Monday, 21 September 2015

A Bridge too Far.... 3 Days from Frankfurt to Paris

A Bridge too Far.... 3 Days from Frankfurt to Paris

      I looked at the bridge, I looked at the gaping chasm, and I looked back at the team, gradually pulling up to a halt in front of the 'Pont Coupe'. "Well that's a shame" I thought, although the words that came out may have been more expressive. A quick survey of the surroundings offered no solace, and my brain, addled after a hard day of driving from London to Frankfurt, backed up with successive 140 and 145 mile days, was, how should I put it? Well... 'b*ggered' I think is the technical term. More riders arrived, the slower ones straggling up to the pont, and then the back marking leader and the support van. Usually, closed roads can be negotiated by cyclists, as the foot path is often still open, or alternatively a quick shimmy around a couple of bollards will suffice, and a brief walk through a dusty building site, and 'jobs a good 'un' - but today, a large vertical drop from the flyover, mesh fencing and an angry railway line stood between us and the next serviceable piece of tarmac....

 "Lets just cross the railway line!" said one daring individual. Mental images of the 17:10 steaming through cyclists and carbon fibre filled my imagination. "We are NOT crossing the line guys!". I looked at the assembled gallery of cycling finery; Argon, Cervelo, Cipollini, and even a stealth Colnago with classic matt black finish and Di2 electronic gearing. I next turned to my trusty Garmin, which for 285 miles hadn't missed a beat, at first not revealing any alternatives. Ah ha - I spied a minor road running parallel to the train tracks. Lifting my eyes into the real world however, showed nothing more than a couple of slightly worn tracks across a ploughed field. "So - its up to you guys!" it always seems best to me in such circumstances to try and ensure that the team are 'bought in' to the next course of action, rather than enforcing a plan. "You can either retrace and add a further 10km, or you can take this dirt track for 800m? What do you think?". Like a Djokovic return of serve "How rough is the track?" came the response.
 Although I have criss crossed Europe by bicycle more times than I can recall, covering thousands of miles, and more than 25 countries, I didn't recall ever having been down this particular dirt track, so I didn't feel qualified to answer this question. "Look... look... its Mark! Whats he doing?" - as I turned around I could see a lone figure scrambling up the side of a tiny vertical metal ladder to inspect the half built bridge. Doom. Disaster. Judge in red robes and white wig. Cue my imagination again... "Did you honestly do everything in your control to ensure these riders were kept safe? ... You are found guilty of gross negligence... 20 years...." ... Back in the real world again... "Mark - please come back here! We are not on a climbing expedition!" Another synopsis of the options followed, as the 'cross the train tracks option' was firmly and finally dismissed, and 'Team Full Carbon Deep Section Racing Wheels' looked at their bikes dismally. "Well - its up to you - we shall have one leader to return up the road for the long loop - and those who are up for it... follow me - down the dirt track!"
 8 riders bumped down the gentle grade into the field, and I smiled to myself. Mr 'Brand New Colnago C60' was with us, embracing the moment, and getting stuck in to the adventure. If you're going to make an epic journey anywhere, you're going to encounter some excitement. You're going to experience some unpredictability, and some unusual situations. Its part of what makes journies exciting, and from this summer's experiences, its a part of the ride that people remember, and that makes it special. A ride that turns from a straightforward 8 hours into a gargantuan 12. A dry day that delivers a biblical downpour more suited to the Monsoon on the subcontinent. A small backroad that happens to be a 20km long Swedish logging trail, through stunning Nordic countryside. Or a succession of villages with closed up cafes that forces us to beg mercy for a water refill on a Champagne Viticulteur at the roadside, who turns out to be a thoroughly decent chap with a special reserve of Orangina and Coca Cola. Or even the 6 punctures in an hour at the roadside when its p*ssing down. These are the special moments, the experiences that you just don't get when you drive to Westfield, and have your lunch in Pizza Express. Nor do you get them when you go on that all inclusive package holiday in the Dominican Republic. When we set off on a 400 mile pedal across borders, rivers, mountains and forests, we know that some special and unique experiences await. We just don't know what they'll be. It's not detailed in the itinerary. And that's why we love it. If you want certainty, if you want to know how the day is going to shake down, by all means, go the the 'Costa del Boring'. And you'll know what time dinner is going to be. You'll know where lunch is going to be, and you'll know where the toilets are. But if you are seeking something special. Something that will live with you for more than a fortnight in your memory, a story you'll still be recounting at dinner in 5 year's time. Do it. Come on... let's get ready for the next incredible, sometimes bumpy, sometimes arriving after dark, and maybe with a chance of showers ride.
 Incidentally, what happened to the 17 riders at the Pont Coupe? Of course, they made it to the hotel. There had been talk of finding a swanky starred restaurant for eats that evening. But in the correct spirit, with 150 miles and stories collected along the way, the group slouched in the lobby bar in smelly lycra, with pints of ice cold Kronenbourg. At dinner that evening, Mr 'Brand New Colnago C60' turned to me..."its bloody good this food isn't it?" ... after a proper days riding, mostly anything tastes good... another ride anyone?
01460 249191

