"It's a bit flat." As I churned up the 10 per cent slopes of Godshill on the New Forest's western fringes, I mulled over this statement. It kept me occupied while I tried to ignore the burn in my quads and put the many miles still to ride to the back of my mind.
In fairness to CW 5000 participant Steve Rowe, who had issued this particular declaration — and designed the route upon which my CW colleague Vern Pitt and I were basing the day's ride — the New Forest is, indeed, a bit flat. It's just that we had somehow managed to unearth one of the area's most testing slopes and on top of that we were riding it completely unnecessarily, having missed a turn at the top of the hill, ridden down it, and only then realised our mistake.
Reading this tale of woe, you might be under the impression that Godshill is Hampshire's answer to Alpe d'Huez, but alas its Strava stats amount to no more than a third of a mile at 7.3 per cent.
Up to that little diversion, things had been going rather well. We'd set out from one of the New Forest's extremely convenient — and even better, free — car parks near Bramshaw on the northern edge of the forest, and after correcting the first of several wrong turns that day, enjoyed seven miles of brisk progress. Our average of nearly 20mph could be attributed to a combination of three things — ultra-smooth roads, an urgent north-easterly, and my riding partner's worrisome level of fitness. The latter two things in particular provided the theme for the day.
That initial leg of the route dispatched more than half the northern edge of the Forest and set the scene nicely in terms of our physical surroundings. If you're not familiar with the New Forest, you might be imagining two riders making a bee-line through a tunnel of trees, but in fact the opposite was true. Much of the New Forest is open heath and some of it — such as those early miles — quite high up on a plateau. As a bike rider this will make you ever-vulnerable to what Rowe calls the "New Forest headwind".
"That's one feature of New Forest rides that always takes you by surprise — although it shouldn't," he says. "There's always a bloody headwind in the New Forest, and it's horrible, because it's so flat and barren."
So far we'd enjoyed the tailwind — but ours was a circular ride and we were under no illusions as to what would come later.
However, the most charming aspect of the New Forest has to be the animals that roam the area and can be found around every corner — often in the middle of the road. The ponies are most common, while donkeys and cattle are also a frequent sight — if you're lucky you might even see a family of pigs snuffling around the verges.
They all wander nonchalantly in and around the roads, oblivious to traffic. It doesn't take long to work out who's in charge — car is definitely not king here, and neither is bike. Worth bearing in mind when you're going into a blind bend at 20mph-plus.
Back on track after our little detour at Godshill, the route took us south towards Ringwood and past the old wartime aerodrome at Mockbeggar. RAF Ibsley has since been dug out for gravel and then flooded — it is now known as Mockbeggar Lakes and a favourite haunt of carp fishers. From the roadside you can spot the old, rather decrepit control tower that still survives.
A few miles of suburban wandering later we were out the other side of Ringwood and heading back into the heart of the forest to one of its most popular haunts — Burley. Famous for a history of smuggling and witchcraft, this cute village has more than its fair share of trinket shops selling wands, hats and other witch-related wares; cafes, and visitors. We were only paying a flying visit though, and in moments we'd left the hubbub behind and were back out on to the meandering lanes across the heath that the New Forest does so well.
Now on a south-east trajectory, we got a taste of what was to come, with the wind tugging insistently at our sides. And with more than 20 miles in our legs and the clock having ticked past midday our thoughts turned to lunch.
Thankfully Brockenhurst — the New Forest's biggest village — lay just about on the halfway mark and so, a handful of miles later myself and Pitt were ensconced in a sunny spot on a cafe terrace.
Reasoning that if I was going to maintain the hitherto 'lively' pace set by my colleague, caffeine and sugar would be necessary in equal measure, I ordered coffee and a brownie, his more rounded choice of chicken baguette betrayed a rather lower level of physical distress.
Now this is not a hard ride per se, assuming you have the basic fitness to get round a 70-mile ride - there was only 620m of vertical climbing for the whole thing, which is ridiculously puny for a ride of such length. But a ride of any distance can be hard if you ride it that way. Factor in the wind and the fact that Pitt was indeed the younger (and lighter) and it was no wonder I was mainlining arabica.
Full of stomach and slaked of thirst, we departed Brockenhurst on easy roads that meandered innocuously through woodland and past manicured verges and between fields (yep, the New Forest has those too). Then we made a left turn onto the appropriately named Hatchet Lane and the gods of tarmac and wind slapped us in the face and wrought upon us great vengeance and furious anger with a combination of a full-bore headwind and a horrible road surface with ridges every five yards. G'dunk. G'dunk. G'dunk… This continued, across open heath in a straight line no less, for two-and-a-half miles.
