London to the Isle of Wight pt 3

Day three: Thursday 15th September

59km, av. 15.1km, max 52.8km/hr, 3hr 53 mins (MapMyRide)

Today’s ride is meant to be more leisurely, but there’s still a time constraint – getting the ferry back to the mainland in time for a 4.15pm train from Portsmouth Harbour. Also, with no swimming action yesterday, I’m determined to do at least one sea swim, so my plan is to check out as many of the beaches as time allows.

I’m on the road just after 9am (after a big breakfast), and first stop is the beach at Colwell Bay. But the tide’s in and it’s actually pretty chilly, so I don’t hang around. It’s a similar picture just down the road at Totland Bay (well, duh!) so I cycle on, up a massively steep hill towards Alum Bay and the Needles. The attractions here aren’t yet open, so I pretty much have the place to myself. I get a great view of the Needles, and those famous multi-hued crumbling cliffs.

Remarkably, the cable-car that I remember from my childhood holiday is still there and hasn’t fallen into the sea yet. It looks tiny though! When I was 8, going on it was possibly the most exciting thing that had so far happened in my life.

From here I hit the Alum Bay Old Road towards Freshwater Beach. Although the temperature’s rising it still doesn’t look that inviting, so I pedal on. Now on the Military Road (presumably built to allow the military to get all their firepower to the Needles Battery), the next beach stop is Compton Bay. Although there are now people in the sea (mostly surfers) and kids building sandcastles on the beach, it’s not quite what I’m after. Onwards…

The hills are getting bigger and seem to go on for longer – cliff passes, basically – and fatigue is creeping in as the temperature rises. It’s time for music, mostly songs that I listened to on the Asia trip (Nobody’s Empire by Belle & Sebastian) as motivation and a reminder that this is nothing really. It’s not even that hot in comparison to Cambodia…

Getting to Blackgang and beyond is a bit of a slog, but eventually done. At Niton there’s a junction and a choice. The quicker route – the one I was planning to take – via the appropriately named Undercliff Drive – is marked as ‘Road Closed’. The longer route via Whitwell is, well, longer, so I decide to ignore the warnings – which explicitly include cyclists and pedestrians (“that’s unusual”, I think to myself) – and hope that whatever is closing the road isn’t making it completely impassable.

There’s a big downhill to get to the scene of the closure, which makes me even more adamant that I’m not turning back. Before this, I speak to a lady pushing a pushchair if she thinks I’ll be able to get through. She says she’s heard people are getting through on bikes but can’t guarantee it. At the closure – there’s been a huge landslide from the cliffs above, by the looks of it – there’s a big wooden door across the whole road, and metal railings around it. I explore on foot and it seems pretty obvious that you can push your bike round it. The place is deserted so I decide to go for it.

Without too much difficulty I get through, and feel instantly vindicated. I hop back on and start riding, thinking “that’s it, I’m through”.

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Around the corner, another fence and more signs. Although most of the houses here seem abandoned, there is a lady in the front garden of one house and she tells me there’s no way through. Bugger. She says people are getting through when there are people working on the road, but not when they’re not, like today. She says the landslide happened two years ago!

Not to be defeated, I again investigate on foot as she and her husband look on. It seems much more difficult to get through the second layer of fences, but not impossible. There’s a rough, steep, slippy path in some scrubby woods to one side and, carrying first bike, then coming back for the panniers, I just about manage to get through. Just.

Cycling on, with the road at my sole use, I feel relieved to have squeezed through, then slightly nervous that some bored cops might pull me over for trespassing – there were surely CCTV cameras, as well as curtain twitchers, watching me.

I’m soon in Ventnor though, and worry quickly fades because I’ve finally found my beach nirvana. Fish and chip shop? Check. Hot sunshine? Check. Sandy beach? Check. Cool, clear waters and gentle waves? Check.

After a huge fish & chip lunch on the beach, I jump straight in (probably not advisable, but time is tight) and have 10 mins in the refreshing waters. Then, with the clock ticking, I have to dry off, pack up and get a move on, making a beeline for Shanklin, where I can pick up the train to Ryde, since I don’t think I’ve got the time or energy to cycle there and make the 3.47pm boat.

Although there is a cycle route on this stretch, I guess that since it’s off-road it will take longer, so I stick to tarmac. This means I have to go up another huge hill before a great stretch of downhill where I break the 50km/hr mark – with helmet dangling on my wing-mirror… oops!

I roll into Shanklin and make the train with about 10 mins to spare. From here, it’s a ticket to Ryde (always wanted to say that) on what can only be described as 2 old London tube carriages cobbled together to form a train.

