Quick catch up time

It’s appalling I know. I blog briefly then disappear for ages, necessitating one of these picture heavy catch up pieces. So what have I been up to bikewise?

The first thing was the Endura Lionheart, which was a choice of 100 miles or 100 kilometres. Naturally I chose the 100km (60 miles), even so that was a stupid undertaken given my expanding girth and lack of fitness.

Not only that, because I don’t have a car, I had to cycle to the start from my house anyway – which was 11 miles.

As I lined up at the start in a sea of brand names and tens of thousands of pounds worth of bikes, I felt conspicuous due to my lack of lycra. It was amazingly fun though. Highlights included a horrific blowout 8 miles in that shredded my tyre, marmite sandwiches at the feed station, Fay thrashing me as my legs cramped, walking two of the hills and hitting the finishing straight at 38mph. A brilliant day, well organised AND medals for everyone!

Then I went with the Explorer Scouts to France and we cycled from St Malo to Cherbourg over four days. A wonderful camping and cycling trip with 165 miles covered, it’s going to be the subject of another post.


Then my car finally got taken away for scrap. I’ve been using public transport to get to my business partner’s house every week, it takes me 3 hours and costs me £32.00. So I’ve started cycling there – (or sometimes part of the way there and then the rest by train) – it takes me 2.5 hours and costs me not as much. The route has some lovely views and interesting things to see. I lost my wallet on the test ride to Gingergeek‘s but amazingly found it on the A36 the next day; hooray! then my spoke broke, meaning I had to walk back seven miles; booooo!



There’s much more cycling to come! Perhaps too much. I’ve committed myself to 470 miles over 4 days for charity – I’m going to need some sponsorship. More on that anon.

Published in: on May 16, 2011 at 8:51 pm  Comments (3)  
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The Legend of El Cobblo, Frome Cobble Wobble

I am sitting in the Fancy studio in Frome, on my own, I’ve just taken some Panadol Extra + Caffeine washed down with a free can of Red Bull. My legs are twitching and I’m feeling fantastic. Why? I’ve just ridden the 2nd Frome Cobble Wobble, and played host to a star of Mexican Wrestling. Here’s how it unfolded:

It was months since Andrew Denham of the Black Cannon Collective wandered into the Fancy Studio and commissioned the design and website for the 2nd Annual Cobble Wobble, all the preparation, the sketches, the artwork, the printing, the coding and the testing, all came into fruition for a few amazing hours today.

The Cobble Wobble is a hill sprint up a steep cobbled slope in Frome called St Catherine’s Hill. Not to put too fine a point on it, it is a bastard of a hill. Even walking up it leaves me out of breath. So to ride a bike up it, whilst egged on by crowds who stand mere inches from the taped off edge of the course, would seem to be madness. When Nic, of Espace Solutions heard we were riding it, she simply said “The hill we walked up that nearly killed us? S**t!”

Myself and Matt Wellsted of Fancy, for some reason, told Andrew we would ride it. As the day loomed closer, we felt that perhaps it was a bit of a stupid thing to volunteer to do.

So we had a chat, and decided that we didn’t stand any chance competitively, but stood a good chance of entertaining the crowds if we did something a bit daft. To this end, Matt decided to dress up like the chap in the poster he created, and I decided to do it on my Brompton, dressed in a suit, and smoking a pipe.

Meanwhile, as builders of the website, we were contacted by the Mexican Wrestler El Cobblo, who travels the world entering cobbled hill sprints in memory of his brother Carlos, who tragically died of sheer knackeredness on a cobbled hill race in Mexico. He was looking for a base in Frome, and also it turns out, a bike, as his had a puncture and the seatpost was a bit squiffy. We extended the hand of hospitality to this great man and bid him join us on Sunday morning in our preparations.

Sunday morning dawned a bit grey, with the promise of rain. No matter, we assembled at the studio at 1pm to prepare. El Cobblo turned up, fully masked as usual and on checking out my Lemond Etape, deemed it worthy. He was amazed at the lightness, as his own bike is steel.

El Cobblo in the studio

El Cobblo, prior to the race in our studio

I suited up and prepared my tobacco, packing my pipe with some smooth shag. Matt slipped off to Live2Ride to get his fixed cog changed and El Cobblo and I rode to register.

El Cobblo and I ride to the registration point. El Cobblo delighted by the beeping of horns and waves he received.

El Cobblo and I ride to the registration point. El Cobblo delighted by the beeping of horns and waves he received.

Having given our names and collected our numbers, I took El Cobblo down to Live2Ride to meet up with Matt. El Cobblo chatted with his fans, telling children to eat more vegetables and meeting some of the opposition. Then we headed up the hill and waited in line for our turn on the Cobbles:

El Cobblo meets the Angel

Andrew Denham meets El Cobblo

At the Start of the Cobble Wobble

Gradually, we inched towards the Start. All to soon I was at the start line, I lit up the pipe, got it going and launched myself sedately up the hill. In my lowest gear, I spun the cranks wildly, tinging my bell. On approaching the corner where Stoney Street splits off I decided it might be quite funny to signal right. This was a bit of a mistake, the bike veered madly to the right and I thought I was going to spill all over the cobbles. Somehow I managed to stay upright and got the bike pointing in the right direction (up) again without putting a foot down. The crowd pressed in and clapped and cheered.

