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Vancouver-Port Townsend

My connection to mobile data services is so poor that postings may be very sporadic…..and short (you will be pleased to know😊). It’s even a 50/50 chance that these words will appear…

So far I have enjoyed being hosted twice by members of the Warmshowers community, once in Vancouver and this evening in Port Townsend. What a great international group it is. The other night I pitched my tent in a state park campground, and my jaw dropped when they charged me the same as an RV without hook-up….$25. The Ranger seemed genuinely apologetic….

The first few days have been characterised by sweeping vistas of both countryside and coast, dense forests and hills that demand the best from you in the ascent, and a steely commitment at the break-neck speeds on the descent.

I’ve been treated to a donation of breakfast food on the campground, to inquisitive conversations with people in eateries, to whole family histories from people who have ancestors from the British Isles. They hear the accent and unhesitatingly ask where in the UK I live…to which I answer “near Cambridge”. This is guaranteed to elicit knowing nods and the odd “Wow!” or a more conservative “yuh’re not kidding, uh?”. Undeservingly, I quietly bask in the unearned glow…

Highlights have included crossing Deception Pass bridge (look up the history), buying food supplies in quaint little shops in Edison and zipping along leafy forest trails.

Apologies for the lack of even one photo, but my data connection will never handle it….

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…and over the bridge

With an 8 hour time differential, I assembled the bike outside the airport concourse

climbed on to ride the 45km to my overnight stop at 3pm local time (11pm body time), laboured over the impressive Fraser Bridge

got lost on muddy tracks in a nature reserve, curiously called Burns’ Bog, and arrived at my hosts’ house (just a few kms from the US border) when my body clock chimed 3am.

I climbed into bed 3 hours later, after a superb meal, and I don’t remember my head hitting the pillow……zzzzzz

Getting to the starting line…

Getting to Gatwick Airport turned out to be a major adventure, and I was glad I had opted to go a day early and overnight in a ‘pod’ hotel just one floor beneath check-in. The adventure and delay had been caused by a fatality on the railway line so, lugging a heavy boxed bike, I was diverted, then held up at St Pancras, then had to join a rush hour train where the presence of my bike caused not a little friction with one or two commuters. I struggled to keep my cool….

Now the real adventure is about to start. And Vancouver is my starting point, where I will be hosted by a very kind couple, both cyclists, before I head south to the border, where I’m hoping to find that my visa, my ESTA, is all in order, and I won’t be dismissed as an undesirable alien.

Six weeks later, I hope to be hearing the sweet sounds of Mexican Spanish, drinking a Corona, and tucking into tortillas, nachos, burritos and enchiladas……to mention only a few. 😁

Almost taking off….

“So where are you gadding off to now?”. As you can tell, some friends grow a little weary of my restlessness….sigh 😁

This time, a 6 week trek, some 10 hours flying time away….I have my little tent. Watch this space….

Decision time..

Bristling with dental anticipation, it has now come to the crunch. Which toothbrush to take…? Blue=7g. Red=15g. Blue & white=21g. I might need some guidance with this one…..

C2C, E2E, S2S, A2B….

Why do cyclists (well, some at least) have this inexplicable yen to do straight-line routes that begin in one place and end in another, and they have to use transport, other than the bike, to get to the start and get away from the finish? And when it involves a tandem, you have to use your imagination to do just that. Buses, trains and planes are not happy about taking tandems unless, of course, there is a clever way of either folding or splitting your machine. We have neither, so we have to be a little more creative still.

As I key in these reflections about our tandem adventure cycling the 100 mile Devon C2C (Ilfracombe to Plymouth), I am sitting on one of two trains and a bus that will take me back to Ilfracombe to retrieve the car, to shoot back to Plymouth in order to pick up both Jenny and the tandem. We did the same for the Way of the Roses, the Thames: Source to Barrier and, more recently, Bristol to Newbury. It kind of works (usually), but it’s an additional logistical hassle that we could do without.

