This weekend there is a seminar at Bristol University about cycling and writing. It’s organised by Prof. Martin Hurcombe at the School of Languages.
It is a fantastic opportunity to hear some really great people talk about cycling and writing about cycling. Isabel Best is the author of “Queens of Pain”, a brilliant book. Marlon Moncrieffe is the driving force behind “Black British Champions”. I’m the last bit of the jigsaw and my writing tends to focus on amateur sport within the UK, ordinary people doing extraordinary things.
Tickets are free and available below. I will bring the virtual white wine and work hard to arrange some sort of ‘epic’ backdrop.
I find it hard to cope with the different competing narratives around this year’s championship race. There is that really big thing, the season-wrecking global pandemic thing that destroys livelihoods, health, families, schools and leaves us all lurching from day to day, and week to week, hoping that at some point things will return to normal. And the longer they go on not being normal the more any sort of normal becomes essential, even the form of normal we hoped would be swept aside by the force of change, well, maybe we’d quite like that normal back again, that will now do. People are anxious, Rob Borek, organiser of the biggest hill climb in the South West™ at Burrington, was anxious three weeks ago about our club hill climb, and we all equivocated about what was the right or the wrong thing. I saw clips on BBC Wales of Ed Laverack, reduced to tiers alongside Rebecca Richardson, making the straightforward but horribly difficult decision that they wouldn’t travel. Dissenting voices said it shouldn’t go on. It’s not a national. But it is, and it should, and it’s a shame people can’t come but the race goes on, if anything, for these very reasons, because life goes on for everybody.
I think about Christina Gustafson and her team at Reading CC, abetted by the Cowley Road Condors, Didcot Phoenix, and everyone who has thrown a leg over a bike in the home counties somewhere, along with their nearest and dearest. They resolved, sometime back in the mists of pre-pandemic time, to put on the best time trial there has ever been. They never asked for any of this. They asked for one significant thing: for women to sign up in record numbers. This last request was accompanied by an unprecedented level of effort from lots of people. A groundswell of feeling, of wanting to be a part of a sport that sets out from the word go to ensure that both the opportunity and the outcome are the same for men and women, and not subject to curious fractional divisions of small amounts of money and endless chuntering about how things used to be. Laurie Pestana and Estrella Bikes are at the core of this effort, bringing others in and continually moving it forwards.
I am slightly freaked out by the sheer numbers involved in hill climbing these days. I am old and I can remember when a full field was unheard of and 120 for the National was not a given. In my more self-aggrandising moments I hold myself a tiny bit responsible, having glamourised this most violent of disciplines to the extent that people now see it as a grand day out, somehow ‘life-affirming’, something to be tried on fixed wheel just for shits and giggles, until your eye pops out and something wrong occurs in the duodenum halfway up a hill in Berkshire.
And so it goes. 158 women line up for the start. It seems to prove the adage that “coverage creates interest, then more coverage, then more interest”. Who knew? Well, me, actually, when I wrote that 7 years ago, lolz. And I’m thrilled and excited that the event looks like this, and that the organisers have reversed the order, running the women’s event separately and last because… well, because why not? Articles pop up on influential websites, Alice Thomson writes an op-ed on Cycling News, gets flamed to death in the comments by the men, all of them somehow blundering into an elephant trap of monumental obviousness – what’s that? You don’t think we should have equality? Oh. Well done chap. I post the links, first to Alice, then to Haddi Connant, or Becky Hair in Rouleur, as a useful way to flush out any remaining mysognists from my internets.
So, in all shapes and forms, not a normal race, or maybe it is a normal race, this is what normal is, this is the most normal we can be. I have a secret pass to the hill from the crack team because they liked my book and in turn I liked the cut of their jib. I rode to Reading for a slap-up meal at Zizzis to speak at their club dinner about how hill climbs are vital and beautiful because they are unlike everything and anything else. They happen in extraordinary places. They are as real as anything can be in a world where most of our lived experience is no longer real, but mediated. I park up in the secret photographer’s car park then walk through the lovely/ a bit frou-frou Goring-on-Thames. The river seems huge, running in sluggish spate under the trestle bridges, frothing between weir and boathouse, watched over by frighteningly expensive houses. A red kite slants and shimmies sideways above the road, a spiralling, feathered chevron. There are marshals everywhere, and they are uniformly helpful, friendly and welcoming. Antony Atkin is in charge here, Christina is running the HQ.