It’s a rickety ride to Ryde, but fun, and I’m glad to not be slogging the final few inland miles, which don’t look especially scenic. Instead, there’s time for an ice cream on the beach before hopping on the ferry and then the train back to London, just before the sunshine gives way to massive thunderstorms. Fortunate timing!

It’s been a fun, challenging three days, although perhaps a bit more time to explore and relax wouldn’t have gone a miss. Maybe next time…

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A blue and groggy looking promenade train

London to the Isle of Wight pt 2

Day Two: Wednesday 14th September

118km, av. 18.5km/hr, max 47.8, 6hr 24 mins (MapMyRide Part one / Part two)

Day two is harder and longer than expected, despite the early start. Skipping breakfast (I still have food left over from yesterday), I’m on the road by 7.30am, aware that I’ve made a plan to meet a friend in Portsmouth for lunch at 12.30pm. I have no idea whether the wind will be in my favour, or how easy route navigation will be, so I decide to set off early and maybe, just maybe, get there early. All I know is it should be pretty flat.

Things start well, with a massive downhill from the youth hostel down to the seafront. Then, for the first 20 km at least, the wind is definitely behind me, as I cruise along effortlessly (OK, smugly) at 25km/hr, while hordes of huffing and puffing commuter cyclists go past in the other direction. It’s Cycle to Work day, so I shouldn’t be surprised to see so many of them.

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I pass through Worthing and I’m flying. At this rate I’ll be there by 11am. As usual though, things deteriorate. A mixture of tiredness, hunger, lack of concentration, strong headwinds, and crap route-marking all seem to conspire against me for the rest of the way. I guess I coulda shoulda done some actual route planning, rather than assuming everything would be sign-posted. The problem is that I’m not sure what route I’m following, National Route 2 or the South Coast CycleWay. They seem pretty interchangeable to be honest, and the marking is massively hit and miss.

At one point, NCR2 points me into a sort of park-cum-school-playing-field, but then doesn’t tell me how to get out of it. And more than once I end up on the really busy and fast A259, with no path or hard-shoulder. I don’t mind riding on roads, but this is one I don’t feel safe on and instinctively want to escape from at the earliest opportunity.

A can of coke at Bognor Regis (ah, the glamour!) restores some energy and purpose, and from here it’s inland on quieter roads to Chichester, and then on the (now much quieter) A259 to Havant and, eventually, Portsmouth. I meet Tom at 12.45pm, so only 15 minutes late in the end.

For lunch we head to Southsea, which to me still feels like Portsmouth but I’m assured is most definitely not, to Pie and Vinyl. I’m really interested to see this place, and to eat a massive pie of course. Happily, as well as their own pies, they do Pieminister, so I order my old fave, the Heidi Pie. It’s a great little joint, with quirky decor and a well stocked vinyl shop, even if it does feel a little cramped.

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There’s just time for a (possibly ill-advised) lager shandy in the sunshine at the harbour, before saying farewell to Tom and heading straight onto the 3.15pm catamaran sailing to Ryde. The 22 minute crossing is smooth as you like, and on the other side memories of Bestival (endless queues, carrying my rucksack along that bloody long pier) come flooding back. This time though, I have the pleasure of cycling effortlessly along the wooden slats to dry land.

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My target for the afternoon is to cycle across the island and make it to the hostel for about 6pm, so that I can put in my order for food at 7. I take the main road towards the ‘capital’, Newport, where somehow I end up on what must be the only stretch of dual carriageway on the island. Nice one, Joe!

The main road across the island, the ‘Middle Road’, is surprisingly busy so, part by accident and part by design, I take a slightly quieter route to the north, which takes me to Yarmouth. It’s hilly, but mostly those fun undulating hills that you zoom down and then momentum takes you halfway up the other side.

There’s the occasional bit of cycle route too, this time NCR22, but again, it’s piecemeal and sometimes frustrating. There’s a stretch which takes me off the main road, then the signposts give up, it take me a couple of minutes to get back on track, and within a few hundred yards, the route’s taken me back onto the main road again! Thanks, NCR22.

The only interesting thing that happens is  meeting a fellow cyclist heading the other way who is in need of some air in his tyres. Amazingly, I have a pump (unused up until now since I still haven’t had a puncture on the Dawes) and I am able to be of use to someone. Hurrah for forward planning!

