Sunday, 27 July 2014

Volunteering at the National 400

The National 400 is an Audax event which happens annually and alternates between the north and south of the UK.  All Saints Academy, Ingleby Barwick played host to the start of this year's event, 26/27 July 2014, and I had volunteered to be an extra pair of hands at one of the western controls as I was specifically looking forward to a night time stint.

Rob was our control manager, and his team was Joyce, Conrad, Chris, Denise, Corrine and myself. Tasks were divided between cooking and cleaning, serving and tidying, control admin, mechanical support and water bottles.  I was on the serving and tidying team, running backwards and forwards taking food orders, picking up, serving, providing hot and cold drinks, desserts and clearing tables.

Our first rider; Ian, arrived at 7:30pm; just 9.5 hours after leaving Ingleby Barwick and 237km into the ride.  Our last rider had become slightly lost and added extra kilometres to the route, arriving at 12:30am; 5 hours later.  In between the bulk of riders came through between 9pm and 11pm and this was the busiest time for making everyone welcome and fed/watered.

We only had one mechanical; which Denise sorted while the rider ate.  The food was cleared from every plate; homemade pizza; baked potatoes, bean-on-toast; apple or peach crumble and custard.  Tea/Coffee/Cola/OJ/Apple/Water/Milk... the choice was diverse and there was plenty of good quality food without meat for everyone.  As well as some meat-eating specifics like a homemade chorizo pizza.

There were seven of us manning this fully catered halfway control offering hot food and somewhere to close eyes and rest; and I don't think we could have managed with less in the team.  It felt quite hectic at one point; but thankfully the riders had spaced themselves out.

The weather had started so well, but from about 8pm it was raining and every person on our doorstep was drenched.  This seemed to be the reason we had quite long wait times; riders were reluctant to head back out into the sodden skies.

We had one rider we couldn't track, but thankfully we had a text at 1:45am letting us know the rider had packed in riding and was making their way home; so after a beer and chat we were settling down for some sleep ourselves by 2:15am.

I was up at 4:30am with Rob and after a coffee and packing his car we headed off back to our families feeling like a job had been well done, riders were happy and the team had worked together excellently.

Volunteering on Audax events can be very tiring; but I have found it really rewarding; especially seeing the tired and bedraggled faces arriving; and waving off fairly cheerful and strengthened cyclists into the second half of the event.

Sunday, 20 July 2014


Day two in Brisbane and the conference work starts at lunchtime, so I have a lazy Sunday morning to myself.  Time for another adventure I think, so up at 5am and out into the dark with the Bianchi Impulso from Bike Obsession.  I had loaded my little device with a gpx track to the nearest coast, which is at Nudgee Beach, a nature reserve just north of Brisbane.  One or two other cyclists were out too as I crossed the river.

Looking back to Brisbane the city was lighting up the river and the lights along the bridges were shining out.  It was difficult to catch much of this in the low light, but I love the sense of movement which comes from having a slow shutter speed combined with motion while taking the photo - the way the image blurs into a tunnel giving a sense of motion to the image.  I passed the P&O 'Pacific Jewel' coming in to dock and waved to the passengers on the decks.  I had no real idea of how to follow my route as it seemed to jump on and off cycle paths and I only had the little black line to follow.  I asked another cyclist the way to the beach, to which he responded... what beach?

As the light grew I found myself leaving the city and passing into a suburban commercial district near the race course.  I loved the sign which read, "Floating Horses Turn Here" or something similar.

Eventually I joined the Nudgee Rd cycle path which is about 7km long and wide enough for two cyclists side by side in either direction.  Very civilised.  I chased down three cyclists ahead but they saw me coming and turned left.  Eventually I reached the shore and hassled three women who'd just cycled up into taking my picture.  They commented on my short sleeves and said I must be mad, or English.  Clearly, madam, I'm English.

I saw a group of three Ibis picking scraps up from around a picnic area, such an odd looking creature I had to keep snapping shots until I got a profile picture in focus.  I also saw a Pelican swimming sedately along the river.

There were many more cyclists by the time I started to return, the Nudgee Beach appears to be a popular turning point for riders, that coastal / boundary type of place.  Ride to the Ocean!  This is the Pacific Ocean.

Coming back into Brisbane I found a beautiful little organic coffee shop and ordered breakfast of ham and cheese croissant, black coffee and some ginger beer.

