Edinburgh to Birmingham

There are probably a lot of cyclists out there who occasionally, on good days, when the sun is shining, and the wind is from behind, think that perhaps it would be nice to be able to ride for a living. To guide tours in Mallorca, or turn professional, or just tour the world making money from writing books about the journey.

Of course, this is the dream, and the reality is somewhat different. Being a professional racer holds no appeal whatsoever (to me at least), and the rest of it is largely just wishful thinking.

Well, it was until last week, when I managed to live the dream for three days. The company I work for purchased another company based in Edinburgh last year, and as a team-building, fund-raising effort, decided to send a group of cyclists from one office to the other. Three days of cycling as part of the day job? Yes please!

I had another reason for being keen, though – I’m doing the Inverness 1200 Audax in early July, and this was an ideal opportunity to both get in some good training, and test out my intended steed. Last year’s Audax was done on what I now call ‘the other bike’, which is lighter and quicker, but less comfortable. Now that Wilma is on the scene, I wanted to see how quick and comfortable she’d be over longer distances.

Day 1

So it was (after numerable boring administrative details not worth recounting) that we headed out from central Edinburgh, with a stiff following breeze, on a distinctly chilly morning. First highlight: deciding to split into speed based groups. Second highlight: some of the Scottish guys (and girls!) were fast. Third highlight –an absolutely stunning climb up through the Granites, on fresh, smooth tar, with the sun coming out, and a wind behind, slowly getting a better and better view down over Edinburgh.

Terrible photo of a beautiful scene

By the time we crested, and sped down the other side on a gently winding road, I knew that this was probably going to be one of the best days’ riding ever, and that Wilma was rocking it. She’s sure-footed, rolls like a bowling ball, and smooth – easily the most pleasant bike to ride long distance I’ve ever been on. While I struggled to keep up with the two strongest riders on the steeper hills, and mudguards impeded my ability to keep up with the aero bikes at above 35mph, on both flats and the gentle ups and downs it was dead easy keeping up an average speed of around 19mph.

Finishing in Penrith, after 112 miles in just under 8 hours, I felt as fresh as ever, with no back pain, and much less shoulder ache than usual. Brilliant.

Day 2

Here’s where the weather steps in. A chance of rain exists nearly the whole day, and we start in a light drizzle. Due to the wonders of GPS technology, we do two tours of the centre of Penrith before heading off in the right direction of the Lake District. Grumble. But then the rain clears, and the scenery improves, and before long we’re zipping along the shores of Ullswater in ecstasy, while keeping on mind the need to store a little bit of energy for the coming climb over Kirkstone pass. However, that proves not to be necessary, as the tailwind gets stronger and stronger the higher up we go, until by the top it’s fairly blasting me upwards. The scenery reminded me of my last day’s riding in Wales, where I had a 20mph headwind going up a similar pass, and the difference between those two couldn’t be greater. Averaging 10mph up a 5.6% incline over just more than 3 miles on a relatively heavy steel framed bike on a day you’re planning to do 130 miles? That’s not going to happen every day.

The descent wasn’t quite so much fun, though – the road was rough, and a bit gravelly, and I’m too chicken to really let go and enjoy things in those circumstances. But a coffee in the café on the shores of Windermere was decidedly welcome. Right, 100 miles to go, should be a breeze from here?

And it was, generally. There was a rough patch where the route organiser had relied on mapping software too heavily, and directed us down a bridle path which was like the son of a motocross track and a construction site had grown up in foster care and gone delinquent. There was the section that goes between Manchester and Liverpool, which is where the heavy traffic started. And then there was the last hour in rather heavy rain. But apart from all that, it was great. Much better than trudging the A6, which is what I’d done in this area on LEJOG seven years ago.  

Day 3

We’d always known that there was going to be a lot of rain on the last day. So it was just a case of putting on warm and waterproof gear, keeping the head down, and pushing on with it. Once out of Northwich, the roads were largely single-track lanes threading the beads of villages together in typical Midlands scenery, and it felt like home. Then the rain stopped and the hills started just outside Kinver, and the lumpy stuff kept it up for a steady rise till we got to the office in South Birmingham.

