Blue sky November

It was a typically gloomy November day. We hadn’t seen the sun for days. But just before the end of my lunchtime bike ride the sun came out. The difference it made was stunning. Suddenly, the roads were bathed in sunlight. The autumn trees cast shadows where there had been none minutes earlier.

I looked up and was stunned to see the edge of a weather system. Half the sky was a glorious shade of blue. The other was a blanket of thick cloud. Later, I learned from the BBC weather bulletin that this weather front stretched from eastern England as far as Russia. A continent was covered by cloud. The lack of wind had anchored it over us for days.

It was an unforgettable sight. Here’s to sunshine in November.

Cycling The Way of the Roses with Peak Tours

High Hill Lane, Settle – well named!

Not another hill! I was struggling. It had been a very hilly day, and I was climbing yet again. Even in my lowest gear, the wheels barely seemed to be moving. The Yorkshire Dales are stunning, but far from flat.

I was cycling along The Way of the Rose, a coast to coast route from Morecambe on the Irish Sea to Bridlington on the North Sea. The name refers to the famous symbols of the counties of Lancashire and Yorkshire, although most of the route is in Yorkshire. More than a year into the Covid-19 pandemic, I was ready for a cycling adventure, and the Way of the Roses in three days was ideal. Best of all, it was run by Peak Tours, the company that so impressed me with its Land’s End to John O’Groats tour in 2019. I originally booked for May 2021 but Peak Tours happily transferred me to the June tour when lockdown prevented the original taking place.

Eric Morecambe in his hometown

I drove up to Morecambe the day before the tour began, and enjoyed walking along the seafront to see the statue of Eric Morecambe, the comedian who with Ernie Wise was one of the best-loved names in British television when I was a child in the Seventies. (He certainly brought us sunshine during the tour, in contrast to torrential rain and flooding in the south.) At dusk, I walking back from dinner with the tour guides and fellow cyclists, I was thrilled to see horses galloping across the sands. It reminded me of legendary 1970s Grand National winner Red Rum, who was famously trained on Southport sands.

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Climate crisis: the train must take the strain

What an irony. Thousands travelling to the COP26 climate conference in Glasgow were stranded in London after the two rail lines to Scotland were closed by severe weather. Many took flights instead.

Trains have a vital role to play if we are to tackle the climate crisis. As Clare Foges explained in an excellent column in The Times (Trains are key to getting net zero on track) rail travel creates 14 grams of CO2 emissions per passenger mile compared with 158 grams by car and 285 by plane. Yet Britain’s railways and governments seem to do everything in their power to encourage us to take more polluting forms of transport.

Family travel – at a cost

Cost

Travelling by train in Britain is eye-wateringly expensive. A Which? survey, quoted by Foges, found that domestic flights are typically half the price of the competing rail ticket, yet six times worse for carbon emissions. I’d love to travel by train more often, but even for one person the cost is punitive. If you’re travelling as a family, you may need to take out a second mortgage. Saving the planet? All the odds are stacked against us. Esoecially as the UK government has just announced a cut in the tax payable on domestic flights, just days before COP26 began. Madness.

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Before bikepacking: touring Brittany with panniers

I blogged last week about my first bikepacking trip. I loved the freedom that bikepacking gives the touring cyclist. I wrote that it was a contrast to touring with panniers, as I did several times in the 1990s. Here are my nostalgic reflections on those pannier touring days.

Cycling off the ferry: Brittany tour, 1996

Brittany 1996

There’s something special about cycling off a ferry in the early morning. Especially when the port is Roscoff, a small town that makes a perfect landfall in France.

My friend Richard and I had enjoyed a successful 325 mile tour of England’s West Country in 1995, and decided to cross the channel the following year. Brittany was calling, and we followed a tour featured in the book of the BBC series of Fat Man in France, which recounts Tom Vernon cycling across the region.

Getting to the ferry in Plymouth was an unexpected challenge. We took the train from lovely Kemble station in Gloucestershire, changing in Gloucester. But a landslip in the wonderfully named Mutley tunnel outside Plymouth led to a long delay. One anxious passenger, late for a flight to the isles of Scilly, climbed out of the train window and ran down the embankment! Fortunately the line reopened and we had time to enjoy a meal in the historic city before boarding the overnight ferry.

