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.

Tweets by @skinsalive