Canal to the country
by Martin King


What does offroad cycling mean to you? I live in the suburban sprawl to the west of London. It's impossible for me to ride straight out onto the dirt, but that just creates a challenge. Using as little tarmac as possible becomes part of the fun. The centuries of development which crammed such a large population into the area also left us an alternative to the roads -- canals, already in commercial decline 150 years ago, are still useful today. On a misty December morning I set out along waterways that would take me south. My destination, the rolling country of the North Downs.

Having crossed the Thames and ridden her banks to Weybridge I was hacking along the tow path of the Wey Navigation, only slowed by ducks waddling from my track. This is what passes for nature where industry has made the habitat for man and beast alike. I was brought to an abrupt halt by a metallic clang and an instant loss of air from the rear end. It was easy to spot the big hole in the tyre. What the hell did that? I walked back up the trail to look but found nothing. Judging from the chipped paintwork, whatever it was must have travelled with the wheel until it banged into the bridge between the seat stays and was thrown off.

A short distance ahead the path widened at a lock, just the space I needed to make repairs. I was not alone. On the far side of the lock, in an unpromising setting, a woman was smiling for a portrait photograph with the water as backdrop. A man grappled with a big camera as he aimed down from his perch on a set of step ladders. A woman with pocket camera snapped away from ground level. Other helpers stood around nearby. How many people do you need to take a photo? Whatever, I was the one who needed to focus.

The balance beam of the lock gate made a sturdy work bench. Off came the tyre. I found the inner tube split apart. My attention drawn to a cut in the rim tape revealed, a hole driven through the inner wall of the rim. Cursing, consternation, then disbelief.

I always carry a spare inner tube as my first fix for a puncture, the repair kit is just for insurance. That one really big patch, normally left unused, nicely covered the hole on the inside of the tyre. Spare tube and tyre back on, inflated with a zillion strokes of the mini-pump, wheel on, chain tension set, and I was ready to roll.

As I stood up a woman walking her dog addressed me, "Slim Jim". I am lean and look even more so trussed up in bib tights and two cycling jerseys. "Slim Jim, what are they doing?". "I have no idea", I replied, "I just stopped to fix a puncture". "I'm going to find out" she said as she stepped onto the bridge at the lock gates, heading for the strangers on her patch.

Too sensible to risk a wounded wheel surviving the hills, my plans were in tatters. I consoled myself with some dried apricots, my favourite trail food. If you sit on a banana you have a mess. If you sit on a dried apricot you have a slightly flatter dried apricot. Clearly the superior cycling snack. Having decided on the shortest route home I pedalled away leaving woman, dog, and the whole circus still striving for the right picture. I don't know why they persisted. The air was opaque with moisture. Dreary was as good as the scene was going to get.

So how do you fix the puncture from hell? Priming the bare frame metal, touching in matching top coat, then varnishing the repaired area was the easy bit, for me. Familiar tasks for which I already had the makings. What to do about the rim though? This incident finally gave me the impetus to try wheel building. I had feasted at Christmas and raised a glass to the New Year before I had the tools and parts to finish the job.

Fired by enthusiasm at the sight of my new spoke spanner, truing stand, and dishing tool, I leapt into the task. Having carefully studied the spoke lacing on both wheels I began the removal of the damaged rim by unscrewing the nipples. A third of the way around I noticed I still had the good front wheel in my hands. I sat back, dumbly wondering "How did I do that?" Oh well, two wheels to rebuild should make me twice as good at it? I figure this episode as some sort of retribution for admiring my own bike in the Fixed Gear Gallery. Humbled but undaunted, I kept working. Eventually, I had a rebuilt wheelset that cried out to be proven. I knew the only fitting test was to complete the original journey. It's a long ride. The full fifteen apricot.

Riding your own wheels for the first time is alarming. Lots of pings and creaks in the first fifty yards from home had me looking for trouble, but none came. A few more tings accompanied me in the next two hundred yards, then only when hitting a hard bump. After a mile all worrying noises had ceased and I was still rolling smoothly. I stopped to spin the wheels and take a close look. Still running true but stifle that pride, I don't want another slap from a higher authority!

Once again I followed the Wey, enjoyment tempered by the compulsion to scan ahead for any other traps set by disciples of Vlad the Impaler. They didn't get me again. Passing under the M25 orbital motorway I could feel London's fingers start to lose their grip on me. The going would be easy, if it wasn't so muddy. I left the canal at Ripley, where the lower section of the River Wey and its navigations diverge. The weir, with its gushing water beneath your wheels, is the route to the riverbank. Emerging from a short lane reveals you've been transported to a land that looks almost rural, a small town but suburbia nowhere in sight.

I was already familiar with much of this district but was heading for a south bound bridleway not previously explored. On the Ordnance Survey map my intended route looked straight forward, and so it was, at first. From open ground into woods until confronted by "PRIVATE NO BRIDLEPATH" on the only obvious track. I had to look hard to spot a small arrow showing the right of way, pointing into the trees. Not so much singletrack as no track. Nearby, a proper signpost, uprooted but left propped against a tree. Were its direction fingers still correctly oriented? It's the sort of thing that drives ramblers mad. I can only guess I was being directed around Her Majesty's Prison, Send. Perhaps the inmates would rise up if they glimpsed a passing cyclist, independence personified.

I weaved between close, thin trees, pushing the bike, until the apparition of a route emerged. Back on two wheels, I knew I had to cross under a railway, so the clatter of a passing train gave me heart and direction. Beyond the railway things got even more confusing.

There was a wide, clear byway, which I happily followed. The hundreds of yards of high mesh fencing got me thinking. So did what looked like upturned blue dustbin lids, each supplied by a water pipe and fitted with a ball cock set to keep the bowl full. These drink dispensers were on my side of the fence. How could I be inside animal pens? I stopped and looked at the map again, unsure of myself. Gason Wood and Hatchlands. Hatch indeed. What sort of critters do they rear around here? No clue to be heard, only wind rustling the leaves. No movement to be seen, save small birds in the trees. I raced on. Speed was essential for the route, twiddling a tiny gear simply wouldn't get you from town to country and back in a half day ride. Anyway, no point loitering in Jurassic Park!

At last, the Downs were dead ahead. Although obscured from view previous experience made me tense in anticipation of the slopes. There are no mountains in south east England but, believe me, there are some very steep hills. The absence of that tiny gear meant I was glad to use road for the assent from the village of East Clandon. Once up top and onto dirt again I followed my nose to Dogkennel Green, skirting water filled bomb holes and squelching through mud where there was no alternative. Hop the log anyone?

From there, it had to be tarmac road all the way home. Winter just gives too little light, too little warmth, to contemplate further excursions off the highway. I pulled in at the end of a parade of shops in Effingham to take my final fruit energy supplement. While chomping, the butcher stepped out to engage me in conversation. He rides to work and knows what he wants in his bikes. "Yes, it is a fixed gear". We compare notes until a customer goes through his door then, with "Cheerio", he's back to work and I'm on my way.


Martin King is an ex IT network projects manager looking for an alternative way to earn a living. He can be contacted at his own site -- no bikes, just smooth newts and some British social history.

v1.0 written February 2006

If you want to build your own wheels, Martin recommends Sheldon Brown of course, but also this unusual site which teaches how to tension a wheel by 'tuning' the notes produced by pinging the spokes.

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