I loved my childhood go-kart. It was such fun racing down the hill near my Cardiff home in the 1970s.
I’ve had an echo of that childhood excitement today, riding my ICE Adventure trike to Maidenhead. This is one of my favourite rides, crossing the Thames at Cookham and following the river to the riverside town.
I admit I had a craving for speed today. Not overall – I’ll never be as fast on the trike as on my road bike. But I was pining for speed on the swoop downhill to Wooburn Green, and knew it would be safer on three wheels than two. So it proved: 37mph!
It’s always fun crossing the Thames at Cookham, and it was no exception today on the trike. The trike was faster than I expected on the exposed road over Widbrook Common. Two years ago, I saw a herd of cows here cooling in the water from the heatwave!
I always think of my late in-laws Aline and Terry as I pass Boulters Lock. This was one of their favourite places. We celebrated their golden wedding here in 2011, and had a happy breakfast at Boulters just two months before Aline died in 2015. The famous broadcaster Richard Dimbleby lived on the island, and there’s a blue plaque on the bridge to commemorate him.
I pressed on to the park overlooking Maidenhead’s historic bridge. Usually I’m looking out for a bench, but that wasn’t necessary today – I’d brought my own, on the trike!
I loved the 18mph swoop round the roundabout on the Buckinghamshire side of the bridge. The ICE Adventure was geared to cope with the climb through Taplow towards Cliveden. A cyclist on a mountain bike overtook me but I caught up with him at Cliveden. I’m looking forward to my first visit to the National Trust gardens at Cliveden on Tuesday – my first since the COVID-19 lockdown.
You notice more on a trike. I’ve never noticed how striking the Beaconsfield church of St Michael and All Saints (see above) is before.
I am starting to think of my next cycling challenge. Last year’s Land’s End to John O’Groats ride was unforgettable. I’m dreaming of even crazier adventures, such as London-Edinburgh-London and London-Wales-London. A trike would be so much more comfortable, but would it be too slow? Decisions, decisions….
On Saturday, I clocked up a series of firsts. My first drive over 10 miles since March. My first motorway journey and trip to another country – Wales – since lockdown.
I was on my way to see my father, Bob Skinner, for the first time since his care home closed to visitors in March. (I have blogged about that unforgettable visit here.)
I loved the drive – I treasured the time listening to music and Jack Thurston’s Bike Show podcasts. All things I used to enjoy on my daily commute. Working from home has been enjoyable but I have missed these audio moments.
Crossing the Severn Bridge into Wales, the motorway signs proclaimed: WELSH COVID RULES APPLY. It was a graphic reminder that Wales has, sensibly, taken a more careful approach to relaxing lockdown rules. The only reason I was able to make the journey to Cardiff was the scrapping of the Welsh ban on travelling more than five miles, allowing Dad’s Sunrise of Cardiff care home to allow visiting. It was nice seeing the familiar Welsh road signs: gwasanaethau (services), Caerdydd (Cardiff) and canol y ddinas (city centre).
I was very happy to drive the 300 mile round trip to see Dad for an hour (the maximum visit) but thought it would be nice to see something of my hometown after saying goodbye to Bob. So I hopped on my Brompton folding bike, and headed along Cyncoed Road and down Pen-y-lan hill towards the centre of town – canol y ddinas…
The roads were quiet, and I made up my route as I went along, threading through the streets of Cathays and emerging by the National Museum in Cathays Park. Cardiff has closed the roads around the castle to cars, and it was a pleasure to arrive at the imposing gates of the castle.
Entry to the grounds is currently free, so I wheeled my bike in, and enjoyed a few tranquil moments, reflecting on my visit to Dad.
I made my way back to Cyncoed via childhood spots such as Roath Park Lake, and past my childhood home in Winnipeg Drive, Lakeside. My Brompton is the electric version, so it made the climb back towards Cyncoed Road very easy.
I’m looking forward to a longer Welsh bike ride when we’re in Tenby in August.