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Bikepacking beginner

Bikepacker’s breakfast

This week, I became a bikepacker. I’d been intrigued by the idea of bikepacking – the lovechild of a union between cycle touring and backpacking.

I’d been dreaming about this adventure for ages. I’d read about bikepacking and loved the idea of a self-sufficient mini camping tour. Think of it as a modest mid life crisis – a chance to live a different life for under 24 hours. Last spring, I started buying bikepacking kit, including a small tent, stove and sleeping bag. Originally I planned a trip with my son Owen, 13, to the campsite at Cookham Lock on the Thames (see Jack Thurston’s original Lost Lanes, Southern England, book) but that has been closed for months. So I took the plunge with a prompt from Komoot’s #RideCampRide campaign.

Ready to go

This was my first trip with a laden bike for over eight years. I was impressed by the way my Apidura bikepacking bags didn’t affect the bike’s handling at all. While the bike was obviously much heavier, it was only when I got out of the saddle for extra oomph that I had a reminder that I needed to ride differently. It was nice to forget average speeds and simply enjoy the journey.

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Cycling to Oxford’s dreaming spires

Oxford

I’ve always liked the idea of cycling to Oxford. It’s just 40 miles from home, making it a realistic adventure. Yet until yesterday I’d never made the journey, despite enjoying the annual Bike Oxford sportive.

It nearly didn’t happen. The forecast was ominous – I was going to get wet. But after a lazy day in the sunshine on Saturday, I shrugged off the easy option, packed a rain jacket and headed to the city of the dreaming spires.

I’d barely gone seven miles before I felt raindrops. I confess I briefly considered cutting the ride short. But today was a day for determination in the face of precipitation. If I’d been riding the London-Wales-London audax (whose route I was largely following to Oxford) I’d have had no choice. So I donned the rain jacket by the Two Hoots sign above between Amersham and Hyde Heath and continued. I was glad I did as the rain wasn’t that heavy, and didn’t last long.

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The joy of winter cycling

The winter crossroads

In the deep midwinter, it’s too easy to hibernate. The sofa and screen exert a pull that even the most active cyclists can find hard to resist.

Yet it needn’t be like this. As a wise person once said, weather always looks worse through a window. When you’re out on the road, the rain may not feel so cold, so intense. (At least if you have the right clothes and mudguards.)

Zwift: no raingear needed. You don’t see redwoods on my local rides

When the cold, rain and darkness makes ‘real’ cycling intimidating, Indoor cycling is the answer. It is a far more attractive option than when I did my first indoor ride in 1995. On a cold January day that year, I struggled to carry an indoor roller back to the office from a bike shop in Cheltenham. I used it occasionally. Seven years later, I did training for my first Land’s End to John O’Groats bike ride on an indoor trainer, but they were empty hours: I wasn’t tested enough for the training to count.

Winter riding, 1994: Easter Saturday in Wales

The photo above shows me smiling as I descended the famous seven mile bank on the path of the old Brecon & Merthyr Railway towards Talybont on Usk after an Easter Saturday ride from Cardiff with my friend Richard. It may have been spring, but we arrived in a blizzard! My Dawes Super Galaxy was the perfect ride, as I blogged recently.

By contrast, today’s inside cycling can be as testing as any real life hill. When I got my Wattbike Atom in 2018, I found I preferred TrainerRoad to Zwift. I quickly got bored with Zwift, yet I found TrainerRoad’s workouts oddly compelling. There was no hiding place from the effort it demanded. (Apart from dialling down the effort needed.) But this week, I discovered Zwift’s many attractions. Watopia, which I dismissed as a gimmick three years ago, now strikes me as a stunning backdrop for indoor cycling.

