Thursday 31 May 2018

USA Tour Stage 17: Guymon, OK to Liberal, KS (40 Miles)

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The cast of today’s story include a donkey, a hooker and a tin man! Today was also notable for a number of other reasons. First it was a short stage, only 40 miles. Second it was the last leg of the seemingly never-ending 210-mile long straight which started two days ago. And lastly, and most importantly, a tailwind was a-blowin’; yay! Last night we had a couple of minor thunderstorms, the second of which woke me at 1:30 am with hail drumming against my bedroom window. I got up to have a look and the sky was being lit up by distant lightning flashes and I could see a few golf-ball sized hailstones bouncing in the parking lot with a small river flowing through it. A reasonably spectacular and unexpected entertainment. By breakfast time, signs of the storm had largely disappeared, just a few puddles on the ground and air which felt clean and clear but much more humid than yesterday.

As this was a short day we didn’t set off until 9:00am but nevertheless I was still awake at my usual hour of 5:30am so I used the time to do some background research on the Interweb, the results of which I hope will feature in the book I’ll be writing about the tour when I’ve finished. Let me just say that I unearthed some fascinating social history commentaries from the 1920’s through to the late 1950’s which explained a few things that have piqued my interest on the ride so far.

Unusually, we all left the hotel together in one large group and headed down the road. I found myself alongside Emil and as we wound it up together we progressed right through the group becoming the leaders on the road. With the aid of the wind and on yet more smooth tarmac we were soon zipping along effortlessly at nearly 25mph. What fun! As we whizzed along I spotted my first nodding donkey, which like all the others I saw today, was asleep. Nevertheless the silhouette of that distinctive solitary beam against the skyline was, for me, a memorable sight. The countryside in this part of Oklahoma is big and expansive. But it is also subtly different and has a more managed feel to it. This is very much cattle country with large ranges of grass stretching in every direction. How I longed to be able to stand about 10-20 feet off the ground and gaze into the distance. That would have really given me the chance to properly appreciate the scale of the place.

As I rode along I found myself reflecting on the last three days riding in these flatlands. What I have seen has reminded me of the constant tussle between humans and nature. Further west it seemed to me that with straightened economic circumstances, nature has the upper hand. There were more derelict and abandoned properties along the roadside and those that were still lived in seemed to be finely balanced in terms of their future. Nature is reclaiming the earth. As we rode east, the land took on a much more industrial feel with stock farming on a massive scale. Fewer dwellings, but more that look well-kept. And in between the towns, clusters of small to medium sized buildings and facilities providing the essential infrastructure for the industry. But everywhere I looked I was reminded that winning a living from the land here is not easy. Above all, I wished that I had the time and the talent to photograph and capture some of the scenes that I saw. This has surely already been done but I would have loved to record my own personal interpretations (in black and white) on this place in a way that I struggle to find with words.

We were making such good speed that we arrived at the very recently opened (i.e. minutes before) Crossroads Cycling Pop-Up Diner in record time. This was located in Hooker, a place whose name caused much mirth and merriment within the group. Recognising a good business opportunity when they see one, the Hookers had thrown open their doors to welcome us. Now before you go getting the wrong idea readers, allow me to explain. The town is named after John (Hooker) Threikeld who it is said got his nickname from the Civil War General “Fighting Joe” Hooker. Others say he was named after an old cattleman on the nearby Beaver River. Then there are those who assert that he was a skilled cattle roper – a hooker. But whatever the origin, there is no doubt about the provenance of the town. By all accounts, Hooker was a striking person, a big man with raven black hair and eyes, resembling some say, an eagle. His features were enhanced by several gold teeth and his habit of wearing large diamond rings. Hooker died aged 92 in 1938 in Redondo Beach, which I rode through before the start of the tour.

Leaving Hooker and the Hookers to their own devices we carried on east. Emil rode off into the the distance to meet his wife at the hotel. Pete and I linked up with Mary, one of the tour crew and rode together over the State Line out of Oklahoma and into Kansas. We made the obligatory stop for a photograph and then as we arrived at our destination in Liberal we were able to engage in a bit of sightseeing. The Route Sheet had noted that the Liberal Air Museum was worth visiting so that‘s exactly what we did. With over 100 aircraft spanning 90 years of aviation history on display, this is one of the country’s largest air museums. Almost every type of aircraft was on display, from small home built kit planes to relatively modern military jets. Liberal has a long association with aviation. It was a pilot training base during the Second World War and subsequently a factory for the manufacture of light aircraft.

Having satisfied our appetites for aviation we agreed that it was time to satisfy our stomachs with some lunch. After signing off the stage roster at our hotel we decided to eschew the more usual fare on offer from the chain eateries and headed back into Liberal in search of something more homely. Mary made some enquiries at a florists, as you do, and we then found ourselves at a small family-run Mexican establishment. Although from the outside it looked somewhat unprepossessing, once we crossed the threshold the three riders and their bikes were warmly welcomed, cold drinks were proffered and we were soon tucking into some tasty dishes. The CV and I had a very nice shrimp burrito. Normally I am cautious about eating shellfish so far from the sea in a month without an ‘R’ in it. Although I am sure the shrimp had been frozen it was presented in a delicious sauce and an extremely fresh and surprisingly light tortilla. Satisfaction indeed!

With time on our hands we went in search of Liberal’s other main attraction, the Dorothy House. Yes, Liberal is The Land of Oz. So we walked on the Yellow Brick Road, watched out for Cowardly Lion, posed with the Tin Man and flirted with other assorted characters. And a great deal of fun was had by all. Just for once it was nice to have some leisure time off the bike and mooch around. Dinner this evening was a catered barbecue organised by Itchytoo. And guess who joined us? Dorothy!

There’s a rumour going round that after leaving Liberal tomorrow there might be a bend or two in the road and even, just possibly, a junction! We’ll also be heading through country to a city that has a lot of history. I can’t wait!!

I’d like to add a little postscript to today’s report and thank everyone who’s sent me messages of support and encouragement. I really enjoy switching on my iPad after each day’s stage and viewing these. It gives me a real lift. I am sorry that I don’t have the time to respond to them all individually but I want you to know that I am really grateful for the emails, messages, thumbs up, hearts, likes, kudos and so forth. It means a lot and I hope you are enjoying my ramblings here. I would also like to thank everyone who has sponsored me for the Green Light Trust. The charity does some spectacular work helping people to better understand the natural environment and enhance and enrich their lives and lifestyles. I’ve been giving this a lot of thought over the last few days, as you might have sensed from my writings above. So, if you haven’t made a donation yet please, pretty please, think about doing so. There’s a link at the top right of this page.

Until tomorrow…

Wednesday 30 May 2018

USA Tour Stage 16: Dalhart, TX to Guymon ,OK (72 Miles)

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Well, this seems to be habit forming – riding long, straight roads into the wind. Today’s straight set a new record – 49 miles from the edge of Dalhart to the edge of Texhoma. All with a head or shoulder wind. The Fabs linked up with another team to form an extended pace line which made the riding easier, mush easier. Both physically and mentally. It was great to see us all riding in a line, sharing out the work efficiently. I occasionally have a tendency to go off the front a bit hard and have come to rely on Pete to keep me in check. Speeding up at the front of the line is considered poor etiquette so, fellow riders, if I was ever guilty of this then I apologise whole heartedly. My excuse is that without significant hills back home in East Anglia, I have got used to riding solo on long exposed roads.

