Friday 28 August 2020


Well hello readers. Yet again I seem to have let you down by not keeping you up to speed with my activities. I have probably been having too much fun in the saddle and as I have said before, faced with a choice between the keyboard and the saddle, the saddle always wins. So there! But as it’s a wet afternoon and after being chastised by a few of you I’m going to try and make amends. So, let’s roll the clock back to the start of the year and chase down the peloton. As they are now several miles up the road I am going to have to up my cadence and work hard to catch up.

Garden of the Gods - Cycling Heaven?
I returned to the USA at the end of January, flying to Denver to meet Mary and stay, sans bike, with her sister and brother-in-law for a few days in Colorado Springs on the eastern side of the Rockies. We visited the Garden of the Gods with its spectacular rock formations. This was a beautiful place with some great ride possibilities. So great that I was sorely tempted to snag a bike by any means possible and set off to explore further. But I restrained myself and hopefully I will be invited back and have an opportunity to stretch my climbing legs.

After a week at altitude (around 8,000 ft) we were soon heading back to Sacramento which now feels like I’m returning home. I was pleased to be reunited with Fausto, my Bianchi Infinito, and we were soon heading out on the American River Bike trail to get back in the groove. Our 40‑mile first ride was just the ticket to re-acquaint ourselves with each other. It was a bit like meeting an old friend and our conversation picked up exactly where it had ended a few weeks before. The bike trail is a wonderful resource and I was determined to enjoy it to the full. Having spent several weeks riding on UK roads it was a pleasant change to ride without having to worry about cars! As I write this blog post at the beginning of September, it seems strange to think back to a time when the media were just beginning to report a virus outbreak in China. Like most people I had no inkling of what was about to happen and how much our lives and lifestyles were going to change.

One happy author!
I managed to clock up close to 1,000 miles in February including finding a few new routes to take me further afield. My latest book, Can I Tell You Something? was published at the end of the month. It’s the story of my 2018 tour across the USA. Opening one of the boxes that the publisher had sent to me in Sacramento and holding the finished book for the first time was a really exciting moment. There had been a few production issues with the cover when it was being printed so I was pleased to see that it had turned out well in the end. I was especially pleased with the blurb on the back cover:

“Mark Pritchard has an engaging writing style. Can I Tell You Something? puts you on the saddle of his bike so that you can almost hear the swish of tyres on the tarmac and feel the breeze on your face. It’s the next best thing to being on the tour yourself.”

If you’re a regular reader of this blog then you’ll understand what this all about!

Early in March I completed my first century ride of the year. I had bought a book about rides in northern California and there were a couple in the Sacramento Delta area south of the city so I decided to explore the area which I hadn’t been to before. I managed to navigate myself across the city to the Freeport Bridge which is a gateway to the delta. This was quite a hair-raising experience on busy roads through the suburbs where I definitely didn’t feel safe, both from the traffic and in some quite run down and economically depressed housing areas. I have since worked out how to get to the bridge by bike trail which has made me feel a lot happier.

The Delta covers about 1,100 square miles and was formed by the Sacramento and San Joaquin Rivers. Subsidence due in part to wind erosion means that much of the area lies below sea level hence the nickname “California Holland”. There are a lot of similarities with the Fens which I often ride in back in the UK. One difference that I immediately noticed is that in the Fens most of the minor roads run below the levees and flood banks whereas in the Delta they sit on top of the levees. In the UK I am often grateful for the shelter from the cold Siberian winter winds. In the Delta I enjoyed the opportunity to see the views and appreciate the scale of the landscape. The Delta and the Fens are both important for the crops grown but the Delta, at least in the area I rode, stands apart for the sheer scale of its vineyards. Signs for the various wineries and a wine trail piqued my interest for the future. The area’s microclimate means that some very high-quality grape varieties are grown. The town of Clarksburg, which was the hub of my ride, boasts an appellation which is highly valued across the world.

