I’ve got snowballs for this weather

12 weeks to joBerg2c

Okay, so I’ve missed a week of blogging. I admit it, I’m not perfect, but then who is? (apart from the wife, of course. She’s perfect. Always.) But where do the weeks go? These past two weeks seem to have flown by before I even had time to look at a bike. I lost a few  days to travel – had to take the daughter back to college in Yorkshire, and also went to the Core bike show with Will – and then the weather plummeted to sub-zero temperatures. Somehow that shouldn’t affect my training, but it does. As I’ve said before, I wasn’t born for anything below 15C. Just take a look through my study window right now, and you’ll see what I’m up against.

It’s not just the Arctic conditions that make the country lanes so treacherous. You’ve got to understand that the Dorset and Wiltshire area where I ride are active farming regions  criss-crossed by tractors and farm animals that leave trails of mud – and worse – splattered along the roads. It also seems to be hedge-cutting season, when monstrous mechanical flails spread puncturous detritus across the road – blackthorn and hawthorn and any other thorn you care to think of. The pneumatic tyre is no match for such savageness.

And so my riding has been done chiefly on the turbo-trainer. I hate the turbo-trainer – it feels such a false way of riding a bike, but it’s a necessary evil. I find the maximum I can do is an hour, before my bum goes totally numb and my limbs lose connection with my brain. One hour, that’s equivalent to one episode of Fargo, which is my current distraction. I’m just about the begin season 3, which I’ll sweat my way through in no time at all.

Zaskar, the bike, not the Indian mountain range.

On a brighter note, the new GT Zaskar has arrived at Hammoon Cycles. It has been stripped to the bare essentials and we’re now waiting for a delivery from Hope for all the new stuff to make it even prettier. And faster, I hope. But right now that hope doesn’t seem to be borne out by the training, because the mileage seems to be going backwards. Oh well, let’s just hope that Winter’s been and Spring isn’t far behind.

Time for a sense of humour transfusion

14 weeks to joBerg2c

How the weeks seem to fly by. Too much to be done, too little progress. And it’s not all about the adventure; there are mundane things like completing my tax return (and the wife’s) before the end of the month. I’m due a nice rebate, but she has an equivalent bill. so it means juggling finances until everything is settled.

Then there’s the new bike, which has been paid for, but I’ll have to wait to order the bling bits from Hope – which now includes a set of wheels because Will’s Mavic Crossmaxes won’t fit the frame. The cost of the new bike and some parts will be covered by the sale of my old Saracen Ariel, but that is still waiting for a willing buyer (any offers?), so I must fork out the readies in the meantime, and put money back in savings later.

Ride-wise, this week started off well – a windy, hilly 55km on Sunday and a flatter, faster 45km on Tuesday. And then today happened. For no reason I felt totally drained, despite a couple of rest days, and my heart rate was jumping all over the place. I blame old age, and the cold weather, and on both counts there’s no respite in sight.

I started checking through the list of what I need for the ride. The organisers have a list of what we should take along – spares, tools, clothing, medicines, toiletries. Pack light, they say, because everything has to fit into one large bag. They then suggest that we pack five to nine sets of cycle clothing. I don’t know if I’ve even got that many. But most essential is their final advice:



It’s all about the bike

15 weeks to joBerg2c

Things are progressing, slowly. I have a new pair of cycling shoes. Very pretty, they are, and now all that I need – well not all, but the most urgent thing to get on with – is a new bike to match those shoes.

I’ve had to consult my guru about the bike. I say my guru, because he’s the guy that knows all things about bikes. His name is Will, he owns Hammoon Cycles in Shaftesbury (have to give the shop a shout-out) and runs Okeford Hill bike park (used to be known as Bike Park UK in a previous universe). Anyhow, Will and I sat down and did some serious studying of the joBerg2c course. That is, we watched hours of YouTube videos. My inclination was to go with the herd and ride full-suspension, but Will convinced me otherwise. Now Will won’t mind me calling him a bit of a nutter (just don’t let him know I call him that) but he’s the kind of guy who rides a hardtail on Megavalanche, one that he’s built the frame himself. That’s the kind of thing he does – none of this namby-pamby cross-country or road riding. And in all the hours of joBerg2c that we watched, there was hardly any right-on downhill to convince us that a full-susser was necessary. There’s lots of fire roads, a good deal of climbing, some lovely single-track, all that a nice, lightweight hardtail would be ideal for.