I remember a story about the Belgian rider, Freddy Maertens, who twice won the World Professional Road Race Championships (in 1976 and 1981). Apparently, he used to get up in the early morning, feed, get ready for a ride and then step outside. Next he would work out which way the wind was blowing and set off riding as hard as he could with a tailwind. He would ride flat out until he was totally knackered and then guess what? He would turn around and ride home into the headwind!! Freddy had an extremely successful career as a pro – his achievements might have been even greater had his racing not coincided with the best years of Eddy Merckx. Freddy was one of my inspirations when I started riding seriously as a teenager and in my early 20’s.

Anyway, let’s get back to today’s ride. After stopping, literally in the middle of nowhere, to take a picture of a cowboy we carried on along the road to Stratford, which I am guessing The Bard would probably have been underwhelmed by had he been able to drop in. Stratford was the latest location secured by Crossroads Cycling Pop-up Diners Inc. To ring the changes Paula had provisioned it with some lovely sweet nectarines. Even the labels were edible – a Texas delicacy? Something unexpected happened to me here. I met the late Henry John Deutschendorf Jr’s cousin. Yes, I did indeed. What’s that I hear you say? Well, Henry John Deutschendorf Jr. was better known as John Denver, the singer songwriter who tragically died while flying his experimental plane in 1997. Of course I have no way of verifying the ‘cousins’ claim but a look into his eyes was returned with an unwavering stare and his handshake was Texas firm.

At 50 miles we left Texas – our route north-east meant that we only clipped a corner. Now it was into Oklahoma. Subtly, the countryside around us was changing. Yes, still a lot of cattle territory but also signs of a new crop – wind turbines spinning gently and gracefully. Another memory of East Anglia, particularly Norfolk. I also had a brief vision of Don Quixote astride his horse Rocinante accompanied by his companion Sancho Panza, tilting at windmills. It’s the heat, readers! I must have been in the sun far too long. There were other clues too to the nature of life in these parts. Huge billboards advertising water drilling services, wind pumps and irrigation pipes all pointed to the importance of that most precious of resources.

In record time we arrived at our destination, Guymon, which has branded itself as the “Queen City of the Panhandle”. The Oklahoma Panhandle is the northwest portion of the State. Look at a map and you’ll understand. I’ve looked at a map of tomorrow’s route. Can you guess what I’ve seen? Answers in an email please ….

Tuesday 29 May 2018

USA Tour Stage 15: Tucumcari, NM to Dalhart, TX (96 Miles)

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I can sum up today with three words: straight, flat, wind! Straight refers to the road which stretched endlessly to the horizon. And when I eventually reached the horizon it stretched on again to the next horizon. And on to the next. As far as I can work out from looking at Ride with GPS the first straight was 38 miles long before it curved gently on to another shorter straight which was ‘only’ 26 miles long. The terrain was generally flat with only a few fluctuations. This meant that I could see for at leat 10 miles in every direction.

Today we were also riding into a headwind. I have an app (Windsock) that steals my Strava data and does some clever stuff with the weather data to produce a graphic and some analysis that told me that I had ridden in to a 5-10 mph headwind for 77% of today’s ride. That may not seem particularly windy but be assured on those straights it certainly increased the workload, especially as I was still recovering from yesterday’s 110-mile stage.

Today we recruited a session player into The Fabs. Greg is from Oklahoma and will be with us for a couple of weeks. He is reasonably familiar with this territory – we’ll be in Oklahoma tomorrow – and has slotted in nicely. I say ‘slotted in’ because riding a pace line where we share out the work is the most efficient way to counter a headwind. With a road racing background, Greg is clearly a strong rider and well-used to through-and-off’s. So, it’s nice to be a quartet once more.

Crossroads Cycling’s Pop-up Diner Pecan Pies - yummy
Rather like yesterday, there is a dearth of facilities in this area. We passed the last shop and restrooms at 25 miles. From then on we were reliant on the Crossroads Pop-up Alfresco Diners. Today, They were conveniently located at 29 and 65 miles on the stage. Riding on long roads in flat country can become quite monotonous so I am always on the lookout for ‘excitement’. Anything to break the stupor. My reverie was broken by Pete’s bike (a Specialised) which tried to mate with the CV and gave us both quite a shock. Fortunately the CV resisted the amorous advances of the Spesh and Pete and I were both able to maintain our dignity. Now I’m guessing readers, that some of you are wondering what the heck I’m writing about. Well, we had wheel contact which in many situations is devastating, frequently leading to rider road rash as riders and bikes slide along the tarmac.

The major landmark of the day was at 54 miles when we rode our of New Mexico and into The Lone Star State, Texas. There was a novel stone sign, complete with bullet holes, top welcome us. I’m claiming that the bullet holes are authentic; other riders may (will) disagree!

As we rode into the State it became obvious that we were in cattle country. A succession of livestock trucks and trains passed us. Greg told me that there 84 (empty) cattle wagons being towed behind the two engines. That implies one heck of a lot of steak. I’m sure that you’d like to know that the Annual Cattle Review for 2017 recorded 12.3 million head of cattle. That equates to just less than half a cow for every person in the State. Fascinating! Approaching Dalhart we passed a couple of gigantic cattle feeder stations where the livestock are brought for fattening before going to the slaughterhouse. I have never seen so many cows in one place in my life. As I stopped to take a picture the animals in the nearest pen strolled over to have a good look at me. I’m sure the fascination was mutual. The other giveaway was the aroma. The smell of methane was in the air. While I’m in trivial facts mode I can report that on average 1 beef cow produces about 200 litres of methane per day. That is a lot of farting. Now, I can sense the inevitable question, so here’s the answer. The average human farts between 0.5 and 2 litres of methane per day. I bet you never thought you’d be reading stuff like this in a cycling blog. And for the sake of completeness I have no idea what cyclists produce but based on my observations from the back of the pace line I’d say it’s above the human average and probably less than that of a cow. Let’s leave it there!!

Well, that’s all helped to pass the time, a major goal for today. Combatting the mental stress of riding with relatively little stimulation was the toughest part of the ride. Arriving at Dalhart, which has the feel of a frontier town about it, gave me a huge lift so Pete and I adjourned to the nearest Dairy Queen to ‘celebrate’ with a vanilla milkshake. Unfortunately, the guy on the counter was operating solo and appeared to work at only one speed – reverse so we had to wait for our protein infusion a tad longer than we would have wished. Once we had recharged ourselves we headed over to check in at our hotel. Rumours of steak for dinner are almost certainly true. And guess what? We’ve got more straight roads tomorrow. Will we break the 38-mile record? I hope not …

Monday 28 May 2018

USA Tour Stage 14: Las Vegas to Tucumcari, NM (110 Miles)

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Today was a big day for several reasons as you will discover if you read on. We left Las Vegas in the usual cool early morning air. The weather forecast was telling us that today was going to be hot and within half an hour I could feel the temperature rising. The Route Sheet and Paula’s commentary at the Route Rap gave an indication of what we were going to face. The key words were “No restrooms or services for 74 miles.” Written in bold which is usually a clue for some pretty serious hazards along the route. So it seemed that today’s comfort breaks might involve a rattlesnake check…!

