Thursday, 21 February 2013

Night time and Vikings...

As winter rolls onwards, seemingly never ending, I have found myself confined to the garage and the Turbo-trainer - oh how desperately boring it is - to ride 10 miles on the Turbo is such a relentless bore, after 10 minutes (that feels like an hour) I'm ready to stop, after half an hour I'm mind numbingly frustrated and can't wait for the end to arrive. It is bad.

Last week I took a night ride. I quite like the cover of darkness, there are fewer cars and I like how familiar roads look and feel totally different. An immaculately well-maintained road bike emits very little in the way of sound. The slightly metallic hum of the chain turning the teeth of the cogs and the sprockets and the steady, reassuring flum of the tyres kissing tarmac. For those of us who service our bikes though, this opportunity to enjoy the night sky, and quietness can have its downside. The lack of any other sounds focusses us onto the minutae of our machines. Our ears become tuned in at ultrasonic frequency level. The slightest creak or squeak is a cause for concern, the clatter of cable against frame, the rasp of a chain scraping a front derailleur, the cheeping of a loose cleat - these sounds spell anathema - they are tiring noises that eat away at your initial indifference to them. Riding at night seems to amplify them, the silence and solitude. They become a rousing hymn to my inadequacies as a bike mechanic. A pitted bottom bracket bearing, a worn pedal thread, a juddering brake block - all are seemingly sent to interfere with the soothing soundtrack of a moonlit bike ride.

As I headed down into Congerstone I was joined by a cyclist who joined me silently out of the darkness - we chatted as we rode side by side into the darkness. He had ridden from Hinckley and was aiming at a 50 mile ride. As we ambled along, side by side, moving at about 13 miles per hour, just ahead a dog walker emerged from a field via a stile, his dog wandering, lose in front of him into the middle of the road - my companion let loose a barrage of curses like an invading Viking, for a moment I though he was going to stop, kill the dog and decapitate its owner. As I looked at him, for the first time properly, I realised he could indeed be a Viking - at least he had a beard, and long hair - no evidence of horns on his helmet - but then Vikings didn't wear horns - that's only in the movies.

This is the night ride approaching the border.

I parted from the Viking at the junction of Derby Road in Shackerstone. I moved onwards enjoying the quiet and solitude. I started thinking about the night - what it means to us - how the effect of darkness has changed over the years, the onset of artificial light has completely changed the way we live and interact with night - with darkness.

But night is still night - it's what we have lots of at this time of year. It's when work is done, and some of us go out to play. There's a very good chance that you first made love with your partner at night, because that's when we're free to go on dates. And it's dark, and transgressive. Secretive. Furtive. No one can see what you're up to. Our bodies may prefer that we postpone lovemaking till morning, but the darkness insists that now is the time.

Perhaps this is the reason why we've drawn so much darkness around sex, why it has gone so very wrong, in lots of ways for lots of people. Great loving sex is very close to prayer, a celebration of life and humanity. Yet our society has somehow surrounded it with horror and guilt and smut - why?, for what ends? The Christian church may be held in part responsible - Christianity stands largely alone in seeing sex as filthy, the agency by which original sin is transmitted - its Theology insists on the Virgin birth and the original sin comes down to us from Adam, because we are born out of sin. Sin according to those pillars of Catholic and Protestant theology, Aquinas and Luther, is a sexually transmitted condition. The Shakers, famous now for their lovely furniture designs, were celibate. That's why their furniture remains but they died out long ago. I hope for their sake that they all got to heaven, where they now get to do up kitchens in paradise. Perhaps the idea of living in hell on earth is worth it for some - the guarantee of eternal bliss is enough for some people to postpone bliss here on earth, but it doesn't work for me. I don't believe you.

Oh dear - this blog has turned into a bit of a rant - can't imagine where all that came from - the night time perhaps. It gives you time to think.

Monday, 11 February 2013

Turning roads into race tracks....

There's a new craze sweeping the nation. Commuter routes, inner city streets and country lanes are being turned into virtual race-tracks by cyclists who monitor their speed with GPS devices.

Apparently the record speed for one section of London's South Circular (which has a speed limit of 30mph) is an average of 41mph!!!. On a nearby road a rider has averaged 33.3mph. An increase in the numbers taking part in these virtual time-trials is fuelling concerns that the phenomenon is encouraging recklessness on the roads and inflaming tensions between cyclists, pedestrians and motorists.

