MTB riders of a certain age will recall the heyday of the Winter Series races in Thetford Forest, and the legendary Dusk 2 Dawn twelve hour night race held in October.
One year, Team Cambridge races under the banner of the Mud Hamsters... let me explain why!
In 2009, just before the race, I happened to find a white hamster running around in the road near my village, so rather than leaving it for the foxes to eat I caught it and gave it to my friend's son to look after.
As is the way with hamsters, "Andrew”, “Hammy”, “Snowy”, “Roadkill”, “Lucky”, “Sumo”, “Sooty” or “It’s not staying!" is now gone to that special place in the flower bed which is the destiny of all domestic rodents, but he remains immortal in the annals of the Spokesman.
It was incidental that one of our star riders at the time was the one and only Andy "Hamster" Hammond, compatriot of the mighty Simon Bowden - hence the name.
The outcome of the race is probably long forgotten (24th team out of 80, to save you bothering), but the laughs we had will hopefully last a lot longer. To recall those happy times, take a browse into the Spokesman's archive.
Not at all coincidentally, Paul Millard, my mate Colin and I took our (by now vintage) and (by now veteran) legs to the forest on my recent birthday, and reminded ourselves that mountain biking is still good fun after all these years. More in due course...
Not quite the last of the summer wine, but there were enough comic elements to invite the comparison! It all started late last year when the affable Nigel Burch, father of the young pup Alex, suggested a weekend trip to somewhere less flat. Despite being a member of the tri-club himself, there was no mention of swimming in an icy reservoir or running across a peat bog wearing only gym knickers and a vest. Just a bit of cycling, and maybe a beer or two.
Sounded like a grand plan, and when he'd organised accommodation at the historic and moderately palatial YHA Hartington Hall for a very modest sum, there was no reason to refuse. Weekend passes were duly obtained, all domestic chores bang up to date and bikes rigorously neglected for the anticipated test of man and machine.
Sadly, Nigel and the pup weren't available able to attend which was sad, since the organisation was as organised as it needed to be and the accommodation spot on in a perfect location. He'd even devised a route for the "big ride" on the Saturday which, if it had been laid out on the flat, would have been a manageable proposition...
As it was, a fine troupe of cyclists pitched up in Hartington on the Friday afternoon: Tony Clarke of the chestnut-tanned knees, Steve Laurie with some very handy local knowledge having been brought up in those parts, Paul Millard the only person to seek tax exile in Wales, Kevin Parker at the tender age of under 50, and your very own SpokesTwit to record the fun.
Having arrived promptly between lunch and teatime, Paul and I hunted for Tony and Steve in a fairly small village - they're not inconspicuous but it took a while to find them among the pubs, tea shops and delicatessen-style village stores. They were ready for a bike ride, so a hasty lunch of a large and dense pork pie was procured and we set off... uphill.
In fact the only way out of Hartington is uphill, but the High Peak Trail railway path is at the top and offers a "get out of jail free" card to anyone used to a flatter topography, although it is surprising just how much a railway track can gain altitude.
Despite having had a broken spoke replaced with a non-matching spare on my skinny road wheels just a few days before (thanks Cambridge Cycle Company!) the gravel surface caused no problems other than some limestone-coloured mud, and even the rough sheep track at the end didn't knock the wheel out of bonk, thankfully.
Tony and I had triple chainsets; seldom used in Cambridgeshire but very handy in these parts. Paul and Kev were forced so suffer with whatever gears they had and Steve just got on with it, his iron legs obviously the result of having ridden these hills as a youngster, apparently on a single-speed to boot!
No need to wonder whether a practically deserted village had a café; round here they are plentiful and this allowed us to reflect on the diminishing likelihood of tackling Nigel's grand route on the morrow before returning to the "Youth" Hostel (I think the re-branding to YHA is no accident) and thence to the pub.
That's not quite the end of the ride though; we took on one ten-mile loop to make up our not very convincing total and got caught in a pretty snappy change in the weather. We legged it for home only getting slightly drenched, unlike the other cyclists who squelched back over the next few hours and the drying-room was a sight (and smell) to behold on the following morning!
And that was only the first afternoon! Look out for the next riveting instalment, cunningly titled Day 2.
We're gearing up for Team Cambridge's annual showpiece, the Ron Edwards Memorial 10 on the F2/D course at Cambourne near Cambridge.
This is a fast course and good for riders who either can't get a place on the E2/10 or don't fancy the traffic. Here we have plenty of parking, an air-conditioned HQ (yes, really) and the famous Team Cambridge hospitality.
