Category Archives: Cycling UK
If you are looking for the perfect conditions for ‘mindfulness’, jump on your bike at midnight on the shortest night of the year and keep riding until dawn. It is mesmeric, self-absorbing and re-creative…….one thing it is certainly not……. quiet. Let me tell you about it.
Going out for an all-night ride at the summer solstice used to be a regular happening for me. Last night the conditions were near perfect. Warm (20C), clear sky, no wind, and the promise of a clearly visible sunrise…..or so the weather apps promised. My route around Northamptonshire villages and Oundle took me along country lanes seldom used by other traffic and, until 3am, I had to use a front light to see my way….but thereafter, the northern horizon began to brighten and the day was under way according to all the wildlife around me. Let me tell what you might encounter if you did something similar……
Life does not close down during the night, especially in summer time. Some of the sheep continue to graze through the night. Birds may be roosting, but they can be supremely noisy at all hours, and occasionally you will disturb a big bird of prey that will take off just metres away, causing you to wobble with the shock. Your olfactic awareness will be sharpened by the diversity from country earth and manure heaps, to the exquisite sweetness of flowering beans and the hedgerow profusion of honeysuckle, occasionally interrupted by the faint whiff of battery chicken farms.
You will engage in races with hares that inhabit the roads through the night. One of the three that I chased reached the heady speed of 25mph (40kph) before veering off through the hedges. You will be followed by owls for several hundreds of metres, and little birds (generally finches, I think) who will precede you along the roads, landing and taking off, asking you to follow them. You will cross bridges over busy trunk roads that are as busy at night time as during the day. And the occasional shift worker will overtake you in the small hours either going to, or returning from, work. One even stopped to ask if I needed any help while I was resting by the roadside.
I stopped in the market square in Oundle for an energy snack and, apart from some distant voices and the passage of two cars through the town, I had the town to myself, illuminated by both street lighting and shop security lights.
I got to within 1km of home at exactly 04.39, the moment when the sun was to rise in our area but, though the sky was generally clear, the northern horizon was obscured by both cloud and mist, making the sunrise a non-event, and I needed to get to bed. So after a quick shower, I climbed into bed at 05.15, to be woken gently (she lightly shook the duvet at the foot of the bed…..) by my lovely wife at 08.20 so I could have breakfast before attending a commitment at 09.00.
All this may sound a bit breathless, but it was invigorating and life-affirming. My mission now is to stay awake until normal bedtime…….
It may sound dumb to go for a 3-4 hour ride when the morning temperature is building up to 30+ degrees C….. which, to you Americans, means 86+ degrees F (what we sometimes call ‘old money’). Well, you may be right but, putting it into context, it makes more sense to go riding than to go walking or running.
If you walk, or even run, in such conditions, and continue for 3-4 hours, you are likely to start pushing your body into heat-stroke meltdown. Why? Well, principally because at the speeds you can run/walk, you can’t benefit much from the air-conditioning effect of a breeze (even if it’s just one you create yourself by your forward motion). Even if you run at 10mph, when there is no appreciable breeze anyway, that wouldn’t be enough to cool down your system. And, as soon as you stop, the sweat will just begin to pour out of you.
Riding a bike, however, in still hot conditions, is a little more forgiving. If you can keep a steady pace of 15-20mph, and take full advantage of downhills to reach 40-50mph, you will have a ready source of air conditioning wafting all about you. Going uphill, of course, is a different matter, and when you come to stop mid-ride or at the end of the ride, you will have the same challenges as runners or walkers. Though you might be tempted to dive into the nearest air conditioned shop just to enjoy that sudden chill, it’s best to avoid that. The body doesn’t like sudden changes, and you can actually end up sweating much more. The body gets confused, as it does when you jump into a cold shower or knock back a few icy drinks.
People sometimes like to see route maps of rides. Everybody’s rides have something of the rider’s own personal touches….what prompts them to take that direction, climb this hill and not that one, stop in this place and not that one. My two rides over the weekend were circuits of two large bodies of water: Windermere and Coniston Water. It’s tempting to think that circuits of lakes will be fairly flat rides, but not so in the Lake District.