A true winter ride: Mumfords Lane, near Chalfont St Peter, Bucks, 24 January 2021

Yet the great outdoors still inspires and rewards like no indoor ride. Two weeks ago, I set off on my mountain bike in the snow. It was a pleasure to see families revelling in a winter wonderland – a brief escape from the tedium of England’s third pandemic lockdown. This ride was all about the satisfaction of being in the elements with no thought of Strava achievements. It was all the better for it.

As a result, I am miles ahead of my usual cycling goals. I cycled 508 miles indoors and out in January – over 150 miles more than my previous winter month’s total. I hope to pass 1,000 miles in 2021 before February is over. That will be over six weeks earlier than my previous fastest 1,000 miles, in 2019, when I was training for my second Land’s End to John O’Groats ride. It’s all about habit, and putting in the miles indoors when venturing out is unappealing.

I’ll close this post with an image of an earlier magical winter bike ride. One crisp winter’s day in 2012, I took my original 1994 mountain bike through Hodgemoor Wood above our village. I found joy in exploring the wintry trails, capturing the moment with my digital SLR, which I carried in my CamelBak. I blogged about those pleasures here.

We’re expecting snow again tomorrow. My bike is ready. Here’s to winter riding.

Farewell to the Dawes Galaxy – the classic British touring bike

My Dawes Super Galaxy on my first century, 1995

The news that Dawes has axed its famous Galaxy touring bike made me sad and nostalgic. My first cycling adventures featured the Dawes Super Galaxy seen in the photo above: my first weekend tour, my first week long cycling holiday and my debut century, all in a two year period in the 1990s.

I described my affection for the bike in a blogpost about my favourite bikes 12 years ago. Over 30 years ago Richard Ballantine dubbed the Galaxy a classic touring bike – a tribute to its longevity. I found it outstandingly reliable: in the five years I owned it, I didn’t get a single puncture or mechanical failure. It carried four laden panniers with ease – and the low gears meant I was able to climb all but the toughest west country hill on a nine day tour in 1995.

The Galaxy on a Sunday afternoon loop of Richmond Park, 1992
Nearing the end of a day’s ride from Cardiff to the Brecon Beacons – before a blizzard!

I will always have a soft spot for the traditional touring bike. My decision to buy one (a Peugeot Camargue) in 1989 was the start of my passion for cycling. I’d never had a good bike as a child and so my first ‘proper’ bike was a revelation. I started commuting from Teddington to Holborn on it. I found cycling up hills needn’t be purgatory. A couple of years later, I upgraded to the Super Galaxy.

I will never forget the pleasure of riding the Galaxy down the seven mile swoop to Talybont on Usk on Easter Saturday 1994. My friend Richard and I had found the Taff Trail from Cardiff to Merthyr Tydfil surprisingly easy (thanks to the easy inclines of the old railways it followed). The climb over the Brecon Beacons was another story and we were relieved to freewheel towards our destination at Talybont. (Although we arrived in a blizzard!) My father was kind enough to bring us and our bikes back to Cardiff the next day.

Reaching the south coast at Sidmouth, Devon, June 1995

My greatest adventure on the Galaxy was that nine day tour of the west country. I’d plotted the route one January night, dreaming of warmer times, with OS maps spread out across my living room floor. The first day was a summer deluge, but it was the exception and as the tour unfolded a heatwave arrived. On the last day, we watched the Red Arrows against a perfect blue sky over the M4 near Chippenham.

I sold the bike a year later, but still kept faith with touring bikes, notably the Raleigh Randonneur, on which I completed my first Land’s End to John O’Groats ride in 2002 and my final pannier-laden tour, from Cardiff to Bucks, in 2013.

Since then, my touring has been on light road bikes, with companies like Peak Tours carrying my overnight luggage. It has meant faster riding. Many cyclists have made the same switch from the traditional touring bike, while others have gone straight to gravel bikes and bikepacking – carrying their stuff in bags that fix straight to the frame rather than panniers fixed to racks. Our individual decisions have played a big part in the demise of the classic touring bike represented by the Dawes Galaxy. I don’t regret my switch, but I will always look back with affection to the bikes that started my love of cycling.

Who knows, maybe one day I will take the Randonneur back on the road for a nostalgic tribute to the glory days of the classic British tourer.

