Benefits of Lockdown

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.

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Frame from a friend, borrowed for now. Everything else bar the shifters from the parts bin or cannibalised.

 

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Rivendell Dia Compe shifters, lovely ratchet motion. Good fun to spend time between gears, trimming, listening to that rattle.

 

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I can’t recall why I had an 11 speed carbon chorus RD in the bin. I think it had something to do with not putting a bike together properly in the Alps about ten years ago, then using great big pliers to squeeze the parallelogram back together, and then buying a new one when I got back.

Riding Fixed

It is all gravel bikes now, trails and bridleways. It is interesting to think that the current waves of interest have their roots in the bike boom of 2005 or thereabouts; it reignited a lay passion in bikes and got people riding, taking that gateway drug which leads to freedom and a lifelong addiction.

I sort of have a gravelly bike, it’s a triban 520 and is a lot of bike for the money. i got it to cope with a monstrous hilly winter commute and it did the job beautifully. Slimy roads are a lot nicer on big tyres and a relaxed frame. I wouldn’t say I use it to go along paths and restricted byways, I’ve always done this on whatever bike I’m on. This includes failand woods on an R5 with tubular bongo wheels, so I apologise to the MTB fraternity for that KOM back in the day.

Anyway, long preamble. I got the fixed wheel out of the cupboard the other day. It needs a bit of work from Argos; the seatpost is seized after my neglect and a lot of very damp winter rides. Some of the threads are very sketchy. But it felt joyous to ride. It is my favourite bike. It makes me feel better about life and cycling. It felt strangely anachronistic to be riding fixed out and about. After the heady craze of a few years ago they seem to have all but lapsed back into the old school again. I’m fine with this. I am no longer affecting old school, I am old school.

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Alf Engers is 80 today

So here are some mostly unseen pics.

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1956 National Road Race championships with Alan ShorterIMG_20180503_121402739As aboveIMG_20180503_121415856

unknown circuit, late 50sIMG_20180503_121427638

Very young AlfIMG_20180503_121451282

National junior road race champion National 50 Shrewsbury

National 50, 1976, David Pountney pictureAlf profile

1968 25 Champs, J course, pic Dave ShorrockAlf reaching downAlf sprinting

Phil O’ Connor Photos

Phil O Connor is a photographer; he is sitting on a ton of negatives from the 80s and 90s. He takes amazing pics and I often go to him when I need something. I’ll say, ooh, have you any pics of Pauline Wallis in the Tour de Feminin in 1987 and he’ll say, ‘let me have a look’, and then send back a reel of about a 100 pics, all brilliant.

He regularly scans in sets from races, side of the road stuff, mid 80s, seminal, mind-blowing depictions of the sport we love. He dropped this pic of Richard Hallett yesterday which caused a stir on the tweets:

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Most of it was ageless jokes about tricycles, but it was a lovely conversation. Simon Warren started it, then Simon Smythe jumped in, Jack Thurston, Will Fotheringham, Ed Pickering, the lot. See the link below.

Sometimes people crop up in forms you never even knew; a pic of Arctic Sram DS Sir Pete Ruffhead riding in a 24, that sort of thing. These are the sorts of images that tend to disappear in time; I’m thinking of John Coulson’s folders of negatives; Bernard Thompson’s millions of snaps.

Anyhow, one way you can show your appreciation is to buy him a coffee. Have a look through the galleries on the website; dream of a different time, and then chip in £3.

https://ko-fi.com/philocphotos

 

On Process

I handed in the manuscript at the beginning of April. Although this is the end of a big stage of stuff, it’s also the beginning of a new process; the refinement and ‘readying’ of the book from the raw first draft. However, it’s worth noting that the ‘first draft’ as submitted isn’t the first draft per se, I was probably working on version 11 or 12 of my final draft before I sent it in. This doesn’t take into account the redrafting of each chapter, multiple times. This is just the overall redrafting that I do to try and make sure it is coherent, that the chronology works – this became particularly important in the shakedown because I had a couple of different timelines jumbled together. I also try and make sure there isn’t repetition, that the reader isn’t confused by unnecessary detail and that the participants mentioned are essential to the narrative, rather than just names. This means cutting out a few names, even if I have sentimental or emotive reason for mentioning someone.

