climbing

On Climbing and Waiting for Rain

I wasn’t sure that I’d get very far after I left Samsun yesterday morning (Tuesday).

First, there were some horrendous weather forecasts flying around.  Most of which suggested that I’d be pinned down by thunderstorms and wave after wave of heavy rain until Saturday.

Second, it was time to hit the mountains again.  This was sure to slow me down, and so leave me trapped in the middle of nowhere as the lightning flashed and a month’s worth of rain fell in twenty minutes.

All in all, it looked a bit nasty as I pulled on my brand new cycling shorts*.  The cloud was already down on the tops of the hills around the city, and I almost decided just to go back to bed for a week, and wait for the rain to get to me.

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So far, it’s been a decent decision not to.

The clouds began to clear as soon as I turned inland, and the remnants of the breeze which had pushed me along the coast were funnelled by the hills into a little tailwind.  The road has been beautifully engineered throughout, too.  But it was still quite a surprise to start at sea level, and to hit a 900-metre (close to 3000 ft) pass before lunchtime.  At an average of 13 mph.  And in the sunshine, too.

I wasn’t fooled, though.  This was not allowed to be a brilliant day.  I knew the mass of rain that the TV news was showing couldn’t just disappear.  It was just a matter of time.  I watched the skies, suspiciously.

Still, as I rolled into Havsa yesterday afternoon, I was still bone dry.  There were a handful of heavy storms about, but they were all pretty small and none came too close.  I figured I’d got lucky, and prepared to be rained in the next morning.

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After watching the sun go down behind the mosque, I considered composing a few sentences on how my trip has also been a little window onto the Islamic world.  Then I realised that nobody likes a pretentious cycle-tourist, and went to bed instead.  To everyone’s great relief, I’m sure.

I was woken after midnight by the sound of rain pounding down outside.  I felt vindicated, and a little smug, and drifted back off again.

The morning sunlight woke me before my alarm went off.  I was confused.  There really wasn’t supposed to be any sunlight this morning (Wednesday).  I looked outside.  There were some clouds scudding about on what looked like a fairly strong headwind.  But nothing that really spelled the sustained heavy rain I was anticipating.

I put my jacket on against the wind, and pedalled onwards in the sunshine.  Towards Osmancik.  More hills, more tunnels, and another 1000-metre pass.  With a beautiful, swooping decent off the top (below), which was only partly spoiled by the headwind.

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But finally, as you can see above, the horizon was darkening.  A mass of cloud was rushing toward me.  This was obviously the forerunner of the huge area of rain.  I actually thought I’d cut it too fine as I dropped into town, with another small but vicious-looking storm pummelling the valley next door.

As you can see, I didn’t get under cover a moment too soon, as the sky blackened over the castle, and the rain began.

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It stopped five minutes later, having barely wet the street.  And although there have been a few evil-looking clouds about since, it’s still dry as darkness falls this evening.

The forecast, needless to say, reckons that it’s already raining here, and will do so (heavily) for the next 48 hours.

However the weather works out, I’ve got to congratulate the Turks on their main roads.  The climbs are very long, but barely get above 3%.  And the road surface is almost silky, meaning that the bike rolls really nicely on the inclines.

So, if the weather seems designed to make me look silly at the moment, the roads are making me look good.

There’s definitely a lot more climbing to come, though.  And I can’t help feeling that the rain’s going to have its say eventually…

* This was a great result: I found a far-flung branch of Decathlon (large, French outdoors store) in Samsun, so was able to get a cheap (but reasonable quality) pair to replace my original shorts, which… erm… seem to have melted.  Or maybe rotted.  Don’t ask…

The Wet, Muddy and Slightly Spooky Way to Perfect Cycling Country

The story of a day of two halves (and the day after, too)…

Sunday started damp in Vietnam, at the foothills of the mountains which form the physical frontier with Laos.  It had rained most of the night, so the roads were wet.  Which translates into dirty.  But, by the time I was ready to go, the weather had decided to restrict itself to low, dark clouds.  So I set off.

The road deteriorated into mucky dirt for a little while.  Then it turned into a four-lane highway for a few hundred metres.  Then it stabilised into a normal, average road.  Gently rising through smaller and smaller villages.  With very little traffic, which was a plus.  If a little odd for one of the main routes between Vietnam and Laos.  Maybe it’s busier during the week?