Your author on the Cobble Wobble

Your author on the Cobble Wobble, picture by Jez Cope

The smoke filled my lungs as the hill became steeper and steeper. Soon I had no oxygen left, just smoke, the pipe was running hot and my head felt lighter and lighter. As I approached the finish line I could hear the tannoy blaring that I was a proper ‘chap’, by then I was almost blacking out from oxygen starvation, but approaching a state of shamanic bliss. I aimed hard for the finish line and got over, only to find I still had to ride the exit shoot. I took the pipe out to do that and my head was swimming. There were pats on my back and even a hug from some fellow.

I looked behind me to see El Cobblo finishing, still on the bike and screaming to the sky that this was for his brother Carlos!

The press crowded round the mighty Mexican, he was interviewed for Red Bull TV, The local rag, bloggers. Parents pressed their kids forward for him to shake their hands. He beat his chest mightily, and spoke of his love for his late brother, the crowds wanted more, but I could see he was eager to leave.

We rode in silence away from the hordes, his cloak flowing behind him as the children who ran behind us dropped away, holding their knees and panting. El Cobblo did not look back, he raised one fist in salute, and I turned to see a small boy with his own fist raised in imitation, receding round the corner.

Back at the Old Church School, I asked El Cobblo if he was staying for the party. He shook his head, and said no, there is a race tomorrow in Spain that he must attend. He looked out over the rooftops of Frome, but I could see that his stare was thousands of miles and twenty six years away. We said our farewells, he shook my hand, thanked me for the use of my bike. And was away.

I raced back to see Matt start his run, as the first of the Fixie riders. The rain had started to come down, thinning the crowds and making the Cobbles slick and treacherous. He put in a hell of an effort and finished with a respectable time:

Matts race face

Matt's Race Face

Matt goes up

Matt goes up - encouraged by a man running alongside and shouting

Then, the elation. I got a t-shirt, some badges. The post-mortem of the rides, the times.

The whole day was superb, but it’s not over yet. As designers of the Cobble Wobble and website builders, we got free passes to the Red Bull party.

I’m off there now.

But, I will be thinking of El Cobblo, and his lonely quest.

Adios Amigo.

El Cobblo

PS: If anyone has any pictures – please let me know!

Published in: on September 19, 2010 at 6:57 pm  Comments (4)  
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Old School Shorts – Cycling Short Film Special – Riding home on moonbeams

On the last Friday of every month, the studio where I work most of the week puts on a short film night. As we’re based at the Old Church School in Frome, we call it Old School Shorts. With the Cobble Wobble looming close we though we’d ask the race organiser, Andrew Denham, to curate the event.

Andrew Denham is part of the Black Canon Collective – a group of mountain bikers who are often to be seen bombing around the forest at Longleat – sometimes dressed as superheroes – always with big grins on their faces.

Andrew chose the films for the middle section of the night. There were some crackers, from Minibike battles in Portland, to mad tricks on Scottish Streets. We managed to watch the brilliant RSA/Rapha film Two Broad Arrows by Adrian Moat (it’s no longer up on the Rapha site). As ever, we peppered the evening with music videos, vintage adverts, and amusing cat films. All projected up big on the wall of studio while we lounged around on sofas and swivel chairs, munching on pizza and nibbles and drinking beer.

Old School Shorts bicycle film night

All in all we had about an hour and half of films with two intervals. It was great to finally meet @westfieldwanderer from Radstock who I’ve been conversing with on Twitter for ages. We had a good chat about bicycle commuting, local hills and AtoB magazine.

Afterwards, Ed took some photos of the old bikes and parts that Andrew had collected to be donated for The Bristol Bike Project and we returned to the studio for music videos, Guess who games, more food and drink and good chat. People took turns on the VJ ing and we watched a myriad of films, from helmetcam madness, to Bats for Lashes videos via Vanilla Ice and Guns & Pork, my favourite part of the VJ section was a film of Andrew putting his shed up on his allotment.

Things wound up just after midnight, and I loaded up the Brompton for the ride home.The streets of Frome were doubly quiet, because I was suffering from a bit of a head cold, my hearing in my left ear had disappeared. As I’m half deaf in my right ear anyway, this meant that I could barely hear a thing. Not that there was much to hear, I didn’t see a single car moving until I left the town. I took it slowly through the streets, freewheeling wherever I could, and gently riding up the hills in the lowest gear.

On leaving the town I suddenly noticed the moon, not yet full, but incredibly bright. The wooded hill down to Oldford, normally a pitch-black potluck ride of guessing where the kerb might be, was transformed into a gently lit flight through a luminous forest. As I turned up the hill towards Beckington I pulled over to look out over the valley – gloriously rolled out before me in and picked out in sharp electric detail by the witchlight. The stark black of the distant hills, the sulphurous streetlamps of Frome itself, the deteriorating skeleton elms that lined the slope, all seemed so vibrant and hyper-real, and I was struck with an unsettling feeling that the same scene by daylight was not the true view, but merely a reflection of what I was seeing now.

I continued up the hill, my blocked up ears meant all I could hear was my own breath and the creaking of my jaw. I felt, rather than heard the steady trundling squeak of my faithful Brompton’s cranks as I spun the pedals. In the hedge to left there was a brilliant white blaze of light, as I inched closer it resolved into the shape of an old milestone. I had never noticed it before, despite passing it many, many times, yet here it was glowing fiercely under the lunar influence.

The air on the slope down into Beckington sucked the warmth from the bare skin of my arms, I had enough momentum to get halfway up the hill on the other side. Past the 24hr garage – devoid of customers, over the roundabout, devoid of traffic, past the place where the gypsies camp and hard left before the boundary stone. Ursa Major was a few degrees off horizontal, far to the West a few low and long clouds stretched themselves out above the land, the lights of a distant plane flickered on and off in the space between cloud and earth as it tracked towards the orange glow of Bristol. The lane was narrow, and the moon flung her beams directly over it from left to right, pools of moonlight settled on the tarmac, punctuating the ink-black shadows that leapt from the trees and hedges and hid the stones and cracks in the road. My Wheels seemed to find them without any trouble.

