Saturday 18 December 2004

A Journey to the turning of the year

Have you ever considered how nice it must be to live in Iceland? I mean, apart from the spectacular scenery and the friendly people. Just think, if I lived in Iceland I could have lounged in bed this morning. I could have slept in till the back of eleven, got up, had a leisurely breakfast, cycled round the block, and come home for a well earned bath in free geothermal hot water with the satisfaction of something significant achieved.

Unfortunately I don't.

I mean, the idea of cycling from sunrise until sunset is the sort of thing which sounds like a cool idea in the balmy days of September. It was a cool idea. Indeed, in parts, it was a shockingly cold idea, but I get ahead of myself. Back in September I had the idea of cycling from sunrise to sunset, and if you're going to cycle from sunrise to sunset the sensible time to do it is on the shortest day of the year. OK, so today wasn't quite the shortest day of the year, but let's not sweat the small stuff.

It wasn't my intention to do this on my own. Indeed, having announced it to my club back in September, I sent an email to the club's mailing list last week:

I'm looking for some very, very stupid people.

I'm looking for some very stupid people because, primarily, I'm even more stupid myself: I'm planning to go for a bike ride on Saturday. From the moment the sun comes up, to the moment the sun  sets. That's 8.43 am to 3.41 pm. It is going to be cold. It is going to be tough. It is going to be a long day. If you're really, really stupid, please come with me...

Surprisingly, I had a volunteer. Unsurprisingly, it wasn't for the whole distance. So when I arrived at the appointed meeting place in Castle Douglas at half past eight this morning I wasn't hugely surprised to find nobody there. I waited around for ten minutes in the cold and the rain, and then, knowing no-one else was coming, set off.

It was fairly light and growing lighter fast, which was just as well because within half a mile my headlight fell off and smashed (it was a cheap old one, so no huge loss - I hadn't taken my lumicycles on the grounds of weight). Within two miles the rain had cleared, and I was cycling along at a nice easy pace, crossing the Dee for the first time at Glenlochar. By Laurieston I was warmed up enough to stop and swap my big padded winter gloves for track mits. Down the shores of Woodhall it was a really beautiful morning, and just past Mossdale there was the most superb complete rainbow, spanning the landscape from horizon to horizon. Of course, a rainbow meant another shower, but once again it was light, thin, not very wetting, and soon past. And at fourteen miles out along the shore of Loch Ken I met Chris coming the other way to meet me.

This was a slightly mixed blessing. He was extremely good company, and we enjoyed pleasant conversation, but he was also significantly quicker than me up hill - and, indeed, the steeper the climb the greater the difference. I plead in mitigation that he had sensible hill-climbing gears on his bike, and I, errm, didn't.  But despite the fact that the route took us from below the 50 metre contour to above the 250 metre, the climb is on the whole gradual - with a few short, sharp shocks. At New Galloway we went straight on out by the kirk for the first of those short, sharp shocks, and thence up the west side of the river to the Earlstoun Loch dam for the second. The high hills were white with snow - the whole ridge of the Rhinns of Kells looked properly arctic, and the Cairnsmore of Carsphairn was a great white spike pointed at the sky. And thus to the long, slow, gruelling climb up to Carsphairn. But we reached Carsphairn much earlier than I had expected, and went straight on through, heading for what had been my personal goal - the Green Well of Scotland, allegedly the last place in Britain where pagan religion was openly practised, as late as the eighteenth century. We got there, and were going well, and were still ahead of schedule, so we headed on up towards the watershed. By now there was a little bit of snow down to the roadside - not a lot, but enough to make it bitterly cold. And by about 11:30 we got to the point where we were clicking up onto our big rings as the climb levelled out.

At the Ayrshire border we turned and blasted back down towards Carsphairn. Climbing, we'd had a north wind against us which hadn't felt strong enough to be much nuisance, but now with both wind and gradient helping we made exceedingly good speed, and were down into Carsphairn again about twelve. Carsphairn is not, let's face it, the world's most bustling metropolis, but it does boast a bar with a large sign inscribed 'meals served all day'. The sign lies. Fortunately - and remarkably for a place so small  - Carsphairn also boasts a tiny shop, which sold us rolls and polystyrene beakers of instant soup. We drank these sitting on a bench at the roadside; but we didn't sit for long, because if cycling in these conditions was cold, just sitting was colder.

