Month: August 2015

Here I Go Again…

The bags are packed.  The bags are on the bike.  One of the bags is hanging off a bit, which is not so good.  And the bags, the bike and me are in (currently) sunny Cornwall, ready to begin touring again.  That’s a good day (even after getting drenched on the four miles to the station this morning).

Here’s The Beastlet raring to go at Bristol Parkway station this morning, fresh from its early shower:

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So, where am I going?  Well, I’m riding (as close as sensibly possible) the length of the United Kingdom from south to north.  And I’m going to all four of the UK’s countries on the way.  This sounds deceptively simple, but even among my fellow British Citizens, there may be a little confusion about exactly what it means.

There are a lot of misconceptions and misunderstandings about where the UK starts and stops.

Many people I met in the US, for example, think that England and Britain are the same thing, and labour (or ‘labor’) under the odd impression that there’s such a thing as a ‘British accent’.  They aren’t, and there are hundreds, including a bunch of Scottish, Northern Irish and Welsh ones.

At the same time, as a citizen of the UK, I had to check whether (for example) the Channel Islands or Gibraltar are part of the country.  They aren’t.  Good job, too, as it would be a much longer ride from Gibraltar…

So, first off, a little geographical ‘clarification’ for you.  This may need reading carefully if you’re not over-familiar with our little archipelago.

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Deep breath.  Here we go…

The archipelago known as the British Isles lies off the coast of mainland Europe.  It’s made up of hundreds of islands, and is shared between two nation-states, the UK and the Republic of Ireland.  The two biggest islands are Great Britain and Ireland.  All of Great Britain (comprising most of England, Scotland and Wales), a bunch of other islands, and the north-eastern chunk of Ireland (Northern Ireland) are in the UK.  The rest of Ireland (and some other islands) is a separate nation-state, but was part of the UK until independence in the 1920s.  So, Ireland is an island.  And most of Ireland is not in the UK, but some is.  And all of it used to be.

Clear as mud, isn’t it?  Let’s simplify things by looking at sport.  In the Olympics, the UK competes, slightly confusingly, as ‘Great Britain and Northern Ireland’.  In football, England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland play as separate countries, and so does the Republic of Ireland.  Obviously, as it is.  Except in Rugby, Ireland and Northern Ireland play in a united Irish team, meaning that the one team represents two nation-states.  But one island.

That might still not be clear enough for some people.  So here’s one more try.  The UK is a proper country.  It’s on the UN Security Council and everything.  It issues its own passports and money (the pound).  It’s governed from London, which is in England and in the UK (technically, it’s governed from Westminster, which is next door to London, but that’s an entirely different set of ancient confusions).  It has military forces, a single foreign policy, and a single Prime Minister who deals with that sort of stuff.

So, it’s a country.  But…  England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are also called countries.  Together, these four countries make up the UK, which is a country.  Banks in Scotland and Northern Ireland (but not in Wales) can issue their own banknotes.  They are authorised to do this by the Bank of England, which manages the currency and sets interest rates for the whole of the UK.

Scotland and Northern Ireland (but not Wales) have their own legal systems.  England and Wales share the same one.

Scotland has its own parliament, Wales and Northern Ireland have their own assemblies.  England has neither, just relying on the UK Parliament in Westminster.  Which obviously has elected members from Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales in it.

And all four countries have their own capital cities; England’s just happens to be the capital of both England and the UK.  And everyone who has a UK-issued passport is British.  Including lots of people from places which aren’t part of the UK.  Or Great Britain, which, as we established at the start, is an island, like Ireland.

Clear enough?

Well, finally (I promise!), there’s one place from where, on a clear day, you can apparently see all four of the UK’s constituent countries.  It’s right in the middle of the UK.  This place is another of the British Isles; the Isle of Man.  The sportspeople of the Isle of Man (for example, the great cycling sprinter Mark Cavendish) compete for Great Britain and Northern Ireland.  Unless it’s the Commonwealth Games, of course, when they compete as the Isle of Man.  The island uses the pound, and is protected by the UK military.  And obviously, the Isle of Man isn’t part of the UK at all.

It strikes me that it might be easier just to say where I’m going.

