The breakaway group of five cyclists are beginning to pant from the effort. They slowly pull ahead of the rest of the pack as we all labour up Backwell Hill Road. Tall hedges hem in the narrow track and the trees meet above our heads as the climb goes on and on. It’s hot and sticky as I emerge into open country again, a smattering of houses on the right. The leaders have pulled in to wait, and I join them to watch the fractured peloton round the bend, some cycling, others off the bike and pushing. Breath rattles. Faces grimace. And then, turning the pedals of his electric bike with ease, Patrick Birch whizzes past.
“You still have to use some power – it’s not a free ride,” he says with mock-indignance. “It’s not a motorbike. Although I’ve got one of those as well.”
Patrick is one of Cyclebag East Touring Cycle Club’s regulars. He’s helped to run the club since its inception in 1984, and still turns up every week for the club rides. He got the electric bike 18 months ago, and last year did more than a thousand miles on it. Not bad for someone who is, as he puts it, 78-and-eleven-twelfths.
“We were doing about 40 miles, and I could do it but the next day I’d be absolutely cream crackered,” Patrick says of rides on his old, motor-less bike. “I thought: ‘I’m not really enjoying this.’ Getting the electric bike has given me a new lease of life. I could well have given up if it wasn’t for it.”
The average age of the members of Cyclebag East is about 60. The group began with Cyclebag, a cycling campaign group set up in Bristol in 1977, with members including former mayor George Ferguson. Cyclebag was instrumental in creating the Bristol and Bath Railway Path, followed by traffic-free paths around the country. By 1983 it was morphing into Sustrans, the national cycling and walking charity that has its headquarters on College Green, and the group’s social side was formalised into several local touring clubs. These would promote the new paths and run regular rides.
Cyclebag East was born on October 10 1984, in the Portcullis on Fishponds Road. Patrick was named the secretary, and from the very beginning the club aimed to be inclusive. According to the neat, typewritten minutes: “The club’s activities would be aimed more at the ‘social cyclist’ than the ‘sports cyclist’.” There would also be no age limit to membership.
At the top of the hill we emerge by the runway at Bristol Airport, and pause to catch breath. There are joking enquiries about whether wills are up to date. Wearing a cycling jersey printed like a skeleton, retired electrician Mark stuffs his extra layers into battered panniers. It’s been years since he’s cycled this way, he says. Last time it was with a member of the group who today turned back at the first coffee stop, not wanting to face the hills. “He’s been coming since 1996 and he looked like he was dying on the hills then,” Mark says. “All the colour would drain out of his face. He’d go a kind of yellowy grey. You wouldn’t think a man could go that colour.”
Leading today’s athletic route to Churchill and back is Kay Borman, a member of Cyclebag East for 20 years. She meticulously plans a ride a few times a year, taking it in turns with the other members. With a quick headcount to make sure we haven’t lost anyone on the unforgiving slopes of North Somerset, she sets off and we follow. The air reeks of aviation fuel as a plane roars into the clear skies over the Mendips.
Following the fence, we pass a gaggle of plane spotters. The men stand on step ladders that they’ve brought along for a day out while kids lie on the car roofs to see better. A private jet hops the fence and bounces in to land. “I could have done with that on Backwell Hill,” quips John, a Welshman who has been a member of the club for a decade.
The thirteen of us follow Kay, streaming downhill towards Wrington. We cruise past the high walls of the Ethicurean at chatting pace, and on through quiet lanes to the Crown Inn at Churchill. There are calls of hello to other cyclists, the postman and the dog walkers, before we find the sunny garden of the stone-walled pub.
“In the early days of Cyclebag East we were really soft – we used to almost close down in winter,” Patrick says over a glass of ginger beer. “There were young families involved when we started. Of course, the children grew up and wanted to do their own things, but some of the adults carried on and we’ve evolved from that. I’m quite proud that we’ve kept going for such a long time. It’s weathered a few storms over the years.”
Membership was low about ten years ago but there are now 25 paid up members. (The fee of £6 per year hasn’t changed since 1992. Patrick even tried to reduce it at their last AGM.) “People have come and gone and rejoined,” he says. “Quite a few people joined us and realised that our pace, even then, wasn’t as strong as they wanted it. They said ‘thank you very much’ and then joined Cycle Bristol CTC – which is fine. It’s horses for courses. We want everybody to be comfortable in the riding style.”
The route back to central Bristol is a flat one, along a section of the Strawberry Line to Yatton. Dandelion seeds blow in blizzards. “Bike up!” comes the call from the back, and everyone swings to the side to let a faster rider overtake.
Patrick will soon be leading the club back towards the Mendips, during a tour of Wiltshire from June 2-6 2019. His route takes in Weston-super-Mare, Cheddar, Frome, Warminster, Salisbury and Devises. Seven people plan to do the whole tour, while more will come for a couple of days. Others still will do the first leg as a day ride.
“We’ve always done touring holidays,” Patrick says. “As a younger group we used to do youth hosteling, but now we tend to do bed and breakfast. The days of climbing up the ladder to the top bunk is a bit beyond us geriatrics.”
We stream along parts of Sustrans’ National Cycle Network, on the back lanes to Long Ashton, drenched in afternoon sun. Mark’s skeleton cycling jersey prompts Patrick to tell me about the time Mark broke his ribs but still came on that year’s tour. Mark picks up the story, vividly describing the stick that got stuck in his wheel and how he slid under a hedge and had to be hauled out. For the following week he taped his ribs up with electrical tape from work. “When it came time for the holiday I brought rolls and rolls of it in all different colours,” Mark says. “My kids would say, ‘Dad, Dad, what colour is it today?’ and I’d lift up my shirt and say ‘green!’ and show them the green tape I’d got all over my ribs.”
We stop for coffee at the Bird in Hand as we get into Long Ashton, and fill the garden with bicycles. They come in all shapes and sizes, from chairman Sam Swaby’s sporty roadster, to Mark’s customised touring bike, with sofa saddle and Dutch-style handlebars. There isn’t nearly as much moisture-wicking, performance-enhancing lycra as you’d expect from a group of cyclists either. Patrick wears a vintage Cyclebag East jumper.
“When I first retired, I asked my wife if she would mind if I cycled to Essex,” Patrick says. “I wanted to wake up on that first Monday morning when I normally went to work and do something different. It took three days to get up there and two days back, so I was glad to get home. The thing about cycling on your own is you buy sandwiches, you stop at the roadside for ten minutes, you eat them and then on you go.
“That was 20 years ago, and since then I haven’t cycled on my own for any distance. It’s nicer to cycle with people. You can stop and have a look at the view, stop and have a look at an aeroplane, have a sandwich and a glass and enjoy the social side. And if someone’s not quite sure where they’re going or how the bike works, riding in a group gives them security.”
Kay pours the last of the tea from her pot and the birds chirrup. “And we’ve got experienced leaders,” Patrick says. “They know where all the good pubs are!”
Find out more about Cyclebag East and their upcoming tours by visiting www.cyclebageast.btck.co.uk