Sunday 29 April 2012

A Grand Day Out

London to Brighton is a classic route - be it for vintage cars, massed groups of occasional cyclists or hordes of mods and rockers all set for gently beating each other and trying to get off with Lesley Ash in an alleyway.

David (from last year's Pyrenees trip) and I had been bouncing ride ideas around for a while. The original plan for the end of April was to ride the South Downs Way - a 100 mile off-road route that goes from Winchester to Eastbourne. However, much of this is chalk based and is renowned for being slightly nasty in the wet - and considering we've had weeks of rain we needed another plan.

A road ride beckoned. As David lives in that London, going down to Brighton for chips on the seafront was a grand idea. Plans were agreed, addresses revealed and last Friday I drove off from home.

The first 80% of my drive was uneventful. I scoffed at the predicted arrival time on my SatNav - an hour and a half to do 67 miles? I'd completed 55 of them in the first hour, leaving only 12 miles and half an hour to drive it. Silly SatNav.

Off the motorway, onto the streets of London. Instant queue, stop-start traffic. Crazy bus drivers, crazier van drivers. Drive for ten yards, stop for a minute. Look out for the cyclists. They were making much better progress than I was, even the one-handed riding shoppers on cheap supermarket specials.

Silly me. That last 12 miles took an hour, and driving in London made me lose faith in humanity.

What are all these people doing? London needs to be a giant park and cycle scheme - turn some of those abandoned warehouses into multi-story car parks, provide changing rooms and charge anyone who absolutely has to drive beyond the motorways £50 to go further. Add in a few tube, train, tram and monorail links and the streets would be cleaner, safer and much faster moving too.

I digress. Eventually I arrived, and after initial handshakes and greetings we decided to go out for some food. Talk was of upcoming trips (Dolomites, Haute Route), sportives, training, bikes and more training. Oh, and the weather. The forecast was... acceptable. Overcast, chilly, but with the wind from the North we'd get blown down to Brighton (there's a joke in there if you look hard enough). I've have preferred warm and sunny but at least it was going to be dry.

Saturday morning. Wet. Not heavy rain, but plenty of moisture in the air, light showers and enough water on the ground to make things interesting. Ah well, time to pretend we were in a Belgian classic race.

After a good breakfast and some moderate faffing ("I've lost my keys" "What, those keys on the table?") we departed. Thankfully we were out before 9am so there wasn't much need to battle with the traffic. 15km of urban weaving led us to roads where I started to feel at home - narrow, muddy and potholed. It must be a product of my experience but I'm much happier with close encounters with cars on these roads than the equivalent in an urban setting. I guess I know I can just dive into a roadside hedge if needed.

Considering it was a miserable day there were plenty of other cyclists out. Fluorescent flappy rain jackets were common - have these people not heard of skin tight gilets? I'd rather be damp from the rain than steaming in my own sweat inside a "breathable" shell. Still, fantastic to see people out.

The route was rolling, with several moderate climbs - nothing too steep or cheeky to begin with yet more than I was expecting. After 55km we suddenly looped backwards and I discovered that David had planned three extra climbs around Toys Hill. At this point I decided that I wasn't going to try keeping up with him and slowly he drifted ahead before waiting for a few seconds at the top.

Every five hour ride in the rain needs a coffee stop, and ours was in Brasted. A pleasant independent deli/cake/coffee/cafe completely undeserving of two dripping wet and filthy cyclists dropping by to warm up and refill water bottles. I wondered why people were giving us curious looks until I saw myself in the bathroom mirror - my face was coated in grit splatters, making me look like a Paris - Roubaix escapee.

The second chunk of the ride had more climbs, a slight-lack-of-food-wobble and some stunning countryside. Trust me, if the weather had been better and I'd had been bothered to take some pictures this blog post would have been much more interesting.

After 115km we came to Ditchling Beacon. My "Top 100 Climbs" book (that covers the UK) describes this as the hill that makes more cyclists walk than any other - mainly because it comes at the end of the mass London - Brighton charity cycle ride that has 30,000 or so riders taking part. I squirted down a caffeine gel as we approached the bottom but although it's a bit cheeky (a 10% average over 1.2km) it was easier than expected. David once again drifted into the distance but made the schoolboy error of dismounting at the top.  I obviously carried straight on over, forcing him to chase back on to my wheel.

The tailwind really helped now - an easy 40kph on the pedally descent towards Brighton - plus seeing the sea meant that we were nearly there. A quick run through town (including setting off a speed camera - oops) and we were on the seafront.

The pay-off for 125km, 1700m of climbing and 5 hours of riding? Pie and chips.

That's real recovery food.

Saturday 7 April 2012

Bad Friday/Good Friday

Bad Friday was in March 2008, on Good Friday - that is, the two days before Easter Sunday Good Friday, rather than a generic uncapitalised good Friday. On Bad Friday I dislocated my shoulder on a singlespeed mountain bike ride in the Cotswolds, on a day of horizontal hailstones, skidding mud tyres on greasy tarmac and blissful, blissful prescription drugs. On Bad Friday I became dislocatedMTB.

