Wednesday 25 July 2018

I Just Want to Say ...... Some Reflections After the Event

It’s 5:15 in the morning and my alarm, a rather annoying rooster that’s crowing, has just gone off. I roll over, fumble around in the dark trying to locate my phone to silence the alarm. Gradually I open my eyes and look around. For a few brief moments I am not entirely sure where I am. Then I realise that I am in the Hilton Garden Hotel in Burlington, Massachusetts, and I will soon be setting out on Stage 43, the last stage of my USA tour. Forty-seven days ago, along with a group of other riders and a support team I left Los Angeles to ride the 3,400 miles to Boston. Barring accidents today on what is effectively a short parade lap to the beach, I am on the threshold of achieving Every Foot and Inch (EFI) status. By then I will have pedalled every single mile between LA and Boston.

After so many mornings like this, my start-up routine is well tried and tested so I have a few minutes to spare and I’m using them to look back over the tour and reflect on some of the places I visited, the people I met and the rides I have experienced. This feels like a good time to try and make some sense of what has certainly been both an exciting and also a challenging ride. Riding a big tour like this has left me feeling cocooned from the outside world. It’s a bit like being in a bubble which had been relentlessly rolling forward eastwards, clocking up mile after mile. It’s been a strange sensation. I am in and connected to the real world, yet in many ways I feel disconnected from it. Almost like a spectator gazing down on a planet and its people.

Desert heat
I cast my mind back over the riding. Some of it was hard, very hard indeed. The western deserts of California and Arizona with the intense heat. More heat in the east with the addition of high humidity. Lots of Interstate highway riding too, none of it particularly fulfilling yet, in the absence of other roads, the only way to cover the ground in a reasonable span of time. I recall how riding on the Interstates brought us together, a disparate group of riders most of whom didn’t know each other at the start of the tour, to form a team of mutually supportive friends. The memory of one particular incident makes me smile.

Apart from the general unpleasantness of riding on the shoulder of a busy interstate the major downside is punctures. The shoulders are strewn with truck tyre debris from blowouts. Unfortunately, the debris includes a mass of very tiny fine wires which get stuck in our tyres inevitably leading to punctures. This becomes a very common occurrence. In one afternoon I had more punctures than I had in all my rides over the last three years. I heard that the groups’ puncture count for one day was over 40!

Team building masterclass
The memory that makes me smile is a photograph I took of one of the team dealing with a puncture. That rider is surrounded by six others, each of whom is helping their friend to get going again as quickly as possible. The group is like a well drilled Formula One pit crew. Everyone has a part to play and everyone is playing their part. This supportive ethos develops organically and as we progress it becomes one of the tour's defining features. Riders supporting each other – sometimes by actions, sometimes with a friendly word of encouragement or a joke, or often with just a friendly look or a nod to say: “I know where you’re at; I’m there with you.” Businesses often spend large sums striving to achieve such a high level of teamwork. Fixing punctures in the heat of a desert afternoon established a new benchmark for team working. By the end of the tour I felt that the support amongst us, the riders, far surpassed that provided by the tour company. There was a level of understanding and empathy between us that I have rarely felt on other tours.

The Red Hills of Sedona
The riding itself was certainly challenging and also very rewarding. To take one example from many, the stage from Prescott to Flagstaff was stunning. Truly stunning. Looking ahead of me as I rode along in the early morning I could see a low-lying line of rock, probably over 10 miles distant. As the sun rose and the rock line grew it transformed itself into a wall – the Red Hills of Sedona with their wind‑eroded sandstone rocks forming wonderfully abstract shapes, columns and pillars which towered over the surrounding land. The wall gave few hints as to the route beyond until I arrived at the city of Sedona. There a long deep canyon opened up and I followed it gently upwards for several miles until I reached the head of the canyon. Then, with very little warning I could see the road twisting up above me through a series of hairpin bends to the summit pass. It was almost as if I had been given a ladder to make my escape. The views from the top were breath-taking in every direction. Below me I could see back along the road that I had spent the last hour riding on. Ahead of me lay the remnant volcanoes that in the aftermath of a massive eruption 200,000 years ago, had created today’s landscape and the setting for the first rest day in Flagstaff below me. The smell of the Ponderosa Pine resin added an almost intoxicating dimension to the scene. The raw splendour of this landscape did as much to raise my heart rate as the climb itself.