The two rides together included nearly 1200 metres (4000 feet) of ascent, almost the height of Ben Nevis, the highest mountain in the UK. Of course most of the hills were relatively short, some sharp, some gentle, but one in particular was almost unrideable (for me at least), rising to about 20% in gradient.
When you live in East Anglia, and do most of your daily riding in your own locality, the muscles in your legs have to be ‘re-formatted’ when you go to an area like the Lake District. It is quite a change…….
The Windermere ride took me past Wray Castle, a Victorian neo-Gothic building notable for its selection of rare and unusual trees, and Hill Top House, the home and farmstead of the famous children’s author, Beatrix Potter.
My ride around Coniston Water led me to the former home of John Ruskin, writer, artist and social reformer of the 19th century.
The sun shone over the water as I was served, in the adjacent tearoom, with one of those ambrosial cream teas that are the ultimate comfort food for the hungry cyclist. Drool over this……..
As I sit looking out on a very wet blustery day, the pleasant surprises of a weekend spent in the Lake District keep invading my inner thoughts. Yes, I do delight in propelling myself uphill and down dale, capturing the panoramas as I sweep by, or grind painfully up ridiculous gradients cursing every gut-wrenching metre, but then I get to discover little recondite corners where bits of history come alive
…like this graveyard in the town of Coniston, where you will find, just metres from each other, the graves of that merchant of speed, Donald Campbell (who died in the act of breaking yet another water speed record),
and the literary giant John Ruskin, whose house, in fact, is situated on the other side of Coniston Water.
As the weekend trippers were heading off home, I circled the lake on quiet roads, enjoying the wide open perspectives of the water, and sweeping landscapes of buttercup meadows that are so rarely seen these days.
Catch the Lakes on a sunny weekend (as I did) and you will see what enticed people like Wordsworth, Ruskin and Beatrix Potter to these parts. But, of course, the sun doesn’t always shine…..
Cycling festival goers make an interesting bunch of people to study. Here at Brathay Hall in Ambleside, the average age is noticeably younger than at Waddow Hall last weekend, and much of that is down to the clever marketing of bikes and kit that will appeal to the younger generations. This old guy is much too old to be test riding a ‘fat bike’…..but hey, we can all dream on….
He holds several world records, one of which was the 18,000 mile round the world record, but it was quickly broken by other enthusiasts. So he announced his decision to take back that record, so in July he will set off from Paris and attempt to cycle round the world in 80 days, shaving 114 days off his previous attempt, and doing it by riding 240 miles every day…..meaning he will be in the saddle for 16 hours per day.
Is there any sanity left in the world?
This weekend is all about 29ers, gravel bikes, fat bikes, bike packing kit, ultra-lightweight camping, off-roading and gravel tracking, and this branch of cycling is currently heavily driven by marketing and fashion, with huge appeal amongst a younger generation of riders.
The event is being held at Brathay Hall, overlooking lake Windermere and, as well as the presence of some of the major manufacturers of bikes and kit, there will be a line-up of speakers that will include the cycling celebrity, Mark Beaumont, former record holder of cycling round the world, and current record holder for riding the length of Africa.
Phew! Breathless stuff……..
Laura and Tim Moss, an intrepid couple who cycled 13,000 miles on their world tour in 2013-14, came back so enthused by their experiences that they set up the first Cycle Touring Festival at Waddow Hall in Clitheroe in 2015. I have just come back from the 3rd edition of the Festival, full of that ‘cycling spiritual refreshment’ that only comes from joining hundreds of other cycling ‘pilgrims’ at the mecca of cycle touring in the UK.
This was no ordinary festival. It steadfastly refused to follow the usual format of being dominated by sponsors and traders. The event was born of enthusiasts, it was run by volunteer enthusiasts, all the workshops, demos and presentations were given by enthusiasts without payment, and the inevitable end product was that, at the end, everyone went away brimming with renewed eagerness to go out and storm the world on their bikes.
