Thursday, 31 May 2012

Summer stripes....

The hot, sunny weather continues here and I am now nurturing impressively tanned arms and legs - I look stripey in the shower .... and its still May!!

Gary and I met up recently and rode gently out through the lanes in the direction of Stoke Golding. Suddenly the white flowers of the cherry are gone and in their place all over the roadside verges and woods there is a great upclouding of mustardy yellow, a kind of lemon olive, very beautiful and in the bright sunlight quite startling. It is the oaks in flower. There are a few outstanding examples on the ride today, in particular a row of three formidable trees between Far Coton and Shenton, as oaks go they are not old trees: two hundred and fifty years maybe, they have a girth about like that of a couple of pillar boxes and they stand stoutly, in their prime. They have grown quite close together, very straight, and now, suddenly they have undergone this magnificent rejuvenation. An abrupt and vivid change from leather-brown buds to olive-yellow flowers, from obscurity to clarity. Rising above all other trees around them they become the upper sun-lit edges of a great cloud of leaf. And on these bright, sunny days which we are all enjoying, the flowers burn like vast candles of yellow.

I've changed the rear cassette on my new bike - with Mont Ventoux fast approaching I decided that the benefit of a 30 tooth rear sprocket might be of benefit. Even with a compact chainset I now have a range of gear ratios close to a triple chainset. Today is the first day out on them and everything seems fine, certainly spinning up hills is slightly easier and more relaxed - whether it will make any difference over the distance we have to cover, who knows? - we'll just have to wait and see.

We get to Stoke Golding. It's sweltering now, we both look like we've just stepped out from the shower. We decide a trip to the pub would be the right thing. Replace fluids etc. So we stop at The George and Dragon. This is a village pub that has undergone some considerable updating over recent years, owned by Church End Brewery they offer an inspired collection of cask ales, quite a number of them are the pale, citrus-tanged, hoppy brews that Gary and I are partial to these days. We enjoy a couple of pints of 'Poachers Pocket' and then another couple of 'Fallen Angel' - we also tuck into a lump of Sparkenhoe Red Leicester cheese, made just a couple of miles away at Upton.

We ride back towards home through quiet lanes with birds singing and bees humming, as the sun lowers and the shadows lengthen I look around and can't think of anywhere I'd rather be.

Friday, 25 May 2012

Beer ride - The Crown at Alrewas

This week is a definite - the recent cry-off's due to the weather are confined to history - today is hot, glorious in fact, the afternoon has a silent infinity about it - the shimmering heat, the sweet cool grass in the waste of May... Nothing moves except the flickering butterflies, electric with sunlight, small scraps of turquoise and ivory, soft as flying flowers. I cycle from home to Netherseal to meet up with Gary and Paul from across the road. Gary is injured though - his knee is swollen and giving him some trouble. His physio thinks it may be a cartlidge problem, we'll be taking it easy tonight.

So we pedal to Burton on Trent with a serene and aimless innocence - no racing or rushing tonight, plenty of time to breath and just enjoy the heat and scenery. Seven of us meet up at the Abbey Arcade and we cycle from Burton via Branston and then on Tatenhill and Barton under Needwood. We stop for a moment to look through the window of Adrian Timmis's cycle shop in the village. Adrian rode for Great Britain in the Olympics of 1984 and also rode the Tour de France in 1987 (finished 70th), his shop is superb.  He has many modern cutting edge bicycles but also some nostalgic displays; his bike from the 1987 Tour, a collection of race programmes and winning jerseys etc. We gathered around the window like schoolboys outside a sweet shop, then Adrian appeared from inside, he was working late and invited us in to have a look around. In we went drooling over £7,000 time trial bikes and a particularly interesting box set of Tour de France cyclists - like toy soldiers.

We set off again, through the village and then joining a cycle path running alongside the busy A38. Soon we arrived at Alrewas (Oll-re-waz). It is a little after eight o’clock and the sun is vanishing rapidly, the golden light gradually fading. There's a historic charm to the village: many half-timbered, thatched cottages, a 12th century church, the Trent & Mersey canal (England's first) and also the National Memorial Arboretum.

