Monday, 24 March 2014

Cycling Through the Ages....

When I was a nipper... I rode on a beaten up old Raleigh Shopper. I used to build ramps, do jumps, pull wheelies, generally try and pretend I had a BMX (which I was not rich enough to own). Unsurprisingly it broke, after a particularly daring and over ambitious leap through the air that Danny Mcaskill would have been proud of.
Next I graduated to a Dawes Lightning, which was a beaut' ! I rode it to and from school, initially very proud of the GT extensions, and the twin Suntour shifters on the downtube. It even allowed me to start exploring the countryroads around where I lived, and gave me transport to town when I needed it. It walked home with me from school with mates, it even helped me in my early abortive attempts to woo the ladies on the way to and from school. But eventually it too was overtaken. Scratched to pieces, and with buckled wheels, and rusty from haven been left out in the rain one too many times, my heart was stolen away by my first glimpse of a Dawes Ranger in the playground. Furious plotting and planning followed. That bike, or at least something very similar, would be mine...

I got a part time job, and I saved like a Scotsman on a budget. I reviewed every bike available. Friends bought their first mountain bikes, and paraded them around sixth form college proudly. I MUST GET ONE! I dreamt every night of having my own off road vehicle. And eventually, at a princely sum of £279.99 I ordered last year's Specialized Rock Hopper in glorious technicolour yellow. I assembled it in a flash, and tore off to the hills by myself to see what it could do. I bumped and careered along the upland trails, plunged down terrifying descents, with no technical skills, and crashed three times, the final one seeing my front wheel plant in a muddy stream at 20mph and launch me clean over the handlebars sprawling in an ignominious heap. I limped home afterwards, utterly exhilarated.

Soon after, with mates we would push the boundaries, visiting countries far and wide, and in the late teenage years, more than happy to camp, sleep on floors, and even better in exotic destinations - we explored the backpacker network on 2 wheels.

Cycling had revolutionised, and indelibly changed my life. Bikes came and went, and upgrades were purchased as money allowed. At one point we even managed to score a slightly surreal sponsorship deal from Saracen Cycles, for an epic ride across Asia. This slightly more professional arrangement happened to co-incide with my mid to late 20's, I guess a time when I was gradually working out what I wanted from life. Bicycles. Lots of them. And Cycling kit. Lots of it. Parcels and packages and boxes arrived by the truckload. Very cool.

We rode for 519 days this time. And after 28 000 km of bicycling, I kind of found that I had had enough. I even found one day whilst showering that my backside seemed to have changed shape. Its contours had taken on a saddle like form. So I dallied with other forms of activity for a while. I rowed, I ran, I swam, I even climbed and caved. But somewhere, there was a voice calling. "What
about me?" called the 2 wheeled steed of my youth.

At work by now we had started organising trips, and even though I knew so much more about cycle touring, it was still well and truly on the backburner. We organised mainly hill walking, scrambling and canoeing adventures. But folks were starting to ask for 2 wheeled trips. So of course, we obliged.

We took people on trips from London to Paris, and I stuck resolutely to my guns about what cycling meant to me. "You need a good simple, reliable bike" I would instruct people. "Good tyres, no to suspension, but yes, mountain bikes are fine". And folks did ride their MTBs. But things started to change. The tyres got skinnier, the wheels bigger. The handlebars stayed flat, but not for long. We saw the brief rise of the sports hybrid - which brought me across from Mountain Bikes, and on to the tarmac.

For me, the advent of the Sports Hybrid and skinny 700c wheels coincided with young children in my household. This time of my life meant that I wasn't realistically able to drop everything and disappear to the mountains for a long weekend. But slipping out on a summer's evening for a couple of hours was a regular possibility. These training rides quite quickly showed up what road riding can become. I kept watching the speedo. I kept looking at my average speed. And the riding became quite a different experience. It became much more of a pursuit of speed. And once that happened, the flat handlebars were living on borrowed time. My Giant FCR2 - despite the lovely carbon forks, and despite the perfectly adequate Shimano 105, just couldn't cut it. I upgraded to my Genesis Aether 20. And I got my head down, literally, to some more serious riding.

In the meanwhile, the arms race was continuing out on the trips. And riders were starting to venture further afield, joining us on rides from Paris to Munich, and Munich to Venice, and across Italy, and into the Alps. All these journies combined with comfortable digs at the end of the day, and with excellent food, and maybe the odd glass of wine thrown in for good luck. The riding was just as intense, but life after the ride was certainly looking more comfortable, more middle aged some might even say :-(

Carbon fibre machines started to appear on our rides. And at first we scoffed. And then we saw more and more coming, and of course, we became quite envious. The shiny paintwork, the zippy performance, and the downright stylishness of it all got under our skin too. Fortunately we have some good relationships in the cycling industry, and so I was able to negotiate a good deal on my next dream machine. Complete with deep section wheels, I am still somewhat ashamed of the price tag (I always said £600 was enough to buy a really good bike) - but my Cervelo S1 with carbon wheels and 105 throughout doesn't quite fit in that price bracket. But my god was it quick. I had been content with 13-15mph on my old touring adventure mountain bike, then we had progressed to 18 or so with the sports hybrid, and 19 or 20 with the Aether. But the Cervelo, and a good stretch of road, feeling good can get up to 24-25 happily.

The thing is, this bike only gets taken out when it is safe to do so. And it certainly isn't permitted in the hold of a plane, 'she' can only go where I can see her!

And so, last week, I found myself on the perfectly smooth roads of Majorca, in March, in the sunshine. Blitzing along, with the peloton in tow, the sea shimmering away on our right, dancing from one wonderful hotel and restaurant to the next, with quiet clean and beautiful roads in between.

 Here, unlike some of my explorations in India, Cambodia or Indonesia, where it has been necessary to wade through thick fumes, endure clouds of dust, and skilfully avoid dangerous driving, the enjoyment is not something one has to wait a few weeks to look back upon. It is very, very immediate. It is cycling Nirvana. And to cap it off, my journies through the march of bicycle technology reached a place I never expected to go. My steed for this wonderful 4 days in the Balaerics, was a Cannondale Supersix Evo Di2. Electronic gears, married with the lightest productions frame available. The bike was hired I hasten to add. And all in the name of research and cycling knowledge. The electronic gears were precise, efficient, and incredible. But not for me. But when I gave this wonder machine a proper shake down on the wonderous mountain climb of Sa Calobra, I can honestly say I have never encountered a bike like it. Epic performance, in an incredible location, on perfect tarmac. To date, this has been the pinnacle of my cycling. Not withstanding the mountain passes of the Himalayas, or the deserts of Iran and Pakistan, or the rice paddies of Cambodia and Indonesia, this day of riding was simply sublime. But what made it so special, was that it was the right ride, at the right time of my life. And riding has always been like that. It as changed so many times over the years. It gives so many options, so many styles, so many facets, and so much to enjoy. Vive le Velo! To 2 wheels that keep on giving...