The joy of … *cycling

Not many of my anecdotes embarrass my children, especially if I’m talking about cycling. My kids seem to view me as a harmelss old chap who enjoys fiddling around with bikes, which keeps me out of trouble. But this story is about the cycle of life, which might make them think again. Sorry kids.

You see, it begins so innocently. There I am, sitting in bed sipping my cocoa, quietly doing the crossword. Next to me Mrs R is reading the newspaper – The Grauniad, it so happens. Suddenly she does something that has me spluttering and almost spilling my drink.

“It says here,” she says, reading from the paper, “that researchers in the US have shown that older men who enjoy frequent *cycling raise their chances of developing heart problems.”

She waits for me to stop choking before she continues reading: “Men in their late 50s to mid-80s who indulged in *cycling activity once a week or more had twice the risk of heart attack, stroke or other cardiovascular conditions over the next five years, compared with men who went without, the researchers found. To make matters worse, the men who enjoyed *cycling the most were more likely to suffer heart conditions than those who were not so bothered.” And that’s it. She doesn’t say another thing, but turns the page and continues reading while I try to recover from the shock of, implicitly, being lumped in the dubious category of “older” men. Instantly I forget the crossword. This snippet of information has left me wondering about the future of my … well, my cycling life.

The next morning, having recovered my senses somewhat, I dig out the newspaper article and I discover that, indeed, the researchers discovered just what Mrs R had told me. But there was more to it, and Mrs R had been a little economical with the facts. In fact, she had omitted to read out one important paragraph: “But the same was not seen for older women, who appeared to suffer no ill-effects from a robust *cycling life, and tended to have lower blood pressure when they found *cycling highly enjoyable.”

That afternoon, over a nice cup of tea, I raise the matter of this small omission with Mrs R.

“I was just thinking about you and your good health,” she tells me.

I respond by telling her that I’m quite happy to take the risk in the interests of her well-being.

She mutters into her teacup something that sounds very much like: “Yes, that’s just what I feared.”

Oh well, if the weather’s favourable, I hope to be back on the bike tomorrow. And yes, kids, I do still enjoy cycling, frequently or infrequently.

* s**

Lost for words? Not with a map


mapmakers badge What is the magic of maps? What is the special, secret ingredient that transforms a flat piece of paper into a complex, contoured landscape filled with hills and valleys, rivers and paths and trees? In essence, a map is no more than a piece of paper with lines and dots and maybe a bit of shading. But its beauty is in its simplicity – a mere piece of paper can help you to conjure up an image of exactly where you are in your street, your country, the world, or even the universe.

I’ve always loved maps – ever since I was a boy scout I have loved the idea that there, sketched out on a piece of paper, is a whole world that I want to explore.  But more than that, I love what maps stand for – they represent an opportunity to travel, to explore, to discover somewhere that you have never been before. That is their magic.

Whenever I prepare for a journey I spend hours poring over maps to plan where I want to go, how I will get there, what I will do once I am there. Quite often there never is a “there”, the whole journey is about the journey. Sometimes there is a destination, sometimes not – a bit like Edward Monkton’s Zen Dog.

zen dogBut it doesn’t matter whether I am travelling to another continent, another country, or just another corner of the woods down the road, it is a map that opens up all the possibilities. And that is the amazing thing about them, our minds adjust effortlessly to whatever they represent – scale all becomes relative. We can comprehend a map of the globe just as easily as a 1:10,000 London street map.

Earlier this year we moved from Kent to Dorset, which meant, oh joy of joys, that I had to invest in a whole new set of maps. I say a whole new set, because there is a small problem about the Ordnance Survey map of where we live – our village is right in the top left-hand corner of map 118. That means I need another three maps to get the full picture of the surrounding countryside. The Ordnance Survey does create bespoke maps with your postcode right at the centre, but they don’t supply a digital version, so you might as well just buy the four maps.

And yes, you read that right: I did mention that dreaded word “digital”. I am, at heart, a traditionalist. I prefer paper maps that can be spread out on the lounge floor to plan that journey from Land’s End to John O’Groats, or Bilbao to Santiago de Compostela. But there are times when digital is useful, and Ordnance Survey have picked up on this, because now when you buy and one of their Explorer or Landranger series, you can download a version onto a mobile device. That means you don’t have to carry an extra bag for all the maps you would need, but you’ll also have to make sure your phone battery doesn’t go flat.

