Sunday, 24 August 2014

No unnecessary hills

I asked Dean to join me for a ride around the Pennines on this last public holiday in August, and we were treated to a marvellous display of purple heather stretching as far as the eye can see. Dean said it reminded him of Zane Grey's "Riders of the Purple Sage". To be fair though, apart from the words 'purple' and 'riders'; our bicycle ride bore no further resemblance to Zane's book.  We certainly were not battling to overcome persecution by members of a polygamous Mormon fundamentalist church.  It didn't rain while we were out, so Purple Rain wasn't going to be appropriate either.  As this is my journal, I'm sticking with my own ride title "no unnecessary hills", because this had been the big surprise of the day for me.

Bishop Auckland provided a location equidistant from Dean in Darlington and myself in Durham.  The A167 was totally quiet and an easy route down through Tudhoe.  There was a brief climb to Kirk Merrington and as I reached the open countryside I was treated to a view back to the coast at Teesmouth because the whole of the Tees valley had opened up before me.  That was to the east though, with flatter lands than I wanted to ride.  I turned west towards Bishop Auckland the the Pennine hills in the distance.  Dean and I met up at the Wetherspoon's in Bishop Auckland for a 69p cup of filter coffee at 10am, with the sun shining bright and clear in the blue skies above us.

Our route plan for the day was simple; I wanted to ride both Bollihope Common and Crawleyside back to back.  They are fairly big climbs and it forms a lovely circular from Durham, this allowed us to ride up the Tees valley to Middleton-in-Teesdale, then tackle the climb over the isolated Bollihope Common to Stanhope, immediately followed by the Crawleyside climb which will be fondly remembered by anyone who has done the Sustrans C2C route.  From there it would be "all downhill" to Durham and hopefully back in time for the beer festival.

As we left Bishop Auckland we rode out through High Etherley and down to one of two gatehouses for Witton Castle, this one in Fearon's Wood on Sloshes Lane.  The road running downhill to the gate is dead straight and it almost feels as though we were riding down a driveway with a portcullis ahead of us.  Turning west there, we weaved our way along the flatest route through this countryside that I'm aware of.  We reached Woodland and kept going straight on with the B6282.  As we emerged into the open we were surrounded by beautiful purple heather as far as the eye could see.

The air was crystal clear giving us unimpeded views of the valleys and hills around us, and just before Eggleston, while still on the top of the ridge, we stopped.  We were awestruck by the view of Cross Fell and Great Dunn Fell, the two highest points of the Pennine hills.

The spine of England stretching away before us.  We stopped and soaked up the views of the Tees Valley and the stunning beauty of England.

In Middleton-in-Teesdale we stopped for some lunch.  There was a quaint little cafe where we bought good quality coffee and deep-filled cheese toasties.

As soon as we left Middleton-in-Teesdale we started the long climb over Bollihope Common.  It wasn't particularly difficult but was merely a gently rising slope that went on for a long time.  Ahead of us was another cyclist and Dean set off to chase him, while I made a mangled mess of a gear change and dropped to the side of the road.  Looking back down from Bollihope into Teesdale there was still a mass of purple heather everywhere.

The road over Bollihope has two major climbs, the first from Teesdale, and the second from the little stream called Bollihope Burn.  It is well named, because whichever route I've chosen from this stream I have felt a burning sensation in my thighs.  We took the turn towards Frosterly because the descent is much more fun.  The shorter route to Stanhope has a steep drop which has to be taken on the brakes, whereas the longer route, through Frosterly blesses the rider with a long mainly straight road which can be enjoyed at speed.  I certainly enjoyed it, at least until my wheel rims heated up so much my front brakes started to squeal with pain.

We stopped in Stanhope to grab more drinks, and refill our water bottles before taking on the much harder climb of Crawleyside.  I had hoped to see plenty of other cyclists this Bank Holiday weekend, but most of them will have ridden through in the morning from Nenthead or Allenheads.  This was probably just as well, because by the look of me I was really suffering.  I don't remember suffering as much as I look like in this picture, but I really look bad!  I don't look anything like the composed smooth cyclists which can be found on the cover of glossy magazines riding nonchalantly up the Alpes.