Like our last two stages, we left Las Vegas heading upwards. Unlike the last two stages the ascent was very gentle – almost imperceptible. We were still at 6,500 feet so my lungs got their early morning workout. One thing I noticed immediately was the greenness of the vegetation so I guessed there must be marginally more rainfall here. I did see more damp watercourses and even a few streams with water which reinforced my thinking. This was cattle country and what country it was. Emil, who I was riding with at the start said it reminded him of being at sea – vast oceans of scrub grass stretching for miles in every direction. I spotted a couple of buzzards (I think) circling above the roadside looking for breakfast, but no albatrosses.

As is often the case when I’m riding with on good roads with few hazards or traffic, my mind tends to wander in random directions. Emil’s comment triggered vague memories of some Coleridge’s Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner:

The fair breeze blew, the white foam flew
The furrow followed free;
We were the first that ever burst
Into that silent sea.

I tried to sing the lines that I could remember to the tune of Jerome Moross’s soundtrack to the film ‘The Big Country’. Now readers, bear with me. This might seem a pretty avant-garde thing to do or even rather eccentric behaviour but what I’m trying to convey here is what I was seeing and how it made me feel in my heart. Riding through some amazing territory, the sweeping strings and pulsating brass of the soundtrack just seemed so right. Today I felt like a pioneer, exploring a vast new landscape, soaring along just above the tarmac like the albatross over the ocean. The long, long straight roads punctuated with gently rolling hillocks were just so invigorating.

In seemingly no time at all we reached the first SAG and I was snapped out of my reverie. Standing by the roadside waiting for riders to arrive was Paula. And I her hand was a sign, a very special sign. For today we had all completed the first 1,000 miles of the tour. A landmark moment and I was thrilled to see the joy and happiness on the faces of my fellow riders. So I’m just going to say “Well done us!” I was so happy that I even tried reprising my little ditty but fortunately no one heard me.

With an air of satisfaction we rolled out of the SAG and continued on our way. At around the 35 mile mark we swung round a bend and, totally unexpectedly, the most magnificent view to the plains below opened up in front of us. This marked the start of a stupendous descent, dropping over 1,000 feet over the next 5 miles. Enough of a drop in altitude to make my ears pop. Ahead of us lay a vast plain, framed by rust-red tree covered cliffs. And stretching away as far as my eyes could see, was the road we would be following. I experienced something that I’m not that well known for – speechlessness.

Reaching the bottom of the descent we carried on along a smooth, gently downhill trajectory and with a good tailwind we spun along at an easy 20-25mph. With a small uphill bump we reached the second SAG where we enjoyed an early alfresco lunch, including those yummy peanut butter and jelly sarnies that I told you about a few days ago. Just the fuel for the hungry cyclists. With the temperature building, it was hard to resist the temptation to linger and snag a second sarnie but we needed to press on and make as much progress as possible before the temperature rose too high.

Ahead of us lay something that several riders had mentioned in rather hushed tones over breakfast. A climb known as The Wall. No one seemed quite sure what it would involve and attempts to zoom in on the route profile didn’t help much. Just the name seemed to be enough to invoke a tremor in some of my fellow riders. What was certain was that we would reach The Wall at mile 67. Pete and I were riding together at this point and ahead of us we could see some cliffs rising steeply to, we guessed, about 1,000 feet. There even seemed to be a road line. Surely not. And, indeed not. The road turned at the last minute and we rode parallel to the cliffs before eventually turning towards them and a cleft in the rock face. I could then see the road rising up and it didn’t look to severe, about 700-800 yards for perhaps one third of a mile. Not a particularly testing ascent. What I did discover was that it wasn’t the gradient that was the issue, it was the heat. As I rode up the narrow, very hot gorge I felt like a piece of toast in a toaster. Fortunately I popped out the top just nicely crisp and not burnt!

There was a nice surprise at the top because I met Phil, one of the riders, and Rick and his wife. Rick doubles as the tour mechanic. Phil was leaving the tour today, getting a lift from Rick and wife. Rick will be back in about a week’s time. I had chatted with Phil over breakfast and he seemed a bit subdued. Partly I sensed because he was leaving and also because he wasn’t sure if he would have the time to ride as far as The Wall. Well he did and I was pleased to see him again, to shake his hand and wish him well. Chapeau Phil!

Emerging from the toaster, another 10 miles took us to the final SAG of the day and, that rare facility on today’s stage – Restrooms! They temperature had risen significantly now – my Garmin was suggesting 35C/95F (40C/104F in direct sunlight) – so I sought out a cooling ice cream and an ice cold drink in the store. The final 30 miles to Tucumcari were tough – long, rolling straights (one measured 10 miles), heat which collected in the furnaces between the hillocks, no shade and a hot side wind. This was very much about riding within my limit, especially as we have another long at tomorrow.

The final ascent in the full heat of the day was quite a challenge – physically and mentally. Pete and I eventually arrived at the top in Tucumcari with our water bottles empty and we landed on the first gas station we passed like crows landing on carrion, much to the amusement of the cashier and the apparent disgust of at least one customer who clearly wasn’t a connoisseur of hot, sweaty, lycra clad cyclists!  Then it was a short pedal to our hotel where I rode straight in through the doors to the reception desk to check in. An ice bucket full of cold bottles of beer was ready and waiting. Then after I had whetted my whistle it was time for a shower.  This had been quite a tough and long (110 mile) stage but a rewarding one. And once I’d showered I felt pretty good. NO, I actually felt really good. So good that more words from the Rhyme came to me:

Swiftly, swiftly flew the ship,
Yet she sailed softly too:
Sweetly, sweetly blew the breeze –
On me alone it blew.

Chatting about the ride after dinner I learnt that much of the country we had ridden through today was seen in the film ‘No Country for Old Men’ starting Javier Bardem, Josh Brolin and Tommy Lee Jones. So if you want to get a better feel for the scenery watch the film. I have and it’s really rather good.

Sunday 27 May 2018

USA Stage 13: Santa Fe to Las Vegas, NM (74 Miles)

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Yesterday was a rest day so it was a chance to look around the city of Santa Fe. Most of the places we have stayed in so far on the tour tend to be located on the edge of the town and they all look and feel the same – as if they have been made from kit. A sort of concrete lego set. They’re purely functional serving the needs of overnighters. They’re fine as far as they go but totally lack character and feeling. I’m not criticising here; they are ideal for this sort of tour, easily accessible on the edge of the town or city. Totally predictable in their standardised offer so no nasty surprises. Nothing to be worried about or get in the way of the essential start and end of day routines. What this does mean though is that, with a few exceptions, I’ve probably got a totally skewed view of the places we’ve stayed in. So I was delighted to have the chance to go and feel the pulse and take the temperature of Santa Fe which has lots of history and culture.

