Saturday, 30 June 2012

Can it be done?.....

Today sees the start of the Tour de France and this year could see a piece of history being written. Bradley Wiggins has a realistic chance of becoming Britain's first Tour winner.

After victories in the Paris-Nice, The Tour de Romandie and the Criterium du Dauphine stage races this year, Wiggins appears to be on top form. Plus he's a time trial specialist - and there is around 100km of time trialling in this years Tour - the omens are good - if he can avoid crashes he must be in with a great chance.

Really looking forward to seeing how it all turns out!

Good luck Brad and the Sky team!!!

Friday, 29 June 2012

A week in Provence.... part 5

It's the light really, the endless hot-bright sunlight - that's what I'll remember most about this trip. The Provencal light is intense, a blessing, a beneficience. People stare out of their windows from lonely rooms or perched on quiet balconies and are baptised by an almost celestial light. Light is a solid thing here, an emotion, the sunlight blesses all and everything equally and the vines reward those who are happy to sit and wait, and the olive and cherry trees too. The sun scrubs the land here, bleaching it and drying it, creating clean, flat panes - it is the unequivocal good. And yet there's still plenty of green, faded, muted and understated compared to our rich meadows but green nevertheless.

We took a day trip to Avignon to wonder at the Palace of the Popes and walk 'sur le pont' - it's a bustling, cosmopolitan city housed in a big medieval village. The atmosphere is thick with history and adventure and there were lots of accordion players. Ah, now I remember what France is famous for. The most stressful thing in the entire world is to be shut in a room with a questing French accordionist. I watched a great gypsy accordionist press his way through the tables of tourists. He circled a hapless Japanese couple. They shrank in terror and numb incomprehension as his nut brown, oiled face, with its slick black pate and golden grin, loomed over them. He winked a terrifyingly dull eye that rolled back in his head and with one fluid movement, too fast to decipher, he was among them with Sweet Georgia Brown. It was calculated, a virtuoso performance. Piercing notes of psychotic dexterity, wringing screaming tremolos and monumental vibratos from every riff. The air was filled with sentimentality. There is no known defence against an adult male gypsy accordionist in an enclosed space: in the streets of Avignon there is no one to save you.

Paul & Gaz in the Gorge
We decided we'd have another ride before coming home. Gary had heard about a 'Gorge' - we found quite a few on the map and decided we'd give the nearest one a try. We saddled up just outside Sault heading in a vague direction towards Bedoin. There was maybe few kilometres of uphill but then the most enchanting drop down through The Gorge of Nesque. Probably 20km of exhilerating, twisting descent with craggy precipitous rocks to one side and a deep, deep drop on the other. This is exceptional landscape, a wild canyon with tunnels carved through rock and the heady scent of lavender filling the air. The gnarled peaks may be small in size, but in presence and spirit they are huge. They dominate the local landscape and constantly draw the eye. The contrast of their hard cragginess with the flat fertile lands of the valley makes a visual delight. Though in reality their form is fixed, the rocks are tricky shape-shifters, their profiles altering almost unrecognisably when viewed from different places on the road and their colours, billowing towers of rose and apricot changing with the light and shade. The whole thing makes you wonder what God might have managed if he hadn't rushed to get the job done in a week. Nature is natural here - meticulous and endlessly captivating.

With our mood and spirits leavened we made our way slowly back to Bedoin and the promise of another alfresco dining masterpiece. I have to say that the most enjoyable food of the entire trip was the simple, rustic fare we prepared ourselves and eat, sitting in the warm evening sun, at the villa. Olives, sun-dried tomatoes, bread, garlic, ham, cheese - simple, unprocessed, wholesome food. It was much more edyfying than some of the 'restaurant' offerings we saw, of which the laminated menu sheets told the dull story.

We had a great time in the south of France - I don't often feel the need to return to places i've visited on holiday, except for a few, rare exceptions - Provence may be one of those.

Friday, 22 June 2012

A week in Provence.... part 4 - Mont Ventoux

Like all great journeys, trysts, campaigns and fresh starts, our task on Sunday morning began at dawn. I didn't sleep well. I had woken a couple of times through the night. In the end I got up, dressed and went outside to check over the bike. The weather drifted out of the sky like paint dripped into a glass of water, opaque filigree swathes and fretted blots whitening out the miraculous landscape. The mountain, Mont Ventoux was just there, beside me, staring down, a 6,273ft lump, its peak hidden by a veil of nebulous vapour. I wouldn’t fancy going up in a car - let alone on a bike. - it is shocking, stupendous, formidable. and confrontational - it just stands there, towering upwards, the king of all it surveys. In the early morning dawn there is a ghostly feel, clicking cicadas and a feint sound of traffic. I feel a slight keening apprehension that sends a shiver through me. As the light grows stronger the thick creamy clouds that lie peacefully over the mountain begin to fade. The peak begins to show and sharpen, the radio mast catches the sun and radiates like a bright white beacon.

