Clee and Herefordshire Hills Audax - 2015

I'm often first to arrive at an event, but on this occasion there were a couple of other guys already in the car park of The Castle in Droitwich when I arrived on my bike ready for the depart. I was expecting a few more as you can imagine but in the end there were only 5 of us plus Gavin the organiser who didn't have the training miles behind him and was planning only a short ride with us on the first stage. With 3000m of climbing I was expecting to finish in something between 10 and 11 hours, but I always hope for a PB and secretly I thought I might manage under 10.30, which would be my best so far for a hilly (AAA) 200k.

I'm not much of a bunch rider and generally prefer to toil alone on the lanes and hills, but with only half a dozen of us starting it seemed natural to try and stay together for the day. That's how it started, as we rolled out of Droitwich together on a mile summer morning with the weather set fair for the day and the breeze not as fierce as expected. At least the forecast was for tailwinds on the final leg, but I know from experience how tailwinds you are expecting never seem to materialise!

The route was on a mix of decent B roads and the odd section of A road - gorgeous scenery in every direction - then we turned on to some "classic Audax roads" with lots of grit on the bends, sufaces crumbling at the edges and grass down the middle. Nice to be back. We took the pace pretty easily on that first stage to Cleobury, a lovely little town where a band were playing at some kind of fete in the churchyard as we arrived for a late breakfast. The cafe was friendly and pleasant but there was nothing much in the way of a veggie option - no cheese pasties or toasties - so I ended up buying what I thought was an apple turnover but it seemed to be filled with cream which was a bit rich for bike ride fuel. The mug of tea hit the spot though and having emptied a bottle and a half of nuun I was glad to score some poweraid from their drinks cooler and refill the bottles.

And then there were five - already nearly three hours into the ride, so not progressing as quickly as I'd hoped, but we were still together in a group and I was feeling good for the Clee Hill stage. From Cleobury we were soon in the hills - no single epic climb springs to mind, just endless rolling ascents over the spurs of the two Clee hills. The road was lovely, with rugged, fern-covered hillside always on the left and open fields with vast views on the right as we contoured round the high ground. You could see Wenlock Edge on the horizon and we probably caught sight of most of Shropshire at one time or another. By now I'd settled into that dream like state I get on bike rides, soaking up the beauty of the english landscape and enjoying the challenge of keeping the wheels turning on the climbs. I had this random thought that the roads were like the veins of England and we were the lifeblood carrying energy and consciousness to every cell of the ancient land. Then my reverie was interrupted by a sudden hiss and decelaration as my front tyre punctured.

I took my time over changing tubes, not least because I'd discovered that I'd only packed a single spare! I had thought there were two in the seatpost bag but I was wrong. So, I felt my way round and round the tyre looking for glass or a thorn or some other culprit, knowing I could puncture again as soon as I got going if I hadn't sorted out the cause. Couldn't find anything, so I painstakingly eased the tyre with its new tube on to the rim and tentatively pumped it up with my pocket sized pump. After a few pumps I bounced the wheel a few times to get the tube nicely seated in the tyre and avoid it getting pinched on the rim. I got going again after no less than 15 minutes at the side of the lane (it was the lane around Clee Hill, so at least I had great views and not a single car passing me while I was stuck there) and my patience paid off as no second blow out came.

Now I was on my own, which felt familiar and natural, but I was keen to catch the bunch and pace myself with them to get a decent finish time. Looking at the mileage I'd done, I thought 11 hours was looking unlikely and the whole 205k might take me nearer 12. Still, the day was lovely, the puncture was mended, I was loving the ride. I'd been relying on others who had done the ride before for a lot of my routefinding but now I was going solo I had to pause at quite a few junctions and pore over the route sheet to make sure I didn't miss a turn. It suddenly seemed like quite a complex route, though to be fair the instructions were excellent.I stopped at one junction and was looking at the routesheet when a local wound her window down and asked where I was heading - she confirmed that the turning I was looking at was the right one, but I'm pretty sure she sent me a long way round and I did an extra couple of Ks! Should have been more confident and carried on to the next turning, but 2km extra isn't bad over a course of 205.