After going through the manuscript so many times you end up too close to it; in cliched terms, you can’t see the wood for the trees. It is a 300+ page document and you spend hours moving, deleting, shifting, rearranging, and scrolling up and down. Somewhat belatedly I realised if I click the middle of the mouse scroller I can move the mouse instead of rolling my finger over and over. This has transformed my life. Nevertheless, your eyes are swimming with words and names and ideas and you have to hand it over for someone else to have a look.

On submission it goes to the big editor; in my case it’s a chap called Richard Beswick. He does a sort of broad and thematic edit; reads it diligently and my perception is he starts at a high level; an overview – does the text work? – then moves in more closely. After about ten days, which was surprisingly quick, he returns it with track changes on it, and makes suggestions, along with some feedback on the overall thing. This starts a back and forth, working together to get the manuscript in the right place. For me, this involved tackling the chronology of the opening chapter along with lots of other questions and amendments. At the last gasp I had to edit out some bits that I really liked and had written a long time ago because they didn’t work. You can’t be too attached to any of it and have to be pragmatic.

Once that’s done it moves along a line. They have a project manager who leads from here onward. I had to do a lot of work which I had left until ‘later’, only to realise ‘later’ was now; this included indexing the images and tackling resolution issues. It now goes to the copy editor; I think they do all the grammatical stuff, accuracy and the rest of it. I won’t see it again until June 22, then it’s a series of quite tight deadlines. I send it back by 6 July, it goes to the typesetter at the beginning of August, then these proofs come back mid August, at which point it starts to look like a book.

Right now, I’m at a loose end. I’ve been working on this in most of my waking hours when I’m not working on the full-time work I have to do at the same time. Not working on it or thinking about it is a strange experience, as is not having control over the manuscript or not seeking to change it anymore. I find I want time to accelerate and the book to be out, in my hand. It is hard not to have dreams about people reading it and liking it, because this is what I want. I wonder about people not liking it and in my stronger moments think ‘well, fuck them’ but in my weaker moments am more conciliatory. In general, I’m excited and feel really lucky.

To fill the gap I’m trying to not to think about new projects, but any new projects are written onto post-its and stuck on the wall. There are about 4 of these at the moment. I am reading a lot of books. These are the books I have read:

Joe Brown (climber) - Alchetron, The Free Social Encyclopedia

The Hard Years by Joe Brown – a brilliant autobiography about mountaineering and climbing; moves from Stanage to the Himalayas and back again. I loved it; it has a demented honesty about it.

 

The Medal Factory: British Cycling and the Cost of Gold: Amazon.co ...The Medal Factory by Kenny Pryde – a methodical examination of the hidden costs of UK Cycling’s success; I like the way it approaches the subject and sets out all of the detail, but I felt disappointed by the lack of female voices, and a bit worried that when they were included they were framed in a way that the male voices weren’t; i.e “Pendleton and Varnish were probably the bullies and Shane Sutton was a bit misunderstood”. It felt a bit like a writer trying to protect his contacts book at Ineos, which might be doing him a disservice, after all the dispassionate tone in the book does work well in a field where everyone has an arsehole opinion.

 

 

Full Tilt by Dervla Murphy – it’s taken me ages to get around to this one and I really like it. It is a slightly insane account of a ride from Dunkirk to India. Murphy takes a roadster bike, stays at Persian police barracks pretending to be a chap, shoots wolves with her .25 revolver and rides through snow and ice whilst buses crash and people die. It’s a brilliant book, deserving of all the praise. It makes me want to tour again, but probably not in the way that Murphy has toured. I’m not sure it would be as easy to get a gun through customs these days.

 

My non-bike or strange sport reading has included Sebastian Barry, Tessa Hadley, Sally Rooney, Beryl Bainbridge and a few other bits.

Hopefully I’ll get round to posting a bit more now I have less to do.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Manuscript

Strange times, etc.

