Friday, January 12, 2018

F***ing cyclist should not be on the road

This morning I was reading a posting on social Media about Cheshire Police successfully prosecuting drivers for dangerous driving in relation to cycles.
Whilst I applauded such action I was extremely troubled by some of the reactive comments from motorists to it.

Some were apoplectic, expressing such bile and vitriol that hinted at temporary pshycosis and clearly warranted some serious intervention.
It was certainly clear that they never went to Sunday school.
I usually avoid such debates as most of the commentators are so polarised that you are only inviting personal abuse.
The lack of reaction on my part, despite being angered took patience and consideration, qualities that are at the crux of these type of debates

Driving your car is not dissimilar to being in your lounge at home watching Television.
You are comfortably sat in your own private world.
You are cocooned and detached.
You can control your temperature and internal environment at the touch of a button.
You can make and receive calls anywhere in the world.
You can eat and drink and if you're really daring update your social media status or apply your lipstick.
You are in control
I repeat - you are in control
The steering wheel is like your TV remote.

Suddenly a driver cuts you up, the lights turn red or god forbid you are slowed down by a group of cyclists.

Metaphorically somebody has just snatched the TV remote from you.
They have taken away your control, invaded your dare they!!!!!!

You slam the wheel with your hands, sound the horn, rev your engine shout and swear.

All the things that you might do in the privacy of your own home if something moves or angers you.
Why shouldn't you?

Would you act like in your local, supermarket or workplace?

Continuing your journey there might be a small child playing by the kerbside.
It's the equivalent of the baby monitor going off.

Even the most cynical and irresponsible drivers would react, especially those with children themselves.
The paternal DNA within all of us naturally triggers an alarm inside us.
Without a thought we might change our speed or course until we have passed.

Once that child grows up, buys a bike and rides on the road the danger may be similar - but attitude is different.

Using a different scenario - Your daughter and her friends have gone out for a cycle ride and you are meeting her at a country pub for lunch. As you wind down the country roads you come across a group of cyclist ahead of you.
Suspecting or believing that it might be your daughter or one of her friends you instinctively slow down become patient and use consideration.
As you pass you realise its not your daughter but the group smile at your consideration and you exchange the wave of a hand.

Although we are still in our cocoon we have opened our window to the outside world.

We rarely know who that cyclists is ahead of us and may never know unless we knock them over, kill or injure them.
When we find out that they are our colleagues mother or daughters friend.
 They are no longer a faceless object by the side of the road who are trying to snatch your TV remote.

They are just wanting to ride home to get cosy in front of the TV

Friday, December 29, 2017

Chapeau Events - Cycle Tours Part 1 London to Paris

As snow and ice hinder any festive riding and the turbo trainer becomes as appetising as the Christmas leftovers, I am presently drawn to non physical cycling activities.
Planning rides, velo-reading and buying cycling related products feature quite prominently at this point.

As I do so I am struck by the variety of all things cycling.
It was not that long ago that if I did a search on the word 'Cycling' then I wold be directed to the nearest landfill site - Now the word is far too broad.

Fashion, gifts, technology, social media and even the arts have all become integrated into the cycling world, contained within the panniers and saddlebags of this evolving, revolving pastime.

It is not surprising to see this opportunity being embraced by Holiday and Tour operators looking to profit from our ambitions in finding new vistas, gradients and of course cake.
Holiday destinations throughout the world are seeking to achieve a cycling friendly appeal to attract a new type of greener tourist whose footprint is light and wallet often heavy. 

Majorca, Gran Canaria and Tenerife have previously monopolised those of us who seek more exotic destinations to change our punctures but there are now new kids on the block.
Vietnam, Cambodia, Bali, and Nova Scotia are not obvious choices but are becoming increasingly popular with regular trips organised by a variety of companies.

One of the things that has always put me off touring is the restriction that you get when your having to carry extra things around with you.

Any climbing is challenging enough, but once over ladened even the most simple gradients turn into double chevroned beasts, where even a simple railway bridge can have you wincing.
Pushing a bike up a 20% gradient with four panniers attached is not exactly cycling, but more akin to a task that might be set out in the 'Ninja Warrior TV Show' 

.........And forget about the exhilaration of descending a mountain, rhythmically gliding from side to side like John Travolta in lycra. Think of Inertia then fear.
its similar to the experience you might find on a tired seaside rollercoaster where your not quite sure that you will be able to safely negotiate the next corner. If you do make it down with rubber still left in your brake blocks and still upright, you will end up using all of your water bottles to reduce the heat from your molten rims

I am a minimalist when it comes to cycling accompaniments; I carry enough weight around my midriff thank you very much. 
These restrictions usually push me towards cycling familiar routes with nearby taxi opportunities or single day events with adequate back up support.