One of the great ironies of the weekend was that the programme was so crammed with fascinating events on site, that it left no time to actually go out on the bikes and enjoy some of the local lanes. A bit like going to a pub with no beer, really. Everything was geared for the cyclist (or budding cyclist) who simply wanted to go on adventures on their bikes, whether multi-year round-the-world expeditions, or simple weekend micro-adventures in their own locality. Volunteers gave presentations on their own adventures, experts shared their knowledge of GPS systems, filming on the road, camp cooking and stoves, wheel building and basic mechanics, and much much more.
We enjoyed a presentation by a family with two young boys of their 6 month adventure in Japan, and cycling the west coast of Scotland. We had a yoga session specifically for the needs of cyclists, given by a yoga teacher and physiotherapist, who also happened to have cycled mega-miles across the globe. There were films, kit demos, talks on bothies in Scotland, bikepacking demos, discussions on dynamos and lighting systems, bike and light-weight tent demos, and an advice session on coping with cycling-related injuries.
They were the ‘serious’ parts of the programme, but in the gaps and in the evenings there were fun plenary gatherings in the marquee, an open mike session to hear 3 minute travelling stories from anyone who wanted to stand up, and the inevitable beer drinking to keep the bonhomie going late into the night.
Most people camped in the grounds of this splendid estate, within earshot of the river Ribble crashing over a nearby weir, which created a swimming-pool effect that enticed many to go swimming in the breaks. We were contained within a fantasy bubble during the entire weekend, ready to burst back out on the world when the final session was concluded, the final pint drunk, and the spare food doled out for people to take home with them.
If any of this inspires you, check out the Festival website, and sign up for a newsletter to be kept informed of the next event in 2018. In the meantime, you may want to tie into another festival taking place this weekend, June 2nd-5th, at Brathay Hall in Ambleside. If you do, I’ll see you there………………..
I had snuck my solo into the car, along with the tandem, to do a slightly longer route on our last day in Norfolk, and I had arranged to meet Jenny midst the restrained opulence of Felbrigg Hall near Cromer, an estate that dates from the 11th century, and owned continuously by the Wyndhams from 1450, until it was passed to the National Trust in 1969, for safe-keeping on behalf of the nation.
It’s only in remote rustic corners like rural Norfolk that you will find a level crossing where you have to open the gates yourself, stop, look and listen for ‘approaching traffic’, then make a life-threatening dash in your car across the railway line, before closing the gates behind you. And if you fail to close the gates, watch your back! You may be fined a tidy £1000 for bad behaviour.
But a small reward for the effort will bring you to sights like these……..old windmills that once worked round the clock (or when the wind was blowing, at least) to grind the wheat. Some are still working models today.
My route took me out to the coast, where the strong winds from the north were whipping up the waves, guaranteeing the beaches an eerie solitude. But there was beauty in the unbridled lack of restraint………
Blickling Hall, Norfolk
A few days in a small country hotel gave us the opportunity to use the tandem to get to a nearby National Trust country estate, following some of the narrow winding country roads so characteristic of deepest rural Norfolk. But I was beset by an almost insuperable mechanical issue when we arrived, not because it was impossible to resolve, but because I had stupidly left the necessary tools at home. I have names for people like me……*&@##+#+!!
The front gear changing mechanism had mysteriously got completely twisted, and I had neither an adjustable spanner, nor the appropriate allen key to fix it. But because we were at a National Trust property, I reasoned they had some maintenance people on site and, sure enough, a ‘Mr Fix-it’ appeared with the right tool to sort out the offending mechanical. You might say I was making full use of our membership of the association.
But we had a most enjoyable 3-4 hours at Blickling Hall, an extravagant Jacobean pile that dates back 400 years. Then we ‘motored’ back to the hotel with a gently assisting wind behind……..
…..and passed through a little village pretending to be the equal of the eponymous town where Jenny had been born in Derbyshire……..but it lacked the altitude, and the ‘attitude’!
