SOCALISING IN THE SADDLE
Last summer's Olympic heroes – Wiggo, Hoy, Pendleton and the rest – have done wonders for cycling in Britain, reminding us what a great racing nation we are. Meanwhile, initiatives like Bristol's Cycling City project and subsequent sporadic bursts of funding continue to encourage cycling as a serious transport option: recent figures show that commuter cycling numbers in Bristol increased 100 per cent between 2001 and 2011.
But what's often overlooked in the rush to trumpet cycling as a wonder-sport or a transport miracle (though it is certainly both) is the simple pleasure of bike rides, of riding as a sociable, relaxing way to admire our green and pleasant land.
A long-established local cycling festival has, for four decades or so, been quietly reasserting cycle touring as a convivial and calming way to spend the day.
The White Horse Weekend attracts riders from across the country for two glorious days of cycling and camaraderie, with a choice of different routes through the beautiful Wiltshire countryside and beyond.
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"Above all, it's a sociable event," says organiser Jacqui Cook. "These days there are a lot of challenge rides, charity rides and sportives around, but the White Horse Weekend is a bit of an old-school event, just people getting out on their bikes and having a ride in the countryside. There's a traditional cycle touring aspect to the White Horse, which is perhaps sometimes overlooked by newcomers to cycling, who may think that the only options are the carbon-fibre and Lycra-clad high-speed racing events, or huge charity events with sponsor forms and crowds everywhere.
Jacqui adds: "The White Horse is a bit different; it's very much aimed at the social side, at relaxation and friendliness. It's a real fraternity of cyclists – all abilities welcome."
The festival has been running every year since the Seventies, with its organisation shared between three cycling clubs in the South West area. This year's gathering is being laid on by the venerable Chippenham and District Wheelers (founded in 1932), with a team of volunteers helping marshal routes, organise social events and make endless cups of tea.
The event HQ is the unassuming village hall in Yatton Keynell, about 40 minutes' drive east of Bristol, deep in the rolling greenery of Wiltshire.
Although it's changed its name 14 times since it was mentioned in the Domesday Book, Yatton Keynell retains a strong sense of identity and has much to recommend it.
A tranquil medieval village four-and-a-bit miles north of Chippenham, it has a fine 13th- century church and (probably of more interest to thirsty cyclists) a 17th-century pub, the Bell.
Yatton Keynell is affectionately known to the Wheelers as "the epicentre of cycling".
The White Horse Weekend is open to all. Many people camp locally or find B&Bs in the area so they can enjoy a full weekend of rides and gentle revelry, which kicks off this year on the evening of Friday, April 12, with registration and a laid back social evening in the village hall.
Games of skittles may break out; fish and chips will doubtless be snared from the aforementioned Bell Inn. Ales will be quaffed and stories shared of rides gone by, before an earlyish night in readiness for the following day's outing.
On Saturday, April 13, the riding begins, with three expeditions of varying length: there's a 35-mile ride for beginners, a medium-sized 45-miler and a meandering 60-mile sojourn for more seasoned adventurers.
After collecting route sheets and meeting the ride leaders, there's time for bacon rolls, coffee and cakes before the rides set off. Despite the differing distances, all the routes visit more or less the same areas at roughly the same times, heading west into the Cotswold Edge area, with perhaps a glimpse of the Cherhill White Horse, which gives the weekend its name, before a stop at Chipping Sodbury for lunch, and tea in North Wraxall.
"It's typical south Cotswolds countryside," says Jacqui. "Just as beautiful as some of the famous North Cotswold villages like Stow-on-the-Wold or Bourton-on- the-Water, but quieter, with a massive network of relatively traffic-free lanes around them.
"There are a couple of steep hills – this is the Cotswolds, after all – but it's generally an undulating rural landscape, lots of old traditional stone-built villages and rolling hedgerows; perfect cycle touring country."
Saturday night brings a communal meal (bookable via the weblink below) to refuel after the day's exertions, a quiz and perhaps a cycling film, too.
Sunday, April 14, follows a similar format to Saturday, with rides of 35, 45 or 55 miles, but this time the routes head north towards the wildlife-rich lakes of Cotswold Water Park.
"The landscape is similar to Saturday's rides, but probably less hilly," says Jacqui. "Again, it's all pretty villages, farmland and relatively quiet country lanes.
"There will be mid-morning coffee at Charlton and lunch back at Yatton Keynell.
"All the rides are designed so that everyone meets at the tea stop and gets back to the finish at about the same time, even if they've taken different routes, because the whole point of these rides is the social aspect.
"Some people have been coming for years and years, we get new people joining in every year and it's very much to help foster the friendlier side of cycling."
Sunday lunch promises Wiltshire Hot Pot and plenty of cake – again this has to be booked in advance – before the final farewells and the faithful promise to do it all again next year.
This year's White Horse Weekend runs on Friday, Saturday and Sunday, April 12, 13 and 14. Meals should be booked by March 20. To find out more and to register, visit www.chippenhamwheelers.org.
For those who've discovered it, cycle touring is one of life's enduring pleasures. Social or solitary, it's sightseeing by bike; "putting miles in your legs", as the old-timers sometimes say.
It might be a simple day ride in a grand loop that ends at its starting point, or an expedition several days or weeks long, covering hundreds of miles.
Some choose to load up the bike with camping kit, cook-sets and provisions and be near self-sufficient, others go "ultralight", carrying the bare minimum and living by their wits and their cash card.
Touring bikes are built to last, with strong, relatively light frames, medium-width wheels that offer a good compromise between strength and speed, a low centre of gravity and a long wheelbase, making them stable and easy to control even when loaded. They should have clearance for mudguards and fittings for attaching pannier racks front and back.
They're not cheap – expect to pay upwards of £800 for decent new one – but because they're built to last, they often come up second-hand for much more affordable sums. My trusty Dawes Galaxy came to me for £200; it's nearly 20 years old, but it'll probably keep going for another 20 at least.
The point about cycle touring is not to rush; it's the embodiment of the old saying that "it's better to travel than to arrive".
All you need is a stack of flapjack, an OS map folded atop your handlebar bag and a vague idea of where you want to be by teatime. The rest is up to you.
There's lots of helpful advice for would-be cycle tourists at www.ctc.org.uk/cyclepedia.