On the road again…in Portugal and Spain

My last two really big rides were to celebrate my 60th and 65th birthdays, so they were five years apart (O-Level maths, 62%, Fairfield Grammar School, Bristol, 1967). I did a few century rides in between, but nothing on the same scale as these continental adventures. As I approach my 66th birthday, it occurs to me that one big ride every five years means that there probably aren’t going to be very many to look forward to. My New Year’s resolution for 2018 is, therefore, to fit in two big rides every year. It’s time for the first one.

The inspiration for this next ride, which will start from Faro in Portugal on Monday morning, 12th March, was Andrew P. Sykes’ most recent book. Entitled “Spain to Norway on a Bike Called Reggie“, it chronicles his journey from Gibraltar to a point so far north that it’s doesn’t get dark at night, at least in the summer. For convenience, I want to fly from Bristol Airport – it’s local – so I’m planning a slightly different route. I’ll fly to Faro in Portugal, stay at an airport hotel tomorrow evening, then turn right and head for the Spanish border. From Huelva, the first big town in Spain, I plan to ride into Seville for the night, then turn left the next day and cycle pretty much due north until I reach Gijón on the north coast of Spain, in the Asturias region. This route will differ from Andrew’s in that he cut north-east across from Huelva to Merida before picking up the Ruta Via de La Plata whereas I fancy a night in Seville to have a look around. Also, Andrew turned right just north of Zamora to head to Pamplona but his book mentions heavy traffic after doing so, and I don’t fancy that when there are said to be so many quieter roads for cycling in Spain. My current plan, therefore, is to keep going due north to Gijon and then figure out a way to get back home.

Andrew P. Sykes’ route follows Eurovelo 1 through Spain. I’m planning to cycle along a slight variant of this, starting in Faro (just to the left of Huelva on the south coast of Portugal) and heading to Gijón on the north coast of Spain. However, “planning” is a bit of a misnomer because I’ll probably make quite a few changes as I go along.

I’ve been a bit extravagant with respect to return flights. The original plan was to fly Easyjet from Bilbao to Bristol on Thursday, March 22nd. There’s just one flight per week on that route. However, Easyjet was also offering a flight from Asturias, near Gijón, to Stanstead in Essex on Wednesday, March 21st. It was £20, so I booked that too. Since then I’ve considered the option of flying back to Heathrow from Oviedo, which is about 30km south of Gijón, so I’ll already have been through it once. This has the advantage of being a daily flight, so timing is flexible.

This is going to be a different kind of experience from the earlier big rides. I’m going to be riding a modern bike, rather than one of the vintage machines I used for the last couple of trips. The greatest difference will be having brakes that don’t make my knuckles go white on every steep descent. More about the bike later. Time to start packing.

 

 

What to do with a ‘perfect’ vintage bike?

Last year I bought a 1982 Merican custom racing bike from its original owner. The man was a perfectionist, having even sent the metal bottle cage over to Mercian to get it sprayed to match the frame. The original (bum cleaving) saddle, which is not the one in the photograph, even came boxed with the bike. The appearance of the bike, which boasts a first generation Dura-Ace EX drive chain, is as near to perfection as you’re likely the find in a 30 year-old, unrestored machine. Why so? Well, the owner rode it two or three times, covering “less than 100 miles” and then decided it was too nice a bicycle to get chipped or worn out, so he kept it indoors for 30 years. I was the lucky beneficiary of his caution.

Mercian custom road bike
This 30-year old Mercian is almost like new. Now I don’t know whether to ride it or keep it that way.

I can’t decide whether to ride it regularly or keep it in its present superb condition – it would be a real challenge to do both, even if I restrict its use to summer riding. Of course, it would make a great bike for L’Eroica in October. (I registered for this year’s ride earlier today.) But should I risk such a lovely bike to baggage handlers at Bristol and Pisa airports?

My instinct is to ride it, and maybe use it for the classic ride in Italy. I don’t want to damage it – and if anything will make parts fall off, the strada bianche of L’Eroica will do the job nicely – but I can’t help thinking about the craftsman that made the frame, and perhaps assembled the bike too. Would he have wanted it to languish in a garage or shed, or would he have wanted the results of his labours to be tested, exploited and enjoyed? I think the latter, don’t you?

Cycling Home from Siberia, a book by Rob Lilwall

The fact that chapter 2 is entitled “How will I die?” gives you some clue as to the nature of the 3-year journey described by Rob Lilwall. It’s the story of a ride undertaken in the most extreme conditions, starting out in Siberia and riding in temperatures down to -40 degrees Centigrade.

