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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!

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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…..

Havana-Las Terrazas 

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.

A practical solution

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?

Cuba

Cuba map

If the winter weather deities are on my side, my Virgin Atlantic flight will take off from Gatwick at midday on Monday, and will deposit me at Havana José Marti airport at something after 17.00, a 10 hour flight that will allow me to gain 5 hours extra daylight that day. Somewhere in the hold my bike will be in an assortment of bits in a box, and the fact that we are both together on the flight will be unreal for reasons other than the weather……

You see, on Christmas Eve I felt one of those annoying winter infections beginning to take hold and, thinking I would be on the mend within a few days, it just got worse and worse, till I got to the point where this trip was very much held in the balance. Ten days later as I began to slowly emerge from the depths, a plan B gradually formed in my brain, the least taxing option being to just get myself on the flight and over to Cuba without the bike, and take it from there……either hiring a steed for the duration, or just on an ‘as-needs’ basis to do a few local rides.

Then a modification formed to that version of the plan, involving the use of my 25 year old Raleigh, the frame of which I had broken in New Zealand, and which had been repaired by a local boat welder in Queenstown. That was 6 years ago, and it had only ever been ridden sporadically since then for a bit of off-roading. Given that the Raleigh is now superfluous to my needs (my Dave Yates has now replaced it) my current plan is to ride it in Cuba and then give it away, saving me the hassle to boxing it up for the return flight, and providing someone with (perhaps) a much needed bike. Cubans, after all, are renowned for their ability to ‘mend and fettle’, and since bicycles are a bit of luxury for many Cubans, I expect it to find a new eager owner with relative ease.

The Raleigh Apex

Cuba, as many of you know, is a singular place. It is still suffering the austerity of a blockade by the Americans, and many everyday items are difficult to find, especially for resident Cubans. And with access to the internet being extremely limited, it is likely that posts on my blog will be sporadic and intermittent. A blessing you may say but, as ever, I promise to make my contributions to the world’s fountain of knowledge with pithy and ‘short-winded’ offerings.

Watch this space.

 

A winter wander…

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

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……and coast along the picturesque valley of the Welland river…….

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…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.

 

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A summer view

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.

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Invernal radiance…..

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…..?

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…..IMG_20171123_125207556

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?

Further afield…

Beyond Mijas lies a town called Alhaurín el Grande, a name bestowed on it by the Moors meaning the ‘garden of Allah’, and rises to over 320 metres above sea level. The climb up to the pass was long and laboured

But the descent was fast and exciting.

It still betrays remnants of its fortified past

but was overrun by the Christian forces under the Catholic Monarchs in 1485, putting in place another piece of the jigsaw of the Reconquest of Spain.

The day concluded with a spectacular rising of the moon over the sea, lighting up the surroundings with a spectral glow.

Exploiting the benefits…

With the loan of a smart B’twin hybrid, fully equipped with disc brakes and suspension, and enough low gears to climb Everest, I set off on mini-adventures along the coast in both directions, and when sparkling seascapes lost their interest, I headed up into the mountains that provide a brooding backdrop to this coastline.

Access for bicycles along the coast is very patchy. Where there is a Paseo Marítimo, the going is pleasant and flat, with stretches that go on for several kms, but this is not always the case. Getting to Malaga was fairly straightforward,

but going west towards Marbella was a mess. Narrow cycleways, poorly maintained and bedecked with dangerous obstacles, made the westward exploits challenging and unappetising. The furthest I ventured to was Calahonda, and then braved the busy coastal A7 for the return journey. But it was fast and not too dangerous, fortunately.

Getting up into the hills, however, was uncomplicated…..(did I really say that?). Heading up to Mijas Pueblo,

 the beautiful white village (pueblo blanco) hugging the side of the mountain, I climbed to almost 400 metres in less than 5km, but the views over the coastline were stunning.

T​he village almost enjoys the status of being a national monument, so assiduously is the fabric and decor of the architecture protected. Such beauty, however, has its drawbacks, making it a ‘honeypot’ for coach tours and visitors….. but a small price to pay.

Enforced migration…

It’s tough when your daughter chooses to settle on the Costa del Sol, and you quickly sense the predatory footsteps of companies like QuEasyjet behind you bidding for your business. The company of the orange logo happened to be a third choice for this trip, because, first, we decided to overlook Ryanair due to their debacle over staffing rosters, and then somewhat smugly opted for Monarch……BIG MISTAKE! Within a few hours of their crash, however, I had worked out how to retrieve the cost of both plane and train tickets, and booked with EasyJet with little change to our itinerary.

So we ended up in Los Boliches, Fuengirola, with a perfectly proportioned studio apartment (for two people, that is) that afforded daily views of solar salutations announcing the first blushes of the new day, without having to move from the prostrate comfort of the mattress……unless of course, you insisted (as I did) on going down to the beach in person to salute the sun personally. But then it did considerately wait till 7.50am to pop above the horizon….so no great sacrifice there.

Our 11th floor eerie, according to the GPS on my phone, put us at 42 metres above sea level, which gifted us with commanding views of our environment. If ‘people watching’ is your principal sport, you could have a daily workout of several hours. Or you could survey the offshore fishing activities of local fishermen, feast yourself on the antics of windsurfers, paragliders and jet skiers, and catch glimpses of beach bootcamps and yoga classes……but more of that in another post.

A beachside holiday resort has never been our first choice of destination, but when your daughter lives and makes her living in such an environment, it’s funny how your thinking develops. Not to mention the loan of a bicycle from Jonathan, Rachael’s partner…..

Ham Sandwich and beyond….

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.