Gary appears. His bike has a flat tyre - a bad omen maybe? Quickly it is fixed and we check our supplies. Three water bottles each, one on the bike and two each in the car. We will be followed up the mountain by our 'support team' for the ride. Their job is to take photos, shout encouragement, carry spare parts and water bottles, and offer a quick exit should we fail.

About to start
At 9.00am we make our way down the track to the main road, pushing our bikes over the rough, broken ground. Like new recruits going up the line to the Somme we have no idea what really lies ahead - but riding this mountain is obligatory for any serious student of the alchemy of suffering on a bicycle.

We cycle down to Bedoin, already there are cyclists buzzing around, warming up, meeting friends, sitting drinking coffee. We pass a large group all with numbers attached to their bikes, some sort of race perhaps, they look fit. I shout to Gary that they will be passing us soon. The first few kilometres are relatively easy, a 2-3% gradient past vineyards and green fields. Then the road gradually ramps upwards, still reasonably comfortable though, I resist the urge to shout to Gary that this is okay... somewhere within me I can feel something is about to change. We swing left to Les Baux and Sainte Columbe there is a sudden steep section, this feels more like it - we're on the mountain now, there is the distinct clunk of gears shifting, chains scraping to find the teeth of larger cogs, we've slowed down now and the road is distinctively upwards. As far as cycling goes and mountains in particular, this is the great, grey daddy of mountains, the last Alpine mountain ridge before the Rhone plain and one of the toughest climbs in France. It dominates the landscape and constantly draws the eye. The road twists and turns in gradual curves we push up to each corner only to be faced with further, relentless, uphill road. There can be no talking now, every frantic breath falls short of its intended purpose, it's hot, we're sweating, pressing and pushing ever upwards. The gradient is 9 and 10% for the next 9 kilometres or so - there is nothing we could have done in England to prepare for this - it is unforgiving, relentless torture.
Through the tree section

After about 12K we stop - We both have mouths like the Kalahari desert and find it impossible to drink while desperately trying to breath and keep the bikes moving. My ears have popped a couple of times with the altitude and the small wooded glade with a couple of picnic benches on the right seems like a good place to take a breather. Gary is somewhere behind - by the time he reaches me I have regained some composure - he approaches me with glazed fish-like eyes, the bilious green hue of his complexion and the waxed sheen of his brow testament to the effort so far. We take on some water and then something strange happened. I suddenly felt incredibly dizzy. I sat down at one of the picnic benches, I was light-headed, my face felt clammy, I felt cold.... for a moment I thought I would pass out. I checked my pulse, it was fine, low if anything and my breathing was okay. But I was convinced this was the end of the ride for me - I wouldn't risk continuing feeling like this - in my mind I could see the grainy black and white footage of Tom Simpson crawling up the Ventoux in July 1967 - he died on this mountain. Mountains command respect. Take mountains seriously - if you don’t they will take you. That is serious.

Then, within a couple of minutes I felt okay again, the dizziness had passed, I sat for a few minutes longer and sipped at my water bottle. I decided I'd carry on and see how I felt back on the road. The team car was with us now and help was close if I needed it. So onwards and further upwards. Getting the bike moving again on these gradients is tricky - it requires effort and energy, clipping in to pedal cleats adds to the problem and causes frustration and anxiety - but we managed. Now the climbing continued, brutal and unremitting, the heat and thin air combining to make the effort harder still, every pedal turn is a slow struggle by now and we teeter as each revolution threatens to be the last. I see the team car up ahead but don't feel like stopping - I have a rhythm, its slow, but I feel like carrying on. Gary stops and is approached by a rider who turns out to be German, Gary offered a salutory "How are you doing?" to which the German replied "F**king mountain..."

The Dutchman
The silver-bright sun was fierce now, upwards we climbed through conifer groves balmy with resin and sun-roasted pine cones. It was extraordinary just how many cyclists, walkers and runners were out there that day. There were also a fair number of motorcylists and we saw a procession of old 60's Mini's - looking like an outtake from The Italian Job. There was a Dutch guy who seemed to be climbing up at about the same speed as me, except he was riding a contraption that looked like a big scooter combined with a stepping machine - he had a number on his shirt so I suspect he was one of the group we saw way back in Bedoin. It looked hard work on his 'stepper' each of his thigh muscles looked like a baby hippopotamus stuffed into his shorts.