It's no great source of pride for me that for much of this I was clinging to my colleague's wheel, labouring to the front just a couple of times to put in what he probably thought was a token effort — it was in fact a rapid ascent into the realms of VO2 max and beyond, and then an equally rapid retreat.
The purgatory was brought resolutely to a stop as we hit a junction, turned out of the wind and almost straight away found ourselves in Beaulieu. Past the classic car garage and the shops full of olde worlde charm, across the bridge over the lake that flanks the abbey — Beaulieu has it all, and it offered very welcome respite following the little stem-chewing episode we'd just experienced.
Past this idyl we hung a right towards Lepe, where the ride touches the coast for the first and only time. Here the route describes a circular loop out and back to Beaulieu, and was a section of the ride that Rowe had singled out.
"The bottom loop is really pretty," he said. "Lepe is probably the most famous bit of beach in the New Forest. The views are lovely and it's a good place to get off for an ice cream."
Lepe was as good as Rowe's word. The approach is through tree and hedge-lined lanes, but you can almost sense the sea ahead as the scenery beyond opens out, then suddenly you emerge from the trees, round a bend and you're overlooking the Solent. For 200 yards you're riding practically on the beach. It's a wonder such a lovely spot hasn't been commercialised to within an inch of its life, but while there is a car park and cafe, the place remains refreshingly free of people.
That day there were of course two sweaty cyclists spoiling the view, mashing carbohydrate-based comestibles into hungry mouths.
A few miles further on, in stark contrast to the peacefulness and rugged beauty of the beach, we skirted Fawley Refinery. Enormous and very ugly, its vast array of chimneys and towers lord it over the eastern edge of the Forest like some sort of mean joke. We would have left it behind smartly too, were it not for the New Forest headwind which was now with us again and would be for the rest of the ride.
The twin conurbations of Marchwood and Totton were at least separated by palate cleanser of leafy lanes, quaint buildings and Totton's own charming marina, complete with toll bridge and 250-year-old tide mill.
Half an hour later, back in the quiet lanes and with the sanctity of the car less than two miles distant I was made to regret foolishly asking Pitt "have you brought your sprinting legs?", as he eased the pace up almost imperceptibly and my own pins went pop with a retort that almost seemed to echo between the great oaks lining the roadside.
Perfect timing. At least the New Forest is flat.
Where to eat: The Terrace, Brookley Rd, Brockenhurst SO42 7RA (theterracebrockenhurst.co.uk) Hearty sandwiches, cake and good coffee — the perfect cyclist's stop-off.
Where to stay: The Trusty Servant Inn, Minstead SO43 7FY (thetrustyservant.co.uk). Well priced B&B located just a few miles from the start of the ride, which often welcomes cycling groups and has indoor storage for up to six bikes.
Bike shops: Boost Bike Hub, Brookley Rd, Brockenhurst SO42 7RR (boostbikehub.co.uk) or try Forest Leisure Cycling, Burley BH24 4AB (forestleisurecycling.co.uk)
How to get there: The Forest is located on the south coast between Bournemouth and Southampton and is well catered for in terms of transport. By road the M3 and A34 serve approaches from the north and east, and the A31 and A36 from the north and west. The train station at Totton is practically on the route and is also well served, with more than 20 trains from both London and Bournemouth directions per day on average.
More CW5000 routes
Daventry Jaunt (Arnie Spilman)
Start / Finish: Daventry
Distance: 108km (67 miles)
Climbing: 1,030m (3,379ft)
Arnie Spilman's simply named 'Morning Ride' is a midlands meander from Daventry across towards the home of the bard, Stratford-upon-Avon. It was his first ride in August as part of trying to complete 1,000 miles that month, which he duly finished on the 29th. Arnie described it as, "a fairly standard, undulating ride and the sun shone. The kind of ride I tend to pop into my memory bank and recall when the going gets tougher through the winter."
Bellingham: Here comes the sun (Chris Baird)
Start / finish: Morpeth
Distance: 106km (66miles)
Climbing: 1,300m (4,265ft)
This is based on a route Chris says he has been doing for 40 years. The best part, he reckons, are the quiet roads past Sweethope Lough on the way out. "There are a few steep clicks," Chris says, plus the climb out of Redesmouth — ominously named 'vomit pass' by local riders — "Quite long with a very steep bit at the beginning." He recommends the cafe at Bellingham "when you're allowed", and says there's another good option at Capability Brown's birthplace. "The scones are well worth it," he says, adding: "This ride has something for everyone, be it racing men and women as great training, or the cyclist who just loves to ride in beautiful scenery on quiet roads."
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