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Yarmouth is pretty, and I have a little rest at a sweet spot overlooking the sea, the boats of Lymington in the distance. From here there is a proper cycle route, on the disused railway line, which takes me very close to my final destination. This is a lovely little stretch, with calm creek waters to the right, the odd dog walker, and yet more blackberries to scoff.

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I roll into the YHA at Totland (this time well sign-posted and easily found) around 6.15pm, to a very warm reception from the housekeeper, and well in time for dinner. My fears of there being no room at the inn are unfounded – I’m the only person eating and I have the entire dorm room to myself.

This is more like it! Peace, solitude, and a bottle or two of Ale of Wight to end the day. Bliss.

Riding “Kathmandu’s M25”

Distance: no idea, maybe 40km? Average speed: pretty slow, maybe 10km/hr! Time on bike: all day (almost). Number of times lost: none.

When I heard I was going to get the chance to visit Kathmandu on a work trip, I got excited. Very excited. Nepal is a country I’ve always wanted to visit, and the possibility of a week living in a local village, learning more about their water and sanitation situation, sounded fantastic. But there was something else stirring in my mind… could I organise a day or two cycling in Kathmandu after the work trip?!

I don’t have time to research the idea properly (due to Glastonbury, and then Eigg) so I figure I’ll assess the possibility once out there. When I float the idea with one of our staff in Nepal he’s pretty lukewarm to say the least, saying it’s far too dangerous and a bad idea. Taking this advice on board, I research organised cycle tours, which will guide you on a day’s ride for about $90. This sounds steep for a cycle ride, and where’s the fun in being guided…?

It’s true, the traffic in Kathmandu is pretty crazy and very busy. There’s also the noise, fumes and dust that come with the territory. Not most people’s idea of fun I know, but as a cycling city, it doesn’t strike me as being any worse or more dangerous than Hanoi or Phnom Penh.

In common with those places, the traffic here moves relatively slowly, there are hardly any traffic lights/junctions, and few big lorries or buses. So the three things that make cycling dangerous in London – speed, traffic lights / hard junctions, and big vehicles – are all less of of an issue here. To my mind, it may actually be safer cycling in Kathmandu than London. Also, my free day is a Saturday, which means the roads are a bit less manic, and the weather isn’t too hot, so I decide to just go for it…

And I’m not alone. On the same day, more than 1,000 riders are taking on the Kathmandu Kora, a sponsored cycle ride around the city. I consider taking part myself, but the 7am start and the fact I still need to procure a bike make this sadly impractical. Instead, I follow roughly their route, but about two hours behind.

I hire a bike for 800 rupees, roughly $8, from a place in Thamel, and set off at about 9am, armed with the compass function, GPS, Google Maps and maps.me on my phone for navigation.

First stop: Patan Durbar Square in the south of the city. Taking a myriad of tiny back-streets, I manage to find this without too much problem, and encounter plenty of street markets and general hustle and bustle along the way. These little streets are full of people, bikes and motorbikes, so I blend in pretty seamlessly.

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My achilles heal is not having a bike bell, which renders me completely invisible in the sense that the horn or bell is how you make your presence known here. More than a couple of times I have to shout ‘beep beep’ instead!

Durbar Square is impressive but sadly not as impressive as it was pre-quake. There’s a lot of reconstruction work going on, but it’s still worth a visit. I decide to have breakfast (banana and honey pancakes) here, at a rooftop cafe overlooking the square. There are definitely worse places in the world to have breakfast.

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From here I head west to Kirtipur, crossing the Ring Road (their version of the M25, with 6 lanes of traffic and random cows sitting in the middle of it all) along the way. From now on, I’m navigating entirely by compass, leading me into taking all sorts of tiny little roads and muddy tracks. Fortunately, the mountain bike I’ve hired handles pretty much everything that I throw at it with ease. Hell, the brakes even work.

It’s a bit greener and rural around these parts, even though I’m still within sight of the city. Farming is the main activity, with fields growing mainly rice and tomatoes, although I do also cycle past some kind of brick factory.

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As was the case in SE Asia, I get a few quizzical looks from the locals, but it’s always with a sense of friendly bemusement rather than anything unpleasant.

At one point I stop at a junction and a group of local children who speak good English start talking to me. I cycle off but then the track fizzles out and I have to turn back, seeing the kids again. “Are you lost?” they enquire, giggling. “Not lost, just exploring” I tell them before taking the other track and hoping for the best..!

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From Kirtipur, I head north, cycling through countless little communities, all with similar shops, houses, kids running around, folks on scooters and dogs passed out on pavements. It’s so nice to be able to witness these scenes of daily life in such an inconspicuous, care-free way. Vive le velo. 

