Riding Fixed With Chickens and Yarg

I apologise if you’re one of two people who have been waiting for a new post. it’s not for want of trying, more that the blog has been collateral damage in the relentless surge of Christmas and work and tiredness. I have been riding, mostly in the early mornings. I stop occasionally to marvel at the Stygian gloom; or sometimes to observe the curious goings-on at stupid o’ clock of an Advent morning.

He’s here! at Failand! Stockpiling tangerines!

Base club has been continuing with and without me. Today we went out on an extended jaunt into the Mendips. I opted for fixed. I say ‘opted’, I have yet to ride gears this winter. The others all had multiple cadences and weightings available to them. It was an oscillating experience, I was on and off the back more times than a Cat 4 mixing it with the 2s and 3s for the first time. Tom was the only one with full mudguards and a mudflap. My mudguards lacked the floor-to-ceiling face saver. This is because I have been riding on my own for such a long time that i didn’t bother duct-taping a homely solution. As a result, Tom seemed to get far filthier than anyone else, although we all looked like we’d been liberally pebbledashed by a loose-ringed norovirus sufferer. It was grim.

Tom tastes the grit and sludge from the moorland

We did around 50 miles with some tasty climbs. By the end my legs were complaining vociferously which i take to be a positive sign. It would be nice sometimes to have the luxury of gears, on the descents or flat tailwind sections perhaps. Long descents hurt in all sorts of ways; arms, shoulders and neck remain tense and tighten, the derriere chafes through the saddle-bouncing motion.

At the end of the ride I had to nip to North Street on an errand which involved the purchase of two free-range chickens and a wedge of Yarg. By that point I was beginning to hallucinate through hunger. I bumped into some chums after purchasing the Yarg and they looked at me quizzically. I attempted to convince them that my stock training method is to grab a slice of yarg and head out into the hills for 3 hours on a fixed wheel. Once I’d picked up the chickens i then had to make my way back across Bedminster like a chopper coming back from Asda, carrier bag dangling precariously from the handlebar. It was going fine until one of the chicken corpses stuck a leg into the spokes and nearly took me out. It would have been a hard one to explain: i crashed after a dead chicken in a carrier bag stuck a leg into my spokes. We made it back in one piece, just about. It surprised me how heavy two chickens could be. I’ve never bought a chicken and haven’t eaten any for about 25 years. Like computers and time trial bike design, a lot has changed in the world of chickens since then.

I am contemplating the purchase of a turbo trainer. The simple reason is the specificity of the interval session. sigh. If you are one of the previously mentioned readers, then you will know that this is something of a turnaround. In fact, it’s on a par with the volte-face taken by the liberal shitocrats when they decided that power and a lust for office was singularly more important than any sense of principals, morals or ethics. Belle has cautioned me against doing such a heinous thing. In fact, her words were:

“You told me that if you were ever considering buying a turbo trainer that i should do everything in my power to prevent this from happening’.

I found myself fumbling and dropping words like a dyspraxic in a button factory. I tried to suggest that the specificity offered by the turbo was the one thing i needed, but there was a hollowness to my pronouncements and I knew she was right. I shall simply find a shallow and consistent gradient and wallop it in steadily increasing gaps of time until my eyeballs bleed and lungs collapse in on themselves.

Preparing for Winter

I spent some time at the weekend switching the hill climb bike into winter mode. Having finally recovered from the ale rave, I’m now ready to start some serious base mileage.

Vigorelli Path/Track
with Carradice Super C

It’s got some lovely touches, apart from being a beautiful steel frame. The mudguard bosses are hidden underneath the chainstay bridge and the front fork, keeping the lines clean with no need to drill the rear brake bridge. The Brooks is extremely comfy. I think i might switch the bars back to a set of cut down bullhorns; the drops look nice but it’s not the best position when you don’t have hoods, the curve is a bit awkward.

