Allez, cat.

April 28, 2013


spoke card designed by Pablo Laune

“Have you seen these videos on YouTube of alley cat?” my friend asked me. “We should be doing that in Aberdeen.” He was somewhat taken aback to learn that we were. Sort of. The recent event here was the sixth of its kind, according to my slightly unreliable count. Some things have become traditions, some things have been left out; it depends on who’s organising the race. So what is it? Well, it’s a race format invented by bicycle couriers. The encounter between this and Aberdeen, where professional bike messengers are thin on the ground, is an interesting one. See, the above-mentioned video streaming site will offer you your heart’s content of speeded-up helmet-cam footage of idiots riding against multiple lanes of traffic, skidding to avoid going under buses and bunny-hopping onto the pavement to overdubbed black metal music, but Aberdeen isn’t New York or London and it’s just done a bit differently here. To begin with, we don’t start the race until nine o’clock at night so the thickest of the traffic has given up and gone home to bed, leaving the streets largely free as our playground. Secondly, it’s a small city and getting between two points quickly has more to do with your navigational abilities than covering ground quickly.

The concept was introduced by someone who used to be bike courier in Cologne and Berlin and some aspects of his style have remained. The events are always contested by teams of two, whereas it seems to be an individual competition in most places. As per standard rules, though, you get given a “manifest”, the word couriers use for their list of parcel drops. In the race, it directs you to various points around the city, usually accompanied by grid references so you can find them on the map (if the grid references are accurate, that is.) You are responsible for picking your route and for getting various pieces of information and sometimes things from each checkpoint. You get the most variation of individual styles here. We’ve been instructed to carry foliage or unwieldy cardboard boxes around, given unfathomable crossword-style clues, and directed to obscure places you’d struggle to find if you didn’t know they were there.

One thing that I’ve been sad to see fall by the wayside was the practice of substituting playing cards for race numbers. Since it’s technically illegal to have a bike race without notifying the authorities, actual race numbers might be a bit embarrassing to any participant stopped and questioned by the powers that be. But a playing card jammed in the spokes shouldn’t arouse suspicion. This, I’m told, is the origin of the now-ubiquitous “spoke cards”, though most of the hipsters who use them probably don’t know it.

Anyway, the actual race. Well, it was all rather straightforward. The points on the manifest were in logical order, nothing was too hard to find (for this Aberdonian of eight years’ residence), and what made it even better was that the weather, having varied between the tolerable and the foul all day, was kind to us. This helped me a lot. I’m not afraid to admit that I’m scared of cycling really fast in the wet, or the snow, or on ice, or when I don’t know where there might be ice. I particularly dislike anything that interferes with visibility, and this city, which counts hail, heavy mist and horizontal rain among its specialities, frequently supplies that. So I was all the happier to get a dry night. I had even prepared my bike specially, swapping my regular front wheel for one with more vertical stiffness (radial spokes) and a grippier tyre, and I was pleased with the improvement in cornering. Unfortunately, due to a stupid oversight I failed to inflate it properly, leading to an unfortunate disagreement with a kerb by the train station while trying to find out the time of the next train to Euston,  and some time messing around with tyre levers, pumps and inner tubes. We didn’t really lose any time with this, happily – the advantage of being a pair is one of you can go and collect information from a far-off checkpoint while the other waits at a different one close by where the flat happened.

Partner selection is crucial in these two-up events. I arranged to ride with someone who I’ve spent plenty of time cycling with (referred to as E in the previous post). We know each other’s riding styles well and can anticipate what the other is going to do, understand each other when we shout directions and know how fast to go, where. There’s no point wasting energy sprinting for that green traffic light if you’re going to have to stop two hundred yards further down the road, and no point taking blind corners too quickly. Between checkpoints, we kept our momentum up, took good lines through the corners, made sure junctions were clear and got away with running the red lights we had to run and the one-ways we had to run down. As with any kind of cycling, though, I think it’s all about the rhythm. Sure, it’s not the same as long-distance ride across country: more staccato, sudden bursts of low-gear, high-cadence acceleration followed by cruising, followed by sprinting again, followed by stopping and fumbling around with maps, pens, and manifests. Then the mental exercise part, which you need to keep a clear head for (another reason not to ride too hard.) The simplest of questions become confusingly ambiguous when you’ve been chasing around the city for an hour.