After filling up with delicious food from "The Little Pantry" at 92 James Street, Brisbane, I headed back for the riverside cycle paths back to the hotel on South Bank.  Some of the lanes are boardwalks which clatter as I ride along them, others are encrusted with jungles of hanging branches.

I was only out for about three hours and this was a neat 50km morning ride getting me back in time for a shower and shave before cracking on with work... the real reason I came to Brisbane!

Saturday, 19 July 2014

Inland Indulgence - Audax Australia

I'm a strong believer that my bicycle rides should start at my own front door, but I'm guilty of transporting my bicycle by car to interesting places like the Alps, or to the beginning of a Sportive or Audax event. The justification usually has to be pretty good though; for example riding an iconic event like the Bryan Chapman Memorial. So travelling to Brisbane, Australia, to ride a 100km Brevet seems a little extreme. In this case though, I am on a business trip to a conference in Brisbane and I decided to make the most of the time between landing and the conference start.

I left home at 7am on Thursday morning and flew with KLM to Amsterdam from Teesside airport. After waiting there for 5 hours, I caught the 12 hour leg to Hong Kong. I wasn't very tired but did close my eyes for a couple of hours. Typhoon Rammasun was battering the airport as we tried to land, the turbulence was quite disturbing and the pilot chose to abort the landing the first time. It is a strange sensation seeing the ground approach and then feeling the engines fire full throttle as the energy lift us back away from the tarmac. I was praying for God’s blessing on all the crew as we came for the second approach and as I looked at the runway from my window… approaching the landing sideways… I was deeply impressed with the skills of everyone on the flight deck to get us down safely. This was something I said a prayer of thanks about.

I was delighted to be safely on the ground in Hong Kong, and then I saw the news about flight MH17, also from Amsterdam on a similar route to the KLM flight. Shot down as part of the conflict in Ukraine. God rest their souls and, Father, be with their families and friends in grief; people just like me, heading on a business trip, some even going to Australia for a conference… just like me.

I was only in Hong Kong for a couple of hours before we battled the typhoon winds to take on the next 8 hour stretch to Brisbane, arriving on Friday night at 11:30pm. Immigration / bags / customs / taxi… arriving at the hotel at 12:15am Saturday morning.

I had been in touch with Bike Obsession in Brisbane, so in the hotel waiting for me was a beautiful Bianchi Impulso road bike, set up to the measurements from my bike at home, with SPD-SL pedals and a seat pack with tyre levers and inner tube. I headed off to bed and set the alarm for 5am.  (Note that this is not a bus-shelter... so not a proper Audax Hotel)

Audax Australia had helped me find the event nearest to Brisbane, and I had signed up for Rosie's “Inland Indulgence”, a 100km Brevet. Rosie has run a few audaxes now and this was a ride she’d designed to test legs and yet be accessible to rider dipping their toes into the world of self-sufficient endurance cycling. I had been in regular email contact with Rosie in the week running up to the trip, so she had arranged for a local lad, Nick, to meet me at the hotel lobby at 5:30am in order to guide me the 15km to the start at her house in Kenmore. I woke just before the alarm, which didn't go off because I’d set it wrong.

With two front lights and two rear lights and with a reflective gilet, I met the minimum requirements for lighting in the Australian Audax rules; this was something I’d fretted about needlessly as the ride was in daylight of course. I am very grateful to Nick for leading me to Rosie’s house, I'm not sure that with the travel and sleep loss I could have negotiated the road network in the predawn light. I have never been to Australia before, so this was testing my comfort zone a little.

In Australia there has been a new law about passing cyclists with at least 1m space, and the roads have nice wide cycle paths along most of the sides. In the Brisbane area there seems to be a very good cycle network alongside major arteries and kept in excellent condition. Even though it was still dark, there were hundreds of cyclists out meeting up ready for their Saturday ride. Although it was chilly it certainly wasn't cold. Back in the UK we know the phrase, 'Winter Miles = Summer Smiles', but in Brisbane cyclists really don’t get the harsh and bitter winter we do, they don’t get the freezing horizontal rain which soaks through the seams of any gortex layer to form an icy coating to toes, fingers, arms, chest and head. 'Winter miles = winter smiles' in Brisbane. Mind you, I would not want to ride in 40oC+ during the summer months. Presumably in Australia 'Summer Miles = Winter Smiles'.

We gathered, about 15 riders, at Rosie’s collecting our Brevet cards and route sheet. It is nice that even in a ‘foreign’ environment something simple and familiar helps me to relax and feel at home. I didn't have a route sheet holder and without long sleeves I didn't want to strap the instructions to my arm with elastic bands. I had loaded Rosie’s ridewithgps route into my little garmin 200 device and was going to rely on that, also rely on staying with the group!

