Monthly Archives: August 2012

Flights of Fancy

For years I’ve had this running comparison going on in my mind between the romance of flying someplace, as I used to know it was back when, and that of travelling by bicycle. I became acquainted with both at around the same time in my life, when I was six, for it was that year (1964) that I got my first bicycle and it was around then, give or take a year or so, that I took the first airplane flight I can definitely remember. It was on Delta Airlines.

We flew from Chicago down to Little Rock, Arkansas to visit my Aunt Lois and her family on our summer holidays. My father, who was staying in town to work, drove us to the airport – Midway, it was – and all these years later I can still see him standing there behind the chain-link fence, the parting line, where those lucky enough and glamorous enough to be boarding the plane bid their farewells to those staying behind. No jackboot security cordons in those days. I could still see him standing there as we zoomed down the runway and lifted off, and spotted (or imagined I did) our white Rambler Ambassador parked in the half-full lot in front of the terminal.

I don’t remember the precise make and model of the airplane we flew on, not exactly, anyway, only an impression that it might have been a Convair 800 and that only because my brother and I were given some souvenir postcards of just such a plane by the stewardesses on the flight. (We still have those postcards somewhere in the big old family house in New Hampshire) Certainly it was a jet – I remember that much, and my mother gleefully telling us kids that we had become ‘jet-setters’ now, a glorious distinction.

We flew at twenty-nine thousand feet. I remember that too and looking out the window, nose pressed to the glass, marvelling at the billowy clouds and the giddy delight I felt at being above them, eating my pie in the sky. I loved it. I wanted more. Sure enough over the coming summers the memories of more flights imprinted themselves on my brain – holidays to visit my aunt in Arkansas, or my paternal grandmother on the Jersey shore, or up to Boston (and then the long car journey north) to spend the summer at Sunnycrest, my maternal grandparents house in the White Mountains that was always, for generations of our family, the home where the heart was – and where ultimately my brother and I did much of our growing up.

Going to the airport, ticket in hand and flying – flying anywhere, anywhere at all – was a much-longed-for romantic thrill. In between these banner going-to-the-airport occasions my brother and I ‘flew’ on our bicycles, taking the sense of aerial liberation we felt aboard our bikes and embroidering it with the romance of flight. As for me I never merely sat on my bicycle; I climbed aboard. And when I did I felt the same glorious sense of parting with the Earth as I would if I were on the airplane I imagined it to be.

Nearly all of the airlines I remember flying in my youth are gone now – Eastern, Ozark, Braniff, PanAm, to name but a few, as are the old generations of planes we flew in those days. Delta is still around of course, having grown from a regional mid-American carrier to a global behemoth. It was aboard a Delta Airlines 767 that I flew to Fairbanks this week. Oddly enough, given the amount of travelling I do, it was the first time I’d flown on this particular airline since the late 60s. How strange it is to think that the last time I flew them, a holiday to Knoxville, Tennessee (why there I cannot recall) we flew on DC-6s and DC-7s and even a DC-3. It was one of those milk run journeys where they hopped from airport to airport. I was recalling that journey the other morning as I made the run up to Heathrow, marvelling to myself that the old airline we used to fly back then was still around and had grown so big.

But the years have not been kind. My recollections of those flights – my mother dressing up smartly for travel, the throb and roar of the old propeller engines, the incredibly thick roast beef sandwiches the stewardesses served us as we bounced through the choppy thundery air over the Ohio Valley – were came in sharp and painful contrast to the cattle-class shabbiness of the modern incarnation, the surliness of the cabin crew, the slovenliness of the passengers, and the grotesque parody of a ‘sandwich’ they served up for the in-flight ‘snack’, a greasy mess that would have nauseated a maggot.

The air was still bouncy though and the clouds as pretty as ever. I just wish that kids growing up today could see flying as something as exhilarating and inspirational as going for a bicycle ride.

North to Alaska

In the words of Johnny Horton I am going North to Alaska. Yet another assignment (can’t complain about all the work) in this very busy summer and yet another good reason for looking into the possibility of getting myself a Brompton one day. How nice it would be to be packing along a bicycle on this assignment; Alaska is a place that I have daydreamed about riding to and through for nearly forty years. Unfortunately I have no folding bicycle to tuck in my bag, and by the look of the itinerary that has been passed to me by the editor, I probably wouldn’t have much time for riding anyway. Writing though, is another matter. I think – or at least I hope – I will have internet access fairly consistently while I am away and will continue to post. At any rate I will be back 10 September.

