Monthly Archives: December 2011

On Going A Bike Ride

“One of the pleasantest things in the world is going a journey; but I like to go by myself. I can enjoy society in a room; but out of doors, nature is company enough for me. I am then never less alone than when alone…” So begins my favourite of William Hazlitt’s essays,On Going A Journey, which I re-read yet again the other day, on a rainy, blustery afternoon while sprawled in an armchair beside the Christmas tree, as you do this time of year.

Just substitute the words “Bike Ride’ for ‘Journey’ and you have my sentiments exactly. By nature I am fairly gregarious and outgoing, and generally interested in the stories and foibles of others – it’s all part and parcel of being a journalist and travel writer as I have been these many years, and a guest lecturer and guide on cruise ships as I have been off and on in the past.

But this broad sociability of mine, such as it is, has never extended to my cycling persona. Once in the saddle a kind of stretching-cat selfishness comes over me; I want nothing more than to be left alone, in perfect curmudgeonly freedom to think my own thoughts, go at my own pace, ride where and when and how I please, changing my mind as often as I like, on a whim and at the spur of the moment. I love the sense of captaincy that comes over me, when I grip the handlebars and push off down the street, setting my own course and speed and bearing without reference to anyone else.

My hours in the saddle are special, mine and mine alone. I do not feel the need to comment on the scenery or share my thoughts aloud, let alone draft (or be drafted by) another to help me (or them!) maintain speed and cadence, and conserve energy. If given a choice between staying home or riding with a club or in a pace line, I would just as soon stay home. Then, when all was quiet, and the coast was clear, sneak out on my own.

Pillars of the Community

Victorian postbox - Bexhill seafront

One of the many things I love about cycling through the English countryside is the breezy familiarity you acquire here with antiquity and tradition. By that I don’t mean just the big-ticket items, the ruined castles, Norman churches and picturesque 15th century pubs, all of which by the way I see all the time on my daily jaunts, but all the little, common everyday things. Take for example those classic old Royal Mail pillar boxes.

They are so ubiquitous, so much a part of the accepted scenery, that you hardly notice them, a dash of scarlet on a curbside or at a rural crossroads, hidden in plain view. But when you look more closely you discover that some of these post boxes are old enough, antique enough if you will, to be museum pieces – or at least they would be anywhere else.

Britain, as every stamp collector knows, is where postage stamps got their start, beginning with the Penny Black, bearing Queen Victoria’s likeness, back in 1840. In those days anyone wanting to post a letter was obliged to take it to a post office, or to a tavern or shipping office nominated for the purpose, and leave it to be sent on by the next available ship or contrivance.

While this worked passably well on mainland Britain, the people on the Channel Islands – Jersey and Guernsey – where the mail packets called in at irregular intervals were poorly served. And so in 1852 the postal authorities dispatched a young Anthony Trollope – later the famous Victorian novelist, but then a mere postal inspector – to Jersey so see what they could do to make things work better. He came up with the idea, or rather, he borrowed an idea from the French, of a cast iron pillar box where letters could be left for collection. The first one was set up in Jersey that year. More followed, in Jersey and in Guernsey, and soon on the mainland itself, as the idea caught on.

Then as now, every Royal Mail post box bears the Royal Cipher – the Latin initials of the reigning monarch at the time that particular post box was set up. Then, of course it was VR for Victoria Regina – Queen Victoria. These days it is ER II for Queen Elizabeth II. Given that she has reigned for nearly sixty years now – she’s celebrating her diamond jubilee next June – it’s no great surprise to find that most post boxes you see these days bear her cipher. Most, that is, but by no means all. You still see plenty of old cast iron boxes with her father’s cipher – a curvaceous G.R. enclosing a tiny Roman numeral VI, for King George VI.

There is nothing like cycling for bringing to life the details of a landscape and as you start riding more and looking around more you discover there are also still quite a few King George V ones too, his monogram being a simple unadorned G.R. These are pretty old mailboxes we are talking about here, bearing in mind that he died in 1935 and so all of those bearing his cipher must be at least 76 years old.

