Filling potholes…the @Sustrans way

Riding home last night I saw a cowboy. He wasn’t wearing a Stetson and his steed was a digger rather than a lousy piebald. He was shovelling gravel, like you would find on a driveway, into potholes on the farm track which passes for a national cycling network in Sustrans’ world. Yes, gravel, not a surface dressing known for being cycle friendly.

Anyway, I knew he was a cowboy, and not just because his workmanship was questionable. The NCN is a shared use path, shared with tractors and their big deep treaded tyres. In a few weeks the gravel will be spread across the track and the potholes will be back, then he’ll come along with another bucket load of gravel for more unsustainable repairs.

gravel 1gravel 3a

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Sunday sights

Normally for the first Sunday in October I’m helping out with the club sportive, but this year it was moved to a week earlier, so instead I skipped the club run to take my daughters for a spin around Grafham. I couldn’t have asked for a better autumn morning. The sun still had warmth and high pressure left the colouring leaves unstirred while haze over the reservoir mellowed the views to complement the season. It was a day to make the most of.

We stopped for coffee and ice cream and sat down on a bench occupied only by an elderly gentleman. I passed the time of day with him, and he commented there won’t be many more like this. He finished his drink, said goodbye then pushed off on his scooter, cutting up a surprised looking middle-aged woman on the path. “That man was on a scooter” one of the girls observed, both were grinning. Yes, he really was, a man in his sixties on a push along scooter. Inside the cafe a young man with learning difficulties was working through a tuneless song of errs, oohs, eees and ahhs and absorbed in his own stereotyped moves. Even at their innocent age the girls seem to have learned a certain English etiquette; the questions about the singing man came later in the evening, safely at home.

Riding back the man who rides a unicycle along the dam road was leaning against the wall, his unicycle propped next to him. He’s often there though so it got no comment. Familiarity and all that…

In the early afternoon, while the girls were doing their homework, a Second World War Flying Fortress flew low over the house. It banked right, displaying its undercarriage to the residents then carried on its way. This Sunday was the Final Shuttleworth display of the year and planes sometimes fly out our way. Later on they were out the front with some of the neighbouring children having gravity races on scooters down one of the sloping drives. I wonder if the old gent we saw freewheels like a kid on the slopes or sensibly applies the foot brake. Given he rides a scooter for pleasure, I hope the former.

The earlier haze had lifted and now the sky was a clear deep blue. Thunder rolled up from the south, it built up to a continuous rumble which grew to a roar. Only one thing makes a noise like that and it was something the girls had to see because they will never see this sight again. I ran to the front like a demented Trekkie shouting “Vulcan”. Moments later it flew low and directly overhead. An Avro Anson (thanks @RhinoFive) flew alongside. Brown exhaust trailed behind the Vulcan, but for a sight like that I can forgive the pollution. The children were dumbstruck at this giant, deafening, delta winged dragon flying over their safe and peaceful homes. One of them shouted “I’m so glad to be alive to see this”, but how could they possibly know that if it had ever been used for its intended purpose, they would likely never have been born.

The Vulcan was moving further away, but it wasn’t finished yet. It banked right, the rumble of its engines cutting to silence. Then it banked to left, back on course. Two seconds later its engine noise rolled over us, louder than ever, ripping the air in a final, defiant angry roar.


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The UWCT Championships Road Race

Joe, Adrian and I disembarked from the Stenna line ferry, in the Hook of Holland, under sheets of rain. The rain continued through the evening’s drive and, when we stopped for the night in Bremen, it was still raining. Saturday morning started dry, but by Hamburg the rain was back and getting heavier. It cleared briefly around Flensberg and for the first few miles on Danish roads, but the strong winds soon brought on another deluge. The winds battered our camper van along the road like a cat with a mouse. Denmark was set to receive a months rainfall in a day. We arrived in Aalborg mid afternoon and quickly put to rest any lingering thoughts of a leg loosening ride aside; it was still raining.

