england

Touring the UK – Map and Stats

After hurtling (relatively speaking) back to Bristol from the top of Shetland in a mere 30 hours, by bike, ferry, train, and bike again, I’ve had a few days off to relax.

And now’s the chance to get a bit of reflection in on the UK tour, before planning begins in earnest for resuming the round-the-world trip in a couple of months (that’s looking like early December now, by the way).  From the Isles of Scilly to Shetland, it was a fair ride, with loads to think about along the way.

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I’ll put up a full post-mortem on what went well, what I’d have done differently, and so on, fairly shortly.  It’s also just possible that I’ll finally get around to updating the rest of the pages here to more accurately reflect what’s actually been going on for the last six months or so.

But for now, this is just the bare-bones summary (via a map and some statistics) of my little tour of the length of the UK.

MAP:

Hopefully, the Google maps gremlins of a few weeks ago have given themselves some time off.  This should show the route I took.  The markers show mainly overnight stops, with a few extras to clarify direction or ferry ports etc.

If Google (or even I) have once again failed to deliver any useful information on the map, you’ll just have to imagine it.

And every map needs some statistics to go with it.

STATS:

NB – these are all Bristol to Bristol (i.e. including travel to and from the start and finish of the ride).

Measurements:

Total Cycling Distance – 1814 km / 1127 miles
Total Ascent – 11231 m / 36838 ft (1.27 times the height of Mount Everest)
Overall Toughness Index – 61.91 (100 = Really Tough with bags on)
Toughest Area – Devon and Cornwall (SW England) – Average TI 85.66

Days:

Total Days (Bristol to Bristol) – 28
Full Riding Days – 19
Average Full Riding Day Mileage – 90 km / 56 miles
Rest, Short Ride and Travel Days – 9
Wet days – 2 (which is really quite remarkable for the UK)

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Geography and Transport:

Countries Ridden – 1 – the United Kingdom.  Or:
Countries Ridden – 4 – England, Wales, Northern Ireland, Scotland.  And:
British Crown Dependencies Ridden – 1 – Isle of Man
Islands Ridden – 11 – St Mary’s, Great Britain, Isle of Man, Ireland, South Ronaldsay / Burray, Glims Holm, Lamb Holm, Mainland (Orkney), Mainland (Shetland), Yell, Unst
Ferries – 12
Approximate Hours on Ferries – 28
Trains – 2
Approximate Hours on Trains – 14 (a tad longer than flying from London to Singapore)

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Diversity:

Issuers of UK pound-denominated banknotes spotted – 7 – Bank of England, Isle of Man Government, Bank of Ireland, Ulster Bank, Clydesdale Bank, Bank of Scotland, Royal Bank of Scotland (I missed out on the full set; First Trust, and Danske Bank notes – bizarrely, the Danes can apparently print pounds – eluded me in Northern Ireland)

Indigenous Languages Encountered – 6 to 9, depending on what’s a language and what’s a dialect – English, Cornish, Welsh, Manx, Irish Gaelic, Scots, Scots Gaelic, Orcadian, Shetlandic (Orcadian and Shetlandic are basically Scots mixed with Norn, an extinct Norse language)

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Miscellaneous:

Unfortunate Encounters with Trucks – 0
Near Misses with Traffic – 0
General Traffic Behaviour – Good
Dreadful road surfaces – Several, but Ayr (and the towns around it) stood out as actively dangerous to cyclists
Near-Catastrophic Skids due to Sheep Droppings – 1
Canine Confrontations – 1 (not serious)
Illness – just the explosive fish incident in Cornwall
Punctures – 0
Mechanical Problems – 0
Days cut short due to pain / discomfort from Thai accident damage – 1
Ibuprofen capsules taken – 32
Memorials to Russian Warships passed – 1 (and, yes, that’s specifically a memorial for the ship, not the people on it)

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Well, that’s the outline.  As I said above, I’ll post some more detailed thoughts on the ride later.  Those are likely to be fairly positive, due to the lack of any major disasters.  For now, I’ll just point out my clear preference for surface transport over planes.  As I left the Shetlands on the overnight ferry to Aberdeen, I was reminded how getting on a boat to go overseas really feels like travelling.  Far preferable to getting in a little metal tube to pop effortlessly from one concrete-and-glass terminal to another.

