Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Two Wheels Good

I said I'd write something about my 270 mile bike ride... and it's taken me til now to find the time. Here goes...

When the tour happens I'll be doing an average of between 40 and 60 miles a day but there's at least one day where the ride is over 80 miles (a genuine oversight where a town got overlooked but shows were booked and we can't bend time to put a new day in) and another of 70+ so I wanted to get some long days in the saddle under my belt to see how I'd feel.

Using google maps on the walking setting I looked up the journey from my house to my Dad's and it came up as nearly 80 miles. Then I looked up the journey from there to my Mum's. It came in at around 90 miles. Then I looked up the journey from there back to mine and it came up as 130 something miles. So I figured I could make that a four day trip. My plan was to get to my Dad's on Day 1, to my Mum's on Day 2 but to make no plans on Day 3, just see how far I could get, then find a B&B and complete the journey on Day 4. Simply put the idea was to find where my limit was by the simple method of, um, pushing myself to the limit.

I spoke to my folks about it and tried to find dates that were convenient for them and for me... and there was basically only one four-day window where it could fit in - from Tuesday May 5 to Friday May 8. I had an early start on the 9th to look forward to, as I had to get to Belfast in time for an afternoon book-reading. I figured that so long as I ensured I left a really small journey for Day 4 that wouldn't be a problem. Besides, I needed to learn about myself, my bike and my equipment.

The first lesson learned came when I packed my bags. I had two panniers and was carrying what I thought was the bare minimum. A toothbrush, enough changes of cycle gear, a spare inner tube, my smallest, lightest camera, a puncture repair kit, a pump, some powdered sports drinks to help hydrate and replace salts etc. and that was pretty much it. It weighed way more than I want to be carrying. Without apology I'm going to go all David Cameron about it when it comes to the tour. I'm cycling, but some of my stuff is going to travel on ahead by car.

Here's the thing; there's going to have to be a car. There's a tour manager. His job is to make sure things run as smoothly as possible at each venue. He's there to help avert disaster. He has to carry equipment with him. He won't be cycling. Having a tour manager cycle would just be a way of doubling the chances of disaster striking. He won't be driving at 10mph alongside me... he'll be going on ahead and meeting me at places. And he can bloody well carry some spare clothes for me.

You might well say that I should carry my own clothes and do the sensible bike touring thing: wear-one-wash-one. Which is what I would do if I was just doing the coast-to-coast-to-coast-to-coast ride that I was originally planning. But now that it's become a tour as well as a bike ride it rather changes things. I don't have a day off. I don't have much spare time in my schedule at all. The time I would have spent washing my smalls in a B&B basin will be the time I'm spending on stage. There's no way I'm going to come off stage, mentally and physically exhausted by the day's twin challenges... then go and do some laundry.

Nope... the tour is the reason I'll have less free time to attend to biking matters and the tour is also the reason there's going to have to be a car in the vicinity. So the car will help me out. It's going to be hard enough as it is.

But, for these few days the fact that I was doing the journey with heavier than normal luggage was no bad thing. It made sense to me in the same way that doing more miles in a day than the tour will require of me made sense. It just added to the well-if-I-can-do-this-then-I-must-be-able-to-do-that sense of experiment. Obviously nothing can really prepare me for the intensity of 30+ days of back to back cycling, but in the absence of 30+ days for training, this kind of thing seemed to be just the ticket.

For what it's worth, here's a rough shot at picturing my journey on Day 1:

I've managed to get my Sat-Nav to talk to my computer but for some reason it won't upload the route from this day so I've filled in some of the blanks myself. Still, it's pretty close.

I'm not sure why the Sat Nav took me so far out west - all the way to Reading - before starting to climb north to Witney. I'd like to think it was doing something very clever and deliberately finding a less hilly route. If so, I dread to think how bad it would have been if it had been more direct. The route I took across The Chilterns was plenty hilly enough for my liking. (Chiltern's Feet Warmers? Thigh Burners more like. (Hello Jazz fans).)

