Thursday, 12 March 2015

Celtic Christian Cycle Tour - Durham to Iona

As part of my theology course at Durham University, I'm undertaking a solo cycling pilgrimage from Durham Cathedral to Iona - weaving around visiting lots of Celtic Christian sites in northern Britain.
  • Monday: Durham Cathedral to Lindesfarne via Chester-le-Street.
  • Tuesday: Lindesfarne to Broughton via Melrose.
  • Wednesday: Broughton to Isle of Arran
  • Thursday: seeing if I can get to Holy Isle off the coast of the Isle of Arran.
  • Friday: Isle of Arran to Glasgow
--- after a weekend break with my family ---
  • Monday: Glasgow to Inverarary
  • Tuesday: Inverarary to Oban
  • Wednesday: Oban to Iona
  • Thursday: A day on Iona, Isle of Mull, and a trip to Ardnamurchan
  • Friday: Isle of Mull to Oban and then a train home.

I'm expecting the weather to be varied and challenging as most of the prevailing wind has been west to east this winter and that will mean a headwind from Holy Island to the Isle of Arran. I'm staying with vicars in their parish homes, or in Youth Hostels - but I don't have any accommodation arranged for the first Tuesday night and I may end up riding through the night to reach Arran.

Unlike the 2009 LEJOG, I'm not setting out to prove myself as a long distance cyclist, this time I'm more interested in touring the Celtic Christian sites and learning a bit more about their history. I know that St Cuthbert and St Aidan travelled the north of Britain bringing the Christian faith back after the fall of the Roman Empire. I'm looking forward to experiencing some the isolation they may have lived through. I know I'm only likely to find some grass covered rocks in the ground, but to travel under my own effort and visit some of the significant sites is really exciting for me.

Today I had the privilege of being invited into Durham Cathedral to take some photographs, as these will help to illustrate ground zero of my journey. I'm studying at Cranmer Hall in Durham, training to be an Anglican (Church of England) parish priest (vicar). We do get to participate in worship at the Cathedral, but the freedom to take photographs throughout the Cathedral was wonderful.

The story of Durham Cathedral is a long and mixed one. Originally a small shrine for St Cuthbert, it later grew into a Benedictine Monastery with a defensive castle and keep. The castle is in an easy to defend location on a rock outcrop in a U-shaped bend in the River Wear. Sadly it was even a prison for Scottish soldiers after the battle of Dunbar, many of whom starved to death in inhuman conditions.

Currently the Cathedral is recognised as one of the greatest historical buildings in Europe, and thus a UNESCO World Heritage Site. With such a long history of Christian worship, the Cathedral team have a stated goal: "To worship God, share the gospel of Jesus Christ, welcome all who come, celebrate and pass on our rich Christian heritage, and discover our place in God's creation."

There is the tomb of The Venerable Bede, who was born late in the 7th century and spent most of his life writing books on the saints and Christian life. Many of his books have survived and are available to read even today.

Stained glass windows tell the stories of some Christian saints, including these two to St Aidan and St Cuthbert.

At the other end of the Cathedral, near the rose window is the shrine to St Cuthbert. It is believed that when Henry VIII dissolved the monasteries and had relics destroyed, St Cuthbert's body had not decayed. The skin was still on the bones and that the soldier sent to smash the bones couldn't do this. So the body was buried again. The shrine remains a site for many pilgrims despite the Protestant Reformation and the efforts of the clergy to preach against the practice of pilgrimage as 'not a Christian act'.

So the Cathedral is an amazingly beautiful building, with the wonderful rose window of stained glass at one end. St Bede, one of the first scholars of Britain is buried here, as it St Cuthbert, one of the most significant evangelists we've seen in Britain since the fall of the Roman empire. It is a brilliant place to be studying and worshipping; and the beginning of my cycle tour to Iona.

Saturday, 7 March 2015

Yorkshire Gallop 200km Audax

The Yorkshire Gallop is a 211km audax from Aldbrough St. John near Darlington, heading down to Thirsk, Malton, York and Ripon before returning to Aldbrough St. John. Two years ago it was called the "When I'm 64" to mark the organiser's significant birthday, and it snowed. It was cold. Freezing. So when I saw the weather forecast was wet and windy I sang for joy - yay! - no snow!