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And the view’s a little better too…

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Border Country

UK Tour Stage 2 (Bristol to Heysham, Lancashire):
Cycling Distance – 385 km / 239 miles
Ascent – 1949m / 6393 ft (0.22 times the height of Mount Everest)
Toughness Index – 50.66 (100 = Really Tough)

Total UK Tour Cycling Distance – 725 km / 450 miles
Total UK Tour Ascent – 4861m / 15944 ft (0.55 Everests)

Borders are funny things.

Funny in the sense of ‘peculiar’.  And sometimes funny in the sense of ‘not funny at all’.

They’re just (usually squiggly) lines on a map.  Artificial, squiggly lines, by and large.  Created almost at random, by geography, by prehistoric tribal areas, by war, by shifting royal alliances, or by the straight, ruled lines of an administrator’s pen.  There’s often no good reason why they cut through one field, rather than the one next door.  And there’s usually no significant difference between the people on one side and the people on the other.

But then we, our governments, and our media define ourselves against (and it’s pretty much always against) the people on the other side of the imaginary line.  We are good.  ‘They’ are bad.  Our religion is right.  ‘Theirs’ is wrong.  We go overseas to work.  ‘They’ come here to steal our jobs.  We retire abroad.  ‘They’ sponge off our healthcare system.  ‘They’ need to be controlled, or we’ll be ‘swamped’ by a ‘swarm’.

So we build the borders higher, and wonder why desperate people turn to smugglers to help them escape from death or persecution.  ‘They’ must be stupid, too, mustn’t they?  And we scratch our heads in puzzlement, and watch ‘them’ die against our fences.  For years.

Until a picture of a dead child on a Turkish beach reminds us that ‘they’ might be people, just like us, after all.  I wonder how long that little glimmer of truth will last…

As you can probably tell, riding long distances on a bike can give you a bit too much time to think.

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Thankfully, the border I was concerned with as I rolled out of Bristol was the border between England and Wales.  It’s been around pretty much since the Romans left Britain, which is quite a while.  The Anglo-Saxons, the English and the Welsh have all fortified chunks of it over the years.  And its history is just as messy as any other border.  Hundreds of years of keeping ‘them’ out of England.  Violently.  But the last couple of centuries have been a bit quieter.

Straight over the Severn Estuary from Bristol, you hit the Wye valley.  It’s a steep, beautiful river valley, with England on one bank and Wales on the other.  The ruins of Tintern Abbey (above) dominate the Welsh side at the southern end of the valley.

I lost track of how many times I crossed the border over the next couple of days.  Sometimes there were bilingual signs (that’s UK language number three, after Cornish and English) welcoming you to Wales.  The ‘Welcome to England’ signs were all monolingual.  Sometimes, there was a (thankfully) sleepy guard dragon instead of a sign:

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And sometimes, I only noticed that I’d swapped countries again when I saw the word ‘SLOW’ painted on the road.  If it just said ‘SLOW’, I was in England.  If it said ‘ARAF’ too, I was in Wales.

As I was approaching Welshpool, after a lovely-but-hilly day through the border area, I saw this signpost, which illustrates how hard it could be to remember how many border crossings had happened:

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It’s bilingual, so I know I’m in Wales.  Chirbury (2 miles down the road) is in England.  Church Stoke (another 2 miles down the road) is in Wales again.  I think that’s right, anyway.

After Welshpool, I headed into North Wales (or at least, in and out of North Wales).  The hills had levelled out, as I was avoiding beautiful Snowdonia, where the big Welsh mountains are.  But there was one more hill I had to climb before I left Wales.

Because I wanted to see the canal boats in the sky.

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I’ve come to the unexpected conclusion that there aren’t enough aqueducts in the world.  Many of those that do exist just move water from one place to another.  But the Pontcysyllte aqueduct is a little more ambitious.  It takes boats across a valley.  A couple of hundred feet in the air.  Over a river.  Well worth the detour.

After the excitement of the aqueduct (boats go across it as fast as 2 mph!), it was back to the flatlands.  A quick nip through Chester, which was once a Roman fort, for controlling the Welsh border.  And a pause to appreciate what’s reckoned to be the world’s first ‘indoor shopping centre’ (note the medieval covered galleries on the buildings, to enable the wealthy shoppers to avoid the toilet buckets thrown from the upper storeys.  And the rain of course).

