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#cycletrip15

September 1, 2015
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Four maps. Three shot glasses. One ball of wool. Cycle holiday 2015

Four maps. Three shot glasses. One ball of wool. Cycle holiday 2015

The bike trip is an annual ritual that’s now in its sixth year. It largely consists of cycling a reasonable distance over a well-marked route, with several stopping off points over the long August bank holiday weekend. This year there were a couple of differences – the trip was confined to two days, and Dave had foolishly ceded control of route planning to me.

So, meeting at Paddington station at 8 on Saturday morning, we boarded the 8:30 train to Bath for the start of the ride. The weather was beautiful – all blue skies and little in the way of cloud – but rain was promised for the second day. While there were options available for adjusting the second day’s route to suit the conditions, the 80-odd miles between Bath and Abingdon were largely non-negotiable.

Aiming to get underway quickly, we found a supermarket for Jon to pick up some water, had a quick pre-loading snack and we were away. Despite the shorter trip, I’d still managed to pack two panniers (largely because I’d felt a bit unstable with a D lock, 2 litres of water, snacks and clothes all hanging off one side of my bike); Jon and Dave had both packed more leanly.

The early miles led out along the canal, meaning the exit from Bath was somewhat flatter than we had braced ourselves for. At around 11am it was bright and sunny, bringing walkers and families to the gravel paths of the canal, which slowed us somewhat – although gave us the opportunity to appreciate the two entirely separate boatloads of pirates on the canal. Because you can’t distinguish between the sartorial choices of occasion of small children (in a rowing boat) and a stag do (barely hanging off a canal boat).

The route I had mapped was more complicated than our usual style, so when we came to a likely turning, we headed up the steep, winding road heading away from the canal without question. There hadn’t been a route sign, but it looked about right. Sadly, it was completely wrong, so after a short-but-gruelling climb we paused briefly to work out how we should rejoin the route. Not a disaster, but perhaps not the best start…

Once we got back on the route we should have been on, the signage improved significantly. The hills were much more rolling than the fierce wedges we’d feared, so progress was good, and we were tearing through idyllic country villages with thatched roofs and cottage gardens. Long stretches of shorn golden cornfields, dotted with tightly packed straw bales, punctuated by lush hedgerow bearing late-summer fruit. In the distance, a hazy nest of hills gradually nudged closer, a mood theme for the afternoon’s ride.

Although we were making good progress, we still had a long way to go, so when we made the next turn away from the well-marked route to the section that would take us through Swindon and over to the Ridgeway, the complete dearth of signage didn’t exactly fill us with confidence. We followed signs for Swindon, the roads becoming larger, less scenic.

We rolled on to the cycle paths around Swindon, through a residential area, before we landed up in a retail park and decided to call it lunchtime. It was super-hot, we were out of water, and it was about three in the afternoon. Time for a quick lunch, but nothing more.

Having found something vaguely edible in the worst designed Asda in the world, we sat on a parched clump of grass opposite the beer garden of a Harvester. Great fleshy lumps of men were toplessly tucking into a hearty lunch of four pints of Stella, lobster-glowing in the afternoon sun. We’ve had many better lunches in previous years, but none quicker.

Soon, we were back on our way, following cycle paths. Any cycle path. Generally headed east, unless we found ourselves heading south, but that was probably fine, right? Cutting and changing, Swindon flashed past us like a chase scene from Tom and Jerry, repeating itself in a heady repetitious blur. Were we getting out of town, or just riding round in a dreary circle, somehow unable to reach escape velocity? Eventually, the urban sprawl vomited us into Old Swindon, before flushing us out to the foot of the Ridgeway.

The Ridgeway is an ancient long-distance footpath, used by ancient travellers and traders, it trails the crest of a chalk hill for 87 miles. Our route hitched a ride on the Ridgeway for 10 or 15 miles before switching back off the hillside and pelting us through Didcot before arriving at our hotel in Abingdon. Needless to say, there was a bit of a climb.