Then the climb began.  I knew it was about a 15 km, 600-odd metre haul to the border.  Which is just a little different from the Dutch-style flatness of the Vietnam coast, but I was prepared for that.  Jens and Bjorn (the two German cyclists I’d met the night before) had said that the hill to the border was really steep on my side, but that I’d have a great run on the other side in Laos.  So I was prepared for that, too.  And in the end, it wasn’t too bad; three or four steep sections of around 10-12%, with decent stretches of false flat in-between to get my breath back.

What I wasn’t so happy about was riding more than half the climb in the clouds.  Which really means light drizzle, with visibility down to less than 50 metres near the top.  I ended up putting the high-viz jacket and lights on to give the logging trucks half a chance of seeing me.  Several sections of the hill, where the surface had been removed for repairs, had deteriorated to mud and slimy puddles.  One of the muddy puddles was deep enough for me to get my feet wet.  Grr!

And, if I wasn’t happy about it, the Beastlet was even less so, as it clicked and ground its previously spotless drivetrain (and even the disc brakes) on mud:

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I finally clattered and wheezed my way to the top of the hill to find the spookiest border crossing I’ve yet encountered.  The visibility was down to maybe 20 metres, and I spent a while on the Vietnamese side circling parked trucks, shouting “Lao?” at the handful of ghostly figures who emerged from the gloom from time-to-time.

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Eventually, I found my way to the apparently deserted border post on the Vietnam side.  I checked a couple of empty rooms which might have been passport control.  I began to worry that I might accidentally leave the country and enter Laos without even seeing an official, let alone having visas or stamps or anything in my passport.  About the fifth ghostly trucker I asked finally pointed me to the passport desk.

I knocked on the glass to wake up the sleeping border guard (as you do), who dealt with my stamp very efficiently, and then, slightly bizarrely, offered me some chewing gum.  I’m still not sure exactly what he was trying to say, but I was out of Vietnam.  Almost.

There’s about a mile of no-mans-land between the two frontiers, with another huddle of parked buses and lorries, and a massive building, which I guess will one day be a new Vietnamese border post.  It’s still completely deserted at the moment, but with near-zero visibility, cost me another few minutes trying to work out if I needed to do anything there.

I gave up in the end, and started down the hill, hoping to come across a border post for Laos.  The clouds began to lift almost immediately.  By the time I glided in to the well-staffed and friendly Laos border at Nam Phao, sorted out my visa on arrival, and had my passport stamped (all of which all only took about 15 minutes, but cost me an extra $2 because it was Sunday), it was dry, and the sun was threatening to put in an appearance.

By the time I’d negotiated my way around a comically aggressive miniature poodle, and got a couple of kilometres down the road, it was wall-to-wall sunshine.  On a perfectly smooth, almost empty road.  With a tailwind.  That is a decent recipe for a big smile on a muddy cycle-tourist’s face.

And I even got a nice sunset, just after I got into Lak Sao, the first town of any size (or the last, I suppose, if you’re going the other way).  I’d only been in Laos for a couple of hours, but I already liked it.

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If the first impressions of Laos were good, yesterday (Monday) blew me away.  I was only going 60-ish kilometres (still easing in to the ride, so not piling the miles on too hard).  But what a 60 km!

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The road from Lak Sao was stunning from the start, with mountains on both sides.  There was still virtually no traffic.  The sun was out, but up at around 400m altitude, the temperature was around 25C, and the humidity negligible.  And after the permanent haze, diesel fumes and clammy dampness of northern Vietnam, the air was crystal-clear.  Beautiful cycling in a beautiful country.

Towards the end of the ride to the little village of Na Hin (where I’m having my first full rest day of Part 2 today), there was a short, sharp 200 metre climb, with some properly steep (15% plus) sections.  So I got a decent workout.  And then, over the top, a superb, fast, twisty 400 metre decent to Na Hin.  I nearly hit a snake and a deer (not at the same time), and I did hit 40 mph on a loaded touring bike for the first time in ages.  An absolutely spectacular day’s riding.  I’m still smiling now, just writing about it.

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So, what next?  Well, it’s nearly Christmas, apparently.  In marked contrast to Vietnam (which left me never needing to hear Wham’s ‘Last Christmas’, or any form of dance-remixed carols, ever again), it’s no big deal here in Laos.