What's new this year is the CTT's new online entry system - I've tried it and it really is good. If you haven't entered any event this year then you will need to register from scratch, but once that is done there is a whole load of useful stuff to explore.
Don't worry if you still prefer to sent postal entries - we will accept these. What actually happens is that I enter the details onto the online system instead of you doing it.
We're particularly keen to see women, juniors and tandems entering our event, so sign up!
It's been a while since I cycled up to my in-laws' place in Wroxham, the capital of the Norfolk Broads. Given the quality and generosity of their hospitality, I can't justify travelling there by car otherwise I'd be even larger than I am now!
The route has been refined over the years to avoid the tricky sections where traffic becomes the main consideration; most of the roads are pretty quiet and some are parts of the National Cycle Network.
From home I take the back road route avoiding Haverhill to climb up to Highpoint, passing the prison before losing all that precious height. I used to continue up the A143 to Bury St Edmunds but now I turn off at Wickhambrook to catch the parallel minor road towards Denham.
Bury is a bit of a slowdown but the interesting sights and the opportunity for a comfort stop are worth the delay, before the less welcome slog up the A143 through Great Barton towards Diss. Quite by chance on this last trip I discovered a side turning that cuts out this worst bit of the journey and links up with the nice easy route through Barningham, which is the halfway point.
Continuing through Garboldisham and past Banham Zoo, the interesting village of New Buckenham is worth a look at before crossing the wide expanse of the common towards Tacolneston. You'll need to master the pronunciation of some of these Norfolk place names if you're going to talk to the locals!
The run into Norwich is mainly downhill from here and unlike in a car, it's not worth the extra miles to go round, it's more fun to go straight through the middle, although the buses and shoppers demand extra attention especially if you're getting tired. The exit route to Wroxham is uphill; either steeply via Mousehold Heath or less so via the direct road. There's traffic here but the roads are wide and most drivers are pretty patient, so no cause for stress.
Best time so far is 4 hours 13 minutes plus a quick food stop with a helpful breeze; some holdups in Bury and Norwich accounted for a few minutes so sub- four hours ought to be achievable for the 73 miles. The return route is harder for some reason - possibly because the hilly bits are in the latter part and the prevailing wind is in your face - one time it took over six hours and 85 miles trying to avoid the wind!
And at the destination, there's fish and chips, ice cream and a walk on the beach!
The 2016 season kicked off with a convivial and competitive inter-club event between Team Cambridge, Newmarket Cycling and Triathlon and Cambridge Triathlon Club - a three-legged version of the "Tri-ers v. Testers" events that we had run in recent years to popular acclaim.
It was a bit sketchy as I cycled up to the HQ to sign in - I don't often get such a welcome but it turned out I was the fifth of the five TC members needed to qualify for a result. The result itself was never really in question, since only one of our entrants is the right side of fifty and he himself admitted to not having done any training - what is the yoof of today coming to?
As the sun fought its way through the mid-morning haze, our capable squad of timekeepers and pushers-off donned their thermal attire and arranged themselves at the kerbside and our veteran Papa Rat-See slung his new camera across his nearly-new torso and sought concealment behind the Armco, much grimacing and gurning to capture for posterity.
Team Cambridge's pride was salvaged from the inevitably when our very own champion "Racing Ralph" Hancock scooted up to sign in, slightly late but just in time to be recorded as the 41st rider in a full field. There will no doubt be a steward's enquiry, but RR is blessed with sufficient talent and charm to overcome such minor technicalities and anyway, we'd be stuffed without him.
So it turned out, with honours going to Jon Wilson of Newmarket with a cracking 23:40 followed by Ralph on 23:56 and Mark Tickner of Cambridge Tri on 24:07. The rest of the field was pretty evenly distributed between Newmarket, Cambridge Tri and a gaggle of TC riders in the middle order including a superb 28:21 from the bionic Eric Tapley, just in front of Trevor Avis.
My result was a fair reflection of my pre-season preparation and apparently, so was Peter's. "Magneto" kept an eye on the tail, but I am proud to bear witness to Colette's (slightly abridged) observation that he is entitled to spend more time on his bike in order to regain the panache and pace of his younger days (before he got a Welsh passport).
As the racing drew to a close, the conviviality resumed around the coffee table and yarns were exchanged. I hope that the unusually high number of DNF's (three) made it back in time before the biscuits ran out...
And that was about it, save for your scribe's unseemly grovel back uphill to the heights of Balsham, whereupon he was overtaken by the young rider he met shortly after the race, spinning his way round a few extra miles on the way home. The greeting was, of course, convivial!
