Wednesday, 4 December 2013

Hard Rock Hell VII

So last weekend saw the annual pilgrimage to north Wales for the Hard Rock Hell (HRH) festival, this one being the seventh edition. Mrs M and I have been going since she won tickets for HRH3, though my attendance last year was limited to 18 hours because of work commitments. The format of the weekend is a Thursday start, with a themed fancy dress night and a few bands, then two solid days of rock and metal music across three stages Friday and Saturday.

For many people, the name of the festival would be apt - hell indeed. And yet, if I were to pick a single word to describe it, many people would be appalled; some at the poverty of my vocabulary, and others (attendees) at the word itself: Nice.

Let me explain. 'Nice' probably wouldn't be the first word that sprung to mind when you were watching a lead singer bashing his head with a tin of Fosters till it exploded (Airbourne), or encouraging the mosh pit to part in the middle then come together to knock the living daylights out of each other (Airbourne), or indeed listening to music so loud my ears still feel as though they're bleeding four days later (Airbourne). However, that same lead singer also sought out and then spent at least half a song playing and singing whilst physically in the area reserved for wheelchair users. We know of at least one person for whom that was an enormous highlight, not just of the festival, but of their year. It was a nice thing to do.

'Nice' probably isn't also the first word the casual observer would choose to describe the appearance of most attendees. They are rock and metal fans, and unsurprisingly they dress as rock and metal fans tend to dress the world over. Leather, denim, tattoos, and metal, either on clothes or sticking out of bodies are de rigeur. Apart from a group of youths in hoodies and half-mast trousers it's hard to think of a collective appearance more likely to scare the horses. And yet, and yet.....they're as nice a bunch of folk as you could ever wish to meet. Most of us, I hope, have got beyond the age of judging books by their covers, but those that haven't should go to Hard Rock Hell, where instead of polishing their prejudices they'll find people looking out for each other, doors held open for them, and championship-standard witty repartee in the Gents (can't speak for the Ladies). And it's not just the behaviour that would confound them; it's the occupations of the people in denim and leather - postmen mix with pathologists, and nobody particularly knows or cares. It's nice.

My highlight of the weekend was Friday, where the four hours of music between 8pm and midnight were the best four hours I've probably ever experienced at HRH. First up was Phil Campbell (guitarist with Motorhead) and his band. It was a great set, and the mash-up of Nutbush City Limits into Born To Raise Hell was a work of genius. Next up were ostensibly the night's headliners, Black Star Riders, or basically Thin Lizzy without Phil Lynott. They did their new stuff first, and sensibly held back a lot of the Lizzy stuff till the end of their set, which meant they went out on a real high. And finally came Skindred, who Mrs M had seen a couple of times, but were new to me. They describe themselves as a punk/ska/ragga/metal band, and I'd say that just about covers it. I'd not heard anything of their like before, and spent the first song wondering if it was genius or car crash. Well, it turned out to be genius. To use an overused cliche, I suspect they're a bit of a Marmite band, love 'em, hate 'em etc, but I loved 'em, despite coming in for some criticism from a certain Mr D Harrison for waving my hands in the air like I just didn't care (it wasn't very manly apparently, which I thought was a bit rich coming from a bloke wearing nail varnish). Anyway, I got carried away; it was nice.

Three final bits of niceness. First, I found the beach on Saturday, and had a wonderful eight mile run up and down it in sunshine warm enough to have made the day a September one, rather than the last day of November. Second, the attendees of our now-traditional Super Sausage Saturday for being so generous with their gifts and company; it's good to be able to have a few minutes chewing the fat with folk away from 110dB of rock. And finally, we shared our caravan for the first time ever. We're generally a bit intolerant of having other people around if we're honest with ourselves, but Giles and Larri were fabulous to have around, and their presence really added something to the weekend.

So there we are. It was a nice weekend. I'd recommend you buy a ticket for next year if you have even a vague liking for rock and metal, but I'm pretty sure it's too late; it's sold out already. Other people must think it's pretty nice too.


Sunday, 24 November 2013

Run to the hills

My more avid and/or attentive readers may recall that at the end of each August me and The Lad spend a boys' weekend walking in the Shropshire hills around the towns of Church Stretton and Craven Arms. While we have the same nominal route each year, there's always a minor variation of some variety. When I was thinking about next year's variation, I mused about the possibility of running the route, not as part of one of our weekends, but separately.

It seemed like quite a tough challenge; this year's route was 32 miles with 5000 feet of climbing. The idea to run it took hold properly early in October, when I thought that with a couple of months or so of decent running, I'd have a shot of doing it by maybe the middle of February. But then last weekend two things happened. First, I realised that Mrs M wouldn't be around in mid-February to come and bail me out if anything went wrong. And second, the weather forecast for this weekend looked pretty kind. So I decided to go for it...

...which is why I set my alarm for 5am yesterday, so I could leave by 6, and be down to and parked in Church Stretton by 7.30am, and running by 8. I had no idea how long the run was going to take, and wanted to give myself as many daylight hours as possible. I needn't have worried as it turned out.

I did, however, need to worry about the cold. It was -5c when I left home, and hadn't warmed up at all by the time I started running. Which meant that the ford that's crossed after the first mile wasn't the dribble of tepid water that it is in August, but a gushing cascade of ice cold numbing-ness. Having cold, wet feet that soon into a long run wasn't the best start, but hey ho. A few hundred yards after the ford comes the first of many climbs, but the only one you can't run up - it's a scramble up damp, slippery rocks. The reward, however, was getting to the top of the Long Mynd valley. By the time I got up there the sun was up, everything was still frosty white, there was a pack of wild horses just across the gorse, and the views were sensational - to the right, the Welsh Marches, to the left the Wenlock Hills. And me, just me, no one else. Even the early starters at the Long Mynd Gliding Club hadn't arrived.

Anyway, the run itself was reasonably straightforward. There were some hazards naturally; frozen back roads where staying upright was a challenge; not jumping out of my skin when one of the many shoots that were out yesterday fired a little close for comfort; and the deep squelchy mud on some of the uphill tracks. But I was back in Church Stretton 4 hours 50 mins after leaving, of which I'd spent 4 hrs 18 mins actually running - the Faff Factor was quite high on the run itself, what with needing to eat, photograph and add and remove layers fairly regularly. The vital stats - 28 miles (I removed a couple of this year's walk variations), 4500 feet of ascent, 1 knackered but happy man. The only disappointment was not being able to find a hot pasty, the thought of which kept me going for the last few miles.

Apart from the glory of the route itself, the best thing has been the physical aftereffects - none, apart from a tiny bit of stiffness in my hips. Well I say none - I obviously ate something that didn't agree with me yesterday. I won't add any more detail, other than to say I'm yet to make it back on to solid food.

That, however, hasn't detracted from yesterday - it's the fourth time I've run a marathon distance or more, I did it without a training programme leading up to it, and I'm not crippled today. The star of the show though was the countryside of Shropshire; it was tough, challenging, but beautiful.

Thursday, 21 November 2013

"Hello, I'm on the train..."

This post is devoted to trains. It hasn't got a defining thread; it's neither a moan, nor is it full of praise. It's just observations and experiences, because being on the the things how I spend much of my life at the moment.

I'm not as vitriolic as I might be, and as others might be, partly because t'eldest now works for Network Rail, so it feels like I'm criticising her personally when I take aim at them, and partly because as a bit of a railway geek anyway I've got a modicum of insight into how the things run. Take right now as a case in point. I'm somewhere just south of Birmingham New Street, diverted up this route (along with all other trains tonight to Manchester, Liverpool and Glasgow) because of a lineside fire near Tamworth. I don't know what caused the fire, but I do know that there's no point being upset at the slow running, because there's a massive bottleneck caused by loads of trains in the same place at the same time. I'm now just hoping - and I think it's guaranteed now - that I'm going to be more than an hour late, so that I can get a healthy refund on my (get this) £197.50 single ticket from London to Macclesfield.

Last week, however, I was upset. I was only trying to travel from Euston to Kings Langley (just north of Watford for all my loyal readers for whom south of Watford Gap [which is not particularly near Watford] is as big a mystery as the moons of Saturn). However, one of London Midland's trains had brought down the overhead power lines at Watford (there it is again), meaning there was only one line running north. But the misinformation we were fed was shocking. Maybe Network Rail have bigger fines to pay to Virgin than London Midland if the former's trains can't run, but Virgin were clearly taking priority, as their trains were running up the slow line rather than London Midland's. And yet....London Midland refused to admit any of their trains were actually cancelled until 45 mins or so after they were supposed to have left.  People stood on Euston concourse for hours trying to get a matter of miles up the road. I gave up, and went back to my hotel to work, but for the poor buggers stood stranded in the concrete hell of Euston, it must have been a massively frustrating waste of time. Simply because one train company - for reasons best known to themselves, but I'm sure the labyrinthine nature of the post-privatisation legal agreements between Network Rail and the TOCs had something to do with it - wouldn't admit they couldn't run any trains.

By contrast, a brief journey yesterday on First Great Western from Reading to London was comical. The train was packed, and I ended up at one end of the buffet car next to half a dozen early middle aged women (I think I called them yummy mummies on Twitter, but on reflection that was being a bit generous to them; tummy mummies might have been more accurate). Anyway, they spoke what my old mum would call "far back". Conversation ranged from their sons' and daughters' 'exeats' (public school-speak for day off), through this winter's skiing destinations, to - genuinely - the size of their Agas ("mine's got 16 burners, and an oven you could roast an elephant in!" [or words to that effect]). And all this was done in the 105-110 decibel range that only completely self-awareness-free posh people, and drunks, can manage). Brilliant entertainment, you couldn't parody the rich and privileged better if you tried; it made up for not being able to sit down.

And partly made up for being nearly half an hour late into Reading earlier in the day, which was attributed to, I quote, "extreme weather conditions". It had rained for a couple of hours. Come on Cross Country, if that was extreme, I'd love to hear your description of what went on in the Philippines recently.

Anyway, I'm knackered in a way that then even Virgin first class can't remedy. Night, all.

Tuesday, 12 November 2013

An occupational hazard

So I'm back to spending more time in London than anywhere else now. It's a little strange, being back as a consultant at the place I worked for more than 20 years. The single worst thing, to be honest, is not being able to recall the names of people I met in passing during that time, but who nevertheless greet me like a re-captured prisoner-of-war ("You made it out! How did you do it? What's it like on the outside?"). And the best thing is being reminded almost daily of the reasons why I left; the bureaucracy, the inertia, the posturing and the position-taking.