I’m thinking at the moment of riding through the big day to Vientiane (I should be able to get there by Christmas afternoon if I can get across the mountains to the Mekong river tomorrow; it’s less than 300 km in total), and then having a mini-celebration and another day off on Boxing Day.

But we’ll see.  In case I don’t get another update in beforehand, I hope you all have a great Christmas.  I’ll certainly update this again before New Year.

Meanwhile, I’ll be enjoying this spectacular country on two wheels.  Which feels like a pretty decent present at the moment…

Out of the West

UK Tour Stage 1:
Cycling Distance – 340km / 211 miles
Ascent – 2912m / 9551 ft (0.33 times the height of Mount Everest)
Toughness Index* – 85.66 (100 = a proper tough day)

UK Total Cycling Distance – 340km / 211 miles
UK Total Ascent – 2912m / 9551 ft (0.33 Everests)

Well, that hurt a bit more than I expected.

I’d intended to write a post between the start and today’s (Wednesday’s) first rest day.  But when the time came, I was exhausted enough to nod off while thinking about what to write, and it didn’t quite happen.

So there’s a lot of ground to cover; the whole of stage one of my ride up the country.  All the way from the Isles of Scilly up to Bristol.  Sunshine and rain; hills and, erm, more hills; sweat and vomit.  It’s all here.  But we’d better start at the start.  At the very end of the UK.

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The Isles of Scilly are 30-odd miles into the Atlantic Ocean, south-west of the tip of Cornwall.  St Agnes, which you can see in the background of the photo above, is the southernmost inhabited place in the UK.  Despite being stuck out in the ocean, the Scillies seem to benefit from a microclimate, and were noticeably warmer than the rest of the country.  I had a little pootle around the main island, St Mary’s, partly to get used to riding with bags on again, and partly to calm the Beastlet, which was understandably traumatised after being consigned to a container for the trip over.

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A sit down overlooking the bay at Hugh Town (above), and a pint in (roughly) the third most southerly pub in the country, and my time on the islands was up.  The grumbling bike was containerised again, and it was back to the mainland on Friday evening.  The proper riding would begin the next morning.

I was up early, encouraged by my early success in putting my tent up in the dark the night before, and was on my way before eight.  There are few better places to wake up than next door to St Michael’s Mount at the eastern end of the bay at Penzance:

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Tanked up on greasy food and coffee (as any sports nutritionist will tell you, it’s the only way to prepare for a long bike ride), it was time to move.  The north awaited (well, everything’s north from here).  And the hills.

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Pretty soon, Cornwall was teaching me lessons.

Lesson 1 was that, if you want to avoid the main roads in the south west (which you probably do, as they’re basically 70 mph motorways full of trucks and caravans), you’re going to be punished by climbing hills.  The smaller roads in Cornwall link the towns together, and pretty much every town seems to be on top of a vicious little slope (or at the bottom of a steep valley, which you need to climb out of).  I’d later discover that in Devon, they don’t even bother to put towns on top of the hills; the roads just go there anyway.  These small roads are nice and (fairly) quiet, and the countryside is lovely, but you’re not going to be setting any speed records in this part of the world.

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Lesson 2 taught me that, despite my earlier statements about being fit enough to get back to touring, my back’s still struggling a bit.  Not so much with the cycling, but just with being up and about all day, bending and stretching, without the option of three or four hours in a comfy seat.  I’m hoping that the rest day today will give it a chance to recover, and that things will get easier.  We’ll see, I guess.

Third, I’ve learned to avoid fish while I’m riding.  That’s eating fish, obviously; it’s relatively easy to avoid running them over on the road.  Top protein source that it is, fish has a greater chance than most food of, erm, going a bit wrong on you.  And, as any sports nutritionist really will tell you, the explosive loss of half a day’s carbs and protein is not a good way to set yourself up for another day in the saddle.  Sadly, that’s exactly what happened on Saturday night, and I wobbled across the border into Devon on Sunday afternoon, running on fumes.