Leaving Durham at 7am, the wind was extremely strong and gusty. I had a lift from Rob of VC167 and we thought the wind might be too much for putting the bike on the roof. The wind failed to put many people off though, as about 60 riders had turned up for the start and I believe another 40 were coming for the Ripon Cantor later (the 100km audax also from Aldbrough). VC167 were out in force, and a great selection of local clubs such as Cowley's Cycles from Northallerton.

With a typically understated audax start, we headed out on a single track lane and then under the A1 and south through Middleton Tyas and Scorton. Bibbles and twists in the road served to stretch the group out and it fractured; the west-south-west wind making each change in our direction challenging. The lanes were slightly crumbly, with gravel and pot-holes. As a peloton we communicated the poor road surface to each other with hand-signals, and narrated this with shouts of car-up, car-down, car-back and car-up. No one had agreed terminology in advance but we figured out the meaning eventually. There was only one car-related incident; with some road-works we cycled through a green light only to be aggressively honked at by a driver sat at green. It seems as though the traffic signals were showing green in both directions. 

We arrived in Thirsk passing the first horse-racing course of the day, and the theme of the "Yorkshire Gallop" event.

I stopped in Thirsk for 5 minutes - long enough to grab a chocolate bar and receipt to prove I'd passed through. I jumped back on the bike and with a jig right and left through Sowerby I was now alone, and would remain solo on the road for the rest of the ride. The Sowerby exit from Thirsk is actually really nice; shortening the A19 section to merely a couple of hundred metres and the Thirkleby turning. The ride gets more uppity-downity from here for a while but the prevailing wind was giving me a nice hand.

The sky was beginning to clear and big blue patches were opening up. To the north the white horse carved in the hill-side was clearly visible. It has recently been re-whitened and shone out of the surrounding green fields. The roads were deserted - I was happily spinning along, wind-assisted all the way to Coxwold and past the church where the annual Cyclist's Remembrance Service is held.

The road drops and I gathered speed down past the Newburgh House fishpond, then straight into another climb. Perhaps I was photograph happy at this point but I did like the sculpted hedge. I remember sheltering from a heavy down-pour on the 3 Coasts 600 coming down this hill a few years ago.

Up and down and up and down. I was caught and passed by four faster riders I'd seen at the start. I assume they were riding fast but had stopped longer than I in Thirsk. Two years ago the snow was falling in huge flakes, today I had sunshine and a tailwind.

The run down through Hovingham Park into Hovingham was pretty and then I'd reached the simple section: the B1257 all the way to Malton. I like this road when tailwind assisted, bowling along at 30+kph. It undulates and there is a bit more traffic than I'd experienced earlier, especially the Helmsley-Malton motorbikers - but the veiws north to the Yorkshire Moors are good and south are the lumpy bits near Castle Howard.

I arrived at Morrisons in Malton with 3hrs 12mins showing for the 87km covered, which with the 5 minutes in Thirsk equated to a 26.4kph (16.5mph) overall average - 'woo' and indeed 'yay'.

It was only 11:30am, and felt too early for a lunch stop: 87km wasn't quite far enough to justify it, so I grabbed a quick bite to eat in Morrisons and used the receipt as proof of passage (audax proof). No more than 10 minutes here and I was cycling again, south west on Welham road towards York.

This was now the hardest section of the ride. Still alone. My friendly tailwind had turned into a direct headwind, pushing my pace down to 10kph with every slight rise, and not significantly faster on the descents. I put my cycling into survival mode and nursed my knees and glycogen stores as much as I could.

The scenery was classically British with rolling farmland hills and the first shoots of arable crops tinting the fields from muddy brown to spring green. I was heading down towards Buttercrambe with the mansion overlooking the road, just before the double bridge over the River Derwent. The bridge has weight, width and length restrictions, so there is an inevitable confrontation of motor vehicles vying for right of way. As a cyclist the whole thing feels comic - moving from calm sweeping county lanes to the equivalent of Piccadilly Circus for a second or two.

There is a horse-racing course to the south of York, but Nigel's route is very clever, avoiding the busy A166 and A64. He takes us along a route which simplifies the escape northbound. This was not, however, my choice; I was looking forward to a longer stop having covered 120km with only 15 minutes off the bicycle. First was the obligatory photo-opportunity outside the cathedral, and then I circled a bit looking for somewhere I could lock up the bicycle and have a proper rest. In a moment of inspiration I remembered that the Tap pub at York station lets cyclists bring their bicycles into the pub. I was able to rest without worry; and the selection of real ales is massive.

