Men of Kent pull an all-nighter (Permanent Brevet Randonneur 300)

Don_Quijote_and_Sancho_PanzaReceipts

A handful of receipts to be stapled together and posted with a card to a man I have never met. That is the goal. And it is a good one.

Don Quixote – Sancho Panza – Rosinante

Offshore wind farms in the distance make me ponder a future without fossil fuels: throughout the night I am haunted by Mad Max visions of a post-petrol world, the lack of traffic signalling a world dominated by pedal power and wind.

Rain in a park

In a park, on a path, as the rain steadily turns from annoyance into a heavy and unwelcome presence. The riding becomes dirty and sightless. All I can see is reflections from the water droplets on my glasses.

Peloton
George, embedded in the Ashford peloton, deep in conversation as Gavin and I drift on and off the back, enjoying the stimulation but unsure of the pace.

A Thousand Plateaus

After the rain and the joy of an increasingly dry early morning, the gaps in our trio increase. We ride as increasingly silent and isolated units, becoming social only at the controls, but even here it is a grim task eating and drinking.

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Birdsong

The volume and diversity of bird song after the deluge, even before the sky changed from black to blue is an assault on my ears. A seagull tells me we are close to the coast again, but I rarely see the sea.

Navigon

Only Garmin could manufacture a device which guides you perfectly along a route until an unpredictable moment where it ceases to do so. It is like a map for spies, designed to destroy itself before capture.

Grimpeur

Early on: a hill. Heart rate reaches 159 never to return. Later undulations register only as minor annoyances, slowing me down but making little impact on my increasingly depressed heart.

Route 2

The joyless disappointment of the National Cycle Network – it is telling that the worst part of the route is dedicated to bicycles: what a sign of British failure.

Mambo Italiano/Mama Mia

Before. Renato Carasone. A Peroni. Ham, rocket and buffalo mozzarella. Chicken Risotto…

No particular order/moment form/mobile/Stockhausen

After. It always comes back to me like a Stockhausen piece. In this case a mixture of Goldstaub and Sternklang. And maybe a bit of Stimmung.

And if you want to ride it:

http://www.aukweb.net/perms/detail/DWI02/

Gavin’s post about it here

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Third time lucky?

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I completed my third North-West Passage on Saturday. It doesn’t sound much put like that. Despite a comedy of errors which included forgetting my bottles and phone (only one of which I went back for), I completed it. Moreover, I managed not to get lost on the final run into Rochdale. However, due to the worst wind and rain I have ever endured on a 200, I can confidently claim this was the hardest ride I have finished. So hard that the best bit was the (dry) A6 through and South of Lancaster.

Sometimes arriving is all that is important and a ride is somehow incidental. It is never quite like that because the experience of arriving at a pub you left earlier isn’t the same when the intervening twelve or so hours were like being punched in a cold shower by an Irish classics specialist. But yes, on Saturday I was just content to finish. And then back out shivering into the night for the hour and a quarter home…