It must have been close to 5 by the time we got up on to the chalk trails that would carry us over the undulating hillside. A long day’s ride already, we had something like 20 or 30 miles remaining, and a not insignificant amount of that over difficult terrain. We passed a guy having a whale of a time on his tough-suspension BMX. We had hybrid bikes at best. Jon was feeling the brunt of every gully, divot, rock and clump on his stiff-framed bike.

Broken Jon is broken.

Broken Jon is broken.

We reached a summit of sorts – one of many along the route – at the white horse. A medieval hill fort perched on top of the hillside, affording views of Oxfordshire. The remaining cooling towers of Didcot Power Station acting as a waypoint; somewhere in that direction we’d find a bar, beers, and bed.

Somewhere, if you squint, you'll see Didcot.

Somewhere, if you squint, you’ll see Didcot.

We rode on. Speeding up and slowing down as the terrain allowed, counting the junctions to try to work out when we could rejoin the roads, anticipating the downward sprint on smooth surfaces. Eventually, we got to the junction, turned left and took full advantage of the bliss of gravity and good road maintenance. Only to find that we’d probably left the Ridgeway a bit early – we should have joined another national cycle route, but instead appeared to be some way short of Wantage.

The sun was very much on its downwards trajectory, and we could sense evening closing in. Didcot was visible as either cooling towers in the distance of on road signs as we followed roads that may have not been the ones we intended to use, but which were at least in the right direction.

A roads are never the most fun to ride down. Perhaps less so when the light’s draining out of the day. But an A road was our quickest route, and damned if we weren’t taking it. Until I spotted a sign for Steventon, and quickly wheeled us off down a different road. Having lived in the area for a good few years, and having trained for a marathon on the roads around Abingdon and Didcot, I still had the useful runner’s sense of route-making.

We trundled through Steventon, Drayton and past the patchy few fields that separate Abingdon from the surrounding villages and we were done for the day, with the final dregs of daylight still hanging in the air. We’d knocked out 86 miles, climbed 3400ft and spent a total of 7 hours in the saddle. Only showers separated us from the several beers and massive curry that we’d thoroughly earned.

'Tell me about Arb-ing-don.'  'There will be curry, and beer, and you may rest your weary bones.'

‘Tell me about Arb-ing-don.’
‘There will be curry, and beer, and you may rest your weary bones.’

Day 2 was meant to be the biggie. Abingdon to Cambridge. 120 miles. And clearly wasn’t going to happen. We were tired, and had work the next day, and it was going to rain heavily from exactly 2pm according to various weather apps. Instead, as we worked our way through eggs and mushrooms and hash browns, we decided Windsor would be a good compromise. 50 miles, which we could easily cover off before the rain, and good pubs where we could have the luxurious lunch we’d missed out on yesterday.

‘And since we’re on the Thames,’ Dave said confidently, ‘and we’ll be ending on the Thames, there are no hills. In fact, there’s barely a bump in the road. And gravity will flow backwards if we need it to. And –’ he pointed a sausage-loaded fork in my direction ‘– there will categorically, positively, absolutely be none of that Ridgeway crap today.’

[Disclaimer: not Dave’s actual words or actions, but the gist of something he said was in there somewhere.]

We checked out, loaded up on water, and hit the road out towards Didcot. The towers getting closer and closer, and the path largely well-marked – until a corner wasn’t marked and we ended up down a dirt path with a chain-link fence blocked shut by great concrete bollards. Jon, to his adventuring credit, was up for scaling the fence, but reasoning that power stations probably didn’t take well to unexpected visitors, and that there was a perfectly credible turning we had cycled past, we turned back instead.

Passing under the hallowed concrete cooling towers of Didcot B was something of a moment for Jon and Dave, both – as it transpires – fans of domestic energy security. We took an early break to unleash a torrent of power station images on social media.

Admiring the cooling towers

Hashtag cycletrip15
Hashtag DidcotB
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And then we were back on our way, the air cool, and the skies grey. The Cotswolds countryside passed in a cacophony of straw, thatched cottages, old brickwork, red phone boxes and trailing garden roses. We had a few short climbs as we skirted the Wittenham Clumps.

‘Nope, still don’t see any Ridgeway,’ Dave called across the road to me as we took a moment to admire the vista stretched out from the summit of a short climb.

