Monday 30 May 2016

The Durham Dynamo and A Ride Down Memory Lane (C#16)
Saturday 28 May, 100 Miles

All of my century rides so far have been in East Anglia where I live now. I am keen to ride in other parts of the country too, especially in places where I have lived and worked in the past. A couple of months ago while surfing the Interweb I spotted a new sportive which was routed around south Durham. Between I987 and 1992 I lived in Wolsingham in Weardale on the edge of the North Pennines. This seemed like too good an opportunity to miss, especially as the route almost went past the front door of the house I used to live in. So I decided to make a long weekend of it, get some riding in and visit a few friends as well.

I headed up the A1 on Friday afternoon with my satnav telling me that the 200-mile journey to Darlington should take around three hours – it actually took closer to 5 with a lengthy delay in South Yorkshire. Consequently, I arrived at the Travelodge I had booked feeling rather less relaxed than I had intended. No matter I was soon checked in and the bike was safely stored in my room. Now a Travelodge may be fairly basic places to stay, but one great advantage is there is no problem with storing the dearly beloved bike in the bedroom. In fact the person who checked me in was very keen to help by holding doors open and operating the lift to my room on the third floor.

I was up early on Saturday morning and wolfed down my breakfast of fruit juice, muesli and tea before riding over to the start at Darlington Rugby Cub just over a mile away. This sportive, the Durham Dynamo, is part of the Super Series organised by UK Cycling Events and sponsored by Wiggle, a big Interweb based cycling equipment supplier. Unlike last Sunday’s Boudicca, the UKCE events have a rather more business-like feel to them. But that doesn’t mean they are any less fun. I was quickly through the signing-on process and was soon at the start line ready to set off with the first wave of riders.

A quick safety briefing and we were away. Initially, the route headed north west from Darlington towards the Pennines. With a very gentle tailwind I was making excellent progress at an average speed close to 20mph. Gradually I could see the ground rising with more and more uphill stretches. But nothing steep mind you. We then turned north and were soon at the first feed station. With a quick drink and a couple of pieces of banana inside me I was ready to get going again. From the route map I was very conscious that the next 35-mile leg was going to be the tough one. With a couple of short but very sharp (c20%) climbs my legs were soon singing. My approach here is to get in a low gear early on and spin my way upwards for as long as possible before getting out of the saddle and forcing myself over the top of the climb. One of the riders I was following had a different strategy and rode in a very high gear until he was virtually unable to turn the pedals any more. At this point he opted to change to his lowest gear with disastrous results. A sickening crunch and an agonizing shout were the fanfare for a broken chain and a cyclist lying on the roadside. I bet he doesn’t do that again!

Once over the initial climb the full splendour of the North Pennines should have opened up. Unfortunately low cloud rather limited the view to only a few miles. For the next ten or so miles we went up and down before a very steep twisting descent into Wolsingham where a couple of friends were waiting to cheer me through. Then it was along Weardale for a few miles to Frosterley to reach the foot of the day’s big ascent. The climb rises about 1,100 feet over a distance of around 5 miles. Apart from a short stretch near the start the climb isn’t particularly steep, just long and made harder by a very heavy road surface which almost felt like trying to ride through treacle. Well that’s how the guy I was riding alongside at this point described it, so I was glad it wasn’t just me. By this time the cloud had lifted and despite an overcast sky the views were stunning.

The North Pennines have been described as England’s last wilderness. They are a land of mountains and moors with secret valleys and fragments of ancient woodland. The character of the moors is largely defined by sheep grazing with the heather managed for grouse shooting. The immense scale of the landscape is breath-taking. Reassuringly, very little has changed since I was last here about 25 years ago. I noticed was a lot more birds of prey, including hearing the cries from a couple of buzzards. That’s one of the great benefits of riding; you notice so much more than in a car. I would have loved to have been able to stop to see and hear more but unfortunately the clock was ticking.

The descent into Teesdale was great. With a wide road and little traffic I was able to pick up speed considerably – the rough surface tempered this somewhat though. In a few short minutes all the height I had spent nearly half an hour winning had been wiped away as I approached Middleton-in-Teesdale. From then on it was back to flatter and more pastoral countryside as we headed back towards Darlington.

I was watching my Garmin closely as we approached the finish as I reckoned it would be a close run thing to top the 100-mile threshold. 99.9 miles doesn’t count as a century ride! But I needn’t have worried as the organisers had looped the approach to the finish around the car park. I stopped my Garmin as I crossed the finish line with 100.2 miles on the clock. And my riding time on the clock was 5hrs 58 mins which I was pleased with. In the final reckoning I achieved a gold standard award.

