Tag Archives: Thorn eXp

Sixty Miles in a Soft English Rain

It’s a bank holiday weekend here in England and as is traditionally the case with bank holiday weekends, the weather is cold and grey and rainy. It seems the wettest and chilliest April in over a hundred years has segued into an even chillier and wetter May, with the low pressure system that appears to have been anchored these isles the past few weeks now raining on everybody’s grand plans for the long weekend – mine included.

I’ve got the place to myself this weekend, the wife and kids having decamped to Spain for a few days to visit an aunt and uncle who retired to the Costa del Sol. I stayed behind to try to wrap up a story I am writing and thereby meet some pressing deadlines, but with all the extra hours and so much quiet on my hands I thought too that I might at least be able to indulge in a longer, more elaborate Sunday ride – maybe take the Pegoretti out for its inaugural outing of the 2012 season and go for a spin up to Beachy Head, a sixty- or eighty-mile loop (depending how I do it) that is particularly delightful on that bike which just seems to soar up hills of its own accord. I had visions of early morning sunshine, soft blue skies, the Hawthorne in bloom along the lanes and everywhere you look that elusive champagne clarity in the light that lets you imagine that you can pick out every detail in the landscape from miles away.

But that’s not what happened. I went out this morning into a cold blue overcast light and a steady rain. I was aboard my winter bike once more – the doughty old Thorn – dressed in winterish mode, and with flashing lights, fore and aft, to signal my presence in the pre-dawn gloom. But you know what? I had a lovely ride. The rain was soft, the air was cool and still, and the Sunday morning quiet gave the rainy-day streetscapes in town and along the seafront promenade a pleasing downbeat quality.

It was curiously seductive too. I hadn’t planned on going far when I first set out but I found myself enjoying this ride through the soft English rain so much that I just kept on pedalling, out across the marshes and over to Beachy Head, doing my sixty-mile loop in spite of myself, and finding in the rain-freshened colours and the picaresque freedom of being out and about on such a quiet rainy Sunday as this the sense of escape I’d been hoping to find all along. By the time I spun back home I felt as though I had been on a holiday.

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My Winter Bike

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-fiancĂ©’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.

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