Biking the Baltic

…..and so begins another adventure, this time meandering my way through 8 countries hugging the Baltic Sea and beyond, visiting their capitals, sampling life along their rural byways, meeting the people, hearing their stories and sampling their food. Each country will have its own language, its own culture and history. They will each have been occupied by an alien power at some time in their history, suffered and recovered, always struggling to hang on to their own identity and self-worth as a sovereign nation….

For 45 years, many of them lay hidden behind the iron curtain, subjected to the travails of Soviet communism, largely invisible to the rest of the world. With the fall of the Soviet system, we began to discover the beauty of these small republics, their rich histories and fine architecture, and their hunger to reconnect with the rest of the world.

Some of this I hope to find out for myself as I pedal the miles and share the hospitality of locals along the way. Come along and share this journey with me…..(you can subscribe for email alerts on my web page)….

Footnote: since posting on FB, a former pupil of mine, now living in Finland, has already invited me to dinner….how serendipitous is that?

CTC Birthday Rides 2019

It was a pleasure to be invited to speak again at the CTC Birthday Rides, the annual festival of cycling celebrating the club’s birthday, which this year is 141 years old. It is taking place just 10 miles from my home village, at Wyboston Lakes, near St Neots.

CTC poster jpegThey seemed to be enjoying unusually luxurious accommodation and catering, and the conference room where I gave my talk was easily the most technologically advanced I have ever used, and well able to hold over 200 people…..a blessing given that they numbered over 350 attendees in total.

And it was the first time I have ever given a talk in a room with not just one projector screen, but four…….! It was also refreshing to speak to an audience which was well-versed in all matters cycling…..they already knew a lot about the pleasure and the pain of the long distance cyclist.

As usual, at the end of my talk I was asked about my next exploits. And yes, I was able to say they were already set in stone, and in fact, will begin in less than 10 days time. So if you are intrigued, watch this space…….

The extent of the ‘Dutch reach’…

A Dutch Lutheran minister and his wife were riding their tandem in the dark, and were stopped by a policeman for not having lights. “Not to worry said the minister, the Lord is with me”. The policeman said “Since when was the Lord a woman?”.

Ever heard of the ‘Dutch reach‘? If not, you’re probably not a learner driver, nor a cyclist. For the safety of cyclists on the road, new drivers in the UK are being taught to open their doors using the opposite hand, to force them to look behind for overtaking cyclists. Of course, they don’t call it the ‘Dutch reach’ in Holland…..it’s just what we do, said one Dutchman. And Dutch people never ever use fear of traffic to prevent them from riding a bike, which is the most common reason given by British people who might otherwise be persuaded to leave their cars at home and do all manner of everyday errands on a bike. We have a lot to learn still. As Dutch drainage engineers did for us in draining the fens, we need to invite a cohort of Dutch urban planners to sort out our transport infrastructure once and for all. They are the world’s best, believe me. Here are a few other moments we savoured on our journey:

                                                      Rembrandt The Night Watch

Dutch treat in Delft

In Amsterdam, a pedestrian stepped into the road and was knocked over by a tandem, sustaining bruises and scratches. The tandem captain said: “Phew you were lucky!”. “What d’you mean ‘lucky’?” said the pedestrian. “Well, I normally drive a tram…….

Let’s not be literal on this one….a ‘Dutch treat’ is yet another expression for paying your own way (are the Dutch really that stingy?)….but a riverside café was a happy chance discovery, and meeting a family group including a 99 year old gentleman was an even happier occurrence.And when I discovered he had a favourite local sweet delicacy called a hazelino, I had to have one….and he kindly posed to ‘model it’ before I dived in to demolish it.Delft is yet another classically pretty town of the Dutch canal variety, every street an open-air museum of imaginative urban planning, rounded off by a fascinating museum telling the story of the assassination of William the Silent, and the 80 year war between the Protestant rebels and the Spanish Catholic incumbents….it divided the Netherlands for centuries, and even today, there is still a demarcation line that separates the country into two halves….but now, happily, without the internecine aggression. A great finale to our Dutch adventure was to be hosted by another delightful couple, Manon (French) and Florian (German),both with widely varying interests in cycling, walking and climbing. We spent the evening refuelling on excellent food and wine, sharing our various experiences of Cuba, and debating the subtleties of urban cycling infrastructure (Florian is completing his PhD thesis on the topic). Unbelievably, when we set off for the ferry port at the Hook the next day, it was actually raining….so we donned our waterproofs for the first, and only, time…..😀

