Late for a race

8 minutes is all I had from the point I parked the car and applied the handbrake to the point where the race started. 8 minutes to get my number on my bike, get changed and drag myself to the start line. As if it wasn’t bad enough that I’ve not ridden a bike for the past 10 days…

“YOU’RE LATE!” shouts the British Cycling commissar. Thanks for that.

It’s ok mate, I’ve been battling through the traffic on the M6 to get here but you feel free to shout down the earhole of a paying punter. I wasn’t late anyway. I’d been there for a whole 3 seconds before you called my number out, so a bit confusing that one.

Resisting the urge to treat him like a glue-sniffing Spanish mugger, I lined up with the rest of the (probably relaxed and nicely warmed-up) riders on the start line and waited the few seconds for the start. “DON’T LEAN ON THE BARRIERS OR YOU’LL GET A PENALTY”-  the British Cycling Taliban continued to bark their orders.

And we’re off. 4 laps of blood-vapourising misery on a course made up of pebble-strewn fireroads and very narrow and tree-lined singletrack. Good job my handlebars are unfashionably narrow.

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The course at Cannock is ok really, in fact it’d be a lot of fun if you weren’t racing and/or trying to warm up by riding as fast as possible while trying not to puke. The whole event is really good in fact – the organisers Run and Ride clearly know how to provide a slick, friendly event.

It’s a shame then that the British Cycling lot seem to bring their unnecessarily crappy attitude with them….

Still, I didn’t get lapped, we met up with friends we’ve don’t see anywhere often enough and I cooled down afterwards with a ride around the Chase with Rachael.

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The Ride to Spain – or How Not To Do Big Rides

The Little Voice Of Reason, so often ignored, had been telling me for weeks that my plan to ride from the north coast of France to the south coast of Spain in less than a week was far too simplistic- far too basic and fraught with risk. The other little voice in my head – the laid-back, feet-up-on-the-desk, smoking a fag voice was saying “it’ll be fine” like it always does. Guess which one I was listening to?

Plotting my route on Google Maps from Caen to Murcia, I could see quite clearly that I would need to ride just over 1500 kilometres of ‘roads legal for cycling on’. The route would head in a south-westerly direction and follow the coastline of France from La Rochelle to Biarritz, from there it crossed the Pyrenees and headed due South across Spain. Easy. What could possibly go wrong?

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That was pretty much Plan A. Armed with my train tickets to Portsmouth and a ferry ticket to France I would leave my house after work on Friday on my Mango Bikes Point AR, covered in Ortieb bikepacking bags. I’d be taking minimal sleeping kit (a mat and a bivvy bag), even-more minimal clothing and spares to get me out of most situations.

Plan B, because one should always have a contingency plan situated somewhere in between ‘success’ and ‘rescue from life-and-death situation by a helicopter while on fire’, consisted of ‘Get the train’.

Erm…that’s it. While I’d done some homework in that I’d checked that France and Spain are actually aware of an invention called trains and that they’ve got some, I’d not really investigated further. I’d just go to a town or city and…you know…get a train…

I wasn’t going to invoke Plan B anyway. Mr Laid-back Puffing On A Lambert And Butler said so. Plan A was 100% bulletproof. No, 110% bulletproof.

Besides, too much planning would remove all of the fun anyway. What am I? Some kind of cyborg?

Off I went into the rush hour traffic of Manchester and rolled up on a train in Portsmouth some 8 hours later, 8 hours too early for the ferry. As night fell I busied myself by wandering around a bit, napping in a bus shelter and fiddling with my bike. Eventually the ferry set sail for France and luckily I bumped into some friends from Prestwich who loaned me their cabin for a couple of hours so that I could grab some sleep.

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Rolling off the ferry in Caen, I reckoned I could get three or four hours of riding in now before finding somewhere to sleep. I managed about 70 miles, including stopping briefly at some kind of village fete where I ate a hotdog and a tray of the oiliest chips in the world, before grabbing a few hours’ kip in an orchard (yes I realise I probably shouldn’t be camping willy-nilly in random orchards but anyhow). As soon as the first hint of daylight started to poke through the darkness at about 5am, I was packed up and on the road again.