Weirdly I'd used the Sat-Nav to ride to Windsor and back a couple of weeks earlier and it chose a completely different route out of London that time. Even though on both journeys I passed the same roundabout out near Datchett. How it can have two different best-routes from my house to that roundabout is beyond me?

I remain suspicious of the Sat Nav. There is lots to like about it - just having a computer telling you how many miles you've travelled and what speed you're doing is good for motivational purposes if nothing else - but there are also problems with it. But I think I've worked out how to best deal with some of them.

I had the thing set up with the standard settings... and that meant that, under these circumstances, it appeared to freeze from time to time. Every time I strayed even minutely from the prescribed route it would suddenly give me a message to say it was recalculating things. For example, to get from Piccadilly to Knightsbridge you can either go round the roundabout (Hyde Park Corner) or you can take the underpass. I prefer the roundabout for two reasons. a)cars aren't travelling at 60mph as they go round it and b)because you don't go down, you don't have to climb up either. By taking the roundabout I'm probably never more than 20 yards away from the underpass. But even that tiny diversion sends the Sat Nav into a spin and sets off the recalculation.

When it does this, it provides a status bar showing me the progress of the recalculation and then, when it reaches 100%... well, most of the time, nothing happens. I just get a screen with a status bar saying 100%. On two or three occasions I ended up giving up on it and turning the thing off and on again. I wasn't very far into Day 1 when this forced me into an unwanted 15 minute break at Hammersmith while I waited for it to make its mind up on the route to Witney.

I later discovered that it wasn't freezing it was just lying to me when it said the calculation was 100% done. If it's calculating a ten mile route it zips through it in no time at all. But when it's working out a complicated 90-something miler... it can take a minute or so to say it's done the calculation... and then another few minutes to actually finish it.

I only worked this out at the end of Day 2 when I was at my Mum's house in Stafford. I asked it to calculate the route from there to mine in London. I thought the thing had frozen with that annoying 100% status bar on the screen but instead of turning it off I just left it on the side while I did something else. It was a full fifteen minutes before the thing suddenly beeped and told me that it had calculated the route and that it was going to be 180 miles. (And not the 130 miles that Google maps reckoned it would take on foot.)

This gave me enough motivation to dig around in the settings and see if I could improve the functionality. I'm relieved to say that I did. It was simple - and obvious - to set it so that instead of automatically going into recalculate mode it now asks me whether or not I want it to do so. I say no. Then when I rejoin the route of choice, it just carries on... so no 15 minute recalculation is necessary. Phew. Me and the Sat Nav are friends again now.

Anyway, apart from the hills, the ride on Day 1 was pretty much a pleasure. Beyond Reading the scenery was pretty special and it was nice seeing parts of the country I haven't seen before. I passed the most stunningly vast bluebell wood I've ever seen - a carpet of bluebells went on for as far as the eye could see - and the town of Streatley, set on the banks of a nice wide stretch of the Thames was so ridiculously picture-postcard in its beauty that part of me suspects I've made it up. It's on the map though.

But I was always shy of stopping and losing momentum and so did my best to just power on through such places instead of breaking to take photos. Which was a shame and - with hindsight - I suspect, a mistake. But then again, that part of the ride was a constant run of peaks and valleys; long slow punishments followed by swift and exciting rewards. There's no way you can stop at the bottom of a hill. You don't want to start the climb from a standing start if you can possibly avoid it.

My favourite placename of Day1: Kingston Bagpuize.
Interesting wildlife seen: Red Kites: 12. Rabbits: 20 alive. 2.75 dead.
Miles cycled: Difficult to tell precisely because of the Sat Nav's down time. Approximately 90.

It was, I should note, my first experience of saddle soreness. I've done journeys of 40, 50 and 60 miles without ever feeling any discomfort in that department... even if I'm not wearing the right gear. But on this occasion I found it wasn't long after 60 miles that a bit of soreness started to affect me. Hmmm.