As I soldiered on I spotted a curve to the left up ahead, the apex looked like it flattened out for about 6 feet - I decided to stop for a drink, figuring that I would at least be able to get started again. Of course it wasn't flat at all, just less steep, I snorted and cursed as my feet slipped off the cleats and I struggled to regain momentum. Just around the corner though was a welcome sight - We pass out of the tree-lined wooded area and approach The Chalet Reynard, at about 1400 metres high. This is a ski resort and the ski lift is open at this time of year taking mountain bikers up the mountain and enabling them to hurtle down again. It was tempting to think of hitching a lift. We stopped at the cafe for a well earned break, Coffee, then another - Gary had 6 spoons of sugar in his "For energy". They were selling some good quality cycling clothing in the shop and we decided we'd perhaps drive back on another day to buy something to remind us of what this climb had been like.
The Chalet Reynard - a welcome rest!

There were a group of walkers making there way up to the summit, one of them shouted over "No doping" - Gary replied "Have you got anything?" We all laughed. It's understandable why cycle racing has for so long been a sport that has relied on stimulants. When I think that a Tour de France rider would ride up this mountain in just over an hour, having already climbed one or two equally tough mountains, and then do the same again tomorrow and the next day.... 21 days in total for The Tour, how else could they do it?

I felt gruesome, dogged by a chilling sense that i’m not going to make it - I remembered reading that many great climbers ride the mountains quickly - because the sooner they reach the summit, the sooner the agony stops. But the thing about riding a mountain like this, the main thing, is that it seems to take forever. We set off again with about 6 or 7 kilometres to go to the summit - the road is immediately steep. We're soon puffing and panting again, this is by far the longest continually rising road I have ever seen. I just have to keep pressing on the pedals, romancing about what the rider in a long, lone break must feel like.  By now we are reaching into physical and mental reserves that we didn't know existed. We're riding on the edge, on the limit of what we are capable of - there's a great feeling of eventual euphoria and impending collapse. The road just seems to go on and on - marked with yellow and black snow poles. It is stark up here now, the landscape is littered with a moonscape of bright, white limestone. It is an unremitting, gut-wrenching, demoralising slog.

The Simpson memorial
And then, perched up on the slope to our right, just off the road, is something I knew we'd see. A granite monument on which is cut, in relief, a polished image of a cyclist hunched over his bike riding at speed. This is the permanent memorial to Tom Simpson who famously lost his life at this spot on 13th July 1967. I stop and climb the steps for a closer look - there are two or three cyclists there and I take photo's using their phones and camera's, there is no need for conversation, I have no idea what nationality they were. Scattered in front and around the memorial is a wrack of dried flowers, various club badges, bits of tyre - like exotic flotsam washed up on a rising tide.

Gary joins me and we toil on exhaustedly, entering the existential phenomenon know to most cyclists: The 'what possessed me to do this' syndrome. The sun is burning and yet it feels cool up high, my wheels won't move... are my brakes binding? The air is thin, not enough oxygen, every particle of my body is being stretched, pounded, pushed and shoved along these last kilometres. I feel like I could be overtaken by snails, it nearly finishes me, it is cruel to a power beyond rational grasp, I desperately cling on, literally clinging on.....

Gary on the final push
At last I see the radio mast and station ahead - just a few more bends to go, I hope my tortured lungs and feeble legs will hold out - surely they will... slowly I edged upwards by now slightly exhilerated by the sheer adventure of it culminating in a fantastic salvo of strength and buoyant energy. And then at last I'm at the summit - and with it a most palpable feeling of relief. I feel grateful that the end has come it is incredible that so many kilometres took so long to disappear under our wheels - but now we’re at the line where up turns to down. Gary is behind me - I am sure I could hear him before I saw him, the clacking wheezing sound of a broken accordion heralding his arrival. But here we were - we'd done it! - and when at last we reached the top all time slips away into an airy vastness as we survey the valley below. It is a transcendent experience, a link between physical and mental triumph and a wonderous exaltation of the spirits.

There are people out there, aliens, sadists, inhuman who will ride this terrain none stop for maybe 100 hours - I am in no haste to join them - if I am to suffer a serious bodily and mental abuse on the bike then I also insist on ample social recovery time. In this case that will involve wine and cheese. Talking about a route is a bit like talking about sex. Fanciful, prone to exaggeration and a long way from the real thing. This was a vicious, nasty ride. The mountain eats away at you like a rash, the gradients worm their way relentlessly up between your lungs and your sense of humour. This knocked the stuffing out of us. We needed wine to quell the latent agony.

