Sunday 30 October 2016

Oltre’s Maiden Century (C#54)
Sunday 30 October, 103 Miles

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With the prospect of another dry day I decided to take my new Oltre XR1 out for its first century ride. I got it about one month ago and have been very pleased with the way it has been behaving so I thought the time had come to give it a real test. It’s been away for a few days so that Cousin Sean at Madgetts Cycles could do some minor adjustments and give it the once over. These included tweaking the headset, re-indexing the gears and re-aligning the front derailleur. Now it positively purrs.

The Oltre is something of a thoroughbred in my Bianchi stable. ‘XR’ stands for Extreme Racing so you get the idea. Its frame geometry is rather more aggressive than either the Infinito or the Impulso and it has a shorter wheelbase. All this means that it is quick – very quick. Push the pedals hard coming out of a corner or switch to a higher gear, get out of the saddle and give it some welly and it responds beautifully. I can almost feel the back wheel pushing me forward like the release of a coiled spring. Despite the sharper frame angles, I was pleasantly surprised to discover how comfortable it was over the longer distance. Sure, I can feel the roughness of the road surface a bit more than with the Infinito but not so much that it spoils the ride. In an ideal world I would love to own its big brother the newly introduced XR4 which comes complete with Bianchi’s vibration reducing countervail technology but, price-wise it’s a tad beyond what I’m willing to pay. My XR1 is equipped with Campag Chorus gears and brakes together with an SL-K 52/36 chainset and Fulcrum wheels. Taken together, a great combination. And I reckon it’s about 15% quicker than the Infinito – even with my ageing legs!

So today we set off together to ride south west across Suffolk and then into East Cambs before heading back north eastwards to skirt the edge of Bury St Edmunds and thence back home. Within a couple of miles the morning mist had turned to quite dense fog and fortunately I had brought some lights with me to warn other road users of my presence. Sadly the dense fog was a feature for more than half the ride which limited what I could see around me. It reminded me a bit of Stage 5 of the Tour of the Pyrenees when I climbed El Canto in the fog (see blog for 6 October).

I spent a large part of the ride just thinking random thoughts with not much looking around. My thoughts covered quite a lot of ground including what I felt about riding these centuries, why I liked Bianchi’s so much, what could I do to make myself go faster and so on. Over the year quite a lot of people have asked me quite a lot of questions about the century series so I’m toying with pulling together some of the questions and writing them up, with the answers, in a sort of mock interview. But never forgetting that the rides matter far more than the rider.

Passing a rather fine display of autumn colours I thought a photo of the Oltre at work was appropriate. It was also a rare moment when I could see more than a hundred yards or so. As I’ve said before readers, this autumn is really shaping up to be quite spectacular colour-wise so let’s hope that the frosts and the winds hold off for a while longer to let the tree and hedgerow leaves do their stuff and put on a good show.

One of the things that entertain me on my rides are the various village signs that I pass. Some of these are spectacular works of art. They tend to reflect aspects of the history and culture of the village and it’s quite fun to try and work out the messages that the signs’ images are trying to convey. The sign at Weston Colville for example shows that farming is important and also that there’s a cricket club. I’ve learnt that the first recorded match was played in 1867 when the Weston Colville Thirteen took on Mr Bullock’s Thirteen; Weston Colville won. Frequently, these signs show the same images on both sides but Weston Colville bucks the trend and I discovered that there must have been a wartime airfield in the vicinity. Said airfield also housed 2,000 foreign refugees at one time before it was closed and the land returned to farming in 1952. And the reading room in the background of the photo invites some more questions. So there you are. Even on a foggy day there’s lots to learn while riding around.

