Are Sustrans Masters of Irony?


The harvest is nearly in and my fears about how well the new gravel/hardcore surfaces, on NCN 12/51, would withstand the combined weight of harvesters and tractors have not come to pass. Perhaps just as well, Sustrans are planning a celebratory ride along this section on the 17th August.

This newly resurfaced section of the NCN 51/12 has even made it into one of the local papers. The article describes the new surface as high quality (yes really). It also makes reference to the section by Highfields farm, now with a Tarmac surface, as being previously almost impassable, especially in wet weather. This was definitely the case, but then it was just an unsurfaced and very muddy bridleway. The part of the path nearest the road was in the worst condition; having no where for water to drain away to, it was prone to flooding. However, with a new high quality surface you can imagine the flooding problem was simply addressed by building up this part of the path so that it sat slightly higher than the surrounding verges and field margins. You would think…

The following picture is of the new high quality path, taken on Monday 11th August, after rain the previous day. Let’s hope, for Sustrans sake, it stays dry for the weekend, or else this new high quality cycle path might be a bit of an embarrassment…

An all year surface? Sustrans think so.

An all year surface? Sustrans think so.

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Bolts, Plugs and Builders Nails


If you listen to some campaigners, our continental cousins enjoy cycling infrastructure that’s like sugar and spice and all things nice. My own experience is too limited to back that up, but it seems over here the infrastructure is, quite literally, built with bolts and plugs and builders nails.

Last week I blogged about the bizarre make-up of a recently resurfaced stretch of the Sustrans National Cycle Network. Last night, I got off the bike and I walked a couple of the resurfaced sections. I collected just over 900g of scrap metal including bolts, screws, nails, plugs (electrical and sink) and other stuff I’m not practical enough to know the use of. I left the glass, but I might go back and collect it, along with the bits of broken pottery and tiles, to make a mosaic…

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NCN 51 Surface Improvements?


At about the same time that I broke my collar bone, Sustrans started improvement works on the surface of their National Cycle Network route 51, between Southoe and the B661. This work was long overdue. I’m back on the bike now so, this week, I decided to try out the NCN for my commute to St Neots station. What would the improvements be like – would this section of the NCN finally be a genuinely fit for purpose national cycle network?

First, the link from the Grafham Water cycle track to the B661 is still mud and grass, however, a patch of tarmac has been laid to fill in a pothole between the small bridge, over a drainage ditch, and the road.

A new tarmac section, a big, welcome improvement but will it stay free from vegetation?

A new tarmac section, a big, welcome improvement but will it stay free from vegetation?

Across the road and things start to look better. Previously, this sector was a 300m stretch of muddy bridleway. In the winter it frequently flooded. It has now been resurfaced with tarmac which is a huge and welcome improvement, but it has been done in a rather strange way. Rather than a single, wide tarmac path, it has been split into two narrower parallel lines with a mud and grass strip running down the middle. I can only guess this middle strip is for horses, but if so, why not put it to one side? The tarmac surface now has four rather than two verges, so four sides for vegetation to encroach from. This surface is a leap in the right direction, but it will be interesting to see how durable it is.

New, deep gravel to cover the mud

New, deep gravel to cover the mud

The Tarmac surface soon comes to an end, but it is not the end of the new surfaces. Else where along the route several tonnes of gravel have been used to cover the worst of the muddier sections. On first glance, though not as good as a sealed surface, it looks like another huge leap forward, but start riding on it and concerns surface.

An effort has been made to pack the gravel down, however, there are patches where it is still quite loose. This is especially noticeable around the corners and I found some of them quite sketchy. I had originally planned to put narrower and slicker tyres on my bike – I was glad I went for something a little more robust.

A problem for this route’s surface is that it is shared with farm traffic. While bikes and horses might disturb some of the gravel, it will be interesting to see how it fares under the weight of tractors, trailers and combine harvesters. Well, the harvest will be coming in over the next couple of weeks so we’ll soon know…

More new gravel - glinting prettily in the sunlight?

More new gravel – glinting prettily in the sunlight?

Riding home I noticed areas of the gravelled surface glinting in the late afternoon summer sun. I wondered what they might be, so stopped and had a look. Tiles. The gravel was full of bits of broken, glazed tiles. But now that I was and, for the first time, looking properly at the surface I was shocked by what I was seeing. By comparison to what else I found, bits of broken tile were quite benign. In the about ten seconds I found numerous bits of broken glass, a dozen nails and screws, a bolt and a few other bits of metal, including a two inch hinge! The surface was full of embedded pieces of puncture inducing junk – small wonder that the next day I passed a couple walking home with a flat tyre (I did offer to fix it, but they declined).

