Sunday, 30 December 2012

Gonna ride the world like a merry-go-round

It was the best of years and it was the worst of years.

Well I have finally done the last ride of 2012. Yesterday Martyn and I headed out into the worst cycling weather I have encountered in the UK. We were only out in it for three hours thank heavens, and of course the rain stopped just as I rolled onto Rouleur territory.

I even texted him as I was leaving, for despite all my best intentions, the rain was coming down so heavily, the roads so awash with puddles and the wind so stormy and wild, that even I had second thoughts.

But he'd already left and didn't get the text till we were snug in the cafe, so on I went, into the maelstrom.

By the time I got to Axbridge I was soaked to the skin, so I thought, wtf, may as well press on for three hours. The gorge was closed to motor vehicles but we ignored the signs, and despite the stream of water now occupying the road surface it was quite nice to ride up it. Very quiet, no traffic, and as long as you dodged the falling rocks it was fine.

Only joking, but there is a lot of gravel, and road grit which is not being cleared by motor traffic. Also a fair few potholes which are steadily increasing in size. It will also take them ages to fix the surface in a piecemeal fashion, so I am hoping to see a wholesale re-surfacing of the gorge in the late Spring.

Once up on the top we benefited from the strong tail wind to speed through the murk and rain to the Rocky Mountain cafe. Which was closed, so we went to Hartley's cafe instead. As it had a roaring fire and a welcoming host it was the ideal place to stop and re-group and to try and dry a gloves and hats.


We headed out into the rain again and did our best to warm up by pedalling like mad down the Horrington road. I hit a bump and my faithful KOM Cateye computer flew off. I quickly re-traced my tracks (allowed in order to rescue inadvertently discarded equipment) only to find that the car following me had done its worst.


Don't worry I re-cycled the battery before I chucked it in the bin. It may have been on many trips with me and many miles too, but it's function over form that counts if you are a bike computer. And Laurens seems to be doing such a fine job too. As you can see from the route he recorded, 45 miles in wet and windy conditions.

The last bit of the ride, like the last few months of 2012, were about slogging it out and getting to the finish. Across the flat lands we went via Wedmore and Badgworth, until we came to a penultimate stretch, down the A38. I was flagging, but Martyn is a relentless machine, and towed me to the turn.

We went our separate ways, and I rounded off the year by circling back past the Webbington Hotel and home. One solitary cyclist was all I saw all day, and he looked like he was going somewhere purposefully, rather than being a mad dog or an Englishmen going round in circles.

Round about now, every year, the media, the blogosphere, the twitterverse, Facebook, all of that, start to spout a lot of guff. Their man of the year, woman of the year. What are your plans and goals for 2013? Will you hit the ground running? Aside from the latter sounding a bit like an oxymoron, the answers to those questions are quite simple really.

Man of the year? No not him, although he did pretty well, "for a boy from Kilburn". OK Brad, you can stop saying it now, time for a new line. Not even a cyclist, or an Olympian, or a poet, or someone from an L & D self-help book.

I'm going for what I would describe as a "top bloke". And the reason? Because he made my son feel calm and proud to lead out the Irons on a grotty April evening at Ashton Gate.

The photo is a bit blurry, and apart from James Tomkins well-directed header, so was the match. And I don't know what Rob Green was thinking about, maybe all the money he was going to make sitting on the bench at QPR.
 
But it's quite something to see your son leading your favourite team out at a match, even if he was the mascot.

 
 
Kevin Nolan may be a footballer, but he was fantastic that day. And he is probably the reason we got promoted, and that day at Wembley was one of the best I have experienced as a fan. Just.
 
I went to a match for the first time since then last week, and it re-connected me with all of the things I love about West Ham. Much as I love cycling, football will always be my first love. And you never forget them do you?
 
Top woman? Stupid question really. You always wish for more time don't you, afterwards, and I have been pondering on how to make more of the time that is given to me. Watch this space.
 
I did a lot of riding in 2012, more miles at a faster speed with more energy consumed than ever before. Tougher rides and more centuries, mountains, climbing, and definitely more extremes of weather! I could bore you to death with all the data I have, but I want to remember 2012 with these two pictures, both taken by very special people who love cycling even more than I do.
 
 
 
One for the sheer joy and the other for the sheer challenge.
 
So many thanks to Mark Cox and Chris Balfour respectively for those shots, and much else. Mark's daughter ran a cafe for a day to raise money for cancer research, and it was a real pleasure to ride down late that day and buy the most valuable cupcake in the world. Chris and his wife Helen run Pyractif, the best cycling holiday business in the world. Fact.
 
I have already talked about planning some longer impromptu rides and the planning for those is coming along nicely, as is another germ of an idea I have. Be cool, wait for the announcements, which will be along directly. But I'm planning on having a lot more joy out of cycling in 2013, and that's a fact too.
 
As for personal challenges, I have a few in the offing. The Tour of Wessex is always hard, just hope the rain stops by then. I'd like to break five hours for the White Horse Challenge (it opens next Monday, please enter and I'll give you my winnings if you ride for me), and along with the joy of watching the big Tour in the Pyrenees I hope to ride a tough challenge with Bunny called "The Devil's Pitchfork". I'm just aiming to finish it alive.
 
Most of all I want to thank everyone again. Thanks for thinking of me, for your prayers, best wishes, messages, texts, e-mail, all of it. And thanks to the people who rode with me, cajoled me, waited for me, poured water over me (on Hautacam especially, Helen), and the ones who told me to MTFU.
 
Finally thank you to the great British weather. Other weathers are warmer, drier, calmer, but then, they are not on TV every night.
 
 
 
 
 
 


Monday, 24 December 2012

When all our dreams come true

Well, it's nearly Christmas. And if you are reading this in Vanuatu it already is. The really good news is twofold. First, I am not allergic to the  French co-op premium lager (4.8%) that I bought on a whim this afternoon. In the co-op. Second, despite the torrential rain that yet again seems to be falling on Somerset, I have got to ride a couple of times in the past week.

The last few months have been, how can I say, character-building? Or affirming, or something like that, I dunno do I? (One for you there Stuart). I have spent a lot of time on the train between Bristol Temple Meads and Paddington, and last week I took the opportunity to pioneer a new field of photography, landscapes from a train.

Here's one I took earlier:


That is sunset near White Horse Hill, home of the eponymous challenge, which opens for entry the first week of January. I really, really want to break five hours on this one. I did 5-08 two years ago, and 5-06 this year, but most of the first flat 40km I was pulling a group along, and so this year I would be very grateful for a few big guys to share the work. Step forward Martyn, Trevor, Ian, Skip, Stuart, Steve, and obviously Chris, the time for a super team is now!

Last Friday I rode to work on a nominally dry day. In so far as very little rain actually fell on my head while I was riding my bike. The legacy of the previous few days was horrendous however, and it all made for a very slow and bedraggled commute. It was a nice way to finish off the week, and in a sense the working year, especially as I feel my professional life has gone pretty well in 2012. The bike commuting helps ease that process. It will be nice to do some of it in sunshine again.

Then Saturday was a journey of a different kind, to another spiritual home. This time with junior sat next to me, in the car, in the pub (don't panic, soft drinks only in a smoke-free zone) and at the match. We didn't win, we lost in fact, but despite the difficulties of driving for 7 hours in the rain, I really enjoyed the trip. I am connected to the place you see, and although trips will never be as frequent as they were, the fact that my son is starting to develop a healthy dose of bias and partisanship, gives me a nice warm glow of pride.


This is the view from my seat at half-time, we were at the end where all the goals were scored.

Yesterday we had a family day out to @Bristol, which although fun in a way is great because it has a Planetarium with really comfy seats. And I did have a snooze until Mrs Mendip Rouleur was forced to wake me up because I had started snoring. But I was there and didn't take the disguised trap of a way-out that said, "you don't have to come if you don't want to". Not so much an offer, more of a test.

I like the Square in Bristol, partly because it reminds me of where I, and my Buckland ancestors came from, but also because it has a 15 foot relief map of Britain on one of the walls. And the only thing better than a good map, is a good relief map in 3D, with cycle paths of Britain on it.


