Wednesday, 31 December 2014

2014 – a review of the year

2014 kicked off with bad weather and 'abort' texts. The first post of the year (Saturday 4 January) spoke of severe weather warnings and extensive flooding in certain parts of the country with people being washed out to sea, fallen trees and travel problems. But there was also the first of the year's 'Respect is Due' awards to my brother Jon who rode out on New Year's Day 2014 and, as I wrote at the time, "took a major soaking in the process". Having dried his wet clothes on the radiator round at mum's, Jon put them back on and took another soaking getting home.

Sanderstead churchyard, Jan 2014
The following day there was a lull in the weather and a ride to the Tatsfield Bus Stop for Andy, Phil and yours truly and this led to one of 2014's iconic blog images (see pic left). On this particular ride, Phil provided Christmas cake on what proved to be his first ride with us since November 2013. It almost goes without saying that the weather closed in again, but not until we had all returned safely to our respective houses.

January 2014 was a time for excuses and, arguably, the most ridiculous excuse of the lot: Phil aborting because he was up most of the night waiting for his marmalade to boil. It was also when the BBC reported the stabbing of a 40-year-old man in Tatsfield, Surrey. His injuries were described as not life threatening and his attacker was arrested on suspicion of grevious bodily harm (GBH).

While Phil waited up for his marmalade to boil, I adapted well to my new 'bus wanker' status. No car meant I had to rely upon the buses, which in many ways was good news (I walked more and spent less) but the weather during this period was atrocious and when I eventually bought a car in February (a Toyota Corolla), I was more than happy to surrender my Oyster card. As I wrote on Sunday 12 January, "Not having a car has its advantages. We walk a lot more than we used to, which is good."

I became a seasoned 'bus wanker'
The poor weather meant a lot of rides to the Tatsfield Bus Stop, although we did manage an 'urban ride' to mum's in January and Andy and I found ourselves discussing how it was just like being a kid again, "It was odd that Andy and I were both on our bikes, as we might have been aged 13 or 14, cycling round to my house, perhaps, after school or on a Saturday afternoon. It would have been strange, in a good way, if Andy had referred to mum as 'Mrs Moggridge' as he might have done aged 13, but there we were, windswept and hungry and eagerly awaiting our tea and cake."

In February the bad weather continued with plenty of dramatic skies and rainy and blustery weather. Somerset, Devon and Dorset were virtually cut off from the rest of the country and our shorter rides continued. Flooding in the Woldingham area meant that Andy resorted to meeting Phil and I at the top of Slines Oak Road rather than Warlingham Green, just like the old pre-blog days.

Matt and Jon at mum's house
I managed to lose 21lbs having cut out bread and sweets from my diet (something I persevered with throughout the year). Oddly, the strange knocking noise that might well have been a dodgy bottom bracket, ceased and has not returned. I've put this down to losing weight. I look and feel better and I've gone down a shirt size. Nice work!

In March, while rides to Tatsfield continued, we did manage to reach Westerham on a couple of occasions over the weekend of March 22/23. On the second ride I managed to get our first puncture of the year (Sunday 23 March). It was late March and the weather people were still predicting temperatures of minus three degrees – a week before the clocks went forward.

April was characterised by yours truly taking a week off work and cycling every day. In fact, I cycled for nine consecutive days, the weather had improved considerably and all was well with the world – well, alright, the world wasn't well at all, we had ongoing problems in the Middle East (Syria, Israel, ISIS) and while the UK economy was said to have improved, it hadn't really. But leaving aside world affairs, we still managed to get, as I put it, 'a major soaking' on a ride to the bus stop on Sunday 6 April and rain stopped play completely over the weekend of 26/27 April.

My first 2014 puncture
The highlight of May was riding around Indianapolis in the USA using the city's recently introduced bike share scheme. I took major advantage of the bikes and managed to cover a great deal of the city where dedicated bike lanes have been introduced. In fact, NoVisibleLycra found fame (not fortune) in Indianapolis as my two posts on the city's bike share scheme were posted on the Urban Indy website.

In June I found myself riding around Berlin, which was excellent – especially riding through the Tiergarten to the Reichstag and spotting a red squirrel – and, back home, while we were still riding to places like the Tatsfield Bus Stop, Westerham was putting in more regular appearances. On Sunday 15 June we headed to our favourite North Kent market town and ate sausage sandwiches, courtesy of Phil who, it turned out, is quite a gourmand. As summer progressed we were treated to his excellent corned beef pie and a rather tasty Bakewell tart and let's not forget the efforts of one of Phil's daughters (he has three, but I can't remember which one) who made an excellent honey cake. Phil and I enjoyed it with our tea at the Tatsfield Churchyard on Saturday 21 June – the longest day. The following month, on 20 July, we all rode to Westerham and Phil brought his Mary Berry's Christmas cake along. The weather was cloudy but warm and bright with sunshine expected (and delivered) later in the day.

Riding round Indianapolis, USA
In August, Andy braved torrential rain for Ride London and later wrote an exclusive report for the blog. "The euphoric feeling I was getting as I cycled through Whitehall and rounded Trafalgar Square was incredible. The finish line at The Mall lie ahead and as I crossed the finish line I realised that this was easily the hardest charity event I had ever done – a real test of mental strength."

September saw three rides to Westerham and a couple of suburban rides to mum's, not forgetting a solo ride to the Tatsfield bus stop for yours truly. The weather was still very good, prompting me to write that "We've been blessed with what can only be described at this time of year as an Indian summer." But it wasn't just the Indian summer, the whole summer had been wonderful and it seemed like a long time in shorts and tee shirts before we began to consider gloves and jumpers again.

Andy braves Ride London 2014
October was pretty uneventful, but we did manage a 'heads down' ride to Westerham on an autumnal Saturday morning (11 October). While there were certainly leaves on the ground at the green, the weather was still very mild and the gloves didn't go on for some time.

In November my gears started to play up. It wasn't so much the gears but the block, which had worn out, and the chain. The end result was a new block and a new chain and now all is well again, but it meant a week of no cycling while the bike was in the repair shop. Once fixed, however, we headed for Westerham where the shopkeepers had started to prepare their shopfronts for the festive season. The weekend of 30 November was good for cycling. Andy and I rode to Westerham and then I rode to mum's alone – covering 34 miles in total.

Cycling in Berlin
Soon it was December and the bad weather started to kick in; it got colder, prompting Phil to make it clear that we probably wouldn't see much of him until the spring. He hibernates, just like Freda, the Blue Peter tortoise of times gone by. I can see him now packed away in a long cardboard box covered with straw.

Jon's bottom bracket on his Kona failed and he had to buy a new bike as a result. Andy and I braved the cold but kept the rides short. Yes, we were back at the Tatsfield Bus Stop again and I had to don the famous flappy hat and balaclava combo to keep out the cold, foregoing the use of my crash helmet based on Boris Johnson's advice that it's not really going to make any difference if I meet with an accident. Not sure about that, Boris, but I'll go with your advice as warmth is crucial. 

Flappy hat and balaclava
Andy received another Respect is Due for riding out alone on Christmas morning – a first for NoVisibleLycra. He rode to Chipstead Lake. Actually, on the 'respect is due' front, Phil also scored rather highly thanks to his culinary flair – Mary Berry's Christmas Cake, Jamie Oliver's Bakewell tart, the aforementioned honey cake produced by one of his three daughters, and his excellent sausage sandwiches.

Andy and I  rode out on Boxing Day to Tatsfield Village, armed with mum's Christmas cake, and took the slow way to the Tatsfield Bus Stop on 28 December. I've considered a New Year's Day ride (which would be a first for us) but in all likelihood I'll probably stew in bed and ride out on Saturday 3 and Sunday 4 January 2015.

All things considered it was a great year for riding. On a personal level I managed to ride around Indianapolis and Berlin, not forgetting Amsterdam last month. Andy succeeded in completing, among other long-distance charity rides, the Ride London 2014 event and, as a team, we upped our game and embarked upon more regular rides to Westerham although, in all honesty, we need to do more trips of over 20 miles and perhaps in 2015 we need to up our visits to Chipstead Lake.

