Month: July 2020

Rest Day 1 (Or, a Bit of a Rant about the UK’s Cycling Infrastructure)

It feels like a couple of days ago that I started. It feels like months ago that I started.

Bike touring’s time-mutating magic has kicked in. On the road, a day flashes past, while a single hill or town can take ages to get through. On a rest day (like yesterday), time drags itself out, and you wonder how you’re not making more distance when you ride all day.

The hills and towns of southern Devon have been the backdrop for the last few days, and have certainly made their contribution to things taking longer than expected.

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First up was the relatively small city of Plymouth (above), which took ages to get across, despite apparently having loads of cycle routes. As is depressingly usual in the UK, spotty bits of randomly-disappearing (and / or poor-quality, badly-signposted) bike infrastructure are the problem. It’s not specifically Plymouth’s fault; it’s a general urban UK issue. But having to stop 10+ times to map-check when crossing a city centre is clearly not going to encourage more cycling.

Plymouth Hoe, where the picture was taken, is where Francis Drake was allegedly playing bowls when the Spanish Armada was sighted. It’s just as well he didn’t have to get to his ship on a bike, or the UK would by now have a long tradition of afternoon siestas.

You can probably see that the clouds were threatening already. Once finally free of Plymouth, I’ve felt like I’ve been stalked by heavy showers ever since, although they didn’t properly catch up with me until yesterday, as I fled eastwards.

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I had a bit of deja-vu while lumping up and down the hills after Plymouth; there was a long-ish stretch where I was following exactly the same route along the fringes of Dartmoor as I did in 2015 (on the Scilly to Shetland ride). And it was drizzling a little, just like it was back then. Soon enough, though, it was time to peel off back towards the coast (above), and the Starcross Ferry across the river Exe estuary.

You might well expect a ferry which is heavily used by cyclists to avoid a detour around the estuary to be easy to access for touring cyclists? Well the crew on the boat were all great, and dealt with the large number of bikes (plus one idiot with a trailer) excellently. But… to access the western side of the crossing, you need to carry your bike (and trailer, or bags, or anything else heavy and bulky you have) up about forty steps, over a railway footbridge, and back down again – beware if you’re running a heavy touring rig!

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Once across the Exe, you’re in Exmouth. It’s a fairly small town, and seems pleasant enough, but is plagued with some of the same cycling issues as Plymouth. On the road out of the centre to rendezvous with a nice bike track on a disused railway, I suddenly noticed a brand new, wide shared bike and pedestrian path right next to me. I had no clue where it began, as I’d seen no signs, and I couldn’t get on it, as there was no access from the road. Grrr!! And when, just a few minutes later, I came across the astonishing piece of ‘infrastructure’ pictured above, I had to actually laugh at it.

The abomination above actually comes between two sections of a traffic-free railway path, which is actually very nice (see below). But between them, the two pictures encapsulate the problem with UK cycling infrastructure; it’s good to ride anywhere where there are no cars. But if you’re anywhere near a road, expect cycling to be a time consuming 2nd class hassle, unless you’re willing to play with the traffic on the main roads.

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Phew. Think that’s rant over on the infrastructure. Devon’s other time-bending tool is the hills. I’ve got one more big set to go today, as I (hopefully) shoot eastwards. They do hurt (especially when they start at 8%, and just get steeper and steeper before maxing out at 20% ish, like the one below). And they’re not that quick on the way down, either, as the trailer needs a little bit of management at higher speeds.

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But, although they slow you down, the hills do give you some lovely views of the countryside, which has been pretty throughout. There have been thatched villages and rolling farmland, and a full-on Fawlty Towers guesthouse experience in Torquay. Devon’s been pretty good in general.

Having avoided the first wet day of the trip by having a rest yesterday, it’s back on the road today into Dorset. There’s another, bigger, storm coming in tomorrow, so it looks like the first phase of the flatter run along the south coast may be a little disrupted.

On the plus side, the rain is rolling in on rapid tailwinds at the moment, so it could be that the time-bending can continue, and surprising amounts of progress can be made. Who knows?

Kernow

Legs get stronger with time. And with tailwinds.

The pain of the first few days of this ride is fading into memory. Dots are advancing on the map (you can find it via the ‘Rides’ tab above). And the weather’s been very kind. Progress is being made.

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The climbing still goes on, but that’s the nature of a rocky coastline. Amazingly, I’ve already climbed 70% of the height of Everest on this trip in just over 300 miles / 500 km. Thankfully, it should only be another few days before I hit the flatter parts of the south coast, although it’ll stay tough for a while.

The rocky coast gave rise to Cornwall’s big industry of previous times. The landscape is dotted with old tin mines and the engine houses which kept them pumped out. Many of these are ruins now, although I found this one, which has been converted into a holiday cottage.

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The other thing that Cornwall is famous for is its tourist towns. It’s an odd situation at the moment, with many places operating under capacity, and many non-tourist towns still feeling very quiet. Meanwhile, tourist areas like St Ives (below) feel almost normal – though presumably with less traffic.

