Monthly Archives: November 2012

A Touch of Frost

Cycling photographer Roff Smith goes for a spin along the deserted seafront at Hastings, East Sussex with a hard frost forming and a creamy full moonA brisk minus-2C when I went out the door this morning at a half past four, with a big creamy moon floating high in the sky and a sharp tang of incipient frost in the air. It hadn’t formed yet though – that was something I was privileged to watch take place over the next two and a bit hours as I rode across the marshes to Pevensey and back, and another of the many surprises and pleasures that come with being out and about so early. Usually frost is a magic you just wake up to.

On my outbound ride there was only cold damp air, and a fine sheen just starting to form on the windscreens of cars and silvering the tips of the grasses along the roadside. By the time I had rolled up to the ruins of Pevensey castle the air felt much crisper and sharper, my toes were cold in my cycling shoes (note to self: time to dig out the thermal socks) and I was feeling inspired to put on a bit of extra pace.

As I rode back towards home along the same cold dark little lane over which I had just come I noticed that the grass which had been an uninteresting silvery brown in the glare of my headlamps on the way over to Pevensey had in the meantime developed a beautiful coating of frost, which grew thicker by the minute. It was a pleasure to watch this little miracle unfold – one well worth the price of getting cold toes. I would love to have been able to capture on ‘film’ the early morning delight of riding down an English country lane with the frost thickening on the grasses and leaf tips along the roadside, but I couldn’t think of a way to light it properly and do it justice, and certainly not to capture the kaleidoscopic wonder of seeing it thicken as you pedal along. Perhaps more frost will bring more inspiration. What I did do was give the new camera another try out along the seafront back in Hastings, where I enjoyed greater solitude that I had the other day. It is short acquaintance yet but I am liking very much the Canon G1X’s increased resolution and larger, more sophisticated sensor – perhaps there will be a way to catch Jack Frost yet.

A Not So Lonely Night

Maybe it’s the phase of the moon, but geez, they were all out this morning – the idlers, the loiterers, the hoodies hanging around deserted bus shelters or lighting cigarettes in doorways, parodies of themselves, really, but nevertheless just the crowd you really don’t want to attract when you are contemplating setting up some elaborate self-timer photography with expensive gear all by your lonesome on a deserted seafront at 5:30am.

Everywhere I went along the Hastings promenade this morning I seemed to be attracting all the wrong kind of interest from all the wrong kinds of people. Every time I would pull over at a likely scene, dismount and start to set up my tripod, out they would come, as if by magic, drifting out of the deep shadows in nearby doorways or bus shelters, murmuring among themselves and sidling over in my direction, seemingly with no purpose and yet with eyes seemingly very much focussed on my bike and my interesting camera gear. And so, with equally studied nonchalance, and before they could draw too near, I would sigh and pack up my dollies and pedal on.

It was particularly frustrating because I was trying to test out a new camera – a Canon G1X which I actually bought last August but for a variety of reasons mainly concerning the limitations of my older model computer and my earlier version of Lightroom hadn’t yet put it into service on the blog. Now that I am all up to date with the latest versions of software I’m kind of keen to put the new camera to the test, especially since it’s large new sensor is said to be brilliant in low light conditions.

I did get this one shot taken, before a young lad emerged out of nowhere – startling me – from the dense shadows of the bus shelter up ahead and to the right, shuffling along towards me with his hood up concealing his face and in a mumbling tone wanting to know if I had a match, any cigarettes, knew what time it was, the usual amiable get-to-know-you chatter to put one at ease on a deserted seafront.

By then I had detached my camera and put it safely in its case, and stood holding a substantial looking Manfrotto tripod – the aluminium version, not the carbon one – and hefting it in a such a way as (hopefully) to suggest an awareness on my part that tripods didn’t necessarily have to be used to support cameras, but could be considered to have other uses as well. I seemed to have communicated this thought, along with the news that I had no matches, no cigarettes and didn’t know the time. He shrugged and drifted on, once or twice looking back over his shoulder.

Perhaps I am doing him an injustice. Perhaps he was just strolling, looking for a match and wanted to know the time so he wouldn’t be late for work, but lots of early morning cycling through the Hastings town centre has taught me to play my hunches – and so I have kept my expensive new camera to give it a more thorough try out another day.

