Sunday, December 29, 2013

Spam, egg, sausage & spam

With a name such as the SPAM Winter Challenge, I could hardly miss this for the obvious Python connection.

Now that that's out of the way, I may continue with a brief summary of what was clearly the last bike event of 2013 for me (I've managed seven this year, significantly more than any other year since I left NZ). Just over an hour's drive north up on Salisbury Plain, a few of the Combe Raiders were coming across from Somerset for this event that tries to deal with the Christmas excesses. With all the storms & rain that we've had over the last week, it was just as well this was supposed to be a course that deals with all sorts of weather well.

It's been a very mild winter so far, so it was with some surprise that I had to scrape a frost off my car as I set off this morning. This did mean that it was a wonderfully clear day - ideal for a ride. Driving up the A360 it was clear that the event was in the middle of the largest MOD training area in the country - there were signs for tanks crossing & signs warning of unexploded ordnance frequently. Unusually, the race briefing warned us to ensure we didn't ride into any tanks or stray off the trail and do a commendable impression of jumping high into the sky & scattering in thousands of pieces. Eventually the others made it from Somerset - some not quite in the knick of time for the 10 am start.

The first quarter of the fifty kilometre circuit was definitely the best. I really should learn to get a reasonable position mid-field at the start of such events - battling through a surprisingly large field up a long & slow climb is tedious. After that climb there were a few dives down off the ridge & back up again - mostly on rough muddy doubletrack through fields, with a bit of singletrack. The mud was pretty gloopy & horrendous for sticking to everything, but not too difficult to ride through (it did end up taking over an hour to clean my bike properly once home). We then found ourselves on the road for about twenty kilometres as we rode through the army land - boring, but preferable to being blown sky-high. It was a perfect day for riding: extensive views over the beautiful Wiltshire countryside, still, and not too hot or cold (about 5 ÂșC).

The strangest part of the day was riding through the middle of a fake-village.  There were dozens of house-shells - they seem to have walls, roofs, floors, fences and little else.  Clearly these are used for urban warfare training. The only real thing in the village was the church, which had parishioners walking to it; there were a lot of people around.  [A little research shows that this was the village of Imber - it was evacuated in 1943 for the war effort & the villagers have never been allowed to return as the MOD continues to use the land - a lot like Tyneham which I happened across during another biking weekend in May.  The church is no longer in use, but the roads that we were riding along are open occasionally so the public can have a look around.]

As this was the last event of a year of much biking, I was pretty keen to see how quickly I could get around the course.  So I only stopped for forty seconds on the whole ride to get some food out of my pack; also, this meant I didn't even carry my camera - so I only have my memory of how splendid the countryside was.  After passing plenty of birdwatchers, derelict tanks, garrisons & barracks we finally got off the road. More short steep ups & downs later we were back along the ridge looking north for a while - I'm a little disturbed at my ability to recognise a cement works from a long distance.  I shouldn't have been as surprised as I was to ride past a huge hole in the ground shortly after - the limestone had to come from somewhere after all.

We rejoined the two shorter courses for a while before diving off the ridge for one last really steep nasty climb.  With a nice bit of singletrack in some woods, the car park & therefore finish line was tantalisingly close for much too long.  But it was worth getting to the finish line for the cake alone - a local hospice was fundraising and there was a plethora of cakes on offer, there was so much choice it was overwhelming.  So not the most interesting course, but a great day out on the bike to end a pretty big year of riding for me - & a good chance to catch up with mates too.  I was happy with finishing in 2:40, without really pushing myself just not stopping for chats, photos or much food.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

2013 - a lot more biking than the previous year

After reading last year's Christmas letter, I can see just how different 2013 has ended up being.  The main driver for that is that my shoulder is completely normal after last year's surgery & rehab (so much so that when people occasionally ask after it, I'm always slightly taken aback).  That has meant that excessive travelling fell by the wayside as I spent much time biking.  Before much biking, there was last winter to get through - I escaped to Egypt for sun at Christmas last; Christmas morning at the pyramids was certainly unusual. A country still in a state of upheaval & flux, it was a fascinating trip.

I moved into a new role at work about a year ago, which meant quite a few months of learning plenty while still trying to tidy up things in my previous position.  Along with my car comprehensively failing its annual inspection & many problems with the replacement, what turned out to be some of the best concentrated biking I've had was a welcome change.

After a couple of days having a look around Chicago, I met Megan, Alex & their son, Finn, in Utah.  We went to mountain-bike mecca Moab and did little except camp, ride bikes (a lot) and eat. As on my last visit, the scenery was stunning and the riding exceptional. STOP PRESS - Megan has just made a rather fun video that makes me yearn for sun, rocky trails, & great riding - much more interesting than me prattling on about Moab.

