Wednesday, 27 February 2013

One Man and his Bike, by Mike Carter

It's rare to 'review' a book before finishing it – although I've heard many journalists discuss how a book review is little more than reading the publisher's press release and the flap jacket – but I thought I'd be honest and say that this isn't so much a review (that will come when I've finished the book), it's more a kind of 'thumbs up' for what, so far (I'm on page 108) has proved to be an excellent book.
Mike Carter with his trusty Ridgeback bicycle

Anybody who reads this, my NoVisibleLycra blog, will have some kind of interest in cycling. As most of you who do read it regularly (alright, I know I've only got half a dozen followers) will know, the whole point of this blog is to document my cycling adventures at the weekends with my pal Andy. We cycle out to places like Westerham in Kent, Godstone in Surrey, The Botley Hill Farmhouse on the Surrey/Kent border, the Tatsfield Bus Stop and so on. Sometimes we head off to Longford Lake near Dunton Green or the Church at Chevening. Other times we visit the churchyard at Tatsfield or even the village itself. A lot depends on the time at our disposal and the weather.

In short, we get up early and ride off to various destinations, never further than around 36 miles all in, and we're back at our respective homes, at the very latest, around 11am. Why? To keep fit mainly, but since we've started it's become more than just a hobby. It represents freedom and there's definitely a spiritual element too. We love it. If you want to find out about our rides over the last three and a half years, just scroll back through the pages and you'll get the general idea.

So, when I went to Waterstone's recently and discovered what I'd been looking for – an easy chair where there was no compunction to buy a cup of tea or coffee – I inwardly rejoiced, found a book on the shelves adjacent to the sofa (the travel writing section) and then sat down to read it.

The book in question was Mike Carter's One Man and his Bike and I was transfixed from the moment I started reading it. I'll admit to feeling a little envious of Mike and the fact that he was able to simply up sticks and cycle around the coast of Britain. I couldn't do it for all sorts of reasons: my job (which, fortunately for me, involves a lot of long-haul foreign travel); my family and I guess that's it. I need a regular job to support my family and, while I do travel the world in my role as a magazine editor, I couldn't really swing with being away for months on end riding leisurely around the coast of the UK. That doesn't mean that I don't want to do it and that's another reason why I bought the book, so that I could kind of 'live the dream'.

That, of course, is one of the great qualities of this book: it enables the reader to be there with Mike as he visits different parts of coastal Britain. Whenever I pick up the book (normally I'm on a train) I admit to getting excited about rejoining Mike where I left him and being part of his adventure.

Another reason I love this book is because I can associate, being a fellow cyclist, with a lot of the stuff Mike talks about: the headwinds, the tailwinds, the being soaked through and eventually just getting used to it and no longer feeling wet and cold, the hills, everything. While you probably don't have to be a cyclist to appreciate this book, it certainly helps.

There's so much more to say about this book and, rest assured, I will be writing much more about it. As I write this, Mike has just left Skegness and is making his way towards North Yorkshire, he's just met a man who is walking around the coast of Britain and that's as far as I've got. I'm actually looking forward to my train ride to work tomorrow – and it's all thanks to Mike Carter and his excellent book, One Man and His Bike (published by Ebury Press, incidentally).

For more about Mike Carter and, I think, links to photographs he took on the trip, click here.

For an article written by Mike about his ride around the coast of Britain, click here. I think you'll find pix here too.

For a review of Uneasy Rider by Mike Carter, click here.

As I said, expect more writing on this amazing cycling book in future posts.

Postscript, April 2017: I completed One Man and His Bike well over four years ago, but I felt it was worth informing my readers that Carter's book is a continual source of inspiration and something I reach for on many occasions, particularly if I'm feeling down in the dumps or in need of some instant happiness. There's nothing better, in fact, than reading a few pages at random and enjoying again Carter's fantastic cycling adventure around the coastline of the United Kingdom. Just thought I'd mention the book's longevity and the fact that, once read, it can be enjoyed again and again. I cannot praise this book enough.