But this is Britain, where history never dies or even seems to be put on the shelf and out of the way. Just up the road from us, casual as you please, is a pillar box adorned with a copperplate E.R., not Elizabeth this time for the intertwined letters there enclose a Roman numeral VII – making this one a true Edwardian relic and at the very least a century old. It’s far from being the only one around. I pass another Edwardian one every morning as a spin along the seafront, past Warrior Square Gardens, and on mornings when I ride up into the weald I ride past yet another, beside an old pub on a tiny rural lane in a village called Wartling.

Victorian postbox - Brightling, Sussex

It has become kind of a game with me, a past time while riding, to notice the monograms on the these old British post boxes. Once, while touring up in Scotland, in a village called Tobermory, I came upon a very rare one bearing the initials of Edward VIII – the king who was never officially crowned but abdicated in favour of love and an American divorcee. Only a handful of these pillar boxes were ever made.

My favourites though are those with the oh-so-elegant intertwined VR. I pass a couple every day on my morning rides, genuine cast iron Victorian relics that have been collecting the mail since the days of Anthony Trollope and the penny post and are still in casual use, curb-side, here in the Age of Blogs and Broadband.

Rainy Mornings

Nothing like cold wind-blown rain splashing in your face at four-thirty on a dark December morning to wake you up and let you know you’re alive – a double espresso should be half so bracing. And while I hardly consider myself a fair-weather cyclist I must admit there are mornings, like this one, when it becomes a test of my good humour and resolve to push off down the street at such an hour into a cold hard rain. There is something almost insulting about the way those first icy droplets slap your face, blowing away all that nice cosy, lingering sleepiness and thrusting you, ready-or-not, into the wide-awake here and now.

Sometimes, although not often, I poke my nose out the door, imagine that cold stinging rain splashing my face and then simply fold my tent, drift back to the kitchen, brew a pot of coffee, fire up the laptop and get an early start on the day’s work while I listen to the rain rattle harmlessly on the windows. Whenever I do that, though, I almost always regret having not gone out for my ride, but by then it is usually too late. For by then odds are I’ve got a good head of steam going on my work, and don’t care to interrupt my train of thought, and anyway those magical fleeting pre-dawn hours that I love so well will have lost their bloom. I’ll listen to the early morning run of traffic hissing down what had not long earlier been a dead quiet street and resolve that next time I won’t weaken.

And when I do venture out into the rain, as I did this morning, and as, frankly, I usually do, I’m always glad I did – or at least I am once I have the cold bracing shock of those first couple hundred yards behind me. By the time I’m spinning around the roundabout, a quarter mile down the street, I’ve hit my stride. I’m wide awake, moving easily, expectantly and revelling in a sense of ornery independence and wildness that comes of being out and about in the rain while all the rest of polite society is home in bed. It is beautiful then too, the raindrops sparkling in the glow of my headlamp like so many falling diamonds and the puddles shimmering from the neon lights and the slow changing traffic signals on hauntingly deserted intersections. I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else.

Book Review: It’s All About The Bike

What could be more appealing to anyone contemplating the building of their own dream bicycle than a light, breezy well-written book written by an accomplished journalist who has just done that very thing, so naturally when I came across Robert Penn’s It’s All About the Bike a few months ago, when I was in the creative throes of designing my own dream tourer, I snatched it up. In general I have been pleased with my purchase.

The storyline is simple: Penn, who has been riding bikes nearly every day of his adulthood, has reached that point in mid-life where he wants a bicycle that will be uniquely and forever his – ‘a bike that has character, a bike that will never be last year’s model. I want a bike that shows my appreciation of the tradition, lore and beauty of bicycles…I want my bike.’ And so he embarks on a global pursuit of excellence, starting in Stoke-on-Trent where he commissions renowned British frame-builder Brian Rourke, to build him a frame out of the finest lightweight Reynolds 953 stainless steel, and from there he trots around the world to pick up each component for his dream bike at the factory door, and talking to the people who made them.