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At this point, I was only a few tens of miles from finishing the English section of the tour.  It was nearly time to depart the UK for a couple of days.  I just had the flattest day so far, across the plains of Lancashire, to go.

Liverpool is only a few miles up the road from Chester, and I trundled up the Wirral peninsular to take the ferry across the river into town on Sunday morning.  As you’d expect, no clichés were spared; The Beatles were playing on loop in the cafe while I waited for the boat to arrive, and they managed to play ‘Ferry ‘cross the Mersey’ twice over the PA on the boat during the short crossing.

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I’d not really seen much of central Liverpool before, but the waterfront, which saw so many migrants depart from Europe (that’s right – hundreds of thousands of migrants leaving Europe; who’d have thought?) for Canada and the US, is really impressive.  And the city was quiet as I headed north across the flat lands for Lancaster.

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Another Roman city, this time with one eye aimed at the Scottish rather than the Welsh.  The last major Roman outpost before Carlisle, which sits right on the border of the Roman empire at Hadrian’s Wall.  It’s a bit of a shame that my route takes me away from there, and the Lake District national park between them.  But there’s new stuff to see, and I’ve been there before.

And so it was that I set sail yesterday, leaving England behind.  And leaving the UK behind, temporarily.

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A short ride from Lancaster brings you to the small port of Heysham.  Journey’s end for the English and Welsh section of the ride.  To the north of the port, you get stunning views across the bay to the Lake District.  To the south you get nuclear power stations.  Lovely.

Across the water to the west are new places for me to explore.  Tomorrow (Weds), I’m on an early boat to Northern Ireland.  For today, I’m offshore on the Isle of Man.  Same language, same accents, same buildings.  Different money, different taxes, and a roaming mobile phone.

But more on that next time.

I crossed a lot of borders on my half-way round the world trip.  Lots of border guards taking things very seriously.  Lots of people stuck on one side or the other because of their luck (or lack of it) in where they happened to be born.

On this ride, I’ve carelessly criss-crossed a border that was fought over for centuries, and left my country without showing any ID.  These are borders that don’t (at least generally) kill any more.  Nobody storming the ferry or sitting desperately behind a fence peering in.

Funny things, borders.

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!

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…

Type 2 Fun – The First Sportive

It’s after four on Sunday afternoon, but it feels much later with the glowering black clouds cutting the light down.  Driving rain lashes Newbury racecourse, as it has, intermittently, for most of the day.  And it’s chilly, even for the fickle English summer.

The Wiggle Magnificat Sportive is drawing to a close.  Think of it as a mass-participation marathon on wheels, without an elite race in front.  Hundreds of damp, tired cyclists have completed their choice of 44, 85 or 128 mile rides.  They shelter in the cafe and bar, easing their pain with alcohol or warming up with steaming cups of tea.

Maybe a few of the nicer ones among them are sparing a thought for the stragglers still out on the course.

A couple of miles away, two of those stragglers are finally rolling down the last hill towards the finishing line, and carefully negotiating the slippery white paint of the mini-roundabout on the last corner.  One of them is trying, unsuccessfully, to prevent his teeth from chattering as the cold wind cuts through his soaked clothes.  This is me.  The other can’t quite believe that his legs, which stopped working properly over an hour ago, are actually getting him to the finish line.  This is my friend Luke.

Few would argue that this is conventional, Type 1, instant gratification fun.  But we finished.  It wasn’t fast, and it wasn’t pretty in places.  But that really isn’t the point.  We’ve been there, and (literally) got the T-shirts:

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And, at least for me, as a protein-rich dinner and a couple of pints of cider mingled happily in my stomach a few hours later, it retrospectively became so much fun that I signed up to do another one in a couple of weeks.

Luke may take a bit longer to convince.  But I’m sure that, eventually (when he can sit down again without a soft cushion), he’ll agree that it was fun too.

Given our various physical issues and relative lack of preparation (basically, find a sportive training guide online, tear it into tiny pieces, and replace it with a few sporadic short rides, beer, and darts marathons), I reckon we did OK.

85 miles (136km) and 1366m (nearly 4500ft) of climbing in a day is a decent ride by most standards.