Here's Day 2. (With similar blank-filling-in-to-make-up-for-Sat-Nav downtime)
When I set off I was a bit worried. Because while I felt strong at the close of Day 1 things had definitely tightened up overnight. But about ten miles in I started to loosen up and it got easier as the day went on. There were still some awfully unpleasant hills to contend with in the early part of the day mind.

I even, whisper it, broke the speed limit on one occasion. I wasn't trying to but there was a village at the bottom of a steep hill (I think it was Finstock (they should have a festival of Crowded House cover bands)) and it was pretty hard not to build up quite a speed on the way down. I was aware that as I passed the 30mph sign I was doing 34.9mph. Not recommended. Obviously. That would be irresponsible.

My favourite road junction name on Day 2: Camp Hill Circus
Interesting animals seen: Ostriches: 2. Rabbits: 20+ alive, 3 dead. Fox: 1 dead. Ugh.
Miles cycled: Difficult to tell precisely because of the Sat Nav's down time. Approximately 90.

Day 3. This time, having come to a good working arrangement with my Sat Nav, it's been able to upload it to my computer and this is the exact route that I took.

Incidentally, a quick note to the schoolgirls of Tamworth: smoking on the way to school makes you look more childlike, not less. Honest. It really does.

I didn't feel anywhere near as tight in the muscles at the start of Day 3. I reckon I can put that down to the magic of my Skins recovery tights. I slept in them overnight and I'm pretty convinced that my legs started the next day feeling better as a result. Odd. Tingly-odd. But if it works...

The biggest improvement I made as I went on was in stopping, eating and drinking. On Day 3 I think I realised that time wasn't really the enemy as I'd made my previous destinations in the early afternoon both times. (I took between 6 and 7 hours each day). So on Day 3, I took more breaks, sitting on more patches of grass and eating more snacks. I also drank more throughout the day. It's a habit I know I need to get into. Drink before you're thirsty, eat before you're hungry is the advice I've been given. I need to remind myself.

I didn't weigh myself at the end of Day 1 but I know I didn't drink enough. When I got to my Dad's, I'd sweated so much away there were dried salt crystals on my face. I felt fine but that can't be right. I tried to drink more on Day 2. I weighed myself when I got to my Mum's. I was over a stone lighter than I'd been at the start of the Day 1. Criminy! On Day 3 I think I managed to double my liquid intake. At the end of Day 3, my weight was exactly where it had been at the start of the day. I reckon I did okay on Day 3.

Anyway, by the time I got to Northampton - about 2.30 pm I'd done just over 90 miles again and the Sat Nav was telling me that the journey from there to mine was another 90 miles. I was hoping to leave something much smaller for the fourth day - say 30 or 40 miles - so that I'd know I could do it in the morning and still have the afternoon to make my arrangements for the Belfast trip... but seeing as the journey back to London had become 180 miles instead of the predicted 130 that was seeming unlikely. I knew I didn't have another 50 miles in me that day - saddle soreness seemed to kick in at around 60 miles each day - and so there was no way I could make any meaningful dent in the remainder.

I thought about ploughing on to Milton Keynes (has anyone ever thought of that before?) but that would still leave me with 70 miles to do on Day 4 and that didn't seem like a good idea. I was pretty sure I could do it... but a few what-ifs had started to enter the equation. I had to be up at 7am on the Saturday morning. What if I got a puncture 50 miles in to Day 4? What if that - or other delays - meant I didn't get back to London til the evening? Would I still put on a good show in Belfast?

As it wasn't possible to leave a much smaller journey for Day 4 I decided to cut my losses and run. I'd done 90 miles a day for three days running and that seemed like plenty enough to prove a point to myself. I took the train the rest of the way. Well, all the way to Euston - I cycled again from there.

Which is the point at which a potentially useful thought occurred to me.

