Monthly Archives: April 2012
My grandfather used to take the weather very personally as did the postmaster in the little New England village near where we grew up, and often when we went down with him to get the mail we’d end up twiddling our thumbs for an hour while the two of them would strike up long grumbling conversations about the fickleness and downright unfairness of the North Country weather and the gods that controlled it, particularly in those not-infrequent times when we’d get a week or two of cold miserable rainy weather in the middle of what ought to have been high summer.
I can see them in my mind’s eye even now, my grandfather leaning against the old-fashioned wooden counter, swordbill cap in hand, shaking his head and muttering, “You’d think They would give us a break.” Even as a child I used to wonder who in the world he though ‘they’ were, but I was never silly enough to ask. In hindsight, I think he would probably just have laughed – as I do now myself when I hear myself muttering his exact same phrase about the interminable run of blustery weather we’ve been enduring the past couple of weeks: “You’d think They would give us a break!”
Alas, ‘They’ don’t seem to have any plans to because the all the forecasts I’ve read are calling for continued bluster and rain throughout the coming week. So since They probably aren’t going to give us a break – unless it is just to make a liar out of me – I thought I’d put together a few hopefully useful tips for riding in the wet.
Number One – dress appropriately, not just for the chill and rain, but also for the type of cycling you are going to be doing. A race-oriented cyclist out for a hard, fast training ride will not want the same sort of wet-weather gear as a cyclo-tourist who may be out there all day pedalling a laden tourer over hill and dale and then camping in the rain as well. And then there’s the commuter who might be riding only five miles or so to a nice warm office. Everyone’s needs and expectations will be different, and what it comes down to is finding the most suitable-to-you balance of waterproof and breathable.
For a road cyclist, someone out on a reasonably brisk pleasure or training ride, breathability is going to be your most important criteria. Cycling at speed generates a lot of body heat and no fully waterproof garment on the market – GoreTex, eVent or whatever – is going to be able to breath well enough to dissipate that well enough to keep you cool and dry inside. You’re just going to have to accept the fact that you’re going to get wet. So use a lightweight shower-resistant shell to ward off the rain as long as possible, and as a second line of defence wear a jersey made of sportswool or similar fabric and/or a merino base layer underneath. A merino base later is particularly good for keeping you warm even when its wet, is pretty well odour-free and will dry quickly when you return. The saving grace to these kinds of sporty or pleasure rides, even when they are high mileage and last a few hours, is that you know that at the end of it you’re coming home to a hot shower and a change of clothes.
Not so a tourist who may be out in the rain all day and then pitching camp along the roadside somewhere. There you want to stay as dry as possible. Fortunately, touring pace seldom generates anything like the body heat of a race or training ride and so here a good quality waterproof jacket with pit-zips will usually do the trick. At this end of the market, you really do get what you pay for – the more, the better – and so if you are going to be doing a lot of touring in cool wet climates it pays to invest in the best waterproof jacket you can afford. And definitely get one with pit-zips. There isn’t a hi-tech fabric made that doesn’t benefit from extra ventilation. On that score it also helps to go for a looser fitting MBT-cut jacket than a body-hugging race-cut one, again to keep the air circulating inside.
A commuter will have similar needs to a tourist, except here the rides will typically be short with a very definite end point. You want to arrive dry and presentable, even if you do have a change of clothing waiting for you at the office or tucked in your panniers. Here again a good ‘breathable’ waterproof will be your friend. Commuters who ride in street clothes, and along city streets where crosswinds are not likely to be a factor, can get away with an old-fashioned riding cape – if they choose to. These are absolutely waterproof yet highly breathable by virtue of the air circulating under the skirts and they can be worn over anything. They are cheap and they offer the additional advantage of keeping your legs dry as well. I have one – a Carradice oilskin that I throw on occasionally. It’s not bad.
Gloves are important. Nothing drains the pleasure out of a ride faster than cold wet fingers. Finding decent waterproof gloves that keep your hands warm and dry, and yet are still thin enough to give you a good tactile sense over your handlebars, shifters and brakes is like finding the Holy Grail. In my experience there are none that will accomplish all those things, and the compromises you make are purely personal: cold and damp versus warm and dry and trying to steer with a pair of boxing gloves clapped over your hands.