Saturday afternoon in Aalborg

Saturday afternoon in Aalborg

I checked in at my hotel then we went off to register. In respect the hotel’s location was ideal being a quick three minute walk to the start line, however it also sat over a night club along the beating strip of Aalborg’s night life. Every building was a bar or a club, with the more exotic ones at the far end, conveniently placed for business residents of the opposite Radisson Blu. Still the room was comfortable; the coffee and earplugs were free, I could prep my bike and watch the Vuelta. I aimed for an early night, the Danes were clubbing so I popped in the earplugs.

Sunday morning I woke up around 3am to silence. I was nervous about missing my alarm so I took the earplugs out – duff duff duff duff… the Danes were still clubbing. They stopped at 6am. At ten past six a bin lorry came beeping down the road. No point staying in bed now so I showered and went down for breakfast which was tasty, although I’m not entirely sure what kind of atmosphere the proprietors were helping to cultivate with the erotic Tintin artwork hanging on the walls.

All of the guests at breakfast seemed to be cyclists and the majority British. The conversation split between requests for track pumps and wondering just what to expect while discretely assessing the competition. I didn’t really know what to expect. Tough for sure, probably tougher than the Tour of Cambridgeshire; there was talk too that some of the continental riders were high level – ex pros and elites. In the hotel I was struck by the number of riders with no real race experience, but plenty of sportives under the saddle.

Joe and Adrian came over from their campsite about 8am and we headed over to the start. Saturday’s storm had blown over leaving Aalborg bathing beneath clear blue skies, but the wind hadn’t blown itself out; now it was a strong northerly, perfect for the return to town.

The difference a day makes

The difference a day makes

In total there were about 1100 riders competing and 153 in my age group. Nearly a third of the field were British. I said hello to a Corley rider next to me. The 19-34 age group started and we rolled to the line, or as close as we could get. We waited in cool shade and I was starting to feel cold. I just wanted to get started, so I was more than ready to go when a 10 second countdown started. It got the adrenaline started pumping. Joe and I rolled off in the 35-39 years group at 9.10am. Adrian, 10 minutes later, in the 40-44 group and slated as being one the most competitive.

Rolling under the banner, not to be seen for another 4 hours 45 minutes...

Rolling under the banner, not to be seen for another 4 hours 45 minutes…

The first couple of kilometres were neutralised, but on the wide urban roads there was plenty of movement for position in the bunch. I felt rather than saw the flag go down; one minute we were cruising and the next we were accelerating to a tailwind assisted race pace. The suburbs blurred by into open country, not unlike South Cambridgeshire except for fewer villages and wider better surfaced roads.

A few kilometres before the first climb we hit a cobbled sector through one of the villages. Each side of the road had a narrow strip of smooth tarmac and the peloton divided between the two. I took the left side only to see the right side was moving slightly faster, so that when we came off the cobbles I was further back than I would have liked. Next we moved into the first proper crosswind. The bunch lined out and holding the wheel in front became a real effort. Eventually the road turned out of the wind but there was no relief as we hit the first of many long and draggy climbs. The lead riders maintained an unrelenting pace and the elastic began to snap. Joe managed to stay in the main group but I felt on the verge of vomiting and couldn’t keep up. I ended up in a group of 6 with a Brazilian, Greek, Swede, Italian and Slovenian and we were the first behind the main bunch. We worked as hard as we could to get back in, through and off is an international language, but the leaders slipped further and further out of reach and the effort, on me at least, was taking its toll. Eventually another larger group caught us and we swelled to around 20 riders. With the larger group the work became more sporadic and it was left to a pair of Norwegians to organise the effort.

In less than an hour I started catching riders from the 19-34 age group; most were in GB kit, blown away by the internationals.

The routes big climb came at just over 80km and my first sight of it came around a sweeping right hander. Blocking out the horizon sat a purple lump of hill, covered in heather and Forest. At any other time it would look lovely, and at any other time it would be an easy, enjoyable climb, but climbs in races are never easy. My legs really didn’t like it. I dropped back through the group and halfway up started to slip away. Realising the danger I pushed harder to get back on, but it wasn’t working. Not that I was the only one suffering. I passed another GB rider and gave him some encouragement, he gasped that he thought he was a descent cyclist before today.