Which brings me to today. The Mince Pie run to Sweets cafe at Westhay, organised by Somerset Cycling. They reckon a hundred of us were stupid enough to cycle out in rain, wind and floods. The levels look like something from the middle ages, flooded fields, roads and ditches. For once an out and back route of just under 25 miles seemed sensible, picking up Skip on the way, meeting Grant and Martyn there, and dropping Grant off in Cheddar on the way home.

Of course the sun, just visible from my living room window, popped it's head out as soon as my bike was washed and dried and put away. He then promptly put it away again, decided he didn't want to play, and got ready to chuck it down again tomorrow.


This is the view from my living room. It's warm and cosy there at the moment. I'm spending a couple of weeks chilling out, the occasional ride, family stuff, watching the Hobbit, that kind of thing. We are even planning to tidy up the dumping room. Best laid, so fingers crossed.

But most of all I'm spending time reflecting on three things. Obviously all the people we have lost this year, my Mum, but also, other people's Mums, Dads, loved ones. Death can diminish us, but it also can strengthen and renew us. Because they leave stuff with us, sometimes annoying, tough, and also sometimes funny or inspiring. So learn, laugh and be inspired.

Second, I think I am still very fortunate. I have health, a roof over my head, food in my stomach and three bikes in the shed. Although I do now need a new shed. Others are not, so I feel I should do my best with what I have. And be grateful, and yes, Princess, be generous.

The third thing? Well that's the cliche. Never apologise for making cliched remarks. You can look out of the train, or across the pitch, gaze at the map, or out of your living room window. Ultimately it keeps going on around you. So we might as well join in and be part of it.

Merry Christmas.

Sunday, 16 December 2012

My I don't have to run day

It's a pretty dry Christmas for me so far. In the alcohol department that is. On Thursday we had our departmental "lunch" at the Hotel du Vin in Bristol, and for tortuous logistical reasons, involving a morning trip to the smoke, and the need for a car to take me to the 6AM train, I elected not to partake.

Funny watching everyone else have a few though, one of my colleagues is pregnant, and she and I had a snigger at all the hangovers on Friday AM, as well as reflecting on all the BS, that people earnestly spout when they have had, maybe, 3 drinks. I'm sure that's me too, I think it sounds erudite and profound, but really, it's bollocks.

Then yesterday, no wait, Saturday, it was the ACG Christmas party at the Lamb in Axbridge. For the first time the Leisure Group have their party, so numbers were a bit depleted, and JT was also feeling the after effects of giraffe-fighting. I'm sure that will be the next self-defensive technique they teach the NHS. I turned down a lift and decided to be sober again, partly because I planned to ride on Sunday, partly because I just don't feel like boozing I guess.

I'd rather spend my energy on manically finding things to do. I'm a bit worried about what is going to happen when all the domestic tasks run out. At work it's fine, I'll never be not busy, it's like a never-ending tunnel of tasks on a conveyor belt that you can never get to the end of. But in the house, well, there may come a time when I have done all my filing (oops, done) tidied the shed (yes), sorted my old clothes for the charity shop, balanced by bank account (sad but tick that one off too.

Our downstairs dumping-room looks a big project, and I'm sure Mrs Mendip Rouleur will always find me some cognitive displacement activity. I'm in trouble otherwise.

Still, there is always the bike, and today, in the company of Martyn and Paul I managed to tip over last year's mileage figure to set a new record for a calendar year. More on all that  later in the month.

 It was a glorious sunny Sunday morning of a ride, well until I decided to peel off on my own for an hour at the end to hit the 55 miles that I needed to do. Then it absolutely poured down on me, heavily for 40-45 minutes. At least it rinsed some of the mud off, carefully collected as the three of us had ambled across the levels via Wedmore, Shapwick, and Lower Weare, in a pleasing figure of eight pattern.

We stopped for coffee at Sweets, where it became very apparent that Martyn is in fact a steam engine, as copious amounts of the stuff evaporated from his shoulders and turned the new conservatory cum atrium cum cyclists area into a tropical sauna. You will have to trust me on this one, but it was quite marked, obviously these camera phones are not as good as the moody Cartier-Bresson shots of yore.



The ride felt like an incredibly flat one, but Laurens has recorded nearly 2000 feet of climbing. I suppose that could have been from popping up over by the windmill, the Webbington drag, and then my last 15 miles or so at Loxton, Banwell and back home up Winscombe Hill.

The roads across the levels are still pretty damp and mucky, and it was nice to have Paul with us for his mudguards. His bike was also considerably cleaner than ours, re-igniting the whole winter-bike train of thought. Especially after the discussion of Dawes steel tourers and audax trips, which got plenty of airplay last night. I have kept my old Ultegra goupset from my Di2 upgrade, and I think I have some old brakes knocking about. Could be the genesis of a bike project for 2013-14 winter.

I'm not at work tomorrow or for the next 2, possibly 3 Mondays, so all that manic-ness will have to be confined to the rest of the week. Time to start the e-bay search I reckon for all those secondhand components. And some knowledge to put it all together, I mean, how hard can it be?

Sunday, 9 December 2012

Eyes full of tinsel and fire

I know it's a cliche, but I'm becoming quite a fan of the Antiques Roadshow. Or more specifically, the looks on the faces of the antique owners, who are quite often just that, when told how much their precious item is worth. I'm sure any serious antique aficionado will look down their noses at the programme, in much the same way I look down my nose at a hybrid, the entertainment value surely comes from the anticipation, the greed and the disappointment.

I'm also sure that really doesn't reflect well on me, I mention it because I have been back home almost 8 hours and only just got round to blogging the Adventure. All sorts of stuff creeps into my life at this time of year, 87% of it so boring I don't even want to re-live it, the remaining 13% is Christmas-related and usually involves outlays of cash on number 1 son.

Ho, ho, ho.

I am also tremendously excited about the release of the new Peter Jackson film, "The Hobbit - an unexpected journey". Not just because it's a wonderful story and I love the way Jackson has created such brilliant films of Tolkein's work. Not just because there are going to be three films to sustain my interest for the next 30 months. Or because Martin Freeman is in it, and I love him.

What I like most of all about it is that it will give me a whole host of new analogies and metaphors to use at work. Let's face it, my training room is becoming stale and tired of cycling-related tortuously-crafted and endlessly-repeated tales of gradients and struggle, headwinds and changing gears. Etc. And when you start to hear people on rubbish TV shows talking about their "amazing journeys", it's time to move on.

Middle Earth it is, rings, quests, mithril mail and dwarfish steel, not to mention Elvish, that's the future. Come to think of it, Influencing Skills training in Elvish might just be what the legal industry has been waiting for.

While I'm on this tangent, here is confirming proof that buzzards like pumpkin.



We are creating some kind of food-dependency in our local ecosystem, re-cycling our food waste to those that need it most. I thought buzzards were carnivores, but it seems that this individual like the seeds and/or the flesh from this remnant of Halloween,

It is definitely Winter. I'm playing that game of trying to engineer commuting journeys for the better weather days. Or rather, the least crap weather days. I almost made it this week, cycling in to and back from Bristol on Friday. It was cool, damp, windy and mucky, but apart from that it was OK. Oh, and icy as well.

Friday's route was fairly slow because I wanted to get to both work and home with my collarbones intact, darkness, despite lights, being the inhibiting factor. And I finally had to wash the bike, it was so mucky, which was a bit annoying because I knew I would be washing it again today.

As is the way, yesterday, which was jobs and "take junior swimming day" was sunny and clear, dry and crisp, not a breath of wind. Today was dank, drizzly, and ferociously windy. I had planned the ACG route with the Winter in mind, avoid flat places covered in water or exposed to the gales, and try some new hills. I also decided to take the ride leader bit far too seriously today (did anyone notice?). We had a couple of newbies, nice chaps, but not quite making it up Cheddar gorge as fast as the other six plus me.

I hung back to offer route guiding and encouragement, but eventually they agreed/told me to go on ahead, and as they had to be somewhere by 11, it all worked out amicably.

