For a Northerner it all seemed a bit flat. Really flat. Oxfordshire may be home to some of the greatest intellectual prowess in the World, the birthplace of the ‘country supper’(allegedly) and some middle-aged bloke who drives fast cars for a living, but at first sight it would appear to offer little to someone fed on a diet of moorland tracks, 3 Peaks descents and long-distance bridleways and looking for some off-road riding.
A half term family trip to Abingdon necessitated bringing the Pickenflick of course, but where to ride? A quick bit of twitter research offered up the Ridgeway, an 87 mile long prehistoric route frequented by travellers, herdsmen and soldiers, conveniently located close to where we were staying. Tales of glass-like chalk surfaces if it rained, epic winter mud and tracks churned up by off-road vehicles only added to the appeal.
Arranging to be dumped out the car on the Rideway itself at the Swindon end, with what promised to be several hours of hard, muddy riding Eastwards toward Wantage, a forecast of heavy rain and high winds lent itself to the prospect of riding at the ‘epic’ end of the scale. As I was dropped off it was certainly windy and cold but thankfully dry to start with. And the riding wasn’t what was expected either. A hard, almost manicured surface gave rise to much quicker riding than expected, with the speed more akin to that of a road ride. Hopping puddles and potholes at speed became the new game with the Pickenflick simply flying on this kind of terrain. The track was certainly slippy in places, and I was glad of mud tyres at the unexpectedly rapid pace but it all added to the fun of blasting along, with the mud splattering as I went. Even the climbs weren’t really that hard, more big ring stomps rather than little ring grinds. And the rain continued to hold off which was nice.
The Ridgeway is littered with prehistoric monuments, ‘castles’ and features. The temptation to keep riding and making headway was strong but some of these ancient constructions were too evocative and atmospheric to ignore, so I made little diversions off the route from time to time to make sure it was more than just another ‘training’ ride. Looking out over the flat Oxfordshire countryside from the vantage point of the chalk ridge, Red Kites could be seen dominating the airspace all the way along, sending smaller birds scurrying for cover as they circled on hunting forays at low level . Indeed, the Kites seemed completely ubiquitous all the way along the route. Starting a new section of track at one point after a road crossing, I became aware of a large Kite about 20ft up in a tree above the track. Expecting it to fly off as I approached, it simply looked down on me as I halted beneath it and we had a brief staring contest before I flinched and made off. They are impressive in the air and equally impressive when eyeballing you at close quarters.
The rain continued to hold off, and the sections of the Ridgeway where it was closed to motor vehicles became much less manicured and consequently gratifyingly muddy and slippy, though still eminently manageable on the Pickenflick. The chalky sections, though delightfully slick were much faster to ride through than I had imagined, with ‘cross tyres being much more suited I suspect than thicker, cloggier mtb tyres. The section I had planned to ride was completed much quicker than I had banked on, meaning I peeled off the Ridgeway to finish back on the road much earlier than expected. Shame, as the riding was so well suited to the Pickenflick and the miles were flying by. With better weather, drier conditions and longer days the full Ridgeway route would make a brilliant ‘long day out’ with a ‘cross bike being more than well suited to the combination of smooth track, short road sections and the fast climbs and descents.
Above: Wayland Smithy - Below: Oxfordshire
Words by Alan Dorrington