Shooting The Moon

Earlier this month I came across a post on a touring cycling forum that captured my imagination and by the look of the responses that followed, captured the imagination of a number of other readers as well. The post was written by a young, unattached, unemployed guy who was receiving what is called here in Britain the Job Seeker’s Allowance – a form of unemployment benefit – and feeling helpless and stigmatized by his jobless state, to say nothing of bored with idleness, decided to do something to break out of the rut he felt himself slipping into.

His idea was to grab an old clunker of a bicycle – apparently he knew where he could get one for free – and make a break, spend a week riding to Paris, sleeping rough on the side of the road, and living on the juice of a cracker. A single week, and Paris, was as far as him ambitions would take him – he said he had next to no money, and what he wanted was to get a job – but he liked the idea of riding off to Paris, had always wanted to see the city and said he thought at the very least the journey would make him fitter and hopefully give him time to think, a bit of inspiration, and who knows – when you throw the dice and ride off to Paris, anything could happen.

What he wanted to know, not being a touring cyclist, was if this sort of thing was practicable – could you get away with camping rough in France, would a ratty old bike suffice for a seven-day trip, did you need a lot of gear he didn’t have and couldn’t afford?

He got a lot of responses. There were the usual naysayers, of course, filled with doom and gloom and chiding, finger-waggling Calvinistic reminders that his foremost duty was to find a job not flit off to Paris on a whim, but for the most part the responses were wonderfully upbeat and encouraging, perhaps even wistful in some cases, with the overwhelming majority urging him to go ahead and do it, saying it was but a week out of his life but the experience might change the course of it wonderfully. Many offered to donate some of their old touring gear and spare bicycle parts to the cause

It sounded so promising and youthful and romantic. I was hoping he’d do it and that by now – this was nearly four weeks ago now – we might be reading posts about how the journey went, a sort of real-life 21stcentury take on Mr Polly or The Wheel’s of Chance. But over the next few days, as the advice and offers continued to flood in, the Original Poster seemed to become more circumspect and hesitant, suddenly bashful in the face of the reality of actually dong such a thing, saying that perhaps the sensible thing, after all, would be to wait until he had the funds to buy an appropriate touring bicycle, and that anyway by the time he could get himself organized it would be September, and that really seemed a bit late in the season to embark on such journey – the approach of autumn and winter and all that, and France being a foreign country… And on it went. I can understand his uneasiness and sympathize with him.

How easy it is for those of us at home to give advice and see the perils and adventures of somebody else’s life as a sort of grand radio serial we can follow. He’s the one who has to bear the consequences of his actions, not us. But as someone who has taken those sorts of shoot-the-moon chances in the past – and not merely urged others to do so – I can say truthfully that I have never regretted them. True, things didn’t always pan out as planned, but often the unforeseen results of these big sea-change gambles were better than anything I might have hoped for or anticipated.

The thread has gone cold now – the OP hasn’t posted in a fortnight. I am hoping this is because he is on the road to Paris, but I fear the truth is more prosaic.

Vicarious Velodrome

There was much giggling from two little girls in the Smith household on Friday afternoon when the postman knocked to deliver a large parcel from Amazon: something my wife ordered as a surprise for me while I was off in Norway. Heads crowded close as I slit the packing tape and opened it up – to discover that I had been given a Scalextrix velodrome with two Team GB cyclists that can whiz around the artfully banked track at astounding speeds. It was my first ever visit to the track, so to speak, and I can’t say I acquitted myself terribly well. Both my nine year-old and my eleven year-old beat me comprehensively and consistently. But it was glorious fun on a rainy afternoon and if my hours at the veledrome didn’t exactly make me any fitter it was at least wonderful quality time in the saddle.

An Auto-da-Fé

So Lance Armstrong has thrown in the towel, uncharacteristically walking away from a fight and announcing that he is no longer going to contest or otherwise involve himself a U.S. Anti-Doping Agency investigation he evidently sees as little more than a lynching.