After a lot (and I mean a lot) of internet-bashing, I finally worked out that the southernmost point of the UK is in the Isles of Scilly, three hours south-west by ferry from Penzance in Cornwall, where I now sit.  And the northernmost point is in the Shetlands, which are a surprisingly long way north.  You get palm trees down here in Cornwall.  The north of Shetland is roughly level with Anchorage, Alaska, and the bottom end of Greenland.  It’s about 200 miles from Bergen, in Norway, and over 600 miles from London.  Thankfully, they’re both marked on the map (thanks, Wikipedia!) up above the confusing stuff.

Here’s the plan.


[Edit – don’t think the map’s showing up as it should be – try this instead – https://www.google.com/maps/@55.357832,-3.658619,5z/data=!3m1!4b1!4m2!6m1!1szZYTuYtj57uU.k2f-gGvpi1Xo – and if that doesn’t work, either, I need to do some sort of Google Maps course…]

I’m setting sail for the Isles of Scilly tomorrow morning (Friday), and then heading over to Land’s End, which is back on the mainland.  Then it’s back up to Bristol for my first day off (I’ll hopefully update the ‘Progress’ page on the website with some more realistic stats and maps while I’m there).  Then it’s up through the Welsh borders and Liverpool to Lancashire, then another ferry to the Isle of Man (I know, I know, it’s not in the UK).  From there to Northern Ireland, then across to Scotland, and all the way up to the top of Great Britain.  Then Orkney, then Shetland.

Roughly a month, and there are quite a few ferries involved…

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The Beastlet has recovered well from its conversion to a touring bike.  New wheels, a mountain-bike chainset, and the mandatory racks have made it considerably heavier, but it feels pretty rugged, and rides really nicely with the bags on.  All should be well.

And Cornwall, which I’ve unforgivably never visited before, looks lovely (if very hilly).  This picture is looking out from Penzance; the castle on the hill in the distance is St Michael’s Mount, which is more-or-less an island.

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So, a day-trip with minimal cycling tomorrow to get things kicked off.  Then the business of touring begins in earnest on Saturday.

Shetland, here I come!

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A Summer Break

It’s been a little while, hasn’t it?

Partly, I was a bit bored of writing about how my shoulder, back and neck were feeling.  Partly I was getting stressed trying to make training rides on country lanes seem interesting.  And partly, I suspected that you, dear readers, were probably a bit bored of reading about the same stuff over and over again, too.

But things are getting (at least vaguely) interesting once more, and there’s a bit to catch up on.  So I think it’s time to put virtual pen to virtual paper again.

It may be a bit of a bumper issue, so you might want to get a nice cup of tea if you intend to wade through the whole thing in one go…

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I’ve been discharged from medical supervision (assuming no relapses), which is nice.  I’m apparently about 20-30% off full shoulder movement, which may or may not get any better.  The broken vertebrae in my back and neck should continue to strengthen with time.  In terms of day-to-day activities I’m about 90% sorted.  I may never again be able to do overhand chin-ups, but since I never could anyway, that’s no great loss.

The x-ray above was taken when I got back to Bristol, a week after the crash, and is (hopefully) the last you’ll hear about the Thai Truck Incident.  It gives at least a vague impression of how many bits were mangled and / or moved about at the time, and how big the impact was.  For me, it’s a nice reminder of how lucky I am to be more-or-less together four-and-a-half months later.

I’m fairly confident that I won’t be bothering you with further medical details because I completed my summer sportive programme on Sunday.  I can appreciate that some people may think that recovering from a major accident by building up to a timed 100-plus mile ride is somewhat masochistic, but it seems to have worked OK for me.  And if I was going to break down physically, it would’ve happened by now.  I think.

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My second sportive (after the one in Newbury which I wrote about last time) took me north to the Peak District National Park.  I wanted to get some proper hills under my belt, which is difficult in the south of England.  The Peaks are also a beautiful part of the world.  And I was lucky enough to ride mountain bikes up there while I was a student, so there was a nostalgic motivation for the ride too.

The ride itself was all a bit different from the Newbury event.  This was partly down to the much tougher terrain, but mostly down to my riding buddy for the day.  If you remember, I rode the first sportive with Luke, who’d only had a bike for a few weeks.  As the faster rider, all I had to worry about that day was whether I could manage the distance.