My secret pass says I’m a photographer, which I’m not, but I dig out my 40 year old Olympus OM10 – bought from a second hand-shop in Exmouth in 1996 – just to give weight to the lie. I also take my XA2 point-and-shoot because all the photographers I’ve seen always have two cameras. Larry Hickmott has two cameras. He’s like Keith Emerson hunched over a keyboard; first a telescopic lens shot with daylight flash then a quick flick to the other one for the close up. I am not these people but armed with my two cameras I at least took like I might be taking a picture whilst not threatening the people who are actually taking pictures, the ones who like and laugh at my scarf until they see it appear in eleventy billion of their photographs.
The first thing I notice is that there are two start gates. This is how you run an event with 400 riders at 30 second intervals. The calling is off the scale, like demented bingo: number 149 COME IN 149 your time is NOW LAST CALL 149. Regimented lines shift through tunnels, along the markings, socially distanced, sanitised from head to toe, temperatures already checked at the HQ car park a good 2 miles socially distant. And at the crux, in the last minute, the tones of Laurie Pestana are there to welcome the rider, alleviate the stress, ask a question, put them at ease, before the count and launch. It runs like a military operation, but friendlier, with less civilian casualties.
I grab my branded cowbell and analogue photographer’s bib, sneak through the gates and onto the hill. It is a decent cowbell with a crisp, sonorous ring which cuts through the eerie quiet. I think back to Pea Royd or the Rake – other short, sharp snorters like this one, the ones with good lines of sight and a brief walk to the top – and recall the ribbon of people walking up, a constant funnel of noise which increases, up and up, until it presses in at the edges in pinked serrations and a wall of noise and cowbells. And it is absent, there is no question, and I am sad about it because this climb is perfect for the wall of sound. There are marshals at intervals, photographers, lots of photographers, and here and there the odd competitor. The top of the hill crosses The Holies, a beautiful walking path across to an iron age fort. Families stroll across to the road in innocence, only to be confronted by the unwonted sight of people in varying stages of distress and degradation, the rasped death-rattle of competitors, and on occasion, the pained, quasi-orgiastic grunt – the generic features of a good hill battle. It’s not long before interest is piqued and people stop and stare, marvel, and ask questions.
I catch the last of the juniors ripping up the climb. I confirm all my favourite curmudgeonly stereotypes, the one that goes when I was young I was lucky to have a butcher’s bike whereas nowadays it’s a seamless toray ladder from carbon bongo balance bikes to hill-killing weaponry by the age of 12. I find a space and wait for the men to do their bit. I don’t have to wait long, this is a tight ship, there are no gaps. There are also not many who haven’t started. The tier 3 has affected the field, but it is not noticeable. The seeding is brilliant, with a vets event within the main event, the first 95 or so.
Simon Warren has a go, it’s number 24 in his book. He has his race face on. By race face, I mean jaw hanging open, spittle flecked downwards, eyes on stalks, pulmonary embolism etched on the forehead. It makes for a compelling spectacle; for every supervet, the likes of Phil Stonelake, or Glyndwr Griffiths, the ones who wage war on the climb and somehow emerge victorious, there is another who seems to be at risk of imminent death. Knees and cranksets bend and creak in sympathy, lungs collapse and tear, eyes roll back and spectators look away in horror. In amongst the dappled sunlight an elegant figure in white appears. Tejvan Pettinger is the first of the returning champions, back in the saddle after a difficult few years affected by injury and it’s great to see him. In the end, it’s a clean sweep for Bristol of the vets categories. We might not have the fastest cyclists in the all the land, but we have the fastest old cyclists.
The seniors are quick. It is hard to call, but no-one bets against Andy Feather. Murmurings suggest Tom Bell has the legs, that Adam Kenway is there. But the form book says Feather. The pace quickens as we head towards the end. Joe Baker floats over the line, he smiles. Since Pea Royd he has given notice of his potential. His day will come. He always smiles and he seems to have a cheer squad with him, all at suitable distances. But it is Callum Brown who raises the bar by lowering the time. He has his string wheels and his legs are carved from teak, that’s all we care about. At 2.12 it looks tight, until Adam Kenway does what Adam Kenway does and slices a chunk of time off the top. Did I mention the chip timing? It works beautifully. It isn’t about the accuracy – although that is handy. It is about the theatre, knowing as soon as Tom Bell crosses the line, the second his wheel hits the mat, that he has taken the lead by a second. It causes a ripple of excitement and roar from the officials, the timekeepers, the marshals, and me.
And we wait for Andy Feather, we know he is thirty seconds away, and he does it, for the second time. He affirms the notion of the ‘nicest winner in sport’ by being super friendly. I walk over and let him know, casually, that he has won, confirming it with the time – you know, as if I was the actual timekeeper – and the relief and joy creeps across his face, you can see it. His shoulders would relax but to be honest he is absolutely ripped, lean sinews like steel hawsers, so they sort of shift down a little bit. But he smiles, a real, heartwarming smile, the one that says ‘I’m living my best life here’. And in this moment I’m deliriously happy that the race happened, because it enabled this moment to take place, amidst a sea of complexity and anxiety, of stress, not-knowing. This thing – a win – a real, pure win – surged out of the fog and everyone was happy.