Waterproof trousers are a judgement call. On my morning rides I never bother with them if it’s raining, but instead wear good thermal tights that I can hang up to dry in the airing cupboard when I get back. Touring is another matter. For that I’ll roll up a pair and tuck them in my panniers. I prefer the three-quarter length, since there is less chance of overheating and I don’t worry much about getting my calves wet anyway. Feet and shoes are something else entirely. A pair of neoprene overshoes – preferably something durable enough to walk around in off the bike – is highly desirable. Wet feet are no fun at all and cycling shoes can take ages to dry.
Number two – don’t forget your bike wants a bit of protection from the mud and rain too, so consider installing a set of mudguards. This is easily done if you already have the braze-on eyelets for them, but not at all impossible if you don’t. There are excellent lightweight mudguard sets made by companies such as Crud that can be attached with zip ties and that will do the job perfectly. Not only will the people riding behind you – if you go out in a group – be friendlier to you on a rainy ride if you have mudguards on your bike, your drivetrain will be happier too. Mudguards, particularly front ones with the extra flap hanging down, keep a lot of nasty gunk from being splashed up into your chain.
Number three – bear in mind that your old familiar network of streets and roads that you know so well will be a very different place in the rain. It can be a lot slicker, especially if the rains have come after a long dry spell. Motor vehicles have a nasty habit of leaving residues of oil and exhaust on the bitumen. These build up over time if they are not washed away by regular rains. Consequently the first rain after a dry spell can create some nasty slippery spots that are as well disguised as black ice in winter.
Bearing this in mind, as well as the general hydroplaning possibilities concealed within a thin sheen of water on smooth bitumen, take extra care on the curves. Pick your line and take it nice and smooth and stately. Remember too, as you’re riding along, that the painted markings on the road are going to be slipperier than regular bitumen, and that iron grates and the like can also be very slippery. And never splash through puddles. That pothole concealed by that puddle might be a hell of a lot deeper and rougher than you think it is. Even if you think you know from regular observation how deep a given pothole is, or ought to be, don’t overlook the possibility that all that rain has washed it out and made it worse. Be wary.
Number four – be seen. The greyish gloom of a rainy afternoon is at least as dangerous as riding at night, if not more so. Not only is everything dim and blurry, but motorists will be peering down the road through misty windows and with thumping, smeary wipers obscuring their view. Wearing bright colours, reflective vests, and having LED blinkers flashing fore and aft is a really good way to improve your odds of survival.
And now that I’ve sat down and cranked out more than fifteen hundred words of wisdom on riding in the rain, I look out my window and see that the clouds have parted – momentarily at least – and broad sunshine is streaming down all around. Alas, more rain though is scheduled for tonight, and most particularly in the early hours of tomorrow morning when I go out for my ride. God, you’d think they’d give us a break.
We could fish for brook trout any old time we liked in the cheerful little stream that burbled through the woods behind our house, and for a long while, when we were little, that old familiar brook with its fingerling trout was plenty good enough for us. There came a summer though when we decided we wanted to cast our lines into deeper, darker, more interesting waters. And so, after clearing the idea with the grown-ups, we hopped aboard our bikes and pedalled away to the Bearcamp, a fast-flowing, big-hearted, tannin-brown river half a morning’s ride away, in Whittier.
That was the first time we’d ever actually been anywhere on our bikes, as opposed to just messing around on them and we revelled in the freedom and novelty of it all. As part of that we made a point of stopping off at the general store down in the village to purchase extra fishhooks and bobbers and quarter-pound bags of M&Ms – stuff we called ‘supplies’ in the manner of proper explorers – not because we needed to buy these things but because we could.
Likewise we bought bottles of root beer from the antiquated (even then) Coca-Cola machine on the store’s veranda and drank them there, beside the wooden crates where the empties went, romancing the distances we’d come and the idea that all this so far just the overture. Still ahead of us, some miles away yet, lay the Bearcamp, a river whose waters up until then we’d only ever glimpsed out of the car window, wistfully and in passing, on family shopping trips down to Wolfeboro or Meredith.
By the time we drew up to the riveted iron bridge in Whittier later on that morning and heard the exhilarating rush of the strange new river tumbling over the rocks below, we felt like discoverers. We dropped our bikes amongst the ferns and blackberry brambles that cloaked the roadside, gathered our poles and bait cans and ‘supplies’, and scrambled down the embankment to begin the day’s fishing.