It is a clever premise for a book, and in many ways Penn carries it off – but in one big way he doesn’t. First the successes. Penn is an engaging writer, clearly enthusiastic about bicycles and cycling, with a journalist’s ear for anecdote and a gift for explaining some of the more esoteric aspects of bicycle frame design, grades of steel and the physics of how and why a bicycle works in a user-friendly way to a broad (non-cycling) readership. He also serves up a good re-telling of the history of the bicycle, its phenomenal impact on Victorian society during the height of the ‘cycling craze’ in the 1890s, and he details the bicycle’s post-war fall from grace as the automobile took over.

Familiar stuff to a great many cyclists, perhaps, but fresh fare for the majority of the people who will be buying this book. As well, he sketches out some nice potted histories of the component manufacturers – Campagnolo, Chris King, Cinelli, Continental and the like – along with some of the other great British frame makers, such as Mercian, Roberts and, going further back in time, Hyman Hetchin.

In short, there’s a little something in there for everybody. Some aspects of cycling history are repeated a bit often for my taste, and between his revisiting of these same (or similar) stories and a couple of his longer narrative detours – such as his accounting of riding Repack with the aging founding fathers of mountain biking in Marin County, California – made me feel at times that the book was padded to length. These are pardonable sins, though, if your writing style is breezy and entertaining enough, and Penn’s is certainly that. This is a light and fast read, easily done at a sitting

My gripe with the book doesn’t stem from what he wrote, or over-wrote, but with the important things he left unwritten. Remember this is a book about a lifelong cyclist conjuring up his dream bicycle, “a talismanic machine that somehow reflects my cycling history and reflects my cycling aspirations”, yet nowhere is there anything to explain why this particular style of drop-barred lightweight road bike meets those criteria, and in fact there is plenty in there to make you wonder how it could, or at least leave you intrigued and wanting to know why it did.

For example, Penn tells us at the start of the book how in 1995 he set off on a three-year solo 40,000-kilometre round-the-world cycling expedition, a transforming experience that, he says, made him at one with his bicycle. Yet when it came to designing his dream bike, it wasn’t a tourer he envisaged.

Nor was it a mountain bike, although he is clearly very much at home on one – indeed the blurb on the dust jacket of the hardcover edition that I have reveals that he rides one every day across the heathery moors near his home – and judging by the amount of space he gives in the book to his day of riding Repack with the living gods of the sport, and his understanding of its lore and legends, mountain bikes are clearly near and dear to his heart. But not a candidate to be his dream ride.

To be sure, there is no particular reason why it should be. And no particular reason why his dream bike couldn’t have been a unicycle, tricycle, tandem or one of those great heavy loop-framed Dutch utility bikes. It’s his dream, not ours. Since when do our hidden dreams have to be consistent with our visible pasts? But I do think that having accepted our £16.99rrp (hardback) or £8.99rrp (paperback), he owes it to his readers to let us in on the emotional side of things, not just talk frame and components, but rise to the challenge of articulating what it is about this particular style and design of road bike that speaks to him, and sums up all that he loves, and has loved, about cycling. The nearest he comes to this baring of self is when he is selecting the colours for his bike, agonizing over his choices in what I found to be the best, most revealing and most human chapter in the book.

It wouldn’t really have taken much to have equally humanised the rest of the story – a few well-placed and well-thought sentences and paragraphs spread throughout the book. One missed trick, for example, was in the selection of the groupset for the dream bike. He chooses Campagnolo, and fair enough too. I can guess at some of the reasons – the romance and the resonance of a golden age of cycling that are associated with that venerable Italian brand, both of which he touches on in his potted history of the company but without ever actually putting himself in the frame. Campagnolo is what he chooses, and that’s that. On with the story. There’s no inner debate about whether or not to go for the clinical precision of Shimano instead, or maybe SRAM, or even any reference to there being alternatives – and yet as any cyclist knows, these particular alternatives and choices are revealing in themselves and the subject of many a heated debate. Penn could have been presented his pro-Campagnolo bias with a gentle self-deprecating humour that would have added a measure of personal warmth to the story, and given general public non-cycling readers a more revealing glimpse into the world of the cyclist.

