One more tweak

The thing about a touring bike is that it is never really finished. You are always making small adjustments. Whether it’s a better location for a light bracket or a small change to saddle position there always seems to be room for one more tweak. Right now Gill is waiting for a new handle bar stem that will give her room for more adjustment. She feels like she wants to be slightly more upright on the bike to tackle discomfort in her hands. At the same time I am convinced that I want to raise my saddle slightly to relieve occasional pain in my knees. Unfortunately, in my case, it will involve a visit to this man, as the alloy seat post is well and truly welded into the steel frame. It’s all part of the fun of touring though, looking for the holy grail of riding position and equipment set up.

Life feels very similar at the moment. We have both found part time jobs that we are happy with which is like the equivalent of purchasing a good basic bike but now comes the endless tweaking to get things just the way we want them. And like a new bike, it’s going to take a bit of getting used to.

We are hoping that this new found freedom will enable us to do a lot more short tours this summer. We have organised our touring kit so that we could, in theory, be packed and away in just an hour or two whenever we have a few days off together. Unfortunately, our working shifts don’t allow for this just now but it will only take a small tweak to resolve it. Coordinating nice weather with shift patterns might be a little trickier but we’ll see what we can do.

Despite the current difficulty in planning anything much more complicated than a trip to the supermarket I am quite enjoying the chaotic nature of our new lifestyle. For the first time in my life I don’t have to be jealous of our retired friends who love to tell us that they don’t know, and don’ t care what day it is. Neither do we. I don’t normally start my fund raising shifts until mid-morning so we only need an alarm clock two days per week when Gill is working. We are both likely to be working some weekends so we are free from the Monday to Friday routine that has dominated the whole of our married life up to now. (Well apart from our ‘gap year’ just gone) The unpredictability and variety is really quite refreshing.

Today Gill is at work and I can enjoy my time writing, reading or whatever I choose. On Saturday it will be Gill’s turn. Tomorrow we are both off work together so we plan to rise at some ridiculous hour and go walking to hear the dawn chorus, simply because we can and because we both enjoy such nonsense.

Dawn wren. Photo courtesy MKNHS.org.uk

Dawn wren. Photo courtesy MKNHS.org.uk

This morning I had a message from Gill about her shifts over the next two weeks and a two or three day mini tour on our freshly tweaked bikes looks like a distinct possibility. We are getting there. I have no doubt that should we ever get our lives and our bikes perfectly set up we would be instantly bored, so for now I am just revelling in the small adjustments to both. It’s been hard work achieving this state of mild chaos but well worth the effort. There were some pretty dark days when we were both trawling the internet looking for work and wondering if we had seriously miscalculated. But perseverance has paid off and it feels like this is where we wanted to be once our life-changing journey was over. For now, at least, we are riding on the crest and looking down into the rut that we escaped from last year. It will require some skilful balance to stay up here but I can heartily recommend turning your life upside down once in a while. When the dust settles and with a little tweaking it can be very rewarding indeed.

A Cycle Touring Festival. Really?

Pendle Hill

Pendle Hill on route to the festival

A Cycle Touring Festival? Really? It does sound a bit unlikely doesn’t it? In actual fact though it proved to be a huge success and very enjoyable indeed.

I’m not really surprised. Whenever we meet other tourers when we are away it inevitably leads to great conversations and many wonderful evenings in pubs or hostels swapping stories and sharing tips about gear and locations. The idea of bringing over two hundred cycle tourists together in the same location for a weekend could only ever result in much, much more of the same. Add to that some great food, a stunning location on the banks of The River Ribble in Lancashire, tales of amazing journeys by bicycle from all around the world and a couple or three beers and you have a heady recipe for a memorable weekend.

Two hundred cycle tourers on a hill and not a bike in sight.

Two hundred cycle tourers on a hill and not a bike in sight.