We had a glorious time. We caught rainbow trout, brown trout, pickerel, hornpout, kibbies and bass and, over the course of the day, we even caught a bit of sun on our faces and forearms, something that didn’t usually happen when we fished the quiet shady brook back home. By the time we pedalled up our driveway late that afternoon, lightly sunburnt and pleasantly weary, and having probably ridden close to thirty miles that day, we were already talking up our next expedition.
It wasn’t long in coming. It was like an awakening, that first ride over to the Bearcamp. We rode our bikes everywhere that summer – from Silver Lake to Madison Boulder to an old covered bridge we discovered along a backroad in North Sandwich, where we could climb up into the rafters and dangle our lines into the brook below. We fished Great Hill Pond, James Pond and Lake Chocorua. Our bicycles didn’t merely expand our world, they transformed it. You didn’t need to be a poet to sense the difference between going down to the village in the backseat of the family car and pedalling down there yourself on your bicycle. One was twenty minutes of dead time, life in suspension and soon forgotten, but the other could season an entire morning with sights and sounds, sensations and discoveries that that you might be daydreaming about weeks later.
And to think: if even these few miles could be so involving, so rich in detail and ripe for discovery, imagine a few hundred such miles, or a few thousand? Out to where there were real tigers and real palm trees, deserts and jungles and ancient rose-red cities older than time? Never did the world seem bigger, grander or more worthy of exploration than it did from the saddle of my bicycle. More than anything I wanted to trot the globe and have adventures and when I was riding my bike, spinning along the backroads of Carroll County under my own steam, a life of travel and adventure seemed not only possible but probable.
Of all the places that were immediately accessible to us it was the tumbling waters of the Bearcamp that exerted the biggest claim on our imaginations. It was while we were exploring its upper reaches one day, some miles upstream of the steel bridge in Whittier, that we made what was to be our best-loved discovery: a great deep secret pool nestled in an elbow bend in the river, and hidden away behind an old sawmill. Dark and mysterious it positively teemed with fish: bass, perch, kibbies and sunfish whose coppery-bright scales shone like new minted pennies There were beautifully speckled rainbow trout, brook trout, and cagey old brown trout that would drift lazily to the surface in some of the slower, deeper pools, startle you with their bigness then drift back down again, fading into the depths.
There were pickerel in there too. Sleek and sinister with their long cruel jaws and wicked teeth, they prowled the shallows looking for frogs, while out in the deeper parts were hornpout, a kind of catfish whose sharp spines could slice through a hand. Deeper still, feeding way down on the bottom, were the suckers, great heavy ugly carp-like things with thick bodies and suction-cup mouths that made us shudder and think of giant leeches in the Amazon.
Nothing became this place like the moment of arrival, after the gloriously long and involving journeys we made to get there; when you hid your bike amongst the ferns and bracken by the roadside and picked your way down through the woods, full of jaunty anticipation, listening to the cheerful river sounds growing louder as you approached and catching those first teasing glints of sunlight sparkling on the water as you looked down through the trees.
That sound of rushing water came from a set of rapids a hundred yards upstream. All was oily smooth down here, the big dark pool wrinkling in slow majestic clockwise eddies. Dragonflies hummed over the surface and the moist air had that delicious piquancy of damp earth and pine. And it was all ours. In all the times we went there we never once encountered anyone else, no adults, no other kids. It was ours and ours alone, an undisturbed world awaiting that very first cast.
We could colour it, and imagine it, any way we chose. And we did, gloriously and extravagantly; it was the Amazon, the Congo, the upper reaches of the Nile. You’d flick your pole, and watch your lure arc through the air and plop down somewhere out in the middle of the pool. As it sank and faded from view in that ominous murk, you’d feel this kind of giddy, mediaeval terror on its behalf: Jesus, anything could be down there. And then you’d shiver with excitement and be glad all over again that you came.
That was all a long time ago; a lot of water under the bridge. Even the memories of those days seem more like fondly recalled dreams than recollections of real life. How strange it is, and comforting too, to look back in middle age, after a career in journalism that has taken me all over the world, to find that once again my bicycle is transforming my world – or restoring it, I should say; reversing the deadening effects of adulthood and a surfeit of frequent flier miles. All I have to do is climb aboard my bicycle and the world suddenly becomes big again, grand, appealing, full of promise, the way it used to be way back when. Miles regain their old true measure and filled once more with the intrigue and romance that made me restless and eager and wanting to travel in the first place.