Now it was all over, in a foaming lather of sweat, tears and schmaltz we hugged each other and surveyed the view. Gary summed it up "That was the hardest thing I've ever done"

a view from the top

Made it!!

Well done!!!

Thursday, 21 June 2012

A week in Provence.... part 3

We woke to warmth and sun and an amazing rooftop view from the bedroom window. The arrangement for breakfast was for us to meet up at a street cafe for croissants and strong coffee. It was Saturday, market day in Beaune. I went out for an early morning stroll taking photographs and relishing the quiet warmth of a new day. But after 20 minutes my battery ran out and I contented myself with just walking and looking.

Beaune is an ancient and historic town on a plain by the hills of the Cote d'Or, with features remaining from the pre-Roman and Roman eras, through the medieval and renaissance periods and up to recent history and modern times. It is a walled city, with about half of the battlements, ramparts, and the moat, having survived and in good condition, and the central "old town" is extensive. Historically Beaune is intimately connected with the Dukes of Burgundy. There is a comprehensive "traditional" shopping area clustered around the central square with a focus on gourmet food, fashion, and wine. The Saturday market is perfectly French - there are major fine food stalls supplying a broad selection of products and specialties from Burgundy and the surrounding regions. For example, Bresse chickens, cheeses, bread and pastries, mustards, small goods, spices, produce of every variety as well as seasonal specialties such as truffles. I had enjoyed Raymond Blanc's TV programme 'The Very Hungry Frenchman' on TV earlier this year - he visited Beaune and I remembered him showing us an exceptional cheese shop - I made a mental note to seek it out later.

Breakfast in Beaune
We sat at a pavement table, in mellow sunshine overlooking the bustling scene. Hundreds of market stalls covered the centre of the village, roads were closed and people busied themselves searching out various delights. The French really have us beat at markets, in England a market is seen as cheap and cheerful, in France the produce is as good or better than in the shops. In France there is a gastronomic landscape wandered and enjoyed by all, in Britain we prefer to draw the curtains, open a book and never leave the room. Everything looks delicious and tempting, fresh and loved. it's a pity we can't do more to encourage the same attitude over here. After breakfast we wandered the streets in avaricious awe marvelling at the casual incoussiance of the French - this is pretty much an everyday occurrence for them. We bought cheese, bread, olives, sun-dried tomatoes, pickled garlic, mustards and saucisson - the plan was to have a picnic when we reached our destination later in the afternoon.

Bread stall - Beaune market
First sight of Mont Ventoux
We set off for Bedoin just before lunch. 241 miles to drive in warm sunshine. A straightforward trip on more toll roads through rolling green countryside. We noticed there were lots of cars loaded with bikes, we saw every conceivable marriage: BMX bikes mixed with road bikes, Mountain bikes and tourers, Kids bikes with grown up counter parts. We travelled through Lyon, or more precisely underneath it. No need for ring roads or by-passes - simply dig a tunnel under the city - job done. We passed over and alongside the Rhone river - a wide flowing expanse like molten steel snaking below aquamarine hills, Cote de Rhone terroir now as the light grew ever brighter and the sun hotter.

As we enter the Vaucluse region of Provence our momentum increases as our expectations rise. Look right or left and it's vines.... and olive groves.... and cypress trees. There are honey coloured stone-built houses dotted around, all with narrow windows and blue-painted shutters to protect against the heat of summer and the cold of winter. The landscape is dry and dusty, streaked with yellow ochre and raw sienna. And then, suddenly, we spot it; directly ahead, rising up from the earth like a vivid, monstrous souffle. It is preposterously large, tearing into the blue sky, vast and aloof, its naked summit white as monumental alabaster, the bloodless white of death and topped by a radio mast that looks like a steeple or possibly a lighthouse. It is far away but dominates the horizon - from now on I am barely able to avert my gaze, I feel transfixed, hypnotised. This is Mont Ventoux. It looks to be impossible, beyond me, but I have to keep such thoughts at bay - I know it will be hard and steep.