“There comes a point in every man’s life when he has to say enough is enough,” Armstrong read in a statement. “For me, that time is now.” Within hours the USADA announced it had stripped the former Tour de France winner of all seven of the titles he won between 1999 and 2005 and had banned him for life. As painful as retreat must have been for the fiercely proud, competitive and pugnacious Armstrong, throwing in the towel yesterday was also a very shrewd move – and indeed one that he foreshadowed he might make in an interview with Men’s Journal several months ago. The man is no fool. He knows that anyone with an interest in him, his career or foundation, has already made up their minds, long ago, about whether or not they think he cheated – and whether or not they care.

Nothing will change. He knows that if he beats the USADA rap, his detractors will say it was only because he had good lawyers and the UCI in his back pocket, and the rumours and innuendo and conspiracy theories will continue to fly as before. If he loses, his steadfast admirers will maintain he was the victim of a witch hunt. Indeed even those who aren’t his admirers, such as US Federal judge Sam Sparks, the judge who on Monday threw out Lance’s bid to have the USADA investigation suspended and declared unlawful, questioned the USADA’s motives in launching the investigation in the first place.

By walking away as he has, adopting the position of aggrieved innocence in an unfair court, essentially pleading nolo contendre, there will be no dirt-airing inquiry, no parade of witnesses (at least not against Lance). His guilt or innocence will forever remain an untested question, open to debate to anyone who still cares; he still never actually lost the fight, or was found guilty, he just rode off into the sunset. Lance is betting that history, the court of public opinion (especially in America) and its collective memory will come down in his favour. Those who hate him will go on hating him as before, while his many admirers will see him as the victim of a grievous injustice, while still others will focus on his charity work and decide that the good far outweighs the bad, regardless of how he won those races. There are a lot of these people – possibly even a majority if you look past the cycling community and include society-at-large. And to them Lance will always be a seven-time winner of the Tour de France, and an American hero, no matter what some faceless government suit says. And by golly, day-on-day donations to Lance Armstrong’s Livestrong anti-cancer foundation were up 2500% yesterday after the news broke – the jury voting with their wallets in the court of public opinion. And not a single one of Lance’s big corporate sponsors walked away.

No, throwing in the towel was probably the smartest thing Lance could have done. With that one deft move he has turned the tables; the focus is no longer on whether or not he did it, but whether or not we care.

As for me I find the denouement of this whole sorry tale rather disquieting. I was a Lance fan for years, wanting very much to believe the fairytale success story of the young man who defied life threatening cancer to come back and win the world’s toughest sporting contest seven times on the trot. At the time, back then, the rumours of cheating seemed more the product of jealousy and an iconoclastic delight in tearing down, or trying to, a heartwarming success story. I liked his ghost-written book It’s Not About The Bike and if his character came across as rather prickly, he also came across as driven, intensely focussed and fanatically competitive. I don’t think even his bitterest detractors would say he didn’t train incredibly hard or that he didn’t have an immense native talent (however he nurtured it).

In that regard he seemed believable – an exceptional athlete, and an exceptional man, if not exactly a likable one. In the light of subsequent events, and the parade of confessions, investigations and aired dirty laundry we’ve all been treated to over the past couple of years, I am no longer a believer. There is just too much dirt flying around, too many of Lance’s old team mates have been busted and/or ‘fessed up for me to believe he alone raced clean all those years – and not only raced clean but was blithely unaware of all the cheating, doping and shooting-up going on around him. I just don’t see Lance as that much of an ingénue.

So he played dirty – in a dirty game where it seems as though everybody was playing dirty. Do I care? Well, no, not exactly, not anymore, and not because I think his good works should outweigh the bad or that cheating doesn’t matter. It does. Or did. But seriously, where do you draw the line? And more importantly, when? The man has retired; he is no longer in the peloton. The most recent of the Tour victories he has forfeited occurred in 2005, seven years ago; the oldest dates back thirteen years, to 1999. That’s ancient history in an age of Twitter. And to whom do you award these vacated wins? Jan Ullrich? A list of Tour winners and podium finishers from 1996 to 2010 makes for some pretty dispiriting reading. That was a very dirty age.