The route I took followed some very minor, and in some places quite rough roads. The bumps are caused by roots as many of the levees are tree lined. Over the three hours I spent riding in the Delta I was passed by only two cars, so I was able to meander my way around the bumps with ease. I imagined that I was like the captain of a ship navigating through a minefield. One loss of concentration could be terminal. You will deduce that I survived intact to tell the tale!

Many of the vineyards had people, including possibly whole families working in them and often they stood up and gave me a friendly wave which I returned as I passed by. If I was able to speak Spanish I would have been tempted to stop to learn a bit more about what they were doing. The long-distance views, with the Sierras just visible in the distant haze to the east were breath-taking. And the tranquillity and peace, with just the whirr of my wheels spinning, the occasional bird call and the gentle rustle of the breeze in the tree leaves, was so relaxing. And all this just 20 miles, as the crow flies, from the hustle and bustle of downtown Sacramento. I look forward to returning exploring more of the area.

Having reacquired the enjoyment of century riding I completed my second 100-mile ride of the year a week later. This time I rode west out of Sacramento to the city of Davis and then northwards through Woodland and Knights Landing to the Sacramento River which I followed until I estimated that I was just over 50 miles from home where I turned around and followed the river back to the city.

Whilst waiting at some traffic lights when I was leaving Sacramento another rider pulled up alongside me and we got chatting. Rick, who was from Southern California, was staying in the city while his wife was at a conference. We rode together to Davis and Woodland where he turned right to head back towards the city and I continued northwards. Like cyclists everywhere we weren’t short of conversation! Except for the leg northwards out of Davis which involved riding into a very stiff headwind making conversation virtually impossible. We shared the lead position to provide each other with shelter. As I paused to bid Rick farewell he told me to remember that “the wind is my friend.” Sage advice indeed!

Fausto amongst the walnuts
Once I reached the Sacramento River the landscape was very similar the Delta area that I rode in last week. The main difference was that instead of vineyards the landscape was dotted with walnut plantations. California produces 99 per cent of the total USA walnut crop, spread over some 200,000 acres, and the Sacramento valley is one of the main growing areas. About one third of the crop is exported and California-grown walnuts account for three-quarters of world trade. Maybe the next time I have a café stop for coffee I’ll be savouring some Californian walnuts in my slice of coffee and walnut cake. Now there’s a thought!

During April I continued to explore new routes with one highlight being a ride into the El Dorado Hills. Despite the name, the site of the gold strike in 1848 was actually several miles away in Coloma. Many readers will know that I enjoy the challenge of a hill climb. Lying in a river valley on a delta, and not yet having extensive local knowledge, means that for me at least, finding a good hill is a bit like finding hens teeth. Mary had talked about Beatty Drive in the El Dorado Hills which piqued my interest, so I set out towards Folsom to find out more. And I was not disappointed.

Heading to the El Dorado Hills
The main part of the climb is about three-quarters of a mile long with an average gradient of 10% and maximum of 15%. Strava rates it as a Cat 4 climb. It was certainly stiff enough to get me breathing heavily and raised my heart rate to 170 bpm – I normally average around 120 bpm on my rides. The road swept upwards through some up up-market real estate with great views over Folsom Lake and back towards the city. Reaching what I took to be the top of the climb I paused to catch my breath before turning around and enjoying the descent on a smooth surface, sweeping through the curves in less than a quarter of the time that the ascent had taken. Looking at the map afterwards I realised that I could have gone further along the ridge and come back by a different route. Oh well, next time! And no, I didn’t find any gold.

As mid-April approached it was time to return to the UK. By now the Coronavirus pandemic was in full flow with lockdowns in most countries across the globe. In California at least, I was still able to ride which provided some welcome relief. The rest of the time, apart from occasional trips to get groceries etc. Mary and I stayed at home with an upside that we were able to catch up on essential garden work! From early March as the virus took hold and people were furloughed, I noticed a significant increase in the number of riders on the trail. These included whole family groups which were great to see. There were also a lot of riders on new and up-market bikes wearing some pretty stylish kit who rode like they were sprinting to win a stage if the Tour of California. If only they had a better understanding of riding etiquette, or even a grasp of the concept of awareness and safety when other riders were using the trail. I had a number of close shaves, including one where I still don’t understand how I managed to stay upright!

