Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Friend and Foe

I’ve got a set of those funny curly handlebars on my bicycle, you know the ones which were all the craze in the ‘70s, if you go back that far, but which very much fell from grace in the 80s and 90s. Well, they’re all about wind. Stand, or walk into the teeth of a gale and you hear it loud in your ears, it can slow you down or even blow you backwards. You walk huddled over, sheltering the best you can. If, in a moment of child like gay abandon, you poke your head through the open window of a moving car, it’s deafening, but liberating and fun; open your mouth and the wind takes your breath and pushes it back down your throat, your hair blows and you struggle to hold your head still against its strength.
On a bike, to a lesser extent, that’s what a cyclist is riding into, that’s why we have those curly bars, so we can get down low and present a far smaller target for the wind, which will find it harder to slow us down. 
Wind is the cyclist’s sworn enemy. 
An awful lot of cycling is about avoiding the wind; you thought all that tight clothing was some sort of truss, straining to hold back middle-aged spread but, whatever it reveals, it’s better than clothes flapping in the wind, slowing us down. If you’re thinking of buying a helmet, all the advertising blurb will boast the aerodynamic properties of each model. There are now aerodynamic frames, wheels, and even ‘aero-bars,’ not chocolate, but contraptions which let you get really narrow and really low to cheat that wind.

Aero Bar
Aero Bars
It’s not just the kit that’s aero. Less obviously, but more importantly, riding behind another rider will significantly reduce the wind resistance you experience, so you can keep up with the rider in front whilst using less energy than him. I’ve read vastly varying estimates of how much energy this really saves but, riding in the middle of a group probably saves about 30% of your effort, so the poor bloke on the front gasps away, as the wise ones sit in the middle of the group extolling the virtues of the cake at the next café stop.
So, that’s just the act of going along. What happens when the wind is blowing against you? That’s when it gets really tough. When cyclists’ chins are closest to the handlebars, when their legs burn, unspeakable fluids drip down their faces, hearts beat fastest and they suffer most. Good God, how I hate the wind. Groups of cyclists can mitigate the wind by using different formations, though those used for a headwind are the same for normal riding in a group, when each rider takes a turn out front in the wind, however short that turn might be. Side winds pose different problems as, if you are directly behind the front man, you’re still getting a mighty battering, so some other tactic is required. Here, the second rider will hide slightly behind and on the lee-side of the front, forming a diagonal arrowhead. In a large group this formation, called an echelon, will spread across the road in a massive colourful triangle, so is only seen in its glory during closed road races.

An echelon at work

When you’re out riding on your own though, there’s nothing to do but put up with the wind or, as they say in cycle racing circles, suffer. For suffering it is. The gusting wind will take your wheels and launch your heart into your mouth. Nervous knuckles grip white on the bars. A gap in a hedge can slow reasonable progress to near standstill in a trice. Teeth gritted, you try to relax and fight all at once, though there is nothing for it but grunting, sweating, swearing hard work. Buildings and trees conspire with it to batter you, channelling the mocking gale into your face when you least expect it.
Until the next junction, a change of direction and the blessed relief of a tail wind. Where all noise but your breath and the whoosh of tyres on the road, is gone. Where your bike computer informs you you're quicker and you find yourself clicking up, gear to gear, legs spinning faster. Now you’re flying. This is freedom for your soul; you’re at the head of the race with the others straining to catch you. Working hard still but speed is your reward, you fool yourself that it’s all your own work, but you don’t care if it’s not, for you’ve earned this. Those hours of groveling into the wind were all worth it. This is glorious, pure, unadulterated cycling heaven. 
The wind is now my friend. 