Eventually I hit the Prithvy Highway and ride back east towards the city on a long downhill, before hanging a left onto the Ring Road, north towards Swayambhunath Temple – aka the Monkey Temple.

I’ve already visited the temple on foot, so instead I cycle around the base, stopping off at another nearby temple, and also checking to see if the Natural History Museum is open (sadly not) before riding on, towards a region called Balaju.

Somewhere around here I spot a cafe promising, prominently in every window, ‘FREE WIFI’, so I decide to pull in, park the bike inside and order some lunch. I’ve not yet had the local speciality, momo, so I order a plate of veggie momo for just 85 rupees (less than a dollar). Essentially they’re similar to spring rolls, but really tasty and great for lunch. “Can I connect to the wifi?” I ask, while waiting for the food. “Wifi not working”. My Google Maps refresh will have to wait…

While eating lunch the ominous sound of heavy rain drumming on the tin roof starts, and doesn’t stop. I figure it’s not the worst place to get wet, given how warm it is, so decide to head out anyway. I’m headed for Balaju Park (not marked on Google Maps, luckily is on maps.me) but when I eventually find it I discover there’s a small entry fee and, given that it’s raining, I decide to give it a miss. Maybe a bad idea in retrospect, as there are precious few nice parks in Kathmandu as far as I can tell.

From here I head a bit further north before deciding that I’ve probably seen enough of the maze of hilly, pot-holed, muddy, back streets of the Kathmandu ‘burbs and decide to go back into town, on the Ring Road for a bit, before cutting west towards Boudhanath Stupa.

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The road to Boudhanath is perhaps the busiest and craziest I ride on, with hundreds of buses, cars and scotters trying to navigate through huge muddy lakes from the earlier rain. A friend said Boudhanath was peaceful – maybe I’ve got the wrong place. You also pass a tent settlement – a sobering reminder of the fact that many people are still homeless after the earthquake.

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The stupa itself is another victim of the quake and is being re-built, but it’s still an interesting place to visit. Here I spot a few mountain bikers – as muddy and bedraggled looking as I probably am – so I’m guessing they’ve taken part in the Kora event (the route ends here).

From here I head to one final temple, Shree Guhyeshwori, via a road which I’m going to name-check because the surface is so new and perfect (in comparison to almost every other road in Kathmandu). It’s called Tusal Marg and, going downhill, is amazing! Sadly, the big red building at this temple is now mostly reduced to rubble.

I don’t have time to go into the temple proper, but instead hang by the river and observe yet more manic monkeys terrorising people as they cross the bridge.

With one eye on the clock, and also the realisation that I have no real idea of how to find the place where I hired the bike from, I head back into Thamel. I cycle a few streets that look familiar and eventually find my man. Bike reunited with owner, that just leaves me to walk back to my hostel for a much-required shower.

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It’s funny, after a day spent in the saddle navigating these bumpy backstreets, walking suddenly feels pedestrian in comparison.

Bike near Beachy Head

Ambling around SE England, part 2

Day two: 62.3km, av. 15.3km/hr, max 49.2km/hr, time on bike: 4hrs 3 mins

The plan for day two is to take it easy, cycle to somewhere with a station and then head home. I debate heading deeper into the South Downs, towards Royal Tunbridge Wells or perhaps the High Weald AONB, but decide I’ve had enough of hills.

I think to myself that I’ll stick to the coast where it’s flat, and have an easy ride to Eastbourne. Unfortunately there’s the small matter of the South Downs where they turn into the huge cliffs at Seaford Head and Beachy Head to content with.

Once the morning rain eases, I head out of the YHA and head south towards Newhaven, via a field full of sheep and a path covered in sheep shit. Bike and, to a lesser extent, rider, are both covered in the stuff by the time I escape their enclosure.

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There’s not much to see at Newhaven, so I head east – and into a strong headwind – toward Eastbourne, on NCN Route 2 . It’s not brilliantly marked but I do eventually manage to find the remains of Turnmills, a small village built around a tidal mill and evacuated in the 1930s after one too many flood. I also come across a bizarre road which ends with a roundabout and two roads to nowhere. Maybe the money ran out.

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From here it’s on to Seaford, passing one of the Martello towers along the way. It’s unfortunately closed today. After admiring the spectacular cliff view, I head inland, following Route 2, but at a junction which is missing a marker, I decide to take a right, and end up at the top of the cliff, Seaford Head, and find myself cycling around a golf course / nature reserve! Exploring on foot, I come across a small wooded area / cubby hole with a path leading into it, so have a look. Inside I spot about 5 or 6 empty packets of codeine + paracetamol . Not a great thing to take when you’re next to 100ft cliffs. Hope the person didn’t jump.