Phil's Bakewell tart
If we are to make a collective New Year Resolution, it has to be something along the lines of more cycling, greater distances, more regular rides to Westerham, find new destinations – the latter, I think, being very important. We haven't been to Godstone Green for a while – because of the hill coming back – we haven't braved Marden Woods, we should throw in a couple of Woodmansterne Greens to see Jon and Jon (if you're reading this) you should be coming over this way once in a while. It would be good to see you on a ride to Westerham or the famous Tatsfield Bus Stop.

It's 1109hrs on New Year's Eve 2014 as I write this. The frost has gone and the temperature outside is much warmer than it was earlier this morning and yesterday. I think it's going to be milder over the next few days, but let's not forget that over the next three months the weather is likely to get a little more severe. Snow is surely on the cards and we're going to get plenty of rain, fog, ice and sleet before the clocks go forward and the decent weather arrives. However, if this year is anything to go by, we'll probably manage to avoid a major soaking as these days we're rarely caught out – call it a sixth sense or call it just lucky.

Phil's corned beef tart
The bikes have all performed well. My Kona Scrap could do with a full service but it's generally fine. The block and chain were replaced recently at Cycle King, I've got new (bright yellow) handle grips – or rather I've got one new handle grip (I've yet to replace the one on the left hand side) – and I have front and rear lights working. At this time of year there are dark starts and they will continue until March (or thereabouts).

Andy's Kona Blast is still in need of a good clean (it's always caked in mud). His racing bike, on the other hand, is nice and clean. Jon, as I mentioned earlier, has recently bought a new Cannondale.

Phil guarding his tart
I keep going on about how my Kona Scrap, while amazing, is totally wrong for the sort of riding we do; invariably we don't go off road so a more sensible steed would be more applicable, but since when have I been sensible about anything? Besides, I like my bike, even if it is a little juvenile in appearance and attitude, and have no intention of changing it. In my opinion, it does the job and if that job is made harder by thicker tyres, a heavy frame and just 16 gears, then so be it – at least I'm getting more of a work-out than I might be getting with a more sensible machine. Perhaps 2015 will be the year I purchase some mudguards, who knows?

In Amsterdam, November 2014

As for the highlights of 2014, I guess mine would have to be the cycling abroad, especially in Indianapolis and Berlin. I haven't asked him, but I'm guessing that Andy's highlight would be the Ride London event in August and as for Phil, it's hard to say what he'd pick – although his bakery skills were certainly among our highlights.

For now all that remains is that I wish all readers of NoVisibleLycra a Happy New Year for 2015. When I check the statistics I note that there are readers all over the world, some of whom have already celebrated the start of the new year. I'm thinking, of course, about Simon Cotter over in Australia. We haven't heard much from Simon of late, or our pal in Boone, Iowa, Greg Bowles, but here's hoping all is well for them both.

The much maligned Tatsfield Bus Stop

Monday, 29 December 2014

Sunday 28th December – taking the slow way to the Tatsfield Bus Stop

The cold weather is beginning to set in. As I write this on Monday 29th December 2014 it's around minus three degrees outside (or rather it was minus three degrees). Right now (at just gone 1000hrs) the sun is shining, there is still a frost on the lawn, but I'm guessing it's a few degrees above freezing.

Saturday's ride was aborted because of heavy winds but we were out on Sunday and once again I was wearing my ridiculous-looking flappy hat and balaclava combo – very warm, but I'd be the first to admit that I looked pretty odd.

I met Andy at the usual place and we decided to ride the long way to the Tatsfield Bus Stop. While it's quite a work-out when compared with the faster way (along the 269) it's safer (no traffic) and far more sociable (it's easier to talk and ride two abreast due to the lack of cars).

Andy's racer, Chipstead Lake, Christmas morning 2014.
Beddlestead Lane is not easy. It's a slow climb and it can be tiresome. There are various markers along the way that enable us to chart our progress and soon enough we found ourselves on Clarks Lane. Beddlestead Lane has its ups and downs. It passes through woods and skirts fields and there are a couple of houses along the way, not to mention flocks of sheep watching our every movement. My paranoia towards sheep is well-documented on this blog.

We saw only one Lycra monkey en route to the bus stop and Andy commented that while he was out on Christmas Day morning (he rode alone to Chipstead Lake and gets a major 'respect is due' for his efforts) he saw a few brave Lycra monkeys and decided, as it was Christmas, to offer his season's greetings – a kind of Christmas truce. I ventured that he should have suggested a game of football in homage to the famous World War l Christmas Truce.

As for the Tatsfield Bus Stop, it was still just that: the same old bus stop. It never changes. It's a lump of wood that shelters us (and others) from inclement weather. Today, however, it was, as always, just the same old same old. Well, not quite. For some inexplicable reason, somebody had screwed a gold-coloured clothes hook into the wood. It doesn't say much for the bus service as it probably means there's enough time to take off your coat, make yourself comfortable and endure a long wait.

If I was a tramp I wouldn't sleep rough at the Tatsfield Bus Stop – it's too exposed, but it does have one redeeming factor: it's off the ground (or rather its integral bench is off the ground). In this cold weather the last thing you want if you're sleeping rough is direct contact with the ground. Why we discuss sleeping rough and being tramps whenever we're sitting at the Tatsfield Bus Stop I'll never know, but we do. Personally, I'd sleep in the small woods at the top of White Lane, in a small tent, concealed from view, although at this time of year, with bare branches and fallen leaves, it's difficult to remain hidden.
Why the clothes hook?

Perhaps that clothes hook means that somebody has made the bus stop their home. Who knows? I'll keep you informed if I see anything else there, like a sofa or a coffee table or a 'home sweet home' sign nailed to the wall and mounted in a quaint wooden frame. When Andy rode along Pilgrim's Lane towards the lake on Christmas morning he encountered an entire bathroom suite dumped in the middle of the road and, as we rode up Beddlestead Lane earlier, we encountered another example of 'fly tipping'. Somebody had left a load of domestic rubbish by the side of the road: a bedside cabinet, a vacuum cleaner – what a mess.

After two cups of tea and some Belvita biscuits we headed home. Andy branched off halfway and I continued north along the 269. I reached home around 11am and later drove to Felbridge to see Dave and his rescued dog Sasha – a Staffordshire Bull Terrier with a sad face and clearly in desperate need of a permanent home. It wasn't a 'dangerous dog', thankfully, and I quite liked her. I stayed for tea and biscuits and left after dark, reaching home around 1900hrs – home in time for part two of Top Gear's Patagonian adventure.

Friday, 26 December 2014

Boxing Day – to Tatsfield Village with Christmas cake and tea

This morning when I awoke at 0600hrs, I lay in bed listening to a programme about Prokofiev's Peter & the Wolf on Radio Four and then, around an hour later I rose from my cosy cave and made a cup of tea and some Weetabix. I considered porridge but it meant wiping up a saucepan caked in, well, porridge, so I opted for the simpler solution: wiping up a saucepan with only traces of hot milk around its inner surfaces.

Before I jumped from bed the weather forecast caught my attention. Snow. It's on the way they say, in places like Norfolk and the Midlands and possibly even parts of South East England, but not yet – later today apparently. We might wake up to a blanket of snow. Right now (at nearly 1700hrs) it's raining so in a sense it's started and I ought to put the car away later.

This morning there was a frost on the ground and on car windscreens so I opted once again for my balaclava and flappy hat combo. When I hit the air, however, it wasn't as cold as I thought so I didn't bother with the balaclava but still took the flappy hat (with flaps buttoned under my chin for warmth).

