Category Archives: Cycling UK

It’s a tall story, I know….

As a member of the international online cyclists’ hosting community Warmshowers.org, we sometimes take in passing cyclists who are generally on a journey, sometimes of several days, sometimes of several weeks. When Bert messaged me about staying a night with us, all I had as an introduction was a brief profile on the Warmshowers website, so meeting him and getting to know him would be a journey of discovery.

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When I opened the door to greet him, we didn’t exactly meet face-to-face, because my own head height was directly in line with his chest. In fact I first noticed the enormous size of his bike before I raised my head to look him directly in the face. Bert stands at a cool 7 feet in height. When I got round to asking him how tall he was, his reply was “Too tall!”. And when I stood up next to his bike (which is probably a 4XL in size) his saddle height was chest high for me, and it was just as well we could give him a double bed to sleep in, so he could lie across it diagonally.

Bert was from Holland, and was spending 3 weeks of his annual leave (from his work as a research scientist) cycling around the south of England, and when he stayed with us, he was en route to the port of Harwich to catch his return ferry to the Hook of Holland. As with all guests who have stayed with us, it was a pleasure to host Bert, and there is every chance that we will meet up again sometime in the future.

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Did you know……?

Did you know you carry around with you an ‘anatomical snuffbox’? When I was told at A&E some 10 days ago that I had a suspected fracture to the scaphoid bone in my wrist, quite frankly I didn’t even know I had one of those……. my level of ignorance sometimes even astonishes me……

Scaphoid

When I came away from A&E, I had been told that a fracture was not evident from the X-rays, but fractures to the scaphoid bone commonly hide themselves, so they had to treat it as a suspected fracture until it could be confirmed either way at the fracture clinic. In the meantime, the only evidence was the way I jumped and winced when the specialist nurse prodded and (gently) twisted my wrist, and the area where I was most ‘responsive’ was in the anatomical snuffbox.

snuffbox

To cut a long story short, when I went to the fracture clinic 9 days later, a young registrar studied the X-rays again (and again), did a lot of prodding and flexing of the wrist (to which I had scant reaction), was on the point of sending me a further set of X-rays………but in the end decided to discharge me. Having told Jenny repeatedly over the previous days that I thought I had a ‘phantom fracture’, I looked at her and went “Yes…..I was right”!!

IMG_20170919_144017So, needless to say, the last few days have seen a few celebratory rides……..and today’s was a 47km bash to the north to get me in the mood for having a tooth surgically extracted by the dentist…..which was done just a few hours ago.

The trials of life…….!

Best laid schemes o’ mice and men…..

Well, Jenny and I were all primed and ready to head off on a ferry at midnight tonight, but those wretched ‘schemes o’ mice and men’ got in the way….. and I blame the hapless mice….

The tandem was ready, Jenny had nearly done the impossible and squeezed 10 days worth of clothing into one pannier bag, but I had decided to have just one last ride out to meet one of my cycling clubs, at a nice country tearoom…..but I tell you, these nice country tearooms are sometimes not all they seem, they can be dangerous places. No, I didn’t swallow a fork, or choke on a piece of cake….. all I did was step down onto some damp wooden decking that happened to be standing in for an ice rink……and before I could say ‘toast and marmalade’, I was ‘decked’ on the slippery decking, wondering how the heck I had gone from vertical to horizontal so quickly.

Having checked myself over and decided it was really only my pride that had taken a bashing, I informed the owners of their negligence (not so rudely of course), they whipped out the elf ‘n safety notices, and I set off to ride the 20 miles home, thinking nothing more about it.

It wasn’t till late that afternoon that I began to notice twinges in my wrist…..and the twinges turned into discomfort, and the discomfort turned into identifiable pain……..and to cut a long story short, after a late evening visit to A&E, and after several X-rays, they decided I had a fracture in the scaphoid bone….and I didn’t even know I had one of those…..😁

IMG_20170907_183811768So the long and the short of it is…… tandeming the Rhine will have to wait for a more auspicious moment…….a time when I can steer, operate the gears and brakes with total confidence……because Jenny refuses to be captain…..🤔

Now where are those wretched mice……?