But we’re not done; the men were merely the aperitif for this year’s headline event. I walk back down the hill because I want to speak to people and see the women racing and get more photos. Sheila Hardy is here. She is always here. I don’t think she has moved today; stood quietly supporting, talking to the competitors, a gentle word here, a warm welcome to Emily Meakin who arrives just as I walk past. It’s Sheila’s fifth weekend on the bounce away from home in this truncated season of national championships stacked one on top of the other like the world’s most niche game of jenga. Such is her commitment to the world of time trials.
The weight of numbers, the flipped running order, or even if you go beyond the numbers, what this many women lining up to race looks and feels like – these are all amazing things, and it feels brilliant, but at the same time entirely normal. This is the biggest victory. I don’t have to write how wonderful this feels in patronising mansplain, because the best outcome is that it is completely natural and right to flip things and do it this way because women are bike riders and yet have gone last for the past 99 years of time trials. As Michelle Walter heads out to begin her effort the world keeps turning, the hill remains horrid, the effort is amazing, the stars shine still. Everyone is eager to be sated by more violent efforts against the clock, the gradient and our limitations, watching vicariously as we hurtle towards the point where Wilkinson and Jones, sounding every inch the joint manufacturers of stainless steel blades – get set to fight it out.
I loiter so I can speak to Becky Hair and Haddi Conant, because I want to say something to them, even if I’m not quite sure what it is. I feel a bit overwhelmed. I’m thrilled by what they have done, the efforts put in to raise participation and get women riding, how they have put their names out there, in byline form, saying things that need to be said, ignoring the trolls, gathering support and making things happen. I’m angry the conversation still needs happen but I’m absurdly glad that they are having it. I am stopped in my tracks because the rain has lifted and I see three members of the Liv AWOL team, bathed in light, ready to ride, to race and support each other.
I watch Kate McTear fly upwards. I see Alice Lethbridge head uphill, giving it everything, glad to be here. I wait for Bithja Jones and I am left open-mouthed by a display of purest power and souplesse. Mary Wilkinson follows on, chasing at a 30 second interval, two very different hill climbers with one similar outcome: brutal efficiency and frightening speed, but it’s Bithja who edges it with a new course record.
The race is over. Everyone goes home, immediately. The gazebo is moved, hi-viz thrown in a green builder’s bucket. I pause for a moment, just enough time to feel a bit awkward, then walk back down through Goring to the car, taking the time to process the event in my mind. My thoughts are abstract nouns; authenticity, camaraderie, joy, community. The process is unspeakably hard, the outcome beautiful. It is the end of the hardest season anyone has known, the most anxiety-ridden, fitness and form-destroying season of all. But I am grateful that I can watch people race, live in the moment, celebrate their achievements and anyone and everyone else’s.
Somehow Christina Gustafson and her team have pulled the rabbit out of the hat. Everyone is saying that the biggest hill climb or time trial ever, in the middle of a catastrophic pandemic, with no spectators for an event which is supposedly predicated by the gladiatorial galleries screaming ‘encouragement’, has somehow been the best one ever. And they are right, because this year is more than an event; it’s a statement of the human spirit, of why we love time trials, of life as it supposed to be lived, of co-operation and mutual support, and of joy as an act of resistance.
Burrington looms large in my personal cycling mythology. It’s where the hill climbs started, where I rode year in year out. it’s the climb that means the most because of this, but also because of the club connection. It lifts up over the Mendips, a lovely ribbon of road with goats and a hymnal connection.
This year I had a couple of resolutions. The first was to lose a lot of weight. This was precipitated by last year’s 86kg+ wobble to the top of the climb in about ten and half portly minutes. The others were to do a bit of racing. I managed both of these, but to be honest, I picked the wrong year to do a bit of racing. The early season was obliterated and the later season was typified by some club TTs, a couple of opens, a lot of cancellations and several DNS (apols) because the cancellations disrupted everything. I’m not complaining, just saying that it was hard to get up a head of steam.
So it goes. Burrington came around really quickly. I had aspirations of an 8 minute 30 ride. I think in hindsight these might have been wildly over optimistic. I managed it in 9.18. It felt slow, i felt tired. Given that I am now 72kg or so I felt disappointed. But there are reasons, I think. Work has been really tough. I lacked the top end I had 8 weeks ago. That’s the excuses out of the way. All of those things aside, it was great to be back in this crucible of dreams (for me at least), seeing people I hadn’t seen for a while and getting the metallic taste of blood in the mouth and that sensation of being absolutely spent, but still trying to get out of the saddle, like a punch-drunk boxer trying to get off the canvas one last time. I will have to go back next year, where things might be different and I might be a bit closer to not being minuted by a 14 year old.
