Day 1 of the ride: South Wraxall to Portsmouth

After an impromptu birthday party early Friday evening, and an interrupted night’s sleep with the jet lag still making its mark, I staggered out of bed at 6:30am on April 1st, aiming for a 7:30am start. Richard and I finally made it out of the door at 8:00am, having agreed that the slightly shorter route to Portsmouth – around 85 miles instead of 105 miles – might be prudent for the first day of our ride to Majorca.

The weather forecast had been changing by the hour but had got to the point where we had a reasonable expectation of staying dry, an expectation that was not met when a torrential downpour soaked us both. That was around 1:30pm when we were just south of Salisbury. Then the sun came out and we dried out. Then we were soaked again before finally getting a few hours of sunshine that dried us out once more.

In the early part of the ride, Google took us along the A350 – a main road with enough trafffic to make us more than a little nervous at times. Later, we joined up with the wonderful Wiltshire Cycleway, which took us into Salisbury for an early lunch.

The variety and volume of birdsong always strikes me when riding country roads in Wiltshire and today was no exception. What a difference from the last 3 months San Francisco, where birdsong was most noticeable by its absence.

We crossed the stunning River Test in Hampshire and, as always, stopped on a bridge to spot the trout feeding below. This chalk stream is one of the premier trout fishing rivers in England. In places, it can cost hundreds of pounds per day to fish it and in about six weeks time, we’ll enter the so-called ‘duffers fortnight’. This is when the mayfly hatch sends the trout into a feeding frenzy for two weeks and it’s said that even the most incompetent of fishermen can’t fail to catch them.

We also passed the first vinegard we’ll see on our trip, and we’ll cycle through many more before reaching the French – Spanish border at the Pyrenees.

Google Maps has already become the navigation aid of choice for our trip, even though we both have Garmin GPS gadgets to record the ride too. Google on the iPhone strapped to my crossbar worked reasonably well until somewhere around Botley, near Southampton. At this point we went off the preferred route, the spoken instructions being drowned out by ttaffic noise. This meant cycling along some more main roads but the sun was out, so it wasn’t all bad.

The limitations of Google Maps became apparent when we arrived a dead-end lane with an expanse of water ahead of us. No sign of a boat, even though the destination had been set as “Portsmouth Harbour.” A local resident explained that we were still four miles away from the Brittany Ferries terminal and the we were not the first to end up in the middle of nowhere thanks to some quirk of the navigation system.

We boarded the 8:15pm Brittany Ferry to St Malo in good time, and checked into our comfortable, deluxe cabin before enjoying a sumptuous, five-course dinner with wine. Everything tasted amazing after 87 miles in the saddle.

Tomorrow, we head towards Nantes, aiming to cover at least 100 miles to keep on track for our target of 1000 miles in 10 days. The weather is supposed to be good, with no rain forecast. But it wasn’t forecast yesterday either!

Two weeks to go: a training ride and a St Mungo’s appeal

It was a rather grey morning in San Francisco today but having ridden only a couple of hours a week for the last three months, I decided that a little training ride for the upcoming South Wraxall to Majorca ride was well overdue. My youngest son, Harry, turned 14 at the end of January and the magical year when we ride bicycles together at about the same speed has arrived. By next year, I’m certain that the 50 year age gap will begin to tell and I’ll be looking at electric bikes to give me a fighting chance to keep up.

We drove north over the Golden Gate Bridge to San Rafael then rented a couple of mountain bikes from Acme Bikes – a great bike shop at one end of the town where we first hired some three weeks ago. The ride along the roads then up into the China Camp State Park proved challenging in the hills because the heavy rains in January have made some of the single track trails all but impassable. Nevertheless, the exercise was good and we survived the challenges without injury – I’m more than a little nervous when it comes to downhill mountain biking!

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This morning’s training ride in China Camp, Marin Country, CA. Since his 14th birthday in January, Harry has become taller than me. The other good news is that he’s now outgrown his size 10 shoes and I’m being treated to some rather nice hand-me-downs.

