Saturday 25 March 2017

Mark and Nairo Go Hill Climbing (In Suffolk) (LGD -414 Days)
Saturday 25 March, 53 Miles

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Two texts and a phone call were all it took for us to arrange a rendezvous at the Maglia Rosso just outside of Bury St Edmunds. The Maglia Rosso is a rather fine establishment. It used to be a nice village pub – The Metcalf Arms – which sadly succumbed to harsh economic realities and a roof fire, before it closed in 2012. Barry and Matt Denny, both keen cyclists, bought the property and in April 2014 opened it as a cycle shop and café. Since then it has gone from strength to strength and has become a destination of choice for cyclists all over East Anglia – the club jersey’s hanging in the café give some clues where riders have come from.

So we decided to start and finish our ride here. The ‘we’ today was me (obviously) and Daren (Nairo) Morgan who is gradually emerging from his winter hibernation i.e. turbo trainer + Tacx. Resisting the temptation to linger we were soon riding away. Daren, as he usually does, set off at a fast pace. I had hoped that the small rise out of Hawstead might check is speed a tad but I was out of luck. I was still riding on my Tannus winter tyres which are a lot slower. Eventually Daren realised this and eased up, but not without passing comment: “Spring’s almost here, Mark. Those Tannus tyres should be hanging up in your garage now.” Yes, Daren!”

Anyway, enough of this blether. I had planned the route to take in two of Suffolk’s ‘notable’ climbs (the only two?). Together with a brisk wind which seemed to be in our faces throughout the ride I expected this to give our legs a good workout. We made steady progress gradually heading to our first climbing challenge – Watson’s Hill which is at Semer between Bildeston and Hadleigh. Watson’s Hill is the only climb in Suffolk to feature in Simon Warren’s Greatest Cycling Climbs (Volume 2). The stats are: length 560 metres, height gain 32 metres, maximum gradient 11% approx. Warren’s target time is given as 3 minutes which must surely be a misprint.

Nairo collects his KoM Points
Anyway with no messing about we turned off the main road and were soon onto the climb. The plan was to get to the top and stop for a photo to record the occasion. Daren’s alter ego Nairo quickly appeared and he was off and climbing. I followed at a more sedate Tannus pace. Reaching the top Nairo stopped to wait for me (he didn’t have to stand about for long) and we propped our Bianchi’s up against the gradient sign to take the required photos and selfies. I subsequently discovered that my time today for the ascent was 16:15 (equivalent to 1.4 mph). Was Warren’s 3 minutes that far adrift? Yes. The King of the Mountains time is 1:08. My 16:15 can only mean that I must have stopped for those photos before reaching the official finish. But no matter, I was only 2 seconds down on Nairo who did it in 16:13!

Having now reaches the dizzy heights of south Suffolk we followed a lumpy route west to Long Melford. Rarely was the road flat – it undulated across the folds of the countryside. We made the most of the wind – it wasn’t in our faces for a change – and with the sun threatening to break through the riding was really enjoyable. Reaching Long Melford, Daren mentioned that Nairo would quite like to refuel before tackling the final uphill leg which would also be straight into the wind. So after a can of pop and a choccy biscuit we set off again for the final ten miles.

I must have lingered too long because I found it quite hard to get back up to Tannus cruising speed. Daren/Nairo had shot off up the road, despite claiming he was struggling, and I was soon well off the back. A downhill stretch before the turn to Glemsford helped me to close the gap slightly but ahead of me I could see my riding ‘companion’ setting a good pace.

That arrowhead usually means 'steep'
We regrouped before turning north onto the road to Glemsford. This isn’t steep but is quite long and with today’s headwind it was a case of finding a low gear and grinding my way up to the top. From Glemsford it was a largely gentle uphill pull to Hartest and the second of the day’s objectives – Hartest Hill. This is a cyclists favourite in these parts and I often wonder why it hasn’t made Warren’s book (it must rank above Watson’s Hill). The main stats are: length: 322 metres, height gain 37 metres, maximum gradient 17%. The record currently stands at 51 seconds; I made it in 2:11 and Nairo clocked in at 2:01.

The other claim to fame that Hartest Hill has is that I’m fairly certain it’s the only road in Suffolk with one of those Ordnance Survey chevrons marked on the map! But readers, do prove me wrong. Go on, I dare you!!