The Crown - Alrewas
The Crown was busy tonight - the weather had attracted many visitors to enjoy the outside benches and tables. Also there was some sort of 'open mike' music night. People were turning up with guitars the whole time we were there. The pub is archetypal 'Olde - Worlde', lots of small, low rooms connected by a labyrinth of corridors. Open fireplaces, Old, blackened beams, an eating area, lots of hustle and bustle with people enjoying themselves. We queued at the bar listening to someone singing and strumming a guitar - he sounded just like Jim Reeves. There was draught Black Sheep, Pedigree, London Glory and Bass - we tried the Bass and Black Sheep which seemed okay. We had three pints to make sure, then it was off to the Alrewas Fryer for supper. Excellent chips, Gary supplemented his portion with a pickled egg and then we were heading for home. It's dark now but still very warm - no need for coats or even arm warmers. We head back via Edingale, Lullington, Grangewood and then Netherseal - then for me, a further 12 miles to Nailstone.

It was a great midweek ride - made all the better by the fine weather of course. I arrived home at 11.40pm - 57 miles covered.

Peter Rose leading the group

Tim and Barry the Bell


Tuesday, 22 May 2012

Warmth at last.....

I've been lax with my blogging - sorry - here I am though, just back from a 25 miler and oozing sweat!

The transformation here over the past two days has been heartening. The cold and wet have been swept away by sun and heat - I'd forgotten what it was like to ride in the sunshine - I have been so wishing the good weather to arrive that I had forgotten the problems it brings. Actually there aren't many problems - it is infinitely more rewarding, relaxing and enjoyable than riding in the cold. One thing though that I had forgotten was the vast array of flying insects that seem to exist only to aim themselves at my face when I'm out on my bike. Of course sunglasses are a help - but today I'd forgotten mine - in fact I have no immediate clue to their whereabouts, it has been so long since they were last needed.

There is a clarity and a shouting of bird life everywhere - a thrush shouts out with a clash and jingle of silver. Pigeons moon and moan, a solitary cuckoo (the first I've heard this year) beats a bold and endless double note into an echoing monotony. There is a constant mad rushing of blackbirds, low and fierce in flight from place to place and a sudden laughing of woodpeckers in the tree tops. Noon is as noisy as morning and evenings even fuller. The summer break for silence seems a long way off. When there is no singing or flight or nest-building there are passionate interludes for mating: the fierce pursuit of blackbirds, the fickle beckoning of chaffinches, hens dancing, cocks fighting.

Alongside the road there is a stretch of marshy ground dotted with a paradise of flowers. The trickle of water that seeps towards the distant river is a blaze of colourful erruption. They grow in immense luminous islands, gigantic buttercups among lush clusters of pink stemmed burnished leaves of bottle green. There are leaves of wild iris too, swording upward from the black earth. And swathes of foamy cream cow-parsley. All of it seems to have appeared over the last few days - suddenly there’s an openness to the land, the yellow-brown glow of the river in the distance, the tall black shade of the woods. a meadow profusely overgrown with a display of wild flowers, the burdock that Lear made into a crown, the long purples that Ophelia weaves into a garland. As I pass over the canal there are holiday barges with flowerpots and brightly painted kettles on their roofs. A man lies on the roof of one strumming a guitar, a small terrier type dog stretched out with him. This is the heart and soul of Olde England - no sign of it having its back against the dry-stone wall - This at last, is the years great transformation in a climax of action - the whole character of the land is changing, birth and renewal, new life.

I pass endless cyclists - like the flying insects we are all out, attracted by the sudden heat and light. I ride through an avenue of trees that flutter and syncopate, camouflaging the open blue sky. But the insects are annoying me - they seem to concentrate on hitting my eyes - I'm constantly blinking, wiping, brushing them off. Bigger ones have settled on my arms and legs, I flail away at them as I travel along the lanes. It gets to the point where I have to tilt my head to the floor for relief - clearly this is not a good idea when travelling along the highway - I curse myself again for not having my glasses.

Thursday, 17 May 2012

So cold.....

Last night there was a ferocious storm here. The house was battered by hail stones the size of golf balls - I thought Tiger Woods was practising in the garden. Then the hail turned to rain, the sky was almost black, foreboding and slightly scary, not at all like May should be. Then this morning I've woken to a frost - it really seems more like winter in terms of temperature. That said at least the sun has made a brief appearance, for a short moment I thought it looks like being a beautiful day. And some might say it is - but not great for cycling. The sky has turned to a muddy grey mess again, the wind is sharp and stinging and rain is just around the next corner. I put my shorts on first thing but after venturing outside to take out some rubbish realised that I'd made a foolish error. It's long trousers again - and thick socks.