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Day 2 needed to be A Big Day. I reckoned I needed to be riding over 200 miles daily if I was going to stay on top of the schedule and get to Murcia by Thursday. Today was Sunday.

It was a few miles before I realised that the route recommended by Google wasn’t going to be practical. While the roads on the route are cycling-legal, unless you really wanted to meet a sticky end under the wheels of a high-speed lorry you wouldn’t ride on them. Far from safe, they weren’t particularly enjoyable either.

Riding from village to village to town, always heading south, I was riding with the use of a paper map. Always sticking to minor roads I would see how I got on. It was when I reached Nantes though that the fun and games really started.

I’m not a fan of Nantes. In fact it’s probably one of the most horrible places I’ve ever been to. A non-existent cycling infrastructure, a motoring population seemingly hell-bent on the destruction of everyone else, traffic jams everywhere and a huge river bisecting the city that needed to be crossed.

That last bit cost me a good hour of riding around in circles (on one occasion almost straying onto the motorway) trying to find a bridge that wasn’t a motorway.

Glad to see the back of Nantes, I arrived in a small town called Port Saint Pere further south, complete with pizza restaurant and a campsite. The woman at the pizza place poured me a beer, made me a pizza and even refilled my waterbottles from the tap. The trouble was, I’d only travelled 170 miles and was nowhere near the point I should have been by Sunday night. Plan B edged closer.

By now I was starting to smell quite bad. I’d brought a couple of spare tops, a change of shorts and some spare socks. The temperature during the day was well into the 30s centigrade so I changed all the clothing that I could. Still, when I walked into boulangeries and supermarches, I was summarily given the “GET OUT OF MY SHOP” look by any shopkeeper who was unlucky enough to have a working sense of smell. No doubt me buying rather a lot of pastry, bottled water and processed meat products helped to ease their anguish.

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I pressed on in a southerly direction. By now I’d recognise the weather pattern – warm and not windy in the morning, extremely hot with a pesky headwind in the afternoon. Day 3 was better than day 2 though – this time I didn’t take as many wrong turns and managed to make it through La Rochelle and as far south as Rochefort. I also rode along the coast for a while, ate an ice cream and started to remember why I was doing this in the first place. I was still a long, long way behind schedule though and started to think very carefully about what to do next. At this rate the number of hours and miles I was riding wasn’t taking me far enough south and I was going to run out of time. I had intended to cross the border into Spain on Tuesday – currently I was nowhere near and I was now estimating Wednesday afternoon.

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I abandoned Plan A and set about riding to Plan B. I’d head for Spain and ride straight to San Sebastian. There, I’d get the train to Murcia. Simple.

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After a very short sleep in a farmer’s field and then another sleep slumped across a picnic table next to a salmon (or possibly trout) farm, day 4 was a good day. I’d been looking forward to this (rather big) bit because I had to ride to Royan, get the ferry across the estuary to the start of a 200-something mile long, traffic-free cycle path along the coast all the way to Biarritz.

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It’d be nice to ride it all in one go, but I expected there would be plenty of places to get a sneaky few hours’ sleep if I didn’t.

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Mile after mile of tarmac cycle path meandered through dense forests. Occasionally a car park or a caravan site would appear and thankfully many of them had shops nearby. I continued to load up on the packs of sliced cheese and garlic sausage. I had a near-crash when I rode straight into a party of naked cyclists who were evidently on their way to the (very crowded) nudist beach. “Not what I was expecting”, I thought as I ate the last of my processed wiener.

I managed to ride 200 miles that day but was still 50 miles or so from the Spanish border. I slept rough on a quiet harbour for a few hours, couldn’t get any sleep really so set off again at about 3am.

Being chased along a deserted cycle path in the dark, in a foreign country by torch-wielding and quite fast-moving thugs is not something I want to repeat in a hurry. I’d just ridden a double century in the heat, had a 2 hour sit down and now I’m having to sprint on a fully-laden bike because someone presumably wants to nick my bike/kick my head in/skin me alive or whatever. One of the guys had a head start on me as he ran from a point to my right and in front, so it wasn’t an absolute certainty that I’d be able to get away.

