New Paul Smith gilet mate? We saw you coming…

A couple of years ago I blogged about looking for that most basic piece of cycling kit, a new gilet. At the time I was bemused by the high pricing of certain high end brand gilets, but today, fashion designer Paul Smith has rocked me with a paradigm shift. I’m struggling to come to terms with the fact that Rapha’s £125 Gilet is now mid-range clothing. Don’t be daft I hear you say, to which I answer, then you’ve yet to see Mr Smith’s £350 531 range Gilet.

Yes, that’s right, a GILET for THREE HUNDRED AND FIFTY POUNDS. I recently bought a Gore Goretex rain jacket (which is a superb piece of kit) for a £151 less than that. For £350 you could get a good single speed bike to see you through the winter. Worst of all, the 351 Gilet is a dull looking orange, it doesn’t even look nice.

Paul Smith is an enthusiastic cyclist, he has a passion for the sport and now he, or at least his marketing team, want to take you for a ride too….if you’ve the money to burn.

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Autumn Breeze Sportive 2014

Saturday had been hectic. The morning was busy, spent checking over paper work, collecting things together, responding to emails, and a few other little, but necessary, chores. At midday I was on the road first to drop off some food with Andy and Mandy, the feed station coordinators. Mandy was in the kitchen, hard at work baking for feed station, and I’m sure Andy was busy with something too. Then it was off to fetch Gary to help sign the middle section of the route.

Staś and Olly, in the north, and David and Andrew, in the south, had signed their respective sectors in the morning. We cracked on and made a good start, chivvied along by the pouring rain, but after a while we slowed a little – with his window wound down, I think Gary was still feeling Friday nights club visit to Auntie Thai’s. But, Grazing on the blackberries growing around the signposts he kept his strength up and the job was done.

When I got home Staś had left a message regards a route alteration. One of the roads on the northern sector, which the 100milers would ride, was closed. Fortunately the detour was relatively trivial, taking you along the other two sides of a small diamond. It still meant the risk assessments needed updating and a new route rushing out. The turd of a website that is Garmin.connect was as uncooperative as ever (pale grey back drop with slightly paler roads, not the best UX), but on Sunday morning most of the pre-entered riders had either got the new route or at least knew of the change.

Sunday was little more than a red line on the east horizon when I arrived at the HQ, once again based at St Neots One Leisure centre. At 6.45 the first rider arrived, and by 7am the car park was steadily filling, even though sign-on didn’t officially open for another half hour. Ian B and Leah arrived to man the sign on, the marshals and club riders were briefed and then we were ready, or at least as much as we thought we would ever need to be.

A steady trickle very quickly turned into a rush. We had 149 pre-entered riders, what we weren’t quite prepared for were the other 50 who turned up on the day! The forecast was good and clearly a lot of folk had been weather watching. For a while, with dozens of riders cramming into the sign on area, we were a little overwhelmed. We ran out of cable ties for the numbers – I thought 600 would be enough – and then we ran out of numbers! We were full.

Shortly before 8am we started to get the first riders on the road. Ian L went on ahead to marshal where the route crossed at Wilden. The riders had a briefing and then they were off in small groups, a few minutes apart. Quickly a thick column of them were lining up along the cycle way to the start, shivering in the early morning coolness and eager to be off.

Soon enough all the riders were off and for a while calm returned to HQ. A couple of people returned early, suffering with aching limbs, and there was a slight panic when Ian L phoned in to report he’d taken a wrong turning to the course crossing. A few of the first riders made the same mistake, but they were all brought back on track with just a few extra miles added on.

Ian B and Leah tidied up the start list while I rode out to transfer signs from the start of the route to the very end. It turned out on Saturday that our 300 signs hadn’t been quite enough. When I got back Ian drove off to perform broom wagon duties, following the course for any stragglers and collecting up signs. It wasn’t long before he was called into action by the first call on the emergency phone – a broken rear mech climbing the short and sharp Belton’s Hill. This was followed by a broken spoke and Staś unfortunately suffered a snapped drop out and some nasty mech meets spokes mangling. Hopefully they will all get their bikes road worthy again with little fuss.

Andy and Mandy reported a very busy 45 minutes as the 200 passed through the feed station, then things settled down and we waited for the first 100km riders to return.

The first arrived shortly before midday. I went outside to grab riders as they arrived and to make sure they signed in with Leah before getting their voucher for beans or eggs on toast at the centre’s cafe.

By and large the feed back was good, everyone had enjoyed the ride with special praise going to the feed station and signage. People had enjoyed the route too, although a few had been taken by surprise by Everton Hill and it’s 15% gradients. I heard a few reports of people walking but only one admitted to it, still if you’re going to organise a sportive you can’t not include your areas nearest, biggest and steepest hill, can you?

The hundred milers started to arrive in the early afternoon, just as the 100km were winding down. Again, they had enjoyed the route, and I was pleased to hear people say they had found the course harder than they were expecting. Judging from some of the glazed stares over untouched plates of beans that I saw some riders had, by that criteria, it was a successful route!

Late afternoon and the emergency phone rang for another mechanical, this time at Wilden. I drove out to collect the rider, joining the route at Tempsford and following it backwards. I saw no other riders on the road and when I arrived back all but the last few had returned and were accounted for. I and several others checked the course while taking the signage down, but no one was seen, so the last few outstanding numbers were called to establish their whereabouts. That done, we packed up and headed home.

There are a couple of things about this years sportive that I am pleased about. This year we had minimal advertising and entries opened later. In the end that didn’t dent the numbers. Talking to people as they arrived back, a lot had either ridden the event before or been recommended to ride it by others. I don’t think you can beat that sort of loyalty and word of mouth attraction.

Secondly, a number of riders commented how good it was to see the event being so well supported by the club members and they were right, it was. No one is paid to run the event, everyone who gives up their time does so freely and many have. For some it was baking a cake, others gave up the better part of the weekend to put up and take down the 300 signs, man the feed station and HQ and marshal where it was needed. And it does make me proud to belong a club that can do that. We have also raised a good bit of money too. In previous years this has gone to develop the club, especially coaching, this year though, we’re making a donation to Magpas instead.

Autumn Breeze Sportive 2013
Autumn Breeze Sportive 2012

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First meeting with a post referendum Scot

Sitting at the traffic lights on Farringdon road, a drunk Scot with a beaming smile, a can of lager in one hand and a plastic bag containing more in the other, walked over and complemented my Boris Bike (and it was in good condition). I don’t know if he was an accepting Yes or a celebrating No, although I was disappointed to see the lager was Stella not Tennents. Still, Salmond does claim the Scots are more pro-European than the rest of us.

I’m glad the Union has held, but I hope we’re now in line for root and branch political reform, not just for Scotland but every nation in the Union. I don’t know what is best, really I just hope the post referendum political fallout isn’t the status quo. A federal, decentralised state appeals. It seems like a good opportunity too to address the anachronisms in our political structure. Time for a written constitution and the unelected House of Lords must surely go. As for the Royals… If there was one time when they should have cast aside political impartiality this was it. But did they speak out to defend the political unity of their Kingdom? No, and for me that demonstrates their impotent irrelevance – tourism will survive without them. Time for a Republic; a head of state we can choose and remove.


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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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