The Old Ways

This weekend an old friend was visiting from London’s famous London. We went out cycling and I endeavoured to show him some of the highlights of the area, but forsaking the savage climbs which make up a typical scenic perambulation in my route-book.

At the Drove In

It has been a thoughtful weekend; I haven’t seen him in about 5 years and in that time a lot has happened. It was good to catch up. Sometimes friendships drift away over the distance of time and space and it’s reassuring when old acquaintances resurface and connections are reforged. Will put it succinctly when he remarked that things in common stay in common. We talked of disparate things, the difficulties and demands of living in London, solitude and solipsism and our ever-changing sense of subjectivity; over 5 years any collective sense of who we are, let alone any individual sense, has changed; how we perceive time and space changes. Maybe i’m just getting old.

Our conversations kept returning to Roger Deakin and Robert Macfarlane, two significant ‘nature’ writers, the latter heavily influenced by the former. I think that both writers try to capture in words the fugue state that can only be accomplished by encounters with nature, usually when divested of the trappings of the material world, including notions of time, space and self. Setting out on a meandering cycling ride that consciously sets out to avoid main arterial routes, seeks out ancient paths and avoids cars, underpinned by the flow activity of cadence and gentle reiterative motion, results in a joyous amnesia from the conscious and unconscious realm. It’s a paradoxically modern movement that pitches the transformative geography of the rural environment against the urban sprawl and notions of psychogeography, just as the the figure of the tramp acted as a counterbalance to the flaneur in early modernism,

“The open road, the dusty highway, the heath, the common, the hedgerows, the rolling downs… the whole world before you, and a horizon that’s always changing…”

We went along drovers’ roads, through and around strangely named paths; Beggar Bush Lane, Horse Race Lane, Winter’s Lane, Dark Lane, Claverham Drove, Blind Lane, Brinsea Batch, Cardytch Rhyne, Crookwell Rhyne, Pudding Pie Lane, Half Yard, Tinker’s Lane… a litany of lyrical naming that hints at the past but only in half-revealing, the narrative significance lost over time to leave only a geographical palimpsest.

These are the old ways Robert Macfarlane explores in his book. We meandered across the landscape on a day when average speed was of no value. We saw buzzards and kestrels at close quarters, hovering and screeing across Kenn Moor. Cattle slept lazily in the fields, indolently aware that the days of the drove were gone, they would be chauffeur-driven to their fate. We were chased by yapping dogs and hailed by fellow cyclists, each enjoying the sun and brief respite from yesterday’s rain. We rode along the Strawberry Line and gazed at the endless cider orchards.

Will had a terrible accident…
Whilst overreaching…

 

in pursuit of perfectly ripe and delicious fruit…
and etched a story in blood-red spatter to go with the mythical belgian stripes

After serendipitous encounters and perfect cycling, we took the route around the airport and marvelled in child-like wonder at the planes lurching askew into the crosswinds directly above our heads, each new experience adding colour to what was already the perfect bike ride. 

the physical impossibility of death in the mind of an artist living (le blaireau)

Will was eyeing up my bicycle. I have got the Mercian back on the road; it was the perfect bike for the day; hand-built for extended jaunts into and around the English countryside. I put new bar-tape on, it looks a bit Bet Lynch but is nicer than the slightly mismatched yellow I had on there before.

new bar tape
Coronation Street’s finest

I’m looking forward to taking the bike out on the saddle bag tour next month. It’s perfect for the job, absorbing any imperfections and ameliorating the rigours of the road with comfort and efficiency.

The King of Mercia

Here’s to a weekend of rekindled friendships, the enduring fellowship of cycling and the open road, escapism and simplicity.

 

 

the punishment pass

if i chased after a tenth of the cars and drivers that come too close or scare me witless i’d never get anywhere near where I wanted to be. I might get quite fit and it could also be suitable for intervals, but it would present some serious geographical challenges. As a general rule i try to say nothing and do nothing, be unassuming and keep on the straight and narrow.

today i chased after a car; it swerved towards me on a blind corner of a narrow residential street. the street is two-way but with no entrance at one end. this seems to convince some drivers that it’s therefore a one way street and any cyclists coming the other way must therefore be punished. I’ve had people screaming in incandescant rage before now.

a close call with a car and driver which involves the car being driven at or near the cyclist, wilffully and dangerously close, is known demotically as a ‘punishment pass’. it requires a weird suspension of normally accepted behaviour and the cyclist to be seen as an inconvenience or object of irritation. it also needs a dehumanising factor – no-one would swerve at a small child ambling into the road to punish them for being there. somehow, within the confines of a car, the presence of a cyclist can create all sorts of odd and visceral reactions in seemingly sane and rational people.

after standing silently for a few moments I opted to chase after the driver and remonstrate. in common parlance, i flipped out a bit. anyone who spends a lot of time on a bike on the road will have a tipping point – there is a limit to how much ill-treatment you can take from ignorant and life-threatening people.

i caught the driver at the lights and they knew immediately why i was there. there was a flash of recognition, followed by an attempt to defend themselves. it went like this: It’s a one way street/I didn’t have much space on the right/I didn’t see you/i see cyclists every day/i respect cyclists on the road. None of these statements had any connection with the truth. 