At least being there regularly means it's possible to create something like a routine - same hotel, Tube journeys, and even now somewhere to run - the inner and outer roads around Regent's Park. They're a bit flat, and a bit busier than I'm used to, but for central London, they're not bad; better than a sweaty gym, that's for sure.

However, when a weekend morning dawns light and bright, as it did on both Saturday and Sunday last weekend, it feels like the time for real exercise has arrived, regardless of whether you're actually in good enough condition to cope with it. For example, last Saturday, my ambition was just to run for two hours, to get in what counts as an endurance session when you're on your legs (as opposed to being on wheels, where two hours is only just about worth pulling on the lycra for). I did the two hours more or less to the minute, but I spent most of them going uphill or downhill, getting 3000 feet of climbing in, over the course of just under 14 miles.

By the time I got home I was beat. However, the house move has meant that there are, erm, one or two things to do at the weekends, and I thought retreating to bed for a couple of hours would be a surefire recipe for incurring the wrath of Mrs Monmardman. So I showered, breakfasted, and kept going. By late afternoon I felt like death, and even Mrs M observed - unprompted - that "I looked a bit pale". Now that was all fine, I knew that one of our Saturday night curries and a good night's sleep would have me right as rain. However, whereas a decent level of exertion turns me into a bit of a tigger, over-exertion turns me in Victor Meldrew. I grumped away at anything and everything the TV had to offer, from the football results to X Factor. I really don't know why I watch either. In the end I feared that my general misanthropy was going to get me into worse trouble than if I'd sloped off for a liedown earlier in the day. So I went for a liedown. A nine hour one in fact, which sure enough proved restorative for both mental and physical health.

Sunday saw some more running, and critically, some garage sorting. Bicycles have begun to emerge from the general chaos, so I'm hoping to get back in the saddle some time in the next few weeks. Audaxes have been entered, plans are beginning to be made for 2014. In the meantime, I'll keep running round Regent's Park to try to be in something approaching reasonable condition for them.

Sunday, 3 November 2013

Plus ca change

I don't think I've ever left as big a gap between posts as this and the last. Then again, I haven't moved house since I started doing this blog. So, an update...

Starting with most recent events first, we had a murder locally this week. And not just a domestic violence one of the sort that barely get a mention on the news, a full-on, road closed for two days, two forensics tents up, stabbing and cars screeching away kind of murder. This was 200 metres or so from the old house, 450 from the new. The poor unfortunate turned out to be a local 19 year old, with, it's fair to say, not a wholly unblemished record of adherence to the law of the land. Still, he didn't deserve the fate of being found on a cold wet road with a knife wound, and enduring the last moments of life having his chest pumped by desperate police and paramedics. Someone has been charged with his murder, so no doubt the full story will emerge in due course. It is, however, just not the sort of thing that happens round here, so the locals have found it quite shocking.

I'm not doing much exercise at the moment, through a combination of the rotten weather, the chaos that reins post-moving house, and the related inaccessibility of my bicycles. A few runs here and there, but my fitness is on a bit of a downward trajectory at the moment. I'm not especially bothered; as long as I don't give up entirely I know that I usually come back just before or after Christmas quite enthusiastically. 

Talking of Christmas, the 30th of December is now booked as the date when Mrs M and the cat emigrate, for three months at least anyway. Me and the good lady will drive down to Portsmouth for the ferry across in separate cars, and six days later I shall return home on my own, which will be quite strange. It'll be even more strange now that Ryanair have, annoyingly, decided to stop running the East  Mids to Dinard flight, for the winter months at least. There are plenty of other ways for me to get across to Brittany, but that one was the most time-efficient, and cheapest, so my Channel hops might be a little less frequent.

And so to the house move. We've moved in. But I think the move has only just started. We've lost 23% of the floor space at the old place, and have got stuff everywhere. We've simply got too much furniture, and quite a bit of what we have got isn't the right shape or size. We knew all that before we moved of course, but you still have to figure out the solutions when you move in. The biggest temptation I've got to resist is getting rid of stuff before I've had the chance to live with it. I suspect it's going to take a year or more to get thplace as we want it, and longer than that to fine-tune it to the point where everything runs like clockwork. All that feels like a right hassle, but as I keep telling myself, it's all part of a longer term plan.

Right, my attention has now been diverted away from putting up shelves and emptying boxes for long enough, so I better hasten away back to domestic hell.


Sunday, 13 October 2013

Back and forth...

This blog seems to be becoming as much a news medium for family and friends as it does a vehicle for reflecting on athletic pursuits, and this post will probably see an emphasis on that side of things too.
I’m writing this on the good ship Bretagne MV, crossing back to Portsmouth from St. Malo for the third time this year. I’ve been out in France for the last 10 days, Mrs Monmarduman for the last six. I spent the first three riding my bike round Brittany, in the expectation that it would be one of the last opportunities to do so.  I then drove down to Limoges, picked Mrs M up from the airport, and we had 3 days house hunting. And then finally we had another couple of days back in Brittany at the house.

The trip’s had a surprising outcome, in that, for the moment at least, we’re suspending the house hunting further south. This wasn’t due to the properties we saw or the area we were in – to the contrary, we know now precisely where we’d like to be, and we saw a couple of beautiful houses. It was more a feeling that we were embarking on too much change, too quickly. Well that and the fact that Brittany’s weather and scenery have put on quite a show for us in the last couple of days.

So let’s go back a bit. Going into this break we’d accepted offers on both our British and French houses. The British move is further advanced – we’ll probably be moving on the 25th of this month. We knew that from the start of January Mrs M will be working from France, initially on a trial basis, meaning that if we didn’t find anywhere we could buy quickly, we’d have to find somewhere for her to work from. But that wasn’t necessarily a problem – we know plenty of people with gites that are unoccupied in the winter months.  The plan seemed settled and thought-through.

The plan itself hasn’t really changed all that much. As I lay awake for much of Tuesday night, dissecting and worrying about every single part of it, I thought it might.  But I didn’t say anything to Mrs M – I struggle with any change at first, even stuff as trivial as painting a bedroom a different colour. The usual pattern, however, is that after initial misgivings I settle into and enjoy the change. But not voicing the nagging doubts just seemed to make them worse.  We talked of course – about the houses we’d seen, the areas we’d been in, but I just wasn’t ‘feeling it’.  Gradually it became clear why – there’s nothing wrong with the change itself, but we’re doing too much of it too quickly.  Moving one house is quite a big deal; selling two simultaneously brings practical challenges as well a feeling of dislocation. Selling two, and one half of a partnership not only relocating country, but to an unfamiliar part of that country, was too much for my little brain to deal with.

Fortunately, as we talked and drove back to Brittany on Thursday, it turned out that it was for Mrs M too.  So, the outcome is that whilst we’ll still move in the UK, and she’ll still move to France in January to work her 22 hours a week, we’ve withdrawn our Breton house from its sale, and that’s now where Mrs M will be based, along with our cat, who doesn’t know it yet, but who will emigrate alongside her owner. Which is just as well, because as we sat on our sofa yesterday afternoon a couple of mice strode out from behind the cooker with the confident air of beasts who knew they’d have the place to themselves again before too long.  I managed to dispose of those critters by the end of the day through a couple of handily-placed traps, but I’m sure they’ve plenty of friends and relatives waiting in the wings. The cat will have a field day.

So those are the basic facts.  We have, of course, spent large parts of the last 48 hours gathering evidence to support the decision we’d already taken – citing to ourselves everything from the slightly unethical treatment we’ve received from our French estate agent to the fact that Mrs M won’t have to start from scratch in Brittany in terms of network and friends. But one thing that is unarguable is the loveliness of large parts of Brittany, and the fact it’s terrific cycling terrain.  Without seemingly riding up anything that you could clearly call a hill, I did nearly 10,000 feet of ascent in the 160-odd miles I rode last weekend. It’s easy to ride hard there. But not necessarily quickly at the moment, though my refusal to contemplate changing down into the little ring on the hills doesn’t help progress.


So there we are. More Brittany for a while yet. The Dordogne is not off the agenda completely, but we need to see how Mrs M feels at the end of her work trial – she might be desperate to get further south having endured a Breton winter, or being in the north might have worked out very nicely. In the meantime, I need to find my next running or cycling target.  I don’t like not having a purpose; just doing it for its own sake never sustains me for long.  Suggestions please…

Sunday, 29 September 2013

Digital bike, analogue rider

An overused aphorism of recent times is William Morris's "have nothing in your house that you do not believe to be beautiful or know to be useful". Despite his libertarian Marxism I happen to agree with him on that one, which is why my lovely new toy hasn't yet seen the inside of the garage, and why I'm seriously thinking of mounting it above the fireplace.  For in the words of another renowned wordsmith, "isn't she lovely?" (Though I doubt whether Stevie Wonder is a libertarian Marxist. Libertarian rastafarian perhaps, which, even if the concept doesn't exist, has a nice ring about it don't you think?).


Yes, this is my monochrome wonder, a vision in black and white. Ebony and ivory indeed.

But enough of the duff references to crap pop songs of the past, time for a more detailed analysis of what's been 12 months in the planning and waiting. I finally took delivery of my new bike yesterday (or more to the point, I ran the 2 miles to Macclesfield railway station, took the train to Stoke, and ran the 2.5 miles from Stoke railway station to the Brian Rourke temple in Burslem, all so that I could collect the new machine and ride it [him, her? Haven't decided yet] home).  

It is frankly, a work of art. A masterpiece. It's two months late because Jason and Gareth at Rourke's have done amazing things with it. There are no cables whatsoever in front of the handlebars. The new Ui2 electronic gear changing system is all buried in various parts of the frame and seat post. It's the first Rourke steel bike to feature electronic shifting. The brushed steel effect of the groupset matches the exposed Reynolds 953 steel tubing of the seat stay and chain stay.

I don't feel entirely comfortable calling it a digital bike, as per the title of the post, as the frame is handmade to the precise measurements of my body, and it's been put together by mastercraftsmen. But the facts that a) it's got a computer diagnostic system associated with it where you plug in the groupset electronics to a computer to see which bits of the system are functioning well and which need attention (just like a modern car), and b) it feels of a quality way beyond my riding ability, combine to make me feel just a tad inferior.