Sunday, 24 February 2013

Cold weather and snow

Botley Hill Farmhouse in the snow, Saturday 23rd February 2013.
Saturday was cold, but it wasn't until we had reached Botley Hill and embarked upon the return journey that the cold really hit us. On the outward journey we had snow, which worsened when we reached our totally exposed stopping point outside the pub. Then, after tea and cereal bars and chats about various things – including Jon Ronson's The Psychopath Test, which I promised to lend to Andy – we headed back.

As always, the problem was the headwind. On the outward journey it had been a tailwind and all seemed well, even in the snow, but now the tailwind had become a headwind – or a sort of headwind as the snow was being blown across the road from our right as we headed north, meaning it was coming from the east. Either way, it was very cold. Not quite ice cream headache cold, but almost.

We said our farewells halfway along the 269 and, as I descended into Warlingham the weather warmed up as I passed Sainsbury's en route to the Green. I was looking forward to Sunday's ride. But I'd forgotten one little detail about the weekend: I was going to spend Saturday night at mum's, which was excellent, but it meant that I'd have to cancel the ride just out of pure logistics, ie it would have meant driving back to Croydon, picking up the bike, doing the ride and then driving back to Sutton. But something else was at play – pure warmth and cosiness, something sorely missing of late due to the mice. So I aborted and then realised that I wouldn't be cycling again until Saturday 16th March.
Here we are again, this time no fog, just snow!

Being round at mum's was excellent, it always is, but this time took the biscuit: a wonderful dinner of roasted salmon followed by home-made apple crumble and then, feeling rested and fed at 9pm I went to bed, in my old room, the one I used to share with brother Bon throughout my entire childhood. Needless to say I slept like a log, no mice in the bed, and awoke around 8am to sound of breakfast being made downstairs. Sleepily I headed to the breakfast room. En route I found my daughter in the living room gazing out at the garden. My wife followed and we all enjoyed a lovely breakfast before heading home around 10am or thereabouts.

The weather on Sunday was cold and I don't know whether or not Andy ventured out. I know that on Saturday he almost aborted until he received my email saying I'd be at the Green at the usual time. He might well have taken the opportunity to lie in, but then again, he might have ventured out.

I'll blog about this separately at some stage in the future, but a book worth reading is Mike Carter's One Man and his Bike, in which Carter documents a 5,000 mile trip around the coast of the UK on a bike. It's absolutely brilliant and something I would love to do, if I had the time and the money; (I'm assuming that as a freelance journalist, Carter must have accumulated some savings or was pretty sure he'd be employable on his return. But no matter, the book is fantastic and well worth a read. I'll post a separate review when I finish it, but go out and get it now, it's in Waterstone's.

All these photos by Andy Smith.

Monday, 18 February 2013

Cycling through Essen, Germany

Here's my bike. Note my laptop and camera case in the basket.
I'll be honest. I never thought I'd get the chance to cycle around Essen. First, I figured that the system would somehow let me down – it almost did – and then I thought that a lack of time would be the big downer. But it turned out I had some time to spare.

I'd been in a meeting all morning and we got all the way through to lunch and it was just before noon, meaning that whatever way I looked at it, I'd be back at my hotel by around 1pm to 1.30pm and I'd have time to mess around on the bikes before heading off for my next meeting.

But life isn't easy, as we all know, and at first I thought it best to take a walk through Essen towards the railway station. But then I decided to check out the bikes, which meant walking back to the hotel and seeking the advice of the receptionist. She advised me to key in my details and 'off you go', so 'off I went' and found, as usual, that all things in life are a little more complicated.

Here I am, the guy in the trenchcoat, with my bike.
I followed the instructions on the machine, but reached a dead end. Sod it! I'll walk to the railway station.

My schedule was slightly off-kilter. I'd had a meeting in the morning in Essen and now I had a meeting at 3pm in nearby Dusseldorf (around 20 minutes by train). I thought I'd leave my suitcase at the hotel and come back for it later and that decision meant that I could use a bike to take me to the station. Fine, but the machine had reached some kind of dead end, although there was a number, a phone number, so I called it and told the man on the other end that I'd gone through the process: I'd keyed in my credit card number and expiry date and I wanted to know whether or not I been charged?