The Super C takes everything i need to carry, with quite a bit of room left over. It’s an essential purchase and stops my back from getting sweaty. Saddlebags are one of the most amazing things I have ever used. I stick my things in a tote bag inside the super C so i can hoick the lot out when i get to the other end. We have secure bike parking, which is nice.

The light on the front is a hope vision one. I have had this light for 4 years now. It’s absolutely perfect for the dark lanes. They are seriously cheap at Wiggle at the moment. The back light is a bontrager ember and a smart lunar. The combination of two flashing lights makes me feel a bit more comfortable.

I’ve just about got used to the 68″ gear again, which is nice. I was worried for a bit.

Anatomy of A Hill Climb

Once i’d decided that I was going to go fixed this year, and therefore go fixed properly, I set  about converting my winter frame, a bob jackson vigorelli path/track iron, into a fully-fledged hillkiller. It took me longer than i thought and i went down a few blind alleys in search of weight savings. I also knew that i faced a simple handicap in that the frame and fork weight was about 1600g.

I had to swap the fork and front end out to make any significant gains. This is much easier said than done, finding a 1″ threadless carbon fork with carbon steerer that is light and stiff is very tricky, a bit like looking for a block of ossau iraty in Asdabedminster. In the end, and for a bit of a premium, i tracked one down on the ebay. I suspect a few other people had the same idea because it was a proper bunfight. It was worth it in the end, saving a bit more than half a kilogramme.

I also ran a 3/32 drivetrain, i imagined it to be lighter than a butch eighth pitch chain, but might be wrong. Weightweenies was a valuable (if pornographic) resource during my quest for lightness. They have a useful database of feathery things. I am aware that through all of this I was essentially trying really hard to create a really light bike when i already had a really light bike in the cupboard, but that’s not quite the full story. Building a fixed hillclimb machine is one of the most fun things you can do. It’s also a bike that has an absolutely defined purpose: riding uphill fast. The specialist nature of the task and the event appeals to that latent autism that all men possess.

Here is a more detailed list of the componentry.

1. Reynolds 631 Bob Jackson Vigorelli Frame, 57cm; 1700g; Carbon fork and steerer; 420g; 3TTT ARX Pro Stem 150g; Chopped bars, 220g; Cane Creek TT lever, no cap, chopped half-length; 42g; Campag chorus 39t ring, 172.5 centaur cranks, record 102mm BB, 732g; DA carbon pedals 250g; Campag veloce caliper, 150g; front wheel: PX carbon laced to PX hub with conti comp tub: 660g; Rear wheel: Arc-En-Ciel laced to Royce hub with conti tub; 960g; Alien USE Carbon seatpost; 142g; SLR saddle, 123g; chain/bolts/bits/cables/sprockets, 750g (3/32 drivetrain to save weight)

Bike weight = 6.329 kg

Once you go down the route of spending money on lighter things, you then become suddenly aware of one of the truisms of cycling: it’s far far cheaper to shed weight on the rider than it is on the bike. I’m quite light, but for hill climb season i tend to take this to the edges of quite lightness. I stop eating chocolate and treats and don’t drink anything alcoholic. Incidentally, i don’t tend to drink very much at all these days anyway, it’s utterly incompatible with regular racing. In hill climb season I eat considerably less than ‘normal’ people. People seem confused that I have only one small sandwich and a banana for lunch. Race weight during the regular season tends to be 68 kilograms, or 150lbs. During hillclimb season it drops to 65kg, sometimes 64kg, or 141lbs. At this kind of weight you tend to feel dizzy and light-headed when you stand up. You can feel your ribs and your sitbones tend to make wooden chairs or benches a little bit uncomfortable. Long days at work with no snacks between frugal meals produce a feeling of emptiness. It’s at the lower reaches of the BMI index.