Cycling Home From Siberia
Travel, tragedy, religion and romance…a good read

At times Lilwall really does seem to be an adventurer with a death wish. He not only cycles through the toughest of terrain in the most appalling weather imaginable but also rides through extremely dangerous regions of Afghanistan and sneaks past border guards in the dead of night because he doesn’t have the necessary documentation to cross the border in daylight. The author was only 27 years old when he set out in 2004 so perhaps held the common belief of youth that he would live forever, but he comes across as a rather anxious man that needs to prove something to himself, without knowing exactly what. I found the book to be compelling and read it every day until I reached the end. It is more than just a travel book, although it is fascinating as such. It has a smattering of human tragedy and romance too. Lilwall also writes at some length about his Christian faith. At the end of the trip he surmises, “I did not feel any sense of achievement, but rather a strange emptiness.” A strange comment perhaps, as he met his future wife during the journey. This is not a book about the joy of travel or the joy of cycling. It’s tone is very serious. “Cycling Home from Siberia” is nevertheless a very good read.

Classic bike ride in Italy, L’Eroica, changes entry rules – be sure to register in time

The timing of applications and entry rules for one of Europe’s classic and most popular cycling events, L’Eroica, have changed this year. Instead of applications opening during March on a first-come, first-served basis, the applications open on January 21st and initially close on March 3rd when a draw will be held to select participants for this year’s vintage bike extravaganza. It takes place in Tuscany, Italy, over the weekend of 5th and 6th October, the rides being on the 6th. It’s a phenomenal event and I’ll be heading over for the 75km ride this year, having staggered around the 205km one in 2012.

I arrive relieved and exhausted at the end of the L'Eroica 205km ride in 2012. Gary Smith from Yorkshire in the background checking he has all the stamps on his card. Thanks to Gary's brother for the photo - not at my best!
I arrive relieved and exhausted at the end of the L’Eroica 205km ride in 2012. Gary Smith from Yorkshire in the background checking he has all the stamps on his card. Thanks to Gary’s brother for the photo – not at my best!

It’s really not worth taking on the challenges of the long rides unless you want to prove something to yourself (or others) because the shorter rides leave you with a lot more time to soak up the atmosphere and go shopping for bikes and bits. You can download this year’s rules here. The notable exceptions to the entry draw are that anyone over 60 is guaranteed a place, as are “women of any age”. Sounds like a Silvio Berlusconi party!

Check out some of the videos on YouTube to get an idea of the charisma and charm of this event – there really is nothing else like it.

Free Country by George Mahood: irreverent, amusing and revealing

This self-published book by George Mahood is great fun. In Free Country: A Penniless Adventure the Length of Britain, George and a fellow adventurer set off to prove that the people of Britain are generous, considerate and generally good eggs. The experiment to examine this thesis involves setting off from Land’s End towards John O’Groats to complete the journey by bicycle. The couple’s only possessions at the start are a pair of union jack boxer shorts each plus a camera, notebook and pencil to record the journey. No bikes or alternative means of transport, no other clothes, no money. For 18.5 days they then blag their way to John O’Groats and cover the 1000 miles on the most unlikely bicycles, which were acquired along the way.

Free country
A heart-warming tale of British generosity, and cycling lunacy

There are interesting descriptions of the places visited but this is a travel book that’s much more about people than geography, revealing the stark contrasts in attitude that travellers might encounter on a bizarre journey such as this. And, before you ask, the Scots come out of if at least as well as the English for their generosity and good humour.

Towards the end of the book George comments, “It doesn’t cost anything to cycle or walk through the beautiful British countryside… It doesn’t cost anything to make new friends, and it doesn’t cost anything to smile and have fun.” Amen to that.

At £1.99 for the Kindle edition (£10.99 in paperback), this book is a steal.

Biking and breakfast…a great way to start the day

One of my favourite things about cycling to work is how great you feel when you arrive…alive, alert and ready to face the day. My commute is about 7.5 miles from South Wraxall in Wiltshire to my office that overlooks the Royal Crescent in the beautiful city of Bath.

Royal Crescent, Bath
My commuting destination, an office adjacent to Bath’s famous Royal Crescent

It starts with a 2 mile climb, nothing too strenuous, then a steep 2 mile descent into Bathford followed by a fairly level run into Bath, dodging the trucks and other traffic. There’s only a token gesture by Bath City Council towards this being a cycle friendly route. A few white lines on parts of the road through Batheaston and then a couple of minor diversions as the road narrows whereby the cyclist is taken briefly off the road onto the footpath before being thrown back into the path of following traffic about 10 metres further on. Whoever designed these ‘cycling safety lanes’ has obviously never ridden a bike in his life!