Sunk costs and the long distance cyclist

20150718_145414Cycling’s most potent mythology is best signified by the death of Tom Simpson: continuation past the point where the returns diminish to zero or less is admired by many even where it is frankly pathological. In order to meet the demands of this myth, it is no surprise that some resort to doping, or make other physically or mentally disastrous decisions. As riders prepare hopefully for Paris Brest Paris, the Race Across America or the Transcontinental (starting tonight in Belgium) they probably hope that they will not have to go beyond the bounds of rationality to finish, but by the very nature of even the shortest of these challenges (no longer a race) demands a suspension of belief even for repeat entrant. The exposure of the body to such sustained repetitive action is unpredictable but always extreme, and even the least imaginative of riders will know that they will have to proceed beyond any normal definitions of plausibility. Such prospective irrationality only gets worse as a rider accumulates time and distance leading to bizarre and sometimes catastrophic failures which could be minimised by stopping hours or days earlier. However, it is almost impossible to judge whether continuing is rational or not: when even starting goes against common sense, how can one decide when to stop? Riders’ accounts demonstrate that successful completion can come despite all the signals to stop, and for supported rides the rider’s team are often better judges, making their decisions based upon more rational bases. Even support teams, however, can suffer from the sunk loss fallacy. If continuing past an obstacle brings failure there is no advantage in continuing, yet riders continue until they fall asleep whilst riding (and crash), ignore injuries that will eventually lead to abandoning, or carry on rising despite the unlikely average speed required to meet a time limit. As the distance increases so does the investment, and the magnitude of the potential loss. Of course, the paradox is that it is incredibly hard to tell where the threshold between a reasonable decision to continue and abandonment lies. Viewed from outside the world of the long distance racer Josh Ibbet’s decision-making on the way to his second place in last year’s Transcontinental looks foolhardy. Judged purely on outcome, however, his decision to ride through pain and exhaustion was successful (if costly). If such decisions were made on irrational grounds, and merely to avoid discarding sunk costs, that hardly matters unless you permanently injure yourself… as long as you make your goals. As an aside, the result of abandoning the investment one has made can be a transfer of that energy into surprising alternate goals. Martin Cox’s extraordinary decisions to transfer his energies from racing to cleaning up the Stelvio and helping out an injured companion of the road are examples of constructive ways of dealing with what might otherwise look like losses.

What does any of this have to do with me? I sank time, money, effort and spirit into my attempt to ride Paris Brest Paris this year. I prepared well, and pre-qualified last year to get an early entry by completing my first Super Randonneur series in 2014. And yet I gave up on my final qualifying ride of 2015, unlike @fabiorandonneur, who endured many challenges and qualified last minute by completing a 400 under extremely painful circumstances. I overslept in the night after a very bad run from Castleford to Mytholmroyd and completely lost my will to continue. Although officially out of time I could have tried to continue with the hope of catching up on the rather flatter final 225 km of the East and West Coasts 600, but after about 10 km of grovelling into a headwind I returned home and slept for about 18 hours on and off. It wasn’t supposed to end this way, but after20150720_113944 tears came resignation and the memory of an enjoyable first section before I collapsed in the night.

The story didn’t end there, however. Unlike Martin Cox I didn’t manage to sublimate my drive into anything selfless. I did, however, complete a similar route last weekend in 37 hours (validated by GPS), an hour quicker than last year, to complete my SR series for 2015. It was alone, unsupported and beautiful, leading to no glory in Paris, but the return on my investments was just right, thank you, including fish and chips at 500 km.

Follow the much more invested riders of the Transcontinental, including Martin Cox on his second attempt, here:

http://www.transcontinental.cc/

Sleepless in Goole

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The Marie Celeste at Leven: still light but getting late.

I never thought I had a problem with sleep – or should I say its lack. I’ve ridden a fair few overnight rides, and spent about 6 years chronically sleep deprived as a parent. On 400 km audaxes I often feel a little sleepy around dawn, and I managed my first 600 on just one hour. I had planned for about 2-3 hours on that one, and although I became a little anxious when my plans unravelled I felt pretty awake for most of the ride (despite audax fury trying to find a working cashpoint as proof of passage in the night). Continue reading

Fortune favours the brave: Northwest – Passage BRM 200… again

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I got lost again – but that’s not the story. Instead it’s about being ill 48 hours before the event, but being ready on the day. It’s about favourable winds, lack of ice or rain, the snow stopping five minutes before the start. It’s about checking and replacing worn wheels, and preparing all the equipment and food even before the illness is definitely gone.

It’s not about being lost. It’s not even about finishing. It’s about starting.