I felt I could ride on into the dawn, but the glamour of the moonlight would have worn off quickly, leaving me cold and tired to endure the long hour before daylight alone.

The village was still and silent, not even the blue flicker of a television set could be seen. The restored clock on top of the Cross Keys softly chimed one o’clock as I folded the Brompton, bid the moon a goodnight and closed the door.

Photos – Cycle Camp in Normandy, France

Amazing cycling with the Explorers in France, during April. One thing I will say though, going from Cherbourg to Caen is the wrong direction when it’s that windy.

We took the fast ferry over to Cherbourg on the Thursday morning (little did we know that as we were setting off, a certain volcano in Iceland had gone a bit explodey) arriving in Cherbourg in plenty of time to get lost coming out of the port. Eventually we broke free from the endless ring roads and wheezed up a steep hill into the glory of the Normandy countryside. Thereafter the rides were superb, the French courteous, the food amazing, and the time had good. We rode about 40 miles maximum each day, staying in municipal camp sites for most nights, except for the second night where we found an amazing little site run by a family, where we could camp out of the wind, and order breakfast to be delivered from the bakery. We visited several of the major sites of D-Day. The Explorers in particular knew little of the battles and were just astonished by the scale of loss of life, it really shook them up finding graves of soldiers who were younger than some of them.

As is traditional on our continental rides, my wheel went wrong. This time a full buckle 8km from Bayeux necessitating a long lone run to the town with my bike, and a frantic hunt for a bike shop. A quick repair, and I was on my way again, another 10km to join the team at the final camp site.

The next morning saw the tents crusted with ice and a low fog all around. Within hours though we were riding through blazing sunshine to Pegasus Bridge and the ferry. We had failed to notice the lack of airplanes in the sky, but we did notice the sheer amount of passengers on the boat, and the fact that many of them were sleeping on their luggage on the floor, and that many of them looked more grimy and worn out than us, and we’d been cycle camping. It wasn’t long before we found out about the volcano. Thankfully we were first off the boat so managed to avoid the long queues as every single passenger went through a full passport check.

There’s a lot of photos here, so more appear after the first one if you click the read more link.

Cycling in France

On the road - each tree along this road represents a German soldier killed in Normandy in WWII

(more…)

Published in: on May 19, 2010 at 10:14 pm  Leave a Comment  
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S24O Cycle Camp – photos

I have woken from my winter slumber. Last weekend, in preparation for the Annual Explorer Unit Cycle Camp on the continent, Mike and I took some of the Explorers on a Sub-24 Hour Overnight cycle camp. This is a pastime proposed by Grant Peterson of Rivendell Bicycle Works, referred to as  S24O – from the Rivendell site:

“If you have to work for a living and don’t have summers off, bike camping is easier to fit in, and the easiest way of all is with Sub-24 Hour Overnight (S24O) trips. You leave on your bike in the late afternoon or evening, ride to your campsite in a few hours, camp, sleep, and ride home the next morning. It’s that simple, and that’s the beauty of it. You can fit it in. It requires almost no planning or time commitment”.

(Read whole article on the Rivbike site)

It was a rainy start on the Saturday afternoon, we loaded up the bikes with the full kit. My poor Lemond Etape groaned under the weight of the tent, and as we left the village and headed towards Tellisford, a spoke snapped musically on the rear wheel. So I wheeled the bike back to the village while the others went for a cup of tea at Barrow Farm. I swapped the racer for my ancient mountain bike and we set off again.

Our route took in the enormously steep hill at Wellow, a Long Barrow, more hills, Faulkland stocks and the remains of the stone circle there, some hills, more hills and then some really big hills.

By the time we arrived at the campsite, hauled the bikes over the disappointingly locked gate and pitched the tents, the sky had turned into a solid sheet of grey and the rain started coming down in earnest. We cooked tea, got a fire going, then decided to call it a night, at 8:30pm. Inside the tent I read a book on my phone, eventually lulled to sleep by the gentle patter of rain on the flysheet, and the melancholy hooting of owls.

The next morning, I woke at 5:50am and went for a walk in the forest as the sun came up, it was anything but peaceful as Pheasants wandered croaking through the clearings, blackbirds and robins worked out their territorial rights in chirrups, tweets and loud, dazzling displays of tonal virtuosity. I arrived back at the camp at half six, the grass in the clearing was steaming as the sun rose fully over the treetops and illuminated the soft green fuzz of emerging buds that coated the branches. By 8:15am we had left the campsite, dropping the Explorers off at their houses as we rode back to the village – and taking a second breakfast on the way. We were back in the village by 11am, job done.

Bikes at the top of the hill Wellow

A brief water stop to celebrate making it up the hill at Wellow

Bikes parked

We locked up the bikes to make it to the Long Barrow on foot

Inside the Long Barrow

Deep inside the Long Barrow

Morning at the tent

The remains of last night's rain on my tent in the morning

Planning the route home

Planning a route that doesn't involve hills - impossible.