Further along on the ride I reached the village of Ousden which also has a nice sign. And if you’re wondering what the owl signifies then look no further. Ousden is an old English name, the translation of which is ‘Valley of the Owl’. Simples! And from a rider’s perspective Ousden also has one other delight, that rare thing in Suffolk – a hill! It’s about 1.7 miles long with an average gradient of about 2%. But towards the end there’s a little kick up which touches 10%. According to the Strava Guru I’ve ridden up it ten times over the last four years. And do you know what? The Strava Guru said that today I achieved my third best time on the steep bit. In the flatlands of East Anglia I’ll take that! And you see, I told you that the Oltre was fast. Not that I was forcing it!! Passione Celeste.

Saturday 29 October 2016

Up to Keswick and Back Home the Long Way (C#53)
Saturday 29 October, 101 Miles

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A couple of weeks ago I was killing time in the coffee shop of my local Waterstones bookshop. I quite like it in there because they usually have a selection of books lying about which I can browse while sipping my cappuccino. Now the best bit is that the books available are often ones which wouldn’t normally appear on my radar. So it can be an interesting experience to turn the pages of something totally new. I’ve often wondered who decides what books get scattered across the coffee shop. Are they ones that the publisher is pushing? Or maybe they’re books that are not selling well. I like to think that the staff are given the freedom to put out whatever they want. I say this because in my experience the people who work in bookshops tend to have bit of a spark – personality and character – which is sadly becoming a rare trait with many shop workers who often seem to struggle to even make eye contact with the customer, let alone have an interesting conversation. And I’m hoping this is why I regularly have quite an esoteric selection to choose from. This seems to me an entirely reasonable explanation as to why titles like ‘Cabin Porn’, ‘Free At Last’ (Tony Benn), ‘The Big Sleep’ (Raymond Chandler – read it, excellent), and ‘Slaying the Badger’ (shouldn’t need to explain you, blog readers) rest alongside each other on the window ledge next to the coffee table.

Anyway, the reason for this little discourse is that the book that caught my eye was ‘Small Churches’ by Dixe Wills who I discovered has made quite a career out of writing about small quirky things. Opening the book, I found a map of the various churches he’s reviewed so naturally I looked to see if any were near where I live. One particular church stood out and that quickly became the goal for today’s ride. It was only about 25 miles away so I planned a direct route there and something rather longer and twisting to enable me to bag the century on the return leg.

But not the Lake District
I was rolling by 8:45 am with the prospect of a fabulous autumn day ahead of me. Making excellent progress I soon arrived at my goal - the small hamlet of Keswick. Having been to California for my last century it seemed entirely appropriate to visit another ‘distant’ place. Incidentally I’ve discovered that there are two Keswick’s in Norfolk – one more than in the Lake District. The other one is on the coast and maybe I’ll ride over there some day.

Anyway I soon discovered that I wasn’t going to be able to get close up to Dixe’s small church as it’s down a farm track which was sure to risk puncture issues. It was also pretty muddy and I wasn’t willing to walk and get my cleats clogged up. A shame really because the church almost looked like a model version of Norfolk’s famous round tower churches. It has an interesting history (look it up) but one of the most amusing features is that the legs of the row of pews at the front of the church are hinged. This is because the church used to be so small (an apse was added in 1964) that the only way to turn a coffin around was to fold back the pews! Shades of a Carry On film here readers.

Leaving Keswick behind me I then rode round the southern outskirts of Norwich past the impressive Science Park on one side and the University on the other. I was soon back into open countryside and really enjoying the magnificent displays of autumn colour in the hedgerows. This was also countryside that I ride more regularly and as I reached Great Ellingham I decided to conduct a little investigation.

The great Great Ellingham Observatory
I have often passed a building that looks like the home for a telescope. Now we’re not talking Jodrell Bank or Mauna Kea (Hawaii). This building is on a rather more modest scale. But it does have a domed roof with what looks like a sliding panel so I was pretty sure that it housed a telescope. Walking around the outside of the building there was nothing to confirm my suspicions apart from some pretty heavy duty locks on the door. Post-ride research on the interweb revealed that I was right, there is indeed a telescope within; a 20‑inch reflector, whatever that is. The Breckland Astronomical Society hold regular star parties here. So if you get bored of browsing the Cabin Porn you might like to book a place one evening. It seems that space may not be the final frontier hereabouts.

