The Ridgeway Trail

Report by Doug Driscoll

It has long been an ambition of mine to ride the full length of The Ridgeway Trail – 87-miles from Avebury to Ivinghoe Beacon.  I’ve seen a few organised events come up over the years, but they all focus on the Avebury to Goring section (half way) - because this is the only bit you can actually ride!

Sadly the local officials at the Invinghoe end decided it would be far too dangerous to allow cyclists along the trail and banned them about 10 years ago. It’s still Bridleway for the first 10-miles or so, but CYCLISTS ARE NO LONGER WELCOME. So a nice 45-mile stretch of Ridgeway is now overgrown and only sees the occasional man walking his dog or the odd runner.

Fortunately I had a cunning plan: If I were to leave from Ivinghoe Beacon at sunrise (6:00am) I could sneak along the first 20-miles or so before anybody noticed.

All I needed next was a companion … So allow me to introduce my daughter Suzannah. We have had more crazy adventures on our MTB tandem than I can recall here – including riding to the top of Snowdon, the full 100-mile South Downs Way trail and some challenging 100-mile Sportives. So the Ridgeway trail; as Jeremy Clarkson would say: “How hard can it be?”

I had a free weekend at the end of Aug 2011 and decided with just a few days remaining what a wonderful idea this would be. However, the weather forecast looked bad, we had had several days of heavy rain and I was just getting back in the saddle after several months off with a twisted spine. But Suzannah would have none of it.

Next: some bribery and sweet talking to my dearest wife and we had a drop off arranged. I originally planned to cycle to Swindon at the end and take a train home (more later). This idea was fraught with risk because tandems aren’t really allowed on trains. All depends on whether the station master is having a bad day or not! So I packed a couple of cable locks just incase he was having a bad day and we needed to leave the tandem at the station.

Up at 4:45am, force down a breakfast that we really didn’t want, and off we set to Ivinghoe Beacon. We arrived just at the sun was rising and cycled up to the top of the Beacon for some mandatory photos. Then we set off feeling full of enthusiasm at around 6:15am.

The first 10-miles were great. Why this section is closed to bikes is beyond me. The trails are wide, open and beautiful. However, all good things have to come to an end. We were then introduced to the joys of “We hate cyclists. Just try and see if you can get past this gate!”  Well, on a normal bike this wouldn’t present too much of a challenge. But with this old dog of a tandem plus panniers it must weigh around 70 lb. And as I mentioned earlier, I was just recovering from a back injury. But not to be deterred, we pushed and heaved and shoved and finally managed to get the beast over. “Hah!” said I.

Feeling smug for the next few hundred metres we then slowly began to realise that this wasn’t such a great idea. These trails are hardly ever used and they were overgrown, bumpy, loose surface, narrow and really difficult to ride. But we were there to ride the full trail, so on we persevered. It was really slow going and we then came to discover problem number two: The Ridgeway Trail is a nightmare after a bit of rain! It just turns to gloop and gets incredibly slippery. I had planned to do the ride in around 10-hours (9mph average) but we were managing nearer 4mph. Several miles of riding “downhill” on the granny-ring with the back wheel slipping really isn’t much fun. Riding uphill was not even an option.

There were some nice sections (e.g. Coombe Hill) but some 20-odd anti-cyclist turn-styles later we had had enough. Plus, it was getting near to 9:00am and I knew we wouldn’t be welcome on footpaths for much longer. Then, just I started to think this might be the case … along came Farmer McGregor to give us a long lecture about what a danger we presented to other walkers (zooming along at 4mph)! No point in arguing so we just set off on the only alternative route possible – which added an extra 3-miles – and decided that enough was enough. It was only a few more miles to Goring, it was raining and our tummies were rumbling, so we stopped off at a lovely bar/restaurant in town for some well-earned scoff.

It was at this point that I came to realise that we were about 3 hours behind schedule already. And what with the bloody gates, tough riding through the gloop and miles of pushing up the hills we were both wrecked! I was still confident we could finish before dark, but it would be asking too much to finish, then ride another 10-miles to Swindon, and then make our way through London to the Thameslink and home. So time to call MUM Rescue. It is SOO much easier when you can play the “your poor daughter if feeling tired” card :)

30-minutes later - after what would be our one and only stop of the day - we set off for the second half of our journey. We had already ridden hard for 7 hours and we were really feeling every one of them getting back in the saddle. This was the first of my "are we going to make it?" moments. 14-hours of this would kill us!

Fortunately the trail is all rideable from Goring to Avebury. Unfortunately the rain had left its mark. The chalky surface was unbelievably slippery and it is really hard to keep a tandem in a straight-line when you have no front-wheel grip. The other problem is the ‘tram lines’. Deep ruts each side of the trail which cause the pedals to deck out (low BB height on a tandem). We also had many many miles of grass which had softened to give a nice gluey feeling to help slow things down even further. And it was a bloody headwind all the way. Such fun!

The hours just slipped by and we soon realised that we would be lucky to make the finish before dark. MUM Rescue was on its way but we had already ridden for 12-hours and still had 20-miles to go – and it was raining hard. Character building stuff!

Sure enough, with about 5-miles to go, it started getting dark. The trail just went on for mile after mile with no road or civilisation in sight for the last hour. Then my Satnav died (can’t complain after running it for 14 hours), then we ran out of drink ... and we were absolutely cooked. 30-minutes later, just about pitch dark, we finally saw a road ahead. Plenty of Homer style "‘woohoos!" at that sight. I have to admit that without my Satnav I wasn’t actually sure if this was the end of the trail and wasn’t sure we could go on any further anyway. Fortunately it was the end! What a day. 14-hours of the toughest riding I have ever endured.

All credit to Suzannah. She had been away in Bolivia for the past month and has never really cycled that seriously. And not a single moan or complaint.

So what have I learnt: a) Forget the Footpath trails. It is not legal and they were mostly crap anyway. If you really want to ride the full length, do what we did (starting at sunrise so as not to upset anybody) and ride the first 10-miles or so from Ivinghoe Beacon. Then find a mix of Bridleway and road to get you to Goring. b) Avoid the Ridgeway if the conditions are bad. It just turns to gloop and is like riding in quicksand. c) Focus on the Avebury to Goring section. Fantastic views nearly all the way and I’m sure it would be fantastic in the right conditions. d) As Mrs Rabbit would advise "Stay out of Mr McGregor's garden. If you get caught you'll end up in a pie like your father!"

So … what next?