The driver was angry about the whole thing; a horrible misguided and inarticulate anger that comes about from knowing you’re defending something indefensible. I imagine later there will be conversations about ‘bloody cyclists’ and being ‘assailed and assaulted by an angry lycra lout’, all of which will be very wide of the mark. But in the back somewhere will be the nagging knowledge and guilt that they were completely in the wrong and made a stupid choice.

I have a child and all i want to do after a training ride or commute is get home and see my 6 month old daughter. people need to pay more attention to vulnerable road users. i imagine the person involved probably has children, loved ones, relatives, and wouldn’t begin to contemplate driving in such a way anywhere near them.

Arguments aside, and you can argue with someone in a car for as long as they choose to argue and not get anywhere, there are some simple realities. A driver made a stupid choice in a fit of pique because they felt a cyclist was in their way. It happens all the time, every single day, on every single ride. In this case, that would have been it if i hadn’t caught up to remonstrate to attempt to remind them that I am a person rather an obstacle. There was a moment of intense irony when the driver reached over to lock their door and said they felt ‘threatened’. Apart from a fairly strident tone, i was about two metres away and my body language was entirely unthreatening. Threatening is two tonnes of metal coming within a couple of inches, at speed, with deliberation.

Vulpine are currently running this campaign.

getting home after cycling and telling penfold all about the ride

 

Dundry, Parsonage Lane, Blagdon, Draycott, Shipham, Wrington, Belmont

I’ve been trying to rebuild my base endurance after it took a walloping due to illness and other factors. this involves the same sort of training as normal, but with some extended weekend jaunts out into the mendips, taking in at least a few hills. Today i tackled a ride i usually favour during a ‘build’ period. it’s not one for the faint-hearted or faint-legged, for a couple of reasons. The total elevation tops out at 5000 feet, hitting that all important 1000 feet per 10 miles marker. There are 6 particularly unpleasant climbs, interspersed with some opportunities for recovery. It’s really hard work and maintaining any kind of average speed above 15mph is very difficult, requiring considerable exertion on the ups and and on the flat.

The route starts with an ascent over the steep side of Dundry, and it’s very steep. It takes around 4 minutes, oscillating between 10 and 20% with not much inbetween. The hairpins are also very steep. It’s a wall. Parsonage Lane is much gentler, at around 6% for about 0.8 of a mile. After that, Blagdon looms large. It’s the nastiest way to get up the north side of the Mendips, rising up from Blagdon Lake to the highest point of the hills in 1 3/4 miles. The elevation pitches up to around 15% at various points and is never particularly shallow. It’s a climb I really like but it’s never particularly easy, just tipping over the edge of steepness to make it hard to find and maintain a rhythm. It’s used in the Colin Carfield road race where the action generally explodes.

After a brief recovery and descent of West Close – a hill climb course used this year by Team Tor and for the National HC in 2000 – it was time for the hardest, nastiest, most revolting climb in all the Mendips: Draycott Steep. It’s a climb most people avoid on account of its unremitting savagery. it’s hard to explain precisely why, but it could be because of its unassuming nature. Essentially, it heads up out of Draycott to the very top of Cheddar Gorge in one straight, steepening line. There is no opportunity to gather breath or recover. The climb is a mile and a half long; once it pitches up to 15% it doesn’t slip back down for about a mile. Instead it gently pitches up to about 22%; the increased incline isn’t immediately evident, you can’t see it looking up the hill, but it’s evident when you start pedalling in squares and the front wheel becomes light and unstable. I find the climb exerts a curious allure, it’s a challenge and every now and then i head down and have a pop. I’ve never had a good climb on Draycott, my only memories are struggling up and wishing i had something else other than the 39:25. It’s simply too steep for too long to get any kind of rhythm.