On other hills and descents I tried to shepherd/warn of hazards, in a guide of Aragorn-like way, a bit gruff, a bit rough, but well-meant and not too controlling. At one point in today's ride it did begin to feel like we were in the Misty Mountains as the tricky descent into East Harptree was quite literally now a river, a new ford having been built with some nice variable-sized gravel to throw you off your bike. This was not a a little trickle of water, this was "get off your bike and carry it" time.

Eventually coffee came, and we cut short the planned route to head home. Before we did so, we had one of those conversations about doubling back, figures of eight, out and back routes etc. Young Isaac, whippet thin and clearly the only sensible one amongst us, looked up from his empty plate at the so-called adults. And these people have jobs?

Here is today's route, and you can see there was a fair bit of all three types of journey going on, although I have yet to find a magic ring that can help me disappear.

Monday, 3 December 2012

All the right hills, just not necessarily in the right order

Forgive the paraphrased plagiarism, from the late, great Erick Morecambe addressing Mr Preview. And kids, I was there and old enough to understand it, the first time around.

I've mentioned before how we could get some informal or impromptu rides going, riding some great routes based on our knowledge of the area within about an hour's drive of our Mendip base. Although we are not a formally constituted body, the ACG does have a certain level of organisation, some 3rd party liability insurance, and a team kit, albeit without any red, claret, blue or green in it.

Those failings aside, I have been planning for 2013. I intend to ride officially, at the same time as organised, and advertised, and have/will pay my dues for these:

  • Mad March Hare (because it's fun & I want to do it in the warm, ha)
  • Endura Lionheart (because I had a Facebook argument with the organiser, oh dear)
  • White Horse Challenge (my favourite, & I hanker after sub 5 hours)
  • Somerset 100 (I'll be 77 again, you can be whatever you want to be)
  • Tour of Wessex (all 3 days heaven help me! Please enter too, it's fun, honest)
  • Dragon Ride (it's a matter of principle)
  • Dartmoor classic (the best, without Tina Turner's help)

But, I am going to hold off entering others until I hear from you lot. I know lots of lovely nice routes, as do you, in other sportive territory, and I want to see if you will pt your wheels where your vague interest is. So, if I were to organise routes in the following areas under the aegis of the ACG, would you come?

  • Jurassic coast & the Dorset downs
  • Cranborne chase & surrounding countryside
  • New Forest
  • Exmoor & the Quantocks (I will rely on some local knowledge for this one)
  • Bath & Salisbury plain
  • The Mendips (obviously)
  • One or two others (maybe)

Rides would include a cafe stop, full Garmin-friendly route, parking at the start, shared lift co-ordination for bikes & riders, no mechanical support (other than our common sense and mutual sense of obligation) no motorbike outriders but also no idiots overtaking us on blind bends or over-priced feeding stations with jaffa cakes and expensive energy drink.

Routes would allow 5-6 hours of riding in stunning countryside, great company, and brilliant weather is guaranteed. If you are in the ACG they would be free (membership is £5 per annum) and if a non-member you can ride with us five times (I think) before you have to stump up or go ride elsewhere! (we don't turn people away).

It doesn't take a genius to work out that these are loosely based on some other sportives which I shall not name. We wouldn't do them at the same time as the official sportives, no-one gets dropped, we have a laugh and it costs us little. Certainly not an average of £33 which is what sportives are rapidly turning into.

So are you interested? If so (this is the participative bit) YOU HAVE TO TELL ME!

Things like, what, where, when, which etc. etc. More details the better, and I'll start some planning over Christmas.

Over to you peeps.



Saturday, 1 December 2012

As cold as it gets?

You have to capture these kind of moments. I absolutely, categorically assure you that I am not gloating. No really. I promise. Besides, it's nine and a half years since we beat Chelski, so given the relative stature and resources of the two clubs it could be another nine and a half years before it happens again.

Whoever would have thought that I could warm to Sam Allardyce? I should say that I am partly responsible. I had just explained to my Dad why Carlton Cole was such a frustrating player, how he rarely changed important games, and looked too tired and off form to contribute much today. Then he scored one and made another. (I'm not having that "assist" rubbish BTW, you do that if you drive past a broken-down car with a family looking helpless and hapless, and offer your assistance).
West Ham celebrate

I did love Rafa Benitez's post-match explanation. All Chelsea have to do is realise it's a game of two halves, take their chances and play better. Who would be a football manager? I never knew what a tough job it is.

All this was very far from my mind when I woke up at 7AM this morning, ready for a planned 8AM ride out from my Dad's house on my own. I had planned to do this back on Monday.Then came more rain and on my commuting trip on Thursday I was a bit surprised to find that a lot of the back roads were still deeply flooded. As the temperatures were also heading south at a rapid rate, it was fairly obvious that a lot of the roads would be at risk of being icy for the first few hours of daylight.

So in true risk management style, I decided to head for Salisbury not by the planned back roads, but via the A road that runs up the Avon valley. Now Laurens has a temperature record, and he was showing about minus 6C as I set off. I think he is a bit pessimistic by about 2 degrees, I cross-referenced against my car thermometer, but even so it was chilly. And very, very foggy. The mist in the air condensed on me, and by the time I got to Downton my handlebars, gloves, coat and tights had a nice layer of ice on them.

The traffic was also beginning to annoy me. Where are all these people going at 8.30AM? And despite the fog they weren't hanging about either, so I decided to risk the back roads up the small hills to the south of the city. There was some ice, and the fields had lots of frozen water in them which must be the remnants of the flood. But I was sensible and rode slowly before coasting into the city itself and paying a visit to the Cathedral.

The attached link will tell you that Salisbury has one of the only cathedrals that was built in one go during the medieval period, to a unified plan. It may have taken them 60 years, but it still makes it our most beautiful church.

 And there was also a donation box (into which I popped a pound to say thanks for these photos) next to the curious "talking telescope".

I was tempted to have a go, but even though the fog had largely lifted, it was still bitterly cold, and I didn't want to lose the benefit of the sunshine that was now starting to break through.


After navigating the city streets I swung south and headed up the hill towards the racecourse, HQ of the Joker sportive. Skip and I entered last year and her gear cable let her down, but she gamely battled on and finished. I think.

I was now on back roads again and there was a lot of ice on the descent on the other side of the hill. So much so that I decided to change the plan again and stick to the main road that crosses the hills towards Blandford. At first it was quite nice, an easy climb followed by some undulating roads with magnificent views.

 
But then the road took on the character of a race track, and it turned into a dual carriageway. Time to risk the back roads again. Which actually took me back to my original route at Broad Chalke, and as the temperature inched above freezing, the roads proved easier to navigate and specifically descend on. A couple of tough climbs followed with more spectacular views of the countryside, and not so great views of my freezing face!




Eventually the route brought me to one of the most wonderfully-named villages in the whole world. FACT. Although Sixpenny Handley has nothing to do with money, some of the signposts in the area seem oblivious to that fact. Older readers will understand this, as will Latin speakers, maybe. And if you don't understand, just admire the signpost for its own sake, its setting and its old-fashionedness. After all, everyone loves a signpost.

 
From there it was a pretty standard loop back over the chase to Cranborne and Alderholt, to complete a nice anti-clockwise circle of 45 miles, that looked like this. After a practice on Thursday this is Laurens' first proper outing, and you can see that there is oodles of data available. I have already mentioned the vagaries of temperature, I also thing the calorie counter is under-recording, at least in comparison to my Polar watch. Yes, I wore two heart rate straps to test it! I have a lot to do to get the most out of Laurens, but so far I am really enjoying his company.

As ever the scenery of Dorset, Wiltshire and Hampshire was fantastic. By the way, there is a story that if you fish in a stream up the road from here you can catch fish from all three counties. I'd go to Sainsburys but it does emphasise how wonderfully higgledy-piggledy the county boundaries are. Long may it remain.

Tuesday, 27 November 2012

Drag the past out into the light

Spoiler alert : this is not about cycling.

And there are no pictures.

It's absolutely rubbish this grieving malarkey. Gets you at odd times, like driving into work, and late at night when you start looking at Alan Yentob but always end up with Paul Hewson and Kite. Which rhymes appropriately with how I feel.

