Where do you want to go? I texted my friend in mid-December. We’d arrange to meet up for a day ride on Christmas Eve, one of the only days when our calendar aligned and gave us both a day off.
Let’s go to Monmouth.
Sounds like a good plan.
And nothing more was said on the matter until the 23rd of December when I realised we didn’t have a route ready. I grabbed my phone and began texting. Do you have a route in mind for tomorrow?
The answer was no. I quickly hopped on Google Maps and Sustrans and perused our options. There were a few possibilities, all of which had escape routes in case the roads grew too busy to our liking. I closed the maps and went on with my day.
My alarm rang on the 24th and I briefly wondered why I was doing this. It had been over a week since I last woke up without the sound of my phone instructing me night was over. Blurry eyed and half asleep, I put on some clothes, prepared breakfast, and went out of the house, all my movements well honed by habits.
As I pushed the pedals and wheeled myself away from the drive, I felt my eyes open and a smile rise on my face. I forgot about the alarm clock and let the hill carry me down.
In no time I was at the train station where we had agreed to meet. I was early, having completely misjudged how long it was going to take me to get there. I sat on a bench and waited, listening to the shrill call of gulls. I had missed it. I use to cycle almost daily along a stretch of the Avon river where the gulls mingle and dance. But now the path is closed and I barely see the gulls any more. My eyes darted from one to another. They looked happy enough.
My friend arrived, taking me out of my reverie. We chatted for a few minutes. I disclosed the options of route for the day, and without much care we cycled away from the city centre. The route was known to both of us. We’d cycled it before and it was easy to follow Sustrans’ signs out-of-town. We pedalled side by side, talking about this and that, conversations stopped because of traffic, only to be picked up where we’d left off as the roads became ours again.
We weren’t paying too much attention to the road and missed a turn. It didn’t matter, we weren’t racing. Back on track we soon escaped the city for the neighbouring suburbs. Other cyclists passed us by, everyone waving, smiling, and full of Merry Christmas. It was good to be on the bike.
We encountered a collection of signs where cycle routes divided and decided to follow the quickest one to the Severn bridge. I could see it in the distance and pushed a little harder on the pedals, eager to cross the river to Wales.
We cycled on and the bridge began to disappear from sight. The road was unfamiliar, our previous foray into Wales having been via the longer route to the bridge. Since neither of us have a cycling computer we couldn’t say how long we’d been cycling since the sign to the bridge, but it felt like it’d been too long.
‘Do you recognise this route,’ I asked, knowing that my friends had cycled to Wales more than I have.
‘I think we missed a turning and are now going to Gloucester.’
We stopped and checked our phones. The bridge was south of the blue dot on Google Maps.
‘Let’s go to Gloucester then.’
We jumped back onto the saddle and followed the road ahead. It was easy to change decision. Monmouth had after all been an arbitrary choice of destination. All we wanted was a ride and we were getting one. Free of worry, we carried on, guided by Sustrans peppered signs in the countryside. Some of them were peeling of, others had faded completely and we took a few wrong turns as a result. It still didn’t matter.
We kept chatting about projects finished, projects to come, plans for the new year, features of the landscape, and this and that. The weather was grey over our heads but sometimes a break in the clouds would bring a spot of blue sky, a reminder that beneath the clouds, lay the promise of sunshine.
‘Bristol!’ I pointed ahead to the sign visible in the break between hedges. ‘Bristol, A38.’ I added as the sign became more visible.
We paused in front of the four lane road. We had clearly taken another wrong turn. Looking at our phone, Gloucester was still a good 11 miles away. It wasn’t that far but we were both starting to feel our appetite growing. I tapped on a few keys and found a pub nearby. We could decide what to do there. We parked the bikes, ordered food and drink and settled at a table. All around us people were wearing Christmas jumpers, Santa hats, and smiles on their faces. Our hair messed up by helmets, and clothes sprayed by mud, we looked a little less festive. But the feeling was there. For both of us, citizens of the European continent, Christmas celebrations were supposed to take place that day. There was a meal and drinks waiting for us back in Bristol. So with our bellies full, we decided to cycle back home. Gloucester could wait for another day.
Navigating our way back was easy, we simply had to do the exact opposite of what we’d done in the morning, minus all the wrong turns. Only now the wind had picked up, blowing directly into our faces, making us push harder on the pedals even though the roads were mostly flat. We tailed one another, the time for conversation ended by the wind and emerging drizzle. I didn’t mind much. Since I went away cycling in the Iberian peninsula for a few months, wind and rain had become things that happened outside of my control instead of an annoyance on my schedule.
‘Look at those colours.’ My friend pointed at a field. The green of the grass seemed to glow under the fluorescent grey of the clouds. ‘You don’t get such changes in colours so quickly anywhere else.’
I agreed. The UK wasn’t many people’s idea of beautiful, but when faced with the ever-changing palette of the sky, I couldn’t help but think many people were wrong.
We seemed to cycle faster than in the morning and soon we were within familiar roads. I spotted a sign for Wales. ‘Fancy going to Monmouth now,’ I teased. We didn’t. We were getting wet and cold, the movement of our legs the only thing keeping us warm.
Hills appeared and we lowered our gears to rise into Bristol. Once on top, we shifted back to standard gears and freewheeled most of our way to the train station. There, we followed roads I see almost everyday, roads that lead us home. We put away the bikes, changed into clean clothes, and hugged a well-earned cup of tea. And as the dark and cold descended outside, lights and warmth engulfed us inside.