The desert reclaims the land
The harsh landscapes of the western deserts and mountains contrasted markedly with the softer, more manicured and managed landscapes of the east – in Ohio and New Hampshire for example. As I rode eastwards, and especially along the old Route 66, I was struck by what I was seeing – a battle between humans and nature. To the west, nature gave the appearance of having the upper hand. Largely I guess because of a lower population density, a harsher climate (lack of water) and an inevitably more extensive approach to using the land. In some places I could see abandoned farms and homes literally slowly dissolving back into the sand.

Waiting for the end
Further east humans seemed to be on the front foot. More intensive farming, irrigation, a greater population density and more infrastructure. There was much more greenery in the fields, hedgerows, woods and forests. This was softer countryside, almost seeming manicured in Ohio though New York state had a greater and more pleasing 'couldn't care less' look. Managed certainly, but with an element of randomness which made the riding much more stimulating. In between were the extensive cattle lands of Texas which we cut across briefly. The sight of forlorn cattle standing in pens waiting their fate was haunting. It was as if I had stumbled across a bovine concentration camp. But as one of my riding colleagues observed, many of us enjoyed steaks for dinner that evening.

We enjoyed incredibly good weather. By my count we had had about two and a half days rain. I had only needed my rain jacket on two stages. The winds mostly blew in our favour too. Tailwinds enabled us to roll along at a good pace and on one stage I set a personal best for 10 miles (22 minutes, equivalent to about 27 mph). Only on one day did we have to ride into strong headwinds and on a couple of others we had to contend with strongly gusting sidewinds. Had we been facing headwinds this tour would have been so very different.

Maize as far as the eye can see
The sheer scale of America was a revelation. I always knew I would be in a big country, but I never understood just how big. Individual states here are bigger than the whole of the UK. That, for me, added a totally new dimension to the riding. Riding in the desert was a humbling experience which as I passed through it, a tiny speck on a massive canvas, made me feel quite humble. The same was true when we rode through the maize and soy fields of Indiana and Illinois. The crops stretched away to the horizon uninterrupted for miles in every direction. The flat land with few opportunities to get higher up made it very difficult to gauge the scale of what I was passing through. I felt like I was afloat in a small dinghy on the ocean.

How far!?
The long straight roads became quite a mental challenge. To pass the time I sometimes played what called the Garmin game. Pick out an object the horizon, like a water tower and guess how far away it is. Then I looked at my present mileage and tried to avoid looking at the Garmin again until I reached the object. I regularly underestimated the distances – often by several miles. So, in addition to the physical challenges, the mental challenges were also quite a factor.

With a few notable exceptions I was unprepared for positive and welcoming reception I received from the people I met along the way. I have always found American people to mostly be very polite: “You’re welcome” and “Have a nice day”. In many cases these responses seem, in my experience to be automatic and somewhat robotic. What surprised me on the tour was the sincerity and interest that I encountered with the people I met. If you are ever looking for a tactic to break the ice with strangers I can wholeheartedly recommend the sweaty lycra approach! It worked for me – every time. Here’s how it goes.

Lycra - an ice breaker!
Arriving at a store or a gas station I would find somewhere to prop up my bike. Then after removing my helmet, skully and mitts and giving my face a quick wipe with a flannel that I always carry in my back pocket I would enter the establishment concerned and have a quick look around. Where were the cold drinks – chocolate milk was always welcome (for the protein)? Where was the restroom and was it locked? Did I need to ask for a key? Were there other people in the store? By this time my ‘arrival’ had usually been noticed by anyone in the store and I was being given the once over. And not always discretely either. Pretty soon thereafter I would usually be engrossed in a conversation. Mostly about me, where I had come from and where I was going (more of that later). But I also found people were very happy to answer my questions. And I ask a lot of questions! It would be easy and very tempting to stay and chat for a good while but always conscious of the need to make progress I rarely had the time to spend more than a few minutes with my new ‘best friends’. Wherever possible I made a point of plugging my blog and I can see from the stats that I picked up quite a few followers this way. So, if anyone who joined the virtual tour is reading this post then I would just like to say: “Thank you for your interest, information and support. It really did enrich my rides.” Even casual roadside encounters, for example when I was snagging a photo, passing drivers, especially in the countryside, would often stop to check that I was okay. That inevitably led to a conversation. Oh, the kindness of strangers.