I had though often about organised cycle tours where all your luggage is moved for you and your fully supported but I was always put off by a number of things?
  • Expense
  • Would the routes be safe
  • What if I was too slow/fast for the group
  • What if I wanted to do my own thing within the Tour framework 

 Back in 2015 I became involved in helping out a charity called 'Kidneys for life' whilst I was working in the North West and subsequently got roped into completing a 'London to Paris' bike ride with them.

Knowing that the trip was being arranged by a tour company I was already breaking down the costs in my head as I transferred the money over.
I was curious to know how it would compare to arranging it myself and what any profit margins might be.

The trip was arranged by Chapeau Events who are fronted by brothers David and Ian Wright. Both were cycling enthusiasts who had become 'accidental' tour operators.

David had cycle cafe 'Chapeau Cafe' and Farm shop, in Marton, Cheshire and was immersed within the local cycling scene.
With his wife having had a kidney transplant he took part in a number of charity cycling events with the 'Kidneys for life' Charity and other organisations.These were arranged and hosted by established cycle tour operators.
After sourcing and arranging the majority of the riders himself, David decided to try and host some events himself. This allowed any nominated charities to receive an increased amount of revenue.
Unlike the larger companies he wanted to abide by some enduring principles

    To cycle every inch of any proposed route
    To be safe
    To secure good accommodation
    To ensure good food
    To make each event memorable and inclusive for each individual rider
Having previously arranged tours for my own club was aware of the logistical nightmare of having to cater for multiple needs, desires and abilities in an unknown environment, within defined time frames - To do all that whilst maintaining a smile and enjoying the trip yourself is almost impossible.

Chapeau Events allow you to use your own bike which they transport for you and return and provide comprehensive service and support throughout the tour.
They even have spare bikes in case of serious mechanical issues.

They also use their own Catering Facilities whilst riding offering hot and cold lunch choices and morning/afternoon refreshments. This provides the flexibility to ensure that the times and locations can be determined sympathetically to the riders needs at the time and in locations that deserve visual investment.

With the groups rarely bigger than 60 riders you can select your own pace and company with the routes marked clearly at each junction or periodically on long sections to provide reassurance.

So in July 2015 I set off from Blackheath in London to travel to Paris

Day 1 – London to Calais  Approximate cycling distance 165km (103 miles) 

The challenge starts as soon as you leave the hotel merging with the morning rush hour traffic. Thankfully they are heading in, as you head out of London following the Thames towards Dartford and the Medway villages. 
The terrain was mixed, being initially flat around the estuary and coast and then ramping up as soon as you head inland amongst the apple orchards and hop gardens. 
This does not let up until you reach Dover which you first spy from an elevated location.
On a clear day you can also see France.
Congregating at the ferry terminal and on the short Journey across the channel gives you the first opportunity to get to know some of your other riders after the kudos of gaining some miles in your legs - You soon realise - You are all in it together.

Once disembarked, there is a short ride to the hotel in the dark. 
It's was a long day and probably the toughest!

Day 2 – Calais to Arras
Approximate cycling distance 135km (84 miles)

Hearing the Gallic vernacular over the breakfast table brings a smile to your face as you contemplate the day ahead. It was clear through listening to the Anglo Saxon conversations that different riders had their own agendas. Some wanted to ride hard all day finishing earlier, others sought to take their time and absorb the experience, culture and various landmarks.
I elected for both - to ride hard but to stop at various places in between.
I had to protest with my fellow riders who disagreed with me that it was only 'bon chance' that each stop provided refreshment sourced from grapes.

After a delicious 'alfresco' lunch the mornings begnin terrain became more undulating and remote passing through quaint villages. These were punctuated by their customary squares where berret wearing pensioners played boules and smoked turkish tobacco.
The day ended  with a gentle decent into the medieval town of Arras.

Day 3 – Arras to Compiegne
Approximate cycling distance 126km (78 miles)

The third day we headed further south through the region of the Somme a sobering and tranquil place with regular monuments and memorials. 

This includes a water stop off at the Thiepval Memorial for the unfound

The terrain was undulating throughout the day not dissimilar to the Yorkshire Wolds.
We stayed in Compiegne that night, famous for being the start point of “Paris-Roubaix”

Day 4 – Compiegne to Paris
Approximate cycling distance 105km (65 miles)

Although this was the shortest days riding it was also probably the most diverse and beautiful. After leaving the hotel we rode through miles of Forrest with more significant elevation and a roller coaster terrain which added to the thrill.
We were instructed to wait at a holding point close to the centre of Paris and encouraged to absorb the atmosphere of the Parisian suburbs. I needed no invitation.

