No wonder we were smiling as we lined up outside. We'd somehow managed to make it this far and had filled our bellies ready for the off. The start was to be pretty easy, the two Johns had scouted the start of the route and, with local knowledge, John had managed to reduce the trip to Devizes from an unmanagable 90 odd mile to an unmanagable 82 miles.
Setting off we had a good pace going and the weather was as good as we could have expected. John Sills led the way and we were happy picking up his slipstream and not being rained on. We ticked off areas we knew and kept following the signs for Maidenhead. Suddenly we were going the opposite direction to the signs and it was time to stop and check the route while Neil had his usual stop to put air in to his back tyre. Using Map My Ride, an excellent app that allows you to preplan your route and then follow it a bit like SatNav, we were able to keep track of our route. We were no longer on our preplanned route but it would be easy to get back on track. With my phone mounted on my handle bars I had my eyes half on the road and half on a flashing red dot as a satellite somewhere tracked our progress. Now leading the way the other two guys were following me. "Left here", "straight on there". We were progressing well although I wasn't taking in much of the surroundings as I had my face in my phone. "Straight on and then left at the junction". Being slightly slower while looking at my phone they went ahead, as I looked up they were pausing and questioning my last decision. Puzzled I looked at the surroundings and then back at the phone, it turns out they were right to pause as we were heading down the slip road on to the motorway! Zooming in, we'd turned early and easily made it back up the slip road without peril. On we pushed still making good progress, I wast ticking off places from my old stomping ground as a salesman based in Reading.
The staff at the "Bar & Brasserie" that we stopped at were understandably surprised to hear that we wanted to sit outside to have our breakfast, they were not surprised to take an order of three sausage sandwiches and three sugary drinks. We'd certainly earned our second breakfast with progress going well, an average speed as good as we'd dare hope and the rain was holding off. It was surreal being in such familiar surroundings ten years on since I'd last been there but there was no time for sentiment as we polished off our breakfast and aimed to keep our good pace going. A couple of wrong turns coming out of Reading slowed us down but nothing like the tow paths did.
When Craig scouted the route for us he reported back it was narrow at parts, with people in the way and a good chance of falling in the canal. The Kennet and Avon Canal is allegedly the most used cycle path in Britain, well according to John's PDF anyway. With terrible weather conditions forecast it was understandable that there weren't many people out braving the weather but that didn't help out speed as our tempo dropped and now with the headwind and poor surface we were struggling to average 10 miles an hour. Add to that gates and fallen trees that we had to stop and maneuver expertly through, over, around, often having to lift our bikes or have them on wheel, we were slowing and it was not due to fitness or willing.
The route took us out past many areas myself and John knew yet we'd never seen them from the idyllic perspective we know encountered (the eye / i debate went on and on). Not quite telling where we were the Johns noted on more than one occasion that we'd past Thatcham only to discover it disappointingly one hour after thinking we'd already past it.
Arriving in Thatcham we were probably about as pleased as we ever have been to grace the roads of our old football playing haunts. Roads meant speed and less bone jangling surface that made Neil and George, sorry John, think of our wives and their fondness for the cobble sections of the Tour de France (something to do with Lycra and men before you ask).
Despite the better surface we weren't able to press on any quicker, the wind was picking up and our bodies were starting to feel the effects of nearly 40 miles. Lunch was needed and the break couldn't come soon enough. As we came in to Newbury, passing our losing cup final venue and the swish venue we got the league title trophy, we started looking for a suitable pub for lunch. The route took us right in to the town centre and John guided us to The Lock, Stock & Barrel.. Often a great sun trap but not today, as we stopped to lock our bikes up outside the heavens opened and we hurried for cover.
With everyone having the same idea, there was no space within. So outside we went, thankfully to a covered section but it wasn't the warm respite we were hoping for. Food was ordered and I sadly, had to go and find somewhere inside where I could stand and charge my phone so that we could have directions later if needed. I happen to speak to sit with someone who used to work on the canals and he mentioned that coming in to Devizes we had 19 locks in a row to deal with, that's 19 rising sections of canal at the end of our day. Not the news we wanted to hear. Despite being outside we did manage to enjoy the fact we weren't out in the torrential rain. Fueled up we set out in to the wind and rain. It was looking like a long day ahead of us.
Suffering on the thin narrow paths it was really like the towpaths were closing in on us, with elderflowers pushing at us from each side and a small thin line of path to follow we were being buffeted by more than just the wind. Next second John went down in to our heavily overgrown surroundings. He was fine, the only thing that had been hurt was his pride as he gave us a look of someone feeling like a novice. We assured him we were finding it hard too and, having dusted himself off we put our feet on the pedals again. We couldn't have got 100 yards when both myself and Neil went down with seconds of each other. John turned around and merely asked us if we'd done it to make him feel better. We're not that kind of people. With nettle stings backed up by aching joints and arses starting to feel the distance we were well and truly in to the whole suffering thing.