In a straight line, the 85 miles would have taken us from Newbury (pretty much in the middle of southern England) to Newport in Wales, or Birmingham in the midlands.  And the climbing was a little more than going from sea level to the summit of Ben Nevis, the highest mountain in the UK.

For me, it was really about continuing my rehab after the accident.  I was pretty sure I’d be fine with the mileage after touring halfway round the world in the last year (the same Sunday in 2014 saw me rolling off from Greenwich to start my still-unfinished circumnavigation).

But, with my shoulder, back and neck still in pieces, it was a test to see if my body could deal with a whole day on the bike.  It can, which makes me very happy.  I’d struggle to do it for several days in a row, though, so I’ve still got some recovering to do before I get back to touring in a few weeks.

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For Luke (above, climbing one of the countless small hills in a rare non-rainy moment), it was a different sort of challenge.  He only bought his bike a few weeks ago, and his training’s been limited to laps of Richmond Park in London.  Which means that Sunday was his first ever ride over 40 miles, and the first time he’d gone anywhere close to that level of climbing.  Forcing his exhausted legs over the last few hills and miles was a proper result for him.

So, a cycling first for both of us; sportive number one completed.  An achievement, if not quite on the level of what Team Sky just did to the rest of the Tour de France this afternoon (Tuesday).

Was it worth it?  I’d say ‘definitely’.  But then, I’ve made hard riding a bit of a habit over the last year.  Luke might say ‘maybe’.  Or something unprintable.  The countryside was lovely, if damp.  The riding was fairly tough, but not outrageous.  The organisation was excellent.  The weather was shocking, and the course designer was a bit of a sadist, throwing stacks of stinging little climbs into the last few kilometres.  But in the end it was good, if definitely Type 2, fun.

And it hasn’t put Luke off cycling.  He’s talking about putting some bags on his bike and joining me for a couple of days on my UK tour in a few weeks.

Assuming he can bear to sit on a bike again by then, of course…

The Railway, the Ridge and the Extra ‘S’

It’s surprising how your strength starts to come back when your back finally decides to cooperate.

Helped by decent weather (but hindered by unfeasibly high pollen levels), I’ve upped my distances to over 30 miles (50km) in the last couple of weeks.  And 50-odd kms is now comfortable enough that I’m chucking in some 15-20% gradient hills as well.

I’m pretty chuffed with this; it’s a big jump from struggling to do 20 miles on the flat just three weeks ago.  In fact, it’s not so very far away from the sort of level I was at before I began the trip last year.  The Magic Shrug continues to work wonders.

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With my range increasing, I’m re-discovering more of the cycling I used to do as a kid.  I’m pretty lucky around here, with a bunch of different riding options.  Flat rides, hilly rides, rivers, cities, all within fairly easy reach on a bike.  You can even get to another country (well, Wales) within about an hour.

Which means I can avoid boringly repetitive rides quite easily.  But when I head south, it’s harder to avoid the Bristol to Bath railway path (picture above).

The path was built around the time that I was allowed out on a bike by myself, and was the first section of what eventually developed into the UK’s national cycle network.  So it’s another big dose of cycling nostalgia for me.

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It’s also a well paved, traffic free, and fairly quiet route between the two city centres.  Bristol is pictured above and Bath below.  If you ignore (or, perhaps more appropriately, carefully avoid at a sensible speed) the odd wandering child, dog and mobility scooter, it’s quick, easy and flat riding, which is ideal for getting the miles in when you’re still not 100% fit.

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There’s loads of history and culture at both ends of the track.

Bath‘s got world-famous Roman remains and hot baths, and some elegant Georgian architecture (it’s a World Heritage Site as a result).  And I caught a bit of professional bike racing there last week, among the old Cotswold stone buildings and the cobbles.  It’s a beautiful little city.

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Bristol, meanwhile, is responsible for: English-speaking America (North America having been claimed by ships from Bristol in the late 1400s); Banksy; stacks of Brunel‘s best engineering work (like the SS Great Britain, above); Concorde; and, erm, Wallace and Gromit.  Among many other things, of course.

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And if I don’t fancy the cities (let’s face it, getting into town on a nice vehicle-free route is all very well, but once you’re there, it’s back to diesel fumes, potholes and traffic lights), I head north-east, into country lanes and the Cotswold Hills.  The western ridge of the Cotswolds runs for miles down the Severn valley, and is only a few miles from me.

