Priscilla, Queen of the Laybys

Well, Priscilla and I have now spent a couple of nights together and I have to say things are looking good between us. Our first trip was over to Ullapool to scout out the area as a base to cycle from. Looks good! Free all-day car parking near the ferry terminal should be fine for a few hours out on the bike and the nearby public loos with a shower facility mean that I can avoid the campervan equivalent of a bed bath to clean up afterwards. There’s also loads of convenient off-road laybys for overnighting, so no need for site fees 🙂

After looking over Ullapool we pootered back eastwards to lay-up close to Rosemarkie on the Moray Firth so that I could get to Chanonry Point early the next day to view the Moray Firth dolphins (parking at the Point is next to impossible for late arrivers). I got further east than anticipated and overnighted at the Clootie Well near Avoch in a small forest car park. It was quite spooky due to the cloots hanging from the trees. These are rags left by folk seeking for their ills to be cured; they provide an eery backdrop in the dark.

Priscilla at rest (at the Clootie Well)
Priscilla resting quietly at the Clootie Well

The car park was quiet other than for the owls hooting through the night and the local dogging fraternity (… only joking, to the best of my knowledge no dogging occurred even though the car park bore a striking resemblance to that of the ‘Camping’ episode in the TV show ‘Not Going Out’ where Lee, the show’s chief protagonist, tried to prove his manliness by joining his mates on a camping weekend in the middle of a dark, spooky forest that turned out to be … you’ve guessed it … a dogging hotspot).

So no ‘canines’, but the dolphins were around the following morning porpoising gently rather than putting on a proper show for us, and the sun, although welcome, was in exactly the wrong place to photograph them. Still, it was a splendid situation and I can recommend the Rosemarkie Beach CafĂ© for a late brunch.

Dolphins swimmin porpoisefully at Chanonry Point
Dolphins swimming porpoisefully at Chanonry Point, photographed directly into the sun

The second trip was to overnight at Ballater. Free parking in the village centre provided the base for a 40 mile ride from Deeside across to Donside via Glen Gairn and the Old Military Road. The first 12 miles included some very steep ramps (see ‘Bring back the birch’, May) and due to the excess baggage that I’m still carrying there were a couple that I had to push up rather than pedal. After that the worst was over and there were some terrific downhill runs before stopping for coffee in Bellabeg; itself winding down quietly after the weekend’s highland games at the Lonach Gathering. The return leg to Ballater via the Muir of Dinnet Nature Reserve was altogether easier even though the hills at the start of the day had rather knackered me. Still, it wasn’t work and the sun was shining so I didn’t mind. I strongly suspect that this may become a favourite cycling route

Muir of Dinnett Nature Reserve
Muir of Dinnett Nature Reserve

Another lay-by, another night. A bit noisy with passing traffic this time, but up with the lark for a bacon butty breakfast in Ballater and a supposedly gentle ride along the 10 miles of tarmac to Loch Muick. Well, under normal circumstances it would have been gentle, even if it is mostly an uphill drag along the glen; however, yesterday’s hills had been more tiring than I thought so it was a bit tougher than it should otherwise have been, but coming back? Glorious! Downhill all the way (in a good way, unlike post-middle-age life generally)!

So, that’s a couple of trips out with Priscilla and two great successes, both helped by the arrival of a little bit of fine weather. We really do live in a beautiful part of the world (it helps when the sun is shining) and to be out and about breathing in the freshest of air and looking at the most splendid of views is truly invigorating – especially when everyone else is at work!

Quotes that made me laugh #11

When I first told ‘Management’ that I had joined my work’s Yammer group on Women in Science and Engineering, her pithy comment was: “Does that mean you’ll now do your share of the ironing?” (thus putting the ‘ouch’ into touchĂ©!). Unfazed by such comments, I then Yammered to my colleagues about the way that bicycling had contributed to the emancipation of women. Susan B Anthony’s well-known quote from 1896 was my starting point …

Let me tell you what I think of bicycling. I think it has done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world. It gives women a feeling of freedom and self-reliance. I stand and rejoice every time I see a woman ride by on a wheel
the picture of free, untrammeled womanhood“.