I popped the Brompton back in the car, and enjoyed another easy drive (no queueing past the Brynglas tunnels at Newport). A memorable and enjoyable day.
The coronavirus pandemic has raised an age old question. How do we assess risk? More difficult still, how do we balance competing risks?
The COVID-19 crisis has thrown up a stack of such balancing acts. The most prominent one is where to strike the balance between health and economics. But other trade offs are apparent. Should we shut society down in the hope of killing the virus? How do we help the young, who are by all accounts much less at risk?
Yet our view of risk changes over time. My 16 year old aunt took 13 year old Dad to the cinema in London in the middle of the blitz in 1940, retreating home hours late after an air raid. Less dramatically, as a nine year old I’d venture alone across 1970s Cardiff on my bike to my aunt and uncle’s house in Rhiwbina. No one had ever heard of a bike helmet back then. Perhaps some children tragically ended up under the wheel of an Austin Maxi – but it didn’t stop us exploring on two wheels.
Don’t get me wrong. We were right to make work and life safer. Too many people died unnecessarily. The Great Western Railway introduced ‘automatic train control’ in 1906 to warn drivers when they were passing a ‘distant’ caution signal. Later, the GWR system applied the brakes if the driver didn’t slow down. It saved countless lives. It took half a century and the catastrophic Harrow & Wealdstone and Lewisham disasters before nationalised British Railways introduced the same safeguards on the rest of the network.
Similarly, once controversial measures to tackle drink driving and smoking now seem like common sense.
Yet human beings are not good at understanding and assessing risk. Take cycling. I have had a cycling helmet for almost 30 years. I usually wear one. (Though I didn’t in the photo opening this post – climbing a very steep hill to Todi in Umbria in 2004.) Most parents today would be horrified by the idea of not putting a helmet on their children as they pedal up a deserted road.
But helmet use should be a choice. We need to get children into active lifestyles, such as cycling, walking and sport, to reduce the risk of obesity. A report in 2017 suggested that 35% of children were overweight or obese at 11. Yet MP Bill Grant demanded that children be forced to wear helmets, so criminalising a child pedalling down a quiet cul-de-sac without a helmet. This shows a complete inability to assess risk. Banning McDonalds and fizzy drinks would be far more effective.
It’s a similar story with child abduction. The tragic story of Madeleine McCann, still front page news 13 years after the three year old disappeared in 2007, heightened fears that children were at much greater danger than during our childhood. Five years earlier, the murders of Holly Wells and Jessica Chapman in Soham, Cambridgeshire shocked the country. Yet child murders are remarkably rare, and are at historically low rates. Most are committed by parents or others known to the child. The difference is that today’s saturation media coverage and social media interest raises the prominence of tragedies. (Although I vividly remember the media frenzy about the awful ordeal of Lesley Whittle, a 17 year old kidnapped and killed by Donald Neilson in 1975.) We need to remember that such appalling cases are vanishingly rare. Be sensible, and teach children how to spot risks. (The age old advice about not taking treats from strangers remains relevant today.)
The communications lessons
Back to 2020, and the coronavirus conundrum. Global companies face a dilemma: do you take the same approach everywhere, or tailor policy and advice by region? Should you keep working from home globally, or allow countries like Australia and New Zealand to return to (close to) normal?
There’s no one answer. But whatever you decide, explain your approach.
Communication is key. It’s striking that the leaders who are natural communicators and educators like Jacinda Ardern have shone in this crisis. Leadership isn’t about bullshit and bluster. The greatest leaders educate the public. This hadn’t struck me until I read Steve Richards’ wonderful study of British prime ministers of the past 40 years. The greatest failures, like Theresa May, don’t even bother. Thatcher famously used her experience as a housewife to explain why the nation needed to spend no more than it earned. (Though the parallel was arguably misconceived.) And Tony Blair – at least before the historic blunder of the Iraq war – was the great communicator, bridging the then gap between traditional Labour and aspiring middle class voters.