What we are left with then is a nice, highly readable account of the history of bicycles and frame-making, whose narrative is wrapped around the building of a single representative bike. It’s a pleasant read. I enjoyed it. But I can’t help thinking it could have been something as unique and personal as the bicycle itself.

If you like the sound of the book – and it is a fun read – you can buy it here.

Picaresque Freedoms

As I was tooling down the seafront this morning,feeling bold and adventurous and not a little rebellious, I found myself thinking back to the time I hopped aboard my bicycle right here in Hastings and pedaled off to Istanbul, pretty much on the spur of the moment; how I rolled up in front of the Pera Palas Hotel six weeks later and went inside for a celebratory beer at the Orient Express Bar, having found my way out there by guess and by golly.

What a glorious thing a bicycle is – jaunty, elegant, almost glib in its 19th century simplicity, it’s the first mode of independent travel most of us come to know as children and the last one left to us as adults in this over-governed age of ours. Think of it: for the price of a half-decent tourer anybody who wants to can set off to see a bit of the world anytime they please, free, clear and beholden to no one, right from their own front doorstep, without so much as a by-your-leave to all those jealous authorities who scrutinize, monitor, tax and surcharge our every movement these days.

There’s no paper trail, no hoops to jump through, no jackboot security at an airport, no queues, crowds, delays or cancellations, just fresh air, an open road, and the responsibility for getting yourself wherever it is you want to go. It’s the perfect restorative to a world made small and mean and over-familiar by too many frequent flier miles, and the most delicious means of escape I know. As Jim, the fugitive slave in Huckleberry Finn, said of making a getaway down the Mississippi on a raft: “A raft’s good, a raft don’t make no track.” Neither does a bicycle. Not even a carbon footprint.

‘Tis The Season

Last weekend was the big turning-on of municipal Christmas lights in the villages and towns in our corner of Sussex, as it probably was everywhere else in Britain as well. Consequently the past week has seen me detouring down all sorts of streets and byways on my morning rides, just for the pleasure of the riding through the festive lighting and, better still, having it all to myself.

One of the many nice things about going out for a bike ride at four-thirty on a cold dark winter’s morn is that there is virtually no traffic – you can ride right down the middle of the street, any street, free and clear, in a world of your own, taking in the sights and all that curb-side minutiae that you miss when you have to worry about minding your Ps and Qs in traffic and staying alive. And on that score I have particularly enjoyed this past week.

Darkened shop-fronts and shadowy lamp-lit streets are always moody and evocative – ask Edward Hopper – and generally I enjoy that, but this time of year, mid December, my imagination shifts a gear, gets nostalgic and in a holiday frame of mind. Nothing sets a better, more evocative wintry scene than a village high street garlanded with Christmas lights. It’s kind of like riding through a life-sized Advent Calendar or a scene for It’s A Wonderful Life. It’s nicer still, of course, if there is a dusting of snow, but down here on the Sussex coast we just have to take what we can get. And on balance that’s been pretty good, for if the weather has been unseasonably mild this December, without even any hoar frosts to whiten things up, the Christmas lights along the high streets seem to be better – the town councils and shop owners not only more generous about stringing up lights and decorating their display windows but about leaving the lights aglow all night as well for the benefit of nighthawks like me. Or perhaps they are just being more forgetful about turning them off when they close up for the night.

Whatever the reason it has been a pleasant surprise. With all the economic doom and gloom, recession, national bankruptcies and the Euro crisis – to say nothing of spiralling energy costs – I’d been expecting the village high streets to be more Edward Hopper than Currier & Ives. The village street I am riding down in the photo above – St Leonards Road, in Bexhill – had but a single string of lights across it last December and even that one strand was always dark when I spun by on my early morning ride. This year, on the other hand, it’s looking cheery and festive and I can never resist taking a turn down it, as though it were my own private memory lane. And so, to whoever’s been leaving the lights on, absent-minded or no – a very merry thank you.

