Thursday, 31 March 2016

Keeping the AAARTY alive, just

Monday.  Not just a bank holiday, but a birthday, tattoo day and in fact overall a stacked out busy day. So my plans to complete a March Audax AAARTY ride were fanciful, if not farcical.  There was just enough time to fit in a short local run, yet again, finding new trails just a few minutes from home. Exploring the locality is like reliving a childhood I never really fulfilled.  The sense of liberation of being on foot and free to roam increases every time I run.  I can't imagine it will always be this way, but the intensity of it, right now, is like a new romance. 

That AAARTY though, when on earth would that fit in? There was just one evening left in March that would be workable.  Who knows whether it would even be possible.  The arm is not yet ready to weight bear and the roadie would be too much risk of jolting and pressure under braking.  A 50 km hilly audax on a mountain bike, with off-road tyres and a rucksack full of water....well, it was worth a try.  Tyres were pumped up to 40 PSI, but suspension kept soft, to absorb the road buzz and help neuter any pot holes before the shock transmitted to my arm.

It was a bit of a struggle at the beginning.  Repeated self-checks 'how's the arm 'it's fine' 'are you sure' 'yes, it's fine' 'what was that funny tweak' 'it's the wrist, not the break' 'are you sure' 'YES DAMMIT IT'S FINE'.  It really was fine.  There was no pain at all, even changing gears was simple. I felt relatively sluggish in myself, the legs a bit shocked about having to actually climb in a normal riding position. Interestingly my average speed was a lot higher than I was expecting to the point where I pondered if I had accidentally switched the display into kilometers from miles.  There was ooodles of time.  Time to chat to a lovely lady roadie for a wee while as we converged on a small lane.  Hearing of her adventures with a broken elbow and completing an iron man just 8 weeks later was most reassuring.  There sure are some tough ladies out there.  

The best thing about being on a mountain bike?  Not having to concentrate too hard on the road debris and being in an upright position.  This little 50 km loop has been completed a number of times, in all weathers and seasons, and yet, on the MTB, I saw so much more than on the roadie.  Views that stretched for miles, as the shadows of the clouds moved over the woodland and the windows of houses glinted in the sunlight. It made me a little sad to see tiny motherless calves, left alone to eat the grass of an orchard, leaves yet to appear on the lichen-covered apple branches.  

The descent from Clifton-upon-Teme normally requires acute focus, but on the MTB, the tyres controlled the speed, smoothed everything out leaving me to look over the hills to home, and avoid the angry farm dog who came tearing out a gate for my ankles. 

Once back into West Malvern, there was so much time to spare I figured I may as well bump up the climbing AAA points by looping over the Beacon on the way home.  Still feeling rather sluggish in myself, but keen to make the most of the stunning evening, it was a slow winch up the relentless meterage from Lower Road, Westminster Bank and right to the top.

It was great to roll home knowing, just 4.5 weeks after pretty major arm surgical repair, the riding goals continue to tick over, and I was able to enjoy such a wonderful evening on the bike. 

Tuesday, 29 March 2016

Boat, bikes, bivvy and brutal headwinds on a Hase Pino

An upcoming Belgium trip at the start of April, planned since the start of the year, was very nearly scuppered by this broken arm.  Wishing the healing to quicken never works, and it was looking likely to be a car-based trip, with, if lucky, a few miles on a MTB.  Or even worse, postponement of the trip altogether.  I really didn't want to postpone....the itinerary, as planned by Mr Organisation, my very good friend Rafe, looked great, with plans for visits to the World War I graves, watching the last post being performed at the Menin Gate and generally having a gentle social jolly along the quiet green lanes of the European mainland. 

Rafe, however, has saved the day, by arranging hire of this Hase Pino for a few weeks. Like the Circe Morpheous, the Hase Pino is a rear piloted machine, with the front seat in a recumbent position and leaving me hands free. What better way to test it than a 200 km audax in the flatlands of the Fens? 

We collected the Hase from a lovely couple who told us all about it, and how sluggish it could be. It certainly weighed a ton, but a blast round the village showed it was relatively easy to pedal and Rafe got the hang of the handling almost instantly.  He was an exceptionally good pilot, and, after a cuppa and playing 'what-fits-where' with the car, parcel shelf, passenger seat and a very large machine, we set off East, and to our overnight stop.