Although most of the speakers and slide shows revolved around amazing journeys, often around the whole world, there was no sense of feeling second class if your longest tour was a week or two in the Dales. I loved the fact that when you started talking to somebody you really didn’t know if you were going to end up discussing bikes on Virgin Trains or running out of water in the high Andes mountains. I particularly enjoyed the various snippets of conversation that I overheard as I wandered about. Things like; “then we ran out of money in South East Asia” or “we are touring novices, we’ve only done one trip. From Chorley to Istanbul”.

It’s tempting to make reference to the high points of the weekend but to be honest that implies that there were contrasting low points but there weren’t. Apart from when it was hammering on the tent in the middle of the night I wasn’t even aware that it rained for most of the first twenty four hours. Such was the quality of the entertainment and conversation all day long.

We have come home with a real feeling that we are part of a genuine community. We have made new friends, caught up with old ones and enjoyed some great laughs, mostly related to the ridiculous predicaments that cycle touring tends to generate. As a measure of how outstandingly friendly and generous people were Gill and I expressed an interest in trying out a tandem for touring and before we knew it we had not one, but three offers of a loan of one from tandem owners. The trust and generosity were truly moving.

Dinner with friends old and new.

Dinner with friends old and new.

The same message came over in talk after talk and in countless conversations; the world is full of kind and generous people, all you have to do is ask.

Pendle again but on the way home.

Pendle again but on the way home.

There is only one way to measure whether such an event was a success and that is to pose the question would we go again. The answer is a resounding yes from us, as it was from everybody I asked during the weekend. Well done to Laura and Tim and all the folk who helped to make it such a great weekend.

No reflection on the extremely well organised festival.

No reflection on the extremely well organised festival.

What would you do differently?

There is a huge difference between setting out to cycle around the coast of Britain and setting out to see the coast of Britain. Hence the question; “What would you do differently?”

Gill and I were talking during our morning walk yesterday and it turns out we have been independently going back over the photos of our trip around Britain and coming to the same realisation. We feel as if we rushed the whole thing. That we didn’t take enough time to stop and stare and really absorb the experience. That probably sounds a bit shocking when you consider that we spent longer than most making our way around the coast. We averaged less than forty miles a day. That’s pretty slow by a lot of touring standards. We thought we had allowed ourselves plenty of time to take it all in. To take days off and to ensure that we really got the most out of this once in a life time experience. In reality we find that whole days went by with little or no lasting memories to show for them. (I hear one or two people saying, “I told you so”.)

I also think that we made a big mistake in announcing that we were going to cycle around Britain, albeit with the added word, ‘probably’. I thought that strap line was terribly witty and really summed up our care-free, relaxed attitude to the whole trip. Of course, I was kidding myself wasn’t I? Just as I said in the blog about giving up drink for January, making that announcement is great if you want pressure to achieve something difficult. Fatal if you don’t. So, lesson number two; don’t pick any journey that is of a circular nature if you don’t want commitment. Any circular trip has a very obvious beginning and end and most people would notice if you did half a circle and then made a bee-line for home. In other words, a circular journey has ‘failure’ written all over it if you don’t complete the circle. We really, genuinely believed that we were above all that stuff and that we could make up our own rules. That it really didn’t matter if we decided to miss out bits of Scotland or save Wales for another time. In reality though, the pressure to ‘do the whole coast’ was huge. So, lesson number two; keep things open ended, literally.

I’ll give you a specific example of what I think I did wrong. I say I, rather than we, because I actually do think that I was much more to blame for this than Gill. We had a glorious ride one morning around Loch Eriboll. The whole day is covered in this post: Skerry Wild Camp.

Brooding Loch Eriboll

Brooding Loch Eriboll

The scenery was spectacular and even the occasional shower of drizzle couldn’t dampen our mood. As you complete the circuit of the loch there is a pretty steep climb and then a spectacular ride down through wild country before an even tougher climb at the head of Loch Hope.

