Sunday, 25 May 2014

J2J Day One - High Wycombe to Devizes




No wonder we were smiling as we lined up outside. We'd somehow managed to make it this far and had filled our bellies ready for the off. The start was to be pretty easy, the two Johns had scouted the start of the route and, with local knowledge, John had managed to reduce the trip to Devizes from an unmanagable 90 odd mile to an unmanagable 82 miles.

Setting off we had a good pace going and the weather was as good as we could have expected. John Sills led the way and we were happy picking up his slipstream and not being rained on. We ticked off areas we knew and kept following the signs for Maidenhead. Suddenly we were going the opposite direction to the signs and it was time to stop and check the route while Neil had his usual stop to put air in to his back tyre. Using Map My Ride, an excellent app that allows you to preplan your route and then follow it a bit like SatNav, we were able to keep track of our route. We were no longer on our preplanned route but it would be easy to get back on track. With my phone mounted on my handle bars I had my eyes half on the road and half on a flashing red dot as a satellite somewhere tracked our progress. Now leading the way the other two guys were following me. "Left here", "straight on there". We were progressing well although I wasn't taking in much of the surroundings as I had my face in my phone. "Straight on and then left at the junction". Being slightly slower while looking at my phone they went ahead, as I looked up they were pausing and questioning my last decision. Puzzled I looked at the surroundings and then back at the phone, it turns out they were right to pause as we were heading down the slip road on to the motorway! Zooming in, we'd turned early and easily made it back up the slip road without peril. On we pushed still making good progress, I wast ticking off places from my old stomping ground as a salesman based in Reading.


As we headed in to Reading we were suddenly on the busy A4 but despite a bit of a head wind it wasn't too bad. We were already looking forward to seeing Reading, The Oracle and hitting those tow paths that would form a large proportion of our days riding. Arriving in the town we started following the water that would accompany us all the way to Devizes, this was a good thing we thought. Beautiful surroundings or "Eye-dylic" as Neil said or "i-dylic" as I countered.
 

The staff at the "Bar & Brasserie" that we stopped at were understandably surprised to hear that we wanted to sit outside to have our breakfast, they were not surprised to take an order of three sausage sandwiches and three sugary drinks. We'd certainly earned our second breakfast with progress going well, an average speed as good as we'd dare hope and the rain was holding off. It was surreal being in such familiar surroundings ten years on since I'd last been there but there was no time for sentiment as we polished off our breakfast and aimed to keep our good pace going. A couple of wrong turns coming out of Reading slowed us down but nothing like the tow paths did.

When Craig scouted the route for us he reported back it was narrow at parts, with people in the way and a good chance of falling in the canal. The Kennet and Avon Canal is allegedly the most used cycle path in Britain, well according to John's PDF anyway. With terrible weather conditions forecast it was understandable that there weren't many people out braving the weather but that didn't help out speed as our tempo dropped and now with the headwind and poor surface we were struggling to average 10 miles an hour. Add to that gates and fallen trees that we had to stop and maneuver expertly through, over, around, often having to lift our bikes or have them on wheel, we were slowing and it was not due to fitness or willing.

The route took us out past many areas myself and John knew yet we'd never seen them from the idyllic perspective we know encountered (the eye / i debate went on and on). Not quite telling where we were the Johns noted on more than one occasion that we'd past Thatcham only to discover it disappointingly one hour after thinking we'd already past it.

Arriving in Thatcham we were probably about as pleased as we ever have been to grace the roads of our old football playing haunts. Roads meant speed and less bone jangling surface that made Neil and George, sorry John, think of our wives and their fondness for the cobble sections of the Tour de France (something to do with Lycra and men before you ask).

Despite the better surface we weren't able to press on any quicker, the wind was picking up and our bodies were starting to feel the effects of nearly 40 miles. Lunch was needed and the break couldn't come soon enough. As we came in to Newbury, passing our losing cup final venue and the swish venue we got the league title trophy, we started looking for a suitable pub for lunch. The route took us right in to the town centre and John guided us to The Lock, Stock & Barrel.. Often a great sun trap but not today, as we stopped to lock our bikes up outside the heavens opened and we hurried for cover.