Combined bike and rider weight: 71kg

When out on the bike, when the form starts to arrive, you feel a sense of helium-induced invincibility and the pulse quickens at the base of any climb, a feeling endorsed by the knowledge that you can get out of the saddle and fly upwards. It’s a fantastic feeling. When I’m out training on fixed, spinning between a 57 and a 64, I sometimes get passed heading to a climb by a roadman on gears. Once the road tilts uphill the roles are reversed and the bike acquires a life of its own, the lack of weight and the relentlessness of the right gear align perfectly and I glide past the startled cyclist and leave them floundering. Occasionally they catch up on the flat some time later and a dawning recognition hits them, they’ve been skinned by a self-certified lunatic: a member of the hill climb fraternity on a specialist and home-made weapon.  

as a caveat, there is always a thinner gorilla…

thinner gorilla

On Monday I am going to Cadbury World with Belle, where apparently you can ‘create your own delicious taste sensation covered in warm liquid Cadbury Dairy Milk’. I am planning to eat the entire contents of the factory.

MDCC Haytor Open Hill Climb: More Pain Vicar?

The Mid-Devon Cycling Club’s annual open hillclimb is a real snorter. It rises up out of Bovey Tracey, starting near the Edgemoor Hotel in an canopied culvert, before climbing for a little over 3 miles, finishing to the left of the rock outcrop. It’s one of the classic hill climbs in the South West and were it not for its slight geographical issues would be a bigger fixture in the season. It’s a long way to schlep from Bristol, so isn’t really an event for the northern hordes.

It was used for the National Hill Climb in 1979, where Jeff Williams set the course record of 12.44 on an unusually still and clear day. Dave Pitman of Somerset Road Club was second and Armitage third, both coming in over 13 minutes. Andy Hitchens of the host club recalled Williams’ startling ride:

 “Williams looked like he’d been on starvation rations for months — he was built like a sparrow. Some people assume that there was a howling tailwind that day, but there wasn’t. It was sunny, but cool. I remember it well, because I was in third place at one of the checkpoints, but then I managed to mash my gears and ended finishing 19th. Near the end you look up at that top car park and it feels like you’re trying to touch a rainbow.”

The event is one of the monuments of Hill Climbing. It has featured in the Tour of Britain and was lined with crowds last year as John Tiernan-Locke rode away from the pack and into the lead in the mountains classification. JTL started out with the Mid-Devon before making his way into the professional ranks.

JTL in the MDCC days

The club has an illustrious list of ex-alumni; Colin Lewis, Yanto Barker and Jeremy Hunt. It’s really impressive and is probably at least partly to do with the challenging topography. I tried to find a picture of Jeremy Hunt in MDCC kit but google kept bringing up images of a simpering corrupt fuckwit politician instead, so i gave up.

The climb of Haytor Vale is a real beast for a number of reasons. It’s long, making it very difficult to pace. The gradient varies constantly; just when you’ve got into a rhythm of sorts it kicks up or eases off a bit. I think i used nearly all the sprockets and both chainrings today at some point. I tried to hold back initially then find the right pace, it worked reasonably well but the headwind wreaked havoc on my progress. I tried to ride through it but it was just that bit too hard to stay on top of the gear so i found myself changing down a few too many times. My minute-man went off like a scalded cat, out of the saddle, charging up the lower inclines. I caught him fairly quickly and he paid a heavy price for his exertions: near the top he was sick all over the front of his bike. it was quite spectacular.

haytor + fixed wheel. brave/foolhardy chap.

I clung on in and was unable to raise a sprint for the line, i was completely spent. I didn’t fall off the bike but i did think i was going to decorate the grass verge with my breakfast. I also had a nasty pursuiter’s cough that rasped and tickled and made me feel ill. It wasn’t nice. I had no idea of what time i had done, i was riding without a Garmin. I just felt i’d gone slowly and i was experiencing an unceasing hurtness.

It was slower than last year by about 30 seconds. Each year i think i’m going to go faster on this course, but it never happens – i’m getting progressively slower and slower and the weather is getting windier and windier. Despite the lack of impetus, I won. This is my first open hill climb win, making it feel particularly nice.