Looking back down on Loch Eriboll

Looking back down on Loch Eriboll

As I tackled this next climb, and it really was a brute, I glanced over my right shoulder and caught a glimpse of the loch lit by a shaft of sunshine amidst a brooding dark background of towering hills and black skies. It was a breath taking scene but I had no breath to give. Preoccupied as I was with completing the climb I looked for only a fraction of a second and I recall thinking as I pushed on how it would have made a fabulous photograph. Did I stop? Did I take the opportunity to capture something really special whilst also having a quick breather? No I didn’t. I let the climb consume me completely and only when I reached the top and the loch was completely out of sight did I stop to catch the breath that I kept from the scene. I will always regret that moment because already the sharpness of it is fading. If only I had stopped and really taken it in. Etched it more permanently on my mind like an indelible tattoo to savour for ever more. I let the challenge of a physical achievement outweigh the beauty of a moment that might have fed my soul forever. It’s easily done and to some extent that’s what we did with the whole journey. As I said, I think I was more to blame for this than Gill.

We have over two thousand photos from the trip but as I have been going through them adding captions and locations I am bitterly disappointed to find that I can’t place many of them. It takes a huge effort of recall, aided by maps, notes and Google Street Map to pin down the exact location and bring to mind how I felt at the time. Sometimes, sadly, I just can’t remember.

We have had the first tentative conversations this week about future tours. We don’t have any plans for where to go. When, or for how long even. All we know right now is that in future we will get on our bikes with the sole intention of really seeing somewhere. Seeing it with our eyes, our ears and our hearts and our minds. Seeing it slowly and intensely, however long that takes. We might put a duration on it. A month, two months or whatever but we won’t put a distance on it and it definitely won’t be circular.

 

Over the border, I think

Well that’s the crinkly bit done (Scotland) and we are now back in old blighty although it wasn’t very obvious to start with. First of all there was the border crossing which seemed to only operate in one direction. On the other side of the road to us there was a very large and rather splended “Welcome to Scotland” sign with the flag of St. Andrew proudly displayed. On our side there was a run down burger van and a lot of litter. I considered the three possibilities for this situation; firstly, there could be a strange distortion to the border and our side of the road might not be in England yet, secondly, nobody is actually welcome in England from Scotland, which seems a bit mean or, thirdly, and I think most likely, somebody had nicked the sign for it’s scrap metal value. We took a photo anyway to mark the occasion and moved on. About a mile down the road we came to ‘Meadow House’ the first and last pub in England so things were becoming clearer but then we arrived in Berwick Upon Tweed. If ever there was a town with an identity crisis this was it. History shows it changing nationalities between Scotland and England some thirteen or fourteen times no less. Mostly as a result of some siege or other but also simply given by one side to the other as a kind of bargaining chip to win the favour of some trendy monarch of the time.

A much sought after town

A much sought after town

It must have been murder as a parent in the sixteenth century. You might send little Johnny off to school with his brand new rugby and cricket kit on a Monday only to have him come home on Friday with a note requesting that all parents provide their children with a set of bagpipes and a new caber by Monday morning due to the forthcoming weekend siege.

It hasn’t changed much either. There was a Geordie bloke in the high street busking away on his bagpipes with his faithful bulldog at his side. We did have a very interesting and beautiful walk around the town’s walls but they were still under siege at one point by British Gas engineers and we got diverted. And the fighting isn’t over yet either, but more of that in a moment.

We popped into Wheelers bike shop to have a nosey and got chatting to Ian, one of the owners. Before we knew it we were making arrangements to bring both bikes in to sort out a few irritating little niggles that have arisen.

Ian working o my bike

Ian working o my bike

Later that day Ian spent an hour working on the bikes, including fitting a new, well, second hand mudguard to mine and charged us a ridiculously small amount for his services. You’re a gem Ian, one of the old school and all round top bloke. This trip would be worth doing to just meet these amazingly generous people who seem to materialise at just the right moments.

After our day’s rest in Berwick we decided to push deeper into the country to try to find the real England and headed inland a little way to the village of Etal. And there it was. There was no doubt now about which country we were in. Every stereotype in the book was on display from the village post office and cricket pitch to the charming, but sadly not yet open, thatched Black Bull pub.