Thursday, 25 June 2015

Cycling from Stockholm to Copenhagen

  Sweden raced upon us after a flurry of events, and so I had little time to consider, or even read up the country's background. And so we punted off through the old cobbled streets of Gamlastan, taking a spin around the Stockholm waterfront, collecting together our team, and beginning our journey South, on a voyage to ride to Copenhagen, hoping to discover a little more about this enigmatic piece of Scandinavia. The first thing we noticed was the incredible network and infrastructure for cyclists. Dedicated flyovers, wide lanes, well surfaced tracks, and seemingly the whole city covered by cycle routes, this is certainly a bike friendly nation. Riding out from the centre, all the while that we found ourselves on busy roads, we were offered bike lanes, or often completely separate paths to guide us out safely. And once we had fully escaped the capital's clutches, we started to see the wide open, and vibrant green countryside that would be with us all the way to Helsingborg. Around 40km outside the city, the settlements had thinned considerably, the flowers were blooming, and we were blessed with a hot sunny day. Our first coffee stop gave us a chance to explore the middle of Sodertalje, a medium sized town. Of course being Sweden, everything is laid back, and well proportioned. One of the first things that strikes you here is the smiley and open disposition of the people. We nearly jumped out of our skins as we were greeted regularly with "HeyHey!"... The local salutation. Can you imagine it, folks in the street actually say hello to each other. What a welcome and refreshing change.

Onwards, and the road winds through rolling meadows and deep green forests. This landscape remains with us for the next 5 days of riding, and I have to say I didn't tire of it for a moment. As we pedal surrounded by sublime countryside, and beneath glorious blue skies our hearts are lifted, this is good for the soul, the essence of simple rural riding. We spend our overnights in Nykoping (neesherping), then Lingkoping (lingsherping), Jonkoping (Yernsherping) and Markyryd. Each night offers new surprises, one night surrounded by stunning Constable like countryside, another on the shores of majestic Lake Vattern, and even one in a rural conference centre. But each and every night we are met with a broad smile, and fantastic hospitality. The food is excellent, and contrary to urban myth, even the beer is no more expensive than France.
By evening 2 I am warming massively to this country.