The road descended, curled round, and there – wouldn’t you know it – was the Ridgeway, the road distinctly folding itself up across the wooded incline.

‘Urgh,’ said Dave.

It started to rain.

‘Urgh,’ I agreed.

Somewhere amidst the climb to the summit of the Ridgeway, the rain turned from a light smattering to full-on-sheets-drifting-down soaker. We were quickly drenched, and despite traipsing through some heavily wooded land, getting wetter. Water was spraying everywhere, and the day had taken on that set-in look, which clearly indicated no respite in the downpour in sight.

After swinging down a few residential roads, and heading distinctly downwards we started seeing signs for Reading. We took a moment to park our dripping selves under a bit of shelter by a shop and quickly agreed that there was much to be said for calling it a day here and now. We decided to head to the train station, find a pub nearby and then get on our way back to our respective homes.

Shortly after this decision had been made, our path took us back down to the Thames and a section of swamped temporary pathway. The combination of a tight corner, slick surface and lop-sided weighting sent Dave crashing to the ground in a fairly spectacular-looking tumble. Fortunately fine, barring a few grazes, the rain at least served to wash off the worst of the mud by the time we reached the station and could take the commemorative photo.

Muddy Dave.

Half Dave, half mud.

We drip-dried in a pub, before making our way back to the station, catching various stopping services and swiftly disbanding the year’s cycling venture. Perhaps not our most successful ride, but with no mechanicals and our longest ever single-day ride, I’d be loathe to call it a failure. Although perhaps next time we need to make sure the balance between impressive challenge and time to do anything other than sit in the saddle is balanced a little more in our favour.

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Bike city

August 15, 2015

Cambridge is almost as well known for its bikes as for its colleges. Having lived in both university cities, I’d say it was more bike-friendly even than Oxford.

The run-up to the annual cycle trip means sticking my bike in for a service. Back in London, it used to go to a bike shop near Holborn where I worked that was fairly perfunctory, and resulted in a walk to and from work with my pannier slung over my shoulder. In Cambridge, much like sticking a car in for a service, my go-to bike shop gives you a courtesy bike so having your normal ride seen to doesn’t get in the way of your day.

A ladies' shopper bike, complete with left-hand bell

My bike for the afternoon

Weird as it might feel switching from my normal ride to a ladies’ single-speed shopping bike, especially when it gives you an incredibly wide turning circle, it’s entirely on par with what you see in Cambridge. This is a city where da yoot can regularly be seen menacing the mean riverside paths on BMXs with wicker baskets lined with faded plastic flowers.

For the past few years, we’ve taken the bank holiday weekend at the end of August and the ride has been a three-day affair. This year, we’ve just taking a weekend with an overnight stop on the Saturday. Except overall distance-wise we’re probably not doing far off the same as we would have done on previous years…

Which prompted me to get out into the countryside and do some actual training. And so, I set out to ride the Route 11 out of Cambridge up to King’s Lynn – which Google Maps thought would be a little over 50 miles.

Actually getting on to the Route 11 was a bit tricky because I’d come from Waterbeach, and there was a mile-long stretch of footpath where (signs warned) you needed written permission to ride a bike. And, just to demonstrate that cycling wasn’t welcome, there were stiles. Slightly overgrown with nettles. Tricky.

Once on the Route 11, the first sight was what I thought from a distance (having not really looked properly) was a golf course, until I got closer and realised that the golfers were on horseback. The Cambridge Polo Club, it turns out.

After a few quiet country roads, the path heads into the fens – which were looking stunning in the summer sun.

The view from a bridge

The view from a bridge

Another fenland view

Another fenland view

I should perhaps mention that this year’s ride starts in Bath, a beautiful city in the rolling hills of the south-west. The fens, rather notably, have no hills. None. See that photo above? Anything that looks vaguely hill-like is just because I can’t hold a camera phone straight.

There was a teensy bit of a headwind. That counts, right?