Scrambled eggs - again!
One of the things I found tough was the constant succession of one-night stays. I rarely managed to properly unpack and lived out of my two kitbags for the duration of the tour. Over the seven weeks of the tour this became quite wearisome. I longed to spend more than two nights in the same bed and had to wait until the end of the tour to achieve this. The constant succession of Hiltons, Holiday Inns, Best Westerns and so on, all built to the same formula were largely functional, as they needed to be. Their food offerings, particularly at breakfast, were very much a case of providing fuel rather than anything more exciting. I have now eaten enough powered scrambled egg to last the rest of my lifetime! This was never intended to be a gastronomic tour so there were good reasons for what was laid on. Nevertheless, I grabbed the few opportunities to ‘eat out’ with gusto and jumped at the chance to eat some ‘proper food. Food that specifically cooked to order. I vividly recall a lovely dinner with Mary, one of the tour crew and a good friend, in a small restaurant in Wooster, Ohio following another appalling whitewashing incident (see below).

The location of the hotels, on the outskirts of the towns and cities we overnighted in, meant that we rarely got an opportunity to explore and learn more about where we were staying. The rest days by contrast were wonderful and I had memorable times in Santa Fe, Abilene, Champaign and Erie. Eagle-eyed readers will have spotted that I haven’t mentioned Flagstaff. Well, I didn’t spend my rest day there. Instead I went to have a good look at the Grand Canyon. And it looked pretty good too.

Robin and Mary - gone yet never forgotten
Underpinning the tour was a support system to ensure that we could focus on our riding as much as possible. One of the big factors in choosing to do the tour with CrossRoads Cycling was their promise of good back up. Although this appeared to be the case at the start and there were eight people listed on the contacts sheet, things degenerated as the tour progressed leading one rider to describe us as participants in a failing experiment.  One of the support crew, who I never met, ‘disappeared’ in the first few days. To lose one crew member over seven weeks is perhaps understandable. To lose several suggests that something more fundamental is wrong. Bizarrely, the tour crew seemed to be airbrushed out of our script by the tour company owners, never to be seen or spoken of by them again. Even more strangely since my riding friends had nothing but praise for the ‘lost’ crew members and their empathy with us. What this did mean was that as the tour progressed eastwards the level of support dropped significantly and in my view below safe levels in some cases. Even during early stages of the tour, the support organization was patchy. On a long hot day in the Arizona desert we arrived with virtually no water at the aptly named settlement of Hope to find that the expected gas station was closed for the afternoon and there was no sign of any support vehicles. We were saved by a passing RV driver who seemed to have a limitless supply of bottled water and was more than happy to share it with us. Refusing any and all offers of recompense his wife said that they would get their reward in heaven! Without them it would have been a choice between abandoning and losing my EFI or riding on and risking heatstroke. Once again, I experienced the kindness of strangers.

As the tour progressed I found that one day blurred into the next. So much so that I had difficulty sometimes remembering my geography. Arriving one afternoon at a gas station in New Berlin I got chatting to Bridget, who ran the store. When she asked where I had come from I paused and then said: “I’ve forgotten”. Bridget then asked me where I was heading to. Another pause and then: “I can’t remember”. By now the two ladies were looking at me as if I was an idiot. Suddenly in a flash of inspiration I blurted out: “I’ve come from Los Angeles and I’m going to Boston!” Well I don’t have the words to describe the looks on their faces. But whatever, they were happy to have their photograph taken with me. I emailed one to Bridget later that evening and she replied a couple of days later wishing me well and thanking me for the picture. From then I always tried to ensure I knew my locations before going into any more stores!

Leaving aside the interstate riding, most of the stages were on good well-surfaced roads with not too much traffic. This meant that I was able to take in a lot of the scenery that I passed through. Most of the stages had their own rewards too. The stage from Chillicothe to Kirksville in Missouri with the 148 rollers was outstanding. Very hard and very hot but also very rewarding. Reaching the top of each crest and looking down before descending to start the next steep ascent was very satisfying. It got quite exciting seeing how fast I could go downhill and then how far up the next rise my momentum would carry me. The stage from Abilene to Topeka in Kansas that I rode with Robin one of the tour crew, who was inexplicably airbrushed out of the tour the very next day, was pure pleasure – just a perfect day in the saddle. One of the high points of the tour too.