I set off slowly - there's a headwind that makes any idea of speed futile. Much better to plod along and wait for a direction change on my route that will make pedalling easier. We set off for France in a few weeks' time - I'm so far behind schedule in terms of preparation and fitness that I feel grumpily annoyed - I blame the weather but I really must try harder! There's a glance of the sun again, peeping through the gunmetal greyness, but the wind is cold and the tree branches rattle as I pass. One of the great delights of cycling is watching the seasons unfurl across the countryside. I moan about the vagaries of the weather but the way the year constantly morphs from winter to spring, summer to autumn and onwards, unconsciously underpins all our hopes and memories. People in the Caribbean don't get this - the weather and foliage are always the same, there are no anchoring points in the year. The months merge together in an abundance of sunshine with nothing to mark the passage of time. Right now I wish I was there.

Onwards then - and the effort has warmed me slightly but my hands and feet are still cold. It's one of the rides that sees my mind drifting to strange corners - I was wondering how many words have been spoken today?. How many words uttered by all the people alive and awake in the world between, say, 8.00am and 10.00am this morning? - It would be a lot, like counting grains of sand on a vast beach - then I wonder what happens to those words? - where do they go, the sound waves, the energy, the fleeting moments of time.........

My route today covered about 14 miles - Up the hill to Bosworth, down the hill on the other side and then turn round at the island and back up the Hill into Bosworth again. Then head out of Bosworth as if on the way home towards Newton Burgoland and up the hill to the Carlton turn - then the final hill from Congerstone to Barton in the Beans - quite a hilly route.

Monday, 14 May 2012

Bikes and Blues.....

Over the years my main musical interest has been 'The Blues' - the 60's bands, Zeppelin, Free, Groundhogs, Peter Green's Fleetwood Mac, Chickenshack et al sparked my interest and from there I travelled along a continuing path of discovery, exploring the original source material, which continues to this day.

What's this got to do with cycling??

Well, there is a story relating to a famous blues singer and guitarist called Robert Johnson. He, above most of the other blues artists of the early 20th century, displayed a combination of guitar skills and songwriting prowess that have influenced many, many later generations of musicians. The interesting part though is the shadowy legend that has grown, along with his reputation, over the years. From all accounts Johnson was an average performer, one of many itinerants who played on street corners, juke joints and saturday night parties. Johnson disappeared from the music scene for a while - when he returned, he was the most accomplished musician anyone had ever seen. The legend is that he was 'instructed' to take his guitar to a crossroads at midnight. There he was met by the devil who, in a Faustian pact, exchanged amazing guitar and songwriting abilities...... for Johnson's soul.

The reason I mention this is because I think something similar has happened to Gary.

We went out together recently and chose a particularly tough, hilly route. It's been a while since we had done anything similar. We travelled along at a reasonable pace passing through Ashby de la Zouch and turning towards Ticknall, there was a few short stinging hills and then the long drop down into the village. Onwards towards Melbourne and a particularly nasty 11% climb towards Lount.

As I laboured slowly up this climb, suddenly, with muscles coiled like springs and lungs like Hades' bellows, Gary shot past - and I mean shot - not just gradually moving forward - he went flying past in a quite superb display of raw power - within seconds he was 100 yards ahead. It was impressive to say the least. Soon after that we turned right towards Staunton Harold. Now we had to climb Pistern Hills - a horrible climb and best avoided in my opinion. Same again - only this time Gary set off well in advance, stamping on the pedals. He's pushing a big, big gear and doing it easily - meantime it feels like I'm rolling backwards - I'm struggling even with my lowest gears; breathing heavily, legs feeling like they've been pierced with burning needles. And on it went for the rest of the ride. Each hill we approached Gary would bounce away like a mountain goat.

And so it occurred to me; he's been out with his bike at midnight and sold his soul to the devil - and in return he is able to cycle effortlessly up steep hills. So dear reader, I've decided to auction my own soul to the devil or the highest bidder. What can you expect if you win? - I have no idea. You can't see it or anything. But I suppose you could keep it in a jar or something. Anyway the bidding starts now. Good luck. And if you win, once I've received the cash plus £2 for P&P, I'll send it to you in a jiffy bag.