Day 2 & 3 see the roads becoming steadily wilder and more remote, the ride leaving Nykoping being a highlight, on a gently undulating and rolling road intermittently offering ride bys of the estuary that we are following. The woodland encloses us, and we notice, not for the last time, the verges erupting to a chorus of wild Lupins, bursting forth in huge crowds. The cotton wool clouds skip across the sky, and I feel oh so lucky to be riding here. We're also treated to a long descent of Vattern, Sweden's second biggest inland lake. With a circumference of some 300km it's a monster, and we are only tackling the South West corner, but nevertheless, it's a long and pleasant ride down to Jonkoping. We ride in to town tired, warm, but with the satisfaction of 3 days and 250 miles in the legs. As we push our bikes into reception, the traditional and imposing water side hotel basks in the warm afternoon glow... But it's the folk in the sunny terrace of the 'Bishops Finger' bar who draw my attention... Time for a quick shower and some soothing refreshment :-)

Day 4 of riding turns out to be the standout adventure riding day. We're faced with a choice between the direct and shorter route, or taking a wild and unknown route into the Store Moss National Park. No prizes for working out that we opted for the quieter roads, and so the adventure began, at first with a quiet, gently climbing ride away from Vattern, into the optimistically named Taberg (mountain village), at just around 250m above sea level, it won't win any prizes for altitude, but it's pretty and breathtakingly pure all the same. A few kilometres further on, one we have all settled into the ride. We turn a corner to see our support vehicle and one rider stopped in their tracks. As we approach, the scrunch beneath our tyres explains why they have paused. Our road has been steadily becoming more remote, and now reaching new levels of rural simplicity, we find tarmac reduced to dirt track forestry road. One of our number is on a 2015 Pinarello Dogma F8... And as I confirm to the group that this is our chosen route, he winces. Indeed we all hold our breaths, and lift up out of the saddles to reduce the risk of punctures. This is one of many rural dirt roads that cross crosses Sweden, and an important part of the road network, but it still comes as a shock to road bikers. however, we soon all captivated by the feeling of being properly 'out there' riding beside lakes and through deep forest cover. The scrunchy gravel isn't quite as bad as it seems, and miraculously we all escape unscathed without a single puncture. And as we pull back on to Tarmac I think there are a few secretly wishing our wild ride was a little longer. Day 4 is a long one, reaching 115 miles, and so despite the sun being still high in the sky at 6pm some of the team opt to shuttle in the support vehicle to get an early(ish) shower. Meanwhile 3 of us pedal on into the evening. Incredibly, at 7pm as we blast down an empty, beautifully surfaced road towards Markyryd, the sun beams down on us from a cloudless sky, and it feels like early afternoon. Having never been this far north in summer, the whole feeling is amazing, wierd and slightly eerie, where the sun seems to never want to go down. We go to bed each evening before darkness, and we see the light return to our bedroom windows in earnest in the small hours of the morning. It certainly makes the reaching of our evening destination easy, and bike lights are certainly not required.


Excitement brims once again on our final day as we make a charge for the port city of Helsingborg, our final Swedish frontier. The riding continues to be fast, and we weave in sometime beautiful excursions into the pristine forests, before we point directly for Helsingborg. Now after 4 and a half days of Swedish riding the team are ready to reach Denmark, and find out what Cooenhagen holds in store. Our ferry crossing to Helsingor is the smoothest and most efficient I can ever remember, and takes little more than half an hour from arrival to departure. As we cross the Oresund Straits, the slender spires and castle battlements draw the eye, along with the brightly painted buildings. Riding the cobbled streets, we see close up the immediate differences across this short stretch of water. Smarter, more bustling, and with an unmistakeable whiff of cosmopolitan Euro-Style, it is different. We spin around the Hamlet Castle, but Copenhagen and our journies end is calling. The 40km ride down the coast takes a surprisingly long time, but this may just be that we aren't keen to bring the ride to its conclusion. An incredible selection of highly manicured Scandinavian houses overlook the sound of Oresund, whilst we keep our wits about us on one of the worlds busiest cycle paths. When we finally hit Copenhagen city limits, we negotiate the backstreets to find the little mermaid for our obligatory celebratory team photo. A fantastic selection of Danish beer follows, and we enjoy the buzz of what is now rated as one of Europes coolest urban destinations, but my cycling heart as stolen by Sweden, with its endless rolling green hills, and lakeside ridebys. Take me back to Sweden... My new cycling wonderspot :-)