With everyone having the same idea, there was no space within. So outside we went, thankfully to a covered section but it wasn't the warm respite we were hoping for. Food was ordered and I sadly, had to go and find somewhere inside where I could stand and charge my phone so that we could have directions later if needed. I happen to speak to sit with someone who used to work on the canals and he mentioned that coming in to Devizes we had 19 locks in a row to deal with, that's 19 rising sections of canal at the end of our day. Not the news we wanted to hear. Despite being outside we did manage to enjoy the fact we weren't out in the torrential rain. Fueled up we set out in to the wind and rain. It was looking like a long day ahead of us.

Suffering on the thin narrow paths it was really like the towpaths were closing in on us, with elderflowers pushing at us from each side and a small thin line of path to follow we were being buffeted by more than just the wind. Next second John went down in to our heavily overgrown surroundings. He was fine, the only thing that had been hurt was his pride as he gave us a look of someone feeling like a novice. We assured him we were finding it hard too and, having dusted himself off we put our feet on the pedals again. We couldn't have got 100 yards when both myself and Neil went down with seconds of each other. John turned around and merely asked us if we'd done it to make him feel better. We're not that kind of people. With nettle stings backed up by aching joints and arses starting to feel the distance we were well and truly in to the whole suffering thing.

As we'd given up hope of nice weather we just hoped for a better surface so our ride was a bit more comfortable. Be careful what you wish for. Four miles outside of Newbury the route turned off from the towpaths, hurray! and up a hill, oh. The new surface was welcomed but the weather just kept coming and rolling hills were not idea on already tired legs. By 4pm the mood had certainly changed and there was a quietness that comes about when each rider is battling his own demons.

As it looked like were exiting Great Bedwyn, I proclaimed their wasn't anything 'great' about it. We'd been hoping to stop in a cafe there but we hadn't seen a single place to stop. Neil suggested we press on to the next place but I'd just realised I hadn't done anything about my car that I'd abandoned the night before outside my local garage. Seeing a pub we all agreed we needed to stop and with a beer garden for our bikes we took no persuading.

The Three Tuns turned out to be our little oasis in the storm. As the rain came down like cats and dogs, Neil and I sort out refreshments inside. John guarding the bikes, sought refuge in a little summer seating section. Without any phone signal I couldn't sort out my car and with my phone running out of juice fast I needed a recharge in more ways than one. Thankfully the lady behind the bar was most insistent that we came inside and left our bikes to the elements. John took no persuading and joined us inside as I was given the landline phone and called the garage. With my car booked in, all that was left was to relax and enjoy a drink - oh and the thought of a further 24 miles still ahead of us.

With sugary drinks inside us and our panniers / rucksacks ransacked for snacks we were on our way in to the now spitting rain. We hadn't got 50 yards before the heavens opened again and we suffered the worst weather of the day so far. The wind lashed the rain against us and the thought of all those miles in this weather did not bode well. Yet, maybe it was all the sugar or that we'd come through so much so far, we just pressed on. Lacking any protection my hair on my head I was soon in pain as the full force of the wind and rain battered against my skull. It turns out the idea of Vaseline to protect me against this was a humorous one and one that I should have kept to myself as I'm was ribbed for it from then on.

Thankfully the rain didn't last long and we were treated to the delights on bright, warming sunshine despite the ever present wind. That was is, delirium must have set in as my lungs opened and shared what was a constant eclectic playlist for the rest of our day. First off was Morecambe and Wise and "Bring Me Sunshine". Then it was anything and everything that our now fragile minds could think of. We even had a rendition of YMCA "it's fun to stay at the Premier Inn" as we dreamed of the Purple Palace we'd booked and it's 'all you can eat' breakfast. Knowing it was right at the end of the route without any detours really made it feel near and yet far away at the same time.