Celeste Victoria ('CV')
my partner in this grand adventure
My bike, who I have nicknamed ‘CV’ was outstanding. As readers who are familiar with my writings will know, all of my Bianchi’s have personalities and names. I spend a lot of time in their company and we have a unique relationship. I won’t try to explain that here – if you want to know more then read my book, Passione Celeste. Suffice to say that I regard them as my second family. CV rose to the challenge of the tour magnificently and despite having to cope with some punishing conditions she coped admirably. There was only one issue with the hydraulic brakes which was more of a design fault than a performance issue. She has been a great companion for me. Our one-to-one conversations in our hotel room immediately before the start of each stage, provided great comfort and helped us to clear our minds to be ready for whatever lay ahead.

What really made this tour special were the people I met, especially my fellow riders and the tour support team. Our team of riders was a very diverse group covering a wide age range from mid-twenties to mid-seventies with a great range of experience.  Whatever our individual motivations for taking part in the tour, we all shared the delights and the sense of freedom that cycling enabled us to have. Within a very short time it seemed as if we were one large extended family who had gathered together for a reunion. As one of three overseas riders on the tour I was touched by the way my American counterparts welcomed me into their fold and the information and explanations they willingly shared with me over the seven weeks of the tour. Everything from information about the places we passed through and their history to unveiling the mysteries of some of the food we consumed.

Although over the first few days we naturally formed into smaller groups there was no sense of being better than some or not as good as others. I really enjoyed the times when we were all together – at SAGs or dinners when there were opportunities to chat over the past day’s ride and look forward to the next day. All carried out with lots of good hearted banter and ribbing. The levels of chatter and laughter at these times were the best measure of our enjoyment. And on the few occasions when we were a bit subdued I did a little dance to raise the spirits. It never failed me. Well I don’t think it did!

My new family - the class of 2018
I have made a lot of friendships that I hope will endure, even if only virtually over the social media in some cases. Pete and I, the two UK members, met and rode together before the tour started and virtually every day thereafter. By the end of the tour he felt almost like a brother. And there is one very special friendship which has defied all the odds, including airbrushing, and which I am particularly excited about for the future. Good rides need good routes. Great rides need great people. It would be an honour and a privilege to ride with any of these people again. But only with a different organisation.

My goodness is that the time! Enough of this reminiscing. I’d better hurry up and get downstairs. I have an appointment at Revere Beach, Boston. EFI is within my grasp…

If you'd like to hear a bit more about my tour recollections you can listen to an interview I did for BBC Radio Suffolk by clicking here.

Friday 29 June 2018

USA Tour Stage 43: Burlington to Revere Beach, Ma (17 Miles)

Click here for route flyby

Before starting today’s stage some long overdue and important business had to be concluded. Back on the 2nd of June I won a bet with Bruce by not telling the story of Pawnee Rock. So today Bruce paid his dues and I got my £1 and €1. Cathy (aka Person Number Three) acted as the official witness.Well actually I got £2 which is okay Bruce as we’re apparently leaving the EU so the €1 would probably not be much use to me. Now readers, you might still be wondering what’s the story of Pawnee Rock. Well as I’ve trousered my winnings I’m now going to tell you.

Pawnee Rock is a famous landmark on the historic Santa Fe trail. Strategically it was an important viewpoint where Indian tribes used it to pinpoint approaching buffalo herds and wagon trains. For some it was regarded as the most dangerous place on the Santa Fe trail. For others it was a waypoint denoting that about half of the journey westwards was complete. Over the years many of the people passing by carved their names into the soft rock. Sadly by the 1870s much of the rock had been removed to be used as building stone. Since 1970 it has been officially protected and listed in the National Register of Historic Places. So there you are. That’s what I didn’t tell you about before in order to win the bet!