But I did and once I’d slowed down a bit, I left the cycle path at the first opportunity and carried on riding along the road, lights turned off. It was another hour before I reached the first town (the name of which I honestly can’t remember) and sat on the church steps until the sun came up.

That was all pretty shit and it took a long time for me to stop being really pissed off about it.

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I hurriedly pressed on for the border after stopping off at a bakery for some water and breakfast (they REALLY wanted me out of their shop quickly!) and eating it while checking the train timetable. This was going to be tight!

I never did find the cycle path again, which was probably just as well. I carried on along the roads into Bayonne and then Biarritz, both of which took AGES to negotiate – Bayonne seems to suffer with traffic jams everywhere and Biarritz has a very medieval layout. It looked like a fun place though and I grew envious of the beautiful people sipping fine wines outside posh bistros.

I knew the border was approaching because I started spotting Spanish number plates on cars and the terrain suddenly became very hilly. Hauling my tired legs and heavy, luggage-covered bike over the last few mountains and into Spain, I also noticed that the roads became rougher and even-less cycling friendly. I didn’t care though, I had two hours to cover the remaining 30 miles into San Sebastian before the train for Madrid was due to depart.

I practically skidded to a halt in the train station doorway with 30 minutes to spare after negotiating the midday San Sebastian traffic. “Estacion? Si, by the river!” were the directions given to me by the bloke on the moped.

“Bicicleta? No ees possible”, the Spanish ticket vendor said.

“What?”

“Your bicycle – no possible to take on train”

“What?”

“You need it in a bag”

“How about a box? Do you have a box that I can use?”

He handed me a small leaflet with specification of bags for bicycles. Basically, you can only take a bicycle on a Spanish train if it fits in a small suitcase. A folding bike, in other words. Definitely not a cyclocross bike.

I sent Debbie a text message with swear words in it, thus using my last 1% of phone battery.

SHIT.

It took all of 30 seconds to realise that my only option here was to abandon the bike, but only after I’d stripped as much value from it as I could.

So here I am, multitool in one hand, penknife in the other, undoing bolts to remove the stem, seatpost and brake calipers from my poor Mango Point AR. I’m sawing the hydraulic brake hoses to free up the master cylinder before slinging all of that into a water bottle to bathe in their own fluid. I’ve already removed the Ortlieb bags and I’ve got all the components laid out on my sleeping mat. Another minute or so later I’ve got the whole thing – bags, parts and sleeping kit – wrapped up with elastic straps and I’ve removed the wheels.

Oh, and the whole time I’m doing this, SOMEONE IS TRYING TO STEAL EVERYTHING FROM ME. Yep, I’m being mugged while performing emergency bicycle mechanics in the street of a foreign city. Knowing that the ‘mugger’ isn’t too steady on his feet (he’s carrying a glue sniffing bag in one hand), I give him a big old shove in the chest whereupon he staggers backwards and falls into the road. Whoops.

He seems ok(ish), I resist the urge to stamp on his leg and I gather up my stuff, take one last glance at the sorry sight of my abandoned bike and make my way back into the station where I buy a ticket to Murcia.

Ignoring the guard’s moaning that I “can’t take wheels onto a train” I climb aboard and sit down. Everyone thinks I smell bad.

I’m not out of the shit yet. When I arrived in Madrid it was 10pm. My train to Murcia wasn’t until the morning after. I’m stood in cycling shorts, cycling shoes and a sleeveless vest in a soon-to-be-closed train station with a rolled-up pile of bike parts on one hand and a pair of wheels in the other.

I approach a taxi driver to see if he can take me to a hotel. A risky move, admittedly, but I needed a shower and I wasn’t keen on spending another night sleeping rough, especially here. A taxi driver mini-conference breaks out. Eventually, a driver who speaks some English explains that there is a nice hotel with rooms to spare but it’ll cost 100 Euros.