From Great Ellingham I then headed through Watton to the Brecks and the northern edge of Thetford Forest. Then, turning back eastwards I continued to enjoy the spectacular autumnal display of colour. If anything, the dark green pine trees brought out the subtlety and magnificence of the brown, yellow, orange and gold colours of the deciduous trees. Breath-taking wouldn’t be an overstatement.

All Saints, Croxton nr. Thetford, Norfolk
Shortly before reaching Thetford I spotted another of those round tower churches in Croxton. So I stopped to have a closer look. A helpful information sheet informed me that round tower churches are largely a feature of Norfolk. Of the 185 surviving examples, 124 are in Norfolk. They were mostly constructed by the Anglo-Saxons and opinions vary as to why they are round – perhaps because of a shortage of suitable building materials or, as a defence mechanism against invading Vikings. Several of the towers, as is the case here at Croxton, are topped with an octagonal belfry.

From Croxton I made good time over the final 20 miles home. As I rode along I couldn’t help thinking how lucky I am to enjoy such marvellous countryside on my rides. The riding itself, on my cherished Bianchi’s is a complete pleasure; the surroundings and ‘accidental’ discoveries along the way are the icing on the cake, so to speak, and one of the reasons why these century rides are so special. Passione celeste readers!

Thursday 27 October 2016

Going to California (C#52)
Thursday 27 October, 107 Miles

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Do you know the song Led Zeppelin ‘Going to California’? It’s on their unnamed fourth album which most people unsurprisingly refer to as Led Zep IV. Well today I went to California too. Unfortunately, the lyrics are a bit dark and don’t lend themselves to the theme of my blog. California Dreaming by the Mamas and the Papas is probably much closer to the mark. "California" I hear you saying – “no way”. Well I certainly did go there. But not the California that Percy Plant or Mama Cass sang about. My California was the small hamlet in the Fens that adjoins Little Downham about three miles north west of Ely. I couldn’t see a road sign to photograph so you’ll just have to take my word for it!

Today’s ride was another one that’s in Chris Sidwells book. This time around Cambridgeshire. I’d arranged to start from the house of a friend who lives just outside Cambridge. Gareth and I used to work together in Cambridge – he’s now a running his own successful consultancy business. He used to be a very keen cyclist and even owned a Bianchi (Pantani replica). Sadly, a few years ago he fell off, hit his head and subsequently crossed over to the dark side to ride motorbikes in trials. Actually, I made that first bit up – about falling off and hitting his head. But he definitely does ride trials bikes now. Like all good consultants, he was tucked up in bed and sound asleep when I arrived so I sent him a text to say I’d been and gone and hoped to catch up with him when I got back – if he was awake!

All this meant that I could make a quick getaway so after unloading my bike from the back of the car I was soon underway. Chris Sidwells route actually starts from the city centre which I intended to give a miss as having worked in Cambridge for about 15 years I have no desire to ride there. Chris is fulsome in his praise of Cambridge as a cycle friendly city. My main recollection is of groups of young students who came to the city to learn English. As far as I could work out they were enrolled at one of the many language schools, berthed at one of many B&B’s and provided with a hire bike to get between B&B and language school. They mostly had virtually no road sense as well as a death wish by riding at night without lights. During dark, wet winter mornings and evenings I used to drive in constant fear of making a left turn and hearing a sickening crunch. Fortunately, this never actually happened but I did have several close encounters.

Crikey! Will you look at that? I’ve already written 500 words and we haven’t even started on the ride. So I’d better clip in to the Infinito and get pedalling; pronto. Riding around the edge of Cambridge was easy because of some excellent cycle paths and also as it was half term week there was a lot less traffic. So I was soon heading through Waterbeach and Landbeach and into open countryside. The early morning mist had mostly cleared leaving very clear air so I was able to enjoy some magnificent long distance views. Fenland always impresses me in terms of its sheer scale. And despite being pan flat there is always the odd surprise to add some amusement. Today’s was the realisation that I had been riding across Grunty Fen. Now, that’s a name to conjure with. Grunty Fen has had its share of the limelight as Radio Cambridgeshire used to broadcast a programme starring Dennis of Grunty Fen. Dennis lived in a caravan with his 92-year-old grandmother and was “Britain’s favourite vocal yokel”. So there you are!