I am trying not to be censorious. I am keeping my bike rides to just about an hour, within the time frame of what I view as ‘appropriate exercise’. I’m not too judgemental of others doing more, unless they stray into ‘taking the living piss’ territory and do a 310km tour of Norfolk, then I hoik my judging pants right up tight. I’m  bit cagey about long rides, anything nudging above 50+ i tend to feel is a bit inconsiderate, but only because i think that whilst people would go for a walk, but they wouldn’t go for a 5 hour walk, because that is taking the piss, therefore we should probably recognise that there is a limit to this joyous thing we do in the circumstances. a bit of self-sacrifice goes a very long way.

Just to complicate things, people see what they want to see; I note chief nurse Ruth May was banging on about seeing cyclists in London, i suspect it was people trying to exercise or get to work, stuck at the lights. I’ve been out quite a lot and seen fuck all, people riding solo, the odd sunbather, families trying to maintain sanity whilst having no garden, people going to essential work or the shops.

So it goes. Anyway, wasn’t what I wanted to post about, it was this:

I finished the first draft of my manuscript about the End to End. It looks at some of the people over the years, from 1880 to the present day, who have succeeded in breaking the Land’s End to John o’ Groats record. This bit is part historical research (for the dead people) and part interview (for the living ones). I have gone for the stories I found the most compelling and not done a massive overview of everything.

There is a much bigger ‘in-between’ bit than I’ve had in previous books. I undertake the journey, not at record pace, but on most of the same roads and with some fairly big days in the saddle (210 miles from Land’s End to Bristol in 16 hours being one). I write about this in full and quite a personal way, reflecting on the nature of the journey and various other things which I was thinking and feeling at the time, some not linked to the journey or the record overtly, but in other ways that are more surprising – to me at least. I think the two narratives become symbiotic by the end.

I think if you imagine some of the writing about hill climbs, the dark and funny stuff about places (I think those bits are dark and funny) and then add in the bits at the end of the Alf book about time, people, happiness and meaning, then I think you’ll see these elements are bigger in this new book.

It is a lot more personal than previous books, which is something I was nervous about. I put a lot of me, my anxieties, thought processes and so on, into the narrative. I had more faith in my role as narrator, but there are some residual anxieties about what this means; it’s a thin line between writing about yourself and your experiences and being a narcissistic fuckwit. I think I manage, mostly, to stay on the right side of it. I really enjoyed writing about the different people I met, Eileen Sheridan, Andy Wilkinson, Janet Tebbutt, Mick Coupe, Michael Broadwith, Helen Simpson and many others. Their stories reduced me to tears of elation and melancholy.

I sent the manuscript in on deadline, which was a minor miracle, and it’s been read and annotated and is now back with me. There are a few suggestions, things to tweak, expand, narrow. There are a couple more steps to the process, it goes back and forth a bit, then has all the formal proof checks, there are some front cover decisions to take, all of that has to happen. I’m new to it many ways, having been published by Mousehold before, a brilliant independent publisher – basically Adrian Bell who specialises in cycling books. There are some gems on their roster; beautiful books, lyrical and true. Read ‘Tomorrow We Ride’ if nothing else. Or the Alf book, obvs.

The feedback from the chap at the publishers has been really positive. The editor likes it. I’m excited about the process and I’m at the point where I want people to read and enjoy it. Right now, I’m fairly sure it’s all going to happen and not some bizarre trick of the imagination. It’s quite hard to explain. I think the easiest way is to say; ‘remember when you were 16 and in band and you thought you might get signed by Alan McGee but it didn’t happen’. it’s like that, but I actually got signed by Alan McGee, or in this case, Little Brown. Nothing may come of it but that is ok. I’ll be like Arnold or Cosmic Rough Riders or any of a thousand other late 90s indie landfill bands.

I think I might do a post that explores the entire process from start to finish, i.e the idea, getting it moving, getting it published, writing it, pitfalls, the lot. I’m interested in demystifying it a bit, trying to explain how the process of writing and publication happens. It’s easy to see as some big masterstroke when it’s nothing of the sort, however, there is a logic to it. What I do know is I wanted to write, so wrote, and wrote some more, and took some chances, then some people took chances with the chances I had taken. But that’s not very helpful, so I will try and do a helpful blog.

Stay gold.

