A birthday surprise – perfect weather on Exmoor in September

For my birthday I gave myself the gift of zero responsibilities. This was mostly a gift from my wife who took care of business for the day while I skived off and went cycling. It wasn’t very “bikevcar”, but I decided to drive down to Exmoor for a long afternoon of cycling.

Glorious Exmoor

Glorious Exmoor

My previous cycling trips to Exmoor have been ‘sportives’, i.e. organised, mass-participation events. Today’s ride was the antithesis of a sportive – no early start because I do not like waking up early at the weekend, no other people because how can you enjoy the peaceful beauty of a national park when you’re surrounded by other cyclists, and no restrictions on my distance or route which was ideal as I hate being told what to do. It was perfect.

I parked the car at a place called Watchet, mostly because the name made me laugh but also because I’d had enough of driving. And then got on my bike and climbed straight up into the moors. The roads around Exmoor can be bonkers-steep – a 20% gradient seems fairly standard for these parts. At one point I almost fell off when the road ramped up so suddenly that I was caught with my hands relaxed on the tops of the bars and didn’t have time to switch to the hoods so that I could stand up. Clearly my concentration and bike handling skills still need some work.

Up up and away

Up up and … then round the corner and up some more

There were a few notable climbs that I’d wanted to find (Dunkery Beacon and the Porlock Toll Road) but other than that I had no aim. Just a photocopy of a road map to avoid getting lost and jersey pockets stuffed full of food to keep me going.

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The moors

The moors

In the end I managed 70 miles and around 6,500 feet of climbing. But it was just one of those days that I’ll remember for a long time. Exmoor in September in crisp, beautiful sun. A glorious 5 hours on the bike followed by a pint of ale in a classic English pub garden beside a river. For a man who loves to moan,  it’s fairly epic when I have a day with nothing to moan about!

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The White Horse Inn, Washford – post ride beer in a pub garden beside the river

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Frothy pint of ale – perfect day

Two hours plus

I went out for my longest ride of the year today. Which isn’t really saying much, I think it was only my third ride of 2015. I’d put in a full shift looking after our toddler daughter all of last weekend, so in return I was given exclusive rights to my own Saturday today. It’s sometimes hard to imagine that less than 2 years ago I owned exclusive rights to all of every weekend. No wonder I took up cycling as a hobby – I needed something to fill those long, responsibility-free hours. Unfortunately, these days I’m even less imaginative when given total freedom – the world was my oyster and I chose to go for a long cycle and then do some DIY on the house. Rock n roll!

Following my last post, my rest week turned into a rest fortnight. In my normal non-cycling life I split my time between looking after our daughter and working as a part time builder / carpenter. So a break from cycling doesn’t mean I’m being restful. But one of main goals for 2015 is to try and stay injury-free. It’s not good for childcare, it’s bad for work, it puts a stop to cycling and according to Mrs BikeVCar it turns me into “a right grumplestiltskin”. So if I feel like I need another rest week I’ll take another rest week and hopefully enjoy the long-term benefits.

I was intending to ride 50 miles today. It was a plan I’d made after a couple of Friday night beers. For the last few months my longest rides have been around the 30 mile mark. In the winter this takes me a couple of hours. I find 2 hours to be a personal threshold in cycling – riding over 2 hours requires me to take food, in the summer it means an extra water bottle, and in the winter it’s a level of masochism that I’m not normally interested in. But today I went for it.

After a hearty breakfast I layered up and set off. Within the first hour I’d already reduced my goal to 40 miles. And after an hour and a half, on my way up Cheddar Gorge at a painfully slow speed I seriously considered just heading back home and calling it a day at around 30 miles. Enough with this unnecessary torture.

There were a few big groups of teenage lads on the Gorge with these peculiar downhill trikes that I’d never seen before. The trikes looked pretty cool and were essentially bikes so I considered putting a temporary stop to my suffering and having a chat with my cycling brethren. But then I remembered I’m not young anymore and it would have been plainly embarrassing for everyone if I’d tried to start a conversation. Some old guy in dorktastic head-to-toe lycra trying to mix it with the kids. Just leave it and suffer on, I sensibly decided.

Trike Drifting

Trike Drifting is for cool kids and not people who have to come home and do a Google search for “downhill trike” to find out what it’s called

Once on the top of the Mendips for a second and final time, I surprised myself by turning away from home and committing to an extra hour in the saddle. I rode for nearly 3 hours, covering over 40 miles and returned home frozen and completely worn out. For that final hour my stomach gnawed away at me and my fingers froze through my thick gloves – to the point where the gloves felt like they were soaking and had shrunk. I was wearing my winter cycling boots and the thickest socks so at least my feet survived – but in hindsight these additional nerdly items of clothing were another good reason I didn’t stop on the Gorge.

