An Extraordinary Day

I went to London today, not to see the Queen, but to meet with a chap who publishes cycling books. Incidentally, the best way to get to London is not via Newport, in case you’re wondering. for the first time in my life i got on the wrong train and found myself speeding through Patchway and into the dark and dank recesses of the Severn Tunnel, rather than alighting at Parkway for a platform hop onto the London Express. As i said, an extraordinary day.

I met the chap at the Jerusalem Tavern. It’s odd to think that i lived in London for nigh on ten years but i never discovered this pub. It’s an amazing place and I will mark it out as somewhere to visit. So anyway, the narrative is as follows: after a somewhat speculative pitch at the turn of the year based entirely on the ‘nothing ventured nothing gained’ school of thought i was surprised when he replied positively a few days later. Further communication followed and since then I’ve been fully immersed in researching and planning a book about cycling (alongside being fully immersed in some other not insignificant upcoming events in my life). This is very exciting but also a little daunting. Whilst it’s not particularly secret, i’m going to keep it close to my chest for now, apart from saying it’s focused on many of the areas explored throughout this blog.

When i got home i found a DVD of images had arrived from Peter Whitfield, he’s a cycling historian who also has access to the Bernard Thompson Archive. The images are startling and provide an evocative insight into the sport. I came across an image of Allen Janes, a life member of the Bristol South, riding his very early Argos low-pro with a crown-mounted handlebar.

technical term: "funny bike"

And to anyone who has been finding excuses not to ride of late, three days ago I met with Vic Clark. He is 92 years old and raced the Manx International in 1940. He still gets on the turbo for half an hour each day. 66 years ago he was National Hill Climb Champion. Talking to him was a moving and fascinating experience. Here’s a very brief snippet:

I hope you’re feeling suitably warm and inspired and go out and ride your bike, if not your tandem, and enjoy the unceasing happiness that cycling brings. i hope i’m able to look back on a life of cycling when I’m Vic’s age, accompanied by someone like Connie, every step of the way.

cycling through the crepuscular murk

i like the word ‘crepuscular’. i’d even go so far as to say that it’s one of my favourites. yesterday’s training ride was entirely crepuscular. i ventured out into a calm and quiet evening, eager to get a good hour and a half in with some big climbs before the scheduled club meeting. the pace was good – i felt liberated and emboldened by the absence of the bullying winds, and i slowly began the climb up and out of Bristol.

Dundry was shrouded in a dense fog, the orange lights bled a murky glow onto the hillside and the fog flowed in waves across my bike light (hope vision one, in case you’re asking, a staple of the past three winters and the perfect country lane light). i enjoyed the surreal and otherworldly glow, felt safe and secure and was riding well. still nights or mornings with fog are beautiful. sometimes in spring i can ride through the fog and see the sunrise and experience the ethereal beauty of the morning, and when i get to work all i have is the vague memory of something different; my colleagues arrive and they are unaware of the spectral beauty that i have experienced on my way to work; all traces have been expunged by the sun’s diurnal progress. i feel privileged.

i inched my way down dundry carefully, visibility was a bit restricted, but not too much. by the time i’d arrived at redhill the fog had closed in. i turned up into the woods and swifty found i couldn’t see much further than around 10 feet; car lights approached as a nebulous glow, and my headlight seemed to dissipate and bounce off the droplets in the air. it was spectacular, and daunting. i know the road well, and yet at one point the branches and trees closed in and I lost all familiar references; for a fleeting few moments my mind meandered and i felt as though i might be entering a different dimension in time and space – i thought it was the road to backwell, but it could well have been a shortcut to some fantastical land. it was quite an experience. at its thickest, the fog was sufficient for cars i met to come to a complete stop and wait for me to pass, such was its encompassing power. i dropped back down to the valley and was pleased to be able to once again recognise landmarks.

on my way back in to Bristol i came up and over the suspension bridge. i am unfailingly moved by the scale and wonder of this feature. it’s fantastic. i try to factor it into as many rides as i can, and regularly ride over it in the early mornings. it’s one of the many remarkable features of the city.

fog up on dundry, where it flows among green aits and meadows
   fog down on belmont, where it rolls defiled among the tiers of traffic
a nether sky of fog, with fog all around
the bridge

Base Miles in Winter (base on, base off)