Being a regular commuter and used to urban cycling I knew the hazards and was initially concerned about how the crew were going to navigate a large group of cyclists into the Centre of Paris and line us up by the Eiffel Tower. 
My fears were soon abated with a reassuring safety briefing at the holding point.
With crew vehicles to the front and rear and accompanying members on cycles we were shepherded to our final destination like errant sheep in 'one man and his dog'

This was my first experience in using a cycle Touring Company where I like them became engaged by chance or fate - I was genuinely impressed and pleased that I had embraced it.

Framed by it's enduring principles Chapeau Events allows you to ride as an individual within a group and provides the flexibility to make it worthwhile.

The big question that might arise is whether its value for money?
In breaking each component cost down I could have done the same trip significantly cheaper.
However If you factor in the cost of your own time in preparation and planning, problem solving and ensuring reliable support then there is no question that this is the way to go.

There is also a bonus, a bit like a cash payback but far more valuable.
People who partake such adventures are often like minded and the sort of people you would choose as friends if you were to meet them socially. Since the trip in 2015 I have remained in contact with most of them and despite them being scattered across the country regular ride with a lot of them.

Last summer I joined up with Chapeau events once more to cycle their newest route from Bordeaux to Bilbao the journey of which I will feature on my next blog.

Details of future Chapeau events can be found using this link Chapeau Events .

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Isle of Skye - NW Scotland Tour Day 3

During my informative years I lived on the Isle of Wight next door to a celtic family called the 'McKays'. Geographically Donald and Adaire were as far removed from any tartan or blooming heather that you could possibly get, but you would never think so. 

Every Christmas Donald would loose his trousers, hastily replaced by a kilt. He would insist that anybody crossing his homely threshold would join him in the consumption of Mould wine or Whiskey. Every New Years Eve he would throw a lavish party and insist that there were no shirkers when it came to joining arms and singing 'Auld lang syne'. 

One particular year 'Mull of Kintyre' was topping the record charts which prompted multiple plays. As the whiskey bottles emptied there was an increased harmony between  Makay and Macartney until the pipers entered the song .............'as the mist rolled in from the sea'
By the time people came to leave Donald would sometimes have a tear in his eye, through happiness or sadness I never really knew, but I know he missed his homeland.

From that moment on, I felt that I had come under some strange celtic spell. I immersed myself in celtic music, literature and history. I even scoured my family tree to try and find some celtic connection - alas there were no McShrimptons. 

Back then I never owned a cycle and my numerous excursions across the border were always motorised.
When I eventually decided to undertake a cycling tour my first two days were always going to be about challenges but the third set aside. 
It was reserved, to satisfy some deep yearning inside me.

After having already explored the Cities, Borders and the Highlands, the Islands were always there in the background. Like a delicious desert shouting out from the menu at an upmarket restaurant. 

Where you tell the waiter that you 'need some time' before its delivered.
To separate it from the rest of the meal, yet still make it part of the experience if you know what I mean.

When it comes to choosing which Island the choice was obvious - The Isle of Skye

Skye is the fourth largest island of the British Isles and the largest Island in the Inner Hebrides archipelago. Famed for its rugged landscape, picturesque fishing villages and medieval castles.

I needed no ice-cream to enhance this particular treat.

Starting from Portree we headed north along the A855 coast road with almost a cloudless sky.
To the East 'The sound of Rassay' lay between us and the island itself, with Rona and the Applecross peninsula beyond.

The conditions were so calm that the mountains became inverted within the mirrored reflection.
Arm warmers and gilets were soon discarded as the temperature rocketed up to 20 degrees, nature seemingly forgetting that it was still May. 

Knowing that this data would be disputed in years, I decided that I must capture the evidence on film and laid on the cool grass of the cliff-top. Whilst I was there I spied a four leaf clover, a unicorn and saw Nessie playing with a discarded empty coke bottle. It was magical.

With rain on 223 days a year and an average temperature of 14 degrees we constantly  had to question our true location which took on a dreamlike quality.

 Our good fortune continued as the road was wide and fast, surprisingly devoid of vehicles, or potholes, but we were not complaining. Its undulating terrain provided fast descents and shallow climbs assisted by the inertia gained. Inland to the west are the mountains with the old Man of Storr and further north the Famous 'Quiraing' 

You approach The 'Quiraing' from the curiously named Brogaig with an unnecessary ramp that reminds you of your mortality. Leaving the semblance of civilisation behind you, you are greeted by an isolated graveyard.
By this time my eyesight had become compromised by sweat from the 'Heat of this spring day'
Instead of tombstones it appeared to me as if the graves were marked by half buried cycle wheels and bidons stood beside them containing wilting 'White Roses'. 