Having said all of that, it doesn’t detract from the excellent, challenging ride we’ve just had over four days, following the Tarka Trail, continuing along the Granite Way from Okehampton, and finishing off by an astonishingly fast descent to Plymouth over 12 miles on Drake’s Trail, most of the four days spent on former railway tracks, much of them asphalted and traffic free.

The trails climbed and descended through woodland, over the lower reaches of Dartmoor, through parks and along rivers. The climbs were short but very steep….horrendously steep, sometimes……and so we dreamed of electric assist. We were overtaken several times by cyclists gracefully gliding up impossible climbs, whistling their favourite tunes, or chatting to a buddy when they should have been panting…..but the characteristic whirring sound of the electric motor gave them away. Will we cross over into the wonderland of electric-assist one day? The big attraction will be keeping open the possibility of touring in hilly, indeed mountainous, terrain which, on a tandem, is particularly challenging.

Our accommodation was a mixture of B&Bs, Youth Hostel, and one night being hosted by a fellow cyclist through Warmshowers (a 26 year old dairy farmer who was a great cook, to boot!). Each location had its own special character, and its own unique brand of hospitality. One of our B&Bs was a remote farmhouse where we were served pork and bacon from their own pigs. The YHA was a converted railway shed by the old 1960’s station in Okehampton, that also had an excellent cafe on the platform where we tucked into their small breakfast called ‘Branch line’……guess what the full fry-up was called?

The café at Barnstaple was similarly situated on an old-style station, underlining the reality that this part of the country still revels in railway nostalgia, with teams of enthusiasts helping to maintain old rolling stock and preserve an environment that some of us remember from the 50s and 60s.

As I sit on a train to Barnstaple, listening to the clickety-clack of wheels over rails, and wishing they had even a minimal catering service, I try to ignore the hunger pangs by dreaming of the uphill speeds we’ll achieve one day when we get a vra-vra-vroom electric motor on the tandem.

And I conclude by uploading our routes:

Ilfracombe to Bideford:

Bideford to Okehampton

Okehampton to Tavistock

Tavistock to Plymouth

RAF 100th

The proximity of the RAF museum at Cosford made a visit during this 100th year of its existence obligatory….and a fascinating place it is too, especially the huge hangar dedicated to the period of the cold war.

Since I will be giving a talk and presentation later this week on my cycling adventure in Cuba last january, the displays on the Cuban missile crisis of 1962 made poignant reading, and video footage of the events demonstrated just how close we came to all out nuclear conflict.

That aside, the cycling was relatively flat and wind-assisted on the journey home, and I grabbed this photo in case my cycling buddies just happened to fall off their bikes into the ford…..which they had done last year on a tandem. (Sadly) they failed to provide the entertainment….😊

The Flash-Dash

Flash-Dash Cycle Mag JPegCould this be the start of a new trend in cycling? If you were social media savvy and enormously hungry to make a name for yourself, you could plug a new idea and flog it to death until…….until, that is, you get to a point where people recognise the message and begin to think it is not such a bad idea after all……and from there it rolls on.

The Flash-Dash will be no media ‘rage’……especially since it climbs on the back of the much more media savvy Alastair Humphreys, long distance cyclist, adventurer and author, who launched the idea of the ‘micro-adventure’ a few years back. He very neatly sowed the seeds of the idea of leaving your place of work on a mid-week evening and riding your bike to the top of the nearest mountain, to the shores of the nearest lake, to the depths of the nearest wood, or simply to a place that is far from anywhere, and camping down for the night, whether with a bivvy, hammock or tent. Dine under the stars (if they are shining), listen to the wild life throughout the night, wake up with the dawn and (perhaps) the rising sun, have breakfast on whatever you are carrying, then cycle back to your place of work, having experienced something very different and invigorating. For sure, you won’t be discussing the latest shenanigans on Coronation Street or East Enders.