It is all fun, though. One place which has become a fixture on these rides is the Blue Lamp bar on Gallowgate, and the atmosphere in there after the end of the race can be quite special. Those who’ve forgotten to bring bike locks tend to bring their machines inside, cycling intensifies the intoxicating effect of beer, post-ride pizza can be seen being consumed, and at a table in the corner is usually a strung-out race organiser trying to make sense of the unintelligible scrawl of answers on a crumpled manifest. The whole thing is a bit less glamorous than it might look on YouTube, and all the better for that.


New Pitsligo? Bust.

April 8, 2013

So our aim was the lost café at New Pitsligo;
But we never made it. We did have a ride of about sixty miles in the Scottish second winter. “We” were, for most of the ride, three.  I’ll refer to my companions as E and C. There was another C (C2), and the ride was his idea, but his participation was cut short. We rode out from Aberdeen to Dyce to pick him up, and found him in poor spirits, not highly motivated for the journey and muttering about only accompanying us some of the way. Anyway, we set off North, and didn’t get very far before he fell off his bike. I was some way up the road in front of him, so I didn’t see anything of what happened. He described it to me afterwards thus;
“I thought, “I’m going to fall off my bike. It probably won’t be that bad.” And then I did fall off my bike, and it was worse than I thought.”
Which doesn’t leave us much the wiser. Anyway, it was clear he wasn’t in good shape, and his elbow didn’t look right even at this stage, so he went home and we went on.
We set off up the main Banff road, which is not the nicest. On reaching Newmachar we studied the map briefly and turned off right, up a hill. We also called C2 to make sure he’d got home safely. It started snowing at about this point. At the top of the hill, you turn right over a bridge, then carry on uphill quite steeply to a left turn by a farmhouse. At this point we encountered thick ice on the road with a dusting of snow on top. Riding over this I was having serious difficulty going in a straight line, and indeed staying on the bike. I was quite prepared to give up and go home. But the icy section was only a couple of hundred metres. I decided we should stop messing around with back roads and get on a main road as soon as possible, which we did. We turned North and made decent time as far as Tarves, where we had a quick stop to urinate, eat, and a look at the map. (these functions were not performed simultaneously.)  While hanging out in the bus shelter we met a couple on a Dawes tandem. E and I recognised same, having both seen it around Aberdeen the previous day. They told us they were on their way to Huntly. It seemed to me they must be lost.
We carried on towards Methlick, tracing part of the course of a road race I was in a couple of years ago, albeit in the reverse direction. Out of Methlick the road climbs steeply, and for quite a while. It was starting to get tiring when the snow came on properly. It was thin, and turned to hail in the wind. From the battering of wind, rain, snow, and hail, I was getting serious pain from my neck, and I started thinking about the scarf I had in my bag, which I hadn’t put on when we set off because I was afraid of being too warm. As we were each more or less riding in our own world at this point I let out a stream of curses of the Scottish weather, Scotland in general, cycling, the outdoors, and my luck. Visibility was appalling. You really couldn’t see anything, especially looking straight forwards. For about a mile the road was a narrow strip of tarmac with steep snow banks on both sides. It had obviously required a snowplough to clear it. There were biggish trucks coming past among the other traffic. Eventually the road started going downhill again, we were out of the snowbanks and the snow eased off a bit. We descened steeplyish into New Deer. At the bottom of the hill C’s chain broke.
We quickly realised that, firstly, we need somewhere warm, or at least sheltered, to work, and we also needed two spanners, to get C’s back wheel off. After a few minutes walking around asking relatively unfriendly locals, we found ourselves at a Church Centre café. In response to Cyril’s plea for help the old dears running the place produced, I shit you not, the largest toolbox I’ve ever seen. Having found what we needed we situated ourselves under the outside awning of their café to get to work. I should point out that it was still snowing lightly at this point. We embarked upon an elaborate sequence of chain swapping during which we ended up using bits from my chain, combined with bits salvaged from the broken links of Cyril’s chain, for a makeshift repair. During all this, the sun came out. At the point where we finished, one of the old dears brought us out a bowl of hot soapy water and some kitchen towel with which to clean our hands, which you’ll imagine were by this point filthy.
We had a leisurely lunch in that café, then set off for a relatively uneventful ride home. We set off with jackets on, the idea being to warm up  a bit and then stop and take them off. When first we stopped, it started snowing, so I kept mine on. On the way out of Methlick (steeply uphill in this direction, of course) I become uncomfortably warm and decided to stop to take my jacket off. It started snowing. In between times, though, the sun was shining, there was relatively little wind and you could have been fooled into taking it for a nice day. We rode back into Aberdeen as the sun was setting.