Dutch roll into Gouda…

Dutch tandemists were passed by an oncoming car, the driver waving his arm out of the window shouting: “Pigs, pigs……!!”. Deeply offended by the insult, they pressed down hard on the pedals and sped round the corner….and, sure enough, they collided with a herd of pigs!

And no, a ‘Dutch roll’ is not a cheese sandwich made with Gouda cheese, or any other cheese, but a particular form of aircraft wiggle in the air, imitating the roll of a Dutch ship. I often liken our standing start on the tandem to a plane getting ready for take-off. We need a bit of runway to taxi until we can take off and get up to cruising speed. And the ride can often seem like a flight, weaving in and out, avoiding other road-users and street furniture….

So with the excessive heat, we made an early start (8am), and said goodbye to our hosts in Leiden. Erik and Lia were not only fellow cycling enthusiasts, but also fellow tandem riders, with several multi-week rides under the belt. Their exploits have included Cuba, around the British Isles and the length of Spain. But much more curious and fascinating was Erik’s fascination with the journeys of a French fictional child character in a book by Hector Malot entitled Sans Famille who did a Phileas Fogg-style of journey across Europe totalling some 6000km, and Erik is endeavouring to complete the same journey by bike. Extraordinary and totally unique….

Our ride to Gouda was straightforward, missing the searing heat of the afternoon, and we settled to enjoy the twice-hourly carillon chimes from the city hall,

sitting in air-conditioned comfort for lunch, and meandering along the inevitable canal with its spectacular floral decorations. And, of course, the cheeses, the stroopwafel with ice cream, and the history of the clay pipe.

Dutch leave in Leiden…

A Dutch tandeming couple had a marriage-threatening argument one day, and the husband stormed off on his solo bike, riding 80km every day to let off steam. After 7 days he said he felt much happier….now that he was 560km away!

We all know that taking Dutch leave is the equivalent of being AWOL, playing truant, bunking off without permission……well, today that was us….yep, I humbly confess that we ‘bunked off’. So, on an independently arranged cycletour, how do you ‘bunk off’?

Well, we took the train……yes I know (yawn), it is cheating….it’s not in the spirit….it’s playing by the wrong set of rules….but who makes the rules? Well, we do of course…..so we make and break them. The reason? Temperatures here in Holland were climbing into the high 30s, (40C+ had been recorded in Eindhoven) when sensible people take special measures to simply survive. So, we let common sense rule…….OK?

 

Last night’s Warmshowers hosts, Dirk and Veerle, were exceptional. After a picnic supper, we headed out for ice creams, then on to a favourite bathing spot where Veerle could take a dive into a canal and have a swim…..but, she declared, the water was a bit too warm…..

So, after a perfect breakfast the next morning of fried banana with porridge (try it, it’s delicious), we headed for Amsterdam Centraal, and caught a Sprinter train to Leiden……

….air conditioned, lots of space even for a tandem, comfortable……we could have stayed on it all day….but instead, when we got to Leiden, we made a beeline for the Museum of Lakenhal, recently refurbished and a cool haven in the heat…..one of the best museums we have ever visited……anywhere. More than adequate compensation for the missed cycle ride.

Double Dutch in Amsterdam

A Dutch couple on a tandem were climbing the L’Alpe d’Huez, with its 21 hairpin bends, and the stoker said “Blimey, that was really hard going…..such a steep climb”. “Just as well I kept the brake on”, said the captain “otherwise we would have gone backwards”

 

After a very hot, sticky night, I climbed up to the top deck of the boat to greet the sun, to enjoy the cool of the dawn, to discuss political shenanigans with an anti-BoJo Scot who had slept on the deck with his teenage son,

 

 

 

 

and to admire the view from our breakfast lounge.

For €18pp B&B, this was a rare deal indeed, and one to be savoured….

