A keen Shaftesbury cyclist is planning regular group bike rides to help people make friends and keep fit.
John Rutter wants to emulate the success of the town’s Walking for Health group, this time on wheels. Alfred’s Keri Jones heard about John’s vision.
“I like cycling, both by myself and in groups,” said John. “I am putting out an invitation to go cycling with me because it helps you see more of the beautiful Dorset and Wiltshire countryside. It gets you fit and it’s less strain on the legs for anyone who’s got dodgy knees.”
Shaftesbury has a long connection with cycling, despite its hilltop location. In the late Victorian period, our town attracted so many cyclists, specialist accommodation offering on-site repairs opened on Salisbury Street.
And since 1973, Hovis delivery-boy Carl Barlow’s bike ride up Gold Hill has been consistently voted Britain’s most iconic advert. Fiction aside, the bike refurbishment team of Longmead-based charity Hope2Cycle and the Rotary Club’s North Dorset Cycle Ride keep the pedals turning.
People might welcome the chance to explore some of England’s flatter areas, such as Cambridge or Norfolk, by bike. But as we chatted outside Shaftesbury Abbey, the scenic view was dominated by hills. John doesn’t think that the slopes present a problem.
“Shaftesbury is on a hill. But, for example, if you go towards Bedchester and Child Okeford on the minor roads, once you’ve got down to St James Common it’s flattish all the way. It’s only when you turn around and come back to Shaftesbury that you come to a hill. There will always be one hill. But you can plan your route to suit the level of ability in the cycling group,” he said.
John is relatively sporty. He says he can cycle 30 miles in 3 hours. Similar to Walking for Health, John envisages separate groups to meet different levels of interest and ability. “We have the Wheelers in Gillingham and the Henstridge Cycling Group. They are what I call ‘tough-nut, lycra, fast and long-distance’. I’d like to start at the lower end with people that have a bike but haven’t used it for ten years and who just want to go out for half an hour. After a couple of months, they would move into a second group, which would be an hour or two hours. People below the ‘lycra group’ might want to go out for three hours for a gentle cycle ride. The first thing is to get people here so they can participate. If no one’s interested, then nothing happens,” John said.
John spends half of his week in London, where he cycles to work across Hampstead Heath. The rest of his time is spent in Shaftesbury. “The countryside around here, both on and off-road, is very beautiful. And there are traffic-free routes if you plan it, especially off-road,” said John.
Some people might be put off bike-riding when they see juggernauts thundering along the A30 or A303. John says there are still plenty of peaceful lanes to pick from. “Many routes, ten minutes outside Shaftesbury centre, are country roads that only go between farmers’ fields. I’ve been on four-hour cycle rides where I’ve literally passed more pedestrians, horses and horse and carts than cars. The cars that do come, because they’re not going anywhere, generally tend to be going very slowly.”
John is keen to highlight the social aspect of a weekly Shaftesbury cycle event and he says it is possible to ride two-a-breast and converse with fellow riders on our roads and lanes. “The lanes are so quiet, you can hear any vehicle, apart from a completely electric vehicle, coming the other way. The lanes are narrow, but I see no problems in cycling side-by-side and chatting. In any event, we will have rest stops where you can talk to people. At the end of a cycle ride, traditionally you have a coffee in a café,” said John.
Cycle cafés have been popping up across the country and it shows that cyclists love of a brew and some banter. “Every time I go out, I find a different café,” said John.
John’s weekly cycle rides have started. They are held at 9am on Thursdays. He’s planning additional weekend trips for people who work during office or shop hours. Visitors who have bikes with them will be encouraged to join in, too. John’s goal is to encourage tourists to take in our area’s views on two wheels.
“One of my plans, and I’ve got many, is to organise a cycle touring holiday experience. I want to arrange tours. This is a big operation. Apart from the publicity and getting people to come here, I need to organise accommodation, ride leaders and emergency backup. With enough time and energy, it’s something that could be done. It could take off, because Shaftesbury has accommodation and wonderful cycle routes. It is just a matter of finding the people to help me and the clients to come and pay for the experience,” John said.
I asked John to share a route recommendation for anyone who would like to rediscover cycling and ease themselves back onto the saddle. “I would recommend getting down to St James via St John’s Hill, then continuing on the Sturminster Road to St James Common, but turning left immediately after the Holloway. That’s the first left after the church. The road takes you all the way to Bedchester and you can continue to Child Okeford where there’s a little shop. There’s also an organic café there on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays,” said John.
He has calculated the distance as eight miles. “You can either go there and back, sixteen miles, or you can turn around and come back the same way at any stage if you get tired,” he added.
If you would like to join John’s group, as a rider or organiser, email firstname.lastname@example.org.