Once through Ely (also pretty), and along a really straight (super-flat) road that would be ideal for cycling if it didn’t have bone-shaking grooves every three metres or so, I came to a quiet crossroads. It’s worth noting that I’d passed into Norfolk at this stage. As you can perhaps tell by the geese, you know, just hanging out in the middle of the crossroads.

Geese. In the road. As you do.

Geese. In the road. As you do.

The road started to follow the waterways leading to the King’s favourite Lynn, and some of the roads started to look suspiciously familiar. In fact, I was starting to join some of the roads that we had cycled on a previous trip, which eventually followed the Route 1 through to Great Yarmouth.

The final stretch into King’s Lynn is along the banks of the Great Ouse, affording the rider some pretty impressive views of the ride’s end.

King's Lynn. Better from a distance.

King’s Lynn. Better from a distance.

As the town grew closer, a solitary pensioner stood proud on the river bank clad only in boater shorts, mahoganied beach-ball belly proud to the wind. I whipped past, but then passed several more topless men of different generations. it was warm, but not that warm, so I generously assumed that the harsh economic environment had quite literally taken the shirt off these men’s backs.

Anyway, I’d been toying with the idea of rolling into town, having a bag of chips overlooking the river and then catching the train back to Cambridge. Sadly, on getting into town the first thing I saw was a very shut-looking Wimpy. (Shut as in closed for now, but open tomorrow. Wimpy, eh? Who knew they were still going?!) In fact, everything in town except the Costa was open.

Sod it, I thought, I’ll catch a train. And sat waiting for the next 40 minutes while the one-train-an-hour rolled into town.

King’s Lynn turns out to be 63 miles away, and it’s probably all the better for those extra 10 miles.

Anyway, the other thing I should mention is that while we normally rely on Dave’s capable day-planning skills for the cycle trip, this year it’s my turn to plan the route. We’ve got train tickets to Bath booked, and our half-way hotel is booked at Abingdon, and we’re going to be ending up in Cambridge. So I started planning the route (with shot glasses and wool, like you do).

Four maps. Three shot glasses. One ball of wool. Cycle holiday 2015

Four maps. Three shot glasses. One ball of wool. Cycle holiday 2015

Sooo, that second day looks long. Our longest day on the ride to date has been 75 miles – this may be 100 miles. (And, judging by this weekend’s ride, that’s maybe a distance underestimated by 20%.) And day 1 ain’t so much shorter, but with a whole load of hills.

There’s going to be a whole lot of cycling this month!

Measure for measure

August 5, 2015
GPS watches - full of buttons, features and functions

GPS watches - full of buttons, features and functions

For the past year or so, I’ve been running without my trusty Garmin. In fact, my last fully-measured run was pretty much the 2014 London Marathon. Almost immediately after making it through the race, my battered old Garmin refused to charge.

I’d been battling with an ongoing injury, so it made sense to take a break and then start reintroducing runs gently. Running by feeling rather than target pace was the aim of the day, and having had my fill of distance for a while, I was happy to get back to shorter runs. In fact, running without metrics helped me rediscover the joy of running. Heading out with no aim other than enjoying a bit of fresh air, maybe seeing some new sights along a new route, all makes for a very pleasant hour.

However, I’ve been starting to feel the absence of measurements and logs now that I’m getting back into a rhythm. I feel like I’m finding some pace again, but have no idea of how this actually looks. I have a regular weekday route that’s something like 6.5 miles, but I don’t really have anything close to an accurate sense of how long this is taking me. We have large, inaccurate wall clocks at work, and I know it’s taking less than 45 minutes, but beyond that it’s anyone’s guess what a good run and a bad run look like.

The world of wearables has moved on since I bought my old 405. Apple, amongst others, has produced smart watches that could render a sport-specific watch pointless. My feeling is that mainstream smart watches do indeed render the ubiquitous Garmin irrelevant for casual runners, but their performance doesn’t match the needs of people wanting to take sport a bit more seriously.

If a smartphone has done you until now, a smart watch will probably enhance your experience and add in a few extra metrics. But a category watch will record data for longer, and give you a greater range of analytics to pore over post-performance. And that might mean wearing a heart monitor rather than optical monitoring, but when you’re interested in detailed performance metrics you’re also more interested in accuracy.