Given that climbing in the Alpes takes hours, and Crawleyside no more than 20 minutes, I had to remind myself that all the moaning my legs were doing was nonsense.  I quoted Jens to them, shut up legs.  Shut up they did, and then their reward was a 9km breeze downhill, and after a short climb another 7km downhill to Lanchester.  From the top of the moors we realised that we could see the Cheviots to the north, the North Yorkshire Moors to the south, the sea to the east and we'd already seen Cross Fell... our views over almost the whole of the Northeast of England from one short ride.  The air quality had been excellent!

As we approached Durham we spied a little pub and called in for a freshener.  It is perhaps the psychological effect of a long stretch of downhill, but overall I felt the route had been predominantly flat.  I think that we had the easiest run out to Middleton-in-Teesdale and apart from Bollihope and Crawleyside, it had been all downhill from there.  Wonderful really; I might plan this as a flatish 100km Brevet Populair.  At least I ought to let people know that there will be no unnecessary hills.

Tuesday, 12 August 2014

Moomintroll rides to Naantali

According to an online “what type of Moomin are you?” test, I fall into the category “Moomintroll”.

Ritva and Jan have kindly lent me their Tunturi Retki Super again and after work I'm getting some exercise instead of visiting Denis pizza. Denis pizza is a wonderful place to eat, but it is not improving my climbing ability. I might be more aerodynamic after a trip to Denis though; to quote Captain Beefheart, “A squid eating dough in a polyethylene bag is fast and bulbous.” Now there is a mental image that will take some brain floss to clear out. Diet time.

Setting off from the Radisson Blu in Turku I immediately head the wrong way along the riverside, and hear the distress call of the baby garmin looking for its route. Turning north and west I head out of town on the cycle paths. Back home I detest cycle paths; they are not designed for cyclists they are designed for motorists so as to keep traffic moving unimpeded. In the UK, whenever a cycle path and a road cross, the motorist has right of way. For this reason I find it more pleasant to ride as part of the traffic. Also UK cycle paths are usually full of broken glass – our society just doesn't care for itself any more. In Finland the situation is totally different. It is true that they have some more space, but they also care about each other, they care about doing the right thing. So cyclists on cycle paths have right of way at junctions; motorists turning into a street stop to look for pedestrians and cyclists. Also the paths are wide and clean; it is like having a totally separate road network dedicated to vulnerable travellers. It is wonderful to use cycle paths in Finland.

Although I had planned out a route and uploaded it to the little navigation device, I found that the sign posts were clear and unambiguous. At every junction I knew I was heading the right way to Naantali, which was reassuring. RidewithGPS had also plotted a route which automatically took the cycle paths too. It is lovely when systems work without a problem.

The evening was warm, bright and a slight breeze from the north west kept me cool as I rode. There were plenty of others out too, cycling, walking and even using inline skates and walking poles to mimic the action of cross-country skiing.

This vintage Tunturi needs some loving, it is a classic bicycle but the rear brake cable has snapped and the local bicycle shop wasn't interested in helping me resolve the problem.  Ritva knows I enjoy riding this bicycle and I'm not phased by being restricted to a front brake only.  If its good enough for Carl Fogarty, its good enough for me.  Learning to use friction shifters only takes a few kilometres and finding the right amount of movement to accurately shift gear starts to become instinctive.  The only challenge presented is an unexpected sharp climb, the sort you find just round the corner when pootling along in a world of your own.  To quote the 70's band, 'The down-tube shifters'.... "If you can't be with the gear you love, love the gear you're with."

The route I'd auto-generated took me past arable crops and through silver birch woods, the mainly flat Finnish countryside rolled by while I snapped away with my camera.  I was besotted with the silver birch copses surrounding me.  In Finland there is a profitable line of forestry, with a lot of families working the land for their long term investment in timber.