Sorry to burden you lot, cyberspace with this but how else can I sleep. Still better than Bunny's lot at the moment, and at least I have 100 top U2 tracks from Youtube in my ears as I type. And now I have Beautiful Day, which basically says, life is awful but it's still beautiful. Which is about as much sense as I'm ever going to get out of this at 1AM, GMT, BTW.

I was, I thought, doing well. But actually I was just buffering with business. Or busyness. And now the bandwidth is bigger and all those connections get made in a really raw way, and it's hard. But then, what would she say? In modern parlance it would be FFS, MTFU and get out on your bike.

At a place called vertigo? I can certainly feel that all right, never mind the holes that twinkle, and there is quite definitely no God. Just give me what I want and no-one gets hurt. Really?

Not content with the rain, no, make that the flood, the weather gods are about to chuck cold northerlies, freezing temperatures, and quite probably ice and snow in our direction.

Do your worst, I've had enough of you. My best winter base layer, and fleecy bib-tights can fend you off in concert with my polartec buff.

Thursday I'm riding to work.

OK so I lied. Here's the picture.

Saturday, 24 November 2012

The way I laugh there way up high

I have had a busy week with trips to London on Tuesday and thursday, both of which necessitated me being on the 6AM train from Temple Meads. Which means getting up at 4.30AM, and enjoying the delights of First GReat Western to Paddington, tube hell, and "don't know, don't care and I gotta go mate".

That is not a complaint, it's a FACT. When you add in yet more terrible weather, a dizzying spell of vertigo, which seems to come and go with varying symptoms, all add up to not much opportunity or inclination for riding the bike. And it's junior's birthday weekend (when a simple party transformed into a whole weekend requiring my presence I can't remember, especially since most of the time these days he does his best to not be with his parents) and yet again as it's persistenly raining I'm not out today or tomorrow either.

But yesterday I thought I'd go back to my cycling roots and try a bit of night riding. OK I was tired, it was Friday evening and pretty cold. But it had been sunny all day, I didn't have to get up in the morning so I thought I'd give it a go. I vainly tried to persuade the Cycling Mayor to come, but she wasn't having any of it, so it was just me and the night.

My earliest proper cycling forays were back in Devon, I rode my bike everywhere (a Raleigh Arena bought in a bike shop in Burnham for some reason).



Not just for fun but as a means of transport, and particularly in my part time job as a paperboy. The landscape of Torbay is not exactly flat, so every evening and on Saturdays I would cycle a round trip of 6-7 miles and a fair few feet of climbing to deliver the Herald Express to a disparate group of customers.

Most of this took place in the dark, or so it seemed. I had a set of lights driven by a dynamo which seemed to make more noise than my wheezy chest, but it kept me seen and seeing. I certainly had no thought of hi-viz or helmets in those days, and I'm sure the Highway code was fairly peripheral to my cycling.

When I got back into cycling about 10 years ago, the main time I would go out was after baby Junior was tucked up in bed at night, and though the lights and clothing had moved on, the darkness seemed to be much the same. Somehow I have got out of this habit, I think it's because I can't really be bothered to do short distances anymore, and the early starts with work are not conducive to hard efforts the night before.

Somerset has been inundated this week, but I wasn't expecting it to be quite as wet as it was. After warming up through Winscombe and Sandford I headed up the road towards Burrington, which was still full of the same type of large puddles that had hampered my journey home the night before on the A38. In a car. Being at the bottom of the Mendip slopes there was still plenty of water still coming off the hill, despite there being no rain for over 24 hours.

As I turned up the Coombe itself it soon became apparent that these were not normal conditions. The cattle grid was submerged, and once over it, the road soon took on the characteristics of a river. Which didn't make the climb any easier. It was only when I was about halfway up that the road surface went from torrent to damp, and I was free to enjoy the peace, quiet and spectacular views of a moonlit night ride.

I carried on along the road at the top, heading for Green Ore lights, periodically having to slow down for more deep puddles in the dips, occasional gravel and deep, thick banks of mist. As you would expect, the temperature would suddenly plunge every time I hit one of these, and my goggles would mist up immediately.

I headed over the first set of lights and then took one of the back roads into Wells, past the old Slabhouse pub. The mist played havoc with the vision, so I had to take it fairly easy, despite the good surface and there being few cars about. I tried to take a few pictures on my phone, but the camera isn't good enough, so you will have to take my word for how beautiful a night it was.

I had intended to take a flat route back, but realised that any of the roads on the levels could be flooded, meaning possible detours and delays, and although I had plenty of life in the lights, I wasn't too keen to cycle slowly, which I would have had to have done with all the debris about.

Nothing for it, I would have to go home over the top of the Mendips and headed for Old Bristol Hill. Which was OK because the slowness of the climb made it relatively easy to avoid the muck, water and gravel on the road. I would not be going down there at the moment though. I decided to stick to main roads and head for the gorge, only to find it shut when I got there. I thought about risking it, but had heard it was closed because cars were getting punctures. As the temperatures were plunging because of the absence of any cloud cover I really didn't fancy that, so I circled back up to Charterhouse and then down Shipham Hill. Which was also full of gravel, so I came down there with my hands on the brakes too.

A ride in the dark can be great fun, and I was pleased I went out, enjoyed the scenery, didn't get too wet and managed to get in a couple of proper hills to boot. And the timing looks to have been pretty good too, as I write there is more water tipping out of the sky and I can only imagine more gravel will be washed onto the roads and the lanes of the levels will be flooded. So good luck to anyone venturing out tomorrow, wrap up warm and take your flotation devices and pontoon bridges.

Sunday, 18 November 2012

Flying high above the sadness and the fear

I rode to work a couple of times this week. On Wednesday, at Barrow Gurney lights, a car tried to go, where there wasn't space for it to go as I took the corner at about 20 mph. As I was taking the immediate right turn down the back road, beautifully called "Wild Country Lane" (and there are a few good reasons why that name is apt), I stayed right, indicated and turned.

I'm not going to list the stream of invective and abuse from the man, sorry, the idiot, driving the car. "Arse" was involved, safe to say it wasn't tolerant, mutually-respecting language.

I sighed, inwardly and outwardly, I really did. The poor soul would be held up by the traffic jam I could see he was headed towards in about 10 seconds. I'm just so tired of the noise and the abuse you get, seemingly just because you are riding a bike on the road. And holding the line as well and not cowering in the gutter and the potholes.
 
All of the commuting this week took place in grey and drizzly conditions of varying degrees. Lots of mud, lots of fog, and that dampness that comes with Autumn. Some of that lifted a bit yesterday when junior MR and I went for a walk down to the village along the Strawberry Line. Besides having a proper, and wide-ranging conversation, we watched a football match at the park, did a few errands and looked through the window of the car showroom.

It was the first time I had that thing where you think, "I must send Mum a picture of this, she'd be thrilled", before realising. She loved her sports cars.


So despite the near-freezing temperature, it was so lovely to see the sun shining in a crystal-clear sky when I looked out of the window this morning. Is it a metaphor? I hope so.

And even better, by the miracle of e-mail, social-networking and talking to each other, we managed to assemble six riders (Martyn, Trevor, Paul, Steve & a worryingly-full-of-potential offspring, Isaac) for a group ride towards the Eastern Mendips. This is not a territory we frequent that much, but holds much promise, especially at this time of year.

Views for one thing, spectacular vistas from the ridge line above Crosscombe towards the levels, Glastonbury, Brent Knoll and the Poldens. This is a view I took later on which shows how clear the air was today after all that mist of the last week.


Then as we circled back and came down Constitution Hill into Wells, we were afforded a splendid view of the cathedral. And there were other sights too, the trees, hanging on to the last few remaining leaves, offer some spectacular last gasps of colour before the monochrome of Winter sets in. 



Our coffee stop at the Rock Cake Cafe coincided with the arrival/departure/etc. of about a dozen or so other cyclists of different groups and varieties, and it all made for a very convivial atmosphere. Paul decided to head straight back to Brent Knoll with a group he knew, and we did a swap, acquiring Mark from their group for the rest of the ride.

Meeting up slightly later meant we avoided any lingering ice and all made it home in one piece, always good.