My (First) Bicycle and I

My first bicycle was a curvy Eisenhower-era Schwinn. I loved it. I only wish now I could remember it more clearly. The fact-loving journalist in me, always keen to provide that telling detail, would love to be able to pin it down, describe it as a Schwinn such-and-such and segue into a nostalgic riff about its place in the pantheon of classic American children’s bikes of the Fifties.  But I can’t.  It was a cruiser of some sort, I remember that much, a heavily used single-speed Schwinn with coaster brakes, whitewall balloon tyres, a ting-a-ling bell, crooked metal fenders and a headlamp of rust-speckled chrome.

Oh, yes, and one other thing: it was a girl’s bike. My parents had been worried that while I was learning to ride I might slip forward and injure myself on the top bar of a boy’s bike and so they had gone for one with a girl’s step-through frame instead. I remember my mother explaining this thought process to me, saying she hoped I’d be okay with that and not too embarrassed. I nodded abstractedly but I was barely listening. I was too busy running my disbelieving eyes over the marvel I saw before me: forty pounds of rust-flecked steel and spongy rubber that were mine to command.

I had a bicycle.

I was overjoyed.

And stunned, too. This was a bolt from the blue, for although that was the year – the springtime – of  bicycles amongst the other kids in my class, I’d never expected to be getting a bicycle myself. I’d secretly wanted one, of course, for sure. But I also knew we hadn’t much money and a bicycle seemed an awfully big and substantial item. I’d never even hinted about one; it didn’t seem polite.

But somewhere in the adult ether, over my head and unbeknownst to me, economies had evidently been made here and there, for both of my parents had been children of the Depression themselves and possessed an understanding of these things. Over the winter my mother had somehow managed to put aside enough unspoken-for household dollars to buy this secondhand Schwinn.

It was waiting for me in the driveway one fine spring afternoon when I came home from school, parked casually beside our old Rambler, as though it too were a car and worthy of its spot in the driveway. It caught my eye as I stepped off the school bus. It was so unexpected, and I was so dumbfounded to see it, that I stood there for a moment, paused on the sidewalk, arms akimbo, perplexed and wondering whose bicycle that was, and how on earth they’d managed to get to our house so quickly and so far ahead of the school bus.

And then, in those same quizzical fractions of seconds I glanced up and noticed my mother’s happy, excited face peeking out from behind the curtains in the living room window, and realized with a joyous pang of giddy disbelief that this bicycle was mine.

It was love at first sight.

I learned to ride in a jiffy and rode that bicycle everywhere.

Forty seven years later I still think of it fondly. And if today I can’t recall the precise model and year of that first bicycle, and if even my overall vision of it is obscured in a haze of disjointed memory, I can remember absolutely the feel of its glittery plastic grips, warmed by the sun, when my fingers closed around them, and the jaunty exhilaration when I pushed down on its pedals and felt that glorious miracle of balance and poise and forward motion. And as a parent now myself I recall fondly and with total understanding the look of pleasure on my mother’s face when she saw me gawp delightedly at the bicycle parked in the driveway.

So maybe what I do remember is the stuff that really matters after all.

Thirty Miles By Lamplight

It’s quarter to five on a dark and frosty December morning, and I’m spinning along the grand old Edwardian seafront at Bexhill, past the flood-lit coronation pavilion, with a waxing gibbous moon floating high over my left shoulder and the lights of Eastbourne twinkling in the distance, all still and solemn and slumbering in the great starry hush. Nobody is about but me. The old seaside town’s dead asleep, the promenade deserted and silent, the shops all shuttered up.

I love being out and about at this hour, on my own and moving along the road, free, clear and beholden to no one while the rest of the world is home in bed. I suppose it is just as asleep at this hour of the morning during summer too, but it’s different then; it’s light at quarter to five on a summer morning, whereas in winter it’s as dark as a yard up a chimney, and to my romantic turn of mind there’s nothing like the dark of night and the twinkling lights of a distant, sleeping city to add that bit of drama and restless intrigue to a ride. I revel in it. It draws me onward and outward and makes me fidgety and eager to go places and get things done. By the time I roll up in front of the house again, maybe two hours or so after I left, and with thirty miles of long-after-midnight riding behind me, I feel alive, as though I’ve been travelled, had an adventure.