Ready to ride home – note ridiculous flap hat and right trouser leg
But then a problem arose: no, not a puncture but a missing wheel nut. How come? The wheel moved from one side of the forks to the other and closer inspection revealed that the left hand nut was missing. I scanned the garage floor for the missing nut using the torch on my iphone, but found nothing, meaning one of two things: either somebody deliberately removed the nut in an act of sabotage (unlikely) OR (the most likely explanation) is that the nut in question somehow loosened itself and fell off in the street, probably close to the house as I would have noticed it. Now, however, I have something else to check before mounting the Kona: the front wheel nuts. I've been having problems with the thread of the front wheel for some time, so it might be something that needs attention, but on this occasion I was thinking on my feet (actually, I really was thinking on my feet – I was standing up). I used a nut from my daughter's bike (which has a puncture and so isn't being used) and I vowed that later I would buy replacement nuts. After securing the new nut on my bike I called Andy to ask him to meet me on the green. He was on his way to my house on the assumption that I'd be aborting the ride. I'd phoned him earlier to say as much but then, when I realised that all wheel nuts appear to be of a universal size, I resolved the problem as explained above and then got on with the business of riding to the green, albeit slightly later than planned.

It was cold and I noticed that Phil's curtains were drawn as I passed by. Everywhere was quiet and, to be fair, it was Boxing Day morning. People were no doubt sleeping off seasonal over-indulgence, but not me. I was in bed at a decent hour last night – thanks to crappy television consisting largely of repeats – and I'd had a civilised Christmas Day (only a couple of glasses of wine and nothing to eat at all in the evening bar one minced pie). After the Eastenders Christmas Special (sadly it was probably the only decent thing on the box) I watched 8 out of 10 Cats (which might have been a repeat) and then hit the sack.

Andy was waiting for me at the green and we headed for Tatsfield Village where we ate our Christmas cake and drank our tea, commenting on the price of a Christmas lunch at the pub opposite (The Ship at Tatsfield). A five-course Christmas lunch cost £60 per head. Pretty steep, we thought, and what were the five courses? Three would have been enough: starter, main course and dessert. Either way we were of the opinion that the price should have been no more than £40 – not £60. Imagine taking a family of four: that's £240 before you leave the house excluding drinks and what about a minicab there and back? Let's round it off to £300. Surely buying a turkey from the local supermarket along with some decent wine and other stuff would cost less than half the bill presented to the Ship's customers yesterday lunchtime...and you wouldn't need a minicab either!

I took a shot of Tatsfield's Christmas tree – this one had lights but they were off, understandably, as it was broad daylight.

A red single-decker 264 bus arrived from somewhere and dropped off three track-suited individuals who made their way to the bakery across the way, which was advertising lunch at £24.95 per head – a darn sight better value than the Ship, we thought, assuming that even if you bought a starter, dessert and wine it wouldn't add up to £60.

Time to head for home. We rode to Warlingham and parted company vowing to meet at 0800hrs tomorrow, which is a Saturday. Funny how easy it is to lose track of time between Christmas and  New Year. Funny how the days seem merge and are no longer distinguishable from one another.

I reached home just before 11am and most of the day was quite fine weatherwise, but now it's raining. Here's hoping there's no snow in the morning. Or rain for that matter.

One year ago – we rode out on Boxing Day. Click here for more.

Wednesday, 24 December 2014

A glimpse of Christmas past...

It's Christmas Eve and while, since childhood's end, things have got, well, a little grown-up at this time of the year – gone are the train sets and toy soldiers – there was a time when the festive season was full of magic, as outlined in this blogpost written prior to my father passing away in May 2011. Click here.

Earlier in the week I'd been round at mum's house and my brother Jon had pointed out a nail on the top of the door frame outside our old bedroom. It had been there for many years but had gone unnoticed by yours truly. In fact, Jon told me that it had been brought to his attention recently when some builders working on mum's bathroom asked about it and whether it should be removed. What, he wondered, was the purpose of the nail? Mum provided much needed enlightenment: the nail was put there by dad and for good reason. It played a pivotal role in making our childhood Christmas Eves magical. You can read all about it by clicking the link above but in essence, dad twirled some string around the nail to make it easier to pull the string and ring a bell at the end of it. For more on why, click the link above.

Tuesday, 16 December 2014

Freezing cold but we head for the Tatsfield Bus Stop

Sunday 14th December: When I woke up around 0600hrs on Sunday morning listening to the BBC Radio Four programme Something Understood, which this week was all about world weariness, I must admit that I had some sympathy for those who might be suffering from the condition. I felt a little weary myself and I was certainly considering an 'abort' text as soon as I glimpsed the outside world. Below me, illuminated by the new, ultra-powerful street lights that had been recently installed (and now cast a huge, lunar light over vast tracts of the road that were previously in darkness) I could see the frosted road and path and countless cars (excluding mine) covered in ice.

Fortunately, my car was garaged and, therefore, not in line for a windscreen scraping later in the day, but I'd need to get the car out of the garage first to reach my bike. However, my first thought was this: I wonder if Andy really feels like going this morning or whether I might be able to tempt him to abort by suggesting it's a little bit on the chilly side? It was worth a try and then I might be able to return to bed and listen to what Mark Tully had to say about world weariness.

My flap hat and balaclava combo kept me warm
Andy's response was short and to the point: "We've seen it before. I'm up for it." And, of course, he was right. We had seen it before and I should pull myself together. "Balaclava it is, then. See u usual time," I responded and set about finding the aforementioned woolly head garment.

Last night on Saturday Night with Jonathan Ross, the Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, talked about how it hadn't been scientifically proven that crash helmets for cyclists were essential items of safety equipment. In other words, you're not likely to be at any greater risk if you don't wear one. Fair enough, I thought, deciding that drastic weather called for drastic life or death decisions. Instead of the crash helmet I would wear a fetching combo of my ear flap hat from Millets and the green, IRA terrorist balaclava. It might look stupid – and could even get me arrested – but it would certainly fend off the cold.

In fact, when I reached the green, the police were already there. The Nat West bank had been robbed overnight and for a moment I feared the police might blame the caper on me based purely on my rather suspicious-looking appearance. And who would blame them?  My rucksack, they might figure, could be stuffed full of used banknotes. Fortunately, they didn't think anything of the sort and had they searched me they would have found nothing but a flask of hot water, four teabags and a few spanners.

Twenty minutes earlier, when I hit the outside world my theory about the cold weather was proved right. I didn't feel the cold at all. I took the car out of the garage, retrieved my bike, put the car back in the garage and then, with front and rear lights blazing (the rear lights had worked all along. I just thought the batteries had run out – they hadn't) I rode towards the usual meeting place where Andy (and the police) were waiting. But fortunately for me, the police weren't interested. They never even noticed me (and my rucksack full of fivers).

I was so warm I could have cycled all the way to Westerham and back, but we settled for the fast way to the bus stop having ruled out the slow way due to the cold. Andy complained about cold feet and ears, but I can honestly say that I was untouchable. I felt great! And a little smug. The weather hadn't beaten me, although I did feel a little guilty about my earlier text. Mark Tully and world weariness would have to wait.

We eventually reached the bus stop where Andy broke out the Belvita biscuits and I poured the tea. After our usual chit chat, we rode back to the green, bade each other farewell and headed towards our respective homes.

The pond on Sanderstead green had frozen over
Another good reason for riding out today was that it was likely to be our last ride this side of Christmas, although we're hoping that our traditional Boxing Day ride will take place.

I'm thinking about inviting Phil, but he's already made it clear that the cold weather is not his bag. I can't remember the last time we saw him on a ride and I doubt we'll see him again until something like March 2015 – weather permitting.

Either way, he'll receive an invite and, as usual, the festive fayre at the other end (the Tatsfield Churchyard has been mooted) will be Christmas Cake, courtesy of my mum and the usual tea and biscuits.

Until then, I wish all NoVisibleLycra readers a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.

Hopefully, we'll be back in the saddle on Boxing Day.

Sunday, 14 December 2014

Jon buys a new bike and Andy and I head for the Tudor Rose in Westerham

Saturday 13th December 2014: Here's a lesson for us all – or certainly a lesson for yours truly. If the bottom bracket on your bike goes, get it fixed. Why? Because if you leave it, like I have done, there's a strong chance that when it goes for good, you won't so much be visiting the repair shop just to get it fixed. You'll be buying a new bike instead!