An what an overnight stop it was!  A Fairline River Cruiser in St Neots. The boat was winterised, so it was a great opportunity to test out the OMM 1.6 primaloft sleeping bag and the new Alpkit bivvy bag.  I've had the OMM 1.6 since last year, and used it a few times in variable conditions, but this would be the coldest temperatures so far. The bivvy is new, finally Alpkit had them in stock at a time I had the money to buy one.

But first, there was a beautiful Good Friday evening to be enjoyed by the river.

Our other adventuring friend Mark rode from Nottingham to join us on the boat.

I was most jealous indeed.  I just want a bike with my very own panniers.  It's decided, panniers are where it's at.  This lightweight fast minimalisation adventure racing stuff?  I'm not sure it's for me. Carrying just enough for comfort, plus a book, and dry cloths, that's perfect.

Easter birthday chocolate all the way from San Francisco thanks to Rafe.  Mightly tasty, it has to be said.

Easter buffday Earl Grey + Elderflower tea and strainer from Mark.  Perfect for glamping in a boat. 

The guys put my empty baked bean can cook pot to shame with their Ti Alpkit mugs.  Time to rethink my cooking facilities.  These little gas stoves are great in the shelter of a boat, but outside, in the wind, this would struggle. 

After tea, we headed into St Neots for food and drinks.  A pretty little town, with a fabulous giant bunny mural and a Wetherspoons where several hours were lost in catching up and laughter. 

It was a pretty chilly evening, with the breeze increasing through the night.  Mark was the most hardcore, and fully tested his sleep set up, bivvying under the stars on the bow of the boat.  I was a little less brave, and wanted to make sure my arm wasn't going to be led on hard ground so opted for the wind blown deck. Rafe did the sensible thing and slept in the Cabin.  

It wasn't the most restful night's sleep, although the rocking of the boat, noise of the water against the hull and rattling of canvas against the wind bothered me none.  However, it was difficult to get the arm comfy and it was a relatively chilly night.  The OMM 1.6 is a lightweight bag and it was on the comfort limit in the early spring temperatures. Still, hunkering under the bag did the trick and I eventually drifted off into a restless night's sleep.

Probably would have been a little warmer if I had managed to stay in the bivvy though.........

The weather for Saturday had been predicted to be a mixed bag, with a brutal Southerly wind, blasting up the Fens at 40+ mph, bringing rain in the early evening.  It was a relatively calm morning however, as we drank tea and said goodbyes to Mark as he left for a tailwind-boosted ride home. Rafe and I were envious as we are both appreciators of linear routes with a purpose (especially with a stonking wind-assist!)

We were late arriving at the start of the Audax event, and even later setting off by the time the bike was built up, Garmins were set and luggage was packed.  To be honest, I don't think either of us were really in the audax frame of mind.  My normal strict 'no faff' policy had been re-written to 'I just don't really care'.

For me the important things were a) have a great time and laugh riding with Rafe b) testing the Hase Pino for Belgium and c) just appreciating being in the Fens, an area so different to home turf it feels like a foreign country.

It was a good job too, as, within 15 minutes the chain had already fallen off a number of times and we were sat by the side of the road, as Rafe tinkered to sort the issues and I stood around, useless with one arm.

Hey ho, with some encouragement from the organisers, who pulled up just as Rafe had worked his magic, we were back to it and before long, on the most wonderful single width lanes.

The route was really great and Martin and Ann had put a lot of effort into the organisation of the event, allowing us to switch off and just enjoy it. Spring has sprung in the East, with flowering rape, daffodils and daisies.

Horizons look distant under the huge skies, and reminded me of the America we often see in films, Industrial agriculture swept either side of the hedge-less roads and farm machinery was working hard to prepare the ground for planting.

It was easy to get lost in the immense scale of the flatlands, especially with a whopping tailwind pushing us along.  Plenty of time to cruise and stare.

We were having a good deal of fun!

There were constant doubts on the way to March, however.  Even the slightest turn into a crosswind revealed the magnitude of the wind, blowing us across the road and leaving me genuinely concerned we would be blown into a 10 ft drainage ditch.

Neither of us were particularly comfortable, with my glutes pressing into the cheap nylon of the seat at the front, and Rafe already suffering badly from pressure pains due to the poorly fitting saddle.  At least a change in bar height relieved the pressure from his hands, but we had already made the decision to turn for home early, even before we realised, with all the faffing, we had missed the intermediate control cut-off.

Drinking hot chocolates, as the Easter Weekend traffic built up in March town centre, we reassured ourselves it was definitely the right decision.  Unlike the Circe Morpheous, the Hase Pino would require a fair amount of set-up changes and improvements to make it comfortable.