The Euros stand together one last time
Today’s stage was effectively a parade lap to the beach. Just a few short miles to mark the crossing of a continent. Just as we did on the first day of the tour in El Segundo, we gathered in front of the hotel in Burlington and set off in groups of three. Pete, Emil and I, previously part of The Fabs and now the Euros, lined up alongside each other and then off we went. With such a lot that has happened I was feeling very emotional. The euphoria of actually completing the ride – 3,417 Miles and achieving EFI Status (Every Foot and Inch). A realisation that I would almost certainly never ride with this whole group of wonderful people again but a hope that some of us may cross paths again one day. And some sadness too that it was not possible for someone who has become very close to me to be there as I crossed the finishing line.

We  rode south east from Burlington gradually crossing Boston’s suburbs before we all gathered together again to form up for the final procession to Revere Beach. We were formed into a line in pairs and I was pleased and proud to be standing next to Pete. We both recalled our first ever ride together, to the Hollywood Hills, before the tour started. We have travelled so much ground together since, both on the tarmac and off it, and we have become good friends. I look forward to the day we rode together again – how about something around the Trossachs or the Borders, Pete?

Taking advantage of the brief halt, I asked Pete to hold my bike and went to the front of the line and worked my way back saying ‘goodbye’ to each of the riders individually. People, kindred spirits that  I have ridden with and got to know well and others who I now wished I knew a bit better. Such is life on a Tour. From every one of my fellow riders I have drawn tremendous inspiration. Each of us, experienced cyclists or not, have shared a unique experience and overcome so many obstacles and challenges that threatened our achievements. I will treasure those memories forever. A good route makes a good ride or tour. And great tours are made by great people. This has been one of the greatest tour teams I have ever ridden with.

We were led in convoy, with a police escort, along the final four miles to Revere Beach. We must have looked a splendid sight as so many passers by stopped to gaze at us.We even received some cheers from the sidewalk and several car horn toots. Then suddenly we turned the last corner and in front of us was the Atlantic Ocean, journey’s end. The seafront was lined with people, families and friends who had come to cheer and congratulate their riders. There was quite a party atmosphere. Then everyone gathered round as we dipped our wheels in the ocean and posed for a last group  photograph.

I have a lot of memories from the tour and it is going to take me a long time to process and understand them. I need to organise my photographs and other records as one of the downsides of a long tour like this is that places and events blur into each other. So when, in a few days or weeks time I have made sense of all this I plan to write one final reflection on the tour. Watch this space …

I had one final act to perform. As we left Manhattan Beach on 13 May I picked up a small peddle from the shore. It has been in the back pocket of my jersey every day since. It has been a constant companion for me and CV throughout the tour. Each morning it has sat in front of us at our one-to-one meetings in our hotel room as a daily focus for collecting our thoughts and getting ready to ride. I spent a couple of minutes on the beach silently reflecting on what has happened to us, me and CV,  over the last seven weeks and then hurled the pebble as far as I could into into the Atlantic Ocean. We were both happy to see it fly and sad to let it go. We have travelled a long way together. We have travelled 3,417 miles!

Thursday 28 June 2018

USA Tour Stage 42: Brattleboro, VT to Burlington, MA (100 Miles)

Click here for route flyby

Today’s stage was the last full stage of the tour. Tomorrow is effectively a parade to the finish line. A bit like the Tour de France where the last stage is usually a ceremonial one and not a racing stage. So we all lined up together for the penultimate departure. I say “all” but not quite. Once again the Euros were depleted as Pete had snuck back to the early group. (Was it something we said?) So Barry, Bruce, Cathy (aka Person Number Three), Emil and I, plus Peyton (the new kid/mechanical genius/bike fixer extraordinaire) were the last to leave Brattleboro.

I should probably explain that Peyton (the kid) was recruited in Champaign (IL) to provide some extra mechanical support. He was working in a bike store there and seems to have keen kidnapped, willingly I understand, to provide some extra support for the tour. Bruce and Cathy (aka Person Number Three) have taken him under their wing and are rounding him out as we progress. Being young he has limitless reserves of energy and his antics on the bike are a constant source of amusement to us. But when all is said and done, his mechanical skills are outstanding.

We rolled down the hill back into Brattleboro’ and crossed over the Connecticut River before reaching the New Hampshire State line – State Number 13 so far. Then it was up into the hills again with some quite testing climbs. Short and sharp but nothing too severe. For a lot of us, the euphoria of nearly reaching the end seems to have added some impetus and strengthened our resolve.

