Bikepacking The Socially Distanced
Gravel events have been gaining alot of traction in the UK. This was going to be the year that I finally went and joined in. The Dorset Gravel Dash? The Distance? The Dirty Reiver? Why do they all start with a D? They all looked tempting. I was keen to get on some curated gravel; do some bikepacking; meet some likeminded people and have a beer with them. Then it happened. You know, 2020. Lockdown. Events industry shattered. Yeh, all that.
With events cancelled left, right and centre, hopes for attending one fizzled out like a lonely lockdown birthday cake candle. That was until The Distance introduced their new concept for an event, “The (Socially) Distance(d)”. Everyone descending on the same route in Yorkshire – that was gone. The gathering around a campfire for a beer – yep that went too. Instead you were asked to ride locally and share your route on Komoot. Complete a bingo card of photos through Instagram to show others what you saw. A zoom chat (oh how very 2020) would replace the campfire.
But, even with a few in the bag already this year, I still yearned a bikepacking trip. Planning got more involved. With other plans on the afternoon of the “event”, I was lucky to have a Friday “off” work to shape my programme around. I plotted a two day route and set off for the South West again (yes, just 5 days after I was last there). My plan was simple: a decent length bikepacking trip on the Friday; camp at a pub with a friend Friday night; a shorter route back on Saturday morning whilst partaking in The Socially Distanced photo bingo.
Riding The Ridgeway
My route on Friday took me from Cricklade, along some questionable route planning, down to the Ridgeway. The questionable route planning I later discovered was a footpath, which explains all the gates. However, gravelly goodness soon garnished a grin across my face. Often referred to as Britain’s oldest road, The Ridgeway is an 87 mile National Trail along a ridgeline of chalk hills. If this is what long distance off-road trails can be, i’ll have more of the same please. It was gloriously dry and dusty, the many comments that the pale chalky trail can be slippery in the wet were forgotten.
After stopping for a spot of food at Wayland’s Smithy, a Neolithic barrow from circa 3400BC with a façade of imposing stones, the trail continued. Navigation forgotten along the exceedingly well signposted track through an endless mix of rolling countryside of arable and livestock fields. The name Ridgeway might suggest that this route runs along a ridgeline. But do not be so fooled; elevation to be tackled is abundant.
Brutal cross-headwinds were married to the endless succession of climbs and descents. One minute slowing my progress to a walking pace grind, the next harassing me 5m sideways off the side of the, by now, wide grassy track. Upon finally reaching the end of the Ridgeway, I had little energy left. But my route kept going relentlessly, down more thrilling descents, up more hike-a-bike climbs.
Route Finding Resumes
Without the handy Ridgeway signs pointing me in the right direction, navigation had to resume. My route planning failed again however, a bridleway turned out to be nothing more than a thicket of brambles. I found a different (thankfully shorter) route. It looked promising (read: went directly to the pub) and I was knackered. But less than 200m along I was on foot shoving my bike through the overgrown track in front of me. The steep descent the track had started with the only reason to push on forward and not turn back.
Eventually I emerged from the undergrowth and made the short tarmac dash to the pub, only 10 minutes before my company for the evening arrived, what perfect timing. Adventure continued though, the pub garden guarded by a flock of majestic…….. chickens. Ready to prey on any dropped morsels. (Socially Distanced riders will pick up on the first bingo card item there). We setup camp (tricky with the wind) and tucked into woodfired pizzas and cloudy cider (less tricky) before retiring to our tents. Her’s garnering much more attention than mine. Unsuprising given as it sit’s perched atop a Land Rover.
Pedalling for The Socially Distanced Photos
The following morning was the day of the “event”. I dugout my (electronic) bingo card of photo requirements and set about memorising them. That way I could look for photo opportunities as I rode. The Socially Distanced had begun. My first photo was the “Majestic Bird of Prey“. Ok, I took a photo of the pub chickens, but damn, they were majestic. I quickly followed with a picture of my morning “Coffee Outside” as I sat eating breakfast in the dappled morning sunlight.
After some morning “Bike Faffing” on the Thompson R9300, including having “Something Dangled” from my Alpkit luggage, I set off. My route back was more direct than the previous day and, thankfully, involved less elevation. By sheer luck, I’d created an 80% traffic-free route with a combination of canal towpath, forest tracks, rail trails and suburban cycle-ways. I rode along thinking about the various bingo card titles, planning possible photos and where artistic license would allow for inventive interpretation.
Here the photography element of The Socially Distanced really worked to bring a refreshing outlook to a second day of a bikepacking ride. By focussing on what’s around you, trying to fit the surroundings to your photo titles, gives a focus for what is, quite often, just a ride home. On any normal ride you might stop and take a nice picture, but now you’re actively thinking and matching the view ahead to your given titles. Is that landscape a good “Scenic View“? Does that “Water Crossing” look watery enough? Is that tree old enough to count as “Something Historic“?
Easy Riding, Easy Photos
Soon I began ticking off the low hanging fruit (“Trail Snacks“) in my various photos. I still needed to download and post them, but I began to focus my thoughts on ideas for some of the harder ones. My route went through a suburban area, so I assumed I’d find “Trailside Art” grafiti there. “Hike-a-bike” was soon found with a set of steps up-and-away from the canal towpath at Bruce’s tunnel.
The next section of the route was a glorious arrow straight gravel road through the middle of the broad leaved Savernake Forest, Britain’s only privately owned forest. Through mottled sunlight, beneath towering oak trees, the gravel track rises and falls, but stays straight and true it’s entire 5km length. The last of the rises being suprisingly steep, dropping into the easiest gear combo for the “Uphill Struggle“.
After a quick stop in a bus shelter to escape a light rain shower, I find myself on Sustrans Route 482. This Rail Trail follows the line of the Chiseldon to Marlborough Railway branch South of Swindon. Another Rail Trail to add to my growing list. As I pedal along, peacefully away from traffic, I spot someone in a high-vis jacket as he “Picked some litter“. I explain my bingo photo game and he smiled to be included in my bizarre photo album. I’d never normally stop a complete stranger and ask if I could take their photo, but we chatted about The Socially Distanced and he seemed genuinely happy to help.
Socially Distanced Bingo! Full-House!
I was soon nearing the end of the ride, with one card still left to find. Not personally owning a “Flannel Shirt” I was struggling to think how I might complete the full-house. A quick (and probably very strange sounding) WhatsApp message to the group I was meeting-up with later and I discovered one of them had one in the car. My bingo card was going to be complete. My prize-draw entry all but confirmed. But this subtly changed my riding etiquette. Rather than soaking up and experiencing what was around me, my hands moved to the drops more often, I sat in the big ring far longer. The last 10 miles zipping by in a blur.
Arriving at my second campsite I was greeted by friends with a “Post Ride Drink” of prosecco. Our evening plans meant I unfortunately missed out on The Socially Distanced after party, which is a real shame as I would like to have heard Natt Williams chatting about his Iceland Divide tour.
Even without the actual gathering I still connected with other participants through Instagram. Browsing through the hashtag #thesociallydistanced, laughing at the similarities between posts (at least 3 other people posted photos of chickens I swear, clearly majestic creatures!). Maybe next time we’ll meet for real, though maybe (hopefully) there’ll be another similar bingo event soon.