Surface materials provided by Sustrans

Surface materials provided by Sustrans

I was angry, I still am angry. Sustrans is an organisation which claims to speak for cyclists, which claims to lobby for better infrastructure for cyclists. Yet here they are, providing a new surface, on their flagship national cycle network, embedded with nails and broken glass! Not gravel, more like cheap, smashed up hardcore from a demolition site. When Sustrans are content to provide surfaces like this, it should be no surprise that cycling infrastructure in the UK is in the parlous state it is.

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Circuit of the Fens 2014, Leading the way


When I broke my clavicle in May, I was hopeful I might still race the Circuit of the Fens, almost two months later, but as the weeks passed it became obvious that the break wasn’t healing fast enough. My fitness was waning as rapidly as my enthusiasm for the turbo. There was no longer any avoiding the email to Tom, the race organiser, confirming I was withdrawing. It was not an email I wanted to write. The race starts and ends in my home town of Whittlesey. I had ridden, and finished, last year’s inaugural race, so to miss it this year was a big disappointment. Tom emailed back and asked if I would like to drive lead car one for the support race instead? I was pleased to be asked, and accepted…then checked with my wife.

Sunday, race day, arrived and I took my responsibility seriously – I washed the car. I also checked over the route for the nth time – there were a couple of interesting alterations from last year, but the race is on roads I grew up riding on; I know them well, although I never would’ve guessed as a teenager that one day I would be supporting a race on them.

I arrived at Sir Harry Smith School, the race HQ, early. NFTO were the keenest of the elite teams and a few support riders were hanging around, but otherwise it was quiet. That soon changed and a definite buzz started to grow. I got the car prepped while trying to eavesdrop on the Metaltek briefing going on behind me. I caught up with a few guys in the support race, including Wayne, St Neots’ lone entry, then it was off to the drivers’ briefing. After that the only thing left to do was empty my bladder; at 84 miles, the Circuit of the Fens is a long race.

The Elites get ready to roll

The Elites get ready to roll

Once the elite race rolled out, it was time for our convoy to form up. Being lead car I was first, obviously. We waited for the commissaire’s command to move. It was tense; I had pre-race nerves. We passed the time with last-minute radio checks. Opposite me the police and NEG outriders knocked down their visors then blocked the traffic. The race radio crackled into life: lead car one, start rolling out.

The route was cleared ahead and we proceeded in to town. At the roundabout, the marshals pulled aside the barriers blocking Market Street and I drove on to the circuit. The street was lined with more barriers and rows of people. Driving through them was an odd experience. I was the first vehicle the spectators would see. Until they saw the riders, I was, for a brief moment, the centre of the town’s attention. I stopped just past the Buttercross and waited for the Mayor’s official ceremonial start. I wound up the car windows to block out the crowd’s noise, I didn’t want to miss the command to roll-off.

The race start was neutralised. We kept a sedate pace along Station Road and over Briggate Drain, whose bridge had caused minor chaos last year. Once all the riders were together, the neutral flag went down on Glassmoor Bank. The race was on.

Immediately support were kept busy as a number of riders punctured. The broom wagon had grace to pace them back on, some managed it but others didn’t. Being at the front of the convoy I could see precious little of the action; on the Roman-straight Fen roads, with a couple of cars and a spare wheel decorated service bike behind you, it is surprisingly hard to see much in your mirrors. Still the race radio, my only link to the outside world, kept me informed. Riders were trying to force a break. Someone would make 10 seconds on the pack, hold it for a while, then get sucked back in and another one would try. But, a break stubbornly refused to form. Unlike last year, the race had no 4th cats and I think the more level field showed its greater strength. Last year dozens of riders were dropped on the first lap; this time, with a narrower, stronger range of ability, making a break, making it stick, was a far harder proposition.

Traffic was light and the NEG did a superb job marshalling what little there was on the road. They flitted past me with an occasional wave. Like busy, fluorescent orange bees, they were the real workers of the convoy.

We started to hear reports of a crash in the elite race. We turned onto Forty Foot and I saw vehicles parked on the left ahead. I called it in to the commissaires, and as I approached, saw they were race vehicles. When I drove by a rider was lying on the ground attended by race medics.

