"I think it's time we did a charity bike ride Dave" said Andrew. That's how it all began. Immediately my mind was cast back to the ride to Worcester along the worse stretch of tow path ever encountered outside of medieval Britain. That was several years before, but I will never forget the route; a hill so steep you had to hire Sherpa guides and rent oxygen masks to reach the summit, then the forty-five mile an hour downward plunge that tested your nerves. Add to this Five Pints detour of five miles round a 50 yard stretch of tunnel without tow path and a nasty mud filled swamp worthy of Flanders 1917 and you have a cold wet day in hell peddling against wind and rain being overtaken by snails.
So of course I said 'Yes' and added where are we going? London was the popular destination and we then settled down to several months of haggling over which way we should tackle the 150 mile journey. At first we were going to make the journey from Wolverhampton down to the big smoke, which seemed the most logical way to travel, and Andrew had even fixed up for JC to ride support in his truck with spares. I had a little bit of a niggling doubt about the level of support we might need, Andrew had planed for logistics worthy of a Formula One team which I thought was a bit over the top. After all it was only 150 miles, two days at tops!
Then Andrew decided it would be better to travel from London up to the Midlands, a choice that I really objected to as I could not see a ride from London to Wolverhampton sounding as glamorous as the reverse ride we had set out to do. So with great determination we argued and battled over the best way to go.
There we left it, with both of us claiming the other route was wrong. Even after a practice ride out to recon a section sans towpath of about a mile where the tunnel goes straight through a tunnel. We managed to find our way to the other end easy enough as there was still a road and track ran almost straight over the tunnel and you could see the ventilation shafts every 100 yards or so. Excellent pub with good grub and beer just before the tunnel too, so we could have rested up either before or after tackling the hill according to which route won.
Well I was given the task of pricing up accommodation and checking reports on the tow paths from fellow cyclists on the web. To my horror, there was no budget accommodation anywhere near the route as it was obviously very popular with: hikers, cyclists and the narrow boat mob. It became clear that the cost of a nights stay would nobble almost any amount we expected to raise from our sponsors so it looked that the only option would be a tent or persuade JC to take his boat down the canals ahead of us.
I had also managed to get onto the British waterways site to check there was no major repair work going on that might mean a closure of the pathways. Despite all my instincts pushing for the journey southwards, I finally caved in after careful scrutiny of the canal maps that showed a really close run of locks near London that made the 21 locks of Wolverhampton look like a picnic. I am no big fan of locks or bridges as my mountain bike must have been in Holland and my legs turn to jelly just noticing them amrked on the maps. It seemed most logical to comply with Andrew's wise choice of London to Wolverhampton after all.
However, it was not to be. Andrew did not want to spend the night in a tent , JC did not want to use his narrow boat and we all agreed the cost of a hotel/B & B was just too high. So all our plans went out the window and we decided to do a round route of the Black Country canals instead. This had several advantages:
All that was left now was to sort out sponsors and riders. If I remember right we ended up with six people: Andrew, his uncle Nic, Nick the Milk, me, Andrew's super fit cousin and last but not least, Bicycle Repair Man.
To celebrate the occasion Andrew had invested in some girly gel padded pants to spare his botty from the rigours of the journey. Andrew thought it was about 60 miles and I reckoned on closer to 80 miles round trip with a good stretch of the route unexplored by us, around Aldridge and north of Walsall. Nevertheless it seemed a fine option to a costly trip to London and we optimistically talked of going round twice if we had enough time.
I had the week off and took up some serious practicing, working my way up to forty miles without needing a iron lung. I found that the biggest problem was thirst so warned everyone and we all duly took along plenty to drink. I had borrowed a set of panniers from Big Al and filled them with spare tubes, a car foot pump, puncture outfits, tow rope and spanners, even though bicycle repair man was going I wanted to be well equipped. Most others were kitted out to what they thought would be most useful including several milometers.