Before I get too boring in praise of the most lavish present I've ever given myself, I'll just say this - what really matters, i.e. how the thing feels when you ride it, is amazing. A combination of the steel frame and some decent wheels take away 80% of the 'buzz' you get riding on rough road surfaces. I came back from Stoke yesterday on a route through Wincle that included several 18% climbs and similarly priced descents, and bike and man felt as one. It was lovely.  I'll report more in due course after some more rides.

In the meantime, thanks to 1) Jason and Gareth at Rourke's for making something special, 2) Robert Penn, for his book that pushed me in the direction of steel, and 3) Mendip Rouleur for lending me his copy of said book.


Thursday, 12 September 2013

The madnesses of now

Generally speaking, when someone asks me what era I'd like to have lived in (not a frequent enquiry I grant you), with the possible exception of the late 1950s, I can think of no finer time to be alive than now. Of course I look back at the late 70s and nearly all the 80s with great affection, but that's because of the age I was at the time. So I'm not an advocate of the notion that times past were"the good old days".

And yet, and yet....there are aspects of how we are today that I think we'll look back on in 20, 30 years time with as much bemusement as we look back at the purple polyester flares of the 1970s today. In no particular order, these include:

- the lack of availability and quality of wifi. To our kids' children it'll be as commonplace and accepted as electricity or plumbing. They'll guffaw at our pitiful attempts to connect on trains and our inability to do so in place in the same way we laugh at those enormous mobile phones of the early 1980s

- slightly more politically, we'll shake our heads in disbelief at the coexistence of the progressive deterioration of the lives of our elderly (unsavoury nursing homes, dispersed family, loneliness, a reduced allocation of health service resources) with the fact that we were paying to keep a vast army of people inactive (the unemployed), when they could have been working to address at least some of the elderly's issues. To suggest of course that people should have to do anything to justify their JSA or housing benefit would no doubt be greeted with howls of outrage from great swathes of the population claiming to speak on their behalf.  I can see there might be some practical challenges in setting up what I suggest, but the principle of doing something for your dole money? On that I'm unshakeable, and if that makes me an evil right-winger, so be it

- visible, prominent tattoos, or at least their prevalence in the population. Maybe I'm terminally old-fashioned, but I just don't think they make anyone look more attractive. Some tattoos I understand even if I wouldn't have myself - regimental mottos, ironman symbols, spouse names for example - but random designs on necks and feet? I think our children will think it odd, to say the least. By then we'll be finding less painful and expensive ways of expressing our individuality

- the strange cult of shopping. We all need stuff from time to time of course. But to go to a shopping centre or city centre and spend hours gazing at things you don't really need and can't really afford, surely that's a form of torture? I admit it keeps the glorious countryside much emptier than it would otherwise be, so improving the running and cycling experience - but surely people are going to wake up and smell the proverbial, realising they can have a more fun, healthier and cheaper day out than worshipping at their retail cathedrals?

- and talking of healthier, that we were so damn fat. Actually, I'm not sure that people will look back on now as a time of strange behaviour. I fear that the steady march towards obesity will continue until kids are educated about diet properly. And how to cook. And the difference between good calories and junk calories. I'm not being a diet fascist here - beer and chocolate feature regularly in mine - but you just need to be aware of how what you put in your stomach affects you long term

I could undoubtedly come up with more, much more, but I'd begin to veer into grumpy old man territory if I did. And I need no further encouragement in that direction. Exercise normally tempers the worst of those particular excesses, and I've been below quota on that in the last 10 days, mainly due to recovering from the Macc Canal run, which perhaps explains this post. There is, however, not a part of my body that hasn't been stretched beyond its usual shape, as my bum muscles in particular will testify. If that leaves you with an unsavoury vision, I apologise sincerely.

Saturday, 31 August 2013

A word for my sponsors

And the word is...thanks. No hectoring this time, just a quick word of appreciation or those that dipped in their pockets; it's much appreciated.

I read a newspaper article a couple of weeks ago by somebody who wrote that they'd stop stopped sponsoring people who were going to do events that they'd do even if they weren't being sponsored, and it did make me wonder whether today's run was therefore 'legitimate', in the sense I'd have probably got round to doing it at some point anyway.

In a sense it doesn't matter, but I hope that the fact I'm going to match the funds given makes it a little more legitimate. And the timing of today has accidentally coincided with MSF being in the news for their work in Damascus after the chemical attacks there, the ramifications of which haven't been off the news all week. So it looks like the provision of medical assistance will be the extent of the UK's practical involvement in Syria for now, for which I am relieved. I couldn't see what good was going to become of ringing the doorbell and running away.

Anyway, to the run. Mrs M kindly drove me up to Marple this morning (and even more kindly got out of bed before 6.30 to do it), and after a few photos I was away just after 7.15. The weather was pretty cool to start with - I ran the first half wearing a gilet. There's not much to describe really; it was a long and winding canal towpath. I made a mental note of only two things. First, you can tell we've had a reasonable summer, as I could feel the heat radiating off the stone as I ran under many of the 96 bridges on the canal. And second, metropolitan ducks (that is, the ones up near Marple) are clearly more used to humans in close proximity than rural ones, as the former continued to lounge around lazily as I passed inches away, whereas the latter hopped, quacked and flew off once I was within a few feet.

Mrs M and daughter number 1 met me just before my halfway point (handily just a couple of hundred metres or so from our house) with a few provisions, and I carried on with the second half. The first 20 miles were all completed in times of under 8 minutes a mile, whereas the last 7 were all a few seconds over 8 mins a mile, which reflects how I felt; I did tire a bit. But I finished the 27.3 miles in 3 hours 33 mins running time, a couple more mins if you add on the quick break I had at halfway.

I got some lovely blasts on a barge's hooter as I crossed the finishing line (the point where the Macclesfield Canal ends at the junction with the Trent & Mersey Canal), and my 2 support team had made a "well done!" banner big enough to be seen from outer space. And then there were many photographs, some of which will undoubtedly appear on Facebook sometime soon. Annoyingly, a couple of them captured the only 10 seconds of real discomfort I had either during or after the run, a tiny bit of cramp in the hamstrings. Tomorrow might be another day however....

So, it was fun. It's a lovely run, from the outskirts of urban Stockport through the countryside of east Cheshire, to the the outskirts of the Potteries - you should try it. Perhaps not all at once however. And finally, thanks again to my logistics team; couldn't have done it without you.

Thursday, 29 August 2013

Evoking the spirit of Sir Bob

***Spoiler*** - short, hectoring paragraph to be followed by a few in the usual vein...

Those of us above a certain age can almost certainly remember Bob Geldof letting loose a stream of spectacular vernacular at Wembley in 1985 during Live Aid, which, once you'd distilled its basic meaning was "give us your money". Well, I feel the same, with one small difference - there's no minimum I'm after, £1 will do.  You see, on a bad week I get 15 or so people tuning in for this rubbish, which can rise to 50 or so if I happen upon a subject that's du jour. And yet, a mere six (6) folk have so far dipped into their pockets for my sponsored event this Saturday.  To those six, many, many thanks, and to the rest of you - I mean it, even if it's just a pound or maybe two, please do what you can here:

http://uk.virginmoneygiving.com/StuartrunsMaccCanal

It's for MSF, who at this very moment have doctors and nurses in Syria (and many other places besides) doing what they can to save and care for the poor buggers who've been caught up in the turmoil of that place through no fault of their own, and have suffered appalling injuries.  Thanks.

OK, maybe it was two paragraphs, but here we go with the rest. My lad and I had a lovely weekend in the Shropshire hills. Maybe it's a reflection of the mild OCD that it's been suggested we both have, but we don't seem to tire of doing the same thing each year (this was the 4th time we've done it). We do put in minor variations, but in essence it's the same walk. This year our variations were an earlier start, a museum visit, and a Chinese takeaway eaten with B&B-borrowed teaspoons on a street bench. Dammit, we know how to live. The earlier start meant we encountered fewer folk than usual on our route, the museum visit was a bit disappointing to be honest (its subtext seemed to be "wasn't it great when we all had rickets?"), and the takeaway was top quality - though enjoyment of it was considerably enhanced by watching the good burghers of Craven Arms go about their Saturday night business. I'll say no more, other than I'm surprised we didn't see more cars with confederate flags on them. Yee-ha!

There were also some unexpected bits to the weekend which made it really good. These included the discovery of Stokesay Castle (somewhere we'll spend more time at next year), the climb up to Flounder's Folly and the views from it, and a superbly maintained 1950s Foden truck parked by our B&B on its way up to a heritage event at Shrewsbury. The best bit though was the fact that my grunting teenager is becoming an entertaining and erudite walking companion - not once did I have to make conversation all weekend.

I was planning to write more than this, but I've been up since 5.30, it's 9 now, I've got another 2 hours on the train and I fancy some shut-eye, not least because 36 hours from now I'll be running a marathon. Night, all.


Friday, 23 August 2013

Less is most definitely more

Evolution is healthy; sometimes even revolution is healthy. This blog has been quietly evolving for a while now, focusing less on the sport stuff and more on, well, all sorts really.  But I think it's time to move on a bit further, and begin to chart some of the big changes that have started to take place for me and Mrs M, and which will continue in the next few months. I've not really mentioned them on here before now, mainly because they were still plans rather than reality (and some still are), so I neither wanted to jinx them nor embarrass myself if they didn't materialise. The blog will continue, of course, to talk about running and cycling, both me doing it and some stuff on pro-cycling as and when. It will, however, happen within a wider context.

The main change is that our lives will begin to shift geographically - we already spend pretty much all of our holidays in France, and the plan is that we'll spend even more time there. Mrs M may even be able to spend the majority of her time there - her work have agreed to a three month trial of her working reduced hours from France. That should start in January all being well. The wider plan is that we'll sell our house in Brittany and buy somewhere slightly bigger further south - it's a terrible cliche, but the Dordogne looks favourite, followed by the Gironde. Why? Well, we love France of course, but we also like proper summers, mild winters, good food and drink, a relaxed lifestyle and good links back to the UK. Who doesn't? Fortunately, thanks to the flexibility of Mrs M's work, and the changed working pattern I find myself in after the first half of this year, it looks like we can make it happen.