Pete had a couple of contacts here – friends of friends of his brother in law, if you can follow that, who had got in touch with him and who had offered to meet us and introduce us to Santa Fe. So we moseyed on down to the Plaza in the heart of Santa Fe to meet Dan and Phyllis for brunch at the Famous Plaza Café. Over a wonderful fry-up we got to know them and quickly felt at ease. Once we had completed our introductions we had a look around the Plaza which was very busy – there was a parade of custom cars taking place which drew lots of spectators. We had a look in a local museum as well as visiting a Fair with Indian art on sale. Dan and Phyllis then left us to our own devices and, on their recommendation we walked up Canyon Road to look the dozens of art galleries there.

This was a fantastic area with more small galleries than I could shake a stick at. I could easily have spent a couple of days looking around and even then probably have only scratched the surface. I enjoyed chatting to several of the artists and gallery owners along the way. I especially enjoyed chatting to Kat Livengood (click here) an artist who photographs wildlife, particularly horses in the wonderful landscapes of the West. I was captivated by her black and white work where the grain, textures and tones of her images totally capture the sense of place. The landscapes evoked powerful memories of what I had seen and felt over the last few days. Sadly, I don’t have the words to fully express the feelings that Kat’s work evoked in me but I felt privileged to have had an opportunity to see it. As someone who has spent most of my life working in the natural environment I was delighted too to learn that Kat donates a proportion of her income to conserving and supporting wild animal welfare. Sadly, all good things must come to an end so after meeting Dan and Phyllis for a farewell pizza and beer we were back in our hotel for an early night before resuming the tour.

The sun was shining as we left Santa Fe bound for Las Vegas, New Mexico, not the other more famous one, this morning. I make this distinction because when describing the route to several people they’ve looked askance at me when I’ve mentioned the LV place and I’ve had to clarify for them. Including for a surprising number of New Mexicans, if that’s the correct term. Otherwise thickos if it’s not! So readers, I wouldn’t want you to make the same mistake! Rather like on Stage 12 we started with a long steady climb to 7,500 feet over the next 20 miles. Once again my breathing was feeling the effects of the altitude – having to work a bit harder to get sufficient oxygen to fuel the effort of riding uphill. Nothing significant and I certainly wasn’t suffering from altitude sickness but just enough to make the effort slightly harder than I had anticipated. In these massive open landscapes it easy to forget that we are riding at quite a high altitude.

In a complete contrast to previous days we had something new to admire today – trees! Most of today was in the Santa Fe National Forest and Pecos National Park. The Forest covers an area of about 1.6 million acres with 1,000 miles of trails for visitors to explore by bike, on foot or on horseback. The area is rich in wildlife and nearly one third of the area is designated as wilderness. My forester’s eye was inevitably drawn to the tree species (Pinyon and Ponderosa Pines, Douglas Fir, Oak, Aspen and Juniper to name a few). Overall the forest seemed to me to be in pretty good shape with evidence of active management, some past fire damage and examples of excellent habitat conservation. If only I had the time I could have spent several days exploring the area. Maybe I should come back…?

As we passed through the town of Pecos I was reminded of the infamous Judge Roy Bean, a saloon keeper and justice of the peace, who anointed himself as the ‘Law West of the Pecos’. His courtroom was his saloon and he used to dole out his version of justice whilst seated on a whisky barrel. It is probably best to describe his life as “colourful”. Several books have been written and tv series ands  films featuring the judge – most with a large helping artistic licence.

With a tailwind for most of the day we made excellent progress – at one point I looked down at my Garmin to see that I was spinning along easily at 33mph. There was only one SAG today at 46 miles. Just as we were about to leave there was a large pop followed by the hiss of air. Poor Emil had suffered yet another rear wheel puncture – and he wasn’t even on the bike at the time! No matter, The Fabs and Dana (Paula’s husband) sprung into action, a new tube was swiftly installed and we were underway pretty quickly. The last leg of the ride crossed what seemed like a never-ending succession of rolling hills. None was particularly long or steep but there were a lot of them. Some of the downhills were quite fast (40mph), some of the uphills had me changing down to my granny ring in order to get up them. One of the things I’ve discovered that my Garmin does is count the number of gear changes I do with my Shimanono Di2 electronic gears. I appear to have shifted the rear cassette 758 times today and the front one 30 times.  Did you need to know that? Probably not. And whilst I’m telling you about the technology I’d like to confirm that my brakes are fully operational – the guys at Bike n’Sport in Santa Fe have done me proud. Going downhill knowing that I’ve got maximum braking capability should I need it, is quite a satisfying feeling!

We had made such good time that we rolled in very early to Las Vegas. There was only one thing to do. Head for the old part of town and seek out the historic Plaza Hotel. A cold beer, a massive and very tasty meatloaf burger and chips more than replenished the calories that my Garmin told me I’d burnt today. That Garmin is so clever it can probably tell me what I should eat a week on Tuesday! Then it was time to head for another Lego kit hotel – this time of the Best Western breed.

Oh, I nearly forgot a bit of good news. When I logged onto the Interweb at the hotel I discovered that the Froomedog had won the Giro. What a fantastic achievement. I can’t wait to watch the highlights ...

Friday 25 May 2018

USA Tour Stage 12: Albuquerque to Santa Fe, NM (67 Miles)

Click here for route flyby

With a tinge of sadness The Fabs, now minus Dave, rolled out of Albuquerque under blues skies with the promise of a hot day ahead. I think we’re all going to miss Dave’s company on the road. More positively today was the first day for some time that we wouldn’t be riding on the Interstate. Hooray!  The theme of the first part of today’s ride was climbing, rising 2,000 feet over the first 20 miles. This was a long, steady climb on a wonderfully smooth surface, ideal for spinning up. Starting at an altitude of 5,000 feet this was not a time for heroics but instead one for setting a measured pace and maintaining a steady breathing cycle. Ahead and to our side we could see the mountains which rose I’m guessing to over 10,000 feet. In the clear air, once again the views were great.

Today we were riding on the Turquoise Trail, a scenic route set in 15,000 square miles of land. To put that in context that’s 10 times bigger than my home county of Suffolk! The Trail is named after the blue-green rocks originally mined by the Pueblo people over 1,000 years ago. Prized as a precious stone, the turquoise is widely used in jewellery. The area was also the site of a big gold rush in 1825, pre-dating the more famous California Gold Rush by several years. Traces of the mining activity were visible as we rode along the road. It is a hugely popular tourist area and we were passed by several groups of motorcyclists riding their Hogs (Harley Davidsons) with their distinctive rumble and roar. We also saw lots of RVs (Recreational Vehicles) and camper vans. Today was the start of a holiday weekend – Memorial Day is on Monday – so lots of people were making the most of it.