 

 

 

Browsing the forecast ahead of us, we had every reason to shy away from mounting the tandem, but it was only 24km to Amsterdam which, in normal conditions, is a mere pootle in the park, but when it’s in the mid-30s, it can be a trial by ordeal.

But why Double Dutch? Our English metaphor for gobbledegook…..well, to back up my Garmin routing, we switched on Mrs Google in my back pocket while we rode, and Jenny had to repeat everything I couldn’t hear clearly because of traffic noise, so that I knew where to go…..well, you can imagine the fun we had with the pronunciation of street and place names! The common factor was that most ended in ‘straat’….it was the bit that preceded ‘straat’ that caused the fun. Try this one, for example: Scheepstimmermanstraat…..see what I mean?

Anyway, we limped into Amsterdam, defeated by the heat and humidity, and had to forego a visit to the Resistance Museum because, ironically, our resistance had been defeated by the circumstances. What energy we had left was expended on a café terrace while waiting to meet our hosts for the evening…..(to be resumed…)….

 

Dutch courage along the dunes….

A Dutch couple riding a tandem stop by the roadside, and the stoker gets off and lets the back tyre down. “What are you doing that for?” asks the captain. “Oh, I just need to lower my saddle a bit. It was too high”.

Whoever said Holland was flat has never cycled the length of the dunes running from Den Haag to Zandvoort, a distance of some 80km. Flat they are not….any route that runs through dunes is going to be seriously undulating, but the compensation was the almost desert-like wilderness, and the thrill of mixing with a cycling nation out to play.

This route is a favourite with sports cyclists, chasing their Strava points. But the excessive heat began to exact it’s toll, as we headed towards the hottest day ever recorded in Holland’s history….in 48 hours time, we would be ‘basking’ in 38C+ degrees….which for us on the tandem could be health threatening…..decisions had to be made. Our options would either be to make a very early start to Leiden and beat the hottest part of the day, or throw in the towel and take a train….watch this space. But when we limped into Haarlem seeking refuge from the heat, we found some respite in our accommodation for the night on a canal boat….not luxurious, of course, because cabins can only ever be classed as ‘cosy’, but the thrill was in having a picnic supper on the cool deck, as the sun was setting, watching  party groups cruising the canals, and being entertained by the adventurous few diving in for a swim, hoping to impress their buddies. Haarlem is quieter than Amsterdam, more laid back, but equally as pretty. The secret to visiting the capital is to stay in Haarlem, only 15 minutes away by train, which is cheaper and more relaxing. Our overnight on the boat, including a very generous breakfast, was only €18 each.

Going Dutch in tandem

If you look up idioms using the word ‘Dutch’, you will find a plethora of widely dissimilar expressions. So, when you ‘go Dutch’, why is it that you pay for our own food and drinks? And what about ‘Dutch courage’ (a stiff drink before you leap) or speaking ‘double Dutch’ or having a ‘Dutch uncle’? As you’ll find when you read my coming entries, each day’s ride had a ready-made theme.

Anyway, after an overnight ferry crossing to the Hook, when sleep was cruelly interrupted by a 5.30 announcement that breakfast was being served, we wobbled off the ferry ramp suffering from sleep deprivation, and desperate for a second ‘intravenous injection’ of caffeine….which we found in a beach café called ‘Moments’ some 10km along the North Sea route. Well actually, Jenny had the coffee, but I was sorely tempted by an iced beer….believe me, iced beer before 10am can be a tonic….if you get my meaning.

“Oh, you’ll want to take two diversions along the dunes…..perfect cycling routes”, said a kindly passerby, taking a spin with his wife. So we got up onto the head of the dunes (and yes, the track over the dunes is very ‘lumpy’, believe me) and discovered a strong south-westerly breezing up our backsides…. couldn’t believe it….this only happened in dreams.

Destination Den Haag, better known as The Hague, architecturally one of the least interesting cities in Holland, but historically of huge significance. But it has its beauty spots: all around the Binnenhof and the café-strewn streets,

the Peace Palace and its gardens, the stunning floral displays along the leafy avenues….oh yes, there’s money in these parts. And it is flaunted…. But then, everyone rides a bike…..so who could fault them?