How do I know this? During the week – Wednesday 10 December to be precise (it was my birthday) – I had a call from Jon (or rather I called him, I can't remember) and he was in a bike shop doing just that: buying a new bike. Apparently the cost of re-threading the frame of his Kona Fire Mountain would have cost so much money that he might as well buy a new bike. So he did. A Cannondale Trail.

I haven't seen it yet, but I'm sure we'll get acquainted on my next urban ride to mum's.

And yes, it was my birthday on Wednesday. I won't bore you with how old I've become. Instead I'll inform you that, since Wednesday, I've been eating a fair few chocolates and biscuits during the day and it's bugging me a bit. I say 'a fair few', I guess I had half a dozen chocolates and a similar amount of biscuits and ever since I've been fretting about putting on weight again, although I don't think I have. Not yet at any rate. I keep dipping my head in front of the mirror in the bathroom – 'recompense, for all my crimes of self-defence' – to see if there's an easy double-chin to be made. I think I'm in the clear and besides, I'm off now until the new year, which means I can get back to my three meals a day regime of breakfast, lunch and dinner and hold the bread and biscuits.

During the week and due to bread being frozen in the freezer I've paid a couple of visits to the Marks & Spencer café in Redhill for tomato and basil soup with an extra roll. The 'extra roll' means that instead of getting two miniscule rolls, you get four, with portion packs of butter aplenty – four rolls add up to two 'normal' sized rolls in my mind. Very nice. I read somewhere (or watched on television some time in the distant past) that a bowl of soup was better for you than, say, a sandwich, if you're looking to lose a bit of weight. Well, I paid two visits to the caff this week so I'm assuming it did me some good. The M&S caff has become my latest lunchtime venue where Jezza, my pal, and I discuss The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists by Robert Tressell, which Jezza has read something like 12 times.

Yesterday morning (Saturday) – it's now 0630hrs on Sunday 14 December as I write this now – we rode to Westerham. The weather was, shall we say, 'a bit chilly', but not as chilly as it is out there now. Out there now it's cold, frosty and icy, the cars look as if they've been in a huge freezer overnight and, well, it prompted me to text Andy, angling, if I'm honest for a mutual 'abort'. But Andy breezed back with something like 'we've seen it all before' and announced that he'd be going out. I texted back saying I'd don the balaclava and that I'd see him on the green at the usual time. Sometimes I need a push. Not often, but sometimes.

Breakfast at the Tudor Rose café, Westerham, on Saturday
Anyway, yesterday we rode to Westerham and while it was not as cold as it looks out there this morning, it was face-achingly bad as we started our descent into Westerham. So cold that I slowed down to reduce the cold blast of air on my aching face and then, as the road levelled out just prior to going under the M25, I figured that 'no hands' might help, enabling me to swing my arms about a bit in order to keep warm (or warmer than I was). It seemed to do the trick. Soon we found ourselves in Westerham where I was due to buy some milk for our tea, but Andy announced a small windfall on the premium bonds so it was breakfast on him in the Tudor Rose Café. This was most welcomed and appreciated and we both enjoyed a large pot of tea and a sausage sandwich with HP Sauce and found ourselves chatting about Carl Foggarty and Barry Sheene and Russell Brand's performance on the BBC's Question Time.

I'm not sure where I stand on Brand. I think he's quite a funny bloke in a strange sort of way, but his newly found 'political awareness' is a little bit A level politics. The sort of stuff he talks about can be found in plenty of other books like, for instance, Chavs by Owen Jones (highly recommended); Stupid White Men by Michael Moore and, best of all, Robert Tressell's aforementioned The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists (by far the best of the bunch). What is good about Brand, if not a tad ironic, is that he is creating political awareness among those who he himself has advised not to vote. However, when somebody brought his 'don't vote' stance up on Question Time last week, Brand's response was spot on: 'give me something to vote for', he said.

Russell Brand – the right wing press call him a hypocrite
I don't like it when people from 'pop culture' appear on Question Time as I think they tend to do themselves no favours. John Lydon springs to mind. He's quite an intelligent guy in his own right but he plays to the audience a bit too much and falls back on his Johnny Rotten persona for laughs. Brand is similar, occasionally reverting to his comedian self and again not doing himself any favours. However, if he's bringing politics to the masses and encouraging people to vote by, in a sense, default, then he's doing a good thing.

By far the most irksome element of the row between the right wing media and Brand – or rather the stance adopted by the right wing media TOWARDS Brand, is the notion that he, Brand, is a hypocrite which, as Sophie Heawood writes in this week's Guardian Weekend magazine, is a strong word that is nearly always used to try to make someone feel bad about doing something good.

"This month it [the word 'hypocrite'] has been plastered across the front page of the Sun, over a picture of Russell Brand, who was campaigning on behalf of residents of a London council estate at risk of losing their homes to a property developer. The logic apparently being that if you're rich enough to pay London rents, as he [Brand] is, then you shouldn't be sticking up for people who aren't."

According to Heawood, "In these hyper-critical times, if you have anything at all in your life that differentiates you from a humble peasant, it is safer to just keep stumm about it."

Our chit chat in the caff meant that we didn't get underway until gone 0910hrs, having taken the obligatory shot of the bikes, this time outside the Tudor Rose. We didn't dawdle on the return ride and reached Warlingham Green in under an hour. Not bad going. I reached home around 1020hrs and later in the day went out to buy a Christmas tree, which now has pride of place in the living room.

Outside the Rose.
Right now it's 0647hrs and I can't say I'm looking forward to opening the front door. It's what they call 'brass monkey' weather out there and I'm so glad that my balaclava was readily at hand in the wardrobe. I can't see it being a long ride, but I'll report back later today hopefully. Westerham's Christmas tree, incidentally, is still minus any decoration so I assume it's going to stay that way – how boring!

Right, it's time to go outside and brave the cold that is Sunday morning. I've donned the balaclava and my hat with flaps from Millets and I'm going to listen to Boris Johnson and not wear my crash helmet today. If Johnson says it's not been scientifically proven that helmets are lifesavers, well that's good enough for me and besides, it's freezing out there so I'm going to sacrifice my own safety for warmth. Here's hoping I return safely!

Monday, 8 December 2014

Chicken crouton lollipop!

The sun can be deceptive if you live within the Arctic Circle. Fortunately, I don't live anywhere near it: far too cold, although I have spent some time in places like Alaska, Tromso in Northern Norway and Lulea in Northern Sweden. In both Tromso and Lulea I saw the Northern Lights and I probably saw them in Alaska too, but I can't remember.

By 'deceptive' I mean that the sun often shines brightly, creating an illusion of warmth when the reality is something totally different. I'm not for one minute suggesting that the weather on Saturday was anywhere near the Arctic conditions brought about by temperatures as low as minus 40 (yes, I went to Sweden once in a Marks & Spencer raincoat and it was minus 40). Very cold. Within a few minutes of being outside in the cold air my face started to freeze. But it wasn't that cold on Saturday morning. In fact it was only minus 1, but it was cold enough to stop me mounting the bike.

Bike at the bus stop on Sunday 7th Dec
Andy wasn't going on Saturday, but on Sunday I asked him whether he would have gone out and he said probably not. I left it for a while. I kept looking outside at the frost on the lawn. It was there all morning. After a while I lost momentum and resigned myself to simply not going. I convinced myself that it was miles too cold and it was too cold. Riding anywhere would have been unpleasant and I was planning another ride to mum's. But it didn't happen.

Sunday was a much better day. Positively balmy – the temperature was around 8 degrees, far better than minus 1. We met at the usual place at the usual time and decided to head for the Tatsfield Bus Stop – the slow way. There was a small Christmas tree on the green. When we got to the bus stop we did what we always do: sit and chat while munching biscuits and sipping tea. All very pleasant. And then it was time to head back.