But was it any dirtier, one wonders, than the ages that preceded it? Lying, cheating and drug use at the Tour have been around for decades, almost from its inception, with quite a few former champions having (once safely in retirement) acknowledged using performance enhancing drugs during their careers. Are the authorities now going to open investigations into the golden eras of Merckx and Anquetil? And what of Tommy Simpson? He’s actually kind of a hero these days – his Byronic death on Mt Ventoux given a more wholesome patina by the passage of time so that he is seen today more as swashbuckling than dirty, in the same way, I suppose, that the old-time Pirates of the Caribbean are seen as romantic and colourful, while the modern versions lurking off the coast of Somalia are thoroughly reviled.

I don’t have any answers, nor even suggestions or opinions that I wouldn’t find myself contradicting in the very next breath. I do believe these things needed to be sorted at the time, not years later. I am not trying to be an apologist for Lance, or for any of them, but there is something in the note of vindictive self-righteousness about all this and a sense of burning in effigy that I find unsettling, and does indeed suggest a witch hunt. Bagging Lance is not the same thing as stamping out original sin.

Rising and Shining

I’ve been spending an awful lot of time at high latitudes this summer, travelling on one assignment or another. Norway’s remote Lofoten Islands, where I’ve made multiple trips this year, is well above the Arctic Circle at 68-degrees north and even Orkney is getting up there, at nearly sixty degrees; Kirkwall is north of Juneau, Alaska.

Being away as much as I have, and acclimatising myself to the sunrise and sunset hours at these high latitudes, I have rather lost track of the progress of a mid-latitude English summer. As a result when I trundled downstairs at four-thirty this morning, glad to be home again and eager to go out for my morning ride, I found myself staring into darkness and obliged to wait for the first tendrils of grey to creep into the sky since all of my lights and other night-time riding paraphernalia are packed away for the duration of a summer that I now see has passed me by. Where did it go? And how did it pass so quickly?

It seemed like only the other day I was noting with pleasure that we’d come to the summer Solstice, that sunrise here in Hastings had crept back to 4:44am and that there was sufficient light for riding a good half an hour before that. I was filled with all sorts of delicious plans for rosy-dawn cycling expeditions in the infinity of summer days that seemed to be stretching before me.

Now, suddenly, here we are coming into September – September! – with the morning sun not showing its face before six o’clock and lights very much being needed on the bike if you’re going out any earlier than 5:30am. Summer – my summer, the one in leafy Sussex – is coming to a close and I feel as though I’ve missed it. And what’s more I am heading abroad again next week for a fortnight on yet another assignment (and going north again too, funnily enough) While I am grateful to have the work, I am also aware of the passage of time and an elegiac sense of things left undone which I ought to have done.

The More The Merrier

A Sunday ride in Melbourne in 1895

So here I am back home in Sussex, having lobbed in last night on an evening flight from Oslo in which I found myself seated beside a prosperous looking Norwegian man in his forties and beside him a thirty-something (maybe) Asian-American woman from Washington DC who occupied the window seat. We were all strangers to each other. Although I was immersed in my Kindle, or trying to be, for I cherish my solitude on flights, I couldn’t help overhearing their chatter about themselves, their backgrounds, what they did for their livings, the usual kinds of idle banter that is exchanged by the talkative class of passengers.

By and by, though, their line of patter drifted to the relative merits of cycling in the cities they lived in or knew well: Oslo versus London versus New York City and Washington DC with safety, scenery, cycle paths and the number of fellow cyclists high on their list of criteria. I didn’t join in but my ears perked up. What intrigued me wasn’t so much what they were saying, their anecdotes and observations, but the naturalness and the matter-of-fact quality of the conversation.

When I was a kid, grown-ups didn’t ride bicycles – not as a rule anyway, or at least none of the grown-ups did who were within my sphere of acquaintance. Riding around on bicycles was considered one of those breezy childhood activities that could, with some degree of respectability and a touch of whimsy, be carried over through high school and even college years, but after that was quite naturally dropped in favour of the appropriateness of an automobile. Like it says in the Bible, First Corinthians: “When I became a man I put away childish things.”