We’re off! First turn and guess what happens… yes, the group turns left instead of right. One shout from an astute rider at the back has us turning in the road and on the correct path. We rode together for the first 100m or maybe 200m, and then the 15% climb split the group, a quick descent and then the next climb spilt the group again, another descent and climb… choppy little steep descents and climbs on great road surfaces – fun but leg breaking – were spreading us out. I found that the early warm up with Nick had put my muscles in their ‘happy place’, so Nick and I, with Vaughan and Hugh, formed a little advance party as we headed for the first proper climbs.

We were following a very nice back road which was destined to end in a dead-end, climbing to the secret control at the top where we needed to answer Rosie’s simple question. The climbing was nothing more than 10%, but with some nice dips to keep the pace up. As we climbed the scenery was fascinating me, trees and bird-calls which were thoroughly unfamiliar. I felt like I was back in the USA, perhaps Florida, but the bird song was so utterly strange that it maintained my sense of dislocation. Vaughan slid slightly off the back of our group as we carried on climbing to the control, but we had no more than 30 seconds to wait at the top for him. With the question answered Vaughan, Nick, Hugh and I blasted our way back downhill, but of course it wasn't all downhill and we lost Vaughan with the continuous choppy hills. The climbs can’t have been more than 75m in height, but with the constant drop and climb, over and over again, it was becoming much harder for me to stay with Nick and Hugh. I think Nick was very much in control though because he eased the pace back to a steady one.

The landscape in the countryside just beyond Brisbane’s suburbs is quite dry. It wasn't barren by any means, there were trees galore and shrubs and wildlife everywhere; I just had a sense that this flora and fauna was as tough as nails, forcing a living out of the earth. I can’t imagine how hard this riding would be in 40oC+; as the sun started to climb in the sky my arms began to glisten with the effort to keep me cool.

We reached the ferry crossing of the Brisbane River, a cable winched affair. The ferry is free to cyclists, and things like this make for an entertaining interlude in a ride. We’d lost Vaughan but only long enough for us to board the ferry and take the obligatory selfies. As the ferry pulled away Vaughan came round the corner – we shouted for him to bunny-hop the gap!

We decided to wait on the far bank for Vaughan to join us, and in the meantime the troupe came back together so we rolled up hill away from the river en-mass. I tucked in at the back for a free ride.

Unfortunately, at the first significant junction there was a cyclist collision towards the front of the group. It is the sort of thing that happens easily enough when one person checks over their shoulder while the rider in front slows down: wheels touch. No one was hurt, but it was all Nick and I needed to choose to roll away off the front of the group again, with Hugh jumping across to us; we didn't plan to be far away or riding fast because in the heart of Ipswich, on Brisbane St, we stopped for the control at a café.

Coffee and cake were on the menu for me, a lovely piece of lemon meringue and a hot black coffee. We had a leisurely break, long enough for me to start shivering! It was great to be with everyone chatting and getting to know each other. There are some tough Audaxers in Australia, riding the PAP (Perth-Albany-Perth) and one gentleman (I think David) has ridden PBP (Paris-Brest-Paris) twice. Next year I hope to be at PBP and maybe some of my new friends will have made the journey from the southern hemisphere to be there too. I enjoyed the description of a four instruction route sheet for a 200km event; “Ride 50km, turn left: (x4).”

We set off again and navigated our way through Ipswich, which is a lot hillier than the original Ipswich town in the UK. We approached a signpost for the Centenary Highway (which joins Ipswich to Springfield) and I pointed to the others that cyclists seemed to be allowed on the motorway.  Nick explained this was because there was a promise to have a cycle path, but it had never materialised.  So the government had basically allowed cyclists to use the hard shoulder, which we duly did as our route was along this stretch.  This was great fun because the motorway is mainly for commuters, so on this Saturday mid-morning the road was quiet. Motorways have much longer gentle climbs, so with the tailwind and Nick pacing us, we flew along.

We returned back to Brisbane on a mixture of cycle paths and town roads, until the inevitable happened and even Australia’s excellent bicycle paths gave Nick a puncture – not long to fix though and we’d be rejoined by the second group on the road. More short tough climbs and a great cycle path alongside a M7 and M5 motorways brought us back over the Brisbane River.  We were nearly home!