While the weather might have been warmer than Saturday, an almighty fog descended on the bus stop and the surrounding area. We'd clocked it as we rode the final 200 yards or so of Beddlestead Lane and it seemed as if it was settling in for the day. Thick fog often settles in these parts and it was showing no sign of abating when we were ready to leave. As usual I was having problems with my rear light (if it's not my rear light, it's my gears or the brakes). Well, not problems, just a lack of batteries. But the thought of riding in the fog with little in the way of lights prompted me to suggest we ride home the slow way. It proved to be a good idea as minutes into turning right into Beddlestead Lane the fog disappeared. We rolled towards Hesiers Hill and then endured the punishing climb to the top. The rest was plain sailing: past Sainsbury's and on towards Warlingham Green where we parted company.

The weather was fantastic. The cold had been replaced by a pleasant 11 degrees and so, later in the day, I drove en famille to Wakehurst Place, a lovely house and gardens, owned by the National Trust, near (ahem) Crawley in West Sussex. The Christmas tree was up, there was an artist painting something floral in another part of the house, there was soup and bread in the Bakery restaurant, tea and hot chocolate too, paper lanterns and wind chimes on bare branches in the grounds, swaying in the breeze, and the usual scented candles and soaps in the shop. There was even a Father Christmas! I don't believe anymore, by the way.

We drove home in the fast fading light and ahead of us was a few hours of rubbish television in the shape of Strictly Come Dancing, the X Factor and then I'm a Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here (won by Carl 'Foggy' Foggarty, motorcycle ace). Jake Quickenden from the X Factor was second and Melanie Sykes, the 90s Boddington's model, third. All good fun. In Strictly Come Dancing, however, foul play was at work. Head judge Len Goodman, who seemingly had it in for Pixie Lott on the Saturday Show, cast the deciding vote in favour of Simon Webbe, a far inferior dancer in my opinion – and many other people's opinions too. Very suspicious if you ask me considering that Pixie Lott was by far the better dancer and had been from the word go. Even Simon Webbe was surprised to find he was still in the show. Still, that's the way the cookie crumbles and I wasn't planning on losing any sleep over it. Having said that, I woke up at 0400hrs this morning (Monday 8th December) and couldn't really get back to sleep, but I'm sure it was nothing to do with Strictly Come Dancing.

Chicken crouton lollipop? "Er... not for me, thanks."
Here's to next weekend's ride. Oh, and if you're wondering what a chicken crouton lollipop is, it's a food product available from Iceland that was advertised by Peter Andre before and after the ad breaks during I'm a Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here.

Not sure if I like the look of them if the truth be known. For me, eating a chicken crouton lollipop would be similar to a bushtucker trial. There's something inherently unappealing about them – or is it just me?

Sunday, 30 November 2014

Gears fixed so we head for Westerham and I ride to mum's...

The bike is back. I strolled down to the bike shop on Friday afternoon to pick it up and, true to their word, it was £65. I was half expecting them to say something along the lines of 'we couldn't fix it without an X or a Y and that's an extra £20', but no, it was £65. I bought a pair of handle grips as one of my old Jack Shit grips had disintegrated completely and the other one was well on the way to a similar fate. At present, however, there's one bright yellow and brand spanking new grip on the right hand side and the old Jack Shit grip on the left.

Westerham shopkeepers get into the festive spirit
As Andy and I remarked as we rode out of Westerham on Saturday morning, if something's called Jack Shit it has to be worth buying.

One thing about taking bikes into repair shops is they never seem to come out the same as when they went in – obviously they're fixed rather than broken, but there's always something different about the ride quality; it's a bit like going to hospital for us humans: things are never quite the same (and sometimes we don't come out, let's not forget that either). The bike seemed heavier to me, leading me to wonder whether the new block was higher geared than the old one. It's harder work and while the gears are virtually as smooth as Larry as a result of the new block and the new chain, I've still had a couple of incidents involving the pedals slipping. In fact, they slipped on Sunday morning as I was crossing the Brighton Road and my left calf is grazed as a result. In other words, it wasn't a completely faultless job.

I'm both amazed and indignant. When I last took my bike to Halford's, for instance (some two years ago and it hasn't been back since) they messed with the front forks and now the bike bounces about all over the place. The fact of the matter is you simply can't trust anybody but yourself and if I had the time and, more importantly, the knowledge, I'd fix the bike myself. At least that way I'd only have myself to blame. But enough moaning.

To Westerham – where a miserable Christmas tree awaits us
Andy and I met at the usual time at the usual place and resolved to ride to Westerham, although, for some reason, it was a sluggish ride that seemed to be taking ages and there was no reason for this. We'd both left the green pretty promptly, we were talking too much and we hadn't stopped for any reason, but either way we didn't reach Westerham until around 0820 hours, a good 20 minutes later than usual, something we simply resigned ourselves to as we reached for the tea and biscuits.

Westerham's miserable-looking tree
Westerham is very festive. There's a Christmas tree on the green but it's not in anyway decorated, which makes it a bit miserable, although local shopkeepers are getting into the spirit of things, even if it is only 29 November. Why, I wonder, is everybody buying Christmas trees and thinking ahead to the festive season so early? Alright, the shops are doing their usual thing at this time of year – starting up the unnecessary hype – but the general populus appears to be joining in too. Later in the day I saw people buying Christmas trees from B&Q where Christmas carols were booming out on the sound system and I couldn't help but wonder what state those trees will be in on Christmas morning.

We normally buy our tree on or around 15th December, the weekend after my birthday. Buying the tree is a jolly affair: driving to the garden centre; choosing the tree and then ferrying it home ahead of a mildly stressful half hour of fixing it in place, realising it's bigger than we'd hoped and then trying to find somewhere in the house where it doesn't obstruct the television. There's always a moment where the dreaded 'next year we're having an artificial tree' is brought up, but I always counter this with the house rule: real fire – artificial tree; artificial fire (we call it the hairdryer) – real tree. Somehow I think we'll always be having a real tree.

Andy and I found ourselves having the 'why go abroad?' conversation, which led to reminiscing about childhood holidays by the sea and then, later than usual, we headed out of town towards the dreaded Westerham Hill. Andy joined me for the length of the 269 and we parted at Warlingham Green. I reached home at just gone 10am, a good 20 minutes to half an hour later than usual, and there was no real explanation for it: we were just slower than normal for no particular reason.

Sunday – out in the fog on a ride to mum's
There was, as always, a strong temptation simply not to go cycling when Andy says he can't make it. I could have remained in bed and not bothered, but that would have been wrong and besides, I'd enjoyed a good seven hours' sleep – uninterrupted – and woke up at just past 0600hrs. Yes, I could have stayed there, but I didn't. I got up, made a cup of tea, a boiled egg and porridge and then, after a few minutes' consideration, decided to deliver Christmas cards to mum using the bike.

Yesterday's weather was characterised by dramatic skies and fairly high temperatures for the time of year – it was warm, not cold. Behind the high cloud we could clearly see wonderful blue skies – great flying weather, I thought. Today there was fog. Thick fog – bad flying weather. It was like a scene from a Dickens novel or something involving Jack the Ripper. I headed out around 0830hrs and enjoyed a pleasant urban ride heading in the usual direction, reaching mum's around 0900hrs (possibly just after) and enjoying a cup of tea and a rest before walking into Sutton (a 20-minute hike) to retrieve a USB stick from Boot's the chemist.

A misty start to Sunday morning
I haven't walked to Sutton for ages, not from mum's at any rate, and it reminded me of times past. Walking along Westmead Road I passed the street in which we last resided and then the row of shops we would have used on a regular basis. It all looked a little run-down if I'm honest. A shop we once knew as 'the paraffin shop', because you could buy paraffin (what is parrafin?) there, was now a Thai restaurant, but there's nothing worse than a restaurant with letters missing from its name – if they're that slovenly with their fascia, what hope for the food?

The wine shop (as dad used to call it) has gone. It used to be called the Four Vintners and whenever we purchased a bottle of red wine for Sunday lunch (when I used to live at home with mum and dad and my brother and sister, Jon and Crissy) the man who ran the shop would wrap the bottle in a fine while paper – something that wine shops (alright, 'off licences') don't seem to do anymore: nowadays it's a flimsy plastic bag). Then, a few doors up, there was Beale's the butcher – a friendly man with a glass eye who would always ask "freezer bag?" before handing over my pound of minced beef (or whatever else I might have bought).