Biking Moab 2013 from Megan Dunn on Vimeo.

The summer was bookended by two big trips biking - Moab being the first.  That meant that I travelled very little during the summer - but that worked out well as we actually had a cracking summer of weather in the UK & the riding was plentiful.  Preparing for a three-day stage race in September I entered a number of longer-distance events around the south-west UK & Wales.  This being about the only photo of I have me "racing" - on a strangely scorching Shropshire day:

The other bookend event for the summer was the three-day Rift Valley Odyssey in Kenya.  Partly an excuse to get back to Africa & visit Adrian and partly a nice big riding adventure to train for & achieve, I was pleased to return to Africa - it's a fascinating place after all.  The summer of preparation did me well & the only real difficulty in the 5500 metres of climbing over three days and 260 kilometres was a bit of digestive trouble at the top of a huge, hot & humid climb halfway through Day Two - not sure if it was the heat, too much food or the anti-malarial tablets; anyway, I survived the remainder of the day on next to no food and recovered enough that the last day (eighty-odd kilometres) was easy.

I was too busy riding to get many photos, but I quite like these two taken while riding along:

The second week of the trip was spent in Tanzania with Adrian, Carmen & their two children.  As they'd only just moved there, it was a relaxed week as they settled in a bit more and I recovered from the big bike ride.  Adrian & I did grab the chance for an overnight trip to a relatively close national park - there were many more elephants around than I saw on my last safari four years ago; an excellent end to another fantastic trip visiting Adrian & Carm.

Many months before, it seemed a good idea to book a trip to New England in the fall - after a particularly busy return to work, it wasn't seeming so smart.  Nonetheless, I was pretty sure that I'd enjoy a short road trip around the north-east of North America.  With little biking, beautiful autumnal colours, nice cities (Montreal & Boston particular favourites) and absolutely fabulous food it turned out to be a very relaxing trip which was well worth it.  Although the photos don't really compare to Utah and Africa - here's one of Ottawa:

Shortly after my return from Canada, all medium-term plans got thrown to the wind as it was revealed that the plant where I work would close next year.  It was a sudden, but not altogether surprising announcement; things are becoming clearer now & I'm looking forward to a 2014 that will be very different to what I was expecting.  As far as I can tell, I'll have work for about half the year - during which I will frantically save & prepare for extensive time biking in places yet to be decided.  Mum, & probably Adele, plan on visiting for a cousin's wedding in May - so I'm well looking forward to that.

Merry Christmas & may the new year be a great one for you.

Monday, December 16, 2013

Christmas Rides

It's been a bit quiet on here recently - mainly because me riding pretty much every day for the last four weeks is not all that interesting for anyone but me (& the odd other bike nut).  I've upgraded the wheels on my Surly Ogre to Stans Arch rims & tyres to Nobby Nics - it's a marked improvement in weight, grip, reassurance, acceleration, rolling resistance &, most of all, fun.  The following week there was a rather chilly night spent bikepacking out in the New Forest just north of Burley somewhere.

Then Christmas ride season began - first up with the biggest group of Combe Raiders I've ever seen:

This on the strangely misty Quantocks - & quite damp under wheel as well. Dave got stuck on a stick:

Much to my surprise, I won the hill climb (by getting the furtherest up a rather steep & technical ascent) - I was well pleased with my giant certificate (that's a large & very good paperback on the left).

After not really earning it from a less than twenty kilometre ride, it was off to a nearby pub for the award ceremony & an awful lot of food.  Great time had by all - although I had to go for a harder ride the following day to get the most out of my two hundred mile round-trip.

This weekend past I managed two more Christmas rides - and associated meals of course.  The Vindaloo group of the local MTB club (which I ride with if I'm around every second Sunday - so hardly ever over the past two years) had their Christmas ride & curry planned very local to me on Friday night.  The bikes decorated with Christmas lights and wrapping paper and the costumes made the whole thing seem a lot more festive than the Combe Raiders event.  It was only a short local ride, but it was a nice warm, dry evening & there was plenty of good food.

For some reason I thought it a good idea to ride my single speed twenty-odd kilometres to the Christmas ride & dinner for the whole club - this after seeing a rather dismal looking weather forecast.  Anyway, it rained pretty much all day - but it wasn't cold.  Annoyingly, my front brakes failed about thirty kilometres in - so I rode most of the day with rear brakes of dubious usefulness (just as well the Forest is almost entirely flat).  Somewhere out near Burley & Picket Post our fearless leaders started to get a little vague in our route - just as we got out of the trees onto the heathland in the driving rain.  Oh well - we made it back to the pub eventually for another huge meal.  It probably was just as well I had to ride all the way home - wasn't really intending to do close on eighty singlespeed kilometres for the day, but I survived & really quite enjoyed it.