Breakfast

Second Breakfast

foot cog shadow

Somewhere in Frome

Ride, ride against the dying of the light

One thing the Rode and District Nocturnal Velo Club cannot be accused of is “going gentle into that good night”. The Wednesday after the wildly succesful Rode Village Festival – the committee met in The Cross Keys pub to have a post-fest meeting. This being done, and the libations and rituals of preparation being completed (i.e. no small amount of ale, lager and spirits consumed), the ride could take place. This time we had the Rev Philip Hawthorn, curate of Hardington Vale with us. It always pays to have a man of the cloth around when riding the darkened lanes of Somerset and Wiltshire in the gloaming. For these are old roads, and it is an old darkness we ride through. No matter what armour to superstition and fear your sensibilities and beliefs have provided in the warm glow of the day, it all turns to rust when riding beneath the pale ghostlight of a waxing moon.

Anyway, Phil rides a rather splendid Specialized, a large frame as he is long of leg, and a keen cyclist to boot.

At 23:30 the last embers of the sun had long burnt out beyond the horizon. Only the dull orange glows of nearby towns tinted the furthest reaches of the sky. We headed out of the village via crooked lane, drifting briefly from the old sideroad across the A36 and onto the road to Rudge, as a lost spirit might materialise from a wall covering a long forgotten passageway and glide across a landing before vanishing into the opposite wall.

With four lights blazing we shot down the hill at Rudge, hung a left at the bottom and continued toward Brokerswood, turning right at the tin tabernacle and headed for the railway bridges. We took turns at the front, and as we approached Old Dilton, Mike made clear his intent to go up… The Hollow. In truth, there was nothing we could do, Mike had spoken what we all surely felt, this malevolent slope was sucking us in like a black hole, its gravity was too strong to ignore this far past dusk. We crossed the double roundabouts by the church. The only mercy was that night had mercifully becloaked the upward gradient in its mantle – that we would not be overawed at the hills severity. The pools of light cast forth from our bikes darted about the tarmac and the banks as the slope took hold. Spotlit glimpses of branches, thorns, earth and asphalt flashed about us as we wobbled our way up. Every now and again we caught sight of one of our companions in the bikelights, an afterimage of a rictus grin of grim determination burnt onto the retina when the light fell away to crazily dart around the banks as we struggled to maintain our upward course.

Then, against all odds, the ground leveled out – not only had we taken The Hollow at speed, it seemed incredibly short compared to the other times we have ridden it. Too numbed to change up gear, we spun the cranks crazily fast on the flat and hungrily gulped down great lungfuls of air as if we had emerged, crazed with the bends, from exploring the crushing darkness of an oceanic abyss.

Turning right at the top proved to be an alarming choice as more than one car shot past us with seeming scant regard for our safety. The noise of their passing all the more alarming given the quiet country lanes we had emerged from.

Rode and District Nocturnal Velo Club

We crossed the A36 and disappeared into the cthonic darkness of the lanes around Frome. Mike led out on the descent towards the town, Marcus pumping his legs like mad at the back to keep up on his mountain bike with its smaller wheels and heavier tread. The streets of Frome were near deserted and we had the sulphur glow of the streetlamps to ourselves, our shadows flickering about us as we passed from one pool of light to the next. Taking up the whole road we freewheeled together, the nocturnal peleton (or nocaton as Phil called it) shot through the narrow streets and into the town centre with incredible speed. Another hill up out of the town, past Iron Mill Lane and then left towards Lullington. The Creamery was lit up as milk was churned into the small hours. Up the hill we rode, a skeleton oak stood stark on the horizon, a warning of the hill we were approaching. Marcus and I rode far off the front racing each other down the final dip, a foolish act of faith as we rode faster than the eye could take in the tiny spotlit area ahead of us. We waited at a crossroad to take the picture below:

Rode and District Nocturnal Velo Club

Rode and District Nocturnal Velo Club

Finally we wheeled our way back into the village via The Mill, Mike peeling off down his farm track before Marcus and I said goodbye to Phil who powered off up Nutts Lane.

Around 20 miles accomplished, a good workout and a magical ride.

If you are local and you wish to join us on a Nocturnal ride – leave a comment below and we’ll try and arrange something.

Will you go to Flanders: Days two to four

Day Two

The next morning came not with a bang but a whimper, a foggy, cold and damp whimper. We packed down the sopping wet tents, chugged down the horrific, thick porridge and rolled out of the campsite into the mist. The Menin gate was just down the road, there was barely a soul there. The sleeping town was silent as we found the name of our missing soldier, took the wreath and solemnly placed it inside the left arch with the many other tributes. To see the gate is humbling, it is a huge structure, yet every vertical surface is covered in the names of the commonwealth dead whose bodies were never identified. Walking through the archways gives no respite from the procession of names, for the stairway is lined with them, as is the reverse of the monument. And there was still not enough room for all the missing soldiers to be represented. It is harrowing and moving. The pithy notion that ‘war is the continuation of politics by other means’ is here revealed as the nonsense it truly is, war is the complete and utter failure of politics.

Menin Gate Ypres

Howard explained to the explorers how the troops had been made to go ‘over the top’ in repeated waves, only to be mowed down in the machine gun fire, how this went on and on and on… at the end of his explanation he muttered the well known phrase “Lions led by donkeys”.

Disquieted, we left the gate and rode the short distance along the cobbles into the town. We locked the bikes up in the main square and partook of waffles and pastries. Our hunger sated we then went into the Flanders Fields museum which is in the restored cloth hall. The museum itself is incredible, really well put together and filled with sound clips, art, dioramas and artifacts. For me the most compelling part was the audio reading of Wilfred Owen’s Dulce et decorum est.

…Gas! Gas! Quick, boys! –  An ecstasy of fumbling,
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling,
And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime . . .
Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.
In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.