A breathless ‘bash’ around the shores of the 8th largest reservoir in the country. 5km across open countryside, crossing an old wartime airfield, I can be on the bridleway that circles the water, taking in the views and swallowing the midges as I forge my way around. The sun was setting, the light disappearing fast, and the scent from the bluebells in Savages Spinney was heady. More importantly, I had most of the track to myself…….unbridled freedom!
Saying goodbye to club mates at Roxton Garden Centre to make my way home, I had allowed the Garmin Connect website to route my ride. I had chosen way points and then let the website choose the route between those points. It could have been a big mistake and I knew it was going to be a bit of an adventure because the website frequently can’t distinguish between metalled roads and unsurfaced tracks and sure enough, once I had crossed the railway line at Tempsford, I was sent off along bridleways, across land that landowners with a ‘fortress mentality’ tried to seal off as being private, the metalled surface led on to grass tracks, which led on to a narrow forest track that was just about rideable on a road bike.
My cross country route lasted 6-7 miles, ascended the odd unclimbable hill, crossed rutted stretches far too rough for 23mm tyres but, in compensation, I came across my first display of cowslips just pushing their heads through the surface, and in the denser parts of the forest, I stumbled across some early season bluebells.
If you ride a bike, what better way of getting yourself fully insured, legally protected, and in touch with hundreds of groups and events around the country, than by joining up with the nation’s largest cycling charity, Cycling UK. With a history stretching back 138 years and current membership standing at 70,000, you’ll find it is a truly representative organization that works hard for the interests of all cyclists, whether you are a keen sports cyclist or someone who just likes to commute and take short leisure rides. Outlay can be as little as £2-£3 per month, but the benefits are outstanding. I have been a life member since 1978.
To follow it up, you can ring 0844 736 8451, or check out the website at www.cyclinguk.org/MGM
Through my local library’s online services, I am able to access publications (free of charge) from around the world, including the British magazine Cycling Weekly. Because it is a racing publication, and much of its content is devoted to the road racing scene, I read it very selectively, because my interests in cycling lie in other quarters. However, I have noticed in the last few editions, with the advent of the racing season, more and more articles are devoted to the processes of training, nutrition, use of technology, interpretation of statistics, and a whole panoply of reviews of ‘new and improved’ bits of kit that will bite huge chunks out of the average monthly salary.
I skim through some of these items with a degree of bemusement, happy not to be spending the silly money some are prepared to spend for infinitesimally small gains, and equally happy not to become a ‘victim’ of the statistics of my performance on the bike, such as pedal cadences, heart monitors, power meters, dynamic profiles and so on. I go out on my bike to have fun, enjoy the countryside, and indulge myself in that sense of utter freedom that is so fundamental to the enjoyment of cycling.
My two shorter rides over the weekend took me in a less familiar direction. You might know my penchant for heading out against prevailing winds, to catch that delightful tailwind on the way home. Well, unusually for these parts, the winds had switched to the NE, so my rides took me roughly in that direction, rediscovering roads I haven’t ridden for several months. It made a very pleasant change…….
It’s a warm wind, the west wind, full of birds’ cries;
I never hear the west wind but tears are in my eyes.
For it comes from the west lands, the old brown hills.
And April’s in the west wind, and daffodils. John Masefield
Over the last several weeks, anyone who has been out ‘battling the elements’, for whatever reason, will have been treated to the weather fronts persistently coming in from the west. And if, like me, you frequently let the direction of the wind dictate your direction of travel, you may have inevitably decided to head out and face the full flagellation of the wind in the first part of your journey. And the winds of late from the west have been strong……so most of my routes have taken me west, south-west or north-west, in the hope of catching that elusive tailwind for the homeward journey.
However, my trip out to Brixworth, 42km to the west, was pre-ordained, to meet up with a bunch of fellow cyclists for the inevitable coffee and cake. But the outward was gruelling. Heading into a 19-20mph wind, the trip out took me a full 2 hours, but the return was gloriously fast. As we sat in the friendly comfort of a community café run by the Christian Fellowship, we chewed over the fat of matters-cycling, and on the way back, I spied a board advertising lunch in the village church of Chelveston, and enjoyed soup and cakes in a 13th century building, set within a community that is recorded in Domesday in 1086.
