Slowing to little more than a crawl, any pedal rhythm long since lost, each sluggish turn of the cranks seemed to inch me forward by rapidly shrinking amounts.
My thin tyres seemed to carve further down into the sandy ground than they were moving me ahead, and what forward motion I had was slurred with twitching sideways slides.
In the middle distance, a pair of golfers pretended not to notice me as they swung in turn before moving off down the fairway, dragging a bag full of clubs worth more than my car.
Determined not to dab, I bucked, hopped and ground my way along the sand-filled ruts, still dark and damp after days of rain and sea mist that the sun was finally beginning to burn through.
Finally – thankfully – I found some traction in ‘real’ mud. Darker, more organic than the sludgy sand that wanted to devour my wheels. This layer of brown gold sat on top of a layer of rough shingle, which was being gradually buried by the years of rotting vegetation creeping in from the edges of the rough track.
Once the rear wheel engaged on more solid ground, the bike clambered forwards, eager to pick up the speed lost in my detour.
A short while later, satisfied that unnamed invisible judges wouldn’t rule I’d cheated, I stopped to take in the view, and a pic, before the final spin home.
I was about an hour and a half into an exploratory ride around my local patch, snatched on a Sunday morning, thanks to my wife’s generosity.
I’ve had issues with my knees and feet for months and months, and after visits to doctors, referrals, podiatry and hours of stretching and strengthening, I finally felt able to try getting out on two wheels without risking more crippling pains.
I had taken a spin up to Betteshanger (formerly Fowlmead) previously. Theoretically, this was to do a few traffic-free laps on the tarmac track to gauge and improve my overall fitness levels , but that quickly got boring so – predictably – I dived into the woods.
This time I was on a bike with skinny tyres and drop handles!
Unfortunately, I no longer own a mountain bike.
This is very sad for me, but was a logical choice when faced with Christmas approaching, and we’re reeling from a spell of horrendous bills (car engine, new boiler and new oven in three months).
The ‘fun woods bike’ as my son had delightfully grown to call it simply wasn’t getting used – it hadn’t been out in nearly two years and needed the shocks servicing properly (not cheap). Also, I live in Kent so the terrain doesn’t exactly scream the need for full-suspension, and I don’t have mates around here to go away on social rides with.
So, with heavy heart, it was sold to someone who’ll hopefully give it some more fun times. I’ve hung onto my cyclocross bike, which I justified getting for my former commute as it was lighter/faster for the road bits, but still has knobbly tyres so could go off road a bit, and doesn’t have the same MAMIL connotations as a road bike.
The CX bike is reliable, relatively easy to maintain, and can get up a good head of steam on the roads. I can’t get used to drop handles though, and I’m still tinkering to get a comfortable seat position that works at speed. But, despite no suspension, it hasn’t been as unpleasant as I imagined on the rough.
Before the precious week though, I’d never tried it in the mud.
No-way-around, inches deep, stinking mud.
Turns out, thinner tyres don’t have as much grip as mountain bike tyres. Instead of skidding through turns for fun, I seemed to be sliding into them.
And through them.
And out of them.
Ditto on the straights.
Speed was almost non-existent, but after you get used to it, and ignore signs about the experience level needed for certain routes, it was good fun and I got a huge grin performing a messy enduro turn on a switchback.
Since the knee passed the test run, and Laura was sick of having me in the house, I thought I’d do a bit more exploring on my second ride.
Many times, when I drive along the Sandwich bypass, I find my gaze drawn where the road crosses the River Stour. Reedbeds, ponds, and a sprinkling of larger trees next to the muddy watercourse stand out against the flat open fields.
Frequent, dreamy consultations of my OS map of the area showed that the Saxon Shore Way follows the Stour along here, and the NR1 cycle route also passed close by.