It was 2008 when I last went to Hampshire and had one of those memorable rides that are near enough to being epic for my humble aspirations (see old Spokeman issues for the write-up). However, this had kindled an interest in visiting the New Forest, but I never found the time.
This year I was booked on a week's training course in Southampton, and as I seldom venture more than 100 miles from home this qualified as an adventure. Besides all the free evenings to spend at my leisure, I would also be able to catch up on my overdue projects, read loads, eat sensibly and keep fit! Maybe a bit ambitious?
The course itself was good but a typical overload of computer time in a daylight-free room, which contrasts to my working style of flitting from task to task due to having a very short span of attention... I needed that bike ride!
It was blowing a hoolie on the first night, so the next evening looked a better bet: no plan, no route, just get on and ride. That wasn't altogether successful as I got lost instantly and ended up time-trialling down various dual carriageways through the middle of town instead of cruising down leafy lanes. Fortunately, by the expedient of heading for the scummiest housing estate I was able to locate the hotel just before I got mugged or run over. 25 miles of... exercise.
Nothing doing for the next couple of days, so I tried walking to the training centre to avoid the traffic. This involved crossing the Test valley via a mixture of cycle paths between huge warehouses and under the motorway, opening out into country lanes and then a muddy and partially flooded path across a nature reserve to the industrial estate on the other side. Scenic enough to make the hour's walk each way worth arriving with wet socks.
But the main attraction was the prospect of finishing early on the Friday and scooting off to the forest. Early wasn't that early, leaving only a couple of hours' daylight to reach Lyndhurst, unpack and get going. I plotted a route for my Garmin, dragging the blue path off the main roads to avoid the traffic, which was successful in at least that respect, as some of these "roads" turned out to be forest trails with nary a hint of tarmac.
I'm a bit of a novice at navigating with GPS; my only previous attempt led to an extra 25 miles on a 100 mile course (see other blog) so I should really have read the instructions. A quick lap of the town's one-way system was the crude method of picking up the start of the course from the car park, and then I headed uphill into the woods with only the occasional missed turn and double-back as I adjusted to the scale of the display.
The forest roads were so delightful that the route didn't matter much; some were signposted as scenic drives, and even in February there was plenty of wildlife to see including plenty of New Forest ponies, which seemed quite happy to ignore everyone and carry on grazing. I was surprised at how many of these there were, not in large herds but dotted around in small groups pretty much anywhere I went.
Fortunately there was a blanket 40mph speed limit in the National Park, which not only made it easier for the wildlife but a much more pleasant environment for cycling in. (I wonder what would happen if this was nationwide? It wouldn't affect journey times much and it would halve the environmental damage.)
Things were starting to come unravelled on the navigation front - my traffic avoiding routes would have been fantastic on a mountain bike or a 'crosser but I couldn't risk a breakdown 150 miles from home. I opted to roll with the scenic drive option, which was a swooping well-surfaced descent through the trees with only two cars in five miles. Probably better on a Friday evening than a Sunday!
This put me off the plotted course but I could still see it on the edge of the screen, so I reckoned I wasn't too far wrong. Some roadworks in Burley proved my undoing; as I slowed to a halt, the auto-zoom on the display reduced my field of view and I couldn't figure out which of the several turns I was supposed to take in the middle of the 3-way traffic lights. Anyway, I guessed and set off gamely uphill, topping out onto open moorland with the course supposedly only 50ft to my right, which I reckoned was about the width of the road and not too far out - wrong!
Looking at the data, I should have been on the other side of the road, and going the other way! By the time I figured this out, I had revisited the traffic lights a further three times and resorted to swapping my cycling eyewear for my ready-readers so that I could see which way the little arrow on my Garmin was pointing. That helped a bit, although the just-above-zero breeze whirling around the lenses wasn't terribly pleasant.
Time to crack on, as it was getting a bit dark. The blackbirds were making a big fuss about roosting in the hedgerows and the wandering cattle had decided to head for home, having no qualms about mooching slowly across the road and making the commuters wait their turn for tea. Meanwhile, my route said left, so after a couple of U turns to make sure, I duly headed left past the cows and down a road marked "No through road" until the tarmac ran out.
I could have gone back to the familiarity of a metalled road, but this time I decided to stick to my route and ploughed on past the wooden barrier and onto a gravelly trail a bit like one of the fire roads in Thetford forest. Amazingly, my road bike on its 23mm tyres handled superbly and I enjoyed the experience, making sure to keep off the draggy grass and stick to the faster gravel. The track crossed a main road and carried on for another mile or so, before reverting to tarmac at another viewing/ picnicking site (at least that's what the sign said, although on Friday nights there may be other things going on) and out onto more moorland in the gathering dusk.