Photo by Iain Macaulay
It’s easy to cruise through country communities, some only a cluster of houses, admiring the local architecture, spying churches hiding behind a screen of trees, sweeping over packhorse bridges that date back centuries, and within minutes you’ve left them behind anticipating the next village.
But stop occasionally, root around, find information boards or street names that tell a deeper story, and you will be amazed at what you might find. Odell, for example, has a manor house at the top of a hill that is called Odell Castle. Much more than just a name, shortly after the Norman invasion in 1066, a motte-and-bailey castle had been built by Walter de Wahul, with a stone keep, where the family lived for the next 400 years. The much restored castle survived until 1931 when it was destroyed by fire, and the present manor house was built in the 1960s.
Villages like Milton Ernest will carry connections with a famous person, even though those connections might have been fleeting. The famous musician, Glenn Miller, for example, spent most of the war entertaining American troops in Europe, but sadly met his end when his aircraft disappeared in bad weather in 1944. He had been stationed at a local airfield near Milton Ernest, and his death is commemorated with a plaque in the village hall.
Then I could mention the history of Thurleigh Airfield, but easier to give a link that gives a complete history of its role in World War 2.
OK, it’s just a picture of my bike by a small spinney…….so what?
Well, for me much more than that…….the spinney is called Salomé Wood, and about 20 years ago I met someone emerging from the spinney pushing a heavily laden bike.
“Hi! Are you OK?” I asked (we roadies tend to make sure fellow travellers are not in a fix…..and if they are, we do what we can to help them).
“Yeh, I’m fine. Just packed up the tent and I’m on my way? One of the nicest little woods I’ve slept in for months”.
“Goin’ far?”, I enquired.
“Oh, just to Vancouver……..”. He left his sentence hanging in the air, waiting for the inevitable follow-up questions…. Of course, I had a battery of questions. You don’t often meet a lone traveller emerging from a wood having spent the night under canvas, and off to the west coast of Canada.
He told me a little of his story. Separating from his wife several years before, he decided to pack it all in, salvage what monies he could from his marriage, and set off on his loaded bike to travel the world. All that he owned in this world was on his bike…….
“So, you decided to come back home for a while? Have you been cycling the UK in the meantime….?”
“No, no…..had to come back to sort out a few issues, and I house-sat for a friend while he was away. He had left his fridge full of food, he had a comfortable house with all the mod-cons, big TV, stereo hifi in every room, jacuzzi in the bathroom…….for the first few days I couldn’t believe my luck. All this comfort and luxury……not used to it”.
“Was it hard pulling yourself away from it?”. Thinking I knew what his answer would be, he caught me off-balance by saying just the opposite.
“No, no, I had to get out of it. After a few days I started getting restless, I didn’t know what to do with myself. I honestly couldn’t handle the easy comforts, the sitting around all day, having no purpose. So I had to come away early and get back on the road”.
I then said something that I later realized was a stupid observation. “So you spend all your time travelling…..moving from one place to another……and all you have is on your bike? That’s an amazing lifestyle” I said.
“Hey, don’t confuse what you are doing with what I am doing. You’re just on a short fun ride for the morning, whereas this is what I do. This is my life. There’s little fun and recreation in this…..it’s a way of life”.
We said our goodbyes, I wished him well on his journey, and I went away and thought long and hard about his final words. Some encounters have a lifelong impact…….
It’s great when the club ride schedules its cake stop in a place of interest. Outside the small village of Old Warden in Bedfordshire, you’ll find the Shuttleworth Collection, a museum housing early vintage aircraft, cars, motorcycles, penny farthings, and a motley selection of farm vehicles.
Next door to it is the Swiss Garden, a Regency garden landscaped in Capability Brown-fashion to resemble the Swiss landscape. Quite remarkable, really.
