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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Crazy Paving

I have a confession to make. I’m a little crazy when it comes to paving.

Paving that is right

Paving that is right

When I see something like this, it makes me happy. All is well with the world, everything is in its rightful place, and birds and bees alike are bright and buzzy.

Paving that is wrong

Paving that is wrong

When I see something like this, though, it makes me sad. A dark cloud appears in the sky, blots out the sun, and an eminently inimitable turn of bad weather seems imminently inevitable.

Paving that should be right, but is wrong, which makes it more wrong than paving that is wrong, because it could be right, but it isn't.

Paving that should be right, but is wrong, which makes it more wrong than paving that is wrong, because it could be right, but it’s wrong. So very wrongly wrong.

However, when I see something like that, it’s like a bad mashup of karma and dogma. It’s like the prince who rescues Rapunzel turning out to have a sideline interest in wig-making. Or the two ugly step-sisters only pretending to be ugly so that Cinders gets her prince because they feel sorry for her. But Cinderella is really Rapunzel in disguise, slowly coming back from the harrowing ‘haircut in the night’ incident back at the palace which stripped her, not only of her hirsutity, but of her memory as well, and now she’s a raving lunatic who sleeps in fireplaces and talks to birds, and outwardly she’s all ‘yes, Stepmother’ this and ‘certainly, Stepmother’ that, and she sweeps and dusts, and sings and dances, but when it’s dark, she’s at the cauldron with eye of newt and toe of frog and she’s poisoning apples and stalking dwarves, and she’s smirking maniacally at the mirror on the wall, and she’s growing forests of sleepy brambles, and cursing fairies, and stealing the voices right out of the throats of little mermaids, and sometimes when she’s in a particularly foul mood she preys on the insecurities of baby geese but she can’t quite shake the feeling that she’s doing that bit wrong, and so she sets an elaborate trap (involving a rabid wolf, a chainsaw, and a basket of cheesy comestibles) for a little old lady who lives alone, by herself in a lonely cottage in the deserted woods, and when it’s all over she finds, under a glass cloche (together with a rose that slowly, gently, unstoppably, is losing its petals one by one), a piccolo, which she painstakingly learns to play one night while trying to spin straw into gold without pricking her finger, whereupon she is suddenly surrounded by rats, big rats, dirty rats, nasty rats, who carry her off down the hill, and she’s thinking if only, if only, if only they’d lifted up that panel of paving, and put it down so that the lines matched up with the other lines, and the blocks matched up with those other blocks, then she wouldn’t have been chased by those bears, and harassed by the talking cat, or eaten those three bowls of porridge for breakfast, and she’d have married her prince and he would have been charming, and they would have been blissfully, blissfully happy for ever and ever and ever.


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Timely Training

My train was on time today. Annoying, because I almost missed it.

It used to be the case that it was reliably one or two minutes late. I can leave my house at 7:15, walk the 0.8 miles to the station, and catch the 7:26. I have the timing down to the minute – there are three landmarks along the way where I can do a time check and ensure I’m bang on time. I sidle down the wheelchair ramp to the platform at exactly 7:26, as the train in rolling up. And it invariably leaves the station at 7:28, or 7:29.

This is, of course, how things should be. In a flawed country, with flawed people, there shouldn’t be perfection. Or even the semblance of perfection. Of course, there is a limit to this – any more than five minutes late, and it looks sloppy. And complaints will be made, effusively. So, every now and then, London Midland gets the idea that perhaps it should run its trains properly. Like (and I hesitate to say this) a proper European country. For a few days, the trains arrive at 7:24, and leave bang on time. It settles the nerves of the rabble rousers, calms them down, and gives them the idea that maybe things will be alright, and they can rely on the train service.

For me, it means I have to readjust my  morning routine for a few days until normality sets in again and we get back to being a few minutes late.

But it gets me thinking – does this timeousness have anything to do with goings on across the water? Is it a coincidence that whenever there’s talk of Brexit, or referendums, or rumours of deals, the trains suddenly run on time? Probably, but it feels like there’s scope for a bit more research on this.