Now, if someone was to offer me a carbon Specialized Epic S-Works, I might reconsider. After all, I rode my first Cape Epic in 2005 on an Epic S-Works, and I paid out a load of dosh for that. It was good for the ride at the time, but in 2009 I was given a Boardman hardtail for the Epic, and there was only one downhill where I seriously thought I would be better off on a full-suspension. My old Epic has since been sold, not without sadness, but technology has moved on, and so I must move with the times.

So we have settled for a GT Zaskar Carbon. As soon as it arrives, we will strip it down and replace the 160mm Shimano brakes with 180mm Hope, the SLX 1×11 drivetrain with XT 2×11, and the standard wheels with a set of Mavic Crossmax SL. Plus a few bits of Hope bling, just to match the shoes.

So that’s it. Progress. Oh, and on the riding side, my mileage went up considerably this week, although if you knew the base that I’m starting from, that hasn’t been difficult. It is still cold, so I’m having to count my toes after every ride.

Just a perfect day – well, almost

16 weeks till joBerg2c

A crisp, clear winter’s morning that looks perfect for a ride. And it is perfect – until I get outside. Yes, I knew it would be cold once I stepped out the back door, but this is beyond ridiculous.

Yes, I’ve prepared as best I can. I’m layered up like the proverbial Michelin man: my feet are shod in thermal socks and sealskinz and now I hardly fit into my largest cycling shoes. My fingers are swaddled in the warmest winter gloves that I can find, so my fingers can’t bend to brake or change gear.

I wasn’t made for this weather. I was born in South Africa, raised on the dry, dusty Highveld, where frost never survives the morning’s first ray of sunshine, and even on the coldest day we rode in shorts. I never owned cycling longs – or a proper coat – until I moved to England. That was 30 years ago – and last year, at long last, we had a proper summer. But now I am paying for it. If you haven’t understood what irks me, let me put it as plainly as I can: I HATE THE COLD. But I suppose I should be thankful for small mercies, because it could be cold AND wet.

So despite my misgivings, I set off out the front gate and up the hill. I’m ten minutes into my ride and on a long, slow climb. For a few moments I can feel the sun warm on my face, but my thumbs and forefingers have gone numb. I’m seriously considering turning back and getting on the turbo trainer, but the sky is so blue, the air so pristine, that this day is just too lovely to be indoors. I try to convince myself that this is a perfect day, but still my African brain finds it hard to believe it can be so cold while the sun is shining so brightly. The universe just wasn’t made that way. Perhaps I can blame it on Brexit. Or Bremain. Or whatever.

I reach the top of the climb and decide that no, I’m not going home. By now steam is rising from my brow, but as I exhale my breath seems to form icicles in the air. I’m afraid that if I hit a patch of shade, the sweat will freeze.

Along the next flat section there is a lot of slapping of thighs to warm my hands, but it helps not one jot. By now I am, in some perverse way, enjoying this ride, so I press on. Very slowly my hands begin to revive, but now my feet are beginning to get colder. I wonder if that’s from a lack of circulation because of my too-tight sock situation.

And suddenly I wonder: What if I get a puncture? There’s no way I’d be able to change a tyre and tube with my gloves on, and with gloves off my hands would freeze. The backstop (everyone should have one, just ask Teresa) would be to phone the wife, but she’s away for a few days.

Maybe that’s all just me worrying too much, because in the end I get home without incident. And without toes, I think. I’ll have to count them in the shower.

Would I be doing this if I wasn’t try to get into shape for the joBerg2C? I like to think that I would, but I have my doubts. Well, now it’s back to the ever-growing list of what I have to do. Like it said on the top of the packet – only 16 weeks to go.

Back on my bike, eventually

Don’t look at me like that. Yes, I know you’ve just checked the date and realised it’s more than six months since my last blog. What’s more, in that blog I swore that I was about to get off my pretty derriere and have an adventure.

I suppose you think that in the meantime I’ve just been sitting around, waiting for that adventure to happen. Well, adventures don’t just come knocking at your door – at least, not unless you’re a hobbit. But things are happening, and adventure is coming, and I haven’t just been sitting around waiting. What I did do was a bit of humming and haah-ing and then finally I got round to acquiring an entry to the JoBerg2c. So there!!! Moreover, (isn’t that a stupid word?) I won’t just be riding the event, I’ll be writing it too, for Conquista magazine.

