Commute, revisited

A while ago (ok, a long while ago), I made a post about my commute in to work. I thought it about time that this was updated, largely due to the fact that I’ve left my central Birmingham job and am back at the semi-rural location I was at previously.

Now, of course, I’m more into my cycling than I was previously, and so instead of just taking the same 3.5 mile route every day that I used to, I try and vary my route to get a bit more countryside under my belt either side of the hours in the office. So here’s an example trip (with apologies for poor quality photos – taking snaps on a phone while cycling isn’t a recommended technique). This was 12 miles long, so probably on the long side, but scenery like this is accessible within 500 metres from my house, and even less from my office.

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Leaving Dickens Heath, past the new development

 

 

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Cleobury Lane 

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The highly recommended Red Lion pub. Their dessert sharing platter… 

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Passing Earlswood lakes. 

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Cottages on Malthouse Lane, Earlswood. 

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Farm just south of Earlswood. Perfect opportunity for some Piggery Jokery. 

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Fowlers Cheese – makers of fine Warwickshire Truckle and other cheeses.  

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Poor sods commuting to work on the M42

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Wood End, on the outskirts of Tanworth in Arden, where the houses are big and the people are rich

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Up Seafield Lane, which goes past farms and woodland. 

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Like this one – sleepy cows in a field. 

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Back across the M42, with Eastbound traffic gridlocked. Twits. 

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The old mill at the top of Weatheroak Hill. Previously featured here.

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View going down Weatheroak Hill. I tend not to notice this due to hurtling down here at 40mph. The view to the left was much better as soon as I passed that tree, but didn’t feel like stopping again for another photo. 

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Broadcroft Farm on Watery Lane

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Back up the hill on Lea Green lane. The top of the hill is covered in woodland, so you don’t get a good view from there. So this will have to suffice… 

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The Peacock. As good as it looks. 

 

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London Revolution 2017

Some rides are good because they’re tough, and challenging (Fred Whitton, I’m coming for you someday). Some are good  because they’re sociable. Some are good because of the route, or the scenery, or the sense of achievement. And then some are bad because of the weather, or the route, or poor organisation.

I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect from the London Revolution. But it turned out to be a mixture of all of those. Some good, some bad. Some challenging, and some easy. Some good routes, and some bad. And a lot of good people.

There are a few reasonably long and steep climbs – two on day 1, and another on day 2. The challenge is rather in doing 85 miles the day after doing 100 on the first. I hadn’t done that sort of thing since LEJOG five years ago.

Parts of the route were terrible – rough, potholed tar that shook the bikes, and resulted in a number of broken spokes (fortunately not for me). Steep descents on wet, debris-strewn roads that really should have been rerouted given the forecast of rain overnight. Sections going through busy parts of London, where the traffic is annoying, and the traffic lights more so. But, just like the girl with the curl, when it was good, it was very good indeed. Winding through the wooded hills south of London, on narrow lanes. Up and down the Chiltern hills, with beautiful vistas left and right, fields, and chocolate box villages. I’m still surprised by the extent to which I’m still surprised by the beauty of the English countryside. It’s just unfortunate that being so close to London means that you’re close to hordes of people. I started to dread coming to a junction, and finding that I’d left the peace and serenity of nowhere behind, and was once again surrounded by the swarm of civilisation.

Part of the experience that was new to me was camping overnight on an organised ride. When you have over 1,000 people to house in small two-man tents (now there’s an industry that needs to buck up on its advertising standards), the result looks something like this:

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That doesn’t even begin to do it justice. It felt like it went on forever. Of course, given the seemingly endless number of possibilities, the guy who snored the loudest had to be put into the tent next to mine. So there I was trying to fall asleep at 3:30 in the morning, with rain falling above, and The Snorer, slowly, with each breath, building up  in volume, intensity and exertion to climax in a cataclysmic pulmonary explosion of flailing membranes and phlegm. And then, for a few seconds, bliss! silence!, until his Sisyphean onslaught began again. Miraculously, I managed to make a dash for it during an interlude, and escaped to dreamland in an impressively nimble fashion.

I could go on about the queue for the showers (I missed it, coming in a couple of hours before the rush), or for breakfast in the morning (waking at 5:30 does have its advantages (no, just one advantage)), but you get the idea – there’s a lot of people here.

