The relative dry of September had lulled me into a false sense of security and I had not put much effort into getting all my gear ready for the Long Dark: that unrelenting cold, wet greyness which envelops this island from October to May. So, I find myself now trying to play catch up.
There was that soaking ride to Bristol. My gear barely had a chance to dry out completely before I put it through hell again a week or so later on the way down to Exeter.
To my credit, I had spent the days beforehand washing my riding trousers and gloves in Nixwax Tech Wash and thereafter coating them in Fabsil. I had waxed my boots, as well. But that sort of stuff is just the starting point. There is a mental aspect to staying dry that I had somehow forgotten since riding through storms in Scotland earlier this year. You have to remember the routines: this goes with that, these overlap those, etc.
Exeter, for those of you playing along at home, is the largest city in Devon — the English county in which my wife was raised. As the crow flies it’s not too terribly far from Cardiff, but I’m not a crow. Getting to the other side of the Bristol Channel means a journey of roughly 110 miles. Which is still not all that far, especially considering that a solid 90 percent of the trip is on motorway. It is close enough that I can head there after work and be at Jenn’s grandmother’s house in time for a late dinner.
That was the plan, at least. We hadn’t seen any of her family members since August, so had arranged to head down and spend the weekend at Grandma’s. I was to meet Jenn there, she having taken the train because she works in Bristol — halfway between Cardiff and Exeter. This turned out to be for the best. Had Jenn been forced to suffer through that storm I doubt I ever would have gotten her on a bike again.
Setting out from Cardiff, it was only wind I had to contend with. Strong winds and the mile-long Severn Bridge are never a happy combination, but I had suddenly remembered the Dutch flappering knee technique, which works surprisingly well. It helped, too, that I was bringing down all the weekend’s clothes for Jenn and myself, giving me a bit more weight.
Almost as soon as I got off the bridge and onto the M49, rain started to fall. By the time I reached the M5 junction, just a few miles later, rain was falling so hard it was causing traffic chaos. I have never understood what it is about rain that causes drivers’ IQs to plummet. I mean, it made sense when I lived in Southern California; people there aren’t used to the stuff. But here? It rains all the time. And still, each time it does society goes into collapse. People drive as if there are no rules, as if there are no white lines separating the lanes.
Though, in fairness, the white lines were damned hard to see. Rain was falling so heavily it bounced up from the road. It pooled in other places, creating fearful riding through the long sections of the M5 for which there is no street lighting. Meanwhile, 50-mph gusts lifted the water off the road and turned it into blinding spray.
Those are the moments when you find your zen. All you can do is trundle on through the night. Keep one eye on the mirrors at all times to try to anticipate any weirdness. Hope all the high-vis you’re wearing will do its job. Accept the wet. Accept the wind.
Near Taunton, the rain eased just in time for me to be stopped in traffic. An accident resulted in the police closing all three lanes of the motorway. I filtered up to the front of the queue, then cut my engine. I got off my bike to stretch my legs and a police officer came over to tell me off.
“Mate, don’t be walking about on the motorway,” he said.
“Like the way you’re walking about on the motorway?” I joked.
I sat there for about 10 minutes and it became utterly surreal. The world was quiet. There were no lights on the road, no sign of life beyond it. Just the blinking of police lights about 100 yards ahead of me and the white-blue glow of hundreds of car headlights backing up behind me.
It was hard to figure out what had happened at the accident scene. There was a car in the far right lane (the fast lane in the UK). Its occupants appeared to be over on the side of the road. There was no ambulance. Several officers seemed to be showing particular interest in the rear of the vehicle, shining it with flashlights and opening and closing the trunk. Eventually they hooked it to one of the police cars and pulled it to the side of the road.
The cop who had been holding up traffic got in his car and signalled it was OK for us to head off again. The end.
I don’t have any commentary on the whole thing apart from the surreality of it. The quietness of sitting there in the quiet dark of nowhere, eerily lit, while something so important takes place that it stops traffic. But then, right as I’m thinking of digging in my bag to find my phone to text Jenn that I’ll be late, it all clears up. Engines rev. Within seconds we’re all again screaming through the night at 80 mph. And within seconds after that the wind and rain have returned with vengeance. The next day there is news of a body being found on the same stretch of road but at a different place and a different time to where and when I was stopped.
It’s as if the whole incident existed to remind me of the basic philosophy of riding in the rain: Stuff happens; don’t dwell on it. Acknowledge it and move on.
As I got closer to Exeter I found myself having to acknowledge that I had forgotten to zip in the waterproof liner of my riding trousers. The Nikwax and Fabsil had performed admirably, but it wasn’t enough. Water seeped into my crotch and ran down my legs. It found its way into my boots and collected in squishy pools I could feel when moving my toes. By the time I reached Jenn’s grandmother’s house my teeth were chattering with cold.
I lucked out two days later, on the ride home. The weather was dry and unseasonably warm — fortunate because my winter gloves, the ones I had worn on the way down, were still soaked through. My boots, too, were still wet. My helmet was musty. My pannier bags were still damp. And this, more or less, has been the story of riding life ever since. I am forever on the back foot in my battle against the relentless British wet.
My biggest problem at the moment is keeping my bike protected. I keep it under two allegedly waterproof covers, but they’re just not good enough. Moisture is coming through and I noticed yesterday that the paint on the tank is starting to bubble as a result. My bike is being ruined and I don’t know how to stop it.
Is this another case of having to find zen? Having to accept this is just the way of things, that entropy is irresistible?
Man, I hate this country at times.