Not the best day ever, or even particularly notable, but it was there. We arrived ahead of schedule, and ended up waiting for 30 minutes before doing the last mile to the office. At this point, crazy things happen. I make the ludicrous suggestion to a particularly Strava-addicted cyclist (who’s styled herself after a rambunctious rodent) that there were a couple of QOMs to be had nearby due to a road recently being resurfaced. She takes me up on the offer (and drags me along, dammit! That wasn’t the plan!), and gets three. Talk then turns to what route we can take to the office to use up the time available more effectively – yes, after cycling 94 miles, we’re figuring out how we can best increase that number.

And then it’s over – champagne, applause, a quick ride home and a shower. My first (and hopefully not last) trip that I actually get paid for riding.

Ah yes, one last mention that this was organised to raise money for the Air Ambulance Service – if you’ve enjoyed reading this, please head over here and help us out!

Routes, etc

For those who like this sort of thing, here are the Relive videos of the three days. This is the first time I’ve been annoyed by Relive’s method of circling around the rider during the playback. Normally, with circular routes, it’s less obvious what they’re doing, but when you ride in a straight line, it’s a bit silly. Sorry about the lack of photos on day 3 – it just wasn’t the sort of day to stop and take any.

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Jointed, say (10)

Remiss, I am. I suggested I’d write a bit more about cryptic crosswords in the future, but that was a long time ago and I’ve done nothing of the sort. To be fair, I’ve not written much about anything else either, so please take that with as much positivity as you can muster.

Anyway, I came across this clue at the weekend:

Nature’s rich mixture: ‘obi’ clued cryptically?  (12)

It led me to thinking about clues I’d had in the past, where the answer can be read as a cryptic clue itself, which then leads back to part of the original clue. I’ve come across a few of these before, such as:

D’s place out in the sticks (4, 2, 6)

Cool phone? (4, 4)

The first of those is reasonably obvious. There’s so clearly something going on with “D’s” that the setter didn’t even bother putting the question mark in to indicate he was being a bit tricksy. Also (and I don’t know whether this is just me), having an answer in more than one word makes it a lot easier. Especially when one of them has only two letters – you try a few possibles – on, to, of – and pretty soon you have the answer: Back of beyond.

Similarly, the ‘obi’ clue isn’t too hard, what with ‘bio’ being the only thing you can make out of it, the definition being more transparent than most, and ‘clued cryptically’ giving the game away a bit.

Cool phone, however, is probably one of my favourite clues of all time (alongside “Bust down reason“). It’s one of those I only got when all cross clues had been filled in, but even then the satisfaction in finding the answer was immense.

Anyway, this has led me to devise a challenge: come up with a two-word clue, the answer to which is also a clue consisting of two words, leading to another two word answer. And so forth. One point is scored for every successful link, and if you can work it so that the answer to any clue is the original two words, you get a bonus of 10. Submissions can be posted below in the comments.

Spoilers:

Biodiversity, Laid back.

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Measuring the Year

How do you get a measure of the success of a cycling year? It’s easy enough to just look at the graphics that Strava or Veloviewer produce and compare them to previous years. The headline stats of distance, elevation, or longest ride are the sort of snapshot stats that only provide a one-dimensional view of what has gone on. Similar, I suppose, to cricket, where total runs scored is meaningless on its own – it’s really average that you’re after. And even then, average isn’t perfect, with an inherent bias to favour batsmen coming in further down the order.

For example, I rode 6,500 miles this year, which is more than 1,000 up on my previous record. But 2,500 of those were commuting to work (granted, usually taking the long way there), so do those count? Is there a way of ignoring the boring, have-to rides, and only counting the ones you want? Or leaving out the easy tootles, focusing instead on the tough ones where you were really training hard?

I’ve taken a liking to the Eddington number. Not just for the career score (which I’ve upped to 61 this year, and 20% of the way to my long term target of 100). I think the annual score gives a good estimation of the quality of a years’ riding (33, 37, and 39 for the past three years). But then I thought – if a decent aim for an annual Eddington is 52 (a ride of at least 52 miles once a week on average), then measuring how far off that weekly target might be worth doing, right?

