It’s January and my half-arsed training is, well, under way. After work, I rode straight from the train station to the Market Square to join up with the club’s weekly chain gang/winter base miles ride. I was cutting it fine, and that was before factoring the slow commuter shuffle from train to platform to bridge via the bottleneck of ticket gates (I wasn’t going to embarrass myself by standing by the train doors, ready to sprint for the stairs like some commuters do).

When I arrived at the Market Square, the only cyclists were two lads on BMX’s. The clock on one of the buildings was showing 8 minutes past, so I carried on, hoping to catch the group.

At the A1 flyover, on the Bushmead road, I caught a glimpse of flashing red lights down by the red house. I guessed the time gap at around a minute and a half. David had said they had altered the route since last week to use the larger minor and b-roads; some of the ones we had been using have deteriorated badly over Christmas, and in a group, in the dark, best avoided.

I followed them, part guessing the route at junctions, part relying on thin wet tyre lines printed on the road. A light rain kept trying to get started, but never enough to entirely wash the group’s  tracks away.

Riding out was hard. The roads to the west of St Neots are all false flats and exposed drags and tonight were given steel with a brisk headwind. For a while I had fleeting glances of the group’s lights, flashing like a mobile disco, but all too soon I was relying on their tracks alone. At the top of Chequers Hill I scanned the valley below but saw only a few street lamps and the house lights of Wilden.

In previous weeks the group has turned left out of Wilden to Renhold, followed by a loop up and down Graze Hill. It adds an extra leg of road, but some bits are iffy, with gravel and holes, and I wasn’t sure if they would stick to any of this part of the route or not. The roads were getting wetter too and so my tracking was less reliable. I carried straight through Wilden thinking, and hoping, to head them off at Ravensden if they did, but not far out of Wilden I rode over a dry patch of road, sheltered by a tree. It was streaked with tyre tracks.

Shortly before the turn to Robin’s Folly I saw lights ahead, no, two groups of lights and stationary. I caught up with the first group – a puncture was being fixed with. Obviously I hadn’t been hoping for a puncture in the group as a way of catching them for some respite, but the company was nice.

Respite never came though. Before, I had tapped out my own rhythm, now I had to ride to the pace of the group, which on a single speed isn’t always easy. I did some turns at the front, but was spinning out into my single speed interval mode – rapid spin, cruise and repeat. While it gets the heart rate going it is hard to sustain for long, so I spent more time hanging at the back, but, that’s the training compromise I have to make. With not enough time to get home from work, to swap for a bike with gears, and my single speed the only road bike I’m happy(ish) leaving multiply locked at the station all day, the Tuesday night ride may become quite a work out.

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Missing the fun

Under the kitchen spotlights I went through the usual morning motions of the regular cycle commuter: looking outside and judging the forecast then choosing the thicker winter bib tights, tightening up winter boots against frozen toes and positioning my snood just so over ears and face. Expecting a bit of ice, I left a few minutes early. Outside I ran a finger along the side of the car, it was wet and the dark sky was starless, so perhaps no ice after all.

Away from home and onto a more open road, a band of orange predawn light, rising in the eastern sky, terminated under the fuzzy edge of thick clouds spreading from the west. After a mile a light rain started. Two more miles and a slushy spot of sleet wetted my lips. By the time I got to the station the sleet had given way to snow. 

I imagined the scene at home. My oldest grumbling out of bed, my youngest probably already dressed, then the sequels of delight, first from one and probably the youngest, then spreading virally to the other, when the first heavy snowflakes were spotted. A quick text gave me confirmation, and information, with my youngest hoping school would be cancelled. Wishful thinking for her I think, but perhaps there’s hope that the sleigh we brought them three years ago might finally get some use.

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Introducing…The Apparel Clinic #cycling

Introducing The Apparel Clinic. The concept. The passion. The brand. To you.

Who are we? We are you and because we are you we know who you are. We know you are a man, a cyclist, of impeccable taste. You are someone for whom style on the bike is important as style off the bike. You do not compromise, you know you deserve the best. That is why you buy only the most exclusively described Apparel from the brands that matter. We understand you don’t ride all four seasons. Rainy days, cold days these are man cave days and cafe days, but we understand the money you spend on all weather technical fabrics and tailored cuts is important to you. We know the toll sitting in a cafe, or perhaps even the virtualised environment of your turbo trainer, can take on your clothing; fabrics become distressed, stitching is made nervous and zippers turn prickly, then it’s straight to a laundry bin with your kids’ grubby school clothes.

