November 30, 2013

After yesterday’s pity party (mental note to self: do not blog when feeling sorry for yourself) I woke up this morning feeling less than ready for much of anything today. It was cold, I wasn’t well, and I was supposed to be helping lead a bike ride I’d done almost nothing to promote due to the whole candle-at-both-ends, gadding-about thing, which meant probably nobody would turn up. Even the fact that it was a sparkly frosty morning didn’t really help – didn’t the weather Gods know that I was ILL?

Fortunately, as the ride was going practically past my door, my fellow ride leader was happy to meet the group at the start and let me join the ride en route. Having had no text indicating a complete no-show, I set off slowly towards the rendezvous point, still thinking that this was probably a silly thing to be doing with a cold.

autumn sunshine on trees

Regular readers of this blog will probably guess what happened next. The sun was slanting across the hills and giving everything it touched a hyper-real air, like autumn had been turned all the way up to 11. There was even some faint warmth in the sun on my face. I was reminded that I live in a gorgeous part of the world and here I was out on my bike, taking advantage of it

road ahead

Not only that, but seven people had showed up for the ride, including two octogenarians – one of whom proceeded to set a cracking pace (there was a cafe stop and a bacon roll waiting for him and he wasn’t going to let anyone slow him down). There’s nothing like being dropped by an 84-year-old to give you a sense of perspective.

Clearly the main thing that was wrong with me last week was not enough cycling… I shall have to rectify that from now on.

approaching cyclists

Extinguishing the Candle at One End

November 29, 2013

As alert readers may have noticed, I’ve been a bit busy recently. Not just all the gadding about of the last few weeks, but at some point in the preceding months I have managed to go from doing occasional welcome freelance jobs to being somehow employed more or less full time. Adding in all the various cycling stuff I do – and my writing, which is technically supposed to be my day job – then I was left with very little time to do all the things we moved up here in order to be able to do.

So I have decided, if I can, to rebalance my life a little, at least over December. My resolve has been strengthened by the fact that I’ve come back from That London and its plentiful and germ-filled public transport with some sort of lurgy (having compounded my error by staying in a house with school-age children – I’m surprised that the other half didn’t institute some sort of a quarantine arrangement on my return). Occasionally you have to listen to what your body is telling you, even if it is doing so through the medium of pain and snot. I still have a few more commitments to get through (like running a pop-up bookshop today, as you do, and oh look I’ve got something on every evening next week) but then I’m going to be strict about clearing the decks and concentrating on what really matters. Like blogging.

So stand by for more updates about the important stuff in life. Like getting the garden ready for winter, going for long walks, curling up in front of the fire, and – of course – updating you on the level of the ford.

Brompton to the Rescue! (Again)

November 25, 2013

There are times when travelling with a Brompton does feel like it’s more trouble than it’s worth – such as when you’re in Chester station sprinting* up and down the stairs after your third platform change in 20 minutes, or indeed when you get to the barrier at the shiny new Kings Cross and discover that you can only top up your Oyster card by going down more stairs to the underground station and back up again because obviously integrated transport systems are for wimps with poor upper-body strength.

But I’m still glad I brought it with me this trip because on Friday, after the conversation had somehow turned to cycling (can’t think how that happened), one of my fellow trainees revealed she’d never ridden a bike as where she grew up it was considered not done for women to cycle. Half jokingly, I suggested she have a go on my Brompton. To my surprise and slight trepidation she readily agreed and so on Saturday during a break in our training I found myself teaching an adult to ride a bike – a first for both of us.

