Sunday, 23 March 2014

Road surfaces are bad...

Another dry week, plus the added treat of prolonged periods of bright sunshine has really lifted spirits. There has been some stunning sunrises and sunsets over the past week - enough to make me stop and just look.

Unfortunately the weekend has taken a backward step into winter - I'm out again, riding 40+ miles. No chance of shorts this time, it's back to longies and layers. The wind is strong, finger freezing and creating a dancing effect everywhere of branch, flower and grass. Riding into the wind is tough, in fact it's a struggle; especially when combined with any slight uphill gradient. Along the lanes towards Shackerstone there is staggered row of oaks and chestnut trees to help break the wind but the absence of leaves limits their effectiveness. Through Shackie and on towards Snarestone there is some relief offered by the high hedges along the lane, it is infinitely easier for cycling, the wind barely troubles me for a mile or two.

Nothing in the way of other cyclists today - last weekend was like riding a stage race - a relentless stream of riders out in the fine weather. Today I've travelled almost 10 miles and haven't seen a soul. The roads are wet and shiny, I am passed by a vehicle along a single track lane, it kicks up a splatter of mud and grit, like a powdered, wet biscuit, for a few seconds my eyes sting from the grit. It occurs to me how poor the road surfaces are, perhaps the effects of prolonged rain. There are deep ruts, many potholes, gashes and slashes as though the surface has been attacked by some wild beast. Cycling makes me aware of road surfaces in a way that driving never can. I notice every camber, every repair, every change in surface treatment. There are places where the surface is in a shocking state - the tarmac breaking up into millions of separate segments the effect is like riding over cobbles in France, it rattles the bike and vibrates through my entire body. The natural reaction is to swerve inwards towards the centre of the road where the surface is smoother - this of course carries risks - I check the road behind, it's clear and I take the smoother option.

As I pass through Measham and towards Netherseal I pick up a head of speed, at least as much as possible on the old bike. Overall it's slow progress and the miles count down slowly. As I ride my mind drifts onto the pro cycling I've been watching on TV - in particular the Tirenno-Adriatico. Alberto Contador won it with some impressive displays - the race had been billed as an early clash between him and Chris Froome - but Froome pulled out before the race started with a back injury. I watched one stage with an incredibly testing climbing section - there was a section that saw the riders climbing gradients of 30% - watching it on TV was enthralling - they were struggling to stay upright, weaving and zigzagging all over the road - Contador was able to forge ahead but it was by no means easy - the commentator informed us that they were riding gears of 34/28 - that's the same ratio that I used going up Mont Ventoux - good to know that the pro's have to drop down to the gearing of mere mortals occasionally. But 30%!!! - mere mortals would definitely be walking.

The heavens opened and blasted me with a hail as I approached Congerstone on my return journey - so severe that the bullet like ice hitting my bell sounded like I was giving out a demented warning to someone up ahead - ding-ding-ding-ding-ding - in the end I decided shelter was the best bet and huddled into the bus shelter to let the storm pass. By now it was dark and my energy levels had depleted to such an extent that I was crawling along at around 8mph up the hill to Barton in the Beans - cold, hungry and in need of rest - thankfully home was just a few miles. When I got back I spent 15 minutes standing in the shower to warm myself - my fingers ached with the cold.

Another week and the clocks go forward - and with that the opportunity of a short ride in daylight after work - if it's warm enough I'll give it a go.

Meantime - I'm going to catch up with Sir Brad - making an appearance on the Archers! - Then get the tele set up for highlights of Milan-San Remo - the longest of cycling's fabled one day classics - 294 kilometres - should be entertaining!

Tuesday, 11 March 2014

New bike out!...

Sunday morning was even brighter and warmer than Saturday. The sunlight is somehow unfamiliar, harsh but so, so welcome. After weeks in the swill of rain and mud a whole weekend of sunny weather and blue skies feels like a celebration.

It's shorts again - and I decide, on the spur of the moment, to pull out the new bike from underneath a pile of empty boxes and old sheets. I had planned to strip it down last autumn - never happened. I promised instead a definite spring clean; no time now - just pump up the tyres, wipe off the collected sawdust, a spray of lubricant and that'll do - I just want to get out.

The difference between this and my old machine is immediately apparent and I am smiling, almost laughing after only a few pedal strokes. My position on the bike feels so much better, it reacts instantly to any direct pressure on the pedals, it feels sleek and fast. The saddle is bloody hard though.

It being a Sunday there are even more cyclists out than yesterday - There is a steady line in front of me heading into the distance - I can count three, no four stretched out in a broken line. I quickly catch the first and overtake with ease - he may have been out for many miles but I don't care - I have been overtaken endlessly on my old bike - it's revenge!

I zoom along my usual short route - it's about 10.00 in the morning I don't want to be out too long after the 40+ miles of yesterday, and I've got other things planned for the day. But I admit to wishing I'd picked the new bike for yesterday's ride - it would have been easier and faster. There are yellowhammers in the trees as I pass through Congerstone - in the sunshine they are as bright as golden nuggets against the thicket of twigs - no proper singing though - no mention of 'a little-bit-of-bread-and-cheese' I wonder if birds have regional accents? - has anybody ever worked that out?

There's a ploughing match just outside Shackerstone - I see the signs and a village of tents and stop for a while to watch. There's a wide variety of machines in action; new shiny fandango models cutting easily and steadily across the land, and then there's the gunmetal grey contraption that looks like it was dragged from the corner of Steptoe's yard and sounds like Gary at the top of Mont Ventoux.