Your cycling Apparel deserves better than this.

This is why we are setting up The Apparel Clinic. At The Apparel Clinic our mission is simple, to revive your beloved Apparel back to pristine condition, and all for a reassuringly exclusive price. But we aim to provide much more than that. We are not just a laundry service, but a lifestyle statement. If you are rushed we can always collect, but our advice is simple, bring your Apparel to us for the full Clinic experience and see how we roll.

Sit down in our cafe and relax with a premium artisan coffee, brewed with beans grown by native labourers on our own organically farmed plantations. Sample our collection of wheat, dairy, gluten and taste free cakes while you discuss the puny output from your powermeter. Alternatively watch our team of traditionally indentured washer women hand wash your garments on vintage wooden wash boards and using only pure mountain spring water imported directly from the crisp Alpine streams of Alpe D’Huez. In the evening, while your Apparel air drys using bespoke peg and line technology, kick back with a heritage craft beer and raw, sea salt crisps and listen to our genuine 1950s skiffle band playing on the washboards. Finally, why not treat yourself to one of our stylishly upcycled jute Apparel Bags to keep your garments pristine for the drive home.

This is our vision. This is us. This is you. This is The Apparel Clinic. Coming somewhere too hip for you.

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Tooling up #BorisBikes… with lasers

A few weeks ago Transport for London started trialing Blaze laser lights on some of their Boris Bike fleet. The device is a simple green coloured laser which projects a bike shaped beam a few metres onto the road ahead. The marketing reckons that this gives other road users warning of your approach (although from my car, if I’m at a T-junction, my bumper obscures the bit of road immediately in front but which is where the bike projection would fall).

Before today I had only ridden the laser equipped Boris bikes in daylight and I’ve been unimpressed. Whether or not the designers intended it to be effective in daylight I’m not sure, but it isn’t. The projected image appears faint and spidery; its hard for me to see it when I know what to look for, so I can’t imagine it being readily noticed by other road users. However, with the end of British Summer Time and the onset of dark evenings it was as time to see whether the laser would come into its own.

There was only one laser equipped bike in the Berry Street racks so I picked it. In the dark the projected laser image was immediately crisper and brighter than in daylight. It was clearly visible to me and anyone else staring at the ground. When I stopped for the first set of traffic lights it switched to a blink mode and that I think is perhaps it’s only genuinely useful feature over an ordinary light. If you’re sat in an HGV’s blind spot it *might*, just might catch the driver’s eyes. Of course, do you really want to be sat in an HGV’s blind spot in the first place? I know I don’t. Otherwise, I didn’t feel the projected bike image made me more noticeable to other traffic, it is easily lost in the morass of traffic and other lights. Any feeling of improved visibility I had came from having a bright green laser dot shining from the front of the bike.

The laser beam probably looks good in fog.

One area where I think it could be of benefit is around pedestrians. First iPeds, either glued to a screen or listening to My Bloody Valentine and oblivious to the world around them. Just before they step out, the projected green bike might stir a memory of those public information films from school days. Second, on shared use paths the projected light is an other warning to pedestrians with their back to you that you’re approaching, just not as effectively as an old fashioned bell.

So I think it is a bit of a gimmick. It feels like a solution to a problem which has already been better solved. I would rather Boris Bikes were equipped with brighter and better positioned lights, especially at the rear. I would rather TFL invested in better infrastructure, education and policing rather than sticking plasters.

Would I buy one for my own bikes? From experience so far, probably not, although I should point out the retail lights combine the laser projection with a 300 lumen front light. It costs £125. For that money you can get a similar USB chargeable 1500 lumen light from Lezyne; £50 will get you 600 lumens, but without the laser gimmick. In the dark I ride with 2 or 3 front lights pumping out either 300 or 600 lumens. They are positioned on my bars and helmet and I have various reflectors and bits of reflective clothing. Despite this I’ve twice been t-boned in the dark on urban roads, with SMIDSY the proffered excuse each time. I doubt the laser would have altered either outcome, but a fully weaponised one might have. Disappointly that isn’t on offer.