That memorable ride was with Jon, who you may recall from such posts as "why am I about to vomit?", "who does he think he is, Andy Schleck?" and "please can we go home now?". When you've ended up in hospital on a ride in a certain location, on a certain day, and with a certain person, the best thing you can do is tempt fate once again.

As I left the house yesterday, Good Friday, to drive over to Jon's the shouted goodbye from Elaine included the words "...and I don't want any calls from Jon saying you're broken".

Can you guess where this is going?

The weather yesterday was a marked contrast to Bad Friday. As I mentioned, Bad Friday was brutal. Freezing, wet, icy, windy. Yesterday was chilly, dry, crisp and bright. The bikes were also very different - from rigid singlespeeds with mud tyres to carbon fibre road bikes with 23mm slicks.

Here are the bikes. Mine is the pretty one. Shame I've ruined the lines with a pump (gasp!) and a seat pack (shudder!).

The ride was originally planned to be a monster re-run of the route of the Cotswold Spring Classic but circumstances led it to be slightly less stressful. Jon's been ill and off the bike for the past eight weeks. This time last year he was riding like Philippe Gilbert. Unfortunately he's still riding like him - the 2012 version.

(Note for non-followers of pro-cycling. In 2011 Big Phil was astonishingly good, imperious. In 2012 he's been floundering in comparative mid-table obscurity.)

This gave me some hope for the ride. I'm in reasonable shape, and with Jon below his usual standard there was a slight possibility that I might be able to stay with him on the hills. Well, at least not get dropped as spectacularly as normal.

First big test: the climb into... um... some Cotswold village. They all blur into one for me. It's hard to see street signs when you're weeping with pain and on the edge of blacking out through the effort. Hang on, I'll check the map on Training Peaks. Oakridge Lynch. Then on to Miserden. On the first climb I STAYED WITH JON. On the second I WAS JUST BEHIND.

Wow. Those two moments will go down in my personal list of cycling achievements, like my first 12 hour solo mountain bike race and ascending Tourmalet on a unicycle.

Onwards - steep climbs, sketchy on-the-brakes descents down singletrack roads, potholed and broken, horses appearing from round blind corners. I resent these descents - after all the work on the climbs, having to take such care on what should be the reward is very, very tedious. Still, better that than another visit to hospital...

I mentioned that this was a less stressful ride than originally planned. We even stopped for coffee and pastries in (checks map) Painswick. Two small coffees, two pastries = £9.10. Cotswold prices.

Here's Jon hiding in the cafe, reflecting.

Out of Painswick on another steep, narrow, twisting descent. Then the inevitable 9% average climb out to the main road. From here on the main road through Slad into Stroud is probably my favourite section in the area, all open roads, stunning views and sweeping bends. There's no need to pedal, but it's just shallow enough that it's worthwhile to do so for those few extra MPH.

Climb out of Stroud. Jon drifted into the distance but I managed to stay close enough to keep him in sight. Another small victory. The rest of the ride was punctuated by wild garlic, snack stops and even another picture.

Then with final, crushing inevitability, it happened.

The last kilometre, along the car-strewn road to Jon's house. I click up a gear. Jon clicks up a gear. We both start to wind up the pace. I accelerate, Jon matches me for a second, then drops back. That's right, I beat Jon in the sprint home.

He may be Gilbert, but yesterday I was Cavendish.

(If you guessed this was going to end up in hospital, shame on you. I don't crash that often)

Wednesday 4 April 2012

I used to be a fettler

I have a confession. I used to enjoy a fettle. Ensconced in the garage for a couple of hours, random rock/metal MP3s blasting out, grease in one hand, tool in the other... fettling away. I could fettle all afternoon sometimes, especially at the weekend. On occasion I'd fettle on a weekday evening with my girlfriend slumped on the sofa upstairs - our garage is under the house so I could fettle without fear, confident that I'd hear anyone coming downstairs before they caught me.

I fettle very little now. Since I've drifted to road riding more and more, there is much less need. Mountain bike riding a few times a week would mean that I'd often have a few things that needed sorting out - a crunching noise, a sticky cable or a loose nipple. Road bikes don't lead to as many issues - I admit there might be the odd saddle sore or stubbly leg - but generally the bikes don't need much maintenance.

This has left a gap in my life - I'm lacking something constructive I can do when I'm not riding. I'm starting to think about ideas, options, outside interests. The odd internet site. Staring too long at a shapely frame. Flicking through magazines with arty photography of continental beauties. Daydreaming about throwing my leg over a real head turner. A real head turner that I've given a damn good fettling.

So what should it be? A slim classic with a few miles on it, in need of a tender hand and a good buffing?  A British model with a good name, history and heritage? A younger Italian with retro style? Tommasini, Pegoretti, Milani or Cinelli? Roberts, Bob Jackson, Carlton or a lilac Harry Quinn?

Choices, choices... still, most of the fun is in the fantasy. I think I can keep my fettling dreams going a while longer.