Wales is a popular destination for cyclists from Bristol. In my usual awkward way, I have tended to stay south of the city, looping around the Mendips. My brief forays to the principality tend to involve a blast up from Chepstow to Tintern then back via Devauden. My main issue is that you have to trek along the Portway and then over the bridge and it means at least 40 miles of the ride is a bit grim. Nevertheless, this week I set out to try some new roads, heading up to the Tumble for the first time on a 100 mile round trip.
The bridge is the fun bit and I bumped into one of the GBDuro 20 riders, heading to John o’ Groats as part of some intense off-road race thing. It’s the same race Lachlan Morton did last year – I interviewed him for the new book – and is the preserve of lunatics. The rules this year are extreme; they have to carry all their food with them and if something breaks and they can’t fix it they are disqualified. Personally I think these are a bit excessive, or shit. Adventure is one thing, being a fascist about it another thing altogether, not to mention enhancing, rather than minimising, risk. Why not insist they stuff their faeces in an apidura turd sack all the way to JoG and have done with it.
I took a left at the top of Chepstow and immediately found myself on the good stuff, empty lanes, curving up and down across the Wye Valley then up into Shirenewton. I had an unscheduled bit of gravel to contend with which meant walking down a 20% scree slope with a furious tiny dog barking through a wire fence. The main roads were very quiet, in contrast to Bristol’s clogged arteries of rage.
The Tumble is an iconic climb, primarily because of height gain. It’s 512 metres at the summit and it takes a good while to get up. It is also visible from a long way out, so has that demented foreshortening effect that all good climbs have, looming over you from twenty miles away, a nudge and a wink, a threat. It sits on the edge of Abergavenny and is in the ‘steep and unrelenting but not too terrifying’ category. It is long though, and took me (in gentle mode) getting on for twenty minutes from bottom to top. I notice the Welsh Championships are on there this year so may even revisit. The views are beautiful, out towards the Sugar Loaf and across to the hills above Blaenavon. It was worth the trek. The top is vaguely surreal. Just as Alpe D’Huez is a bit like a tacky seaside resort at the top of a mountain, the Tumble has its quirks. For one, there is an ice cream van at the summit. The strangest thing was a murky pond – and people were swimming. It was bizarre.
I dropped down into Blaenavon – I’ve been there touring before – and then across along the tops, before a very technical descent into the valleys. I hurtled around a corner and bumped into the GBDuro chap again. It made me smile. We had a chat and I wished him well for the terrors that lay ahead.
There is one other nasty climb out of Usk which caught me by surprise. With 70 miles in the legs it had me vowing yet again to put a compact on the front; I’m still rolling with a hubris-inducing 39:25.
It was a super day out, 100 miles on the dot, about 6,200 feet of ups. One particular highlight was rolling through Mamhilad, where my grandfather was born in the 1920s. I never met him, he survived the war as a Royal Marine Commando, getting injured in the Battle of the Scheldt, only to die a few years later in a tragic accident. I didn’t feel like riding through Mamhilad was a deeply resonant experience – it’s not that nice a place, more a sort of industrial and commercial zone on the edge of Pontypool, but I thought of him, maybe supping in the Star of an evening, and my Welsh heritage.
The benefit of doing all this on a Monday is it means your mileage for the week is all but chalked off. But of course, you then think ooh maybe I can chip off a 200 mile week… and so it goes.
Adam Colvin’s stories on instagram, and the thread of his ride, are well worth a look:
It was great to be in Yorkshire, notwithstanding the awful weather and threat of sudden localised lockdowns. We were staying north of Bradford, not far from Haworth where it is all rolling hills and grippy tarmac and cobbles and dilapidated mills. I love it there and visit regularly because it is where Mum lives and if I don’t visit then I’ll lose a third of my readership.
I planned my second ride to take into account alleged better weather. The wind dropped, but it was still pretty wet and miserable. I wanted to have a look at Shibden Wall, a famous cobbled climb which crests up above Halifax before throwing you down a cobbled descent into the town. Simon Warren rates it highly, it might even be in his first book of climbs. To get to it you need to drop down into a very steep sided valley, then up a glorious bit of smooth tarmac called Lee Lane. Halfway up there is a brutal transition into classic Yorkshire cobbles, right at the steepest bit.
