Saturday, 21 January 2017

Bitterly cold weather...

The weather was bitterly cold, but I was fully prepared as I wore many layers and a balaclava and gloves. But even with such protection my feet were cold.

Andy was complaining. Cycling gear – and by that he meant cycling-specific clothing purchased in a bike shop – was absolutely useless, certainly for keeping out the cold. He had a kind of skull cap on under his crash helmet and it wasn't doing a great job of keeping him warm. Needless to say he paid through the nose. My balaclava was not 'cycling-specific' and for that reason it was warm and highly efficient at its job of keeping me warm.

The lesson to be learned is this: don't bother with 'cycling-specific' clothing, it's too expensive for what it is and invariably it doesn't do the job. Buy stuff from stores like Millets, outdoor specialists, and you'll be guaranteed to keep warm in cold weather.

Andy's Kona on Approach Road, Tatsfield

We met at the green and rode the slow way to Tatsfield Village, being careful and riding slowly over icy roads. It was bitter out there, puddles were frozen, windscreens were frosted over, it was icy, and ever since I had that crash on 1st October I've been very cautious. So I rode slowly down Hesiers Hill, slowly into Tatsfield Village and so on. Here and there we found plenty of snow banked up on the sides of the road, it made things seem even colder.

Once safely ensconced at the bus stop we broke out the tea and biscuits. A group of 'youths' passed by and asked what we had in the flask. "Tea," I said. He pointed to his large plastic bottle of Coke, which was half full (or half empty depending on your point of view) and told us he was drinking brandy and coke. It was obvious that he and his two pals, who also clasped plastic bottles of Coke in one hand and a small bottle of brandy in the other, although this is by memory, there might have been just one bottle of brandy, although I'm guessing that just one half bottle of the hard stuff wouldn't have been enough to keep them up and running all night long. We guessed that they'd been to a party in a house nearby and were now making their way home. We've all done it, I thought, remembering a variety of incidents from my youth, but these days I prefer to get a decent night's sleep and not drink.

I can't be bothered with alcohol anymore and I hardly drink. This year, to date, I've only had three pints of bitter, one last Tuesday, one last Saturday and one the Saturday before in a pub near Waterloo station. We have two bottles of wine in the house and the chances of them being consumed any time soon are very low.

It was so cold we had to sit on our gloves, but it still penetrated through our clothing and Andy said he had a couple of pairs of thick socks on PLUS thermal shoes but his feet were still extremely cold. The tea warmed us a up and the biscuits were comforting, but soon our thoughts turned to the ride home. A jogger jogged past us but she wasn't wearing gloves. "She must be freezing," Andy commented.

We caught up with her at the Tatsfield Bus Stop – which is still without its integral wooden bench and, as Andy has suggested in the past, it probably won't be repaired. As we passed I thought she was wearing gloves, but if she was they weren't exactly sturdy, woolly gloves like mine, but she might not have been. We turned right towards Botley Hill, she headed left, down Clarks Lane and towards Westerham.

Riding back the slow way was mooted, but the thought of ascending Hesiers in the cold put us off and we opted for the fast way along the 269. There were moments where we forgot the cold, mainly when the sun was shining, but it was one of those deceptive days of sunshine and extreme cold and persisted throughout the day.

As always we parted at the green and rode our separate ways. When I reached Sanderstead Pond it was frozen over and the ducks stood on the icy surface at a loose end, they had nothing to do other than stand there of fly somewhere. Well at least they could fly, I thought, as I passed by, heading towards Church Way and a cold downhill ride. I rode to the end, turned left on to Morley, right onto Elmfield and left on to Southcote Road – a traditionally fast turn that I now ride very slowly, especially in icy conditions.

Friday, 20 January 2017

Pre-ride ramblings...

On day one of Donald Trump's presidency – inauguration day in other words – I found myself walking along dark streets marching purposefully on frosted pathways. Occasionally a gritter would drive past as I made my way home along Hayling Park Road. It was a cold and uneventful journey that lasted the best part of 30 minutes.

Now it's the morning of day two of Donald Trump's presidency – "it's going to be great, so great" – and I'm sitting downstairs at just gone 0600hrs (0630hrs to be precise, so not exactly 'just gone'). Outside there is frost on the ground, the car's windscreen is frozen and I've got the prospect of going out there, in the cold, jumping on a cold bicycle and heading for the green where, I'm hoping, an equally frost-bitten Andy will be waiting.