I know the driver was probably getting a percentage, but It’s a nice hotel and I was grateful for the assistance to be fair to him. In fact, it’s a whole apartment in downtown Madrid so in some ways it’s a shame I was only going to be in town for another 6 hours….

I showered, charged my phone and slept like I’d never slept before.

The last chapter of this story is dull and uneventful, thankfully. The morning after, I discovered that the finest espresso in the world is actually available from a kiosk in Madrid train station. I got on the train to Murcia and it took me without any drama to Murcia. It even arrived 4 minutes early.

Have I learnt anything? Loads. I’ve learned that a trip like this needs to be open-ended. A deadline is incompatible with what turned out to be a 2000 kilometre bike ride.

I’ve learned that a Plan B needs to be A PLAN. Not an idea or a concept. The what, when, where and how need to be thought about rather than assuming that trains in other countries are as welcoming to bicycles in the UK (because they are very welcoming to bikes compared to other places).

French shops don’t seem to be open all hours like UK ones. Nor does France have any all-night garages, only automated ones and automated petrol stations don’t sell butties and chocolate.

I’ve also learned that just because Google says a ride is 1500 kilometres, it doesn’t mean that it’s all on roads that can be cycled on safely or enjoyably. I’d ridden 1200 Kilometres just getting to San Sebastian and I reckon Murcia was at least another 800 away from there.

Finally, a big “thanks” to Lyon Equipment for supplying the brilliant Ortlieb bags and to Mango Bikes for the use of the dear, departed Point AR. A fast, comfortable bike that was perfectly happy with whatever abuse I threw at it…apart from the abandonment bit. It probably didn’t like that bit very much.

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Salzkammergut Trophy romantic weekend away….

The Salzkammergut Trophy is a funny old race. The main event – the 211 kilometre ‘A’ route – is too hard to be approached in any way other than Very Seriously (if you want to beat the strict time cut-off and/or not end up bery broken indeed) and a lot of the distance is made up of forest roads and minor trails that are ridden twice and in some cases, three times over.

There are some technical sections, the majority of them downhill, but generally what happens there is that the vast majority of competitors dismount and walk/run (barge!) down those or attempt to ride them and immediately crash (and then walk).

This year the conditions were wet and muddy so the downhill mincing was even more prevalent.

Gravelly forest roads. The Salzkammergut region of Austria has got loads of them and the Austrians will happily make you ride up and down them all day long. They love gravelly fireroads. Many Austrians (and Germans it would seem) have got awesome Riding Down Gravelly Fireroads skills.

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To be perfectly honest I find them rather dull, especially if I’m riding them all day long. As long as there’s a view (and you’re actually looking up) then there’s a way of telling one from the other, but mostly they’re pretty much the same as each other.

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Debbie and I arrived on the day before the race, a bit frazzled because we’d driven the 1000 miles across Europe from Manchester. Driving there via the Channel Tunnel with two bikes and assorted gubbins is still a lot easier and cheaper than negotiating airports, baggage carousels and hire cars though, plus we were able to stock up on Belgian waffles on the way back.

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My start time was 5am. How unpleasant. I had just about enough time (after finding the campsite and signing in) for 4 hours sleep, after getting completely ripped off by the Bad Goisern campsite, located at the football club. 36 Euro for ONE NIGHT in a 2 man pop-up tent. This would have been easier to stomach had it not been for the Token Noisy Woman on the campsite. So make that two hours’ sleep. Cheers Token Noisy Woman. Here’s hoping your next poo is a pineapple.

Stuffing sweet cakey treats down my neck on the start line I once again noticed that a couple of hundred riders had snuck in between me and the start line. I reminded myself that I wasn’t actually here to ‘race’, only to get around the course more quickly than I did last year….besides, I couldn’t be arsed to push my way forward cos I don’t know how to say “shift over mate” in German. After the gun, I worked my way through the pack as best I could on the first road section and when we reached the first climb I picked my way through the various rolling roadblocks of granny ring-dwelling riders.