And still the wind hit us "come on, is that all you've got". There was a real feeling that nothing could stop us now but it didn't make it any easier. We hadn't seen a towpath for a good while and Neil was now harking back to those times with rose tinted glasses. The new surface was no benefit to the constant rise and fall of the rolling hills. It was getting later, the light was fading and so were we. The mini pit-stops were getting more frequent as we raided our supplies to find those extra few calories to get us across the line. Each time the road took a turn upward there was a collective groan, every time we went near water Neil wistfully looked for signs that said we could rejoin the flat but bumpy towpaths. "Left just over the bridge, that's got to be a good sign" stated John or Neil  - I was struggling with my own name by now never mind knowing who said what. A good sign it wasn't as the road went left and upward. We dropped down the gears and pedaled on.

Devizes was now on the signs, that was really helping. The miles might not have been coming down as quick as I liked but single figures meant it wouldn't be that long. "Everywhere we look there's hills" said Neil, knowing what was around the corner. However as the sign pointed straight on for Devizes, the cycle route and my phone pointed another way. Of course up a hill.

At this point it really was becoming a massive effort to follow each push on the pedal with another. John and Neil's knees were really feeling the paid and the hills weren't helping. My problem was not behind me, it WAS my behind. Feeling worse than ever, I couldn't understand it but I had no choice but to sit and bear it (rather than 'bare' it). Stops had become common as our bikes struggled with the demands we were putting on them. Neil was having to pump up his bike tyre and both Neil and John's chains had come off at one point or another.

Then we saw it, coming around a corner, there in front of us was the nicest sight we'd seen all day. More so than Newbury (unsurprisingly) and more than the odd spots of sunshine. In front of us was Devizes. There was still two or three miles to go but we could see the finish. The end was in sight and we went for it. Well as much as three men who had never ridden this far before could do. Craig, supporting us from a far would later comment that 80 miles (it was 82.88 to be accurate) in to the wind was more like 120 miles. We don't know if there's any scientific basis to that but it certainly felt a LONG way.

The route brought us straight in to Devizes and pretty much to the front door of our hotel. As we kept our eyes peeled, ready for the heavenly sight of the Premier Inn, there, right in front of us was... Travelodge! When we realised we'd booked that instead of a Premier Inn (there isn't one in Devizes) we were relieved, not disappointed. We were at the hotel and off our bikes. As we booked in with the largish lady at the front desk we told her where we'd come from, how many miles we'd done and how many calories that equated to (3302). "That's not very much" she said referring to the calories. "That's just a main meal". Well maybe for her but we'd struggle to eat our curry and stay awake. We retired to our rooms, not beaten men, but certainly a little delirious. I swear we saw a woman with a beard singing in Eurovision.



Create Maps or search from 80 million at MapMyRide

Monday, 19 May 2014

The Trip That Was Never Meant To Happen

So the big day came to set off on journey that would cover more miles in a day than any of us had ever done on a bike before. The only thing was, one of us wouldn't even make the start line.



Team Pannier, Neil, Jon, Rich and John started out as a team doing the Coast to Coast from Whitehaven to Newcastle. Often called the Sea to Sea or C2C, we fell in love with the challenge, with the travelling and our bikes. Well, a love hate relationship with our bikes but you get the idea.

With other C2Cs done from Ilfracombe to Plymouth (the Devon Coast to Coast) and Morecambe to Bridlington (Way of the Roses) we looked around for our next trip. However with Jon and Rich not available due to new baby arrivals Neil and John looked for a 'short' trip to fill the gap. With +John J Sills,  now in to biking thanks to his commute to work, he was up for the challenge and it looked like the confusion of having two Johns was here to stay. Not that it made that much of a difference as Neil generally mistakenly called me (John Lamb) George anyway. Up to three riders for the trip we looked for one more to make a suitable number. Up steps Craig, marathon and half marathon runner and generally fit guy. Just one problem, Craig hadn't ridden a bike since he was 8 and didn't own a bike.