Heading south we took the Moniaive road down the East bank of the river. The weather was getting decidedly colder, and Chris stopped to put his warmer gloves on. This struck me as a good idea, and I put mine on, too. Shortly we came to the junction where the Dalry road splits off, and Chris had planned to go home down this. I had sort of planned to cross the watershed down to Lochinvar and thus down the Urr, but neither of us were particularly keen to be cycling alone on those lonely upland roads, so I turned right with Chris.

And within a couple of miles we got a sharp lesson on why it's not clever to cycle them alone. The High Bridge of Ken is a narrow stone bridge, about three metres wide between its high stone parapets, and about fifty metres long. It sits at the bottom of a steep-sided east-west glen, with a sharp turn onto it and a sharp turn off it. Steep sided glen, high parapets, very cold day: you're ahead of me, aren't you? At the same time, face with a nice swoopy descent onto the bridge and a nice tight turn off it, what would you have done?

It was just as I cranked the bike over into the turn off the bridge at about twenty five miles an hour that both tyres let go, suddenly, together, and I had that awful moment of knowing.

Oh, shit, this is going to hurt - a lot.

Curiously, it helped that I was cranking into the bend. The back wheel tried to overtake the front, spinning the bike around to about 45 degrees to its direction of travel, and long after I thought I was at the point of no return got enough grip to bring me back towards upright. I steered into the skid and got the bike under control again, but for the next several miles I felt decidedly shaky and took it a lot slower. Which was a shame because we were dropping down through a series of deliciously swoopy back roads towards Ealstoun.

On one of these - which would have been a stiffish climb the other way - Chris stopped to show me a little roadside memorial, nicely kept with flowers:

'In memory of Johnny Stirling, who died here while cycling   in Bonny Galloway'

Looking at the hill, one could see how one might; but looking out over the glen with the lochs in the bottom and the high snow covered hills on the far side, it felt as though it would not be a bad way - or a bad place - to go.

And thus down to Earlstoun, and into St John's Town of Dalry, and to Chris's house, where I stopped for coffee. I left at three o'clock, and considered my onward route. It's 14 miles down the A713 into Castle Douglas, and I had been averaging 12 miles per hour. I was due to finish at 3:41. Chris advised me against riding down the A713 on the basis that it's busy; but busy is relative and busy by Galloway standards is not busy as understood elsewhere, and by Galloway standards the A 713 down Loch Ken is relatively flat. Also, I had come up the west side of Loch Ken, so going back down the west side didn't feel particularly interesting. So I started off down the A713 thinking I might cut across the watershed into the Urr valley later. However, when I reached the junction at Balmaclellan, it said Corsock 9 miles, and I knew those were nine pretty hilly miles. I didn't feel like it. I cycled on down Loch Ken, past the sailing centre, past the viaduct, through Parton, down through Crossmichael.

By now I was into the home stretch, with only a few miles to go. But I was also feeling it. There were a couple of little detours I could make to add a few miles to the route and get me closer to the magic 3:41, but I didn't take them partly because my legs didn't want to and partly because, as my speed was dropping off, it was beginning to look as if I wouldn't need to. At some point - way later than I should have - I realised I was just running out of blood sugar to burn, and stopped to switch on my lights and get a cereal bar out of my bag.

There's a state you get into (or at least, I get into) where you are just cycling, not doing anything else. I remember watching the trip click up to 63.59 miles, expecting it to change to 64.00 and being completely bewildered when it instead went to 63.60 and then to 63.61; I was so chilled and tired I was confusing miles with minutes. But miles and minutes both rolled on and very soon I was passing under the bypass, onto urban streets, track-standing in the congested traffic of King Street as motorists jostled for parking spaces, getting off the bike stumbling tired and practically staggering into the bike shop, to be greeted with hot sweet tea and a compulsory mince pie and scone. Which were most welcome.

OK, so I finished all of eight minutes early. So sue me. Total distance, just over 65 miles by my computer, or, in morale-boosting metric speak, 104 Km. Total time actually cycling, about six hours. And, despite my whingeing, I enjoyed it, and I'm glad I did it.

And thus back home to a bath with water heated with very expensive oil. I suppose I'd better get on the phone to the Icelandic consulate and talk to them about emigration...

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