The villa
We arrive in Bedoin, a sleepy Provencal village with a a collection of terrace cafes along a single main street shaded by giant plane trees. The church of Saint Antonin sits high above the village, built in a spanish style but with a wrought iron campanile typical of the region. Compact houses cluster up the steep side streets, there are boulangeries, restaurants and a couple of supermarkets and Mont Ventoux, ever watchful, towers to the North-East.
We follow the instructions to our 'villa' for the week, past more fields of vines and cherry trees, finally turning onto a rough unmade track to our destination. It is a restored 'mas' with a large open plan lounge with cool limestone floors, a kitchen, three bedrooms all with ensuite facilities, a garden terrace with a large table and chairs and a small swimming pool. There are olive trees in the garden and a good view of the mountain. We unload, unpack and open a bottle of wine. The travelling is over. Next will be cycling up the mountain.

al fresco supper
villa - lounge area
villa ` bedroom

Wednesday, 20 June 2012

A week in Provence.... part 2

And so it had begun, our journey to Provence in the South of France was underway and, so far, no real problems. Friday started much as Thursday had finished, dry but windy. Surprisingly for me I managed a really good nights sleep. Usually I wake early for the first few days away, not this time, I awoke feeling good and raring to get moving. After breakfast we checked out and with much joie de vivre made the short journey to the Eurotunnel terminal. It must be said that this facility is one of complete and thorough efficiency. And it is huge. All roads seem to lead here and the traffic congregated as we edged closer towards its jaws. There was a series of twisting roads and a collection of small roundabouts that just seemed to slow things down, then we were sort of there, crossing lanes, filtering through various traffic management systems - no real problem, I suppose I was expecting to simply drive into a gaping hole somewhere. Then there was a hiccup, as we approached yet another sign directing us toward departures it was clear that the overhead nature of its construction would not allow Gary's 'team car' to pass underneath - we watched him veer off with a sudden swing to the left - and he dissapeared for a while. I had visions of him being strip searched just around the corner, his carbon tubes sawn through in a vain search for illicit substances..... but no, a few hundred yards later he was back, but on a separate road running parallel to the one we were on.

Checking in was remarkably simple, as we approached the machine it already knew who we were, we were offered two options - one was for the crossing we had booked and the other for one we hadn't. The one we hadn't was at an earlier time, we decided to stick to what we knew, so did Gary. John didn't. Maybe the sun blinded him for a moment, or the effect of an early breakfast and the fresh air had left him confused? John opted for the earlier crossing and accordingly headed straight through to the train and under the sea. We should have done the same really but there was no time to confer. Anyway, he was only about 15 minutes in front. Finally we were hearded onto the train like a long line of mechanised cattle. A man walked along the parked line "Window down, First Gear, Handbrake on" he repeated, over and over, we listened as his voice gradually faded as he walked the long line.

The journey was remarkably smooth and quick - by the time we'd had a look at the newspaper it seemed we were there. Gary commented later that he was a bit disappointed with the journey. He had expected to be able see fish swimming around through the windows, like a drive-thru Sealife Centre.

Exiting the train and getting on to the roads we needed was as circuitous as it was in England. Various roundabouts and roads that seemed to take us round in circles. But soon we were where we needed to be - in Calais heading for Beaune and hopefully avoiding the Peripherique around Paris. We had a journey of 375 miles in front of us. We'd lost an hour simply by crossing the Channel - we needed to get moving. If you've never tried it, driving in France is okay - the idea of being on the 'right' quickly becomes normal, and moving the wrong way around roundabouts etc is easier than you might think, plus there is generally less traffic on the roads over there. Soon we approached our first Toll Booth - there's lots of these in France - most of the main 'motorways' are Tolls. We went through, took our ticket and moved on, Gary was few cars behind and we assumed he would soon catch up. After about 20 miles there was still no sign of Gary - I decided to give him a call. This was the first problem of the trip. As he drove into the Toll gates, he had, quite understandably, been concentrating on which one to go into, making sure he was lined up so that Val could get the ticket out of the machine etc - he simply didn't notice the height restriction. So he hit it, knocking it off its hinges and causing a minor tailback in that lane. Thankfully there was very little damage, his bikes were undamaged but the roof rack system ended up a little bent. He hung the sign back up, did a few roadside repairs to the roof rack and then he was back on his way.

The Abbaye
The remainder of the journey was, thankfully, event free. Soon we were travelling through the countryside of one of the key wine centres of France. We were navigating by vineyards; Gevrey Chambertin, Nuits saint Georges, Beaujolais et al... Beaune is the wine capital of Burgundy and is surrounded by some of the World's most famous wine villages, the town is rich in historical and architectural heritage and we were booked at the magnificent Abbaye de Maizieres - - right in the centre.