Funny to think of it but when I look back now and think of all the different modes of transportation that have seduced me over the years, I can see that only the bicycle has ever remained true, kept its promises. The thrill of gaining my driver’s license barely outlasted my teens and a few college road trips, while the prospect of going to an airport, ticket in hand – once the very summit of glamour – has become like the halo before a migraine. Who wants to be herded like a sheep and treated like a criminal? Even the romance of taking the night train or sailing away on a long sea journey has turned out to be like the aroma of fresh ground coffee – somehow the stuff always smells better than it tastes.
Other than on the bottom line of a home-loan agreement, with the tiny letters APR after it, I cannot think of a single instance where the figure 25% would be less welcome, or more disheartening, than it is when you see it on a road sign beside a hill, like this one I saw near Ventnor last week on the Isle of Wight. Whether you are starting at the top or at the bottom, there is nothing funny about a one-in-four grade, at least not in my book.
Given a choice, though, I’d rather climb such a hill than go whizzing down it hell-for-leather. Climbing’s easy, or if not exactly easy, at least it’s straightforward. With strong legs and a suitable range of low gears, getting to the top of any hill is just a matter of application and diligence; grunt work with the pedals. I’m good at that sort of thing.
Descending, though, that’s something else. I have far too much imagination to be a good descender. To excel at whizzing down hills at high speed, you need to be able to focus all your attention, easily and comfortably on the job at hand: sitting relaxed in the saddle, shifting your weight at appropriate moments, picking your line, carving your turns neatly and precisely, and being able to do all this blithely, without imagining any other outcome than that of a swift sure run-out at the bottom.
That I am not so good at. While I am not a timorous descender, neither am I ever going to be anybody’s idea of a swashbuckling one. Perhaps its the writer in me. I’ve got a lively imagination and I use it, especially on fast serpentine descents. I can quite easily imagine all sorts of colourful alternate possibilities to my safe run-out at the bottom, everything from loose grit on the bitumen to a front tyre blow out to sudden errant gusts of wind to catastrophic fork failure at forty-five miles an hour; with writerly empathy I can work up some splendidly realistic imaginings of what any and all those things would be like, how it would feel, the sensation of losing control, the sudden burning stab of adrenaline when you realize that, no doubt about it, are going to meet the pavement, the long nasty micro-seconds of air time and the meaty slap of flesh on hot rough fast-sliding bitumen. I can picture the whole shebang, all of it in lurid Technicolor.
At least I’m in good company. Federico Bahamontes, the famous Spanish rider and winner of the 1959 Tour de France, was such a skittish descender that one year, after handily beating the peloton to the top of the Galibier, he is said to have astonished spectators by pulling over and spending the next few minutes idling about the summit, licking an ice cream cone, and waiting for the others to catch up so he could descend the mountain in the psychological safety of the pack.
Hmmm, I can imagine that.
“When the spirits are low, when the day appears dark, when work becomes monotonous, when hope hardly seems worth having, just mount a bicycle and go out for a spin down the road, without thought on anything but the ride you are taking,” Sir Arthur Conan Doyle is quoted as saying in an article in Scientific American dated January 1896. The suggestion is as apt today as it was back then. Mounting a bicycle and going out for a spin down the road truly does have a wonderfully beneficial mind-clearing effect.
While I wouldn’t say I’d quite reached that state where “hope hardly seems worth having”, I certainly put in some long and knotty hours at the keyboard yesterday trying and not succeeding overly well to come up with some nicely flowing prose for a forthcoming feature in the magazine that might well also be a cover story. It is due in a couple of weeks – plenty of time, really, to write three-thousand well-chosen words. But only once you’ve settled on how you want to structure the story.
And therein was my problem. I’ve no shortage of material, probably too much, in fact – notebooks filled with scenes and settings, quotes and anecdotes gathered together from loads of interviews and observations in half a dozen countries over the past ten months. Getting all that was easy. Trying to distill it all into a single, sweetly flowing narrative is where the hard work starts. What do you keep, what do you discard, where and how does it all fit together, and, come to think of it, what’s the story you’re trying to tell anyway? And so I wrestled with it all afternoon yesterday, without making much more yardage than an angle worm in a bait can.
This morning though I just put the whole mess aside and went out for a spin on my bike along the seafront, settling into a nice easy cadence and letting thoughts and ideas come to me of their own accord, prompted by the beautiful simple logic of pedaling. And by golly in this relaxed state the ideas came, a vision unfolding of how I wanted the story to flow and what I’d need to make it work. I like it. I’m happy. And if when I hand it in, I find that my editors like it too, I can tell them what Albert Einstein said about coming up with the Theory of Relativity – “I thought of it while I was out riding my bike.”
