Hills and Valleys

Just spent a few days with the family in South Pembrokeshire in South Wales. We stayed at Little Kings Holiday Park from where I started out on a few rides around the area.

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A few observations from a cyclist perspective. There was a lot of us about. Each time I ventured out I saw at least a dozen or more other cyclists enjoying the roads and fine weather. Friendly people as well. Those that did not say hello or otherwise acknowledge me were in the minority. It was lovely. Even pedestrians were giving me a nod, a wave or a friendly greeting of one type another. I tacked on the wheel of one guy and rode a few miles with him taking it in turns to tow at the front. Really made it feel like a good place to spend some time.

The roads were on the whole very good quality in terms of the surface. Many of those that I rode on had been resurfaced either very recently or in the last year or two. Never experienced anything like it. There were a few that were badly rutted and potholed but to be fair these were proper back country roads used probably more by farm traffic than much else.

Hills and valleys were very much in preponderance. Every ride was characterised by the undulating contours of the environment.

Some ups and downs

Some ups and downs

None of the hills was so long as to make them tortuous and all were balanced out by sweeping downhill sections to pay back the effort put into the climbs. I loved it.

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The scenery was great. Much of Pembrokeshire is a designated natural park. The coast line is stunning with some of the best beaches I’ve ever seen in the UK. Easily matches up to anything I’ve encountered in Devon or Cornwall.

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 I mostly stuck to the countryside but passed through some towns and villages along the way. Saundersfoot and Tenby were both lovely.

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I have a bit of a penchant for urban decay and what with coming from Chatham with its naval dockyard history I felt compelled to visit Pembroke Dock. Like its counterpart in Chatham the Royal Navy ceased any substantive operations from there long ago. Although active warships were not based in Pembroke Dock after the 1940s, and formal dockyard work ceased in 1926, the base remained an official Naval Dockyard, and retained a Queen’s Harbour Master, until 2008. You’d never guess it though looking at the perimeter wall which was impressive in its stature and showed little sign of deterioration other than natural ageing.

There’s a couple of Martello Towers there to which I had to have a look at to compare with those which can be found closer to my home in Medway. They were fine specimens and had stood up to the passage of time better than those I was more familiar with.

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On my way out of Pembroke I passed by the Pembroke Castle which was an impressive looking edifice.

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I really enjoyed cycling around the area.  I have a feeling this will not be the last time I pedal about this part of the world. 

Set it right!

2014 - 1

Good morning is not just a word, its an action and a belief to live the entire day well. Morning is the time when you set the tone for the rest of the day. Set it right! ~ Fain Blake

Man of Kent 200km Audax

So this was the third organised Audax I was undertaking so far this year. Quite unintentionally each has been 50 miles further than the previous ride. Today was the the turn of the Man of Kent 200km. The ride set off from Golden Green near Tunbridge. Just a 40 minute drive from home with the bike sitting pretty on top of the roof. The sun was shining, the sky was blue. No noticeable breeze. It was a bit chilly but only when waiting around. Things were looking promising. The forecast was sunshine and showers.

A small village hall hosted the tea’s, coffees and biscuits and a place to collect and at the end of the day to return our brevit cards. I with the other riders milled around chatting as we topped up on hot fluids and biscuits, checking whatever needed to be checked and taking the opportunity for any last minute ablutions.

At the Golden Green Village Hall at the start of the Man of Kent 200km Audax

As the time came up to 8.00 am riders ambled out to their bikes and quite naturally a small cluster of us formed ready for the off. The two organiser’s went through some advisory points. We were reminded that course changes had been made due to poor road conditions in a couple of places and that these had been indicated on the route sheet. I had the sheet printed out but was as I usually am guided by the mapped route on my Garmin 200.

MOK 200KM Elevation Profile

MOK 200KM Elevation Profile

MOK 200km Route Map

MOK 200km Route Map

The first group of 20 or so of us set of at 0800 am. People quickly found a brisk group tempo and the leaders pace was set. The section to the first control was through the back lanes to Faversham from Tunbridge. I pursued the leading group keeping them within reach but staying far enough back to avoid taking on more than I could chew.