Look, our house is marked on the map!

Look, that’s our house there, named on the map!

Actually, I have joined more than just the OS digital scene. I use Memory Maps for route planning on my computer (after checking out the planning on paper), and I use open source maps on my Garmin. A bit belt and braces, I know, but that is called being prepared. And perhaps that is the boy scout in me.  I remember well those many, many years ago doing my scouts mapmaker badge, when I was left on my own for a day to map out a bend in the Jukskei River, north of Johannesburg. (You wouldn’t leave a 12-year-old there on his own nowadays, but that’s another story.) But I got my badge, my first scouting badge, and it has stood me in good stead ever since.

And so, when I head off with friends on an adventure, it is always me that is assigned as Mowgli the pathfinder. And I am happy to lead the way, to take responsibility where others shirk it. Yes, occasionally I go the wrong way, but that just adds to the fun of it all.

Of course, in the car with the wife it is a totally different matter. She has the map and gives directions. She even tells the satnav that it is wrong. I don’t argue, I just keep on driving and let them sort it out between them.

Wait nine months, and what do you get?

Okay, so I know it’s a while since I was last here. Nine months, to be exact. “Yes, nine whole months,” I hear you complain. “A couple can produce a baby in nine months,” you say, wagging your finger at me, “but you [that’s me, of course], you can’t even trouble yourself to post a simple item on your blog.”

I know, and I’m sorry. I could spell out the excuses, I mean reasons for not writing for such a long time, but that’s not why you’re here. Besides, you’re starting to sound like my grandmother. Don’t worry, everything will become clear in the course of events.

The big event, of course, is not just that we’ve moved house, but we’ve moved across the country, from Kent to Dorset. Simples, I hear you mock in your Russian-meerkat accent, but everyone moves house once in a while, and that doesn’t prevent them from doing what they ought to be doing.

Yes, I know, I know. But I’m not getting into all that right now – that’s not why we’re here. We’re here so that I can tell about the hundreds of boxes that I’ve been unpacking, boxes that seemed to have appeared from nowhere. I decided that this was as good a time as any to sort out and chuck out – probably something I should have done ages ago, but clearly didn’t.

What struck me during the sorting-out was the ginormous number of cycling magazines that I had stashed away. And its not as if I’ve never thrown a magazine away – quite clearly I have, because I also came across a stash of cuttings from magazines that clearly had been got rid of. Of course, there were piles of maps, route suggestions that someday I might ride if I happened to be passing the Isle of Harris or down Cheddar Gorge. Also there were reams of How To Fix Your Bike – most for swanky bits of bikes that I’ve never owned, others so old that the bikes would now be vintage. What is more, you now get online videos of how to fix everything, which doesn’t take up any storage space at all, not even on your PC.

So here I am, shoving a ton of paper into the recycling bin (surely I’ve saved a couple of trees there) and I catch sight of the cover price. That sets the gears in my brain turning, which is a rare thing to behold. The mags on average cost about £3.99. Call it four quid to make my sums easy. A dozen copies a year makes it £48, and that’s only one mag. Sometimes it’s a mountainbike mag plus a road one. And occasionally I splash out on a fancy one for eight or ten smackers, just because I like the cover. Ouch. Over 20 years that adds up to well over a grand, which could get me a half-decent new bike (and yes, I do need another one). So here I am, recycling (suddenly that word hurts) the paper equivalent of something that I could have been cycling. And I probably haven’t even read half of them. Ah well, I reflect, that’s just the cycle of life.

mbrfrontBut there is one copy of one cycling mag that I have kept back, because it is too much of a treasure. This is the September 2005 edition of MBR. There, check it out on pages 164 to 169 – six carefully crafted folios in full Technicolor words and pictures, the report on my fearless ride in the Cape Epic that year with Roly, my brother-in-law.

Yes, this mag is priceless, and will never be thrown away. It reminds me of the stupid things we do, and why we do it.

Confessions of a leg-shaving virgin*

*Perhaps that should read: Confessions of a virgin leg-shaver. We are, after all, talking about someone who has never shaved his legs, not about someone who has shaved his legs and never, well, you know what.