The afternoon saw a second race on Mamhead, near Starcross. It’s a steady gradient for about 2.2 miles, taking between 9 and 10 minutes. I was cooked, but tried to give it some welly. There were two super quick riders who pitched up having avoided the morning’s savagery. With fresh legs they took 1st and 2nd. I think i may have been able to get close to the second place rider, but the winner, Richard Oram, was class outfit. he was also wearing a class outfit, a Cipollini-esque skinsuit in the colours of Primal RT, a tour series team. I don’t think i’d have been anywhere near.

thieving cipo

In all, a good day’s riding in South Devon: 1st, 3rd and 1st overall. Tomorrow is the Black Mountain. I last rode there in 2010 and came 4th. Darran Carpenter was my minute man and he slowly stalked me up the mountain, not quite making the catch. In an oddly serendipitous bit of field placement he’s my minuteman again. We shall see what happens.

Blood, Sweat and Gears

I went out on the geared bike today. it was liberating. i rode much more quickly and without the level of severe effort required on some of the ups. i was able to pace things better and turn lighter gears. the contrast with the fixed wheel was marked after 10 weeks of non-stop, fixtastic winter base. my commute was around 10 minutes quicker on gears.

strava is proving ridiculously addictive. it has trashed my training schedule and had me mullering it on every climb i come across in the hope that it’s a logged segment. the novelty will wear off very soon. i hope.

Positive Experiences

As i mentioned in the previous post, cycling provides an unceasing supply of positive experiences. Getting out on the bike makes me feel happy, i leave thoughts of things behind and instead allow the mind to ramble and roam with the bike and across the landscape. today righted the wrongs of the last time i rode my bike on wednesday (when i encountered a total asshole who happened to be on a bike at the time).

i’m sticking to the winter base thing. i’m definitely up on last year where i’m not even sure if i turned a pedal between october 31st and December 20th. I’m attempting to leave myself less to do when it all kicks off again by getting into a routine. today i went out with Ed and Mark. Ed is looking ‘ripped’, he’s spending a lot of time in the gym pumping some serious iron. come the racing season there’s a real danger he might tear his TT bike apart from the effort of riding away from the line, such is the immense torque and strength his hyper-developed muscles will generate. Mark is gradually undergoing a physical transformation by the sound of it, from stacked rugby player to svelte hill-whippet.

We had a great time, 55 miles fixed across north somerset. The route went out via clapton in gordano, along the flats near yatton, before doing some serious climbing to get up on top of the mendips via shipham and charterhouse. in case you were interested, charterhouse is the site of a roman lead mine which was the biggest in the whole roman empire and led to the spanish lead producers complaining at the flood of cheap imports. the land is now known locally as ‘gruffy ground’ because it’s no good for anything. there’s an ingot of roman mendip lead in the british museum.

the top of the mendips is littered with other prehistoric (and more recent) sites; priddy circlesdolebury warren and stanton drew being some of the more famous. i find it vaguely fascinating, it’s as though the past and the present commingle in time and space, at least in my imagination. i can sense the presence of people from a different epoch, occupying the same spaces and looking at the same eerily beautiful landscape, out across the bristol channel towards wales and down across the levels. there are three burial mounds near charterhouse – we stumbled across them after the long climb from the flats up to tyning’s farm. it’s odd to think that they held such significance for the people who built them, but now merit barely a look from the passer by.

Ed near Failand

i felt really strong today. it’s because i had two rest days this week after a fairly big block of miles. never underestimate the importance of rest. i felt strong all day and rode on the front pretty much the entire time. it was good to be tapping out the rhythm and dragging the boys around. in fact, it was one of those great days where i thought i was going to feel rubbish but the opposite transpired. ed and mark were also strong and we extended the ride a bit to take in the big climb.

riding on the front. dragging the boys along.

the lanes were absolutely disgusting, filthy and muddy, soaking wet. my bike looks vile. i might clean it at some point. it was a proper winter lanes ride; ed made a tactical error by wearing too much white kit. looks good, but rapidly loses its lustre when covered in fresh friesan cowshit.