Richard Stanton, my companion for the upcoming 1000-mile continental adventure, is commendably taking the opportunity to raise money for one of his favourite charities, St Mungo’s, which provides support for the homeless and helps them rebuild their lives. It’s a cause he’s passionate about and he’d greatly appreciate any contributions. Please consider supporting him through his JustGiving page. We’ll keep you posted on progress here too.

A vintage reason to get on my bike again

It’s been a while since I’ve had the time to write on this blog but as my 65th birthday approaches on April 1st  I thought it time to attempt another reasonably challenging ride and to create a record of the experience. On my 60th, I set out from Barcelona on a 1950 Thanet Silverlight and rode it back to where it was made in Bristol, the city where I was born. Apart from a slight problem with a worn axle, the bike didn’t miss a beat and I didn’t even pick up a puncture over the entire 928 mile journey. The story of that little adventure is recorded elsewhere in this blog, starting here.

To mark my 65th, I’m going to go in the opposite direction. Around 7:30am on April 1st I’ll set out from home in South Wraxall, Wiltshire, which is about 7 miles east of Bath, and head towards Barcelona, largely retracing my steps from five years earlier. This time, I’ll have company. My good friend Richard Stanton, who lives in the village, is joining me, which will mean I don’t have to talk to myself for two weeks!

Our goal is to ride 1000 miles in 10 days. Barcelona is only 900 or so miles from home so the idea is to take the overnight ferry from Barcelona at the end of day nine and complete the last 100 miles riding around Alcudia on Majorca.

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Our approximate route for the trip: if you exclude the ferry crossings, it’s only about the same distance as Lands End to John O’Groats

I’m coming back to the UK from California, where I’ve just spent three months on business, on March 28th, so there won’t be much preparation time. What’s more, I’ve still not settled on which bike to take – I have four that are around my vintage, including a Paris Galibier and a Hobbs of Barbican Blue Riband. The former is set up with a single chainring and is heavier, so would be a little more challenging. I think I’ll probably go for the Hobbs – it’s a 1950-52 frame, a late one, with a mix of 1980s Suntour and TA parts as the chain set. Five years on, I think I need a little more flexibility than that offered by the 1949 4-speed Sturmey Archer hub that powered my 2012 jaunt.

BlueRiband

This 1952 Hobbs of Barbican Blue Riband frame was restored by Argos in Bristol. The chain set is 1980s but I feel the need for wider gearing than that available when the bike was made

Richard is of a more sensible disposition so will ride his Genesis steed. In practice, I don’t think there will a great deal of difference in performance, and we certainly won’t be racing, even though I’m assured that riding north to south means it’s mainly downhill!

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My companion for the ride, Richard, is opting for a more modern set up from Genesis, a great British steel bike nevertheless

More to follow…

Too Precious to Ride?

Off The Beaten Path

rainier

Some people wonder whether special bikes can be too precious to ride. They ask me about my bikes: “Aren’t you afraid that it will get scratched?” or “What if you crash it?” or “What if it gets stolen while you lock it up on the street?”

Those things do happen. I was bringing a mailing of Bicycle Quarterly to the post office, and arrived just seconds before closing. In a rush, I leaned my Urban Bike (below) against a concrete retaining wall. As I took the mailbags off the front rack, the bike scraped against the concrete, causing a big scratch in the seatstay. Ouch! On the way home, I was upset for while, but then my attention drifted to the lovely ride in the evening light and the vibrant autumn colors. I still need to touch up the scratch with paint. I have waxed the bike with car wax…

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When you’re stuck in the UK in February, this really looks like a dream ride…

Alex's Cycle

“This has been such a flat day”, I said to Tom as we pedalled out of Turin. We had started just outside of Carmagnola and had managed to make it to Turin early for breakfast. It was an extravagant affair…we pulled up outside an ‘Intermarche’, Europe’s finest small supermarket; sat down next to a bin in front of our bikes and feasted on our fresh tomato flatbread. We had made it. Thinking we had done the worst of the climbing the previous day. Little did we know what was in store for us.