Further along the road is the Lord Nelson pub, a Young's house that used to be run by landlord Alex who used to front a jazz band called Nelson's Column – you see the link? Lord Nelson? Nelson's Column? He used to play the trombone and when it was time to close the pub, he'd bring it out and play it badly until everyone had knocked back their last drink and made tracks to go home. There are loads of great stories to tell about the Lord Nelson, although we called The Nelson. One thing I'll always remember was the handful of the regulars who looked like famous people: we had Malcolm Allison, the old manager of Crystal Palace; Fred Astaire as he appeared in the disaster movies; and somebody who looked like John Wayne. There was also an old man without a chin. Apparently it was shot off in the First World War and, as a result, he had to drink his beer through a thick rubber straw.

Alex used to stand behind the bar with a six-inch nail, scraping the wax from his ear and saying, "Well I think we need a government of national unity."

It was a pub full of Irish builders and was one of the last to have a public bar where the beer was a few pence cheaper than in the saloon – it was full of ragged trousered philantropists who enjoyed a pint or two, normally with a whisky chaser and there were often people staggering about outside wearing gravy-stained suits. What more can I say? It was and still is a great pub, although the public bar has since gone and I'm sure John Wayne, Fred Astaire and Malcolm Allison aren't around any more – and as for the man with no chin, well, I'm sure he graces a local churchyard somewhere, God rest his soul.

After walking back to mum's I enjoyed another mug of tea and then jumped on the bike and headed for home along the Croydon Road passing the Greyhound, the Duke's Head and the Plough en route and then, after negotiating the traffic at Five Ways I rode up Denning Avenue, past Whitgift School and along the Brighton Road towards home where I enjoyed another cup of tea.

A good weekend's cycling. I covered around 34 miles in total: 22 miles to and from Westerham on Saturday; and approximately 12 miles today. Andy's back next Sunday so I might pay another visit to Sutton next Saturday, but let's see how it goes.

Sunday, 23 November 2014

No bike, no cycling (and besides, its raining)

Finally took my bike to the repair shop to have its gears sorted out. They told me it needed a new block and a new chain. As always, I never trust anybody and feel that they're ripping me off, it's a condition of modern life, that constant feeling of being ripped off, as we live in a society where everything has a price and people, generally, are greedy. So, when I arrive at the bike shop and I'm told it's a new chain and a new block that is required I don't believe the guy. But what to do? Walk out of the shop and find another bike shop to get another quote? They'll likely rip me off too. So, having left it there I spent the remainder of my journey to Croydon trying to convince myself that it did need a new chain and block. I mean it's a good eight years old so perhaps it's time I replaced the chain and block. "That's why it's slipping," said the guy in the shop, I recalled as I walked in the drizzle towards the shopping mall, but I can't help but hear his boss, on training day, saying, "Right, if anybody comes in with faulty gears, try and tell them they need a new chain and block. They probably won't need either, but it means money for the store and profits for the bosses."

So no bike means no cycling, which means lying in bed. I never lie in for long anyway, but I switched off the alarm and didn't get up until past 9 o'clock on Saturday. Today, Sunday, I was a little earlier, but it was really nice not having to get up and go. While I feel a little restless when I don't go cycling, that's because the bike is out there in the garage, waiting. But when it's in the 'bike hospital' there's a perfect excuse.

Equally, as I sit here now, there's heavy rain hammering on the roof of the conservatory, which means I probably wouldn't have gone out anyway. I sent Andy an 'abort' text. "No bike until next week. Enjoy your ride, though." The 'enjoy your ride' bit is a joke, but I was surprised to receive a text back from Andy, "I didn't enjoy all of it. The heavy rain at the end wasn't good." Andy definitely gets a 'respect is due' for being out in the rain, but I won't hide my smugness as I read his text in the warmth of my house and sheltered from the rain.

Sunday, 16 November 2014

This week and last week

Last week, possibly Sunday, I can't recall, we rode to the Tatsfield Bus Stop, mainly because the bus stop is covered and this means the seats are dry when the weather has been cold and wet. However, not having mudguards meant that I was wet so from my perspective it was pointless; we could have gone to Westerham and stood up to drink our tea. Either way I would have been wet. I need mudguards or a sensible bike, let's face it.

So, we rode to the bus stop on, I think, Sunday 9 November. We haven't spent a great deal of time at the old Tatsfield Bus Stop of late. We've been riding to Westerham or taking suburban rides or, as the week before last, to the Tatsfield Churchyard where the seats were dry but then it started to rain and, as avid readers will be only too aware, there's no cover at the churchyard.

This week we planned to ride to the Tatsfield Bus Stop, mainly because of the aforementioned dry seat argument, which, as I've said, means nothing if you're wet anyway, thanks to no mudguards. But I won't labour the point.

Last Sunday at Tatsfield Bus Stop
Yesterday, as we rode along the Limpsfield Road, past the new cycle shop opposite Sainsbury's, we decided to take the slow route, until we remembered the state of my gears. Whenever I ride up any hill they slip and clunk and then the chain falls off or slips on to the smaller front crank. The bike needs a service, but, as always, money is short so, like everything else in my life at present, I leave it until it gets so bad I have to fix it. Like now. However, today I had to make do with dismounting every time a hill approached. Yesterday morning, as I reached the top of Church Way, I had to dismount and then, as we weaved our way around the country lanes adjacent to the B269, I found myself dismounting again and again.

Instead of riding the slow way to the bus stop – Andy figured I'd be walking the length of Beddlestead Lane (a long and winding hill) – we decided to investigate Scotshall Lane, one of the very few roads in the area we haven't explored. It was pleasant for a while, but when we reached the end we found ourselves in the Farleigh area (turn left for the Harrow pub and then?). Opposite the pub we found a covered bus stop but it was so depressing and cramped with its fold-up, heavy duty plastic seats and its ugly green paintwork that we decided to ride back into Warlingham and part ways at Warlingham Green – without drinking tea or munching biscuits. Not a brilliant ride but at least we know what to expect at the other end of Scotshall Lane – nothing!

To make matters worse (what with the faulty gears, the rubbish bus stop and the short ride) it started to rain and we both got soaked.

Last night I had sent Andy and Phil an 'abort' text. I was tired and feeling a little despondent, but I texted Andy and said that I might change my mind in the morning. Clearly, if you have read this far, you already know that I did change my mind. I texted Andy again and said I'd meet him at the usual time on the green. Perhaps I should have stayed in bed.

Sunday 16th November – to Tatsfield Village!
Another place we haven't been to for a while is good old Tatsfield Village. After yesterday's miserable ride, we decided to pay it a visit. The weather was much better: no rain for a start and it brightened up as we headed along the 269. Perfect cycling weather and, once I'd got underway there were no problems with the gears. I found that the bike rode well if the chain was on the smaller crank at the front and mid-way through the rear gears.

Tatsfield Village hasn't changed a bit since our last visit – why would it, I hear you ask.  It's the same old, same old, so we sat there for a while discussing our bikes and my gears and other bicycle-related chat as we sipped tea and munched our biscuits.

Tatsfield Village, Sunday 16 November 2014 – 
manic expression due to almost missing the self-timer
The journey home proved very troublesome for yours truly. Those gears decided to play up big time. In fact, there was no way the chain was going to slip on to the larger front crank, making the ride home extremely slow. Andy must have been relieved to say goodbye half way along the 269. As for me, I limped home at a snail's pace. Despite the fact that we only went to Tatsfield Village, I reached home just before 1000hrs – half an hour later than I would have returned had we gone to Westerham (and my gears had been working properly).