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Leaving Cornwall, you get another reminder of the impact of the great Victorian engineer, IK Brunel, on the infrastructure of the south west.  I’ve gone on about Big Isambard before while trundling around Bristol, so I won’t overdo it this time.  But his railway bridge across the Tamar marks the end of Cornwall, and the beginning of England proper (Cornwall, or Kernow, is a little bit different from the rest of England, with its own Celtic language, which you might have noticed on the picture near the top of the post, and its own flag, which you see on a lot of cars and houses; some people there think it should be a separate country).

Devon turned out to be a struggle.  Having limped out of Cornwall, I assumed that a good feed and a decent night’s sleep would sort me out.  I also assumed that the rolling Devon countryside would be a little kinder than Cornwall’s rocky outcrops.  In fact, Monday was spent slogging up and down more hills.  A lot more hills.  My depleted energy levels made themselves felt again, and I finally rolled into Exeter absolutely stuffed.

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I had a sit down next to the fine cathedral, and pondered the facts.  I had no energy left.  And while that would have been fine at the end of the day’s ride, I wasn’t at the end of the day’s ride.  I’d like to claim that I agonised over this for hours, but I really didn’t.  I got on the train for the last few miles to Taunton.  And spent the evening wondering whether I could actually make this trip work (or, at least, whether I needed to double the amount of time it’s going to take).

But yesterday (Tuesday) was another day in every way.  The sun was out.  A proper sleep and feed seemed to have sorted me out.  Or maybe it was just the psychological aspect; knowing you’re heading home for a rest day definitely makes things easier.

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It also helped that the first half of the day was across the Somerset Levels.  As you may have inferred, the area has that name because it’s flat.  Or at least mainly flat.  There are a couple of ridges and artificial hills, but it’s flat enough that the tower of Glastonbury Tor sticks out from miles away (above).  In any case, it was pleasant, and relatively easy riding to lunch at Cheddar.

While Glastonbury is famous for the music festival, the little town of Cheddar should also be globally famous; after all, you can buy ‘Cheddar’ cheese pretty much anywhere in the world.  Unfortunately, the region was too late in protecting the name, so its rightful place as the home of the world’s finest cheese has been a little lost, usurped by plastic ‘cheddar’ in plastic pouches.  How very sad…

Cheese-related rants aside, Cheddar does have another string to its bow; the Cheddar Gorge.  I could have looked for a flatter route to Bristol, wiggling around the Mendip Hills, rather than pushing straight over, but the Gorge is a special climb, which I really wanted to ride.  There are a bunch more pictures and a review of the climb here.  Not wimping out of it definitely shows how much better I was feeling.

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After fortification with chips and sugary drinks, it was time to hit the climb.  The steeper section is about 150 vertical metres, but it’s over 200 all the way to the top.  Which is not massive by world standards, but it is a decent little hill.  And, despite the 16% gradient, the Beastlet and I did OK.  There were even enough tourists around to give encouragement (once they’d finished laughing at the number of bags I was lugging up the hill), which was nice.  And because the really steep bit is relatively early on the climb, the top section, which is somewhere around 4-5%, feels more-or-less flat.  I’m putting it down as the first loaded climb which I actually enjoyed on this trip.

Once over the Gorge, I was nearly on home turf.  Another big lump over Dundry, and then the drop into Bristol (complete with Brunel’s – again! – iconic Clifton Suspension Bridge, below).  Past Ashton Gate, along the edge of the floating harbour, and up the familiar railway track.  Home in time for tea.  And that well-deserved day off.

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How it goes from here is going to be largely determined by how well the back recovers; if yesterday’s anything to go by, things should be OK.  There’s even a rumour that August’s awful weather may be replaced by a drier spell, at least for a few days.

And so, tomorrow (Thursday) it’s off to Wales.  My second country of the UK.  Another language.  More hills.  But definitely no more fish.

*The Toughness Index (TI) was developed in New Zealand, in 2014, after a conversation with fellow loaded tourer (and hill climb obsessive) Ben Greeve.  It gives you an idea of how hard the riding is on any given section.  TI 100 is a benchmark ‘Tough’ day on a fully loaded (say 35-45kg) touring rig.  TI 100 is equivalent to climbing 1000 vertical metres per 100km (roughly 3280ft per 62 miles).  A lot of the riding in New Zealand’s South Island comes out around TI 100.  For comparison, crossing the Great Divide in the Rockies took me over Wolf Creek Pass, and down the other side.  That 98km / 61 mile day had a TI of 90.1.

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…