We've decided to keep a base (house) in the UK, and much though we both love our current house, it takes quite a lot of maintenance to keep it looking ship-shape, and if we were to keep a fair bit of expenditure on its fabric would be needed in the next couple of years. So we've sold it. And bought a new, smaller, more modern one, which is all of 250 metres from where we are now. And in a further twist, the people buying ours live directly opposite the one we're buying. That, however, is a sign of that fact that, when I'm in the UK, there's nowhere that I - and others - would rather be; the hills, the countryside, the proximity to Manchester and the established networks are an unbeatable combination for me. It looks like we might move five weeks today, a rapidity that's caught me by surprise a bit and led to a few sleepless nights - "are we doing the right thing?", "where's everything going to go?", and so on.

The cash we'll free up from downsizing in the UK will go towards our new French house. That'll probably mean we can afford to buy it without selling the house in Brittany, which is only worth peanuts and in any case will probably be on our hands for a couple of years yet, given the state of the French property market. Ideally, we'll find somewhere with a small gite attached, both so that we can generate a bit of extra income, and have people to stay with us, but not 'with' us, if you see what I mean. I know these plans sound grandiose and expensive, but as I say, the state of the French property market means that ain't necessarily so.

So the future looks like this. Subject to the trial period working out, Mrs M will spend the majority of her time in France. The cat will have to emigrate with her. She'll come back for weddings, funerals, christenings and Hard Rock Hell. I will continue to work as a management consultant in the UK, but flexibly. I'm only working four days a week at the moment, and after the experiences of the first half of this year the boss is currently shaping his ideas on how the firm will work in the future - something that might affect me further. Either way, I'll aim to get out to the new French gaff as many weekends as possible, retiring to the easy-to-look-after new Macclesfield house when I can't. And I'll certainly try to engineer an extended period out there in the summer.

So, there'll be less (formal) work for her, fewer days (not necessarily less work if recent experiences are anything to go by) for me, smaller houses (though more of them), and definitely a smaller income. That's the 'less' bit. The 'more' bit is a more relaxed lifestyle, a greater sense of seasons and being in touch with our surroundings, definitely more crusty baguettes and wine, and the more civilised approach to living that you find in rural France.

It's not in the bag yet of course. We haven't exchanged contracts in the UK, Mrs M's trial might not work out, and I might be thrown out of work. But we're on the road to making it happen. We've been through a few iterations of 'the plan', and in the next couple of months I'll reflect on why we want to do this. We're very lucky to be able to even contemplate it, I know that.

Meanwhile, this weekend sees the annual Dad-and-Lad expedition to the Shropshire hills. This is the fourth running of said event. Whilst the route stays broadly the same (OK, exactly the same), we do try to throw in a variation of some sort each year. This time it's an early start tomorrow to do the longest walking day of the two in time to visit a museum in Craven Arms ("The Land of Lost Content"). It's basically a shrine to the foodstuffs, clothes, cars and furnishings of the 1940s to the 1960s. It's got some spectacular feedback on Trip Advisor, though I fear it may be more up my street than Seb's. We'll see. I'll console him with beer, which I may have to sample for quality control purposes too....

Friday, 16 August 2013

Meanderings...

Sometimes it's hard to know what to write about on here. This week, for example, I left home at 6.25 am on Monday, and I shall get back by 7.30 pm tonight. Apart from the train journeys between Macclesfield and Reading, I've existed within a 250 metre by 250 metre area of central Reading. I've been in my hotel, my client's workplace, and Marks & Spencer, and that's it. I've worked from 7.30 in the morning till 10 at night, sometimes later, with intermittent breaks for food, transit between buildings, and 3 visits to the Novotel gym. It's been simultaneously a damned hard working week and one that will be erased from my memory within a month or so. In other words, it's been fairly dull. I could of course share the detail of how I've helped a private equity-owned finance firm make even more money than it makes already, but I try in general not to make this blog a potential insomnia cure.

So, rather than develop any particular theme, I'm going to do a Notes & Queries-type edition:

  • Running - I ran a sub-45 minute 10k in the gym this week. I can't decide if this was better than I'm likely to achieve outside, on the basis there isn't anything in the gym to disturb your rhythm, or worse, that logic being gyms get damn hot. Either way, I was unfeasibly pleased with myself, until I tried to run the day after, when I discovered the fuel tank had been thoroughly drained the previous day
  • This weekend sees a minor gathering of the clan for my mum's 70th birthday celebration. All my kids, Mrs M, and my sister her kids are congregating twice, once on Saturday and once on Sunday, the second edition being the main event - a formal, professionally-staged and taken photoshoot, the results of which will, I hope, be on all our walls for years to come. I'm bracing myself for hours of female angst, and possibly some male (teenage) angst too over what to wear, hairstyles etc. As for me, I'll be doing nothing more of course than having a dry shave, my monthly bath (whether I need it or not etc....) and throwing on the first thing out of the wardrobe....
  • An unaccountable but irresistible urge for pastry - maybe it was that apart from a single porridge on Tuesday morning I hadn't had anything hot to eat since Sunday, but earlier today nothing save a double legbreak would have stopped my visit to the West Cornwall Pasty Company on Reading railway station. It was 10.52 am. I'd had a decent breakfast. But I had a junkie's need for a fix. And £3.80, though expensive for a cheese and onion pasty, felt cheap for a hit
  • It's always worth trying to do a deal - my stay at Novotel last week was disappointing. I complained via their feedback form, telling them I was going elsewhere this week. The general manager e-mailed me to ask if there was anything they could do to win back my valued business - she suggested an executive room at no upgrade cost. I suggested a price I was willing to pay for it which was £25 less than I paid for a standard room (itself already an internet-special), and to my astonishment she agreed not only for this week, but also, without me asking for the duration of my time in Reading. I'm thinking of asking next week if she could send up some Puerto Rican lovelies to iron my shirts wearing nothing but ostrich feathers and a wide smile
  • Bicycles - God alone knows what Brian Rourke Cycles are doing as part of the manufacture of my dream machine. What I know is that it's going to be two months late, and if I'd had the means, I could have ordered, had built, and be half way round the world on an ocean-going yacht by now. At least there's nothing specific I was wanting it for at the moment (the bike that is rather than a yacht), but I was hoping to get a few summer rides in on it before the roads clag up with the usual winter mixture of salt and muck. And I get to keep £ Quite A Lot in my back account a bit longer
I'm boring myself now with all this wittering, so I'll stop. Next week I may be able to illuminate you with tales of romance, intrigue and skullduggery, but it's more likely to concern prep for my annual hillwalking weekend with The Lad, and GCSE results of t'youngest if I'm honest.

Oh yes, I knew there was something....I've not exactly been overwhelmed by the response to this:
http://uk.virginmoneygiving.com/StuartrunsMaccCanal

...so do it, and do it now!  (Please).

Thursday, 8 August 2013

Médecins Sans Frontières

Back in May I wrote about the loveliness of the Macclesfield Canal, and how I was planning on running its length to raise a bit of money to contribute to its support and maintenance.

However, I've changed my mind. Not about the loveliness of the canal (indeed, I'm now familiar with 25 of its 27 miles, and if there's a finer, more picturesque stretch of inland man-made waterway in the UK I'd be surprised and impressed), nor indeed about the fact I'm going to run its length (training for which is going very nicely). What I've changed my mind about is the choice of charity for which I'm going to beg funds off you, dear reader, and others besides.

So why have I changed my choice? Well, a few reasons. First, it was always going to be a bit of a parochial exercise, asking people to give money to something that benefits the denizens of Cheshire, who aren't, let's face it, a particularly deprived bunch of folk in the first place. I'd planned to get round that by just asking for a pound, but I can do that too with the new enterprise. Second, the Canal & River Trust, that looks after the Macc Canal, whilst nominally and officially a charity, actually receives a fixed grant from DEFRA, and is, you could argue, therefore more an arm of government activity than a body that's genuinely reliant on public donations. (In fact, one of the great unremarked-upon scandals of the 21st century, as I may have mentioned before, is the number of charities that actually receive the bulk of their funding from central and local government. In my view, no 'charity' should have the right to call itself such if less than 50% of its income is raised by private and corporate donation). Third, I've decided to raise money for a cause in which I have no current interest, nor am I likely to in the future. I'm not saying there's anything wrong with people raising money for causes that are close to their heart, or which they think they might benefit from in the future - quite the opposite in fact, as I suspect many charities' income would be much smaller if that didn't happen - but I want to do something in which I have no personal stake whatever. And to underline my commitment to that, not only will I do the run, but I'll also match the funds of anything my sponsors chuck into the pot.

I will, therefore, be running for Médecins Sans Frontières you won't be surprised to learn, given the title of this post. I'm not going to extol their many virtues here, but I do urge you to look here: http://www.msf.org.uk/.  Independent, neutral, impartial medical assistance, to the people in the world who need it the most. Only without the moralising and campaigning of people like Oxfam, who, in my humble opinion, have got much too big for their metaphorical boots. I pick on them in particular because the last time I raised a three figure sum for them they couldn't even be bothered to acknowledge the cheque, let alone thank me. However, you shouldn't tar them all with the same brush, hence....

Even more important than the last web address is this one: http://uk.virginmoneygiving.com/StuartrunsMaccCanal, for it's here you can donate. Please do, and please do so knowing that neither I nor anyone else is going to make any judgement about the amount you give. It's one of the great conundrums of the modern age when someone asks for sponsorship - "do I ignore it? If not, how much should I give? Will people think I'm tight if I only give, say, £2?" I say - don't worry about it. I have no target, whatever my website might say. There's no minimum I have to raise as part of a set event. Anything MSF get as a result of this is, as far as I'm concerned, a bonus for them. So if you want to give them £1, please do. It's one more than they'd have had otherwise.

So unless a) any of my bodily bits hurt more than they usually do as I up training volumes and distances over the next couple of weeks or b) we get an unseasonal deluge that makes the towpath impassable, I'm aiming to run from Marple to Kidsgrove on Saturday 31st August. That will be a mere 7 weeks of training to go from zero running to more than marathon distance - a foolhardy venture some might say, and I suspect I'll be agreeing with them somewhere round Congleton on the day itself. Whatever, we do these things. I've given myself an added incentive now to do the training as I've entered a 10km race on 15th September, in which I aim to run a sub-50 minute time and get top 10 for the 45-50 age group. It's very dangerous, making public those kind of ambitions, but if it doesn't work out, I'll just not mention it again, ok?