Thursday, 10 May 2012

A 'two-ride' morning....

Dawn was just a promise as I set out today. There is more rain to come, I can't quite see the sky yet but I can sense rain in the air. I have a busy day today so an early ride is in order and I set off with lights ablaze. The forecast says showers. I'll hope for the best.

As the darkness gradually leeches away so the silence is broken by the first birds to admit that the day has begun. Once one bird responds to the summons of the light the rest must respond to the summons of the voice. Soon the clamourous sounds are too much to assimilate, it's like tuning in a radio and being bombarded by a multitude of different languages and sounds. This time of year is when the dawn chorus reaches its peak. I wonder how each bird can pick out its own kind in the twittering tumult, like market traders shouting for attention.

As we teeter on the edge of summer I wonder how much longer before things warm up? - I'm out this morning in long length, winter weight bib trousers, mid-weight long fingered gloves, thermal vest and long sleeved jersey - although today feels warmer it's still too cool for shorts and short sleeved top.

But at least it's windless - lately the combination of drizzle, rain, unseasonable temperatures and unrelenting wind have made cycling more of a chore than a pleasure - today the calmness makes things easier and more pleasurable - there's a hint of blue sky and an occasional appearance from the sun - it's altogether more enjoyable than any ride in recent weeks.

After 10 miles I'm home - and then, later, I realise I have a doctors appointment - nothing serious in case you're wondering - I just want someone to look at my big toe nail - it's kind of... crumbly? So at 9.45 I'm off out again - still no rain so far and definitely a lot milder. As I ride to Market Bosworth a car overtakes me and then starts bibbing it's horn - it is far enough in front that I think it can be nothing to do with me, then I see why - on the roads edge a cock pheasant struts like a warrior, painted cheek and jowl, arrogant and scarlet and bold with mating fearlessness, even as i get close he is unflinching in his defiance while the hen will be close by, quiet and invisible somewhere among the bluebell pierced blanket of papery chesnut leaves, nesting, and toning miraculously with the silver brown leaves.

I arrive at the doctors ten minutes early - and then I have a thirty minute wait...... I mess around with a sudoku puzzle on my phone but am told off and made aware of a sign "Please switch off your phone" - I think about remonstrating - my phone is switched off - I'm occupying the wait with a puzzle?? - but can't be bothered. I pocket the phone and read a battered copy of Private Eye instead. The front cover amuses me - there is an allover photograph of the Captain of the cruise ship 'Costa Concordia' which was in the news in January - The headline says "Captain tries Hulne defence..." then theres a speech bubble from his mouth saying..."My wife was driving"

Finally I'm called in - apparently I have some sort of fungal infection in the nail - nothing to worry about the doc says - its very common and he has three nails like it himself. No drugs are prescribed - not worth bothering apparently, the treatment is rarely successful and the side effects can be considerable. So all in all it was a bit of a waste of time - but at least I know.

Tuesday, 8 May 2012

Avoiding the showers...

I've managed to get out over the bank holiday weekend, perhaps more than I thought. With the weather continuing to disappoint it has been a question of timing - keeping an eye on the sky and, in particular, the clouds. Clouds are so often the brutish harbingers of bad weather, these airy sculptures, ethereal, majestic works that are the most egalitarian of natures displays - and they are available to all - free - everyone has a ringside seat - surely we should look and celebrate? I keep watch for the spells of relative clarity and then take a chance and make a dash for it. I've been out everyday except yesterday, Sunday was best, I covered 26 miles and stayed dry.

But today it's cold: wet and cold but beautiful. Water everywhere, collecting in puddles, knee-deep in clear pools around farm gates, swelling hidden ditches and exciting quiet rivers into torrents. Where the roads meet the bottom of the hill in Congerstone, the fields have been replaced by a huge, flat, black mirror. The entire landscape instantly transformed into another world. Not a soul around and, other than startled birds, it was perfectly still, as if it had all been there, unchanged for all eternity. All bold primary colours and simple geometry. As I change direction the wind strikes me with a whining frenzy out of a racing tempestuous sky. The clouds hurl over me, low and thick and furious. A short blast of rain lashes me in a torrential stream - cold and bitter, a great blustering wateriness. I briefly take shelter in a small wood.