Summer’s here and the time is right for dancin’ on the pedals, to misquote Miss Martha and the Vandellas. Time to strip off those long Lycra leggings and bare your lower limbs, exposing them to the wan light in the sky that the English call sunshine. And every year, as I reach this equinox, I once again ponder the question, should I shave my legs? So far I have chickened out every time. But surely, one day, one year, I’m going to cave in and head out onto the road, smooth-legged and silky limbed.

This year’s dilemma was sparked by reading an article by the artist Grayson Perry, who wrote: “Cycling is perfect exercise for transvestites because it gives you an excuse to shave your legs.”

Perry, you see, is an artist and a mountain biker who also likes to wear dresses. I don’t want to wear dresses (although there may be photographic evidence out there to the contrary). But I do think that smooth, well tanned and finely shaped calves would be an asset out on the road.

Perry, you may note, is a particularly odd breed, a mountain biker who shaves his legs. Generally mountain bikers eschew such niceties; it is only softy roadies that feel the need for smoothness. I am something of a cross-breed, one of the few who won’t be labelled, riding on road, off road, and anywhere else that the trail cares to take me.

Hairy legs, with an ever hairier cat, just for comparison.

Hairy legs, with an ever hairier cat, just for comparison.

But wouldn’t it be nice if, along whatever road or trail I cared to follow, I displayed a well-defined, nicely tanned, hairless pair of calves? Surely such panache would intimidate any opposition. Looking at my legs in mirror, they do have rather good, if a bit hairy, definition. It’s just a pity that the fine proportions don’t extend further up my body, say to my middle, at least. But hey, that’s life. I’ll just have to tuck away any saggy bits.

I could claim depilatory necessity on medical advice – both times that I rode in the Cape Epic I suffered the indignity of having to visit the infamous bum clinic (see earlier postings) to be patched up in places we shall not mention. In fact, on the second occasion the nurse advised that I should consider having a hairless a&$£ before again tackling a similar event.

And so, if I’m going to attempt to smooth out this rugged exterior, where do I begin, and more importantly, where do I end? I begin, of course, by reading the internet, where consensual advice tells me to begin with an electric shaver, to get the hair down to a manageable length. After that, the weapon of choice varies: razors, wax strips, epilator, Veet. But whatever the means of denuding yourself, the result will, without doubt, leave you feeling itchy, naked, exposed.

This doesn’t seem to help, so I head for the supermarket where I loiter along the aisle marked Women’s Hygiene when no one is around. When the coast was clear I inspect the goods on display. This doesn’t seem to help and, anyhow, I’m certainly not going to take a bottle of Veet to the checkout while that little blonde is there. I decide to forget all about it and go home. Besides, what will wife say about all this when she notices that I’m smoother-legged than she is? Will she even notice?

Anyway, I know that I certainly don’t want to end up with legs that look like they belong to a badly plucked chicken. And believe me, I know what that looks like. I’ve plucked a few chickens in my time. Badly.

So I forget all this madness, until this morning, when I go into the bathroom. I’m about to get into the shower when I see, there on the shelf, a box that proudly boasts: waxing strips, 20 sheets. It seems to be calling out, enticingly: “Use me, use me. I won’t hurt you. Much.”

Is this a sign? I look down at my legs for a moment and consider, but I know it’s impossible. Twenty sheets, not nearly enough.

And so I continue in my hirsute pursuit, unsullied and virginal.

A good (French) idea

I’ve just go back from a couple of weeks in France and, I have to admit, those Frenchies certainly have a couple of good ideas. I’m not talking about stuff like French fries – we don’t believe that chips were their idea – they are probably Belgium’s only culinary claim to fame. And anyway, that’s not what the French call chips, they call them pommes frites. Nor am I talking about food in general, although I don’t think it’s a bad idea to have a country that’s covered wall-to-wall with vineyards. Okay, so the French do know a thing or two about wine, and cheese, a food in general.

But let’s get away from gastronomy and look at life in general. There’s the Tour de France, undisputably (in this household) the pinnacle in bicycle racing, if not the ultimate sporting spectacle in the world. But still, that’s not really what I’m talking about, when I’m talking about good ideas. It’s more about how they live, how they treat one another, and especially how they treat their cyclists.