The Abbaye is a 12th century former Cistercian Abbey, it is superbly atmospheric and decorated with antique furniture. The reception and dining area are contained within a vaulted cellar, a dark, brooding space with candles and tapestries. Our bedroom was up a tower, I counted 94 steps to the bed - it was like climbing the steps to a bell-tower. We enjoyed a few bottles of wine and a meal in the evening, L'escargots and Beef Bourginon and then we enjoyed a short wander into the town, just metres from the door.

We're definitely here now - real France. Bring it on.

Wine at the Abbaye

In the restaurant

Tuesday, 19 June 2012

A week in Provence.... part 1

Travel is a good thing. A brilliant, inspiring, heart-filling, head expanding, great thing. Almost everyone is better off for it, both the visitor and the visited. More fear and unhappiness in this world comes from insularity and closed doors than by openness and crowds. The greatest inventions of the age are jet engines and international airports. Except if you’re me. I don’t do travel - more specifically I won’t fly - so I should say, I will travel - but only on the surface. Of course I’m aware that the sand is running through the glass and the road still stretches ahead. So many places, so many people - and I won’t get to see most of it. And somewhere, over the horizon, my days will stop and I wonder if my final regret, with shrunken shank, sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything, won’t be not enough sex or caviar, or fine wine, it won’t be not enough cheese or laughter - it will be that I didn’t get to see The Northern Lights or Timbukto or The Taj Mahal, that I haven’t been to the Atacama desert or met the Nagas of Nagaland, I never saw the monkey puzzle forests of Chile. It might be places that I regret.

And so it was that Kate and I set off, in the car, loaded to the gunwales, or, more relevantly, the upper edges of the rear windows. No surprise that it was raining, tipping down in fact as we made our way down the M1. I felt sorry for the bikes anchored on the back, I'd spent a day fettling and polishing, it seemed a waste. We went over the Dartford Bridge and the sky brightened - yes it actually stopped raining. By the time we reached Folkestone it was sunny but blowing a gale. Folkestone is a strange place, a synonym for passing souls and disregarded things, it’s a never-never land of inanimate objects. Lost sunglasses, the lens cap you can never find, your mother’s pashmina, the girl you stood up on a blind date — they’re all in Folkestone. Our hotel for the night nestled alongside a small shabby retail park, which in turn nestled against a small shabby industrial park. The hotel receptionist was one of the best I've every met. Friendly, smiley, possibly gay and totally concerned about our journey and making our stay as pleasant as possible. The room was good enough, muted tones and contemporary prints like the boardroom of a provincial accountants. We adjourned to the pub next door. It was packed, we struggled to find a seat and when we did the queue at the bar was at least 20 minutes. But no matter - this was it, we were on holiday, heading for the south of France, Provence, sun... wine.... truffles.... lavender... cheese.... and the great grey daddy of all mountains, Mont Ventoux.

Then Gary and Val arrived - he has opted to carry his bikes on a Thule roof-rack system, three bikes sitting on top of his car gives it the look of a team vehicle in a stage race. He got parked and quickly joined us for something to eat in the pub. John and Jane arrived at about 8.30 - John used his disabled badge to full effect, abandoning his car just outside the pub door - just as well, last orders for food was looming up.

Today was Thursday, we planned to tackle the mountain ride on Sunday, get it over with so that we can relax a bit. But at this stage the last thing on my mind as I drifted, fitfully, to sleep was what it would be like going up there into the heavens.

Monday, 4 June 2012

Jubilee ride.....

Pity about the weather for this 60th jubilee celebration. Our village is thoroughly decked out and resplendent with an array of red white and blue bunting, flags, banners, posters and royal paraphernalia. We braved the rain and walked to the church to look at the display of royal memorabilia and various historic photographs and bric-a-brac. There was a particularly interesting scrapbook that was made by the local WI in 1965, a collection of press cuttings, photographs and handwritten notes together with various pieces of old packaging, wallpaper, soft furnishing fabrics and other bits and pieces. It was very....English.

We watched on TV as the flotilla moved slowly up the Thames, the pageant laid out for the world to see - we are good at this sort of occassion - and despite the bad weather I thought the event was a great success.

But with France and The Ventoux looming up fast, I needed to get some miles in on the bike. I decided one last long ride would be in order, and then I will ease off for the rest of the week and get my kit and bikes in order ready for the journey. This morning was much brighter than yesterday, plenty of blue in the sky, easily enough to make a pair of trousers for a sailor as my Grandma used to say. I headed out towards Ashby de la Zouch via the hardest route I could think of. Steepish hills to Odstone and Newton Burgoland, then up to Swepstone and the main road from there to the Ashby turn. Underneath the busy A42 and up past the golf club into Ashby town centre, the main road is closed for a fair, part of the Jubilee celebrations I guess. Just then my attention is grabbed by something stirring in the car park; next to the recycling bins. They are releasing the beast. The Morris Men.