Unfazed by this, the new group of four (not a team yet, just a bunch of friends) set about planning their short trip. With all these trips we've been on, there has been one main issue - getting to the start and finish. So with that in mind the idea of starting at one house and finishing up at another was born. The John to John or J2J was born. High Wycombe, Buckinghamshire to Yatton, Somerset. It seemed a sensible idea, Mr Sills had a friend from work who had cycled the Avon and Kennet Canal cycle route and that covered a good section of the route. He even "had a PDF" John would tell us, showing us all the route. The journey from the end of that route even linked in to the Bristol to Bath Railway cycle route so it would be plain sailing surely, in fact would it be testing enough? Sure it was a decent distance but 142 miles over two days on mainly flat roads is nothing like doing the same distance on a hilly route. We decided with it being our first ride together and not knowing each other's capabilities it would do just fine - Neil's getting old, George doesn't run any more, John hasn't ridden anything like that distance before and Craig, well Craig just hadn't ridden a bike with gears.

Fast forward to the week before we're due to set off and Craig has plenty of miles under his belt. In fact he'd ridden some of the course and scoped it out for us. Flat but narrow at points, with people on the path slowing the pace he said. Otherwise the route looked just fine. As he headed off for a week in the sun he had every confidence he'd put in the miles despite arriving back from a drinking trip only the night before we were due to head out.

As the week ticked by and Craig built up his carb reserves with hop based drinks, the rest of us started to pack, stocked up on beef jerky and Moaoms and started to get excited about the trip. Then it happened. It was nice of him to call before he posted it on Facebook, he thought it was only polite. We tend to text, message and basically communicate anyway but phone so when John called me I thought something was serious, either that or he wanted to discuss beef jerky. Turns out it was a lot more serious than provisions for the trip. His commute had gone wrong, or more accurately his bike had gone. Nicked, along with someone else's bike from the train station near his home. That was Wednesday night, we were due to set off Saturday first thing and John was working Thursday and Friday. With options of borrowing a bike complicated and looking unlikely it was down to whether the insurance would come through and even then whether he could get another bike in time.



Thursday morning we woke to the above headline from the totally reliable and never over-the-top Daily Express. We were due to be battered by wind and torrential rain. It was of course due for Saturday morning and those long range forecasts we'd been choosing to ignore were suddenly looking likely. At the stage the unthinkable idea was floated. Do we call it a day? Do we take the signs of the weather and John's bike being nicked and postpone or even cancel the trip? After all would it be any fun riding in the rain, getting soaked. This was supposed to be fun not just a challenge. However you never know what the weather is going to be like and Neil and George, sorry John, had their passes signed and a hotel booked on route. It was decided if John could get himself a bike without being out of pocket we'd go ahead. That was going to be no easy feat and three of us waited with the decision out of our hands.



Thursday night came and this picture appeared on FB Messenger. What a sight (no I don't mean his non-matching water bottle as one critic pointed out), we were back on and John had got out of cleaning his bike before we set off.

So Friday we "just" had to get from Sheffield and Yatton to High Wycombe and fill our faces with carbs and protein. "Just" as it was never going to be that easy on a Friday night. Neil had some miles to get through (and a dirty burger as he called it) and I had to get me and the kids home and myself, bike and panniers on three different trains. I didn't even get past stage one. My car engine died five minutes from work. I was now at the hands of AA. A one hour response was promised. That would be cutting it fine. It wasn't fine though. Even when they arrived late there was nothing they can do, the car was officially dead and going to be very expensive to fix (new engine as it turned out). This did not look good. By the time I'd been saved by my wife and two very tired kids I'd missed the last train by twenty minutes. There was no way I could get to High Wycombe now with my car out of action and all the trains gone.

Ta-da! Neil to the rescue, he diverted his route and headed down the M4 and M5 and came to pick me up. Having started out at 5 he arrived at mine at 9 with another two hours to do back in the opposite direction. However with me, my bike and a pizza in the car we headed off with me at the wheel. With my foot down we'd soon be on our way. "Hold on, wait a minute, what does that sign say Neil? No, really?". Yep. The M4 was closed, not down to two lanes, SHUT. All we could do was laugh and drive the long way round. IF somebody was giving us a sign, they were going to have to be more obvious! Arriving late we got ourselves to bed. We weren't to be defeated.