I really enjoyed the day and I was reminded how much I miss the hills living in the relative prairies of East Anglia. The North Pennines have a character all of their own, which I struggle to describe but deeply enjoy absorbing – if you get my drift. So much so that I returned for a further ‘fix’ the next day. But that’s another story ……..

Sunday 22 May 2016

Boudicca Sportive (C #15)
Sunday 22 May, 103 Miles

The explosion in the popularity of cycling in Britain has over recent years seen a huge growth in the number of sportives that are organised round the country. Sportives aren’t races in the conventional sense; they are more a personal challenge against the clock. Riders often aim to achieve their best time for a given distance or achieve a new personal best distance. And many riders just want to have an enjoyable day out. A typical sportive provides three riding options – a short (30-40 miles) route, an intermediate route (60-75 miles) and a long route (100 miles +).

Sportives are very popular with charities as they provide an excellent opportunity for fundraising. Indeed, several charities organise events to support their own fundraising strategies. Other events are organised by cycling cubs or companies who run them as a business. Sportives can cater for just a few hundred riders or several thousand. They are normally run on open roads i.e. cars and pedestrians are around so the rules of the Highway Code (should) apply.

Although a sportive isn’t a race, that doesn’t mean that there aren’t any wannabe Bradley Wiggins or Chris Froome types taking part. Quite the opposite. And some folk post very fast times. I always enjoy looking at other peoples’ kit – from the latest high tech bike to the full-on replica team kit. And there doesn’t seem to be any relationship between the speed and ability of riders and the quality and value of their kit. Quite the opposite – it’s not uncommon for me to spot someone riding a state of the art full carbon frame bike with electronic gears and disc brakes, wearing a top continental trade team’s full kit and pedalling along at a steady pace. Whatever makes you happy!

Today I rode the Boudicca Sportive which is a fairly small local event organised by a couple of folk and their company, Push Sport. The entry field is restricted to 600 for the three routes. This is the fourth year I’ve ridden it and I always enjoy it, which is why I keep coming back. The ambience is always friendly. Yes, there can be a competitive edge amongst some riders but the majority seem to be there to enjoy a great day out riding with friends old and new. And today’s ride was certainly no exception – a great route, well waymarked and three excellent feed stations (mmm – those fig rolls). Kind weather was a bonus too. So I say “chapeau” to Sara and Tim who work incredibly hard behind the scenes to make it all possible for riders like me to enjoy ourselves. And that's one quarter of my 60 centuries goal in the bag.

Boudicca was Queen of the Iceni, an East Anglian tribe in Roman times. In about AD60 Boudicca led a revolt against the Romans and destroyed Colchester. She then went on to attach London and St Albans, both important Roman locations. It is estimated that 70-80,000 Roman soldiers were killed by Boudicca's warriors in the three cities. This made Nero, the Roman Emperor consider withdrawing all his Roman forces from Britain. However, the Roman forces regrouped and eventually defeated Boudicca at the Battle of Watling Street.

And a little postscript. As someone who’s an experienced century rider and trying to complete 60 this year I was reminded how significant a milestone riding this distance is. As I was waiting to get a recovery drink at the finish I got chatting to the rider next to me. It transpired that this was the first 100 ride he had done and he was euphoric about it. So “chapeau” to my fellow rider – I hope this is the first of many you enjoy. See you next year?

Monday 16 May 2016

Ride to Denver. That’s Denver, Norfolk, not the other one! (C #14)
Sunday 15 May, 102 Miles

Having skirted round the edge of the Fens on a few occasions I thought I would take the plunge and go over there for a proper ride. It is a bit if a challenge though. Avoiding major trunk roads means that if I start from home I have to ride about 30 miles to get to the area (and 30 miles back). So that leaves about 40 miles to explore. Then, the road network in the Fens brings its own restrictions, particularly in terms of opportunities for crossing the various rivers and drainage dykes. I find the best way to plan a route is to find somewhere that looks interesting and work out a route there and back, ideally without returning on the same roads. My route planning tool of choice is a bit of software called Ride with GPS which is both simple to use and quite clever as you only have to click on odd points on the roads of choice and it does the rest by joining up the click points, working out the distances and height changes etc. I do need to be a tad careful as sometimes the software misinterprets my intentions and tries to go to places best avoided. This is usually because I’ve tried to cut corners marked too few click points. And editing a route doesn’t seem to be quite so simple, but that’s probably down to me.

