Feature article

New Roads

by Giles P Croft on 14 March 2010

The undiscovered road beckons...

There’s something about riding new roads that just gets my juices flowing.

I’m not talking about brand new additions to the family here, nor those old friends freshly resurfaced (although I’d be the first to admit the joy of a hard tire on velvet tarmac is almost otherworldly) – no, I mean the road that’s new to you, the one you crack open from its wrapping and turn over under your wheel to get the measure of it.

Is there anything quite as mouth-wateringly delicious as riding the road never ridden?

An exercise in consolidating a number of neglected local maps led me recently to the stark realisation that there are dozens of unridden roads right on my doorstep. Roads I just didn’t know were there.

You see, where I live might be the centre of my cycling universe, but whoever chose to partition the population on the basis of maps drawn at a scale perfect for exploring their detailed contours on two wheels obviously thought differently. We’ve been relegated to the bottom right-hand corner of Landranger Sheet 161. We’re an accidental town, destined forever to be overlooked by ramblers world-wide. For why oh why would you base yourself somewhere that requires two, three, maybe even four separate maps?

Ok, I’m at risk of melodrama. It’s fine, so long as I’m planning to ride north-west. Off where there’s just one choice that leads across the bleak, roadless Welsh moorland.

Hence my brilliant idea to take scissors and sellotape to five OS maps, with – wait for it – my bike shed as its epicentre. Each edge (excepting the nearby Bristol Channel) more or less the maximum reach of an out and back ride in any direction. Perfect.

It’s so big it won’t fold properly and I can walk barefoot across it.

We all have a stack of new roads right under our noses, so why don’t we ride them? Is it laziness? Maybe, a bit. Not really. When it comes to route-choosing, it’s more a case of “familiarity breeds content”. Especially when out with the gang. I mean, who’s going to suggest riding off into… into what? You don’t know, that’s the problem. Without a map and a bit of time to work out exactly how the hell you went so badly wrong, you’re dependent on an old hand – a seasoned local who has every sheep trail tattooed into his very being.

Another part of it I think is fear of the unknown. Even with prior research, you’ve still got to combat unknown surfaces and unquantified gradients, not to mention the loss of rhythm, one foot kerbside, poring over the damned map again with hands benumbed by cold.

In deep winter, only the foolhardy venture down unknown byways on their usual pair of “23s”.

But exploring new roads is easy and it’s definitely worth it. Forced to be on the lookout for your turning, straight away you’re astonished by it’s very presence – well hot damn, I never even saw that before, and I’m sure I ride this stretch every fortnight. From the moment you signal and turn, you’re grinning with the anticipation of what’s in store.

And it really doesn’t have to be anything ambitious. Even taking that needless little 1 mile loop away from your regular route can lead to exquisite pleasures – a stretch of mossy wall, a crenellated gateway, a horse following your progress with its uninterested gaze.

Having no reason to take a road is possibly the best reason there is.

Out in the hills, what never ceases to amaze me is how a new road can transform the most familiar of views simply by a subtle change in perspective. Due north of Swansea, riding either of the twin roads overlooking the Upper Lliw Reservoir, it’s absurd to imagine myself riding atop the other, despite traversing both regularly. And the customary trio of Sugarloaf, Skirrid and Blorenge viewed from the unexplored back road between Llangynidr Moor and Llangattock is literally like no other.

It’s as if the eye, presented with such well-known peaks in unfamiliar juxtaposition, refuses to accept them. From the vantage of your new road, however slight the change, you see them as if for the first time.

Of course the way is not always so smooth. If your new road is hand picked, coming without recommendation, then you’re always taking a bit of a gamble. Sometimes the approach to nirvana is guarded by chevrons. Easy to belittle when hatching plans, harder to ignore when locating that millimetre-fine balancing point between front wheel lifting and rear wheel slipping. Breath rasping and heart hammering, tackling this sort of farcical gradient on a road that’s unknown is made worse by the attendant psychological peril. With uncertainty comes doubt. If every turned corner slowly reveals no obvious end in sight, the panic starts to rise – maybe it never ends, maybe I don’t have enough in my legs…

It’s hard to mete out precious reserves when the denominator you’re climbing remains unquantified.

At times, going downhill’s worse. That sinking feeling as the road narrows, falls, loses its surface – you’re on the drops, covering the brakes, sighing inwardly and thinking that you’re committed now, and you’ll take what you’re given.

This very scenario put me in hospital not two weeks after moving home. I’d chosen Stroud for its plethora of hills and wooded lanes and, despite it being November, was diligently ticking off an ever-expanding circle of new roads in my locality, one by one. My appetite bordered on voracious.

Just beyond the village of Kingscote I took an innocent seeming yellow fellah – no chevrons, just five dotted lines down one side only – that from its location, looked like it could become a staple. With hindsight, closer inspection reveals that in less than 200yds it crosses five contours, before noticeably kinking sharply to the left. The real life version (seen through eyes I’ll admit were shocked by the sudden speed of the plunge) was also off camber and covered in densely compacted mud, recently greased with dank, winter drizzle. I still maintain I did well to right it once, before over-correcting, slipping and slamming down hard, shoulder first.

It didn’t take orthopaedic experience to know that the sharp end of clavicle tenting the skin beneath my shaking fingers spelled the end of exploration for the foreseeable future.

On the plus side, a van driver appeared as if by magic (“No one ever uses this road, you could have been here for days”), called an ambulance and ultimately took my bike home for me (largely undamaged, thanks for asking). It’s amazing what paramedics will give you if you repeat the phrase: “It still hurts”. By the time I arrived in A&E, I was riding a wave of morphine and entonox so high that much of the experience is lost to me now.

Except for one thing. I do remember threatening the nurse when she suggested cutting off my base layer and jersey.

This setback aside, my experience of new roads remains almost entirely positive. Just to know what’s there, should you wish to take it another time, is reason itself to try it in my book.

New roads I’ve explored have led to the discovery of reservoirs, climbs, woods, villages and views that are now a part of me. Some have become my favourite routes – an alternative way of getting from A to B – and others I’ve saved up for special occasions, when friends visit, for instance: “Just wait till you see this road – you’re going to love it.”

So what are you waiting for? Take your map out now and find a new road you can choose the next time you ride. And the time after that, ride it in the opposite direction, you won’t even need a map.

Two for the price of one.

  • Antonia

    unfortunately, velvet tarmac seems to be becoming a thing of the past in and around solihull. as soon as a pothole appears, the resurface the whole of the road in the cheap gravelly stuff. :(

  • Yeah, they are in a bit of a state right now, aren't they? I wonder how long the back roads will remain untouched - some of them are particularly bad. Ho hum - improves bike handling skills anyway :¬)

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