From March we cut across the open country, battling the bike as the crosswinds blew and our average speeds plummeted.  It was fine, we had plenty of time, in fact, all the time in the world.  With no audax clock ticking, it didn't really matter how long it took us to get home and we could, in theory, just enjoy the ride and those big skies.

'In theory'.  When you want to get home as the saddle sore is so unbelievably painful it is difficult to just enjoy the ride.  My problems were sorted by the addition of my ever faithful Paramo Jacket, which was stuffed in the seat and immediately relieved the nerve pain.  

Rafe's saddle issues however, were not so easily dealt with.  He was in absolute agony and it was a real battle for him to just keep going.  We had to though, for there was no other way home, no other way back to the car.  Once we turned due South, the headwind was absolutely brutal and the miles passed slowly, even more so with the stops to allow Rafe to regain feeling in his legs.

...but eventually we did get to Huntington, and rolled back to the car, after an incredibly tough afternoon.  Just 55 miles, but they took double the expected time, and my legs were telling me just how hard they had worked in the strange recumbent position on the front.  I was lucky though, on the whole, it had worked well for me, allowing immersion into the mangnitude of the Fens with a broken arm.  Rafe, on the otherhand, had missed out on his Audax, got agonising saddle sore and had to do all the steering whilst I took photos and enjoyed the view.  What a good friend he is.

Belgium is being re-planned.  The Hase Pino is still coming, but with a better set up, and shortened route to ensure that the weekend ticks the original intention box of 'steady enjoyable tour' and doesn't turn into a painfest.  There will be less green lanes covered, but the important sights will still be seen, and continental coffee will still be drunk.

Sunday, 27 March 2016

Thursday Steady Social

Thursday saw my first physio appointment since the op.  Progress was good and she was pleased with the amount of mobility and movement there already.  It was reassuring to be told that the bone was held tight by the plates, and I could stop worry about moving the arm around.  As long as there was no pain or jarring, and I continued to avoid heavy lifting or pressing, the bone was going to go nowhere.  "Carry on with non-weight-bearing activities, and continue to work on grip strength".

"You really must not crash or fall on that arm though"

Like my earlier rides, I weighed up the risks carefully before heading out on to Thursday social.  The main risk obviously being falling or jarring the arm with a tumble or square edged impact. Countering that was the fact that I know every rock and turn on the easy trails, I could always drop to a road and head home at any time, and I would know within 2 minutes of starting whether it was a good idea. The risk of me falling or jarring are probably the same, if not less, than a normal workday, or even when I am running. I already know I can use the brakes as normal after the earlier rides, and a good deal of air was let out of the tyres to ensure maximum grip and minimal trail chatter.  

Or, to put it simply.  They are just the smooth side trails and it will all be fine. 

Anyway, it was worth going up just to catch up with everyone.  Vicky has a new bike. 

Karl has new wheels.

 ......and I have a newly plated arm.  At first I was a little nervous what to expect, rolling cautiously and observing every little change in my muscles. Soon enough I realised, there was no pain, no discomfort, and, as long as I stayed at the back and descended slowly, there would be no issue at all.

It was wonderful to be out with our group, and seeing the lights of other riders heading upwards into the darkness.

We regrouped at the indicator stone and I opted to ride back to the car park the way we had come rather than following the main group up to a fast descent. I was happy to just be out. Descending can wait a few more weeks.  

Laura and Karl joined me on the hardpack trail, and we arrived in time to rescue a stray toad from the car park before the others arrived. Migration season has begun, and the nightly toad-collections will start on the Harcourt road in the next few days. We try and save as many as possible from the traffic by transporting them over the road safely so they can continue to make their way to the breeding lake. Is is interfering in nature? No more than the combustion engine, man-made tarmac roads and unaware drivers are.

Wednesday, 23 March 2016

Monday Miles and Tuesday Tandem

Monday was an earlier than normal finish, allowing a daylight run to be squeezed in, just. Another mini-adventure, packed into the falling light, of dirt trails, hilly woodland, fields and village alleyways, many of which led to areas I didn't even know existed. New turf, all within 10 km from home.  I hadn't realised to quite what extent riding has been restricting my local knowledge. 

Tuesday was pencilled in for a 'steady' ride on the 29er, on the roads.  I posted a late offer on the club page for people to come along on as it would be unfit/novice/very steady rider friendly and it wouldn't matter what bikes were being ridden. Unfortunately, an hour wasn't enough notice and another solo ride was on the cards.