Over the next few kilometres I picked up a couple more dropped riders and we formed a temporary alliance. It was a pattern which set the remainder of the day. I formed Baltic alliances, transatlantic alliances and entente cordiales and each time they would dissolve as we caught another group or, more often, were caught by another, stronger, group. There were other riders following the same pattern. Several times I ended up riding with the same Canadian rider, after being swept up then dropped by another group.

Over the course of the race I formed the impression that Denmark is probably an excellent place for cycling: good quiet roads and pleasant rolling countryside. Racing through it was another matter. The open countryside meant punishing winds which rarely seemed to work in our favour. The rolling terrain meant leg sapping drag after leg sapping drag, while being battered by the northerly wind. There was no respite, no hiding.

At around 100km race commissaires over took the three man group I was currently part of and signalled for us to keep right. The leading element of the 40-44 group was about to catch us and they did just before a rare stretch of fast, tail wind assisted downhill. We dropped back and sat a few metres behind the last rider; a moto judge watched us like a hawk making sure we didn’t try to tuck in. Even if we had I doubt we would have survived the first climb with them and soon they were out of sight and out of mind. More groups started to catch us and one thing I noticed that despite the number of Brits racing, there were few if any Brits in these groups.

We had good support from the locals. There were fewer people lining the than the Tour of Cambridgeshire, but that was simply an artefact of Denmark’s much lower population density – less than a third of Cambridgeshire’s. The Danes compensated with enthusiasm, and having a group of classically Scandinavian women, tall, long limbed, healthy, attractive, blond hair blowing in the gale force the wind, jumping up and down and shouting “Come on England!” does lift the morale as you grind solo along yet another uphill drag.

At 10km to go I was in a small group of riders made up mostly from the 40-44 group. There was a Belgian from my own. The wind was against us. We followed a curving road over the brow of a small bill and Aalborg lay before us. Rarely has a town been such a welcome sight. Passing the 5km sign the and a Belgian and a Spaniard started the attacks. More went and each ended with a muttered “fucking wind” in the language of your choice. It was hardly the high speed line outs of a Grand Tour sprint.

I resolved to beat the Belgian, he became the focus to keep my legs turning. Under the flame rouge banner he followed an attack and left me standing. I forced my legs to turn faster and started to pull him back. We turned into the main shopping street. It was lined with crowds behind guard rails, something I was only dimly aware of. The Belgian wasn’t far ahead so I pushed again. The finish banner was in view. One more dig and I could take him, I ignored the other riders and forced my legs to turn faster. I drew level, passed him and gapped him then I was across the line. The ordeal was over.

Beating the Belgian

Beating the Belgian

I finished 81st in my age group with a time of 4:45:31. Slower than I had hoped for, but then I hadn’t factored the brutality of the wind and the first two hours.

In the evening, over beer, nachos and pasta at Mexican-Italian restaurant (yes really), we Googled some of the top 20 riders. The results explained a few things. The winner from my age group was a Frenchman, an ex-pro who had ridden with Cofidis and Agritubel with a DNF in the Tour de France on his palmares. Another rider had made 5th in GC in the 2010 Tour de Romandie. Yet another had raced for Tinkof Saxo. The 35 and onwards age groups were littered with elites, ex-pro’s and riders good enough to tour Europe’s Gran Fondos to supplement a living from the prize money.

It was a hard day, but I’m glad I did it.

Post race

Post race



End of the Women's Race

End of the Women’s Race

Sunset over the Hook of Holland - The miserable robots from GB's border force could learn a few tips on customer relations from the Dutch.

Sunset over the Hook of Holland – The miserable robots from GB’s border force could learn a few tips on customer relations from the Dutch.

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Final handicap race NCRA Rockingham, gingerly does it

Last Thursday evening, the rain started just as I turned off the A6116 into Corby. It started heavily and it stayed heavy right up to the moment when it stopped. Thankfully the clouds had the courtesy to move on before the season’s final handicap race in the NCRA calendar, but in half an hour they had dropped a pretty thorough soaking. The Speedway surface was slick and the far bends had standing water across their insides. A few warm up laps did little to loosen me up and after my last race I was just a little nervous about the conditions.