Wide berth control

Wide berth control

The French, in spite of driving on the wrong side of the road (or the right side, as the rest of Europe would claim), have a great respect for cyclists. If they see a cyclist in the road ahead they don’t hoot and drive as close as possible to the poor victim. No, they slow down, indicate to fellow drivers that they are pulling out, and give the feller on two wheels a wide berth. And just in case Johnny Foreigner (a Brit, in this case) forgets what they should do, the French also have signs like this one, which advise how much space motorists should allow for the velocipedist. In fact, quite a few countries have similar signs, but not the United Kingdom. No, here there are no similar signs because no one is prepared to say just how much space we should give to cyclists.

The Highway Code suggests simply that the driver gives the cyclist plenty of room when passing. “Plenty of room” gives a lot of room for argument. A recent Transport Research Laboratory study found that, on average, drivers left a gap of 1.18m, significantly less than the French requirement. But that 1.18m gap is an even more significant when compared with a similar survey in 1979, when drivers left 1.79m. I suppose cars are so much bigger now than in 1979, while roads (and cyclists) are still the same size. You could argue that the drivers of modern cars don’t have the space to leave such a large gap, but the corollary argument is that, because so many vehicles are so much bigger, they should leave an even greater margin for error. Especially when you think that any error could be fatal.

That’s all that I wanted to say, really, even though there are probably lots more great ideas that the French have had. Oh yes, I can’t forget the other wonderfully bright idea that I came across – the cappuccino dessert that I had in a restaurant in Castres, near Toulouse.

Just desserts

Just desserts

This delight consisted of a small tiramisu, panna cotta, crème brûlée, espresso and a dollop of cream – the perfect get-up-and-go-out-and-party-all-night-after-a-long-day’s-ride kind of dessert. Oh, alright, I admit that it was an Italian restaurant. But the dessert was put together by a French chef.

Age + experience = wisdom? Wrong!

​I don’t know who first said that wisdom comes with age. Perhaps it was someone in the Bible. Or maybe it was Shakespeare, although I reckon he was too clever to say something like that. But whoever it was, I certainly don’t believe it, especially considering my recent cycling experience.
It all began last weekend, you see, when I went cycling in Wales with a couple of friends, something that we do from time to time. Usually we just mountainbike, but this time, for the first time, we also took road bikes. We stopped in the Midlands on Friday evening, where we had a casual ride through the Worcestershire countryside, a great leg loosener, especially for Tim, who was riding his road bike for the first time.

Nearly halfway up ... Andrew and Tim on the slow climb at Bike Park Wales

Nearly halfway up … Andrew and Tim on the slow climb at Bike Park Wales

The next day we went to Bike Park Wales, a new mtb centre near Merthyr Tydfil that we wanted to try out. The riding experience there turned out to be quite different from what we were used to: instead of cross-country with a few downhills, BPW is all about a long climb, followed by a choice of downhills, graded beginner (green), intermediate (blue), advanced (red) and expert (black). Normally I would be quite happy to ride the red routes, but on this instance (fortunately) we opted to begin on the blue, and then planned to progress to the red. The ride up to the top was aptly named Beast of Burden, a 4.6km climb to the summit (rising 180m in the first 2km). I don’t mind the long climbs – somehow, they seem to suit me. It’s like Gabriel Garcia Marquez says: “Age isn’t how old you are but how old you feel,” and I felt great on the climb.

The only way is down ... in a helter-skelter, rollercoaster kind of direction.

The only way is down … in a helter-skelter, rollercoaster kind of direction.

From the top we opted first for the 2.2km Sixtapod descent (there must be some history to these names, but we didn’t ask). Sixtapod, like all the descents, turned out to be a helter-skelter, rollercoaster, white-knuckle, spine-chilling bucking bronco of a ride, where we twisted through sandy berms, plunged into forest darkness to pinball between the trees, and were then spewed out onto rocky slopes that bounced us out of the saddle. Touching the brakes would have spelt certain disaster. Clearly I had forgotten the words of Charles M Schulz, that wonderful philosopher and creator of Charlie Brown: ​”Just remember, when you’re over the hill, you begin to pick up speed.” Well, all I can say that in all of my 60 years, I have never gone downhill so fast on a mountain bike. Age certainly had not given me enough wisdom to say no, because we went straight back to the top to experience the thrills of Melted Welly, Blue Belle, Sixtapod again and then Willy Waver, all of them blue routes (we didn’t dare try the red). And that, folks, was more than enough excitement for one day.
On Sunday we decided to ride from Tredegar, where we were staying, up through Abergavenny and towards the Brecon Beacons. This was to be a nice, steady-paced road ride, nothing stupid, nothing outrageous, just a pleasant Sunday ride with tea and cake halfway – the antithesis of the previous day’s mountain mayhem. That was the intention, anyway. We hadn’t thoroughly checked out our route beforehand, we just allowed Tim to follow his iPhone as we went along.

