The Shortest Day
December 22nd is notable in my calendar for two reasons. First, it’s my daughter Abi’s birthday. Who knew 31 years ago that I would be doing the other notable thing, an overnight bike ride on the shortest day of the year and on a night where there were weather warnings galore?
Preparation & Consternation
This was my 3rd annual Bike-U-Like Winter Solstice Ride to the Stones. Conveniently falling on a Sunday this time, it meant that I was able to schedule in a few hours’ sleep before setting off. I laid off the caffeine as much as possible during the day so that I was tired enough to get to bed early evening in the hope of being awake enough for the start at 1am, and through until early afternoon when I would plan to be home. In the end, I managed just over 3 hours of sleep, but it was better than nothing.
The weather warnings that had been issued, of heavy rain, high winds and flooding were initially worrying. But by late Saturday night, it seemed that most of the heavy rain had fallen, the winds had dropped, and by midnight, although still damp, it was mostly now a light drizzle in the air, which promised to clear as we headed towards morning. There were no excuses, I was going. I prepared myself for the fact that although the rain might not be heavy, it was highly likely that there would be a lot of floodwater along the way. The route goes through some low areas, with multiple rivers and streams I was just hopeful that any floods were just large puddles rather than raging torrents. Flooded roads are a very different prospect at night when you can’t see the end, than during the day when you get a sense of scale. I thought about packing a couple of carrier bags for my feet in case I had to do any wading, but decided against it, mainly as I didn’t have any spare room at all in my very small saddle bag. If I got wet feet, I’d just have to put up with it.
In view of the weather, I persuaded the Hubster to let me have my Christmas present a few days early, and I was very keen to test out my new Rapha branded //ws-eu.amazon-adsystem.com/widgets/q?ServiceVersion=20070822&OneJS=1&Operation=GetAdHtml&MarketPlace=GB&source=ac&ref=tf_til&ad_type=product_link&tracking_id=mawonavelo-21&marketplace=amazon®ion=GB&placement=B075S3NNQ7&asins=B075S3NNQ7&linkId=922b200cab3a66a4c48bcc56e8964daa&show_border=false&link_opens_in_new_window=false&price_color=333333&title_color=0066C0&bg_color=FFFFFF“>Gore-Tex Shake-dry rain jacket. I also decided to take my Altura waterproof trousers. They aren’t really particularly waterproof anymore in the event of heavy rain, but they do help keep my legs warm if they get damp. It’s not a fetching look, but temperatures can drop between the towns, so I figured I would go with comfort over style. The final winterproofing addition were my Endura neoprene overshoes. Again, not the most stylish addition, but these weird silver (but oddly not very reflective) space boots do keep my feet very warm, and relatively dry in all but the heaviest of rain – or potentially flooded roads.
With spare lights front and rear just in case of dynamo failure, I was ready to hit the road and join the party outside the Bike-U-Like store in Southsea.
An intimate group
On arrival at the shop there was just one person waiting. I had figured that the weather forecast would have put a lot of people off. Slowly a few more people appeared, but it was a far cry from the 20 or so that started last year.
Eventually Ingrid (Bike-U-Like) arrived and we set off out of town. After meeting up with Cathryn at the edge of town, we headed along the usually busy A27 towards Southampton. One of the things I love about night riding is being able to ride on roads that are normally out of bounds for safe miles. At 1:30 am we had the road to ourselves, with nothing but the occasional taxi ferrying party goers home. It’s well lit, which seems to confuse birds who have no idea whether it’s day or night. Bird song in the darkness is a peculiar thing when you listen. It sounds like dawn, even though you know that was several hours away.
At 3am, our first stop was the 24 hr MacDonalds at Swaything (Southampton). It was just starting to rain, so we were glad to get some hot drinks and food before venturing on. We also met up with a couple of extra riders. Our small group became 12 riders, perfectly balanced with 6 men & 6 women.
The weather forecast had meant that a number of the group had chosen to ride their winter or gravel bikes. They would have a distinct advantage on some of the muckiest parts of the route, even if there was a small speed trade off on the hills. I had chosen my new very lightweight full carbon bike. Yes I was going to get more mucky, but I had ridden with some of the Bike-U-Like riders before, they are pretty fast, so I wanted to be able to keep up. This time however, I needn’t have worried. With the mix of bikes I found the pace pretty comfortable.
On leaving MacDonalds the rain became more persistent, and I had chosen to deploy the waterproof trousers. I stayed warm and dry, and my new Shake Dry was doing it’s job perfectly. Despite inclement weather, I was really enjoying the ride. The temperature was dipping and toes began to chill, but all the time we kept moving the worst of the cold was kept at bay. About an hour from Salisbury however, disaster, our first puncture. To be honest, it was a minor miracle it had taken that long – the roads were filthy. Ingrid was the unlucky person visited by the P fairy. Now normally, fixing punctures become a group affair, but Ingrid is normally the quickest puncture fixer we know, so we left her to it. Someone held her bike, but that was about it. So to the rest of us messed about it a bit, did the keeping warm jig, and of course took photos.
Soon we were on our way, and reached our next MacDonalds stop in Salisbury at 6am. We had a little longer to relax and so we dried out, ate our first breakfast and drank coffee. Normally I am not a fan of MacD’s, but when cycling overnight they have become like a familiar friend. Offering up warmth, food, caffeine and proper loos. I will usually plan overnight rides with a clear knowledge of where the 24 hour places are. There’s no hanging around in petrol forecourts with all the facilities hidden behind an impenetrable glass kiosk.