Our plan had not survived contact with the terrain, and so after a little jaunt up to the top of Old Frome road, we circled back into Shepton, where after an unplanned detour (see what happens when I don't have a Garmin, I get lost!) we headed up the road on the other side of the Crosscombe valley back to Wells.

Gradually people peeled off, first to go were the Downs, man and boy, the latter may be lightning up hills, but his stick-thin frame (it's not about the bike!) finds it hard going on longer jaunts, especially on the flat. What's that saying? "Youth and skill are no match for old age and treachery".

I suppose I was next, as I headed for Mudgley Hill and Rug Hill and Cheddar, and the rest headed for the flat lands by the sea. I had enjoyed the company tremendously, and it was also nice to have some time to myself, enjoy the fresh air and let my mind wander a bit.

Today's route looked like this, well for me it did anyway, and included an extra loop into Winscombe to make it over the 50 mile mark, necessitating a climb of Alpe de Winscombe. Just to make sure I circled around the Barton road, and came up the lane. With the trees and the low-hanging sun, I took a couple of minutes to capture the moment, the beauty and reflect that this year I really have had some wonderful support from an awful lot of people. And sometimes just riding the bike in the sun, along the ridge looking out over the landscape, is enough to transcend the murk, the mist and even the idiots who are in too much of a hurry to see we are all going to the same place.

Enjoy the ride. I did.


Saturday, 10 November 2012

Don't tell me what to do


I own four bikes at the moment. Three standard road bikes and a mountain bike, the latter is slowly dying a rusty and corrosive death in my shed alongside a hybrid bike bought for Mrs Mendip Rouleur when she had a short-lived burst of enthusiasm for cycling about six years ago.

Although I'm not riding much at the moment, today's ACG ride was my first and only one of the week (and btw the week runs from Monday to Sunday), and I have only ridden 661 miles since I came back from the Pyrenees at the beginning of September. With the sportive season drawing to a close, and frequent trips to London during the week, and my Dad at weekends, there have been few opportunities for long rides, commuting and social rides respectively.

And my motivation is not really sparked yet by the thought of 2013, well it is in one sense. I am very, very excited at the thought of going to watch the Tour de France in the mountains, my favourite mountains too. And doing some riding with Stuart will be great fun too, and a couple of the days will be really demanding. But it's not a "challenge" in the way that this year's trip was.

So when it's wet, a bit cold and the roads are very muddy and full of leaves, it is hard to get out and ride. And it also means that the bike gets a nice coating of mud and grit, and when the really cold weather comes, it will get a salt wash as well. So all this punishment is a bit of a disincentive to riding, and I have been half-looking for a "winter bike" for the last 18 months. Only thing is, I can't really justify a fourth road bike, especially as the third one is locked in my sister-in-laws garage in Ireland, and would do the job for me.

The idea would be to have a second-hand bike, or one coming to the end of its days, that could be ridden into the ground, never cleaned, and robust enough to take the Winter punishment. As well as fast enough to get me about at a reasonable speed. And yes, maybe even to ride the Hell of the North Cotswolds on. Looks like I need to bring the bike back from Ireland.

Today was an ACG ride, and I decided to do this as today's route. A few hills, some flat, the seaside, and a nice downhill at the end to finish. And there were seven of us to boot, great company and lots of opportunity to chat as well as go on the front. Very, very muddy. And yes, I cleaned the bike now so it's almost as good as new:



Except with just about everything new apart from the frame, cranks, pedals and wheels.

In other news this week I have been sucked into a Twitter debate about helmet compulsion. That's weather they should be compulsory, not the compulsive wearing of cycling protective gear. Although with the accidents that have happened this week, to Saint Bradley and Shane Sutton no-one is safe. Even before then I had been reviewing my safety apparel on the commuter run, after seeing how hard it was to pick out cyclists now the clocks have gone back.

Last week I added these to some of my spokes:


Spoke reflectors. Very uncompliant, but I hope they will reduce my sideswipe accident risk.

The Twitter thing. I posted a reply to someone advocating making helmets compulsory for cyclists. I always wear one, it's my choice, but I know that compulsion, besides being wrong on a philosophical level, actually deters people from cycling. Which causes more health problems from loads of fat kids playing x-box. I speak from personal experience.

Besides, there are very few bike accidents caused to heads without cars being involved. So do we insist that pedestrians wear them? It's only sensible, because if they trip over and bang their head, or worse, get hit by a car mounting the pavement, it will keep them safe. No-one would ever go out walking.

But opponents can't see it. The answer is simple. Make roads safer, tackle driver behaviour by culture change, make cyclists obey the highway code.
Enough, I have a life that needs attending.

Sunday, 4 November 2012

Come ride with me

This might be a bit early, but I was looking at my plans for next year and thinking about which events to enter.

I have already forked, and it might as well be a gilded fork for the price that's charged, for the Dragon Ride, and secured a place in the bet sportive on the planet, aka Dartmoor Classic. All being well, Stuart and I are going to watch the Tour in the Pyrenees and do a bit of riding with Pyractif, the best cycling holiday company on the planet. FACT.

I've put in for a place in the Ride London ballot, and may do something charity-related, because I really feel I want to do something for a cancer charity. And of course it's the Mayor's birthday at the end of March, her life is just about to begin, so it better be special. I was toying with offering to plan her a route, but don't tell her, she'll try and make me make it all flat and fast.

And that set me thinking. Over the last few weeks I have come up with three or four routes, all by myself and ridden them in the company of you lot, and it has been great fun. Even the ride yesterday around the Forest was very picturesque, and lacked some conversation and a coffee stop. My point is that I have now ridden pretty extensively across the south and west of England, enough to plan a few longer rides that I don't have to pay to enter.

All I need to do is persuade a few people to get in their cars to drive an hour or two to the start point, and ride with me. We could do the rides under the auspices of the ACG, so pay £5 for membership and you'd get a nice ride, great company, a coffee stop, and I'd guarantee everyone a great route, which can be downloaded onto Garmins in advance.

And anyway, we all know what the G stands for.

What do you think? Interested?

Saturday, 3 November 2012

All new cycling, almost

New. College, broom, Look, ways, clothes. But in today's case, Forest. As is the way of the English there is of course, nothing new about it, being nearly 950 years old.

I am spending the weekend with my Dad, and took advantage of a beautiful morning today to cycle across the forest to my Mum's grave just outside Christchurch.

It was cold and crisp, and very sunny as I rolled down the slight gradient out of Alderholt. Then gently pushed it up the slight gradient of the next half mile. And that set the pattern, with the exception of a couple of short climbs it was an undulating day, through rolling moorland, forest and heath. All very picturesque and a reprise of some of the route of the ride I did back in August.

Talking at the graveside. Umm, what is that about? Yes I did it, had quite a monologue cum conversation, and no I'm not telling you what it was about.  Afterwards I cycled across the corner of the forest before heading west across the Avon causeway. It's the slightly elevated road across the flood plain of the river, and flood was the operative word today, and heaving with swans.

Their legs going fourteen to the dozen no doubt.

After that it was more undulations and then a nice road into Dorset and a final sprint with the wind at my back. 50 miles, most of the new. Here is the route, and I am ever so slightly ashamed to say that I had a wry grin at the weather back home in Somerset. And glad when it clouded over here, for it goes to show, that sometimes, if you seize the moment, you get the best of it.

Saturday, 27 October 2012

Somewhere beyond the bitter end is where I want to be

What time is it in the world? Hah!

Sometime around now the clocks are going back an hour, yet Google blogspot-world measures time according to someplace in the USA. Whatever time it is I should really be asleep, but as is usual these days I'm finding that, well, problematic. Especially as I had a few hours in the land of nod after I came home from riding this afternoon. Yesterday afternoon.

It has been quite a week, for all sorts of reasons, trains, training sessions, bike rides and just pure unadulterated slog. I rode to work for the first time in a few weeks on Wednesday, played football enthusiastically on Monday, went to London on Thursday and went to see my Dad on Friday.

So despite my immense fatigue at 8AM Saturday, it was an official ACG ride, I was ride leader, and the sun was threatening to shine. Time to be out and at them, the hills that is. And of course it was cold, and windy, and wet and mulchy underneath, with hints of ice and more mud on the road than a seventies revival tour.