Like the Boy Scouts, I go prepared. I use my old Thorn tourer, my expedition bike, on these cold dark winter rides. I like its sturdy 26″ wheels, and the way their chubby (559×40) Schwalbe Marathon Plus tyres cushion the potholes and smother the unsighted cracks and treacherous frost heaves in the bitumen. I generally keep my tyre pressure at about 55 to 60psi, somewhat below the manufacturer’s recommended 65psi, but all the better, I find, for gripping wet or frosty roads. For illumination I rely on my Lupine Betty to lead the way – set its ‘low’ 600 lumen setting in town and clicked over to ‘lighthouse’ on the unlit country lanes and across the marshes. Blinking on the rear rack is a Cateye 1100, my lantern rouge.

Since mending flats by starlight is not my idea of a good time I always use the Marathon Plus as my winter tyre of choice. Some people don’t care for their ‘heavier’ handling qualities and rolling resistance but I’ve never found that a bother; it’s merely a matter of horses for courses. Marathon Plusses are not high performance road tyres but are an old reliable stand-by for tourers and commuters the world over and they need to be thought of in that light. They last forever, roll well enough to do century rides on loaded-up tourers, and while I don’t want to jinx things by shooting my mouth off, let’s just say that in thousands of miles of winter riding, in the dark and wet, the number of punctures I’ve suffered with these tyres is less than one.

Even so, I pack along a spare tube, patch kit, tyre levers, and mini-pump just in case, plus a couple of spare links for the chain and a dependable penlight – one of those sturdy aluminium mini-Maglights – to see by, just in case I really do have to make an unscheduled roadside stop. I could always use my headlamp, I suppose, but the Maglight is small and bright, handy to use and hardly a burden to carry.

As for tools, I pack along a set of folding hex wrenches, a Leatherman and a collapsible chain tool as well – Park Tools’ CT-6, a nifty piece of kit that folds up to something no bigger than a Swiss Army knife, but nevertheless functions with shop-quality precision. You want a good chain tool when you are out on your own like this, on darkened country lanes far from home; it’s the only thing that’s going to be able to clear a broken link should you suffer one, and frankly the chain breakers that come with most mini-tools just aren’t up to the job. And so I carry a dedicated one that is.

The whole kit and caboodle fits into a zip-loc bag which in turn tucks neatly into a sturdy canvas saddlebag – a Carradice ‘Barley’, to be precise; seven litres in size, olive green with honey leather straps, roomy enough to carry all my tools and spares and still leave space for my camera and mini tripod. That’s all I need, just that, and I am ready to go, out the door and down the darkened street, headlamp aglow, full of jaunty expectancy and with all those delicious nighttime miles ahead of me; truly, an embarrassment of riches.

Review: Shimano MT60 Touring Shoes

 

I may be a writer of prose but my feet are poets – Longfellows they are; long and skinny, and not always so easy to find footwear to fit, which is one of the many reasons I like these  Shimano MT60 touring shoes, seen here on a recent tour around Orkney. Not only are they durable, comfortable, highly water resistant and look presentable when you’re off the bike as well as when you’re on it, they are also made on a narrower last so they fit me well. And that is something of a rarity in these days of wide, extra wide and super-mega-wide fittings in just about every other brand of shoe I come across, particularly when you get up into the larger sizes.

I’ve had mine for about eighteen months now, put them through all kinds of use and can’t really fault them. Despite my wearing them every day through a full cycle of English seasons they are showing very little wear, and being Gore-Tex lined they have kept the weather out on lousy days and breathed well when it’s been hot.

They are sturdily built, almost like a lightweight hiking shoe, and fairly hefty,so perhaps not one for the weight weenies – Shimano lists a weight of 930 grams for the size 40. I come up with a rather heftier 1350 grams on my kitchen scale for my size 48s.  Being built like a hiking shoe, though, they are very comfortable to walk around in and provide good support on rough ground. The styling is casual and understated and the greyish-blue colour is muted so these are shoes you can wear around in the pub without looking like a goose and calling attention to yourself – making them ideal to take on tour since you can then make do with just the one pair of shoes both on and off the bike.