Being southern England, there’s not much in the way of really big hills here, but there’s a multitude of short, sharp climbs to choose from.  Many of these lanes plunge straight down from the ancient highways and odd monuments along top of the escarpment to the villages at the foot.

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All in all, it’s not that bad round here…

This is starting to sound a bit (maybe even a lot) like a tourism advert.  So, let’s move on to the Extra ‘S’.  You’ve probably noticed it already, haven’t you?

No?  Well, go back shamefacedly to the top of the page.  Got it now?  That’s right.  The word ‘trundle’ at the end of the subtitle of the blog has gained an ‘s’.  I guess you’ll understand the significance of that immediately.

The Extra ‘S’ (along with a new pair of shiny hand-built touring wheels that arrived last week) means that I’ve finally committed to the inevitable.  Despite my initial thoughts of abandoning the round-the-world ride after the accident, it was probably never going to happen.

I can be a bit stubborn like that sometimes.

The Extra ‘S’ means more than one big bike ride.

In fact, it means a total of three.

I will definitely go back to Thailand to complete the circumnavigation by riding back to London.  I’m still a bit concerned about the amount of money I’ll have left on my return, but that’s just something I’ll have to sort out when I get back in 2016.  Finishing what I started is more important.  Round-the-world Part II is on.

The monsoon season, and the fact that I’m not yet up to full speed physically, means there’s no point in going back to Asia until the northern winter.  And that gives me the chance to squeeze in a bonus tour between the two halves of the round-the-world.

And now, big ride 3.

I’ve still not clicked back into taking the UK for granted, perhaps because I didn’t expect to be back here yet.  And there are actually a bundle of places in this country which I’ve not seen (or, at least, haven’t seen by bike).

So I’m going to take the opportunity to ride from the southernmost to the northernmost point of the UK (with a few ferries included, as I still – frustratingly – can’t ride on water).  This is a bit longer than the classic Lands End to John O’Groat’s ride, which is ‘just’ the length of Great Britain.

The UK stretches all the way from the Isles of Scilly in the south to the top of the Shetland Islands.  And the ride will include all four countries that make up the UK; England, Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland.  It should be somewhere in the region of 1150 miles (1850km) in about four weeks, which will be a nice little warm up for returning to Asia.

The overall plan now looks like this:

July and August will be for getting fitter, and riding sportives (probably three, the last of which should be my first ‘official’ 100 mile ride).  Then I’ll convert the Beastlet for loaded touring.  I’ll start the UK tour in late August or early September.  Once I finish that, I’ll have a couple of months to maintain a degree of fitness and get the logistical bits and pieces together before heading back to Thailand.  With a bit of luck, and no further interventions by heavy goods vehicles, I should be back in London next summer.

All sounds pretty straightforward.

Though I guess it might be just a little harder than it looks on paper…

The Magic Shrug

There’s a stage when recovering from an accident hits a plateau.  One week, you have nice, morale-boosting day-to-day improvements (more movement, less pain etc).  The next, you’re frustrated with the apparent lack of progress on the problems that remain.

In my case, the frustration’s been all about my back.

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While the most obvious visible damage – the collarbone and the shoulder-blade – has been improving nicely, my time on the bike has been severely limited by the slower-recovering cracked vertebrae.  I got to the start of last week unable to push past about 15 mile (25km) rides.  The riding itself is pretty much pain-free now, but having to stop to relieve the ache in my weakened back every twenty minutes is, erm, a pain.  And after an hour or so, the weakness seemed to spread around the rest of my body, forcing me back to the sofa to recover.  For a couple of days.

Some might say that it’s unreasonable to expect to be back to full speed two months after damaging your spine in a serious road accident.  That may be true, but it’s very, very irritating, to say the least.

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Still, I managed to get out and about for short loops, continuing my rediscovery of the local country lanes.  And I was climbing better than I was while riding the same hills last year (before the trip).  Clearly, cycle touring does get you fitter.  And it takes a while to lose all the improvements while convalescing.  Which is nice.

Then there was a breakthrough.  I was back at the physio last week.  And it turns out that he’s a genius.  He did his usual routine of a couple of minutes’ visual inspection of my shoulder.  He nagged me (again) about my posture.  I had a bit of a moan about my back.  And so he taught me the Magic Shrug.