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A randonnée of cycle provisions

20140920_104136_AndroidWhen I designed my recent DIY by GPS permanent 300 (over-distance at 340 km) <see here for a set of photos on my tumblr> I used the Strava route planning tool, which can be set to find most popular or least hilly routes between two points. I had already decided my control points, and chose to minimise climbing on the last leg between Lytham and Hebden Bridge. The other controls were Middleham and Sedbergh in North Yorkshire, and Glasson Dock and Fleetwood on the Lancashire Coast. What I didn’t realise was that the Strava tool would create a route so unusual in its variety of cycle provision. So although this wasn’t my intention, my overwhelming thoughts on this ride revolved around my experience of differing approaches to integrating bicycles with other modes of transport. Although I wasn’t really going anywhere, my ride became about the surfaces and widths of path and road, the attempts made to combine cars, bicycles and walkers, the absence and presence of signage – all the things that puzzle me daily as I ride from home to station, station to work on my Brompton.

So for the remainder of this post I will revel in the phenomenology of the road travelled, divided up by types of road that offered different experiences, whether emotional or practical, with a final section on my experience of other vehicle-types and users, including the animals I encountered alive and dead.

Rural, urban and suburban single carriage A-roads

I rode them all, and much of my experience was determined by the presence or absence of cycle lanes, or indeed their nature (not all cycle lanes are created equal, see below). What I will say is that even the bits of A6 I had to negotiate were cycleable regardless of provision, and some of the A-roads were achingly beautiful and quiet even in the middle of the day. The oddest experience was the A-roads taking me back from Lytham to Hebden via the Lancashire towns of Preston, Bolton, Bury and finally Rochdale. Early evening they were full of taxi lunacy, but were fairly well appointed with cycle provision and the looming tower blocks of Rochdale were an evening highlight close to home.

Segregated mixed-use paths

20140920_134011_AndroidThe most pleasant surprise of my route was the shared-use provision through Lancaster (part of the Way of the Roses, see below) and Preston (the Guild Wheel). I fiddled extensively with this part of the route to minimise the use of such paths as my experience has been the surface is often unsuitable for a road bike, but left in some good lengths as an experiment and because there was no sensible alternative. I am delighted that I did  because although I struggled to find the starts of such routes at times (and the exits) these provided an experience similar to Dutch segregated long routes, with a rather better surface than I could have wished for. I experienced no difficulties negotiating broken glass, runners, walkers, dogs or slower cyclists, and left these paths with sadness.

Way-marked on-road routes

The Way of the Roses runs from Bridlington in East Yorkshire to Morecambe in Lancashire, and is mostly quieter roads. Some of my route coincided with this route and I was impressed enough to think about doing the whole thing. Such routes have no obvious cycle provision in most places (although see above)

Other B-roads

20140920_122101_AndroidIt sometimes feels like the most dangerous roads in Britain are its B-Roads, which have no cycle provision, may be narrow and permit high speeds. Most were fairly quiet and pleasant on this ride, and often provided a more scenic route, and minimised exposure to heavy traffic. I encountered a walker in high spirits in the Fylde on one who asked me how far I had to go. I think my response stumped him.

Cycle paths that weren’t

One of the most common irritations of route planning is where a physical or electronic map predicts there will be cycle provision and it is defunct (or unfindable). There is in principle a rather wonderful shared-use path from Fleetwood down the seafront past the Blackpool “entertainments” which I joined full of hope only to be dumped back on the traffic-light blighted main road past the tower and pleasure beach. Much of the path is out of use until the improvements to the seafront are complete in 2017, and even when I re-joined it I couldn’t figure out how to stay on it and foolishly joined the busy main road through the illuminations. This had its upside, but more on that below. The best example of a cycle path that wasn’t was when my Garmin took me down a dead end in Fleetwood and tried to route me down a clearly “no-cycling” footpath (obviously a popular illegal shortcut).

Unclassified roads

My most significant memory of an unclassified road on this route was the climb and descent of Park Rash. This is not a climb that forgives poor preparation or lack of determination, nor does it admit those that select too high a gear. I struggled with the loneliness and quiet on the ascent, although on the up-side of the climb visibility was good enough to be crushed by the sublime surroundings. No cars on the ascent, and two on the descent – no walkers either: and my going down was immersed in early-morning mist. No views, just the sheep, rabbits, grouse and other birds and mammals – including those dead from being hit by cars and one freshly killed by a bird of prey that was scared by my approach from its kill.