At the top of The Tumble ... it's all downhill from here.

At the top of The Tumble … it’s all downhill from here.

And that is how we landed up climbing The Tumble, a 6km climb that tops out at just over 500m above sea level, and which will serve as a mountain finish in the Tour of Britain on September 8. In A Farewell to Arms, Ernest Hemingway spoke of “the great fallacy: the widsom of old men. They do not grow wise. They grow careful.” Well, I thought that Careful was my middle name, but on that descent, nearly 4km down windy, rough-surfaced tarmac, I proved that I am neither Wise nor Careful. Of course, I blame Andrew, because he set off first and I was just trying to catch up to him. It was about when my speed topped out at 72km/h that I remembered my skinny tyres were rather worn, and I no longer had the benefit of a mountain bike’s disc brakes. It wasn’t because my back wheel began drifting on a bend that I braked, rather, it was the thought of crossing a cattle grid at full pelt. A pinch-puncture going into a hairpin bend was not an edifying thought.
Which all goes to show, as you grow older, you don’t necessarily grow wiser, or even more careful. To become wise, or even just careful, you have to grow up first. And I’m hoping to do that sometime soon.

The road to Abergavenny

The road to Abergavenny

My tragic Tour de France warm-up

pantaniThis weekend I did my pre-Tour de France warm-up. I can’t say that this is some kind of ritual, because I’ve never done it before, but who knows, rituals start with one small action, and this might just be it. Of course, I won’t actually be riding the Tour, or even following it on the road. Rather, apart from one brief live appearance as the Tour finishes Stage 3 in London, I’ll be be spending three weeks glued to the television, suffering every climb, swooping along every downhill, celebrating every stage victory through that dark shimmering window in my living room.
So, what kind of televisual warm-up does it take to prepare for the Tour? I settled on a gritty, 90-minute-long work-out that left me breathless, a little dazed, and not completely sure that I wanted to go on.
Of course, I’m referring to the documentary, Pantani: The Accidental Death of a Cyclist.
The Tour de France is a constantly evolving spectacle, a soap opera whose characters come and go, sweating and sprinting to the forefront of our consciousness, only to be be overtaken and brushed aside by pushy young upstarts. Just look at the (Sir) Brad Wiggins and (not Sir) Chris Froome episode – a tragi-comedy that has still to play to an end. Just look at the Lance (no surname needed) farrago, one of the more enduring but less endearing episodes to have coloured the peloton. Some characters have stayed the course for several years, while others have been no more than a flash in the pan – blink, and you’ve missed them, just like the peloton passing on a provincial high street.
Marco Pantani could have been one such flash. His climb to the top was meteoric – just like the way he flew up mountains, leaving his rivals fallen by the wayside. His success was brief, but his climbing prowess was so phenomenal that it made him a legend. We remember him, Icarus-like, as he flew too high, too fast, too close to the sun, and we watched his fall, which was both swift and brutal – and fatal. It was both specacular and very much a public spectacle, which was what made it so tragic.
In his own rather strange way, Pantani seems to have been a very principled person, and the subsequent shame heaped on his frail shoulders weighed so heavily that he was unable to bear the loed.
So next week, as you watch our present posse of mere mortals toiling up Holmes Firth, or Hautecam, or the Col du Tourmalet, just think of the flawed man who, bedecked in pink, flew up those slopes on the wings of angels. We will not see his like again.