I'm assuming we'll ride to Tatsfield Village where we can be assured of somewhere decent to sit down, but who knows? There are so many places we could go to now that I have a bike with 27 gears (Godstone Green springs to mind) but in all honesty I couldn't face it. Sometimes it's bad enough, during the winter months, being wrenched out of bed in the dark while listening to Radio Four's Open Country.

Last week there was no cycling thanks to rain, and let's not forget that this time of year is characterised by poor weather, dark mornings and a likelihood of 'abort' texts. I checked my phone, which was lying on top of the ironing board, in a way hoping their might have been an 'abort', but no, so I immediately got dressed: tee-shirt, shirt, hoody, cycling trousers, socks and then slippers. Yes, slippers, not to go out with, but to protect against the possibility of walking into the kitchen and treading on cold water. There's nothing worse than cold water soaking into a sock, especially in this weather.

All is quiet and I'm tempted to switch on the radio or the television and see what else is happening on the Trump front, but there's nothing new. This morning's news bulletin simply reiterated his inauguration speech, which I have to say was pretty good, albeit a little dark. He spoke of rusting factories, of gangs and drug abuse and a failing education system and then launched into his bit about 'America first', which I can understand. He mentioned patriotism and was inclusive of all races – black, brown and white – and spoke of wiping out the scourge of Islamic terrorism. It'll be interesting to see how things pan out for Trump, the only president without experience of 'office' but with plenty of experience of offices.

America is divided and so is the UK. Some say that our exit from the EU spurred on Trump to victory, it probably did, and in a way we're both in the same boat and need to come back together. Unity. Now there's a word. Inwardly, I'm divided about Trump, mainly because there are so many people out there in the USA who know a darn sight more about their own political environment than I do. My vision of it comes largely from the media, but I know that a lot of people in America didn't like Hillary Clinton and wanted change in the same way that people over here were getting a bad deal in terms of jobs and general living standards; it was a similar situation in the USA.

As much as I liked Obama, it seems that he did kind of withdraw the USA from the world, he didn't go into Syria, but let the Russians in, for example, and while I don't think that Trump intends to start fighting other people's battles, I think, metaphorically speaking, he'll 'get out there' and do business.

But enough of Trump other than to wonder whether or not he'll serve a full term, or will a videotape surface from out of nowhere and prove his critics were right, not that it will have any effect. Despite numerous blunders – derogatory comments about women, disabled people and so on – he still got elected. It's going to be an interesting four years, that's for sure.

Tuesday, 17 January 2017

Why don't we, the people, go on strike?

Wandering around the supermarket recently, I discovered something not earth shattering but just fucking annoying. Razor blades cost more than the razors. Or rather, the razor blades for MY razor cost more than my razor, a Quattro. This is very annoying because it is forcing me to rethink once again my strategy on shaving. Don't get me wrong, I'm not considering a beard, or half a beard so I can offer the world two different profiles, but it might mean switching back to disposable razors, which are not very good when it comes to achieving the perfect shave.

To be fair to the disposable razor, I've been using them for some time and they're cheap, but I never get a smooth shave and my face always feels rough afterwards – you get what you pay for, never forget that. 

Whatever happened to those razors with the double-edged blades? You know the ones, they used to open up like a trap door in Thunderbirds and you simply placed the Wilkinson Sword or Gillette razor blade in the razor and then screwed it back up again. My dad always had a razor like that and a shaving brush and Ingram shaving 'lather', none of that foam rubbish you get these days. I think dad switched to disposables too.

It's weird having a situation where the razor blades are more expensive than the razor, like if bullets were more expensive than the gun. Perhaps they are, but it all comes down to something the media call 'shrinkflation' – basically the fact that these days we often get less for more. It's been publicised a lot recently, with crisp (potato chip) manufacturers putting less in a bag and then charging the same price or more. Famously, Toblerone increased the size of the gap between the triangular blocks of chocolate, something that doesn't bother me because I don't like Toblerone, although many people do; it's become a big 'international' brand, seen at most airports around the world. But what about Cadbury's Creme Eggs? No longer Cadbury, of course, they're now owned by an American company who, it is reported in the media, are using inferior quality chocolate but, again, still charging either the same money or more. I think Chocolate Orange is the same: either there's less segments or inferior quality chocolate or both.