Picture postcard pub

Picture postcard pub

There was still a castle just to remind us not to drop our guard. This was, after all, still technically borderland and when we ended our day in the small village of Belford we nearly got involved in a fight ourselves.

We went to do our shopping in the local Coop supermarket and as we pondered the confectionery a row broke out. It seemed that a twelve year old boy had been picking on a six year old and now the mothers of both had bumped into each other in the cake aisle. The mother of the younger child seemed to be saying that the older child hadn’t received a sufficiently harsh punishment. This was challenged vigorously by the second mother who claimed she had grounded her son for a week. The first mother claimed that this couldn’t be true because she had seen him out and about and now the voices were getting louder. Just when it looked like it might be cream puffs at twelve paces the store manager made his presence felt and things calmed down a bit. It was very exciting to see that the frictions still lurk close beneath the surface and I have drawn two little swords on my map and added “The Battle of Belford Coop, 2014” to it.

Despite what people have said we really haven’t been rushing this trip but we do now find ourselves with a bit of time to kill. In order to meet up with a friend who has kindly arranged accommodation for us in Hartlepool we are having an enforced go slow for a few days and taking a closer look at the Northumberland coast. We’ve been blessed with beautiful weather for the last few days which makes it pretty easy to slow the pace down and cover less miles each day. Today we probably set a personal best by moving just three miles south after cycling over 35 miles to visit Holy Island and Lindisfarne.

Lindisfarne castle

Lindisfarne castle

We also met Paul at a bus stop who was so full of enthusiasm for what we are doing I do believe that if his bus hadn’t arrived when it did he might have found himself a bike and joined the party. It was his birthday and to celebrate it he had spent a night on the island to see it at its best after all trippers had left. What a wise man he was because it is a beautiful place, spoilt only by hordes of tourists who pour across the causeway as soon as the tide allows and rush back to the mainland again before the road disappears under water. Just as we did. It is also the only place that I have witnessed a traffic jam caused by two completely independent chains of teacher led primary school children bumping into each other at a crossroad. Don’t they make a lot of noise?

Talking of bumping into people we ended up camping the other night with a bloke that I met on Facebook. Sounds a bit wierd doesn’t it and I suppose it was really. Nick first contacted me when I began blogging and talking about our trip on the web and he kindly offered to put us up in Newcastle. That didn’t work out for the perfectly acceptable reason that he too was going touring at about the time we would be in the north east of England. So it was a wonderful surprise to end up camped on the same small site at Budle Bay and to spend the evening exchanging tales of the road as seen from the saddle of a bike. Nick is telling the story of his trip around Scotland over on Crazy Guy On a Bike web site here. We also swapped a good few tips and tricks which is also fun to do but Gill was not at all impressed by Nick’s way of saving fuel by using the boiled pasta water to make tea. (I suppose I had better stop doing it then.)

Today has ended in such a farcical manner I just have to share it with you before I go. We haven’t had the best of luck lately with finding peaceful campsites so tonight it was lovely to find ourselves far from main roads and with a magnificent view of the Farne Isles. We ate our dinner contemplating an undisturbed night with nothing but the evening birdsong for company. That’s when the alarm of the caravan next door to us went off. The owners were nowhere to be seen and the camp warden couldn’t find a solution. It stopped after five minutes and bliss was restored. Then it started again. After a couple of hours of this we had to literally pick up our home and all our belongings and move to another part of the campsite. You couldn’t make it up, you really couldn’t.

Farne Isles from the first tent location.

Farne Isles from the first tent location.

About the bikes

bicycle_green_2_256

 

 

Yes, in this case, it really is all about the bike.

Touring bikes are actually quite rare. Well, at least purpose built ones are. Most non-cyclists wouldn’t see the difference between a touring bike with drop handle bars and any other ‘racer’ but they really are a different species.