Wednesday, 31 July 2013

Ain't life strange?

June and the first 10 days of July saw me spend just under 100 hours on my bike pedalling round France. That's proper pedalling too - panniers or hills. I got home on 13th July full of metaphorical beans - energised, energetic, tanned, rested, fit for anything.

On the 18th July I started work again, at a client site in Reading. As it happens, it's a nice office, directly above the railway station, and most of the people I've encountered so far have been good as gold. There are plenty of hotels and shops handy, so the logistics are as easy as they ever are when you're working away from home. And yet I'm knackered - exhausted, heavy-eyed, de-energised.

Admittedly I've been working hard - early mornings at the desk in my hotel room, deployment of quite a lot of brain power (or at least as much as I can muster) needed to solve a specific problem - but my knackeredness goes beyond those as explanations. It could be down to a few things. Lack of sleep is one, but I slept quite badly in the Pyrenees and didn't feel like this. Poor diet could be another, but it's not true - I've been eating really healthily. The debilitating effects of spending 11 hours a day in an air-conditioned office may come into it, but other folk seem to cope with that ok.

Nope, I reckon it's this - long periods without exercise. I have been running on Fridays at the weekends, but that's left 9 days in the second half of July when I've done nothing more strenuous that walk to and from my hotel. It's only a theory, but I reckon bodies adapt to what you do with them - and I've done a lot with mine so far this year. It's now rebelling at the lack of activity.

So, what to do? Well, it looks like I'm going to be here in Reading for at least the next five weeks, so it's time to desert the Premier Inn and find a hotel with a gym. Even working till 7 every night gives you the chance to run for half an hour or so afterwards. I was thinking along those lines anyway, but there was a stabbing and "police line, do not cross" tape very close to my Premier Inn this morning, so that's given me the push I needed.

On that note, Reading is a strange place. There's been a lot of development in its centre and around the river that runs through it - it's quite attractive. Yet a faint air of menace hangs over the place in the evenings, even as early as 6 to 7pm. There seem to be a lot of eating, drinking and carousing establishments among the new developments, and the excess alcohol, plentiful homeless and numerous smackheads wandering round combine to make it seem slightly threatening. I suspect if I was more familiar with similar size places in this country I'd find the same.

Anyway, time to go and spend my last night in the Premier Inn, sitting in my pants and eating M&S salad delights. It's not quite Alan Partridge-like, but it's not far off. I can feel your envy from here...  

Sunday, 21 July 2013

10 Reasons To Love Summer


  1. Beer. It tastes better in the summer (apart from bitter, which is not better, it's worser, unless it's best bitter, in which case it's only slightly worser best bitter). This observation is restricted though to lager-type beers of the sort I don't usually drink. Apart from Carlsberg and Heineken, which remain chemical-laden abominations that should be poured down the drain, not your gullet.
  2. Mrs Monmarduman. She can be tempted into cycling shorts and on to her bike. Yesterday she cycled further than she ever had before - 27 miles - and apart from slightly stiff wrists (which are in any case a legacy of breaking them both in an alcohol-related incident in the dim-and-distant) suffered no ill effects. We had a lovely ride along a cycle track/bridleway up to Marple and back down the canal towpath. I did, however, get a puncture on the way home, and had to walk a couple of miles. Mrs M suggested that I had, in fact, let my own tyre down as I was struggling to keep up.
  3. Cricket. My sporting second love. I reached the heady heights of the Cheshire Under-16 team in my playing career, but the truth is it's the only sport which I've happier to watch than play. I became semi-obsessed with the stats and facts that dominate the game as a kid, and I still love it, particularly when England are doing well against the old enemy. No, not Scotland, the Aussies. I also love it when Australians you meet vehemently deny having the slightest interest in the game during summers like this one.
  4. Trousers. More to the point, the fact you don't need to wear them. This has always been true, but more so since I had cyclists' legs that don't need hiding.
  5. Daylight at 6am. I loathe getting up in the dark. I also like being able to go running or cycling when the local wildlife (not a euphemism) is just waking up too - a heron was so sleepy this morning when I ran past him he couldn't be bothered to flap away from the canal bank. There were but inches between us.
  6. Eating outside. It's not just barbeques (though Mrs M's homemade tandoori turkey burgers are to die for) I'll happily take my porridge outside. It just feels so Mediterranean.
  7. The cat. Becomes nocturnal again, meaning that much of the time there's only two rather than the usual three of us on the bed, meaning in turn I get to sprawl out and sleep better.
  8. Festivals. You can keep your Glastonbury and your V, the place to be is the Macclesfield Sheep Dog Trials, which take place but a stone's throw from our front gate two weeks from now. Don't be misled by the title, there's a veritable cornucopia of delights - viz. a fell race, corn dolly making demonstrations, a caravan club rally and evening concerts by people you last heard of in the '70s. Little & Large, take a bow.
  9. Fruit in the garden. Raspberries, strawberries, rhubarb, and this year, blueberries. Sometimes there's enough for nearly half a bowl of fruit salad.
  10. The Tour de France. It's wonderful. You know why, I go on about often enough on here. As I write, the final stage that starts at Versailles and concludes under a floodlit Champs Elysee is just about to start, which means I must take my leave....
Happy holidays, for those about to pack. I salute you.

Saturday, 13 July 2013

Back to life, back to reality

My five and a bit weeks of unpaid irresponsibility are coming to an end, and it's time to reluctantly start thinking again about clients, suits and meetings rather than boulangeries, grimpeurs and croque monsieurs.

However, I'll try to pick the bones out of yet another trip to France first. This time the focus was on two things: watching the Tour de France in the Pyrenees, and riding my bike in the Pyrenees. The two coincided last Saturday and Sunday, and we've since had another five days of bike riding. The other facts are these before I reflect more on the sights, sounds and experiences. I travelled with Guy, buddy of cycling and many other things, from Bristol to Toulouse and back. We were part of a group of 15, comprising 6 Brits, 1 Canadian, 1 New Zealander and 7 Australians, (14 blokes and 1 woman). Our hosts were Pyractif, a travel company specialising in cycling holidays, and very excellent they were too, as always. I rode 428 miles, relatively little for seven days, but they were tough miles - we climbed well over 40,000 feet and the temperature rarely dropped below 30c, rising at times to 38 or so. Above around 28c I sweat so much I lose the electrolytes that stop you cramping, so keeping their levels high has been a constant battle this week.

Anyway, I'm going to try as usual to avoid this being a Dear Diary of the week. Instead, I'll split it into two - the madness of the Tour last weekend, and the riding since. The Tour; across here (I'm writing this at Toulouse airport), it's not just a sporting event, it's as much part of the culture as, say, a Royal Wedding or complaining about the weather is in the UK. Whole families turn out to watch it; they turn up hours in advance to stake their claim to a spot on the road; they bring picnics, wine, face paint, jollity, and their elderly maiden aunts who've been locked in the attic for years. It's a day out, a celebration of France, its countryside, and the fact that some the world's eyes are on it, albeit briefly. And the watching of 180 or so men in lycra ride past on a bicycle is, if more than incidental to the enjoyment of the day, at least not at its core. That core consists of the being there first and foremost, and the publicity caravan secondarily. The 'caravan', as it's generally known, is a procession of 200 vehicles adorned to varying levels of bonkers-ness in their sponsors colours. Supermarkets, countries, washing powders, newspapers, bookies - all of them are in their. I may have mentioned this last year, but my favourite is Cochonou, dried sausage makers, and their fleet of 2cv's, including a stretch 2cv, of which I got a cracking picture this year - see my Facebook page for that and many other delights.

But the caravan does more than provide visual entertainment - it gives stuff away. Washing liquid samples, caps, sun hats, key rings, bottles of water and all other manner of assorted tat are hurled from the vehicles at anything between 20 and 40 mph. And the French just can't get enough of it. They turn up with empty rucksacks, elderly shepherds take their crooks for hooking wayward items from the undergrowth, and middle aged women are perfectly prepared to wrestle drunken Dutchmen for big green foam hands, or at least that's what I witnessed on the Port de Pailheres last Saturday. But it stays good humoured, and a healthy barter-based market builds up at the roadside - "I'll swap you my small packet of Haribot for a polka dot cap". It's daft and it's pointless, but it gets everyone talking, sharing drinks, stories and views of the race. Which then comes past an hour later, a whirl of bright kits, dozens of team cars, police on motorbikes, race commissars in their red Skodas, and anything up to 8 helicopters low enough to deafen you, providing TV pictures around the world. It's a few minutes of a chaotic, noisy, exciting whirlwind. And when it's gone, there's a scramble to get home or to the nearest bar to watch the climax of the days racing.

We were lucky both days last weekend - the race was well and truly on, the peloton in many parts, broken apart by attacks both tactical and kamikaze. And on Sunday we could not have been closer to the riders as they got to the top of a tough, hot climb. It was reassuring, having done exactly the same climb as them three hours earlier, to see the same pain and distress on their faces as there was on ours at the same point. Less reassuring was realising they'd done in 30 mins what took us an hour. But we knew that already - from our vantage point we'd been able to see them battling up the climb for several kilometres. It was a brilliant day, the sort you can't really plan. Unbeatable. 

And so to the riding. In addition to the two days of 50 mile rides to our Tour viewing spots, we did one one extremely difficult day (made worse in my case by some self-inflicted idiocy, as I shall describe), one difficult day, one quite hard day and two relatively easy days. We bagged some classic Cols, including the giants Tourmalet and Port de Bales. I'll say no more; it was hard and hot on the way up, fast and exciting on the way down. But my idiocy; on Monday I left my phone and money at a cafe at the top of the Col de Mente, and didn't realise till some time later. There was only one way to retrieve them (for they were still there of course, this being rural France), and that was to go back up the Col: 10km of very hot road at a 9% gradient after 3 earlier climbs. What took me 40 mins in the morning took 55 at 1pm. I was indescribably hot. When I got to the top retrieving my valuables was a distant second priority to sticking my head in a bowl of cold water, which I did to the slight bemusement of the  cafe staff. When they found out what I'd done they insisted on giving me a Lion bar, despite the fact I'd just eaten two, and that it was so hot it would melt before I was barely out of the door. Still, bless them.

