This is the last in a series that has so far covered Winter, Spring and Summer, documenting my thoughts and observations on the seasons and how they affect cycling. On 22nd September we reached the Autumn Equinox, at which point the sun is again directly overhead of the Equator as it moves rapidly southwards away from us. This means we are now inexorably heading into winter, not altogether a happy proposition for cyclists in the northern hemisphere.
Even if you haven’t got out of bed this year let alone been cycling, we have so far travelled 409 million miles as Earth continues its annual orbit around the Sun and that’s excluding the 4 million miles travelled as Earth spins around its axis here just outside London; this distance varies depending on latitude. Notwithstanding, hopefully cycling over the preceding seasons has successfully achieved many enjoyable miles and peak fitness has now been reached.
Faced with the impending prospect of winter, the fair weather riders will hang up their cycle clips until next spring. But as Billy Connolly once put it “there’s no such thing as bad weather, just the wrong clothing”, that goes for other equipment too. For the diehard 52-week cyclist autumn may instead be time to put away the fast, shiny bike and transfer onto a winter bike, something probably less valuable, more robust with mudguards and perhaps thicker tyres; come January maybe even studded tyres. Clothing is likely to be less lycra and more waterproofs and thermals that are needed, as well as gloves, trousers and jackets.
Lengthening shadows, shorter days and lower temperatures soon become noticeable whist riding in autumn. Notwithstanding, early autumn can benefit from the latent heat of summer which is still in the air and ground and, if lucky, cycling will remain comfortable for at least a few more weeks. However, with sunrise and sunset already at 7am and 7pm, if you’re a cycling commuter it will soon be time to use bike lights on the journey to and from work. Of course none of this is good news but there are compensations during this transitional season that brings the year to an end.
Autumn is perhaps the most striking season of the year as the bright colours of nature mark a sensational end to the year’s cycling. Most conspicuously the leaves of deciduous trees slowly turn from green to spectacular yellows, oranges and reds, making for a once-a-year show of colour whilst riding by. However, with large quantities of wet, rotting leaves lying on the ground road conditions can become slippery and even dangerous so that great caution needs to be taken, especially on sharp corners and when braking; beware also as the leaf paste created can smear onto wheel rims making braking itself less effective.
Unfortunately there are other cycling hazards at this time of the year. In autumn the ground and plants will frequently be covered by heavy dew in the early morning, again making roads slippery for cyclists. More inconveniently cycle campers will have to pack a wet tent that will later need to be dried for storage over winter. As autumn progresses gusting winds can bring down old or dead branches that can prove a real danger to cyclists if not alert. At this time of the year bonfires and fog can also typically make an unwelcome appearance, making visibility a serious problem for all, especially cyclists that are sharing the road with faster moving vehicles – not a good mix!
By now most crops will be have been harvested and the fields look bare. Preparation for winter has begun and farm tractors often produce muddy roads that are dangerous for cyclists. Hedge trimming is also underway, which can leave unwanted thorns on the road surface that can lead to punctures for the unwary or unlucky. However, the orchards are now laden with ripe fruit ready for picking; for those with too much, boxes of apples may be left by the roadside for cyclists and others to take as they pass.
The damp cool conditions of autumn are conducive to the growth of fungi that often adorns the roadside edge. Some are conspicuously coloured bright red and brown colours and may be edible but others are poisonous and it is best to look but don’t touch. However, very soon nature’s food production will be finished for the year.
Likewise major changes are apparent amongst wildlife. Many of the summer’s birds are migratory and will soon be on their way back to warmer climates for the winter, if they haven’t gone already, thus changing the associated sights and sounds encountered whilst cycling though the countryside. A more sober thought, as small mammals start to hibernate roadkill becomes less evident during a ride! Larger farm animals may be moved indoors, though most will stoically have to remain outside and endure the cold wet days that lie ahead. Autumn marks the rutting season for deer and is a lively time for the stags.
Cycling in autumn is remembered for its cooler days, colourful sights, the dank odour of rotting vegetation, against a background of changing light and sounds. All-in-all autumn can be a very beautiful and enjoyable time on a bike but inevitably the thought of winter ahead casts a long shadow over the experience. Hopefully after months of cycling fitness is good, so it’s time to put in some decent rides before mileage starts to fall, Christmas fare takes its toll and the annual cycling year starts all over again.
Ode To Autumn by John Keats
Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness,
Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun;
Conspiring with him how to load and bless
With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eaves run;
To bend with apples the mossed cottage-trees,
And fill all fruit with ripeness to the core;
To swell the gourd, and plump the hazel shells
With a sweet kernel; to set budding more,
And still more, later flowers for the bees,
Until they think warm days will never cease,
For Summer has o’er-brimmed their clammy cell.
Who hath not seen thee oft amid thy store?
Sometimes whoever seeks abroad may find
Thee sitting careless on a granary floor,
Thy hair soft-lifted by the winnowing wind;
Or on a half-reaped furrow sound asleep,
Drowsed with the fume of poppies, while thy hook
Spares the next swath and all its twined flowers;
And sometimes like a gleaner thou dost keep
Steady thy laden head across a brook;
Or by a cider-press, with patient look,
Thou watchest the last oozings, hours by hours.
Where are the songs of Spring? Ay, where are they?
Think not of them, thou hast thy music too,—
While barred clouds bloom the soft-dying day,
And touch the stubble-plains with rosy hue;
Then in a wailful choir, the small gnats mourn
Among the river sallows, borne aloft
Or sinking as the light wind lives or dies;
And full-grown lambs loud bleat from hilly bourn;
Hedge-crickets sing; and now with treble soft
The redbreast whistles from a garden-croft,
And gathering swallows twitter in the skies.