It’s not always about the bike

This blog is mostly about bikes and cycling, but not always. In between my early cycling years (which lasted until my late teens) and when I rediscovered cycling in my mid-30s, I was a runner, and completed about 100 marathons and ultra-marathons. And the biggest of them all was the Comrades Marathon, an epic 54-mile race between Durban and Pietermaritzburg in South Africa. Every years thousands of runners take part in the event, which has become intricately interwoven into the fabric of South African running – and has become part of my family history.
comrades1Forty years ago, on May 31 1974, I ran my second official Comrades (I ran my first one unofficially two years earlier while doing my national service). For my family May 31 is significant not so much because of that race (I finished 55th, my best Comrades position, although not my best time) but because while I was running my father, Edmund, who was seconding me along with my mother and two of my sisters, died of a heart attack in Hillcrest, about 20 miles from the start. The picture here was taken on Fields Hill, which just a few miles before Hillcrest. I had no idea of what had happened and, in the age before mobile phones and constant communication, my family weren’t able to contact me for several hours. They decided that, more than anything, my father would have wanted me to finish the race, so they let me continue.
Although I was concerned about not seeing my family for such a long time, I knew that the traffic on the route was always horrendous and, in any case, the particular strains and stresses of running Comrades were foremost in my mind. In those days there was no official seconding, and because we had previously experienced traffic problems, I dragooned a friend, Glen O’Brien, to second me on a motorbike. Glen worked really hard to keep me fed and watered and, most of all, motivated as I began to tire. I also remember running for long stretches with Mickey Pretorius, a former champion boxer, who was wonderful company on the road.
My family finally caught up with me on Polly Shorts, that dreaded long hill just before the finish in Maritzburg, but it was only on the finishing line that they told me of the events that had taken place earlier.
This year two of my nieces, Kirsty McAdam and Lauren von Gogh, ran their first Comrades, a tribute to the grandfather that they never met. I wish that I had run with them, but these old bones complain too much, and so I was with them only in spirit. But I’m really pleased that they ran all the way together, finishing in 11 hours and 20 minutes. I know how hard the race is, and I can only praise them for their efforts. And my thoughts go also to all the wonderful Comrades that I have met and run with in South Africa, and who gave me such wonderful support and camaraderie when I really needed it. South Africa, for all its faults, then and now, has surely has bred the most wonderful running fraternity in the world. Kirsty, Lauren and Comrades all, I salute you.

P.S. You might have noticed in the photograph that I was wearing a black band on my right wrist, which was part of a Wits University protest against the exclusion of black runners from the race. Many of us students were abused and reviled for doing so, and the authorities were scathing about the protest, in spite of it being relatively low-key and non-confrontational. Whatever they thought, it was effective because the following year, for the first time, black runners were allowed to participate officially. Two years later women were allowed to compete too, all part of South Africa’s slow liberation.

Don’t pity the poor cyclist …

I used to think that cycling was a pastime for poor people. You probably remember him – the cyclist would be that unfortunate chap who couldn’t afford a car. Because he needed some independent form of transport, he bought a bike, which he would ride with the pride and pretend that it was a lifestyle choice, rather than a necessity. He would pootle around to afternoon tea or a dinner party, arriving unfashionably late, trousers tucked into socks and always a bit hot and sweaty, even in the wind and the rain.
The beauty of bicycling was its economy – as youngsters, the object of saving our pocket money was to buy a bike. Once that was achieved, no more money was spent on the bike, not even a bit of lube for the chain. The only thing I remember spending money on was the occasional tube, and then only when the old one no longer had space to patch it between all the other patches.
But all that has changed. Last week I bought a couple of cycling magazines while waiting to catch a train and received almost no change from £15. I can almost hear you choke on your creamcheese bagel as you read this, but yes, £15 for two magazines. Admittedly, they were not magazines that concentrated on bicycle clips and mudguards. Instead, they featured trips over the famous cols of the Pyrenees, sportives in Sicily and lots of high-end carbon confectionary. One advertisement was for a carbon groupset costing well over £2,000. Yes, I know, that’s not even a whole bike – not even a frame or wheels – and you could buy a second-hand car, yes, a WHOLE second-hand car with four wheels, for less than that.

In the workshop ...

In the workshop …

But that is not the whole truth about the rising cost of cycling, because daily I experience the opposite end of velo-economics. I live and work in a small charity in Kent where we support people who have suffered setbacks in life and need time and space to get their lives back on track. Recently we started up a small social enterprise where we repair old bikes for our own use, or to sell on to people who cannot afford new bikes. We also have a bike repair service, and mend punctures for far less than any bicycle shop would charge.
Since the beginning of the year, when a local paper ran a small article about us, we have been given about 80 old bikes that would otherwise have landed up on the tip. Some of these bikes are old and rusted, but all, once stripped down, have some useable parts. A few of the bikes have very little wrong with them and, with a bit of cleaning, lubrication and tlc are quickly returned to a rideable condition. Most need replacement cables, brake blocks, bearings and, most expensively, tyres, but the joy of eBay gives us the ability to source these things relatively cheaply. (If you know of a ready supply of cheap tyres and tubes, please let me know.)
In the frame ... stripped down frames awaiting a bit of paint and a new life.