Speeding back downhill, I pick up the route again, which then sends me cycling through more fields full of sheep. This is pretty off-road stuff that a road bike might struggle with, but I just about manage it on my tourer. It’s great fun though, and the views are pretty great too as you head down towards the Cuckmere River.

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After crossing the river I again must have missed a routemarker as I find myself going uphill on the busy-ish A259, not a massively fun experience. At Friston I spot a chance to take a right and head towards Beachy Head, so take it. Immediately back on quiet roads and countryside, and the clouds start to lift. Beachy Head is spectacular, and spectacularly accessible. I don’t quite realise how close to the edge of the cliff I got (for a photo, obvs) until thinking about it after. Anyway, it’s a great spot for lunch.

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From here, there’s more up, until eventually there is no more up, and it’s all downhill towards Eastbourne. By the time I’ve got there the skies have cleared and it’s positively beach weather. I celebrate with some fish and chips (eaten indoors, to avoid the seagull attacks), where I bump into the OAP guy from the hostel last night. He’s on a motorbike, and despite leaving the hostel later than me, arrived at Beachy Head much earlier, when it was still covered in thick cloud and drizzle. My timing, it turns out, was impeccable.

I then have a wander around the pier (there’s literally nothing to see) and a bit of a sunbathe on the beach. It’s even warm enough (just) to dip a toe in the sea.

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It’s now decision time. Do I spend another hour or two chillaxing with all the oldies in Eastbourne, taking care not to be hit by a mobility scooter and maybe checking out the model railway village(!) Or do I cycle on to the next place of note, Bexhill, where I can check out the De La Warr Pavllion if I get there before 6. I decide to go for it. Into the headwind, again… Why Joe, Why?

The ride isn’t that great, mainly because I lose Route 2 somewhere along the way, and end up on the now massively busy, super-fast A259 instead of the no-doubt lovely Herbrand Walk route. And, truth be told, the Pavilion is a bit disappointing. I’ve seen it before, and think I was disappointed last time, too. At least I made it in time before it closed for the day.

And with that, the day is done and I hop on the train back to the Big Smoke. An enjoyable couple of days although I probably shoulda stopped in Eastbourne. Sometimes you can cycle too much!

 

Dead wood forming natural sculpture among flowers

Ambling around SE England, part 1

Day one: 124.5km, av. 17.4km/hr, max 45.9 km/hr, calories 1668, co2 saved 18.6, time on bike: 7hrs 7 mins  (a new record!)

With the sun shining and an unexpected few days off work and in the UK (plans to cycle in Germany as part of the ride to Ende Gelande didn’t quite come off) I decide instead to ride for a couple of days in SE England, staying over night at a youth hostel for the first time. I’m no youth but I’m reliably informed that doesn’t matter any more, and at £13 a night (£10 for members) you can’t really argue.

I set off relatively early (for me) at around 10.30am in glorious sunshine on my now usual route out of South London, although this time going via Sydenham Hill station (Fountain Drive) to get to Crystal Palace, which is a much nicer route and makes me wonder why I haven’t done it before – it also avoids the absolutely killer steep bit directly up Sydenham Hill Road.

After Croydon and Purley I take a right and head towards Banstead. Somewhere near Epsom I end up cycling right through the racecourse, which is kind of odd, and then through some woods along a bumpy, steep uphill dirt track which is part of the national cycle network (Route  22) but would surely be impassable in winter. Fun though!

Eventually I get beyond the M25, though this time  via a dark little tunnel going under, rather than a euphoric downhill woosh going over. Beggars can’t be choosers; it’s still great to escape London’s clutches.

Suddenly, I’m in the Surrey Hills and find myself back on Leith Hill, for want of taking the quieter route. I stop for lunch part 1 (split lunch into two halves for double the enjoyment) at the top, in woods, sitting on a log as the birds sing around me and the sunshine peaks through. It’s lush. As is the downhill…

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Back on the main roads, I dick-up near Dorking, riding about an extra 5km for no good reason. Back on track, I suddenly find myself again in glorious countryside, heading towards Coldharbour. Whizzing downhill, ringing my bell thrilled at how amazing it is to be cycling here in such beautiful, green surrounding, I (stupidly) get my phone out to take a photo and somehow capture the moment (you can’t, silly!)