I’m eying up the Fenix 3. It’s a beast of a watch – with a price tag to match – but it’s versatile, and now I’m dallying a bit more in cycling, the increased battery performance will be extra useful. It’s also good for multi-sports, so will cater for that point when I finally take the plunge and go for a tri. And it uploads data to Garmin Connect via wifi or your mobile’s Bluetooth, which should make the old Ant stick a relic of the past.

It does, however, feature Garmin’s usual insistence on a bespoke charging cradle. Never the same for any two watch models. Reviews seem to think it’s more stable than the 405’s crocodile clip (few things more frustrating than thinking you’ve balanced your watch in a charging position, only to find out that it’s semi-connected and actually drained itself in charging/not charging), which is key.

Everyone has their preferences, so any thoughts from you on which are the best gadgets for logging activity at the moment?

New rhythms

July 3, 2015

Steve Birkinshaw on Crib Goch - Ciancorless.com Berghaus Dragon's Back Race 2015

Steve Birkinshaw on Crib Goch – Ciancorless.com Berghaus Dragon’s Back Race 2015

The late afternoon heat was oppressive. Sweat dripped into my eyes. My skin was clammy, my hair matted into sodden clumps and my breathing laboured. After a full day in the office, at the end of a full-on week, it was a struggle to keep going. But keeping going was the only option.

Stripping wallpaper was beginning to feel closer and closer to running. Which was just as well, because this was leaving us with time for nothing other than day-job and evening decorating.

Taking a break from staring at walls, I checked my emails and saw the press photos from the Dragon’s Back Race. I’ll be honest, a multi-stage mountain ultra isn’t quite up my street at the moment, but the shots brought back memories of running up Arthur’s Seat in Edinburgh.

For the past year I’ve been spoilt by a lovely riverside route practically on our doorstep. Each run has been down a variant of the same route, and consequently pancake flat. It’s an easy-to-trace route, and I knew the distances of several different variants, but having such a well-trod route hasn’t necessarily helped me get into a running routine since we moved.

One of the things I liked most about my old London routes was being able to mix things up a bit. I had a flat, fast route through the Lea Valley, but I also had a hillier, more scenic route up an old railway line to Alexandra Palace. I could pick my route depending on my mood.

Now we’ve moved – and despite the move being a relatively small distance – being a bit further from the old route by the river has opened up a raft of other potential routes. There’s a hilly climb to a country park, a trail along a Roman road, off-road paths through meadows back towards the river, and routes launching out from the guided busway.

Sometimes a change is all that’s needed to make running interesting again. Now the evenings are light, and I can stop tearing at flecks of sodden paper, filling cracks in plaster, stripping paint, painting slightly-off-white walls a different shade of slightly off-white, it’s the perfect time to enjoy some new routes.

Gatekeepers and clubhouses

March 15, 2015
tags: ,

This afternoon I was following two quite disparate conversations on Twitter, which both stem from one peculiar behaviour.

The first conversation concerned the Spen 20, a 20-mile hilly race held by Spenborough & Disctict AC, where a runner had been pulled out of the race by a marshal just 1.5 miles in for running too slow.

From the limited information available online, no cut-off time was mentioned in the entry forms. And, quite aside from that, 1.5 miles into a race is really, really early to force a runner to step aside.

The second was a conversation about this article from the Telegraph bemoaning the lack of commercial success of a Great Novel.

As a precis to the Telegraph piece, the journalist bemoans that ebooks tend to be genre fiction, and that there seems to be little commercial oomph behind highbrow literary fiction – here touted as books that are tough to read.

There’s a snobbery in both these cases – a kind of insistence that in order to validate your place in a particular club (be that running or reading), you need to be able to have jumped over certain hurdles. You need to have run a sub-60 minute 10k. You must have read Midnight’s Children. But of course you’ll be negatively splitting that race right? And naturally you’ll have a well-formed opinion on Joyce’s presentation of Ireland in Ulysses?