Next morning we were over the worst, we felt like we were in a Final Destination film and had outrun the Grim Reaper. Then we got a message from Craig. To paraphrase and not put anyone off their food, he was not going to make it due to illness. So there was three and we hadn't even got out the drive.

Tuesday, 19 November 2013

Lessons from a born-again Cyclist

Just over a year ago, buoyed my Olympic enthusiasm and environmental energy (as well as the chance to put more pennies in the ongoing Arsenal season-ticket fund) I decided to try cycling to work for a week. I even wrote a blog on this esteemed website about my 'Get-to-work-on-time-trial', and as you can see from my final paragraph that day, seemed fairly confident of continuing:

‘So in conclusion, it seems that if I'm happy to get up five minutes earlier and get home five minutes later, I can get fit, save the environment, have a more comfortable commute and save a fair amount of cash. I've felt wide awake and full of energy at work, and my suits should last longer too. I'll need some car-lift favours from my wife occasionally, when I need to be in early or home late, but in return she'll get a fitter and slightly sweatier husband. The big unknown is the weather - it was fine for the whole week, with barely any wind or rain, but I'll keep going until either my colleagues subtly move their desks away, or I have to be rescued by the Buckinghamshire Ambulance service, peeling me off the bike that I'm frozen to, covered in oil and muttering about improving my cadence.'

Well, 12 months on and I'm still loving cycling to work. The weather has been tamed, and my fears of co-workers finding my cyclists' smell repugnant has proved entirely unfounded - they even gave me a new desk in the corner! However, the year hasn't gone by without a few hard-learnt lessons...

1. You’ve got to get the right gear

I started out planning to use my existing array of unused football shirts, running shorts, and ancient Red trainers (which I’ve been trying to throw away for years, but their sad holely appearance always persuaded me to keep them for gardening or the like). However, after just a week of cycling to work I decided to treat myself to a new backpack - a beautiful sleek red racing bag, complete with tuck-away rain cover and pockets. Lots of pockets. Now, this may sound weird but I’m pretty convinced it made me cycle faster, which I wasn’t previously aware a bag could do. Sadly, that can’t be said for the waterproof shorts I bought at the same time. Whilst they did a sterling job at keeping the water away from my shivering legs, they also doubled-up as a full orchestra, making a tremendous noise which saved me having lights on my bike, as anyone could hear my approach from 100 yards away. On advice from my 30km-a-day Cousin, I also bought some bright reflective winter gloves. At first I thought it was a cruel cyclist initiation joke as I pulled on the over-sized bright yellow monstrosities, but soon found they were incredibly effective at getting across your message to those drivers who enjoy squeezing me into the gutter.



2. You’ve got to avoid the wrong gear

The first day I cycled in real rain, I was strangely excited. Ready to brave the elements in my noisy shorts and showerproof jacket, I strode out ready to give up my wet-weather virginity and become a cycling man. However, it turns out that ‘showerproof’ and ‘waterproof’ are two different things. Within a minute of cycling head-first into a beautifully created low-pressure weather system, I was desperately trying to turn the sleeves of my already-soaked jacket around to give my arms another minute’s protection, to no avail. Still, I did get a seat on the train that day. The Red trainers finally gave up the ghost a few weeks in to rainy season, their persuasive holes having their flaws brutally exposed and leaving my socks to fend for themselves. I also learnt that it gets warm, quickly. The jacket-and-long-top approach, so snug when stepping out of the back door, quickly becomes a self-contained sauna with no hope of escape until your destination is reached. 