I'd whizzed round the back of Kings Cross and got on to the canal tow path and was using that to head east using the cut throughs and so on that I know to get me through Islington where the tow path disappears for a wee while. I was cycling differently here. I was back on home turf. I was using my local cycling knowledge. It was a route that the Sat Nav wouldn't have given me. But it was definitely the best route. Which is where this thought comes in.

There's nothing that technology can do to replace local knowledge. I know better routes from A to B on my patch than any computer's ever going to suggest. And the same must be true for other people all over the country.

And there has to be a way of me tapping into that local knowledge when I embark on this tour. I've had a lot of people asking if they can accompany me on certain legs of the tour. Which I've not known how to deal with. Part of me thinks it would be a good idea and part of me worries about feeling responsible for others when I know I'll have a head full of other things to deal with. I don't want to become some unofficial tour guide when it's obvious that I - of all people - don't know what I'm doing. I don't enjoy being "in charge."

But I can see massive benefits in tapping into local knowledge. I don't want to be a tour guide but I don't mind being guided. I don't know how to best organise this but I'll give it some thought.

Yup, the idea of starting the journey from Lizard Point to Grampound in the knowledge that I'm with someone who knows the area and has done the route before sounds pretty damn good to me. And if the next day I meet a new guide who knows the best way to cycle from Grampound to Liskeard... and then...


Unknown said...

Tapping into local knoledge sounds like a great resource you should use, but on the ohter hand, also opens up the opportunity for you to be accompanied. If you're being given the route, then surely that person would know where you are going to be?
I don't think being accompanied is a good idea as your pace (particularly as the trip progresses) will increase, probably beyond the pace of many other cyclists. You'd probably find yourself being held back unintentionally.

Anonymous said...

Hmm, not sure which sat nav you have, but mine will replan the entire route by bike in about 20 seconds. BTW the first day should have been 70+ miles, not 90.

Most sat navs have a 2D understanding of the country. They know locations and 2D distances, but have no clue as to heights. In consequence they can't plan bike routes worth a damn. Closest thing is probably the 'iGo' sat nav which can drap the 2D info into 3D dem data to give an understanding of heights. 'Memory map' has a mode for showing the change in heights of a path IIRC, and OS maps.

While the local knowledge route to routes makes sense, its going to be a bit hit and miss for your precise journey. Better to split it down into day elements (since you already know the gigs) and allow people to post their best shot at the best route, pointing out how theirs is shorter, no hills, no traffic, etc. You could then christen that leg the "Arthur J Smithe" leg of the journey for the optimum choice selected.

Getting it into the sat nav is then just a task of setting up the right way points and storing them away to be called up on the right day.

Oh, and apparently many use a bluetooth headset to relay instructions without having to look at the screen. That would also allow playing MP3s with the right setup.

Dave Gorman said...

@Deano: when I wrote about acquiring a local guide for each day's travel I did mean a physical presence rather than just a route being provided. I don't know that my pace will increase in the way that you predict. I'm sure that regular club cyclists are all way beyond me at the moment.

@anonymous: It's a garmin Edge 705. It'll recalculate a route in seconds too. So long as it's not a long route. For negotiating your way from A to B in a given city it'd work a treat. For getting 20 or 30 miles from town to town likewise. But these long 90+ mile journeys seem to be at the edge of its capabilities.

It does seem to know about heights... indeed one of the onscreen options is for a graph showing your gradient and it can display your total-ascent for the journey also, so it must do.

I did mean for the journey to be split into each given day's elements. That's why I gave the examples I did. One - from Lizard Point to Grampound is my journey for Day1. "And if the next day I meet a new guide who knows the best way to cycle from Grampound to Liskeard..." That's Day 2.

If I can make this work it wouldn't involve putting it into the sat nav at all - I'd be with someone who knows the way. They'd be my sat nav.