Now the Brompton isn’t always the easiest of bikes to ride, being a bit lively (some might say squirrelly) about the steering. But riding a bike is all about balance and my pupil had beautiful posture, which was half the battle. There was a long straight tarmacked driveway with a gentle downhill slope and I stood in front of her and walked backwards as she rode towards me. After one false start she was away and pedalling like a good un and there was only a little screaming, which quickly went from fear to delight. By the time she had got to the bottom of the drive and back up she was ready to buy her own bike and accompany her daughters on their rides in the park. In fact, once our lesson was over, I had a bit of a job to get her to let go of the Brompton at all…

So, although I now have a terrible case of Brompton shoulder from all yesterday’s lugging about – and undoubtedly a fresh set of Brompton bruises on my leg – I wouldn’t have left it behind for the world. There’s nothing, but nothing, like seeing someone experience the freedom of cycling for the first time to remind you that all the pain and angst and aggro of cycle campaigning is worth it because riding a bike itself is nothing but delight. Now all we have to do is create the conditions so she can ride her new bike on our roads, as well as round the park.

* and by ‘sprinting’ obviously I mean staggering up the stairs with it resting on one thigh.

More Gadding

November 22, 2013

So I’m in Chester – well, outside Chester – on a campaigning workshop all weekend. The place is about 5 miles from the station (in a gorgeous spot – who knew Chester was so lovely? I mean, apart from everyone but me, of course…). Taxis from the station were on offer but I had a better idea – why else do I have a Brompton after all? After my adventures in Glasgow I did some thorough research of my route (and took some local advice) and found that there was a rather nice greenway that ran almost from the station to almost where I was going. Armed with my GPS, a printed out map, and turn by turn directions, and having viewed all the potentially scary bits on Google StreetView to make sure there weren’t any unexpected motorway junctions, I came out of the station with my Brompton ready for almost anything.

The first thing I did, obviously, was get lost. Nobody had thought to signpost anything as unimportant as a bike route from the station, and there was a diversion as well. But that was fine – I was expecting to get lost and I had allowed plenty of time. My GPS was hopeless – I don’t know where it thought I was but it wasn’t anywhere I recognised from the street names – but my printed out map was enough to get me onto the green way which was wide and tarmacked and deserted (and unlit – I’ll be getting a taxi back on Sunday evening, I’m afraid). It ran straight the way I wanted to go, under several scary looking roads, and I was feeling pretty pleased with myself as I sailed along in the autumn sunshine.

And then I got to the flood sign, and the flood. A proper flood, right across the road, pouring out from some drain, with a smell that suggested it wasn’t just rain water that was involved. Naturally, they hadn’t thought to warn anyone at one of the exits to the path so that we could take a diversion – and besides, I think that would have meant sprinting across a motorway – so the only way on was through it. The woman in wellies walking her dog looked a little dubiously at my Brompton ‘I’ve seen cyclists go through it, but your wheels are rather low to the ground,’ she said. She wished me luck and on I ploughed, wishing I’d thought to pack wellies, or even a spare pair of shoes. The waters reached well above the bottom of my pedal stroke, but I managed with a sort of alternating foot pedal stroke to keep my shoes out of the worst of it, regretting my decision to go all ‘cycle chic’ and wear my long grey coat. I sailed out the other side more or less unscathed, if a little whiffy, and was startled to meet a guy on a racing bike – sans mudguards – coming the other way. Clearly they’re made of stern stuff in Chester. And then I went back to pedalling in the autumn sunshine, admiring the glorious countryside, and trying to ignore the faint smell of sewage coming from my bike

So there you go. Cycling infrastructure, UK style – often beautiful, occasionally extremely convenient, just make sure you wear your wellies…

Oh, and I got to the venue to find I was the first one there. Terrible traffic, apparently…

One Man and His Car

November 21, 2013

Riding into Bigtown this morning I encountered a bit of sheepherding, modern style – one (ordinary saloon) car driving along in front with its hazards on, a flock of sheep, and one driving along behind to make sure there were no stragglers. I suppose there’s no actual reason why one should herd sheep from a quad bike with a dog – or even from a 4×4, except that it just looks a bit more authentically agricultural that way (although I did notice that both drivers were at least wearing their tweed caps). And if you’re on a normal car it’s probably a lot warmer and more comfortable than a quad bike and cheaper to run than a Land Rover.