I found a nice wooded area to take a glamour-shot of the Tunturi.  I think this is a really beautiful bicycle, not just because of the simplicity of the mechanics or the thin steel frame, but because of how quickly it accelerates and how smooth the frame is over the lightly gravelled cycle paths.  I don't know whether this was a racing bicycle in the past, but I was happy to take it up to 45kph on the flat.

I did get lost once or twice, despite the chirps of the little navigation device and the excellent signposts.  There were two reasons for this, firstly, as a gentleman of the world, I clearly know exactly where I'm going and don't need blatant sign-postage and contrary bleeping devices to contradict me.  Secondly, I was totally absorbed in my surroundings and absent minded about direction of travel.  So once or twice I found the breadcrumb trail on the little device heading off the screen while I assumed the road would eventually work out where I wanted to be and get with the program.  On one such occasion I ended up at the Neste compound gates.  Isn't it lovely that in Finland there are cycle paths direct to oil refineries.  Reminds me of the path alongside the A174 to Wilton. Having said that, the only way to continue, other than pretend to work in the refinery, was to follow a twisty country road slightly downhill and back to the garmin's breadcrumb trail.

As I arrived in Naantali itself I passed through the high-tech science park area with its serious looking buildings, before connecting with a gravelled shared-use route.  I could see water through the trees and suddenly found myself at a little beach near the Naantalin Spa Hotel and Resort.

Just round the corner my Moomintroll adventure brought me to the Moomin Island.  I have noticed that when asking a stranger to take your picture it isn't always possible to ensure the quality of the picture they return to you.  Sometimes black and white editing is the only way to go!

As I had not paid the 25 euro entry fee, this little Moomintroll was stopped at the gates by a smiling ninja dressed as an innocent young park attendant.  It was pretty impressive how she managed, with one eyebrow, to disable my attempt to enter the park and make my home among my fellow Moomins.  Ninja skillz.  Notice how she blends into the background ready to strike.  A right little feminine Chuck Norris.  I bravely ran away.

Naantali is a pleasant coastal resort, with a pleasant shopping area of consistently designed buildings, I'm sure it isn't as fake as the famous street of Bergen where you see a beautiful row of wooden houses with the surroundings conveniently cropped out.

Indeed Naantali is a lot more consistent and actually beautiful compared to Bergen.

I toyed with the idea of stopping for an evening meal, but the forecast of rain at night, and the inconvenient truth of lycra and a Moomintroll physique helped me make up my mind to simply return to Turku the way I had come.

I enjoyed this gentle 40km round trip form Turku to Naantali and back, and if I'd been wearing more socially acceptable clothing I might have even enjoyed a good meal at one of the restaurants.   As it was I arrived back in Turku at about 8pm, passing Mikaelinkirkko before rolling up at the Radisson again.


Thursday, 7 August 2014

Ohio / Erie Trail; Rail and River

I have been fortunate to have spent time working in Akron (Ohio) on several occasions. I have some wonderful colleagues (who are more like friends), so I get to enjoy the odd BBQ in the back garden. We watched fireflies drift past like the dying embers of a nearby bonfire. I saw a ground-hog too.

I have hired bikes from several places, including hiring a road bike from Eddy’s and spending a whole Saturday riding around the Cuyahoga National Park. However, on this journey I only had one evening to myself, the last night before returning to the UK. I drove over to Centruy Cycles in Peninsula on the Ohio / Erie Trail, where I knew I could rent a ‘comfort/hybrid’ bike for $9/hr.