If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues…

The exhibition was more than a military museum, here we learned of the impact on the townspeople, the families back home, the german soldiers. Individual stories were told and, as with the Menin Gate, the soldiers and civilians ceased to be casualty numbers, and became once again names, distinct and unique souls whose lives ended brutally in Ypres.

Away from the Cloth Hall, we rode out of the town through the Menin Gate and turned towards the Somme. We followed the route out of the town taken by the allied soldiers and rode paralell to the famous ridge. Here and there, we passed the cemetaries, white grave stones beneath the shadow of a tall cross. Memories rode with us on the quiet straight roads, but they did not belong to us. Ninety or so years had not removed the war to end all wars from Flanders, it leached out of shrapnel spattered walls and into the fog that surrounded us.

Slowly and surely the ground started to rise a little, as we crested the first hill of the ride that day, the fog eased off. Above us the skylarks sang, and Mike remembered John McCrae’s poem…

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep,
though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

What is curious about this poem is that the last verse, which is often left out due to its seemingly war-like rhetoric, could be read as an entreaty to the living to never forget the dead soldiers. The poem was written upon a scrap of paper upon the back of a medical field ambulance, just after the death, and burial of McCrae’s friend, Lieutenant Alex Helmer.

We took a short stop in a field by a motorway. and Mike was seriously considering taking some purple sprouting broccoli to cook up later. Thankfully I convinced him that this would not be a good idea…

Mike considers the broccoli

We passed into France, the sun was blazing down and we were achieving some great speeds, 19-20mph on some stretches. Mike and I overtook a man on a racer in full racing gear, thrashing him into the town. We pulled onto the pavement to wait for the others, and four minutes later racer man was at the junction waiting for the lights, he refused to acknowledge our bonjours, whether it was because we had thrashed his lycra-clad ass while carrying tents and full panniers, we couldn’t say.

We boiled up some soup beneath the shadow of another war memorial in a sleepy town where nothing was open and ate it on the green. Continuing on, we quickly realised that we were going to not be where we wanted to be when night fell, we’d dallied too long in Ypres and lost a mornings ride. So we stopped off at Lillers, pitched camp in daylight to allow the tents to dry off and headed into town for some nosebag. Our peloton was briefly joined by a teenage couple sharing a bike, the girl was sittting on the handlebars as her young man pedalled hard to keep up with us. We attempted a conversation, but got nowhere apart from a lot of laughter. Gradually we pulled away as he was barely in control of the bike and had to keep putting his foot down. They waved “Goodbye English”…

Day Three

The morning of day three was clear and sharp, and pretty warm. Once more we saddled up and rode out of town. Unfortunately we quickly found ourselves back in town as Mike took us in a circle. This quickly established the style of the day, ride a mile or so, look at the map, try to fix someone’s ailing bike, repeat. It was slow going, and one hour in we were frustratingly nowhere near where we should have been. We seemed to be getting slower and slower, this did not bode well, because we had to be in Amiens to catch the train by 18:20. To make matters worse, the ground was not behaving; long rolling hills started rising out of the french earth. The ups were so much longer than the downs. It got hotter, and we were getting through a lot of water.

Howard musters the troops

Howard musters the troops

A market stall provided us with roast chicken and herbed potatos. We jammed two sticks of bread onto Howard’s rack and tried to find our way. In the end we had to rely on some local knowledge:

Mike and Howard pretend to understand directions

Mike and Howard pretend to understand directions

There then followed a pastoral idyll as we sat by the roadside on a half forgotten lane and consumed bread, chicken and potatoes. In amidst the bucollic haze and chirruping of crickets, we sat and worked out that we still had a pretty good chance of making it to Amiens as long as we rode like the wind. With but the merest hint of further ado, we climbed back into the saddles and prepared for an epic ride…

Your author, checking his watch and about to saddle up - dynamic!

Your author, checking his watch and about to saddle up - dynamic!

…or at least that was the plan. We started off well, with the explorers grasping the concept of drafting and taking turns on the front we started making good headway. Two things counted against us, we were riding into a headwind and it was so drying and hot, we kept running out of water. Then Howard got a puncture. About mile forty I was starting to wonder if we’d make it, we perhaps shouldn’t have stopped cycling so early the day before, we still had a long, long way to go. It was apparent that riding on the big main roads would be suicidal, so we needed to get across country to a slower road. We pulled hard into a valley, riding with the wind at our side and making excellent time by drafting each other. But when we turned onto the road, it was more of those undulating hills, and the youngest explorers were feeling the pace and the heat, often being reduced to walking the hills. At mile sixty we still had a chance of making it, but we couldn’t continue the pace and at mile sixty five we found ourselves lying on a verge in a village looking up at swallows in the sky for twenty minutes. Mike, Howard and I pulled as hard as we could, and we made good time on the level and descents, but two of the explorers were walking every hill. The eldest explorer and myself scouted out the only bar that seemed to be open and got the cokes lined up for when the others arrived. The Tv was showing a history of the Paris-Roubaix bike race and a dog loped lazilly around between the table. To us it was a paradise.

Roadside bar oasis

The youngest explorer downed five Oranginas. We raced off with a new sense of purpose, gliding downhills and hurtling uphills. It was going so well, until one of the explorers came off. He was ok, bar a knocked arm and some scrapes, but his helmet was smashed, so we had to get him into a hospital to be on the safe side. We rode slowly towards Amiens, then suddenly, out of nothing, the city appeared, no suburbs, just straight into the big residential flats. We made it to the centre, looked for a hotel as our injured explorer couldn’t spend a night under canvas and transferred our train tickets to the morning. The hotel manager called us a paramedic and the explorer went off to the hospital with Mike for check up. Howard and I went with the remaining two explorers for a meal before heading back to the hotel. Mike got back not long after midnight, the explorer was fine, though we wouldn’t be cycling tomorrow.

