Indifferent Random Universe 6 – 3 Dan

It’s a fine winter day: clear, but with the temperature not likely to rise more than a degree or two above freezing. I’ve conceived the idea to complete a triangle: first to Stratford-on-Avon by B-roads; then, along canal tow-paths to Birmingham or its environs; then, either train home or cycle down the Worcester canal towards the Severn, but with the option of quitting beforehand.

It’s all a bit last-minute, and I’m delayed by the necessity of changing my sturdy road-orientated Schwalbe Marathon tyres for Riddler TCS gravel knobblies (for more tyre porn, click here).

I take the B4632, which is reasonably direct, acceptably quiet and requires no navigational effort. The only big hill is the one I hit soon after leaving Cheltenham, which takes me over the shoulder of Cleeve Hill with the run down to Winchcombe. There’s no ice on the road, and with a gentle following breeze I make good progress. I can listen to pod-casts, and by the time I reach Stratford I have benefited from an excellent primer on the political philosopher, John Rawls, whose basic premise was that social inequality should be minimised, and any remaining should provide greatest benefit to the least (rather than the best) well off.

Stratford-on-Avon is bright and busy. I potter briefly, mainly to get some food and, from the basin by the RSC theatre, set off north along the very narrow canal. The tow-path too is straitened, and mostly the water is covered with a 2cm thick layer of ice. I determine to make an especial effort not to fall in, which means negotiating the passages under bridges with deliberation and care. There is nothing to say I can’t cycle here, but if there were more walkers I would probably have to get off and push.

As it is, the occasional jogger or dog-walker seems ready to accommodate me. The bell I installed after my last trip is helpful: no one seems to mind being alerted to your approach by a ting-a-ling. Shouting, screaming or harsh whistling is often less well received. Unsurprisingly there is no traffic at all on the water, I guess any boat-folk who are not put off by the cold would not want to hazard their hulls to the sheets of ice.

As I continue the path becomes wider and I note that I’m now on a section of the National Cycle Network: route 5, to be exact. Someone has been tending to the surroundings and I warily note evidence of recent hedge trimming. Actually, I’m too late – rolling on I get that familiar instability of having punctured.

I pull up, to find both tyres deflating. I can be at my worst when hit by random misfortune: keys unfindable, cables knotted, coffee spilt. But usually with punctures I’m more equable – it-is-what-it-is – and I am chilled today.

I get the tube out of the front wheel, and I’ve the canal handy to check for holes. I break the ice, plunge in the tube and find I have not one, not two, not three, but four lines of bubbles. I decide to review the back wheel, and the news is better – only three holes here. I’ve got four patches, and use all of these to fix one tube – inevitably one effort fails and has to be repeated. I have a spare tube I can use on the other wheel. I exhaustively check the insides of the tyres, and locate the various thorns, resorting to gripping them in my teeth to remove them. So I’ve lost an hour, and gingerly I get going.

I’m not keen on going on into the countryside without any capability to fix any further punctures, which seem a fair prospect, given I’ve had seven within the first three kilometres. Google tells me there’s a cycle shop nearby, but Google is not up-to-date, and I spend a fruitless quarter-of-an-hour touring a trading estate in a forlorn effort to locate a non-existent enterprise. My good-humour fails, and the cosmos is treated to choice synonyms for genitalia and suggestions on deportment. I return by road into Stratford, find a shop near the station, resupply with tube and patches and return to the canal, warily wheeling the bike past the recent hedge-trimming.

Having negotiated this hazard, I mount and start pedalling. I’m wondering whether my early morning tyre swap was the worst decision of the day, but soon the tarmac ends and the path becomes first earthy and then mud. A slightly harder frost would do me fine, but with the temperature hovering a degree or two above freezing, hard solid patches I can bounce over are interspersed with soft gooey gloop. The bike is swiftly coated, and I find that the traction from the semi-knobbles of the Riddler tyres is not really sufficient. Mud aggregates around the frame back and front, so the wheels become stiff and then stuck. And then the sliding becomes worse, and I realise the back tyre has puncture again.

I stop. I’m about 2km further up the canal, but now in countryside. The bike is plastered with mud; the tyres invisible under a thick sticky coat. I get the wheel off easily enough. I smash through the thick ice in the canal, and try to clean off the clinging mud. My hands freeze, and I fancy myself as The Revenant, and remember that Leo saves himself by eviscerating his dead horse, creeping inside the carcass and spending the night in there (a trick he learnt, one supposes, from Luke Skywalker). A bike doesn’t offer the same cover, which is lucky, as I’m not feeling particularly well disposed towards it just now. I fix the tube: things are getting better – just the one hole and the patches I bought at the shop work (well, the third one I try does – these self-adhesive patches never live up to their billing).

I cannot, however, cycle. The mud is just too clingy, and the wheels jam and refuse to roll. I haul and drag the bike along, and eventually give up on this and hoick it onto my shoulder. Thus I progress: portering an awkward and not particularly light bike, slithering and slathering through the mud. I’m diverted by launching a thick fragment of ice over the sheet on top of the canal. It glides and fractures into the distance, nearly frictionless, but issuing an etherial skittering wail. It’s not raining. The birds sing and I’ve a sense of England’s well-husbanded countryside. I reach an aqueduct, which takes the canal over a steep sided gully, that has been appropriated by both a road and the railway line. I’m able to push the bike across, which I do; more to have at least achieved this distance than because I’m planning to go further. I retrace my route back over the railway line and descend steps to the road.

The tyres have stayed inflated: good. But the gear shift is knackered, jammed so that the chain is stuck in top gear. I prod and poke, but to no avail. It’s lucky, I suppose, that I have progressed so little. With the sun now setting, I am able to cycle the mostly flat road back into Stratford, where I pay my second visit to the bike-shop. The guys are sympathetic and helpful, but the time is knocking on five, and they are unable to loose the cable, which has spun round the shifter mechanism. As a stop-gap, they fix the chain up onto a bigger cog, effectively making the bike a useable one-speed. Thus, set up, I embark on the 30+ mile journey home.

The moon is a sliver of silver in the southern sky, dead ahead. I’ve got snazzy over-ear headphones playing rock’n’roll. The wind is negligible and the road handily skirts the Cotswold escarpment, rather than attack it. So I pootle towards home, not allowing myself to descend into self-pity and believing I’ve got the energy to make it. The new moon slowly sets, turning a ruby-red and gaining prominence in the darkening sky. The miles don’t pass particularly quickly, but there are way marks and villages I pass that evidence my gradual progress. I’m home by about 7:30, having delayed only for tortellini and salad from Tesco. I allow myself to be exhausted. But also euphoric. Honours not quite even between me and the universe today, but I’ve not been humiliated. And although the universe existed for 13.76billion years before I became conscious of it, and possibly will carry on for another 20billion years after I’m gone, today I showed it the resilience of sentience. Hell, yeah!

Tyre porn

Schwalbe is fantastic road-rubber for everyday use and is notably resistant to the stings and arrows of outrageous fortune (that would be punctures). But it wants a metalled or firm surface. The Riddler is a compromise tyre where the knobbles are higher on the shoulders but very low on the centre. This means it will roll quite fast on firm surfaces, but does offer a bit of grip off-road. Really best for dry dusty conditions (ie what a “gravel bike” is intended for). Puncture protection tends to add weight to a tyre, and the Riddler doesn’t have the same level of shield as the Schwalbe. Probably they’d work a lot better in a tubeless set up; but tubeless is not good for swift change-over of tyres: once on, you want to leave them. (Click here to return to main text.)

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