With just 12 miles to get to Stonehenge we set off on the last section. The route out of Salisbury follows a cycle path alongside the River Avon, which was lapping the banks. We encountered a flooded subway, but inched through it anyway, and were soon heading towards our final destination following a string of blinking tail lights through the Woodford’s. Darkness began to clear, so we could see the extent of the flooding in the fields peering through the hedgerows, as the moonlight through it’s silvery light across the water. The roads were filthy, but remained in the most part flood free.
As we arrived at Stonehenge around 7:45am, the crowds had already gathered around the stones. We walked up the now grassed over former road, and could hear drumming from inside the circle. The Druids were warming up for their celebration of the death and then rebirth of the sun that comes with the sunrise after the shortest day. For the rest of us, it was mostly a photo opportunity to catch a glorious sunrise in a magical place that you can’t usually get near to.
There are always some colourful characters at the Solstice events, and this was no exception. I don’t know whether they are real druids, or hippies using the Solstice as an excuse to dress up flamboyantly. I suspect I there was a combination of both, but long coats, flower garlands, various musical instruments (including bagpipes), children dressed like fairies, and even a Welsh Dragon were all there.
At 8:11 the drumming and chanting from inside the stones stepped up a notch as the Druids heralded the sunrise. And this year we were not disappointed. All eyes were on the horizon as the sun peered over the hill and lit up the clouds from underneath. After a damp ride through the night it’s always lovely to actually get to see the sun rise.
After a few photos we headed back towards Salisbury on our bikes, desperate for the mammoth breakfast that awaited us at Weatherspoon’s. This time though we were not in dim light, we could see the Wiltshire scenery bathed in the morning sunlight and it was beautiful.
One of our group had discovered a slow puncture on leaving the stones, but opted to try to simply inflate the tube as hard as possible in the hope that it would make it the 12 miles back so he could fix it at leisure after his breakfast. It held out to halfway back, and after another few pumps of air made it back to Salisbury, where he did indeed fix it before the ride home.
Usually after breakfast most riders catch the train back home, leaving just one or two (usually me and one other) to ride back to Portsmouth. However this year engineering works meant that trains only ran as far as Southampton. So most of us were still going to have to ride a lot of the way back. In view of this, we had a good long break at the Weatherspoon’s and started to split into smaller groups for the return journey.
A lovely young lady called Ruth had joined us on the trip, on a hybrid touring bike. This was to be her last long trip before a massive adventure that she’s starting mid January. There was certainly some tour envy amongst us as she spoke of taking a year out to embark on a tour from the UK to Japan. She knew that the time was right for her while her commitments in life were still light. The pace to this Solstice ride was just a little to much with the set up she had come with, and she was shattered by Salisbury. She opted for the train home. I have no doubt however, that she will make it to Japan, and she will have an amazing time. Her head is in the right place, and she appears to have the tenacity to get it done, and enjoy the journey she’s on. I wish her well.
Ruth will be blogging her way across the globe, and you can catch up with her here once she gets started. Ruth’s Adventures
The ride home
For the remaining riders, we split into two groups. Ingrid wanted to stop for lunch on the way back, and was also leaving a little later, but myself and Cathryn wanted to leave earlier and ideally ride straight back. So after Chris repaired his puncture, four of us, Budgie, Chris, Cathryn and myself headed back towards Portsmouth, but on a more rural route that the one we took the night before. I felt that we were a closely matched ability group and so picked up the pace a little so that we could get back as quickly as possible. We made good progress to start, and the route back looked very different in the daylight. We kept together well initially, and were still awake even though it was approaching midday. However, as we got closer to Romsey, we noticed Budgie dropping off the back. Now Budgie is a strong rider, but he had decided to ride his gravel bike, loaded with full bikepacking kit. He was certainly prepared for every circumstance, although it transpired that he also was testing his kit and set up. In 2020 he plans to do an off-road version of Land’s end to John O’Groats and felt that this would be a good ride for a kit test. However, it was a lot of kit to carry when chasing a group of riders on road bikes through the night. It had all taken it’s toll. He hadn’t eaten as much as the rest of us for breakfast, and had bonked. We stopped for a bit to give him time to take on some fuel, and then rode more slowly until it had chance to hit the spot. But it wasn’t enough. With sleep deprivation also beginning to hit it was clear that he needed a proper stop. Romsey wasn’t far away, and so we suggested he headed into town to find a cafe. He was happy to go it alone, and so we said goodbye and he turned towards town. We found out later that although the cafe stop was good, he only made it as far as Eastleigh and then called his family to pick him up. He had ridden almost 100 miles though, through the night, with the heaviest bike set up by miles, so it was a good effort from him.
Then there were three. The remainder of the ride was uneventful. We knew we had enough fluids and food among us to make it all the way back to Portsmouth, and we had a brief roadside stop to rest and refuel before heading back home. We just wanted to get back now. I arrived home shortly after 3pm, surprising still quite awake.
This was such an enjoyable ride and goes to show that if you can get a group of you together, the winter months doesn’t mean you can’t go out and still knock out a night ride if you plan it right. 24 hr MacDonald’s along the route means that you can get warm and find refreshments, a bit of rest, and the staff are usually very accommodating for late night cyclists. Just get out an ride, with the added benefit of feeling just a little bit ‘hardcore’ for having done it in the first place.