I’ve been somehow managing to sustain the base mileage over the past two weeks. it might even be three weeks, i’m not sure. i think that base mileage is somehow akin to the seminal ‘wax-on, wax-off’ sequence in the karate kid, whereby the hapless bullied child is reduced to some sort of slave labour for an old foreign man with bad english and a bad goatee, when all he really wanted to do was learn karate. he fails to see any connection between his sub-minimum wage endeavours and the future black belt bully-slayer he wants to be. and yet, when mr miyagi comes at him with his japanese fists blazing, daniel-san knows innately how to respond.

this is how base mileage works. endless repetitive slave labour, chipping away at the coalface of cycling-drudgery, unsure of why or how it might be of any benefit. yet come the start of the season form is fast arriving and bad-goateed funny looking men in lycra are swiftly dealt with by a forearm to the chops.

this week’s double dose of sand the floor, wax on, wax off, consisted of a ride to cheltenham and a spin around the mendips, both fixed. the ride to cheltenham was a blast up and over the cotswolds, including one of my favourite climbs out of wotton-under-edge, with another lengthy ascent to painswick before the drop down to ‘nham. i learnt two things: a long ride in one direction on fixed is infinitely easy with a gift of a tailwind, and my top speed with a 68″ gear is 33mph, or a cadence of 165rpm.

interesting name, interesting people
On top of the Cotswolds, with a woman showing her ass
horseface killah

today i went out with kieran and steve. kieran is quite close to acquiring honorary membership of team douchebag. i haven’t told him this yet, but if he keeps up with the riding and the racing i see no reason why we might not confer on him such an amazing honour. he is quite strong at the moment. steve is probably quite strong too, although his form has dipped this year, and he spent much of last week getting drunk on a TGV and eating some really weird french fondue with an egg and a schnitzel on top. during today’s ride he resolutely refused to raise his heart-rate, and even said prior to Burrington that he was going to ‘twiddle his way up’. he was not joking. Steve also didn’t have any mudguards on his bike, which was pretty shocking for someone of his stature and pedigree. it’s a good job he didn’t do the club run, that’s all i can say, because he would have suffered the indignity of being tutted at by the old guard, and possibly even dropped by the lags. it was a matter of principle for him i think. he stuck to his guns. i haven’t seem him like this since his fabled ‘lardons in poland’ trip.

graham, the third doucheteer, didn’t make it out today because he went riding in wales yesterday. i use the active verb ‘riding’ with caution. he rode up the gospel pass to hay on wye, it’s around 70 miles with a shedload of climbing. he did it on a 68″ fixed wheel. then, just to compound matters, he rode back again, making it a round 135 miles for the day. (before i go any further i want to say here and now that this kind of riding is monstrous) Apparently he walked on some of the steeper sections – the minor 25%+ bits. We mocked him mercilessly for this today, along the lines of; ‘here steve, did you hear this? graham took his bike to Wales yesterday so he could go for a walk‘. my combined mileage for the weekend is some 40 miles short of what Graham, Henry (a giant of a man who rides a 25″ woodrup) and Gary did in one deranged and mental excursion. i texted him yesterday to ask if he was coming out this morning; his succinct reply was: ‘NOT fucking riding tomorrow bastard’.

today’s ride:

nodder
burrington combe, always amazing, but hard work on 68"
steve really earnt this cake. he was angling for a cake stop 20 miles in.
make sure you tick the right box when you drop the pooch off for the weekend

hill climb season

the short and brutish hill-climb season is all but here; and as i’ve loudly made it my season’s aim, it means i have to start working a lot harder and racing much more than i have been. this entails lots of hilly rides, seeking out savage climbs and riding them at pace, frequently above what might be comfortable. i kicked off my training proper (after a delightful enforced absence with belle in italy, eating pizza and ice cream) with a couple of rides into and around the mendips; these hurt a lot. it can be hard to find the motivation when other things are happening, but also when the weather is absolutely vile, as it has been for some time. i threw caution to the wind and went out in all conditions.

some of my favourite climbs near here are:

dundry – from both sides, although i prefer the longer, more subtle climb; it’s now right on  my doorstep which is a cause for much rejoicing.

blagdon – up through the village, straight on, around, and up to the top of the mendips. essentially, it climbs from the lake at the bottom, but i see the start of the climb as being the junction of the high street and the main road. this one is a total stinker, about 14%, if not more, and long.

burrington – the location for the BSCC hillclimb; it’s not overly steep but it is long and requires very careful pacing; i like this one a lot, but feel pressure when riding it because i know it’s a race hill.

wrington hill – a sort of hidden gem, it’s a wall, a complete beast, but thankfully quite short.