Normally, I avoid cycle routes – tarmac bores me, and car drivers in Kent don’t seem to be as aware/tolerant of cyclists as in previous places I’ve lived/worked – but as the route passes a couple of few hundred yards from my front door, I thought this would be a nice easy bimble to get some miles in, and see whether future family trips to the area would be worth it.
Sunday morning offered a window in the weather after a few grey, damp days, and once the sun was casting sufficient light, I rolled onto the road, and within a couple of minutes was en route.
Dog walkers and runners were spread along the first stretch, the pier stretching further out to sea as I approached. A couple of road bikes were leaning near the new-ish Route One cafe – named after the line on my map – waiting for it’s doors to open, with warm drinks and hearty breakfasts to fuel their ride.
I had no need to stop here, or at any of the other cafes I found open on my trip. I had a sealed travel mug of tea and a small slab of cake to break my fast. Beyond the Royal Hotel, along the seafront traffic dwindled, with only occasional dog walkers taking in the fresh sea air.
The road meanders through a residential area close to where my wife grew up, before returning to a general northwards course along the golf course. The club buildings, with their manicured greens and fairways break up the rough, raw coastal scrub that in winter can feel nicely isolated. On the other side, cows graze in muddy pasture, and I can see the raised lump of Betteshanger a few miles to my left as a high speed train whizzes along the line between us.
The road is narrow, and at this time on a Sunday morning, through traffic is light so I only occasionally feel the need to move aside to let them pass, or get some mud under my tyres to give oncoming vehicles a wide berth. To drive through to Sandwich proper, cars must pay a toll to a man in a shed next to the road a few miles ahead, but he’s clearly not on duty yet as knowledgeable locals take advantage of the shortcut.
Whilst checking behind me for any following traffic I missed a sign pointing to a doubletrack shortcut for cyclists until it was too late, so decided to follow the road anyway, but made a mental note where it reappeared for my return leg.
The speedbumps by the toll hut reminded me my bike didn’t have suspension as a pootled towards Sandwich, and after a few minutes, a sign told me to hop off the road onto a cycle path that runs up along the river towards the quayside.
I’d only been here once before, last year during le weekend, when there was some kind of medieval reenactment thing going on, and the kids wanted to fire arrows at things.
Nipping through the car park, I had to follow the one way system, to get through town and head out towards the Ash Rd, before hanging a right towards Richborough. Further along, there’s a footpath that follows the river, but being the law-abiding cyclist, I ignore it and carry on along the road, until I find a place to cut across the railway line, and sit by the river to have a brew and cake.
My time wasn’t too bad, but I had things to do later in the day, so decided to head back after the brew.
I didn’t fancy making a loop of it and heading back via Worth as some drivers make the road is a bit hairy in a car, and I didn’t fancy it on a bike. There are signs of bridleway in patches, but an earlier expedition to find the other end of one failed
So, I retraced my tracks into Sandwich, followed the shorter stretch of the one-way system, and pootled back towards the golf course.
This time, I didn’t miss the double track, and after a deceptively firm start, conditions deteriorated and compressed stones were replaced by claggy sand.
I suppose this should have annoyed me, after all it was hard work and slowed me down, but if truth be told, it was nice to add a bit of a challenge to the ride, even if only for a few hundred yards. Whilst pleasant enough, the ride wasn’t exactly a fun thrash through the woods or an epic cross-country. The sand got me out of the saddle, pushing hard and getting that glimmer of doubt about my route (“is it like this for long”?) that makes things more interesting.
Shortly after, I was back on tarmac, for the last few miles towards home. I was immediately taken by a roadie who hadn’t been as tempted by the prospect of getting some dirt on the tyres on the doubletrack. I started to reel him in as I got my momentum back, but gave up as there wasn’t really any point, and he carried on along the road when I turned off to head back up towards the sea.
I did have one more unscheduled stop, when I pulled off the road onto the concrete path on behind the sea defences, to take in the cool view of the pier under broody morning clouds.
I don’t know if I’d have appreciated it as much if I didn’t feel like I’d earned it.