So the bike needs to visit the repair shop and I'm thinking of Ross Cycles in Caterham. I can't abide the thought of Halford's. Every time I've taken my bike to Halford's it comes out worse than when it went in or there's something wrong with it. For instance, the last time I had it serviced in Halford's they did something to the forks – making them more springy than necessary and, it has to be said, for their own ends, not mine! I'd told them to tighten up the front forks; they loosened them – probably so they could mess around doing jumps in the car park. Either way, I wasn't happy and resolved there and then never to get the bike serviced in Halford's again. I'm also a little reticient about Evans Cycles (where they're bound to come up with some spurious reason why they have to charge me a fortune. Equally off the list is the bike shop in Redhill as I believe he's miles too expensive and probably suggests things that need doing when they don't. I wouldn't mind, but I'm at rock bottom financially. I've even considered buying a secondhand bike for £75 rather than shell out more on getting my existing bike serviced. Andy says it would be a big mistake – a false economy – as a cheaper ride means cheaper parts and cheaper parts mean more frequent servicing. It's looking like Ross Cycles, but that means no riding next Saturday or Sunday, although I can live with that. The only problem will be getting over there as the ride is hilly and the bike ain't up to it.

Thursday, 6 November 2014

Food poisoning, techno confusion and general frustration...

In between the clouds en route to Amsterdam
I flew out of City Airport on Monday lunchtime in the rain and wind. This made for a bumpy (ish) flight with nothing but the whiteness of the clouds outside the window. I wouldn't say it was unpleasant, but anything but a smooth and carefree flight makes me a little edgey...and to top it all there was hardly any time to eat or drink anything. Well, almost anything. By the time I'd finished a small plastic carton of orange juice and an even smaller bag of crisps (that's what they call in-flight service these days, even on major airlines) I had hardly any time for a tiny 187ml bottle of red wine, something I always enjoy when flying.

While I'd only been in the air for 40 minutes I still felt a little shattered, mainly because everything happened so quickly. One minute I was in London, the next I was high above the clouds and then I found myself on the ground in another country. Bad timing on my part meant that I would be away from home for the entire week, although it all worked out for the best in the end. I'd arranged a meeting for Tuesday in the Netherlands but had to attend a conference in Germany on Thursday. Logistically, it worked out fine. Late on Tuesday afternoon, work done, I hired a bike to ride from the hotel to Amsterdam Centraal Station where I bought a ticket to Dusseldorf.
Bike 775 – this Batavus ferried me to the Centraal Station
It would have been foolhardy of me to visit Amsterdam and not ride a bike as the Netherlands is THE city for cyclists. Furthermore, hiring the bike cost me just 15 Euros. A taxi there and back would have cost triple the amount.
Wherever I look there are bikes, like here on a canal
Where cycling is concerned, the UK should take note of how things are done in Holland; for a start the cycle lanes are more than just lines drawn with chalk in the road. In the Netherlands the cyclist comes first and the cycle lanes are completely separated from the roads. This is good news for the cyclist who, it has to be said, wins out in any court case with a motorist, a bit like in the UK where, if I crashed into the car in front of me I would be at fault in terms of insurance liability.

Taken from one of Amsterdam's cycle lanes
And think for one minute how fit the Dutch must be; all that cycling around in a city where it's legal to enjoy a spliff with your coffee. Personally, I prefer a millionaire's shortbread or a couple of stem ginger biscuits – each to their own – but it's amazing how the Dutch can stand up, let alone ride bicycles around a busy city without coming a cropper.

Bikes everywhere...
Amsterdam is full of bikes. There are, I am told, 16 million people and 12 million bikes and this fact doesn't go unnoticed. Everywhere I look there are bikes: against the walls, in giant bicycle sheds, they're everywhere and most of them are of the 'sit-up-and-beg' variety and mainly traditional women's frames, which are riden by male and female alike. Batavus is a frequently seen brand. Occasionally I might see somebody on a top-of-the-range mountain bike, but this is rare and the equivalent in motoring terms, of seeing somebody driving, say, a Bugatti Veyron.
On the bike...

And while it is generally safe, much safer than in the UK, to ride a bike in the Netherlands, it is also worth remembering that motorised scooters are allowed to ride in the cycle lanes...not that you'll see many of them, but bear it mind as they whizz around at twice the speed of the bicycles. It's also worth bearing in mind that there are a lot of cyclists in the Netherlands and they're all comin' atcha, meaning there is no room for those who dawdle along or stop or change direction - like yours truly looking for signs to the railway station. Those cycle lanes cover the entire country. On the train yesterday, as I left Arnhem behind and headed for the German border, I noticed how there were still cycle lanes right up until the train crossed into Germany.

Having arrived at Amsterdam's Centraal railway station
I spent a lot of time on the bike as I didn't really have a clue where I was going. I had taken a brief look at a street map of Amsterdam, supplied by my hotel, and I deduced from it that it was a straight road to and from the Centraal Station. What I didn't count on was the fact that there are certain areas of the city where cycling is prohibited AND there are policemen waiting for those who break the rules – not to fine them, but to tell them, in a laid back manner, not to ride in pedestrianised areas. I'd imagine that pedestrians are at the top of the pecking order in the Netherlands, followed by cyclists and then motorists. When I saw a policeman I quickly jumped off the bike and decided to stay off until I found a cycle lane (there are plenty of them). I'm sure that a map exists of all the cycle lanes and where they lead to, but I only possessed a street map...and I'd left that in my hotel room.

I set off during the daylight hours and returned after dark. You could say I enjoyed the ride, even if the weather was a little on the chilly side, although Monday's rain had ceased and the Dutch had a couple of days of decent weather ahead of them.

Parked up and padlocked outside Centraal Station
'Like sucking snot off the back of a tortoise'
So far, so good, you might be thinking – and to a degree you'd be right. On Monday afternoon I had been taken to an oyster bar in Amsterdam and it looked like (and I'm sure it was) a decent establishment. I'm not a great fan of oysters. In fact, I rarely eat them. In my entire life I've only had them a couple of times and on one occasion, the person offering them to me (a publican called Eddie Cheeseman) told me that eating oysters was like (and I quote) 'sucking snot off the back of a tortoise'. He wasn't far wrong, but on this occasion, I thought they were quite tasty – and very meaty. I ate three of them. The oyster restaurant seemed to specialise in selling uncooked food. I'd say 'sushi' but meat was also involved. The oysters were raw and we also had steak tartar...again, I'm not a fan. I like my food to be hot. Cooked in other words, but it would have been rude to object so I gave it all a go and after a couple of small glasses or red wine all seemed well with the world. In fact, all was well with the world.

Looking out from Amsterdam Centraal Station
The following morning (Tuesday) I was up with the lark, enjoying (if that's the word) the rather lame breakfast offering of my Best Western hotel and looking forward to my day of interviewing and meeting various people connected with my line of work. It went well and we, that is my colleague who took me to the oyster bar and I, decided to have lunch in a seafood restaurant by the sea (on the basis that a seafood restaurant on the coast had to be good, right?). It was very pleasant. We both had Dover sole and a beer and then went back to work.

Later, after I had said farewell to my Dutch colleagues, I went on the aforementioned bike ride to pick up my train ticket to Dusseldorf and then I thought I'd have a relatively early night. But first, a visit to an Indonesian restaurant for a late dinner. I had a relatively mild, straightforward chicken dish with vegetable soup at the same restaurant on Monday night and, as you know, I awoke on Tuesday morning feeling rather good and looking forward to my day at work. On Tuesday night, after the bike ride, I went for a longish walk looking for somewhere different to eat but ending up in the same Indonesian restaurant – not a problem. This time I ordered prawns and all was well. I left the restaurant (minus the receipt and had to go back for it) and, when I reached my hotel room, I settled in for that 'relatively early night' which meant I was going to watch a BBC thriller starring James Nesbit called The Missing or Missing. But I felt tired – and found the drama a little slow and boring – so I switched off the television and hit the sack.