Although it was early days I was feeling very pleased with the tires I had recently put on the bike. Their rolling resistance is very low. 38mm but just 325g a piece. They’re clinchers but to me look like fat tubulars. Very comfortable to. And they look good! Compass Barlow Pass Extra Light (black sidewalls). I had been a devotee of Schwalbe Marathon Plus and Marathon Tour tires for a number of years. Puncture resistance second to none. When however I compare the road comfort and rolling resistance of the Marathons to the Compass tires it does make me think what have I been riding on all these years! I guess at least one answer to that will become clear when I get my first puncture.

As we approached a set of lights all the riders in this lead group bunched up bar one who made the green. A couple of riders recognized each other from ride last year and once the light turned green they were both off at quite a speed. The first notable hill was upon us very shortly after the lights. Now I happened to think I was a half decent hill climber what with all the bloody things around Medway and North Kent. Not today it seemed. As the front group dug in the distance between us slowly grew. The guy that had caught the lights was soon caught himself and as I followed up the rear I saw him slowly being chewed up and spat out by the speedstars in pursuit.

It was not yet over though. I got my head down and grinded up the hill.  By the time I reached the brow I could see that the others had slackened off a bit on a straight flat ahead to recover their energy. I was to either catch them now or settle down and ride at a more modest pace. Realistically I was not going to keep this speed it up for the whole 200km. It turned out that my mentality of spend it while you have it transfers to cycling as well; I picked up my pace and cut the lead there was between me and those in front. At the next junction left I caught them and together we cranked out the miles all the way to Faversham. I took the lead a few times to take my turn at the front and appreciated the opportunity to do some drafting when I could.

As we arrived in Faversham we descended down the Mall heading towards the station on the way to the first control at a Vicarage on Newton Road. Those at the front were not familiar with the area and took a wrong turn. It was one of those times when I could see the blunder but just followed anyway. They quickly realised and were turning back before any distance to correct themselves. I took advantage of an alley way that I knew was a shortcut to get back on track. I headed that way but no one followed me. That was cool though as I was now about half a minute ahead of everyone and closing in on the first control. These events are not races. I am clear about that. This was completely not in keeping with the spirit of Audax events but I was feeling a certain satisfaction about being the first rider to reach that stage!

Man of Kent 200km  | The first control at Faversham vicarage.

Man of Kent 200km | The first control at Faversham vicarage.

I was following the breadcrumb trail of my GPS and just keeping an eye out for a vicarage. Did not bother looking at the cue sheet. Not sure what I was expecting a vicarage to look like but nothing I passed measured up to that. After riding out of Faversham I stopped and turned. I had clearly ridden straight past the control and missed it. I headed back in order to have by brevit card rubber stamped. As I did I saw a group of four of the other riders who were leading the way riding there way out of Faversham. By the time I got to the vicinity of the vicarage a number of other riders had passed me going the opposite way all helpfully pointing out the checkpoint was. “back there”. My time at the front was over. Probably for the best really as the pace may well have killed me; if not on the day for the week after. 

I rolled my bike round to the back garden. By now there was a small queue lining up for hot drinks and bacon rolls which were all included in the modest £8.00 entry. Many of these rides cost less to enter. This was one of the more expensive I have done. I spent about ten minutes or so doing the necessary before wheeling the bike back out the garden against a stream of riders just arriving.

Back in the saddle and forward to the next control at Wingham which was just another 31km away. I rode out alone but after about six or seven miles caught up with another pair of riders peddling along at a reasonable pace. I hung on to their backwheels on and off for pretty much most of the way and every now and then taking my turn at the front. At one point I saw them go ahead whilst my Garmin told me to turn right. I called out to them that I was turning off and left them to decide whether to follow on or not. I followed the route up until arriving at a well and truly flooded road. This must have been one of the route change the organisers mentioned was on the cue sheet. The same cue sheet I had safely stashed in one of my pockets and never looked at once since leaving home that morning. All my faith was in the GPS trail I had on my Garmin. As it turned out the other two did turn and follow me and were soon like me scratching their heads and wondering whether to ride through the water or go round. It was not complicated. We just wheeled our bikes along the side of the field which the road passed by. Just a short stretch and nothing I’d have worried about mapping in a detour for.