So, this leads to a number that you’ve hit, in miles, at least 52 times in a year. Similarly to Eddington, it’s based on daily mileage, so add together any rides on the same day. Order them in decreasing size, and find the 52nd largest one. My numbers for the last three years are 22, 29, and 34. A decent measure of year-round consistency, perhaps, but is it good enough? More of a spread than Eddington, for sure, but how about including something other than distance and count?

Bear in mind that I’ve previously written about a ride score based on elevation: a rating out of 10, where 10 is an average elevation gain of 100ft per mile. (And yes, you can get more than 10 out of 10 – Fred Whitton, for example, is 11). That isn’t really usable here, but if we take the elevation in feet, divide by 50, and take the average of that and the distance in miles, it gives a good elevation-scaled figure to use. Taking the highest number done 52 times gives 18, 26, and 31 for the last three years. So, 2018 was 72% more impressive than 2016 according to this measure, which I think reflects the effort I put in a bit better than the 18% better than Eddington gives.

So there you have my contribution to cycling statistics: the only question remaining is what shall we call it?

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Hello, Goodbye

It’s time to say goodbye to an old faithful. My first road bike (well, not counting the old 10-speed Invader I got when I was 10). Purchased from eBay in 2012 when I was about to embark on training for LEJOG. I still remember the day it arrived: snow was supposed to start at 2pm, and the bike was supposed to arrive at 3. Both were bang on.

2018-12-01 12.29.44
Not the most elegant bike ever, but I still love the dropped seat stays.

Since then, it’s been my companion for well over 12,000 miles, from training for LEJOG, to the ride itself. From a start to training with Strava, to the summer I was unemployed and cycled instead. And then the year after that, where I worked in the centre of Birmingham, didn’t cycle to work, and is the only year where I haven’t cycled further than any previous year.

And then, 2015 was when I got a newer version of the same bike. Lighter, better specced, and a joy to ride. Which meant that I rode a lot more, and largely consigned the oldie to winter work. Occasional commutes into Birmingham became daily commutes to Wythall when I changed jobs again, and it also served as the go-to bike for family rides. The last two years have seen me do over 2,500 miles on it per year, and all that mileage, in generally poor conditions, was starting to take its toll. Pretty much everything except the brakes and levers had been replaced (and the brakes were in desperate need of it). So I put it up on eBay, and it’s now on a Turbo Trainer in someone’s garage, where it’ll live out the rest of its days, no doubt.

I like to think I treated it reasonably well, but as it was a ‘cheap bike to try out this cycling lark’ purchase, I don’t think it ever bonded with me. 

And so, to replace it as a winter / commute / touring bicycle, I’ve picked up a second hand 2016 Genesis. Steel frame, 105 groupset, disc brakes. Absolutely perfect. She’s lighter than the old Giant, more responsive when you put a bit of effort in, and so much smoother and more comfortable. Her name is Wilma, apparently. At least, that’s what she said. I’m sure we’ll be getting to know each other very well over the next few years. In fact, there’s a ride up to Inverness and back from Blackpool that she has her eye on in July next year. I’ll have to talk to the Other Woman in my life about that one…

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Audax Redux: Another Failure

My last organised ride for the year was meant to be the Autumn Audax arranged by Beacon RCC. Called Beyond the Dyke, it starts in Belbroughton, and heads over to Wales before returning. Hilly, but not too much so, long (200km) and a wonderful route mainly on small country lanes (once you get past Kidderminster, that is).

However, the weather on the day was somewhat miserable, and I chickened out like a real loser. There’s a voice in my head asking “Is your mother proud of you?” and the answer, of course, is no. And so, I knew that I had to make amends, and have another go at the ride. So I took today off work, and set off in the darkness that is 6:30 in late October. Apart from the early cold (which was only a problem when going downhill into chilly valleys, and only until the sun came up), it was the perfect day for riding. No more than a slight breeze, dry roads, clear skies. Scenes like this abounded:

Severn River at Arley

Severn River at Arley

And up to the 43 mile mark, that was indeed the case. That took me to an isolated spot about 90% of the way up Clee Hill, where the clippings from the hedge trimmers took their toll, and I had a puncture.