The wind was blowing a gale this morning, tossing the treetops and shifting the cloud cover at a lively rate and reminding me yet again that strong gusty winds are among my least favourite riding conditions – black ice being the other. Never mind the possibility that a sudden strong crosswind can scoot you out of your lane position and into the path of an overtaking bus, or whisk your wheels out from under you if it catches you unwares while you’re carving a turn, to me there is just something joyless and deadening about churning, head down, into a strong wind.
I really dislike it. Given the choice I’d far rather pedal up a hill, even miles of hills – steep ones! – than ride into a strong wind. At least with a hill you can see your adversary. Often it is very pretty, even inviting. You can plot and plan and play your hand and admire the scenery along the way, feeling as though you are a part of the landscape. And while the crest may seem elusive, being up the road and out of sight, you know it is there. It has to be. Geomorphology doesn’t work any other way.
What’s more, you know too, in the back of your mind as you’re shifting down and applying yourself to the pedals, that once you do reach the top, whether there is a view or not, you will enjoy at least a minor sense of accomplishment. The bigger the climb, of course, the greater the reward but even spinning up the small rolling day-to-day hills brings a certain brief satisfaction as you put another one behind you and start in on a pleasing downhill glide.
Not so the wind. It nags and drags and sometimes just never lets you go, being quite capable of reneging on its promise of a tail wind home and blowing unexpectedly from some other direction. You can’t see it, you can’t fight it, there’s no view at the top, no victory, no reward, just a head-down plod into stiff resistance.
No thanks, I’ll take hills any day.
As personal as all my bicycles have been to me, past and present, I have never given any of them names. Not one. They’ve all been what they were – the Schwinn, the Trek, the Cannondale, the Thorn, whatever. To be sure a few times over the years I’ve toyed with the possibility of naming my bicycles, mainly because I hear of so many other people doing it, but sooner or later (generally sooner) I gave up on the idea, partly because I could never think of a suitable name and partly because the whole naming thing just seems somehow contrived to me – and more than a little risky too. Depending on the name you choose, you can end up looking sophomoric, pompous or embarrassingly whimsical – especially if you are a MAMIL, that is to say a Middle Aged Man in Lycra. You’re just setting yourself up.
But with my new randonneur I think I am going to have to make some kind of an exception – or at least find some kind of descriptive shorthand with which I can define it swiftly and memorably in print. I can’t keep going around calling it ‘my new bike’, or ‘my new tourer’ forever. And referring to it in an offhand fashion as ‘the Enigma’ doesn’t work either. Aside from sounding rather puzzling, say it’s an Enigma is not definitive enough.
While ‘Enigma’ might be what’s written in flowing Edwardian script along the down-tube, the bicycle itself – a classic lugged-frame tourer – is hardly representative of what comes out of that shop; Enigma is famous for making swift lightweight road machines, a whole range of them in fact, the Echo, the Excel, the Elite, the Esprit and so on, all of their model names beginning with the letter ‘E’. Tell someone you have an Enigma and they’re bound to ask which one. I can’t answer that, or at least not concisely.
Mine is a one-off. There isn’t another like it. Not even close. That’s the trouble with having a completely bespoke bicycle. It’s the red-haired child at the family picnic. And so in the interests of clean prose and simple communication I’ve had a hard think about what I should call the new bike and have come up with what I hope will be a workable solution. Using its Enigma pedigree as a starting point, and keeping with the firm’s alliterative use of the letter ‘E’ when naming its models, I settled at last on Elgar – as in Edward Elgar, the famous English composer.
To me it works on a number of levels. It fits in well with the Enigma taxonomy and with my bicycle’s classic lines as well. It’s also richly suggestive of Englishness and my bicycle’s doughty English heritage – the frame having been hand-made in the ancient village of Pevensey, here on the Sussex coast, barely a bowshot away from the beach where William the Conqueror stepped ashore in 1066. Best of all ‘Elgar’ allows the writer in me to indulge in a bit of donnish word-play – after all, what is my new tourer but a Variation on an Enigma?