… and this was followed by reference to a couple of articles on the MentalFloss and Grauniad websites (and there is a host of other web references that could be equally well cited).

Subsequently, and entirely by coincidence, the week after I Yammered about it an episode was screened of the TV series ‘In the Factory’ that was devoted to the manufacture of Brompton foldable bikes. In one of the show’s segments the historian Ruth Goodman presented how the bicycle had supported the emancipation of women. It was not as complete a treatment as the references above, but it did explain why specifically bicycling and not tricycling promoted the cause (apparently it was largely to do with the apparel required to ride the corresponding cycles)

Anyway“, I hear you ask, “where is the quote that made you laugh?“. Well, I was quite tickled by the penultimate paragraph of the MentalFloss article that mentions Jacquie Phelan, a feminist mountain biker who founded WOMBATS, the Women’s Mountain Bike and Tea Society. And it is one of her quotes on the WOMBATS website that made me laugh. It chimes greatly with me and, I suspect, with Firstborn too:

I never grew up, because grown-up has “groan” in it“.

Quotes that made me laugh #10

A cyclist’s re-working of the old “it’s easier to say sorry than to ask permission” gag:

When I was a kid I used to pray every night for a new bicycle. Then I realised that the Lord doesn’t work that way, so I stole one and asked Him to forgive me“. (Emo Philips).

… and no apologies for raiding my old Facebook postings to re-post this cartoon (one that, having failed to see its underlying message, my sister showed to a class of children. Bless!).


Vans of mash destruction

My microcamper is ready to collect! It is a Hillside ‘Dalbury’ conversion based on a Nissan NV200 (see posts passim) and I’m soon off to Derby to take ownership. Insurance is sorted (at not too bad a price) and I’ve already bought my first add-on, a sticker for the back …'s answer to the HGV 'stay clear' posters’s answer to the HGV ‘Cyclists Stay Clear’ stickers. Coming soon to a campervan near you!

It’s completion was three months later than anticipated due mostly to Nissan’s extended lead time for delivery to Hillside, and that means half the summer has passed without it, but I’m already looking forward to its first outing to the west coast at the end of July; a short photography trip with a few friends from the RGU B&W film photography course (staying in a bunk house though, not the van). We’re off to Applecross so it also gives me a chance to recce the Bealach na BĂ ; the bike’s going too but I’m not intending to attempt to cycle over the pass on this trip!

Meantime, those friendly folk at the Daily Mash have a few words to say about campervans (a few pompous mobile home owners on one of the ‘anorak’ forums took these articles literally, not realising that the Mashters are satirists – sad really).

Postscript: Based in Derby, Hillside names its various camper conversions after towns within the county of Derbyshire, hence the ‘Dalbury’. Forme, a Derbyshire manufacturer of bicycles does the same with its products which is why the Forme road bike that I won a couple of years ago is called the ‘Longcliffe’. Good job neither were named after Fanny Avenue, (Killamarsh), Spanker Lane, (Nether Heage) or Butt’s View (Bakewell) all in Derbyshire, and I hope neither would live up to the name Knockerdown (Ashbourne) either.

Bring back the birch!

A hard bike ride yesterday saw me bail out and return defeated. I’d done about 10 miles of short, sharp hills; the sort where the road just shoots straight upwards without any pretence of contouring and you get no respite as the downhill bits pass by in a flash.

I retreated at that point because, without actually knowing the route, I thought I might get halfway around and then hit the wall, so the better part of valour was discretion and I turned back. I recce’d the full route as I drove home and realised that I’d actually done the hardest part and could probably have managed the remaining 30+ miles, so I’ll be back. Memo to self: recce routes in advance!

Despite failing with the ride it was a joy to pedal through the birch woodlands along the River Gairn – it was only when the woodland gave way to moorland that the climbs took their toll (I really do need to lose a few kilos).

A profusion of lichens explained why the silver bark of the birches looked anything but lustrous even in the sun. In truth their trunks were more like O’Rafferty’s Motor Car (in a good way – forty shades of green) and testament to the air quality of the Cairngorm National Park. It’s consoling to know that you’re breathing clean air when you’re gasping up a hill wishing you had lower gears.