Then Steve appeared with this:

His 1930's Hercules Tandem, dragged out the shed and ready to go.  It's been sat there for a while, needing a rear gear cable, but the basics are all in working order.

It was pretty scary to start.  I wasn't sure whether my arm would take it as you do need to self balance and hold the bars on the back and I didn't have a lot of faith in the brakes. However, Steve was very careful and happy to take it as steady until I was used to it. Then I loved it, it was just brilliant. Once I got used to the fact it was no use trying to look ahead as a) I couldn't see and b) even if I could, there was nothing I would be able to do to control the situation, I actually really enjoyed being a true passenger, nosing at the village as we whizzed through.

We weren't out for long, what with only two working gears, a too-short seat post up front, and some savage saddles, a short loop was enough.  Enough to know it would be worth spending a little time on it, swapping those seats and getting it ready for summer evening socials.

It's been nothing but excitement for the last three weeks.  Yay for broken arms, eh? 

Monday, 21 March 2016

Keeping the RRTY alive, thanks to Steve Abraham

As time went on, it was looking more and more unlikely that I would be able to keep the Randonneur Round The Year (RRTY) going this month. Two years and three months in, scuppered by a broken arm that wouldn't be ready to weight bear before the end of March.  

However, the endurance machine and all round audax hero Steve Abraham saved the day by arranging hire of a Circe Morpheous from Blue Yonder tandems.  It wasn't just for me, there is already a growing list of injured riders waiting to be passenger of such a legendary pilot. I was, however, the 'first into the breach' and probably a good representation of an average passenger, off my normal level of fitness due to injury, and completely unused to the recumbent position. 

Steve was planning to arrive on Friday evening, to stay the night before and we'd set out Saturday refreshed and ready for the challenge.  Of course, this is far too easy for a man who spent all of last year trying to ride over 200 miles a day on the HAMR attempt, and who had continued with the challenge even with a broken ankle resulting from an RTA with a drunk moped rider.  Sure enough, Steve rode through the night, from Milton Keynes, solo on a bike designed for two.  88 miles before even starting out with a passenger, in an aim to get a double century ticked off on the Circe, and to act as a training ride.  

The route was designed to be relatively low level, running either side of the Severn Valley from home, with Chepstow being the halfway point.  It wasn't as dramatic in scenery as Welsh mountain epic, but it was very pleasant along the lanes, with nice views of the river, May Hill and the Severn Valley through the day. A grey, dry day; the lack of rain much appreciated. 

The lanes were mostly OK, relatively clean and well surfaced.  Note 'mostly'.  There was a rather interesting 'road closed' compound to negotiate. Not your ordinary gas trench where you can squeeze past with no one noticing.  Oh no.  This was a full on 'dig the road up' job, involving relaying of a culvert.  

Luckily they had already infilled the sides with concrete and we were able to get through, with a little negotiation and use of a timber plank.  Of course we could have diverted round, but where is the fun in that?

It would be a lie to say I found the whole 200 km to be super relaxing.  It actually wasn't.  It was pretty scary, being on the front, totally out of control and unable to see much due to the lower position. Descending on lanes turned me into a squealing bundle of nerves at times, but A Road descending was great and, I found taking photos helped take my mind off the feeling of being a human battering ram.  Or 'talking shopping basket', as Steve liked to put it.

This was a particularly fun descent which opened out to views of the nearby Severn.  

It really was great being 'hands free' and being able to take photos.  An ashen day, but I love those big moody dry day skies, and they went on for miles.  The bare hedges were appreciated even more than normal, as they opened up the views from the low recumbent position.

The hedgerows were brightened by the spring flowers, petite pastel wild daffodils en-mass in Dymock, and primroses in the Lydney lanes.

Through the lanes we discussed Steve's HAMR attempt and all the issues he faced through the year, along with how the record had been brought back to life.  We also spent much time discussing the amazing Kasja Tylen and her attempt at breaking the women's record.  It is often said there are a handful of ladies in the UK who have the potential to physically manage it, however, the physical aspect is only one part, the mental commitment to ride for a year is massive.  Kasja is the only lady brave enough, tough enough and committed enough to stand up and say 'I'm going to have a go'. What a lady!  I would love to see her continue to do well in her attempt, not just for her bravery, but for her reasons behind the challenge, as laid out in her mission statement.  This seems like a great reason to take on such an epic challenge.