It’s worth saying that people love a good UK cobbled climb, but a lot of them a pretty much a waste of time, namely the cobbled element is the only thing they have going for them. Shibden Wall isn’t one of those. It is steep – not overwhelmingly so – and long. It has two hairpins and it gets steeper all the way; classic hill climb fare. It is probably about 13%, that’s a guess, and I can’t be bothered to google it, but this is made much worse because you can’t really get out of the saddle and it’s right on the ‘get out of the saddle’ threshold. Essentially, you’re churning over the gear, sat down, and trying to find a line. It was wet and greasy like an old chip supper when I did it, just to make matters worse. To summarise, it was hard, beautifully technical and unlike any other climb. It was quite a joyous experience. Although there were plenty of people on t’internet who suddenly started banging on about Trooper’s Lane, also of Halifax. By my reckoning there at least 4 or so beastly cobbled climbs in and around Halifax – the other side of the Wall is Ploughman’s Lane. Put it this way, I descended on the pavement.
I climbed up out of Halifax to the desolate moorland on the road to Rochdale. I’ve been up here before at Christmas time, with needles of ice on the pylons and a solid sheen of watery glass on the reservoirs. This time I wanted to ride down Cragg Vale, just for a breather. It’s a 5 mile descent to Mytholmroyd, dropping back into the Calder valley on the way to Luddenen, so is a real blast. I wanted to have another go at Luddenden Foot, a climb I’d been near in 2012. One way out of the village was used in the National Hill Climb about 20 years ago, a huge angry beast of road clawing up the side of a mountain. However, there’s another one called Stocks Lane which is really horrid and rolls up towards Mixenden. It climbs about 650 feet in under 2 miles and is a whopper. With the benefit of a tailwind I survived the experience, but it was a close thing.
The moorland up above Bradford, places like Denholm Clough and Ogden, is beautiful and at times eerily empty. Everyone craves space and solitude, now more than ever, but these wild places are as quiet as anywhere I’ve been. In fact, there is a route across the highest point, called “Cold Edge Road”, and it is a transcendent place, literally lifting you up above the landscape, the sea of current anxiety, of people and places, work and furlough, fear and loathing, to a place where no-one else goes. And it is surreal, because right up at the highest point of Warley Moor you can join the Halifax Sailing club.
I’m up in Yorkshire for a few days with the family so took the opportunity to go out for a quick ride. That was the plan anyway. What transpired was a 4 hour catastrophe. It consisted of disgusting climbs, horrible wind and rain and a series of navigational howlers. The worst one was riding up the ‘closed’ main road climb from Hebden Bridge to Oxenhope in the belief that it wouldn’t be properly closed. I was in bad mood before I even started because I’d tried to avoid the bottom of the road, only to have google maps redirect me up a cobbled staircase on my bike. I got onto the main road further up. It was properly closed. There wasn’t even a road. I got out the OS map and took the old road to Haworth, thinking it was a road. It wasn’t. To be fair, it was barely even a track. Three mountain bikers laughed at me. I got covered in filth and my bike is unrecognisable.
There were moments where the ride changed from being vile to ‘almost acceptable’, but these were few and far between. I found an absurd climb called “Goose Eye Brow” which led onto “Game Scar Top”. Everywhere were reminders of my fallibility; “Lower Slack, Slack Road”. The list goes on.
I think the technical term for it is ‘character building’.
The stats are pretty unpleasant. I told my mum the other day how fast I was riding these days. This is what happens as a result. My garmin was showing a 13.5mph average, which is a bit more acceptable, given the amount of climbing walking across the moor in cleats.
Yesterday I did my first time trial for three years. I am not including Burrington last year which was solely a sentimental ride because it was ten years since I did it for the first time and I was fat as hell, prompting a series of kind comments from close friends about how fat I was and how the hill climb diet clearly wasn’t have the same impact as it once did.
Three years ago I did one classic league race. I had planned to do more but life did its getting in the way. Since then I have had several false dawns and generally been resigned to not racing, simply pootling about and doing a bit of touring. It’s a joyous state, gentle and outwards facing, good for the soul. It isn’t training though, in any shape or form, because training requires a lot of effort, routine, structure, and above all, it required time I did not have. It is possible to go and ride slowly for a while with no training and enjoy the experience. It is not possible to do time trials with no training and enjoy the experience
The key thing that has changed is I have all but finished writing – the book is hurtling through the edit phase (proof pages due in a week or so, details of the book can be found in catalogues, it is slowly emerging into the world) and I haven’t got to use every available increment of free time to write more words to complete sections and meet the deadline. I’ve said it before, but there is only scope for three things in life; family/marriage, work, and one other thing (i.e a hobby), and I’m genuinely pretty bad at getting these in the right ratio. Trying to ride whilst doing other things only affects other people. I think I regularly get tangled up in the desire to ride and gain the benefits from this kind of exercise, whilst not acknowledging that there is not enough time and that this time is time other people need, time needed to meet other commitments. It’s a struggle, and I feel bad that I get it wrong so many times, for myself, but also for those closest to me. It’s too easy to think that just going riding is the answer and everything else is the problem.