They trot like ponies, bells on their black clogs, wearing hanging baskets of flowers and feathers on their heads. They are led by a meaty man with a whip, they have a muscular, purposeful swagger and a physical, masculine dance. For all its promise of seed planting, fertility and harvest, morris dancing is indisputably the least sexy jigging in the world. Nobody could accuse these men of overt displays of vanity or showmanship. Their vast stomachs held in by sweaty nylon shirts like warm mozzarellas. They have all the stamina and grace of a concrete breeze block, with beards that look like badly eaten shredded wheat.

I press on, heading out towards Ticknall via Smisby. Suddenly I am faced with a  beguilingly, bucolic scene, the lane climbs gently upwards and the road is dry but the verge to the right is damp, ferns flourish and the grass is lush - there are dog violets and probably frogs - these lanes seem untroubled by traffic, apart from a distant tractor it is birdsong that keeps me company. I traverse a series of rises and dips, pedalling steadily into a slight headwind. I'm in no rush - I'm on my own, I don't have to push myself to keep up with Gary today, he's having a lie-in, but he'll be out on these same roads later.

There's a violent drop now, steep and harsh, twisting and turning towards Ticknall village. the bike shakes and rattles over the rough tarmac as my speed quickly reaches 35mph and more. As I pass through the village I notice a great beer tent and bacon-butty get together of the families of round-vowelled, clotted faced ruralists. There's no recession in Ticknall - it is the sort of place that carries on unhindered by any downturns, the vicar posts the mowing rota onto the church notice board - the grass rolls smoothly over the verges - there's a display of potted plants for sale with an honesty box alongside. All around is another sacred space, the place where all who have prayed within the walls of the church, over many centuries, have been laid to rest.  There is a feeling of peace, a silence. This is an unpolluted space - there are many mosses and lichens attached to long weather worn gravestones - their lovingly chiselled remembrances can no longer be read, a place where all those who have longed and doubted, rejoiced and feared, now rest bodily in sure and certain hope of resurrection.

Now I'm heading towards the feared Pistern Hills - a steep little lane that rises from nothing up through the trees and disappears into darkness. The lower slopes look like nothing if you're in a car, but on a bike the gradient quickly saps strength from the legs. I pedal a low gear, steady and slowly, as the gradient ramps upwards I change into the easiest gear I have - nothing else left after this - I spin the pedals slowly and consistently, trying to keep an even tempo. It works. I gradually crawl up the hill, round the right hand turn and further up to the farm. The road flattens slightly, enough for me to change up and pick up speed. I'm up, it's done - not too bad really - but I can't help thinking how I will cope when it keeps going up.... and up..... and up for 15 miles or so.

I'm heading for home now - and it's mostly downhill, with a tailwind. I'm flying along at 25mph and feeling good. Back through Ashby, then a slight detour through Donisthorpe, Measham and up the long drag to Snarestone. From there a left turn and another hill up towards Newton Burgoland before the right turn onto Derby Lane and the quiet lane through to Shakerstone. This is where I was attacked.

I didn't see or hear him. He came out of nowhere, a silent, stealthy man dressed all in black and red. He overtook me just as I was meandering slowly along. He said nothing. No acknowledgement. I caught a glimpse of the side of his face - he looked older than me I thought? - surely i could catch him?  I let him go about 20 yards in front and then decided to try. Up on the pedals for the first time today, gathering speed, it's uphill though, quickly I'm breathing heavily and my legs begin to burn. He seems to be getting further away - I push harder still, I'm moving at 25mph, surely I'll catch up soon? - But no, he's getting away. 100 yards now, maybe more. As the road moves uphill again I think he might be slowing, I push harder still, I'm catching him now, gradually clawing him back - then he glances over his shoulder - he's seen me - he's off again.

I follow him all the way back - never managing to get closer that about 20 yards - in the end there's the final hill from Congerstone up to Barton in the Beans - I've ridden this road many, many times - I know it intimately - the steep bits, the bits where it is possible to pick up speed. No matter; it seems he knows it too - he's pulling away again. By now i'm a lather of sweat - I can't go any more - I'm done - beaten. I ease off and watch him as he pedals strong and steady into the distance and around the corner. Then I wonder.... what route was Gary doing???

Friday, 1 June 2012

The Black Cow....