Was it a sign? I asked myself,  as this unique geological amphitheatre reared up in front of me. 

The Quiraing climb lasts about 4km and rises to 15% in gradient. It's not the toughest climb, nor the longest, but as far as grandeur is concerned there are few that compete with this.

It was already clear from the previous signs that day, that the climb would be fine, and so it was.

Despite the vertical challenge there would be no suffering this day. I soon reached the top singing to myself.................oh the summer time is coming, and the trees are sweetly blooming, and the wild mountain thyme grows around the blooming heather, will you go lassie go

By the time we set off back to Portree the wind had picked up............A tail wind of course - to push us home...........spooky.

The drive back from Portree to our hotel at Broadford was almost a solemn affair in the knowledge that we had just had just finished three incredible days of cycling.

We would be leaving the following day.

In 1947 Broadway hosted a new musical called 'Brigadoon'. Its was about a magical place  that rises out of the Scottish Mist every 100 years and becomes accessible to outsiders for just one day.

We set off early the next day again to warm sunshine and a cloudless sky.
As we crossed over the Skye Bridge to the mainland I could see the mist fill in behind me through my wing mirror. With in minutes the Island had disappeared.
'Wheres my coat' Matt I asked 'it's getting chilly'

Thursday, October 12, 2017

Bealach-na-Ba - Tour of NW Scotland Day 2

I have a good friend that I cycle with called Manuel. He is a GP and originally from Barcelona. 
Like his Faulty Towers namesake, Manuel sometimes struggles with certain English words. 
He actually speaks and understands English far better than most people I know, but is linguistically ambitious, always looking to enhance his vocabulary. 

One day we were out cycling when I became detached from the main group. We were climbing some lung busting accent that I had never encountered before. Manuel, sensing I was in trouble dropped back to join me and asked if I was ok. 
I told him not to worry that I was 'pacing' myself because I did not know what lay ahead of us.

'Peeeeeeecing' he said 'I like that idea'.

A few weeks later we were out again climbing out of one of the valleys in the East Yorkshire wolds. I had adopted my usual 'Lantern Rouge' position now joined by my new able domestique from Barcelona. As we rode, we were caught up by two female cyclists with whom we passed the time of day with.
Manuel urged them to pass, exclaiming that he and I, were currently engaged in the art of 'Peeeeeeecing'. Scornfully they accepted Manuel invitation and rode on - not daring to look back. Before they got out of sight I shouted 'Don't worry....he's from Barcelona'.

Whenever I encounter a new vertical challenge 'Peeeeecing' is always my default position, which was something that I had in mind when I looked at the second day of our Scottish Tour.

Starting from sea level at Tornapress, we headed along the northern shore of Loch Kishorn. The single track road ascended steadily, like a strand of Spaghetti randomly dropped from the plate of some Celtic deity - Epona perhaps who liked to protect her equine creatures.....especially Mules.

 Not unlike the previous day, the weather was perfect with warm spring sunshine and little wind. 
The visibility was clear.......Horribly so!
There was nothing hidden or masked in anyway, no subtlety at all - you could see everything.
To the south west over the shimmering waters of Loch Carron and into the inners seas. There was Scalpay, Raasay and the mountains on the Isle of Skye.

To the north west there was Bealach-na-Ba.

I have to point out that I am always a bit suspicious about the use of hypons.
People sometimes use them in their surnames to create an image of someone greater, more important or of a different class. 

Bealach-Na-Ba had two hypons, but needs no introduction. It's identity has been confirmed by many  a distressed cyclists over the years.

Everything around us was dwarfed by this huge cliff face.
I decided that this was definitely a climb for 'Peeeeecing'!!!!!!

Simon Warren who put together Britains 100 greatest climbs described it as:- 'The Holy Grail, the toughest and wildest climb in Britain'
He goes on to say 'Anything you have read or been told about this amazing road is likely to be true. For once you can believe the hype'.

Being in this isolated, barren landscape it is intimidating enough before you even  turn your pedals.
The nearest emergency Hospital is hours away and if the weather turns, the same could be said about the nearest shelter.

Unlike any other British climb that I have encountered the scale of this beast is in a different league.
It is the third highest road in Scotland, and its 9.27 km takes you way out of your comfort zone for what seems an eternity.
Although shorter than your average Alpine climbs, what is given up in length, is made up for in gradient. Climbing 626 meters (2,054ft) in one go, it has an average of 9.9% which tops out at 24.7%.