Never mind 'no trains', how about no customers?
Everything is shrinking in size but costing us more and it's a result of pure greed. What always annoys me is that people simply accept it, nobody says they're not going to buy the products anymore, they just keep paying the money, pandering to the capitalists when all they have to do – en masse – is no longer buy the products the media tells us are shrinking. Just stop buying them!

I'm all for bringing these people to their knees. If we could all simply agree, millions of us, to simply stop shopping, if you like we could go on strike and, say, stop shopping for just one day, all of us, stop consuming, stop going to work by train or bus or anything that means paying a capitalist money – it would be fantastic. I wonder when they would start pleading with us, reducing their prices, putting back the value for money they've taken out?

How would we work it? Perhaps more than one day is needed and regularly. How about some kind of commercial fasting? Let's say the first weekend of every month, nobody uses public transport, nobody visits any shop or pays for any service. Imagine that! Every month for one year and why not step it up, perhaps two weekends. We don't drink in pubs, we don't eat in restaurants, we don't take trains, visit supermarkets, anywhere. In short we give them a dose of their own medicine. We announce the days like ASLEF and Southern Railway announce their strikes and then, after a year we review our success. I think this would have to be a long-term project, we'd need the time to recruit people to the cause, but gradually it might start to work and sooner or later, as I said earlier, they, the capitalists,  the clothes retailers, people like Philip Green, would get very worried. Prices would come down, quality would go up and we would be the winners.

There is, of course, a problem: gullibility. We're all too accepting of what is put in front of us; yes, we'll moan for a bit, but we all now accept inferior quality chocolate, less potato chips in a bag, fewer segments of Chocolate Orange and so forth. When the price of a Lotto ticket rose by 100% to £2 per line, I stopped doing the lottery. Who was I kidding? I wasn't going to be a millionaire, the chances were something like 14 million to one, but sadly there are desperate, gullible people willing to stump up the cash.

Gullibility is the issue and 'they' know it. If everybody stop being so gullible, the world would be a better place.

Sunday, 15 January 2017

Rain rules out cycling...

Snow thaws on the lawn and rain drizzles down from the sky. It's been the same all morning since around 0600hrs when I woke up (and probably before I woke up). When I peered out of the window at next door's conservatory roof the puddle was being hammered by the rain. Later I noticed the bird bath was full to overflowing with rain water. In short it's a miserable day and any thought of a ride was thrown out when I sent an abort text to Andy. Well, let's face it, a ride would have been most unpleasant and we would have been soaked through when we reached the Tatsfield Village bus stop.

Pic courtesy of NBC News.
There's not much else to say so I'll sign off, except to say that we're all made of cosmic dust, according to Radio Four's Something Understood. On that note, see you next week.

Friday, 13 January 2017

In Prague...

An early easyJet flight out of London Gatwick and hey presto! Prague. The flight was smooth and took about an hour and 20 minutes. As the plane descended through thinnish cloud the snow was revealed, covering the city like a blanket. On the ground and once through passport control and out on the streets, the pavements were slippery and slushy and soon we were on a minibus heading into town.

I don't remember Prague being dreary, but it looked that way as we drove through the suburbs, past countless old tenement buildings. While others commented that it must be awful having to live in a small apartment on the outskirts of the Czech capital, I admitted that it wouldn't bother me in the slightest.

The Czechs clearly have no idea that Christmas is over. There are Christmas trees everywhere: one every 20 yards back at the airport and also dotted around in shop windows. Perhaps the Czech festive season lasts longer than in the UK?

The view from room 324, Hotel Fenix, Prague, Czech Republic.
Check-in at the Hotel Fenix was fine, although I don't like checking in as part of a large group of people. That said it was pretty smooth-going and now I'm in my room (324) and it's pretty average-looking. Cream-coloured walls (make that beige!) with a pine skirting around three feet high, the now commonplace flat screen television, a mini bar offering what minibars offer, including a Snickers bar, which I'm tempted to eat, but the plan is to have lunch, possibly across the street in a Mexican restaurant.

Inside room 324, Hotel Fenix, Prague, Czech Republic
There are two twin beds pushed together – again, pretty standard stuff – and the bathroom is also pretty much par for the course. But that's not to say it's rubbish, it's absolutely fine. I've never been one for flashy hotels, although I do like a decent hotel restaurant.

The last time I was in Prague was in March 2014. I was attending a conference for a few days and I stayed in the Grand Majestic Plaza Palace hotel, which was also fine. The time before that was either 2003 or 2004, can't remember exactly, let's say the 'early noughties', but I was here reviewing hotels and restaurants with photographer Rob Wilkinson.