Breathless at elevation……

As La Vuelta a España reaches its highest point ever in the Sierra Nevada, at over 2,500 metres (a climb I once tackled in the month of April back in the 1980s, only to be turned back by the snow), I took to analysing the background stats of my own ride today, which took me down into the ‘Bedfordshire Alps’. I share these charts with you because the visual effects are so startlingly different.

This chart is a screenshot of what I see on my laptop screenUntitled

…and this one is (on the very same MapMyRide website) what I see on my phone app:Screenshot_20170903-194806

The former makes it look as if I’ve just had a very pleasant amble over gently undulating countryside, whereas the latter has taken me into an alpine environment, with steep murderous climbs, and scary perpendicular descents. Of course, I prefer the latter interpretation……wouldn’t you?

3.9.17

But when I tell you that the highest point of my ride was only 132 metres, compared to today’s stage of La Vuelta, that’s the equivalent of being below sea level, and going downhill. And then I discovered the elite riders were climbing for 20km at an average speed of 35kph (let me repeat that…..an average of 35kph), a speed I’d be happy to achieve on the flat with a supporting wind behind me…….

If only I were a 30-something once again……..

The fetterlock and falcon of Fotheringhay

The fetterlock and falcon of Fotheringhay

On my 80km (50 mile) sortie into north Northamptonshire this morning, I sped through villages like Coppingford, Glatton, Lutton, Fotheringhay,  Southwick and Stoke Doyle, all of them small communities with fewer than 100 inhabitants, but all of them with houses built in the singularly attractive stone of the area, and churches that have been cared for and restored over the last thousand years.IMG_20170901_111643959

It is astonishing that a community the size of Fotheringhay (80-90 inhabitants) can afford to pay for repairs to the church’s lantern tower, the scaffolding for which is probably taking the best part of a week to build. But a quick bit of research has uncovered that the community was given a grant of some £54,000 to repair the lantern tower, and that over recent years, they have managed to raise nearly £1.5 million for general repairs to the fabric of the church.

Fotheringhay, as small as it is, has played a major role in this country’s history. Not only was it the birth-place of Richard III, but the Castle (which now no longer exists) was the place of execution of Mary, Queen of Scots. If you study the photograph carefully, you will see an insignia at the top of the tower: a falcon within a fetterlock, the symbol of the House of York.

Study the map below, and the stretch of road from Wadenhoe (in the west) to Old Weston……..remarkably straight, and almost as if my phone had lost contact with the gps signal. Well, here in the UK, a straight stretch of road frequently indicates the one-time presence of the Romans, and this stretch is precisely one such inheritance.

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The imperium of titanium

About three years ago, I cycled the 75 miles (120km) over to Hunstanton on the north Norfolk coast, pitched my tent in a small campsite, and headed over to a bike shop with the unusual name of Fat Birds don’t Fly. Believed to be the largest retailer of titanium bikes in Europe, it’s the premier place to spend a day trialling a variety of different models.

At the time, I was merely toying with the idea of acquiring a titanium bike, but I spent the best part of a whole day trialling at least five different models, all of which were carefully set up to my requirements. Although I hadn’t firmly resolved to pitch in for a new bike at the time, I certainly came away with a clear idea of what to expect from titanium, and like many important purchases, I put the idea on the back burner…….until three years later…….

My habitual road bike had done about 40,000 miles of faithful service, and bits were wearing out on a regular basis, so I re-visited the idea of replacing it with a titanium model, but wasn’t ready to shell out about £3000 for a new bike. IMG_20170825_120620724My subsequent foray into the second hand market took me down to Royston, and I found myself a more-than-decent Litespeed Siena, kitted out with some reasonable accessories, including Ultegra brakes and gears, and the first ride turned out to be ‘love at first flight’. Though a smaller frame than I am used to, with steeper angles and a shorter wheelbase, the feel is light (2kg lighter than the old bike) and springy…..and I find my average speed has increased by at least 2kph.

The additional benefit was that it came with a spare set of wheels, just what I needed to replace the disintegrating wheels on my old bike. So it looks like following the usual tradition of roadies and having a ‘best bike’ for the summer months, and an ‘old hack’ for the winter. Not sure I approve of this unbridled multiplication of bikes in the garage……IMG_20170826_170746147_HDR

Doing it the Dutch way….

The freedom and  versatility of the bicycle as demonstrated by the Dutch…..is this not what it is  all about?

