Flintham to Stratford on Avon

There are some salutary lessons to be taken away from the complex art of route planning. Primarily, by all means plan a 90 miler away from all conurbations and anything larger than an abandoned medieval hamlet, but don’t be surprised if you then find yourself wondering where all the shops are and panicking about what you’re going to eat.

Leicestershire is both prettier and lumpier than I anticipated. I think I ended up riding across the Wolds, a stretch of woldiness up above Loughborough. It is quaint and gently rolling. I found the remote village of Quorn, which is a pilgrimage of sorts to a vegetarian like me. I started slowly on account of some pangs of anxiety, my knee was hurting at the end of the previous day’s riding. It was fine. Once I got up around the 50 mile mark I pressed on and made up time. It’s interesting how distance changes when you embark on a long day in the saddle, or multiple long days. Once you crack the 50 mile ride there’s a ray of optimism, only 40 miles to go… It’s peculiar. You have to forget about distance and just tap along, looking at things and getting lost in the flow of the activity, the gentle pulse of the mind, ambling along in unison with the bike. It’s surprisingly easy to do long days, although I’m not sure how long a ride has to be these days to qualify as ‘long’. No sooner had I uploaded my three day epic than one of my chums spuffed out a 280km day ride just for the express purpose of shitting and giggling. These people (the Baineses, the Silvertons, all of Bristol Audax Club who thought it would be fun to ride home from Rome before tea –  you know who you are) shall from this day forth be known collectively as the ‘ultranutters’.

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This is the first mini-tour I’ve done on my own, so it gave plenty of time for thinking, but unfortunately yielded no profound insights. I made some observations; inane things like how counties or areas become defined by their county towns in the imagination at least, For instance, I thought Leicestershire would be a bit of a shitty midlands sprawl because that’s what I think Leicester is (even if it isn’t), but it couldn’t be further from the truth, it’s a beautiful county. Once you get out of the towns and cities, weaving a stitched line along the OS map, it’s quite startling how English everything becomes. The rural landscape, imaginative, physical, demographic and imaginative, is very much middle England, punctuated by the flag of St George, villages in thrall to a vision of the past that is at once bucolic, refreshing, but clearly at odds with the more modern subjectivity of the city dweller. The gap is more of a yawning chasm, there is nothing within the villages of Quorn or Cerney or Wymeswold or Barnetby that links even remotely (no pun in intended) to the metropolis. When you ride through it, it’s not hard to see and feel the disconnect between the city and the countryside in terms of modern identity.

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PARTY TIME! EXCELLENT! WYMESWOLD! (very nice post box)

The closest I came too civilisation (which now sounds like a contradiction in terms) was the outskirts of Nuneaton. It was also the only place I saw a shop, and the only place I didn’t really want to stop and leave the bike, so i pressed on. I did ride up Gun Hill though, and wondered if it was the same Gun Hill which Harold Worthern and Vic Clark used to ride up in the early 1940s.

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Me, with a slightly odd, beadle-esque arm.

Stratford is nice, insofar as they have kept the bits that were important and linked in some way to old Shakey. I was expecting amazing medieval hostelries, but found only Greene King pubs. Mercifully, there is a micropub there, which is one of the best drinking establishments I have ever been to. It’s called the ‘Stratford Ale House’ and occupies an old health food store. Seems apt.

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Amazing exterior
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Amazing interior

day two

By about 9pm I was absolutely cream-crackered. It took two and a half pints over three hours to wipe me out completely. Hardcore.

Saddlebagging

It sounds slightly dubious. Like sandbagging, or teabagging (no hyperlink on this occasion). Maybe a combination of the both, sandyteabagging. With a saddle. Others call it ‘credit card touring’, on account of the lightness of the tour, i.e not going full touring bongo, front and back panniers, dynamo hub, SPD sandals and other CTC erotica. Either way, and whatever hankie you’ve got in your top pocket, I’m going on a short saddlebag tour. These are convenient and can be woven into a busy life, allowing a short glimpse of the outdoors without the kind of legal compromises that can ensue with the unexpected announcement of a forthcoming world cycling tour.

Previously I’ve done Devon/Cornwall. It was very hilly and very beautiful. We (me, Graham and Steve) missed a fatal helicopter crash by inches. It was very hilly. We went to a pub and were lucky to escape alive. The road out of Lynton was the most beautiful ride I think I’ve ever done. A pint of Exmoor Ale on Exmoor never tasted so good. Day two was enlivened by the three of us catching up with a clubmate who had been dropped in a road race. It was strange. Day one was way too hard. It was all absurdly hilly and incredibly beautiful.