Once Upon A Time

A few years ago now – actually it was more than a few; it was the summer of 2000 – I set off on a rather whimsical journey to Istanbul. It was something I had been daydreaming of doing for ages, since I was a kid, really. I’d always loved the idea that the road to adventure began at my doorstep and that I might – if I dared – hop aboard my bike one day, cavalier as you please, and set off for distant places – most particularly Istanbul, or Constantinople as it was in the musty old stamp album I had back then and whose colourful foreign stamps informed my boyhood world.

This notion of independent travel and journeys starting from home was an idea, a fascination, that I never outgrew but which only became more appealing with each passing year, as I grew older, more steeped in frequent flier miles And so in the summer of my forty-second year, not long after I first arrived in England, I did what I had always dreamed of doing – I hopped aboard my bicycle early one morning in June and set off on my journey: down the street, along the seafront, with my bedroll on my rear rack, a cut lunch in my bar bag and my cap set for Istanbul.

I had no particular route in mind, nor any maps with me other than a large scale rambler’s map of the countryside immediately around Boulogne, where the ferry landed, and a fold out street plan of the old quarter of Istanbul. One to see me safely underway, the other to guide me in at the finish. The two thousand or so miles that lay in between, I figured to play by ear, making up my route up as I went along, filling in my own private blank spot on the globe. Although I had travelled a great deal by then, in the course of my journalism career, curiously enough I had scarcely ever set foot in Europe. It was all virgin territory, my own fabled continent, ripe for discovery.

Six weeks later, trail worn, sunburnt and happy as if I had good sense, I rolled up in front of the Blue Mosque.

I’ve always wanted to write up the story of that ride, but never really could find the time. Work beckoned – and very agreeable and diverting work it was, too. Within a few weeks of my arrival in Istanbul, I found myself on a LC-130 cargo plane bound for the South Pole on an assignment for National Geographic, researching and writing a 6000-word feature on science in Antarctica that occupied my every waking moment for a good few months. Other assignments followed, and although I would occasionally write up chapters of my Istanbul trip I never really had the long empty weeks I needed to finish the job. And so I would start, stop, lose the thread of my thoughts, start again when I had a free moment, stop again when paying work interceded and on and on it went. Over the years the manuscript languished.

Often I’ve wondered if there isn’t perhaps some kind of a jinx attached to overland journeys from England to Istanbul that keeps writers from writing about them. It took Alexander William Kinglake ten years to write Eothen, the popular 19th century travel narrative about a journey he made to Constantinople in the early 1830s. As for Patrick Leigh Fermor, who travelled there on foot as an 18 year-old in 1933, well, he died last year aged 96 having never published the third volume of his narrative – the one that would have covered the last leg of his journey and brought him to the gates of Istanbul, and which I (and others!) had been keenly waiting to read. It took him over forty years before he wrote even the first part, A Time Of Gifts (1977) and nine more years before he published the second, Between The Woods and The Water (1986).

On that scale, I suppose, I’ve been slower than Kinglake in writing about my journey but considerably quicker than Fermor, for after twelve years I now have a complete manuscript. Better late than never as the old saying goes, although this is not necessarily true for travel narratives. As a journalist I know that my timing is bad as far as publishing goes, for twelve years is too long an interval for a travel story to be considered current, and yet it is not sufficiently removed in time to give the tale the elegiac quality of a travel narrative from long ago, far away, when the going was good.

I could always wait a few decades, but I don’t want to. And so after a bit of soul searching I have decided to take advantage of the bully pulpit afforded me by this blog, and run the old story myself, in serialised form. How I will do this, I am not quite sure yet. I am thinking of publishing a chapter a week, perhaps on Sundays. It is – or will be – a light-hearted read, nothing serious. I hope you will enjoy it.

A Sweet Simple Beauty

I went for a spin this morning on the Elgar – my own name for the one-off bespoke randonneur built for me by Mark Reilly at Enigma – and once again I was struck by just how well this bicycle fits me, and what a remarkable difference a truly perfect fit on a bicycle can make to the pleasure of a ride. I know I have mentioned this before, but even after owning this bicycle for a while now this curious, almost organic, feeling of having a bicycle feel like an extension of yourself continues to amaze and delight me.