I felt much more refreshed after a 'holiday' rest - remembering to treat the audax as a lovely day out instead of a slog of a task. I didn't rush back out, so the stop lasted about 40 minutes. Returning to the roads of York I noticed a lot of other audaxers around at cafes, supermarkets and petrol stations. The gang of four skinny fast riders were ahead of me at some lights but they got trapped at the A19/A1237 roundabout and I tried to nip up the inside of them. They spotted this and shot off ahead on the A19 through Skelton to Beningbrough.

Beningbrough was where I left the A19 and crossed over the east coast railway line, I could feel the westerly wind blustering into my left hand shoulder. The clouds had almost completely lifted, leaving bright sunshine beating down on me. I removed arm warmers and asked myself whether this was the right time to start working on my cycling tan.

The route was set to cross the River Ouse on the toll bridge near Aldwark, and due to resurfacing work the whole section of road from Linton-on-Ouse to the bridge (around the air-force base) was closed to motorised traffic. Was this perhaps the busiest section of closed road I've ever ridden?  There was a steady stream of cars ignoring the closed road signs. The upside though, was the buttery smooth tarmac.

Aldwark bridge is a piano keyboard of a river crossing, with wooden planks bouncing up and down as the tyres roll over it. This bridge can get congested when the supermarket delivery truck gets jammed one way against a flow of caravans being towed the other way. Today however it was deserted and I was able to take a relaxed picture of this iconic place.

Yet more quiet country lanes with beautiful views, and I was able to see the white horse again in the far distance. Another rider, Cecil, was tracking about 1km behind me and I spotted him occasionally as we approached Boroughbridge. Another river crossing, this time the River Ure which was flowing fast over the weir and under the road.

As I passed under the A1(M), I shouted "poop-poop" for the echo effect and in defiance of the traffic thundering overhead. Then, sticking closely to the defined routesheet, I took the Newby Hall turning and the day continued to be a great day out and a lovely way to spend time on a bicycle. It was about this time the singing in my heart had to be done out loud.

For those unfamiliar with audaxing principals, you don't have to follow the routesheet - you just have to go to the control points. I rejoined a main road and found a couple of riders making a good pace into Ripon; they had skipped the twisty scenery. One of these riders was Dave, an experienced randonneur, VC167 rider and audax event organiser - responsible for challenging events such as the Dales Tour. I stayed with both riders past the horse-racing course and into Ripon and it was great to have Dave's experience to direct us to the petrol station, just through the other side of Ripon and by the Malton turning. This petrol station is open long hours and has a coffee machine mini-market, so it is an excellent resource for long distance cyclists.

160km (100 miles) covered so far, and we embarked on the final section which is 51km (32 miles) long; back to Aldbrough St. John. I felt strong and comfortable, so let Dave and his friend ride away from me in order that I could enjoy the day without having to watch the wheel in front. They are pictured below, just at the turn in the road.

Shortly after, Cecil, who had tracked me for many miles, sped up and caught me. We chatted for a few minutes until we crossed back over the A1 at Catterick and then he dropped me as we approached yet another horse-racing course. I know I didn't slow down and I suspect that he just naturally gets faster and faster towards the end of each ride.

I had a different agenda. The routesheet takes us back through Scorton, and the Farmers Arms was named. They have a nice log fire and I felt it would be a lovely place to have a final battery recharge within 10km of the finish.

What a beautiful day out, although the weather was quite windy I had only struggled in the Malton to York section, about 30km. The rest of the 212km was bright, sunny, fresh, and enjoyable. The sun was setting as I approached Middleton Tyas and my dynamo lighting came in handy on the final section under the A1 and back down the single track lane into Aldbrough St. John.

212km, in 8hrs 25mins riding with only 1hr 30mins stationary (most of which in pubs). Back in under 10 hours. Feeling strong and looking forward to next week's tour from Durham to Iona. As always, I give thanks to God for the tiredness in my legs and the salt dried on my brow.

Saturday, 14 February 2015

Fittings update: Busch and Muller Toplight

In my previous blog entry I showed pictures of the home-made bracket for the Busch and Muller Toplight. The idea was to fix this rear dynamo light to the Carradice Bagman rack and enable me to mount the light centrally.

Unfortunately the bracket - a cut-up bidon - wasn't sturdy enough and the unit's centre of gravity kept pulling the bracket round causing the rear light to shine on the ground. A fellow audaxer and member of the 'yet another cycling forum' community got in touch and sent me some p-clips.