Yes my last race, I never wrote that one up, largely because it was over before it really had time to begin. It was the second Alconbury test event and it was raining. Two laps in and I had started backing off on the bends; the last time through the tight triple turns leading on to the perimeter road had been sketchy, plus there was oil on an earlier bend. The third time through the triple turns I slid on the second 90 degree bend. Lee, riding behind said I had had too much angle. A cracked helmet, bent drop out and grazes on my ankle, leg, thigh, shoulder, elbow and little finger saw me out of the race and that sector’s rough surface just enhanced the bloody mess. My family had come to watch too and to compound the injuries my youngest daughter, on seeing me, promptly burst into tears! With a knock to my head I went to A&E where a nurse cleaned me up with an iodine sponge.

Needless to say I didn’t fancy repeating that evening, especially since not all the cuts had healed.

There were only six in our pointless thirds group and I was also the only St Neots rider racing. We worked together and took the corners gingerly. Bit by bit we reeled the fourth cats in and at thirty minutes caught them on the oval, just by the grandstand. The pace was quite high until we reached the sweeping far side u-bend which took us back on to the infield. To me it felt the greasiest of the bends and we all took it steady, holding well spaced lines. Nevertheless the rider parallel to my right, about 2 or 3 metres distant crashed. I had a fleeting impression of his front wheel making a T of his bike then the ugly sound of collapsing man and carbon. If I had been cautious before, that had done nothing to reassure my confidence, so when three riders from scratch came hurtling through a lap later, and just before the same bend, I made no reaction whatsoever.

Over the course of the lap the three, along with another rider, broke away. A second group of seven consolidated followed by me then a few more behind.

At four laps to go I was on my own, about fifty metres from the second group. I used that lap to get back on terms – there was a possibility they might yet stay away and so a reasonably good chance of finally getting some points. I duly got into the group, but we were soon caught by the chasing group containing the rest of the seconds cats. Swelled by the new recruits, the pace again quickened and my caution reasserted. On the far corner I eased off and soon found a gap opening. I felt physically I probably could get back, but psychologically I knew that wasn’t going to happen – my race was finished by the bends. I completed the final lap and a half still up right.

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Alconbury Circuit Race

Last night saw the first of two test evenings of circuit racing on the old Alconbury airbase. There was a good turn out from the club with many new faces testing 4th cat waters for the first time. The numbers for the 2/3 race were smaller, only 19 of us lined up for the start. Looking at them I was in absolutely no doubt that, for my legs and lungs, this was going to be a very hard hour of racing. Four of the top 10 finishers, including Jake, from Sunday’s gruelling Circuit of the Fens race were there and at least two more could’ve been had they not punctured. As well as Jake, there was Ed, another one of the four and riding for Bonito, and Simon, a former 1st cat back for his first race in many years.

The first lap was neutralised by Tom Caldwell and his motorbike. When the flag when down St Ives Rory made a half  hearted attack and the race was on. The first two laps were furious. Jake leapt off the front and the rest chased. I started to drift off the back but got back on as the group slowed into the wind on the perimeter road. The turn on to the airfield was deliciously fast, as I swept round the bend I could feel a definite push as I transitioned to the smooth concrete surface. Moving up was impossible, especially as we got to the S-bends leading back to the perimeter road. Technical, fast and with the roughest surface on course I clung to the wheel of a Cambridge rider. The final bend in this section was a tight 90 degree left turn with choppy Tarmac on the inside . I had to hold my nerve on that one as the exit momentum flung me towards the opposite curb. The perimeter road started to drag up and a gap opened between the group and Cambridge whose wheel I was assiduously holding. By the time we got to the start line we were both dropped.

The Cambridge rider was Pete. We chunked the race into manageable parcels. We took turns working half a lap each. I got plenty of support from other club members waiting for the 4th cat race. Each time round it was much appreciated.

Bit by bit we started picking up other dropped riders. Lee from St Ives, a couple of Greenwheel, another St Ives rider and one more whose club I don’t remember. By the end of the race we had grown to seven.