After 35 miles we arrived at our first and only SAG of the day at Henderson’s Store which today sells Southwestern American Indian jewellery, rigs and pottery. I had a quick look around inside and marvelled both at the items on display and the prices. I marvelled at an pair of old assay scales, which had been magnificently restored with the brass gleaming. There were lots of old black and white photographs including one of the store’s founder sitting in a rocking chair on the front step. I could almost imagine him surveying the trail expectantly, whilst chewing on some tobacco and awaiting the next passing travellers.

Moving on we then descended to the small town of Madrid, which is pronounced Maadrid, and not like the Spanish capital. This was a lovely little ramshackle place with lots of small galleries, shops and eateries. Originally a coal-mining town (until 1954) it is now a popular tourist destination it has quite a boho, hippy-like feel to it – once you get past the bustle and noise of the visitors. We stopped for lunch at a roadside restaurant, sitting under the trees and watching all of life pass us by. In the hot sun I was reminded of Pooh Bear – “sometimes I sits and thinks and sometimes I just sits.” Today I just sat and tuned out – wonderful! The homemade burger and cold beer gave this the perfect ambience.

Sadly, I had places to go and people to see so we broke the reverie and headed off on the final 20 mile leg of the day. I was glad of the initial downhill run as with a longer than usual lunch break my legs had stiffened up. After a few miles of gentle spinning, bike and rider were reunited in perfect harmony – what lyricism! Approaching Santa Fe I could see a massive building ahead of me on my right. The road-sign gave the game away so I upped the cadence and sped past. Not the place to linger.

Arriving in Santa Fe I had a mission to undertake. For the last couple of days the rear brake on the CV has gone very spongy to the point of being almost ineffective. Riding mountainous descents with only one fully working brake is not something I want to do. I guessed some air had got into the hydraulics and the brake needed bleeding. Although I have brought a bleed kit with me ideally I wanted to get it done in a shop so that if there was an underlying issue I would be covered. With a quick spot of Giggling on my iPhone I headed off with Pete in tow to Bike and Sport on the other side of town. They were absolutely brilliant. Despite pitching up unannounced Tony Ferrari and his mechanic (whose name sadly I didn’t get) came to my rescue. My decision to visit the professionals was a good one since they discovered that the allen key slot in the bleed cap on the top brake levers rounded and couldn’t be undone. (This is apparently a known issue with this version of Shimanono levers and they had a stock of replacements on order.) After about 20 minutes with a bit of a  workaround the CV was fully functional again and I was both a happy and hugely reassured rider! Considering that I pitched up unannounced out of nowhere late on a Friday afternoon their response was beyond outstanding. So chapeau team Bike n Sport. And if any readers happen to be in the area with a bike problem this has to be the go to place for a fix. But perhaps, unlike me, a ‘phone call first would be appreciated.

Then it was back to the hotel for a shower and dinner. Tomorrow is a rest day so we’re going to explore Santa Few. Watch this space readers ….!

Thursday 24 May 2018

USA Stage 11: Grants to Albuquerque, NM (79 Miles)

Click here for route flyby

There was a distinct chill in the air this morning as we lined up for the stage start outside our hotel in Grants. This was also quite a poignant moment for The Fabs as this was also the last day that we would be riding with Dave. He’ll be heading home to Maine tomorrow as he was only able to ride the first part of the tour. I have really enjoyed riding with him over the last couple of weeks. He has a very laid back, almost laconic personality but as I got to know him I have realised that he is both a very generous person and has a razor sharp sense of humour. He owns a brewery so he has played an important role in ensuring that our post ride refreshments were of the highest standards. The Fabs will never be quite the same without him.

We were really pleased not to be riding on the Interstate today, at least for the first part of the ride. We were soon back on to Route 66 and heading east on a very quiet road. So quiet that we were able to ride two and three abreast and have some great conversations. Around us, the hills and bluffs seemed much closer and we marvelled at the magnificent scenery. This was a landscape that was very familiar to me from the countless Westerns that I have watched on tv and in the cinema. In a few places I almost expected to see John Wayne, Kirk Douglas or Spencer Tracy (that dates me) leading a posse after some bandits or outlaws. The rock faces even hinted at the perfect place to stage an ambush.

Riding along Route 66 I was really struck by how much the fortunes of people who lived alongside the highway have changed with the arrival of the Interstate. I passed several ranch entrances which hinted at economic activity beyond the gate. I was also struck by the number of abandoned and derelict properties and stores which had closed because of a lack of passing trade. There were still quite a few properties where people were making some sort of a living – a small roadside convenience store or a business supporting the farming activity such as a blacksmith or an ironmongers. The most vibrant seemed to be the public service facilities such as the post offices and a school that I passed which literally appeared to be in the middle of nowhere. Occasionally we passed through small communities and hamlets. Once such place was Laguna, a Pueblo or American Indian settlement, founded in 1699. The adobe mud buildings characterise the architecture here. Overall I felt quite sad to pass through an area where the communities seemed to be slowly disappearing or dissolving into the desert sands. Of course I may have misread the signals and can only tell it like I saw it.

After riding for about 30 miles we arrived at the day’s first SAG in a service area. This was a signal that we would be back on the Interstate for a spell. The highlight of the SAG were som pies that Paula had obtained. The CV opted for what it told me was a rather tasty peach number! Just as we were about to set off Dave discovered that his rear tyre was soft so a tube change was needed. I was impressed that after fitting a new inner tube he then patched the old one! He said that as he was riding large (32mm tyres – I’m using 28mm) he was happier to use larger tubes compared to the smaller size that I use. Once Dave was ready we set off along the Interstate (I-40) which fortunately had a wide and generally smooth shoulder, reminiscent of those in California. There was still quite a lot of debris though which led to Emil having a rear wheel puncture after about 5 miles. The rest of The Fabs rose to the occasion and Emil was soon ‘good to go’. Fortunately we completed the remaining 25 miles of Interstate riding without any further incident and arrived at the second stop where we refreshed ourselves with ice creams at a Dairy Queen outlet.

Then it was back on the road with a 4-mile hot drag uphill. Approaching the crest which I had been riding towards for what seemed like forever (it was actually 23 minutes according to Strava) I was amused to see a sign reading ‘Lost Horizon’. In the distance were the mountains, the tail end of the Rockies, which I later discovered rose two about 10,000 feet. Cresting the climb we rode down and over I-40 onto a magnificent downhill straight which ran all the way into Albuquerque. With a straight and a clear road ahead this was a great opportunity to get down low over the crossbar and freewheel – I got up to 38mph before the traffic lights. The day’s final  landmark was a crossing of the Rio Grande which over the course of nearly 1,800 miles (it’s the 4th longest river in the US) flows from Colorado to the Gulf of Mexico. We paused to take a photograph of the sign at the start of the river crossing but had to move on swiftly because out of nowhere a vagrant, who looked like a Zombie, appeared and started moving menacingly towards us. We made it to the other side where Pete took a picture of me posing – i.e holding the CV aloft above my head. We do like a bit of posing!

A fast ride through the outskirts of Albuquerque to our hotel for the night. Dinner this evening was a rather special event as we said our goodbyes to Dave and also to Laurence who are leaving us. A couple of short impromptu speeches commemorated the occasion. Dave absolutely hit the nail on the head when he said that what makes a good ride is the route you ride; what makes a great ride are the people you ride with. Chapeau Dave, the Fabs are going to miss you.

