Eastbourne of Eden

March 19, 2015

I have often said that the thing I like most about road cycling as opposed to any other form of sport is that your ride starts and ends at your own front door. After travelling to South Wales for the first leg of my attempted Dodecaudax, I was happy to make my house the start point for the second part. The advantages were: not having to get up at 5 a.m., having a luggage-free bike, and having pre-ride breakfast in my own kitchen after feeding my own cat.

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“Dr. Foster’s Winter Warmer” was the official name of the ride I’d signed up for. But quite a lot of things that could have gone wrong, did go wrong. Somehow I didn’t care too much.

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When I left off, we were camping in Dunblane. We could say that we were the victims of our success here. Beforehand, it had been said that you are usually so uncomfortable where you sleep that getting up in the morning and riding on towards your destination seems the more appealing option. Well, not here. It was comfortable, it wasn’t cold, we had an awesome slide to play with (yes), a river, plenty of food for breakfast – and so we didn’t leave until about 11 in the morning. Given that our objective for the evening was Glen Croe, about 60-70 miles away, this seemed alright. However, we needed to make rendez-vous with other riders further up the road, and this meant time needed to be made. A joint decision was reached that B and D, the two less experienced riders in the group, would take a train part of the way, while the intrepid S, the vastly experienced C and the foolhardy yours truly would make the first leg of the journey to Balloch at donkey-transporting pace*.

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So here’s the thing; I’ve always wanted to go cycle touring. As soon as I knew I liked cycling I liked the idea of exploring, covering ground and visiting new places with the autonomy provided by the bicycle. Somehow, though, until a couple of weeks ago, it had never quite happened. I’ve done thousands of miles on all kinds of bikes, mass-participation events, road races, and time trials, but it was all supposed to be in aid of training and gaining experience to be able to go touring. So why haven’t I?

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August 20, 2013



On the way home, I reached the conclusion that I had picked exactly the right time in my life as a cyclist to build and start riding a fixed-gear bike. I used to relate to such machines and the people who rode them with a mixture of suspicion, confusion, and awe. The way they coped with traffic, terrain, and fatigue was mysterious, bordering on the incomprehensible. At some time around March of this year, I decided I wanted one. It was the depths of the Scottish second Winter, when the brief period of spring-like weather that had tormented us in January and February gave way to almost constant hail, sleet, snow, frost, rain, howling winds and bitter, bitter cold. I lost yet another derailleur to that wonderful Aberdonian combination of heavily gritted roads, constant damp conditions, below-freezing temperatures, and energy-sapping short days that sap your enthusiasm to protect your bike from these harsh elements. Purely because it would be easier to maintain, I thought, I’d like to put a fixie together. It only has one component that could conceivable seize up: the front brake. Your average road bike has four, and I’ve lost at least one of each in every one of the last four Winters. I’m not kidding: the springs get coated in salty grit, freeze, and lose their springiness, never to fully regain it.

So now I find myself somewhere between Auchenblae and Stonehaven, on a Summer’s day, on 44×17, and if not loving it, then at least, still riding all right after thirty-odd miles, and confident of keeping going well for the thirty-odd miles left between here and home. I have bullhorn handlebars, home-made from an old pair of drop bars with a hacksaw and a pipe cutter. My hands aren’t used to being on them for this long, though, and a little synaptic twitch keeps asking me to put them down on the bottom part of the drops – until I realise it isn’t there. Another instinctive movement of the hand is to reach for an imaginary gear shifter at the bottom of hills – I’m so used to the luxury of clicking a little button a couple of times with my thumb to make pedalling easier. Nice try, sunshine. You’re just going to have to use more force. And I do.

There are compensating advantages to the lack of a freewheel, though, and I had to actually get out and ride a fixie before I fully realised this. The “flywheel effect” of the back wheel is very noticeable – the kinetic energy you put in to keep it moving up the hill is released as the road flattens out, giving you a much-needed boost of momentum there where the freewheel leaves you, already having worked hard to climb, with the need to put out even more energy to re-accelerate. Because of the lack of derailleurs and such unnecessary paraphernalia, furthermore, the bike itself can be very light – mine weighs little, if at all, more than my very fancy road-racing bike. The latter I keep in cotton wool and only dare go out on it on nice days, after which it needs a careful and detailed maintenance and cleaning session before it can be put away again. The fixie, of course, is nothing like so delicate.

The bit I keep waiting for is the climb out of Stonehaven on the Netherley road. It starts to go uphill immediately from the end of the beach, ramps up steadily under the railway and road bridges, you turn left off the slip road for the dual carriageway, and then there’s a sharp bend to the right and a wall going straight up for about a quarter mile. When I get there, it’s full out-of-the-saddle effort all the way up, heart and lungs heaving under the unaccustomed strain, but I make it. It only gets easier from here to home. I don’t quite make it back before the day’s second downpour saturates my clothing which had just nicely dried out from the first. This is North-East Scotland.

There is still no accurate recording of the distance, but from reading roadsigns and guesswork I would say about seventy miles. Straight down the coast from Aberdeen in the company of a friend whose own single-speed, handpainted, pink-and-green road bike “God’s Guidance” may one day be the subject of another post. There are still no pictures, except the old one of my bike above. I have since found my camera charger, though, so perhaps I’ll be able to illustrate these write-ups a little better in future. My riding companion was headed for Dundee. I left him to it somewhere just North of St. Cyrus, and turned inland over the range of low hills known as the Garvock. The unexpectedly steep descent into Laurencekirk caused some apprehension, I’m still learning how to push backwards into the pedals and resist the acceleration conferred on the bike by gravity. It’s one serious disadvantage as against a freewheel: not only do you have to do work descending as well as ascending, you also have to go slower. At least, you do if you’re being cautious, and following the principle that you should be able to stop in the distance you can see is clear in front of you. But one compensation is that that distance decreases as your skill level improves.

Out of Laurencekirk, and on with by far the prettiest section of the ride, back up through the area known as the Mearns to Stonehaven. It’s picturesque, and deserted on this Sunday afternoon. When the wind drops, the stillness and silence are almost unsettling. It’s flattish, just rolling terrain as far as the very pretty village of Auchenblae, which sits in a hollow surrounded by low hills, as a result of which you descend steeply into it and climb steeply out of it. I take advantage of the lack of traffic and “Paperboy” from side to side of the road, trying to reduce the gradients. The hills get gentler, but the road is never flat between here and Stonehaven – where it is flat, for a very short distance, before the aforementioned climb, the last serious difficulty before Aberdeen.

A While

July 29, 2013

Step out of the house in a short-sleeved top and shorts and feel warm straight away – you enjoy that when you get it in North-East Scotland. This is going to be a good ride, wherever I go, whatever form  I have, whatever the distance. There will be no pictures, because I can’t find the battery charger for my camera. There’ll be no statistics, either, because I haven’t had a computer on my bike for three years. First-world problems, This is supposed to be about saying “f**k it” and going out anyway, because that’s what you do when you’re a cyclist, you ride your bike. Doesn’t matter if the bike doesn’t work as you’d like, doesn’t matter if you can’t get things perfect, the day, at least, is a beautiful one and that ought to make up for quite a bit.

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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.