So the day arrived and I zeroed my milometer and set off to rendezvous with Andrew and the rest after a quick breakfast. Cannot remember what unearthly hour we set off, probably 08:30hrs or something like that, at least that was the plan. I got to the meeting point and there was nobody there. As it was near a junction I rode a little distance up both to see if they were ahead of me. Well of course they were late and I had been in the right place all along. It was only after I disappeared down the wrong junction Andrew bothered to tell me we were going the other way, the long loop through Aldridge.
So I went back and took the lead as I reckoned I was probably the slowest amongst them and certainly had the oldest bike, trusty Copenhagen. I must pause here a little while from the narrative, to tell those who do not know of Copenhagen's history. About seven or eight years ago I was the only one of my family without a bike and asked Big Al if he could get me a cheap one that would do for running about town on and up to the university. This he did and presented me with a slightly weather beaten looking white bike with a mean looking saddle. Cost £10!! I then invested another ten pounds on a comfy saddle and Copenhagen was roadworthy. Since that time we have travelled many a mile and I believe Mr. 'padded pants' Morris is on his third or fourth bike. Why on at least one occasion I had to tow one of them back to civilisation when it broke down.
Anyway, we had not gone long and I noticed they had all disappeared again. One of the first of many punctures that delayed us somewhat. We had got our mobile phones with us and were able to advise of any major delays. As we rode on I pondered the improvements to Copenhagen I had made in preparation. £5 for a new back wheel as the old one was so buckled by now that it was catching the rear framework, and Annette had presented me with a set of lights for our trip through the Dudley tunnel. Could not work out why she had brought the lights, we had already been through the 2.1/4 mile tunnel without any lights.
Be that as it may the tow path was slowly getting worse as we neared Aldridge and eventually it ceased to exist other than as a grassy bank along side the canal. This was very rough going and slowed us down to crawling pace, bouncing us all up and down apart from those on the supersonic high tech suspension bikes. We had another two punctures along this stretch that added to the delays and we were falling way behind schedule, expected to be home for about 17:00 hours even after a stop of at Gas Street Basin for some food and drink. The tow path improved a little and became a narrow stretch of mud and stones for about five miles, but even this let us move at around 20 to 25 miles an hour a big improvement.
We then had quite a good run downhill along the locks on the Rushall Canal and a nice clear run through to the Gravelley hill junction when to my horror we had a long climb up a series of close locks to the Gas Street Basin. We were all pretty well hungry by now, and would have stopped of sooner if there had been any pubs along the route. Like good charity workers we had decked ourselves out with the CLDF banners and dug out our collection tins ready for the posh area were all the tourist hang out. There was a special gala weekend event on and half of Birmingham and the narrow boat community had turned up. Had to be good for collecting we thought, and our first two donations came from two British Waterways chaps.
So we went about collecting a few bob of people and some of the others searched for a nosh shop for refreshments. We had only been there about twenty minutes when up strolled Mr. Jobsworth from British Waterways. "Sorry mate but unless you have a special permit you cannot collect for charity on our property." This seemed to upset Andrew a great deal and I thought he was going to floor the twit, but he must have decided it would not have looked good for the charity and contented himself with hurling verbal abuse at him, calling him a 'mean arsed fascist' amongst other things. By now several innocent bystanders were siding with Andrew and saying it was a terrible shame we could not collect for a worthy cause and a local charity at that. Even so the misserable bugger would not even give us ten minutes collecting, however, our supportors were thrusting coins into the tin even as he was telling us to clear off, so it wasn't a total waste of time.
Well it turned out that the whole area was busy and we had no chance of getting any food for some time so we decided to move on out towards the Dudley tunnel. Dudley tunnel, one heck of a ride. Three thousand and twenty seven yards of pitch black interrupted every quarter of a mile or so by ventilation shafts that let in a circle of sunlight. The tow path must once have been cobbled and reasonably smooth, and I believe Thomas Telford had it illuminated for it's whole length by gas light. Unfortunately old Thomas Telford has been dead a long time, the gas lamps are all gone, or at least disconnected, and great sections of the tow path have collapsed or sunk beneath the level of the canal bag and flooded.
