Idly glancing over the planned route one last time, I traced the bold, red line indicating my route out of central London with my cursor. Over the river, heading north through the city before veering westwards to take us towards Hitchen.
Sitting at my desk on a Friday afternoon, I traced and then retraced the route. Over The Thames, due North to Highbury & Islington, veering ever so slightly westwards along Holloway Road and then onto Highgate Hill.
By no means the most difficult or challenging climb on offer inside or outside of London, it nevertheless fills me with a mild but niggling sense of dread. It’s not steep, but it’s long. It’s not cramp-inducing, but it’s never not filled with traffic. And then there’s the ongoing threat of traffic lights; the ever-present possibility that the encouraging green orb egging you on will suddenly switch to a more sinister amber and then the inevitable, authoritative red. Any momentum you might have gained drains as you slow to a stop, desperately clicking away at your gears to give yourself the best possible chance of taking off again.
Defiantly crawling my way up the hill first thing on Saturday morning, trying to convince myself I was having a good time and this was exactly how I wanted my day to begin — on a hill, familiarising myself with my granny gears less than 20km into a ride, watching my heart rate creep up — I looked around at the people plodding the pavements.
Some chatted casually as they beelined for the surrounding parks. Others wandered in and out of the local shops and cafes, clutching takeaway coffees as they prepared to start their day.
One lent precariously against the wall of a bus shelter. I focused in on him. He held himself up with one arm and was hunched over slightly. His head lowered further, his head moving closer towards his knees until his torso sat at a right angle to his legs. A horrible retching sound carried itself form the pavement and across the road to where I rode and was followed quickly by the splatter of liquid on paving stones.
On a universal scale, my morning had just become infinitely better.
The spirits amongst the four of us were high at the prospect of two days on the bike for the first time this year. We moved through the thin layer of fog listening out for the familiar hum of a motorway. We knew that the moment we rolled over the top of the M25, the six-lane threshold hurtling along below us would bring forth the lanes we were all seeking.
Our first stop lay just beyond Hitchin in Southill. Leaning our bikes against the wall of Southill Tearoom, the sun won its battle with the morning fog and made the white benches in the front gardens look like the best option for a spot of breakfast. In another first of the year, we took the opportunity to have our first extended rest stop of the year outside. Arguably a little premature in our decision, the remaining chill in the air was nothing a couple of cappuccinos and a breakfast bap couldn’t stifle.
To add a little more meat to our route, we continued North a little further once back on the bikes. Heading as far up as Henlow, we began going vaguely back on ourselves towards Tring, our final destination for the day.
The busy roads had been entirely left behind, meaning we'd all loosened up on the pedals. Without the didactic cues put in place by town planners to keep the flow of traffic moving efficiently, we'd subconsciously slowed to revel in the pleasure of our own pace and our surroundings.
The increasingly tree-lined roads zig-zagged in both directions. Vertically they created undulations that brought him an ebb and flow to our momentum. Horizontally they did the same to produce visually and aesthetically satisfying kinks in the roads that were a joy to see and ride through.
Thick layers of forest framed our conversations as we made our final approach to Tring. A call came from the back of the group, Hendo shouting "On your right!". Our heads turned in unison to see a small group of deer running alongside us. Our amazement quickly turned to panic as they took a sudden, aggressive turn to their left . As awe-inspiring as their majestic beauty might have seemed from a distance, the danger of those enormous antlers being propelled towards you at 20mph by more than 150kg of body weight is not something worth hanging around to pontificate on.
Thankfully, Gorrod, Hendo and I were safely out of their path, but there's every possibility that Saul watched his life flash before his eyes as he brought himself out of the saddle and sprinted as hard as he could to avoid having them charge straight through him and his bike. I'm willing to bet that, hidden within his data for the day, is a substantial and visible spike in his heart rate. I'm also willing to bet that this wasn't caused by a challenging hill, but by these startled deer.
Perhaps egged on by our near miss, we arrived in Tring a lot earlier than we'd anticipated. No mechanicals, punctures or mammal-based collisions saw us arrive at 14.00. Thankfully, we'd scheduled in a finish before the finish; an opportunity to kick back over some food and coffee before tackling the final few kilometres to our room for the night.
Dismounting outside The Espresso Lounge, its owner enthusiastically greeted us on the pavement, as though he'd been expecting us. Securely storing our bikes in the back, he rearranged furniture, carried out extra tables and set us up in the mid-afternoon sun. We sat around for far longer than we needed to, enjoying the food, the fact that Saul was very much still alive and the subtle, but nonetheless tangible, feeling of the sun on our backs.
Distance: 145.1km| Elevation: 1,302m| See the route.