Before we said goodbye to Eric and Harma, our Warmshowers hosts for the night, we enjoyed an extraordinary breakfast of wheat-free banana pancakes and strawberries….one of the many reasons we chose to ‘go Dutch’ on this trip…….

A Dutch incursion….

Take the tandem abroad? Avoid airports and packing the tandem? Find somewhere that is hill-free? Why not Holland?

Rolling off the ferry from Harwich into the Hook of Holland gave us a perfect start for exploring some of the most beautiful parts of the country. But if you think Holland is completely flat, think again. Some of its most ‘rugged’ nature lies along the Dunes running from the Hague to Zandvoort……some 80km of rolling, desert-like landscape. And because it ‘rolls’, sports cyclists and would-be Steven Kruijswijks like to pump up the speed, attacking the climbs in search of their Strava points.

But before the thumbnail sketches of each day’s experience, here is an overview of the route:

The magic…

Ah, the magic is still there (well, just)……

I’d like to brag that I danced up this 14%er like a hormonal teenager……but the reality is, it was more like a slow foxtrot…

But I have a plan. Still riding a traditional compact double, my plan is to replace my drivetrain (which is now showing signs of terminal wear) and scale down the ratios….

Not, as some are wont, by putting on a rear cassette with ‘dinner-plate’ size sprockets (they are for the off-roaders pushing a 1x set-up), but by reducing the size of the front chainwheels. Most road bikes are over-geared these days. The biggest gears can’t be engaged unless you are doing over 30-40mph….nice to have as a ‘just-in-case’, but very seldom used and, therefore, entirely dispensable.

However, getting a non-traditional compact double, outside the normal 50/34 set-up, is not easy, but I have found a supplier in Harrogate…..

…so ‘rock on’ you hills of 14…15…16…17% and up…..some of us will not be beaten!

A vilified King and usurper Queen

It is trite to say that wherever you travel in the UK, you are ‘travelling through history’…… because that is true everywhere in the world. However, around these parts, it is staggeringly easy to venture through a tiny village that spills over with significant historical events.

I have waxed lyrical before about the village of Fotheringhay, but it still prompts me to stop awhile to appreciate a little of its past. Despite its diminutive size (119 inhabitants in the 2011 census) it is famous for being the birthplace of our notorious King Richard III in 1452, perhaps the most vilified of all our kings, and whose skeleton has recently been discovered beneath a car park in LeicesterIMG_20190715_111346877_HDR

and it was in the same village that the famous would-be usurper of Queen Elizabeth I’s throne, Mary Queen of Scots, met the executioner’s axe in 1587 in Fotheringhay Castle. Sadly, the castle no longer exists, so today we gaze on the mound and  re-imagine the scene of her execution.IMG_20190715_111717785_HDR

It’s hard to imagine that this tiny community was once second in importance only to London in the 15th century……now it is a sleepy backwater deep in the Northamptonshire countryside.

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71km

 

The true meaning of ‘cake’

Over coffee and cake one day, I asked a buddy of the road how life was treating him, and he simply answered: ‘Oh, been eatin’ a lot of cake recently’…..

Meaning of course that he had been putting in a lot of miles because, as every roadie knows, miles=cakes… Well, I have to confess to the same guilty pleasure myself recently, not just because of the miles (which have been higher than usual) but also to the fact that I’ve been meeting up with groups of cronies almost every day…..which inevitably means spending half an hour collectively emptying the display counters of some distant cafés.

The last ten days have seen me cover over 500km sampling the offerings as far away as Landbeach (Ely), Earls Barton (Northamptonshire) Oakington (Cambridge) Gamlingay and Geddington. I seem to have ventured along most of the roads within a 30 mile radius….meaning, of course, I should know them ‘like the back of my hand’.

But as I came away from Cambridge today, I sought out a hidden burial ground to find the grave of a man who had figured prominently in my research for my MA thesis back in the 1970s….

and I’d like to say he was a hero of mine amongst the analytical philosophers of the 20th century, but I wish I’d understood even just 10% of his Tractatus. I’m so glad that most of his writings remained unpublished at the time….it saved me a great deal of hassle.