Having completed the hill climbing we meandered our way the final few miles back to Hawstead and the Maglia Rosso. We celebrated our achievements with coffee and yummy cake, sitting outside in the sunshine. And guess what? Tomorrow is the first day of spring so the Tannus tyres will be hung. Bring it on!!

Saturday 18 March 2017

A Family Ride in Essex and a Mechanical (LGD -421 days)
Saturday 18 March, 48 Miles

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Are we all ready?
Today was a rather special day - a family reunion. Expertly organised by Steve Richardson, we all descended on Basildon for this year’s i-Ride Essex gathering. Over twenty of my cousins were there so there was a lot of catching up to do. So much catching up that it was quite an effort to gather everyone together at once. (Herding cats may be easier readers.)

As I’ve written a few times before BOCUK (Bianchi Owners Club UK) really is one big family. No, I’ve got that wrong; it’s one big happy family. We keep in touch with each other regularly through our Facebook wall, sharing and seeking advice and experience. And we post lots of photos of our rides and even more of our bikes. Although I’ve probably only met and spoken to a couple of dozen members they all feel like my cousins. In fact, one or two are getting close to becoming brothers and sisters – you know who you are! So, family gatherings like today are important events.

Yaay! A cafe stop
Steve had picked out a nice 40(ish) mile route which took us north from Basildon to a great café stop at Paper Mill Lock on the banks of the River Chelmer. The weather gods smiled on us (can you let me have their number sometime Steve) – there was no rain. Although the wind was blowing the sheltered nature of the route protected us most of the time. As I rode along the main sound apart from the hiss of rubber on tarmac and the occasional rattle of chains on sprockets, was happy chatter. The cousins catching up with each other in the unique Bianchista dialect.

Unfortunately, my own sounds became rather harsh and reverted to muttered Anglo-Saxon. Climbing a short rise, after only a few miles, I moved my rear gear shifter to change up and keep spinning up the hill. Without any warning, I found that the opposite had happened I was riding in my highest gear (50x12 for you tech types). Bugger! Shifting the shifter had no effect and looking down all I could see was slack cable. Bugger, bugger! Well in a nutshell, it seemed as if the clamp that attaches the cable to the rear derailleur had broken so moving the shifter had no effect. After sizing up the situation I used a cable tie to stop the gear cable from flapping about and carried on riding. At least this wasn’t mountain country – there was only one climb that I couldn’t manage and had to walk up. There was genuine concern amongst the cousins; who kept asking after me and making sure that I didn’t get dropped or lost. (Big thanks everyone for this.) As it transpired when I was able to turn the bike upside down and have a good look at it I discovered that things weren’t quite so terminal and was able to make a temporary repair to get half my gears back into action.

The cousins at home
But that’s enough of my troubles. Today was all about the family. After a great café stop (the coffee and walnut cake more than refuelled me) we were off again heading back to South Benfleet. With gently undulating roads and a tail wind we made excellent pace and all too soon the end of the ride was approaching. We had an important rendezvous to make at one of our ancestral homes – JD Cycles. Awaiting us were refreshments (and more outstanding homemade cake) as well as live coverage of the Milan-San Remo on the telly. And there were lots of bikes to drool over. Thanks Jason – you are a top ‘Uncle’.

Sadly, all good things must come to an end. Quindi, a tutti i miei cugini - Passione Celeste!

Thursday 16 March 2017

A Giant Leap Out of Hibernation (LGD -423 days)
Saturday 16 March, 51 Miles

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I suspect some of you are wondering if I’ve been lost. I know this because several of you have made quite pointed comments about missing my blog. Wow! I never really understood that there are real people (you) out there in the real world who crave my writings. Such responsibility.

So, to set the record straight I haven’t been tucked up under the celeste sheets in my Bianchi cave hibernating. I’ve been quite busy since I last checked in on 17 December. I’ve got several irons in the fire/balls in the air/wheels spinning – blah, blah, blah. Some of these are top secret and you will find out about them when and if I’m ready tell you. But one of them, which we’ll get to in moment, was the stimulus for today’s writings.