I also did the Brecon Beacons and Gospel Pass with Will. It was very hilly. In fact, it was so hilly I think he had some sort of minor breakdown halfway up the climb to Foxhunters. We survived. We met with Jack Thurston and featured in his book about Wales.

This year I’m opting for a straight ride back, an A to B, from Withernsea (the Saint Tropez of the Holderness peninsula, said no-one ever) to Bristol, over three days. It’s big miles, but it hopefully should be relatively benign until I reach the Cotswolds.

The bike is ready to go.

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I’m using a Carradice Nelson on the back and a Carradice Barley bar bag on the front. It’s a nice set-up, and one I haven’t used before. In the past I’ve always opted for the super C, which is a total whopper of a bag, and nothing on the front. I like the option of having ready-to-grab things up front. It also means you can opt for the slightly smaller bag at the back. Accommodation is then provided by the good folks at Air B+B (a high-end shed in someone’s garden near Newark) and Premier Inn.

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The Super C. SUPER MASSIVE BLACK HOLE. 

I’ll try and keep people posted. Probably best for the three long-suffering readers of this blog to check out my instagram feed for live pictures of unending tarmac and the lincolnshire badlands. So excited.

 

“Lost Lanes” by Jack Thurston

I went to someone else’s talk the other evening. It was much more relaxing. Jack Thurston is a famed bikewriter, podcast host, cycling advocate and all round good egg. A couple of years ago he wrote a book exploring ‘Lost Lanes’ around the south east of England, in essence, those within pedal distance from London. I bought a few copies and gave some to friends. He has just released a sequel, “Lost Lanes Wales“, coinciding with his move from the city to the wilds of Abergavenny. It’s a paean to the rugged and beautiful countryside of the principality and the quiet roads that dip and lean around the contours. Jack’s talk was measured and engaging, he spoke of a love of cycling and the need to find quieter roads to escape the hostile traffic densities of the modern world. The book (and the talk) also articulated the idea of the journey being what matters, perhaps more than the destination. In some ways it’s antithetical to my book, and it’s arguably more egalitarian, but there is a clear common ground in terms of the transcendent beauty of the landscape and the transformative power of cycling.

Last April I went on a three day mini-tour in the Black Mountains, heading out from Bristol to Talybont, then on to Hay and over the Gospel Pass to Abergavenny, returning via the Usk valley and Caerleon. Many of the roads feature in Jack’s new book. My touring buddy Will and I met up with Jack in Hay-on-Wye for a ride back over the Gospel Pass, through the low shrouding mist and up through the cut. Jack is a roving Baedeker, and he pointed out things I’d never have known otherwise, from Eric Gill’s commune, to endless views across the Wye and Usk Valleys. He was armed with a camera and took some nice snaps, some of which have ended up featuring in the book. Will confessed himself ‘a bit overpleased about this’.

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Highest paved road in Wales

It’s a super book and has already got me planning new trips and excursions for next year. If you haven’t yet listened to the bike show podcast, then you should do so. It’s the best there is.

Mechanicals; Bar Cons, RetroShift and Friction

This happened today:

broken. time for a new bike.

It might not be a really big mechanical but it was quite freaky. I went to flick back up to the big chainring and it snapped off at the base. It was right outside my house so i did a mega-quick bike change…

…and was back on the road in the few seconds it took me to change the saddle, saddlebag and lights, then pump up the tyres. So slightly longer than the famous junior switcheroo watched by Jacky Durand. Having ridden the gears for a couple of days it meant i was back on fixed. The irony struck me a while later – I’d swapped the bike because it was broken and only gave me a range of 10 gears, including the 39:15, only to take out the unbroken fixed wheel instead which gave me the 39:15 and nothing else.

I have decided that more old school tomfoolery is required in order to replace the broken brifter. I am going to open up the box of delights that is the barcon. Somewhat weirdly, I use friction barcons on my TT weapon. This is so i can run a variety of mismatched components. The joy of friction shifting is that you can trim it really easily and never have to suffer the rattling of badly adjusted indexing. Of course, you could always adjust the gears properly, but for me this has generally been a mechanical leap too far. A second point of irony for today  is that the xenon campag set up on my Mercian was working perfectly until i snapped it. I’d somehow managed to dial it in correctly after about two years.