But to slake the thirst and replenish the carbs for a group of hungry cyclists, between the two there is an extensive café and restaurant, built to cope with large numbers. At this very ‘unbusy’ time of the year for cafés, a couple of groups of wheelers bring along some tidy business.
When major airports were cancelling flights because of dense fog, I rode out the year with an unusually frost-free, fog-free, relatively windless 60kms ride…..overtook a fellow-rider on a similar mission (but he was too out of breath to engage in conversation), crossed paths with fellow-club riders with laconic waves, stopped to offer help to another rider who had punctured (but he had all he needed to do the job), picked up some of the last apples hanging on a friend’s tree, and began to ponder what 2017 might have in store.
Already in the calendar is a week’s winter riding on the Mediterranean island of Menorca, heading off in mid-January. But what about a more ambitious ride? An expedition-like ride in a distant land? And then a tandeming venture for Jenny and me to share together? We have already completed the Coast-to-Coast and the length of the River Thames, both challenging and exhilarating in their different ways. There is much to ponder.
But Strava fanatics will begin the year chasing personal ‘gongs’. Hundreds (even thousands) will head off to the hills (wherever they are in the world) on the first day of the year to try and secure a first KOM (King of the Mountains) placing. Each mountain climb will have its own category, and if the first person to climb a particular mountain on January 1st is especially strong, they may hold onto the placing for much of the year. Weaker riders will almost certainly lose their placings within a few days. The use of GPS and training websites like Strava have successfully ‘democratised’ international amateur competition.
If you have been kind enough to follow any of my ramblings over the past year, I wish you a very happy 2017 and, if you ride a bike, ‘may the wind be ever at your back’.
Whenever I think of heading east from my village, I brace myself for the windswept flatlands of fen country, following the straight lines of drains and dykes, on roads that disappear over the horizon without a rise or fall, and rarely a bend or curve. In short, it’s my vision of ‘cycling hell’. So when the Wednesday group decided to head out to Ramsey, I viewed the prospect with a certain hesitation. For those who know fen country, most of it is land that should rightly be under water, but Dutch drainage engineers in the 17th century helped mastermind the building of a clever system of drainage which has created some of the most fertile agricultural land in the country.
My ride took me over Holme Fen, reputedly the lowest part of fen country, dropping away to 2.75 metres below sea level, though my GPS only detected -1 metre on the road, which stood proud of the field level on either side. You can imagine my surprise, when I downloaded the stats of the ride at the end, to discover that over the course of 74kms, I had actually climbed 350 metres (1100 feet)…….but most of it heading in and out of the fens in west Cambridgeshire, which I frequently nickname as ‘Huntingdonshire’s alps’. In fact, the highest point of old Huntingdonshire is just a few miles from my home, just outside a tiny hamlet called Covington. Somewhere in the field known as ‘Boring Field’, there is a spot that is a towering 80 metres above sea level…….imagine that.
Yesterday, I returned from a 25 mile ‘bash’ on the bike so wet, so completely soaked to the skin, that I left a pool of water on the garage floor. It then took me all of 15 minutes to pare off the several layers, wringing each one out as I created a sodden mound on the kitchen floor. The saving grace of the whole experience was that I had strangely enjoyed the ride (despite the rain), and that by virtue of all the layers, I hadn’t actually got cold. However, because of a serious accident several years ago, when I came off the bike on black ice and broke my femur, I now carry a tightly rolled ‘space blanket’ in my back pocket in case of emergency. Avoiding hypothermia in the cold winter months is a key element of survival in the event of an accident, especially on a remote country lane.
Today, however, was a different story. Bright and occasionally sunny, I headed down into north Bedfordshire to meet up with the Wednesday group at a hitherto unknown country café between Gamlingay and Potton. The Christmas menu just happened to be out on the tables. As we chomped on our cakes and bacon ‘butties’, one of the group had a ‘bright’ idea……why don’t we go for a full 2/3 course lunch on one of our pre-Christmas rides?
Groan……I considered the prospect with mixed feelings. Nice to have a Christmas lunch, but what about the 25 mile ride home afterwards? Rarely do I eat a meal mid-ride…..