But you can't just sit about, after all the only things that are keeping me going right now are Patty Griffin, Paul Whitehouse and riding my bike. So we formed up in the Square, both of us (Dave and I) and headed off into the teeth of the north wind and up Shipham Hill. Then up Long Bottom (thank you!) and down Burrington Coombe. Now if you think you are slow going down hills, I think I have found a couple who are slower than you. Halfway between cattle grids I passed a couple who could have made faster progress by walking. Perhaps they were worried about the threat of ice, or the cavers that crossed the road in front of us.

Dave and I headed into the maze of little lanes around Butcombe and Nemnett Thrubwell. Most of them are steep, and all of them were muddy, but as far as we could tell, none had ice in or on them. With little traffic about it made for a very pleasant change from slogging into headwinds on flat level territory.

We decided to try the cafe by the east side of Chew Lake, and admire the views. I'm sorry there are no action shots, I haven't been on the course yet, so you will have to make do with still landscapes.


And here is the obligatory cake, in this case a nice fruit scone, which I ate, although most of the cream and jam was unconsumed.

I am also on something of a quest and a mission to ride lanes and byways that I have never done before. This is difficult locally but we managed it today. Some of the roads near Butcombe were new, as was the latest climb up the Mendips, Ridge Lane out of West Harptree. Sounds like a racehorse.

So here is our route as recorded by Charlie and loaded by Garmin and here is the route on ridewithGPS. About 40 miles all told, some inaccuracies in recording, but I think Garmin is more accurate. But GPS has gradients, peaking at around 18% today.

Monday, 22 October 2012

it would be so easy if there was no-one left to hurt but me

 “It's a bollocks, this race! You're working like an animal, you don't have time to piss, you wet your pants. You're riding in mud like this, you're slipping ... it’s a pile of shit......... it's the most beautiful race in the world!”

-Theo de Rooij on Paris Roubaix 

Kind of ironic given the events of 2007 and subsequently. But I remembered this quote today, well yesterday actually, amidst the Casheque mud and the blood and the beer, of a stinker of a day.

Thanks to my friends for getting me through.

It's still a good quote though.
















Sunday, 21 October 2012

It's not about the bike

Poor old Lance Armstrong. There, I've said his name now. Let that be an end to it. I really hope the story of him having a Google alert for his own name is true. He would need to have an army of people monitoring them, what with Twitter and all. If one of that army is reading, first let me tell you I'm not worth suing. Second, there is nothing about Lance Armstrong in this post that is defamatory, since it is either true or, actually, not about him.

I just wondered if Lance Armstrong has a therapist, a psychotherapist, or a psychology coach, that type of thing. In the absence of any of the said factual evidence, I can't speculate, but it would be interesting to know. I bet he could do with a friend at least right now. And as we all know, a friend is someone who lets you help.

Today, Steve, Jennifer and I went to Bath. Via the scenic route. It is the latest in the continuing theme to boldly go where we don't often go, before, or something like that. Last week we went south-west, this week it was north-east. So it doesn't take a genius to work out where we are going next. As with all my plans they are pretty flexible, but this week we stuck to most of the route, and certainly did the full planned distance, just over 100km in my case.

We did forgo Draycott Steep, the very, very steep hill up the Mendips, in  favour of Westbury Hill, the very steep hill. It was swirly-misty-early-sleepy Sunday morning, and after only 6-7 miles I was huffing and puffing up it. Unlike Steve, who was doing a fair impression of Joaquim Rodriguez today. As in, breezing up the hills while smoking both of us, never mind the cigar.

              Steve

Once up the top we took it in turns to haul ourselves across the plateau, before Jennifer took off down towards Chewton Mendip. For once we carried right on, until a right at Farrington Gurney, and then a sharp left, took us into our first sandstone village (town?) of Paulton. For the next few miles the road ran along the top of the ridge, and as the mist slowly cleared, the views were tremendous.

Soon, we took a right, down into the valley that carries the Gem Brook to the Avon, and the lane passed through some delightfully-wooded sections, Warren Wood, Engine Wood, Godwin's Wood, and the gruesome Slittems Wood. The best name of the day was to come, as once through the village of Monkton, we turned left and hit the slopes of Brassknocker Hill.

The route then took us round the south side of urban Bath, before descending right down to river level, and out coffee stop, the Riverside Inn at Saltford. Pretty empty it was too, I would imaging it would be packed in Summer, but as we left the day was turning into a bright and mild one. There was much layering and de-layering but with the wind now behind us, it was definitely a case of being too warm more often than not.

It was also much muddier, and there were more horses, but the names continued unabated. Pretty villages, Compton Dando, Middlepiece Lane, Cocker's Hill (yes really), Publow Lane, and my personal favourite (I have no idea why), the village of Woollard, Something to do with the accent I think.

 
Rail enthusiasts will recognise Pensford viaduct, which we all went under for the first time today.  Pensford  is actually a fascinating place, as I found out from the link, but  if you can't be bothered to read the link, I can confirm there isn't a railway a-top it now. The village does however have this other Grade II listed farm house, also eponymously named!
 



I haven't mentioned bridges for a while. If you are a new reader, I have almost an obsession for a great bridge, and we went over loads today, mainly because we were dipping out of these small valleys, each with its own Avon tributary.

Modern bridges just don't seem the same somehow, more thought went into this, for example:

 
 
This one is in Stanton Drew, and I have still not stopped to look at the Stone circle there. Shortly after crossing this, we headed back onto more familiar ground through Chews Magna and Stoke, but instead of heading up a Harptree, we climbed the back road out of Compton Martin, known as the Wrangle. Pretty steep and a bit mucky. I was initially sitting down, until I inadvertently pulled a wheelie, forcing me out of the saddle till the road was less damp.
 
Once at the top we all decided that was enough and so we headed across the top and down the gorge. For once, on a Sunday, I got a clear run and took it at a fair pace, before hitting grockle city at the bottom.
 
It had been a great ride. Not lightning fast, but then mucky and wet roads put paid to that, along with some chunky climbing. And the best company there is, in the fresh air and the sunshine. Just for one day, a little bit of denial. So Lance, I understand, I really do. Sometimes the real world and the truth are hard to face. But when you do it, after it's all over, you will still have your friends, your family, your health and your bike. You can make a plan of how to sort things, get people to help and support you, people that really care, not the millions of "adoring fans".
 
Do you need anything else? Really?
 


Sunday, 14 October 2012

Somethings that mean everything

Ever watched the Magnificent Seven? Sixties movie-making at its finest, and I know it was derived from a Japanese story, but Westerns are so much better really.

There is a great bit where some young kids are starting to hero-worship one of the gunslingers, decrying their own fathers as cowards. The hero defends them by saying he could never shoulder the burden of responsibility that parenthood brings, and that anyone can be a gun for hire.

So it was that it fell to me to assemble my son's new bed, from four, yes four, large (we are talking bigger than me) boxes yesterday. I had procrastinated long enough, about two weeks to be more precise, and could not delay it any longer. I'm not going to rant about it, but it did take me most of the late afternoon and evening of Saturday to get the thing assembled.

I say "bed", but it's more of a live-in bunk cum-desk-futon station. Don't ask, suffice to say it was a late and very grumpy me that finally got round to planning the route for today's ride with the ACG. I had planned an alternative Sunday, involving 92 miles in Worcestershire, taking in the Malvern Hills. One of my lifetime ambitions is to cycle there, it dates back to my time with Britannia.

Every time I drove up and down the M5 to and from Leek, I would see them poking out of the flatlands in the distance and think that would be a great place to go riding. So when I saw a CTC ride there I thought that might make a good place for a quiet ride to contemplate life, the universe and everything. But it would involve a very early start, early night and that was probably incompatible with the flat-pack bed situation.

So when Steve e-mailed a reminder about an ACG ride, it didn't take much to persuade me, although I did fancy something different, and he suggested the Quantocks. Missus. Open goal, sorry. The ride I suggested was this gem. I did say that it was a flexible plan and so it proved.

