The opera begins: (Milton Keynes - Culham, Oxfordshire) - When we were two little boys - CycleBlaze

May 1, 2012

The opera begins: (Milton Keynes - Culham, Oxfordshire)

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IT'S LITTLE things that betray your tiredness. Like pressing a machine button for coffee with milk and then wondering where the sachets of milk might be. Nothing much in itself but a sign of dwindling lucidity.

Well, Mike went through that in the last hour of his first day. But that was all he went through because, after riding further than he'd ridden in half a century, he was as fresh as ever after a shower and an hour's sleep.

'I feel really pleased,' he said when he emerged. 'My family have all been telling me that I'm foolish to even try, that I wouldn't last the first day. And even I began to doubt myself. But now I've done it and if I feel as good tomorrow as I feel tonight, well...'

Water, water everywhere...
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Mike has been riding through the winter. But the 650km he has covered, while impressive, still left questions about his fitness for nine days' of continuous riding on a loaded bike. Especially with knees which aren't in their first youth. He celebrated with two glasses of wine in the bar of a railside hotel decorated with railway paintings. You have never seen a man feel so at home. He left school, after all, precisely because he wanted to work with trains in general and signalling in particular.

We have ridden from the land of roundabouts - rotary junctions - and underpasses that characterise Milton Keynes to a region of the upper Thames just south of Oxford. On the way out from home, we passed a sign welcoming travellers to Milton Keynes, 'home of the codebreakers.' It was a reference to nearby Bletchley Park, home of the world's first electronic computer, of Alan Turing, and the code-breakers who unravelled the Enigma code used by the Germans in the second world war. Mike's wife, Geneviève, however, is French. And however well she may speak English, which is fluently, she fell into the trap that we all know, of taking a word in one language and reading it as though it were in another.

'Why do they call Milton Keynes the land of the law-breakers?' she asked. The Code Civil is France's legal framework.

A gentle day of stone and greenery
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It has been a day of exquisite countryside and villages of stone the shade of toffee. The rain fell this morning but from then the sun waved nervously from behind clouds. More than that, we had a gentle tailwind all day, against all probability for a ride heading south-west. Things couldn't have been better for Mike's debut.

We not only got into the small roads he'd been craving but, for the price of some harmless trespass and a blind eye to a sign pointing out a road was private, we rode through farms and around meadows and along a path where all that had passed for weeks were tractors.

Our consciences were clear. Anybody determined to keep travellers off his road would have installed a gate. And trespass is a tort and not a crime, so the greatest charge can be to pay for damage caused. Which was none.

'This is really wonderful,' Mike said once he'd grown used to the idea of becoming a desperado. But he wasn't so keen about the last half an hour. We weren't on a major highway but we were within grasp of the Oxford traffic whirlpool and we were in its rush hour phase. The roads were narrower than the traffic they carried.

Tonight,  Mike has found us a small hotel close enough to a small station to be interesting but distant enough, we hope, that the trains won't go right through our rooms.

'This used to be an Indian restaurant but we converted it and we've got it on a rolling 10-year lease,' the woman behind the bar told us in her rolling burr of the upper Thames valley. 'Oi waas born in Barrksha,'she more crumbled than spoke. 'Not so classy noe, though, caas that's Royal Barrksha and they've moved uz into just plain Ahxford.' It must be 30 years since boundaries changed in England, sending part of Royal Berkshire into Oxfordshire among other consequences, but some people still resent it.

This buzzing accent will be with us for a while now. Tomorrow we ride into Hampshire, where the burr is softer but the vowels are rounder. The locals call it Hompshurr.

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We shall be riding to Winchester, which prides itself not only on being where my grandmother ran a pub during the war but on being home to the Arthurian legend. The interesting thing is that just the same claim is made in north-west France. I have no idea where the truth lies but it's worth pointing out that all the main characters of the story - Arthur, Lancelot, Merlin and Guinevère - have French names.


What more could a railwayman ask than to stay at the Railway Inn?
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The other Little Boy recounts:

We set off on the first leg of our journey at 8:45. Geneviève took photos and I led the way along the relative calm of the Redway routes for walkers and cyclists around the city. Léo was the navigator but I had agreed to lead us out of Milton Keynes. My job was to take us as far as Winslow after which Léo would take over. After ten minutes in the rain, he had a puncture, so the next 45 minutes was spent struggling to fit the spare inner tube. Léo was mortified it had taken so long- he thought it should have taken a few minutes - but we had trouble with the brake caliper adjustment. Anyway, after this unscheduled stop, we took a route through Simpson Village, Bletchley, Newton Longville then out of Milton Keynes via Drayton Parslow to Winslow.

Generally, it was planned to continue the rest of the trip on B and sub-B roads. Our first stop was in Winslow at Rosie's Bar, a licensed café in this small market town in Buckinghamshire. I had not felt any discomfortat this stage, but Léo keeps badgering me to eat all the time and, of course, drink plenty of water. I followed his advice and he explained the physiological reasons for it; something to do with keeping the blood sugar level up so that your body doesn't try to burn fat. If this happens you get a knock which you don't want to happen as it is painful. In America it goes by another name, 'bonking'. They don't understand our language.

A warrior fit for the battle
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Cycling through the Aylesbury Vale involves pleasant downhill bits, but also some difficult (for me) uphill work. Even selecting my granny gear didn't help much and I have not cycled such a route with eight and a half kilos of luggage in my panniers before.

Once we cleared the Aylesbury Vale we continued on relatively flat roads, passing through some seriously flooded areas following the heaviest April rain on record. With typical irony, the rain started just after the government issued a hosepipe ban due to the drought. We continued until we reached Thame where we had a pub lunch of sausage and mash. After this hour or so of respite we continued towards Abingdon, our first stop.

Léo has mentioned that Abingdon has no historical significance to the ride of 1962 but is conveniently between Milton Keynes and Winchester, our original first stop. I found the going  particularly wearying in the afternoon and I was grateful we had covered about two thirds of the first leg before lunch. I have two arthritic knees that limit the power I can exert on the pedals, especially after a few hours in the saddle, so I tended to fall behind Léo who was busy navigating through small and in one case a private road for a few miles after Thame. Nevertheless, we came through all the rain of the morning unscathed and enjoyed a pleasant afternoon ride through rolling Oxfordshire countryside, with occasional sun and a light wind in our faces.

We arrived at the Railway Inn next to Culham station near Abingdon at about 5:30. How did I feel? Weary and my knees ached, but that apart, after a shower and a short nap before dinner, I was surprised that I felt reasonably OK. Léo has warned me the 'knock' will hit me on the third day.

Today's ride: 89 km (55 miles)
Total: 1,046 km (650 miles)

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