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I say ‘presumably’ less traffic, because there is still loads of it. One of the features of Cornwall is that there are not many direct routes. It’s a skinny peninsular, which obviously gets skinnier towards the tip, so there’s not a lot of space for major roads. So all the big roads are pretty rammed. And driving standards are a little heart-in-mouth at times due to some very inappropriate overtaking tactics. The only option is the tiny country lanes, which are beautiful, but incredibly slow to ride, due to the endless hills, endless potholes, and the occasional need to wait for tiny ferries across rivers (don’t forget your face mask if you want avoid long rides around estuaries this year!).

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But, if you can take your time, and avoid the main roads, Cornwall’s a lovely place to be in the summer sunshine. The only exception so far is Lands End, which has been turned from a fairly insignificant headland into a bizarre cliffside theme park. I was pretty happy that getting to the signpost indicating the end of the country was not a big issue for me. But I’d be quite upset if I’d done the length of Great Britain as a lifetime challenge, or charity ride, only to have to pay to finish. I skipped the theme park, and just completed the turn that the finish of the road dictates. There’s no more south west on the mainland.

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For me, Lands End was just a corner to turn; the first major change in direction. It’s taken me out of the Atlantic, and into the English Channel, which I’ll now follow up to Kent. There’s just half a chance that the wind might be about to turn again to assist, but that’s surely in the realms of fantasy cycling…

The Covid Tour 2020

March 17th 2020. It’s St Patrick’s Day, but the pubs are quiet. A British Airways flight fails to take off from Heathrow airport en route to Buenos Aires. And fails to fly me out to start another big ride.

South America had been bugging me since I went straight from the US to New Zealand in 2014, instead of heading south. I’ve still never been, and was really looking forward to finally getting back on the intercontinental road, heading north on a bike from Ushuaia for as long as the money lasted.

The cash had been gathered, the flight booked, the bike built from the spokes up, and a trailer acquired to better deal with the long sections of gravel roads. I hadn’t actually packed, because there were already rumblings that the pandemic was about to ruin my plans. But leaving drinks had been drunk. And then, two hours after the drinks finished, Argentina closed its borders due to coronavirus. Followed by pretty much everyone else. South America would have to wait. Indefinitely.

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With a degree of understatement, I’d have to admit that was all a little frustrating. On the other hand, given what’s been going on around the world since March, it could also have been a lot worse…

July 14th 2020. Covid World. The UK-wide lockdown is currently being lifted gradually and patchily. Most of the nation’s yearly quota of decent weather has already been used up. The Colston statue has been dunked and removed from Bristol harbour. And we’re on the brink of the biggest recession since I was a kid (or maybe bigger than that – who knows?). So it seems like the perfect time (really?!?) to take the bike, the kit and the frustration out on the road. Wales just half-opened its campsites, England’s pubs have been back for a couple of weeks with no obvious disasters (yet). Scotland are doing their own thing, and Northern Ireland too.

So let’s see if it’s still possible / sensible / advisable to lap the UK on a bike in 2020. Whether local lockdowns, or Scottish quarantines, or track and trace will scupper things. And if my legs have still got anything left in them (as seems to happen constantly, there are a few more miles on the clock than the last time I put thousands of kms together in a row).

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There will be maps and so on later. I’m already late on the first post, as I’ve just woken up on Day 5, which should see me into Cornwall, providing I can dodge the tractors for a few more miles. So this is just a brief catch-up for now, until I can get enough electricity and time to do a proper job.

I’m heading anti-clockwise from Bristol. I wanted to go clockwise, kicking off with Wales, but the various Covid unlocking speeds have dictated the anti-clockwise circuit. It’s going to be something like 6000-ish km (4000-ish miles), assuming that neither the country, bike, the cash, or myself have a massive breakdown before that. And it’ll take in all four of the UK’s current constituent pieces. It should be interesting. But there are an awful lot of variables and potential things to go wrong…

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The anticlockwise circuit is painful from the outset. As most people who’ve ridden long distances in the UK will know, the South West of England is pretty much the hardest bit. You can avoid hills everywhere else, or at least find a road with a sensible gradient. In the South West, it’s a constant battle with 10%+ gradients. And if you want to avoid them, you get 20%, or 25% instead. These are pretty inhuman gradients on a carbon road bike, let alone on a three-wheeled, 40kg touring rig. I wanted to get plenty of miles in my legs before facing this lot. Instead, it’s been pretty brutal from day two onwards so far.

On the other hand, the weather’s been decent until now, the views are spectacular, and there have been some nice breaks from the pain of winching uphill. As I pedalled up the Tarka Trail, an old railway line heading inland from Barnstaple yesterday, the sun was out, the route was flat for a few miles, and I remembered why I got into this bike touring lark in the first place.

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I’m behind schedule (of course), and it seems to have rained twelve hours early this morning, so the weather’s back to standard English unpredictability. Cornwall is only a few miles down the road, so I’d best get cracking. More to come soon, hopefully!

By the way, I’ve spent a lot of time at The Bristol Bike Project since I got home in 2016. Times are tough for many social enterprises and charities at the moment, but please have a look at their website, and consider dropping them a few quid at a difficult time if you can.