Is all this so different from some kind of frat-house initiation? Forcing people to run qualifying times at their local parkrun before they can be allowed to enter anything so auspicious as an amateur road race. Prescribing the 20 finest works of literary fiction from the last two centuries before letting someone read that new frothy beach book.

Are these barriers the best thing for our clubhouses? Are the gatekeepers up to the job? Because if you’re going to set these barriers – time, assumptions about quality and merit – you need to be comfortable with the implications: a lack of participation and general indifference. Is a race with 100 amateur runners all tracking 7-minute miles better than a race with 1000 amateur runners where the long tail of the field walks?

Participation is the only way to safeguard a future for the things we care deeply about. Without the succession of pop-fiction, publishers would never be able to produce the dense tomes of ‘quality’ fiction – for better or worse. Without the entrance fees of the hordes of runners, whatever pace they’re making, few races would ever be financially sustainable.

By reflected light

February 8, 2015
The fens at sunset

The fens at sunset

Running in the dying light of the day is becoming a great source of inspiration. The big skies running through a molten sequence of colours before night sets in.

Cambridge is incredibly dark. Like, really dark. The streetlights are spread widely and lit dimly – and the pavements are narrow and often more than a little uneven. A winning combination.

Naturally runners head for the miles of paths that spread out across the fens, some paved and shared with cyclists, some dirt tracks shared with grazing cattle. Weekdays, while the days are short and the sun has determinedly set by the time I leave the office, require a sturdy head torch. Weekends, though, when you’re late heading out and battling the setting sun, are aided by reflected light.

Puddles, the sluggish river and the drainage ditches cut into the fens themselves are all lit by the dusk light, helping to navigate the route. Sometimes there’s a mist hanging in the air, or a delicious thin wisp of log fire drifting lazily from a canal boat. The flatness of the terrain cloaks its scale, and it’s only the occasional flash of perspective from reflected light that helps give a sense of distance in the compact darkness of the fen.

Inspirational as these twilight runs might be, the primroses, daffodils and tulips pushing their way up along the city’s paths hint at warmer weather and longer evenings to come. I’m looking forward to that first evening run in sunshine.

Restarting routine

January 27, 2015

It would appear that I need routine in my life. I don’t want to be one of those people who needs structure and discipline, but I am. The evidence is undeniable.

Christmas came – the festive season, not the toe-curling smut-pun that concludes the excruciating The World is not Enough – and the mandatory structure of the working day dropped away for a gloriously unstructured two and a half weeks. Within a few days, we’d been getting up so late that lunchtime had back-shifted to 4:30 on a good day (and 5:30 on the worst).

And come the end of the fortnight-plus holiday, I’d squeezed in a grand total of three runs – of which precisely zero had been anything other than a last-minute dash to beat the flagging daylight. It took three days’ pre-emptive early nights and reluctantly set morning alarms to try to shake off the holiday jet-lag. The subsequent week, throwing myself out of bed while the morning was still dark (or, perhaps more accurately, starting to become light) felt like an epic struggle from a pit of quicksand.

So, I’ve come to the reluctant conclusion that I need structure and discipline. (Booooor-ring.)

Struck by enthusiasm, I set my alarm early on the second Tuesday back at work. I would get up at 6, and I would run before I’d even had breakfast. Dammit, I was going to be a machine.

My enthusiasm churned round in my restless head as I tried desperately to get a good night’s sleep. Eventually I dropped off, at what must have about about half two.

The alarm went off at 6. I hit snooze. 20 times. And then got up at 7 and felt rotten for the rest of the day.

It turns out I’m not an early morning runner. So I ran home from work, using my bike lights to semi-light my way, and it was awesome. I might not have been a machine, but I felt satisfied and refreshed. And I slept really well that night.

And so a routine was reborn. Running home Tuesday and Thursday, and then running in the daylight unencumbered by a bag stuffed with work kit on the Sunday.

So yes, I need structure, but then running has always been about structure. Times per week; miles per run; pace per mile. It’s all about dedicating time. And the routine of running has always served a purpose – a target and focus in periods of aimlessness, an outlet at times of stress, and time to process and percolate those ideas that bubble up persistently, begging for something to become of them.

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