"Would sir like to sit on the toilet all night?"
At 0300hrs, however, I was wide awake and feeling a little dodgy in the stomach department. You know how you clock that something is up but don't want to admit it in case you're right? That's how I was feeling. I won't even tell you what happened next, I'll simply leave that to your imagination, but suffice it to say that I was finished the following the day. A lack of sleep and a general weariness made it impossible for me to function properly. It took me an age to pack my suitcase and get myself together enough to check out of the hotel and after I'd managed that I simply sat in one of the bright orange seats near the front desk and tried to sleep (I had about an hour before I had to get my act together and call a cab to take me to the Centraal station). When it was time to go I was feeling a tiny bit better, it has to be said. There was no risk, for instance, of making an exhibition of myself in public (not that it's possible to make an exhibition of oneself in private). I ordered a cab and reached the station with 10 minutes to spare, jumped on the train, found a seat and then spent the journey staring out of the window in a state of unmedicated weariness while fending off the attentions of a toddler who kept calling me 'dad' and offering me the biscuits she had dropped on the floor. Had I been feeling a little brighter I might have sung that Kid Creole number, "Annie, I'm not your daddy!", but I wasn't feeling bright at all.

When I reached Dusseldorf I had a short walk to the fantastic Leonardo Hotel on Ludwig Erhard Allee and the welcoming face of receptionist Natalie Williams. After checking in, I went straight to my room – it was about 1530hrs – and slept through to 2222hrs (that's what it said on my iphone when I regained consciousness, I'm not trying to brag about my 'preciseness'). I had consumed nothing all day other than a half litre of mineral water purchased from a vending machine opposite the front desk of the Amsterdam hotel.

In a weary state I lay in bed watching BBC World and listening to how US president Obama faces a rocky couple years having been trounced by the Republicans in the mid-term elections; there was stuff about Ebola and an interview with Zimbabwe's minister of tourism (Hardtalk) who discussed building some kind of theme park and casino at a time when the country simply doesn't need one. Is he crazy or what? Mugabe is in his early nineties (91) but there are rumours that his family wants to retain power after his demise.

I wandered downstairs to buy a bottle of mineral water and to ask if there were any snacks available; the answer on the latter was no, but there were free, shiny and very green Granny Smiths in a bowl so I had one of those and returned to my room where I fell asleep and didn't wake up until 0730hrs – feeling good. Thursday morning and I felt absolutely fine. Fine enough to eat a decent breakfast followed by lunch and now I'm considering dinner. Hmmm, perhaps some raw seafood and uncooked meat!

This morning, when I reached the conference, my colleague who had enjoyed the oysters with me on Monday afternoon, told me that he too had experienced what I have already detailed above. This means that it might have been our lunch by the sea OR those oysters. The consensus of opinion was the former. Another colleague of mine related a tale of how he enjoyed a few oysters earlier in the year in Paris and they came back to haunt him two days later. And there was me blaming the Indonesian restaurant (which was clearly innocent). It was either the oysters or the Dover sole, but let's remember this: the Dover sole was cooked, the oysters were uncooked...or perhaps it was the steak tartar – think minced beef, uncooked – very dangerous. I mean, let's be honest. Would you go to your local butcher, buy a half pound of mince and start eating it raw on your way home? Well, that's what steak tartar is all about. Add a few raw onions from the greengrocer and Bob's your toilet attendant!

And now there's nothing much else to say. I will certainly be avoiding seafood, especially oysters and, indeed, anything that isn't cooked. Who in their right mind eats food that is uncooked, unless it's something like fresh fruit and vegetables? Only wild animals don't cook their meat. Having said that, I'm rather partial to a bit of raw cauliflower and only the other week I was munching away on some raw cabbage while cooking the Sunday roast, but no more raw food, however trendy it's supposed to be. There's nothing trendy about sitting on the throne at 0300hrs trying not to be sick.

Techno confusion and general frustration...
That's the food poisoning dealt with, as for the 'techno confusion' and the 'general frustration' one neatly links into the other: despite keying in my password and user name correctly, I couldn't access my work email account this evening; that's one frustration; then the WiFi in my hotel room didn't work (I'm downstairs writing this on the hotel 'business centre' computer) and, if I'm honest, I'm getting a little fed up with my general slapstick behaviour. I put on a pair of glasses, I look down at a book, the glasses fall off – once they fell off and dropped into a bowl of soup in a restaurant. And how about this: I'm sitting in a conference hall, I take out my glasses case and immediately can't find it. Where the hell has it gone, I fume inwardly, not wanting to let others know of my frustration. I eventually find them wedged underneath the seat next to me where they must have quietly fallen after I'd allowed them to rest on the cushion. And then there's simultaneous translation. I hate it! Why can't everybody speak the international language – English? I feel really guilty about not speaking another language. I wish I'd learned French or German, but then again my secondary modern 1970s education stipulated that I was too thick to learn a foreign language. Not that they'd in any way tested me. "Secondary Modern Schools are Designed to Produce Failures." Discuss.

Something else that bugged me on this trip in particular was my constant inclination, when leaving the hotel room in Dusseldorf (Room 501) to turn left instead of right. The correct way to the elevators was to turn right, not left, but every time I left the room, deep in thought about something or other, I turned left and then, realising my mistake, adjusted my direction accordingly and headed for the elevator vestibule. Is that the right word? Vestibule? I only got it right when I vacated the room for the last time, which was doubly frustrating because I knew I wouldn't have the pleasure of getting it right again.

Fortunately, I missed out on one big frustration: Germany's train drivers were on strike today so it was lucky that I travelled to Dusseldorf yesterday, even if I was completely out of it. We'll leave it there, but let this post be a lesson to all who read it: don't eat raw fish or meat, it ain't big and it ain't clever and its definitely not trendy.

Sunday, 2 November 2014

To the Tatsfield Churchyard...

Saturday 1st November proved to be a relatively uneventful day for our cycling. We rode to the Tatsfield Churchyard, which was far enough for both of us. Andy broke out the Belvita biscuits, I poured the tea and then, after a brief period of relaxation – during which time it rained but we remained seated at our bench as it wasn't at all bad (and it was very warm) – we jumped back on the bikes and headed for home following the usual route. Andy branched off halfway along the 269 and I carried on home.
Matt and Andy at the Tatsfield Churchyard

While we both vowed to ride to Westerham today (Sunday 2nd November) it never happened. Andy aborted due to a lack of sleep and when I awoke (earlier than anticipated around 0400hrs) I was greeted by the sound of the wind outside. The wind was soon joined by the rain and it didn't really stop. In fact, it's raining now (at 1647hrs). So the chances are that we would have aborted anyway.

Missing a ride is bad news and whenever it happens and I don't get my fix of fresh air and exercise I feel decidedly downbeat all day. Restless is the word I'm looking for; restless and dissatisfied. But when the weather's poor there's little to be done other than sit around watching television programmes like Escape to the Country and Len Goodman talking to Ainsley Harriott in Blackpool...not forgetting Points of View and, on ITV, Downtown Abbey, which I'm missing (fortunately) because I'm upstairs, in the bedroom, writing this post.

But rainy days are really good days because it's a time when things can be very cosy – lamps on, curtains drawn, wind blowing outside, the sound of rain hitting the windows and the promise of a hot meal as darkness sets in. To be honest, I could do with more days like this instead of rushing around here and there and not taking things easy.

North Downs Cycles
One thing I almost forgot to mention was the new bike shop that has opened on the 269 opposite Warlingham Sainsbury's. I popped in there on Saturday morning as I rode back towards Warlingham Green and found the guy I've met once or twice on the green while waiting for Andy to arrive – the guy I once described as 'the gung-ho cyclist'. It's his shop! The stock is a little on the expensive side. Who, for instance, would spend £4,000 on a mountain bike? You'd need to be a real pro, but I guess it's the real pro they're aiming at – the sort of mountain biker that wears Lycra, perhaps. The bikes in North Downs Cycles put my old Kona to shame as they sport carbon fibre frames (ultra light) and they really look the business. However, if I had four grand to splash out on a mountain bike, I'd probably buy a secondhand Harley Davidson Sportster, although, in reality, I probably wouldn't as the grand sum of £4,000 would come in very handy at the moment for much more mundane reasons, like paying back a debt, and besides, I haven't passed my bike test and I think motorcycles are dangerous. A few years ago I went through a phase of wanting a motorcycle, but I'm over it now, thankfully.

Hopefully next week we'll get two rides in.

One year ago...