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!

Monday, 13 May 2013

My definition of a dilatory blog style; France 4-12 May

I've only blogged twice in the last month, that's why I'm dilatory. I did warn last time though that it might be a while before I did again, and so it's turned out.

Now, it's going to be very tempting to turn this post into another in my occasional series of paeans of why riding in France is so great. The last 10 days were so good, however, I'll broaden the thing out into why just being in France is so great. But lest this turn into one of those nauseating Christmas round robins that outline just how brilliant the preceding year has been along with the full extent of the genius of everyone in the family, I'll start with some negatives....

Things The French Don't Do Very Well:

  1. Roundabouts - by and large, the French aren't as bad drivers as they're sometimes made out to be. Yes, they can tailgate a bit sometimes, and the concept of acknowledging someone else's politeness is slightly alien, but in general I find them to be patient, relaxed and highly considerate to bikes and their riders. Their roundabout discipline, however, is appalling - most drivers don't use indicators before or during the process, it's a regular and apparently acceptable practice to take, say, the 4th exit by crawling round the outside rather than using lanes properly, and some older drivers seem to think "priorite a droit" still applies
  2. Milk - for a country that has so much agriculture and so many cows, it's a surprising one this, but it's true - most of their milk is sold as the UHT variety, and it's not very nice, frankly. I love splashing a bit of cold skimmed milk on my cereal, but you just can't get the same stuff across there; it's very disappointing. Their cream isn't much better either.
  3. Newspapers - I love the printed British media, principally its political blogs, periodicals and newspapers. I think you find fantastic, provocative, informative stuff in the Telegraph, Guardian, Spectator, Private Eye, Economist and even, very occasionally, The New Statesman. My French is generally pretty poor, but I can read it to an extent, and there just doesn't seem to be much in the way of equivalents over there. Their papers are undoubtedly functional - we bought a copy of Ouest France on the way back yesterday, and its 5 pages of handball coverage were nothing if not comprehensive - but they seem to lack the humour and contrariness of their British counterparts. It's clear they consider themselves purveyors of news first and foremost, rather than comment and analysis. 
So there we are. France isn't perfect. However, as always we've just had a really enjoyable week out there. Highlights in no particular order included:

- the Normandy landing beaches, museums and cemeteries. I could do a whole post and much more besides on this, but I'll confine myself to saying that the whole coast manages to pull off the balancing act of appropriate remembrance and taste, with informativeness and accessibility. It would be easy for the area to have turned into a kind of WW2 theme park, but it hasn't. Not even the massive American cemetery at Colleville-sur-Mer, which in fact seems to me to be a rare example of American restraint and controlled patriotism. It was a unexpected and pleasant (not quite the right word given the subject matter, so forgive me) surprise.

- the food. I'm really not sure why it seems so much easier to eat better over there. Of course, when you're on holiday you have more time to spend buying and cooking, but nevertheless you get a much clearer sense of seasonality and local produce in even the biggest French supermarkets. They're not necessarily cheaper these days (in fact everything is more expensive, bar the wine, which is still a steal if you know what you're looking for), but their fruit, vegetables and seafood in particular are streets ahead of ours, at least by my criteria - i.e. they don't all look as uniform as ours do, but my, the flavour is there in a way that's missing from much of our imported produce these days.

- Caen. I'd never been before. It's lovely, and has a massive market on a Sunday. Anything and everything is available, though amusingly the busiest stall was run by Brits, and was selling pulled pork sandwiches.

- sleep. OK, so this is a bit specific to our house, but at night, there is no light pollution, and no noise. On a cloudy night there are no light sources whatever - if you open your eyes in the night you think you've gone blind for a moment. And our nearest road is a kilometre away, and there's only 15 cars a day on it anyway. All of which means that I seem to sleep much more deeply and satisfyingly there than anywhere else. Which is nice.

- riding my bicycle. It had to come didn't it? I got out four times whilst I was across there, which meant that I effectively exercised 6 times during the week (the other two occasions were mowing our lawn at the start and end of the week; it was a challenge shall we say, especially the first assault on the jungle). I only rode for just under 8 hours and just over 200km respectively, but the advantage of splitting that into four rides meant that I could really hurt myself when I was in the mood. That mostly occurred last Tuesday, when I managed a 39 mile ride in 2 hours 6 mins, including 788m of climbing. I'm pretty strong at the moment, but a bit heavy; some dietary modifications are called for. The most difficult of the four rides was last Wednesday, when I rode 35 miles from the coast back home in a south-westerly direction when there was a headwind pretty much the whole way. Nothing unusual about that, but a croissant and two ice-creams do not good ride preparation make, and there wasn't much in the tanks as I crawled the last 10 miles home at a snail's pace.

Otherwise, the week was as advertised; I did drink lots of red wine and eat lots of French bakery product; we sought out, purchased and imported a variety of tat, sorry, quality French antiques, for Mrs M to do up and flog on; we walked our holiday dog; we drank beer with our 79 year old French farmer neighbour who speaks not a word of English, and we lay in bed listening to the families of starlings under our rear rafters and sparrows under the front ones. All in all, a bucolic and lovely week.
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