IMG_20171026_110304755The 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………IMG_20171025_095454425.1

this gentleman on his new elliptical pedal cycle, which roared past me at twice my speed, but made pedalling look like climbing stairs…..IMG_20171025_161025958

crossed this narrow gauge railway…….

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and found myself wending my way along quiet country tracks strewn with autumnal leaves…..

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And when all is said and done, and the going gets tough, do the ‘tough really get going’? Not really…….they just eat chips…..IMG_20171026_134617472

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.

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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)

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Eastbourne-Dover 120km

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.

Beginning of another ‘flash-dash’….

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?

The ‘Flash-dash’…..

The ‘Flash-bash’….

OK, you’ve never heard of it before, because I have just coined the word. No, it’s not stolen from some online video game, but it definitely has a line of ancestry. For those of you who have heard of Alastair Humphreys, you will be familiar with his concept of the ‘microadventure’, aimed directly at the 9-5 wage slave, and asks the beguilingly opportunistic question: so what about your 5-9? Those 16 hours from every 24 hour period when you are not at work? How do you use them?

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From his musings spawned the brilliant idea of the ‘microadventure’ which, for the cyclist, could mean jumping on the bike at 5pm after work, and heading off to the countryside/hills/lakeside/forest with a bivvy and a camping stove, and sleeping out under the stars. It may mean occasionally getting a bit cold and wet, but heading directly back to your place of work the next day, the regenerative impact of doing something so adventurous on a micro-scale can raise the happiness barometer enough to turn a dull boring week into something much more memorable. Instead of watching your favouriteIMG_20171007_131629114 panel game or soap in the evening, you may have gazed at the setting sun, seen an owl on the hunt, or even a murmuration of starlings. And instead of joining dozens of other bored commuters on the train in the morning, you may have descended directly from a nearby hill and had breakfast at your desk. So, let me take this concept one step further, and bring a degree of spontaneity to it, and less of a reliance on bivvies and camping stoves, which are not for everyone. This is the knee-jerk reaction of the flash-dash’.

IMG_20171007_103331353One evening last week, after taking delivery of the internet food shopping at 9.30pm, I clicked on a weather-app only to discover that the following three days were going to be fine, even sunny in parts and, more importantly, with the wind generally blowing from the west. I suddenly got excited. Somewhere in the dark recesses of my travelling brain sprung the crazy idea of ‘what if I head off with the bike, on a train, in an upwind direction and spend the next few days cycling home, with the wind behind me…….?’ I didn’t need to look at a map to realize that the Peak District in Derbyshire would be the perfect location……cycle 25km to a local station, spend 90 minutes on the train, and then head up into the hills of the Peaks for what remained of the day. Brilliant idea, but ……………I still needed to float it by Jenny for her approval….and that meant waiting for her to return from a choir practice.

By 10.30 I was granted AWL (absence with leave), I stuffed some tools and a change of clothes into a saddlebag, quickly booked two £10 overnights online at Youth Hostels, and jumped on the bike after breakfast the next morning to head to a nearby station. By 2pm, I was leaving Chesterfield station and heading out into the hills. Admittedly, I had toIMG_20171007_102807225 battle against the wind for 58km that day, but the next two days were generally wind-assisted, taking me through some of the most stunning countryside in the Peak District National Park, following rail-trails and NCN routes, meeting steam locomotives and crossing micro-streams, sometimes in the footsteps of legendary fictional heroes like Ivanhoe, sometimes stumbling across a road named in my honour.

IMG_20171007_100348143I didn’t sleep under the stars, nor heated a tin of beans on a camping stove, but I did wake up to the sunrise from my top-floor window in the hostel, I did encounter numerous reminders of the impact of the industrial revolution, and I did meet a host of people from all walks of life, some from Canada, others from South Korea and China. In many ways, this ‘flash-dash’ was in direct contrast to my normal full-on adventures, that take weeks to put together and several months in the planning. It was an unpremeditated response to a weather forecast, and a certain itchiness to get out of my normal comfort zone and go with the unplanned.

If you have read this far and have been just a little intrigued, why not open your own mind to the spontaneous, to the here and now? Although pre-planned microadventures are a great idea, you never know what the weather is going to be like in a few days’ or a few weeks’ time, so what if you can respond immediately to a sudden impulse, to the promise of a few days of fine weather and act on it immediately with minimal planning? The chance of it being successful is increased enormously. So too is the chance of it being serendipitous……. not just taking the road less travelled, but choosing the least expected moment. Make the ‘flash-dash’ a wardrobe that takes you into Narnia, or a hidden doorway that takes you into the secret garden.

As I hammered the 123km that separated my hostel overnight in the National Forest from my home, a generally favourable wind drove me into a lashing rainstorm just one hour from my destination, and I arrived home soaked, hungry and exhausted……but ultimately thrilled by the whole experience. Try it sometime……it is exhilarating.IMG_20171007_204019

 

 

 

A White Peak experience…

As I woke up this morning and peered out of the window, I was visited by the piercing rays of the dawn….

and my trek across the White Peak took in several railway trails….

each with its enshrouded environment and bridges, like this on the Tissington Trail….

and tunnels….just outside of Ashbourne…

and all along the way the vistas opened up across the Peak National Park….

and the sun pierced the fading autumnal canopy of the trees….

till I stumbled across this re-creation of a Croatian mountain hut…

donated to Britain to commemorate Croatia’s entry into the EU in 2013…..

The big question is: will it be returned after Brexit?

Oh, and not to forget the 86km route from Ravenstor to the National Forest at Conkers (Moira)……quite a route, with plenty of climbing…..

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