Onto Benwick and a good number of people were out to watch. As with last year, Fen folk had pitched up tables and chairs, outside isolated cottages and farms, for the afternoon entertainment. Some had decorated bikes. It was good to see.

The next communiqué from the elite race was to warn of a steam traction engine on the course. Turning on to Oilmills, after Pondersbridge, I saw the brown smoke, billowing across the fields in a noxious imitation of a Fen Blow. The NEG had it marshalled. Not great to have on the circuit, but we are, after all, racing on public roads.

Through Benwick for the second time. My family had turned up to watch and I gave them quick wave before accelerating round a bend.

Race radio started to report a second crash among the elites. The reports quickly became more ominous and the chatter turned to possibly stopping the race. It sounded serious. On the way back to Whittlesey industrial estate the race was neutralised. This was followed by an instruction to halt in the feed zone at Glassmoor Bank.

The police had blocked off the road just after the feed zone, so I stopped the race convoy in front of them. The next minutes were confused and concerned. Clearly a serious incident had taken place involving one of the riders. People hoped he was not too badly injured, but with an air ambulance called, feared what further news would come. Gradually, a clearer picture started to emerge. It wasn’t an elite rider, rather, a rider dropped from our support race had been in collision with the steam traction engine, still on Oilmills road. How far behind us he was, or what happened, I do not know and I’m not going to speculate, but I wish the rider a fast and full recovery. Thoughts must also go to the race organisers. Putting together the Circuit of the Fens is a huge undertaking. Scores of people had volunteered to help the event. So whatever the circumstances, having the race stopped, will I am sure have been a great disappointment to everyone involved. I know it was for me.

For the next hour the riders lazed around on the verges. I ate an ice cream in front of them. Then the call came through, the race was restarting, but on a truncated circuit. We were to drop one lap and miss the Pudduck Lane sector. That meant we would finish this lap, the third of four, then head back to Whittlesey on the planned route. We got back into our cars, the riders got back on their bikes and the convoy was ready to roll.

Ready to restart on Glassmoor Bank

Ready to restart on Glassmoor Bank

The race was neutralised along Glassmoor Bank, through Pondersbridge and Ramsey Mereside. The steam engine was smokeless and joined by a fire engine; between them, on the verge, lay a bike and helmet. It was a sobering reminder, as if any were needed.

After Ramsey Mereside the flag was dropped and the racing was back on. The riders had recovered, the neutralised start had warmed them up, but they had less than 15 miles to the finish. It was going to be quick.

After Benwick I moved on ahead to make sure the turning on to Wype Drove was clear and that the marshals knew we were turning a lap early. I needn’t have worried, this is a well-organised race and they already knew what to do.

Wype Drove is a wrecked stretch of concrete where vegetation flourishes in the cracks. I made sure I had plenty of space, but at thirty miles an hour the car was being bounced all over the place. Often I had to slow to avoid bottoming out – the Fens are flat, the roads are not. Despite this, NEG riders still found space to squeeze by. Around a couple of bends I could see the race running counter and parallel to me. The bunch was thinned out with a long sparse tail.

The drove ended and I pulled onto smooth tarmac, but the respite didn’t last for long. A left turn took me onto the broad gravel of Cross Drove. This, I thought would be fun. The gravel was dry, dusty and large. I was swerving around potholes, it was a tough, rough surface. I wasn’t at all surprised to see the blue signs of Sustrans’ national cycle network – it’s exactly the kind of crap infrastructure they like!

Cross Drove...

Cross Drove…

Seconds after the riders hit the gravel the broom wagon got very busy. The riders were split and perhaps as many as twenty had suffered punctures, but as the race book said, this wasn’t a day for light race tyres and pricey wheels. I had originally been looking forward to this sector – I’m quite happy riding my road bikes over gravel tracks, but I’ve never raced over one before. Maybe next year I’ll get to find out how I get on.

The run back into Whittlesey was fast and furious. The NEG and police riders were struggling to keep pace as we sped through the town. Over the roundabout, the barriers pulled aside. I heard someone shout “they’re coming” then I accelerated down Market Street, through the crowd, surfing a wave of cheers to the finish line. I pulled up on Eastgate, jumped out and took the numbers of the first three riders. The race was over. I look forward to it returning next year.

 

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Heal collar bone, damn you, heal!