Man of Kent 200km Audax: Detour ahead

Man of Kent 200km Audax: Detour ahead

We arrived in Wingham together where perhaps another dozen or so riders were already sorting themselves out with food and drink and getting the obligatory stamp in the brevit cards. I was feeling pretty fit. I had no worries about making time limits and was relaxed about the pace I was keeping. Stopped for around half an hour before setting of again. Next stop 56km away in New Romney with one information point on the way.

I set out from Wingham on my own again. The weather was holding out but the ground bore signs of the rain that had passed shortly before I did. There were ominous storm clouds rolling forward some distance ahead. I rode for at least 30km before seeing another rider ahead of me. That was at the information point where he called out the answer making it unnecessary for me to stop. Cheers for that! I rode with him for a very short distance before putting a minute or so between us. Over the next 20km this distance varied until we approached New Romney. The last few miles before the town was very open and flat and for the first time on this ride the wind became noticeable. It wasn’t bad but it was enough to knock the average speed down a few clicks. I clearly took this as a signal to ease up on the effort a bit as the rider I saw back at the information point was now right on my back wheel again until we both rode into the control at New Romney Station together.

This is a great spot for a control. The station is on the Romney, Hythe and Dymchurch miniature railway line. Though I have visited before as a child and with my own children I still enjoy spending time around the station to see the little steam engines chuffing in pulling there open wooden carriages. I should I have take a picture here I know. What can I say! I filled up in good style here. I polished off a Cornish pasty with a plate of chips and beans. I washed that down with a bottle of coke. Feeling pretty satiated on the food front I stepped out to get back on the road. On walking back to my bike I was pleased by the sight of several other riders eyeing up my tires and making approving noises about their width and tread. None of them had heard of Compass tires. Not really that surprised given that they are American imports and the Barlow Pass had only very recently been released.

Looking for the way out I rolled my bike through a side gate and once again found myself riding off on my own. I was soon caught up though by the group of half dozen or so riders that I was speaking with about the tires. They all rode more regular randonneuring bikes than my mudguard free fat tired cross bike. They certainly looked more the part in their cycling specific get up than I did in my 3/4 length trousers and Aldi soft shell. That all turned out to be inconsequential though as I maintained my pace with them for the next eight or nine miles before they all slowed down at a junction and I continued on ahead at the same pace. The stretch from New Romney to the next control at Headcorn was 36km. On the way the weather finally turned as it had been threatening to do since Wingham. A cold front swept in and before long hailstones were bouncing off the road and stinging my eyes and face. I was not dressed for this but carried on riding through it. I got fairly wet but nothing that was not dried by the time I arrived in Headcorn. It was cold though and my hands and feet were feeling it more than I had experienced for a long time.

A couple of the other riders had caught up with me shortly before getting to the control which was of the unmanned variety i.e. a garage. A receipt of purchase was all the proof required of passing the point. Chocolate milk duly purchased and consumed and you guessed it off I go again leaving the others to catch up in their own time. It’s not that I am particularly anti social but I do like to ride at my own pace and find the longer I stop the harder I find at this point to get going again. We had ridden 161km and there was the final 47km to go before arriving back at the village hall in Golden Green.

I rode the next 40km on my own. I was a bit surprised no one caught up with me. I figured there was not much at the garage that would incite anyone to prolong their stay there. It was not until I was within the final 10k riding happily along that I saw the group again but coming in from another direction. I then realised that the barriers and road closed signs I had carefreely pedalled past about twenty km ago should have in fact been my reminder to check the cue sheet. Another detour I missed by sticking to the original route. No wonder I never saw anyone! Still it was nice riding along with the others for the final few miles to the end. It was when we were on the road approaching Golden Green Village Hall that I discovered why perhaps it was called Golden Green. It was just coming up to 5pm and the sun was coming down. As it did the area was lit by the low cast of the sun and everything did indeed look golden. It was lovely. If you happened to view a property in the area at this time you’d have been sold. I know I would have been.