My concept of the Flash-Dash is very similar, but more extended and (perhaps) more spontaneous……and some would say a complete ‘cheat’. What? You sleep in a bed for the night, and you always go with a tailwind behind you, and…… and……you can almost guarantee good weather for the duration? You’ve got to be kidding….

It all sounds impossible, but read on. Cycle Magazine, the national publication of Cycling UK (with a membership of over 60,000) squeezed my little offering in amongst the Traveller’s Tales at the end.

 

 

The temperature rises….

A breeze of a ride down to Willington to eat cake with the boys ‘n girls……..😊 And don’t be taken in by the 0.04km headline box of the Relive animation…..it was actually 62km..

91km, 718m climbing….scorching day!

On the hottest April day since 1949, I hit the ‘hills’ of Northamptonshire with a group that meets up every Thursday in different locations. The idea is to gather at a coffee stop, the organiser gives out the route sheets and takes bookings for lunch, then everyone takes to the road in self-selected groups to meet at the pub for lunch, and from there everyone makes their own way home.rape_flower_field_2_by_sophiaiws-d540rv9

I always ride out to the café, do the ride in between, then ride home again, usually logging up between 80-100km, so it can occupy most of the day. This particular group has been meeting for 40-50 years, and some of the originals are still there, not riding the miles as they used to, but still active. And each one is a ‘cycling encyclopaedia’ of bicycle wisdom, anecdotal stories of their achievements and near-misses, and often masters of the art of bicycle-fettling. I always enjoy their company.

Without words….74km, 611m of climbing

Without words……74km, 611m of climbing

An ‘animated’ route….

Discovering a new piece of software that can bring your day’s ride to life helps you to relive the experience in a different way. And for those who haven’t yet discovered the joys of propelling themselves through the countryside on a pair of wheels, this kind of animation of a route may possibly kindle an interest.

As you will see from the photo embedded in the video, the weather did not inspire, but once on the bike, with the leg muscles warming up, the sheer momentum of the experience can make the weather irrelevant…….unless, of course, it is ‘tanking it down’……which it was the other day. But then the worst that can happen to you is…..you get wet…….and so what?

Enjoy!

Cycling = hope…..perhaps

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70km

Most of my riding may be solo these days, given that I live out ‘in the sticks’, but I invariably join up with other roadies at some ‘watering hole’ to chew over the fat, and to indulge in that favourite pastime of most roadies……coffee and cake.

One of the groups I tie in with is made up mostly of the ‘retired-and-idle’, who have nothing better to do with their spare time than to ride bikes and eat cake. I mean that in

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jest of course, but it’s not too far from the truth. Today’s ride took me to a small Northamptonshire village called Earls Barton, a community with a rich Anglo Saxon heritage (pre-600 AD), in later years famous for its leather trade, and most recently a protagonist in the film Kinky Boots, which was based on the Northamptonshire shoe trade.

Our watering hole today was a very nice café in the local marina, nestling beside the moorings of river boats and narrow boats, and it was warm enough in the sunshine to sit outside on the veranda. Although I have been

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retired for nearly ten years, I was clearly the ‘junior’ member of this group, the eldest well into his 80s. And this is the message of hope, perhaps…….that riding a bike regularly, doing some decent weekly mileage (which all of these people clearly do), keeps you fit and active……and it is remarkable how little the aches and pains of old age creep into the chat and banter over the table. If any discomfort and pain is ever mentioned it is usually about the damn headwind on the way out, or the hill that had them grinding in their lowest gear…….or occasionally about some inconsiderate driver who nearly cut them up. Otherwise, we are usually engaged in relating anecdotes of cycling times past, or discussing something technical about the bikes, or mocking the latest generation of sportive riders who ‘have all the gear and no idea’…….and would be better off riding a cheaper bike and losing several kilos of body fat.

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All said and done, we have a laugh.