 They are your standard trainer-style lace-ups, with no Velcro strap across the instep to keep your laces in check, although there is an elastic loop into which you can tuck your looped and knotted laces and that works just fine. The soles are flexible enough for walking comfortable but yet provide a nice stiff platform on the pedals. I have never suffered from that ‘hot foot’ sensation while wearing these – you know that burning in the ball of your foot when the nerves down there start twanging on long rides.

The one note of caution about them is that besides running narrow they also seem to come up small. Shimano shoes tend to, I’ve noticed. You may need to move up a size or even two. I bought mine on-line and originally ordered a 47. These fit nicely out of the box and through the summer when I was just wearing thin ankle socks or no socks at all, but later in the year when I needed the warmth of thicker socks I noticed they were a bit tight. I moved up to a 48 and would have considered a 49 if they’d have made them in that size.  It says something about the quality and overall niceness of the shoes that I am happy to have both pair: one for summer and another for cold winter weather and by wearing them in rotation like this I ought to get a good many years’ wear out of them. Nice shoes.

Mysteries in the Mist

A cold, clingy, ground mist was shrouding the marshes this morning on my ride over to the ruins of Pevensey Castle, throwing a note of caution in the air along with a nip of frost, but at the same time adding a pleasurable touch of misty, moody Hound-of-the-Baskervilles atmosphere.  I kind of like riding in the fog, or at least I do when I am pedalling all by myself down a lonely country lane at quarter to five on a cold dark winter’s morning.

I like it much less when I find myself pedalling along an urban street bustling with early bird traffic, as I did on the homeward leg of my journey.  For while I had been pedalling westward down the old marsh road, revelling in the romance and solitude, that clammy mist must have been creeping east and thickening to a dense sea fog along the coast. Bexhill Road, which earlier had had only a few faint tendrils of mist swirling amongst the streetlamps, and even a scatter of faint stars overhead, had become thick with milky white fog.

And by then too traffic was picking up.  You see, Bexhill Road, also known as the A-259, is the main thoroughfare for anyone travelling into Hastings from the west although you mightn’t guess at it’s importance by the condition of the road itself.  It is narrow, patched, potholed and lumpy, with cars closely parked along both sides, and a kind of shabbiness clinging to the houses and businesses along here, unfairly really because it seems to come not from neglect but from the soot and stink of so much auto and truck exhaust, for once it hits its stride, this is one busy, busy road.  And by six-thirty in the morning, when I’m coming along it, homeward bound from my ride, it is well and truly waking up – and I’d better be too, looking alive and waking up from any reveries I might have been indulging in on the lonely marsh road.

Add a nice dense pall of fog into this mix and you have yourself the makings of a pretty harrowing ride, even if, like me, you’re lit up like a county fair with powerful headlamps and tail lights, and a hi-vis rescue orange and lime-yellow reflective safety vest.  You can’t be visible enough. Or at least that’s my thinking on the matter.  But then perhaps I am a man of too much imagination and too little faith.  For what do I see this morning as I am negotiating my way through Bexhill Road’s fast and impatient tide of halo-ed tail lights and headlamps, but a couple of fellow cyclists – dressed head-to-toe in dark clothes, with no lights, lamps, reflectors, whizzing along without a care in the world or a brain in their (helmet-less) heads.

These weren’t hoodies on BMX bikes, either – I mean, you kind of expect that sort of thing from them, although in their case they are usually spinning recklessly down the footpaths and not on the road.  No, these were grown-ups, on road bikes, one of whom seemed to be out on a training ride, for he was down on the drops, pumping out the watts, living out his Mark Cavendish fantasies as he hurtled head-on into the fog-bound traffic for all he was worth.  The other two just seemed to be out for a ride, commuters, perhaps; it was hard to tell.  I could barely see them.  And it leaves me wondering how many more might have been out there that I simply never saw at all.