Monday 28 May 2012


One of the great things about road cycling, mountain biking, trail running and hiding from the authorities in the woods, is that you get to see plenty of wild "things". Pretty much every trip out I make I'll see something notable - part of the pleasure of living on the edge of the almost-countryside.

These "things" are rarely important enough to mention by themselves but it's about time I wrote a little about them.

The Deer
There are two types around here, and I can pretty much guarantee seeing at least one of them on every ride. Sometimes they may even be alive. The most common are the Muntjac, an imported species that were brought to the country by Sir Jack Munt for his children to use instead of horses. They are the size of a large dog, and curiously "bark" as well. These are everywhere and can pose a danger to the speeding road cyclist. Whilst riding on the road at night I once had to weave through three large lumps... which revealed themselves to be the remains of an exploded muntjac. This is a muntjac in my garden.

The other deer are Roe deer. These have the decency to behave a little more deer-like. They are rarer, hide in the woods more and leap away when disturbed, flashing their little white asses in the air. The teases. They're still rubbish at dodging cars though.

The (other) Mammals
To me, mammals are proper wildlife. Birds are fine, sometimes interesting - especially birds of prey - but mammals make any ride more entertaining. Oh, apart from squirrels. I hate squirrels. So, I have seen...

  • Hedgehogs, alive and dead. Dead are more common.
  • Rabbits, all over the place.
  • Hares. Mainly alive. I saw one on Saturday pretty close up... big aren't they?
  • Grey squirrels. Vermin, they keep stealing all the bird food I put out.
  • Water voles, mainly by the canal.
  • A dead polecat. Just one, with their existence in the area confirmed by a forest ranger.
  • Badgers. I have seen four or five live ones, and many more dead ones. I'd hate to hit one at speed, an enraged badger would probably eat me.
  • Foxes, obviously.
  • A weasel or two. Or maybe a stoat. Probably a weasel though.
  • Rats and mice. Almost certainly "common" versions.
That's a pretty good collection. No boar, wallabies, wildcats, otters, pine martens, monkeys or mysterious big cats.

Ah... probably my favourite category, mainly due to their rareness. I have seen, in the UK, exactly two snakes. Both recently, both grass snakes, both about 18" long. One was on Greenham Common, which is also adder habitat, and the other was crossing the road about a mile from my house. Why was it crossing the road? Insert your own punchline.

I've also seen exactly two slow worms. Slow worms are legless lizards. There is a difference between a legless lizard and a snake and once you've had a slow worm pointed out to you they are clearly different to snakes. They look like eels. Oh, both of the slow worms were dead.

Lizards. Some. I remember not where, but I've definitely seen a lizard or two.

These clearly fit into the "more dead than alive" category. At certain times of the year the back roads are strewn with crushed frogs and I've even been unfortunate to hit one or two. I see this as lack of evolution in action - they clearly haven't bred selectively enough to work out they should hop quickly across the dark grey surface rather then hopping randomly around in circles. More videogame practice needed.

Toads.. well, probably. I'm not very good at the whole frog/toad disambiguation, and they look fairly similar once they've been flattened by two tonnes of motor car.

No newts. I'd love to see newts.

Coming soonish... part two... birds. Including live killings!

Wednesday 16 May 2012

The Hampshire Hilly Hundred

I was born in Hampshire - the original one, not the new-fangled version that they invented in America. Although  I don't live there now I still have an affinity for the county - rolling hills, military bases and pubs that tolerated under-age drinking. It was also where I started real bike riding - my first "racer" was bought when I lived in Hampshire, and I rode to school and college on the same bike. I'd grown into it by college time.

For college I even went to the trouble of refurbishing it - new brakes, saddle, gears, rack (sorry), mudguards (more sorry) and a home-respray of the pig-iron frame from a rusty red to shining white.

The rusty red was a sign. The bike's forks fell off a couple of years later having corroded through at the steerer. Thankfully my dad was moving it out of the shed at the time - probably to quietly dispose of it whilst I was away at university.

Back to the point... Hampshire. I live pretty close now, and when a friend mentioned he was doing the Hampshire Hilly 100 (HHH, some good alliteration there) it was too local to resist. Easy and quick to get to, far enough away to be riding on new roads.

It went here (click for a bigger version):

The red dot marks the start, and also the finish - that was a relief as it was where I'd left my car. I'd hope most people would recognise Winchester - home of Jane Austen, a cathedral and where the rifle was invented. Alresford is the watercress capital of Britain, Whitchurch has a silk mill and Stockbridge has a bridge. Probably for stock.

Exciting stuff. There were also hills. The organisers claimed 7000ft of climbing (2133 metres) over the 100 miles, and there was plenty of undulating countryside with the odd cheeky rise thrown in.