there are others, the mendips are littered with climbs edging up and down the escarpments; deer leap, draycott, brockley, red hill, cheddar gorge… it’s relatively easy to go out on a road ride and find you’ve done over 400o feet of climbing in an afternoon, much of it very steep; this is no mean feet, and matches the kind of height gain you’d find ascending ventoux. my friend chris has a ride he does once a year called ‘every climb in the mendips’, and unfortunately the title is literal, it takes around 8 hours.

so yes, hill climb season is pretty much here – and mine started last night with the dursley club hill climb, up stouts hill in the cotswolds. this is a short and sharp climb into a state of penury and wobbly legs, and this hill and I have a bit of previous – it featured as the last climb in the Dursley Hardriders back in April; i seem to remember limping up it in the granny ring on my way to seventh place. it was a very different experience last night; i took the fixed wheel and ran about 65″, which may have been a trifle too tall. i was hoping for a good placing – possibly even a win; being a club event it could have turned out to be a fish and chipper, especially considering the damp and miserable conditions. but really, the main aim was to wear the race number and experience the training benefits that subsequently occur.

a bit more about the conditions before i go on – riding in the rain is a tricky thing – it’s not that pleasant; but it is manageable on a winter bike with full guards. riding a lightweight hillclimb bike means a genuine soaking is on the cards; on the way back from the race i had to wait at the train station for half an hour, getting very cold indeed and feeling not unlike ian stannard. well, sort of.

however, riding up the hill, through the mist and fine rain, underneath an ever-darkening canopy of ancient deciduous woodland was an emotive and curiously uplifting experience; the sort of thing that you don’t get to do because it seems like a silly idea. on the climb the pervasive gloom bought out a genuine and unexpected ethereal beauty. i was chasing my minuteman, and he steadily emerged out of the darkness, gradually acquiring a distinct outline to distinguish him from the murk beyond, like a crespuscular being fighting a private elemental battle with the incline.  later, when on the way back through Uley i saw a flock of circling crows cast as blackened, twitching Vs against a blanket of grey fog; as distinct as stars in the cloth of night.

it was an informal affair at the startline, as befits a club event, signing on at the back of a car and so on. at first i took the wrong number, but survived my error. i knew derek from dursley would be racing, and he was the one to aim for – but then the situation changed somewhat when James Dobbin turned up. He’s a former national hillclimb champion and rider of some repute. and that was that really; thoughts of the win disappeared in the time it took him to extract his team-issue bike from the back of the car. he flew up the mile long climb, which has sections of 14%, and meanders at around 10-12%. his speed was breathtaking, and chastening. he broke the course record with a time of 4.59, derek took second in 5.45 and i got third in 5.47. doing it fixed was an experience, and a good one – but i think i lost time at the beginning where the first 200 metres are pretty flat; i was spinning out at this point. there’s another one next week and i shall try it on the gears to see if there is any difference. the weather may well be sunny – i certainly hope so, but the memory of the inclement conditions will linger for the right reasons.

Ventoux

I went back to Ventoux over Easter for some cycling adventures with Steve and Graham. We took the train all the way there; it felt civilised – apart from the return journey; ‘tous en greve! pour avancer arretons nous!’ it’s quite difficult to articulate the experience of cycling for 4 days around Mont Ventoux, the senses and ideas that infiltrate the imagination at any given moment are almost impossible to capture.

on the first day the weather was pretty cold and grey. we tackled a few minor cols, only up to around 900 metres, the Fantuabe and Col Des Aires. I felt strong, and excited to be cycling in France. Cars gave us inconceivable amounts of space. there were glimpses of road painting…

at all times the mountain loomed over us, and with fresh snow the night we arrived, it looked particularly daunting and other-worldly.

the second day was absolutely beautiful, sunny and clear, but quite blowy, to the extent that you could see the snow being blown off the summit of Ventoux in blindingly white curlicues, we left the planned ascent for the next day.

instead we opted for a 3up time-trial up the gorge de la nesque with our genial host Craig. it was his idea, although i’d talked myself into it by mentioning my early season time trial exploits, and he pointed out that there is an annual ‘chrono de la nesque’. it’s a steady, fairly light gradient, with a fast middle section and some steeper bits that go on, and on, and on, for around 10 miles. steve, craig and I put the collective hammer down for a ridiculously fast 35.54; only a few minutes off the course record, and a full minute and a half quicker than Craig’s personal best. i suffered for this later in the holiday, and later that day.