Moreton-in-Marsh to Kimbolton 120km

The last route ridden of the CTC Birthday Rides, the last pints drunk, and after the reluctant farewells to companions of the road it was time to de-camp, pack up the dew-sodden tent, and ride the 75 miles home. I had a ‘grand plan’…….make the National Trust property Upton House on Edgehill (of the famous battle) my first cake stop…….grand plan it was not because I made a needless ascent of a 16% gradient only to find this……

I will keep the expletives as a valve for the release of my own inner frustration….

….but I was cheered up by a gentle breeze coming from my right flank, this pub sign….

….and being welcomed home by Jenny to a superb meal that just happened to complement a nice glass of ‘savvy blank’ (kiwi for ‘Sauvignon Blanc’, if you didn’t already know).

Woodstock-Blenheim 95km

Mention both Woodstock and Blenheim Palace and most people will acknowledge familiarity with both iconic sites, the first for its music festival and the second as the creation of the Duke of Marlborough and ancestral home of Winston Churchill.

We poked our noses through the gate of Blenheim to view the estate from the end of the drive, but noticed there was a footpath sign through the grounds…..but how did people get in? Simple really, there was a button to press to summon someone to open the gate…..remotely we presumed.

Then we took a pause on a grassy embankment, and was asked by a fellow cyclist which way we were going……and we all answered in unison “That way”!

Today’s ride was an undulating journey round small villages, but silly me, I forgot to switch on my mapping app, so can’t display the route here. So in its place, you can admire the juxtaposition of my bike next to this lime green machine tied up a lamp post…..I wonder who put it there?

Wellersley-Hailes Abbey 65km

Settling into a foursome, with Edward and me on solos, and Alex and Jean on a tandem, we headed across open rolling countryside to have a relaxing tea ‘n cakes in what seemed like a domestic cafe, sitting in the courtyard amongst the drying washing, and popping upstairs to use the family bathroom as a necessarium. So relaxed were we that Alex nodded off…..

I took an hour out to check out Hailes Abbey, a 12th century Cistercian Abbey that had met the same fate as most Abbeys in 1538, where monks were pensioned off and the buildings and contents dismantled. The early stages of the reform……

But coming away, to climb once again ‘over the Edge’ (to a height of 1000ft), we had this radical change of elevation that revealed a beautiful pastoral panorama behind us….

But a highlight of the entertainment programme last night was a presentation by Andrew Sykes of his journey from Tarifa to Nordcapp, a journey of some 7,500km. I can highly recommend his book (available on Amazon).

Bourton on the Water-Northleach-Stow on the Wold (70km)

You can’t go anywhere in the Cotswolds without stumbling across places with quadruple-barrelled names……there are no simple Stows or Bourtons….they have to be ‘on the water’ or ‘on the wold’, or even ‘in marsh’……which means that aspiring wordsmiths like me fail to keep to notional word limits……

But then who needs to be a wordsmith when others come up with the pithy captions for you……?

And when you take your attention off the road, and ignore the dangers that lurk under the waters of a river ford, you are likely to come a cropper…..

…as Alex and Jean did when they tried to cross this on  their tandem…..but happily, it had a positive outcome. Pride had taken a knocking, but no broken bones, and not a scratch on the tandem…….and a over-dinner talking point for years to come. Yep, we will tease them….

With almost unbroken sunshine today, all 460 birthday riders were out on the roads, sometimes descending on the same cafes and adding to the frenetic tourist industry that has become the lifeblood of these parts.

And some of our company see no barriers to getting out and riding……like this hand cyclist whose partner has a rear connector to help push him along. Truly inspiring……

Chipping Camden-Stratford-on-Avon 102km

There were only two options: do we or don’t we? I was linking up with Jean and Alex from Shropshire, and they were tandem riders, and like 460 other cyclists at this festival, we were confronted with the same choices……do we set off in the pouring rain and hope for an improvement or, like so many of them, do we mooch around indoors waiting for better things? Many stayed indoors about the venue, but we……..yes, the heroic ‘we’…..we headed out prepared to get soaked in the morning and (possibly) dry out in the afternoon……and our calculations were spot on.

Even the sun broke through the gloom, zooming along an old rail track, having escaped the tourist-ravaged Stratford and breathed a huge sigh of relief. But the sting in the tail (and tale) was having to climb back into the Cotswolds. The hills round here may be short, but they ain’t half steep!