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

A Visit to the Optician

Age creeps up on all of us, that’s why many of us don't see it as important, even if it is. I've known for some time that I need new reading glasses, the old ones were so ineffective I needed longer and longer arms, so I took the plunge and, bored of slipping them onto my head or looking over the rims like a severe physics teacher, I decided on vari-focals.
Always up for a bargain, I tried on a good looking set of Oakleys in a shop, then set about finding them cheaper on the internet. Not long after receiving them I worked out that buying vari-focals, perhaps any glasses, on line is not a good idea, as when they came they were hard to see through and didn’t get any better. It felt like someone had poured sand into my eyes, perhaps they’d done it from so close I couldn’t see without glasses. I complained and, after some negotiation with the on-line opticians, I decided I would visit their shop so they could properly set the lenses and I could use the glasses.
England is not a large country and, living where I do, I can reach most places pretty quickly, especially on a motorbike. And what better way is there to get from Cambridge to Bolton, Lancashire in the middle of a British winter, than by bike. The sat nav said it’s only 136 miles, all I’d need was a few more layers of clothing than normal and I’d be fine. Of course, I hadn’t bothered fixing the bracket for the sat nav, so I knew I couldn’t use the mp3 player or hear voice prompts, but I’d decided not to take a particularly circuitous route, so that’d be OK, especially if I entertained myself with music on my iPhone, which has a Garmin app anyway. Sorted.
I set off on a still and very mild January morning, it was about 10 degrees as I joined the A14 and headed north onto the A1. I had my Modern Rock playlist banging away in my ears, so the likes of The Verve, Stereophonics and Radiohead were making the motorway more interesting. I know that selection isn’t that modern, but it could have been The Kinks, The Stones or ELO. Just as well I had something to keep boredom at bay as, so mundane was the route, I’d covered over 90 miles before I touched the brake lever and that was as I left the A1 to take the A57 junction for the cross-country bit of the journey. I by-passed Worksop and joined the M1, passing Sheffield, then turning off at junction 35a to take the A 616, heading into the Pennines. This was where mere  travel became experience and adventure.
I stopped for petrol then started heading up hill. Having ridden in the Alps, I realize that these hills are nothing in comparison to those mountains, but where there are hills there is scenery and there are bendy roads. The A618 crosses the Woodhead pass and is one of the major trans-Pennine routes, with traffic to match, that doesn’t make it a bad road, you just have to be ready for overtaking opportunities when they come. And they do. Like an Alpine pass, the temperature dropped the higher I rode and, as I crossed the highest point it was freezing. I could see my breath inside my helmet, though at least the visor didn’t steam up, thanks to a Fog City  insert. The cold was OK, I was well dressed, but the wind was something else; it felt like I was riding on a track cyclist’s disc wheels, acting like sails, they were being buffeted hard by the gale from the left, which made steering and staying on the selected line very difficult. Too close behind me, a black Range Rover I had overtaken before the summit, was obviously looking to overtake the same lorry I was, but was never able to take the opportunity I did, and I was off, the road now clear in front of me. I swept down the drab, brown valley, slate grey reservoirs, reflecting the dull sky, on my left, occasional trees overhanging the road, grey stone walls guarding the verge. The road is a good one if you can get past the dawdlers, like I did a drab coloured Renault Megane, and exploit its predicable, sweeping nature and even in winter the views are good enough to recommend it.
‘It’s grim up north’ goes the saying, and at that moment I couldn’t argue. The road was damp and, though the wind was dropping as I did, there was nothing green or pleasant in this little English valley. But still it was beautiful in a way only England can be: bleak, majestic, foreboding, heart-warming, it made me realize why I love my country. I also realized that England’s geography is what defines its cultures. The North, where the hard landscape was exploited for heavy industry contrasts with the softer scenery of the South and its more white collar outlook: both equally valid and both equally beautiful. 
One thing this part of northern England is known for is its rain, so it was no surprise when it started as I joined the M60 at Hyde it accompanied me until I was back on the other side of the Pennines. I rounded Manchester and found Bolton without incident, though without knowing I rode straight past the optician and shortly after even managed a foot-up U-turn, though the street was very wide. I parked in the rain and wandered about until I found the shop. I was dealt with brilliantly by Beena and the other optician whose name I didn’t get, though she could talk for England. I still say don’t buy vari-focals on line, but if you have more simple lenses you could do worse than buying from Vision Direct.