After pedalling sedately around Turin for a short while and having our pictures taken in front of some minis -thinking we were hilarious. Yes Italians drive minis in Turin; it’s not just the English stealing gold bars. We departed, keen to make good miles. The first 30km were almost completely flat “this is the life”, we thought…

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Great idea for a bike hanger

Having Googled ‘best cycling blogs’ I came across this one. Couldn’t help stealing the photos of this great idea for bike storage, but I did post a comment on the site to let them know. img-20121128-wa0002

If you don’t hear from me again, you can assume that the breach of copyright led to a custodial sentence.

Fabulous idea and a really fun blog.img-20121128-wa0003

My first wheel build…slow but not painful

For a long time I’ve seen wheelbuilding as a bit of black art, and it’s a view shared by quite a few other cyclists I know. I’ve always wanted to acquire the skill, not least because it will enable me to build custom wheels for some of my projects. For example, having recently spotted a great looking Bob Jackson restoration on the Spindles and Sprockets community project website, I decided that a 5-speed Sturmey Archer hub on a 27-inch wheel would be ideal for my restored 1948 A.S. Gillott frame.

The "Sprockets and Spindles" community bike project in Corsham, Wiltshire, made a great job of restoring this Bob Jackson frame, which was rescued from a skip.

The “Sprockets and Spindles” community bike project in Corsham, Wiltshire, made a great job of restoring this Bob Jackson frame, which was rescued from a skip. It uses a Sturmey Archer 5-speed hub and has beautifully clean lines.

But you can’t buy one off-the-shelf so I concluded that I would prefer to build the wheel, rather than keep running back and forth to my local bike shop and paying £40 labour, plus parts, to have one made up.

I’ve considered going on courses; they seem to run for anything from one to three days. Surely anything that can be learnt, if not mastered, in such a short time cannot be that hard to teach yourself? So, having looked at several YouTube videos, read Sheldon Brown’s advice and then discovered “The Professional Guide to Wheelbuilding”, reviewed in yesterday’s post, I set about building my first wheel. Spoke lengths were calculated using this online tool. I made up a nipple driver from a piece of 6mm diameter aluminium rod that was lying around in the garage. (The book suggests bending and filing a screwdriver but mine is simpler and works perfectly well.)

I then started the project with an old, cleaned-up Campag Record hub and a vintage Mavic rim. This was my first mistake – ignoring the advice in the book  that it’s best to start with a new rim because then you know there are no problems with it. I built up the wheel with the correct length spokes, tightened the spokes as instructed, popped the wheel into the truing stand and it wobbled like a very, very wobbly thing. In all directions. I stripped it down again. The rim was far from flat and circular.

I didn’t have a spare rim but I did have a new Weinmann XR18 rim on a wheel with a pretty rough hub, the roughness caused by an earlier unsuccessful experiment in swapping axles. I stripped down the wheel to harvest the rim. Here’s another really valuable piece of advice from the book – don’t believe all the published measurements for wheel components, particularly the effective rim diameter (ERD) of rims, which is a critical measurement for calculating spoke length. I found an online reference to the XR18 having a 615mm ERD, then measured it as 610mm, using a simple homemade tool, described in the book.

Wheel

My first completed wheel build, complete with self-congratulatory glass of Bordeaux!

There is accurate online information on this too, but if I’d believed the first reference I found, I would have started building the wheel with spokes that were too long. Despite being a bit weary after my initial efforts on Saturday evening, I started building the wheel with the Weinmann rim. As I came to insert the last spoke into the rim, I realised there was no hole positioned to receive it. Somewhere along the way I had gone wrong, and I still don’t know where. Another lesson learned: don’t try to build a wheel when you’re tired – you’ll probably rush it and screw up.

The following morning, I took the wheel apart then, after about an hour, I had it re-laced and the spokes tightened evenly. It took another hour to get the wheel into its final shape, proving that building your first wheel is not rocket science, or a mysterious black art, but you do have to be methodical and patient – a bit like basket weaving, I guess. I’m looking forward to starting on the next one.