About forty minutes into the race Jake and two other riders lapped us. Even if we had wanted to I doubt any of our group could have latched into their slipstream; if we couldn’t do it fresh at the start, what chance now? I finished fourth out of our group, sore but glad to have completed. Simon had done well holding on for 8th.

After the race I walked around to the finish line with Paul, who had come out to watch, to see the end of the 4th cat race. From the start the 4ths had split up, probably no bad thing given the course, their size and relative inexperience – there were a lot of first timers. There was a lead group of no more than 20 riders containing David, Gary, Tom and Gareth. Behind, Adrian had been dropped – wasn’t expecting that – TT Simon was pushing along a smaller group of 6, Chris was chasing another group and Dan was doing his own ride. A couple of laps later the situation was changed; Chris had caught his group, but later punctured out while Gary was dropped from the lead pack. Dan was still doing his own thing. With three laps to go, the front of the main group really began applying the pressure and forced a split. Tom was on the wrong side trying to get back across to the leading six including David and Gareth. The situation on the final lap was unchanged leaving Gareth to take 4th (and finally make 3rd cat!), David 6th and Tom 7th.

Overall a good, if knackering evenings racing. Finally thanks and congratulations to Paul Gripton and his team from Velo Club Chevaliers Bleus for a successful night. Hopefully this and August’s test events will see Alconbury established as a new and welcome addition to the local race scene.

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Circuit of the Fens 2015

The elite race may have been cancelled and the circuit HQ moved from Whittlesey to the Five Ales in Benwick, but the support race was still going ahead. The club had been asked if we could spare a few volunteers, so three of us headed over. David H and Adrian were to marshal at Benwick while I would be in the race convoy driving Andy, Commissaire 3.

First thing on Sunday morning was really quite pleasant. Adrian and I had agreed to meet up for an early 50 miler and rode into Northamptonshire. With not much wind and absolutely no rain, it was by far the best part of the day. I was home for 9am, plenty of time to get ready. I picked up Adrian and David just as it started raining. Driving over the rain got heavier and I had to endure a steady litany of moans, mostly from David, about being roped into standing in the rain. They had an umbrellas and water proofs, I couldn’t see what the fuss was about. And then there was the back seat, well front passenger seat really, driving. It reminded me of family holidays with my grandparents in the car. Let’s leave it that I never thought I would be so glad to arrive in Benwick.

At HQ we had our briefings and Andy pimped my ride with a loud hailer, race board and flashing light. We were ready to race, well follow a race. The race cars were all parked in a side road and we were expected pull out in turn ahead of the riders. Police outriders led the way, followed by Lead car 1, com 1 and one of two Shimano neutral service cars. I was meant to go next, but the service car only just made it out in front of the bunch. I had no gap so Andy and I had to sit the first lap out. It meant we saw the first stopped rider even before leaving the village; he’d had minor gear trouble and wasn’t two happy when we wouldn’t tow him up to the race. I sympathised but that wasn’t our job. He disappeared unhappy. He reappeared a few minutes later drafting behind a car.

We monitored progress on race radio. When the front of the convoy passed we slipped in ahead of the race. I couldn’t tell how big the field was, but radio chatter suggested it was thinning down. Certainly it was fast and in my rear view mirror I could see a steady stream of riders taking turns to attack.

After Forty Foot, the Chief Com decided to move my car behind the main bunch – the race was already that fractured. I pulled in and waited for them to pass. It became difficult to see what was happening now that we were behind the bunch but, from the way a couple of riders were struggling to stay on, the pace must have been high and at every bend we could see a pair of riders dangling carrot fashion off the front.

Onto the third lap, leaving Benwick, arms shot into the air like an over enthusiastic school class. Half a dozen riders punctured in a short stretch, Jake being one of them. Depending on your point of view, he was one of the lucky few who got the last of the neutral service spares. For the next half lap I watched him, teamed up with a Nottingham rider, work hard to get back into the bunch. They may have got a little bit of a tow as they approached the bunch and they made contact just before the rough surface of Dykemoor Drove. Jake disappeared into the bunch. The car bounced around on the uneven road, and the Notts rider fought to stay in contact. By the end of the drove he was off and we left him for one of the other small groups trying to form on the road behind.