Two months ago, when I broke my collar bone, I thought it might be possible, but as the weeks have passed and my worsening relationship with the turbo has left my fitness to wane, I couldn’t escape the singular fact – I wasn’t going to be strong enough to race this Sunday’s Circuit of the Fens support race. It is a big disappointment, and if I had still held any lingering hope in the days before, Thursday’s fracture clinic appointment would have squashed them. I’ll still be there though, sat behind the wheel of lead car one, with a police escort, leading the riders across closed Fen droves.

The best bit of Thursday’s clinic was the X-ray. A petite radiographer ushered me into the zapping room and asked me to remove my top (this wasn’t required at my last visit and it didn’t look like they had installed new cotton sensitive equipment). I obliged without fuss then stood in front of the plate. You’re tall she said, moving the machine a little higher. I stood a little straighter and a he had to move the machine up again.

After the X-ray I went to see the consultant. A nurse pulled up last months X-ray, realised her mistake and pulled up the new one. Hmm, that doesn’t look any different, she commented. She double checked, there were differences, but they were subtle. A month on and my collarbone appears to have progressed little in its healing. The bone is joined, but where the halves have overlapped and partially fused, the X-ray still showed a gap.

Of course the X-ray doesn’t tell the full story. Today I have full, pain free movement, although I do get an occasional clicking and if I’ve laid badly overnight, an ache. I can drive and this week I’ve started using Boris bikes, for the short hop from station to work and back again. It’s been fine, next week I plan to return to a more normal level of cycling, but sadly I don’t think I’ll be heading up to Rockingham Speedway again this year. I have the consultants blessing; activity is good, but I’m to avoid the weights. Well I’ve never been one for bench presses.

The plan B I’ve been working on is to start regaining my fitness for the cyclocross season; to vent my summer frustration on some mud. But the consultant said he wants to see me again in early September. He then went on to tell me, in great detail, the next likely step for if the bone hasn’t fully healed. Realignment and plating, namely rebreaking the bone and jiggling it around the muscle into a new position then bolting it together. I would be left with a scar and probably numbness around the cut. He didn’t make it sound an attractive option. If it comes to surgery then plan B may have to be dumped for plan C – telling the stories of my other scars from a hospital bed. The radiographer might like to hear them.

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Balance Bike Backfires?


Being a keen cyclist, I want my daughters to follow in my pedal strokes and discover the joy and freedom that the humble bicycle brings. To start our first daughter on her way to cycling independence we gave her a balance bike early for her second birthday. She loved it, but as I’ve written before, two years later, there was no quick and easy transition to a pedal bike.

In due course our youngest daughter inherited the balance bike. As before with her big sister, she loved it. The problem, if problem it really is, is that she still loves it.

For her fourth birthday we gave our youngest daughter her own bike. We knew we had made mistakes with her sister’s first bike, so invested in a smaller, lighter and all round better made bike. It didn’t make a jot of difference. Sure, on her birthday, when she came downstairs and saw the bike, waiting for in the lounge, she was thrilled. But will she ride it? Absolutely not. Getting her to even sit on needs intensive cajoling. Once on she’ll let herself be pushed along to a landmark, usually a feather stuck into the ground placed about ten metres away. Then it’s a lightning fast cyclocross dismount and she’s off to ride her balance bike. She zooms around on that, lifting her feet in the air and freewheeling around, loving its lightness and freedom. Asked why she won’t try to ride her new bike, she tells us she doesn’t like the pedals!

So, balance bikes haven’t provided the simple progression to pedal bikes, for either of our girls, that we had hoped for, but as I’m learning that’s a fair summary of parenthood. Although it hasn’t worked for us, I don’t think balance bikes are a bad idea. The one our girls have shared has given them hours of pleasure and for that reason alone, it has been a good buy. Our oldest daughter is riding now and thinks it’s one of the best things ever. She’s right of course and our youngest daughter will, in her own time, see pedals really are better too. Still, if you’ve got any tips to hurry her along, I would love to hear them!

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Tour de France Stage 3: Cambridge


On the way home from York I tweeted that the pressure was on Cambridge and London. The North had delivered but would The South? I had a few reservations and I don’t think I was the only one.

