Whoosh Day 4 : Tidcombe to Reading : 36.4 miles; Four hours 18 minutes

It was the second time I fell off that my dignity was finally comprehensively shredded. As today’s Whoosh ride, from Tidcombe, in Wiltshire, to Reading headed along a section of National Cycle Route 4 by the Kennett and Avon Canal, I found myself struggling to keep my large touring bike within the narrow confines of the muddy rut that passed for a path. I reached out my left foot to stop myself falling. When the grass on that side turned out to be concealing a slight dip, I lost my balance and toppled to the ground. I had earlier fallen still more heavily under similar circumstances on a section of rough path in the North Downs, compounding the embarrassment that time by falling into a thorny bush.

The incidents were, despite my humiliation, a reminder of one of a joy of my participation in this year’s Whoosh fundraising ride with other members of the Parish of Herne Hill, former congregants and friends. I have watched the blossoming of the different skills of members of the group and appreciated how different people excel under different circumstances. It has been a pleasure to discover that, yes, I can climb hills on my bike reasonably well. But it has also been a joy to watch people that I have overtaken on the hills skilfully navigate rough tracks that left me clumsily falling well behind. Some of the less obviously sporty members of the group whizzed up the hills or powered into headwinds in ways I had not expected. I have appreciated the diligence of those who have helped the riders by driving the support van, cooking and planning.

It has been a reminder of how different individuals’ sometimes hidden skills all contribute to a healthy, cohesive whole.

Those exalted thoughts, however, were not topmost in my mind on Monday morning as we gathered outside the cosy Wiltshire cottage where we had bunked down for the night as guests of a former Whoosher and were treated to the sight of a man dressed like Elvis Presley joining our ride.

The evidence for his being the real Elvis was mixed. The man – who bore a puzzling resemblance to Charlie Clark, who had ridden on other days of the ride – turned out to be a strong rider of a Dawes Galaxy touring bike. Based on what I know of The King’s exercise habits, that seemed unlikely. But when I demanded of him why he so quickly abandoned the spare, stripped-down sound of The Sun Sessions, he had no answer – which I’m convinced the real Elvis would not either.

I started out brightly and confidently, on paved but hilly roads, happy to discover that, having put some extra luggage in my panniers, I was not slowed down too much. That breezy confidence evaporated as we turned onto the day’s first section of rough bridleway and I had to let everyone I had passed pass me in turn.

There were nevertheless comforts for those of us left trailing. For me, one was that the thorn bush scratched me only a little. For all of us, there was the pleasure of turning back into speedy, confident riders when back on tarmac. We swept down from the hills towards Newbury and then rode purposefully by the still-spooky edge of the former US airbase at Greenham Common towards lunch at Aldermaston, another spot powerfully linked in my mind with the Cold War and nuclear weapons.

I was transformed again into a clumsy back marker when the ride took to the Kennet and Avon Canal’s towpath to head to Reading Station, end of the trip for most of us. I tried to focus on the multiplicity of talents I could see helping this diverse group of riders on towards the destination. Some people showed dexterity in understanding the readings on their electronic mapping devices, while others offered encouragement or showed the way by riding skilfully.

I was struck by how the process I witnessed resembled what happens at the First Step Trust, one of two charities benefitting from fundraising around the ride. The group provides work experience, training and paid work for people excluded from the labour market because of mental health conditions, learning disabilities, drug and alcohol and other disadvantages. I have witnessed first hand how people working at the charity’s Abbeville’s café, in Clapham, learn to exhibit customer service and other skills they might never have suspected they possessed.

Similarly, the ride’s other charity partner, Tumaini Health Centre, in Kenya, is seeking to free its community of some of the health problems that prevent its people from flourishing.

While a group of riders will on Tuesday complete an epilogue ride – a reverse version of the prologue I undertook on Thursday – Monday’s ride marked the end of this year’s Whoosh for most of us. From Reading Station, I and several other riders headed back towards Clapham Junction – after, in my case, 322 miles of riding in five days.

As I sat on the train, however, my mind turned to positive reflections on a day that had at points been frustrating and embarrassing. I reflected on how, at one point on a rough path, I had successfully scaled a tricky sharp, grassy rise that I would never otherwise have attempted. I have learned more about using low gears and momentum to deal with rough terrain. I had not, however, made it over the hillock purely under my own steam but thanks to encouragement from John, a rider behind me who was finding the conditions equally challenging. The experience was a powerful illustration of the ability of a group to lift a person over obstacles that would have defeated the individual alone.

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