It was going ok for a few hours – I reached the heady heights of 90th place according to the splits in the results from starting in 230th position. I stopped at feed stations only when I needed to (and when they didn’t have The Scorpions blasting out at full volume) and generally felt good. A nice 16mph average speed was much faster than last time…..but maybe it was a bit too fast….

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After 5 hours or so my legs started to fall off. It was a shame really because I wasn’t even halfway around the route at this point. I attempted to recover and back off the pace for an hour or so, making full use of the long, smooth fireroad descents and the occasional entertaining (hilarious) tricky bit. A few freezing cold rain showers didn’t help matters, shivering, I quickly pulled on a jacket…took it off….pulled it back on….took it off….

I never really recovered and just got slower. Maybe an 18 hour drive the day before a hard bike ride wasn’t a good idea after all – who knew!?!

Meanwhile, Debbie was starting her 40k ride at 12pm. I was worried because I knew that she was worried and to be perfectly honest I knew she’d give 100%, but would she really be ok? Would she make the cut-off?

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I continued to ride through rain showers, grovelled up more big climbs and started to lose my sense of humour. A stopped for a couple of minutes to talk about Brexit (of all things) to some Dutch lads in fancy dress at the top of The Steepest Road In The Universe. They offered me beer and cigs. I was tempted but I carried on – ‘not too far now’ I thought….

The last few kilometres are a bit dragged out and slightly ‘down the back of the garages’ but eventually I arrived back in the centre of Bad Goisern, found Debbie and almost cried with relief when she told me she finished her race, wasn’t last and clearly hadn’t had any problems at all.

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In spite of the long periods of fireroad riding and the distance from home, the Salzkammergut Trophy has a certain allure – maybe it’s just the insane amount of climbing, maybe it’s the sheer size of the event (Bad Goisern IS the Salzkammergut Trophy for one weekend a year, you really have to see it to believe it), or perhaps it’s the incredible (INCREDIBLE) scenery in this part of the world that are the actual attractions. Whatever the pros and cons, it’s a stupidly hard race and you really can’t wing it.

Next up for me is a ride to the south of Spain, disappointingly Debbie has opted to fly there instead……

Rumble in the Jungle – A Sri Lankan adventure

Worth noting before I start to tell you about the Rumble in the Jungle stage race in Sri Lanka that I’m writing a reasonably-long article about the race for Singletrack Magazine. If you think that this blog entry is a bit light on detail, that’s on purpose. I don’t want to ruin the surprise and if you want to know more, you’ll just have to buy the mag…..


I’m a lucky bugger sometimes. I was asked a few months ago if I’d mind awfully popping over to Sri Lanka to take part in a stage race, make some notes and tell the world all about it in a magazine. Obviously an opportunity to ‘pop over’ to a beautiful and (to me) mysterious island in the Indian Ocean, as a guest of the race organiser and their main sponsor (who happen to be an airline) doesn’t happen every day so I think I considered it for all of 3 nanoseconds. The conversation also took place only days after I realised that I wouldn’t be going to the Tour Divide this year, so that was handy too.

The race comprised 4 stages. Each stage wound its way through tea plantations, dense jungle, mountaintop villages, exposed hillsides and manic, traffic-filled roads. Each stage was very strenuous and we seemed to spend all morning climbing – add to that the incredibly hot and quite often humid weather, the amazing curry (for every meal if you, like me, were daft enough) and incredibly efficient organisation and you’ve got everything you need for a truly memorable week’s racing. Totally immersed in the race, all the rider needs to do is race, eat and sleep. Brilliant.

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My race went really well – I wasn’t expecting to finish 3rd (I was 5th really but vets get a time reduction to allow a single category) and I was pleased that I was able to complete my first-ever stage race without making a complete balls of things.

sxscEveryone I met – racers, organisers, marshals, drivers, photographers – were all super-friendly and at times it felt like a proper holiday with like-minded folk and by the end of the week I felt like I’d known some of them for years. Friends who I’ll keep in touch with and who I hope to meet again.

