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.... 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


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.
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