In the frame … stripped down frames awaiting a bit of paint and a new life.

We call our enterprise Born-Again Bikes (we are, after all, based in an old monastery) and I think we offer a service that doesn’t harm the local economy by competing with local bikes shops (apart from the puncture-repair service). Our biggest outlay was £500 for a bike mechanics course, plus about another £500 for tools and equipment, which was funded by grants.
So, with a bit of goodwill and a lot of elbow grease, and for less than half the price of a carbon groupset, we have managed to get a good number of people back on their bikes, and at no great cost to them. George Osborne, are you listening?

The return to Flanders

Last weekend I returned to Belgium for my second ride of the Ronde van Vlaanderen (for non-cyclists and English-speaking non-Continentals, that’s the Tour of Flanders). I do love visiting to Belgium. I mean, who wouldn’t, what with those thousands of Trappist beers  to try and, of course, the frites. And even chocolate, if that’s what takes your fancy. And, of course, endless cycle paths (none of which says “Cyclists dismount”).
But there’s one thing I just don’t get about the Belgians (perhaps it’s just the Flemish), and that is their penchant for weird and not so wonderful garden decorations: think garden gnomes, let them grown and remove all colour, then place them in tableau about your garden. Think of giant red rabbits, blue elephants. Think Smurfs … oh, perhaps that explains it. Maybe there’s something about the mushrooms that they eat. Anyhow, during the ride I saw one elderly couple that sitting on a bench outside their house, watching the cyclists passing by. Alongside them was an almost identical couple, half life-sized and cast in concrete, like some kind of mini-me memorial. And I don’t think they were dead yet. Spooky.
The Flemish hills are a bit like their garden ornaments – undersized, but with some dreadful element added. The Flemish call them “berge”, which I thought translated to mountains. But they certainly aren’t the Alps or Pyrenees. Perhaps the North Downs, but shorter. What makes them challenging are the gradient and, in many cases, the cobbles. If you want to loosen every tooth in your head and every bolt on your bike, just ride down one of these “berge” at speed.
Four years ago, when I first rode the RVV, as it is commonly known, it finished in a nonentity town called Ninove, but since then the ride has centred on Oudenaarde, the Flemish capital of cycling. Once again I opted to ride the medium distance: 135km starting and finishing in Oudenaarde (plus a 20km warm-up from our campsite in Munkzwalm). Last time it was cold and wet, making the cobbled climbs particularly slippery and treacherous. This time the weather was perfect: slightly cool and overcast, with almost no wind. I started out easy, planning to take my time and enjoy the day  – if it took all day. And if I had to push on the hills, then so be it. So what had previously been quite a tough ride turned out to be no more than a pleasant jaunt. What is more, I didn’t need to push up the hills – well, not until someone fell off in front of me halfway up the Koppenberg, which forced everyone around me to a halt. On the rest of the hills and the cobbles I just took  my own sweet, but slightly laboured time, and it was only on the final climb, the short but brutal Paterberg, that I finally capitulated and pushed over the summit. So, apart from one puncture at the 100km mark, it was a great ride.
cancelleraA big part of the fun of being at the Tour of Flanders is to watch the professionals toil over the same hills the following day. My son Matt and I went into Oudenaarde on Sunday where we saw the peloton fly though on their way to the berge. For the next few hours we became ensconced in the town square, sampling the local brew and watching the race on big screens. A few hours later, back in a bar in Munkzwalm, we cheered as we watched Fabian Cancellera outwit and outsprint three Belgians to take the honours. And we cheered even louder when Cancellera confirmed that I’m not the only one who believes that beer is the perfect post-ride potion. Moments after dismounting, and live on television, Cancellera was handed a bottle of beer, unopened. Like the old pro that he is, he popped the cap off by smacking it on the chair next to him, and downed the beer in one go. Cheers Fabian, I’ll drink to that!