Now, I’ve only had two punctures this year, in 5,500 miles of riding. One doesn’t really count, as it was more of a self-induced tyre malfunction (say no more). And the other was on day 4 of the Wales trip. Puncture-resistant tyres are wonderful things, these days. Not really what Kevlar was designed for, but I’ll take it.

So anyway, I change the tube to the spare I always carry. Or at least, I mean to – first, I put the punctured tube back in (doh!), and then second time around, I manage to pinch the new tube when putting the tyre back. After a long while trying to work out why my pump wasn’t working, I figure it out.

Out comes trusty Google, who informs me that there’s a bike shop called Bike Monkey no more than 0.3 miles away. What luck! Especially as the nearest town is tiny (see map below – the X marks the spot where the breakdown occurred).

mapmonkey

I tried phoning Bike Monkey Ltd, but got no answer. So I started walking, and seeing no sign of any commercial activity at the house in question, I entered the yard. The doorbell didn’t work, so I knocked, and was greeted by a very old man, with an even older dog. The sort which has one eye glazed over by cataracts, can’t stand up straight, and has a rather patchy coat with hair falling out. And the dog didn’t look too healthy either.

Clearly, living in the middle of nowhere had taken its toll, as he struggled to communicate, and just looked blankly at me. Granted, if you get someone dressed in lycra emblazoned with Dementia/Alzheimers logos at your door, and they ask you if you’re in the bicycle business, you’d probably react similarly. So I gave up, and carried on down the hill towards Ditton Priors. Whence appeared my first good Samaritan, who loaded me up in the back of his voluminous Volvo, and provided me with a spare tube at his house (yes, he’s a keen cyclist). He then gave me directions to the nearest bike shop, in Bridgnorth, a mere 10 miles away. Smashing chap. Now if only I’d remembered to ask his name…

So, off I went. Initially, I’d considered leaving the bike shop and carrying on with my planned route. Which is the logical thing to do, because there’s only so much bad luck that can happen to you on one day, right?

Wrong. 2.5 miles down the road, I hear a tick, tick, tick coming from the rear tyre, and before I can react, it goes, predictably, BOOM. Blowout. Nothing to do now, except walk to Bridgnorth. Only 7.5 miles, shouldn’t take more than two hours. But wait, what about Uber? But by the time I’ve re-downloaded the app, I’ve assessed the situation, and am not terribly surprised to be informed that no cars are available. It is, unfortunately, a malady often suffered in these parts, I’d imagine.

After about 5 minutes, I get seriously unhappy about walking in clippy-cloppy-my-little-pony cycling shoes, and remove them, and my socks, and start walking barefoot down the road. But it’s cold, and there’s a long way to go, so decide to start running. As you do. Shoes in my left hand, pushing the bike with my right. And this is my appearance when I’m accosted by my second good Samaritan, who asks if I’d like a lift. Hell yeah! They’re on the way to Bridgnorth, he’s a keen cyclist (of course), and lives just a few hundred yards from Clee Cycles, my destination. Result! If only I’d remembered to ask their names…

And so finally, nearly two hours after the initial puncture, I have a functional bike. I get back on, head a bit further out (nearly to Craven Arms), and then realise that I’m running out of time, and so turn around, head home, and end up with a tally of 118 miles (instead of the 157 I’d planned).

So, it turned out to be an almost, but not quite, terrible, horrible, very bad, no good day. And the Audax still eludes me. I’ll have to try it again next year…

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Mille Cymru 4: Return to the Shire

 

I should have written this last night, when it was still fresh, but then I was stale, and in no real state to do it justice. My only thought was that it was over.

Firstly, the forecast storms never quite materialised. There were the strong winds, but of the 20mph variety, rather than 40, and there was lots of rain, but it was on and off, and I never really got thoroughly drenched as I was expecting to be.