I had planned to ride earlier in the season but did not see the global pandemic dystopia coming. Nonetheless, I have been riding since and getting quicker, slowly. It is hard to quantify if I am quick or not because I am quick against recent measures – it would hard to be slower – but I am slow against older measures – it would hard to be quick against those. For example, I nearly shat myself through effort on a climb the other day, only to find I had been up there at least 14 times at a quicker pace, and on occasion had gone up there 3 minutes quicker. A huge amount of resilience and faith is needed.
The graph is interesting – it shows the peaks and troughs of form and also shows through the years where I have targeted this climb as a measure of fitness, it has an outlier then tends to feature a series of rides at higher pace. My most recent one is on that crest – really going full beans – but still two minutes slower than the rides about 7 years ago. There are such obvious reasons for this but they have to be remembered. I was about 67kg and doing billions of races and riding a Cervelo R5, to name three. This is where the resilience is needed. I have recalibrated my goals, based on being 44 years old and heavier.
I have lost some weight, I was 85kg or more at Burrington, which is as heavy as I have been. I am 6ft 1. Since then the weight has come down to 76kg, with 75kg as my initial target. Weight is important because these are the things that training consists of, eating better, drinking less, riding more. Sometimes people think that no training has happened, and that fast rides are just these things that happen, when in reality a lot of training happens. People also tend to think that training can only happen on a turbo, linked to zwift. I don’t doubt for a second that zwift is useful, unbelievably so, but it isn’t the only way of training.
I have been focusing on 5 minute efforts over the past 6 to 8 weeks, and stepped up the intensity over the past 4 weeks. What I mean by this is I’ll plot a 30 mile route with 3 or 4 long climbs and go hard on those climbs, whilst trying to maintain pace on the middle bits. It’s very old school, but it works for me. I am increasing my capacity to ride at threshold and beyond for five to six minutes at a time.
And back to the Lake. I had forgotten how much fun it is to see people at an evening club ten, the gentle camaraderie and support, being laughed at for having the oldest skinsuit and the oldest bike, that sort of thing. I am on the Giant TCR with parts bin components. It is very very light and very easy to get a good position. I really like it and I am quite surprised by this bike, although I guess I shouldn’t be, it was good enough for Michael Hutchinson and the Once team.
There was a lot of serious bongo on show. Everyone is using massive chainrings these days. In my retro-filtered view I’d assumed they were pushing massive gears, but it’s all about efficiency. They have huge derailleur jockey wheels and enormous rear cassettes, 36t side-plates at the back. Cables are hidden away and electronic shifting is du jour. I felt a bit odd on my relatively shallow wheels with friction shifters and a standard road double. I can’t actually get the cassette into the 24 or 25, which doesn’t really matter but is indicative of my spannering skills. I have paired a shimano front mech, maybe tourney or something I found, with a campag record square taper chainset. There is a margin of about 0.01mm where it doesn’t make a horrid graggedy-graggedy-graggedy noise between each gear. It’s quite exciting.
I have missed the Lake, it’s a technical course in the best sense of the word, rolling, sharp turns, bit of traffic and lots more casual cyclists of an evening than i can remember. I was hoping for a 22 minute time for the 8.3 miles but was pleased to dip under 20 minutes, with 19.50, or a 25 mph average. It’s a bit of a way from my PB of 18.25 but it was a lot quicker than I had hoped. I was being chased by someone on full bongo so was pleasantly surprised to not be minuted. Should I choose to do more there are lot of additional gains I might be able to access (shoe covers, shiny skinsuit, better bits, faster wheels, considerable weight loss) so there is cause for quiet optimism. However, in my experience I tend to go slower each week.
Lastly I rode out to the TT, through the mean (and very congested streets) of Bristol. I carried the space helmet on the bars. I then wondered why I was carrying the space helmet on the bars, and concluded it must be because I was scared of looking like a complete tool, at which point I realised I was wearing the world’s worst skinsuit, riding a desperately inappropriate bike through Bristol traffic and already looked like a complete tool, so put the helmet on and had done with it. I was spotted by the Bike Radar gruppeto riding up over Dundry, the steep side. They mocked me later for this, but made up for it by casting me as one of two ‘Legends of the Bristolscene’.