Stormy sky - Congerstone
There are times when the land looks dead, when houses and gardens look dreary and desolate - but the wood is always a circle of loveliness. It never fades - it seems to have mystery and strength and grace, it is staunch and majestic, a place of quiet and conflict, of absolute peace and passion and death. All year it has a special atmosphere, you need only enter a few yards under its canopy to become under its spell, to sense the change the shifting - sometimes soothing often startling. There seems some precious quality brought about by the close gathering together of trees into a wood. It defies analysis. I think there has to be a closeness. An avenue will not do it - nor a park or an orchard - it needs an untidiness, a wildness, a conflicting and yet harmonious pooling of life. Woods stand about the countrytside in scores, hundreds, I suppose even thousands. They are pools of wild life in a too ordered, too civilised country. They are green islands and in so small a country they are especially precious. Without them the English countryside, man-made for the greater part would be nothing.

The storm quietens and I'm struck by shafts of golden sunlight piercing the dark sky and penetrating the land below. The rain stops - I'm back on the bike and on my way.

Thursday, 3 May 2012

Beer ride... The Halfway House

Ark building has been pushed aside today. The rain has stopped if only for a day, so we felt were able to join the gang from Mercia Cycling Club on their weekly beer ride.

Me, Gary and Paul from across the road made fast progress into Burton on Trent to the meeting point - Gary, on his new bike, was strong and repeatedly pushed ahead, upping the pace. Paul from across the road was moving at a fair lick too - it was a struggle for me to keep up and I fell back 20 or 30 yards on a couple of occasions. When we reached the meeting point, The Abbey Arcade in Burton, unfortunately there was no one there; we hung around like surly teenagers on a street corner and were joined by Barry the Bellringer, first time out with Baz this year!, but there was a distinct lack of any of the usual suspects from the Mercia club.

At 6.40pm we decided to set off for Donisthorpe and The Halfway House, via Caldwell, Linton and Albert Village. This was a rippling ride of fairly gentle undulations taking us finally to the pub. Tim and Norman were already there having made the journey directly from home and missing out the Burton meet. A little later we were joined by Pete who had travelled from Burton but was late getting to the start point.

The Halfway House, Donisthorpe
The Halfway House is a traditional village local set in the heart of Donisthorpe. It has recently been 'refurbished' and its name changed from, in my opinion, the more traditional 'Turks Head'. It's a higgledy-piggledy old building with various small rooms emanating from the bar area. There are faux beams, a warming woodburner and a relaxed and welcoming feel to the place. The new landlord/chef seems a friendly chap - he took the trouble to come over to our table for a short chat. Gary has eaten here and he said it was good food presented well. The beer was certainly good - very well kept Castle Rock Harvest Pale (2010 Champion beer of Britain) slaked our thirst and we sat happily chatting for an hour of so. It was getting dark as we left the pub, so lights were in order. I noticed that my computer/mileometer wasn't working - after having lost one the other day this one is off my really old bike - it could be the batteries are a bit dodgy - but it started working again after a mile or two.

I got home at about 10.30 - 45 miles covered, not bad for a Wednesday evening

Tuesday, 1 May 2012

Mayday, Mayday, Mayday.....

Indeed it is - May Day - the first of May. Traditional British May Day rites and celebrations include Morris dancing, crowning a May Queen and celebrations involving a Maypole. Much of this tradition derives from pagan Anglo-Saxon and Celtic customs and is most associated with towns and villages celebrating springtime fertility and revelry with village fetes and community gatherings. 
Interestingly, May Day was abolished and its celebration banned by puritan parliaments after the Civil War but reinstated with the restoration of Charles II in 1660.

But then there's the added confusion of the other Mayday. I refer to the call sign - the one that signals someone in distress and in need of help. The Mayday call sign was originated in 1923 by Frederick Mockford, a senior radio officer at Croydon Airport in London, Mockford was asked to think of a word that would indicate distress and would easily be understood by all pilots and ground staff in an emergency. Since much of the traffic at the time was between Croydon and Le Bourget Airport in Paris, he proposed the word "Mayday" from the French m’aider. "Venez m'aider" means "come help me."

So now you know. 

This May Day could see plenty of Mayday's here in flood country. The rain has been persistent all night and it's still pouring from the sky as I sit here writing this - I had intended an early ride this morning but my plans have been washed away. The forecast says it will ease off later - I will go and investigate the flooded roads and try to make my way through. This intrepid cyclist will not be stopped!