Before finding my bike and leaving, I had a coffee and a slice of cake in Café Nero, overlooked by a large statue of a grinning Fred Dibnah. Perhaps he knew the M62 had a 50mph limit most of the way back over the Pennines, or that it would rain on me all that way too. I would have gone that way even had I known about the rain, fog and speed restrictions as those conditions would undoubtedly have made the journey back over the Woodhead Pass more a chore than a joy and I wanted to get home before the children went to bed.  Though I can’t say it was the most exhilarating journey of my life, travel by motorcycle is inherently more involving and satisfying, thus more enjoyable than that in a car.
I’d intended, for some reason to take the M62 all the way to the A1, then head south, but after powering round the dry roundabout and accelerating hard onto the main carriageway, found myself on the M1. Never mind, though the sat nav was dead, I still knew what signs to follow. It wasn’t busy and maintaining a reasonable pace was easy enough. Forced into it by my earlier inattentiveness, I concluded the way I’d come was now the best way home, so I left the motorway at the A 57 junction, just as dusk was gathering. I stopped for petrol and had a chat with the cashier about riding motorbikes in the winter. At least I think that’s what she was talking about, as so often happens, my ear plugs, which she had no idea I was wearing meant that I cold only hear about every third word she said. In some people’s eyes motorcyclists are pariahs, so it was nice of her to pass the time of day.
There are some half entertaining bits on this stretch, and I had a bit of fun as there was no other traffic around until I reached Worksop, in the sign-post-desert that is Nottinghamshire. It wasn’t entirely the local Highway Authority’s fault that I got lost, but it is their fault I took a long time to find myself again. I did see a sign, but didn’t read it properly and found myself on a road which headed only to Mansfield. What signs there were gave no indication of where I was going other than there. According to the signs, there were no places between me and Mansfield and none after (though a look at the map over a glass of wine later revealed a place called Nottingham is just beyond.) Whilst I have been to Mansfield twice, both occasions were over 20 years ago and I had no idea where I was, so just carried on in the dark, hoping for some form of directional inspiration. It came in Mansfield Woodhouse (still no signs for Nottingham) in the form of a sign for Ollerton, which I knew was a small town signposted off the A1. That’ll do, I thought.
I’ve not had cause to ride a lot in the dark and I seemed to descend into a focussed state of dreamy, intense concentration, aware of everything but nothing superfluous to my passage. Everything was easy, nothing surprised me, I just rode on. I found myself on the edge of Ollerton and saw the first sign of the afternoon for the A1, though it also said Doncaster, I took it, heading north instead of south, but safe in the knowledge I’d know where I was soon. Shortly after I found the Worksop junction I should have been at some 30 minutes earlier and headed home.
The final 90 miles of the day were on the same roads as the first, they were neither more or less busy than before, but the journey bore no resemblance to the ride that morning. It was cold now, though I felt no discomfort as I glided through the darkness. In the lit areas I was caught, then was overtaken by my shadow a thousand times, in the dark I was alone with myself and the music accompanying me, never interrupting the flow, it was unheard when it needed to be, savoured when it could be. Concentration remained effortless, anticipating, looking at, round and through made all my actions easy and without error. I don’t know how long this part took, it was timeless, even spiritual. You see, on a motorbike any journey is an experience or an adventure, even going to the optician. 
As a friend said today: four wheels move the body, two wheels move the soul.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Motorbike Travels in The Alps - Part 3

Today was to have been the BIG day of our trip, with plans to negotiate four or five high mountain passes, a chunk of the Route des Grande Alpes, starting with the Cols de l'Iseran and Galibier, both well over 2500 metres. The doubt, sown when we opened our curtains that morning, was grudgingly realized as fact when we reached the top of the Lautaret, the bottom of the Galibier. Only 48 hours before we had ridden over here in the warm and dry, if not under sunshine and blue skies. Now we were in the clouds, with visibility poor and rain bouncing off the slick, shiny Tarmac car park. It was grim, no sign of the jaw-dropping Alpine views I love so much.

We had turned right onto the Galibier, but stopped and decided a chat and a coffee was in order, before I led the way between some of the drab grey stone buildings which litter the Lautaret, the purpose of most I have no clue. Mike followed, but failed to appear on the other side so, having parked outside the hotel, I waited in the deluge wondering if he had been swallowed up by the Alpine equivalent of the Bermuda Triangle. Eventually he emerged, having stopped to urinate against a wall like a dog, in the rain, as opposed to using the toilets in the dry and warm café. There’s no pleasing some people, you know.
We trudged into the deserted, darkened cafe, leaving puddles behind every footprint, stripped off our waterproofs and Mike ordered two coffees in his best French from a waitress who, it turned out, was from Dublin. Mike, whose wife’s family is from there, chatted about places they both knew, while I ruminated the feasibility of tackling the Galibier. After a hot chocolate, bought only to aid the process of procrastination, we decided not to bother; Alpine roads are fun but taxing riding and become hard work in bad weather, every mistake is slower and consequently more annoying and memorable; it would become a chore in that weather and that was not what we were there for.

