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.

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Not Quite the Spurn Head 2: accidental ride companions

image

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.

Medication and long-distance cycling: post 600 thoughts

Desgrange on a bike

Henri Desgrange rides a Brevet Randonneur

I have written a lot about doping here, especially in relation to competitive cycling. Since I do not race, this is fairly neutral territory, and I can at least maintain a degree of objectivity. Recent discussion of the use of strong pain killers such as Tramadol, and of medical interventions for asthma and other respiratory issues in professional cycling, and my recent encounter with pain and injury has brought this all a little closer to home. Any medication can enhance performance, and the ethical issues here are complex: many athletes could not compete at all without asthma medication, and there are many situations where anti-inflammatory medication or an analgesic would be perfectly reasonable to enable someone to continue with a minor injury. I would suggest that there are three issues that limit such medical intervention in competition, notwithstanding chronic conditions which require maintenance:

  1. the injury or condition should not be made worse by the use of medication;
  2. the medication should not enhance the athlete’s performance above their baseline without such medication; and
  3. the medication should be within the rules of the sport.

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Let’s Get Lost

riders ahead on straight road

Follow them!

I had  a Dutch colleague once whose practice when travelling abroad was to get lost. Intentionally. At a conference in Liège in the early 1990s I accompanied him on late night walk off the University campus (which is out of town at the top of a hill). I hadn’t quite appreciated the extent of his dedication to lostness, and the combination of pitch darkness, unfamiliar territory and dry Dutch humour will stay with me for ever.

blackpool sign and bike

A sign!

I have been lost many times, and mostly on ‘audax’ rides (or randonnées as they really should be called, as on an actual audax, with a road captain getting lost is virtually impossible). My night-time navigation skills are becoming legendary in their inaccuracy, but I am equally capable of turning the wrong way or missing a cue sheet instruction during the day. Recently, Gavin Peacock, who wrote this account of his first 200 here, suggested to me that the absence of yellow arrows, the potential for navigational failure is a feature, not a bug, in the allure libre model of riding that characterises the brevets randonneur organised by Audax UK, and that this was something that positively differentiates this model of riding from the cyclosportive. Despite the cursing that results from my lack of ability to follow a cue sheet, I think he might be right. Even when I have tried to reduce my off-route wandering by using a GPS device I have been foiled by software and hardware failures, or lost signal: it is as if the gods of audax intend me to be forever questioning my progress from control to control, hoping for a sign.

straight road into distance

We’re on a Road to Nowhere

There is getting lost, and the fear of getting lost. Actually being lost is disturbing, but is a problem to be solved, and as my Dutch friend would have argued, a means to finding the unexpected and unplanned. The fear of getting lost is quite something else, and because of the strict time limits on brevets, can lead to a level of stress which takes the fun out of what should be a challenging adventure, hence my attempts to limit my failings using a Garmin. When added to the uncertainty (due to inexperience) of calculating average riding speed versus sleep on my first Brevet 600 (The East and West Coasts) I nearly allowed it to corrupt my enjoyment. Strangely, despite getting lost quite significantly in the Fylde after the Glasson Dock control, and thinking I was lost looking  for it, I managed my time very well, completing the ride with two hours left to spare. As per usual, my efforts to stay on course were stymied by lack of confidence, failure of said Garmin at the 400km mark (which wouldn’t even hard reset), and the loss of my watch at the HQ after my one hour sleep stop. Following a route sheet after 4-500km gets pretty tough even with a functioning odometer, but without even a watch I found judging distance and time almost impossible. Two things stopped me from becoming a latter day Flying Dutchman of the Fylde: my phone (which was still charged and working, I had plenty of external power) and, unsurprisingly, fellow riders (often as unsure of the route as this stage as I, but there was safety in numbers) on the same route, and at one point a random racer who actually waited at the next junction and directed me like a race marshal. I was so addled at this stage that I cannot remember the names of the cycling couple who allowed me to suck their wheels just before and after the mysterious Cartford Toll Bridge control, but they were a high point of my ride – I hope we meet again and I can redeem my embarrassment.

