Although I was looking forward to today’s Brookwood ride, I wasn’t exactly over the moon about the weather report. Storm Alex had brought downpours all of yesterday. Today I woke up to more of the same. I’ll confess that I am absolutely a fair weather rider. Even in normal life I don’t do rain. Or cold. Or wind. So cycling 20 plus miles in lashing rain has never been top of my to-do list. I had a choice to make. I could either park up the bike for the next six months or get used to getting wet. Obviously I chose the latter.
What to wear?
By the time we had finally emerged from a lie-in and had some breakfast the downpour had stopped. Not trusting it to stay that way for the Brookwood ride, I faffed around deciding what to wear. I normally ride in camouflage cargo shorts with a couple of pairs of cycling shorts underneath. But I knew the heavy cotton would be uncomfortable when it got wet. So I did what I always do when I need new gear. I raided J’s drawer for stuff he doesn’t wear any more.
Out came some baggy grey shorts that felt more like swimming trunk material that would be better in the rain. I kept the cycling shorts on under but put three layers on my top. Two running vests and a cycling jersey. I debated wearing my waterproof jacket but the advantage of staying dry needed to be balance with the probability of getting sweaty and sticky. I decided to risk getting wet.
We rode a couple of miles down the canal splashing through numerous puddles before I clocked that J was wearing his waterproof socks. Damn it. Thankfully, my Decathlon walking boots were holding up to the worst of the wet. So far.
The Basingstoke Canal
Five miles down the canal, the skies began to clear and there were even patches of blue amongst the clouds. It felt like the cycling gods were smiling on us. J reckoned that it was going to take us around 45 mins along the towpath to the start of the Brookwood ride. Having ridden the Basingstoke Canal between Fleet and Farnborough a few times I estimated that it was going to be about 7.5 miles. What I hadn’t factored into my calculations is that J is a rubbish estimator of both time and distance. It was actually 12.5 miles and an hour and a quarter to Brookwood. But to be fair, we did stop a few times for photos along the way.
The riding was good though, and aside from quite few large and deep puddles, remarkably dry. We passed over the aqueduct and several locks. Past the gatekeepers cottage the canal had been drained giving it an eerie feel. Our voices echoed in the empty space. I was just wondering what they had uncovered during this process when we came across an old wooden barge. Water scarred and resurrected from its watery grave it looked remarkable. A treasure from a lost time. I seriously started planning doing a proper ride along the whole 33 mile stretch of the canal sometime soon. I bet there are lots of interesting things to see along the way from Greywell to West Byfleet.
Beginning the Brookwood Ride
Finally we peeled off the towpath and joined the road for a short cycle to begin the Brookwood ride. Here we crossed under a railway bridge and onto a pathway through the trees. We followed this down to cross over another road and past some houses. Then turned onto a bridleway through some ferns. A sign on a gate that warned us that ponies and cattle were grazing in the area. But they were either hidden or absent because I didn’t spot any.
The bridleway took us through a little common then crossed over a lane past a farm and fields of sheep to a nice earthy lane. Although the ground was wet under our wheels, it wasn’t too hard to ride. My legs were already covered in mud though, and I kept getting dirty splashes of water hitting my face. I learned to keep my mouth closed and be grateful for the safety glasses I was wearing. I think I might need to invest in bigger mudguards soon.
Fun Through the Ferns
At the end of the lane we turned left and here the mud was deeper. I skidded around a bit trying to keep my balance on the soft earth. Very quickly I learnt that terra firma was to be found to the sides of the track, right where the plants met the path. I followed J down to cross another lane and into a trail through the trees.
There were lots of exposed roots and a couple of tree stumps to negotiate but nothing too difficult. Most of the trees were pine so there wasn’t the slipperiness of fallen leaves to contend with. There was a fun section down through the ferns that was fast and great until we realised we’d gone the wrong way. We then had to pedal back up the hill to take the trail to the right down to a house.
Mind the Bridge
We turned left onto the tarmac of a small lane for a few hundred yards before taking another right to pick up another off-road trail. This was quite muddy and care was needed with some of the bigger roots and tighter gaps through the foliage. Then we came to a little bridge over a stream. I haven’t had the best luck with bridges, having taken a rather wet plunge off one on a Caesar’s Camp ride one night. So I took extra care getting across. The water was almost to the top of the planks. I don’t know how wet that route will be in a couple of months time once we are further into autumn.
The trail took us into another small copse of trees. The ground was really boggy and a couple of fallen trees crossed our path so we pushed the bikes over the worst of it. There was another bridge, with railing this time so I figured that I was pretty safe crossing that one. Then we were out onto a lovely gravel trail through open ferny woodland. It felt like we could have been in the Scottish Highlands. We cycled all the way down here, past some gorgeous houses. We met a rather potholed road and took a right.
Riding the Ranges
At the very end of the lane was a big white gate that led to the Military ranges. J took the time to point out the flag poles. He explained that when there were red flags flying it meant the public couldn’t enter so would have to divert down a side path instead. Fortunately, today the flag poles stood empty. So we opened the gate and crossed onto the gravel track past the shooting targets.
I’ve ridden through enough MOD land to know that it is never as grim as it sounds. But I wasn’t expecting this to be quite so beautiful. As we cycled the gravel up the long, steady climb into the heart of the ranges we passed some spectacular scenery. I don’t know why I’m always surprised that we are surrounded by such beauty. I always try to remember to be grateful for being able to witness it.
Conquering the Hills
The steady incline became a rather steeper hill. I was pleasantly surprised to find that I was mostly able to keep up with J though. So my fitness and stamina must still be improving. We took some time at the top to catch our breath and take in the views. While we were stood there, a father and his two young sons came up from another trail. All three seemed to be regulars riders of these routes and they were animatedly discussing which trail to follow next.
We pushed on downhill, which was a nice pay off for the previous climb. I never learn that there is always another hill though. So when J took a left at the gate onto another gravel track leading up I groaned inwardly. I found my one and pushed through, trying not to look ahead and instead concentrating on keeping my legs moving. Finally, we reached the top and exited the ranges out of another white gate. A wide lane took us down and out into the rather industrial outskirts of Ash Vale.
The Short Way Home
The next part of the ride wasn’t picturesque. But we’d decided that cutting through Ash Vale and North Camp meant that we could cut out the extra miles of having to follow the winding loop back around the Basingstoke Canal again. So we pedalled through industrial estates on cycle lanes and shared pathways. Over level crossings and past rows of shops and playing fields. Briefly we picked up the familiar scenery of the Blackwater Valley Path before leaving it again to cross the bridge at North Camp. We rode alongside the dual carriageway before peeling off to rejoin the towpath much closer to home.
I couldn’t believe that we managed to get this far without catching any rain. Thankfully, the skies stayed kind for the final few miles back too. By the time we arrived back at J’s house, my legs were almost completely covered in mud. The Brookwood ride had been 100% worth it though.