It’s taken a while, but I have a book coming out on June 10. It’s called “A Corinthian Endeavour: The Story of the National Hill Climb Championship”. It’s published by Mousehold Press. There is a talk and preview at Roll for the Soul in Bristol on June 10. You can find out a bit more here.
As cycling books go, it’s vaguely literary and reflective. It focuses on people, places and the esoteric nature of the Hill Climb championship. I have been lucky enough to interview Vic Clark, Eric Wilson, Peter Graham, Daryl Webster, Graham Sydney, Jim Henderson, Lynn Hamel, Chris Boardman, Tejvan Pettinger and Gareth Armitage, amongst others.
If you like Tim Krabbe, Kuklos, Roger Deakin, Nick Hand and Philip Larkin, then with any luck you’ll like this. If you don’t know these people, then you’ll hopefully like it anyway. If you like obsession and the madness of riding really fast, then it should do the trick. And if you like reading about strange people doing strange things in strange places, then you’re also in luck.
“You are so beyond the limit, way beyond your ordinary experience. It’s torture physically, but you get some kind of joy from it, and you look back and think, ‘I really lived in those three minutes. I don’t quite know what went on, but I was on the edge and experiencing something different’.”
I took time out in the Easter holidays to head into Wales with a friend from London. The plan was to do a 3 day saddlebag tour; staying in a Youth Hostel or B+B. I’ve been meaning to do some longer (although shorter by most people’s standards) touring for quite a while, but it’s taken me a while to get things rolling. The initial plan was to do the Ridgeway out towards Streatley and then back on the Kennet and Avon Canal, but you need some extensive dry weather to dry out the chalky mire and make it a pleasurable jaunt. Another time, perhaps.
On the first day we met in North Bristol then headed out through the Severn badlands towards the bridge at Aust. Once in Wales the traffic dropped off noticeably. The weather was murky and not particularly nice, but it wasn’t raining and it wasn’t horribly windy, as it had been two days previously. Chepstow offered a grim welcome to the border country, it’s not the most auspicious start, but we were soon en route to Tintern. Oddly, I hadn’t been to Tintern, despite it being within spitting distance of Bristol.
The climb out of Tintern past the old iron forge is beautiful. The tarmac had been freshly resurfaced to herald our arrival. The road took us up out onto the top of the hills with the first view across to the Beacons and also the destination climb of the day, Blorenge. We dropped down and across the Usk valley, then nestled into the woodland at the bottom of Coed Y Prior. It’s the other side to the Tumble, the Tour of Britain climb, and it ekes its way up the side of the mountain along a tiny and steep road. The higher we got, the thicker the fog. Will was struggling, and to be honest, so was I. The combination of a lack of fitness, a full Carradice Super C and a smallest gear of 25:39 made it heavy going.
I’m sure that the view up on top is spectacular. We didn’t get to see it, not being able to see much further than about 50 yards. I had it in my head that the climb peaked out at about 1300 feet, i’m not sure where I got my gen from. It was incorrect, and the garmin kept rising until it pushed past 1700ft. I kept Will going by promising that the next corner heralded the finish. I wasn’t lying per se, I genuinely thought the climb should have been shorter and was confused by everything, a feeling compounded by the not knowingness of the murk and the encompassing fog.
Eventually we crested the Foxhunter aerials and the road dropped away. We plummeted into Blaenavon and went to the canteen at the Big Pit mining museum for a late lunch of glamorgan sausages and chips. At one point the lady wouldn’t let us leave our bikes there. I looked her in the eye and spoke softly, with the tone and demeanour of a man broken by a mountain; “We’ve just ridden from Bristol, please help us”. She relented immediately, unlocking a secret gate and helping us stash our bikes in the mine workings. The only downside of the plummet into Blaenavon was the subsequent requirement for a gravity-defying climb post-lunch, back up into the misty firmament out of Brynmawr, along the mountain road. Fortunately, there wasn’t a huge amount of distance left to run and we were fortified by chips.