The man told me that he couldn't ascertain whether I'd been charged unless I went through the process again, with him. So off I went – I gave him my credit card number and three-digit code and the expiry date and then he said, no, I hadn't been charged. Good! So, did I want to go ahead and hire a bike? It would cost me EUR8 – about £3.50. If I agreed, the man on the end of the phone would give me the code to release the bike and then, when I reached my destination, I'd call the same number, quote the figures on the side of the bike and tell the man that I'd arrived and the bike was back in its mooring.

First Class? Nope! Second Class. Nice, German trains!
I decided to go for it, he gave me the code and off I went. The bike had a basket and it was big enough to carry my laptop and my camera case (see top photo). So, it was game on, I unlocked the bike and headed off, following a map provided earlier by the hotel receptionist. Oddly, I'd chosen a route that took me along a pedestrianised route towards Essen railway station. This meant dodging pedestrians, but first I had to get used to the bike. It had a strange braking system that involved one front brake and a mechanism for back-pedalling to bring the bike to a halt. Strangely, it was very effective and I soon got to grips with the way the bike handled and rode off – in the wrong direction. Rather annoyingly, I had to ask for directions and we all know that asking for directions is not cool. However, it turned out that I was riding away from where I wanted to be and time was getting a little short. So short, in fact, that I felt compelled to ring my next appointment and tell them I'd be late.

After weaving in and out of pedestrians, I found myself at Essen station and the docking point for the bikes. Now all I had to do was call the number again and say that the bike was back in its docking station – easier said than done, but eventually I managed it and, feeling suitably exercised, I headed for the railway station where I took the train to Dusseldorf and then a rather long taxi ride to my next appointment.
Room 315, Holiday Inn, Essen. A nice hotel.
Things were getting out of hand. The interview was fine, but it went on a bit. Once it was over I took a taxi back to Dusseldorf and then a train, to Essen. I picked up my suitcase from the hotel and took the same taxi back to Essen station where I bought a ticket to Arnhem in Holland and then onwards to Terborg.

Essen to Duisburg was first and that bit of the ride was fine. But the ride from Duisburg to Arnhem in Holland was problematic: unusually for the Germans, the train was delayed by 20 minutes. I met a Romanian woman in the cold waiting room. She was half Hungarian and lived in Arnhem. Sadly, her father, who was in his mid-70s, was dying from terminal cancer and she'd taken a flight from Dortmund to see him. I told her about my dad and we chatted about this and that.

The train was 20 minutes late and we boarded it and carried on our conversation, which turned out to be captivating. We never exchanged names, but she was a psychologist (so she probably knew my name anyway) and we started talking about life and death and all the serious stuff you'd not normally share with a stranger. She lived in Arnhem with her husband and daughter. The time passed very quickly. Suddenly we were there and she advised me not to travel all the way to my destination – Terborg – which was in the middle of nowhere. The chances of getting a taxi from Terborg were very slim. She suggested instead that I disembark two stops earlier and then take a cab to Terborg. Fine,  but when I reached the suggested stop there were no cabs, just a free telephone service. I was told the cab would arrive in up to 30 minutes. It arrived after 10 minutes and was more of a minibus than a minicab. The driver was a jolly soul who had worked in social care, but had been made redundant. He was, quite simply, a great bloke and he got me to my hotel and here I am now writing this blogpost.
Room 35, De Roode Leeuw hotel, Terborg, Holland.

The hotel is very interesting. It's not your average dwelling. Normally I stay in branded hotels, but this one was booked by the company I'm seeing tomorrow (Tuesday). It's a quirky, eccentric place with wood-panelled walls, oil paintings and stuffed birds everywhere. There was no check-in process. I noticed my name on a piece of paper at the reception desk and that was it – no sign-in process, no chirpy, female receptionist. I was led to the room by the owner and then I went down to the bar for a glass or two of Merlot and some peanuts. Sadly, no dinner, but it was late so the peanuts would have to do. I vowed to myself that I'd eat a hearty breakfast.