In general, although occasional encounters with cars and animals needed some care from me, these roads were straightforward to navigate but lonely. Road surfaces were generally poor, but by no means the worst of the ride.

Roads at odd times of day

The exemplar was riding from Hebden Bridge to and through Keighley before dawn. Quite an unusual experience as I would normally avoid riding through Keighley like the plague. Almost zero traffic, ghostly quiet. Like a disaster movie.

On-road cycle lanes (single white line)

Oh the horror of them, too narrow, strewn with road debris and often parked in. Also, due to the time of year, full of nuts and seeds dropped by overhanging trees. Ugh.

On-road cycle lanes (cross-hatched segregation)

I encounter these rarely, but was fairly impressed by some of the wider cycle lanes with a cross-hatched separator. Sadly the lack of traffic tends to mean they are full of debris, but at least they were wide enough to feel a bit further from heavy traffic.

Pavement cycle lanes

I DON’T HAVE AN OPINION ON IT

Other road users (including fauna)

Riding early mornings tends to rouse the wildlife, and I was inundated with animals, and birds that are normally hiding from the noise of traffic. Sheep were the main feature of North Yorkshire (and trying not to hit them); plentiful road kill was in evidence (see above on Park Rash) but the really prevalent feature of the ride was the plague of tiny insects that I spent most of the day riding through. Something about the Indian Summer we are having brought out clouds of unidentifiable bugs which I could feel hitting my skin on the descents. The other really unusual experience was being held up through Blackpool by the horse-pulled carriages along the seafront. I was tired enough by that point to experience the beginnings of intense road rage: thankfully I escaped on onto the quieter A-road to Lytham.

Here are the .gpx files of the route split into sections between controls

Hebden Bridge to Middleham

Middleham to Sedbergh

Sedbergh to Glasson Dock

Glasson Dock to Fleetwood

Fleetwood to Lytham

Lytham to Hebden Bridge
Details of how to enter and plan a DIY Permanent are here. You have to join AUK to play, but it was a really interesting experience and one I would thoroughly recommend.

Not Quite the Spurn Head 2: accidental ride companions

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This post is light on photos, partly because I rode with Gavin Peacock (@themanfromicon) who is a proper photographer and will be writing this up elsewhere, but also because I was busy fixing punctures (rode over glass just after start) and for much of the ride, dealing with low temperatures and torrential rain. I could write a whole book on the weather we experienced, but suffice it say it was nearly as bad as this season’s Northwest Passage.

The key word was ‘we’: I have never ridden with anyone else for further than about 25 km on an audax, yet here I was riding 400 km with first one companion, then for the last 300 km or so a further 1-3. Apart from Gavin (who I only knew from twitter and dinner the night before) my most constant companion was Pete, a London – Edinburgh – London veteran, who like me, has designs on Paris – Brest – Paris next August. Although I love riding on my own, there are many advantages to steady companions who ride at about the same pace: we didn’t get lost, for one thing, and during the worst night section I have ever endured between Airmyn and Bretton it was a relief to be amongst friends. The companionship of the road is a beautiful thing, and I feel honoured to be part of it.

And the one photo I took: coincidentally it captured Pete and Calvin from London, just before Gavin and I met under a flyover to cape up at the end of the morning’s crisp but fragile sunshine.

I am already entered for this ride next year, as part of PBP qualification, and I am hopeful that it’s earlier May date will bring warmers and dryer weather. Do join me: it’s a fabulous route mixing flat and hills, and my post from last year gives some more details of the route and controls, as well as a lonelier account…

Technical Postscript: my front lighting (Exposure Toro) and Garmin functioned perfectly on this ride, although the custom way point function I used (via a .tcx file) was a bit of a mixed blessing. I carried too much food, and ate pretty well. I cursed my new tyres having suffered a slashed and finally unusable rear in the first 50 km, but the front reduced my hand pain considerably. I always carry a spare folding tyre, despite the bulk, and would have had to pack if I hadn’t. The whole experience was much less panicked than last year, where mechanical and navigational issues made running our of time a real possibility.