the filth and the fury

tomorrow is the club dinner. it’s hard to explain just how excited I am. i don’t think i’m going to be able to sleep. i have been excited about it for nearly 8 weeks. i think i might be due to pick up 6 trophies so i am not riding. it’s a high point for team douchbag, i think graham and steve are due two trophies apiece.  i will doubtless try and capture the glory and suffering in a blog post tomorrow, you lucky lucky people.

top of the mendips to you



A friend, Gavin Strange, is making a film about cycling called Boikzmoind. he’s been making the film for nearly three years and now appears to entering the endgame. the trailer seems like a distant memory but it still makes me smile:

from what i can gather it’s an oblique look at way people ride bikes with a focus on fixed wheel and the various cultural aspects of the current bike boom. he is conducting interviews and managed to find some time to track me down and get my twopence worth.

the premiere is on the 2oth august in bristol. i’m very excited. gav is a supremely talented designer and all round good egg.

BSCC Hillclimb, Burrington Combe

the club hillclimb has been in the back of my mind since last year: back then it was my first open event and i rode to 5th place on fixed wheel, with little or no awareness of how it happened or why. looking back, i’m still none the wiser. it’s felt like an erratic boulder.

a year further on and everything looks a bit different; i’ve ridden quite a lot and raced numerous weekends, it’s been a bit of an exponential learning curve.  and yet all year long the club hillclimb has been lurking beneath the surface, it sits in my subconscious, a horrible big fish rising up to meet me in the  shallow shadows of a murky pond. it’s the cause of self-doubt, the interminable worry that i might never go as quick again.

in preparation to go as quick again, i spent the weekend with my feet up, eating bread and cheese, drinking squash and watching the pro peloton get covered in rain and mud in la classica delle foglie morte. I offered silent thanks to no-one in particular for the promised clear skies here in albion. this morning was indeed clear and beautiful, but also by some distance the coldest morning of the autumn thus far; the kind of cold that creeps malevolently with icy grasping fingers, through the interstices and into the house. intense effort and intense cold are not comfortable bedfellows; it invades and assaults the lungs and chest. but those are the breaks; as if riding uphill fast wasn’t painful enough…

i’ve had plenty of time to think about this one; and on the morning of the race i felt quite calm and unperturbed. the sun warmed the higher slopes of the coombe, but the ascent was shrouded in shadow, and a lot colder. i got to the start in good time, within two minutes of the push, thus staying as warm as possible for as long as practical. it makes an enormous difference knowing the climb; judging the effort becomes more instinctive and much more effective. at three or four key points where the gradient kicked up i rode more softly than i would instinctively, not kicking on and standing up in the pursuit of seconds, but sitting down, maintaining cadence and riding through the short ramps. On Burrington this is the important thing, and it’s a climb that rewards a seated, regular effort –  each sharper section is linked by a longer drag during which you can press on and move up through the gears, gaining in pace and speed. beyond this, i didn’t overly analyse it, but just went for it, riding hard and pushing it as close to the edge as i could. i had no sprint at the top, i just pursued the same relentless cadence as my aching legs propelled the bike forwards. a sprint at the end of a hillclimb sometimes strikes me as the pursuit of time already lost.

it was an exercise in suffering, but unusually i wasn’t waiting or silently begging for the finish, or fighting the demons; both the cartoon devil chastising my lack of pace, or the angel urging me to ride more cautiously. the deafening inner monologue was strangely quieter than usual, replaced by a repetitive focus on breathing and cadence and a sense of distance – almost from myself. i was still accelerating over the line, but had no sense of time to go on, and no way of knowing. it felt quick, but as per usual, on the descent a few riders seemed to have infinitely more souplesse, rode more effortlessly and danced across the camber of the sweeping uphill curves.

i knew i wanted to get under 8 minutes; anything else would be a disappointment; last year i managed 8.01… i felt quicker and lighter this year. the top end of the field was packed with featherweight thoroughbreds, including rob gough, james dobbin, tejvan pettinger and luke dunbar. i came fifth in 7.45. i have a feeling this might be a new club record on this course. i am over the moon and this afternoon i have eaten carrot cakes made by belle; they tasted even more delicious than usual.