So I got back to the start and had my brevit card checked over before giving it up for validation by Audax UK. I took the opportunity to make the most of the baked potato covered in cheese and beans that was on offer followed up by a couple of cups of coffee and a chat with a few other finishers. I have since found out that the riders I started out with finished at just after 4pm. Nearly an hour and a half before I did. I read that they hardly stopped at all. I am glad I did. I think it would have turned what was an enjoyable ride into a challenging ordeal. Time and a place for everything but for me, not today. My total cycling time was 8hrs 11mins. Total elapsed time was 9hrs 50mins. I’m pretty pleased with that. Next month it’s the 300km Oasts and Coasts!

The North Yorkshire Moors on a bike at night.

The first of two rides I did while staying in Pickering in North Yorkshire for two nights in January.

I’d travelled all day on the train from Chatham to Pickering. Passed through St Pancras, Kings Cross and York. All magnificent stations. Met an American called Mike on the platform at York. He enjoyed cycling and we made easy conversation until our train arrived. We bid farewell as I went to the guards carriage to stow my bike. “No room for you. Already three bikes in here”, I’m told. I produced my ticket and cycle space reservation. “Not your train. This one’s going to Edinburgh. Your train is delayed. Next one along”. I thanked him for compensating for my inattentiveness to announcements and returned to the platform. I wondered whether Mike would notice before the train pulled out. Standing alone on the platform as it did told me that he hadn’t.

The train from York to Morton sounded like an old bus. The journey was slow and uneventful. Once at Morton I plugged in the saved GPS route from the station to the cottage in Pickering. A quick eight miles in pretty much a straight line. The ride was easy with a gentle tail wind and a steady drop in elevation most of the way. Barry met me at the cottage. Polite small talk and hand over of keys and I was on my own. I quickly changed into my cycling clothes and was out the door within fifteen minutes and off on my first ride over the North Yorkshire Moors. It was nearly 4pm and mid January.

I followed the A169 Whitby Road out of Pickering heading for Sleights. Daylight was receding quickly. The A169 is a fast road across the moors for motorised vehicles. It was not busy though and cars gave themselves lots of distance when they passed. There where a few gentle climbs to the first potential vista looking over the moors at Saltergate Point. Probably only five or six miles from Pickering. I reached there at dusk. It was at this point I properly articulated to myself that I was riding across the North Yorkshire Moors at night. In January. The light from the moon and stars was defused by an amorphous blanket of cloud cover. I was not going to see a lot.

The road took me round an unexpected downhill hair pin. I allowed the momentum to carry and whoosh me along as I clicked my gears up and down into the highest front back ratio. The road surface was smooth and my tyres were humming. Looking into the distance I could see the road winding out ahead. I placed myself in the horizon and imagined the journey I was to have in reaching their. I zoomed past an abandoned inn. The imagery and dialogue of the film American Werewolf in London popped into my head as it did. It could be the Slaughtered Lamb I thought and I the misguided trekker out on the moors alone at night…

Shaking the thought quickly from my head I scanned around and soon caught sight of lights up high in the distance. As the road wound on I could see these lights were atop what looked like a large hillock. Getting closer it was clear that this was a man made structure.It was an aviation installation at the nearby RAF Fylingdales. I later learned that the building housed radar and other communication systems. I had imagined it was a massive blast shield!

A few miles on and the undulations in the road became more pronounced. I was now assisted by a vigorous tail wind. I was speeding down into the dips and being pushed back up the other side by the prevailing conditions. I hit just under forty miles per hour going down into one dip. The gratification marred only by the knowledge that I’ll be heading back at some point. The up and downs transformed into a sweeping plunge at Blue Banks just before Sleights. Like most cyclists I enjoy a speedy downhill rampage. On this occasion though with the dark, the unfamiliarity of the road and the severe bends and drops I rode cautiously and with brakes applied. One car passed by me very fast braking with their gears as they approached a tight turn. I was expecting it to ram into the back of a slower vehicle. It did not. Very soon after this the Garmin began to chirp and chirrup telling me that I had missed my turn. Bit disappointed. Did I have to ride back up that hill!  I’d not noticed any turns on the descent.

