Although I’ve ridden a bicycle since the age of seven – my first had solid wheels instead of proper tyres – it wasn’t until I was in my late 50s that I was introduced to road cycling, by my neighbour Oscar Lavanchy. I had just survived a stressful managerial position at the University of Southampton, and succeeded in putting together a bit of paid and unpaid leave to get a full year free from teaching and administration.
It wasn’t long before Oscar sold me the Peugeot he had lent me, which I loved riding even though it was two sizes too large. Soon after that he introduced me to the club, which I joined in 2006. (I remember the year because I qualified for the over-60s membership rate the following year.) Oscar did not go on very many club rides himself – ‘I prefer working on bicycles to riding them’, he would often say – so I usually tagged along in a group led by Julian Gee, from whom I learned much about group riding and, later, lead riding. At the same time I was exploring the quieter roads in Hampshire and Wiltshire on my own and began devising new routes, which were usually too long for a Sunday club run at a leisurely pace.
It was Mary Corbett who introduced me to the pleasures of all-day cycling, in a testing 80-mile circuit round northeast Hampshire, one which I nearly didn’t survive. (Mary, with assistance from Norman Harvey, ensured that I got back to the start.) After that experience, I practised longer rides on my own until I felt confident in leading a small group across the Salisbury Plain to Imber, a village taken over by the British army in 1943 and never returned to its inhabitants. The Imber ride, my first ‘century’, became an annual event for a few years; the return leg, along the Wylye Valley from Warminster to Wilton, became one of my favourite ‘segments’. I didn’t have a GPS device (I hadn’t even known that they made such things for cyclists), but found the quieter roads with the aid of Ordnance Survey maps and tried to keep the routes in my head.
The Reliability Rides, which were organised by Penny Cossburn, were ideally suited to my cycling temperament, and I could manage a ‘bronze’ classification (12 mph) – sometimes a silver (14 mph) – on the shorter routes . In the early 2010s I tried to gain enough stamina for the 150-mile Dorset Demon; as I explained to Penny, by starting out at 6am rather than with the others at 8, I might finish by sundown, even if out of the running for a bronze award. But a few days after a long ride in June 2012, I began to notice severe pain in my back and my right leg. These were early signs of septicaemia, a bacterial infection of the circulatory system which can be cured only by massive doses of penicillin, and which was not properly diagnosed for another week. I was taken by ambulance to Southampton General Hospital on the Fourth of July; according to the nurse under whose supervision I spent two delirious days in Intensive Care, reciting the names of villages through which the Dorset Demon passed. (Of this experience I have no recollection whatever!)
Leaving hospital on crutches three weeks later, and weighing 9kg less than when I entered, I began to rebuild the muscle tissue in my right leg: for this I have not only the persistence of my wife Andrea to thank but also that of the physiotherapist at SGH, David Wilson: neither would let me feel sorry for myself or miss an opportunity to rehabilitate my legs. But my right knee was permanently weakened.
A couple of years later I came off my bike and suffered a broken collarbone – I may have been accidentally hit by a car – but by then I had made sufficient progress not to be put off by this injury. Then, on the Fourth of July 2015, three years to the day of my admission to SGH, I rode the route of the Dorset Demon in the company of a new cycling friend, Sheelagh Evans. We didn’t treat it as a competitive ride, and even enjoyed a sit-down lunch at the Old School House in Yetminster (highly recommended).
Apart from two ascents of Dean Hill – on a good day I can get up it in four minutes – I’ve not done any competitive riding with Sotonia. But I do enjoy riding – and devising – new reliability routes. The Forest Fourscore, first run in 2013, is a relatively flat 80-miler; the Bourne Supremacy (a hillier variant of the Bourne Valley) and the Somerset Saunter (a sister route to the Dorset Demon) ran for the first time in 2016; another new cyclo-friend, Myles Ward, helped me test the latter route through Longleat Safari Park, Cheddar Gorge and Glastonbury. I now help Penny to plan and run the club’s reliability rides, and more new routes are on the schedule for 2017.
Having recently retired from teaching, I’ve had more time to devote to cycling. I attend spinning classes three times a week; these are a great help for stamina; and I have no fear of climbing, even if my knee is hurting. I still ride a lot on my own, to create new routes or improve old ones, but I take greater pleasure than ever riding socially. My current companions are nearly all faster, and nearly all younger than I, but they’re a wonderfully patient and supportive group, who appreciate my quest for new routes and refreshment stops. I owe a special debt of gratitude to Janet Burnage, my longest-standing, most loyal riding partner of late, who never fails to communicate to me her thoughts about routes, cafés, companions, and – the weather – whenever she feels so inclined.
Finally, my family – Andrea, and my daughters Esther and Lydia who cycle socially and competitively in London – have been wonderfully tolerant over the past decade. As a family we explore the quieter roads of Upper Austria and Bohemia during the summer holidays; but that is a different story, for a different occasion.