The hotel is called Hotel De Roode Leeuw (Sint Jorisplein 14, Terborg) and I love it. I wish I was here for a couple of days, but I'm checking out tomorrow. This is a laid back sort of place and I'm sitting here watching Brian Cox on BBC2 – brilliant! Well, not that brilliant, but it's nice watching UK television in a foreign country.

I'd better hit the sack as I'm being picked up from here tomorrow morning at 9am – time enough for a decent breakfast. After lunch at my first appointment yesterday, all I've had to eat is a ham and cheese roll at Essen station, so I can't wait for the morning.

Okay. I'm signing off, but the great achievement of the day was cycling through Essen. Pleasant, but the pedestrian-dodging was a little tricky.

Sunday, 17 February 2013

Two short runs to Botley Hill

Botley Hill, Saturday 16 February 2013 – no fog to be seen!
We got out on both days, but Saturday was better than Sunday in terms of the weather. For a start there was no fog. Well, actually, that was about it, there was no fog. The only thing wrong with Sunday was the fog as I had no batteries in my rear light for the outward journey and fog, generally, is a bit depressing.

I'm writing this from my hotel room in Essen, Germany and it's nearly 11pm, time for me to hit the sack.

This weekend Andy and I met at Warlingham Green at 0730hrs on both Saturday and Sunday and headed out for Botley Hill. On Saturday I had to be back early for various family commitments. In fact, we stopped briefly for tea outside the pub and then I raced home, saying goodbye to Andy halfway along the 269 and powering all the way to Sanderstead. I made it from Botley to my house in under 30 minutes, which was not bad going.

Then, on Sunday, it was much the same. This time, Andy had things to do so a quick one to Botley and back was just the ticket, although we spent longer drinking our tea than yesterday (Saturday) and I didn't race home either.
One day later and look at that fog!

There's a load of stuff to discuss, like the mouse in my house, the mouse that had the audacity to join us in bed last Monday morning. This caused understandable uproar and caused two members of my family to move out. Actually, I went too, from Monday through Wednesday, but then decided to stay back home on Thursday, Friday and Saturday. As I mentioned above, I'm now ensconced in a nice Holiday Inn in Essen, without any mice and I've enjoyed a pleasant dinner too and to be honest, I'm ready for bed and I'm so glad that, even though I'm alone (as I have been at home since Thursday) at least I know that there's no possibility of a mouse joining me in bed. Well let's hope not at any rate. Tonight and until Tuesday night, my wife and daughter will be at the in-law's and the mouse will have the run of our house. Although they ought to beware: I've given up the old humane traps and put in a proper mouse trap, baited with peanut butter.  Oddly, since Monday, when mousey joined us in bed, we've not seen or heard him. I've been there alone and there's not even been a scratch. Still, it's all very depressing. I hate it when my wife and daughter are separated. It feels unsettling, so the sooner we sort things out, the better.

The plan is to get a builder round to check out the house for holes and places were mice can get in. He'll then seal all entrances and we'll carry on with traps until the little blighters are gone once and for all. In addition to traps, I've bought this ultrasound thingy you plug into the wall and it emits a sound that only mice can hear. Apparently, it drives them mad. It seems to work as every night I've slept there alone I've put one in my bedroom – no mouse. It's like a kind of force field to protect against mice and it seems to be working, although many people doubt their effectiveness. I'll reserve judgement, but so far, so good.

With the mice and everything else it's all been very depressing. I left the house around 12.30pm for Gatwick Airport and a pleasant easyJet flight to Dusseldorf. I then boarded the sky train to the airport railway station and a train to Essen, followed by a taxi to my hotel. It's odd to think that I started the day in the fog on the bike and finished it in a pleasant hotel room in Essen, Germany.

Needless to say, stranger things have happened at sea.

Sunday, 10 February 2013

Rain, wind and fog – but it didn't phase me!

Soaked in the fog, wind and rain, 0825hrs, Sunday 10 February 2013.
It's been an interesting weekend weather-wise. Yesterday morning (Saturday) there was a wonderful sunrise with a huge orb burning on the horizon and silhouetting the bare trees against a purple sky. Sadly, I didn't have my camera on me, otherwise I'd have taken a shot of it. Besides, it was a rushed ride for me, a non-stop special to Botley, round the roundabout and home. The weather was fantastic. A little cold, but generally fine, albeit mildly wet, not because of rain during the ride but definitely in the early hours of the morning. Puddles on the roadside provided plenty of evidence.