Boris Johnson should have all the advantages. He has a vivid turn of phrase, when he remembers to speak English rather than Latin. He’s a larger than life character and people have in the past forgiven him a lot because of that. (Except in Liverpool.)
But the prime minister seems to lack any sensible advice in government. Dominic Cummings may have helped win the Brexit referendum, but so far has proved a disaster as Johnson’s chief adviser. The prime minister has a majority of 80. He should ditch partisan campaigning in favour of statecraft. Ditch the vengeance against people perceived not to be ‘one of us’. Learn a lesson from Roosevelt in the 1930s. Take the public into your confidence. Admit there is no simple answer: that we have to balance health and economics. After all, mass unemployment kills people as well as viruses. Children’s life chances are being damaged by lockdown. Start a conversation.
I recently discovered the Lost Lanes series of cycling books by Jack Thurston. They’re an inspiration, with evocative 1930s style covers, gorgeous photos and intriguing touring routes. I can’t wait to explore Rye and Romney Marsh, an area that has intrigued me since reading Malcolm Saville’s Lone Pine mysteries set there when I was a child. And those lovely Welsh border roads.
In the meantime, I’m exploring my local lost lanes. Tonight I cycled up to Hodgemoor Wood above Chalfont St Giles on my mountain bike – and promptly got lost. It is uncanny how easily I lose all sense of direction in this small woodland area.
Classic Chilterns: the view from Mumfords Lane
The real object of this evening’s ride was Mumfords Lane, a narrow lane that links the A40 between Beaconsfield and Gerrards Cross with Layter’s Green near Chalfont St Peter. I’d never cycled it before but it was a perfect opportunity to widen my route repertoire. There was climb from the main road but my mountain bike’s low gearing made it easy. The view from the top was gorgeous – one I had never seen before, even though it’s barely three miles from home. I’ll be cycling this lost lane again.
I was lucky to dodge a heavy June shower. I sheltered under a tree as I pulled on a rain jacket. This was the scene as the sun came out as the rain eased over the A40. This was once the main route from West Wales and Oxford to London before the M4 and M40 were built in the 1960s and 1970s.
I’ve really missed cafe stops on my lockdown bike rides. Especially the longer ones, where a coffee and cake adds to the pleasure. A week ago, I decided to do something about it. I can’t reopen cafes, but I can take my own tea or coffee, thanks to my new Klean Kanteen insulated water bottle. I enjoyed my tea and snack overlooking Maidenhead’s historic road bridge this lunchtime. I even brought my Costa collapsible mug!
I’ll end on a Lost Lanes note. As a proud Welshman, I smiled when I saw Jack’s note on my copy of Lost Lanes Wales. Cymru am byth – Wales for ever! Thank you, Jack.
I’ve had various Garmin cycling GPS devices for almost nine years. I’m a fan, as you will gather from my posts about the Edge 800 and Edge 1000. I’m now mainly using an Edge 1030.
In the past few weeks, I’ve found that the heart rate reading showing on the Edge was wildly inaccurate early in a ride. In some cases, by 60 beats a minute compared with the rate on my Apple Watch. Often the Garmin rate would be falling, even though I was climbing a hill. What was going on?
I followed the care instructions, wetting the heart rate strap before every ride and washing it regularly. But to no effect.
Finally, the penny dropped. I wasn’t wetting two small rectangular patches on the band. here’s one on the right of the band:
And here’s the other, on the left of this photo (in the middle of the band):
This should have been obvious looking at the diagram on the band:
Once I wetted all four patches, the Edge tracked my heart rate perfectly for every ride. That saved me buying a new strap!
But last week, as I was cycling along a suburban street in Beaconsfield, Buckinghamshire, it broke, catastrophically. I heard the sound of something falling off my bike. A light? No, my GoPro 7 Black camera. The metal joining the two parts of the mount had failed, casting my camera and the top part of the mount onto the road. (The bottom bit remained on the handlebar.) Happily, it wasn’t run over by a car.
The failed mount
You can see here the point of failure – a metal rod connecting the two parts of the mount.