The narrow, twisty road is uncompromising. There is little room for cars to overtake and you have to negotiate the use the infrequent passing places to ensure progress. If you don't judge it right and have to unclip - you have got problems.

The road is far too narrow to traverse and mostly too steep to re-engage your pedals.
I thought that SPD cleats might be a good option for greater flexibility. I'll try and remember  for next time.

At one point I had three cars behind me. I felt anxious at their proximity, intimidated by their impatience and nauseous at their burning clutches.

Unable to slip in and out the short piece of tarmac before they had passed, I was forced to unclip.  The only way I got going again was to descend to the previous passing place, and execute a U turn.
With a rock face on one side and a 30 foot drop the other, it was a bit perilous.
A much better option than going back to the bottom, I recklessly thought.

The further up the climb, it became more demanding. 
The road narrowed, its surface became more weathered, and it ramped up. 
An unholy trinity of challenges, conspiring to maximise my suffering. 

Whoever I cycle with must be reassured to know they will always be able to get a rest at the top of every climb. I am always last up and have perfected the art of 'Peeeeecing' so much, that I no longer think - 'I won't make it' 
Usually I am more concerned about things like 'will all the cake have been eaten at the cafe' or 'will the pub be closed' - Things that I consider to be equally important on all cycling adventures. 
On this particular day I was rest assured that there was no pub or cafe at the summit so I was more concerned that my companions might have fallen asleep or got bored waiting.

With no crowds of supporters handing out sheets of of L'Equipe to shove down my Jersey, I elected for a Gilet on the cool descent down into Applecross. There we found an oasis within a walled garden and some fine fare on offer.

Believing I had completed most of the hard work, I allowed myself a much larger than normal lunch, washed down with some local Skye Gold. The sun was now reaching its Zenith and providing some extra warmth within this enclosure. 
All was right with the world I thought as I tugged on my bottle of straw coloured ale.

On leaving the lunch stop we spied an old rickshaw discarded in the grass. 
I would have been happy to do the same if I had been allowed. 
Instead we pressed on staying close to the sea around the peninsular. 

It usually takes me about half an hour to get going again after a cafe/lunch stop but after 50 minutes I was somewhat perplexed. It suddenly dawned on me that my listless legs were not 'Cafe legs' but ones engaged in real industrial action. 

Our nominated navigator Tony reassured me that there was only 3 more climbs left at Camas-an-Eillean, Applecross Forrest and Loch Shielding.
I did not particularly enjoy the previous climb with the 'double hyphened' name, so I doubted that the next one would fill me with joy. 

By now I was struggling to keep up with my fellow adventurers who had not yet acquainted themselves with the joys of 'Peeeeeecing'. 

Although the surrounding countryside and coast were spectacular in every sense, my head was dropping and my focus was becoming increasingly one dimensional  - upon the road ahead.

Thankfully with my wits about me, I was still able to keep track of our progress.
After about another 10 weary miles, I worked out that I must have been summiting the final climb at Loch Shielding.

 I only spotted one of our group yawning as I stopped at the top to congratulate myself, at closing the ride out. I smiled and reached out my hand to the others.

Tony looked at me quizzically asking what I meant.
When he explained that we had not even done the first of the remaining climbs I was close to tears.....really I was. 
I was also way past any extreme form of turrets, with a tirade of expletives erupting from me

'What the xxxx have we been cycling on then for the past ten miles! They are hardly xxxxxxx speed bumps. If they are not xxxxxxx significant climbs what the xxxx are they going to be like when we xxxxxxx get to them.'

Tony tried to reassure me that the first climb was at the bottom of this next descent and that they pretty much followed one after another. 

'For  xxxx sake'  the turrets continued 

Suddenly I was no longer in the Scottish wilderness but with my head on a block during the French revolution. The executioner was telling me that I should not worry as they had just changed the blade  on the guillotine.
 'At least the pain will all come together' I thought.

The next hour was probably the hardest time I have ever had on a bike. I was in an acute state of melancholia. I kept on telling the guys to ride on and leave me, that I would either see them at the finish or that they could visit me in the morgue.

I asked them to each choose one of my bikes for themselves and to consider arranging a commemorative Sportive for over weight cyclists after my passing.
They laughed, not realising that I was being serious.

When the final summit did come there was a long shallow descent and a wind assisted flat for about 8 miles back to Tornapress. By the time we hit the flat, I was re-engaging with the surroundings again and smiling. It wasn't so bad after all. Is it ever?

That night we spoke of the days ride and of the following day on the Isle of Skye. We smiled heartily  and made various toasts as the Scotch ignited  our own spirits.
I raised my glass in special toast 'Let the Peeeeecers of the world unite'