It is almost as though the bicycle has become invisible, even forgettable. For a bit under two hours this morning, and a bit over thirty miles, I flew over the Sussex countryside not at any particularly dazzling speed, but effortlessly. It was as though I sprouted wings rather than wheels. My other bikes are also beautifully made and fit me well, and I love them to bits, especially the Pegoretti, but I have never ridden a bicycle that has this bicycle’s particular organic quality.

I wish it was something I was better able to express or share or, better still, was more readily obtained in the market. If it was I can’t help but think the automobile would be doomed, or consigned to mere work horse status – the salted-roads winter ride, perhaps. But it’s not. And more’s the pity. Too many could-have-been cyclists will go on judging the bicycle by the standards of the clunky, heavy, ill-fitting impulse buy or rental thing they sweated up a hill for a lark one sunny weekend, dismiss it as ‘impractical’ and never experience the sense of aerial liberation and the simple, sweet beauty of a bicycle in full flower.

On Running Reds

I like to think of myself as a fairly law-abiding citizen on my bicycle, although I must admit that when I am heading out of town at 4:30am I have been known to shoot through the deserted intersection at the bottom of our hill against the light. I just cannot see the point of standing there, straddling my bike all alone on an empty crossroad, in the spill of a street lamp, waiting for a light to change. On my way back home, on the other hand, when the world has woken up and the road is bustling with the start of the morning rush hour, I am a very good citizen indeed.

And why wouldn’t I be? There I am astride a 22-pound road bike, mixing it with cars and trucks weighing many tonnes and being driven by people who are in a hurry, feeling harried and not especially charitable. Who wants to be road kill? As I spin along Grand Parade, the boulevard that runs along the seafront here in Hastings, I try to be the very model of consistency and predictability, and I maintain this good citizenship all the way home – nearly.

There is, alas, one intersection not far from home where not only do I choose to run the light if it is red, I actually hope it will be red when I get there so I can run it and squeeze through the gauntlet of dangers that follow without a lot of fast and aggressive motorists breathing down my neck.

The intersection I am thinking of is part of a short but diabolically engineered stretch of road that starts just before the crest of a fairly steep hill. If you can think of a T-junction with the top bar of the T being the road I am riding upon, left to right, I will try to describe it. Just before the top of this hill the road narrows, passes over a very unpleasantly pitched speed bump and funnels through a an even narrower strait by a traffic island with a set of lights to control the traffic in this T-junction.

Immediately on the other side of the intersection is another narrow strait and traffic island with a series of sleeping policemen speed bumps. These, coupled with the abrupt on-street parking arrangements force you to ride on the outer part of the lane unless you want to be swerving sharply in and out of traffic. This is a genuinely dangerous stretch of road for cycling and I am always relieved to get through it unscathed.

There is no safe way to negotiate it in the general flow of traffic unless you get a jump on the red light. Greens here are dangerous. As for the traffic that is joining at the intersection, it is nearly always turning left and so none of these motorists are in any way inconvenienced or affronted by my running the light. What makes this all the more irritating is that this set of lights and ‘traffic calming’ measures are relatively recent additions – within the past few years – and what had previously been a free flowing stretch of road has become a bottleneck for motorists as well, most of whom are not at all ‘calmed’ by the gauntlet of bumps, lights and chicanes.

I like to try to play the game, and set a good example as a cyclist and so I resent being forced, for safety’s sake, to having to run lights. It would seem to me that with all the Government’s recent talk of cycling safety, a little thoughtful reappraisal of how intersections are designed would be a really good idea, and one that would benefit all road users, not just cyclists, and perhaps be a whole lot easier to implement.

(My apologies if my description is not clear. I’ve not tried taking pictures here because: a) it is too dangerous to muck about trying to take pictures while I am riding there and b) there are always lynx-eyed characters slouching in front of the shop that is right beside this intersection and if I tried my usual self-timer routines I am not sure I’d get to keep my camera very long)

The Right and Wrong Kinds of Hill

There are two ways I can close out my loops on my long morning rides out to Pevensey and points west, and both of them involve my climbing a fairly steep hill towards the end of the ride. Given that I am presented with a choice it might seem a little odd that virtually every time – unless I am really running late – I always take the longer and more circuitous route which also involves a considerably longer and bigger hill and yet still consider myself to be taking the easy option. It’s because the other hill is simply the wrong kind of hill – for me, that is.