So ingrained was this thinking that when I did resume cycling again as an adult, more than twenty years ago now, I did so with a sense of novelty and wonder and daring, rather chuffed that I was riding off to an office in the city on my bicycle and marvelling at the discovery that there were even a few suits, brokers and bankers and lawyers and bond traders and the like, who were doing the same thing. Not many, to be sure back in 1990, but some; enough to fashion a sense of community whenever we’d encounter each other on the streets.

Nowadays of course there is nothing at all unusual about grown-ups getting around on bicycles – indeed I see far more grown-ups than kids on bikes. And while we still represent a minority, we are is a comfortably established mainstream one, and becoming more mainstream every day; an accepted part of the cultural and emotional landscape – so much so that it wasn’t until after I had been eavesdropping for a while on my neighbours’ conversation, and musing on the increasingly widespread adult respectability of cycling in the 21st century that I noticed the man across the aisle from me was browsing through a cycling magazine, absorbed in an article called “Tips for Trouble Free Tubular Rims’.

And next to him a Norwegian man was reading a newspaper article that, judging by the photograph of a road bike that accompanied it, seemed to concern cycling, while a woman across the aisle from me and one row up was perusing the ‘Style’ page in the Independent in which ‘Ten of the Best’ in cycling fashions were being showcased. It made me smile, this newfound ubiquity of cycling. Long may it last and prosper.

Southbound

Norwegian travel poster - 1957

My apologies to anyone who has been trying to follow my blog this past week and found it not being updated as regularly as I’d like it to have been, but internet access at our remote little harbourside cabin was a good deal more scratchy than expected and then too the work days were long – remember, I am out here on business, not for pleasure, as incredibly scenic and pleasurable as northern Norway may be.

Today, though, I begin the long sequence of ferries and flights that will bring me home again to wife and kids – and back out on my bicycle in the cool fresh Sussex dawns. I am looking forward to it, being home, that is, and riding my bicycle, not the exhausting sequence of flights and ferries and the hours of queuing in the immigration hall at Heathrow that I have ahead of me.

That said, I should add that the places I have visited on this, and the other on-assignment trips I have made up here this year, look like they would be fabulous places to go touring – and indeed I’ve seen quite a few long-haul cyclists up here doing just that. Although I’ve not been (yet) to ride the roads up here personally, I’ve had the opportunity to look the place over with a touring cyclist’s eye and plan to write a post in the near future that I hope might be useful to anyone considering a cycling jaunt above the Arctic Circle.

Dog Day Afternoons

Holiday at Mentone by Charles Condor 1888

I read in the BBC news website yesterday that England has enjoyed, if that is the word, its warmest day of 2012 so far with temperatures soaring to more than 32C in parts of Surrey, or 90F for those measuring their temperatures on the old Fahrenheit scale. Still warmer weather is forecast for today, and the summery conditions are meant to prevail right through the middle of next week – before cooling off apparently and, alas, probably becoming typically grey and rainy once more, in time for my return home.

So it looks as though I shall miss out on this English ‘heatwave’, although given the early hours in which I do my riding I wouldn’t have been cycling in it very much anyway. Pre-dawn temperatures have been a fairy pleasant 20C or so, or a touch under 70 degrees Fahrenheit; delightful weather, really to be out on a bike. But then I have never really minded the heat, and in fact kind of miss it.

Living in rural South Australia, as I used to do, and riding through the vineyards in the Barossa Valley on bright hot summer afternoons when the temperatures would be in the low- to mid-30sC – anything up to 95F – used to be my idea of a pleasant time. I liked the hard enamel blue of the sky on an Australian summer’s day, the clarity of the sunlight and the violet qualities the eucalypt haze lent the hills in the distance. I’m hardly unique in my noticing and appreciating the light and colour of an Australian landscape baking in the heat- some of Australia’s most iconic paintings were painted outdoors in breathless heat and glare by the great plein air impressionists of the 1880s and 1890s – Tom Roberts, Arthur Streeton, Frederick McCubbin, and Charles Condor.