With direct flights back to the UK being severely curtailed I was lucky to be able to get a flight from LA to Heathrow. I was one of only 10 passengers on the flight and had a whole cabin to myself. There were more crew than passengers! Heathrow, when we arrived, was virtually deserted. It took me a mere 30 minutes to disembark and shuttle across to the rental car office, collect a car and drive on to the M25. If this had been a Strava segment I would surely have won a KOM! The drive back to Suffolk was quite eerie on virtually deserted motorways. The day after arriving I loaded CV into the back of the rental car, which I took back to the depot in Thetford. After completing the end of hire formalities CV and I enjoyed a gentle 40-mile ride around once familiar lanes as we headed back home.

UK Government advice allowed exercise and as I live in the countryside I took this to mean that I could ride fairly freely as long as I didn’t stray too far from home. One of my ‘standard’ routes is about 50 miles long but never more than 10 miles from my house. One thing that struck me immediately was that there were a lot more people out riding. The media was reporting a massive surge in bicycle sales – so much so that in some places dealers were pretty much out of stock and quoting lead times of several months before they would be able to fill orders. Smart trainers were also out of stock and I was amused to learn that virtual racing on Zwift and other platforms was becoming quite the thing. Turbo training for me has and will probably remain a means to keeping my legs loose during inclement weather. The idea of riding in a sort of video game holds little appeal for me and instead prefer spinning the time away while watching a Scandi-noir series, or, confession time now, Dallas! Several years ago I bought the complete DVD box set (14 seasons, 4 movies and some spin-offs) for £10. Good old JR’s antics are great for getting me to maintain a high cadence – around 100rpm for an hour, if you must know.

100,000 miles riden!
In 2011 I started using Strava to record my rides and on 17 May I reached a significant milestone – 100,000 miles recorded. To celebrate my achievement I did a 70-mile ride with my buddy Daren and we stopped for a photo as I crossed the line. I felt quietly pleased with myself. And indulging in a bit of bragging my 100K miles involved 2,800,000 feet of climbing (nearly equivalent to 100 ascents of Mt Everest), 156 century rides and 5,750 hours in the saddle. So there you are. I have it on good authority that the next 100K are all downhill. Extrapolating this backwards, if that’s even possible, I estimate that I must have ridden around 250,000 miles in my lifetime.

Suffolk sign spotting
As the summer unfolded I filled the time riding old routes on lanes and passing through villages that I haven’t seen for quite some time. Somewhere along the way I hit on a new challenge. Many villages in Britain have a pictorial sign depicting some aspect of their history and life. This set me thinking. How many villages in Suffolk have such signs and could I ride to and photograph all of them? With some giggling on the interweb I soon unearthed The Village Sign Society, paid the £8 joining subscription and was able to access their database where I discovered that there are nearly 500 signs in the county. So the challenge is on and I’ll tell you more in a future post. That’s a promise!!

Most years I try to ride a sportive in North Wales which holds some happy memories for me. This year I had hoped to ride the Tour de Môn (Anglesey) which I last rode a few years ago. It’s a spectacular day on a 100-mile circuit round the island. Pandemic precautions meant that this year the organisers had to cancel the event and instead offered to run it as an online sportive. I entered, downloaded the software and on the day of the event, accompanied by Daren I rode a circuit on the Fens. Not quite the same as riding on Anglesey but a good catalyst for a ride nevertheless and a few days afterwards I received a finishers medal to add to my collection.

Well that’s about all my news. I hope you won't have to wait too long before you hear from me again. As I write this the delayed Tour de France has just begun. It’s odd to think that neither the Froomedog nor G are taking part. I wonder how it’s going to pan out. I heard one commentator describe it as a bit like a game of pass the parcel. You know, whoever is wearing the yellow jersey when the race is finished, or aborted, is the winner. In the meantime I’m hoping that team Jumbo-Visma, riding Bianchi’s will be successful. I also hope that Julian Allaphillippe will have some success. A victory by a French rider is long overdue and if he has the form then might just pull it off. Au revoir lecteurs!