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Devon Coast to Coast – Day 3

The last day. One last challenge, but also one last chance to live the experience of the ride. No disappointment on either front. There were three hilly sections, a long steady downhill run into Plymouth, and beautiful scenery throughout.

Lydford was a particular delight – ups and downs through the lush gorge, with 30 metre drops to the river below, and dense woodland either side of the road. Reaching the edge of Dartmoor provided an unbeatable vista across the moors, with ponies grazing just off the path. And then there’s the Drake’s Trail, which runs from Tavistock to Plymouth.

Part of this, from around Bickleigh, is along the route of the old Plym Valley railway, and is a gentle downward gradient running through woodland. On a sunny Saturday afternoon, it’s well populated with dog walkers, hikers, and cyclists. It lends a sense of community to the ride, as though they’d all come out to see us finish.

However, once you reach the end of that, there’s a bit of a dreary section through industrial areas of Plymouth. The road around the coast is taken, which then goes through the harbour, and on towards the lighthouse and ferry terminal. This road was busy, and the pavement was full of pedestrians, and we ended up resorting to walking the last mile. I know – highly embarrassing.

And then, as soon as we’d arrived, the guy who was to take our bikes (and us) back to Ilfracombe was there, and we started loading up, and it all felt just a little anti-climactic. No fanfare, or welcoming committee, or anything like that. Just a photo or two, and a trudge to a portaloo. A long trip in a van, and then packing up the cars again. Ideally, it would have been better to spend the night in Plymouth, so that we could at least savour the arrival, soak up the atmosphere in the harbour, and get a real sense of achievement.
But still – it’s a challenge taken up and overcome, and especially for the children, something they can be really proud of. Hopefully, it’s just the start of something more regular, with more family holidays being spent this way. Could next year’s project be a ramble along the edge of the Danube, perhaps? Or down the coast of France? Much planning lies ahead, methinks.

Day 3's map

Day 3’s map

Beautiful scenery just outside Sourton

Beautiful scenery just outside Sourton

Crossing one of the numerous viaducts

Crossing one of the numerous viaducts

And another one

And another one

Final destination - Plymouth

Final destination – Plymouth

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Devon Coast to Coast, Day 2

We knew it was going to rain today. The forecasts a week before had been consistent all the way in: chance of rain on Thursday, definite rain on Friday, and sunny on Saturday. Like a looming exam for a student, the day of rain had come closer and closer, with no chance of escape.

And so, when we woke up early to the sound of heavy rain, it was accepted with a sense of stoic formality. We’re just going to have to do this. So after a fantastic breakfast (unless you’re not a big fan of slightly underdone scrambled eggs), we left the Clinton Arms in the rain. Not a drenching downpour, but hard enough that after the first hour, we were wet through.

Now, my first rule of cycling is “If I’m not having fun, I’m doing it wrong.” I’ve found that I can live within this through just about every situation – whether it’s gruelling hill training, or exhausting 100-mile rides, or even battling into heavy winds. The only time I find myself breaking it is when I’m riding in the rain. I hate it. Initially, it’s just an annoyance, like a hole in a dyke that can be stopped with just a finger, but it slowly works its way up until not even a whole arm in the hole can stop the leak.

There’s the moment that the sleeves get wet through, and you know it’s going to be a slog. Then there’s the point where the water spraying up from the back wheel works its way through the lycra and padding of the shorts, and your bum gets wet. Then there’s the dripping down the back of your neck when your hair gets soaked enough to overflow to the rear. And finally, your shoes’ defences are breached, and your socks are wet, and your feet are cold. Nothing matters then, except making it through the ride, arriving home, and getting dry. Most of today was like that.

To their credit, the children never complained. They were perhaps a little more vocal in expressing their annoyance at the hills (which, to be fair, were more numerous and more steep than any of us had expected), but they accepted their fate with admirable fortitude. About three hours in, Alex said to me “As soon as we arrive at the hotel, I’m going to have a nice, hot bath.” And then, in reference to his mud-spattered legs, he retorted “and by the looks of me, I’m going to need it!” I could hardly believe it – only nine years old, and he’s living rule 1 better than me.