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To add to my Peak District nostalgia, I was riding with Jon.  He was one of my mountain-bike buddies from Uni, but we hadn’t seen each other for about 20 years (a good reason for writing a blog; he rediscovered me through this site while I was in Indonesia, or somewhere).

Jon’s a thoroughly good bloke, and we got on as if the decades-long gap had never happened.  Unfortunately, as you may be able to tell from the picture above, he’s also at least as fit as he was 20 years ago, and certainly way more than a match for me.

So in a slightly painful reversal of the Newbury ride, I spent most of the day clinging to Jon’s wheel as he nonchalantly climbed pretty much everything in the big chainring.  I thought I was keeping up OK until he decided to ‘have some fun’ on the steeper slopes at the top of Snake Pass (below).  He put at least a couple of minutes into me just in the last mile of the climb.  And I don’t think he was really working very hard even then.

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I’m sure there was a time (a couple of weeks in 1992, maybe?) when I could have done the same to him.  That time definitely isn’t now.

But at least I could console myself with: the three or four other riders who dropped off my wheel on the lower slopes of the pass; a reasonable time (at least by my current standards, and given the amount of climbing involved); and a couple of very decent pints of cider in the sunshine afterwards.  A really good day.

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The drive up to the Peaks reminded me of why I’m looking forward to my upcoming tour up the length of the UK.  Just over three-hours in the car (roughly 150 miles) whisked me from the flat flood plain of the Severn estuary, to the exposed moorland of the Peaks.  From golden stone cottages in Cotswold villages to dark brick terraced towns.  From people who over-pronounce the letter ‘r’ to people who don’t always bother with the word ‘the’.  And that’s just the start and end points; between the two I passed the UK’s second-biggest city, Birmingham, as well as the former centre of world pottery production around Stoke.

None of this will surprise anyone in the UK.  But there are so many countries where you can ride a bike for weeks without seeing that sort of variety of landscape, accent and culture (the American mid-west and Australia, for example).  150 miles is only two or three days’ cycle touring, so riding the whole length of the country for a month or so should be really interesting.

But I was getting ahead of myself.  I still had Sunday’s ‘ton’ to come.

This was the big test of my fitness to get back to touring.  I reckoned that if I was reasonably comfortable doing 100 miles as a one-off ride, then touring more slowly at 50-70 miles a day should be fine.  If Sunday went wrong, then the UK tour (and eventually getting back to Asia and finishing the round-the-world trip) would have to be put on hold.

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I needn’t have worried, as it turned out.

The Sodbury Sportive starts and finishes just a few miles from home, and is distinct from the other events I’d ridden, as the profits go to charity (it made nearly £19000 last year), rather than fattening corporate wallets.  Volunteers, organised by the local Rotary Club, made it run like clockwork.  There were a pair of enthusiastic pensioners pointing the way at almost every turn, and semi-professional cheerers (with cow bells!) and a steel band at the finish line to welcome the riders in.  A really good event.

Most importantly, from my point of view, the weather was spot-on for cycling; not too hot, not too windy, and no rain (always a bonus in this country).  And, with a thousand, mostly local, riders on the road, there was plenty of friendly company.  I even ran into Graham, who I went to school with, and Nev, who I used to work with.  Which makes the whole thing sound a bit more parochial than it actually was, but still…

It would be pushing it to say it was easy (though the first sixty or seventy miles, which included all the main climbing, felt surprisingly good).  I was hanging on a bit at the end, if I’m honest.  But 103 miles (166km) in 7 hours 30 minutes, including food stops, is not too shabby.  I missed the ‘silver’ award time by about five minutes, but I didn’t know what it was until after I finished, so can’t be upset about that.

The bottom line is that the distance and the time were fine.  My back and neck were not too battered at the end.  So the return to cycle touring is on.

The Beastlet is currently tucked up in a local bike shop, getting its wheels and mechanicals rearranged for touring purposes.  I just need to get the racks bolted on when it comes back, and it’ll be good to go.  And I’ve got a detailed plan for the UK tour, starting late next week, and running to late September.  But, in keeping with my severe procrastination habit, I’ve not actually booked any of it yet.

There should be updates on the bike and the route over the next few days.

And then I’ll be back into touring mode.  The full length of the UK in four-ish weeks.  It’s not exactly India or Iran, but it should be a lot more interesting than broken bones and training rides.

Can’t wait…