So there you have it. Adventure awaits. I’ve got my race entry, I’ve booked plane tickets and … and … well, I’ve been thinking about a lot of other stuff. Like what bike to ride. And how I’m going to get fit enough. And what clothes to wear.

You might think it’s nothing, but for me it’s a big deal. And it frightens the bib-shorts off me because it will be ten years since my last big ride – the 2009 Cape Epic. Since then I’ve grown ten years older and ten times greyer, and picked up all the unexpected aches and pains (no one tells you about getting old). Have I actually grown up in the past ten years? Am I more sensible? I doubt it. That’s why I’m doing this.

So be prepared for more babbling about my prevarications. And in the meantime, enjoy this video of what I’m about to do.

A cream tea and a kick in the pants

creamteaWhat does it take you to get off your lazy rear end and do something challenging? I ask this because I’ve been dithering over a decision, and last weekend something happened that made me realise that I’ve just got to jump in and grab the bike by the handlebars.

A month or so ago my wife gave me permission (at least, that’s how I interpreted her words “if you must …”) to ride JoBerg2C, a nine-day 900km mountain bike event in South Africa. It is nine years since I rode the Cape Epic, and I thought it’s time for another big challenge. JoBerg2C is almost a year away, and I seldom plan my life that far in advance. But entries open (and close) in a couple of weeks, so a decision must be made. There is a lot to consider – what bike to ride, the cost (entry is over £1,500, plus air fares and beer money), training through the winter, and so on. These are all good points to whinge about, but aren’t they really just a way of delaying commitment?

So where, you ask, do cream teas come into this? Well, last Sunday there was an open gardens day in our village, finishing with cream teas in the vicarage garden. It was a glorious sunny day, and the punters turned out in their droves. I wasn’t one of them. You see, I live in the vicarage (my wife is the vicar) so I was pressganged into joining the jolly band of helpers who served tea and collected cups and washed up, when really I would rather have been out on my bike.

The visitors were a motley collection of West Countryfolk – tweedy men with roseate cheeks and posh accents, their women in waistcoats and jodhpurs, ramrod military types in blazer and ties, or couples in short shorts and pale thin legs that end in stout hiking boots. In truth, I was a little disappointed – there wasn’t a Worzel Gummidge or can of cider in sight.

But two visitors stood out. They both wore lycra, and they weren’t on the garden circuit.

The first was a big middle-aged, middle-class gent training for Land’s End to John O’Groats.  This was his first long training ride, he told me, but his machine had given out on him. He broke a spoke near Wilton, which is about 30 miles east of here, and his wheel was now badly buckled. He had phoned his wife to collect him and he thought he might as well enjoy a cup of tea while he waited. Where was he heading for? Oh, north of Shepton Mallet, which is another 30 miles away. It turns out that he was doing a 100-mile ride just for training. Usually I do training just for a 100-mile ride.

As we were packing up at I noticed the second rider as he sailed past the front garden, towing a trailer. I wondered to my companions whether he had any idea of the steep hill that was immediately ahead of him. A minute later he was back, and swung into the driveway. In a curious accent he asked: “What is a Vicarage Cream Tea?” I explained to him what had been going on, and he asked if he could get something to eat, because he had run out of food.

I took him into the kitchen and fed him chocolate cake and juice, and packed up some banana bread and fruit for him to take with him. It turned out that he is French/American and he had just completed his first-year studies at Bristol University. Now he was riding home to a town 30 miles south of Paris. He had left Bristol that morning, and had to get to Poole to catch a ferry the next morning. By my estimate, he had ridden 55 miles, and still had more than 30 miles to go.

Before he left he showed me his home-made trailer – a five-foot aluminium ladder balanced on two wheels, with all his worldly belongings carefully strapped on. It was, he admitted, harder work than he had expected. He had decided only at the last minute to cycle home because he felt he needed a bit of an adventure.

Well, that left me feeling shamed and indecisive. So I have decided: I will be strong, I will jump in, boots and all, and ride the JoBerg2C next year.

At least, I think I will …

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.