Sunday, 31 March 2013

And it never will be

You think you know someone. You have a few conversations. You ride bikes together. You suffer the indignity of a cold, freezing, wet Christmas ride at Sweets.

Then you find out you are of a similar age. You share one or two conversations about music and find you liked, and like, the same bands from the eighties. And that two of them are playing in Bristol in a couple of months' time.

So you get tickets, arrange to meet, have a bit of laugh about men of a certain age, all that kind of thing. And go in to watch the first band, who happen to be The Men they couldn't hang. One of my favourites.

A funny thing is that I had an open circle with them from the last time I saw them, no not what you might think and the whole story is too complicated to tell here. I thought they were a bit off form so I walked out early, thinking I'd catch them next time. But I never did, so always regretted it a bit.

Anyway, last Thursday they were fantastic. Stiff Little Fingers were OK, but I could always take or leave them, and so I did actually leave them. I hope Grant wasn't too upset, I think they were more his cup of tea than the Men. And it did give me the opportunity to bump into, and chat to, Swill. About the music, about the history and about the politics.

I think Grant might actually think Margaret Thatcher did a good job. I'm not going to argue with him, he seems like a nice bloke to me. Falklands probably, got out of her own mess, and the Iranian embassy siege I'll give you. But her ideas about thrift and self-reliance? A bit of unintended consequence I think. And while Alf Roberts may have felt a sense of obligation to the community, I don't think that idea was really what her policies promoted.

A fairly under-appreciated band TMTCH. Maybe it's because they did songs like this. Are they a bit too close to the knuckle for cosy, comfortable Britain these days? They do other stuff too, tales of historical struggle, jolly music and love songs. But they play with passion and fire, that's what I love.

And of course I realised that some of my own passion and fire has gone out since I last saw the Men the couldn't Hang. And that is despite the  world going crazy, riots all over the place, wars for oil, countries wrecked for the benefit of who exactly? Capitalism hasn't got a stunning record for helping many people has it? I know I've lived well off the crumbs from the table, but I still have this belief, deep down, that the world should be more equal, and at the same time some people should be contributing more and not just accepting a life of indolence.

So that is what I took away from the gig. As well as a t-shirt that I'm still wearing and a CD of "Waiting for Bonaparte", and "How Green was the Valley".

And these:

What I think we need is a bit more protest, a few more cobbles torn up and metaphorically thrown in the direction of those self-serving, self-interested capitalists that have pretended to be the only way for too long. I don't have answers yet, but I'm working on it.

And if you don't agree with me, then argue, debate, create. Maybe, we could collaborate and make the world better for more people.

Tomorrow I'll return to cycling and tell you all about our great ride over the Quantocks & Exmoor. But for now, think on this

Sunday, 24 March 2013

Some kinder words instead

After recent disappointments it was with a sense of trepidation that I approached Swindon yesterday morning and saw the increasingly snowy landscape. The further north I drove, and the higher in altitude I got, it was getting clearer and clearer that our planned route was not rideable. It was only drivable because I was in a 4x4, and the lovely 12% straight-line descent on a country back road had about 4 inches of fresh snow on it.

It was the Mayor's birthday ride, and being as how she decided to be born in March, you know Springtime, we should have been OK. But this year the weather gods have decided there will be no Spring, and I'm not holding much hope for Summer to be honest, so some hasty re-working of the route was called for.

Luckily I know the area, the Swindon area, well. And as the event had drawn a dozen characters and cyclists from all parts, including one that I "encouraged" to battle down from a snowy Telford., I felt a sense of moral obligation to get a ride going. Which we did, sticking to mostly main roads, which weren't as busy as I had feared they might be.

But my, it was cold. The nominal temperature was just above the 0C point, but the biting easterly wind cut through all 12 of my layers. I did my best to put some semblance of group-ness together through the ride, and there were also a few scenic stretches, where snow had frozen to trees in snow tunnels. It's always good to cycle with new people and they were a great crowd. The coffee stop in a converted Church in Marlborough proved a hit too, and we had a good time in the evening with a meal and a few drinks.

I think the Mayor enjoyed herself, although sometimes it's hard to tell.

For someone who goes round taking pictures of everyone else, she is remarkably shy in front of a camera. What I would really like to see is some SPD-SL cleats on the footwear she wore in the evening, that would be impressive!

But to be fair, the weekend was her inspiration, and she drew all these cyclists to come and ride with her. Not many people can inspire others. She does.