1 Tejvan Pettinger 7’10
2 Rob Gough 7’27
3 Luke Dunbar 7’29
4 James Dobbin 7’36
5 Paul Jones 7’45
6 Robin Coomber 7’57


graham, riding his beautiful 1950s cantiflex bates to a quick time



derek on the warm-down


Velo Club Walcot Hill Climb

Every hillclimb i’ve ridden this year has featured James Dobbin, it’s a recurrent theme, and the fields generally seem very strong this year. Rob Gough in particular appears to be flying upwards, as long as the chain stays put. The VC Walcot event, up the avenue in Bath, was great fun, well organised with more than a few supporters lining the route. it makes such a difference to the experience.

for this one i decided to ride fixed,  i may or may not have been influenced by the promise of swag for the first fixed rider. i also felt that it might be a good idea, taking the pressure off and allowing me to enjoy – insofar as you can enjoy 3 minutes of savagery – the climb and ride my own race. 60″ did the trick, and i took home a lovely cadence t-shirt and £20. it was good enough for 6th place, which is fine with me; maybe on the gears i might just have nicked 5th, but maybe not.

i need to work on my pacing, it’s so hard to get right – go off too hard and suffer, losing time near the top when it matters most, or misjudge the effort and feel as though there is more in the tank. it’s about suffering, hurt, and managing pain; going really deep into a dark and horrible place for the benefit of 1 or 2 seconds. in the nationals, that could be as many as ten placings.

next weekend it’s weston wheelers demonstrating the art of using a crane to crush a fly, by encouraging foolish and demented riders to cycle at high speed up one of the nastier climbs in the mendips, i’m quite looking forward to it. i think it’s a 7 minute workout, which is right up my street.

the picture below encompasses the hurt, it’s not me, it’s a brave severn rider, in pursuit of 20th place or something like that. it’s a chastening and brave effort.

this is me, in front of the car that cost me time yesterday.

as a postscript, i completed my 3 minute ride. i hope that mike, rod, andrew and mike d had fun on their epic 8 hour ride, it doesn’t really stand up to comparison. i don’t think i’ve ever had the nerve to do a hundred miles. when i get to about 85, i start wobbling around like a plate of molasses.

Frome Cobble Wobble

a genuine spectacle, in these tea-stirring times; a giant yellow bird riding up a cobbled street:

i met up with a few other fixed-wheel-fiends in Bristol and we rode halfway across the somerset badlands – an intended 21 miles ended up being nearer 30 for some bizarre reason. we startled a horse, unintentionally. jamesy had no brakes, ed felt a bit sick, jamie had a jersey that said ‘ride it like you stole it’ and a boasted a set of incredibly pale legs.

the event was a total blast; a very narrow street lined with eager crowds; a crazed array of riders desperate to get their grubby track mitts on one of the three charge bikes on offer; several outlandish items of fancy dress and a rider pulling a trailer with a child in it.

i learnt the following things: mountain bikes do have a purpose, even if it is only to ride up the 179 yards of st catherine’s hill in the rain at high speed; riding tubs on pave is a stupid, stupid idea, rendered even more stupid by riding high tyre pressures; a very light hillclimb bike is of no use whatsoever on greasy, lumpy, treacherous, horrible cobbles. there was a fairly heavy rain shower immediately before the fixed race kicked off.

apart from that, it was brilliant. occasionally a stupefying, wondrous roar erupted and rolled up the hill in a crescendo of goodwill, heads turned to catch the source, and inevitably, it was something amazing. all pictures thanks to bex at white duck screenprint:

man on full butcher’s bike, piece of tripe:

phone home, right now, tell your mum you’re riding up some crazy cobbles on a bmx with a fricken’ alien in your front basket:

an unusual shot, insofar as you can see both wheels touching the surface of the cobbles:

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