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UK ride: Rain and sunshine in the lanes of the Cotswolds

James Spender
12 Apr 2017

When it all falls into place there are few better places to ride than the Cotswolds

If there’s a formula to explain a day’s cycling it would go something like this: pj = TWP/A , where T is terrain, W is weather, P is number of people, A is land area and pj is pedalling joy.

Just like a bike manufacturer’s stiffness index for its latest round of carbon fibre, terrain and weather are totally arbitrary values based on the concept that ‘bigger numbers means better’, and are marked based on an unknown, ever-expanding scale (pj, however, is precisely measured on a scale of one to Esteban Chaves).

For example, my commute from the outskirts of London last Friday came in at -5,521 Chavitos. The terrain was ugly (3), the weather only broke from rain in order to briefly snow (-1), and the population density of London is 5,518 people per square kilometre. Cyclist won’t be doing any UK Rides around the East End anytime soon.

Conversely, as I look ahead to riding in the Cotswolds in two days’ time, the outlook is theoretically excellent.

Population density is one of England’s lowest at 73, it’s Britain’s largest Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (67), and the BBC Breakfast’s inimitable Carol Kirkwood reckons it’s going to be crisp, clear skies all the way (14).

I make that a promising 865 Chavitos. 

Weight of the Wolds

Thursday morning and the score has plummeted, and frankly I’m beginning to question Carol’s six TV Weather Presenter of the Year awards. 

We meet in the obligatory car park in Cirencester at a suitably unholy hour, ‘we’ being myself, my ride partner Dave, and Grant, a British Cycling regional events officer who has volunteered to drive our photographer around the route.

As Grant piles bananas and water into the car boot, Dave and I exchange kit choice chat, he noting my distinctly summery clothing, me his rain cape, legwarmers and conspicuously sponsor-clad bibshorts. 

The first few kilometres are even-tempered if not entirely flat, and decidedly straight – though Dave explains that’s no surprise given Cirencester evolved from the Roman settlement of Corinium.

It turns out Dave also knows a fair bit about the future as well as the past, and it’s not long before I’m flagging down the car to retrieve my rain jacket and rear light.

The skies, it seems, can bear their burden no longer, and thick sheets of drizzle unite the grey road with the equally grey sky. The decision to wear brand new white socks seems questionable.

With little of the Cotswolds’ beauty on show, conversation soon turns to life stories. Dave explains he’s an aspiring pro and Grant is his coach.

He got into road cycling a few years ago as part of a rehab programme to quite literally ‘get me back onto my feet’, having shattered both ankles in a motocross accident. 

‘My life aim is to ride the Tour of Britain,’ he tells me cheerily, and I wouldn’t bet against him. It seems not only is he a physically gifted rider, but a combination of inheritance and a very understanding partner means he only works two days a week and has the rest of the time to race and train.

I tell him it’s a good life if you can get it, although it seems the road has other ideas for us both. Well, me at least.

Without warning the road jerks itself skyward with 11% glee, and for a split second I feel like I’m going to stall, caught between the idea of changing down gears or getting out of the saddle.

But before I can make the decision, hill climb pride flicks my legs to autopilot. Dave has happily carried on cranking, and while I know it’s him leaving me not me leaving him, I still get the same sensation a fishing weight must get when it flies off into the distance to the sound of a spinning reel.

Click, click, kick, kick and I’m back next to Dave, who is oblivious to the fact he nearly dropped me.

I feign nonchalance but am secretly relieved when I spy a sign at the top of the ridge that warrants pulling over to read. For journalistic purposes, obviously.

The sign denotes the ‘Winchcombe Loop’, a 4,800km ‘leisure cycling route round Britain on lightly trafficked rural lanes… at nearly 1,000 feet above sea-level, Salter’s Hill provides fine views as a reward for the hard climb.’

I’d agree with all of that, save for the ‘leisure’ part, and the fact that even this high the otherwise glorious countryside looks the kind of drab landscape popular in nursing homes.

The rain and mist have muted the greens yet somehow managed to augment the browns, and even the trees look fed up. We agree a proper stop might be in order.

Goodbye, old friend 

By the time we finish the descent to Winchcombe my faithful old Cateye rear light resembles a red plastic snow globe. I do my best to extricate it from its bungee shackles to empty the rain out of the USB port, but it blinks twice and dies.

Still, there’s a cafe over the road Grant reckons is good, so we park up our bikes and head indoors for saffron-infused teacakes. It’s what dear old Cateye would have wanted. 

Generally speaking I’m not a stopper on rides – I find it hard enough to convince my legs to go the first time around – but Grant assures me it’s worth waiting for the weatherman to patch up the Cotswolds’ leaky roof.

The views back up the ridge are spectacular in the right weather, and the climb back up isn’t half bad either. 

I’m more than happy with the decision, and it gives us a chance to swap a few more stories over industrial bowls of tea.

Grant, I discover, is somewhat famous in these parts. He’s instrumental in the local race scene, both as rider and organiser, having helped instigate the Via Roma Twilight Criterium in Cirencester among other events.

As a paid up Continental pro he rode for Italian team Amore e Vita, which lays claim to being the oldest cycling team in the world (founded in 1948), nurtured a young Mario Cipollini and, rather fascinatingly, is backed by the Vatican and blessed each season by the Pope. 

Sufficiently satiated and pleased with the new pub quiz knowledge, we opt to give this riding malarkey another try, and by the time we loop back over the ridge it seems our luck might finally be in.