The hostelry at the top of Draycott

Once i’d reached the top of the Mendips my legs were a bit ragged. A rapid descent of the gorge and blast through Cheddar allowed some respite. I’ve never seen quite so many cyclists coming up the Gorge, small groups and individuals enjoying the glorious weather; i probably passed around 25 riders. I’ve always preferred descending the gorge to climbing up; it’s not much of a climb, to be honest, and the scenery is more impressive when you plummet down through, remembering only to ‘think goat’: watch out for the bearded ruminants who line the cliffs.

two cyclists dwarfed by the towering cliffs of the gorge

Shipham is a main road rhythm climb, rising out of Cheddar and back up the side of the Mendips. It’s not particularly nice because it heads past a quarry, but it’s relatively straightforward. After that I hopped up over Wrington, a short and very steep climb with amazing views across to the Mendip escarpment, then rattled back into the city, pausing only to direct some leisure cyclists (aren’t we all?) onto the railway path and point some day trippers towards Clevedon. A quick ascent of Belmont and super fast descent of Clarken Combe finished off the ride. Average temperature, even at 8am, was 78 degrees. Very very hot. In an unprecedented development I drank two full bottles of jungle juice. I feel like my legs might be returning.

Riding the Trough of a Wave

It’s been a busy week. Last Sunday I went to the Welsh course. I had very low expectations but somehow came away with a 51.45. I would have taken this beforehand. It was a windy day in the Valleys. Wendy Houvenaghel was there, she turned in a short 54.

The Wendster; all round cycling superstar
Here be dragons… on some sort of monocoque frame

I then took things easy on the Monday. It was wet and dank. On Tuesday I headed out to Didmarton for a Hardrider. Incidentally, the surnames recorded in the parish graveyard, and in that of the Didmarton Congregational church, include: Baker, Bickerton, Borham, Cox, Gould, Lucas, Pritchard, Short, Rice, Robbins, Till, and Tuck. The race was a chastening experience, i was well beaten by several other people I have been beating relatively recently. My legs deserted me and the headwind was cruelly indifferent to my lack of form and general fatigue.

I rode slowly to work on Wednesday through the dank and murky mizzle.

Legs of despair, murk-ridden cruelty

The weather has since atoned for its derision and nastiness with a couple of days of glorious sunshine. It looks suspiciously like it might be a floaty weekend. Therefore it is inevitable that my race is cancelled due to roadworks.

Gloire du matin

I shall be busting out the C-Bomb tomorrow for a ride around the North Somerset environs, dreamily contemplating the distant prospect of a return to form, one day.

Dawn of the Replicants

The sun has made a welcome reappearance of late. This has also led to the reappearance of hordes of cyclists on our otherwise quiet and uninvaded roads. They are a peculiar species, the summer cyclist, akin to the cicada or some other organism with an innate biological or seasonal trigger point. I went out yesterday (started early — took my bike) and even at 8am the presence of susbtantially more cyclists than usual was apparent. Several of them were in various combinations of team kit. Not many were in club kit. I bumped into Nick Pilborough from Spin Rotor Primal and we chatted about the Tour Series. He still had his race number on his bicycle. Tom Stockdale had a really unpleasant crash in the Colchester event, I’d watched it on catch-up that morning and it looked very hard indeed, so it was nice to hear from a team-mate that he was going to be OK. The racing at the Tour Series looks incredibly hard – short technical circuits with sharp hairpins and an elite field – not nice. It’s also usually raining which doesn’t help.

The sunny weather at the moment means short-sleeve order and it’s a rare treat to able to head out the door without giving it too much thought or having that nagging interior monologue rattling around the brain – am I going to be too cold? too hot? should i swap rain jackets? mitts or defeet dura-gloves? leg-warmers or knee-warmers?

I headed up clarken coombe, it’s one of my favourite climbs, and I was going well until i unshipped my chain. I couldn’t do the old flick back on, so had to stop and get oily. I was annoyed. My annoyance lasted until I got to the end of beggar’s bush lane and saw this chap:

some chopper out strava-bombing in replica team kit

A first glance told me it was the mighty JTL. Confirmation came in the absence of a helmet: as any fule kno the professionals never wear helmets. I chased him down – lucky for my he was on a recovery ride, soft pedalling and generally chilling out, and asked if i could take his photo. He was really friendly and obliging and stopped at the side of the road for a chat. I got a bit over excited and tried to control myself. Our conversation was fairly typical of any conversation between two keen cyclists, he asked me where I was heading, i mentioned two mile hill – ‘the one with the switch backs heading up to horserace lane’ said JTL. He was tired after a very heavy week, I asked what he had been doing, he said ‘everything’. JTL’s planned ride was a gentle jaunt out to Wraxall and towards Clevedon. He even asked what races I had planned… I said I was keeping my powder dry until the hill climb season and doing a lot of hilly time trials with quite a bit of climbing in them, sometimes even as much as 2000ft. I asked him what races he had lined up, he said “I’m racing at the Tour De Suisse in a week’s time. Some of the climbs are over 3,000 metres”. It’s not quite the BSCC/Dursley hardrider, but I’ll allow him bragging rights on that one.