We both started to get hungry around 10 miles from Chepstow, so it was a relief to see the Severn Bridges in the distance and knowing Wetherspoons was not far away.

However, first there were a few more rough lanes to negotiate before we could power along the A48 into town.  Power we did, or should I say, Steve did.  I have never pushed such massive gears in my life, it was all I could do to assist the pedals to turn and I struggled to put enough weight through them without being able to grip the handles tightly by my side.  I am not allowed to put any pressure through the arm yet, so Steve was having to work hard stomping up climbs whilst I did everything I could to contribute. I think I would have been able to assist more if we ran smaller gears as I would have been able to spin and use my lungs as well as muscle, but then again, I am supposed to stay away from becoming anaerobic until this bone is well healed (the operation was less than three weeks ago) so it was probably better for me to not get into oxygen debt over a 200 km distance.

The wound was superficially infected, due to an internal stitch breaking through, but the riding seemed to help get the Flucloxacillin where it needed to be and the surrounding redness had reduced by the time we got to 'spoons. I had been very worried about riding with the infected arm, due to the risk of it spreading into the metalwork, but in the end decided to risk it. There wouldn't be another opportunity to do the ride, I could genuinely rest the arm all day whilst on the front and if it got any worse, well, I could always stop and phone home to collect me.

We had some trouble in the morning with the front brake sticking on at junctions, and when Steve needed to quickly stop on the A48 coming into Chepstow it jammed solid. That was a little scary, sat helpless in the middle of the A48 right hand turn lane whilst traffic built up and tried to squeeze past. It was a good feeling to arrive safely at 'spoons and get food on order, whilst we chatted to some of the riders passing through on 'The Dean' 300 km. The Audax scene is small and close-knit, yet very welcoming and familiar faces appear on most rides.

Wetherspoons is great for vegan curry. This was gorgeous! I love the fact that veganism is now so mainstream, you can get a great tasty feed in an every day establishment.

From the pub we had a stomping climb up out of Chepstow, but the Magic-Morpheous-Machine handled it like a dream and before we knew it, we were heading to the Severn Bridge. Always very much fun crossing the river.

Just love the view across the Estuary, and the places I knew as a child.  It never fails to make me smile.

15 mph.  Not quite our average moving, but not far off.  On A roads and straights the bike was OK. Sure, not carbon solo upright fast, but it shifted and our moving speeds were often much higher than I expected with us readily holding 16+ mph.  However, negotiating the blind lanes and traffic, canal paths and other features had quite an impact.  It was still more than quick enough to get round with several hours in hand.

After the bridge, we saw the last of the Dean riders as we headed North to home.  With careful planning it is possible to completely avoid the A38 to Gloucester, and we had miles of quiet lanes through Oldbury, Hill, Berkeley and Cambridge to pedal.  The northerly wind was noticable, but not overbearing in the shelter of the back-roads.

This is a view over to home-turf in the distance, the hills where I grew up and the fields I played in as a child.  No matter how far I travel, now, when I return, I always feel a lovely sense of belonging.

Again, with careful routing, we diverted around the A38 via Frocester, before making our way to the Gloucester-Sharpness canal towpath.  I had stuck this in for fun. I knew we weren't going to be breaking speed records, and is it always a pleasure to ride alongside the boats. Boats and bikes, seemingly a great combination.

We had a late start, and lazy lunch, so it was a relief to get to the off-road sections whilst it was still light, but late enough for the paths to be pretty much deserted of dog walkers, fishermen and families.

Seagulls flew alongside and fought over rubbish as we passed into the urban inner of Gloucester City, unnoticed by the masses in their cars fighting for space after store closing time.

The light began to drop as dusk set in, and the air chilled, but it wasn't far from home. Just 35 km left, but far enough to need a short break and some food.

I was beginning to cramp in my left glute, my right ankle was very sore, and my back was bruised from pressing into the seat harness and pushing such big gears, so stretching (whilst phoning home to say everything was OK), was a real relief.  Steve 'rested his eyes' audax style, stood up with his head on a Carradice. Totally understandable for a man who had just ridden through the night and day before.  2 minutes later and it was like a reset button had been pressed, he was ready to go and get that endurance engine back on fire.

The night set in and my helmet light supplemented the dynamo hub of the Circe for the blackness of the last kilometers home.  Home to tea, food, and no doubt for Steve, some very well deserved sleep.