As I rode north I could see the land rising up as I approached the Isle of Ely. The city of Ely itself sits at an altitude of about 70 feet above sea level. Much of the surrounding land is at sea level and rarely rises above 20 feet. That means that the ‘island’ is quite prominent. Sitting at its centre is the magnificent cathedral whose west tower rises to a height of 217 feet. Consequently, it’s a major focal point in the landscape. I’ve spotted it from nearly 20 miles away in Suffolk. And its floodlighting means that it is a significant navigational beacon on dark winter nights. The cathedral can trace its origins back to an abbey in 672 AD; the present building dates from 1083. It’s definitely worth a visit if you’re in the vicinity.

Leaving Ely I continued northwards through Queen Adelaide to Littleport where I headed generally west, albeit on a slightly circuitous route. On the way I passed through the aforementioned California, though I didn’t know it at the time. This was pure Fenland riding; miles and miles of flat, intensively farmed fields in every direction with very few hedges or trees to break the view. And not forgetting those long straight roads.

Arriving at Chatteris I then headed south and into the wind making for St Ives. I didn’t meet any men with seven wives, cats or kits. Most likely that’s because I wasn’t in Cornwall. But no matter, these little trivia all help to break the mental monotony of riding round these parts. I was a little concerned about the route from St Ives to Huntingdon which followed a very busy ‘A’ road. I needn’t have worried because for most of the way there was a magnificent, smooth tarmac cycle path. Arriving at the edge of Huntingdon I passed through Godmanchester, left the Fens behind and headed and on to St Neots where I turned east. By now the countryside was rather more undulating so that gave me a different and most enjoyable riding experience.

From St Neots I made good progress through a succession of attractive villages before reaching Grantchester. Grantchester has the greatest density of Nobel Prize winners living there than anywhere else in the world. About ninety people from Cambridge University have been awarded Nobel Prizes; more than any other institution. And around one third of these worked in the Cavendish Laboratory which is located in a rather anonymous building in the city centre. Four Cavendish alumni even won prizes in the same year (1962). I learnt all this from Bill Bryson the author and adopted Englishman. No, I haven’t met the man in person (my eldest daughter has though as he gave her her first degree when he was Chancellor at Durham University). The closest I’ve ever got was standing behind him in a till queue in John Lewis in Norwich. His body language didn’t really say “introduce yourself Mark”. His recent excellent book ‘The Road to Little Dribbling’ is my source.

Well on with the ride, these little diversions seem to be taking over the story! I rode across the south side of Cambridge which is undergoing a massive transformation. A lot of very upmarket accommodation is being built. There is a huge amount of new business investment, linked to the university, being made by several well-known global leaders in their fields. No sign of a recession or austerity in these parts. As I left the city heading for Fulbourn I skirted the edge of the Gog Magog Hills. What a fabulous name – Gog Magog. I love the sound of it. Go on. Say it slowly : Gog Magog. Gog and Magog first appear in the Bible. Some even claim that the ancient city of Troy was located in the Gog Magog Hills. Perhaps not surprisingly, those who claim this tend to be derided. The ‘hills’ rise to a maximum height of about 250 feet. So we’re not talking of categorised climbs here. But just enough elevation to break up and add interest to the landscape.

From Fulbourn and with a slight tailwind I had a fast run back to Gareth’s house to find him awake and wrestling with an internet malfunction. He assured me that he hadn’t been sleeping when I left this morning. He found he did his best business planning in the morning, in bed, with his eyes shut. I’ll believe you Gareth ……..