And then later that day came one of the monster climbs, meaning that by Monday night I'd ridden 96 miles and climbed just under 12,000 feet. I could barely hold my knife and fork to feed myself. But it wasn't the distance and the ascent that were the killers; it was the heat. I wasn't complaining though. After the rain, snow and wind of the last few months it was just part of the fantastic riding environment down here. But all that's at an end now. There's another week of the Tour to act as our methadone after this week's heroin, but it'll be cold turkey well and truly a week on Monday. Still, what a high.

Wednesday, 3 July 2013

He's off again

Sustainable. Postcode lottery. Deprived. Call out. Innovative. Hard working families. Vulnerable. Take very seriously. Solutions. Learnings. Independent enquiry. Investment. Going forward.

Laziness. Corporate double-speak. Jargon. Cliches. Oversimplifications. Journalistic twaddle.

The collection of perfectly good words in the first paragraph (and I'm sure I could have added many more had I had a brainstorm with myself [yes; irony-alert]) have become one or more of the things in the second paragraph. I hadn't realised how much we're bombarded with them until I was listening to a Direct Line spokesman (for he was male) explain why important people from his organisation were on Merseyside that day when they were announcing the closure of a Direct Line office. It was "to help our people through this important change process" apparently. They were there to give them their redundancy notices. I'm not sure what offends me the most, "our people" (they won't be for long, will they?), or "change process" (you're sacking them).  I don't expect businesses to be a charities, tough decisions have to be taken, but don't dress it up in nonsensical language, it just insults our intelligence.

I mention all this merely because over the last few weeks I've been avoiding the media's worst excesses mainly by not watching the news, and I've got another week and a half of avoiding work-based idiocy by, er, not being at work. Instead, in the next 10 days, I shall have a whole different set of well-worn phrases going through my head: amazing scenery, classic climb, fantastic descent, swooping corner, cloudless sky, aching limbs probably principal among them.

Yup, it's finally time for the Pyrenees. There's a nice hors d'oeuvre tomorrow, with t'eldest's graduation ceremony in Bath, a very splendid fish course over the weekend seeing the professional riders tackle some Pyrenean cols in the TdF, then the tasty main course of riding some of those same hills next week. Can't wait.


Thursday, 27 June 2013

Bringing life to the kingdom of doing

The driven and the fortunate end up doing jobs that they love; that reward them emotionally and financially, if they're lucky. The rest of us sometimes have to pick between the two, sometimes we don't get either. I've had brief moments in the last 25 years when the two have come together, and for the rest of the time, I've at least earned enough money to not have to worry about the bills too much.

But on Tuesday morning this week, I had a vision of the fantasy job that I'd do if it existed or I had the cojones to try to invent it - a cycling historian. I'd lead bike tours from Caen in Normandy round the coast to St. Malo in Brittany, recounting the history of the landing beaches, bringing the events of 1944 alive for whoever was interested in them, but wanted to experience more than just read a book or spend an hour out of their air-conditioned car at a war grave site or a museum. The anointed among us already know that bicycling is God's own method of transport - slow enough to take in sights, sounds, smells and other people's conversations, fast enough to alleviate boredom. So doing that whilst giving a mobile history lesson in what happened 69 years ago (and in the months before and after), and its consequences for how we live now and why the world is arranged as it is, strikes me as an ideal way of earning a living.

But let's rewind a bit. I'd arrived 'home' in Ploeuc-sur-Lie a week last Monday with a bad hand and a miserable head. I moped around for a day or so, wondering what to do and how to make the best of my time in France, and whether I'd need to get any medical attention. Fortunately, the swelling round the knuckles began to go down a bit, and I got a bit of movement back in my fingers. The revised plan evolved into staying at the house till the end of the following weekend (i.e. the one just gone), doing house jobs - for there is always something that needs painting / mending / cleaning / mowing - and riding the bike as much as possible around that, until Monday morning, when I'd take a two day route back to St. Malo via Avranches and Mont St. Michel.

(Unbelievably, given my love of the Tour de France, when I made that plan, I'd forgotten that this year's route makes its way from Nantes to St Malo on Tuesday 9th July, and there's a 'contre le montre' [time trial], from Avranches to Mont St. Michel the following day. Which meant that I spent Monday and Tuesday this week riding large parts of the exact routes of those two days completely fortuitously and inadvertently).

Living at the house for six days without a car was quite interesting, given that we're two miles from the village itself and much further to anywhere of note. It gave me a real insight into what it would be like to live car-less. You can do it - when a) you've not got a job and therefore have plenty of time, b) can rely on delivery services for anything bigger than will fit on or be towed by a bike, and c) it's never winter. I've uploaded pictures to Facebook of shopping and recycling with a bike, and I even did a 45 mile round trip to buy a 5 kg bag of cement I needed for some work outside the house. No pictures of that one, which is a shame, as 5 kg of bulk in one pannier and 0 kg in the other is enough to unbalance the bike, and means you end up riding whilst leaning slightly to provide some counter-balance.

Anyway, Monday morning rolled around and I rolled away from Ploeuc north-east towards Avranches. As is impossible not to do in France I passed through countless meticulously-maintained villages and hamlets, took pictures of a fraction of the number of mightily impressive churches I saw (which all seem to be disproportionately large for the size of place in which they're situated; those with a better knowledge than me of the Catholic church and its role in French life could undoubtedly tell me why that is), and lunched more-or-less at the spot in Evran where there will be the intermediate sprint on Stage 10 of this year's Tour. The route was deliberately meandering, meaning I'd covered 95 miles by the time I rolled into the F1 hotel at Avranches.

Now, I don't know how many of you have stayed in a F1 in France. If you haven't, then to give you an idea of what they're like, they make Travelodges feel like the Ritz. There's no en suite (you pad down the corridor to shared facilities), you get a towel marginally bigger than a postage stamp, and there's no reception - it's all automated. Which at least means there's nobody to moan at you for taking your bike to your room. I'm not complaining about any of this - the rooms are clean, cheap (I paid 31€), and after a tent, unbelievably luxurious.

So, Monday was good. Tuesday was better, but I'll come to that. For all the virtues of rural France, it's not without its parochialism. As I was buying my lunchtime provisions on Monday a Frenchman struck up a conversation with me about what I was doing, where I'd come from, and so on. When he asked me about my starting point that day I chose not to say the village name, as I was 40 miles away by then. So I said "Moncontour", the next town of any size. Nope, he'd not heard of that. Nor had he heard of Lamballe, from where you can pick up TGVs to Paris. To put this in context for my local readers, it's like being in Chester and a native there not having heard of Wilmslow. Unbelievable. Still, the gentlemen in question (in his 70s) was wearing a white golfing cap, a shiny blue three-quarter length shellsuit, topped off (bottomed off?) with white sports socks and black brogues, so perhaps I shouldn't be altogether surprised. There you go, look-ist and age-ist in a single sentence.

Tuesday didn't start auspiciously - for the first time in my cycling career I had a spoke problem, a very loose one on the verge of snapping to be specific. As good fortune would have it, I was only a mile or so from a Decathlon store, so I popped in there to get it tightened, and I was soon on my way, hugging the coast road all the way from Avranches to St Malo. In a straight line, it's only 35 miles or so, but I extended that to 65 by going down the tiniest roads I could find, the only criterion for selection being it had to be the one closest to the shoreline. And what a shoreline - the bay of Mont St. Michel is glorious, though I suspect nearing its best on a sunny June weekday morning when there aren't too many other people around. The Mont itself is France's second most popular tourist destination after the Eiffel Tower, but as long as you create your own Tourist Exclusion Zone by riding down the back roads near it, you can avoid the worst excesses of the peculiar culture that seems to accompany anywhere that attracts large numbers of camera-equipped Japanese and Americans. Again, see my Facebook page for pics.

I lunched in Pontorson, mid-afternooned in Cancale overlooking the oyster farms, and arrived in St Malo early evening. One of the great things about being on a bike rather than in a car means they seem to let you on ferries first, meaning that by the time the great unwashed were boarding on Tuesday, not only was I washed (showered actually; public showers on a ferry - how civilised), but I was also changed, seated and with beer.  As ever, both in the ferry queue with fellow cyclists, and on the boat with everyone else, obviously being a touring cyclist attracts conversation and comments, possibly more so when you're travelling alone. It was fun; time passed quickly and before I knew it I was back among the lovely British, with their aggression, their cramped space and their b*****d London buses. But it would be a shame to finish on a negative, so I won't, because...

....Eight days at home, then I'm off again to France, the Pyrenees in fact, as I think I may have mentioned once or twice before now......



Tuesday, 25 June 2013

Pulling defeat from the jaws of victory....and vice versa

So, where were we? I was just about to leave for France to do some touring. That was a couple of weeks ago. A reasonable amount has happened since then, certainly enough to justify a couple of pots under normal circumstances. However, this might just turn into one long one, missus. Just to warn you. 

As ever the temptation is to turn the thing into prolonged diary entry ("and on Tuesday I had a very nice  cup of coffee"), you know the sort of thing. So I'm going to try not to do that, and pick out the highlights, and indeed lowlights, out of the last 11 days. 

Let's start with the biggest lowlight. Now, this blog is nothing if not honest, so it's with relief that I'm going to admit the following hiding behind a keyboard rather than face-to-face with any of you. Thought that might happen in time I guess, dammit. I didn't do the tour I planned, well not much of it anyway. That's not the embarrassing bit however. And neither is the reason - I badly injured my left hand, causing it to swell like a balloon, not be able to grip anything, and generally be useless for a week or so. Nope, the embarrassing bit is how I injured my hand. It was putting my tent up. Now you might ask, not unreasonably, how it's possible to injure a hand putting a tent up. Hitting it with a mallet whilst hammering a tent peg in might be a feasible answer. But it wasn't that. It was making it go bendy. Don't laugh. I was trying to fix the bendy bits (the ones that give the tent its height) into position by putting a pin in the end of one of them. I was doing it with my left hand, when all of a sudden, my big finger started hurting. Quite a lot. I looked down, and was a little startled to see to it resting under, and in parallel with my ring finger. I'd somehow managed to dislocate it. Now, a French campsite on a sleepy Sunday afternoon doesn't exactly have medical attention, or indeed other people, on tap, so there was no option but to re-locate the finger myself. Talk about seeing stars, I saw a whole galaxy, but with a sickening click I got it back in. It then popped out another couple of times whilst I finished putting the damn tent up, but I eventually managed it, before collapsing inside to take one of all the painkillers I could find.

