"Each step forward has a sacred meaning of its own"   Sri Chinmoy

Marlborough Connection Permanent Audax -  December 2016

It's a while since I've set myself a year-long challenge so it was great to get to the end of this one - the RRtY - with conditions perfect for riding. I knew the only things that could get in the way of completing ride number 12 would be icy weather, bike trouble or illness/injury. Some of those had looked on the cards with a forecast of frost, my bike stuck in the bike shop for repairs while I sourced a part and a second debilitating virus keeping me off work. Fortunately the stars aligned in my favour as the bike got fixed cheaply, the forecast shifted to unseasonably mild and I got myself off the sofa and fit at least to ride my bike (only once, mind) before the big day.

Not wanting to tackle hills in darkness when very tired, I opted for an early start, so it was 6.01 when I rolled up to a cashpoint in Royal Wootton Bassett to record my start time with a receipt. Sunrise was scheduled for around 8.30 so I had plenty of night riding through the lanes around the Cotswold lakes (Somerford Keynes & Minety), roads familiar from my recent long rides, before I hit Cirencester. Here it was quiet despite being what I think of as "rush hour" (not much rushing going on in Cirencester on a Friday morning, clearly) and I negotiated several turns and filters with no cars to bother me. Ciren felt medieval - curving streets and old townhouses - but of course it's much older than that as I remembered when I came out of town on to the Whiteway, a Roman Road leading over some mercifully flat Cotswold countryside. I came into Calmsden remembering the last time I'd been here - 1990 when I lived in a trailer and had it parked up on a green lane just outside the village - nothing much seemed to have changed, still no sign of life at this time of day. Ancient stone houses loom over the lane from a high bank & apart from the electric lights it's totally timeless. Next I had a quick stop to get the answer to an info control then I carried on at a steady pace while the sun rose over the fields.

Some of the scenery was awesome - the route was on the quietest of lanes and apart from the odd "dig" here and there to get over a rise there was very little climbing. At one point a buzzard drifted slow and low over the road, passing straight over my head - seemed close enough to reach up and grab it's talons. I passed through Bibury - I remembered the name but didn't recall seeing the place before. There can't be many more beautiful corners of the Cotswolds. Eventually I came in to the first control, Bibury, with just over 50k behind me. There was an Artisan style cafe open so I grabbed a huge, buttery flapjack and pot of tea for around four quid - not Artisan prices! It was a good stop but I kept it brief and rode out into a hillier section of the route - the skies now properly lightening with a few patches of blue promising sunshine later - maybe. For the most part there was a screen of smokey grey cloud with a pale sun burning through for a while then fading as the cloud thickened. At least it wasn't that heavy, gloomy weather that I'd been expecting - the clouds had kept things mild overnight so there was no frost and now it was light enough to really appreciate the countryside.

The info control in Great Barrington proved a challenge - the card required me to get the number of "Kinch's" from the phonebox, but the phonebox was gutted out and there was only a decommissioning notice from BT on the wall and some farm machinery catalogues on a little table someone had put in there. I checked for several minutes in and around the box but there was nothing there. I stopped  a few metres further down the road at the parish notice board but nothing there. I took a selfy by the village sign and hoped that would do it, but I was a bit worried that I'd miss out on the RRtY by not doing one of the controls - that would be a shame on the 12th and final ride! A mile down the road it suddenly struck me that the number might have been in one of those catalogues so I rode back up the hill and read it from cover to cover, expecting to see an ad for "Kinch's" that gave me the answer. No joy. Well, having wasted 20 minutes on it I just decided the selfie would have to do and I headed back out, riding fast to make up time, towards Woodstock.

Control number 2 (well number 4 if you count the infos) was Smart's chippy in Woodstock - a great stop. Veggie burger and tea. After that I rode out in sunshine into a new area for me - a corner of Oxfordshire I'd never explored. After skirting round Blenheim Palace I found myself crossing a large, open valley then over the incongruous tollbridge before heading towards Lambourn & Marlborough. This was a long leg of the ride - 68k - and as I got on to the climb towards Lambourn and saw the 10% sign I began to run out of energy. I really slowed to a crawl. Once at the top of the climb and rolling down into Lambourn I felt OK but my legs were clearly shot and I needed more fuel. The next control was Hungerford so I decided to drag myself there and then have a proper stop. In Lambourn though I passed a bakery with outside tables that was clearly open - I rode past it but my hunger took over and I u-turned and went back - good decision! Hot chocolate and apple pie did the trick and I was in good spirits and riding well when I came out.

By now it felt like evening although it was only really early afternoon. I didn't hang around in Hungerford - they were getting ready for some kind of Christmas steam fair and town was rammed - but I did stop on a bench by the cashpoint long enough to eat a few bits and pieces from my seatpost bag. I only had 38k to go now and looking at my watch I thought there was a chance of doing the ride in under 11 hours which would have felt like a good achievement based on my build up (sick, off work, no riding - yet again!). I put those thoughts out of my mind as I headed out for the last leg, as I knew from the route profile that it was a long climb. This turned into the nicest part of the day - fading light but still not too dark to appreciate the lovely rolling downland. The quiet lane and the mystical landscape came at just the right time and I was riding through a dream for the last hour. A dramatic descent into the dusk came next, winding down from the downs to the plain, then before I knew it I was back in Wootton with 10.57 on the clock.

My first RRtY completed, against the backdrop of a year so strange for it's political upheavals and divisive rhetoric - feels like I've got in touch with my country on a deep level through these long rides that passed through so many different landscapes and traversed so many centuries of our shared history. With the new year approaching I'm glad to see the back of 2016 but also happy to have come to the end of a 2500k journey that meant a lot to me personally. Thanks for reading this and sharing in it!

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