the return loop showed the staggering height and beauty of Ventoux, and gave us something to gaze at, awestruck, with more snow being torn from the crest by the wakening mistral.

the third day was the ascent. the weather was perfect with azure skies and a stillness. a mechanical nearly scuppered things before we got started, but i learnt the difference between french bike shops and f.w evans. Monsieur Gustave LeVelo can repair a bladed spoke with an internal nipple with no bother whatsoever, in about 30 minutes, for about £17.

the forest was hot, not stifling, but enough to be thankful that it was early april. as we climbed, the treeline gave way to snow; and lots of it.

up to five foot on either side of the road, which meant that the very top, or last km or so, was closed. and it was cold. but it was characteristically mind-blowing, we reached Chalet Reynard within the hour, which was good going. Whilst riding up the later stages i remembered a curious statistic – during last year’s penultimate Tour stage, Andy Schleck attacked 18 times on ventoux. it sounds trite, or straightforward; and yet whilst cyling, and clinging onto Steve’s wheel, it was inconceivable, so terrifyingly distant from reality.

people were tobogganing at the top, and i overtook a snowboarder. i can’t really think of what else to say, it feels like you are on the roof of the world, there is no comparable peak for miles around, the view is staggering. it felt sublime, in the truest sense of the word, a greatness with which nothing else can be compared and which is beyond all possibility of calculation, measurement or imitation, the wanderer above the sea of fog. the descent was incredible, on the wire, i was really enjoying it until a fly flew inside my ear at a combined impact speed of around 60mph. it was strange and disconcerting, a bit too cronenberg for my liking. at lunch afterwards our thoughts turned to how France seems to have been created for the sole purpose of cycling, it’s fantastic, an edenic, two-wheeled paradise.

the last day was the most demanding, cumulatively, a further 75 miles with a huge amount of climbing, including the category 2 Tour climb, col de perty, a 32km ascent culminating in a narrow pass and a glimpse of the alpine peaks some 60 miles distant. it was very cold, graham took the sensible option and went back, steve and I pressed on, and it rained – a lot. we got soaked. it felt edifying afterwards, at the time it felt bleak and miserable. by this point i was even tempted by graham’s electrolyte drink, but not steven’s embrocation rub. it’s a slippery slope.

four of the cols tackled that day were above 1000 metres. it was a brave, slightly foolhardy end to four days of riding, total distance around 250 miles, i shudder to think how much climbing we did. at one point, having ridden along a valley for about 45 minutes at race pace, before being confronted with a final, will-shattering climb, i felt as though i was a participant in some sort of visionary herzog film. i later found out that steve has only seen grizzly man so he was a bit confused by my comment at the time. i guess i was referring to aguirre,  the sort of conradian idea of sanity being slowly eroded by the surroundings, the journey deep into the subconscious, where willpower takes you somewhere you’re not quite sure you should be going.

stroopwaffel

cycling home today, calmly on account of a head-cold of mythic proportions, i was passed by a succession of incredibly glitzy and enormous cars, umpteen 4x4s with personalised number plates, roaring, throaty bmws and the guttural revving of the occasional porsche even. i’m not about to assault anyone with the inequity of such cavernously huge cars carrying one occupant, or the wastefulness of them, nothing like that, because it’s so pissingly obvious that it still seems staggering that they even exist. i was on a different sort of thought pattern; namely – where have all the old cars gone? i can’t really remember the last time i saw a car even with an old-style number plate, let alone something genuinely old. i remember being excited as a child in my uncle’s ford sierra because it was brand new, and a ‘B’ registration; so very cutting edge and inexpressibly now. but then, i seem to remember that cars were older, and new cars were rarer; maybe i’m being selective. anyway, my thoughts moved on (i was nearing clifton by this stage), and i guess some vague element of debord or baudrillard had lodged somewhere in my subconscious, and i got to pondering the car as a fetish object. in fact, as the fetish object; the ultimate accesory and pinnacle of commodification, glitzy materialism writ large.

which is all well and good, and a slightly smug and disparaging smile crept across my mouth; but it lingered only for a second. and in that instance i realised that the possession of 6 bicycles; each of varying levels of sophistication, and for different purposes, is justifiable through similar reasoning used to defend the 4×4 behemoth. i simplify, yes, but there you go. if it’s not cars, it’s shoes.

back to the title of the post – stroopwaffel is an amazing and delicious type of caramelly soft biscuit made by the hollanders. it is the high point of dutch biscuit-making and utterly tasty.