I haven’t been camping for a very long time. I can remember the handful of occasions in my adult life where I have ended up under canvas. I went to V Fest in Essex and it was truly revolting experience. The Prodigy played and I hated it and then hordes of drunken, drug-ravaged Essex folk rampaged through the grounds. I had a pop-up tent which opened with such force that it swallowed me whole as I attempted to pull it out of a distended circular sack. I then spent three weeks trying to fold it back down again. On the Saturday night I went out to go for a waz and I saw some youth shitting by the side of the arc-lit path, eyes like saucers. The next morning I packed up and went home.
A few years later I camped backstage at Truck Fest and it was marginally more civilised, simply because it was bands and people like that only. I was playing drums in a violently unpopular and offensive gay-cabaret-punk band, as the token non-gay. I remember being marooned on a table with chums, slightly worse for wear, but happy, all wearing beatific smiles, right up until the moment Biffy Clyro finished on the main stage (i.e. the only stage not in a barn full of cowshit) and a crowd of young people drunk on absurdly complicated scot-prog and cider came pouring through the field towards our table. Their trousers were uniformly enormous with cords hanging off like tails. We ran for our lives. I resolved to never camp again.
All of which means I am very late to the current craze for micro adventures, bivvying, wild camping, or whatever it is called. I have always preferred to travel light, have a bed and a shower. It’s not so much the shower and bed, more just the convenience of riding without tonnes of stuff that appeals. Nevertheless, I have wanted to camp out and get away from it all, and this desire for escape has been amplified over the past three months as the world outside shrunk beyond recognition.
After a brief plan (let’s go for a bivvy) and some scouting (the woods look good) we picked a day. I say we, it included seasoned bivouac pro, Kieran. He is absolutely hardcore. He regaled with me tales of a monstrous bivvy ride across all sorts of mountains in France and Italy. He has serious kit. I don’t have serious kit, but I do have kit. Kieran’s idea of a bivvy is sleeping in a bin bag in your clothes. My idea is creating a set-up that is as close to home as possible. He called me noob at one point and I can’t remember why. To be fair it could have been any one of a thousand things I said, did, or was wearing.
We met in the middle, I took a tent, sleeping bag, mat, small stove and some supplies. I put flat pedals on the bike and rode in casual clothes. It was curiously liberating not to be in lycra. I had one fairly substantial mechanical where I had forgotten to tighten the rack bolts properly and the whole lot began to pivot back on the bosses. I tightened up the one remaining bolt and then used a carradice strap to hold it in place. I didn’t share these details with Kieran when he turned up. My mechanical reputation is already quite low round these parts.
We rode out to Congresbury for chips at about 8pm. I bumped into Elliot Davis, famous world masters track champion, and he learned of our plan. He shook his head in a ‘stay off the moors lads’ kind of way. After chips we rode up one of the longer climbs on the Mendips to the designated stretch of woodland and met up with Steve Green, another Bristol South alumnus. He wasn’t staying over but fancied sitting out under the stars and drinking a beer.
And that’s pretty much what we did. Had a couple of beers, some whiskey, watched satellites and looked at the hazy smudge of comet neowise, talked about life and everything and nothing. We saw a glow-worm. Steve left at midnight but I think it took him most of the night to find his way out of the wood. Keiran said the next morning that he saw a bike light flashing this way and that for several hours.
The night was cold. I had a one season sleeping bag, comfortable to 11 degrees apparently (noob). I think the temperature dropped to about 7 or 8. It was freezing. I had all my clothes on. I kept my hat on all night. It was a creeping, insidious cold, not a cosy, oh i’m insulated against this cold, but a vindictive, drafty chill. I had more sleep than I thought I had, but it was probably only about 4 hours. I woke at 4am to the sound of cows frotting, sheep being sheep and tons of birds. It was nice, but I was tired. I opened up the tent and looked outside, resigned to no more sleep, only to fall asleep for another hour.
Second time around I felt better, it was closer to 6am and marginally warmer. I think everything about the camp was amazing – with the exception of sleeping – but the morning was the transcendent bit. Yes, the stars are great, it’s dark sky, the conversation, the sense of being alone in the landscape, all good, but it’s that feeling in the morning when the world isn’t awake and the sun is creeping over the tops of the trees and chasing the shadows away, the newness of the day, the feeling of optimism – that’s the best bit. I made coffee on my tiny primus stove. I was absurdly well-prepared, and I think Kieran was impressed because I brought my V60 pour-over thing. Only to realise I had jettiisoned the extra cooking pot so had nothing to pour it over with (noob). Luckily I had a coffee bag in reserve. Somehow, it tasted like the most amazing cup of coffee in the world. I had a couple of croissants to go with it. I sat there in silence and looked at the light and drank my amazing coffee.
