Not so long ago I wrote a blog for CTC - 'A pleasant surprise on the Chilterns Cycleway' - about a ride I'd done. It was all very gently plodding along and "hey, why don't you go ride it too, it's great!" in it's tone. But it's not entirely accurate, there were certain details I left out of the blog, for reasons that will become obvious as I recount the real story.
So one Saturday in November I'd decided I was going to ride a large section of the Cycleway to the east of the M1 that I'd never ridden. Looking at the map I figured it would only be around 50 miles, 55 tops! (Though in the back of my mind I knew this was a conservative estimate.) I also guessed it would take around 5 hours.
Now this being winter and sunset around 4pm I knew, even with these supposed "worse case scenarios" I had to leave by 11am. At 11.30 I headed downstairs to put my shoes on, complete with one bottle of water, an energy gel and £3.50 in change, in case I wanted to stop for coffee and cake en route. The experienced cyclists among you at this point might be thinking that doesn't sound like a lot for a 5 hour ride. (I also knew this, but ignored it, the £3.50 would save me.) I did pause at the door though, just for a moment; my tiny L.E.D lights were on the stairs, I grabbed them and shoved them in my pocket.
Not far into the ride it started to rain. I was wearing a soft shell with no waterproof but figured it was just a passing shower and continued with my plan. This isn't like me. On a normal day I plan the quickest route back at the first sign of rain but today was different. Something in my brain had disengaged, that bit that assesses consequences of actions, it was being drowned out by the "in denial-campus" section of my brain instead. Today, everything would be fine, what could go wrong.
Two hours later I'd only completed a pathetic 20 miles and looking at the map, I didn't seem to be that far into the ride. At this pace, it looked like it might take a bit longer than 5 hours, better pick it up a little bit. A few miles later I saw a sign for 'Offley 2', I knew this was on the return route, maybe I should just take a short cut and head back now missing out the top loop. (Unbeknown to me at the time this would have shaved off a full 20 miles!)
More time passed, the sun was shining (told you it was just a shower), over 35 miles done but it still didn't look as if I was half way round - must be an optical illusion on the map. It'll be fine. But feeling a bit low on energy I had the only gel. I finally rounded the top corner of the route and was heading in the right direction, 42 miles done. Hmmm...
By now, the light was fading and the drizzle had started again. After 48 miles I passed through Offley and sparingly sipped at the very small amount of water left in my bottle. Bit late to be thinking about that shortcut option. Fortunately the route was quite well signposted so progress was quick but I was still losing light rapidly thanks to the dark rain clouds heading in. I stopped to put on the two tiny flashing LED lights - grabbing them had been the only good decision I'd made all day. Thankfully!
60 miles done, it was chucking it down, I was soaked and getting cold and had no idea how far was left. Even if there had been a shop or cafe open I didn't have time to stop for a hot drink or a snack. This was the most urbanised section of the route so it was a race to get home safely in the dark now. I had a vague memory that Harpenden was only 8 miles from Hemel Hempstead and a road sign confirmed this.
Now came the big decision of the day: do I ride back along the street-lit road, hoping drivers could see my tiny blinking lights and avoid me; or do I take the unlit NCN Nickey Line route on the old railway. It would be pitch black but traffic-free so the only dangers would be muggers, strangers, dog-walkers, random opportunistic serial killers, gangs of youths, potholes, glass and large items of debris across the path. Nickey Line it is then, still much safer than our roads at the moment!
It was a matter of survival by now so I didn't complete the section of the Cycleway back to Berkhamsted as the article says, taking the quickest way home instead. Seventy-something miles, 6.30pm, very wet, very tired and very, very hungry and thirsty. Truly one of the stupidest things I've done in a while but the important thing is, I survived to do it all again another day... (Hey, after 20 years of riding I should know better than this so don't think I've learnt my lesson or anything.)