Central Prague on a cold 13th January 2017
A brief walk was followed by a light lunch and another walk and then I headed back to the hotel for a meeting. I'm now back in the room, reading, online, about the first US execution of 2017 – some idiot decided to kill two men over a spoof drug deal that cost him a measly US$20.00. What an idiot! He was described by the DA as an old-time Wild West villain, somebody who was honest to the point of lunacy. And now, of course, he is no more, but I suppose he was lucky in one way: he didn't get to see Donald Trump inaugurated as President of the United States.

Street performer – how does he do that?
Anyway, executions aside – and let's remember, before we go any further with this article, that America is just as bad as any of the nations it claims has an awful human rights record – I went out for dinner and discovered that the restaurant in which I was booked was somewhere I had visited before! It was like a cave, it was as if we – 'we' being my fellow diners – were enjoying dinner in stone age times! We weren't, of course, but I was pleased to recall that I'd been here before, back in the early noughties, as referenced above, with my trusty photographer Rob Wilkinson.

Earlier I had commented to a colleague that I couldn't remember the restaurants I had visited all those years ago, but then, when I walked through the door of the restaurant in which I would be dining, it all came flooding back, and the food was top-end grub.
Czech fast food

Now it's late and I really ought to hit the sack, although there's no cause to get up early. In fact, I'll be literally hanging around this great city for most the day tomorrow and will probably find myself somewhere interesting in the daylight hours. But right now I'm going to hit the sack, so the next paragraph you read will have been written in the morning, the day after I've penned what I'm writing now.

And so it's 0800hrs and I've just woken up. Well, actually, that's not true; while I did wake up at around eight o'clock, it's now just gone 3pm, I've had lunch at the same Italian restaurant as yesterday (and the same meal, mushroom risotto and a glass of red wine) and I'm sitting in the hotel's business centre writing. This morning, around 1000hrs, I headed out of the hotel for a long walk through the city and down to the Charles Bridge, walking back towards the Italian restaurant where many people had taken up my recommendation and were sitting comfortably enjoying the food and hospitality.

I don't fly home until 2130hrs, meaning I need to be at the airport around 1930hrs. This, of course, means that right now I'm killing time. I might retrieve my book (The Circle by Dave Eggers) and decamp to a Starbuck's for tea and a cookie and a long read. It's either that or wandering the streets window shopping. Outside it is bitterly cold. In the UK there has been snow and poor weather. Yesterday, planes were cancelled out of both Heathrow and Gatwick so there's a little concern about whether we'll get home today or not, although I'm sure we will.

It's the cold that is keeping me indoors, although I might head out for a long walk in a minute and hopefully end up in a warm coffee shop somewhere far away. I say 'far away' when I really mean somewhere nearby but a fair distance from the hotel. I took a stroll, poked my head into a few bookshops and briefly checked out a teashop with a view to tea, cake and a bit of writing, but that would have meant returning to the hotel to get my lap top from my suitcase. I bumped into a colleague and we visited Hamley's and then headed back to the hotel.

I never saw any bikes, probably because it's too cold to ride around in the snow and ice. I never saw any evidence of a Bike Share scheme either, but later research led to me discover that they do exist. Click here for details.

A shuttle bus ferried us to the airport and a couple of hours later we were in the air. It was a clear night and the flight was relatively smooth. The approach to London Gatwick was, well, twinkly: lots of orange and white lights, like Christmas decorations, and then cars, headlights on, were visible. We flew over the M25 and touched down on the tarmac.

On Thursday a lot of snow fell in the UK, flights were cancelled out of Heathrow and Gatwick and I'm guessing that had we left it later we would have been unable to leave the UK. Twenty four hours later, however, and there was little evidence of the white-out described by the media. That said, in Prague, they de-iced the wings and tailplane of the aircraft I was on, sitting with a whole row to myself on the right hand side at the very back. Nowt better than having an entire row to myself as it means I can stretch out and spread myself a little bit. I remember a flight from Paris to London many years ago when there were only six passengers aboard, including yours truly, and we had the entire place to ourselves. Wonderful.

It seemed to take an age to reach the gate, but when we did there was no jetty, just a staircase down to the tarmac. Immigration was fine, probably because it was late at night and soon I found myself in a taxi to Redhill followed by a car ride home. I opened my front door around midnight and hit the sack.