But it did seem a little strange that these sheep were being herded from next to the field where sheepdog school regularly runs – and indeed, as I cycled back before lunch, there were all the trainee sheepdogs bouncing up and down waiting for their turn to chase the remaining sheep in circles round the field. You do wonder what the point is of all that training if you can move the sheep around just as easily with a couple of Ford Focuses fore and aft. And you’d think the dogs would relish the chance to actually try their stuff on the road doing an actual real job moving sheep from one field to another.

But then again, being trainees, perhaps they’re not up to being out there with the traffic? At what level do you allow the dogs out on the road? Sheepability 2?

Slick and Tyred

November 19, 2013

So the unexpected downside of having amazing spiked winter tyres for your bike is the amount of emotional energy that goes into deciding when to actually deploy them. The easiest thing would probably be just to put them on the bike in November and keep them on there until the end of March but they are quite heavy and also quite expensive and riding them solidly for five months would wear them out too quickly. On the other hand, swapping the wheels around is not an entirely straightforward process, especially with the dynamo, and is much better done by the other half, for reasons we’ve discussed exhaustively already, so a bit of forward planning is required.

This morning, despite all the dire forecasts, things weren’t looking too bad by the time I ventured out on the bike. Fortunately (or unfortunately) one of the worst spots for ice on our road is the bit just outside our gate so I can usually decide whether or not to risk the ice spikeless by standing on the road and doing the little ‘how slippy is it?’ dance.* Today the verdict was that it was just about doable, with care and so it proved – although I had forgotten just how paranoid-making it is to cycle on a patchily icy road on normal tyres. This meant I spent most of the ride down mentally debating whether I should have just swapped the tyres myself or whether I should get the other half to swap the tyres tonight or whether I should stick it out until the weekend and if so how long before I’d have to take them off again, and the rest looking out for icy patches, leaving no mental cycles for my usual cycling activities of admiring the view, arguing in my head with people who have been wrong on the internet (I always win when I’m on my bike) and thinking deep thoughts.

Which is how I managed to look up and suddenly discover a kestrel flying straight at me, being chased by a raven. Both birds veered off before I had to take evasive action, which given the conditions was probably fortunate. I assume had it been a tractor heading straight for me instead I would have noticed sooner, but I can’t be 100% sure…

Maybe I’ll just put those tyres on and have done with it after all.

*you sort of twist your feet around from side to side along the lines of the dance scene from Pulp Fiction. Best done when no passing dog walkers, farmers or neighbours are watching

Winter Approacheth

November 18, 2013

trees and mist

The forecast this morning was full of doom and gloom and frost and snow and ice and lions and tigers and bears (oh my). Otherwise known as ‘winter’.

morning mist

But not quite yet, and today it was still all mellow fruitfulness as autumn lingered like the morning mist.

autumn colour

Time to get the ice tyres on the bike soon …

spider web

I’m on the Road to … Aieeeeee!

November 16, 2013

Being part two of my cycling adventures in Glasgow

Having got to outer Glasgow on Thursday night in the dark along who knows what roads while following Magnatom, yesterday’s cycling challenge seemed a lot easier: get myself to Bishopbriggs and from there back to Glasgow Central station, all in daylight in time to catch my train. It’s generally easier to find a route to a city centre because that’s generally where all the roads go, and so it was in this case as once I’d got to Bishopbriggs, all I had to do was follow the big yellow road on the map and it would take me more or less straight there. Easy peasy. Even I could do that. Even when the big yellow road got bigger and faster and turned into a dual carriageway and stopped having pavements and started having slip roads instead of junctions with traffic lights. After all (as someone was reminding me at the Cycling Scotland Conference last week) I had a perfect right to be there on my bike in among the big buses and cars, and had some spoiler put a wussy cycle track alongside it the traffic would all be beeping at me to get onto it, instead of, as they were now, beeping at me in joyful recognition of my rightful presence amongst them in the brotherhood of the open road.* So I persisted, having anyway little option as there was nowhere else but the road to go, until I looked up and saw the sign that was helpfully informing me that now would be a good time to pull out across two lanes of traffic into the third lane if I wasn’t planning on joining the M8. At that point, spotting a bus stop and (glory be) a shared-use pavement sign miraculously appeared alongside me, I bailed out and decided to find an option that was less likely to kill me.