All in all a good day out, I hope we can do more like that when times are easier and certainly warmer!

Here is the route for the majority of the population not linked to me via Garmin. And here it is for the other two of you.

Thank you to everyone for coming and giving me such an enjoyable weekend. It was a very welcome and lovely weekend for me.

Today, some good news. I finally found two people that told me I looked good in these glasses. My eyesight has deteriorated marginally, I was pondering a change of image, along the lines of himself. No, not Nick Robinson, Mark Cavendish of course.

 Over the course of two days, all 127 people I asked, said they didn't suit me. Now, these two that disagreed are also "young people" who all know a thing or two about fashion. They are also related to me, and quite used to telling people what they want to hear. Oh well, what do you think?

Or maybe think about something more important instead.

Wednesday, 20 March 2013

Approaching sunsets

It's been a hell of a week, but it was somebody's week, up and down the street all day. The street in question is in fact the A36, and all routes that lead to it. For reasons I'm not going into here, but I have a lot of people around me so thank you to all of you.

So, after the abortive Lionheart sportive, where snow was the better part of valour, and a lot of complicated logistics came to nothing, I had to get out and ride. Jennifer has described the experience of cycling in the snow very well on her blog, the Cycling Mayor. (see right)

So, when a cycling window opened the other night, it didn't matter that the dark of the night was approaching (I  have lights), or that it was very cold (I have roubaix fleece tights, & yes I know what the non-cyclists are thinking), or even that I had school the next day (I have strong coffee available at work). And I didn't, as ever, have a plan. Not really. A few hills maybe? Somewhere quiet preferably. And without dampness or mud. Most conditions satisfied. There was one road that felt more like a field, but at least it was quiet.

I'm not going to describe the route in the dark to you. It was cold, it was steep, there was mud, and it was dark. But the views were stunning. Clarity of the air meant I could see for miles. And miles. Especially when it was totally dark. From the top of the Mendips looking south I could see rows and circles of lights, like sparkly strings of civilisation twisting in the night. While I cycled on alone along the sharp edge of the hills, the very edge of shadows.

At one point I contemplated coming down Westbury Hill in the gathering gloom. I peered over the edge thus:

And turned tail and opted for a main road into Wells. Thoughts of broken collar bones still uppermost in my thinking I'm afraid.

But while I was up there I snapped this lovely ridge line.

Later on as the night drew on, and the freezing cold penetrated my bones, I reflected. Turned for home, stowed the bike and hoped for better days to come.

Wednesday, 13 March 2013

Wiltshire Wildcat sportive sponsored by Cycling Weekly & the very nice Chris Boardman

Last Sunday I rode the Cycling Weekly-sponsored Wiltshire Wildcat sportive, Epic course no less. Nearly 80 miles of wonderful views and rolling countryside with a few short sharp hills thrown in to keep it interesting.

At some point last Sunday I reflected upon what I was doing and decided that it was pretty good to be just riding a sportive given the trouble I had just breathing only three weeks before. To add further contrast, the week before that I had been riding the volcano in Tenerife, wearing shorts, short-sleeved jersey and basking in the warm sunshine. There was none of that on offer at the start line, or indeed through the day, the temperature barely rose above freezing, and the rather penetrating north-east wind made for a tough run back to the finish at Salisbury racecourse.

Still, there were other compensations. It is near my Dad's house, so I didn't need to get up too early to make the start line for 8AM. The territory is one I know reasonably well, I have ridden many of the lanes around there, and so knew that as long as it didn't rain, it was going to be a good day. It didn't, it was.

And apart from a short period around the 60 mile mark (where I realised I was running out of energy and hastily ate a couple of bars), I felt pretty good the whole way round. Not fast, not furious, but steady and sure, no trouble on any of the short hills, which given the ashtma problems of the last month is nothing short of remarkable. And I did the whole thing solo, with no drafting or group riding. That suited my mood, it being Mother's Day, the first one, I just wanted to be alone in my head.

And there was the added bonus of celebrity presence. With the event sponsored by Boardman bikes the great man himself turned up to open and to ride the event.

I guess Chris Boardman must be fairly competitive. Anyone who has won Olympic Gold medals, Tour stages and held the yellow jersey, as well as the world Hour record, not to mention designing successful track bikes and then running a company developing a reputation for quality bikes, must have some desire to achieve, running through his veins.