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Uses for a GoPro #50 / Blue Peter Fandom

Sunday morning and I was skipping the club run to drive up to Southwick with the family, and it wasn’t to watch me race either, although we were travelling to watch a sport …kind of. My oldest daughter is the proud owner of a Purple Blue Peter badge. A few weeks ago at some event or some one had noticed it, they got chatting to my wife and let on that Blue Peter were planning to film at the World Conquer Championships at the Shuckburgh Arms, Southwick. Since both girls are fans and its fairly local, we obviously had to go.

These were World Champs in the tradition of darts or snooker in that the majority of competitors were British. The venue had the atmosphere of a village fete rather than the Olympic Park; there were craft and charity stalls, tombolas and face painting. Food was from a smoky BBQ and tea was from the village hall while stronger refreshments were real ales direct from the barrel. No generic lager and all the better for it. But we were here for Blue Peter more than conkers and presenter Lindsey had been spotted near the entrance so off we trooped.

We spotted her and with a bit of physical encouragement to overcome their shyness the girls went up to say hello. Lindsey was lovely. She commented on I’s Frozen top and wellies and asked all about S’s badge. Then she asked if they wanted a photo. Of course they did. We said good-bye and as we walked off heard her greet another group of children with equal enthusiasm.

Not long after, Barney and Radzi, the other two presenters walked through the gates with the rest of the film crew. Barney noticed S’s Purple badge and immediately made a beeline to her to ask how she had got it.

Rule briefing

Rule briefing

The conker arena was set at the rear of the pubs extensive garden. At one end was a scaffold for the commentators and at the other a gazebo where the competitors lined up. In the arena were four podiums for the players to battle upon. In between round bellied men with pints judged the competition. It was a knockout (what else) competition and there were rules. Each player took a shoelace from a bag from which dangled their conker for the game. The shoelace was wrapped around fists and the remaining length measured (not too short and not too long). Each player took a few turns hitting the opponents conker then swapped. If, after 5 minutes, both conkers were still attached, the game went into a kind of penalty shoot out. Each player had a an equal number of swings and who ever gained the most hits won. The winner was given their conker as a prize and proceeded to the next heat while the loser was unceremoniously striped of their competitors vest.

Barney Vs Lindsey and the Arena

Barney Vs Lindsey – with some intervention on fair play…

From the Blue Peter team Radzi was up first, and went bee against bee with last years Conker Queen. Fancy dress was the order of the day but this was a tough first round draw for the presenter. Still like a professional, he stayed calm and took the win, much to the children’s delight. Lindsey and Barney fought each other in the first round. Before the game started the judges’ mugs of beer disappeared from the edge of the podium, showing sensitivity to younger viewers. I put my own pint of accurately named Dark and Delicious out of camera shot, lest I jeopardise the girl’s chance of a Blue Peter background appearance. The game was slow to start with Barney gently swinging his conker from side to side. The judges weren’t happy, but he persisted, playing up for the crowd. In the end his unsporting behaviour was reined in by a yellow card, then he went on to take the win.

Radzi Vs Elderly School Boy

Radzi Vs Elderly School Boy

After the game the GoPro came out. A favourite tool of extreme sports, I doubt the makers ever envisaged the use it was about to be put to now. Tied to a piece of string the camera substituted a conker and the Blue Peter players started first swinging conkers at the camera then the camera at the conkers. Next, a camera man lay on the ground while one of the crew threw bits of shattered conker at him. All tricks of the trade and it was interesting to see. Meanwhile the presenters were chatting with the children and it was Radzi’s turn to spot S’s badge, but it was Barney who demonstrated just what utterly brilliant people Blue Peter presenters are. He was chatting with the girls again and he had remembered I’s name. A small thing perhaps, but they must go through this sort of thing week in week out, meeting the same types of eager, shy and rowdy children, yet they made time for everyone one of them with and genuine enthusiasm too. I can’t imagine how many kids days they have made, but they certainly made it for ours.

With Lindsey

With Lindsey

Anyway Radzi was knocked out in the second round while Barney defeated an elderly school boy. His luck ended against a pro-conkerer – his conker was smashed spectacularly with just a couple of hits. They had a replay with exactly the same result.

Serious Conker discussions and a nice walking stick

Serious Conker discussions and a nice walking stick

It was a good day out, we met up with some friends too, although next year may have a hard time living up to this year’s big draw. Perhaps…

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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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