I contacted GoPro customer support to report the problem. I wasn’t necessarily expecting a refund – I had bought the mount in April last year. But I was shocked when the agent essentially accused me of lying when I said there was no impact causing the catastrophic failure. I was simply cycling along a suburban street. I’d never used it off-road. In any case, shouldn’t a GoPro mount be able to cope with something more than a local, tarmac street? Aren’t these meant to be action cameras?
I guess I will have to look for something sturdier, such as a K-Edge’s metal ones. But it’s a shame, as the GoPro mount suited me. Before it broke on a suburban street.
UPDATE, Monday 15 June
I am delighted to say that after I contacted GoPro again (thanks for suggesting that, DC Rainmaker!) Michele Eve contacted me, apologised for my original experience and offered to send me a replacement. Excellent customer service – thank you!
They called 1940 ‘the Spitfire summer’. It was one of the finest summers of the 20th century. The endless dry, sunny days and azure skies provided a vivid backdrop to the Battle of Britain. Some seasons in history provide a stark contrast between nature and reality.
Spring 2020 is proving similarly contrasting. The coronavirus lockdown is taking place during possibly the most vivid British spring of the 21st century.
I have relished this extraordinary spring during my lockdown bike rides from home in Buckinghamshire. Today, I marvelled at the glorious birdsong as I made my way to Burnham Beeches, including the call of the majestic red kite. As I skirted the beeches, one red kite swooped down barely 10 feet away from me. He landed on a tree by the side of the road, thought better of it and flew off, those immense wings giving him lift. Burnham Beeches is a historic area of Buckinghamshire woodland owned by the Corporation of London. It’s the closest I’ll get to London for some time…
Yesterday, I was thrilled as confetti-like blossom blew in the warm wind across the country lane in my path. These natural delights soften the pain of lockdown, and give an intense taste of life renewing as well as fading; a high note of joy to lift us from the daily tragedies of the COVID-19 pandemic.
No one’s London-bound: the M40/M25 junction
The lockdown has emptied our fume-fuelled motorways and roads. Today, I cycled past the M40/M25 junction, above. How many times have I waited patiently in the rush hour on the slip road on the left to join the M25? Today, Easter Saturday, it was deserted. No one was hurrying to Heathrow or London. Birdsong ruled.
A silent Good Friday, Cliveden, Bucks
On my Good Friday bike ride yesterday, I paused to reflect on this stunning explosion of blossom at the pub opposite the entrance to the National Trust’s Cliveden estate. I love my rides to Cliveden for tea and cake on a weekend afternoon; that pleasure will have to wait. It is sad to see so many fine town and country pubs closed and quiet. Let us hope that they will reopen when the pandemic is under control.
Camper vans: a home from home
Karen and I both saw Volkswagen camper vans on our respective exercise sessions today. These classic campers inspire an idea of freedom and the open road. For now, that idea is just a dream. The campers are on the drive, rather than the upland roads and sun-kissed beaches of Great Britain and beyond. Their moment – our moment – will return. For now, let us enjoy this spring san pareil. It’s our equivalent of that Spitfire summer as history is made as nature unfolds.
These are the strangest of times. Our lives have changed almost overnight. Those carefree evenings out, family get-togethers and shopping trips are fading memories. (Although it’s a relief we no longer face that scramble to find a meeting room.)
Yet in Britain, for now, we can still go out for exercise. It has become a precious escape for me – a time away from the laptop screen, getting a physical challenge as a change from the intellectual challenge of communications work in the time of coronavirus.
It helps that the first week of Britain’s lockdown has been gloriously sunny. (Although that may have forced the lockdown, as crowds were gathering in London and people were flocking to Snowdonia and other national parks.) I revelled in the sunshine as I enjoyed my regular bike rides in Buckinghamshire, snatching an hour a time from work.
Don’t underestimate the importance of these daily escapes. These strange times are tough on us all. (Although obviously those at the front line in the NHS, care homes and serving the public face to face have a far greater challenge.) Getting out for some decent exercise is good for body and soul. You may experience a high that will get you through the loss of all those activities that you can’t enjoy at present.