Here's how it works. Cyclists sign up to Strava, a website, and upload their times and routes. Typically distances range from a few hundred metres to five miles. In a nod to the Tour de France, the record holder is known as the 'King (or Queen) of the Mountain and an on-line leader board records the riders' name, time, speed and date of their record run.

Lance Armstrong has been a recent member and won seven 'King of the Mountain' titles on US roads in a single day. (presumably drug-free?). However last week his postings vanished for some reason. Two riders identified as Tris M and George B are recorded averaging 41mph on a section of road near Barnes - the only way of displacing them is by breaking the speed limit - again!

The Sunday Times did a test of three routes in central London, each of them ridden more than 20,000 times by Strava users, to establish whether it was possible to match cyclists' times without running red lights or breaching the highway code. In each case a motorbike was used and clocked significantly slower times than those of the cyclists!

On a stretch of Victoria Embankment - a distance of 1.19 miles the fastest cyclist has covered the distance in 2 minutes 23 seconds - the motorbike took 4 minutes 27 seconds!

In the USA, Strava is facing legal action from the family of a cyclist who died whilst trying to claim back his 'King of the Mountain' title. Strava is fighting the case. Asked why it hosts leaderboard times that are only achievable by breaking speed limites Strava said - " We continue to encourage good behaviour within our community and strive for our users to understand the responsibility that they have to follow the law and to use common sense"

Sara Rodgers who works in Sheffield and holds 50 Queen of the Mountain titles said that while being competitive she has never jumped a red light. Ben Lowe, also based in Sheffield, holds 100 titles but concentrates on genuine hill climbs. His most treasured crown is a route from Fleet Moss to Hawes - which rises 758 feet in One and a half miles, in 9 minutes 59 seconds.

Commentators have noted that, if used properly, Strava could strengthen Britain's cycling culture. "As long as people obey the law and the usual cares and courtesies, we will not have to wait 100 years for another winner of The Tour de France" - So keep an eye out for that speeding cyclist - It could be the next Wiggins.

Sunday, 10 February 2013

A cold and frosty morning....

Another hard frost arrived under the spell of a perfect full moon and I woke up inside a Christmas card. Too cold and slippy for riding first thing and so I waited, occupying myself with minor work projects, compiling quiz questions and baking a sourdough loaf. Around lunchtime the sun, like a giant mirror ball, had done its work sparkling and flashing with light and warmth as it slips over the tops of hedges and through the branches of trees. I decide to wrap up and get out for a few miles.

It's slow progress as I tentatively move along switchback lanes with sheltered verges, the white frost still evident and giving me fair warning not to push my luck. I climb south toward a small village that is a regular route on my summer rides. The scenery is dramatically different as I dip through a quiet valley past a small farm, each turn affording glimpses of dramatic scenery ahead. 

It is a fine afternoon now, but the sky is cloud-hidden, I climb the gentle slope to Upton and, for some inexplicable reason, start thinking about how much TV I have sitting on the machine that has yet to be watched. It weighs on me like some psychological baggage I don't need: all that television I've recorded but haven't watched, sitting there on my hard drive like a stack of unwritten thank-you letters.

In the old days if you missed some TV, it was gone. Now, unwatched episodes stack up, obliging you to invent theoretical holes in your schedule when you might be able to catch up.
I suppose eventually I will run out of space, obliging me to sacrifice an unwatched programme in order to record another I may never see. TV is meant to be entertainment, not homework. It's time for drastic measures: Here are some key tips to solve the problem.

1) Delete any classic movies you've recorded in an idle moment after noticing they were being shown at 3.00am. Take my word - they will come round again.

2) If you've recorded three episodes of a show before you've managed to glimpse even a minute of episode one, you should probably think about writing off the whole series. Life is short.

3) Remember: anything "part-recorded" is also "part-deleted". Finish the job.

4) Get rid of any "good" films you recorded because you thought you ought to watch them. You won't. After three months I have finally realised the universe is never going to experience a wrinkle in time large enough for me to get to grips with Jonathan Millers version of 'The Merchant of Venice'

5) Remember, none of the above applies to the Tour de France stages from Last year - there'll always be time to watch Brad.

6) If all else fails -  take a day off sick, watch everything.