It was quite an encounter. I took the opportunity to congratulate him on an amazing season last year when he won the Tour of Britain. Tour of the Mediterrean, Tour of Alsace, Tour De Haut Var, and finished second at the Tour of Murcia. Jon’s description of this season is ‘different’ on account of his role in the team and the level at which he is now riding; essentially acting as a mountain domestique to riders like Froome, Henao, Uran and others. It’s an apprenticeship and a new learning curve. 

The rest of my ride was suffused with a glow on account of the serendipitous meeting. This lasted for quite a while, or precisely, it lasted until I got to the furthest point away from home. This happened:

asymmetrical lacing on neutron ultra

Usually I can fix mechanical issues when out on the move. This one proved to be a bit of a humdinger. The wheel went badly out of true and wouldn’t go through the seat stays. It required a call to Belle to bring out the Voiture Balai.

Swept up

Whilst waiting for the sag wagon to arrive I enjoyed the sunshine and looked at the view.

light and colours

Breaking the Chain

My chain snapped on the way to work yesterday. Too much torque: raw, unabashed power pulsing through the cranks tore one of the links apart and left the chain coiled in disgrace on the tarmac.

At the moment it popped i could have sworn by Thatcher’s Digne Bones that my chain tool was back at Traumfahrrad towers. Imagine my surprise when i saw it glistening at the bottom of my carradice. I‘ve resolved to try and remember my chaintool ever since Steve RoughStuff had a chain-related catastrophe in the middle of the Brecon Beacons. We began to panic and cry. We thought we were going to die at Heol Senni, until Graham Audax-King came to the rescue by delving into his tardis of an Audax bag containing an entire set of workshop tools. Resolving to remember it and actually remembering it are two  very different concepts, but somehow I managed to do both. 

I suddenly felt resourceful and manly; the trajectory was complete – I had become my Dad. There was no technical problem beyond my compass. I shortened the chain and wrapped it round the 15 sprocket, heading into work in single speed mode. I felt almost unbearably smug and had to tell my workmates of my early morning adventures. They failed to share my excitement and self-satisfaction or understand why fixing a chain and making it to work on time was such a fantastic start to the day. 

Riding home today I stopped to help a fellow cyclist who also had chain issues. It must be something to do with the long and brutal winter exacting retribution on the moving parts of bicycles everywhere.

So far this week I’ve fixed a chain whilst out on the road, chitted some potatoes, changed a terry nappy and made a sour dough loaf. It’s Richard Briers Day every single day chez traum.

 

A chaos of hard clay

Ashton Court is an old mansion estate on the edge of Bristol. It’s home to various things throughout the year, including the photogenic balloon festival and a large herd of small deer. It’s also been adopted by the local mountain bike community and there are several carefully constructed trails in the woods. I’ve done my best to ignore this aspect of the cycling world for about 36 years, but lately have been surreptitiously dipping a toe into the filthy primordial pondwater of mountain biking. I have assembled a bike for the carrying of the small person; it just so happens that it’s a retrotastic steel framed Orange P7 mountain bike and perfect for riding the sturdy and fast Nova trail in Ashton Court. Penelope has been taking a keen interest in all things cycling and is eagerly tracking the developments in the spring classics.

Well Dad, Boonen might be on the front at Driedaagse Van West-Vlaanderen but i’d wager he hasn’t got the form for a concerted and successful campaign. More milk please.

I’ve been over to Ashton Court twice this week to use it as my recovery ride. It’s a 4 mile circuit through the woods on a track built up and maintained by some ardent trail pixies. It has berms and banks and drops and all sorts of technical features. More importantly, it’s dry and free of the kind of slurry normally associated with this darkest and most vile of sports. I like it because it’s been deserted in the mornings and is a lively, technical ride requiring lots of decisions, a degree of focus but not too much out-and-out effort. It’s also a lot of fun. I learnt some interesting lessons: it’s best to let air out of tyres in order to go faster and gain a semblance of control. Not quite sure how Tim Wilkey of Das Rad Klub fame managed a fixie 120psi loop; courage.

the view from the Nova trail this morning at 10am

Today and last week I didn’t see another soul. On my way out, however, i saw an endless stream of men of a certain age in rather large and expensive looking cars with their large and very expensive mountain bikes in the back. It’s a minor gripe, but these chaps should really be riding to the trails. I’m sure there are a few excuses, but it didn’t look good. I nearly always see people unloading their bikes from the boots of huge cars in Leigh Woods and Clifton. It seems anomalous and not in keeping with the reasons why many people cycle.

That aside, the Nova Trail is the perfect introduction to the disgusting ‘off-road’ realm and I’d recommend it as an ideal workout for those new to such dark pursuits.