It is an Alberto Contador kind of hill, short and sharp, rearing suddenly upward at a gradient of 14% and then twisting backwards in a kind of elbow bend – and this little beauty coming off a hard left-hand turn off a nearly flat stretch of coastal road. You pretty much start this one at a dead stop. To be sure, it doesn’t go on for very long at all, but it is mean and punchy – in fact, precisely the brutal kind of grade on which El Pistolero likes to launch his attacks. He can have it.

I would much rather ride the extra (and rather scenic) three miles along the Hastings seafront and then climb out of town on the much, much longer, winding and still fairly steep St Helen’s Road. Not only is it a far prettier way for me to get home, with large attractive villas on one side of the road and Alexandra Park on the other, but this is a hill I actually enjoy – one on which I am happy to launch my attacks, go at it hard, particularly when I am riding my winged Pegoretti. I love it. It is exhilarating. Getting some momentum up on the approach out of town and then churning up the grade as swiftly as I can gives me a sense of accomplishment and satisfaction when I finally crest that last rise. For me this hill nicely caps off my ride, the perfect ender.

As far as elevation gain, it is a much higher hill than the other, probably double the height – and in fact from its crest I end up coasting the last half mile home. The overall energy expenditure on this one is greater as well, I dare say, for it is not really all that much shallower a grade. It is for me, though, the right kind of hill.

A Crescent Moon

Nothing appeals to me more on my lamp-lit rides, or suggests ‘late night’ or ‘after hours’ or ‘early getaway’ quite so eloquently as the spectacle of a crescent moon hanging low in the sky. Of all the phases of the moon, this is my favourite, the slimmer and sharper and pointier the crescent, the better. I don’t know why it should be so. Or rather, I kind of know why but I can’t adequately put it into words.

What I can say is that I’ve been known to stick my head out the door of a cold, dark morning, feeling blasé and wondering if I would really make the effort, and then catch sight of a thin sliver of a moon floating above the branches and suddenly feel inspired – and decided.

A gibbous moon won’t stir me like that, nor a full moon either – unless it happens to be one of those huge luminous ones, magnified by a trick of the night air – but a crescent moon? That hint of the exotic? I can’t resist. Next thing you know I am out the door, spinning down the street, flickering through its pools of lamp light, the sleepiness of a few moments earlier now forgotten in the pleasure of movement (and the bracing air) and the delicious prospects of solitude and the open road ahead.

All that remains then is for me then to make up my mind which of my favourite routes I should take so I can enjoy the best view of this evocative, jewel-like gift I have been given, revelling, as I go, in the sense of picaresque freedom and dawn departure it never fails to inspire. This to me is what the romance of travel is all about, an alchemy that takes place in the mind. I don’t need to go to Zanzibar or Timbuktu to experience it; it can be as close at hand as little old Bexhill-on-Sea, all alone on the seafront in the elegiac light of a cold November dawn, with a fine crescent moon hanging over the Channel to tease my imagination.

The Squeaky Drivetrain (Finally) Gets The Oil

This morning at long last I finally took the time, post ride, to give the chain on my bicycle the thorough cleaning and re-oiling that it deserves and should have had quite some time, and many, many miles ago. With the mornings being so dark lately, and my rides so early, and there being no light in the shed where I store my bicycles, I’ve fallen well behind on my maintenance schedule. In summer I like to give the chain a good clean and lube once a week – something I do after a ride, before I put my bike away. I should be even more religious about looking after the drive train in the foul weather of autumn and winter and yet because I come home in darkness and can’t see to do the job properly, I end up forgetting.

At the end of each rides, as I am putting the bike away, and fumbling around in the darkened shed, I tell myself that I will come out again, mid-morning, and tend to this important chore – and each day I forget – until usually some time after dinner, when it is time to dig out my cycling clothes in anticipation of the next morning’s ride, by which time it is once again too dark to do a decent job.

The past week or so it has really been bugging me – although still not enough to get my absent-minded self to remember to go back out to the shed later and oil that chain. Every morning I find myself spinning down the road, listening guiltily to the dry raspy sounds emanating from my drivetrain and resolving once more that this will be the day that I finally remember and get around to it.