Wednesday, 25 March 2015

The Grand Tour of Somerset 2015

So, the 22nd of March kind of snuck up on me. I knew it was coming, but I just put it to the back of my mind, and hoped that my carried over fitness might see me through. Obviously I knew that running and swimming is not the same as spinning the pedals, but somehow, life just takes over, and before you know it, you're on the start line staring down the barrel of 105 miles with three chunky hill climbs! The funny thing with a longer day that I have found out, in 25 years of endurance challenges is that its never the first 60 miles that is the problem, its what follows that is the unknown. It's how you're going to feel in the final 45 miles that really matters. And, furthermore, if you're wondering how you're going to feel in miles 60 - 105, you're probably not quite prepared enough! That was definitely me at 08:15 on Sunday morning!

Happily - the weather was dry, and the roads were typically 'Somerset' quiet on a Sunday morning. So off the group went. As is usual, myself, Mark and Dan pushed off a few minutes later, having ensured that the support crew were all prepped and ready to roll. With a rush of adrenaline, and explaining to Dan and Mark how I had considered the importance for today of trying to calculate an expected average effort - and trying not to go way over that in the early stages of the ride, we set off in a blaze of whirring cranks, trying to catch the lead peleton. 
As we crossed the bridge at Burrowbridge there was no sign. And it took another few miles, past Othery, until we began to reel them back in. At Pedwell Hill, we latched on to the group, and mercifully got amongst the group for the first climb. 
However, it didn't take long, and my enthusiasm had got the better of me, and the lovely twisting sweeping corners down through Shapwick saw me accelerating again, swinging leads with Mark as we charged towards the nature reserve, and then Westbury Sub Mendip. Crossing towards Easton, the Mendips loom large, and dominate the eyeline, and the group begins to settle itself, ready for the day's first big challenge, Kites Croft Climb, a nasty, characterful narrow lane that ascends right to the top of the Mendips in double quick time. 700 feet of climbing at 8% soon splits the group. Knowing that I was in less than peak riding fitness I slid immediately to the back of the group, not wishing to have the ignominy of being passed by everyone. But by halfway up the hill, I noticed that the handful of riders ahead weren't pulling away. Taking gulps of air, and just pushing slightly harder, I eased past a handful of riders, and by the top of the hill I was feeling pretty damned pleased. I can't take any credit, I'm convinced my all new carbon Ridley was the main reason for this great climb. And as we crested the hills, and joined the descent down through Cheddar Gorge, I suddenly felt very thankful to my new bike. We had bonded on Kites Croft. 
The descent of Cheddar felt smooth, and taking care at the Narrows and Horseshoe Bend Buttress not to swing too wide. Passing through Cheddar in a flash, we ploughed on down across the levels to Wedmore, where the feedstation, Jason, and Sam were awaiting our arrival. We waited for support vehicle 2 to arrive, whilst making sure that all items at the feed station would be safe for riders to consume :-) Duly, Si and Andy rolled up in Support Van 2 - ready to supervise the doughnuts, meaning that stage 2 was underway for us. We took off again at high speed, thankfully enjoying a tailwind across to Mark, and Woolavington before the descent down into Bridgwater, and the prospect of the Quantocks, 
A High Vis. jacket greeted us on the edge of Bridgwater, as we quickly skirted the town, and out past Durleigh reservoir. The climb up Enmore Hill is a long steady one, and this time I opted for a much slower approach, taking time to chat with Mark, until we reached the final steeper section. We made short work of the top of the Quantocks, before dropping down the high speed Cothelstone Hill descent, down into Bishops Lydeard, and the second feed... 
At this point, the ride splits, and the sensible short coursers, pedalled off down towards Bradford on Tone, with just one climb remaining. We however knew very well what lay in wait. The infamous Elworthy and Raleighs Cross Road that heads towards Exmoor, is a challenging ride on any day. But with already 65 miles in the legs, it is at this point that I needed a good talking to. The climb up to Willett Tower is steady, and on any normal day suits me nicely, but the road then shelves steeply down to Elworthy Cross, and the punishing climb up to Raleighs Cross begins. Given 670 feet of ascent and an average of 10.2% by our friends at Strava - it doesn't sound too bad, but it really is... its a real leg cruncher, and so tough midway through a big ride. Its like this whole ride - it doesn't sound too tricky - but somehow, in the flesh it's tougher than you'd imagine. Anyhow, we hold it together until the top of the hill, and we push on across the top of Exmoor. I'm praying for the descent into Wiveliscombe, as an opportunity to recover. And sure enough, after a short dark spell across the hill tops, I perk up as we speed down off Exmoor, 
The flat fast ride to Milverton and Hillcommon is gone in a flash, and so too the short stretch to Bradford on Tone, and so we hit the last climb. Small voices are in my head - telling me its the last one. This is never a good sign. "Just get this climb done, and you're as good as home..." - well the climb through West Buckland passes, with moderate discomfort, and we're waving good bye to one of our team who is heading back to Exeter via Cullompton, as we turn towards Staple Fitzpaine. For me, this was the darkest time of the ride, when despite my best efforts at eating, my blood sugar levels plummeted. With heavy legs, and  forward speed decreasing by the minute, a slightly lightheaded feeling, I reached into my backpocket. The Chocolate Ride Bar that was waiting for me was just what my legs needed. That last injection of sugar was just what the doctor ordered, and suddenly I felt like I was back in the room. We whizzed along the final lanes in the afternoon sunshine, scooting under the A358, and back into North Curry to a wonderful warm cup of tea, and a change of clothes. 
Next time - more winter training required. Although I seem to remember saying that last year?