An Eleanor Cross..

If you don’t know the history of the Eleanor Crosses, now is the time to Google it. This one is the best preserved, and dates from the time of Eleanor of Castile’s death in 1290, built to commemorate an overnight stop when her body was being carried from the north to Westminster in London for a state burial.

Unlike most impressive stone monuments, this does not celebrate politics, war or religion…..just the faithful love King Edward 1 had for his Spanish wife….unlike the regard a certain successor of his had for his Spanish wife.

Geddington, the village where it is situated, is a fascinating medieval community. Amongst its many annual events, it has something on Boxing Day called The Squirt. Check it out…

A Firefighter’s equivalent of a ‘tug o’ war’?

65km

Spirit of fun…

We ponder and fret about so much trivia these days, simply because we enjoy the affluence of choice: the kind of bike I need; the kit and accessories that will improve my experience; disc or rim brakes; hub or derailleur gears; carbon fibre, titanium or steel frame; Di2 or mechanical; the myriad choices are endless, and we end up living the ‘pride of ownership’ experience much more than simply enjoying the ride.

If this is you (and I am not guilt-free myself), be inspired by Jim & Elisabeth Young who, in 1940, on a pared down tandem called The Spirit of Fun, carrying minimal kit, rode 7000 miles across the USA, from San Francisco to Virginia Beach, and back again….and I bet they didn’t even have a spare tube or puncture repair kit.

She’s not pedalling on the back…

Daisy, Daisy, give me your answer do,

I’m half crazy, all for the love of you,

It won’t be a stylish marriage,

I haven’t got a carriage,

But you’ll look sweet, up on the seat,

Of a bicycle built for two!

This popular song, written by Harry Dacre in 1892, was believed to have been inspired by Daisy Greville, Countess of Warwick, and one of Edward VII’s mistresses.

The song, which rapidly found its way into the music halls, was timely. The 1890s was the first time that tandem bicycles had really become popular. A Danish inventor, Mikael Pedersen, is credited with the creation of the first publicised tandem in 1898, with his Pedersen bicycle. The trend quickly caught on and early machines included such names as the Humber, the Singer, the Rudge, the Raleigh, the Whitworth, and the Chater Lea.

1930 Rudge, similar to our first, costing us £10

Courting bicycles

Given the tantalising but eminently respectable closeness that a tandem bicycle allowed between the two riders, they quickly gained the moniker ‘courting bikes’, popular with couples who wanted to spend time together.

 

 

 

 

The idea behind a later design was that the gentleman would ride on the back seat and steer, while the lady could perch in the front with enough room for her skirts. That meant that all the controls were loaded to the rear passenger, and the person in front could simply enjoy the ride.

The modern inheritance of these designs can be seen in the Hase Pino

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

and the Circe Morpheus

 

where the ‘stoker’ becomes the front rider, leaving the ‘captain’ to do all the steering, braking and gear-changing.

But as ever, today out on the most popular iteration of the design, I was informed (yet again) by a bystander and a passing cyclist for the 1000th time that ‘she’s not pedalling on the back’….so Jenny did stop pedalling…..(I say no more…)

Solstician madness

What kind of collective madness brings thousands of people together on the dawn of mid-summer’s day at megaliths like Stonehenge? Ask each one of them, and you will get a different answer…..like asking different people what chocolate tastes like (apart from nice, that is). The annual call to madness gets a hold of me too, but I celebrate the moment in a rather different way.

Some 30 years ago, I began the habit of setting off on the bike at sunset, about 21.20, riding through to sunrise, about 04.45, stopping mid-ride for a rest and refreshment (which I had to carry with me) and arriving back home something after 05.00. I would crash out for a few hours and be at my place of work by 08.30, ready to take my first class. (Alastair Humphreys might call this a ‘micro-adventure‘). Since those distant beginnings, a few things have changed. One year I took a small group of students with me, encountered a mid-summer car rally at midnight (scary, to say the least), waxed lyrical over a perfect sunrise, lay down on the warm surface of a normally busy road, and ended up in the school outdoor pool at 05.30 (having climbed over the fence….). The lads jumped in and immediately disappeared beneath the thick carpet of mist covering the pool. Health & Safety, if it had existed, would have had a field day!