I'd left the house early due to family commitments and met Andy at the Green. We headed off for the Tatsfield Bus Stop, but Andy had to turn back just beyond Knights Garden Centre and I continued alone and turned around at the mini-roundabout.

Sunday was going to be Westerham, or even Redhill, but the weather dictated otherwise. There was a fine rain when I went out around 7am and it was touch and go. I texted Andy and we decided to meet at the Green, but as I my ride progressed, the rain, while still fairly mild and not really a big problem, increased slightly in its intensity. When I reached Warlingham Green I thought I saw Andy talking to another cyclist, but it turned out to be two complete strangers who were off on a long ride towards Reigate Hill. They asked me to join them, but I declined. Actually, they weren't total strangers. I'd met one of them a few weeks back and we chewed the fat about bikes and stuff.

My phone said '10 missed calls' and 'one message' and they were all from Andy. The rain had picked up a bit over Caterham way and he decided to abort. Now, I could have turned around and come home, but I persevered a little bit, reaching Warlingham Town Hall and riding into its small car park where I made a few circles while deciding whether to carry on or just go home. It wasn't too bad out, I thought to myself, and then exited the car park left and headed up the road towards Botley. There was a wind coming straight at me, which made the rain seem worse than it was. In fact, if I turned the bike around, as I did twice while still deciding whether to push ahead or not, I noticed that travelling north, with the wind behind me, was far more pleasant than riding south. But I was out and even facing the wind wasn't that bad so I carried on, past Sainsbury's, past the pub that has been turned into a coffee shop, called something like Anana and on towards the garden centre and then the pond on the corner of Slines Oak Road. I passed Ledgers Road thinking 'if I turn around now it'll be ten miles all in', but no, I kept going.

It's amazing how, once out in the rain it never seems as bad as it looks when you're indoors looking out.  I knew that I was going to make it all the way to Botley, although as the journey progressed, past that lonely bus stop that marks the end of the hill on the 269 the wind increased as the terrain became more exposed and a fog appeared to be rolling in. With only a front light – my rear light needed new batteries – I moved on to the thorn-ridden pathway that runs the length of the road but decided to hit the road again as I didn't want to risk a puncture. At one point, I was beginning to regret coming out – or rather I was beginning to regret going further than just Knights as I was facing thick fog, rain and wind, but I was well beyond the point of no return and was very pleased when I saw the broken Botley Hill pub sign.

Bearing in mind the conditions, I didn't go as far as the mini roundabout and settled for the gate to the pub on which I rested the Kona while I took the photograph accompanying this post.

There were other cyclists out, but only the hardy few. Once the shot was taken I headed back home with the wind behind me, but still got soaked. There were puddles lining the roads most of the way back, including one huge one that spanned the width of the road. I waited for cars travelling in both directions to go through the puddle first before aiming the bike at the middle of the road – where there was less puddle – and made my own way through. Then I stopped to take a shot of the puddle, resting the camera on the ground so it looked like a huge lake; except that on this occasion it just looked like a puddle and I didn't have the inclination to try different angles to achieve my sad objective. I found myself standing there, in the middle of the road, soaking wet, thinking to myself, how ridiculous! Taking a photograph of a puddle on a rainy day. It's not as if I haven't got anything better to do! Realising what a complete nob cheese I was being, I packed away the camera, mounted the bike and headed for home.

Once I reached the downhill bit of the 269 I experienced a lot of face-ache; it was like an ice cream headache and it didn't wear off until I'd slowed down on my approach to the Sainsbury's roundabout.

I had a bit of a headache anyway, thanks to a couple of glasses of red wine the night before – we had cottage pie and there's nowt better than a glass or two to go with it. I'd only had a couple of glasses – alright, three or four – but I woke up around 0330hrs with the beginnings of a headache. I must have fallen back to sleep because I was awakened by Radio Four and Something Understood, which this week featured the Dalai Lama talking about Buddhism. Normally I'm up and out of bed by just gone six, but today I just lay there listening to the radio until 0630hrs when I jumped out of bed and quickly changed, made the tea and caught a bit of breakfast TV before going out and noticing the rain. That was when I called Andy and we decided to meet at the Green.