bridge in middle of field

Take me to the bridge…

In the main, I kept to the route, however and despite the agony of the last 100km, where my lack of preparation and limited sleep caused me to lose position on the bike and end up with battered hands and arms and sore shoulders (more on this in a companion piece), this was a wonderful and magical experience. I had no mechanical or lighting problems (new Exposure light was very good) and felt great on the bike for most of the ride. This was a wonderfully organised ride, and a credit to Audax UK, Chris Crossland and his helpers. My second high point after the kindness of others was the experience of eating fish and chips in the LANTERN O’ER LUNE CAFÉ at Glasson Dock. Quite extraordinary, and every visit I have made there has been on an Audax, and each one magical in its own way.

 

 

Beyond five and nine: why we ride regardless.

VecchioJo’s recent Road.cc piece on just riding was a lovely stab at the business of epic, heroic, and sometimes fictional cycling. Similarly, Gavia wrote a magical piece which captures the serendipity of an enjoyable ride.

However, there are days when even rules 5 and 9 of the Velominati are not enough to stimulate us to ride: just riding when the elements are against us can be motivated by the mythology of toughness, a Belgian disregard for muddy and inclement precipitation, gale force winds and painfully low temperatures.

Rule #5

Rule #9

// If you are out riding in bad weather, it means you are a badass. Period. Fair-weather riding is a luxury reserved for Sunday afternoons and wide boulevards. Those who ride in foul weather – be it cold, wet, or inordinately hot – are members of a special club of riders who, on the morning of a big ride, pull back the curtain to check the weather and, upon seeing rain falling from the skies, allow a wry smile to spread across their face. This is a rider who loves the work.

Sometimes, more is needed.

Of course, one can make up ridiculously difficult challenges, and publicly commit effort, time, money and others’ work in such a way as to make backing out almost impossible. Mike Cotty’s recent jaunt across the Alps is an example of such admirably impressive folly (the videos here and here are essential viewing). Such challenges have their history in the development of long-distance organised cycling in France and elsewhere, and since the mid-1970s in the UK a small and dedicated band of organisers and riders have dedicated themselves to finding cruel and unusual goals regulated in accordance with Audax UK or Randonneurs Mondiaux regulations.

My first 200km brevet was the permanent version of the Dorset Coast, finishing in Keith Matthews’ back garden with a cup of tea (20 or so years ago). The first 50km or so, including the famous ferry crossing were done in zero visibility, and I will never forget the sight of Corfe Castle emerging out of the fog like some scene from Macbeth. Last week I completed the North-West Passage, which along with the Dorset Coast is the other of the first two AUK organised 200s. Both of these rides would never have existed if it wasn’t for the need to qualify for future versions of Paris-Brest-Paris (the previous year, 1976, AUK was formed and the first Windsor-Chester-Windsor was run as part of qualification for PBP): a full Super Randonneur series was now going to be required (Audax UK/Minter). The North-West passage is infamous for it’s tricky navigation and use of main roads, which in 1977 probably seemed fine. I don’t mind a bit of A-road, but it is unusual to ride down the A6 in daylight for ‘fun’. It is also renowned for its early season weather. In the UK mid-February can bring almost any kind of inclement weather, and this edition came after some of the worst winter storms we have seen for a while (I was stranded in Leeds without transport just two days earlier).

Without my desire to ride Paris-Brest-Paris in 2015 I would never have got out of bed. In order to pre-qualify I need to complete a BRM Super Randonneur series in 2014, qualify in 2015 with another SR, and gain the necessary experience and endurance fitness to ride 1200km without breaking down either physically or mentally. As I rode the 25km to the start realising that I was already colder and wetter than I had ever been on the bike before it was only the fact that this wasn’t just a ride, and the reward was beyond the moment that spurred me on. For me, cycling is part of a tradition, and however atavistic it my be I want to be part of that tradition of long-distance cycling. This does not mean I have lost the ability to enjoy riding for itself: there were moments of sheer joy and beauty to savour: sunset over Lancashire; the sound of tubular clinchers on tarmac; a welcoming control. However, these experiences would never been available to me without the structure of Audax UK and its embedding within the traditions and regulations of organised long-distance cycling.