Goodbye 2020: a cycling resolution

Cycling to Cardiff Castle, July 2020

So that was 2020. A year like no other in the past century. We now know the havoc a pandemic can cause – much as my grandparents did a century ago with the so-called Spanish flu. (Sadly, my grandfather’s twin brother died in that pandemic, having survived the Great War trenches.)

Our lives have been utterly changed. We can’t meet our friends. We have to wear a mask when buying a loaf of bread. Christmas may not have been cancelled, but it wasn’t the sociable highlight of the year we’ve known all our lives.

My lifeline, apart from family and the ability to work from home, has been my bike. Or trike. Getting into the saddle has been a joy in this joyless year. In those early lockdown weeks, in the most wondrous spring in living memory, I celebrated the empty roads and vibrant nature – whether the April blossom or the magnificent red kites overhead. I blogged about those magical spring days here.

Today, New Year’s Eve, I passed 3,000 cycling miles in 2020. It was a modest ride of under eight miles, with the temperature barely about freezing. I experienced cycling feast and famine this year, with a very slow start followed by four successive months of over 500 miles in the saddle. But as summer became autumn, I lost my enthusiasm for pedalling the same old local routes. I recorded just 65 miles in October. Yet that milestone of 3,000 miles was a powerful motivator as Christmas approached, and I recorded my highest ever December mileage of 313 miles – with many of these indoors on my Wattbike Atom with TrainerRoad.

In years gone by, I often blogged on New Year’s Eve about my cycling memories of the old year, and my cycling adventures planned for the year ahead. (This example from 2013 is typical.) Tonight’s post may not be as noteworthy. But I do have dreams for 2021. Only time will tell whether those dreams will come true.

Another coast to coast?

Completing my coast to coast ride, Tynemouth, May 2017

Back in 2017, I cycled across England from the Irish Sea at Whitehaven to the North Sea at Tynemouth on the famous Coast to Coast (C2C) route. It was a wonderful experience, despite unseasonal cold weather on the first day, and the struggle of the climb to Hartside on a bike without a low enough gear. As I contemplated possible challenges for 2021, a similar coast to coast adventure seemed perfect. Better still, Peak Tours, which proved magnificent as my Land’s End to John O’Groats tour company in 2019, offered just such a trip in May 2021 along the Way of the Roses, slightly further south, from Morecambe to Bridlington via York.

Will it happen? Will Britain – and especially England – have found, belatedly, a way of controlling the pandemic and rolling out vaccinations, allowing tourism to resume? We will find out. In the meantime, I will get training. I’ve found a combination of TrainerRoad sweet spot workouts on my indoor Wattbike and rides outside on wintry roads is a good way of gaining fitness out of season.

Near Lancaster: the River Lune floodwaters, August 2019

Meanwhile, I will reflect on previous adventures, especially in the region that I will be crossing (with luck) in May. Back in 2019, we cycled through Lancaster on LEJOG, seeing the effects of days of heavy rain, as seen above. I also remember with affection cycling through the northern fell country on my earlier LEJOG in 2002. Perhaps I will get the chance to stay in my favourite hotel of the 2019 LEJOG, The Mill at Conder Green.

Dining at The Mill, Conder Green

Here’s to 2021’s adventures.

David Walsh and Lance Armstrong: truth to tell

It was all about the cheating

Almost 20 years ago, I was enthralled by the Lance Armstrong story. His best selling book, It’s Not About the Bike, told the extraordinary tale of the cancer survivor who returned to win the world’s toughest cycle race, the Tour de France.

Back then, I was a modest cyclist (I still am) with dreams of cycling the length of Great Britain, Land’s End to John O’Groats. I was inspired by Armstrong’s story, especially his dedication to training. Yes, I knew all about cycling’s sordid relationship with drugs, notably the 1998 Tour de France’s Festina affair. (Paul Kimmage lifted the lid on this culture in Rough Ride.) But I believed the Armstrong line: he was the most tested cyclist in history. And every one had shown him to be clean. Karen and I followed Armstrong’s annual progress in Le Tour. I wore the US Postal team kit on several cycling holidays.

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