Thankfully, it was dry. After six weeks of almost constant rain this was a pleasant surprise, so much so that I had to rehearse my outfit the previous day - what clothes for a 5C start, 15C finish and sunshine? I really couldn't remember.

As usual I arrived early, but hung back a little so that I wasn't in the very first group to start. There were about 50 ahead of me when we set off, and I played the usual card of waiting for some fast people to catch up and dropping in behind them - after saying hello of course. They were three strong riders, especially on the flat, but I could just about keep with them. They also slowed down on the climbs, instead of sprinting at everything. My kind of riding.

We were joined by about eight others after catching a bigger group at some traffic lights, and chugged along nicely, until most of us decided that the three strong ones were just that little bit too strong... we made our excuses and let them go.

Fast forward to 105km, Hannington feed stop. Still about eight or nine of us, working well and chatting together. I like to grab food/drink and go, so after a quick draining in the loo, and filling my bottles, I was straight out again, all alone. There was one other guy who'd left about thirty seconds before me so I caught him up and we started working together - he was slightly the better climber, I was slightly stronger on the flat. The last 50km was more or less flat to downhill, thankfully, as the legs were starting to feel the effort. The last 10km turned into side by side conversation - good luck in the Maratona dles Dolomites! - and after a burst of energy up the last ride we were back.

Timed sportives give you a chance to see how well you compare to the random mix of riders that turn up to not race, and in this one I compared pretty well. 15th out of 198 in the 40+ Men, 34th out of 423 overall. 25 minutes inside the "gold" time standard for 40+, six seconds (count 'em!) inside the "gold" time for young people.

Seems like this training lark might actually be working.

Wednesday 2 May 2012

Let's build a bike!

A while ago I noted that I was missing playing in the garage with my tools, and that I was starting to think about something to keep me occupied...

Well, rather than doing something constructive, I thought I'd build a bike. Not just any bike though... a recovery ride bike.

You see, sometimes I need to ride gently. Bimbling along, getting overtaken by 12 year olds on BMXs. Doing this on my current road bikes grates a little as it feels slightly "expensive bike, unfit bastard". I've nothing against unfit bastards on expensive bikes - let's be clear here - yet I feel odd riding the Orca slowly.

Another option would be to get a jersey made with "recovery ride" on the back, evoking those "Wide Load" signs you see on enormous trucks on the motorway. That way people would realise that I was actually a super-fit rider who was doing 10 mph for a reason. They'd probably come alongside and congratulate me on my excellent adherence to a structured training plan.

Or not.

Which brings me to the recovery ride bike plan. The bike had to be stylish, comfortable, geared, and in my mind, cool. This meant steel, retro, Italian. A bike I could cruise on to the coffee shop, lean it against my table and deal with the hordes of admirers who would ask to have their photo taken with it. They'd then buy me espresso and cake, to express how grateful they were that I'd enriched their lives.

Or not.

Oh, I can be a cheapskate sometimes too. That ruled out some of the more exotic options (Cinelli Supercorsa for example) and I was drawn in by a relatively cheap frame and fork - a Guerciotti Record from Planet X. It met the requirements pretty well, although I wasn't sure how they looked in the metal. I also spent some time deciding on the colour - red/blue/orange/black/white/gold was too much choice for me. I went for blue in the end - the colour of the Italian football team shirts.

When the frame arrived, I was glad I chose the blue. The pictures on the Planet X site didn't do it justice - it was metallic as well. Think of "Subaru Impreza Blue".

Then the fun started - shopping for bits. I had an image in my mind which influenced most of my choices. Italian frame = Campagnolo groupset. The need for silver bits meant it has to be Veloce.

Bars, stem and seatpost had to match. Again, looks were more important than anything else (apart from availability) so I ended up with almost the cheapest option - some generic chromed versions (these will probably get replaced with something good in the future). Here they are on the frame, with the groupset.

Ah, fitting the cranks. Campag - what's going on there? Do you have to be so different? Why do the instructions mention a 17mm allen key when I need a 14mm one? What's the deal with that silly wire clip? I know you're trying to be quirky and different but honestly... And don't get me started on your chain joining method. Thank the heavens for KMC and their Campag quick links.

Now, wheels. Again, selected entirely because they were the silvery-ist wheels I could find: Pro-lite Bracciano. It was a happy coincidence to find they are very well reviewed too.

The saddle had to be Italian (not really a problem considering the number of Italian saddle makers), brown leather and retro looking. Oh, and not super heavy. I give you the Selle San Marco Vintage Regale.

That just left bar tape (Fizik), valve caps (Middleburn), down tube cable adaptors (Shimano - I know, but the Campag ones are rubbish apparently) and tyres (already hanging on the wall). Put them all together and you get this beauty.

Matches the plant pots too.

How does it ride? Slowly, so everyone can admire it.