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..
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.
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.
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?
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
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
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.
All said and done, we have a laugh.
Then I came across this green plaque in Woolaston and learned something new about the town……
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.
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
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…..
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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…..
My first night in a casa particular was a perfect introduction to the real Cuba. My host picked me and my bike up at the airport in an old Eastern bloc Lada, stuffed my bike in the boot, took me to his beautiful home, fed and watered me and gave me a comfortable room……and didn’t worry that I didn’t have the currency to pay him. No worry, he said, we can sort that out tomorrow.
In the morning, not only did I have to look for a cadeca to change my sterling into CUCs (which you can’t purchase outside Cuba), but I had to find a pair of pedals to replace the ones I had stupidly left on the garage floor at home. I found a young black African Cuban with a small tabletop stall selling bike bits, and it didn’t surprise me that he couldn’t supply a pair of Shimano SPDs…..so I made do with a simple pair of ‘rat traps’.
So I and the bike were ready to roll by 10am…..
But my northern clime body had to make a rapid adjustment to the heat…as the day wore on, the temperature rapidly rose through the 20s, probably peaking at about 27C, and there was rain in the air….and later on rolling thunder claps that got ominously near.
As I headed west, I was enveloped by images of the 1950s, of pre-revolutionary Cuba, with classic Buicks and Chevrolets all lovingly restored, but all sickenly belching out noxious clouds of fumes. The truck drivers had no idea that their ‘gentle friendly toots’ were deafening blasts of their claxons that made me jump out of the saddle. And what I took for cattle trucks turned out to be passenger bearing buses.
In some cases they were open-backed lorries with the passengers standing shoulder to shoulder, as if they were being transported off to some far distant gulag.
When I got to Las Terrazas, I discovered a gated community with a 2CUC charge for entry. The gate keeper explained away my puzzlement by telling me I was entering a biosphere reservation, and then promptly promoted his brother’s casa particular for my night’s stopover…..the kind of marketing I would normally ignore, but Noel (his brother) came out to meet me, and I liked all his answers to my many questions…..and besides, he was already hosting a German lady and a Danish lad, so it sounded like promising company for the evening.
Getting to an airport with a boxed bike, avoiding ridiculously expensive taxi fees, sometimes requires a bit of lateral thinking. My journey to Gatwick will be by train, but on a Sunday it means I have to change trains by commuting between two stations in London. This means a bit of trundling with the heavy box (only to the taxi rank, mind) so to minimise carrying, I have fixed a couple of furniture wheels to the base, in the hope that I’ll be able to pull it along like an oversized suitcase.
The theory is great, and I wonder what Heath Robinson would have said about its simplicity? But of course, its practicality will only be proven by its durability…….will it survive the journey? Platforms and pavements can be unforgiving at times….
The bike is now waiting for it’s no-return journey. After more than 25 years occupying a corner of our garage, it is now off to pastures new…..to a climate that can caress with its warmth, but can also scourge with its tropical rainstorms and hurricanes.
Will it survive another 25 years?
There are times when you just have to get off your home patch and find pastures new. The familiarity of repeated routes on home territory sometimes drives my ‘ philosophical ruminations’ to watery depths unfamiliar even to David Attenborough. An errand to Stamford (Lincolnshire) to pick up a re-built wheel for my Dave Yates bike gave me the chance to linger in the Rutland area and revisit some of the sweeping hills that separate towns such as Oakham and Uppingham and Rockingham
……and coast along the picturesque valley of the Welland river…….
…forgetting that I would be chancing by the famous Harringworth Viaduct, in all its 1.166km of glory, and its 82 arches. Its construction required the labour of 2,500 men, many of whom lost their lives…..in times when ‘elf and safety’ amounted to no more than a nod of acknowledgement that 10 men had died in a month……and it was all put down to ill fortune rather than the conditions of work. Whatever the statistics of life and death, it is a truly impressive structure and, I understand, is still in occasional use even today.
The strange little dog’s leg coming out of Empingham was a 3km out and back. When I discovered the untreated country lanes were still covered in very slippery frost, I opted to follow busier trunk routes for the morning session, until the sun had time to rise sufficiently to defrost the country roads. As the day progressed, I was feasted to the most perfect winter sunshine, and a sunset ‘to die for’……..well, not literally…..but you know what I mean.
Now into December, and morning temperatures hovering just above or below freezing, I have to remind myself of the spill on black ice I had 8 years ago when I broke my femur. Cars in our street were frosted over, so I used the early downtime for catching up on some reading, then headed out mid-morning.
It was one of those perfect early winter days. The temperature eventually rose to the 6-9C range, with a gentle breeze and a cloudless sky (for some of the day, at least). The roads were clear, visibility was good for several miles, and the countryside was looking its manicured best. The autumn sowings had produced a gentle green carpet that covered most of the fields.
My route took me through villages that I hadn’t visited in months, and when I got to Oundle (after 46kms), I called unannounced on a friend who very kindly invited me to soup and coffee……the fuel to propel me the 30kms back home which, incidentally, was gently aided by a north-westerly breeze.