My plan took me past Buckler's Hard and Beaulieu, although by this time it was properly dark and my legs were telling me they'd got 10 miles left at 12 miles to go. Luckily there were no more chirrups or beeps from the Garmin, meaning I was still on course, but the last few miles were definitely longer than the first. Just in time, I cranked my weary way back to Lyndhurst and found my car after 46 miles of completely new territory: very satisfying.
The second part of my trilogy started on the opposite side of the valley from the first, which meant crossing the river Dee via the low-level stone bridge that lies unobtrusively beneath the spectacular Pontcysyllte aqueduct.
The warm-up was a narrow country road which was lumpy by home standards but barely registered on the Garmin, and then across the bridge and up to the main road. The village on the opposite side of the road offered a number of options, but from the map it was hard to tell what any of them might have in store. The nearest one visible was Methodist Hill, and the clue is in the name - I was on my knees well before I reached the turn that (unsurprisingly) didn't mark the top of the gradient but merely another ramp of tarmac.
The stats say the climb was 330 metres over 3 miles, or a pretty constant 1 in 13 gradient, which comfortably exceeds anything I was accustomed to. Only one thing to do if walking isn't your bag, and that is to use the handy triple chainset and make sure the derailleur doesn't rub the spokes on the very last sprocket, and get stuck in!
Unfortunately the photos taken on my spare phone did not capture the "unsuitable for motors" sign alongside the National Cycle Route sign, but since the sweat was blurring my eyes by that stage it didn't register. On and up, moving out from the village and slightly uncertain of the route, I took the view that altitude gained was money in the bank and there was hardly any traffic to distract me from the task in hand.
The appearance of a mobile phone mast on the horizon hinted at the summit and before long I was bowling along between stands of pine trees on one side and the view across the valley on the other. The view also revealed drifts of rain, but this wasn't going to spoil my fun!
The map, on the other hand, revealed a bit of a dilemma as the road heading west led to a big expanse of nothing. This wasn't meant to be an off-road adventure (although it would have been a good one) so there was a choice of downhill to the right and back to town, or downhill to the left and into the unknown.
Downhill was properly steep, with a green ridge of turf and plenty of sheep-related obstacles (including a quad bike and collie dog) to contend with. I wasn't going to break any records as I hadn't a clue how far I'd have to crawl if it went wrong...
This lead to the picture-postcard village of Glyn Ceirog, viewed at first from almost directly above before the road zigzagged down the mountainside and into the midst of a mixture of families taking their kids to the play park and slightly bemused tourists who'd wandered up the valley and reached the last outpost of civilisation.
Any further ambitions would have meant either serious climbing or off-roading (or both) and not having all day to play with meant that it was straight down the valley road in the direction of town - in this case Chirk, with its castle, railway station and assorted industrial sprawl. Once again this road was beautifully surfaced with little traffic, and the downhill grade gave my legs a chance to recharge.
Bearing in mind that this was less than 20 miles into the ride, the unfamiliar terrain was forcing a complete recalibration of my attitude to distance, being used to Cambridgeshire!
Left at the entrance to Chirk Castle brought me round in a loop to the junction where I first saw the infamous road sign, so I was able to gingerly descend Methodist Street in a state of righteousness and cross the main road towards the famous aqueduct.
My Garmin reports that the aqueduct is indeed level (or vice versa) as I approached via the canal path and prudently walked across the valley.
On the other side there was a chance of a rest (and ice cream, if I'd brought any money) and entertainment in the form of an 18th Century traffic jam. I'm sure the original bargees would have sorted it out a lot quicker with a quick punch-up...
The last bit was retracing the farm lane back to the cottage; only just over 25 miles but with so many challenges it was a real experience and one I'd love to repeat as soon as I can.
As with Mr Magneto, it’s been a bit of a dull year on two wheels for me, with far too much time pedalling a desk (hence the sparse output from the Spokesman), so a carefully crafted plot to take the family on holiday to Wales was long overdue in the execution.
Like others, I suspect, I find the prospect of lying on a beach infinitely boring, especially coupled with the torture of travelling by Squeezy Jet and arriving without the one thing that can save one’s sanity; that is, a bike!
So, loaded up we were with roof box, children, dog (in the car, not the roof box – d’you think the missus would want them in there with her?) and the trusty bike rack on the back.
Choice of bike was clearly important and took a few weeks of thought: Mountain bike? An obvious choice at first sight, but with a rigid frame and similarly-inflexible knees, the prospect of being stranded miles from base was even less welcome than the unenviable comparisons with modern machinery boasting suspension more supple than my old motocrosser.