Outside the café on the Lautaret looking towards Galibier
It was with a heavy heart that we left into the torrent and resigned ourselves to the most direct route back to Annecy. The rain accompanied our descent towards Grenoble, the only moments of note being Mike getting splashed by and nearly taken out by a homicidal (or suicidal) white van driver, then me stopping for the world’s longest pee in the same lay-by I had two years before. It was raining then too.
I hate leaving the Alps, I love the desolate passes, the peaks, both majestic and foreboding at once. On the Autoroute past Grenoble on a previous trip, I remember glancing across, seeing into a valley high in the mountains, slung from the peaks like a green hammock. I’d imagined a quiet secret place with stunning, life affirming views, wooden Alpine chalets, perhaps a brilliant road and a bar or café to view it all from. This time there was nothing to see, the clouds so low they obscured all but the nearest low, tree clad slopes. Even my imagination was thwarted by the grimness of the day.
Now on the motorway, I turned on the MP3 player in my sat nav and began singing along to the Killers. I noted how warm it now was when we stopped for petrol, accentuating the difference in temperature between 2000 and 200 metres above sea level. I was tapping away on my tank bag and singing when we arrived at the next péage. “Help me out. Yeah, you know you got to help me out. Don’t you put me on the back burner. Yeah, yo...” The music stopped mid flow, and so did I. Looking down the Garmin told me that I needed to connect it to a mounting, though it already was. Puzzled and slightly angry, I carried on regardless, what had just happened was to influence the rest of our journey.
I rode on silence now, though the Garmin continued silently indicating which turns I should take. It was telling me the right way, though, because I am stupid and belligerant, I thought I knew better. The Garmin instructed me to head towards Chambery. I, shunning its advice in an act of idiot petulance based upon the fact it had just failed on me, decided other wise. It was only when our slow-ish progress was reduced to virtually nothing by two cement mixers dripping their load onto us and the road into Aix-les-Bains, that I truly realized how stupid I was. The sat-nav carried on stoically giving me instructions until, as if exasperated by my stupidity, it gave up completely, leaving me with a blank screen and the task of navigating to the hotel in Annecy. It was a shame I ignored it as the roads were dry and we were sweating into waterproofs which were totally surplus to requirements and probably drawing puzzled glances from those who had not ventured into the mountains that day; “Zoze stoopeed Ingleesh, zjust coz it alvays rains in zaire countree...” The sat nav, I now realize had been trying desperately to send us along the D912, a good road I have ridden before, which would have taken us straight to the heart of Annecy.
By some miracle, however, we eventually found ourselves climbing off the bikes outside the Hotel des Alpes once again. Baggage in the hotel, we rode off to the underground car park where we secured the bikes and wandered back through the leafy square. Birds tweeted. Women walked. Men stared. The sun shone.
When wandering around any town with little to actually do, blokes tend to gravitate to one activity. Beer. We found ourselves sat outside a bar on the quayside in Annecy-le-Vieux. We sat with our beer, chatted and watched, astounded as, on the other side of the canal, some bloke set himself up as a sort of hideous life size yapping, snapping reindeer puppet thing. It was quite alarming. If he was hoping to attract passing tourists' cash, he failed dismally. Parents scurried away, carrying their terrified children, screaming with fear in their arms. Others just gave him a wide berth. He stood there under his black cloak, with this head thing on, performing to no-one for about 30 minutes before finally giving up the ghost and moving on.
Quayside in Annecy
I love Annecy, the old town is attractive and full of life, with bars and restaurants. It is built on the shores of the lake which provides stunning views of the mountains. I would recommend a visit to anyone. We wandered back up to the main street, found a table outside a restaurant, had more beer and I ate a very large and ridiculously expensive pizza. We decided not to stay for pudding but, as we were tired, headed back to the hotel, though couldn’t resist stopping at Antonio Caffé again for more beer and one of their sumptuous puddings. For a bad day, it had been quite good really.
I’ve ridden through the Jura Mountains a few times before but that Friday was probably the best route I’ve taken. We kept largely off the main roads which made for a bit of nadgery riding, but the roads were quiet, entertaining and rarely straight, despite what the map shows. In fact, I would go as far to say that this was probably the best day of the week, the mood was good and a feeling of well being accompanied us all day. And it didn’t rain. Indeed it was fine all the way to Beaune.
My day had started badly with another argument with an inanimate object. The paper napkin I had at breakfast had refused to stay on my lap and, as a means of punishing it, ignoring its mitigating plea that is was impossible to stay put on a lap consisting of leather trousers, I ripped it into very small pieces. It won’t do that again, I can tell you.
We set off from Annecy after a quick fiddle with the sat nav mounting on the tank of my bike. I couldn’t find any loose connections, so just carried on without the voice prompts, blissfully unaware that the unit was not being charged, so would fail soon.