The Ohio / Erie Canal (or Portage) Towpath Trail is a safe and flat path through the Cuyahoga Valley National Park according to the advertising bumf.  To quote their own website (which is in the US version of the English language):

The Ohio to Erie Trail spans the state of Ohio from Cincinnati to Cleveland following lands formerly owned by railroads and canals. When complete, this trail will connect four of Ohio's metropolitan cities, a dozen large towns and numerous small villages - all done on easily accessible, paved trails, that are completely separated from highways and automobiles.  Along the way, the trail passes through rural areas, farmlands, nature preserves, and regional parks giving the adventurous a hearty helping of nature's finest. At the metropolitan perimeter, meadows and woods give way to exciting urban centers, affording the traveller a contemporary taste of Ohio's culture and arts.  Bicyclists, hikers, equestrians, and other groups such as bird watchers, cross-country skiers, and nature lovers have the opportunity to explore the natural beauty of Ohio as the trail weaves its way across the state.

It was five in the evening and the sun was still shining brightly as I picked up the bike and took to the trail. I chose to cycle south first, towards Akron.  I knew that in jeans and a t-shirt on a warm evening like this, on this sort of bicycle, I wasn't going to get far. So instead I settled into the grin of a simpleton; simply taking the time to enjoy the dappled sunlight playing through the forest leaves onto the track. At first the path follows the river, but shortly leaves and spends more time next to the rail-road tracks.

Intermittently there are broken and dry remains of locks from the old canal. Each lock is numbered and has a short storyboard giving more details. They are impressive, huge dried stone structures, and potentially hazardous for those tempted to get too close to the edge.

On this beautiful evening I was surrounded by runners and cyclists. I made sure to slow right down and give a gentle ring of the bicycle bell so as not to startle any of the pedestrians; a fast moving cyclist can really make a runner jump by passing too close or too fast.  Spaced out along the trail are ‘Trail Head’ points, these are car parks with toilet facilities, perfect for anyone local who wants to load their bikes on the back of the pick-up truck and drive down to the path for a lazy Sunday afternoon with the family. In Peninsula, where Century Cycles are based, there are plenty of low key pleasant looking restaurants and bars. Basing a ride around a lunch stop there would be a nice idea.

As I had been cycling for 45 minutes I came close to a section of rail-road with no barriers (or forest) between us just as I heard a whistle behind me; stopping and grabbing my camera quickly I caught an image of this massive locomotive trundling past me.  The driver waved to me and I returned the greeting. I think there is some form of bike ‘n’ ride scheme which uses this service. The train, seen from below the level of the track was huge, the weight of the engineering which goes into moving this around staggers belief. And the locomotive engine itself is so evocative of American culture; totally different to the historical British designs and the Victorian culture we are used to at home: this train oozed ‘wild west’!

I turned and headed back the way I’d come, the trail is an out-and-back affair so there is no need to rush, it was just a matter of finding a place that felt like a turn point, so the trail-head car park I’d reached was good enough for me. I retraced my tyre tracks and then kept going; in the other direction to see what the route had to offer heading north.  North bound from Peninsula, the Ohio/Erie Trail follows the river and dried canal path more closely. Again the dappled sunlight was on my path but also, shining in my eyes was a glittering sunlight off the fast flowing river surface.

The Cuyahoga river has eroded a deep sided valley, and in places has cut vertically through the rock. The river bank is kept in repair to stop the Cuyahoga bursting through and flooding the wrong routes, as the canal itself is in ruins.

There are sections of board-walk too – these are about 50cm above the lily ponds. Bright lilies and purple flowers, reeds and birds teemed around the paths creating a meandering wooden path above the nature park.

It wasn't too far to the Tourist Park and Visitor Centre, which was closed. Given it was now 6:30pm on a Thursday evening I'm not surprised it was closed.  I have been here on a Saturday to find delicious ice-cream on sale and plenty of shaded benches to sit and enjoy the refreshment.

I have enjoyed all my cycling in Ohio. I find the motorists careful and considerate. Traffic is moving no more than 45 mph and drivers like to give cyclists plenty of room on these quiet back roads. As I drove back to my hotel, to pack for the journey back the UK, I saw several ABC (Akron Bicycle Club) members out soaking up the last of the cooler evening sunshine. Everyone was smiling.

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!