Once on the pavement, I even saw a tiny blue sign directing me to the city centre. Praising the far-sighted Glasgow city fathers for providing me with just such a piece of cycling provision when I needed it most, I followed it up and over a bridge, tempering my praise a teeny bit as I passed through not one but four chicanes, tempering it further as the ‘bike route’ suddenly developed steps, and settling for roundly cursing them as I found myself entering an underpass so choked with leaves and mud that someone (I’m guessing not the city fathers) had built a neat set of stepping stones out of broken paving slabs to cross it. After that, I discovered, I was on my own, surrounded on all sides (not to mention above and below) by slip roads and motorways and A-roads and who knows what other classes of road, all roaring busily with traffic. At points I could see a network of footpaths that seemed to wind through this tangled mess of motorway knitting but I was pretty sure that even if I could find my way onto them, the chance of actually following them where I wanted to go as opposed to, say, back at the muddy underpass for the seventeenth time, was effectively nil. So I wheeled my bike across pedestrian crossing after pedestrian crossing until I had left the motorway junction behind and I was back on a road that had gone from utterly terrifying to just averagely scary and got back on and went on my way. I even made it to the station on time, which as I’d allowed myself two hours to ride about 3 miles wasn’t all that surprising.

Suddenly, the reason why otherwise sane Glasgow cyclists seem so keen to use roads that most people on bikes would consider actively hostile was a lot clearer – when you’ve a choice between being killed, and spending the rest of eternity roaming a shared use path on a moebius strip encircling a motorway junction, merely being crushed to death begins to look the kinder option. Now I realise that there is undoubtedly a perfectly pleasant route between Bishopbriggs and Glasgow city centre which you’re all going to tell me about in the comments, but the fact is, unless it’s properly signposted and obvious from the main road and doesn’t lead you into an underpass and leave you there to die, then it might as well not exist. And while not everyone is as spatially challenged as I am, that means more than one tiny blue sign, people.

There’s lots of expensive things that Glasgow could – and should – do to sort out its city scape (and getting rid of its urban motorways and turning them into linear parks would be a fantastic start in my opinion). There are also some slightly less expensive things it could do now, like signpost the routes it does have, for instance, and properly drain its underpasses for another instance. And until it does either of those things, I shall stick to my tried and tested system of appealing on the internet for native guides for all bike-borne travel that doesn’t involve going from one bit of the Clyde to another in daylight…


I’m on the Bridge to Nowhere

November 15, 2013

I’m back from a flying visit overnight visit to Glasgow where I was up mostly causing cyclist-related trouble one way or another. When I was growing up it was a city that seemed to consist entirely of motorways and knife gangs; having set such a low bar it always manages to pleasantly surprise me when I do actually visit and find it’s actually a rather handsome city full of shops, friendly loudmouths, knife gangs and motorways. And the odd cyclist, too.

My task yesterday was to get myself to Siempre Bicycle Cafe for a social meet up involving some of the aforementioned odd cyclists. Now, regular readers of this blog will know that my navigational skills are up there with my bike maintenance skills and my main tactic cycling in most unfamiliar cities is to get myself down to the riverfront, turn left or right as necessary, and hope for the best. This works perfectly well in Glasgow in the daytime (obviously going north or south is a bit tricky) but the Clyde waterfront didn’t really appeal after dark, what with the knife gangs and everything, while the non-river-based directions helpfully sent me by local cyclists were full of scary instructions like ‘the only tricky bit is crossing the motorway, you just have to make sure you get over to the right hand lane and you’ll be fine’). Trying to do that while keeping the right page of the A to Z open was going to be difficult so I was relieved when a kind soul (you should all totally book yourselves on one of his Tartan Rides, by the way) offered to swing by Glasgow Central on his way so we could ride together.

