Monthly Archives: August 2012
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.