Castle Ashby

Another year I headed south and had a mid-ride rest outside Castle Ashby, a rather splendid country manor in Northamptonshire. The whole place was ablaze with light and music, and I’d arrived in time for a mid-summer all-nighter…… but, damn, I didn’t think lycra would have counted as fancy dress.

Another year, I again heard music wafting across the countryside, and as I wended my way along the dark lanes, it got closer and closer. At its loudest point, I stopped to look for its source, but couldn’t see any dwellings in the vicinity, until I spied what looked like chicken sheds, ablaze with light and music. I learned afterwards that light and music through the night kept the chickens laying…..

So what have I learned from years of night riding through mid-summer nights? First of all, it never fully gets dark, even as far south as Cambridgeshire, so you can actually ride through the night without lights to see by……though be ready to switch them on should a vehicle come by. Secondly, wild life never actually goes to sleep or even goes silent during the night. You have to be prepared for all kinds creatures lurking on, and beside, the road. They can scare the life out of you, dashing across your path and squawking in panic. After all, I wasn’t supposed to be there! And finally (for now anyway) the coldest moment in the night is just before the sunrise, and it will remain cool for another hour or so. So be prepared…..

Last year, I rang another change to my routine. I rode out after sunset and found a small rural redundant church to sleep in, and discovered another truth. If you have never slept in an empty church, be aware that they are not silent places. If you are of a nervous disposition, and not sure about ghosts, this may not be for you. In the morning, I stepped out to a glorious view of the sunrise across the countryside.

This year, I rang yet another change, and decided to combine it with a ‘flash-dash’ ride. This is my name for the following: you look at the forecast for the next few days, discover the weather is going to be fine and verify the wind direction, and ‘in a flash’ you decide to take a bus/train to a starting point, then start ‘making a dash’ for home (or other destination) with fine weather and the wind on your side. It’s great. This was my fifth flash-dash ride, and it never fails. Last weekend (the solstice weekend) I caught a train over to Norwich, with the promise of two days of fine weather and a tailwind all the way back home. Crazy……

The 197 km trip took me through some fascinating places like Wymondham (pronounced ‘Windum’), Thetford Forest, Mildenhall, and an array of old Norfolk and Suffolk villages with their flintstone churches and occasional ruins of priories and abbeys. And the night I camped on the perimeter of RAF Mildenhall airfield rewarded me with the most perfect sunset……and a bit of plane-spotting, to boot.

Total distance: 197 km

So tell me…

I was once asked why I liked riding bikes so much, and I’m sure they were expecting the obvious: ‘countryside, freedom, exercise ….’. But my reply was even more obvious: ‘because I like cake’!….😃.QED

After the rains…

Medieval bridge over Great Ouse at Great Barford

After the rains, the rivers rise, the countryside turns an intense shade of green, and the crops burst into sudden growth. Muntjac diced with death crossing roads, skylarks sang in disjointed harmony, and the last of the flowering beans still wafted their heady scents.

This is a magical time to be travelling the lanes….

53km

Japan revisited

When I completed my End-to-End of Japan in 2015, I was prompted to submit an article about the experience to Cycle Magazine, the monthly publication of Cycling UK which, with a membership of some 70,000, can claim to be the biggest and most representative body of cyclists in the UK.

Dan Joyce, the editor, duly thanked me for my submission, but couldn’t find a space for it at the time, and said he would archive it for future reference. Four years later I received an email from Dan saying he was ready to use the article and……could he pay me for it….! To say I was startled is an understatement…

Over the many years I have been riding a bike ‘in anger’, I have written a lot of articles for various publications, both long and short, but had always written them for fun and the simple joy of writing, and never once expected payment. So the offer of payment on this occasion came as a kind of revelation…… people actually do this stuff for a living! Of course, I knew that already but, like road accidents and winning the lottery, I never expected it to happen to me. So, a couple of hours penning an article earned me the cost of a couple of West End theatre tickets, and a post-theatre meal. I’ll have to do more…. after all, I do like theatre and eating!

So assuming you are not a subscriber to Cycle Magazine, here is the said article…..

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