Well today I actually did it: I cleaned and oiled my chain, first giving it a good wipe down with a towel liberally impregnated with degreaser and then oiling it carefully, link by link, drop by drop, with a bottle of Purple Extreme synthetic lubricant – my current favourite. It’s a costly drop, the old Purple Extreme, at about ten quid a bottle, but it has been a favourite of mine for about thee years now. It feels nice and viscous, as though it would do the bushings a world of good, yet it doesn’t seem to be a magnet for grit the way some thicker lubricants are, making it ideal for wet wintry rides. It goes on nicely, sinks in and, according to the blurb on the bottle, one application is good for 400 miles. It gets good reviews, too, from all I have read, and of course it is reassuringly expensive. And it is this last bit that brings me to the point: while I like and use this Purple Extreme, and ‘believe’ in its superlative lubricating qualities, the journalist in me also wonders how much of the marketing of these various brands of bicycle chain lubricants is pure snake oil salesmanship.

When I took my City & Guilds bicycle maintenance course a few years ago the instructor, Alf Webb, a canny old bike mechanic and shop owner, was dismissive of most of the grand claims being made for high-priced lubes, being of the opinion that as long as it wasn’t just some muddy old gunk you were putting on the chain, just about anything would do the job. He’s probably right. And particularly so since so many of us neglect to lube our chains often enough anyway, regardless of what kind of lubricant we buy.

Snake oil or not I still tend to think of my little vial of Purple Extreme as a sort of panacea for all my chain’s ills, and no doubt will buy another when, eventually, this one runs dry. I suspect I am not along in this, and that we all have our favourite talismanic chain lubes – be it Purple Extreme, White Lightning, Finish Line, GT-85, Green Oil, whatever, a little bit of extra magic to help make the chain go round. And now that my poor hard-done-by chain has had its treatment I can look forward to tomorrow’s hopefully smoother ride with a clear conscience.

Autumn Leaves II

As though to make a liar out of me for my post the other day about the generally dull (by New England standards) run of autumn colours here in Olde England the trees in the Alexandra Park intensified their hues considerably this week and, helped along by a beautifully clear dawn sky, and champagne clarity of the light, made quite a spectacle as I pedalled up St Helen’s Road on my way home after a nice brisk thirty-five miles along the coast.

The bright coppery leaves, thinning on the branches and more thickly carpeting the ground, caught my eye, while the mirror reflections in the ornamental pond were enough to sell me on the idea of detouring back through the park for the sheer simple pleasure of riding through such a pretty scene, reprising some fond old memories of autumns in New England. How I’d love to go back there and ride along some of those country roads, with the sugar maples all ablaze.

But this was a pretty nice substitute, better than I’ve had in a long while. Perhaps it was all the rain we’ve had this summer, the rainiest in a century, coupled with the fairly mild temperatures the past few weeks, but as I rode the rest of the way home I couldn’t help but notice how vibrant some of the colours were this year and to be reminded yet again of how nice it was to be out so bright and early on a Sunday morning, aboard my bicycle, and to have all this to myself

Attractive Nuisance

So much for my good intentions. I slipped out the door this morning at half past four fully intending to ride to Wartling and back non-stop – a thirty-three mile round-trip the way I do it. What with battling a cold and pausing to do my on-the-road photography for this blog, my mileage has been really pared back the past couple of weeks, but today I was determined to get in a long brisk ride.

I took along my camera gear, of course. I always do. Every time I have left it home, I’ve always regretted it. Today though I really felt I was carrying it for form’s sake and nothing more. As I cast my mind forward along the route I was planning to follow I couldn’t imagine their being anything to stop and photograph along the way. The night skies heavy and overcast, there was no pretty crescent moon to add interest, and once you get away from the seaside towns there is not much to shoot along the marshes when it is pitch black like this. Today was going to be all about riding.

And then as I was spinning along the seafront at Bexhill-on-Sea I came upon the De Le Warr Pavilion, a 1930s modernist entertainment complex, all lit up and aglow. I’d never seen it lit up before. Not in all the years and countless mornings I have been coming by. Why it should have been at this at this hour of the morning, I haven’t a clue. There was nobody about. But there it was, in all its soft lit modernist glory.

I have been wanting to find a way to photograph this landmark on my rides for some time. I love the curved glass and art deco styling, but to date all my attempts to capture it, in a cycling context, haven’t come to much. Finding it lit up like this was too good an opportunity to pass up, and so I pulled over, dragged out my tripod and went to work. I couldn’t help myself. So – not much mileage to speak of this morning, but by golly a couple of photographs I rather like.