It was not a happy night that Sunday. My hand throbbed, my stomach remained empty as the campsite didn't have a restaurant and I couldn't face getting back on the bike, and the rain rained. All night. My towel stayed wet beside me, and my mood darkened with the clouds. Morning brought no relief, in fact the hand was worse. I had a decision to make therefore about what to do. The options were to carry on as planned, carry on the route as planned but not camp, or go back home and consider my options. The first was out of the question; I could barely get the tent down one-handed, let alone put it up. The second was tempting, but I knew there were no hotels to be had within riding distance of Le Mans, because of the 24 Hour race, which is why I too was headed there. So the route was going to have to change anyway, and for that reason (and there was an element of crawling into a corner to lick my wounds) I decided to ride the 75 miles home.

Even that was easier said than done. I couldn't get my riding mitts on, the hand was too swollen. More significantly, I could neither brake nor change gear with my left hand, meaning downhills had to be taken much more slowly than usual, and uphills were all done in the big ring. Good strength training I told myself. 

All of which shows the folly of breaking one of the golden rules you set for yourself. One of mine I set when I was 18. I went on a self-guided walking and camping holiday in the Lake District. It was September, and it rained solidly for 3 of the 4 days I was there. Everything I owned was so wet you had to wring it out, and apart from anything to do with Powerpoint presentations it was one of the most miserable experiences of my life. But showing rare balance and perspective for an 18 year old (I like to think) I did not disavow either camping or being vehicle-less, just combining the two. You see, if it rains but you've got a car you've still got somewhere to dry things out, a sanctuary of sorts. Or if you're walking or riding and get soaking wet, bedraggled and cold, none of which I particularly mind, you still need a hot shower and a half-decent bed at the end of a day.

Anyway, I tried to combine camping and riding. I broke my rule and I paid the price. I slunk home with my metaphorical tail firmly between my legs, my plans in tatters.....

You know what, I am going to spilt this holiday blog into two after all. Bite-sized chunks and all that. And I can end on a cliffhanger.....did I go home and weep into my absinthe for a week? Did I retire to my bed, emerging only to curse in French at the much-too-cheerful sparrows outside my window? Or did I salvage both a modicum of pride and quite a lot of pleasure from the time that remained? All will be revealed, probably on Thursday....

Thursday, 13 June 2013

Kids, who'd have 'em?

The confluence of a few things means that this is going to be a (short) post about that most boring of subjects - to other people - kids. Mine to be specific.

So what are those things of which I write? In no particular order, Father's Day on Sunday, the end of GCSEs, the posting of a new blog, and t'eldest getting a job. Now, being a stiff upper-lipped kind of Englishman I'm naturally going to be inadequate at expressing my true feelings about most things, other than the quality of my breakfast marmalade and other people's driving skills obviously, so I'm using this medium to express some pride in my children. Hopefully not in that sentimental, aren't-they-lovely-just-cos-they're-my-kids kind of way, but for solid achievements.

Youngest completes her GCSEs tomorrow after a long, hard slog. We think she's going to do pretty well, and her plan is a welcome break in family tradition, being to pursue a life scientific rather than one based in arts or humanities. She's planning to do predominantly maths and science A-levels and with luck and hard work, continue from there. I salute her desire to do something new (for us lot), and her drive.

Middle 'un is beginning to develop his writing skills for a time two years from now when he'll be thrown into the harsh battle to survive in our world with only a degree in Philosophy as his shield. He's started a cracking blog on American Football - not my bag but it reads like he knows what he's talking about - and I'm hoping to vicariously lead a writer's life through his work in future years.

As for t'eldest, we can finally breathe a sigh of relief. She heard last night that after 4 rounds of selection, she's secured a role with Network Rail, spending a fully-expensed year at Warwick Uni from September doing a post-grad qualification, after which she'll move into project management with them, looking after who knows what? Possibly part of the HS2 development if it goes ahead, possibly something less controversial like station redevelopments. It's a brilliant role anyway, and she played a blinder in being selected for it.

I was tempted to apologise at this point for the subject matter, but I'm not going to. Children, wife, friends, politics, books (no significance intended by the order of that list); these are all important things, and all deserve some airtime occasionally in addition to the usual bike-riding nonsense.

Anyway, just to finish the subject off, I've got my Father's Day card packed in my panniers, which I'll open just before I peddle down to the south Breton coast. On reflection, I probably won't take my ipad with me, so it'll be tweeting only for the next 10 days or so.  Till next time then...

Thursday, 6 June 2013

We're all going on our summer holidays....

...no more working for a week or six.....

Yes, that's right, six, count 'em, 6 weeks off. Hurrah! But they're unpaid. Boo! The explanation - as mentioned last time I trundled down to Hemel Hempstead on Tuesday to learn my work-related fate. The good news is that we've got some big pieces of work in the pipeline so we should be alright for the future. The less good news is that we haven't actually won them yet, so with the company still loss-making everyone in it is taking a financial hit of some sort, whether that's committing to a period off completely like a few of us, or longer term reduced hours working, like the rest. For me, a shorter period of no work at all works quite well, because I can go and do something else, instead of still being tied to my computer three days a week.

And my six weeks starts at the end of today. The period was always going to be book-ended with trips to France - this weekend it's a Ryanair Nightmare (East Mids to Dinard and return) to see the house, whilst at the start of July me and Mendip Rouleur are punishing ourselves in the Pyrenees. So, what to do with the middle bit? In a startling feat of imagination, I'm going to, erm, have another trip to France! This one's going to be a bit different however...

Not different from the first in that it'll start in Brittany. Not different from the second in that it'll involve a bicycle. What makes it different is that a) it will involve a tent, panniers and leisurely riding, and b) it won't involve a car. Next Thursday morning I shall ride my laden-bike (of the LEJoG and London-Paris previous campaigns) down to Macclesfield railway station, to take a train to London. There I shall negotiate the most hazardous 3 miles of my entire trip in all likelihood, riding between Euston and Waterloo railway stations, the latter of which being from where I shall take a train to Portsmouth. At Portsmouth I shall take the overnight ferry to St. Malo.

The plan continues...I shall ride the 50 miles or so from St. Malo down to our house near Ploeuc-sur-Lie, where I shall stay for two nights. And then my cyclo-camping tour starts. There'll be three phases to it:

- the bottom section of the Nantes to Brest canal
- the westerly section of the Loire Valley, before turning north to:
- Le Mans, where, I hope, I'm going to watch an afternoon practice and evening qualifying session for the 24 Hour race of fame and notoriety
- & Fougeres, en route back to Ploeuc
- couple of days or so at the house, then ride back to St. Malo to do the same journey home as on the way out, but in reverse obviously. It'll only be 650 miles or so in total, but I intend to do quite a lot of pootling, and not much less chateau-photographing and boulangerie-sampling.

When I first conceived of the trip I wasn't going to have a plan as such, and I still probably won't book any accommodation, just finding it as I go along, but I think you need a rough idea of what you want to do. And if I hadn't spent part of yesterday on the interweb, I wouldn't have found out that you can get tickets for the Le Mans practice afternoon and evening for the princely sum of €30 for example (rock concert thrown in for free between the daytime and nighttime stuff; what's not to like about that?). Coupled with the easy rider nature of the tour (well, who knows?) there'll be some sensible stuff at the house too.

The ferry tickets are bought, the train tickets are purchased and bike reservations made, and rather sadly, the panniers are well on their way to being packed. I've even bought a solar-powered iphone/satnav recharging kit. Some bike maintenance and rough route planning are all that need to be done now. The ride won't perhaps be the best preparation for Pyrenean hills, but it'll certainly be better than sitting in an office. I'm not sure if I'll blog again before I go, but I'm certainly aiming to when I'm there. It'll be with an ipad if it happens, so the posts might be short and sweet, but I'll do my best, not least because when you become a gentleman of advancing years, such as myself, the memory ain't what it used to be.

I'm now off to my sunshine-dance. Wish me luck with that. Oo, one last thing - if you read these blogs why don't you follow me on Twitter? I have fewer followers on there than I seem to have regular readers of this nonsense. I'm @skinslive - and I'll post mini-updates and photos over the next few weeks on there as well as here. Thanks!

Sunday, 2 June 2013

Scoop!

Those of a literary bent will recognise the title of this post as the name (but without my !) of Evelyn Waugh's 1938 classic novel, which satirised lots of aspects of journalism, and featured a character based on the real-life Bill Deedes (who was a later a Tory MP, editor of the Daily Telegraph, and the 'Bill' who was the 'Dear Bill' in Private Eye's brilliant imaginary letters of the 1970s and 80s from Denis Thatcher to a golfing buddy). I mention it because I think I got closer to being let in on a genuine scoop this week than I realised at the time.

It came about like this. My children gave me the Cycling Anthology Volume 1 for Christmas, a collection of essays by a variety of sports writers, cycling-specific journalists, and even the more eloquent cyclists themselves. One of the reasons it's so good is because they're allowed, even encouraged, to break free from the usual shackles of journalism - writing in the first person, repeating hearsay, voicing opinion, and so on. It's excellent, and I tweeted as much at the time. One of its two editors, Lionel Birnie, re-tweeted it, I started following him, and when he consequently announced that Volume 2 was to have a launch event at Foyles on Charing Cross Road, I snapped up a couple of tickets. Which was great, as there can't have been more then 50 on offer. (It was also an absolute bargain - £10, including a copy of the book, that retails at £7.99).

And so on Wednesday me and t'eldest travelled to the smoke to meet up for it. She is a cycling fan too, borne out by the fact she took a Mega-Bus coach back 'home' to Plymouth (she doesn't really have a home as such at the moment, being in that post-university, pre-Next Life Stage vortex of existence), which only arrived at 5.40 in the morning...still, she also did it to save £26 on the train fare...I was very proud.

Where was I? Oh yes, the event. It was hosted by Ned Boulting, the bloke off the telly. Yes, that's right, the one who interviews Wiggins, Cavendish, the rest of them, and footballers for God's sake, in front of millions of people. There were, as I say, no more than 50 of us at Foyles. And yet he seemed so nervous...slightly faltering introduction, a couple of flat jokes, sweaty palms (which we could see as he was only three feet away from us). That said, he warmed up as the evening went on, and was his usual witty and erudite self, posing some really good questions. I won't go through a blow by blow account of the evening, but it featured as speakers the two editors of the Anthology (Ellis Bacon and Lionel Birnie), Dan Lloyd (retired cyclist, now a commentator, wrote a chapter in the book about his experiences of riding the Tour in 2010), and the three journalists Richard Williams, Daniel Friebe and Richard Moore. All were entertaining and candid - none more so than Dan Lloyd actually when the inevitable questions about doping were put.