Day Four

It was raining in Amiens as we wheeled the bikes down to the train station. There were no lifts down to the platform, so we had to use the ramps that were running down the stairs. This was a little hairy to say the least. Getting the bikes on the train was a bit of a nightmare too, it would have been fine if we didn’t have so much stuff. Eventually we managed it with about thirty seconds to spare, and my bike left forlornly in the corridor.

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We had eight minutes to change trains at Boulonge Sur Mer, we did it in four. By the time we got to Callais we were experts at getting the bikes up the steep ramps. We wheeled our way to a likely looking cafe and sat down for some lunch. Finally we got on the ferry and headed back to the UK. In all we had completed 156 miles, with 74 of those done on day three. A memorable and eventful trip.

Your author on Belgian Cobbles - Ypres

Your author on Belgian Cobbles - Ypres

* * *Fin* * *

* * *Fin* * *

To Ride a White Horse

Bratton Camp, Westbury

Bratton Camp, Westbury

Sunday last, and of course the clocks here in the UK leapt forwards an hour, making the the 0745 start for the ride all the more painful. Mike fancied heading out towards Westbury, but he needed to be in Frome for a football match by 10:30. This certainly meant we would be riding at least 25 miles. I had thought that in preparation for our Belgian/French cycle ride, we would be riding with full panniers, so I stacked mine to the maximum and even carried the track pump. Mike of course had completely forgotten, so he just had a single pannier with a flask of coffee in.

We rode out through Rudge, turning left at the Full Moon pub, then passing the Kicking Donkey. Even with the full panniers I was able to ride at a pretty reasonable pace. We shot through Westbury Leigh then headed for Bratton, passing underneath the mighty Westbury White Horse. This is one of the oldest of the white horses cut into the hillsides of Wiltshire. We don’t really know what the original horse looked like, but we do know that in 1778 someone called George Gee decided that it didn’t really look like a horse so he had it recut and reshaped until he was satisfied that it did. Towards the end of the 18th century it was recut again, then in the 20th century someone thought it would be a hell of a lot less work if the thing was concreted over and painted white. So what you are seeing as you take the road beneath Westbury Hill, is not a horse made of chalk, like say Cherhill or Uffington, but a load of painted concrete. The concrete horse drifted out of sight behind us as we continued along the road. The tarmac was beautifully smooth and there was barely a vehicle about. As we entered Bratton, we swung hard right up the promisingly named Castle Road. This turned out to be a very long hill. Mike switched on his legs and pulled far in front, leaving me wobbling up with my now extremely heavy panniers. I passed some other cyclists on MTBs, they had dismounted and were walking up. I was barely going much faster than them, and I was relieved to see that Mike had stopped at the summit and was sittting on the ramparts of the Iron Age hill fort Bratton Camp. I propped the bike up against a fence and wheezed over a gate to join Mike. As we sat and surveyed the counryside a skylark drifted past trilling and warbling it’s beautiful liquid song. The sky had clouded over, but a strong shaft of sunlight struck a yellow freight train causing it to glow as if alight. It was the most glorious and luminescent colour.

At the summit of the camp, the car park was full of vehicles brought up here by people who were now walking their dogs. Electing not to go past the red flag denoting that the army was shooting stuff on Warminster plain, we instead dived down the hill next to the White Horse and found ourselves catapulted into Westbury at speed. We now needed to get to Frome, so we took the road to Dilton Marsh then carried on to the A36. Thankfully we were only on that hellish road for a couple of hundred yards before we turned off onto a ghost road that led to Frome. For the first mile or so it still had the worn out cats eyes that told of its glory days as a main route. Now it was reduced to carrying tractors and us. It didn’t take us long to reach Frome, we struggled up the main hill in the town centre and thought about getting some bacon in the cafe at the top, but Mike was going to be late for his son’s football match so we passed up the porcine goodness.

By the time I got back to the house I had completed just over thirty miles with full panniers. Great training for Belgium, I hope.

Published in: on April 3, 2009 at 10:37 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Howard’s way

Your author about to make an unfortunate wrong turn

Your author facing the wrong way, halfway down the wrong hill after an unfortunate wrong turn

A ride had been arranged for early Sunday morning, until it became apparent that it was of course Mothering Sunday and lie-ins would, quite rightly, be expected. So the ride was re-arranged for Saturday. At 07:45 I rode down the gravel track at the farm to meet with Mike. It was freezing; there had been an unexpected (by me anyway) frost in the night and cold hung in the air, numbing my fingers as I rode downhill. Seconds after my arrival, Group Scout Leader, Howard arrived on his hybrid. He had sensibly put a coat on and had full finger gloves and long trousers. Mike was immediately out through the door, zipping up his bright jacket and putting on his helmet, deciding on the route as he mounted up. Up the track and left over the mill bridge, then we were out of the village and heading for Colliers Way and Radstock. We followed the same route I took last Sunday, albeit at a slightly quicker pace than my meandering speed. Howard was going to take us through the middle part of the ride as he knew the route well. Howard is a keen cyclist, often to be seen riding the Tellisford-Farleigh Hungerford hills just for fun, he has a great level of fitness and an observer taking note of our riding from a distance would be hard pressed to place his date of birth in the 1950s. Mike was riding at his usual pace off the front, a nice steady 15-17mph, I’ve heard Mike described as a Mountain Goat by more than one other person. I flitted between them both, sometimes riding up with Mike, sometimes dropping back to chat to Howard.