The A169 was wide and for the seventeen miles I followed it, out in the open. Traffic was fast. The surface was reasonable. Good in places. Not a great road to ride along though. Not one that I’d choose again giving myself more time. During the day time I’m sure I would find it quite monotonous.

Turned out the Garmin was a bit previous in it’s navigational bleeps. The turn was found a short distance on. The road now took me over the top of the moors to Danby and Castleton. The route suddenly took on a whole new character. Trees and hills reduced the ambient light. Arable farmland and the occasional small village had replaced the moors. Twists and turns took over from the long straight tracks of the A169; short, sharp uphill climbs from the unfurling contours of the fast asphalt. I noticed one or two curtains twitching as I rode past isolated rows of cottages. I imagined what the observer might have thought. As the observer my endeavours amused me. I enjoyed the ride. It was dark and I was the only one on the road for much of the time. I broke into song on a few occasions simply for the thrill of being able to do so with no inhibitions taken on for the benefit of onlookers. Existential musings on singularity, the context of the universe, and the paradox of the way our smallness and significance coexist.

There was one hill on route to Castleton that got me up and breathing the Graeme Obree way. I often use this technique when feeling challenged and have found that it works very well for me. I notice I do not get out of breath at all breathing this way. I also find it’s very good for keeping going when feeling fatigued. It’s a three-phase technique. It’s based on the benefit gained by clearing your lungs of “bad air” to make room for more “good” air and thus positively increase the oxygen transfer to the blood. Two normalish breaths in, short, sharp exhales after each followed by a deep breath in and a long deep exhalation. Focussing on the breathing pattern and the methodical grind of climbing lends itself as a vehicle to entering a meditative state.

The winding meander across the top of the moors came to an end at Castleton. Roadside buildings and houses started to get fewer and the verges began to take on that unmistakable ragged rural edge not seen in residential areas. One minute I felt protected from the wind by the narrow roads, hillocks and houses, roads illuminated by street lamps and houses. Smokers standing outside pubs having  a drag, the local food shop casting it’s light across the dull grey pavements, metal shopping baskets staked neatly by the door. The next I’m cycling into an unremitting head wind on a desolate road heading out along a dark and bleak trail. I passed the obligatory outpost of terraced cottages on the edges of the town before the moors rose again. It was a rude introduction.

The next thirteen miles were tortuous. The road I took was on a ridge. The wind that sped me along on the way out now blew in towards me from the south-east. Howling around my ears. Snot blowing from my nose I hitched my neck buff up pulled the peak of my hat down and dug in. Grinding it out breathing the Graham Obree way. The pace was very slow. With my gaze fixed on the short distance ahead illuminated by my front torch and no artificial lights the ride became a meditation. Every now and again I saw a build up of snow and ice. The temperature on the moors varied a lot. Probably saw no more than two dozen cars the entire stretch. Passed by The Lion pub about half way. There were a good few punters cars parked. No idea how places like that stay in business stuck out in the middle of nowhere. Few do I guess. This road went on and on. I was surprised when I checked the distance. It felt a lot further than thirteen miles. It did of course end. The emptiness of the moors was gradually interspersed by residential properties and tree lined roads once more.

Turning left on the homeward leg brought about a sudden cessation to the wind whistling in my ears. The abruptness of the change was notable. A welcome respite. It did not last long but when it did pick up again it was for short and intermittent bursts as my route weaved a path through the fields and villages back to Pickering. I arrived at the cottage in Pickering just before 8pm. Rain had started to fall. I felt pleased to have the miles in. Fours hours to cover fifty two miles. 4,100 feet elevation. Average speed just 12.4 mph. Normally cover a similar distance at between 14 – 16 mph. It felt like I had worked hard. This had not been an easy ride. It was a bit odd thinking about the miles I had ridden but not actually having seen the moors. I imagine it all looks quite different in the day!