Saturday, 26 March 2016

How low or high I go

Audax Hotels. Some of you will know what that means, some of you won't, but the apogee of this story happened in one just outside of Ascot. Just past the roundabout on the A329 where there's a nice ornamental apartment complex, although at the time all I saw was the hotel.

It was about 10PM, Thursday night, dark, obviously, it being March in the UK. Cold, very wet, pretty windy. A headwind. As it had been for me since about 5PM when I had left the City of London, only 70km previously. That's slow progress isn't it?

I've never cycled in London before. It was bad enough on the way into the town, I'd chosen main roads for navigation purposes, but I doubt I would have found it much less stressful on the back ones. And I can see why cyclists jump red lights, there's one every 50 yards, and if the taxis and buses don't get you, the pedestrians almost certainly will, eventually.

So I took my colleague's advice to heart on the way out of the city, take it slowly and stay safe. But stopping at all the red lights, trying to make a path through all that Bank Holiday traffic heading for the airport, the beach, the hills, well let's just say my momentum was non-existent. All those people can't like London very much if they were all leaving, can they?

Once past Hounslow it got worse. Although the traffic eased, I was now on main roads with fast-moving traffic, puddles of water and plenty of headwind with few buildings to shelter me. I pushed on up Egham Hill trying to get warm, but as I rolled through leafy Virginia Water and past the Ascot racecourse, I couldn't feel my hands or feet, I was shivering, soaked to the skin and I saw the bus shelter and decided to take stock.

It had all been going so well too. The wind I struggled against in the evening had propelled me in the daytime, up though Bath, Chippenham, Marlborough and Hungerford.

The view of Cherhill, Wiltshire from the A4

 I breezed along the A4, delighting at my speed along the rolling main road, which seemed quite quiet, and into Reading by midday.


From there, despite the onset of rain, I made good time to Windsor and onto Hounslow, before hitting all the traffic on the run-in to the City. I'd decided to combine a DIY Audax with a fund-raising attempt for our current office charity, Jack's Fund, that raises money for the Children's oncology unit at the Bristol Royal Infirmary. You can still sponsor me if you like via this link. My employer had also given me the day off to do the ride, as well as allowing one of my colleagues to have some time off to feed me and take care of my bike parking arrangements quickly at our London office.

Arriving at our office in London

So after arriving at about 4.30PM I was out of there and back on the road within an hour. With hindsight the timing was terrible as by now, what had been very busy traffic, had turned into nose-to-tail jams. I cut some of it out by cycling across the cycle paths of Hyde Park, but my average speed for the first 10 miles was 9mph, with plenty of stops to boot. It didn't get much faster either, looking at my Strava data, I seemed to have taken about an hour to cover each 10-mile section, culminating in that stop in Ascot.

There was still 160km to go (about 100 miles). I knew that if I continued I would have another 5-6 hours of rain, and after that the temperatures were forecast to drop to about 3-5C in open country, plus the headwinds all the way to Bristol. Even on a good day, that's 8 hours of riding, plus stops for food, and that was likely to be in the open at all-night garages.

I was shivering, I couldn't warm up, so I called Mrs Mendip Rouleur to ask her opinion. Fortunately she was able to think straight and booked me into a Travelodge in Wokingham.  I knew that this decision would cost me any chance of this being a qualifying Audax ride, as well as my attempt at Randonneur round the Year going down the drain, as it's too late in the month for me to get another ride in.

I know people who would have pressed on, and I know people who would never have started. I also know people who would get on a train home. As you can see from the trace of my route, the fact that it took me an hour to find the place shows how confused and unable to follow directions I had become. It was unquestionably the right decision for me and I don't regret it.

Broken by the weather in Wokingham
 Of course, that wasn't the end of the ride. Early the next morning, well about 8.30 actually, I headed off into the bright sunshine into the West. It was a nice day, although I did still have that headwind to contend with. Now the time pressure was off, I took it easy, finding some nice country back roads in Berkshire to cycle on, admire the views and marvel at the fate of Greenham common airbase. I also passed the Aldermaston Nuclear weapons research facility, which is set in an incongruously leafy area.

It was also a bit of trip down memory lane as I passed towns and places that my grandparents, parents, uncles, brothers and sister all have associations with, as well as my own childhood memories of climbing Silbury Hill and wandering around the West Kennet Long Barrow.

Eventually I made it to Chippenham, and not having to complete my mandatory route I decided to take the direct route back to Bristol via the A420. Now the official longest, grindiest road in a headwind in the World as voted by yours truly. As I neared the top of one slogging incline, a bloke walking his dog, called, encouragingly I think, "dig deep son, dig deep". Nice people are everywhere!