Heading north-west out of town, we took the unexciting N508 up to Bellegarde-sur-Valserine, where we suffered a short-lived bout of geographical embarrassment, though we were soon back on track. Sadly, all these months on and, having deleted the files from my Garmin Connect account, I don’t know exactly which route we took, though I’m virtually certain we headed to Champfromier on the D991, before diverting onto a tiny road through a forest of the same name. Through Giron, we headed north on the D33 to St Claude. It was a great morning of reasonably gentle riding on narrow, completely traffic free roads. I’m pretty sure we didn’t see a car coming in the opposite direction for the whole ride. This is mountain country though and the journey to the Col de la Croix de la Sierra was all up hill before we descended steeply from a lofty 1049 metres. Distracted by the Garmin flashing ‘BATTERY LOW’ at me, I turned right at the junction with the D436, somewhat fortuitously, as the road was closed and a stop to check the map, revealed my folly.
Checking the map
We turned around and headed through St Claude where we stopped for petrol. Here something had to be done to ensure we stayed on track for the rest of the day. I am long sighted and have found over the years that I am unable to read a map stowed in a motorcycle tank bag, it’s just too close. Especially when trying to ride the motorcycle in question. Hence the need for the sat nav which has clear graphics and voice prompts. Most of the time anyway. Whilst eating a Snickers and gulping a bottle of water, I sat at a table about six feet from the petrol pumps and, reading glasses on, studied the map. Mike acquired some paper from the cashier and I wrote out a series of route cards, in big black letters, which would cover the rest of the day. The old ways are often the best and we didn’t take a wrong turn until we were back in the UK.
This stretch of the trip was brilliant. We headed west then south on the D436, a big wide road, with few cars and some bends to entertain, as long as you’re not riding too conservatively. At Dortan we turned right onto the D936 to be engulfed by the wonderful place that is rural France. It felt almost perfect and part of me wanted to start to stop and soak up the tranquility. But we has places to be and this, after all, was a motorcycling holiday, not an ornithology getaway. The road ran along eastern the shore of Lac de Coiselet, passing the dam until Thoirtette, where we turned right and right again onto the D109. This started off as a right pain, as it was scattered with loose gravel, making progress hazardous, at least at any speed. To make things worse, we suffered the ultimate ignominy, being overtaken by a Mum carrying her children in a drab coloured Renault Scenic. At the top of the hill though, the surface recovered and we opened the throttle. The bends flowed and turned, tight ones, open ones, blind ones, mostly perfect ones. Leaning one way, then the other, up and up, through forests on pale grey Tarmac, Madame Scenic was soon despatched and, for a while I felt like I could consistently ride a motorcycle at speed. It is glorious when you finally stop and cannot remember one little mistake, your heart pumps and feel like bursting with exhilaration.
Waiting at the bridge. Small man - big helmet
This continued to Arinthod, where we turned left on the D3. Road works scuppered the rhythm where a bridge was being rebuilt, so we dismounted and sat in the shade for about 15 minutes, watching a steel girder being lowered and the only driver getting frustrated. Had we not been held up for that time the idiot woman who pulled out on me at a junction would have been well behind us, luckily I had anticipated her being confused about the road layout, which was, to be fair, a little ambiguous, though I’m sure she didn’t even see me.
After a few more miles of twisty, turning, undulating roads we started the descent from St Julien to St Amour, dropping from 590 metres, down to about 200 metres over a distance of 8 miles. Knowing the route, it was obvious to me that these were to be the last few bends on mountain roads for this trip and, as if knowing this, the final escarpment provided a view fitting for such an occasion. Visibility was perfect and, in the far distance, I could just see the grey lumps of what must have been the Massif Centrale off to the south and west: to the north-west there was nothing but flatness. I managed to take all this in without stopping, but really wish I had found somewhere to appreciate it and maybe have taken some very poor photos, which would never have done it justice . The road didn’t disappoint either. Steep, it snaked its way down to the valley on good quality tarmac.
I always think there’s a difference when you return to normal elevations. You can feel the openness, perhaps the lowness. There is also a different atmosphere in the towns and on the roads, borne not only from the lack of hills, but it all seems that tiny bit more congested, more frantic, urban and modern, even in sleepy, rural France. Mountains have drama, but a tranquility and a maturity. I love the mountains. Which is why, as I sit locked in my house, with gales blowing outside, plans are already under way for another visit. Despite the rain, and my stated intention to not go back to the Alps because of the it, we’ll be back there this June.
As for the rest of this trip? Well, we meandered across to Maçon, where we joined the Autoroute and headed north to Beaune. For the second year running we stayed in the same room at Hostellerie de Bretonniere and drunk beer in our garden, we visited the same restaurant and ate the same things; for they are the rules. The next day we blasted up the Autoroute, 528 miles home, though we stopped at some services for a chat with Nigel, who was heading the other way to cycle the roads we’d ridden. Back in Cambridgeshire I was surprised when Mike rode straight past his junction, taking the long way home. Had he forgotten where he lived? More worrying, was he expecting to spend another night with me? Or was he was dreaming of the next adventure?