Alex and Jean are nifty tandem riders. They took full advantage of the many descents, gathering speed and hurtling down the hills. There was no way a solo rider like me was even going to keep up with them…..but then the advantage was on my side when it came to climbing the hills…..there’s some complicated equation at play based on weight, speed and strength……but I don’t fully understand it.

Moreton-in-Marsh – Winchcombe -Snowshill 87km

“I’m riding a sportive” said the cyclist standing by his gleaming carbon bike and popping a couple of tablets in his water bottle. “What are those for?” I asked. “Oh they help with cramp. D’you want one?”. “No, I don’t dope…..” I said. He hesitated, looked at me, was about to say something, when I interrupted him…”You do realise they will be taking a blood sample at the end of the event……”. The expression on his face changed, and I left him to ponder his situation…..I got on my bike, turned to say goodbye, and I knew he had sussed my little ruse.

The forecast for today had been dire, and everyone set off on their chosen routes with expectations of getting very wet. Many did, but those of us who headed west stayed dry all day, even enjoying several hours of late sunshine. 

My route was titled ‘Off the Edge to Winchcombe’, meaning there was a dramatic 17% descent with a hairily tight swithback half way down……both fun and scary at the same time.

But once off the Edge, there was no other way back to Moreton-in-Marsh but to laboriously climb back over it. A local passed it off as being nothing at all, but that was the reaction of a motorist whose only experience of climbing is changing down to a lower gear and going a bit slower…..with no physical penalty to pay. I gave him a smile and prepared myself for the 3km climb up to Snowshill……

139 years ago today……

winged wheel139 years ago today, August 5th 1878, Stanley Cotterell (a medical student) drew together a small group of cycling enthusiasts in Harrogate and formally launched the Bicycle Touring Club, which soon turned into the Cyclists’ Touring Club, so as to allow membership to tricyclists. His first task was to set up a network of hotels that would cater specifically for the needs of cyclists and, by 1881 (just 3 years afterstanley_ja_cotterell-250x280 its foundation) he had established a network of 785 hotels that offered cyclists fixed tariffs and exclusive facilities.

Today, the club is known as Cycling UK, boasts a membership of over 60,000, and for the last 47 years, has celebrated the birthday of the club in August with the annual Birthday Rides. So tomorrow, I will pack my saddlebag once again, strap on my tent, and head over to the Cotswolds, where some 460 fellow cyclists will gather for a week of………well, you’ve guessed it……..bike riding……..along with evening entertainment and presentations, photo competitions, live music, and the inevitable fellowship and camaraderie that exists among many groups of shared interests.map_moreton

We will lodge and camp in the grounds of the Fire Training College in Moreton-in-Marsh, take advantage of their superb facilities, and witness some of the Fire Service trainees at training, while we go about our much more serious business of discovering this beautiful part of the country while enjoying our favourite pastime. It’s a tough life…….

Solstice night ride: 67km

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.

Solstice ride 2017

Oundle 67km

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……IMAG2635

 

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.IMAG2639

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…….

Whew! 30 degrees C….

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.

Brixworth 89km

Brixworth 90km

 

Lake District route maps

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.

Windermere circuit

Lake Windermere

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.

Coniston Water circuit

Coniston Water

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…….

Wray castle

Wray Castle

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.

hill-top-house

Hill Top House

My ride around Coniston Water led me to the former home of John Ruskin, writer, artist and social reformer of the 19th century.

Ruskin's house

John Ruskin’s House

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……..IMG_20170604_141044884

 

A land of surprises….

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 aliveCambell 2.jpg

…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), IMG_20170604_155927127_HDR.jpg

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. IMG_20170604_153104682.jpg

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…..IMG_20170604_163257350_HDR.jpg

Adventure cycling groupies: the addiction

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….

Even the T-shirts betray a youthful mocking exuberance…..

After an afternoon spent riding the full circumference of lake Windermere, the evening brought Mark Beaumont as our keynote speaker. Amongst the adventure cycling world, he is ‘cycling royalty’. 

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?

Brathay Hall: Adventure cycling festival

Just can’t get enough. Last weekend, Cycle touring festival in Clitheroe, this weekend, Adventure cycling festival in Ambleside, Lake District. The difference? Very good question.

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……..

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