We broke camp – I actually used the phrase and I don’t think Kieran cringed at the time, although a part of him might have died inside – at around 6.45am, left no trace and headed back to Bristol, chatting all the way. I got in at 8.30am. I was back in bed by 2pm for a nap, then went to bed at 9pm for a further 12 hours, lights out. Kieran went and did 75 miles in Wales with a couple of monstrous triantelopes then went mountain biking the next day.
I’m not hooked, insofar as I haven’t been scouring the internetz for ultra lightweight shiz and a green bin bag and a tarpaulin with a ridge line, but I am looking forward to doing this again with a 3-season sleeping bag.
There are some silver linings to this anxiety filled and unprecedented crock of shit that is Lockdown. I have been getting out on the bike more, or at least, I have been doing more of the slightly longer rides and less of the commuting. It is nice to have a bit more time in the mornings and not try to wrangle everyone out the door, fed, washed and shatted in about 6 seconds.
I seem to be out riding more consistently at times when other people are out riding, as opposed to crack of dawn raids on Clutton and Hallatrow, where the god-fearing people have yet to see a bicycle and would likely summon the local druid to expel the iron horse of witchery should one appear. This means I am seeing more cyclists, both new and old. I feel obliged to include a disclaimer right now, before I say the offensive stuff.
IT IS A GREAT AND JOYFUL THING THAT THERE ARE SO MANY PEOPLE ON BIKES RIGHT NOW.
OK and on with the show. I notice even fewer club jerseys than ever before. Instead I see way more Rapha than I thought possible, head to toe, in matching bikes. I see people who have gone to enormous lengths to recreate a club jersey with their own logo, shared amongst three male friends. The logo is either comedic “SLOW OLD BASTARD CC” type thing, or some kind of faux-praux logo or acronym. The bikes are shinier and more aero than ever. So many people are riding such a lot of bike. I miss the old days when you had to ride a piece of awfulness made of cast iron for at least 15 years and then maybe someone might let you have a second hand Raleigh 501. The pro look is so current, but it’s a warped simulacrum of a pro-look, and it’s a bit disturbing. Sort of like being a bit mullered at a party and not being able to fully recognise someone because they look somehow not like they should. It is big wraparound glasses and long tesellated socks and long arm sleeves and all the irregular striped patterns and chiaroscuro.
On Sunday I was riding up 2 mile hill, near the bottom when i heard a dreadful wheezing and clanking from behind. It wasn’t me, unusually, but it was a nouvelle-vague ‘roadie’ in some kind of demented colourway, reaching for my wheel like it was the last rolo in the packet. What with the Covid, I let him go past, and because genuinely I thought he was going faster than me and I am slow these days. He duly went past like a wobbly pantechnicon overloaded with timber, and wheezed out a thank you. I think he realised his error quite quickly. As did I, when I saw he was in the bottom sprocket and the gradient was about 4%. I sat tight for a few hundred yards as everything slowed down, then had to hoof it around him on the fixed gear and put in an unseemly effort to get on up the road. It was all a bit weird. It seems quite typical really. I would say ‘don’t you know who I am?’ But I only my mum and three other people can answer this question with any certainty. Maybe I should say “I once went quite quickly up here before you were born, it was the KOM but is now 156th on the strava list, Even the Spinkatron is down at 54th.”
The exception to this wave of curmudgeon is the number of women on bikes. There are lots more, riding together, doing their thing. This is brilliant and great for cycling. Anything that reduces the excessive maleness of this sport is a good thing.
Today I went out super early, didn’t take the dog, but did take the certifiably ‘old skool’ (c. Clutterz) Giant TCR TT bike. It’s fun to ride a TT bike. I miss it, sort of. I think when I ride one there is a moral imperative to at least ride fast, to put in an effort, so it has a distinct training benefit. Hence I managed 40 miles at 20mph. I hurtled past a raphanaut on the way out of Bristol. He was full garbed. The bike looked like it had been freshly shat in a wind tunnel. I began pondering whether a TCR from 2001 is faster than a new aero-bongo road bike. I suspect the bike is less slippery, but the position is a lot more helpful. I have it set-up with a rivendell friction shifters, an old campag record chainset and various other mismatched bits. I took the winter wheels off the Mercian. I do have some racier wheels, but they might stay in the cupboard in case one day I actually do a race. The saddle was from my Decathlon gravel bike. This was a bad decision. I think at my advanced age I need something that has a gentler conversation with the goochular region, as opposed to a bar-room fight with a broken bottle.
It was a lot of fun; the roads are still quiet. Yes, there is traffic, but riding in the rush hour is not like it was. It is getting busier all the time and for the first time I encountered a bit of a queue on the way back into Bristol. I miss the quiet times.