We pass through Stanton village, revered by period drama film crews for its quainter-than-quaint limestone cottages and total lack of anachronistic street lighting, and by the time we arrive at the foot of the climb up Snowshill, the sun hasn’t just put his hat on, but is veritably strolling to the beach with a towel tucked under one arm.

Our rather dubious morning is turning into a fine afternoon.

Warming tales

There have been several uphill surprises along the way today, in a manner more befitting the Lake District than the south west of England, but the ascent up Snowshill is more steady state than spiteful spike, averaging just under 6% over its 2.8km length. 

Buoyed by the sun we tap along in good time, and soon I’m hot enough to remove the remainder of my autumnal attire, prompting Dave to regale me with a story from a riding mate of his:

‘This guy used to ride with Wiggins when they were younger. One day the coach tells them they’re going on a training camp abroad and it’s going to be hot, so Wiggo being Wiggo gets in the sauna in just his armwarmers and legwarmers, saying it’s to “acclimatise” himself.’

With temperatures well into the teens I’m now happily acclimatised myself. Ask most cyclists why they ride and at some point they’ll tell you it’s because it offers a kind of meditative, mental clarity otherwise precluded by the modern world.

That may be, but for me, right now, it’s a sudden realisation that for the last hour I’ve not really thought about anything.

Since we left Snowshill I’ve been doing my best to take in the surroundings. But somewhere between the yellow-bricked houses of Guiting Power and the postcard-picture cottages of Bibury, I’ve lost myself in the road, my stem, my spinning feet, the sound of my breath and the ticking of gears.

It’s a wonderful feeling, and one that actually defies any formula. 

Cycling in good weather in a beautiful place definitely helps, but when I really think about it that all-consuming feeling of pedalling can happen everywhere from the daily commute to the Alps, and even, just occasionally, on the turbo.

So long as there’s a bike involved I reckon I’d be happy anywhere. But as we draw our ride to a close in the same Cirencester car park from which we set off, I know the Cotswolds, and such good company, definitely helped.

On top of the Wolds


Follow Cyclist's tour of the Cotswolds:

To download this route, click here. Leave Cirencester via The White Way until a crossroads marked Chedworth, then take a right. Pass through the village, loop round through Yanworth adjacent to the River Coln then follow the signs to Compton Abdale.

Follow the natural path of the road past Hazleton and Salperton, over the A436 and onto Salt Way. Either drop down into Winchcombe for a stop or continue north to Stanton.

From Stanton join the B4632 to Broadway then swing south onto Snowshill Road.

The climb segues into Buckle Street, which crosses the B4077. Take a right at the sign for Guiting Power, then it’s onwards to Hawling, a brief stint on the A436 then head south-east to Windrush via Turkdean.

Follow the signs to Eastleach, then Bibury, then join the B4425 back to Cirencester.

The rider's ride


S-Works Venge ViAS eTap Disc, £8,500, specialized.com

If ever there was a bike to do it all, it isn’t this one. But if ever there was one to put a guaranteed smile on your face, it is the Venge.

From standing starts to 40kmh-plus, everything about the bike is fast and, coupled with quick handling and an aggressive position, there’s little about this bike I don’t like.

Sram’s eTap and Quarq power meter are technical joys to behold – precise, intuitive and suffering no ill consequences in the wet, even if they do contribute substantially to the hefty pricetag. 

Admittedly with the hidden hoses and integrated cockpit the Venge is a fiddle to service, and it will bounce you around a bit on rougher roads, but the flipside is an ultra-clean aesthetic and an exhilarating ride feel.

I’d stop short at saying I’d want to ride it over cobbles, but with the short-nosed S-Works Power saddle and Roval wheels set up tubeless and happily running at 85psi, I found the Venge as comfortable as any other aero bike I’ve ever ridden, with the twist that it’s faster than pretty much any other aero bike.

The rider's kit

Lazer Z1 helmet

One of the early victims of Brexit, the Z1 has shot up in price, but has gained MIPS innards in the process and still offers an excellent fit and understated styling. Although perhaps less so in orange. 

£220, madison.co.uk

Sportful Fiandre Windstopper jacket

Kept me dry and noticeably warm for a garment so lightweight. The extra-long sleeves might look a bit Euro, but only add to the overall versatility of the Fiandre. 

£185, c3products.com

Katusha kit

A spin-off from the WorldTour team of the same name, the Superlight jersey and Icon bibshorts might polarise fashion opinion, but indisputable is the quality and race-ready fit. No gimmicks, it’s just very nice to ride in. 

Jersey £120, bibshorts £180, katusha-sports.com

Do it yourself


Getting there: There are regular trains from London and Birmingham to the Cotswolds, but no station in Cirencester. The closest station is Kemble (7km out), or travel to Moreton-in-Marsh and join the route midway through (10km out).

Train tickets from either Birmingham or London are £23-£32 return on weekends and take around an hour and a half. Or you could, of course, drive. 

Fuelling up: We stopped in Winchcombe at Food Fanatics, which was nice enough to let us take our bikes inside. Similarly there are many restaurants to choose from in Cirencester, with the King’s Head Hotel (kingshead-hotel.co.uk) being our pick of the bunch. You’ll not see a bigger cheese selection in all the land.

With thanks: Life on the road can be lonely, so we’d like to thank Dave Tilling for joining us on the ride, British Cycling’s Grant Bayton for chaperoning us about and Gary Smith at Via Roma for planning the route.

For more riding, events and coaching information in the Cotswolds and surrounding area, contact Via Roma Events & Coaching. Via Roma’s annual sportive in the Cotswolds will take place this year on 10th September.

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