Touring bike? Well, there was a towpath on offer for contour-hugging comfort, plus plenty of gears and luggage capacity for… no wait a minute, I’m not ruining my rides with the inevitable requests to pick up some groceries on the way!
TT bike? Stuff that, I can’t even ride it on the flat! It had to be my road bike – fairly light alu frame and not bad for its age (c.2006) but amply suitable in this context by the presence of a triple chainring. This device is totally redundant at home, but boy was I to find out what it’s for!
The itinerary: Day 1 – arrive, collapse. Day 2 – white (brown) water rafting on the River Dee – on falling in for the third time we were laughing so hard we had to be prompted by the guide to get back on board before reaching the next rapid.
Day 3 – venture out on bike, down the lane to the bottom of the Pontcysyllte aqueduct (I ought to turn off the spell-checker now) into the ex-industrial town of Trevor. Naturally my thoughts turned to our own immaculate examples bearing the same name, but comparisons with disused brickyards might lead to some unjustified retribution, so I think I’d better let that one lie…
And to the point of the exercise, my introduction to a proper hill. Being sensible, I kept to a sensible gear and wound my way up the gradient somewhere between 1 in 10 and 1 in 5 for the next three miles; it took me something like the same time to cover the first four miles that I would easily need to cover ten miles at home! Being proud, I only stopped the once when a passing car on the single-track road gave me the excuse to flop over the handlebars and pant like a steam train for a full minute before I was ready to resume.
This was near the summit anyway, and the road then rolled out over the moorland and along the foot of a limestone scarp, populated by sheep and only the sporadic rambler, and beautifully clad with smooth new tarmac. I found this was usually the case and is a strange contrast with the supposedly gold-paved streets of Cambridgeshire.
With a dog-eared OS map lifted from the holiday cottage for company, I followed my curiosity around the back of Dinas Bran, which is an abandoned castle on top of a hill, looking suspiciously like the one in the Lord of the Rings where Frodo gets into a spot of bother. Onward to Eglwyseg, a sleepy-looking hamlet of farms set in a landscape much like my mental caricature of North Wales, based mostly on watching Ivor the Engine on TV, with lumpy hills speckled with sheep and little cottages.
At the bottom, the signpost indicating World’s End was tempting – I’ve been to its namesake in Chelsea in my student days but this looked much more like the real thing to me. The map suggested a decent route over the mountain on single-track roads and then back round by the Horseshoe Pass, but my budget of time wouldn’t allow it on this first foray, so I stored the ambition for another day and turned left.
This next bit was proper steep, and left me wishing I’d adjusted my rear mech to clear the spokes not just in the garage, but under extreme duress as I scrambled up into a pine forest; thankfully only a few hundred metres before it topped out and then descended to join the main road. This was downhill all the way, again surfaced with excellent tarmac and it was only caution that kept my speed within bounds as I sailed into Llangollen, past the hordes of Mamils (that’s middle-aged men in leather) congregating outside the pubs for the motorbike rally.
A couple of miles to go back to the cottage, following the line of Thomas Telford’s canal with a few ups and downs, but nothing compared to what went before, then straight out with the map to plot the next ride!
The growing season has been slow this year as has my participation at club events and so I must apologise for the lack of reports. On one of my few attendances I did pick up on a rumour last year that our own Simon ‘crazy legs’ Denney was about to get a new carbon steed. This is somewhat of a departure from Simon’s usual choice as he is often seen ‘re-cycling’ and eking the life out of tired bikes and components.
So seeing him on new a high end Planet X speed machine this year will come as a bit of a shock for some. Certainly his times this year have been consistently fast, although he has not managed to close down on our fast man ‘Rocket’ Ralph Hancock.
One person who has been catching the field this year has been Peter ‘The Twiglet’ Millard. This year has seen him take ownership of a rear deep section wheel to complement his Mavic SSC front. Unlike the rest of his Longstaff low pro, we were not able to locate a period wheel to match the retro look of the rest of the bike and had to source a modern tubular carbon rim shoe horned to fit onto the original hub. This with the ceramic bearings has been one of the few areas where we have not been able to stick to the completely to retro theme, although the rim has been dressed to keep the period look.
So has it made a difference, I should say so, since fitting the wheel ‘The Twiglet’ has gone from strength to strength slashing his times - most notably taking 4 mins off his 25 mile personal best bringing it down to 1-4-55. Although I have noticed he is taking life more seriously these days and has even strimmed the bark from his legs!