Much of the route was through forested areas, mixtures of conifers and deciduous trees with lots of delightful small villages in between. Unfortunately the road surfaces were quite sketchy which meant that I really had to concentrate on the tarmac in front of me. This is not the time for a wheel buckling pothole incident – or worse. I have however made a mental note that this is an area that would be worth revisiting should the opportunity arise. In fact I would quite like to do a tour across New England. Now there’s a thought…

As we progressed eastwards the roads gradually got busier and we received a few suggestions from lippy motorists who clearly didn’t appreciate sharing ‘their’ tarmac with us. Added to the sketchy surfaces it meant we had concentrate even more. This was one of the few occasions where I felt that I actually needed my rear view mirror. Thus far it has largely been a convenience. Not having to look back over my shoulder this morning meant that I could stay fully focussed on the road in front of me.

All of a sudden up popped the Massachusetts State Line. So suddenly that we almost missed it and had to turn around to get the photo for the collection. So that’s it, the last state of the tour, number 14. Quite a landmark really. Unlike 12 of the other states we have passed through, Massachusetts is actually a commonwealth. But the distinction is a subtle one with its roots in history. In the late 18th century constitutional writers sometimes used the word ‘commonwealth’ in the legal documents that created the which established a state. Around this time the term was used to describe groups of people who maxed up a nation or state. Commonwealths are states but states are not commonwealths. John Adams, the second President of the US when drafting the Massachusetts constitution. And for the record, the other commonwealth that we rode through was Pennsylvania.

Another century completed
As we approached Burlington, Bruce came alongside me and asked if I would be interested in doing a few extra miles at the end to turn today’s stage into a century ride. Well, it didn’t take much asking – another century. The Captain wouldn’t miss out on that. So that’s exactly what we did. We arrived at the stage finish and then turned around and did another seven miles to take us over the hundred. What a great way to mark the end of the tour!

Oh by the way I’ve forgotten to mention something. It rained all day. High fat drops of the stuff which glistened the roads and created some massive puddles. But who cares, it’s only water!

Wednesday 27 June 2018

USA Tour Stage 41: Albany to Brattleboro, VT (77 Miles)

Click here for route flyby

After several stages of comparatively flat riding I was looking forward to today’s stage which promised some proper hill climbing. At 34 miles the route notes commented: “Begin 6.3 mile climb; last 3.5 steeper.” So I was quite excited at the prospect, as was the CV.

Our morning route RAPs have become quite comical. Headteacher Paula is struggling to manage the class as end of term fever is setting in. Let me give you an example. As we were about to receive the day’s briefing we (BBCX and the Euros) were looking at a video of a previous night’s antics. In a nutshell we had set off to the nearest Walmart in search of some of Ben and Jerry’s finest. One of the BBC’s, Bruce, has been having some knee issues so to help him out we stuck him in a shopping cart and rolled him across the very large car park. As you can imagine, this caused much mirth and merriment. Anyway when we arrived at the store we discovered that the cupboard was bare – no Ben and Jerry’s. Zippo! Quick as flash Cathy (aka Person Number Three) pounced on an unsuspecting Walmart person demanding to know the whereabouts of our ice cream. Well, to cut to the chase, said Walmart person disappeared out back and reappeared with a shopping cart full of every variety known to the human race and, I suspect a few that were not. Result – we able to make our choice and order was restored. Getting back to the point, our attempt to relive and celebrate the experience was received with some scepticism by the Headteacher who, I am sure, would rather have delivered her briefing and got shot of us onto the road. And let me add, no shopping carts were injured in the course of this merriment.

We left Albany and crossed over Hudson River before immediately heading upwards. Each day two groups set off 30 minutes apart. This helps manage the flow of riders through SAGs and helps with other logistical aspects of each stage. Today however the early group arrived at an impassible road closure, a bridge that was being repaired, and had to double back. Consequently they then met the later group (us) coming up the road so we were now all riding as one. With the prospect of being the leader on the road for once, I wound it up and set off on a little break of my own.