I got to Tenbury and was starting to feel a bit hungry and a bit wiped out - I think I'd unconsciously started to push the pace a bit in the hope of catching the others. The sun was beating down and the expected breeze was not really happening - it was probably in the mid 20s, which is enough to make you sweat a lot and feel short of salts as well as short of carbs. I asked a few people in Tenbury about shops that might sell me an inner tube as I was still concerned about riding without a spare, but there were no leads so I carried on thruogh the town and out on the road across the common before turning back on to narrow lanes around Thornbury. This section seemed to wind on and on for ages but eventually I found myself in Bromyard, over half way, with a choice of cafes!

Beans on toast and 2 mugs of tea in The Corner Cafe seemed to do the trick, then I spotted a hardware shop and stuck my head round the door to ask for inner tubes. I got a positive if slightly vague response so I headed in with the bike as well while the shopkeeper rummaged through a dusty box under the counter which seemed to be filled with 16 inch tubes! At last she spotted a 700x28, a bit fat for my 700x23 tyres but hopefully enouogh to get me out of trouble if I punctured again. Better than nothing so I handed over a fiver and headed off on the third leg of the ride. By now I'd been out for 6 hours 20 minutes and I'd texted Kokila to say I was going to take longer than planned...

The route took a quiet and scenic loop ut to Woolhope but I was dying a bit now - my stomach was giving me a queasy feeling and I didn't seem able to digest anything. I stopped trying to eat energy bars and drink only some plain water I'd bought in Bromyard, but lack of calories meant I was slowing down to a bit of a crawl. In Woolhope I took this selfy which really doesn't show how wasted I was feeling.

There was no faulting the scenery though as I contoured round some low hills that gave me a view over most of Herefordshire - exquisite. I lived in this area years ago in my agricultural labouring days, staying in a bender on a farm and picking fruit and veg to save up for a ticket to India. Another life. I've felt an emotional connection with the county ever since though - soft, gentle landscape and a feeling of unhurried and timeless existence, unblemished by anything resembling a hectic modern city, that's Herefordshire.

The midday sun was turning into hazy afternoon sun with lengthening shadows as my stomach recovered a bit and I passed through tiny villages with churches that seemed to meld into the landscape. One was a unusual Norman building with tiny windows - striking but I was too tired to take a pic. I grabbed some shots further on - this one in Kempley where there was an info control and I had to get the name of the church.

Eventually I was in Ledbury, looking for the Jet Garage which was the final control (in fact now an Esso garage, but I was definitely in the right place). 2 twixes and lots of water were my fuel for the final leg. Ledbury is another beautiful town - I always imagine it to be right at the foot of the Malverns but on this route there was quite a way to go before I got to dig in for that final climb over the hills. The route out of town was one of the nicest parts of the day, early evening sun lighting up the fields and hillsides on deserted lanes. I had left Ledbury with the clock at around 9 hours 10 so I was not expecting much under 12 hours for my finishing time, even though that last leg is only around 40k.

Once at the climb over the Malverns I found I was making good headway and the twix had done the trick of getting some energy back into my legs. I climbed over with a few gears to spare and the long descent (with yet more lusciouos panoramas) took me on to a flat 10k into Worcester. Here the route was hard to follow and the sudden traffic felt a bit of a shock, as if I'd woken up from a rural dream into urban chaos. One way or another I found the way through and got myself on the A38, where I realised I had made good time and might just get back within 11 hours. I gave it the nearest I had to a sprint finish and made the pub car park in 10.59. Pleased.

Apparently I had passed the others in Tenbury where they found a riverside cafe for a decent break, but I had enjoyed soloing anyway and got home in a not-so-bad time of 11 hrs. What next?

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