 

Reading C.C. and hill climb chat

Occasionally I get invited to an event to talk about things. Sometimes it’s a shindig, some kind of degenerate bike party, and other times it’s a club dinner. I might be overegging the pudding here, I think I’ve done three club dinners in 7 years, and one of those was Bristol South and wasn’t really a club dinner, it was a meeting that I hijacked for my own ends.

Anyway, the lovely people at Reading C.C. asked me to speak at their do in “the party room” at Zizzi’s. This was in the main because they are organising the national hill climb this year on Streatley and thought my ‘expertise’ might come in useful.

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I’d come across Clive Pugh before, a Reading Wheeler who came third behind Alf Engers and Les West in the National 50 in 1976. He appears in a sequence of photos taken by the amazing Dave Pountney, one of which made the cover of the Alf book. I love the way he looks, so unassuming and  and so amateur, in the most brilliant way. John Woodburn also had a strong connection with the club and lived in the area for some time.

Reading C.C. is a bellwether for cycling as a whole. The town had two pre war clubs, the Wheelers and Les Bon Amis, who amalgamated in the hard times in the 1970s. After struggling through the dark years, the club now has over 200 members, with a tangible increase in female members and an inclusive approach.

I made the most of the opportunity for a longer ride, breathing in the helpful support of a humongous westerly wind to ride there on Saturday. It was a bit of a classic, I felt good, the legs were good, the wind was brilliant. I went through Avebury and was left wide-eyed by the prehistoric architecture, circles and rows of stones, ditches and banks. The area is ethereal and time seems to dissolve amongst the timeless sarsen megaliths.

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I avoided the grotfest that is the Kennet and Avon canal in winter. One poor piece of mapwork had me riding through a farmer’s field but it was at least rideable. Most of it was on the A4 which is a big and old road, in some way a monument to the past, to coaching routes and journeys that took days, not hours. There are beautiful old mile markers which can be exciting or dispiriting, depending which way you look at them. It’s also the setting for lots of time trials in the past, most obviously the Bath Road 100. It is still used but like every other road everywhere, has been limited over time by rampant traffic growth and density, traffic lights and the primacy of the motor car.

The first red kite appeared at Axford, two of them drifting against the wind with a hooked talon hanging down, scaring the wood pigeons for fun. Nearer Reading and they were everywhere it seemed, gliding over housing estates, or tilting into the breeze at a junction before vying with crows for a tattered mess of roadkill. Near Marlborough I stumbled across a field of Aberdeen Angus cattle, accompanied by a flock of cattle egrets. They took to the air as one, a strobing, syncopated cloud of white wings. It was 82 lovely miles, and a quick run in to Reading. The last half is more or less downhill.

The talk seemed well-received. It is hard talking to a room of strangers, even if there is a connecting thread. It is hard to judge. I may have used the words “eyeball popping out”, “hernia” and “prolapse”, with the last one getting a collective groan of horror as people tucked into their chocolate fondant and it ruptured oozing brown liquid out of the gaping hole forced in the side.

I think I rescued it with talk of emotions and feelings and the amateur spirit, creating and taking opportunities, how life is in the doing. It’s in the decision to get up and make things happen, and in taking on this spectacular event Reading C.C. are creating the framework for people to live their very best lives, to experience what it is like to ride up a hill through a wall of people, to have their Dutch Corner on Streatley, and to experience an emotional intensity that doesn’t happen anywhere else.

I also spoke about the simplicity of the event. There is change, but the type of technological change in this event is minimal. It’s as close to the original spirit of cycling as you can get: you can’t diminish the primal force of a hill through slipperiness. It’s a diamond frame, fixed wheel, drillium, box section, round profiles, these are the weapons against time and gravity. Granville Sydney would recognise the winner’s bicycle, marvel perhaps at the lightness, but see it as a part of the same continuum; whereas Stan Higginson or Frank Southall would be baffled by a modern TT frame. Malcolm Elliot’s course record on Monsal still lingers on, as does Phil Mason’s on Catford.

The national hill climb presents an opportunity for everyone involved, a chance to live life to the very fullest, at its most intense and most vivid.

I think these sentiments went across better than “hill climbs make you shit yourself and your eye comes out”.

When is it training?