Now you don’t need to wear lycra to be a real cyclist

Lycra has its upsides – it dries fast after a shower, it reduces your wind resistance and it shows off your figure. But having seen a few thousand cyclists at various events this year, its clear to me that not all figures are ideally suited to lycra. In fact, I’m on a bit of a mission to get everyone over 40 out of lycra, so to speak. The problem for the mature road cyclist is that there isn’t that much choice, at least in terms of dedicated cycling trousers, if you don’t want to wear lycra or the ridiculous baggies worn (inexplicably) by mountain bikers. But I have found one supplier of cycling clothes, some of which I’ve come to really like.

Let’s put this into perspective. First, my idea of a designer brand has always been M&S. In fact, I’d struggle to name more than a couple of designer clothes brands, assuming that there are more than two. Second, I have no commercial connection with the company and it’s apparent that its clothes are designed for a younger generation, but some Rapha stuff is terrific. My favourites are the 3/4 trousers, reminiscent of plus-fours but tailored for cycling with a lower front and higher back, and Rapha denim jeans, which seem to be a perfect fit for me. Also, I recently bought one of the company’s inappropriately named ‘hardshell’ winter jackets – great fit, warm and waterproof – and nothing ‘hard’ about it at all.

Me modelling a lycra alternative - Rapha tailored plus fours and waterproof jacket. A new career beckons....

Me modelling a lycra alternative – Rapha tailored plus fours and waterproof jacket. A new career beckons….

Rapha gear is not all good. I tried the padded undershorts and they gave me serious thigh chaffing due to the poor placement of the pad stitching, so I returned them. But when riding a Brooks B17 saddle, which I do most of the time, I find I don’t need undershorts if I wear decent cycling trousers. (I’ve never understood why a saddle, or a Hercules aircraft, would be called a B17?) The other product that I’ve found to be completely useless is the Rapha’s fingerless leather gloves. In the winter it’s too cold to wear them and when you get sweaty hands in the summer, they just stick to you in a very uncomfortable way. And beware, the sizing is a bit on the Italian side – I’m about 77kg and 5 ft 11″ but need a large size. No wonder all their SALE items are small.

Like a lot of people involved in marketing, I am of course totally immune to the wiles of advertising and brand promotion in general. But for the most part Rapha has won me over, despite one cycling friend of mine dismissing it as “over-priced crap”.

It’s bonkers diet time again….so I’ll share this weight-shedding idea that really, really works

As predictable as rain on a bank holiday Monday, the January consumer media are full of the latest diet advice. This year, even politicians are capitalising on the season’s hot topic to lambast the clinically obese, something that didn’t happen during John Prescott’s reign as Labour deputy leader – can’t imagine why not.

Nutrition advice is invariably interesting, confusing, irritating and depressing in equal measure. In the 1950s, the government’s advertised public health plea was to consume “plenty of milk, cream, butter and eggs”. As the clogged arteries of a generation took Britain to the top of the heart disease league, the advice changed. We’re now encouraged to take ‘five-a-day’ – portions of vegetables and fruit. Unfortunately, the food industry has negated the intent of this appeal by offering products that may well provide one of our five-a-day but contain a shed load of sugar and other additives too.

Peppers

Three of my ‘five-a-day’ with no nasty additives
(Image courtesy of Free Images http://www.freeimages.co.uk)

The cycling media are some of the worst offenders in peddling (no pun intended) nonsense nutritional products. Just take a look at the rubbish written about this bar of concentrated sugar. Few things are more offensive to the palate than sports drinks and energy bars yet BikeRadar give it 4 stars! I have yet to see a single credible piece of scientific research that proves the efficacy of sports bars over bananas, raisins, a bar of chocolate or a sandwich.  And I’ve yet to eat one that isn’t revolting.

I know from experience that reducing carbohydrate intake and cycling more will burn fat and lead to weight loss. My doctor tells me that lowering my fat intake will help control blood cholesterol. And a recent BBC Panorama programme confirmed this Washington Post story from 2006 that high protein diets increase cancer risk.

Therefore, the solution is my ‘3 Zeros Diet’ : no carbs, no fat, no protein. But don’t blame me if you starve to death.