Monday, 9 January 2017

The slow way to Tatsfield Village...

Sunday 8th January. Radio Four's Something Understood on Sunday morning was all about immortality. The programme, which airs immediately after the 0600hrs news at around 0610hrs, kicked off with the fact that there are only two certainties in life: death and taxes. All very depressing. I didn't want to get out of bed as the ride was our first early excursion after the traditional later start over the festive season.

I dressed and went downstairs to make tea and breakfast before I headed out, in the dark, to mount the bike and head for the green. It was dark and would remain so until 0800hrs. Fortunately I had front and rear lights having worked out a way of attaching my rear light to my rucksack.

It wasn't cold, but the balaclava always makes life a little more comfortable
At the green we decided to ride the slow way to Tatsfield Village where we noted with joy that the Old Ship pub was not going to be closed down and turned into housing or a convenience store. A man was varnishing a door so I went over for a chat. He invited me in to see a refurbished interior and told me that the place would re-open to the public on 13th January. Food would be on offer in February and, I was told, it will be traditional pub food, all home-made. There's even to be a coffee shop that will open at 0830hrs – a place to chill after a ride, I thought, and later relayed the information to Andy.

The weather was wonderful. It was dry for a start and there were clear skies. In fact, despite a lot of talk about poor weather, there hasn't been any. Over the Christmas period I was expecting plenty of abort texts due to promised storms, but we remained dry and active throughout.

When I reached home, the latest David Bowie documentary (about his last five years) was on the television. I sat and watched it and found myself getting depressed again. I thought back to Something Understood earlier this morning on the radio. Immortality, death and taxes, and poor old David Bowie who died roughly a year ago.

Later I decided to clean the bike (it was looking a bit dirty!). I oiled the chain too.

There's a train strike Monday, Wednesday and Friday and, as always, I consider riding to work. But the reality is something else. While the ride to work is simple and very pleasant, there's all the hassle of taking a spare pair of trousers and a shirt with me and sitting at my desk feeling, well, sweaty. I'll probably get the bus, which is fairly pleasant. It means I can read for a good hour and at the moment I'm reading Dave Eggers' The Circle. I've only just started it, but it seems promising and has received some good reviews from people that matter, like David Baddiel.

Monday, 2 January 2017

First ride of 2017

There was talk on the radio of ultra-cold weather, but when I peered outside, all seemed normal enough until I noticed the frosted windscreens and the solidified puddle on the roof of my neighbour's extension. A cold ride lay ahead, although, when I hit the air at 0745hrs it wasn't as bad as I imagined, although I was wearing a balaclava.

Rockhopper Sport 29 at Tatsfield Village, 2nd January 2017
The ride to the green was uneventful (when is it otherwise?) and Andy was there when I arrived so we headed off in the direction of, yes, you've guessed it, Tatsfield Village. We toyed with the idea of White Lane, but decided against it and instead rode the slow way to our destination, weaving our way around the quiet country lanes, down Hesiers and then along Beddlestead.

The conditions were icy – frozen puddles and sparkling roads – and when Andy suddenly hit the tarmac I realised that we had to ride carefully. Not that we were being in any way reckless, far from it. In fact, how Andy came off I'll never know, but one minute he was there, the next he was off the bike and sitting on the tarmac. Somehow the rear end had slipped, taking Andy with it. Because we were climbing the slow but steady gradient of Beddlestead Lane, Andy was fine and quickly dusted himself off before remounting, we were probably doing about 3 mph so all was well.

For the rest of the ride we played it safe, keeping to the middle of Beddlestead Lane and only moving over when we heard a car (or Lycra monkey) approaching. We remained cautious on Clarks Lane and when we turned left on to Approach Road we kind of free-wheeled into the village and arrived at the bus stop in what can only be described as a 'sedate manner'. I thought back to 1st October when I made that rather fast, sweeping left turn and took a nasty tumble. I shudder when I think about it and while I no longer bear any scars, there are still minor problems with my left knee; nothing worth visiting the hospital about, just aches when I bend my knees and then try to come up again. Things have improved massively, however, and riding is no longer a problem. Nor is walking and I'm not about to start running.

After tea and biscuits – no more cake unfortunately – we headed out of Tatsfield and rode home. The sun was up, the ice had thawed and the roads were wet, but the skies were blue so there was nothing to complain about.