Let’s make the most of these days of cycling and running while we can.
I didn’t plan to get an electric bike. I had thought of upgrading my 16 year old Brompton. But an impulse test ride on the Brompton Electric at the Brompton Junction store in London’s Covent Garden had me smitten. A week later, I collected my own Brompton Electric from Cycle Surgery and began my electric dream.
As a Brompton owner since 2002, I was familiar with the clever design. The electric version is a classic Brompton, with the same simple fold, which is perfect for journeys when you use the train for part of your commute. But the powered Brompton is even heavier, so you’ll won’t want to carry this bike very far. (I’m now far more familiar with the lift at Gerrards Cross station!)
I got the bike in February, when we had an unseasonal heatwave, with temperatures over 20C! I took advantage by going for lunchtime rides along the Thames from Richmond to Teddington and through Richmond Park.
But this is a bike designed for commuting. I have meetings in London at least once a week, and have loved cycling to the station to get the train from Gerrards Cross, and then completing the journey from Marylebone to Victoria or Tottenham Court Road. The Brompton is a perfect city bike: I can weave in and out of traffic and the electric boost gives me an unfair advantage as the lights turn green. (My favourite moment was beating a Porsche away from the lights!)
Is it perfect? No. There are times when the power seems slow to kick in, although most of the time this isn’t a problem. I’ve experienced a few rattles and a part fell off (from the City bag In think) today and I have no idea how to put it back on. There are also times when I change gear and nothing happens but applying more force to the gear lever tends to sort things out. But these are minor niggles. I love this bike. For many people, the biggest problem will be the price. You’ll be saying goodbye to at least £2,500 for this bike. I think it’s worth it if your commute includes a train journey. You might disagree, even if you can afford to spend that kind of money on a bike.
The Brompton Electric comes with a clever essentials bag that contains the removable battery. You can pop the charger, your phone and other essentials in it. I splashed out on the City Bag for commuting – you’ll need it if you don’t want to carry a laptop on a backpack. It’s cleverly designed with the two pockets at the back and side pockets as well. The battery fits in the middle and clips into place. It’s not as big as it looks inside because the battery takes up a chunk of space but I’ve not found this a problem. The bag and laptop are heavy, so you will be grateful for that electric motor!
Bromptons have small wheels, which means you have to be careful to avoid potholes and other obstacles. I learnt a lesson early on: take care not to charge curbs as you may get a puncture, as I did in High Wycombe. I also discovered that you need a spanner to take the wheel off to mend a puncture.
Brompton has adopted these three icons showing the famous fold. You’ll find it on various components on the bike, which is a nice touch. I first saw them displayed on the old Brompton factory in Brentford, west London, on my (car) commute. I used to enjoy seeing Brompton employees cycling home as I drove past. I was sorry when the company moved, although it’s heart-warming that Brompton still makes its bikes in London.
I love cycling, and was thrilled this year to complete Land’s End to John O’Groats on my Cannondale Synapse road bike. But there’s something very special about flying around the city on a Brompton Electric. It gives me a lot of pleasure, especially as I know I’m avoiding the crowds yet getting to my destination faster than on the tube.
I’ll end with a photo that sums up the joy of this special bike. This was on an early lunchtime ride in that February heatwave. I can’t wait for my next Brompton Electric ride!
This was bound to be an unforgettable day: the end of our epic ride from the south west tip of England through Wales and Scotland to the far north shores of Great Britain. But I had no idea that this would be my fastest ever day’s long distance bike ride.
It started with the forbidding sound of heavy rain. Would the last day be spoilt by the weather? Happily, no. We finished as we started, with overnight rain giving way to sunshine when it mattered.
We got a lift on the minibus back to The Crask from Lairg. I knew the ride from here to the coast would be magical. But I hadn’t realised how fast those miles would be – over 17 mph for almost 20 miles.