Wednesday 23 May 2018

USA Tour Stage 10: Gallup to Grants, NM (66 Miles)

Click here for route flyby

Today was a cause for celebration, or so I thought. The day’s route involved very little Interstate riding which I have to say I haven’t really been enjoying – who does? It’s been a sort of necessary evil. Instead we were going to step back in time and spend most of the day riding along the iconic Route 66. I was really looking forward to this for several reasons. First and foremost it was a chance to experience a slice of American history. I’ve read several books about journeys along the highway and have also seen several documentaries. One of my favourites is the film of the trip that the Big Yin, Billy Connolly made. He has a wonderful talent for getting the best out of the people he met on his travels. And his trademark and sometimes self-deprecating humour means that he never takes himself too seriously.

Getting out of Gallup was pretty straightforward although there was quite a lot of traffic with people going to work. I could feel the CV shudder slightly as we approached the intersection for the Interstate then relax noticeably as we rode past the onramp and onto Route 66. I think I even heard it give a little whoop of joy! I was distracted at the time as my Garmin was misbehaving and wasn’t loading the route correctly. After a few attempts too reload the route I gave up. Today wouldn’t involve much navigation and the Route Notes had all the information I needed.

Once out into the countryside I could see the road stretching invitingly ahead of me. With virtually no other traffic this was a great time to enjoy the sights and sounds of the countryside we were passing through. For the first time for several days it was even quiet enough to hear the birds singing which only added to my feeling of elation. With the road stretching into the far distance I thought I could go off the front and grab a photo of The Fabs from afar. So I changed up a couple of gears, stood up and gave it all I’d got – like a sprinter. As I shot past them I heard a couple of confused shouts. “Photo opp” I replied. (I later discovered they didn’t hear what I had said and thought I may have been stung by a bee!) Anyway I rapidly opened up a gap of about 400 yards before reaching a gentle incline, about 1%. Suddenly I realised that my breathing was laboured and remembered that we were still at 6,500 feet. Looking back over my shoulder I could see that the gap was now holding, not increasing. So I pulled over, extracted the camera from my back pocket and just as I had got it focussed the Fabs passed me. But I did get a nice shot of a long, straight and empty road.

After 16 miles unfortunately Route 66 was no longer available and we had to turn on to the dreaded I-40 for the next 10 miles. The good news was that none of The Fabs had a puncture. The bad news was this was probably the worst stretch of Interstate we had ridden to date. The shoulder was very rough, to the point of being unrideable so we had to sit between the white line marking the side of the carriageway and the vibration strip which warns vehicles when they drift off the carriageway towards the shoulder. Riding on a strip of tarmac about 6 inches wide with heavy lorries passing at speed about 18 inches away was quite unnerving. Fortunately we covered the 10 miles without incident and eventually turned off I-40 for the day’s first SAG.

The SAG was at another landmark on the tour. We had now reached the Continental Divide at an altitude of 7,275 feet. This is a mountainous hydrological line that runs from Alaska in the north through the Rockies and thence down through the Andes to Tierra Del Fuego. Water landing on the western side flows into the Pacific and on the Eastern side into the Atlantic. In the time honoured tradition, I nipped behind the store to conduct a little experiment – I had a discreet pee. So now, some of my waters are making their way to the two oceans!

Once out of the SAG it was back onto Route 66 for the rest of the day – yaay. This was really enjoyable. We were in a sort of sandwich between the Interstate on our right and the railway line on our left. The road itself was very quiet – so quiet that we could ride two and sometimes even three abreast. With virtually no traffic, it was a time for looking around and admiring the scenery. Away to the right across the desert was a range of hills about 10 miles away which looked like they were covered in forest. On our left were some lovely ochre and red sandstone cliffs and bluffs a couple of miles away which had been weathered into some amazing shapes. In front of us was a range of mountains, the tail end of the Rockies which I guessed rose to over 10,000 feet.

As if the scenery wasn’t enough we were passed by a succession of freight trains. Each one was at least a mile long and pulled by up to five diesel engines often with another couple of engines at the back. They chugged by at around 40 mph and took several minutes to pass us by. I tried counting the number of container wagons on one and lost count at about 65! Several of the trains had two layers of containers, one above the other which added to their sense of power. A couple of the trains were loaded with lorry trailers which to me seemed a great way to reduce the volume of long-distance traffic on the highways.

As we made our way along the road the wind turned so that we began to ride into quite a strong headwind. To beat the wind we formed a chain-gang and did some through and offs, with each of us taking a turn on the front for about a mile before peeling off to rest at the back. At one stage when the road changed direction so that the wind was bowing onto our shoulders we formed an echelon to maximise our efficiency. After several days of being together our formation riding is now almost instinctive. What this also meant was that we could sustain a good pace in spite of the wind, so that we arrived in Grants by early afternoon.

As we rode in, Pete spotted a rather different Route 66 sign so we pulled over for a photo. Just adjacent to the sign in a large grass area I saw a group of people carefully placing small white wooden crosses in the ground. I strolled over to find out more and discovered that this was a civic group who were preparing for Memorial Day on 28 May. This is a federal holiday to commemorate the people who died while serving in the country’s armed force, rather like Remembrance Sunday in the UK. As I stood and reflected on the row upon row of white crosses I found it quite moving to think that in a small town of about 10,000 people so many have given their lives.

Then it was a short distance to our hotel which, despite our early arrival, was ready and welcoming. As I wheeled my bike into my room there on the bed were my two bags, delivered as always by Itchytoo. This is one of those small details that makes such a difference at the end of a day’s riding. Finding my kit ready and waiting for me instead of having to lug bags and bike along unfamiliar corridors makes it all so easy. All I then have to do is unearth my sponge bag and clean clothes and dive into the shower so that I can wash off the road dust and grime and become human again! Itchytoo surpassed himself again this evening with a magnificent catered dinner of barbecued delicacies.

So, both a day to celebrate and a day to reflect. And another day closer to the Atlantic. Will I arrive there before my pee does? When I switched off my Garmin I noticed that today I had ridden 66 Miles on Route 66. Co-incidence or what?

Tuesday 22 May 2018

USA Stage 9: Holbrook, AZ to Gallup, NM (94 Miles)

Click here for route flyby.

Holbrook, where we stayed overnight has a fairly colourful history as a wild-west town. The most notorious incident occurred in 1887 when the Sheriff, Perry Owens confronted four members of a local family, the Blevins, who had been involved in a number of crimes, including stealing horses (punishable by hanging). In the ensuing gunfight, Sheriff Perry emerged unscathed, one of the Blevin bothers, and a friend were killed; the other brother was wounded. This apparently considerably elevated the Sheriff’s reputation as a man not to be trifled with. Today, Holbrook is a rather more sedate place and from what I saw, exists as a transport hub. The constant flow of trucks and trains and the large number of motels and budget hotels, diners and fast food outlets, with the associated services all point to this.