So why the doubts? First, when we went on a club trip to ride the Yorkshire Dales a couple of months ago, the county already looked prepared. There were plenty of advance notices, the bunting was on display and yellow bikes were all over the place. Every other farmer was offering their fields for parking or camping. What’s more the county seemed genuinely enthusiastic for the Tour. When we returned for the Grand Depart, it felt like everything I had seen in May had been allowed to ferment into a fevered, excited atmosphere. Driving to Ripon the local radio was all Tour talk. They were most definitely behind it. I hadn’t seen much of that attitude around Cambridge.

What I had seen and heard for Cambridge were dire warnings of traffic Armageddon – warnings I could easily believe. On a good working day, getting into Cambridge by car, from my side of the county, is an ordeal by congestion on overstretched and creaking infrastructure. On the eve of Stage 3, the council website had plenty of information about which transport services would be closed or suspended, but nothing about additional parking or buses laid on. Perhaps they hadn’t seen the weekend’s footage from Yorkshire?

Would it be a quiet day for the tourists?

Would it be a quiet day for the tourists?

To get a head start we had decided to stay with my in-laws; they’re that little bit closer to Cambridge and had offered a lift to save us the hassle of finding parking. We had BBC Radio Cambridgeshire on in the car. Unlike their Yorkshire cousins, the only Tour-related talk was about how quiet places were, and occasional bad jokes: Why didn’t Team Sky stay in Cambridge? Because there was no Froome at the inn… And how could I forget the advert warning people arriving by bike to use the official racks only or risk having their bikes carted away!

Still, despite the radio reports, you can imagine our surprise when we sailed along the A428, on to a free-flowing Madingley Road, past the Park and Ride and straight on to the Backs where we pulled up and unloaded. We felt a little silly, but clearly the scaremongering had worked. People were staying away from Cambridge.

King's Parade, quiet in the early morning sunlight

King’s Parade, quiet in the early morning sunlight…

We walked around to Great St Mary’s church opposite the Senate House. It was quiet, very quiet. There was a slight kink in the barriers there and it seemed like a good place to pitch up.

But as the race drew nearer the crowds picked up

But as the race drew nearer the crowds picked up.

In Ripon and York people had been handing out maps showing the route and timings. I asked one of the Cambridge Tour Makers if they had anything similar. No, instead they directed me to the tourist office. The Tour Makers were being supported by additional stewards with APS plastered across their hi-vis jackets. While the Tour Makers were chatty and friendly, the APS stewards seemed to be the opposite: sullen and obstructive. I guess that’s the difference between stewards who are employed to be there, and those who have volunteered.

McCain chips again... 3 posts in a row, you would think it's an advertising campaign, but I've yet to be offered a year's supply...

McCain chips again… 3 posts in a row, you would think it’s an advertising campaign, but I’ve yet to be offered a year’s supply…

By the time the caravane arrived, the streets were busy. Nearly every passenger in the Tour cavalcade, and many of the drivers too, had mobile phones and tablets in hand, photographing the crowds.

Mavic neutral service car - the rider's herald

Mavic neutral service car – the riders’ herald

 

When the riders arrived, the route down to King’s Parade was heaving; spectators were clambering up the walls of Gonville and Caius to get a better view under the gaze of inquisitive dons.

Nibali in yellow - looks like he's comfortable in it...

Nibali in yellow – looks like he’s comfortable in it…

The Cambridge crowd didn’t disappoint. It was as large, loud and boisterous as anything Yorkshire had given. The colleges provided a stunning backdrop to the race start, and yet walking through the town after the race had passed by, I couldn’t help but feel Cambridge the Institution – the University, City council, media and the businesses – hadn’t really engaged with the Tour. In Yorkshire, most shop windows I saw were dressed in vivid yellow Tour-related themes. In Cambridge, these businesses were in the minority. In York, the Minster and Rowntree factory were both draped in great yellow jerseys. Ripon town hall was a mairie for a day, but such frivolities were not for the Cambridge landmarks. Cambridge had at least managed a few lengths of bunting. But at the same time, Cambridge had put on a respectable event on Parker’s Piece. It had a widescreen TV, bar, Go Ride stuff, even a modest French market. Some effort had clearly been put in, it was…satisfactory. Top marks to the spectators, but for me, Cambridge could have tried harder (although I accept any yellow bikes would soon have been pinched!).

Parker's Piece - Cambridge scored well here

Parker’s Piece – Cambridge scored well here

What a fantastic and unforgettable three days though. Tuesday evening we were all exhausted. Just three days on the road, how on Earth do the manager cooks, soigneurs, mechanics, press officers and every other Tour follower, let alone the riders, cope for three weeks?

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