I was soaked through when I reached home and had to change into my dressing gown (which I'm still wearing now at 1124hrs). Tea, an egg sandwich, Shredded Wheat and bread and marmalade (St Dalfour Orange and Ginger, did the trick and now, as the rain continues outside, I sit here writing this post glad that despite the rain, I got out there and rode the bike.

Both today and yesterday I clocked up 14 miles so that's 28 in total. Not bad considering the rain normally manages to abort the ride. Here's to better weather next week.

Sunday, 3 February 2013

Wilko Johnson has a year to live...

Legendary Dr. Feelgood guitarist Wilko Johnson has been given under a year to live, having been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer just before Christmas.
Wilko Johnson today. Pic: mirror.co.uk

There was a very good interview with him in this Saturday's Guardian in which Wilko's childhood friend and Feelgood band member John Martin reminisced, "We used to go out cycling a lot – me, him, his brother Malcolm. The furthest we got was, we tried to cycle to Canterbury one day, and realised by the time we got there we'd need lights. We had to turn back because we hadn't got lights. We got as far as Chatham."

Dr. Feelgood was a great British r&b band.

Construction firms warned to pay more attention to cyclists

Credit: crapwalthamforest.blogspot.com
Saturday's Guardian this week carried an article about the high proportion of accidents involving cyclists and lorries.

Transport for London (TfL) commissioned a study, which discovered that lorries carrying materials to and from building sites are disproportionately responsible for cyclist deaths and that the construction industry is not – so far at any rate – taking the news very seriously.

The study recommends that contractors give drivers 'realistic' delivery times to prevent them rushing, plan safe routes and treat accidents involving trucks as seriously as they do deaths or injuries among building workers.

I wonder how many of the cyclists killed by lorries were labourers on the way to the same site as the lorry?

In London, about half of cyclist deaths involve lorries, which comprise only 5% of the traffic.

Eight miler to Warlingham Green

This isn't the morose-looking self-portrait, but it is of
Warlingham Green, taken a year or two ago
Left the house later than usual, at 0855hrs and decided to head for Warlingham Green – a short eight miler. I was back in the house by 0940hrs meaning the whole journey, including a very brief stop at the Green itself to take a rather morose-looking self-portrait, took only 45 minutes. Not bad going.

It was dry but cold today and I was glad to get home.

Friday, 1 February 2013

Missing keys...and then a puncture

Padlock unlocked, I'm ready to rock!
Saturday 2nd February 2013: As I write this, it's only 0717hrs and already the day is turning into a problem. First, I've got to leave for this morning's ride 30 minutes earlier than usual, which means no time at all to chill with a cup of tea and some toast. Alright, it's possible and I managed it, but then, at 0630hrs, as I was about to leave the house, no keys. Where the hell were they? Coat pocket? No. In the bedroom on the ironing board? No. On the console table? No. Kitchen? No. Where, then? In the office? I hope not, but they could be.

So, it was time to put the emergency procedure in place. Fortunately, I keep a spare bike padlock key in a secret place in a matchbox – fortunately it was still in the secret place. Right, then it was a case of going out the kitchen door instead of the front door (only my key ring has the garage door key on it), opening the garage side door, bringing the bike out into the side alley, through the side gate and off I go!

No, I'm not ready to rock – front wheel puncture aborts the ride.
So, I'm in the garage, I unlock the bike using the emergency key and...hold on, is that a front wheel puncture I see before me? It is! There's no alternative other than to abort the ride. 'Game over. Puncture.' I text Andy and that's it. Here I am, still wearing the cycling gear (nothing Lycra, just the hoodie and tracksuit bottoms). "I'm not happy, Bob. NOT happy!" as the little guy in The Incredibles says.

Today I'll be out there with the bike on its back, fixing the puncture and then tomorrow, I'll ride out. The plan is to try an alternative route to Redhill. Should be exciting.