As we'd given up hope of nice weather we just hoped for a better surface so our ride was a bit more comfortable. Be careful what you wish for. Four miles outside of Newbury the route turned off from the towpaths, hurray! and up a hill, oh. The new surface was welcomed but the weather just kept coming and rolling hills were not idea on already tired legs. By 4pm the mood had certainly changed and there was a quietness that comes about when each rider is battling his own demons.
As it looked like were exiting Great Bedwyn, I proclaimed their wasn't anything 'great' about it. We'd been hoping to stop in a cafe there but we hadn't seen a single place to stop. Neil suggested we press on to the next place but I'd just realised I hadn't done anything about my car that I'd abandoned the night before outside my local garage. Seeing a pub we all agreed we needed to stop and with a beer garden for our bikes we took no persuading.
The Three Tuns turned out to be our little oasis in the storm. As the rain came down like cats and dogs, Neil and I sort out refreshments inside. John guarding the bikes, sought refuge in a little summer seating section. Without any phone signal I couldn't sort out my car and with my phone running out of juice fast I needed a recharge in more ways than one. Thankfully the lady behind the bar was most insistent that we came inside and left our bikes to the elements. John took no persuading and joined us inside as I was given the landline phone and called the garage. With my car booked in, all that was left was to relax and enjoy a drink - oh and the thought of a further 24 miles still ahead of us.
With sugary drinks inside us and our panniers / rucksacks ransacked for snacks we were on our way in to the now spitting rain. We hadn't got 50 yards before the heavens opened again and we suffered the worst weather of the day so far. The wind lashed the rain against us and the thought of all those miles in this weather did not bode well. Yet, maybe it was all the sugar or that we'd come through so much so far, we just pressed on. Lacking any protection my hair on my head I was soon in pain as the full force of the wind and rain battered against my skull. It turns out the idea of Vaseline to protect me against this was a humorous one and one that I should have kept to myself as I'm was ribbed for it from then on.
Thankfully the rain didn't last long and we were treated to the delights on bright, warming sunshine despite the ever present wind. That was is, delirium must have set in as my lungs opened and shared what was a constant eclectic playlist for the rest of our day. First off was Morecambe and Wise and "Bring Me Sunshine". Then it was anything and everything that our now fragile minds could think of. We even had a rendition of YMCA "it's fun to stay at the Premier Inn" as we dreamed of the Purple Palace we'd booked and it's 'all you can eat' breakfast. Knowing it was right at the end of the route without any detours really made it feel near and yet far away at the same time.
And still the wind hit us "come on, is that all you've got". There was a real feeling that nothing could stop us now but it didn't make it any easier. We hadn't seen a towpath for a good while and Neil was now harking back to those times with rose tinted glasses. The new surface was no benefit to the constant rise and fall of the rolling hills. It was getting later, the light was fading and so were we. The mini pit-stops were getting more frequent as we raided our supplies to find those extra few calories to get us across the line. Each time the road took a turn upward there was a collective groan, every time we went near water Neil wistfully looked for signs that said we could rejoin the flat but bumpy towpaths. "Left just over the bridge, that's got to be a good sign" stated John or Neil - I was struggling with my own name by now never mind knowing who said what. A good sign it wasn't as the road went left and upward. We dropped down the gears and pedaled on.
Devizes was now on the signs, that was really helping. The miles might not have been coming down as quick as I liked but single figures meant it wouldn't be that long. "Everywhere we look there's hills" said Neil, knowing what was around the corner. However as the sign pointed straight on for Devizes, the cycle route and my phone pointed another way. Of course up a hill.
At this point it really was becoming a massive effort to follow each push on the pedal with another. John and Neil's knees were really feeling the paid and the hills weren't helping. My problem was not behind me, it WAS my behind. Feeling worse than ever, I couldn't understand it but I had no choice but to sit and bear it (rather than 'bare' it). Stops had become common as our bikes struggled with the demands we were putting on them. Neil was having to pump up his bike tyre and both Neil and John's chains had come off at one point or another.
Then we saw it, coming around a corner, there in front of us was the nicest sight we'd seen all day. More so than Newbury (unsurprisingly) and more than the odd spots of sunshine. In front of us was Devizes. There was still two or three miles to go but we could see the finish. The end was in sight and we went for it. Well as much as three men who had never ridden this far before could do. Craig, supporting us from a far would later comment that 80 miles (it was 82.88 to be accurate) in to the wind was more like 120 miles. We don't know if there's any scientific basis to that but it certainly felt a LONG way.
The route brought us straight in to Devizes and pretty much to the front door of our hotel. As we kept our eyes peeled, ready for the heavenly sight of the Premier Inn, there, right in front of us was... Travelodge! When we realised we'd booked that instead of a Premier Inn (there isn't one in Devizes) we were relieved, not disappointed. We were at the hotel and off our bikes. As we booked in with the largish lady at the front desk we told her where we'd come from, how many miles we'd done and how many calories that equated to (3302). "That's not very much" she said referring to the calories. "That's just a main meal". Well maybe for her but we'd struggle to eat our curry and stay awake. We retired to our rooms, not beaten men, but certainly a little delirious. I swear we saw a woman with a beard singing in Eurovision.