So there you have it, a 400km ride done with a break in the middle, no Audax points and a few more hard lessons learned. Does it count as a 400km ride? Yes it does, in my book, and that's the one I'm counting. It's on Strava like that anyway. And thanks to all the people who encouraged me (especially my colleague from work) along the way. And Mrs MR for making me see sense. It means everything to have that backing.

But the most important thing in this? Over £700 raised so far by virtue of the vey generous friends, colleagues, and family that have sponsored me to raise money for people who face a constant challenge far in excess of anything I had to do. So if you are feeling up to it, you can sponsor me too, even just a small token amount counts and is gratefully received. That means everything too.

Thank you.

Saturday, 5 March 2016

Back to Square two

2016 has not started as I thought it would. Before I get stuck into this theme properly, I want you to understand that I am not complaining. At all. I have, as they say, so much to be grateful for.

For a kick-off, I'm not American. The world's most dysfunctional country also has a lot to be grateful for, but unlike me, it hasn't really wised up to that as yet. Last year I met a really charming man, Jeff Guara, whilst we were both cycling from the Atlantic to the Mediterranean with Pyractif. Jeff, as well as being very charming is also very weird. Not because he is American, or because he is a Christian, or because he shoots his own meat. But because he is a triathlete and wears those funny socks and other weird stuff - pointy helmet and cat-ears.

Actually Jeff and I had many very interesting conversations in the few days we were together, and even occasionally when we were cycling together. Although on that point, most of the time I was trawling a long way behind his very well-organised and meticulous pace. As he stormed up the Col de Port in 30-degree heat, I grovelled.

Jeff dressed as a cyclist on a cyclist's bike.

We did have the "gun conversation". I think to begin with Jeff was a little bit surprised that I was serious when I told him that firing guns had no appeal. Although my 15-year old son was all for jumping on a plane to Carolina immediately and high-tailing it out to the woods to blast away. But one day when our peloton had a run-in with an errant driver, and the encounter left no-one nursing gunshot wounds as a result of road-rage, I think he saw my point.

It was recent Facebook exchange with Jeff that prompted me to worry about America. Whilst we have Boris Johnson as our "I can't believe he is really in power" politician, unfortunately America has Donald Trump. So whilst enlightening Jeff, via the global tax-avoider's facility, and the history of monkey-hanging in Hartlepool and its impact on the Democratic process, he confessed that they had no-one they could actually vote for.

It was then that I realised. The actual triumph of tyranny is not global repression, tax-avoidance, abolishing free school milk or awarding yourself a whopping pay-rise as an MP when you have all the benefits of an Eton & Oxford education. No the successful totalitarian despot these days makes mainstream political life so tediously dull whilst at the same time stretching the bounds of credibility to make it seem like it is a reality TV show.

In that way we all just give up and go back to our bread and circuses, and leave the elite to go on with their Master Plan. And they say what starts out over there, soon comes over here.

By now I had also expected to be well into my first 300km Audax of the year. But unfortunately my lungs are refusing to play ball, as I succumb to my second bout of man-flu of 2016. Of course, I am making a mighty fuss about it, but I haven't helped my own cause by going and watching two West Ham games in the last 7 days. Whilst the football has also been unexpectedly good, the accompanying freezing-cold weather has probably not helped my immune system, or my asthma.

But nights like this one are coming to an end with our move to the state-subsidised Olympic Stadium (thank you all very much for your generosity), so I just had to go to see us beat Spurs under the lights for the final time.

Usually, West Ham's form takes a nose-dive at any hint of achievement, so it is unexpected to be both playing attractive football and winning football. Although I expect all of that to end this afternoon away at Everton. The latter have won more points against us than any other team apparently, so my natural pessimism won't be misplaced. They are 1-0 up as I type this.

In between the two colds I did manage to have a great February, with some great weekend rides and lots of commuting. My ride down to Lyme Regis was particularly epic, but maybe I overdid it there too.

So I am back to Square one again, next weekend (I hope) for the third time. I probably need to eat more vegetables and get more sleep, traditional remedies to illness. Regrettably I can't take it easy for the next couple of weeks as I'm committed to a 400km charity ride in three weeks time. Feel free to sponsor me via that last link, I'm going to be under-prepared and suffer, so make it worth my while. Please.

So hopefully with Spring on the way the cycling can get going properly, and not stop. See you out there.