As a bonus, we got to go over Glasgow’s newest piece of cycling-and-walking infrastructure, the Bridge to Nowhere which has recently become the Bridge to Somewhere, or at least the Bridge-that-doesn’t-end-in-a-sheer-20-foot-drop-onto-a-motorway, which I think we can all agree is an improvement. In fact, even on my own I might have managed to find the bridge itself as there is a segregated cycle lane that runs pretty much directly to it from the station which would be almost Dutch if it wasn’t for the fact that the designers appear to have been under the impression that the Dutch cycle design guidelines measure everything in feet instead of metres. It even has its own traffic lights keeping bikes separate from turning traffic, although they do this by waiting until hell freezes over before giving the bikes a green light, rather than (gasp) giving bikes an actual head start over the cars.

The bridge itself is pretty fab though – especially the part where you cycle over all the gridlocked cars on the motorway and laugh because they’re stuck and you’re not and it’s only raining a little bit. And while it’s a little steep on the way down – just at the part where you cross a footpath and risk sending any unlucky pedestrians sprawling – the council have considered that and have spread a nice thick layer of slippery leaves all over the bottom of the ramp so you have to slow down anyway (bet the Dutch never thought of that, eh? No wonder our cycling infrastructure is the envy of the world…). And after that it was back to the cratered streets of Glasgow, dodging buses, cars, vans, drunks and all the other hazards that a city can throw at you.

Still, we survived, and spent a pleasant evening discussing how things could be better (washed down with some well-earned hot chocolate – you know you’re in good hands when your hot drink comes with a little cube of tablet on the saucer instead of a biscuit), and then I got another guided ride north to the outskirts of Glasgow in the dark, while lunatics in cars (and one lunatic dog) attempted to scare the life out of me. If you’re into adrenaline-fuelled white-knuckle rides, I can highly recommend the Greater Glasgow area and a bike. That left today’s trip in which your heroine attempted to get herself from Bishopbriggs to Glasgow Central on a bike and live to tell the tale (spoiler alert: I made it), but that must be a story for another day…

Closing In

November 13, 2013

At some point last week I imperceptibly made the move from working on the other half’s super duper two-screen computer, to squinching everything back onto my suddenly very small laptop screen. The reason being that the super duper computer is in the other half’s study while my laptop can be moved into the kitchen and hence close proximity to the Rayburn. Meanwhile, even when it’s not raining, the attractiveness of going outside – or even into the sitting room before an advance party has been sent to light the stove – is steadily diminishing. In short, the circumference of my daily round is contracting to its winter dimensions and while it’s quite pleasant now to lean my back against the Rayburn and watch the wind blow every leaf in Bigtownshire past our kitchen window, I know that come February it will feel as if I have been sitting in the kitchen for my entire life.

So I’m fortunate that I do still have to pedal off to fetch the paper every morning. Not just yesterday – when the sun had just risen over the hill as I set off, and bathed everything in a gorgeous slanting light – but even on days like today when it was a slog into the wind under a grey sky. Sometimes it’s a bit of a wrench to drag myself out, but I never regret it once I’m gone. Even the wretchedly wet rides, while not pleasant in themselves, are becoming something of a necessity (and almost bearable if I’ve had the foresight to pile a warm dry change of clothes on the Rayburn for my return). If I didn’t get out all day, somewhere, anywhere, I’d soon be climbing the walls.

The other half, wrestling impatiently with the Guardian this morning, muttered something about getting an iPad instead. I reacted with horror. Sure I could go out for a daily hour-long bike ride whether I was getting the paper or not, but really, what are the chances of that happening all winter long? I thought when we moved here that an 11-mile round trip to fetch a paper was a bit of a chore and a daft endeavour. Little did I realise how dependent on it I would become…