But talking of inevitable questions, it was asked of Dan Lloyd who would win the Tour this year. With no hesitation - and I mean none, not even half a second - he said "Froome or Contador, probably Froome". This naturally opened up the subject of Wiggins, and everyone had their tuppence-worth of opinion. Most of it centred on speculation around how much his Giro experiences would affect him, and around the dynamics between him and Froome. There was consensus that it's more than just sporting rivalry - the two of them genuinely don't like each other very much by all accounts. But then they also started speculating on the psychological effects on Wiggins, and how, after the infamous event in last year's Tour when Froome pulled away from Wiggins at La Toussuire, Wiggins almost jacked in the Tour and came home - when he was in the yellow jersey! - and had to be persuaded not to. Richard Moore was part of this what felt like very informed discussion, and it was he who only 24 hours later broke the "Wiggins may not ride 2013 Tour" story in the Daily Mail. Looking back, I think the signs were there in that conversation that the story was already emerging. To some it's probably not much of a story - "bloke doesn't ride his bike" - but it was good to feel close for an hour or two to what we watch on TV all the time. Interestingly, part of the discussion was around the accessibility of pro-cyclists to the journalists, and all concurred cycling was still far and away the most open of sports for journalists to cover, despite the best efforts of a certain L. Armstrong a few years ago.

Anyway, it was a really good night. I've only read one chapter of the Anthology Volume 2 so far (it's Tour de France-themed this time to recognise the Tour's 100th edition), and if it's representative of the rest of the book, then it's another must-read for anyone with even half an interest in professional cycling. I urge you to add it to your library.

I've done a bit of cycling myself this week. Every day in fact, culminating yesterday in a 101 mile anti-clockwise circumference of Cheshire. I'd set myself the random target of doing a three-figure ride before midday, partly because I hadn't ever done it before, partly to take advantage of quiet roads, and partly to keep myself motivated during what is a long way to do on your todd. Not much to report about it really. I did it; I felt quite strong, my time was ok at 5 hours 50, and the most interesting thing I saw was a wild rabbit - that was ginger. It wasn't a domestic escapee I don't think - at least not a first-generation one - as where I saw it was in the back of beyond. I could have been hallucinating, as I was in the last 10 miles of the ride with most of the blood in my body being in my legs rather than my brain, but I don't think so.

I find out my work fate on Tuesday, particularly whether I'm going to have an extended holiday - unpaid unfortunately. So as previously mentioned I may have more time to ride my bike soon. Not next weekend however - we're paying a flying visit to Brittany - so not sure when more blogging fun will happen.

Monday, 27 May 2013

The Macclesfield Canal

I probably shouldn't be setting myself a target beyond the next one, but I'm going to anyway. The next target of course is a week's worth of riding in the Pyrenees at the start of July, and I'm training for it assiduously. Not necessarily loads of hours, but a carefully planned schedule to get me to where I need to be just over five weeks from now.

My mind wasn't drifting on to the next plan until we were tidying out the garage a week or so, and came across a book called 'A Complete Guide To The Macclesfield Canal' by H. L. Gilman, published in 1992. I'm happy to report that the title is accurate - there are 233 pages of fairly dense typeface to describe the 27.75 mile length of the canal; 8.5 pages per mile. And that's the style of the book - there is no extended history of its purpose, its financing, its building and its restoration. Nope, the majority of the 233 pages are taken up with a detailed description of what you can expect to see by, in and over the canal from its start in Marple, Cheshire, to its conclusion in Kidsgrove, Staffordshire. There are descriptions of pubs, locks, bridges (there are 98 of them you'll be anxious to know), types of plant in the hedgerow, the nature of the canal's sluices, and so on, and so on. For most people, it would be a work of devastating tedium, but for me, it was a wonderful find, and whilst it's not exactly gripping, it's a nice way of bringing on that sleepy feeling at bedtime.

There's more to it that that of course; I regularly run from what I now know to be Bridge No. 43 at Gurnett to, well anywhere between Bridges 69 (Wallworth's Bridge) and 93 (Hall Green footbridge). I normally do it early on a Saturday morning. I normally enjoy it, especially if the sun's shining. I normally encounter all manner of wildlife that time of day. And I normally blog about it. Of all the escapist nonsensical things I do, it's the most escapist of them all, because there's no traffic to worry about, just the occasional over-enthusiastic canine, and there's music in my ears. I'm properly in a world of my own, and occasionally that world doesn't involve pain.

So I love that canal. I don't don't whether I'd love its northern section quite as much; I've only covered parts of the Marple to Macclesfield section. But no matter, I love the southern half. I was out walking last week, and alongside the thought that I've never run the northern half, another realisation bounded into my head; at 27.75 miles, the canal's only a mile and a half longer than a marathon. And then it occurred to me I haven't tapped anyone up for sponsorship for a couple of years now. These three thoughts converged to create the plan....I'm going to run the length of the canal, from Marple to Macclesfield, and raise money for the Canal & River Trust. It's hardly a charity that pulls at your emotional heartstrings, but the trust now runs and looks after over 2000 miles of canals in England and Wales, miles that give a lot of boating people, walkers, riders, runners and indeed sit-and-ponderers a lot of pleasure. When the moment comes, I'm not going to ask for a lot - £1 a person perhaps ("Pledge A Pound?") - but just enough to help maintain a little bit of our heritage.

I'll probably aim to do it the first weekend in September to give me chance to build up my run distances when I get back from the Pyrenees, unsupported other than Mrs M dropping me off at Marple and picking me up at Kidsgrove. There'll be no medals, timing chips, race numbers, nothing organised at all about it in fact. Just one bloke, a camelbak with 2 litres of water, and a few energy gels. Until I started writing this I was only 90% sure I was going to have a go, but I've put it in writing now, so I have to don't I? Right, fingers crossed for a reasonably dry summer so that the towpaths stay nice and dry.

And finally.....not much to report on the cycling front. I was out earlier, not jealous of those doing much greater distances than me today (Tour of Wessex people chapeau-tipping moment) given the cool and the breeze, though perhaps a little jealous yesterday, when the weather was gorgeous and I was stuck in my car covering the 470 miles from Macclesfield to Exeter and back; worth it though to mark the rite of passage of Son finishing first year at university.


Sunday, 19 May 2013

Hobson's Choice

I don't write about personal stuff on here very often because it's, well, personal, and therefore likely to be reasonably dull. However, this has been an - euphemism alert - interesting week at work, which might affect the amount of time I have for riding, so here goes. I did ride my bike earlier too so you never know, that might get a mention as well.

Business has been a bit slow for my employer since Christmas. In common with some other small consultancies, we're struggling to beat the big boys at the moment, despite winning a really prestigious industry award last month, and we're trading at a loss. In a firm of any size that obviously can't go on indefinitely, but in one of 12 people the time for action rolls around a little sooner. And so it was that we were gathered at our Hemel Hempstead head office on Thursday, and told that the firm needs to half its cost base by the end of June. We're a consultancy, where the overwhelming source of cost is people, so you can guess what's next. Actually, the situation has been handled really well so far by the management team, and rather than starting a consultation process to ask people to leave straightaway, they've asked for volunteers to accept a) voluntary redundancy, b) an unpaid leave of absence, or c) reduced hours.

None of these options is fantastically palatable I suspect for most people in the company. We've got two weeks to make our minds up how to respond. I've had a mixture of reactions, mostly involving me modelling a range of scenarios to see what would happen if I volunteered for nothing. That becomes a game of poker of course, guessing who's going to do what, and how that would affect me. I think I'm not going to opt to take the calculating, even cynical route however - I'm going to work out how to make this situation benefit me, and for the company too to be fair, for I absolutely want it to survive this and get stronger again. I've a shrewd idea of what I'm going to suggest, but it wouldn't be right to reveal here, not least because I've no idea what the outcome will be, which not only depends on other people in the company, but also what work we win over the next two weeks.

So why am I telling you this? Well of course regardless of what I volunteer for, if anything, I could find myself with plenty more time on my hands soon! But also I guess for two other reasons. First, it just doesn't feel like the end of the world. I've lost no sleep about it, and seem to have a completely que sera sera attitude to the whole thing, a little bit to my surprise. Second, blogs that focus on hobbies/pastimes, call cycling and running what you will, can sometimes take on a slightly detached-from-reality feel sometimes. But they don't exist in a vacuum; we all have other stuff going on, and sometimes it's good to include that too, particularly when it's something that whilst serious, isn't depressing either.

Talking of not being depressing, me and Mrs M went to a Eurovision party last night, and had a fine time, despite the fact that some wires had got slightly crossed, and I was the only person to talk up in true fancy dress. I was particularly taken by the Greek entry (song title: Alcolhol Is Free), sung and performed by a ska/punk/folk band of gentleman dressed in skirts. Well, I need no second invitation to don a skirt (and it was a skirt rather than a kilt), especially when an exact replica of the skirts worn on the band's video is in my local Barnardo's for £2.99. Size 16 admittedly when I'm more of 12, but nothing that braces and a safety pin couldn't sort out. In for a penny, in for a pound, so I danced along with them too when the song was performed, with an energy that doesn't come easily after 90 hard minutes on the turbo trainer, a mountain of Indian food, and half a bottle of red wine. Friends, Eurovision, its Twitter feed, lovely food and red wine - there can be few finer evenings.

Oh yes, I rode my bike today too. I decided it was time for some extended climbing, so did the 7 miles from the centre of Macc up the "Cat & Fiddle", in a very good time and without coming out of the big ring. I then suffered like a dog for the next 40 miles, so more fool me. Today's roadkill of choice....rabbit. Dozens of deceased bunnies; poor buggers must be hungry or something. Or the bunny rabbit Class of 2013 is even thicker than the usual vintage. Anyway, the ride was warm, fast and useful, if how tired I feel now is a reliable guide.

On that note, I'm off to see if I can find any pics of today's Giro stage, which was snowy and freezing by all accounts. Ciao!
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