It wasn’t all bad though – the rain eased off to a light drizzle after two hours. Just enough to maintain the status quo on the wet front, and then for a glorious forty minutes just before lunch it stopped entirely, and we had four miles of blissful hope – maybe this will last the rest of the day? But no sooner had we stepped into a wonderful little tea room in Hatherleigh than it started up again.

And so the rest of the day was a bit of a write-off. Lots of hills, half our party getting lost, brakes getting worn out from all the down hills (which tells you something about the uphills), one huge hill right near the end which was long and steep and nasty. But no one stopped to walk up it, and Alex, knowing it was right at the end, put all he had into it. I asked him near the top “Are you still alive?” and between loud steam train breathing he came back with “No! <gasp> But <gasp> I’m <gasp> going <gasp> to do it!” Even Anna had overcome her dread of the hills, and had mastered the tactic of switching to a low gear, and just keep on going. Highly commendable.

After a day like that, a Travelodge is not exactly the stopping point you want – it’s an impersonal, cookie-cutter kind of place. But there was a friendly receptionist, a warm room, hot water, and clean towels, and really, that’s about all you need in life after a long day of rule breaking.

Map of day 2's ride

Map of day 2’s ride

Wet, muddy backs

Wet, muddy backs

A tangle of bicycles outside the lunch stop in Hatherleigh

A tangle of bicycles outside the lunch stop in Hatherleigh

Setting out from Torrington

Setting out from Torrington

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Devon Coast to Coast – Day 1

There’s always a bit of trepidation when setting out on a more-than-one-day cycle trip. Partly it’s “have I packed everything?”, partly “what will the weather be like tomorrow, and the next day?”, partly “will the bicycles (and their riders) hold out?”, and, in this case, partly “what will the other participants be like?”

Because there were a number of firsts for me here. One is that for the first time the family was cycling along. While I knew that The Wife would handle it just fine, I wasn’t entirely sure about The Kids. While we’d done over 200 miles of day trips with them, this was slightly different. Three days in a row is always a bit of a test – the third day being the one when the exertions of the first two catch up.

The other first was that we’d be doing it with another family, also with two children (theirs being two boys, 7 and 9, compared to our boy/girl 9/12 combo). We’d met them through a common interest in and support of Living Hope, a charity working in the poor townships of Cape Town. We’d only met them once before arriving at the hotel in Barnstaple on the night before, so we were hoping we’d continue to get along fine through the travails to come.

And then, the morning came, we dropped our things and left our cars in Ilfracombe under the watchful eye of Verity (I’m ashamed to admit she’s starting to grow on me), and set off up the rather steep hill out of the town. Not the best way to start, as it just intensifies all the niggles with pannier bags and bike setups and kiddie apprehension and not-quite-warmed up muscles.

But once out of the town, into the countryside and away from traffic on dedicated cycle paths, it was fabulous. The scenery of North Devon is breathtakingly green and lush, with rolling hills and sheep-filled pastures. Lunch in Braunton was followed by the start of the Tarka Trail – a cycle path along the old railway line that used to make its way through Barnstaple to Bideford. Those who have seen James May’s Toy Stories would remember this as the path he led his electric model trains along (not entirely successfully, as I recall). It was full of cyclists, mostly day trippers, hiring bikes and gambolling along the blissfully flat trail along the edge of the estuary.

Our partaking of the trail ended that day at Torrington, where we left it to head out of the valley to Frithelstock (which is a name worthy of staying at just for the sake of it). That ‘out of the valley’ bit is the key that there was a hill involved, and boy, remind me to check this sort of thing next time. Because there were seven other pairs of eyes shooting daggers at me all the way up 300ft of climbing in 3/4 of a mile of road.

But the pub at the end was worth it (in my eyes at least). Run by a delectably quirky landlord, the food was good, the rooms were roomy, and the sleep was comfortable. He doesn’t normally open on Thursdays, so implored us to sit at a table away from the window, so that passers by wouldn’t see that there was anyone inside, and come knocking. Can’t have any extra custom, heavens, no.

Map of Day 1

Map of Day 1


Verity, Ilfracombe harbour

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Coast to Coast way marker

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Along the Tarka Trail, through the woods

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Crossing the estuary at Barnstaple

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