I didn't spend too long chatting with him, a few sentences, one of which was probably weather-related, another to do with the ride, and the third his choice of bike for the day. A very normal, unassuming chap, and the appearance of being quite laid back before the start.

Once out on the course that instinct must have kicked in. He did the short route, 34 miles, and though his time of 2 hours 4 minutes will have left him plenty of time to chat, it was still the fastest of the day. But I was impressed by him, what you see is what you get, and yet he gave his attention as well as his time.

I think sportives must be attracting a lot of newbies, at least that was my impression because greetings and warnings were in very short supply. Maybe it was the cold, but I sense a concerted effort form yours truly to improve cheerfulness on these events.

The course itself was pretty well-designed for the time of year. After a rolling start across the lower edge of Cranbourne Chase there was a climb up onto the heights looking over Shaftsbury, before a descent to a plain where the Epic route meandered and circled, presumably to make the miles up on the 60 mile standard route.

And we had a ford and a bridge combo, which is always a winner:

Then it was back up to the Chase before a series of traverses of some of the valleys  that run through these chalk hills. I was on the lookout for wonderful village names again. Tarant Hinton is a favourite, as is Tarant Gunville and Tarant Monkton. But the best are the Gussages - St Michael and All Saints. What is a gussage? Sounds very constricting and Victorian, but is probably far older and a derivation of some feature of the landscape in Old English.

From there I circled round to Sixpenny Handley before the final long draggy climb into the wind and the finish. My time was respectable given the conditions and my health, total time of 5 hours 36 for a silver category, ride time a bit less, average riding speed 14.8 mph for a shade under 79 miles.

The goody bag was actually what it said on the bag, with some good gels, drinks and a cycling magazine I don't usually read, as well as a medal (you know how I feel about those), but this was slightly novel and had a red ribbon. A first. Easily pleased, vraiment.

The event did have one added bonus to finish. Bike-cleaning facilities, which because I was going back to my Dad's house, and therefore not back home before late o'clock, I decided to use. An innovation I think we should see become a core part of a sportive!

The route is here. But I'm sorry to say that I have now made my Garmin profile restricted to my Garmin "friends" to prevent people seeing where I live. Apparently there are increasing numbers of thieves using open Garmin routes to see where cheap, rubbishy bikes like mine can be stolen from. Mine are locked to a steel bolt in a steel shed, inside a machine-gun infested compound, patrolled by German shepherd dogs, surrounded by a piranha-stocked moat, with a minefield covered by watchtowers and searchlights that would make Stalag 3 look like Butlins in Minehead. But you can never be too careful.

Tuesday, 12 March 2013

So what's it all about then?

Two elderly, and very, very wealthy, and very, very, very competitive businessmen were attending the funeral of an equally wealthy and equally competitive old friend.

"How much did he leave?" asked one of the other.

"He left the lot", said his friend.

Of course we all know this, that the important things in life are not money, status, job titles, cars, how much our house is worth, all of that. We all know that in our heads, we probably all articulate these type of sentiments on a regular basis. We actually mean it when we say it. But do you, I, ever do anything about it?

The important things (bar one of which more later), are actually our loved ones, our friendships, the wind in your face, the sun on your back, the sunset, the music that makes you feel 17, the demonstration that will change the world, and the time you did something genuinely important and valuable at work. And the minute that you spent really believing you were about to see West Ham win the FA Cup. (I really, really hate Steven Gerard.)

So in honour of that cliche (does anyone know how to do accents on blogger? If so, please send me a message and tell me how), this post is dedicated to the following:

Mike Scott :          It opens up my soul & torches up a fire inside of me
Nicky Wire:          Libraries gave us power
Billy Bragg:          We dreamed of her & compared our dreams
Andy Partridge:    Your heart is a big box of paint
Paul Hewson:       Ambition bites the nails of success
Paul Wellar:            You'll see kidney machines replaced by rockets & guns
Shane MacGowan  Well so could anyone
Kirsty MacColl:      I want to live before I die
Paul Simmonds:  While Pitt stood helpless, we were waiting for Bonaparte
Patty Griffin:        I was lost in the glow of love

The other thing?

You need to ask? Best play this without the sound. Thank heavens he's out of that Sky shirt.

Tomorrow, if I can get off Youtube, I'll tell you all about the Wiltshire Wildcat Sportive that I rode at the weekend!