So far this year I’ve ridden about 2,500 miles – a mix of road riding and turbo spinning. I’ve been watching Series 5 of Engrenages (Spiral) a Parisian cop show. It’s in the vein of those Scandi-Noir series that I enjoy. It’s as much about the characters and their complicated, by standards, lives as it is about the plot. It’s faster paced the Scandi stories – well the main characters are French – so tend to be a bit more in your face than say Kurt Wallander and his chums. Oh, and just in case you’re wondering I have only been watching it whilst I’ve been on the turbo. I have yet to master the challenge of watching a film on my bike. In fact I haven’t even started. But here’s a thought – how’s about House of Cards with Kevin Spacey, sponsored by Garmin? It could work.

Spring is here - at last!
Anyway, we’d better move on just in case you think that I really have lost the plot over the winter. Today was what I consider to be the first proper day of spring – blue skies, sun, light(ish) winds and warmth. At 15°C it was positively roasting. So I decided to head into east Suffolk and have a look at some lanes I haven’t visited this year. One of my developments over winter has been to acquire a set of Tannus tyres. Now this might excite the bike gear snobs and fashionistas but listen up. Tannus tyres are made in south Korea and are basically a solid rubber compound. Think about it. What does that mean?

Yup, no punctures!! I can now even ride over glass with impunity. Weight wise there’s not much between them and a pair of standard tyres and tubes. Plus I can save some weight by not having to carry spare tubes, a puncture repair kit or even a pump. And the thought of not having to faff about on a cold, damp ride is worth quite a lot to me. It’s meant that I’ve gone out on days when I would have bailed and jumped on the turbo. Yes, they are definitely slower than air tyres, there’s no doubt about that. But for me, at this time of year, it’s all about miles in the legs as Eddy Merckx used to say. It’s not about speed. I’m old school on this. Wear-wise they seem to be holding up pretty well – they’re claimed to be good for at least 6,000 miles. I've heard of some riders who squeezed 9,000 miles of them. Thinks about it – 9,000 winter miles on all roads with zero punctures. So as far as I’m concerned, I’m more than happy to sacrifice a bit of style and speed. I’ll report in again when they’ve had a good thrashing over next winter.

Now I promised earlier to share one of my top-secret winter activities with you. Just before setting off on this afternoon’s ride I click the ‘Confirm’ button on my screen to authorise a certain purchase and the release of precious funds from my account. Okay, I’ll get to the point. What I was doing was signing up for another cycling tour. After 2015’s Lejog and last year’s Italy and Pyrenees tours I decided that the time had come to go for the big one.

I’ve had this in the back of my mind for a while and I’ve been doing quite a lot of research over the last few months. Today I decided that it was time to put up or shut up. So before setting off to ride, I registered, paid my deposit and put up. What’s that? I haven’t said what the tour is. Silly me! Well, I’ll be riding from Los Angeles to Boston in May and June next year. 3,500 miles in 47 days. How about that?

I’ll be riding with Cross Country Tours who’ve been doing this for quite a while. I’ve looked at quite a few options. I quickly ruled out going solo with a tent etc. That, in my view and at my age, would be madness. I enjoy my creature comforts too much to do this. Some tour companies provide tents for you to use and transport them between stages each day. And a few even expect you to put them up and take them down. Sod that! With the prospect of riding in 30-35+°C temperatures across the desert I want to know that on arrival there will be an air-conditioned room, shower, bath, ice machine, cold beer and a proper bed ready and waiting. Like most folk I enjoy a barbecue but there’s no way I’m going be toasting bangers or marshmallows and singing “Ging, Gang, Goolie” round a campfire night after night. Especially after riding 80-100 miles. By the way, if you’re not of my generation, tune in to this You Tube rendition to see where I’m coming from.

What tipped the balance was the friendliness of the Cross Country marketing resources and people – they really did resonate with me. I also spoke to two of their alumni who did the tour last year. Ian Carey and Rich Gower are both British riders who were delighted to share their experience with me. They both blogged their own rides; Ian’s is here and Rich’s is here. They don’t ride Bianchi’s but I’m not going to hold that against them. They’re two riders who seem to have had just the sort of blast I’m hoping for.

Although May 2018 seems a long way off I’ve got no shortage of ideas and a lot that I want to do to make this ride a really special one. So I’ll keep checking in on the blog and let you know how things evolve and maybe even share a few more secrets. I’m also going to count down the days in the headline of each post (LGD, Le Grand Depart). Today is LGD -423 and counting.