3. Time is of the essence

I’ve always been someone who likes to be on time and, being a professional commuter, adept at saving time wherever possible to give a precious few minutes more in bed. However, this reached new, almost obsessive heights once I got into my cycling rhythm. It started sensibly, planning my clothing the night before and laying them out (in put-on order) on the spare bed ready for the morning. It started to get more worrying when I began trying the recycling boxes in different places, to get them out of the way of my bike and allow me the quickest route from the garage to the back gate. But then I realised I wasn’t alone, when I accidentally entered the ‘changing room wars’, a seamlessly ongoing battle with fellow respectable colleagues to get your kit on the best hook, close to the door, near the showers, and with a covered shoe-holder rack, but not in the area where the changing rooms narrow and, well, you essentially become part of someone’s drying-off routine. I like to think I’m winning at that, having finally got my stuff on to the prime corner hook, allowing me walled protection from others and being equidistant between the entrance and the wash area. 

Having re-read that paragraph, God help me.




4. Lance Armstrong isn’t all bad

Ok, I’ll admit that it does seem the remarkably successful Lance may have had some kind of help in his multi-million dollar career, and that in some people’s eyes, he’s not really someone to be seen as a role model. But when I was hopelessly failing to conquer the steep hill on the way to the station, who was there to help me but Lance! Or at least, his website, which for some reason unbeknownst to me has been cleared of all cycling-related content and replaced with a single picture of him running (as well as contact details if you want to book him for speaking engagements…). I watched a two minute video on his site which talked about the importance of a high cadence, lowering gear before hitting the hill, and avoiding gear-shifts when standing up, all of which worked beautifully and turned me from a guy being overtaken by a 75-year-old on a vintage Raleigh (that genuinely happened) to a guy who can now make it home without having to spend the next hour in close proximity to the bathroom and unable to eat…

5. Never, ever go to Halfords

I did. I wish I hadn’t…


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So there we have it, a year down the line and I’m certainly fitter, have grown to become weirdly fond of rain, and have no plans on giving it up. I also get quite a kick out of telling other people - the other day, a Sustrans rep approached our ‘huddle’ waiting for the train, surveying who cycled to work and trying to persuade people to try it. Despite that being a non-cycling day due to evening drinking commitments, I felt a huge sense of pride and righteousness when I loudly proclaimed that most days, I jump on my bike and battle against nature to reach my destination. If anything, I felt even prouder when I heard the gentlemen in front giving their reasons for not cycling- the word ‘lunatics’ was used at least twice…

And if nothing else I can say that in the last year, at least I’ve managed to persuade the girls next door that Arsenal isn’t all I care about:



John (@johnJsills) +John J Sills 

Sunday, 20 October 2013

Discovery Road - Book Review


I have just finished Discovery Road and thoroughly enjoyed it. It is very much in the same vein as Why Don't You Fly and the excellent Thunder & Sunshine / Moods of future joys. The difference being that this is written by two guys (three of them started the trip) and the real joy is that they seemed to enjoy it and really took the adventurous nature of it in.

The challenge was to cycle across three continents unaided and therefore cycle around the world. They may not have ridden unaided but they didn't camp out in the open quite as often as Alistair in Thunder and Sunshine but that's just sensible isn't it. I guess I could relate to these guys a lot more (if you can relate to someone who gives up work and cycles around the world). Even when there was a lot of conflict during the the first stretch as they cycled across Australia with one of their ex-girlfriends (when did they ever think that was a good idea) they still portrayed a sense of adventure and enjoyment to the reader. There was humour throughout the book and they found joy in so many different situations. It's a big book (it took them each 6 months to write it) yet I still didn't want it to end. It was like a Team Pannier coast to coast to trip amplified by one million times.

I recommend you read this if you like travel and cycling, it's a corking read to dream to...

Wednesday, 25 September 2013

Blast From The TDF Past



I write a music blog so I shouldn't be surprised how music can transport you to another world or in this case another time. Hearing this music from the Channel Four days of the Tour de France instantly took me back to the time when, for three weeks, Roseanne, Blossom and Mork and Mindy were displaced from our screens (much to my sister's annoyance) and instead we got a glimpse into the greatest bike ride on earth/ At the time it was dominated by the mainland European's but my favourite was a plucky American by the name of Greg Lemond. As I rooted for him some Spanish guy had the cheek to come in and dominate the Tour. Miguel Indurain I will never forgive you for ruining my childhood. See, it's all come flooding back. You can download the track at televisiontunes.com.