It feels good to get a decent ride under my belt for the year. But it was also reassuring confirmation that winter rides over 2 hours require a level of dedication that I’m currently not feeling. I’ll be waiting for the temperatures to rise significantly before I increase my ride lengths.

Taking it steady

I am thankfully now healed from my troublesome injury and have been getting out on the bike a couple of times a week. It’s looking a bit like Winter and feeling like it too. But it was only officially confirmed as Winter today when the average speed for my ride ended up below 14mph – the true threshold of Autumn / Winter. I was slow going uphill due to the weight of winter bike, mudguards and many layers of clothing. And slow going downhill due to a cautious approach on the treacherous roads and from trying to lessen the numbing effects of cold winds blasting my bare face. For me this time of year isn’t about speed, it’s about getting out when I have an opportunity to ride. Especially on those cold, crisp, sunny days like today.

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Casting long winter shadows 

When the sun’s hanging this low in the sky, visibility can be quite difficult at times. I make sure to wear colourful clothing, have a decent set of lights and take a good look before making any manoeuvres. It’s also another reason to take it steady in the winter. I rode a 25 mile loop today, mostly along quiet back lanes. This is probably somewhere near the limit of what I want to ride at this time of year. The back lanes were filthy and despite the mudguards my bike seems to be growing a thick, brown, winter coat to keep it warm over the coming months. The signs of good winter use.

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On the quiet roads of the Mendip Hills today

Random riding

I’m not commuting or training at the moment. Previously my cycling has always fallen into one of these two categories; commuting to work, or training for some kind of climbing or time-trialling. I’m still getting out a coupe of times a week, but now for a mix between pleasure and keeping fit. It’s difficult to ride exclusively for pleasure – as with most forms of exercise there needs to be a certain amount of discomfort to make it worthwhile. Fortunately I’m starting to feel fitness levels improving which brings a level of satisfaction and pleasure to cycling.

This morning I headed out to ride a random route along unfamiliar roads. Using the GPS as a digital compass it’s possible to create a new route on the hoof without getting completely lost. I never pre-programme routes on the Garmin – the less interaction I have with complex computer software the better for everyone. I did try once and spent an evening frustratingly asking my “stupid computer” why-wont-it-do-this and why-wont-it-do-that until my wife finally pointed out that maybe it was the operator who was stupid. Using a £350 GPS for a compass and using an expensive laptop purely to write inane blog posts and watch ‘epic fail videos’ on youtube she might have a point.

I was up and out the house early. Despite the weather forecast showing a warm day ahead I felt a nasty bite in the air when I went to fetch the bike from the shed. So I added an extra layer and set off. East.

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First decision – none of these place names took my fancy so I carried straight on

The sky was blue and it seemed to be warming up, just as predicted by the weather forecast. But then I saw a field full of cows laying down. And I thought: who do I trust, the clever computers or the dumb old cows?

Rain coming ...

Rain coming …

The cows were right. It started to rain and I got wet. Then I made a bad decision and ended up riding up a flooded and mucky road.

I got wetter

I got wetter

At some point or other I popped out in the City of Wells. It was still early so I decided to go via the cathedral.

Familiar ground ahead

Familiar ground ahead

A bad picture of Wells Cathedral

Not the brightest street light in the world – just a bad photo

I headed back home over the hills via a little road above Westbury-sub-Mendip. It was no hidden treasure unfortunately – 2 miles of evil steepness with a fair dose of gravel and potholes. But it felt good to reach the top. Typically, the fine weather seemed to break through the clouds just as I neared home.

Home in sight

Home in sight

Despite a few dodgy moments it was a nice to add some spontaneity to the ride and experience some new roads. And to get back home after an hour and a half in the saddle for a well-earned breakfast. Fortunately my wife had completed breakfast duty with the little one and she was patiently reading the paper and waiting.

Little Miss contemplates the tricky Wiggins / Tour de France issue

Little Miss contemplates Team Sky’s tricky Wiggins / Tour de France issue

The small pleasures of a few choice words while riding in unpleasant conditions

I went out for a ride on Saturday in foul weather. Snow is forecast and you can feel it coming with the temperature hovering around zero degrees in the daytime. I set off in the persistent drizzle with no plan other than to climb up the Mendip hills a couple of times mostly just to keep warm. The first climb went ok and I surprised myself at one point by getting out of the saddle to accelerate a little. For the last few months I have only really stood up while climbing in order to transfer the pain to a different part of my legs so it felt good to be riding uphill with just the smallest amount of control over my effort.

On top of the Mendips I was blown all over the roads by the strong gusts and when combined with the drizzle from above and muddy spray from below I was soon ready for another climb to warm me up. On the way down towards Cheddar Gorge a delivery van pulled out in front of me forcing me to hit the brakes. Normally I would have shouted out in frustration (possibly combined with a hand gesture) but on this occasion I was using up all my mental energy to fight the weather so I just let it go.