Unlike Australia’s earlier colonial painters they took their easels out to the countryside to paint the Australian landscape as it really was – hot, bright and glary, with gnarled gum trees and sun-browned grasses. Their masterpieces owed nothing to traditionally pretty English scenes and European aesthetics. Far from gentling their images, these Heidelberg-school artists (so called because of one of the Yarra Valley villages, just north of Melbourne, in where they frequently painted) ventured into the blinding afternoon sunlight and positively celebrated the heat and dust and antipodean weirdness of their native land.

One of my favourite of these Heidelberg paintings, now in the Art Gallery of South Australia, is Charles Condor’s ‘Holiday at Mentone’. It depicts archly Victorian holiday-makers ‘unwinding’ in the purplish heat of one of Melbourne’s beachside suburbs, south of the city, along Port Phillip Bay. Look at it and you can feel the breathlessness of the afternoon and imagine the sweat running down the gentlemen’s collar as he coyly eyes the girl reading a book beneath her beach umbrella. Something about the scene just appeals to me and an image of it often comes to mind when I am pedalling along English seaside promenades on what passes for a hot summer day over here.

Some of those iconic Australian landscapes and beach scenes were painted in shade temperatures of up to 115 degrees – conditions that would be challenging enough for broad-hatted artists dabbing oils on canvas. For anyone pedalling a bicycle, however, that is downright dangerous. I don’t mind the heat, up to a point. If it is dry heat, as it usually is in South Australia, I can quite happily ride in temperatures of 35C or 95 Fahrenheit, as long as I have a couple of water bottles on board.

Over 40C – or 104F – is another matter, although when I was cycling around Australia I often encountered shade temperatures of over 45C and the occasional 50c – or 122F. That is insane heat. In those days, when I was riding long empty stretches of outback highway, I thought of myself as buying distance with water. I carried as much as 23 litres with me on some of the longer and more difficult desert crossings and used to reckon on getting 15 kilometres for my first litre of water in the morning, in the relative cool of the day, maybe even 15 on my second if I was lucky and feeling my oats, and then 10 kilometres per litre after that until mid-morning by which time the temperature would be well over the old century mark and the distance-water calculus was no longer working in my favour.

Then it was time to pitch a day camp, find or make some shade, and sit out the next few hours, resting and sipping at a water bottle, until a point in the middle of the afternoon when a shift in the colour of the light told me the heat of the day had passed and the long, slow decline into evening had begun. Then I would put away the book I had been reading, break camp and start down the road once more, buying my distance ten to fifteen kilometres at a time.

You can become inured to anything and during my months of riding through the bush, I grew quite accustomed to the outback’s searing temperatures. I can remember once, when I was staying at Shalomar station, a half-million-acre cattle property in the Great Sandy Desert, getting up in the cool of the day at about 4:30am, seeing a temperature of 27C (81 Fahrenheit) on the battered old trade thermometer that hung from a nail on the shed wall, thinking how deliciously cool the air felt at that moment, wishing it could stay like that all day and marvelling to myself that there were places in the world, wonderful blissful far-away places, where that would be the high for the day.

I think about that long-ago morning sometimes when I am in England and I hear the weather forecaster on ITV4 or the BBC predicting a ‘scorcher’ for the morrow with temperatures of up to 27C or some such for London and it makes me smile. Although I wouldn’t have imagined myself ever thinking it on that distant morning at Shalomar Station, in an odd sort of way it makes me wistful for those long-ago dog day afternoons beneath a vast and brassy Australian sky.

Out of Office – Again

Seventeenth century chart of the North Sea

I was barely home for twenty-four hours, not even time enough to squeeze in a decent ride on my bicycle than I was obliged to hit the road yet again, this time back up to northern Norway, above the Arctic Circle, to a region I’ve been a couple times already this year. As ever with getting up here it was a long and exhausting day, starting with a 5:30am pick up by taxi to go to Heathrow, then three separate flights (and all the attendant security and queuing) and finally a late evening boat ride. I woke this morning in a very pleasant piney hut overlooking a picturesque Norwegian harbour – but alas, without a bicycle, mine or anyone else’s nor really any place to ride one on this tiny island. There is also very little in the way of Internet access, only whatever wifi hotspots we can make with iPhones.

I will try to post while I am up here, and to reply to comments, but if nothing much appears here for the next few days, you’ll know the reason why. I will in any event be back home on Wednesday night.