Today was another transitional stage and a day largely spent on I-40.  Once again the massive desert landscape defined the riding. Much of the land was uninhabited though from time to time we passed small, ramshackle houses – some abandoned, others still lived in. It struck me that it must be really hard scratching a living here. All around were signs highlighting that we were in Navajo territory. Our second SAG was at an Indian Gift Shop. After a cooling ice cream I checked my rear wheel to discover that it was going soft. Closer inspection revealed that the tube had been pierced by two of those infernal metal shards from burst truck tyres so a tube change was needed.

It would seem that almost everyone has had at least one puncture today, some more – one of the downsides of residing on the Interstate. There is no really viable alternative available. The impact of what sometimes seems like a never-ending succession of punctures on the tour riders has been fascinating to observe. Although for all of us a puncture is a frustrating and annoying event I have also noticed that it has become a unifying force for the riders and support crew. We all help each other whenever we can – in a variety of ways. Sometimes just a word of encouragement is all that is sought or needed. At other times a helping hand is gratefully received. Occasionally, strength and a bit of experience is the answer. All delivered and received with good humour and grace. As a lesson in team building this strikes me as a benchmark that many in business and industry would pay large bucks to have in their own situations.

After riding across Arizona for the last six days we finally crossed the state line into New Mexico. All told we have ridden over 400 miles across the state. To put this in context, Arizona is about 1.25 times the size of Great Britain and is the sixth largest US State. New Mexico bills itself as The Land of Enchantment – I can’t wait to see how this manifests itself. Crossing the State line also marked a another change as we passed out of the Pacific Time Zone and into the Mountain Time Zone. That means that we have ‘lost’ an hour today.

Approaching Gallup, Pete and I, together with Robert and Robin, two of the tour support crew, pulled in to a Taco Bell outlet for a spot of end of stage refreshment. Robin very kindly bought as all Taco’s – the CV had its first one and says “big thanks Robin”. Then it was a short spin down to our hotel for the night – the Comfort Inn. Soon after arriving I realised that I had left my Camelback containing tools and a small about of cash at the Taco Bell so I had to ride back to collect it, adding an extra 10 miles to the day’s total. Doh!

Today was also a happy day and a sad one. Navi, one of the tour riders found out this morning that she has qualified for medical school. Compared to some of the team she is relatively new to cycling and seems to be really enjoying herself. Bob, one of the more experienced riders onto tour leaves us today. Bob is best described as a ‘character’ and I am going to miss his friendly greetings. We celebrated with beer and cake – as all good cyclists do! Chapeau Bob and Navi!

Monday 21 May 2018

USA Tour Stage 8: Flagstaff to Holbrook, AZ (93 Miles)

Click here for ride fly by

After a rest day yesterday it was good to be back on the road and CV seemed to be rearing to get the heck out of Flagstaff. Yessiree, we’re getting to grips with lingo hereabouts. As we rode out of Flagstaff I caught a glimpse of the San Francisco Peaks that define the landscape on the north side of the city. They are the remains of San Francisco Mountain which was a volcano until it collapsed following a spectacular eruption some 200,000 years ago. The highest mountain now is Humprey’s Peak which rises to 12,600 feet. Before the eruption the parent San Francisco Mountain was another mile higher than today.

The Peaks are very important to the culture and spirituality of  a number of American Indian tribes – the Navajo call them Dook’o’oosliid (the summit which never melts). The other major tribe in the area, the Hopi, has named them Nuva’tukya’ovi (place of snow on the very top). Today the range is a popular with skiers and there are a huge number of cycle trails to explore. There are even some local sages who assert that another eruption is due!

Our regular quartet, Dave, Emil, Pete and me (the Fab Four?) formed up pretty quickly as we left Flagstaff. Pete accurately described today’s stage to Holbrook as transitional i.e. covering the greatest possible distance by the most direct route. Unfortunately this meant that we were back on the Interstate (I-40) for most of the day, although we were following the line of the historic Route 66. With a strong tailwind we made great speed, rolling along at 20-25mph. Shortly after joining the Interstate I led us up what would normally be a very short, gentle uphill stretch – almost too gentle to call a climb. As I was riding up I noticed that my breathing was getting slightly laboured and a quick peek at my Garmin revealed that we were at an altitude of 6,800 feet. With the massive open landscape all around us it is easy to forget we are quite high up – well, high for me compared to my normal terrain in East Anglia. Fortunately the route profile showed that over the next 50 miles we would gradually descend to about 5,000 feet.

Riding along the Interstate is pretty boring. Today the shoulder was quite rough and gravelly – but still smoother than many of the roads I ride on back home. Riding the long straights where you can see the road stretching ahead for miles gets almost hypnotic. I’ve developed some mind games to pass the time. I look at the current mileage on my Garmin, pick a landmark and guess the distance to it. Then when I’ve reached the landmark I look at the mileage again on my Garmin. I’m not very good at this! Alternatively I try to guess when I’ve ridden a set distance, usually 5 miles. I’m better at this. What I DO NOT do is look at the Garmin to see how far it is to the finish – that’s a recipe for a headache! I do check the mileage at SAGs – at the second one today I thought of as a short after work ride, say 20 miles. To have finished ‘work’ and be riding at 2;00pm is a pretty good feeling! And today, from time to time, I let rip with a verse or two of that eponymous Chuck Berry song. You know the one, don’t you? Why don’t you sing a verse or two do get into our groove. Go on – I dare you!

We reached the first SAG after 40 miles so that was a chance to break the monotony. Then it was more of the same for another 20 miles to Winslow. About 2 miles out from Winslow I had a rear wheel puncture (one of those evil thin wires from burst truck tyres) so that rang the changes. The Fabs were great and helped me with the tube change so I was soon underway again and arrived in Winslow shortly afterwards. First up was a moment to play the tourist by getting the obligatory pic while Standing On The Corner in Winslow Arizona. I reckon if Jackson Brown and Glenn Frey who wrote the song (Take it Easy) got a dollar for every photo taken they would have earned more than through song sales and publishing royalties. With the construction of the Interstate, Winslow, like many towns on the historic Route 66, has had to reinvent itself and get a new USP. ‘That song’ has proven too be the catalyst though I have to say that based on what I saw of the town, success has been mixed.

Once we’d all posed on the corner we adjourned to a nearby Mexican café, Las Marias, for an early lunch. After chowing a rather tasty bean enchillada I reluctantly ready to set off again for the next leg of the Interstate experience. By now the wind speed had picked up with gusts up to 40mph and was blowing from the south i.e. a crosswind. This meant that the riding was pretty tough and staying upright required considerable concentration and strength. We rode along in a mini-echelon – in the time honoured way that cyclists cope with sidewinds. After another 25 miles we turned off for the second SAG of the day. At the morning’s Route Rap Paula had told us that we would ‘Ride the Rabbit’ which had got me slightly worried. Was this some sort of novel Arizona custom? Was it legal? Would I rise to the challenge whatever it was? These, and many other unmentionable thoughts had been playing on my mind for much of the day. Well readers, I’ll let the photograph speak for itself.  The Jack Rabbit Trading Post is one of the iconic sights on Route 66 – it even has its own named exit on the Interstate. And in case you’re wondering, no, I didn’t get arrested for riding the rabbit. That’s what it’s there for.