Last year wasn’t exactly fallow in cycling terms, i managed about 3000 miles with one super long ride from Land’s End to Bristol, a bit of a hike up North and some general soft-pedalling. However, one of my new year’s resolutions was to try and ride a bit more and be more disciplined about it.

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There are a couple of reasons for this, but the most searingly obvious one is that I feel better when I ride more. it’s good for my mental health. It doesn’t work on its own, there is also a need to try and get things in balance and all sorts of other stuff, but on a fundamental level, a decent and regular blast on the bike has a significant impact. I also start to remember all the good things as fitness returns; the enjoyment rather than sufferance of hills, the way time passes separately to the experience, outside of it, and the crazy things and animals seen in the half-light of an early morning or the evening twilight.

Thus far in January, I’ve done 450 miles, and I’m aiming for roughly 500 a month. This has cued up several comments on the stravasphere about ‘secret training’. There is a grain of truth in this insofar as it helps having something to aim at, but on the whole I’m just working a bit harder and riding a bit further. There has been some weight loss which is also a good thing. I have fond memories of the ‘bantz’ copped at Burrington when I turned up a few kilos over my racing tonnage. I recall something Bradley Wiggins mentioned (not to me, this was in print, not when we were racing together), that people would say to him, ‘you’ve put on weight’ when the reality is he is now a normal weight and before he was at a ridiculous and unhealthy weight. Such is cycling, professionalism, eating disorders and mental health. 

I have to fit it around all the other things that happen, so it involves more long rides to work and a regular weekend ride. It was the weekend ride that had disappeared. And yes, in terms of aims, I am planning a long long ride but it is very much weather dependent and i shouldn’t be planning it for this sort of time year (i.e arctic cold and wind) and it’s not really long in comparison with the stock bun-run of the ultranutters, but it is on the cards.

The book is fast approaching completion of the first draft. I think 10 days, give or take. Then it will be rewrites all the way, redrafts, up until the deadline in April. I was in a total hole with it but have written my way out of that one. I took the advice of a fellow writer (that’s a weird phrase to write, ‘fellow writer’, because it implies I sort of see myself as a writer at the same time) who said ‘write every day’ and I did some writing every day and low and behold it started to move through and the mental quicksand ebbed away.

Lastly, someone tweeted about the hill climb book the other day. This was nice to hear. If you like a book someone has written, let them know. At the risk of sounding completely new-age and not cynical, if you like anything someone has done, book or not, just tell them.

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In the Hole

It’s not an opaque reference to something freaky.

I went to see Emily Chappell talk about her new book and it was brilliant. She used a simple structure, talked about food and bike riding and spent lots of time chatting to her many fans, which was very nice. I caught up with other friendly folk like Vilas. It was definitely a room full of endurance people and I felt a bit out of my depth.

Emily asked how the book was going,  and I think I said something along the lines of ‘it’s hard right now, I’m trying to bring it all together and finish some bits and work through the themes and the really annoying bits which don’t write themselves’. She asked, really nicely, ‘are you in the hole?’ or maybe it was a gentle statement, ‘you’re in the hole’, either way, it was hole-related and it summed up the vortex.

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Essentially, it’s in my head every waking hour of the day, as though my brain is working on a puzzle. I have to stop and write things down, or pull over when driving. I now have fragments of bits of things EVERYWHERE. This is my mind. When I talk about it I get a bit stuck, sometimes even teary – and I have no idea why this is. Lots of strange, intense and inchoate emotions suddenly appear. I’m not sure what I’m tapping into with this book but I think there are definitely more than a few layers of journeys, and there are going to be some more tears. It just makes me seem weird and slightly unhinged in conversation, and I’m sure it’s why I didn’t get a job I applied for recently: because I’m going mental working on a mental book and it was self-evident.

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So tell us why you want the job?

I went to Preston on Saturday to do the last-but-one interview with Gethin Butler. I was really nervous because in my research he seemed quite guarded. It was needless, he went straight to the top of my list of lovely people to interview. I am excited to write this chapter. We had some straight up brilliant teacher-talk as well. LOLZ.

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I have some super photos to put in the text. These are great. The one above isn’t one of them but does show Gethin going vollgaz on a bike that looks too small.

Lastly, this came in:

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