And guess what? The trees don’t just provide a beguiling view. It seems they can give post-ride comfort for your average knackered cyclist in the form of Molton Brown’s Bracing Silver Birch Thermal Muscle Soak! Pricey (ÂŁ19 from John Lewis for 300g!) but described as:

A beautiful fragrance that leaves the body feeling clean and refreshed. A dedicated muscle therapy which will instantly enliven and uplift. The fresh, woody aroma of silverbirch, cedarwood, cumin and bergamot will lift the spirits and sooth the muscles”.

Sounds like bollocks to me but it gets five-star reviews all round on the John Lewis website with the following endorsement for bike riders:

Bought as a gift for a keen cyclist. He found it very relaxing and it has a great fragrance”.

So, setting aside my usual disdain for (i) advertising copywriters, and (ii) male grooming products, consider it added to my Christmas prezzie suggestion list.

.… all of which serves as an excuse to post a pic that I took in the nearby Cambus o’ May birch woodland last autumn. It has a rather ethereal quality I think (and the sharp-eyed may recognise it as the photo from which this blog’s header image was derived).

Cambus o’ May woodland, Deeside, Aberdeenshire

It’s all Bealachs

Sammy Cahn’s lyrics to a well-known Sinatra song let us know that love and marriage go together like a horse and carriage. Well. that’s as may be, but what really goes well together is a ride out on a road bike and decent cafe stop for coffee and cake. Unfortunately, for the modestly overweight recreational cyclist they sometime go together too well, especially if one is planning to lose a few kilos in preparation for an assault on the Bealach na BĂ  (Pass of the Cattle) in Wester Ross. I’m hoping to ride it later in the summer, but avoiding either of the sportives that include it in their routes.

The statistics are impressive for a hill climb in the UK, a 626 metre ascent over 9.1 kilometres with an average gradient of 7% and a maximum of 20% (did I say lose “a few” kilos; make that many!). The route is about 45 miles in all, so maybe it is best to ‘do’ the hill early on. I’m hoping to get some hill-climbing miles in my legs by training on our own local climb on the Cairn o’ Mount road near Banchory. The Cairn route from the Banchory side is slightly longer than the Bealach na BĂ , and some think that it is just as testing, so I will see how it goes and whether I need to invest in a more forgiving set of gear ratios!

The problem with training over the Cairn o’ Mount (apart from the obvious one of it comprising a long, steep hill) is that the downhill return leads you into Banchory and its coffee shops; less than helpful to a chap’s weight loss regimen. One in particular caters well for the cyclist: Tease even has its own Strava group to keep tabs on its members’ biking efforts. I’m not a member or a Strava-naut and although the coffee and cakes are a tad expensive they are rather fine.

I have yet to visit Tease this year, but have something of a confession to make. On a recent visit to the family’s matriarch in Kendal I was determined (and I mean absolutely determined) not to visit nearby Grasmere. I really don’t like the Lake District honey-pot towns of which Grasmere is one, but two things keeps drawing me back (by car, not bike). The first is the ludicrously-named Faeryland tea shack by the waterside, set in an implausibly-beautiful location and, at its best, capable of producing one of the finest cups of tea in old Albion; the second is the opportunity to stock up on gingerbread at Sarah Nelson’s Grasmere Gingerbread shop.

Well, my determination to give it a miss failed and the lure of tea and gingerbread won. On this occasion the tea wasn’t so good, but despite the best of intentions to lose a few kilos I took consolation in a couple of packs of gingerbread and, do you know what, it’s gone already; shared of course with friends and colleagues (well, some of it was)!

Quotes that made me laugh #4

In a diatribe seemingly aimed at a former technical director at British Cycling, Marina Hyde writing in the Guardian appears to conflate the concept of the aggregate effects of marginal gains (in sporting performance) with the bullying and harassment of a number of female and disabled cyclists. I think she is wrong to do so because a bully is a bully and that is quite distinct from the marginal gains philosophy. One is not prerequisite to the other.