These clips have clamped securely round the smooth metal of the bagman and so far are holding the light perfectly aligned and facing following traffic.

Thanks to Nick for sending me these clips - very much appreciated.

Saturday, 7 February 2015

Review: Busch & Muller Toplight

After enjoying the benefits of the amazing Busch & Muller Lumotec IQ2 Luxos for about a year, and sort of wishing for a dynamo rear light but being unable to justify it while I had plenty of battery powered ones... eventually the rain destroyed my very old CatEye (which had given me excellent service itself). I was pleased to have a chance to purchase a "B&M Toplight Line brake plus rear break light" (Honestly I think there must be a shorter name) from Rose Bikes in Germany. Even with shipping it seems to be significantly cheaper to pick these lights up from Germany and the choice is much more extensive.

I was drawn to the B&M Toplight Brake Plus thanks to Dave McCraw's excellent review on "don't talk to me about bikes" and I was encouraged also by the information available on Peter White Cycles which warned me that Supernova taillights are not compatible with B&M headlights. Phew - mistake averted.

There are two LEDs in the white band at the top, which project a broad light intended to help motorists to gauge distance, apparently more easily than with a flashing or exceptionally bright rear lights. This light is still very bright though, and is visible from a very long distance away. The light is above a nice reflective plate too - giving a large lit area for following road users.

This particular light has some clever electronics which detect when the power from the dynamo is dropping, such as when the bike is slowing down, and puts extra power to the LEDs to give a brake-light effect.

Dave's wiring is beautiful, he has drilled holes in his frame on the downtube and in the seat post - so that the whole cable-run is internal to the bicycle. I'm not that confident! I simply connected the rear output from the B&M Lumotec to wires which I ran the length of the bike. NOTE: the light does not come with cable. I bought some of this twin core light cable.

This was threaded alongside the head tube and next to the rear brake cable:

The excess cable has been zip-tied under the saddle:

I don't know if this is an obsessive/compulsive behaviour, but I prefer my bicycle to look symmetrical; so I wanted the rear light underneath my saddle bag but centered over the rear mudguard. Using the Carradice Bagman tubing, I created a homemade bracket to wrap around it: cut from an old bidon, wrapped around the tube and drilled for mounting holes.

I'm going to have to revisit this bracket because it likes to slip round slightly - not a lot, but just enough to be away from vertical. I have thought about buying some p-clips. I would be happy for advice on this one.

The light itself is very slim and the wires connect without trouble underneath. I'm delighted with the whole setup and have ridden on a few dark winter evening nights with no problem. I believe a back-up is a good idea so I still use my FibreFlare across the Carradice Barley.

Heading out into the night, armed with a camera and a tripod; I wanted to film this and take some photos to see for myself what this so-called brake light looked like.

Both lights are very bright and visible, the FibreFlare has fresh batteries and runs seemingly forever, the B&M will run as long as I do of course. In both these photographs the B&M is on standlight mode - the light visible when I stop at traffic lights.

However, in this video footage, the light is shining as it ought to in normal use. I have also been able to spot the moments I brake. A pool of brighter light appears on the road beneath me, and the B&M shines out more brightly. I ran two comparisons, with and without the FibreFlare lit. I am very pleased with this lighting setup - I'm clearly visible for a long way even with the potential for street lights to drown out my bicycle light.

So far the only downside to having dynamo lights is that when I park up, friendly people stop to point out I've left my lights on. So. Not much hardship then.

Recommended? Absolutely.

Carradice Camper vs Carradice Barley

This isn't really a death-match or anything; I've been using my Carradice Barley since 2009 when I paired it with an Ortlieb Ultimate handlebar bag for a lightweight LEJOG. However, I recently treated myself to a Carradice Camper Longflap for a tour of Scotland I'm planning in March.

The Barley is a nice compact 9L saddlebag, I've packed spare cycling clothes, spare trousers, a lightweight fleece and t-shirts into it before. Mainly I use it now for Audax rides and I'm a bit lazy about packing light - I just stick what I think I might want or need.

In March, with the tour of Celtic Christian sites of interest, I'm planning to get off the bicycle occasionally and for this reason I'm going to need some shoes. The Camper's 24L capacity will help me pack my luggage and a pair of super-light fell running trainers. I thought it amusing that the Barley disappeared inside the Camper.