On the way down again I had my first mechanical of the trip. One of the saddlebag straps had sheared off, leaving the Super C hanging tenuously by a single strap. I think i could have bodged it somehow, but we were scratching our heads. It was 10 miles to the YHA and there was nothing around, aside from a few houses. I looked behind and saw at the side of the road a large house with big, rectangular sash windows. Oddly, each of the windows seemed to be full of cycling equipment. Of all the places to experience a problem, we managed to stop directly outside of the only unmarked bicycle shop in the Brecon Beacons. The proprietor was the marque owner of Nelson Cycles and cyclebasket.com, an online retailer. It was 3 minutes before closing time. I bought 4 toeclip straps which were more than adequate for the purpose, and we pedalled on our way, struck by the curious serendipity of cycle touring.
We crept into the YHA at Talybont at around 6pm. It had been a long and tiring day. The YHA rests below the dam of the reservoir; it’s a typically lovely location and can only be reached by crossing the dam and heading down a dirt track. We managed about 75 miles with about 7000 feet of climbing.
The next day we planned to ride north, through Brecon, then across to Hay for lunch, before tackling the Gospel Pass in reverse.
Gent-Wevelgem was absolute carnage. I don’t think I’ve seen such exciting weather-related mayhem since someone ended up under a truck at Paris-Nice and Stijn Devolder got hit by a flying wheelie bin at Kuurne-Bruxelles-Kuurne.
Geraint Thomas managed to pick himself up out of a drainage ditch to take third place, whilst Etixx Quick Step played their usual tactical masterstroke by letting Luca Paolini ride away to take the win.
And here’s the Kiserlovski under the truck Ooh La La classic wet-weather Paris-Nice action…
It would be a shame if the extreme weather protocol meant an end to the unpredictable madness of early season bike races.
I nearly got hit by a deer yesterday morning. It vaulted the wall on Belmont Hill in a serene arc with legs tucked up, getting about 4 feet of air, then skittered across the tarmac, inches away from my front wheel. A car behind had been waiting patiently before overtaking. I’m glad. I wouldn’t have wanted to go to work wearing bits of deer. It was very exciting and transient.
I shared the experience with my BSCC bike chums but they refused to believe it happened on account of it being solely a narrative account of lived experience, with no verifiable features; no strava log, go pro footage or still photography. In short, it didn’t actually happen because it wasn’t a digitised experience. Virtual life is real life, real life is unverifiable nonsense.
Here’s a previous encounter with a deer that did the rounds some time ago:
In recent years there have been a number of bike/car mash-ups. I seem to remember Ferrari and Colnago (the Ferralnago) producing something utterly revolting fairly recently. The genre plumbed the depths with the ‘land rover’ range of bicycle-shaped objects; marketed under the noms-de-plume of the ‘Blenheim’, the ‘Ascot’, and the ‘Windsor’. I’m not sure my irony filter could cope with the experience of riding a land rover bike whilst being shouted at by a barbour jacket in a Discovery 4×4.
I assumed we had reached ‘peak’ bike-car, or bar, or cike, but no… The gentle and restrained volk at Audi have teamed up with those purveyors of reasonably priced wheelsets, Lightweight, to bring forth the AudiWeight Urgelstadt, a veritable slice of monied Teutonic sturm und drang.
It looks OK. It costs quite a bit of money. It wouldn’t pass the ‘I found it in a skip’ test, coming in at a shade under 17,000 Euros. I also don’t think it takes mudguards or has rack bosses. The AudiWeight Urgelstadt has no purpose beyond advertising two key attributes: disposal income and rank stupidity. It is an object devoid of purpose, at odds with what it purports to be, unraceable and unrideable. It’s a simulacra of a bicycle up there with almost anything by Storck, but especially the proposed new Storcklaren Supercike, the ‘Culture Storck’. However, any of these bikes would be suitable for the ‘race the world‘.
If you see someone riding one, you have permission to dole out the Team Cinzano pump-in-the-spokes trick.
The early season races herald the advent of the season proper. They foretell of warm weather and fields of sunflowers, tanlines and treacly Tarmac. Occasionally, they speak of winter and the long grippe of weather that refuses to break.
It makes for a compelling spectacle and reawakens the myths of cycling. It also causes paroxysms of anger amongst the professional peloton, furious that the circumspect and fickle weather cannot be controlled unlike everything else in cycling these days.
Make the most of such ‘epic’ and ‘gruelling’ feats while you can. If Spartacus has his way, the extreme weather protocol might do away with such derring do.