It was mighty grey and cold and damp when I was wheeling my new randonneur out of the garden shed this morning at a quarter past five, and when I glanced to the north and west from where the wind was coming I saw a mass of low purplish-grey clouds rolling in over the rooftops, pregnant with rain. I stood by the gate and looked at this incoming weather for a full ten minutes, wavering, full of indecision but in the end I just couldn’t do it – take that pristine bicycle, with its lovely unblemished paint job, those sparkling Phil Wood hubs and the immaculate chain and sprockets – out into what I knew would be a hearty downpour.
It was silly of me, I know. After all, this is a bicycle, and a touring bicycle at that, designed to go places and meet with equanimity all the vagaries of wind and weather you’re likely to meet on the open road. That’s what it’s for. There’s a reason I have mudguards on it – stainless steel ones, no less, to thwart corrosion – the same as there’s a reason I specified corrosion-resistant stainless steel lugs, bottom bracket shell and drop outs, and spent twenty euros extra to buy the fitted yellow waterproof cover for the Gilles Berthoud handlebar bag I have on the front. If there was ever a bicycle built for pleasure riding along a rainy English seafront, this is it.
And yet I hung fire, and rolled it back into the shelter of the shed. I’ve owned my new bike since September and have probably ridden several hundred fair-weather miles on it by now, but somehow I just wasn’t quite ready to baptise it – deliberately – in a cold hard April rain. Sometime this spring or summer I’ll no doubt be caught out with it in a sudden shower, the same as its sable-and-Parisian-pink finish will no doubt get its first chip. I won’t like it but at the same time when these inevitabilities happen a part of me will breath a big sigh of relief because then a sort of transfer of ownership will have occurred in my mind. This hitherto pristine tourer – my own platonic ideal of a bicycle – won’t belong so much to the master craftsman who built it for me, but will have come down from the clouds and properly become mine.
But today wasn’t that day. I tucked it safely back inside then spun on down to the seafront on my old familiar Thorn.
In my breezy eagerness yesterday to put winter behind me once and for all and get out on my springtime randonneur I not only forgot to take an air pump with me – an omission that fortunately had no consequences – I discovered later when I got home that I’d also forgotten to pack my on-the-road chain tool as well. There it was, still tucked securely in the side pocket of the Carradice saddlebag on the back of the now-idled Thorn where it had ridden around (unused, thankfully) all winter.
As with mini pumps, chain tools are never good things to leave behind. If you need one, you need one and nothing else will do. And while a chain breaker of some description is generally included in the Swiss Army-style assortment of gadgetry on most mini-tools, I’ve always preferred to have a separate, dedicated one. I find the chain breakers on mini-tools never sit comfortably in my hand when I am using them and, in general, they don’t seem to be as nicely machined or as precise as I’d like. You want precision in a chain tool, whether you’re on the roadside or in the shop. Sloppy installation is one of the primary reasons chains snap.
At the same time you don’t really want to be lugging around a workshop tool to cover yourself for an eventuality that, happily, is pretty unlikely to happen – at least not the way I ride. Knock on wood, I have yet to snap a chain in more than forty years of cycling. My roadside experience with chain tools all comes from assisting others who either weren’t carrying a chain tool themselves or didn’t know how to use one.
But like the Boy Scouts, I like to be prepared. I do know how to use one. After experimenting with a few different makes and models (I like buying bicycle tools) the one I settled on and particularly like to carry is this little folding number by Park Tools, the one they call their CT-6. While it is not as wonderfully precise as my Rohloff chain tool – a marvel of engineering, that – it is as near to workshop quality as I have yet come across in a roadside tool, and when you’re done using it the thing folds up neatly into an oblong package the size of a gentleman’s penknife. The simplest thing in the world to tuck into a saddlebag – and then forget it’s even there.
How sweet it was to hop aboard my Enigma randonneur this morning, freeing it from its months of lethargy in the garden shed, and setting off down the street bound for the seafront and from there on to more distant places. Eastbourne was the turn-around point I’d more or less settled upon, a forty-odd mile loop the way I do it, a doddle on such a fine calm Sunday morning as this and on such a sweet-handling tourer to boot. Indeed, after pushing my hefty old expedition bike around all winter, the new bike felt as lively as a colt.
I made nice time, spinning along Bexhill Road at a becoming rate of knots, before veering off and following the bicycle path up and over Galley Hill and onto the Bexhill seafront. It was dead quiet at that hour on a Sunday morning. Even the dog walkers weren’t up and about yet. It was just me pedalling along the promenade, alone with the sunrise, which as a spectacle was more nuanced than dramatic thanks to a great bank of clouds that were billowing over the sea and moving towards the coast.
