It’s mid-March, winter time in England and obviously the first thing that springs to mind, when the mercury finally nudges above zero, is… let’s go camping!
So, with this in mind, this weekend I packed up my tent and gamely popped my MTB cherry gaining 2 new experiences in one hit… cycle touring on a Mountain Bike and cycle touring in the UK.
Admittedly I was dubious about the idea of touring off-road. Not helped by the amount of fiddling and cursing it took to fit a pannier rack to Charlie the mountain bike who sported a distinct lack of fixings for luggage holders. This should have given me a clue.
In the end however I’d opted for one mounted to the seat post rack, with struts that clamped to the frame giving extra support over the rough terrain. I can’t say I trusted it (mostly because of my fixing skills) but not only did it survive, it worked brilliantly.
The vague (and map-less) plan regarding the route, was to start by rolling off the wonderful chain ferry at Sandbanks, home to the rich and infamous and which has the odd distinction of being the 3rd most expensive area of real estate in the world? It’s not that nice! And from there to navigate some of Dorset’s most spectacular South West Coast Path to the point where either time or energy ran short.
This Jurassic coastline (designated a UNESCO World Heritage site) is wildly popular with both serious walkers and game day trippers but it’s not something most people bike down for several reasons.
Some sections are limited solely to hikers whilst other stretches are either crumbling cliff top, or vertiginous muddy inclines/descents that look like they require crampons and ropes to ascend.
Both my cycle buddy for the trip and I had walked various sections, admittedly some time ago and figured it would “probably be ‘do-able’ by bike”, with the contingency of taking detours via tarmac if necessary.
Day one was certainly a baptism of fire. It’s been a while since I’ve ridden a bike loaded up with panniers and camping gear, let alone over rough, steeply hilled terrain which included boulders, grass, mud and hundreds of steps. The coast path itself was spectacular, even if the ocean crashing and roaring hundreds of feet below was just a mere few inches at points from my left hand side as the crumbling path veered between ridgeline and cliff edge.
The path was also bisected every mile or so by stiles or narrow kissing-gates, wonderful for walkers but not for getting fully loaded bikes through. My companion suffered the brunt of this one, being the only one strong enough to life the bikes over these obstacles whilst I provided the all important verbal encouragement!
Towns and villages behind us, we slipped and slid down the final steep drop of the day to a deserted beach to find one of the most amazingly beautiful wild camping spots. A flat grassy area above the quiet cove provided a view of seals playing, thousands of fossils lying pressed into the rocks and a sunset to melt most hearts. After supper cooked alfresco under the stars my tired muscles were lulled to sleep by the sound of the waves.
The next morning brought a freezing and brief wash in a rock pool before resuming the long climb out from the beach.
The decision not to take a map was becoming an inconvenience especially after taking a few more detours than desired. One such happened after pushing the bikes to the top of a tough hill when we mistakenly begun following a sheep track instead of the coast path. After toiling through grass and against headwinds we arrived 30 minutes later at the same summit having completely missed the (rather obvious now) gate right beside us.
Farm tracks and metalled road now cut out some of the steeper coastal sections followed by some exhilarating downhill technical riding on rocky, rutted trails and pathways to the pretty coastal village of Lulworth. Hoping to stock up on food here we ran into the classic out-of-season- British holiday-resort torpor. Everything was closed. No shops, nothing except a small café and a few hardy concessions selling ice cream and souvenirs. With the light fading and unsure about the viability of cycling the next section we headed for a (fortunately open) campsite.
Being the only campers was a novelty. What was not however was the incessant, riotous screeching of hundreds of resident crows.
Interestingly the collective noun for these anarchic birds is a ‘Murder’. A murder of crows was also the perfect reflection of my thoughts concerning the new neighbours.
Tiredness still meant a good night’s sleep however, despite the plummeting temperatures and wind chill to near zero degrees. Day three, the final day dawned refreshed and ready to go, fuelled by cocoa and a banana, biscuit and chocolate bar sandwich (on wholewheat bread of course).
Then ten minutes into the ride things began to go (metaphorically) downhill fast.
Passing by Durdle Door, a beautiful natural stone arch in the ocean, my vague memories were of some steep, tough terrain here. For once I’d under-remembered. The path turned in to a looming cliff, which walkers were tackling with poles, some on all fours. The sensible thing of course would be to turn back and take the road route.
Did we do that….? No, we kept going. Pushing a fully loaded bike up a near vertical 130 metre incline is not a sensible idea, especially when the path is a few feet away from a sheer, unprotected cliff edge. A third of the way up I became stuck. I physically couldn’t move the bike which was almost on end with the gradient. Turning round wasn’t an option either unless I let the bike fall to the base of the hill, so near the cliff face it was likely to plunge over. My fear of heights was also freezing me to the spot.
Luckily a kindly hiker spotted me and heroically helped push the bike to the summit, my poor companion having just about dragged his there.
Resting and recovering at the top, we both agreed, with further, similar hills down the trail it was time to hunt out some flatter ground. Heading inland away from the coast, it was with some relief on my part when we found the tarmac and started our long roll home – via the pub of course!
In reflective mode, what I loved about touring on a mountain bike was the freedom. It was liberating to make your own routes and ones not dictated by paved roads. It enabled access to wild camping spots which only hikers usually reach and offered some spectacular, traffic-free scenery.
Admittedly the choice of route, whilst beautiful, was not entirely thought through and tough going to the point of insanity, even for someone who likes mixed terrain.
But in all honesty, I confess I’m a roadie at heart. For me too, touring is about being able to find a rhythm, a grace and a flow, much easier on a smooth surface. Whilst I enjoy mountain biking, it’s more for the technical aspect as well as the ability to ride over large rocks, something that’s curbed by being loaded, even minimally, with panniers.
I also like covering distances, this 3 day trip taking a scant 60 miles, my minimum daily average when on my road hybrid.
As for cycle touring itself though, in any form, it remains one of my favourite ways to spend my time, being out in the open, the freedom and simplicity of travel and that feeling of total satisfaction in a journey completed under your own resources.
So happy pedalling all and roll on summer!