Setting out on dark winter mornings from Central London is misleading.
Unless rain is hammering off the tarmac or you can hear the wind whistling through the tiniest of cracks in your front door, it’s difficult to know if the weather’s going to conform to what’s been forecast as the sky is still black and dark.
Meanwhile, the roads look relatively dry and debris free. It’s London, after all, so thanks to the onslaught of traffic, nothing sticks around for very long.
In most cases, it's better to be safe than sorry and so, as I prepared for another Sunday morning ride, I wrestled my overshoes over my cycling shoes and donned an extra pair of gloves. I'm glad I did.
It was a motley crew that gathered at Highbury Corner at 8am and set out to the lanes beyond North London. Totalling six, most of us had ventured out from different parts of London or, at worst, Surrey. However, one rider joined us from the other side of the world. Phill, founder of Gentlemen.cc, was in London for a few days and was welcomed into the fold.
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: getting out of North London is hard work. The first hour of the ride is an urban sprawl — high-rises, traffic lights, lanes of traffic. Setting off early is an opportunity to avoid the worst of this. Soon, it al fell away as quickly as the cars were overtaking us.
One right turn at a junction and dual-carriage ways turned into narrow thoroughfares.
Traffic turned into cattle.
Tarmac turned to filth.
Thanks to a week of stop-start rain, the roads to Aylesford weren’t so much paved with gold as strewn with grit, gravel and debris. We powered on two abreast through the puddles and around the potholes. We all took turns at the front, not to give other riders a break, but to seek respite from the spray that was building a layer of dirt on each of our faces.
We stopped. We wiped the road from our faces. We regrouped.
As we hung over the tops of our bars, we chatted as we passed around ride snacks created, packaged and brought along by Riley (AKA The Pedal Bites). A lawyer, a chef and cycle tour guide, an app creator, someone from the coffee world and cycle shop owner. Not the beginnings of a bad joke, but an unlikely group of people talking about nothing in particular and sharing in the enjoyment of quiet, endless roads.
Soon, the inevitable happened and once it started, it didn’t stop until the ride did. We huddled around the first puncture and helped collective member Saul get back on the road as quickly as we could.
Another followed. Same wheel. Same ten minute window. Second tube gone.
Phill was next to succumb to the will of the roads and his front tyre began to deflate. Changing it out with F1-style efficiency, we were back on the road in no time.
We were off it just as quickly a fourth and then a fifth time. As the last puncture took hold, I found myself at the bottom of a long descent before I noticed that there was no one sat behind me. I began the long, arduous climb to find Phill standing next to his ride, surrounded by now-useless inner-tubes as he thoroughly examined his tyres for any miscreant objects.
I handed him him my — and the groups — final inner-tube. It was our last chance to make it to our end point. Conscious of every lump and bump in the road, we descended back towards the city. In the distance, the needle-sharp point of The Shard acted as our North Star, informing us we weren’t far from caffeine, sugar, warmth and rest.
We had started the morning as six. Due to time constraints and delays, some had to turn off early, whilst others had to power on. By the time we rolled through a cobbled lane ready to park up, only six feet unclipped from their pedals.
The three of us piled our bikes against a lamppost and let out a thankful sigh at the sight of an espresso machine and stacks of pastries. Unashamed (and somewhat unaware) of our dishevelled, grubby appearance, we clip-clopped our way up to the counter, ordered a lot and savoured every bit of it as we discussed an eventful, difficult, enjoyable ride.
At the beginning of the ride, Phill had told us he often faced temperatures of -18°c in South Korea at this time of year. We may have been able to feel our fingers for the duration of the ride, but I'm confident we did a good job of showcasing that winter riding in the UK brings with it its own trials and tribulations, too.