A barcon setup is cheaper than the cheapest set of brifters. Considering that the Mercian is my winter steed and all round workhorse, with occasional training duties and light tours, it’s a good reason to go friction. There is less to go wrong and they are easier to trim, change and replace. I have opted for the dia compe set:

Dia Compe Silvers (image taken from a lovely bike, great post on friction vs index)

I have shimano on the TT whip, like most people, but liked the look of the Silvers. I went for a fairly cheap set of brake levers, again dia compe. It will certainly make the bike look a bit more ‘vintage’. One other option is the retroshift:

Which is undoubtedly the right choice if you want your bike to be by far the ugliest bike of all the bikes in the world. Or you do cyclocross. Or both.

I really like my Mercian. It rides beautifully and the frame was the best £180 I think I’ve splurged on a bike-related purchase. It’s a 531c audax frame and absolutely wondrous for long, leisurely days in the saddle.

After a couple of winters I’ve also noticed that the braking surface is getting seriously compromised. I will need a new set of wheels before too long.

Fashioning an Extremely Long Mud Flap From Society’s Leftovers In A Spirit Of Organic Austerity

Full mudguards are the answer to any number of questions, but particularly the inherently controversial poser: “Which is better, Race blade or crud?”. Thus far, as we have seen, only one person is sufficiently qualified to make that judgement; us lesser secret cyclists lack the skills and aptitude to test things properly.

Full mudguards do, nevertheless, have one minor issue. The gap from the end of the rear guard to the road surface is a yawning chasm that allows a substantial amount of road spray up into the eyes and face of the following rider. The only way to solve this problem is to fit an extended mudflap. It’s a growth cottage industry and there a number of inventive ways to fit a flap.

the 57th mudflap tested by Car Free Days

I opted for a 4 pint milk container. it has just the right blend of rigidity and ‘give’ and is pre-shaped to curve around the back wheel. I expect the other members of base club to thank me for my efforts on tomorrow’s filthy lane ride. I will test for rear wheel spatter and then write a full review of this very expensive piece of übertech.

Organic Milk Mud Flap. Maybe it might keep the cows away.

As things currently stand i suspect that by Easter I will be a fully fledged member of the Audax fraternity with a dyno-hub front, 28mm tyres and SPD sandals. Party on!

Preparing for a Cycle-Tour

it’s now three days to go until i embark on a short cycle-tour. it’s a proper old-schoolsaddlebag and youth hostel shindig. if you’re not camping or going really far then it’s perfectly feasible to tour with a real minimum of kit. in this respect, i’m a huge fan of the carradice saddlebag. they’re made in the peak district and each one has the signature on the label of the lady who made it.

thanks sue!

they do a range of different sizes. belle has the ‘junior’, which is ideal for a day ride. i have two, the nelson, which is the quintessential commuting bag and i’ve used it pretty much all winter, and i also am now the proud owner of a ‘carradice super C’. i cannot stress how enormous this bag is. it reminds me of the opening sequence of ‘you only live twice’.

carradice super C
chinese space capsule

it swallowed up the nelson without even blinking, and the nelson is a fairly whopping 15 litres. this new beast is a staggering 23 litres, with side pockets and some extra inner deluxe compartments inside. i think this means i won’t need to take a bar bag and can instead put everything in the super C. meanwhile, the nelson will continue with commuting duties. i’m beginning to think dangerous pipe-and-slippers thoughts, namely, ‘you can never have too many saddlebags’, or ‘tired of saddlebags, tired of life’. here’s the nelson:

carradice nelson

the principle reason for using a saddlebag is convenience when you haven’t got a tonne of stuff to carry. there’s no need for a rack and the geometry of the bike doesn’t change. more importantly, it keeps stuff off your back so stops you getting all sweaty and horrid. i’ve tried a rack and a saddlebag, and definitely prefer the latter. it looks lovely on the mercian with the brooks saddle.after two fatigue-ridden days commuting, i’ve decided to rest now until the weekend, so i washed the bike this evening and started to get a few things together. i built the mercian up this year to take on both commuting duties and some light touring. it’s slightly tweaked version of the ‘king of mercia’ frame, with rack bosses and marginally more relaxed geometry to make it a real mile-eater. the tubing is reynolds 531c and it has beautifully elongated spearpoint lugs with heart-shaped windows, it’s a really lovely frame and testament to the quality of Mercian cycles, a historic and significant british marque.

King of Mercia

I’ve been riding it for the past week or so to get used to it again after lots of uber-carbon tomfoolery. it has a brooks pro saddle and slightly mismatched campagnolo groupset, a bit centaur and a bit veloce. i can’t wait to take it out on the open road and gently undulate through the lanes of somerset, devon and cornwall.