By the time we had got there I for one felt that my stomach had been disconnected from the rest of my body and I was ready for some food as I had just about burned up all my energy. So we teamed up into got lights and not got. The idea was lights would lead the way and warn of any sudden drops or dodgy areas in general. I led the way with Andrew following and I gave a running commentary of the worse conditions. "Shit! Deep drop full of water!" " Slow down, section of railing missing." "Bloody hell! Another great hole in the floor." You get the picture. It is rather a strange tunnel too. You enter the beast expecting to see daylight at the other end and you pass two air vents before you do and then it never seems to get any closer until the last 150 yards or so. You get the impression that you are stuck in some sort of hellish time trap, and not getting any closer to the end.
Well we got through mostly safe and in one piece, but there was no sign of Uncle Nic and the others. So we sat down on the grass and waited and waited. They had decided the path was so bad the only sensible thing to do was dismount and walk! Ha! They all came out with shoes and socks soaking wet. Remember I told you it was flooded in many a place. The good news was we were close to Netherton and a great chip shop. So true to my hero we decided to 'Alf Tupper' up our energy levels with a good dose of fish and chips.
We hauled our muddy weary bodies to the chippy and ordered the food. Not so simple though as they prepared all the fish freshly and we had a delay of about an hour again. I reckoned we were about three hours late by now. Mind you they were some of the best fish and chips I had eaten and we were all the better for having food again. What's more we had a cracking run down the canal to the Stourton Junction, reaching speeds in excess of 30 miles per hour. I had to wait at the bottom for a while, Nick the Milk had started on a run of punctures and could not understand why his tyres kept going down.
From there we had the long climb back up the Staffordshire and Worcester canal back towards Wolverhampton.Uncle Nic, Bicycle Repair Man and superfit cousin, all decided they would cut off on a 'short cut' along the old Kingswinford railway line. Andrew tried to warn them that it was a steady slog uphill all the way, but they would not listen, it was shorter!! Turns out it was not any quicker. We managed to find and fix Nick the Milks last puncture and stop of for a pint before continuing our journey and still got back about the same time as the others.
I could have done without the uphill struggle on the last leg, but managed fine until we got to the start of the twenty-one locks. We had just turned back on to the 'Curley Wyrley' and I was using the speed from the downward slope of the bridge to get me up the first lock. Andrew and Nick were about 50 yards ahead of me by now, and as I neared the bottom of the lock a daft woman stepped right into the middle of the tow path in front of me. Don't know how I missed her, Andrew will tell you my breaks are far from perfect. I did manage to miss her, but had lost all momentum and had to get off and walk past the nutter who just stood there.
Of course Nick and Andrew wonder what had happened to me and I explained using colourful language about the delay. I told them to go on ahead and that I would keep up as best I could, but they refused to leave me and waited patiently as I struggled up the other twenty locks. With the worse over we made pretty good time back to the junction, even with me forgetting about the sharp turn to the left over the next bridge and nearly ending up in the canal. So with the milometer at nearly 74 miles I left the other two to finish their circuit back to Andrews.
As I was so close to the 75 mile target I cut off the canal at the next bridge and took the easy main road back towards Bilston. This proved to be a mistake. I got home with only seventy four and a half miles on the clock so I decided to ride around the local streets for another ten minutes until I reached the magic number. By now my legs were a little stiff and I had some trouble getting off Copenhagen, but we had reached our target without so much as a single puncture, not bad for a couple of old 'uns.
Andrew and Nick got back without any further problems and we latter heard about the failed short cut. It was time for a good soak in the bath, and then we could all collect in the sponsor monies at our leisure. Thanks to everyone's generosity we raised over £400 counting the 'illegal' collection tin money. Well worth the wind and the rain.