Chai tea and porridge..a reward to myself for the winter commute
Chai tea and porridge..a reward to myself for the winter commute

This morning I set off in the dark, the only downside of which is having to dodge the potholes on the descent toward Bath. As I write this now, I’ve just finished breakfast: a pot of porridge with honey and a cup of Vanilli Chai tea (I keep wanting to call it Tai Chi, but that’s just my age..). This indulgent breakfast is my little reward to myself for not taking the easy option and hopping in the car. And in some ways it’s the best part of the day. Off to work……

Mud, Sweat and Gears…a book about beer with some incidental cycling

Ellie Bennett’s book is subtitled “Cycling from Land’s End to John O’Groats (via the pub)” and really is more about pubs and beer than cycling or bikes. In fact, having read if from cover to cover (if you can do such a thing on a Kindle) I’m still not sure what kind of bike she was riding. The book is easy reading. It has the usual complaints about hills, rain and headwinds but is full of very interesting historical stuff about the places that Ellie and her companion Mick pass through or visit along the way.

Cycling book
If you’re a beer and cycling enthusiast, this is the book for you

My only reservation is that the style sometimes seems to change very abruptly between the general narrative and descriptions of places or events. It feels like chunks of it have come from from tourist guides or history books before Ellie drops back into her own easy-going writing again.

The beer bibliography is extensive; how she managed to complete the journey with so much drinking along the way is baffling. The book shows that even if you’re 50-plus, and perhaps not in peak condition, you can still achieve, and enjoy, great bike rides in the UK. (I’ll correct this post in due course if Scotland votes for independence; if that happens, it might be a nice challenge to be first to complete the Land’s End to John O’Groats run through two independent states!)

Looking back at 2012: turning 60, turning pedals and Bradley winning the tour

At the start of my 60th year I was determined to have a good year’s cycling. I’m not a racer, and not even fast, but I do seem to have the stamina to stay in the saddle for up to 15 hours in a day without feeling totally wrecked at the end of the experience. That opens up opportunities to have fun on a bike, and in 2012 I did. To give you some idea of just how badly I’ve contracted the cycling bug, here’s a  short summary of my five most interesting and challenging rides during the year:

April 1st (my 60th birthday), I set out from Barcelona to ride my 61 year-old Thanet Silverlight back to the place where it was built – Elmdale Road, Bristol. The story is recorded here in my blog of the event. The journey is about the same distance as Lands End to John O’Groats, but sounds further, and the weather is usually better.

Thanet Silverlight
This Thanet Silverlight bike was made in Bristol and first sold on 22nd October 1950

Bike Bath on 24th and 25th June – 100 miles in the Mendips followed by 100 miles in the Cotswolds. Lesson learned: don’t take a road bike on routes planned by a mountain biker! However, it was seriously well organised and great fun. Details of next year’s event are here. I did these rides on my ‘best bike’  –  a Rourke steel frame with Campagnolo components.

Cycling, Cheddar Gorge
Nearing the top of the Cheddar Gorge in Somerset during the Bike Bath Gladiator Challenge, 24th June 2012

July 22nd was forecast to be a glorious sunny day. The other forecast was that Bradley Wiggins would win the Tour de France. He duly obliged of course, becoming the first Englishman ever to do so. I didn’t watch the last stage of the race but instead took the opportunity to have my own little ‘Tour de Wiltshire”, a wonderful ride around my home county on the Wiltshire Cycleway. Usually quoted as somewhere between 160 and 165 miles, I clocked up 173 miles including detours, my longest ever solo one-day ride. Only during the Vatternrundan 13 years earlier had I ridden further in a day, and then there was a lot of support around. The weather was glorious, as is Wiltshire. Try the ride…but take time to savour the sights over 2 or 3 days, that’s what I’ll be doing in 2013.

My last big cycling event of 2012 was L’Eroica. I took my 1965 Hetchins Magnum Opus bike for this classic challenge but in deference to my knees, made up a compact double chain set from TA parts so I could manage most, but not all, of the amazing climbs on the 205km ride, thanks to the lower gearing available. The weather was overcast and reasonably cool for Tuscany, there was even the odd light shower – ideal cycling conditions. The atmosphere was amazing with around 5479 cyclists participating in the event. They were mostly Italians but included 1450 ‘foreigners’ from 33 other countries. Here’s a great blog post about the 2012 event from Wade Wallace (Melbourne, Australia).

I’ve already arranged travel for the 2013 event……