisa, the workman ducked into the back of his van and rattled around among his miscellanea. A pair of wire cutters appeared in the palm of his hand. ‘Take them,’ he said. I laughed: this was going to work.

All set to go, I washed my hands in the conveniently located toilets, and wobbled triumphantly back past the Chewy ducks.

Getting in a fix with a fixie

The problem with building a fixie bike, I discovered, is that the chain needs to fit perfectly: neither too tight, nor too loose. This is hard to achieve on the road: I don’t even know if it’s possible.

My fixed chain was on the loose side. When I arrogantly decided to shift up to a larger chainring, the chain pulled taut over the cogs, the limber flex vanished and every turn of the pedals became a grinding tug of war.

My bike was, to put it politely, fucked. But the unlikely fix had held the couple of kilometres to Chew Magna and I rolled gently to a stop outside the Cooperative Food supermarket.

I knelt down and got my hands oily. A man, on his way to an eat-out to help out pub lunch with his girls, leant over my shoulder: ‘You alright? What’s the problem?’

The man lived over the road and offered me tools and spare parts; his two talkative young girls eagerly me a deathmatch game of Dobble.

I thanked them and decided that what I really needed was a peanut butter sandwich.

~

On my knees outside St Andrew’s Church, a rotating cast of onlookers sympathised with my plight. An hour’s worth of oil under my fingernails, busted chain links scattered on the holy ground, and I was ready to ride again.

Two hundred metres onward, my second technically incompetent foray into bike mechanics auto-aborted and the chain snapped. This time there were no conveniently located toilets.

Swings: Storm Francis loomed over the horizon.
Roundabouts: so too did the number 683 bus to Keynsham.

And this is how I met Ricky.

A broken bike on a deserted bus

Ricky: Everything happens for a reason (or: you can’t deny that everything happens, so you might as well look for any reason that makes sense of it all)

‘It’s my first day back on the job since February,’ was Ricky’s opening line after taking my fare. For the twenty years before lockdown he’d worked as a coach driver, taking kids out on school trips mostly. Of course all that work has evaporated, like a skein of summer rain on his widescreen windscreen.

Now. I’ve spent the vast majority of my time cycle touring engaged in a battle of curses with other road users. That’s a horrible exaggeration, of course, but remember those Devonian and Cornwallian hill roads? They’re steep, narrow and windy—in both its whine-dy and win-dy phonemic forms.

Definitively not the kind of roads happily shared by both fossil fuelled and peanut-butter-sandwich fuelled modes of transport.

To be fair, most drivers are as considerate as can be given the anti-convivial infrastructure. There are plenty of passing places where either the on-rushing driver or the on-panicking cyclist can pull over. Waves, thanks and thumbs ups can then be cordially exchanged and both parties can put their feet to their respective pedals and hasten onward to their doom.

But some drivers…

Climbing up from a ravine beach in the sleeting sideways rain, up a 33 percent gradient, I was confronted head-on by the broad beam of an expensive Land Rover.

For context, a 33 percent gradient is about as tough a climb as a human-powered bike can manage. Climbs at the Tour de France rarely peak at such a steep incline. And those riders aren’t encumbered with an extra twenty kilos of camping kit (they don’t even carry their own peanut butter).

As I sweated up the incline, salty rivulets on my handlebars, the Land Rover ahead resolutely budged not. Something of a stand-off, except we were both sitting down—albeit at slightly unequal degrees of comfort.

There was no bike-sized gap on either side of the vehicle’s wing mirrors, which poked into the nettle-strewn hedge. But I’d be a poltroon of the highest order if I was going to turn around and cycle back down this Eiger impersonation so that this climate-controlled tourist could save himself the hassle of reversing thirty metres to the passing place behind him.

So I stopped and waited, catching my breath, until the man reversed and we could all get on with our tiny lives.

~

Now, though, I was on the other side of the glass, listening to Ricky talking about carting schoolkids round down the back lanes of the West Country.

‘Some cyclists,’ he started, ‘not you, like, but some of them…

‘I was behind this one cyclist, on a straight main road—and he had every right to be there, course he did—but there was about a mile of traffic backed up behind me. I could hear them beeping at him to move over, right?

‘A coach takes a long time to build up speed, see. I need a long straight to accelerate enough to overtake, right? But this road had double white lines down the middle. I can’t legally cross those white lines to overtake. Not with forty kids in the back, I can’t—I simply can’t do it.

‘So there I am, crawling along at ten, twenty miles an hour, and we come to a lay-by—a proper long lay-by, mind you, good surface and all—easy for this cyclist to pull over and let me and this mile of traffic behind me pass.

‘You know what? He carried right on cycling.

‘Course he had every right, every right to do that,’ Ricky finishes, ‘but that’s why some drivers get upset.’

~

So this is why I’m here. What would I have learnt from another eighteen cycling kilometres on top of over two thousand? Chances are, I’d only have got stressed out fighting through the kind of city limits traffic I’ve fought hundreds of times before.

But on this otherwise empty number 683 bus to Keynsham, Ricky’s passed on something worth passing on. And it wouldn’t have happened at all if something shit hadn’t happened to me and my bike eighteen kilometres from home.

‘I’ll tell you what, mind,’ Ricky adds, ‘white vans are the worst. I don’t lose my rag and tell them to eff-off—I leave that to my schoolkids!’

One more thing…

If you liked this post, then you’ll almost certainly enjoy my newsletter. You can check out the most recent issue on Substack. See ya there - dc:

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David Charles is co-writer of BBC radio sitcom Foiled. He also writes for The Bike Project, Thighs of Steel, and the Elevate Festival. He blogs at davidcharles.info.

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