The rain came as a bit of a shock as I rode to meet Gary; I'd set off in sunshine, now the sky was a murky grey with watery streaks. Soon it started to rain, at first just a few spots but quickly growing into a proper downpour. Within five minutes I was truly drenched - I was carrying a waterproof but I couldn't be bothered putting it on. Somehow the rain was warm and refreshing, my thinking was that I would dry out quickly once it stopped.

I got to Measham and the rainfall was much worse - heavy and soaking, riding through it was difficult, the big droplets stinging my eyes. I decided to stop and shelter at the bus stop. Gary called just at that moment and I told him I'd be at his house in about 15 minutes - I set off again in the rain - this time with the waterproof on. By the time I got to Gary's and he invited me in I was thoroughly drenched and dripping profusely all over his kitchen floor. As we gazed out of the kitchen window, wondering whether to continue, the rain stopped and the sun reappeared - onwards then.

I went from soaked through to totally dry within 5 miles. Gary set a fast pace into Burton on Trent, we were running slightly late and needed to make up time. In Burton there was a new rider - Mick, we hadn't met him before although he said he had been out with the Burton branch some years ago. Mick works as a cycle mechanic at Halfords. Soon Barry and Pete had arrived and we duly set off - heading for Dalbury Lees somewhere north of Derby towards Ashbourne. There was no evidence of any rain haven fallen in Burton, the sun was shining and it was pleasantly warm.

Pete, Gary and Barry
We travelled out to Egginton and on to Etwall - glorious lanes, tree lined and with clouds of cow parsley all around. We climbed gradually so that we had a panoramic view of the surrounding valley and fields. All was peaceful, quiet and typically English. We caught a glimpse of a hot-air balloon lurking in the trees like a stranded animal, it had either just landed or was about to take off. We had a short climb now, up to Dalbury Lees and soon we were at our destination, The Black Cow, standing on the village green. Norman and Mike where already at the pub - it was Norman's birthday and he treated us all to a pint of the most excellent 'Mr Grundy's 1914' a dark beer but not at all overpowering and perfectly presented. We sat outside for 20 minutes and then decided to move into the pub. The Black Cow has seen much modernisation and 'improvements' - the results are typical. The place had a librarianised quietness, an almost genteel atmosphere - no sign of any rough-arsed farmers which is the clientel you might have expected in these parts. This is though a pub with aspiration - its been watching the cooking programmes on tele and thinks 'I could do that' - and so it has. The menu looks familiar but tempting; there are a couple of couples hiding in the corners who are giving it a go. As I wait to be served at the bar, the shiny-faced barman saunters past with a couple of entrees for the couple on table 3 - they looked good to me (the entrees) - but then he'd forgotten something and had to go back to the kitchen "two seconds sir" he said as he fled past. This was a lie. Isn't it always a lie when people say 'two-seconds'.... why not be truthful..... "6 minutes 43 seconds sir...." at least we'd know.

After three pints of Mr Grundy we decided to head back. The tradition with these beer rides is to find a chip shop on the way home - out here in the middle of rural Derbyshire it felt doubtful. We pedalled off in vaguely the right direction, the sun had gone to sleep now, although it was still warm and the the sky had a moonlit glow that made us all look like part of a far off nursery rhyme. Strangely we didn't see any cars - not one. I was worried about it - maybe the world had ended why we'd been enjoying Mr Grundy - lets face it, it has to be serious when there's no cars .... and no sounds???  To take my mind off the problem we pretended we were in the Tour de France - riding all over the road without the hinderance of traffic - it was fun.  We got back to Etwall and were almost hit by a couple of cars going through some temporary traffic lights too fast. Back to civilisation. The chip shop was shut though - but, rather handily, there was a chinese takeaway next door - they did chips - we ordered - job done. It turned out these were fine chips - Barry said they were "the best chips I've ever had"

After a toilet break in the bushes across the road we were off again - a straightforward route back to Burton on Trent now and riders slipped away at various junctions and roundabouts as we approached town - I couldn't help thinking they would be tucked up in bed soon - whereas I'd still got over 25 miles to ride.

As we passed through Burton and headed towards Gary's house he upped the pace. Fuelled by dark beer and chinese chips he seemed powered up, hyperactive and full of strength. He shot off into the darkness and I followed. It was a Herculian ride up to Rosliston - don't think we've ever been faster - Gary (on his old bike) was pushing....pushing....pushing. In the end the heavier bike and maybe a few twinges from his knee slowed him down, thankfully - but we were at Netherseal in record time. Gary was done - but I still had 13 miles to get back - and the efforts from Burton were telling. I took it easy for the rest of the way. Got home at about 1.00am - almost 70 miles done.