I didn’t know it was magic at the time.  But I performed it a few times, as instructed.  The next night, I went to sleep on my front for the first time, as my back seemed more comfortable.  I woke up late.  I woke up without an ache for the first time.  The magic was happening.

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Encouraged, I went on a nostalgia trip the next day.  The run out to the old Severn Bridge and back was one I used to do a lot when I was a kid (after I realised that 20 miles on a bike is really not that far – even on a five-speed clunker, as it was in those days). It’s roughly ten miles each way.  I made the return trip with no problems.  I didn’t need to collapse into a comfy chair when I got back.  And the next morning?  I could have done it again.  Except that the English early summer was doing its thing (driving rain and high winds).

So, with the Shrug working its magic, I feel like I’m back on track.  If 20 miles isn’t a problem, then why would 40 be?  Or 85?

Well, 85 is the number.  I’ve finally signed up for my first sportive ride; the Magnificat at Newbury on 12th July.  Appropriately enough, that’s a year since my departure from Greenwich to ride around the world.  So, about six weeks to get myself together for 85 miles in a day (just over 135km in new money).  Hopefully, an achievable target on the way back to full fitness.  And a return to loaded touring later in the year.  And maybe, just maybe, a return to Thailand to finish the ride…

With the Magic Shrug in my arsenal, what could possibly go wrong?

Back on the Road!

It’s six-and-a-half weeks since I was assaulted by the truck.

I should probably be in India or northern Vietnam, depending on which way I turned at Bangkok.  Then again, I should probably be dead.

Instead of which, I’m at home in the UK.  Which is a bit frustrating.

However…  After 42 days of pain, gradual improvement, and a phenomenally sedentary lifestyle, the last week has seen (in my limited little world, at least) some momentous changes.   I’m down to one paracetamol a day, basically just to combat some back stiffness when I wake up in the morning.  And on Tuesday, I tried driving for the first time since I left on the ride in July.  It worked!  Which was a major step forward.

But the really good part is that I’ve been on the road on a bike again this week.  The first, tentative miles on the way back to touring.

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The shoulder and back are still not fully fixed (not entirely surprising, I suspect).  The muscles in my right arm have wasted from weeks in a sling, and, although I’ve got a decent range of movement now, I’ve got very little strength.  Those nasty cracked vertebrae in my back severely limit the time I can be active before needing a nice sit down and a cuppa.  And my breathing on the hills is a bit constricted by the cracked ribs, and possibly some internal bruising (incredibly, I still have bruises working their way to the surface after all this time).

But I’m riding again, which is the main thing.  I trundled a whole ten miles (16km) yesterday.  Pathetic in comparison to the 50 to 80 miles a day (on a 40kg rig) which I considered normal a couple of months ago.  But, importantly, that ten miles was light-years ahead of the four miles I managed on Monday.  And those four were a big improvement on the wobbly mile-and-a-half I put in on Sunday’s first ride.

It’s all going in the right direction.

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It’s strange riding in the UK again after so long overseas.  You notice things you’d ordinarily take for granted (I guess I’ve still got my traveller’s eye in).

It’s slightly alarming to ride on roads with no hard shoulder, until you remember that the driving standards here are actually pretty reasonable.  And that I rode perfectly safely on these roads for years when I was a kid.  And that I was riding on the hard shoulder in Thailand when the truck hit me, so the safety provided by a line of paint is illusory in any case.

It’s surprisingly pretty around here, too, which you forget after being connected to a place for several decades.  And you also forget that there are thousands of miles of quiet country lanes in England (like the one pictured above), where there’s hardly any traffic at all.  Bit too much horse manure, though…

Of course, it’s not all rosy.

After yesterday’s sun, it’s raining today (all day), which is pretty typical for an English spring.  And somehow or other, the country managed to be so intimidated by scare stories about the ‘risks’ of Scottish people that we’ve instead voted for the risk of breaking up the EU and the UK within the next two years.  Which seems a bit bizarre to me.

Still, things are definitely on the up.  I’ve pencilled in a fairly tough Sportive ride (135km distance / 1900m climbing) in mid-July to give myself a fitness target.  I’m hoping I’ll be ready to do something before that, though.

Just need to keep building up those miles until I get back to a decent level again…