It started off so well, though: a strong Southwester, with me riding North. Bring it on! The miles flew by, and the only fly in the ointment was the realisation, when the rain first came down at 8.31 miles, that I’d left my rain jacket at the house in Harlech. Weighing up the prospect of being wet all day vs doing an extra 16 miles, half of that into a stiff wind, I went for the former. Up to Llanberis, it was good riding, especially the descent down past the lake, where sunshine could be seen over the town. Gorgeous:

2018-07-28 08.28.03

When you’re wet, and cold, riding towards the brightness is a good feeling.

However, once through Llanberis, it was a lot of climbing. Three long, arduous mountain passes, two of which were in a southerly directly, dead into the wind. Absolutely draining. Much of both of those were done standing out of the saddle, in my lowest gear, going one metre per pedal, at about 4mph. Embarrassingly slow by my usual standards, but at least I made it up without walking. Here’s the view from near the top of the first one. Dang – it looked a lot worse than that in real life, I promise. At least you can see the grass bowed over by the wind, so my story retains a scrap of credibility.

2018-07-28 10.49.26

Then it was Lake Vyrnwy – a lovely long flat section along the shore, followed by a cafe stop at Artisans (where I can highly recommend the four-layer fudge cake. Hmmm yes). While I was in there, the heavens opened, and torrential rain fell for the 15 minutes I stopped. And ceased almost as suddenly as soon as I wanted to go. Perfect timing.

2018-07-28 13.11.18

And after that, barring two short (but typically brutal) climbs straight away, it was downhill or flat nearly the whole way back. 40 miles of pleasure. Except that my butt was giving me serious pain (turns out to have been numerous popped blisters), my back was in agony, and the rest of me wasn’t doing too well either. Those last 10 miles were counted down almost pedal by pedal, and went slower than any I’ve ever done before. But then, the arrivee was arrived at, it was over, and a phone call to the Wiff was made to come pick me up (the previous plan of me cycling back the last 60 miles having been long abandoned!).

Here’s the video of the day:

I’ll go back over the next few days, and fill in details and videos and photos of the previous three. And probably write a final summary once the pain has been forgotten. But thanks for bearing with me (assuming you have!).

And if I may indulge in a final plug of my fundraising page, which will stay active for another week or two. Nearly at the target!

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Mille Cymru 3: The Return of the Rider

After the intensity of day 1, and the sheer epicness of day 2, I thought day 3 might start getting easier. Wrong.

Even though I had a good 7.5 hours sleep, I woke up exhausted. My legs were stiff for the first time, and my butt was tender in all the wrong places. But a good breakfast in a truly remarkable house (one of those 4-storey Georgian types that just oozes charm) helped make me feel more normal. It still took about 40 miles before I felt up to the day, and that’s in spite of the first leg being a lot flatter than usual.

Each time I hit a hill, I just ran out of puff. Dragging the bike and 3.5kg of luggage up the 10,000 feet of elevation today was seriously hard work. By the time I’d got out of the Elan Valley, I was broken. But then, there was a long downhill into Aberystwyth, and a good 20 miles of reasonably flat stuff thereafter, and I was redeemed.

While cycling yesterday, I came up with the concept of ‘free miles’, which are those you don’t need to work for. They’re flat sections, or slight declines, and you can cruise at 18-20mph without too much effort. Wales doesn’t specialise in these. At all. There’s also the concept of ‘free climbing’ where the incline is small enough to be able to maintain a speed of 15mph without working too hard. You’re getting some of your days elevation in without paying for it in sweat and tears. Again, in Wales, this is not big.

Until today. The last 60 miles was probably around 75% free, and I don’t think I would have finished the day otherwise. It took the sting out of the tail (both literally and figuratively), and left me in a good place for tomorrow.

Which, however, brings it’s own problems. Because the weather up to now has been perfect. Hot and dry, apart from an hour or so of rain today. But tomorrow’s forecast looks like this:

I don’t know about you, but I’m not keen on cycling in 43mph winds, with or without rain. So we’ll have to see what happens. I may well have to hole up somewhere for a while and let it pass.

Here’s the Relive video, and a few more photos below that (probably duplicated in the video anyway):

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