At this point, with only one hand on the bars, I hit some kind of pothole and nearly – oh so nearly – come off. I pull on the brakes instinctively, skid a little, and head towards the verge, but somehow stay upright. I breathe a huge sigh of relief and begin to think just how much damage I might have just done to myself had I come off at 35km/hr, which is probably what I was doing. And of course while I packed a tool kit in case the bike needs any patching up, I didn’t pack anything to patch myself up…

Lesson well and truly learnt.

Finally, and a little later than planned, I hit the Downs Link in the village of Rudgwick. The link is a cycle track on an old railway line down to Shoreham, shut after the infamous Beeching report in the 1960s. The guy rightly gets a lot of stick, but at least on the plus side we now have a legacy of green corridors for wildlife and cyclists, walkers, and horse riders.

The first thing I come across is the crazy double bridge, which also makes a great lunch (part 2) stop. They built one bridge but then realised it was too low, making the gradient too steep for trains to get to the nearby station, so they built a second bridge on top of it. Genius. Nearby there’s a beautiful glade and nature’s own sculpture…

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From here on the ride is enjoyable, although the surface is a bit tricky at times (you couldn’t do it on a road bike), and I do start to yearn for a bit of tarmac. Or just a track you can ride on without shaking all of your bones. It’s also sometimes a bit weird being stuck in a green corridor without much of a view – although it would be amazing in summer if you need shade. By now, it’s clouded over and there’s even a few spots of rain when I stop at the abandoned station of West Grinstead, so it’s actually quite gloomy cycling under the canopy.

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Somewhere near West Grinstead, my phone (and with it MapMyRide) dies, and it’s around here that I accidentally lose the Downs Link route as it passes through a housing estate. But this is no bad thing as I need to get to a place called Southease (love that name!) in time for dinner at 7pm, so it’s time to get back onto the roads.

I end up on the A281 heading through / over the South Downs, near to Devil’s Dyke, passing the 100km mark as I do. I won’t lie, it’s hard work, but I push on through, and then enjoy the long descent into Brighton.

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There’s no time to enjoy any of the attractions in Brighton though, and I ride on, via the coastal path that I last cycled on in December, with the waves crashing over the sea wall. There’s no such drama this time, but it’s still great to be beside the sea, after a day spent cycling in the countryside. Eventually, Google Maps tells me to take a bridleway for the last bit of the route.

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The bridleway is basically grass, uphill, through a huge field. Completely nuts but good fun. It eventually returns me to a road, and there’s a final bit of downhill joy before I eventually hit the Youth Hostel at Southease. It’s in an old farm building and has real character. I’m just in time for dinner (no time for a shower first) so I literally sit down and then eat. Lots. It’s pizza and I have to say I temporarily put any pretence of being vegan or even veggie aside as I pig out.

Apart from post a load of pics to Instagram, and chat to the two guys I have dinner with (one a retired guy riding a motorbike, the other a young Lithuanian carpenter staying overnight between jobs), there’s not too much to do other than go to sleep. I’m in bed by 11, tired but glad to have cycled further in one day than I ever have before!

To Windsor with London Bike & Beer

96.7km, av. 19.1km/hr, max 47.2km/hr, CO2 offset 14.5kg, time bicyclating: 5hrs 2 mins

Sunday 13 March is a glorious, sunny day, but still really quite cold. London Bike & Beer group have organised a ride to Windsor and, although I’ve been to a gig on Saturday night and getting out of bed so early on a Sunday is a struggle, I’m glad I did.

I cycle on my own to Richmond Park – having done it a couple of times now I almost don’t need to check the map – but I am rather late and get the feeling they may have already left. I kind of dawdle around the cafe for a while, considering my options (maybe a few laps around the Park and then a relaxing ride back to SE London) when I spot Sophie, who’s organising this ride and who I know from previous events. It turns out I’ve been stood right next to the LB&B lot, I just don’t recognise any of them, since they’re pretty much all different to the people I cycled to Box Hill with.

These guys have been here for a while so as soon as I’ve found them, we’re off. This time the pace is more manageable, in the Park at least, and it’s quite a big group (maybe 18 of us at the beginning), so I don’t have the same worries about keeping up.

We also manage to go the whole day without any serious mechanical faults or even punctures slowing us down, which is a rarity on rides like this. And we have a nice easterly wind pushing us westward most of the time. There are still the long stops at shops and service stations for people to use the toilets, get a coffee and roll a cig. We also spend a good 15 minutes trying to figure out where a girl who got left behind after stopping to take photos of some ducks is, and whether she can catch us up. She never does, but we do later see her in Windsor.