Capitalising on my lead I opted for a short pause at the SAG before continuing on the day’s climb. At the start of the climb I crossed the state line into Vermont (state number 13; just one - Massachusetts left now). I’ve been told that Vermont is an exceptionally pretty state so I was looking forward to seeing it. (For the record what I have seen is delightful.) Once over the state line the climb began. Let me just say that it was a real delight. Longish, gentle gradients (always less than 10%), a broad smooth shoulder to ride on and superb views to the densely forested hills I was riding through. So I got settled in, dropped onto the granny ring and spun my way upwards, tapping out a nice easy rhythm. What a pleasure, what bliss. Especially as it wasn’t too hot either. As I climbed steadily upwards I found myself thinking just how lucky and happy I am now. Today was one of those special riding days when my head and my heart were soaring free.

Cresting the summit of the Green Mountain I then enjoyed a long, fast descent which seemed to go on for ever. Some roadworks meant that I had to check my speed a couple of times so I didn’t get above 40mph. Without the roadworks I am sure I could easily have topped 50 mph. But this wasn’t the end. Another lesser climb, Hogback Mountain was waiting as a sort of encore for the day. The long descent was pretty good too, marred only by the rough surface which meant I had to pay close attention and pick my lines carefully. I was pleased also that I have left behind any lingering fears from the blowout incident.

Eventually I arrived at Brattleboro which I had been told was a delightful place and I wasn’t disappointed. I even managed to find the bike shop to buy a new rear flashing light as my old one seems to have packed up. I spent a very pleasant quarter of an hour chatting to one of the owners, Barbara Walsh about the tour and cycling in Vermont. What she shared with me has left me feeling that I must come back and spend more time here. Indeed I already have the germ of an idea developing so who knows.

Monday 25 June 2018

USA Tour Stage 40: Herkimer to Albany, NY (79 Miles)

Click here for route flyby

Late yesterday I received some very sad news that a friend of mine, Tim Elliot died while out riding his bike. Although we had never met face to face I count Tim as a friend. Tim was the central figure, the bottom bracket, that drove the Bianchi Owners Club USA forward. I contacted him earlier this year when I was preparing for my USA tour. From our very first exchange Tim was both extraordinarily helpful and very friendly to me. He was a source of great advice and good humour. But more than that, once I had started the tour Tim frequently sent me messages of support and encouragement which I really appreciated.

Regular readers will know that I regard fellow Bianchi riders as my extended family and I am proud that I have cousins and uncles all over the world. Whenever we meet (in the UK) our reunions are fantastic occasions. The cousins chat to each other and there is a lot of Passione Celeste around. Judging from the outpouring of comments and memories about Tim that I have seen my US cousins share over the last 24 hours, it is beyond any doubt that Passione Celeste, what I describe as the very DNA of Bianchi, is widespread and heartfelt. So today, I dedicated my ride to my Uncle Tim. And Tim, if you are reading this from afar, I hope you enjoyed the ride too.

Leaving Herkimer this morning there was a distinct chill in the air. So much so that for the first time since we left Los Angeles I was wearing my arm warmers. With a blue sky and sunshine I suspected that it wouldn’t be long before they came off and I wasn’t wrong. Once again the route followed the Erie Canal and Mohawk River from start to finish. With yet more superb scenery and relatively quiet, smooth roads, the ride was a delight. Like yesterday, much of the ride was under dense tree cover but from time to time clearings and pockets of open farmland created spectacular views across the lush, green land.

With a relatively short distance to cover we were able to ride at a leisurely pace, stopping regularly to look at the views and take some photos. The European theme was still present, especially when we reached Amsterdam. First settled by Dutch immigrants in 1710, the area was called Veedersburgh after Albert Veeder an early mill owner. With an influx of settlers from New England the town’s name was changed to Amsterdam in 1803. The arrival of the Erie Canal in 1825 created a major economic boost for the town which became well known for the carpets manufactured here. The city was badly damaged by floods caused by Hurricane Irene in 2011. As I rode by today it seemed that the damage had largely been restored.

Before we set off Pete had mentioned that we would be passing through Scotia. I am not sure quite what he expected to find; he did express a hope for haggis, neeps and tattles but I suspected he was going to be disappointed (I was proved right). But in terms of distance and timing it was an ideal spot to stop and enjoy lunch and cold glass of beer. And enjoy it we did as we sat on the terrace of a bar/grill and watched people pass by on their daily routines. Scotia was established by Alexander Lindsay Glen who named it after Scotland, his home country. Historically its main claim to fame was for broom making. In the 1800’s over 1 million brooms were produced annually – that’s a lot of sweeping! Nowadays it is principally a residential base for people who work in the surrounding area.