Pleasingly I can feel my level of fitness improving after just a couple of long rides. This time I was not dropped on the hills and could actually take the lead on some of the steeper efforts. It just goes to show that you can quickly return to form (or something like form) after a short time off the bike, even if, like me, you are carrying two stone more than you should be.

The cold was starting to evaporate in the morning sun. Even so, there was a haze on the horizon that the sun had not yet climbed out of, and the shadows still sparkled with a light frost. There was no wind save the chill we created when pushing through the air on the way downhill. There was little traffic around save the odd tractor here and there, easing out of farm gates or chugging gently along the narrow lanes. The Buzzards were out in force, finding pockets of warm air and spiraling up high above the trees, calling to each other across the landscape. By the time we reached the Colliers Way cycle path it was really warming up. This is a short but really pleasant stretch of railway path, oddly with much of the railway track still left behind. Howard, a bit of a railway buff, told us it was because the quarry railway is still in operation at the terminus. Apparently, the plan was to open the railway line alongside the cycle track and have it as a tourist attraction, but it never happened. Now trees have pushed their way through the sleepers and brambles have crawled over the tracks.

On the railway path

We stopped at the top of a rise where the path departed from the tracks and mused on the navvies and men who had physically built the line. In the days of great engineering feats, behind every great man, there were thousands of other blokes who did the actual work.

We followed the path into Radstock, then Howard led us over and round the roads until we pulled into what seemed to be a carpark, but at the last minute it turned into a tiny route through to a main road. A few yards on the tarmac then a sharp right and we were suddenly on a lovely straight lane in the quiet of the countryside again.

All went well, until we came to a crossroads where the cycle route was clearly marked as straight ahead. Howard insisted that our path lay down the hill to the right, and it was a steep hill. Upon our, quite reasonable questioning of the navigation, Howard explained that he was 100% certain it was down the hill. Mike and Howard then launched themselves down the slope, followed by a fat barking dog lolloping down the hill in a garden parallel to their descent. I was yet to be convinced that this was the correct route so I hung back a little, knowing full well that what goes down, in the event of a mis-navigation, would have to come up again, probably in the granny gear. I dropped gently down to the next crossroads, in time to gaze down the awful slope and see that Mike and Howard were turning around on the bridge at the bottom. Slowly, they climbed the hill back towards me, standing up out of the saddle and wrestling the reluctant bikes so that the handlebars pointed up the dreadful slope. I took the opportunity to have a break and swig from the water bottle. I took a picture of my reflection in a handy convex mirror used by residents to check the road is clear before pulling out, then leant over the handlebars to watch Mike and Howard draw level. I let them puff past me, before ambling up in their decidedly slow-motion wake. The lardy hound was still in the garden bouncing around and barking with what seemed like delight, but in retrospect could easily have been apoplectic rage.

Howard explained his mistake, it was of course the next turning right, and indeed that’s exactly where the cycle route sign was pointing when we arrived at the correct junction. Luckily we saw the funny side. Actually, no we didn’t, at least not until we had our breath back.

A few more wiggles of the road, and to Mike’s and my surprise we emerged right next to the house by Stoney Littleton Long Barrow with the pillbox in the garden. Howard pointed out that pillboxes are usually in pairs, and sure enough there was another one on the horizon that Mike and I had missed last time we rode through. We rode into Wellow and I raised my head to see if I could detect a whiff of bacon, for I had a craving for its heavenly taste. Just as I thought I had perhaps caught the faintest hint of frying procine goodness, Mike peeled off to the right and downhill to the ford. This time we took the left fork and avoided the endless grind of Baggin Hill, electing instead to cruise to Norton St Philip. The road was beautiful and free of traffic. Winding uphill through some woods, I saw a photocopy of a map on the ground and stopped to scoop it up. It was for the exact area we were riding through, which makes perfect sense really.

There was a final hill up to the main street in Norton. It was unexpected and painful. Even my bike seemed to be protesting as I weaved back and forth across the narrow steep lane behind Mike the mountain goat and Howard. Finally we headed for Tellisford. As we passed an enormous pile of brown stuff in a field to the left,there was a horrific miasma, a foul and noiseome acrid stench that tore the breath from our lungs. Mike explained it was poo, human poo from the sewage works that would be spread on the tilled ground as fertiliser. The fug seemed to stay with us so we upped the pace and attempted to finish the ride at great speed. Down the hill we sped, first a weasel darted over the road in front of us, and as we neared the village, a blur of movement exploded from the hedge and crossed the lane mere feet before Mike’s front wheel. Persistence of vision had imprinted the tell-tale shape of a running hare on my eyes.

Mike slipped to the post office to pick up a paper (and no doubt a free cup of coffee and cookie for that’s what you get if you go to the post office on a Saturday morning) while Howard and I sped on ahead to his house to ready the all important finale of the ride, the coup de grace, the dénouement.

Mike joined us just at the hallowed point when the bacon was coming out of the grill and onto the bread, the perfect end to a great ride.

Riding into Spring

Spring can be a messy time of year

Spring can be a messy time of year

I had a ride planned with local smallholder, home-brewer, engineer and cyclist Mike, however as the hours ticked down the evening before I suddenly realised that my Lemond Etape was locked in the shed at my in-laws, and they were away. As the ride was scheduled to begin at 0745 on Sunday morning, this meant I would be trying to pull my mountainbike out from under the accumulated junk in our storage shed at 0700. Before going to bed I looked at the weather forecast, absolutely filthy. Rain, wind, cold and more rain. Nothing was going to stop me from getting in the first ride of Spring, (not even a sore knee) so I sorted out my waterproofs before calling it an evening, leaving a choice of cape or light rainjacket on the chair along with my cycling plus-fours and merino wool top.