After our little entertainment it was more of the same – back on the Interstate for the final 15 miles to Holbrook and the end of today’s stage. That darned side wind didn’t let up. If anything it swung around a tad so that I was riding into it slightly. We stopped at a Dairy Queen fast food outlet for a milkshake about half a mile before our hotel. When I got off the CV my right hand was numb and my forearm was quite fatigued from the effects of holding the handlebars fighting the side wind. But rest assured, within an hour of arriving at the hotel and after a clothes wash and a shower I felt great again. As the hotel, which is quite comfortable, doesn’t provide dinner, Itchytoo had been deputised to order in vast quantities of pizza for a party.  When I popped over the road to the gas station to buy some beer for The Fabs, the attendant commented that he had sold more beer this evening than he had in the rest of the year. Bring it on!

Saturday 19 May 2018

USA Tour Stage 7: Cottonwood to Flagstaff, AZ (47 Miles)

Click here for route flyby.

As I walked down the stairs from the balcony outside my room at about 6:00am hotel I bumped into Itchytoo (remember him?) who greeted me with a big smile, as he does every morning. In a slightly conspiratorial tone he said: “You’re going to love today. It’s going to be spectacular.” So that set me up for the day. Our route was going to take us out of Cottonwood to Sedona and then on to Flagstaff. I had read that as we approached and then rode past Sedona we would be passing through its Red Hills but I didn’t know any more than that.

After the pre-ride Route Rap from Paula we rolled out of Cottonwood heading north east. Behind us I could just make out Jerome on the side of yesterday’s mountain and above it a stretch of that thrilling descent. The first part of today’s ride wasn’t particularly rewarding as it was very busy and we were being passed by a constant stream of cars and trucks. Once again the road rolled along as it rose steadily upwards. Gradually it dawned on me that the character of the landscape was changing. Gone were the browns and tans of the desert landscape now replaced with more greenery and a red hue to the soil. In the distance I could see some cliffs that had the same distinctive red hue. We were entering sandstone country.

Rounding a corner I could make out a spectacular cliff formation, weathered into towering columns and pillars. The layered, rust coloured rock faces were stunning. As we rode on, the rocks took on even more spectacular shapes and colours.  I spent so much time looking around and being captivated by the views that I found it difficult to stay focussed on the road I was riding over. Arriving at Sedona we stopped for coffee at a café that Paula had recommended during the Route Rap. The view from the terrace was quite simply amazing. I was looking at millions of years of geological history which had been shaped into the most amazing patterns and shapes. The views were almost beyond description and my photographs don’t do them justice. I could have sat here all day in the warm sunshine and soaked up the landscape. But we had to press on.

Leaving Sedona we entered a canyon which gradually closed in as we rode along it for next 12 miles. Covered with Ponderosa pine, oak, ash and other deciduous tree species we were now in the, part of Coconino National Forest, managed by the US Forest Service. My forester’s eyes took a close interest in the landscape I was riding through. I’ve discovered that the management plan for the forest has recently been updated which piqued my professional interest so I’ve made a note to have a look at it after the tour when I’m back at home. There were lots of small attractive campsites all along the valley and as this was the weekend they all seemed busy. The landscape reminded me of a Scottish Glen but on a much larger scale.

Gradually as we reached the head of the canyon, the road began to kick up until rounding a corner I looked upwards to see it way above me. So it was game on. I had arrived at the start of the climb proper. Over the next two miles the road climbed steadily upwards through a series of spectacular hairpins. As I climbed in the hot afternoon sun I could feel my breathing getting slightly more – the effects of altitude. The most challenging parts of the climb were riding round the hairpins where the gradient increased noticeably before flattening off when the road straightened out again. This is the opposite of many European climbs where the gradient often eases through the bends. Climbing the face of the mountain was a bit like ascending a ladder a rung at a time. As I ascended I could see the road I had travelled below me – and it was a really satisfying feeling to be able to measure my progress.

Eventually with a final left curve I arrived at the summit (6,400 feet) where Paula was standing to both cheer us on and also make sure we didn’t miss the turn into the SAG. I rolled into the large car park and did a couple of laps spinning a low gear to relax my legs before climbing off. After a cold drink and some tasty strawberries I rode over to the viewpoint look down at the climb I had just completed. It was a really satisfying feeling to look down through the hairpins and back towards Sedona, several miles behind me.

On the path to the viewpoint I passed a row of stalls with Native Americans selling a selection of goods – jewellery, artwork, clothing and so forth. The surrounding area has been inhabited since 10,000BC by Paleo-Indians who hunted game in the area. Over time, the population of hunter-gatherer tribes flourished and there is a range of rock art visible near Sedona.  More recently the Yavapi and some nomadic Apache tribes settled in the area until, in 1876, they were forcibly removed. Prior to coming on the tour I read a book about American history. The chronicle started in 1492 when Columbus arrived on the east coast. I am fascinated to learn more about the history of this nation prior to 1492 but there does not seem to be much available to read. I understand that unlike Europe were there are lots of written accounts, much Native American history has not been written down and instead has been passed through the generations by word of mouth. I plan to do some research later this year as the few glimpses I have had sound really fascinating.

The final leg of the day’s riding took us into Flagstaff along a newly resurfaced road (I could smell the fresh tarmac in the air). This was a short day and we arrived at the hotel at 2:00pm before our rooms were ready. So there was a chance to enjoy a cold beer and chat amongst ourselves. The tour support crew had set up a service station in the hotel car park so I was able to wash the CV, degrease the chain and give it the once over. It seems to be holding up to the rigours of the tour remarkably well. I am really enjoying riding it and getting to know its idiosyncrasies. By way of an update I can also report that my new shoes have solved the tight foot issue – I am quite comfortable now.

Do you remember that Itchytoo told me today was going to be great? Well, I played a little joke on him when I arrived. He asked me what I felt about the day and I said that I had a complaint to make. A look of deep concern passed across his face. I told him that I was disappointed with the description of today in the tour brochure. It had misrepresented the quality of the day by failing to say just how wonderful it was. It was hilarious to watch Itchytoo process what I had just said before he realised that I was joking. The look of relief, followed by laughter when he said “You got me, man” was a great way to end a great day. I’m expecting Itchytoo to get his revenge sometime in the next five weeks…!

Tomorrow is a rest day and I’m planning to visit the Grand Canyon which is only 60 miles away. I’ve never been there before so it seems too good an opportunity to miss. And in case you’re wondering, no I won’t be riding! Pete has booked a guided tour for us. So, I’ll probably have a day off from the blog too. I’m hoping to have some great pictures on my Instagram so do have a look.

Several readers have emailed me or commented on the social media about the tour. Apologies if I don’t respond – what time I have off the bike is very full with the domestics. In fact a few folk have asked me about how my day is structured so at some point, perhaps on the next rest day I’ll try to describe a typical day on tour.