Wednesday, 25 February 2015

Las Sierras of Anadulcia.... mmmmm

 Las Sierras of Andalucia

So - not so much need to waffle on here today. We returned yesterday from a sublime ride in Southern Spain - from just north of Malaga - in an arc heading amongst epic mountainscapes, and beneath blue skies (mainly!) to reach Granada and the Sierra Nevada.

Lone Rider tackling a perfect and quiet climb through the mountains

Of course the roads were smooth. Of course, the sky was blue. Oh, but of course the climbs were tough, and the descents were winding and rollercoaster like. What we don't always consider when we head off to the continent is the whole wonder package that comes with the experience.

The Climb to Boquete de Zaffaraya steepens a touch

The tiny bar on night 1, where we treated ourselves to a small beer, and the old fellas were going in hard on the dominoes. The waiter who directed us to sit in front of the welcoming open fire at lunch on a cold winters day. And the impecable dinner in the old city of Granada at the Agua Restaurant, only reachable by windy narrow cobbled staircases. All in all it is this wonderful combination of rich experiences that keeps us, year after year, coming back for more. 

Wide open switchbacks... and dry smooth roads

Its the way that the team are buzzing each evening after we pack the bikes, get showered and reconvene in the bar for a small but perfectly formed Estrella :-) "What a day!" , "Amazing roads..." "So looking forward to dinner" "What a fantasic landscape to ride through".... the feel good factor is palpable....

Dave continues up the 700m ascent - first thing after breakfast :-)

For one rider its the descent down towards the Embalse de los Bermejales, for another its the wild combination of olive groves and the scent of fresh pine trees, and for another its the incredible melee of an annual carnival that we meet head on in the village of Alhama de Granada. For me - there's no doubt, the moment of the ride is the amazing notch through the mountains that issues into the incredible descent of the Boquete del Zaffaraya... breathtaking, and beautifully fast.... 

Stretching the legs halfway up the climb....

The pics here are our first batch... more to follow soon.... Adventure Cafe rides on :-)