I watched it develop out of the corner of my eye, enjoying the shifting greys and violets and blues and busily giving thought to where I might like to take some photographs later on, once I got to Eastbourne. It was as I was spinning along towards Cooden, marvelling again at what a difference in speed and handling there was between the heavy-boned Thorn with its bombproof Schwalbe Marathon Plusses and this elegant randonneur with the cream Panaracer Paselas, that I remembered something I forgot to do before I left home, something potentially quite important: transfer my trusty Leyze air pump out of the saddlebag on the Thorn and put it in the bar bag of the bicycle on which I was now riding. Tyre pumps, or CO2 canisters if your tastes run to that sort of thing, are never good things to leave at home. Ever tried inflating a bicycle tyre with your mouth?
Me neither. Were I to get a puncture, I’d be just plain out of luck. I had a spare tube aboard, a patch kit and a set of tyre levers but nothing whatever with which I could inflate a dead tyre. Even from here in Bexhill it would be a dispiriting trudge to get back home, from Eastbourne it would be a total pain in the ass. Just as I was thinking all this, calculating the odds and wondering whether or not to risk it and ride over there anyway, I heard an unpleasant squelching sound coming from my front tyre. I braked to a sudden halt and hopped off, unable to believe this could be happening. Thankfully it wasn’t. It was just a smudge of mushy plant matter that had somehow become stuck to my treads and which mimicked perfectly the sucking, flabby sound of deflated rubber with each revolution. I picked it off and made up my mind: Bexhill would be good enough for me this morning. And so I stayed and photographed along the seafront, then rode back home and put the errant tyre pump in the bag for next time.
We’re a month past the spring solstice now and it’s getting noticeably lighter and brighter in the mornings, enough so that I am thinking it is probably just about time to put away my winter bike for the season and start riding regularly on my summertime bicycles – the Pegoretti road bike and the Enigma randonneur, both of which have been sitting patiently in the garden shed, chained to the Kryptonite floor anchor, awaiting the fair weather months.
Delighted though I am to be riding in sunshine once more, with the cold and dark of winter behind me and with the tulips in full bloom ahead of me along the seafront, I can’t help but feel a twinge of sadness and even a bit of guilt at the forthcoming shelving (for the next few months anyway) of my trusty old Thorn eXp – now pulling duty as my winter bike.
At one time this was my dream ride. Even now when I see it in certain lights I see a snapshot of myself, my world and my cycling aspirations as they were back in 1999 when I bought it. Back then I’d not long earlier completed a 10,000-mile solo-trek around Australia on a 21-speed Cannondale, and having whetted my appetite for adventure, and in the meantime done a couple of assignments for National Geographic, I was keen to ride off to distant places – the Silk Road, the Pan American Highway, Africa, anything seemed possible in the flush of success I felt at having not only ridden around Australia, but also having written a reasonably successful book about it.
And so with some of the royalty money I decided to order myself a brand new bicycle, one that would incorporate a lot of the ideas and wish-list items I’d worked up while pedalling through the Australian outback. After much careful and pleasurable research I settled on the Thorn eXp expedition bike. It was clearly the business for long-haul touring. With a hand-built, made-to-order frame of Reynolds 725 tubing, it had braze-ons for everything a round-the-world trekker could reasonably want, plus thoughtful additions such as cross-bracing on the seat stays for extra strength and the option of heavy-duty Sun Rhyno forty-eight spoke rims – something that particularly pleased me, since I’d had to have the rear wheel on my old Cannondale rebuilt in Perth after cracks developed in it from its having to carry twenty-three litres of water, as well as my other supplies, on tough desert crossings. I didn’t want to have to worry about that happening again.
And so I ticked that forty-eight-spoke-wheels option box with glee and a feeling of authority and took up nearly all the other upgrade possibilities as well, the exceptions being the option of a Rohloff hub (they were kind of new and untried then and I shied away) and the new-fangled nine-speed drive train. I didn’t fully trust the slender chain of a nine-speed and preferred to stay with eight – all XT of course. For a bit of flair I went for a distinctive retro ‘billiard cue’ paint job in black and cream with Celtic patterned bands on the seat tube.
I’ll never forget the first time I saw it, clamped on a work stand at St John’s Street Cycles, being puttered over by the mechanic who was building it up. It was love at first sight, it sinewy ruggedness calling to mind one of those tough little ponies an explorer might use to trek through Manchuria – or Zanzibar as it was going to be in my case.