Everyone rolled back into Rosie’s within half an hour of each other. A leg testing, choppy, 102km covered in 6 hours with a nice long café break. Events like this bring people together nicely and we stood on Rosie’s driveway for another half an hour chatting about everything audax related.

Thank you to Rosie for an excellent event; I understand this was the first time it has run and I would heartily recommend it to others, although perhaps without travelling half way round the world specifically… but definitely if you were going to Brisbane and wanted some lovely company and a dip into the culture beyond the tourist traps.

With the 15km each way making it 130km in total, I was back at the hotel on Brisbane’s South Bank by early afternoon.  I am also very grateful to Nick for looking after this foreigner in Australia.

I am pleased to recommend Bike Obsession in Brisbane. I have not been to the shop but have only dealt with them via email. Sharon was extremely helpful, the Bianchi was in great condition and a pleasure to ride, already set up to my measurements and needing only a minor tweak with a 5mm key to be perfect. Sharon delivered it to my hotel while I was still travelling so it was ready for my early Saturday start, and will be picking it up on Monday. I also got to go for an early ride on Sunday… more to follow… and I have been invited to join the shop ride at 6-7:30am on Monday morning: not sure about that though!

Tuesday, 8 July 2014

Finchale Priory Loop

These long dry warm summer evenings are a perfect for a post-work bicycle ride, so taking the tourer I set off for Finchale Priory (pronounced "Finkel").  The Priory is at the end of a very long metalled road with no escape at the end for motor-vehicles.  As I rode along I noticed lots of overgrown low buildings in the field next to me.

A quick bit of research found this forum discussion with more photographs and it seems that (according to Alan Turnbull of secret-bases) it is a derelict munitions dump, "It's laid out in the classic ordnance depot pattern and you can see the main train line running past to the west. Before the prison was built, the depot would have been connected into this line with a spur. Indeed, the land on which the prison was built would already have been owned by the Govt as it would have been all bought up during WWII." I found a layout on the OS mapping website, from my OS map it just looks like a housing estate by the road, no reason to suspect anything else.

At the end of the road is a touring caravan park, with barriers and a fee of £3 to escape, that is, for motorists.  Cyclists and pedestrians go free - yay.  There is a private road, but the entrance to the priory faces the river and there is a small English Heritage shop.  It is a bit late in the day to stop and look around the priory so I'll come back another time.

Behind the shop I found a wooden bridge crossing the River Wear and I believed there was a path which would lead up through Cocken Woods, to Cocken Rd, where I hoped to resume my cycling. I was also treated to a great view of Finchale Priory too.

Heading into Cocken Woods I was clear that this is a no-cycling area, and I can only assume that the bike tracks in the mud were from others pushing their bicycles too.  There are steps which you could carry your bike up, but a lovely little trail zig-zags its way to the top with only a 10 minute walk.  The surface wasn't conducive to 700x28 tyres.

I popped out onto Cocken Rd and followed the tarmac east towards Leamside and after a short road climb had wide open views back over the Wear valley to Newton Hall and Sacriston.  I crossed over the A1, and I've always felt there was something special about criss-crossing main arteries of this country.  I was also rewarded with a crossing of the East Coast Mainline too.  A little jig at the dual carriageway A690 and I was onto more quiet roads, although slightly wider and slightly busier, towards Pittington and eventually Sherburn.  I think there are national cycle routes around here and the roads are quiet enough.  At Sherburn I tried to find cycle route 14 into Durham and headed back out on cinder tracks into the open countryside again.  I passed under the East Coast Mainline now, through the small tunnel on Renny's Lane.  The lane was splattered with tiny bits of broken glass - one of the main reasons I prefer to cycle in traffic.  However the view of open countryside was worth the risk of a puncture.

This cycle path ended with a rather grubby looking bridge and I slunk out into the equally grubby side of an industrial estate and then took a right turn past a huge supermarket.  We don't call them hypermarkets, they get called "extra" or something... but hypermarket would be fairly honest - it just might not get planning permission.  And now I was into busy Durham traffic and slightly disappointed that the riverside path by the Wear into Durham has been closed - note to cycle tourists... Cycle Route 14 and Cycle Route 70 are closed at the moment:

However once I'd battled through early evening traffic I managed to snap this picture between rushing cars...  Durham is a beautiful city.

I enjoyed this sunny summer evening exploring Durham and I'm delighted to have taken the time to look at Finchale Priory and discover the abandoned munitions dump.  It is wonderful what you can find when you are moving slow enough.