As to headsets and MP3s... not for me. I think you have to be alert to the sounds of the road to be safe. I never understand when I see people cycling with headphones in. Part of the being in the outdoors in that way is being able to hear it. It's also part of your there's-a-car-around-the-corner early warning system.

Chris said...

Dave, you may also want to have a look at opencyclemap It's a bit like google maps but from a cyclists point of view - so things like canal paths and cycle routes are included and emphasised and shown in red motorways are shown faded...

Also cloudmade have a route planner based on the opencycle maps, which may be handy as well.

The only downside of these is that because the mapping is being created from scratch as part of the openstreetmap project, there may be area's of the country that don't have full coverage yet.

Unknown said...

I'm not sure if you have read Tim Moore's very amusing book about his attempt to follow the route of the Tour de France? The trip was inspired by the fact that he rather liked watching it on television and thought it would be fun.

He has some helpful advice about saddle sores which involves a lot of ointment.

Clare said...

Reading about those 90 mile days has made me feel exhausted! Having to have a bit of a sit down. Can't immagine how it must have been for you.

In the spirit of passing on local knowledge would you be able to let me know about the East to Central route using the canal paths? I currently live in the East End and would love to be able to cycle to Euston away from all the cars and buses.

Emma said...

I'm sorry I have nothing to offer in the way of cycling knowledge, but you might be tickled to know that our Book Club meeting this month was held in my work collague's house in Kingston Bagpuize*, and we had been reading America Unchained. We watched the dvd as well for a bit of ol' compare and contrast.

*said Bag-pews, I think. Although I can never remember this quick enough and it usually ends up as Bagpuss.

Anonymous said...

I could offer you some excellent knowledge of the cycle route between your Glasgow Pavilion / Denny Civic gigs, however it's not one of your more taxing distances.

Hoping to come and see you in Dumbarton anyway. All the best!

Dan said...

Respect, Dave. I'm knackered and I've just walked back from the pub. Will be closely following your progress, and wish you the best with the gadgets and the ointments.

Hannah said...

My OH did Lands End to John O Groats a few years ago. He wants to do it again either this summer or next summer. He's looking for a cycling buddy lol.

He wants me to cycle with him but I don't have the energy to do it! I will actually keel over before the starting line lol! I am going to drive my bright sunshine yellow car and meet him at various points along the route.

When he was at uni in Hull he used to cycle the 170 mile trip home to uni having got the train or something similar down to come and see me in Bedford (you probably past it on your way between Northampton and MK seeing as it's kinda half way point!). We were engaged and it's strange the things you do for love!

The Sporting Accountant said...

If you do decide that accompaniment (as in compansionship not musical) is the way to go. A friend and I would be delighted to cycle with you on one of your Cornwall legs. Cannot promise much in terms of directional acumen but we do between us possess some local knowledge and two bikes.

P.S. I am very impressed with your endeavour - cycling is a wonderful way to see the country

The Sporting Accountant said...

P.S. Despite my lack of directional sense I am sure I can get you from Lizard to Grampound and maybe on from there to Liskeard (where we have tickets to see you). I can build the routes into my training over the next few weeks: the Lizard is an area that I feel I have not seen enough of (colleagues refer to its beauty).

Mira Manga said...

You will be like Forest Gump with a big band of bikers behind you all looking at you questioningly when you stop and look bewildered having mistakenly cycled down a dead end.

HG said...

Have you tried Sustrans? They have local 'rangers' who will have good knowledge of cycle routes, often away from roads.

John said...

Try - created to help cyclists share good cycle routes. Its easier cycling in a group and with a bit of notice of the selected route I'm sure a few people would appear waiting to support you.

Dave Gorman said...

@TheSportingAccountant: late replying to this, sorry. Didn't realise these comments had accrued.

I've decided I am going to see if I can get the assistance of some Human Sat Navs so if you fancy leading me on one leg, let me know.

I'll try and blog about this in the next couple of days, asking for volunteer guides but seeing as you'd already responded here I thought I'd give you a heads up. You can e-mail through if you like...