I’m not entirely sure about the route we take, as it’s definitely not direct. It starts off similar to the Box Hill ride, passing Hampton Court Palace, and then through Walton on Thames and on towards Chertsey and, eventually, Chobham Common, where the landscape opens up. On a grassy spot by the road we take an impromptu lunch break, as some of the group are feeling the effects of the hills – which haven’t been massive but if you’re on a bike with only 3 or 5 (or no) gears, I guess they’re gonna be hard work. We also lose a couple of riders who turned up on mountain bikes and are finding the pace and/or the distance a challenge.

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At one point we cycle past the same junction for a second time; I’m thinking either it’s a weird case of deja-vu or I’m going slightly mad, but apparently it’s all part of the plan. By this point Sophie has dropped out as she’s finding it tough going, which means we’re back in the hands of speedy Sam, who’s super-fit and has a snazzy road bike, which makes him super speedy. He and some other road-bikers tend to cycle off ahead then wait at junctions or turnings for everyone else to catch up. It’s kinda weird, and also means for the slower peeps trying to keep up, they never really get to rest and always feel like they’re holding everyone else back, which is why people tend to drop out, I think.

I like the idea of riding in a group, but the question of pace is always asked by people in advance of the rides, and the same response is always given – “we don’t go that fast and we’ll always make sure we never leave anyone behind”. The second part is true, but I definitely think there’s a case for organising separate rides for the speedy road-bike crew, and ‘leisure’ rides for people who enjoy cycling, just not that fast.

Maybe it’s me, but there’s also a strange lack of camaraderie on these rides. Sam’s a great navigator but maybe not such a great communicator, and people don’t really talk to each other that much. I guess the truth is, compared to the London to Paris ride, I just haven’t found ‘my people’ yet on these other rides – maybe I should organise one (or just go off on a long ride by myself for a change).

Riding through Windsor Great Park is good fun though. The view from the top of the hill down the Long Walk towards Windor Castle is pretty cool, and yep, we also see lots of deer. There’s a ridiculous moment when a park ranger asks us to split into two smaller groups – max 6 riders per group – because other park users can find cyclists “intimidating” (but Toad of Toad Hall, sorry, Prince Andrew, ramming the park gates in his Land Rover, that’s just fine).

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We end the ride in Windsor and at this point I peel off on my own. I think it was the hanging around outside all the different food places with everyone trying to group-decide where to go, while starving, that prompted me to abandon them! I get some soup and bread from Eat and then head off for a little ride around town (not much to see, just some posh bird’s Castle), then onto Eton, where the whiff of privilege is pretty pungent. It’s ridiculous that this little anachronistic enclave continues to have such a strong impact on my life thanks to Cameron, Boris and the Royal Family.

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I cycle to Datchet station, via yet another crossing of the Thames (must be about the 6th of the day!) to pick up the direct train back to Waterloo – the easterly wind means I’m in no mood to cycle back west into London. Despite having my gloves on all day (that’ll be that cold easterly wind again), when I get home I realise my nose is sunburnt. In March.

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The Gatwick Gusher

95km, av 15.2km, max 43.8km, CO2 offset 14.3kg, time riding: 6hrs 15mins

At a really great Time to Cycle debrief event in mid-Feb there’s lots of discussion about what comes next. There’s general agreement that a ride to Germany will take place, as part of the Break Free 2016 actions in May. There’s talk of a ride to Wales too. But, in the more immediate future, it turns out there’s a new attempt to extract fossil fuels happening right here, almost on our doorstep south of London.

The discovery of oil in the Horley area close to Gatwick Airport is not something many people know about. But it’s real, and its extraction could start to happen on a large scale if UK Oil and Gas (UKOG) have their way.

By all accounts, UKOG appear to be a pretty gross company, with a history of exaggerating their oil discoveries. They use the shabby defence of “helping secure UK energy supply”, but in fact they’re just very excited about the prospect of making a select few people even richer, with no mention of climate change, local pollution to water courses and the air, or what happens when all this oil is extracted. They also talk of creating jobs – but how many exactly (a handful), and certainly not for the local people who will be most affected by the extraction.

He’s blocked me on Twitter now, but David Lenigas’ tweets where he pretends to be J.R. Ewing were tragically pathetic. You can get a taste of the ‘excitement’ by following the #GatwickGusher hashtag – but be warned, you may want to do a little bit of sick afterwards.