Back on the long straight Forty Foot road, I pulled up close behind the bunch. The com wanted to make a tally of the rider numbers. We counted around 35 left, only slightly more than a third of the number starting.

Over the radio came news of a minor problem – a lorry was wanting to pull onto Dykemoor Drove. The question of what to do him was answered when one of the riders went spinning through air and onto the verge. The ambulance behind us stopped, other than being soggier and muddier than before the rider was otherwise OK.

The laps tended to blend into each other. The Fenland monotony was exacerbated by big grey rain soaked skies, diminishing to a watery impression of a horizon. So I think it was the fifth lap when the decisive break finally happened. Attacks had been thinning the group down further until five riders broke off the front, Jake included. Six more took off in pursuit and the remainder just seemed relieved to no longer be being punished by the sharp end.

The gap between the pursuers and the main group lengthened and we were instructed to move into it. For me and Andy, the race was down to just eleven riders. On Forty Foot the front bunch eased off and allowed the chasers to join up. There was a bit of commotion when they joined up and one rider dropped off. Now they were 10. The gap to the next group was pushing two minutes, but they didn’t know that.

One of the group, a Welland Valley rider, punctured. The neutral service had restocked and he managed to get back on.

Throughout the race the commissaries had being giving time checks to each other, the Benwick village sign and the turns on to Forty Foot and Dykemoor Drove being favourite points, but so far we hadn’t communicated any gaps to the bunch. On the last lap we did. They had a convincing lead and the knowledge of it had an instant effect; they slowed, they had time to play with. The second group on the road had good riders, but they were only 14 and had little chance of making up a nearly four minute deficit. By Benwick, the first time check having been on Forty Foot, the chasers had clawed back a minute, but for the leaders the race was almost over.

They accelerated through the village and took the final bend fast. Too fast for one rider who slid to the deck taking another rider with him and causing all but one of the rest to brake hard. St Ives Rory was the man left standing and went on to take the win, Jake led the remainder home, his second place leaving him just 4 points shy of his 1st cat licence – that would have to wait until Alconbury.

23 riders finished. It was still raining, but David and Adrian seemed happy with their days marshalling work, despite the signals I had been getting on later laps. By the pub. Since the finish was outside the pub I brought them both a pint for their troubles, possibly not their first though.

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NCRA Rockingham Scratch Race

Joe, Jake and I were in the 2/3 race, David, Tom and Adrian in the 4ths. Our race started fast. Riders at the front were constantly trying to break off and time and again the bunch stretched. I kept near the middle and warmed up. I felt good despite the stiffness from helping shovel the new Alconbury circuit the previous night. Two riders broke away. More tried to follow and I even had a go, but each time they/we were brought back in. And none tried harder to bridge than Jake, but tonight he was a marked man. One of the pair up front was a Rhino and the rest of the team were covering every move Jake made. St Ives, Greenwheel and Welland Valley all had decent numbers and their riders were trying too, but most of the work was being done by Jake. Joe and I each had little digs off the front, but they made little impact.

Just before twenty minutes, the 4th cats were in sight. Jake anticipated the inevitable confusion from when we would catch and launched another attack, but again he was dragged back. After that the pace eased to a more social tempo with Rhino controlling the front. Having caught the 4ths we were now in danger of being caught by them – after the race Adrian said Rowland had been warning them to hold back!

Of course Rhino couldn’t control it forever and the attacks resumed as riders sought to hook up with the pair up front. St Ives’ Lee was the only one who had managed this, but he’d not been able to stay with them. With four laps to go I moved to near the front and sat third in wheel. I picked my moment then attacked. No response from the bunch. Half a lap and Johnny and another rider joined me. We started working together. We completed our first lap, but the bunch wound us in our second. Second claim Wayne, riding for Greenwheel attacked as soon as I was back I n the bunch, but he lasted for less time than my group had. I looked around for Jake only to learn he’d punctured. Then things wound up for the sprint. It was fast and sketchy, I lost my position near the front and found somewhere safer on the outside for the race to he line. I think Joe and I were just outside the top twenty, but it had been a good race.

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