A couple of weeks beforehand the editor of Islands Magazine had sent me an e-mail asking me for story ideas for an adventure-themed issue they had coming up about travelling in the footsteps of explorers. Being the Boy’s Own travel romantic that I am, needing an island setting, and thinking of the lovely new touring bicycle I’d soon be taking home, I suggested a feature about cycling through Zanzibar in the footsteps of Burton, Stanley, Livingstone and Speke.
Boy, those were the days to be writing for magazines. I got a response in my mailbox the very next morning instructing me to book my ticket and go. I did. And so it was that my new black-and-cream dream-tourer’s first outing was through the labyrinthine alleyways and spice markets of Stone Town. It was magic. I’d always wanted to go to Zanzibar and to this day I associate the realisation of that cherished old boyhood fantasy with the acquisition of that brand-new custom-made tourer – the first bicycle I ever owned that wasn’t bought off-the-peg.
I spent nearly four weeks in Zanzibar, cycling all over the island and taking the ferry up to neighbouring Pemba, a offbeat pocket of Old Africa famed for its voodoo practitioners and still remote enough in those days that the sight of a white man pedalling a bicycle down a rural road was unusual enough to attract attention – of the friendly and curious variety. Things weren’t quite so quaint in Zanzibar – although I met no other foreign cyclists – but neither were there any of the glitzy resorts that line the beaches there today. It was quiet and sleepy and kind of timeless. I liked it.
A couple of months after I returned from Zanzibar to my then-fiancé’s (and now wife’s) house in Sussex, my new Thorn eXp tourer and I set out in pursuit of another old schoolboy fantasy of mine: to hop aboard my bicycle one day and set off for the gilded domes and minarets of Istanbul, or Constantinople as it used to be called in my grandparents’ out-of-date atlas from which I used to draw my boyhood inspirations.
It took me just over six weeks to get there – across northern France, through the Ardennes, the Rhineland and the Black Forest, along the Danube to Budapest and then down the Adriatic to Greece and into Turkey, all place names to conjure with to a kid who grew up in rural New Hampshire and all of them richly and indelibly associated with my now-aged tourer.
In the dozen or so years since the hot August afternoon when I rolled across the Galata Bridge I have ridden that bicycle the length and breadth of Britain, along Hadrian’s Wall, meandered with it all over Wales and Orkney, the Outer Hebrides and Yorkshire, and many, many thousands of miles on the leafy lanes and hedgerows here in Sussex. By my reckoning – and it’s only reckoning since I’ve never had an odometer on it – I’ve clocked up better than 80,000 miles on that bike. Over the years and miles it has become as personal to me as a watch or a penknife might have been to my grandfather.
As real life transpired I never did followed the Silk Road or the Pan American Highway on my expedition bike (or indeed any other!), as I had originally envisioned myself doing when I bought it. I wouldn’t say I grew out of that idea, I just grew away from it as my life, steered by me, veered off in various and wholly pleasant alternative channels. I’ve no regrets, none at all, but what I do have is this companionable old tourer that has been with me all that while, through all of life’s ups and downs and changes of fortune.
Until fairly recently it was also my only bicycle. I’ve never been one for having a collection of bicycles in the garden shed; I always been a monogamous bicycle owner, partly because I could never afford more than one and partly because I felt unable or unwilling to divide my affections between different bikes. Bicycles are very personal things to me. But then in 2008 I bought myself a Pegoretti Luigino, a lugged-frame classic done in burgundy and cream, having been seduced by the sheer elegance of the thing and the palmares of the legendary craftsman who made it. From that moment on, however, and for the first time in my life, when I went out to ride, I was presented with a choice. And as of last autumn, when I took delivery of my bespoke Enigma randonneur, I’ve had three bicycles awaiting me in the garden shed.
One of them had to take the hard off-season duties. And it has been the Thorn, my doughty old travelling companion, veteran of Zanzibar, the Istanbul campaign, the Brecon Beacons in Wales and the cold hard rains along Hadrians’ Wall that assumed the hard duties of carrying me safely through the winters – thousands of miles of darkened lanes, down salted, gritted frost-heaved streets, and on lonely moonlit crossings of the marshes in wind and rain and snow. It has never missed a step, or failed to answer the call. And now at the end of another long hard winter it is time for it to take a well-earned rest.