When I cycled from The Crask to Altnaharra in 2002, I saw one of the guides standing on the side of the road, and hoped he’d taken a photo of me in this stunning open landscape. He hadn’t… This time, I took photos and video as we made our way north on a gorgeous Scottish summer’s day. In winter, Altnaharra often features in weather reports as the coldest place in Great Britain, but today I was wearing shorts and – as soon as I warmed up – a short sleeved jersey.
After Altnaharra we cycled along the shore of lovely Loch Naver, which seemed to last forever. I drank in the views and the tranquility of this beautiful and deserted corner of Scotland. The loch finally gave way to the river Naver as we headed closer to the coast. We passed through lonely Syre, with its tiny, picturesque church, which I remembered fondly from 2002.
I enjoyed the climb up to Bettyhill, a tiny village overlooking the most stunning, deserted beach. One of my favourite memories of my first Land’s End to John O’Groats ride 17 years ago was seeing that beach in the pouring rain and deciding I had to go back in sunnier weather. That prompted me and Karen to return to the far north in 2004. We were so glad we did.
I remembered the north coast as being hilly, and expected our average speed to drop dramatically between Bettyhill and Thurso. But – and this was so satisfying – I found that my new-found fitness gave me the power to conquer the hills and regain speed on the inevitable descents. I was actually waiting for people at the top!
We were descending after one of these climbs when I saw people waving in the distance. I didn’t think much of it as we’d seen a few people waving at us in the past few days. But then I heard a cry: “Daddy!” It was my 11 year old son Owen, with Karen. It was a wonderful moment two weeks after I last saw them at Cape Cornwall near Land’s End. I was sure they would come to find me, as Karen did in 2002, but I didn’t expect to see them this early in the day.
We had a lovely family lunch at the Halladale Inn at Melvich. This was probably the best lunch of the tour – even better than the lunch at the Wee House at Glenshee. Just 35 miles to go to John O’Groats!
In no time we were passing through Thurso, the most northerly town in Great Britain, and sweeping on to Dunnet, with its lovely sandy bay, and enormous sand dunes, which cover a Norse settlement. We stopped at the Northern Sands Hotel to regroup before the final 11 miles to our legendary destination. It was a delicious interlude, sitting in the sun on the benches, sipping coffee, knowing that we were about to complete our epic journey. Nothing could stop us now!
Well, almost nothing. Between Dunnet and Mey, Chris’s tyre gave out a loud noise, followed by a mini-explosion as it blew out. Simon got him back on the road in no time.
I really shouldn’t have been surprised to see a group of people pushing a bed along the road. Anywhere else in Britain you’d have feared for their mental health. Here you just known that they must have been heading for Land’s End to raise money for charity!
John O’Groats is a tiny village, but it is a lovely destination unlike Land’s End. We cycled slowly down the modest hill towards the famous sign. Owen and Karen were waiting for us, along with friends and family of other members of our cycling clan!
Last year, I reached John O’Groats by plane and car. I had expected to journey there by bike, but my cycle trip was cancelled. It was a moment of pure joy to fulfil my dream this year, thanks to Steve, Simon, Julie and Howard from Peak Tours. And I was thrilled to complete this last day at my record speed of 16.4mph!
After the celebrations, I made my way to the chalet that would be our home for the next six days. This was the perfect place to relax after cycling 1,000 miles. I stretched out across the map of Great Britain, reflecting on how far I had come. And I relished the unique tranquility of this far north tip of Scotland, overlooking Orkney. We started plotting my next cycling adventure – but that’s a story for another day.
As I end this final chapter of LEJOG19, I reflect on the fact this was almost certainly the last time I cycle this epic journey. I will never forget these 14 days in the summer of 2019: the company of our cycling clan and the dramas and landscapes we shared. Over the past couple of years, I wondered whether cycling the length of Great Britain would be easier in my fifties than in my thirties. Thanks to my training and Peak Tours it most definitely was.
If you’ve ever dreamed of cycling from Land’s End to John O’Groats, just do it!