So, on Sat 20 Feb a small group of cyclists (there are about 7 of us) get off to an early start and ride to Horley. I cycle solo from New Cross to Croydon, where – by the power of Glympse – I meet the rest of them (including a lovely woman who runs the End Ecocide campaign in the UK), and get a flag for my bike.

The route is similar to the first day of London to Paris; once again there’s the enjoyment of escaping the clutches of London into the fresh air (and steep hill) of Farthing or Fairdean Downs, flags blowing brightly in the breeze, and then the brilliant downhill stretch where you cross the M25 and are officially outside Greater London!

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When we get to Horley, we meet another group of cyclists who have made the journey up from Brighton (including Duncan with his soundsystem). There’s also a group of people who have come up from Brighton on a specially chartered bus, powered by vegetable oil (obviously).

Our meeting point just happens to be the same place as where UKIP have got a stand for the day (the EU Referendum date has just been announced) and there are some comical scenes as some of the activists we meet there engage in lively discussion with the Kippers, whose energy policy seems to be essentially “let’s develop more of our own fossil fuel supplies so we don’t have to rely on those untrustworthy Arabs”. Actually, after talking to them it turns out they may oppose the Horley project if it’s going to mean a lot of extra HGV traffic in the area (er, it will). So they may be a useful ally yet…

Once everyone’s ready we cycle around the town in a loop, handing out flyers for a public meeting which will be held in the town the following Sunday. You can read about what was said at the meeting here. A couple of people refuse to take the flyer, saying “I’m in favour”. That’s fine too – it’s a public meeting with all views welcome, for and against. Lots of people do take the flyers though, and most seem unaware that their town could soon be the epicentre of a new oil rush!

Once all the flyers are gone we ride up to the drilling site, a couple of km out of town, at a place called Horse Hill. We have our very own police escort – aren’t we lucky! Here we meet a big group of local activists who have set up camp and have been monitoring what’s been going on over the last few months, including slow walking in front of lorries as they deliver chemicals to the site, so the exact nature of the chemicals (which will be poured into the ground) can be recorded. What these guys are doing is hugely impressive, compared to us ‘activism day-trippers’, but I guess it all helps.

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We walk / slow ride up to the site, some people carrying a ‘red lines’ piece of fabric from the December protests. Horse Hill should be another red line – we need to keep this oil in the ground and fast-track the alternative technologies, rather than develop yet another fossil fuel resource which will just allow us to continue our dependance, like a junkie searching for that next oil-rush hit. We need to go cold turkey.

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When I talk about this on Twitter with some of the bullish (bullshitter?) investors who are getting all excited about Horse Hill, they say – ah, but your cycle helmet, what’s that made out of? (as if I’d never considered this – damn, you got me there guys!) Yes, we are going to need plastic for a while to come, unfortunately, but I’d love us collectively to reduce our usage of and reliance on plastic. The way it takes thousands of years to degrade, the pollution of our oceans with all kinds of plastics, from carrier bags to micro-beads – is that meant to be a good thing?  Especially when alternative materials are available.

At the site, we hear speeches from local activists and our very own Duncan, as the police stand by, and are actually very accommodating – even though there’s a ridiculous number of them. Do they really think we might storm the drilling site?! A local activist tells of getting sick from simply visiting the site regularly, and talks about the pollution of local rivers. Something you don’t hear UKOG talking about in their upbeat assessments of the site. Watch a short film of the action here.

After this part of the day is over, we have some soup to warm up and then we’re encouraged to go and take a look at the drilling site. It’s a couple of hundred metres back from the main road, and is surrounded by a large fence. A short way up a very muddy path there’s a small tree with an overhanging branch which provides about the only vantage point. From here you can see the site; a drilling rig, lots of concrete, and lots of plastic containers – who knows what’s in them.

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Having done what we set out to do, we head back into town to warm up and get some food in a local pub, before attempting the return journey. Fortunately, we have the wind behind us on the way home. It’s just Maria and I by this point, and we make really good progress, attempting a slightly different route back to London, via Reigate Hill and a fantastic downhill stretch (well lit, surface to die for!) on Portnalls Road all the way down to Coulsden. Then it’s back onto the Brighton Road and Purley Way. We go our separate ways at Croydon, leaving me to cycle the last few miles alone with my huge flag still sailing in the wind; I feel a little self-conscious but also by this point I’m too tired to really care.

It’s been a good day of cycling and activism. Given this government’s keenness to support new fossil fuel extraction, while reducing support for renewables, I’m not confident that the oil will be left in the ground in Surrey, unless local people and climate activists working together can put up a really strong fight.