And it’s the people that I think will be the lasting memory for me. Because this wasn’t a ride where you feel the need to push yourself and compete. I took it relatively easy on Day 1, and finished in the top 2%. This is a ride for the experience, to enjoy, to savour, to talk to and meet others. Like Dave, who I met in the car park before anything had happened. He’s only got one leg, and has severe burns on his upper body. I helped him get his arm warmers on his left arm, because his right one doesn’t work properly. But he did the whole ride. Or another guy whose name I didn’t get, but has a rare blood disease. He’s on drugs that temporarily maintain his current state of health, but at some point any day they’ll stop working suddenly, and he’ll just keel over. He just did Day 1, but will be doing a London to Paris next month, raising money for the Bloodwise charity. I get a thrill out of hearing about people like that, never mind actually riding with them.

So all in all, though – a memorable experience. It’s slickly organised, well supported, and is definitely worth doing. Just use wider tyres, take it easy, and interact. This is a sportive which is definitely not a race – if it’s treated as a couple of day’s riding with mates, you’ll get the most out of it.

 

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Alternative Time Lapse Photography

My ride this weekend was hill training. This involves finding a half-decent hill, and going up and down it numerous times until I either hit some sort of goal, get bored, or run out of steam.

My closest hill that qualifies is Scarfield (yes, the name has a bit to do with my choice). It starts in a village called Alvechurch, and heads west. There’s a steep bit first (Bear Hill), then a flattish bit, two small bumps as you cross bridges over the railway line and canal, and then a nasty steep bit of around 7-10% gradient for the last half a mile. It takes me between 5.5 and 6 minutes.

But all that’s not really important. Because what came to mind while going up and down, and up and down, was an observation on how this village wakes up and gets going on a Saturday morning. It’s like a time-lapse photograph in slow motion. Each descent brings you back into the village for a minute or two, at ten minute intervals.

The Warburtons truck arrives, then it’s half-way through unloading bread at the local convenience store, and then it’s gone.

The becapped old men walking to pick up their morning newspaper are either on their way out, empty handed, or on their way home, folded paper under their arm. Sometimes I see them twice – once in each direction. Sometimes they’re gone by the time I get back.

The bright yellow van that looks exactly like the one the awesome Dean Williams used to own is parked near the canal for the first five passes, and then it’s gone.

The jogger in luminous pink is stretching up against the walls of the old pub on the corner. She’s halfway up the hill as I come down, and then I don’t see her again.

The view from the top changes as well – the early morning mist covering the village and surrounding countryside in a smother of opacity is gradually worn away by the rising sun. And the light grows brighter, the scenery looks greener, and I linger a little longer at the top to take in the view.

And then there are the few cyclists who gather at the bottom as a convenient meeting place. When, on my sixth trip up, I overtake five of them, I decide that I’ve had enough, and go in search of more beauty in places I haven’t been to for a while.

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Pancakes Again

Back in South Africa, the trimmings around Easter, such as Lent, Ash Wednesday and Shrove Tuesday are only really observed in the Catholic community. I was vaguely aware of Lent, but all the others were only found in the pages of fastidious almanacs.

Here, however, Lent is commonly mentioned (if not commonly observed), and Shrove Tuesday is a national institution. Not entirely, I must mention, for the religious significance, though: it’s much better known by the alternative name of Pancake Day.

Having a day dedicated to pancakes is something I can really get behind. They were always a huge treat growing up. They’re connected in my mind with two events during my childhood. One was Methodist Church fêtes, where there was always a pancake stall (selling at a price of 20c apiece, if I recall). The other is rainy days. Where we lived at the time, rain wasn’t particularly common, and when it arrived, it was usually in short, sharp thunderstormy bursts. Occasionally, you’d get a day where it hung around and rained all afternoon. This was, in local parlance, ‘pannekoekweer’, or pancake weather.

Because there’s nothing better for days like this than a supper of pancakes. There’d be the cajoling and pleading (by the children), followed by a half-reluctant acceptance (by the parents). Then there’d be the long build-up: my mother at the stove, cooking a double batch three at a time, with the stock piling up on a plate. By the time she was done, the whole house smelt delicious, the family were waiting in the kitchen like vultures, and once the lid was lifted on the pile, there was a rapid devourance in a flurry of cinnamon sugar, with a tally kept of how many each person had eaten as a sort of badge of honour.

It must be said, though, that what we called pancakes are probably what most over here would call crêpes. What they call pancakes (such as you’d see in this delightful post), we’d probably call large flapjacks. What they call flapjacks, we’d call crunchies (although theirs tend to be a lot stodgier and moist than ours).