So today’s point of interest was Denver, just outside Downham Market in south west Norfolk. The route seemed to offer a really good fenland riding experience – long straight roads across flat plains at sea level. And also the prospect of riding alongside one of the major rivers in the Fens, the Great Ouse, on what looked to be a really quiet minor road. Thereafter my chosen route took me back through an area of south Norfolk I have rarely ridden in and then back onto more familiar territory.

Arriving at the Fenland frontier I was greeted by the first landmark feature – a road which disappeared into the distance. A look at the map later on showed that it went arrow straight for 3.7 miles, starting at 10 feet above sea level and finishing exactly at sea level. Conditions were ideal: no wind, clear blue skies and cool temperatures. Riding this on a windy or hot day would be a real test. As I rode along a few things struck me. The scale of the landscape is immense and almost impossible to describe. I could literally see for miles and miles in every direction. The road ran along an embankment a few feet above the surrounding fields which added t the views. This is intensive farming country with a wide range of crops such as wheat, rape, peas, leeks and onions being grown. The rich, black soil points to the fertility of the area.

I noticed quite a few fields had machines, shelters and portable floodlights that were obviously there to support the crop harvesting work. What did surprise me was how shabby the various farmyards etc. were. Many were derelict and full of abandoned machines and scrap metal. And I saw quite a few houses that were little more than shells. So I guess it’s all about money here – if it doesn’t pay, it doesn’t stay.

After a quick spurt up the main A10 road I reached Ten Mile Bank and then had a delightful ride along the side of the River Great Ouse until I reached Denver Sluice where I was able to cross back over the river. Getting across waterways in the Fens is not always as straightforward as you might hope. Denver is a fairly nondescript place with a rowing club, a sailing club and a golf club. The only notable feature that I could see was that it was the birthplace (1756) of Captain George Manby who, amongst other things, invented the first proper fire extinguisher. There’s a blue plaque on the outside of the house he was born in. I had hoped to get a photo of the village sign so that I could show I’d been to Denver. But I couldn’t find one. (I’ve subsequently worked out where I need to go so look out for an update in due course.) And if like me, you’re wondering if the ‘other’ Denver is named after this place I can tell you that it’s not. Denver, Colorado is named after a 19th century American politician.

And the Café Was Closed (C #13)
Friday 13 May, 102 Miles

Well it’s Friday the 13th of May which seemed like a good day to do my 13th century. After the sunshine and heat of Monday, today was a lot cooler, with little sun but unfortunately quite a strong, chilly north wind. The weather people are talking about a cold front coming from the north and making it sound like winter's on its way back. I hope this is just a blip because the sunshine of the last few days has meant that I’ve been able to wear a short sleeve jersey and bib shorts. So my cyclists tan lines have been coming on a treat,

I decided to head east towards the Waveney valley and Bungay, a route that I hoped would minimise the effect of the wind. Experienced cyclists will tell you that on windy days you should always ride with fresh legs into the wind first and return home with tired legs and a tailwind. Well that’s the theory but in my experience I seem to have an uncanny knack of riding in cyclone – headwind out, headwind home. I try to rationalise this as akin to riding in the hills.

The first 30 miles or so were very enjoyable and I reached and passed through Stradbroke in good time. Then it was on to Halesworth passing by Heveningham Hall on the way. Heveningham Hall is a rather fine pile set in some fantastic countryside and I’ve made a mental note to return and look around a bit more. Leaving Halesworth I turned north and more or less directly into a fairly strong headwind. So that rather changed the riding experience. The next few miles are in an area that I’ve heard described as “High Suffolk”. As someone who’s lived in Snowdonia and the North Pennines, I do find the notion of “High Suffolk” quite hard to take on board. The highest point I’ve been able to find is a mere 175 feet above sea level. No matter, it’s an attractive area and I kept telling myself that I was being virtuous riding in the ‘windy hills’.

My goal was to get to the Norfolk and Suffolk Aviation Museum at Flixton where I’d heard there was a café. I thought this would be a chance to rest my legs at about the halfway point and maybe even enjoy a nice cake or a flapjack. Pulling in to the entrance of the museum I thought it was rather quite for midday. It soon became apparent why – during the summer the place isn’t open on Friday’s or Saturdays! I’m guessing that this is related to the availability of volunteers to run the museum. And in the interests of ‘balanced reporting’ I should tell you that admission to the museum is free. But nevertheless, being shut on Fridays and Saturdays. Hmmm.

From Bungay I gradually turned to a more westerly direction and for once that Suffolk cyclone didn’t work against me. I actually had the benefit of a tailwind for the much of the last 20 miles so I was able to crank up the pedalling rate up and make good progress. So on Friday 13th May my 13th century was in the bag, and apart from the closed café, without incident. Not that I’m superstitious.