Despite her apparent confusion on the issue she does come up with a cracking quote (perhaps her ‘confusion’ was a deliberate ploy to enable her to frame the quote nicely):

“The real sadness, in the meantime, is that we have yet to see a long think-piece in which someone quantifies the ‘marginal gains’ of working for an obvious a**ehole”.

Experience from a period early in my career when I was managed by a complete sphincter tells me, in fact, there are no such gains in those circumstances.

My place in the team

You don’t have to watch too many highlights of cycling’s Tour de France to know that road racing is a specialist, highly technical and physically gruelling sport that has evolved its own universe of tactics, machinery, nutrition, training regimes and, of course, pharmaceutical aids. Specialism also means jargon and in a world of Ă©lites such jargon can also be used to confuse the less-than-Ă©lite. And, as French is also the lingua franca of road racing, so it can become even more confusing to a non-Francophone, monolingual, cycle-recreationalist like me. Even the English-orientated terminology can be confusing; after all, who would have thought that it is possible to ride a bike at the same time as bonking?

All of this can be problematic when trying to define the cyclist in you. So, leaving aside any consideration of fitness levels or ability and, given my body type, aptitude, technical skills and doping nutrition preference, what rÎle would be mine?

Rouleur: A rouleur is a bit of an all-rounder and capable, perhaps, of managing to win the occasional race or race stage. By definition, an all-rounder must manage hills quite well and I don’t and never did, even when I was younger and quite fit.

Puncheur: These riders thrive in races that combine relative short, steep climbs over an undulating route, but lack the extreme uphill endurance of the specialist climbers that excel on truly alpine ascents; however, the very mention of hills, short or not, counts me out as a puncheur.

Climber: Climbers are petite, lightweight riders that seem able to ‘dance’ on their pedals as they climb ridiculously steep hills at a ridiculously fast pace. I am neither petite nor lightweight and I certainly can’t dance!

Sprinter: Sprinters do what it says on the tin. In a mass finish these are the really big-thighed riders that can summon the strength to outpace all others in what can be an extremely reckless pursuit of victory. They are, by way of compensation, hopeless on the big hills, but that doesn’t help me as sprinters can be foolhardy in the extreme and can get badly hurt in the mĂȘlĂ©e of a bunch sprint. I have no stomach for that (or perhaps too much stomach these days 😱)

Time trialist: Individual time trials set the rider against the clock; there are no team-mates to pull you along. It is just you trying to keep your power output high as the pain levels go even higher. This is the one where everybody suffers – really suffers – which counts me out.

So, that all draws a blank, but even though it looks as if I would be a nondescript member of a racing team (in more senses than one) not all is lost. Although I don’t race or ride the vast distances of the audax, sportive or cycle-touring communities, road cycling is my pursuit of choice. My drug of choice is caffeine and, nutritionally, I am all for a nice bit of cake. As an internationalist I am happy to acknowledge French or faux-French as the patois of the road, and this makes me deeply indebted to the Pñtisserie Cyclisme website and to one essayist in particular that has helped me to find my true cycling identity:

“The trundleur is a cyclist who enjoys riding any kind of bicycle, at their own pace for the sheer enjoyment of it. They frequent cafĂ©s, stopping to enjoy the view, converse with friends or simply sit and reflect. The trundleur does not care for recording their rides obsessively, nor do they obsess about their speed or beating their fellow cyclists.

The trundleur finds a simple joy in the act of riding a bicycle.”

Mesdames et messieurs, je suis un TRUNDLEUR!

Postscript: Sadly, the Pùtisserie Cyclisme website appears to have been taken down.

Soft soaping a cyclist. Not!

Sometimes one’s loving family may not be quite so loving as one thinks. Take for example the gift of a simple bar of soap. This one, a Christmas present, panders well to the cyclist, but the subtle ‘sting in the tail’ that it advertises is revealed to be an embedded exfoliant of ground walnuts; extremely coarse ground nuts (and that’s before a long day in the saddle)  🙁

Ground nuts, anyone
Ground nuts, anyone?