With all the seven pistoleros assembled in the Square at 9AM, it some pretty dense fog and significant chill, it was apparent that not everyone had time for 75 miles. By the time we had got over the levels, up over the Polden Hills and into, and then around, Bridgwater, and up the not inconsequential Enmore Hill, I knew I didn't have the legs or lungs, for Crowcombe either.

We all contented ourselves with the lovely views of the landscape, the slightly quirky proprietor, and the bacon sandwiches in the Pines Cafe at the top of the hill. Martyn, who I inadvertently called Bryan last time I was out with him, even met up with some other cyclists he knew.







Sorry there are no action shots, not too good on the iPhone camera on the go. But the views from the hills were great, and the colours of the trees are also just starting to come into their own.

I haven't been riding much since France and my Mum's death, and I have also had a nasty lurgy which refuses to totally leave my lungs. I went to see the Asthma nurse (this is not the start of a joke BTW) and she increased my steroid dose for a few weeks to see if we can kill it off.

All of this means I am short of cycling fitness and lung capacity. So by the time we had descended to North Petherton and starting bombing across the levels again, it was all I could do to just hold on. We headed along the road next to the river as far as Burrowbridge, during which time a few of the group seemed intent on turning the ride into a team time trial.

We eased off a bit after that, for the sake of me if no-one else (oh the privilege of being a ride leader!), and rode in a line all the way to Pedwell, where we fragmented a bit before coming together on the other side of the hill.

Martyn and Trevor peeled off at Westhay, leaving Steve and Figgy to lead us over Mudgley Hill and play rabbit-chasing through Clewer and wait for the three of us slow-coaches at Sharpham Road. And that was pretty much that, by the time I got home I'd done just over 64 miles, at an average of 16.1 mph. Charlie gave up the ghost after the Quantocks, but we broadly followed the route above.

I sure am tired, and it can't be from over-training. It was a lovely day today, after the mist cleared and the sun came out to play it was nigh on perfect cycling weather, Goldilocks and all that. And the company was great too. As you can see from the pictures we are all knocking on a bit, and have considerably less olive oil than we used to, and certainly less than him.

But the company was great, the riding good and the scenery a bit different. Let's do more of that over the next few rides. Chepstow anyone?

Thursday, 4 October 2012

How bad can it get?

I am having a theoretical rest. Certainly it's a rest from cycling, not been on the bike for 7 days, when I joined our works outing, aka charity fund-raiser. We raised over £30K for Care International, and thanks to those that helped me do my bit and raise my contibution. The day was great, I met people from all the different international offices of our organisation, all brought together on two wheels and a bike. Lots of them, people and bikes.

The ride was OK. We did most of the Olympic road race route, except without the crowds or the closed roads. So whilst the London parks and a few bits of Surrey were rural and picturesque, especially Box Hill, the suburban stuff was full of traffic and never-ending parades of shops and houses. No wonder Team GB didn't win, I'd have been bored to death riding it too. To relive the real professional experience we got to cycle multiple circuits of the Box Hill loop.

After my first two, which as you know breaks my law of never going over old ground on a ride, I rebelled and rode the loop in the opposite direction. Then, instead of completing my 4th, and penultimate ride before the lunch stop, I saw the clouds coming over the hill, and headed for soup and a sandwich pronto. Unfortunately the rain continued all afternoon in a drizzly fashion, and seemed an appropriate metaphor to the way my cycling season has fizzled out of any enthusiasm.

So I decided to have time off the bike. That's the "rest" bit, the rest of the rest is as busy and frantic as ever.

It didn't help that I was already a week into what is now turning into the longest-running bout of manflu ever known to, well, man. Obviously I suffered on the bike, and riding 90 miles in the damp on a Friday in London was not conducive to total good health, but this pesky virus seems to have taken up residence in my respiratory system and is not leaving till it gets what it came for.

I can see everyone around me all buoyed up by the thought of next year, and I'm lacking a certain joie de velo. Still, times have been worse, particularly when it comes to the weather. One of the posts above relays Day 5 of this year's trip to the Pyrenees, and I have decided that gets in at number 6 in my all-time worst cycling weather moments.

Number 5 was also from 2012, step forward this year's Mad March Hare. Another terrible rainstorm, one that lasted all day and was joined by gale force winds, freezing temperatures and a lovely blizzard at the top of the day's main climb. My comfort levels were not helped by inadvertently leaving the vents of my rain jacket wide open. I only discovered this after buying an expensive replacement a couple of days later, an action that guaranteed us the next few weeks' dry weather.

Number 4 was also a day of unrelenting rain, the first day in the Pyrenees last year (see photo below of a rather disconsolate bike next to a soggy bus shelter and a rain-peppered road). The great thing about that day was how the sun came out and the wind died down at almost the exact moment we finished riding.

The third worst was the infamous Exmoor Beast 2009. It did rain most of the day, but the worst of it was the wind. People were blown over on a regular and frequent basis, the mist was swirling around like the dry ice at a Mission gig, and no-one could see a thing. Once or twice I found myself blown onto the wrong side of the road as I cycled past a westward-facing gap in the hedge, catching the full blast of the hurricane in the process.

The organisers cancelled the 100 mile route and defaulted thousands onto a truncated version, leading to crowded narrow lanes, and much accompanying cyclist ire. And a few more crashes on the slippery cattle grid and foaming ford. One to say that "I was there", and never go back. Which of course Stuart and I ignored by signing up and completing the full distance in slightly better weather in 2010, although the extra bits tagged on are a bit dull really.

It was a close call, but the second worst weather took place during 25 minutes of what was generally a tolerable to pleasant day. Day three of 2010 Raid Pyrenean, coming down the Aspin. Again rain was the culprit, but hard, driving, thunder-strewn mountain-bouncing-upwards rain. Climbing up from Campan had been a bit damp and misty, but generally OK. On reaching the col Stuart and I nearly had our legs ripped off by the storm, as torrential rain swept in from the east.

The descent to Arreau is about 12km, losing around 800m at an average of around 6.5%. On a dry day it's a sublime ride, long straightS with great hairpins and wonderful views. On that day it turned into hypothermia from hell, as slowly I lost contact with toes, then fingers, then nose and then reality. There was so much surface water I was reluctant to pedal to warm myself up, for fear of taking a tumble. This only prolonged the agony as I freewheeled down to the base of the mountain, to find the storm passing, and all my sopping wet clothes starting to steam in the heat.

But the prize, if there was one, for the worst weather on a bike, is also one of the most significant days I have had in my life, never mind a bike. Day 9 of Land's End to John O' Groats, April 2009. Connel (near Oban) to Inverness, a distance of just over 106 miles, in one direction. Up the Great Glen, largely on the flat, in the wind. The 30 mph headwind. The only respite was on the few climbs, when at least you expected to be slow. The wind was so fierce I had to pedal to gain momentum on the downhills.

Crying, raging, cursing my sore knee, thinking of giving up. At the end of that long, long day I knew that if I could get through that, I could get through, and more to the point, I could actually accomplish anything I set my mind to do.

So of course, how bad can it get? Possibly worse than all those days, possibly worse than yesterday when I raged about the idiocy of Norman Tebbit, the fatuousness of celebrity, the ineptitude of the Health Service, the pettiness of duvet covers and the uselessness of my lungs. But that's all normal for this stage, one month on. Early days.

Saturday, 29 September 2012

This dream, I don't ever give up

Life is moving, turning and twisting on a-pace and I want to wrap up the Pyrenean blog and write about other stuff.

So this is the last tree days, nearly a month ago now, all in one bumper post. Day 4 was on paper a sort of transitional stage. For those of you who know the Tour, you will know that a transition stage is a relatively flat one which takes you form one set of mountains, the Pyrenees say, to another, like the Alpes.

On this trip there weren't really any flat bits, so the Col de Mente, Portet d'Aspet, Peguerre and Port will have to suffice in relative terms. First was Mente, a climb Stuart and I did last year on the first day of our mini-break cycling holiday. We had a nice rolling flat start of 10-15 km guided by Pyractif's resident helpers, as Chris was coming up with the fast group and Helen was busying preparing our picnic lunch for later, and they made pretty short work of it.