Firstly, they are usually made from steel rather than aluminium or carbon fibre (yes I know there are titanium ones) and secondly they are subtly different in geometry. Both the material and the geometry contribute to the more relaxed and less hurried ride that you get on a tourer. The steel adds a bit more flexibility while the more open angles of the frame soften the ride by creating more give in the frame. Steel also has the advantage of being easily welded in just about any garage or engineering workshop in the world should you be unlucky enough to break your frame whilst on tour. Uncommon, but not unheard of.

The other difference in the basic touring frame is that it will have specific brazed on mounting points for pannier racks and maybe extra bottle carrying mounts. Other than that it all comes down to the components used to build up the bike.

Tourers need sturdy wheels that will take heavy duty tyres and carry loads of weight and they also need plenty of room to fit full mudguards. They need very low gearing to be able to drag all that weight up the hills and most importantly, a saddle that is comfortable for up to eight hours at a time. Handle bars tend to be a personal preference so straight, drop and butterfly bars are all commonly used. Finally, one of the joys of touring bikes, in my opinion, is that they nearly all come with fascinating home made bodges and workarounds that make them unique to their owners.

So that is the background, now here are a few specifics for those who find such things interesting. For those who don’t, here are some penguins falling over.  (Best viewed with YouTube)

My bike is based on a hand built frame made to my own measurements and specifications by Dave Yates. Dave built around 12,000 frames for his employers, M Steel Cycles before setting up his own business. He knows a thing or two about frame building. Material is Reynolds 531.

Lack of funds after paying for the frame, forks and Campag headset meant that I cobbled the bike together with various bits from EBay but I have gradually upgraded most of it over the last six years. The components now read as follows:

TonyBike

 

  • Hand built wheels using ST19 rims on Shimano 105 hubs.
  • Shwalbe Marathon Plus Tyres
  • SRAM Truvativ cranks (EBay)
  • Shimano M520 pedals
  • Shimano rings (can’t remember the numbers and can’t be bothered counting, sorry) Edit: 50, 40,28
  • Shimano rear cassette 12 – 32 (or is it 11 – 32?)
  • Chain, no idea but it does have a speed link in it which I think is a no brainer
  • Shimano Tiagra long arm rear mech
  • Shimano Sora Triple front mech
  • Bars – drop. Cheap off EBay. Can’t remember what they are.
  • Shimano Flight Deck Brake/gear levers
  • Shimano RX100 Dual pivot brakes
  • Brooks B17 saddle
  • TorTech rear rack
  • Tubus front rack

Gill’s bike was built by Paul Hewitt of Leyland. It’s a Cheviot tourer based on a Taiwan manufactured frame (also Reynolds 531) and assembled to Paul’s exacting standards. Paul is very particular about fitting and uses his own purpose built fitting jig to get every measurement spot on before deciding on frame size and position for seat, bars, crank length etc. When Gill collected the bike it was perfect from the day it left the shop and nothing has required adjusting since, other than saddle angle. The components are all as supplied five years ago:

GillBike

 

  • Hand built wheels using ST19 rims on Deore hubs
  • Schwalbe Marathon Plus Tyres
  • Deore cranks
  • Shimano M520 pedals
  • Deore chainset 48, 36, 26
  • Rear cassette Deore 11 – 34
  • Chain HG53 (but may have been replaced, can’t remember)
  • Rear mech Deore
  • Front mech Tiagra triple
  • Bars, drop, Omega Compact (for little hands)
  • Tiagra STI Brake/Gear shifters
  • Tektro CR520 Cantilever brakes
  • Selle Italia Lady specific leather saddle
  • Maddison rear rack
  • Blackburn low rider front rack

Both bikes have been to Colin Gardner The Bike Magician for a Gold service before the trip which involves stripping back to the frame and servicing/replacing every moving part. They both now ride like a dream. Thanks Colin.

We’ll do luggage another time. That’s quite enough tech stuff for one post. Feel free to ask questions but please don’t expect knowledgeable answers

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