The mapping App on my phone tells me I covered 75kms, climbing some 457 metres and (if I really want to believe it) I expended 2,900 calories in the process. Sounds like just cause for a big evening meal tonight…….:-)
Windcheater? Who me? 🍒 picking again? Not taking the rough with the smooth, eh? I have to be careful here…..in the cycling world, there’s something called a ‘sense of honour’. Hard to define it exactly, but as in the world of yoga every posture has a ‘contra-posture’, so in the world of cycling….every downhill has an uphill, and every tailwind should have a headwind……life on the bike can’t be permanently downhill with the wind behind you. If opposites didn’t exist, the world would lack equilibrium. So today, I’ve done my little bit to unbalance the world……
You see, I thought I could use a bit of prestidigitation (let’s call it magic) and conjure up a whole day’s ride to have the wind behind me all the way. Dishonourable, I know….and I deserve all the scorn that more compliant roadies might vent……but I may have been caught on the cameras of some road surveillance system watching out for cycling cheats like me. Well, I’ll just have to sit it out now and wait for a potential ‘slap on the wrist’ from a Dixon-of-Dock-Green type bobby who may call at the door at any time. D’you think I care……?
I took a 10km ride to a nearby town to climb on a bus, enjoyed a free 2 hour ride to Buckingham (the joys of the bus pass….😊) and then caught the wind in my sails and headed in a north easterly direction. I’d like to say it was plain sailing all the way, but it never is…..
Yes, I chose my spot to have an instant puncture, when the air just exploded out of my tyre, and was completely flat before I could stop. Beside a noisy road, and with 30-40mph winds, it was well nigh impossible to locate the blow-out, and then I couldn’t find the cause. It’s always a bit nervy when you put a fresh tube in the tyre without knowing what caused the puncture, but I did…..but that wasn’t the end of the story. When I had finished inflating the new tube, as I tightened the valve, the pin broke….hey ho……but the tyre kept its pressure, so I continued my journey with all fingers and toes crossed.
However, should I feel guilty about such brazen 🍒 picking? Would you?
I wanted to get to the White Cliffs Visitor Centre, and a fingerpost pointed the way for both walkers and cyclists……what it didn’t tell me was that I would be pushing my laden bike up horrendously steep dirt tracks to 400ft above sea level, when there was a nice surfaced road (albeit longer) that allowed cars to get up there. What the hell….I was wearing my superman suit anyway.
The Visitor Centre was very disappointing. It didn’t even have an information display, so when I asked about cycling along the cliffs to South Foreland Lighthouse, I got a ‘big no, no’. The National Trust had recently banned bikes, so I teamed up with another biker, on his fat tyres, looking every inch the gravel biker, and he showed me the alternative route……if you are familiar with the shipping forecasts, you will have heard reference to the North Foreland Lighthouse…….it always seems to succeed Gibraltar Point (the Wash), and precede Selsey Bill (nr Portsmouth). The history of the lighthouse was fascinating, including one of a dynasty of keepers who fathered 13 children in the nearby cottage…..(well, it was Victorian England, after all. What other fun was to be had?)
I passed kite surfers………
this gentleman on his new elliptical pedal cycle, which roared past me at twice my speed, but made pedalling look like climbing stairs…..
crossed this narrow gauge railway…….
and found myself wending my way along quiet country tracks strewn with autumnal leaves…..
And when all is said and done, and the going gets tough, do the ‘tough really get going’? Not really…….they just eat chips…..
On the train home, I met a friend from the same village, and showed him the GPS app I use on my phone for tracking my rides……I switched it on as we sat there and detected that the train was hitting over 130mph….and it was just a normal commuter train out of London taking people home from their day’s work.
Oh, and btw, this must be the most photographed signpost in the whole country. You couldn’t make it up……reality is sometimes stranger than fiction.
And finally, the route……. (total distance for the whole trip: 237km)
When the landscape was flat, it was extremely flat. When the roads went skywards, it was like a kick in the gut. There are extensive marsh lands (Romney Marsh, for one) along the coast, meaning a high cruising speed on the bike with a gentle following wind. But when the road climbed one of the notorious escarpments, like the one out of Folkestone, tailwinds were of no assistance. They were like a sympathetic friendly arm over my shoulder….understanding my pain, empathising, but powerless to do anything about it.
The morning was miserably misty with a sea fret that seeped through the clothing, but the sun protested loudly in the afternoon and poked its face through the gloom. This coastline is truly dismal when it’s wet, but when the sun shines, it has a magic all of its own.
Hard concentrated riding tends to rob me of my appetite, but mid-afternoon a breakfast muffin filled an empty space, and fuelled the climbing muscles for the final big climb out of Folkestone, steep enough to keep me in my lowest gear, and long enough to require 20 minutes of my attention. This was the view of the escarpment as I started the climb….
And if I had done my route planning properly, my Garmin should have taken me to the front door of my overnight…..a backpackers hostel in Dover.
But when I arrived, it was completely enshrouded in scaffolding, the whole place a building site, so I wheedled my way into another place, overlooking the port.
41 conubial years celebrated, now this man has hit the road yet again for another ‘flash-dash’……I pedalled down to Bedford, jumped on a Thameslink train and stayed with it until it’s terminus two and a half hours later: Brighton, which seemed to be ‘rockin’ and rollin’ with half term fun fairs.
So at 2pm I climbed on the bike and began to follow the wind, heading eastwards along the coast, and the meteorologists are promising I’ll have a supportive breeze all the way to Broadstairs and Margate, where I might jump on a homeward bound train…..or I might head into Canterbury and take the train from there.
Don’t be impressed by the tracking map. I left it running while on the train. My total of 61km on the bike topped and tailed the journey, and I am now in a youth hostel in Eastbourne, where the average hosteller is well beyond middle age…..time for the institution to have a name change? Age Hostels UK, perhaps?
And a fellow dorm companion has given me a dire warning…….there’s not just one, but two snorers to provide the entertainment in the small hours…..now where are those earplugs?