Sunday, 3 March 2013

That ice is slowly melting

It is true, you never forget how to ride a bike. Riding a bike well is a different story, and one that I took some time to acquaint myself with today. The saddle has not touched my sit bones for two and a half weeks, and if that were not enough I have done no other physical activity that you could call exercise since that last ride in Tenerife.

To add illness to insult, the insides of my lungs have felt, and sounded like, Sharon Shannon's accordion after being run over by a truck on the way home from the pub, but played anyway, in some kind of cruel grinding fashion. I have had nosebleeds like the flowing waters of the Red Nile, only at half past two in the morning, taken more corticosteroids than Lance Armstrong (well probably not, but I have consumed a lot), and a whole course of Amoxicillan.

These are my excuses, but, I was feeling quite pleased with myself to have made it out, round and back from a 49 mile course in the freezing Mendips, until Mrs Mendip Rouleur, who is not given to swearing, or commenting on my post-cycling appearance in general, told me I looked "totally fucked". I will take that as a positive sign.

I had been due to ride the Mad March Hare sportive today, I'm sure it was great, Jennifer's blog will cover it soon. Despite by best intentions me and the MMH have a patchy history. The first time I did it my chain snapped, the second, last year, I got pretty close to hypothermia in the snow. So my absence today must have made for a jolly ride for everyone.

I decided to bite the bullet and just get out and ride, turn the legs over, see if I could still do it. My lung capacity figures may say I'm back to what passes as normal for me, but the squeaky noises emanating from within were saying anything but. Of course it was nice and cold too, and the biting east wind just added to the general motivation to ride. But it had to be done, Spring is on the way.

So with the words of Mrs MR ("are you sure it's wise to do this?") acting as a final encourager, off I headed into the wide open world of the Mendips. Despite the sunny forecast, the outlook was grey as far as the eye could see, and after a couple of miles my ambitious plan was being scaled back to an hour's gentle spin. My legs felt fine, but the breathing? Oh dear, it was like someone had stuffed wet cotton wool in my bronchial passages and I was going very, very slowly, all the while spreading Mendip Rouleur DNA across the land as I coughed and spluttered into form.

I decided, kill or cure, let's do hills. That and the fact that the road up to Shipham was shut to cars, meaning a nice quiet few miles (because whatever the statistics say, Sunday just has to be the most dangerous day of the week to be a cyclist, it's almost as if some car drivers leave their brains at the office over the weekend), induced me into possibly the maddest decision of my cycling life. Fortunately, Mr Ventolin was also on this trip, and he did the necessary, getting me up to Shipham and down the other side into Cheddar.

Having recovered on the descent of Shipham Hill, it felt like the most natural thing in the world to do Cheddar Gorge. Slightly less Ventolin this time but the headwind didn't improve the pleasure factor, so I decided to drop down into Westbury and take it from there. What next? Easton over to Wookey and then Old Bristol Hill of course.

More signs of Spring were there, despite the bleak nature of the weather and the sky. I paused for breath, literally, had some food, and realised that I was actually starting to feel OK. Not brilliant, but OK. Maybe it was all the Ventolin, or maybe the surface of my lungs had been scoured of all the gunk and was available for Oxygen exchange, but I started to actually enjoy myself.

After Old Bristol Hill it was just a case of a little pootle around the levels to get home. Except for one short sharp hill up to the top of Mudgley Hill. Not the main road, no the recently re-opened little 20% dig just to the East. Try it, it's fun, and you get the added pleasure of the farm dog chasing you as the road "relaxes" back to 12%, when of course you have that spurt of energy to escape it.

By now my lungs were fine, it was my legs and general energy level that I was struggling with. I loped past the windmill, circled through Cross and Axbridge and came home. I felt tired, but didn't realised how bad I looked until my beloved informed me. Not quite the strutting alpha male of the Spring then.

Still, I did manage almost 50 miles, and a fair bit of climbing, in this route around the hills and levels. With a few long rides ahead of me, I can have a week off now as pick-up duty beckons, but to be honest, I'm not enamoured with all this Spring weather in any case.

I'm sorry I wasn't able to make the MMH, but I do have a couple of events in the next few weeks to make up for it. Next week I'm riding with a broadcasting legend, who used to ride a bike pretty effectively. No, it's not Sean Kelly, although it is always good to hear talk of the "mearn boonch", that way you really know it's Spring!

And for all my moaning it was actually great to get out on the bike, seeing things like 4 3/4 miles to Cheddar, it's enough to gladden your heart isn't it.

And the weather can only improve, honest.