As a footnote, I might mention that whenever we make pancakes now, I get a poignant memory: the recipe is on an email sent when we lived in Ireland, 16 years ago now. It segues seamlessly from “so nice to talk to you on the phone at the weekend” to the recipe, to news about my grandfather, who was dying of Alzheimers at the time. Wonderful, yet sad. Interesting how one dish links together so many different strands of life…

 

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New Year, New Places

Going for a cycle involves two things, really. A bike, and somewhere to go. And while there are a lot of little country lanes within an hours ride of me, it eventually starts to get a little along the lines of déjà vu. As beautiful as the scenery is, there is a risk that it becomes a case of “this way again…”

So when I stumbled across this blog post on VeloViewer, I was immediately intrigued. I  had a look at my explorer map around my area, which looked like this at the end of 2016:

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If I say so myself, that’s rather impressive coverage, given that I wasn’t really trying to do that. However, there are a few isolated squares I haven’t been to, and the south east corner is rather empty (and gets a lot worse just off the picture).

So this year, while trying to keep up with distance, and fitness, I’ll have a secondary aim: To increase the size of my max square from 13×13 at the end of 2016 to something a bit larger. 20×20 is probably doable, with a bit of diligence.

And so the first ride for 2017 took me to that little square South-East of Henley in Arden. The only road in it is a dead-end lane going past a little lake to a farm. So it’s not unreasonable that I wouldn’t have been that way before. But it’s certainly worth the trip, especially in the cold stillness of a winter morning:

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So here’s to a 2017 full of new places, new routes, and new experiences.

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Last ride of the year

For the last two years, I’ve significantly toned down my riding between November and February. It’s cold and dark. It’s occasionally icy. It takes a lot of willpower to get out of bed, especially when the road is wet. Which it usually is – either through rain, or dew when it’s clear. I haven’t had the right gear, resulting  chilly knees, and wet feet.

But then, I’ve seen other cyclists on Strava clock up the miles, and felt a pang of regret. And so I acquired the gear (despite the ludicrous appearance it lends me), and I’ve tried to keep going out. The rides are shorter, and slower, but they’re there. And I’m still in good enough shape to pick up on the opportunities which come along.

Such as sometime cycling friend, James James Morrison Morrison*, who has a habit of planning a ridiculous ride in the last week of the year. Last year, it was a train trip to Taunton, followed by a cycle home. In the dark. In the rain. Madness. Stupidity. But Respect. And so this year I told him I was in (before knowing what was involved, I might add). Turned out it was something similar, but returning from London instead. And during the day. Still rather mad. Significantly less stupid. Hopefully still some respect. However, on the eve of this trip, I popped over to his to settle details, only to find that bureaucracy on the railways had scuppered the plans. No bikes on the train to London until the New Year.

Well, not much that can be done about that except to take it like a statue, and make an alternative plan. Which in this case was to head out to Coleshill, pick up two others, and do a 100 mile cycle with little to no planning. Sort of a ‘head north-east until half-way tired, and then meander back to the start’. Which is a somewhat different attitude to my usual stance. Normally when I do long rides, they’re Sportives. Which are timed. And despite the clearly stated intention that these are not races, the competitive part of me comes out and tries to go as fast as I can. Am I faster than last year? How do I compare to the rest of the field? I can’t help it. Not that this is a bad thing, of course – it’s just my default position to try to go as fast as I can for as long as I can. It’s fitness, and strength, and endurance. The numbers, the stats, the performance.

On this ride, though, there was no clock, and the other riders (all of whom are significantly better than me) weren’t trying to prove anything. I was just happy I could keep up. And so we tootled around Leicestershire and Warwickshire at around 15.5mph, just enjoying the ride. And enjoy it I did – the sheer beauty of fields and hedges touched by ice, rolling hills and roads winding through obscure villages (including a long-overdue return to the Sheepys) with no tourists, and nothing to attract them even if there were any. The freezing cold keeping most other (normal?) people indoors. It was just the four of us, in the silence of a bleak midwinter, exploring, discovering, relating memories and stories. The only problems were where to stop for a coffee & cake (remarkably few coffee shops in that part of the country!).

So, while part of me is really chuffed with my cycling year, the other part thinks that this ride was the best part of it. I cycled more miles this year than ever before, went the equivalent of 4 times up Everest, went faster, and longer, and better than ever before. But those are just numbers. This ride was just for the love of cycling, and if I ever lose that, all the numbers will be meaningless.

 

*Not their real names. But close. No Wetherby George Dupree, unfortunately.

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Bloggy McBlogface

Saw this sign on a barge in the city centre.

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The Other Boaty McBoatface

Not quite so well known as the RRS vessel that will be known as the RSS Sir David Attenborough, but kudos to the owner for sticking with a popular winner.

My preference were some of the other jestical entries:

  • Jon Boat Jovi
  • Ice to Meet You
  • Science Tool from Liverpool
  • Planktonic Relationship

Sometimes, I love this country’s capacity for taking serious things lightheartedly, and lighthearted things seriously.

 

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