However, half a mile later I was gifted a golden opportunity for some rare revenge: I saw the van up ahead with the driver getting out and going around the back to fetch a parcel. He then closed the back doors and went to cross the road without looking. Maybe he was listening out for traffic or maybe he walked like he drove. Just as he went to step in front of my line I shouted out “WOAH, WOAH! LOOK WHERE YOU’RE GOING, PAL!” The size of his jump back towards the van combined with the look of terror on his face was priceless. I approached the climb of Cheddar Gorge with a smile on my face.

Due to the recent bad weather the gorge is now closed to traffic making what is normally a busy tourist attraction quite a peaceful and solitary experience. It was almost enjoyable until the headwind hit and my lungs and legs exploded.

At the top I saw a fellow cyclist and we rode together for a few minutes. Communication was limited to shouting to be heard over the wind, both slurring our words due to frozen, rubbery faces. I think we both garbled the same sort of thing about struggling up the gorge and hoping it would all be worth it come the summer. I noticed he had a big, dried smear of saliva down the side of his face and I realised I was probably displaying a frozen bogey or two. Not the most attractive of scenes but I think we both offered some encouragement to each other before sinking back into our private worlds and heading our separate ways home.

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Weekly do-stuffering

This week was a straight flush for the bike with five consecutive days of cycle commuting and no driving. The morning temperature is now getting noticeably colder and the sun is only beginning to rise as I leave for work. This has resulted in the need for pansy clothing like full gloves, long sleeves and overshoes but has also provided some beautiful sunrises out on the quiet country lanes.

The sun rising over a misty Chew Valley this week

On Friday evening we went to the Chew Valley Beer Festival with a few friends. We enjoyed a variety of decent local ales, although there was one memorable thick, black stout which would probably have been more suitable as a lubricant for my lawnmower engine.

Rock & Roll & Beer. Fest.

Following some hungedover festering on Saturday morning I rode to the local bike shop to see if someone could take a look at my skipping chain and also cut down my ugly steering tube. Unfortunately the mechanics were too busy (or they took one look at my mud-encrusted machine and just pretended to be busy) so I bought a new chain and headed home to try and do it myself. The chain was a pain (although at least there was no rain on a plane in Spain to add to my woes). I got the old one off and fitted the new one but this made the problem infinitely worse than before. It would seem that the stretched chain has worn the rear cassette cogs (or something like that according to some quick searching on the internet) so I was forced to take it off and refit the old chain, which I firstly managed to do back-to-front from it’s previous setup resulting in me quickly transforming from Mr BikeVCar to a greasy-handed Grumpelstiltskin. After some effing and jeffing I eventually managed to restore my bike to it’s original shonky condition.

Next on the agenda for my incompetent bike mechanical skills was cutting down the steering tube. This is a completely vain requirement and serves no purpose other than making my crappy bike look slightly less crappy. During my five minutes of internet research I found out that lots of other cycling idiots had cut their steering tubes too short resulting in useless bikes with redundant front forks. Determined not to make this mistake I decided to cut the tube just 10mm initially, this being the length of one large spacer. I also used the spacer as my guide for cutting, rather than trying to achieve a specific measurement from the underside of the stem cap (this seemed a likely cause of other people’s mis-cutting).

Step 1 – remove heavily rusted steel forks / steering bar thingy and mark the cut line with some tape

Cut tube with a little girl’s little hacksaw (men’s hacksaws are available but you have to prove your manliness to the bloke in the local hardware shop to be allowed to buy one)

Stand back and admire the handiwork – all those nasty, burred edges of metal look great. Go and hunt around in your handbag for your nail file to clean it up 

Voila! Finished job (p.s. before ‘Step 1’ don’t forget to knock down the little star-shaped nut inside the tube before you start cutting. I hope nobody is ever stupid enough to try and follow these terrible instructions

I didn’t take any photos of the finished job because it was dark by the time I’d eventually lashed it all back together. But it all worked fine with no injuries, swearing or questionable workmanship which is very unusual for my normal bike butchering.

The naked stem

I’ve been riding my bike almost every day recently. But I’ve been doing so without my Garmin strapped to the stem. Initially this was because I was riding the same route to work and I knew the distance. But also it was because I was getting bored of strava and the need to electronically document every ride. I think in future I will use it purely as a training tool and not every ride. This week I decided to mix things up a little and altered my route via a hill which takes me about 15 minutes to climb. The weather’s been warm and I found satisfaction in watching the sweat dripping off my nose and chin and splattering my bare stem. It feels good to be concentrating on the road, the rotation of the pedals and the gradients of the hills rather than a distracting bunch of numbers.

the chew valley