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It wasn’t all plain-sailing – a big crash on stage 2 almost broke my sternum and day 1 couldn’t end soon enough with a couple of annoying and time-wasting mechanicals and a tyre that wouldn’t stay inflated for longer than 30 minutes. I got a bit ‘ill’ on day 3 and spent most of the night sat on the loo but I soon discovered that a 15 kilometre climb to over 2000 metres is just the ticket for curing a runny bottom….

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Some highlights for me were the third stage where I rode with Albert – he was placed only 4 or 5 minutes behind me but by that point we were a pair of weary veterans, happy to call a truce and just enjoy the ride, talk about our lives on opposite sides of the world and just enjoy the scenery and amazing Sri Lankan mountain biking ahead of us.

Watching San ride his fat bike every day, always positive and cheerful and almost transcending the race completely by experiencing more of the ‘real’ Sri Lanka than any of us – stopping and talking to people, letting them have a go on his bike….fantastic stuff.

The old train that transported everyone back to the start. Still in daily use by the good people of Sri Lanka, it wound its way back to Colombo at an average speed of 25Kph, while the incredible scenery passed by the window.

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And the curry. I loved all the curry.

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Thanks to everyone that made all of this wonderful experience possible. Phil and Kate for organising it, LSR for getting us, our bags and our bikes into the right place and for keeping us all safe, Sri Lankan Holidays and Sri Lankan Airlines for looking after me and for the most luxurious and comfortable flights I’ve ever had, Chipps and Singletrack Mag for asking me to cover the race in the first place and to the people of Sri Lanka who never seemed to stop smiling.

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You can see the daily ‘race reports’ I sent by carrier pigeon during the race here, and if you’re interested in taking part next year, sign up here (and I might see you there).

 

 

 

Midweek MTB race and Sri Lanka weatherwatch

It had been months since I’d last been in a bike race. My withdrawal from the Strathpuffer last winter plus more running (mainly in preparation for the 3 Peaks fell race) during the last few months of 2015 and the first few of 2016 meant that I didn’t get up to any of the 2-wheeled winter ‘fun’ that I normally dabble in. I’d been riding my bike plenty in prep for the Rumble in the Jungle in Sri Lanka and the Euro 24 hour champs in Switzerland a week after that, but no cyclocross races or anything else competitive. My last bike race was the world champs back in October.

Something had to change, I couldn’t hide away for ever so I was really looking forward to turning myself inside out in the midweek XC race (round 1 of the Midweek Mountain Bike Madness series), just down the road in Leverhulme Park. Just enough time to finish work, get changed then ride to the start and spend an hour trying to stop my lungs from popping out of my earholes.

A few days of dry weather then some rain on the day of the race didn’t completely ruin the cracking little course – a nicely-varied lap of gravelly paths, fast singletrack and root-and-soil off-the-brakes steep descents. Karen and the team from Horwich Cycling Club had everything running like clockwork by the time I rolled up and signed in.

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photo: Chris Meads

The first lap went better than I thought I would. I decided to ride the singlespeed which is probably a little bit under-geared but I was pleasantly surprised at how fast I could spin my legs round and hang on to the lead group for at least 10 minutes until I had to reduce my cadence before my legs actually snapped off.

The steep climbs weren’t very easy with just the one gear (and as it turned out, a rear tyre that was steadily losing pressure) – invariably other riders would be sensibly spinning up the incline while I ran out of momentum behind them, being far too polite to elbow people out of the way😉

Anyway, it was a good laugh and I got a properly tough hour on the bike, followed by an easy spin back home through the woods. It was great to back in the swing of things.

Also back in the swing of things was Budge, taking part in his first race for god-knows-how-long following a serious injury. Good news.

The next few weeks are going to be quite hectic – at the weekend I’m flying to Sri Lanka for a stage race (I’ve never stage raced before, I’ve never been confronted by an angry elephant nor have I ever been to Asia), back at work for 4 days and then a drive down to Switzerland for the European 24 hour Solo Championship. Obviously I’m stressing about tyre choice for Sri Lanka and looking at the weather forecast I’m on the lookout for a waterproof jacket that is usable in 30 degrees centigrade….