After 10 minutes or so I carry on, the sun warm and welcoming, tempts me to go further but I resist - this weekend signals the start of spring for me (if not summer) this high pressure may be just a blip, but it has offered hope and reminds me that fair weather and light is close. It feels good.

Monday, 10 March 2014

On the road....

Wow! - suddenly it feels as though summer is here - spring?, well, spring seems to have been bypassed, we've jumped from the mildest winter for years straight into summer. After weeks of endless rain and high winds, ice-cream vans have made a comeback in these parts.

Okay - my observations may be a little premature, but this weekend I've been out both days... in my shorts. I've built up a sweat. I've felt the sun, strong and warm, I might even have started adding a little colour to my legs. And I wasn't the only one. It seems that cyclists, like insects and ice-cream vans, suddenly appear as soon as the temperature rises a few degrees. The roads here were teeming with mamils - I could barely pull out from my drive such was the continual procession of riders on Sunday. Yes - it's definitely looking good at the moment, and with the added attraction of the lengthening daylight it seems the season has finally started. The harbingers are apparent: hosts of daffodils in full bloom, people wandering around in tee shirts and shorts and have I mentioned ice-cream vans?

On Saturday I opted for a long ride - the longest by far this year. I set off at around 2.30pm, the sun shining and a clear, impossibly perfect, azure blue sky. Hikers, dog walkers, runners, birwatchers and many cyclists are all out in force. I opted for the old bike, for no other reason than it's early March - too early to dust off the new bike? My plan, to ride over to Barton under Needwood and visit my mother, hang around there for a couple of hours then cycle back in the dark, a distance of around 43 miles in total.

I set off a slow but steady pace, it would be a long arduous route with plenty of hills to overcome - no need for speed and excessive effort at this stage, take it easy, pace myself was the plan. The thing with the old bike is that although it is perfectly capable and suitable for pretty much any day-to-day cycling, it is definitely harder than the newer, lighter, carbon model. Average speed is at least a couple of mph slower, and my position is less comfortable generally. I tried to adjust the saddle height before departing - unfortunately the seat post seems to have combined with the frame in such a secure and final way that I couldn't shift it. The seat post is carbon, so too much force is ill advised - Google will provide a suitable answer but that's for another day.

As I made my way I noticed some builders working on a house not more than half a mile from my own home. Despite riding this same road since Christmas I've failed to notice how quickly the development has taken shape - it seems to be more or less finished, I never noticed it before? Further along the route I pass over the railway bridge as I drop into Congerstone - just as I approach the apex a steam train passes underneath me, the smoke and steam creating a fluffy cloud either side that quickly joins together creating an impenetrable cloud of vapour. The smell is wonderful though and I pass through in a second. There's quite a breeze as I make my through to Shackerstone and Snarestone and from there the long drag on the main road through to Measham. The wind requires extra effort, and combined with the steady uphill rise I quickly tire. A brief downhill freewheel allows me to regroup and then its a steady saunter to Netherseal, past my old house and through the village towards Grangewood. There's been a lot of tree planting I notice, possibly part of the National Forest scheme, either side of me is row after row of new saplings, all laid out in straight, even lines. It reminds me of a military graveyard, like the big ones in Normandy commemorating the fallen servicemen from D-Day. I try to imagine what it will look like ten, fifteen years from now, magnificent.

There is a diversion on the road down towards Coton, I ignore it and decide there's always a way through for a cyclist. I'm right, in fact I can't really see any reason why there needs to be a diversion at all - just some minor roadworks as far as I can tell. I pass a wedding taking place at the small village church in Coton - there is a solitary bell, ringing continuously, not the more traditional and infinitely more effective change ringing - perhaps there is only one bell? The guests are all gathered outside the church, taking photographs, throwing confetti, all smart suits and posh dresses - the powder blue sky and bright sunshine makes for a perfect wedding day.

It's not just people who are out making the most of a glorious day - I notice Jackdaws foraging in the horse pasture as I pass. And then as I ride along a sheltered stretch of road, warmed by the strong sun and sheltered from the breeze there is a cloud of gnats, midges, whatever - a rolling mass that I plough through and spit out the remnants.

I spend a couple of hours at Mum's, she provides an endless supply of tea and a welcome bacon sandwich - then it's time for the return journey. After a couple of miles and with dusk fast approaching I pause to switch on my lights before the climb up Walton Hill, this is always a tough one and today doesn't disappoint - in fact it feels steeper than ever. I make it to the top and roll gently for 20 yards to get my breath back. I notice then a marvellous spectacle; a huge flock of crows massing to my right, a graceful, flowing wave of jet black shadows, their wings slowly flapping and at the same time a cacophony of contact calls. The whole thing moves as one into the darkening blue sky, a glorious slow, black ballet of repeated shapes that sweeps into the trees on the horizon so that they become foliated by birds.

As I wind my way, wearily towards home in the darkness, my front light goes off. Just dead - no prior flickering, no warning - just pitch black. I press frantically at the buttons - no idea why - but nothing happens. I have to ride on - I have about 5 miles still to do. I consider that the roads are quiet, I can see any oncoming headlights from a mile away, and my back light is fine. It's tricky riding in the dark with no forward light - and no idea of what's in the road, contours, verges, nothing. The feeling is weird, there is the sensation of movement but no visual confirmation. I have a sudden brainwave - there is a flashlight feature on my iPhone - I can use that, hand held, it will be better than nothing. And that is how I made it home, holding the phone all the way, directing the light into the path of the few oncoming vehicles I encountered - it worked - I lived to tell the tale.