Mente is quite steep, averaging around 8% I think, but it has the obligatory views, as well as delightful hairpins and switchbacks on its upper slopes, which all help to break things up and keep it interesting. It also has history, as you can see from the photo I took last year.

A friend of mine has been complaining recently about the intricacies of the French language, but at least they know how to put up a good memorial. Can you imagine a similar inscription on Cheddar Gorge, it would be something like "Bob fell off and had to give up".

After a cafe stop at the top of Mente, it was down the other side, this time in the dry, which made for a fantastic this way-that way corner-sweeping fest of a comedown. Or something like that. And then it was up past another memorial, this time slightly more grandiose, to Fabio Casartelli, killed descending the Portet d'Aspet in 1995, and Olympic Champion three years earlier in Barcelona. This picture was taken last year as you can see from my profile (half a stone heavier than 2012) and the rain, fortunately absent this year.



The climb itself and short and steep, and after 4km we all re-grouped together at the top. For logistical reasons connected to the access for the support vehicles, Chris had decided to ditch the Col de Saraille, meaning we would have just two climbs left that day. On reflection I realised that the week would end quite quickly and I wanted to spend a bit of time in my own head, and stop and admire the scenery a bit.

So I eschewed company on the long descent to St. Girons, and stopped to reflect on just what a beautiful landscape I had been riding in, and how fortunate I was to have the opportunity of riding through it.


 
Eventually I rolled into St Girons, and Chris guided us through backstreets to a lovely spot by the river where we could enjoy Helen's picnic. I enjoyed the pizza particularly, plenty of calories and plenty of taste.

A special mention must be made for these two guys from the Middlesborough area. Both amazing cyclists, they rode the entire trip on standard 53/39 doubles with 12/25 cassettes. Which in view of the afternoon's exploits is absolutely amazing.


And as you can see from this photo, innately stylish as well as immensely strong.

The afternoon's ride was one of two halves. First was a gradual ascent up to Massat, through a gentle wooded gorge, and unfortunately a bit too much traffic. After a short spell riding with different groups I reverted to plan "Enjoy the scenery on my own". The day was turning into another warm one, so I got rid of base layer, helmet and prepared myself for the hardest climb of the entire trip. The Col de Port is a very easy climb, and also tranquil and beautiful. Possibly my favourite in the whole world.

But halfway up is a turning up to the Col de Peguerre, 3.5 kms at an average of around 12%. Sounds doable on paper, but when you think that is the average, it's like Draycott Steep but three times as long. And hot, although thankfully fairly shaded for much of it. Once again, many of the group passed it by on the way to the top of the Port, but I couldn't do that. Signed up for it, had to do it.

 

Once back down, it was about 6kms up to the top of the Port, before the descent to Tarascon and the hotel for the night.

Day 4's route

Overnight I was woken by the ominous sounds of rain, and true enough Day 5 dawned damp, drizzly and dark. This was the day when every inch of road was to be new to me, with some lesser-known climbs and isolated roads to be ridden.

In riding terms I think it turned into the nicest day of the whole trip, although it was harder and a lot longer than we all expected, mainly due to the weather. The Route des Corniches is a road that runs along the top edge of the valley between Tarascon and Ax-les-thermes. Some steep bits to begin with to get you up there, but mostly just meandering, undulating isolated tarmac, with spectacular views across the mountains and gorges, and ruined castles to point the way. What is not to like?



Well, I suppose the rain was one thing. What had started as drizzle, became proper rain, then all-enveloping mist and rain, then just a total immersion in dampness. And of course at altitude, that means cold. So by the time we reached the Col de Chioula, the temperature was hovering around 5-7C, and the group was fragmented and separated by a large distance and a couple of puncture stops. People were getting grumpy!

Quite rightly, Chris made the decision to take everyone down into Ax for a re-group and a re-think, pending some intelligence on the conditions at the top of the Port de Paillheres, the 2000m+ climb that was next on the itinerary. We descended, then invaded a slightly surprised cafe while Chris worked out what to do next. Everyone was thawing out, searching for dry clothes, and trying to get hot food and drink inside them, after a 10km descent in cold and wet conditions. Not as cold as Aspin 2010, but in the my top 10 worst cycling weather moments list.

It turned out to be near 1C at the top of the Paillheres, and with no shelter or changing facilities up there, and a 20km descent down the other side, Chris took the sensible decision to change the route for the day. And as it turned out, instead of a hard day's climbing, we ended up with a long loop around the northern side of the range, through some of the most stunning and fantastic scenery you can imagine.

This blog gets these superlatives all the time, but really, there were gorges, wooded valleys, tumbling streams, isolated villages of character and mystery, and also a lot of extra distance. We ended up doing over 160km in the end.

And though we missed out on the big climb, it was a not a flat day by any description. We still had to go back up the Chioula that we had just come down, up the minor Clo de Sept Freres, and then up the Col de Jau, with its first three km averaging 10%,  followed by a further 10km of staedy gradient - not for the feeble-legged.



 
We had a brief stop and re-group for a hot drink in a small village, and occasionally I would catch up with or be overtaken by some of our group. But for most of the afternoon I was deep in myself, my thoughts and my feelings. It was one of the most intense days I have had on my bike, if not my life. As I started up the lower slopes of the Col de Jau, knowing that I was one of the last on the road, I was overcome with emotion about my Mum.

I had no idea that her health was taking a huge turn for the worse at just about that very moment, and looking back now I am wondering about this, it sounds crazy but are there bigger forces at work in the world? Was there some kind of connection being made across all that space and time?

I stopped by the side of the road, and thought to myself that I when I got home I would tell her all about this wonderful and magical place, how I was thinking of her at that very moment and took this picture that encapsulates everything about the trip. I was tired, quite hungry, a bit teary but, as ever, utterly determined to carry on. This was the picture I took.

As it turned out I never got to tell her about the trip, and a lot of me feels guilty for having gone. But my logical side tells me that she was clear with me that I should go, and that it would have changed nothing had I stayed. I must hold on to the good things as I continue that journey.


After that it was just about slogging on up the hill to the top of the last Col, the Jau. A 20KM descent followed as the weather slowly brightened. I overtook a couple of groups on my way down, through picturesque villages, and the land began to take on more of a Mediterranean feel. The penultimate hotel was a motel on the outskirts of Prades.

It had been a tough day, and with the back of the mountains pretty much broken I looked forward to a last hurrah down to the seaside the next day.

Day 5 route

Day 6 dawned hot and dry, and we all tagged along in a big group down the road towards the Mediterranean. With only around 80kms to do, we were there before you knew it, there was one small climb up to the Col de Fourtou, through a hot and arid gorge, past a tiny village with its traditional war memorial. Odd to think that a place with little more than a few houses and a surrounding farms had nonetheless lost around 20 men in the First World War. It seemed a world away from the tranquillity of the mountain and the heat of the that gorge.


Unfortunately one of the Canadians, a nice chap currently living in the French Alps, had an accident whilst taking off his jacket and riding at the same time, takining a nasty tumble in the process. The search for appropriate medical intervention fragmented the final morning somewhat. But with the last climb done, we all headed for the final blast down across the plains to the sea at Argeles sur Mer. Once again I saw in some of the final miles on my own. Before the final festivities and celebrations, with people jumping in the sea, knocking back the wine or eating normal-sized food again, I paused to look back, reflect and take one last picture.

The final day's route

Of course this blog post has been written a month after the events it describes and so much has happened in the intervening period. I'm currently winding down for the winter, doing a few rides here and there, riding to work, and coming to terms with what has happened.

Like all these things, I have to do it my own way. Just like the ride in fact, I did it, did it quite well be my standards and loved most of it. If that didn't show enough to the people I was with, I am sorry. Few of them will read this in any case, but I had other things on my mind. Helen and Chris were wonderful guides and hosts, ably supported by Pete. If you are thinking of cycling in Europe, check them out before anyone else, definitely A* for the experience.

And as is also my way, I tend to look forward more than back, and I'm mulling over various things for next year although I have a lot to work through before I get that far. But it is ironic that most of the photos I took were of the views of where I had come from, like this one. Whilst I work out some of that stuff, this blog will be off the air for a while. I hope the few readers I have will still be there when I come back.



Don't ever give up