Then I came across this green plaque in Woolaston and learned something new about the town……

Cienfuegos – La Habana

Don’t be impressed…..now bike less, I picked up a colectivo taxi which, because it is shared with other disparate passengers, is not so expensive. With some guidance from a mapping app on my phone, the driver found the casa where I had started my journey 2 weeks before, which would be a last ditch attempt to meet up with Bob, an American cycling buddy whom I had met in New Zealand 6 years ago. We had already made an abortive attempt a couple of years ago to go cycling together in Cuba, but it never happened, and I went off to Florida instead for 2 weeks.

When I met Bob for the first time, he and his 10 year old daughter, Anna, were riding a Hase Pino tandem ( with a semi-recumbent front rider) and his wife Christine was on a solo. They had courageously taken a year out to cycle the world together as a family, and we met on a campsite of South Island. We stuck together for the next few days, climbing a few hills together, finally saying goodbye in Queenstown. I knew then that was not going to be the last I would see of them.

It was so good to be in his company again, very much a case of like minds coming together again. We seized the moment, sharing a good 10 hours of stories, anecdotes and shared memories, before Bob headed back to Lake Tahoe in California. We hadn’t met on the road because our travel schedules hadn’t quite matched, and independent travellers don’t like hanging around, but we kept in touch on the road, and pinned ourselves down to this get-together.

It was the perfect conclusion to an eventful couple of weeks.

Sancti Spiritus – Trinidad

Cubans obviously don’t have enough mountain roads to really get today’s climb into perspective. Everyone told me, sucking their teeth and shaking their heads, it’s tough, very steep, you may not make it……probably have to walk….why not catch a camión? Well, I must confess, I was filled with some trepidation….but not too much…..after all, I’ve climbed over the Alps, Pyrenees, Dolomites….should I go on?

When I got to the top of a steepish climb towards the end, I suddenly realised I’d actually climbed it without realising….is that bragging, or are Cubans just unrealistic about constitutes a real hill? 

However, at the top there was a mirador (café with a viewing point) giving panoramic views over to the sea, with Trinidad just out of view.
At on of my pitstops, at a small roadside bar, I asked for bottled water, then a soft drink, but all they could offer was beer! Throwing principles out of the window, I had a beer, and met my namesake, Francis

except his second name was Jesus. Mother and grandma were ‘tickled pink’……just think, an Englishman with the same name as our little one…..

At another stop, in the shade of a bus shelter, I met Nivado,

 who entertained me with his meandering jovial chatter. He was the only one to temper his comments about the severity of the climb. He actually said I’d already climbed one that he thought worse. I immediately liked him. But he, like lots of others, thought I was gallego(Galician), because I speak with a mainland Spanish accent.

There’s a history to this observation. Like the Irish, the Galicians have been the greatest emigrators from Spain over the centuries, so anyone with a mainland accent is assumed to be gallego. Once they realise I’m not gallego, they popularly guess I’m from one the Scandinavian countries…..until I put them right. I’m not sure how many actually know where England is…..it’s over there somewhere, and it’s cold, wet and misty….all the time.

My route today was 73km, occasionally with a good tailwind, but mostly a crosswind…..

Trinidad is a UNESCO world heritage town, so I’ve chosen to stay a couple of nights….and allow myself to mingle with lots of other tourists……sigh!

Sta Clara – Sancti Spiritus

During my two night stopover as a guest of Elsa and Sergio, I feel they have become good friends. On the second evening, they invited me to supper, opened a bottle of Cuban wine (sweet, like an oloroso sherry), brought out the beer, and refused to charge me. In the company of an Argentinian couple, we talked for hours, me stifling my amusement at the Argentinian accent…..which I find very funny. 

Alone in the company of Elsa and Sergio, they plied me with questions, especially about my bike trips, but as I put details on some of the trips, I could see in their eyes a sad longing for all the opportunities they have missed out on. They were children of the revolution, and they’ve known nothing else. They have borne the restrictions and deprivations all their lives, but they never uttered a single negative word about it…..obviously great believers in all the revolution stood for. The ‘special period’ in the 90s, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, was especially difficult. They had lost their only trading partner in the world, which meant their economy collapsed, and the shortages were so acute that the average body weight of Cubans dropped by 10%. Fighting their own battles, with no friends in the commercial world, means that if a crop fails, there is nothing to replace it. For instance, after the recent hurricane Irma, fruit crops were completely destroyed, meaning that they simply had to do without. At that moment bananas, the cyclist’s best friend, are completely off the menu…..but my breakfasts have still included papaya, guava, pineapple and orange…..so things are improving.