We rode the final 15 miles to Albany, the New York State Capital along some lovely, gently undulating if rather rough roads. As we made our way along I found myself wondering what Uncle Tim would have made of today’s stage. I rather think he would have liked it. So Tim, rest easy and ride easy. Passione Celeste!

USA Tour Stage 39: Syracuse to Herkimer, NY (72 Miles)

Click here for route flyby.

Today BBC and the Euros reformed. Pete, who has been ‘resting’ by setting off with the earlier group (they’re not slower, honestly), applied for re-instatement. So we held a short meeting on the start line and voted (4-1; Bruce how could you!) to let him re-join us. I have to say that I have been missing both his company and his Scottish wit on the road these past few days. Since our first ride to the Hollywood Hills before the tour, started we have travelled a long road together and got to know each other really well. As the only two Brits on the tour we have formed an alliance and have spent a lot of time together – on and off the road. So I was delighted to spend a large part of today riding alongside him and enjoying his company.

Today was much like yesterday, only better. More of the delightful upstate New York countryside on smooth, largely traffic free county roads. To make the ride even better, the sun was shining and my rain jacket was firmly packed away. Our route has been following the Erie Canal which runs from Buffalo on Lake Erie to Albany on the Hudson River. When construction was completed in 1825 it was the second longest canal (363 miles) in the world. Today it extends for 524 miles. It has played a major role in the commercial activities and economy of the USA. Although a small number of commercial vessels still use it, now it is primarily a recreational resource and has been designated as. National Heritage Corridor. Many of the towpaths running alongside it have been converted in to cycle routes, mostly gravel so we have to stay off them. The great thing about following a canal is that it means gradients are likely to be pretty gentle, which at this stage of the tour is no bad thing.

As we rode along on the first part of the stage to the SAG I spent a lot of time looking at and trying to understand the countryside we were passing through. There are lots of trees, woods and forests which gave it a very enclosed feeling. From time to time, where the tree cover had been removed, great sweeping views opened up particularly northwards where I could see rolling hills in the distance. The houses here are a constant source of fascination for me. They come in all shapes and sizes and are mostly constructed from wooden boards. No two houses are the same; each has its own distinctive character. The lots around the houses are usually grassed though not normally on the same scale as I saw in Ohio. The most striking feature is that many, if not most properties have a slightly scruffy and disorderly feel to them which, in my opinion actually enriches and enhances their character. The whole atmosphere of the area is slightly sleepy and laid back.

Interspersed between the house lots are some delightful villages. We stopped in once such village, Canastota which is alongside the canal. A couple of the bridges and walls have some delightful murals celebrating the canal’s heritage and history. There is also a museum dedicated to the same subject. The name is derived from the Iroquois language (Kristen Stota meaning ‘cluster of pines near still waters’). Onion growing has been an important part of the village’s economy. I was surprised to see a sign to the International Boxing Hall of Fame. Two world champions (Carmen Basilio (Welterweight and Middleweight; he beat Sugar Ray Robinson to take the Middleweight title) and Billy Backus (Welterweight) are from here. Just another in a long list of unexpected discoveries that riding makes possible and makes it so rewarding.

With a relatively short stage, fast roads and a tailwind we made excellent time and were in danger of completing the stage before noon. So to ease things a tad when we spotted Dave’s Diner we pulled over and had some fantastic ice-cream. Proper ice cream! The CV and I plumped for a serving of Sea Salt Caramel in a cup. Recognising the risks of overindulgence from our last feast we opted for the small portion. We both agreed that it was more than sufficient.

Despite this we arrived in Herkimer much earlier than normal. Our hotel (motel) tonight is, I have to say, underwhelming and at the opposite end of the spectrum from the comparative luxury of the Hampton Inn which we left a little over six hours ago. Such is life. Every cloud has a silver lining though and there is one piece of excellent news to report. Cathy (aka Person Number Three), Navi, Pete and I went for a stroll into the town and discovered an excellent little restaurant. I had a wonderful Strawberry and Spinach Salad with nuts, berries and feta cheese. Possibly the best lunch I have enjoyed on the tour to date.

Until tomorrow …