Maps and Legends

April 8, 2013

(This piece was originally published in 2011 in Gaudie, the newspaper of Aberdeen University Student’s Association, and is reproduced here without permission.)

I never saw much of Aberdeenshire before I got into cycling. A transplanted Londoner, I used to stare idly downwards through the plastic porthole of an EasyJet 737 on the way into Dyce, but without much genuine curiosity about the topography below. But now I can surprise native Aberdonians with my knowledge of obscure placenames in the little green belt corners on the outskirts of the city, and the delightful, wild, windswept outer reaches of the county.

I’m fascinated by some of these names. From the Walter-Scottish evocative; Logie Coldstone, Kincardine O’Neill, Mains of Drumtochty, through the unpronounceably surreal; Goosecruives, Auquorthies, Finzean, to my personal favourites, the monosyllabic and gritty. Echt, Clatt, Tough. This last is pronounced “Teuch”, but on a winter’s day, snow lying on the fields, Northeasterly scything in direct from Siberia, my own South-of-the-border pronunciation seems like an accurate description of the place.

It can be tough on a bike, at the mercy of all extremities of the weather, but the payoff is that it’s undoubtedly the best way to experience its beauty. Nothing comes between you and your  enjoyment of sunshine on snowy fields, the hills looking blue under low clouds, or a bright blue summer sky.

So, handlebars and wheels have been the means by which I’ve got to know the world beyond the student zone that is circumscribed by King’s College, and Union Street on a Saturday night, and found out something about what’s out there, beyond the horizon and the Northfield transmission tower, beyond the housing estates and the dual carriageways. Why? That might be too long a story to go into just now. Instead, I’m going to wrap up by emphasising how far I’ve still got to go in this education I’ve been getting. From the magazine of Deeside Thistle Cycling Club, a description of a map;

“What’s special about this map is that it is nearly unreadable. For all of my cycling life I’ve carefully drawn on it any cycling route that I’ve followed. Aberdeenshire has 1000s of miles of A and B roads. There are equally as many miles on minor roads and countless others on tracks and paths. These paths and tracks have been the lifeblood of the country, and though they may now sometimes appear to go nowhere it’s special to know that the annotation on my map proves to me that I’ve been there, done that. And there are only a few more scattered pieces to collect.”

I know I’ll never reach this depth of immersion; I’ll always be a foreigner here. I’m hardly the only one in Aberdeen, and many of us have come from much further away than me. That isn’t really what this is about, for me. Instead, as I finish writing this article, I’m thinking about the little back road I found yesterday. It was a sunny afternoon, bright the way only the low winter sun can be. It was windy, and I was pedalling directly into the wind, keeping my back as flat as possible and my nose down next to the handlebars. I wasn’t even sure this road was going to take me anywhere; it looked like a farm track, could easily have been a dead end. Instead, within a minute or two I could sit up, relax, enjoy shelter from rows of beech trees and the natural sun-shade-sun strobe effect of the light shining in between them. It was one of the moments that remind you why you took up cycling. I like to have one of those moments on every single ride.