Sergio has expressed a serious interest in having my bike, especially since he had his stolen a few months ago. He likes to take his grandson about on a special kiddy seat he made of wood, and he is prepared to travel to pick it up ……so watch this space. I feel he will be a very worthy recipient.

Much of today’s 87km route was on a nicely surfaced country road, allowing me a couple of convenient pitstops in villages. But even better than that, a ‘cold front’ had come in, meaning the temperature had actually dropped to 20C, and the wind was generally behind me (in good panto tradition, of course)….it was a huge relief not having the sweat pouring off me for the whole ride. When it is hot in Cuba, it can be oppressively hot…..especially for cycling.

Santa Clara

I’m surprised Santa Clara hasn’t been re-named Ciudad de Che, because the town is largely a monument to his memory. It’s astonishing that, nearly 60 years after the revolution, the dominant message coming from all official quarters is that Cuba is still in revolution, and is still trying to achieve its ultimate goals through revolutionary action. 

The only national newspaper, Granma, is still tightly controlled and still preaches only one message: revolution. The vast majority of Cubans have known only one thing throughout their lives: revolution. I keep asking myself…..how do they maintain the momentum? Where does this continued enthusiasm for revolution come from?

The principal monument in Santa Clara is the Che mausoleum and its adjoining museum. His remains were returned from Bolivia 30 years after his assassination, along with the remains of some of his soldiers, and buried beneath this enormous statue of Che, the fighter and comandante. He was an enigmatic figure. It is easy to get to love the icon, his alleged caring attitude to the welfare of his soldiers, his deep convictions about the worth of the individual. He claimed he would sacrifice his life to make repressed people, anywhere in the world, free. 

On the other hand, there was the ruthless fighter, the killing machine, the extreme disciplinarian who would execute his own men if called upon to do so. What we have is the lionised version of the man created by Castro and his cohort……so this mausoleum has become the tomb of a revolutionary saint.

If there was just one military action that caused the lionization of the man, it would have to be the derailment of the train in Santa Clara (these are the actual wagons reassembled to depict the action) which was carrying 400 government soldiers and huge consignments of arms. With only 24 men, against 400 heavily armed men, the battle was won within an hour, and so emphatic was the victory, that it turned out to be the very last engagement of the war. Two days later, on January 1st 1959, the revolution had its final victory.

If you’ve stayed with this post to this point, well done…… I hope to get back to some cycling tomorrow.

Los Vinales -Santa Clara

I want you to be impressed, but not because I cycled the 500km eastwards to get to Santa Clara, in central Cuba. No…….. I want you to be impressed that I actually survived two ‘white-knuckle’ rides in colectivo taxis. The first was driven by Pedro, to La Habana, with four passengers (including two Swedes and a south Korean), and my bike strapped on the roof. His Lada was the equivalent of my £50 bangers in the 70s, with the same lack of any safety features. He drove it at breakneck speed through torrential rain storms, all the while on his phone touting for business for his return journey. And I discovered that everyone drives in the fast lane on the highway (and overtakes on the slow lane) because there are fewer potholes in the fast lane. I got out of that car feeling completely rung out. 

My next colectivo, from La Habana to Santa Clara, was a more controlled experience (and I shared this ride with three Cubans), but it broke down when we stopped at a service station in the middle of nowhere. After a lot of fettling under the bonnet, the driver finally kicked it into life…..and yes, it was yet another damned Lada.

So I am now in Santa Clara, a town which is synonymous with Che Guevara and his memory, where his mausoleum is situated, as is a variety of other reminders of when the Cuban Revolution came to a successful end, and when Batista fled to pastures new. But more of that later…..