On waking I was amazed to see sunlight streaming in through the window. Stepping outside to retrieve the mtb provided further amazement as the sky was colouring up a lovely shade of blue with not a cloud in sight. I began the task of attempting to find my mtb in the storage shed, this turned out to be a bit of an archeological dig as I uncovered a veritable strata of garden tools, cardboard, ladders, planks of wood and children’s toys, beneath which lay my mountain bike. In common with an archeological artifact it was still caked in the mud from the time of its burial. As my road helmet was locked up with my road bike, I was relieved to see my trusty old mtb helmet amongst the associated grave-goods. Once the tyres were pumped up, the mud scraped off and the chain cleaned and re-oiled, the bike looked half decent.

I saddled up and rode down to Mike’s farm, passing the tall grove of bamboo by the driveway which was now beginning to sway and rustle gently in the light breeze, the morning calm was immediately shattered by Mike’s dog running out and barking in greeting. Mike just had to feed the chickens and chuck some oil over the chain of his Dawes Supergalaxy and we were away.

I took us past the redwoods at the manor development and towards Woolverton. There we crossed the A36 and headed into the empty back lanes. Speckling the hedgerows were tiny buds, a promise of Spring that presented a subtle, barely perceived green fuzz as we rode gently along the meandering lanes. It was still stark enough that a chaffinch flittering amongst the scrub created a riotous blaze of colour that stood out like a flashing beacon amidst the branches. The landscape pulled us into steep hollows, giving us enough momentum to be catapulted effortlessly up the hills, until gradually we were pitched up to a point were the view in all directions seemed endless. Far in the distance there was nothing but whitish haze where the horizon should have been, it might as well have delineated the edge of the world. We turned the bikes toward the sun, and hit the high gears. Chains thrummed, driving us along a rare stretch of straight and level road. The lane switched suddenly right, and the ground to our left fell away. Now we were riding on the highest ridge of a lopsided valley with the breeze behind us and the countryside laid out below in patchwork to one side. Gathering speed, we pedalled in bursts as the road surface became sketchy. Water had eaten away at the edges and dumped gravel everywhere. Mike’s bike skittered about a little, but my shirehorse of an mtb ploughed through it all with ease. The velociraptor tyres spat mud, water and stones in all directions including up my back as we turned right again and sped into Faulkland and past the derelict Faulkland inn, one of many pubs to have shut down recently in the county. Our tyres barely touched the main road before we were off into the lanes again. Now the road began to undulate heavily, before flinging us down in to the valley. With the confidence that a heavy bike and fat tyres can give I let the brakes off and hurtled down the hill, it was about the only time that I was in front of Mike for the whole ride. At the bottom I waited where the stream had torn the tarmac into shreds, gouging a channel of water into the road.

A stream across the road

Mike rode up and carefully picked his way over the ruined road surface and impromptu stream. Away from the flood damage the road pitched briefly upwards before throwing us down again, but this time I took us right before the bottom of the hill, pulling the bike into a skid to make the turning. The lanes became narrower as we passsed Stoney Littleton long barrow, climbing up Littleton Lane which suddenly deposited us into the top of Wellow. We found ourselves entering the village in the slipstream behind a huge, red front-loader, its engine gunning noisily as it took the gradient. We peeled off from it’s fumes and hot engine air and dropped down into the valley again, this time down to the Wellow ford. Mercifully it was not flooded this time. Unmercifully we now had to climb Baggridge Hill, a long, long slope, much given to drifting about and becoming narrow here and there where the fancy takes it. Mike was way, way off the front and I was puffing away in the granny gear. It probably would have been quicker to walk it, but with such low gearing there’s no excuse to put a foot down or dismount in shame. I wheezed my way to the top where Mike was just pouring out a couple of cups of coffee from a flask he had secreted in his single pannier.

We stood there for a while and talked about that elation a cyclist feels when, towards the end of climbing a long and infernally steep hill, the cranks spin faster and the gears start to move up again. That feeling of having made it, of getting up the hill, the light at the end of the tunnel.

We were off again, turning into the wind. Wind? Yes, the horizon had cleared and was being troubled by clouds, the breeze was becoming insistent. It mattered not to us, for above us was deep, calm blue and ahead of us, flat road, for the next two miles at least. We crossed the A366 at Tucker’s Grave Inn. The site of the interment of a suicide from 1747, one Edward or Edwin Tucker. As usual with folklore the facts are not easy to come by. If indeed there is a grave here though, it is safe to say that Tucker died in some abnormal way, as crossroads burial was certainly not the norm, and was said to be a way of pinning down or confusing the doomed soul that could not find rest in heaven.

With the clock counting down, we left morbidity behind trapped at the crossroads and shot towards Lullington, the next node on our ride. There was hardly any mishap en route, save the boulder in the road we both managed to miss, and my failure not to throw the chain, though that’s what happens when you try to get from the big ring to the little one without touching the middle one. We skimmed the A36, frantically spinning the cranks to get off the main road and away from the hurtling cars. Then back into the village, where Mike paused briefly to engage in the well-known Somerset practice of gate-leaning and striking a deal with a farmer.

Striking a deal with the farmer.

Striking a deal with a farmer.

Clouds had gathered and the wind was starting to rage as I arrived back at the house. By the time I had finished having a shower the rain was hammering down. The last gasp of winter, but Spring cannot be stopped now, here’s to warmer weather and more rides.