My stay in Los Vinales concluded with an absolutely stunning 20km ride along the valley,

a lush green landscape noted for its tobacco crops and continued use of traditional methods of cultivation. Yes, fields are actually still ploughed using a pair of oxen…..and they are beautiful beasts.

I checked into the first casa I chanced by, met a neighbour who will look after the bike, and had a very interesting chat with the man of the house, and surprisingly, he knew all about Brexit, and had some stark things to say about Donald Trump. Of course, we all now know that the so-called ‘sonic attack’ on the US embassy in La Habana was completely fabricated by the Americans, seemingly as an excuse for severing diplomatic relations once again with Cuba……..I leave you to ponder that one for yourself.

Pinar del Río-Los Vinales

Accessing the internet is a curious business in Cuba. One thing that stands out is that Cubans are never seen using their devices along streets, in restaurants, or even at home. Why? Because there is no home provision of wifi for anyone other than important public servants, and there is definitely no mobile data for anyone. To get online, everyone has to buy a data card, costing at least £1 per hour, and they can only connect at hotspots, usually in small parks and public squares. The big question is: how to find the hotspots, because they are not signed in anyway. I’m sure you’ve already worked this one out……..yep, look for clusters of people intently using their devices. That is the only way….. Despite these restrictions, many Cubans seem to be very internet savvy, and everyone under a certain age (40, perhaps) will have a smartphone. But, of course, smartphones are not very smart in Cuba…..yet.

Talking of deprivations, the variety of food and consumer goods probably reflects what rationing was like for us in the last war. I have been in a number of little village stores looking for a snack and the shelves have been empty. If you do find a packet of biscuits, maybe even with a filling, the price will so high for the average Cuban that it will only ever be a treat. Don’t get me wrong, no one is underfed, but choice is extremely limited, making eating sometimes a boring repetitive experience…..but not for the average tourists, of course. This is a fairly typical breakfast, and never lacking in abundance.
 As a chocoholic, can I service my addiction in Cuba? Definitely not….I have yet to see any chocolate of any description in places where the locals shop.

As I climbed over the Sierra to Los Vinales, I caught this pig skulking by the roadside, appearing not to belong to anyone.

And as I crested the mountain, I was treated to this view of the famous mogotes of the Valley….so famous, they attract the tour companies with their hordes of tourists. 

And I, like every other tourist, don’t regard myself as one of those….No, no, of course not…..after all I do ride a bike. Erm……d’you think I might have a complex?

And sorry to bore you with bike issues again. One of the ‘new’ pedals stripped the threads off one of the cranks…..I eventually found a bunch of young bike mechanics who eventually found a solution…..another crank. They got one by asking around the neighbourhood….they are resourceful bunch of people.

Las Terrazas -Pinar del Río

Noel was the guy who came out on his sleek electric scooter to tout for my business, and I was not disappointed with his offer of accommodation.

 On the terrace of his newly-built green-painted bungalow, you could sit and gaze across the Sierra del Rosario and up to the high point where Che Guevara had trained some of his soldiers for the doomed Bolivia campaign. And by way of interest, Noel’s wife was called Milady…..

I also got to meet Inés and Malte (not a couple). We had all converged on the same accommodation….evidence of some good marketing there by Noel, who knows how to catch his customers. Inés was German and just taking 10 days out to hitch hike around bits of Cuba. Malte, who was Danish, was just coming to the end of 4 months travelling before settling down to begin his PhD. He had spent time in Colombia, Peru and Bolivia getting up to lots of adventurous things. They were inspiring company for the two meals we shared together.

30km into my ride to Pinar del Río, I began to suffer badly from the heat, so rather than draw out the agony, I climbed on one of the infamous truck buses (simply called camiones) and they helped to haul up the bike as well.

 It was packed with passengers inside, everybody enduring the discomfort of rudimentary box seating, but it was fast and cheap. And, of course, there’s something special about sharing the same transport as the local people…..

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