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Thursday, 16 September 2010

On the road

I have only the vaguest idea where I am. This is not, I should rush to assure the reader, a repeat of the occasion, roughly fifteen years ago, when I briefly became a mentalist and was unsuccessful in finding RHB in our one bedroom apartment for over two hours - a situation that led to the prescribed ingestion of copious amounts of valium, and is a story perhaps for another time, involving as it does a picnic, pork chops, emigration and a warehouse in deepest Wales - rather this current lack of orientation is entirely technological in origin, and sanely work related.

The reason I have no idea where I am is that just five day after our bike ride, I am working once more for my previous employers, work that involves installing a travelling exhibition for a large company at various venues across the UK. Such employment has always been slightly discombobulating as the daily sequence is similar to a rock and roll tour: highway-venue-hotel-drink-venue-highway but in my previous UK incarnation, an enjoyable part of every day, (and practically the only intellectual exercise achieved) was route planning via the use of out-of-date physical maps. A century later, and the efficiencies of satellite aided navigation mean that all I know, and heartily resent, is that I am in a very pretty little village that is, as I later tell RHB, "not far from Birmingham". East, West, South, North, town names, visible landmarks,signposts, road identifiers such as 'A46', friendly passers by giving directions - all are forgotten and forbidden navigational tools in the era of sat-nav. All a driver knows is a postcode then "turn left", "turn right" and "take the exit". So I have, and now I 'have reached my destination'.

I turn off the unlit country road into the driveway of the destination - a hotel my employers have pre-booked for me, and stop my vehicle, sighing. I open up my faux leather LFC crested notebook and turn to a list I have made over the previous three days. The list is titled "Debrief items for discussion with Project Manager". A quick scan to ensure this entry is not a repeat of a previous one, and I write:

'Item 26: To admin: Do NOT, under any circumstances, book hotels for conference installers where the descrption of the hotel includes the words "quaint", "barn", "rural", "ivy", "duck pond", "Ye", "hideaway", "historic","tranquil". '

I replace the notebook in my bag, start the engine and go to disengage the brake. A thought strikes me, so I cancel that action, retrieve the notebook and add to my entry:

"NOTE; This does not imply that I dont appreciate your sentiments in booking me into these hotels. Its just that when you mentioned you'd put additional effort into booking me 'nice hotels' for this trip, I was thinking jacussi, penthouse, sauna."

This addition is necessary, I think, because it is possible that the debrief I intend to conduct may, even if only by virtue of its length, cause some minor offence within the company. I dont want to sour things unnecessarily, but I can already see how other entries might be seen as criticism. For example, Item One concludes:

"... so never send this idiot out on the road with me again"

While Item Five helpfully advises:

" .......when constructing display boxes incorporating tv screens that are supposed to have hinged rear panels for access to the integrated DVD players, ensure your workshop doesnt glue, screw and pin said access panel permanently closed with screw holes filled, sanded and painted. I feel that the words "Access panel do not fix" that were written in bold across the aforementioned panel provided a sufficient clue to your production manager that these additional fixings were unnecessary. The placement of a DVD player on a shelf behind the access panel, might I feel, have provided additional information if only because his own empirical attempts to activate said DVD player via a remote control through 18mm of solid MDF should have proved unsuccessful. What I find mystifying is not only that your workshop has done this to all five boxes incorporating access panels, tv's and DVD players, but that your production manager claims to have tested these DVD players by watching 45 minutes of home produced pornography - 'Bertha's Birthday', I beleive - after they were assembled. Such an achievement, if true, implies a mastery over natural laws suggestive that he may be better occupied in research at one of the better universities.."

Noting mentally that I may have to edit my list somewhat, I release the brake and attempt to manoeuvre my 7.5 tonne lorry down the narrow unlit driveway. There is a right angle turn 50 metres down the driveway so as I concentrate on not demolishing a 500 year old ivy covered barn with the tail end of my truck as it swings round, I simultaneously must avoid plunging through the historic pond directly ahead and must also line the vehicle up to cross the quaint bridge past that. This involves a lot of low gear work so the tranquility of the rural night is shattered by the roar of a diesel engine at high revs. Barn owls flee in panic at the noise and a the pounding of hooves is evidence of a cattle stampede in a field nearby. After half and hour of this, the driveway is negotiated and the truck is parked, matter out of place, in front of "Ye Olde Station: The Perfect Hideaway".

I climb out of the cab and walk to the front door. It is nine pm and I am ravenously hungry. The prospect of a home cooked farmhouse meal is tantalising. Unfortunately, a lightning bolt awaits. With trembling hands I unstick the piece of paper taped to the oaken front door:

"Hello Mr Nickson. Your office said to expect you at eight. Waited half an hour, but as you are the only guest tonight, have gone home. Tried to reach you but no phone signal. Will return at ten thirty to see if you have arrived. If you are hungry there is a very good restaurant near Coleshill. Just follow the A56 south west. Its about ten miles, so only a fifteen minute drive. My home phone is 98763632."

I return to the cab, open my notebook and amend my notes. I cross out the numeral "26" from my most recent entry and write, and underline, in words, "ITEM NUMBER ONE".

Friday, 3 September 2010

Broken Britain: The Ride Of Hope.

Dateline: Ride minus ONE day
Location: Large Mansions, Kitchen/Bicycle Storage Area.

"Wow, Nel" I enthuse "Bob the Bike (from Bob's Bike's) is great. A full service in preparation for my ride only cost me $23.00. Bob's doing a similar Coast to Coast route on Saturday, so I think he's sympathetic to touring cyclists and gave me a great deal"

"That's nice" say RHB.

Dateline: Ride plus TWO days
Location: Mile 74 somewhere between Silloth and Carlisle on the deserted Cumbrian Coast.

"What I dont understand," says Skarra, helpfully, "What I really dont understand, is why you didnt get the bike serviced before we left".

I insist, again, that I did. And I detail my conversation with Bob the Bike, whereby I explained the route, duration, expected terrain, weather and approximate speed of our expedition. And that I needed a full service, pointing Bob to regions of concern - the brakes, wheel balance, gears and interactions thereof.

I then return my attention to my rear wheel which is boasting three loose spokes. When I have decided what to do about that, I can turn my attention to the front brake cable, and then the failing gears - other victim of Bob's discount maintenance. Skarra is a time-served boffin, and is therefore relentless in his pursuit of logic and hence cannot understand how it can be that I claim to have paid for a bike service, yet the bike gives every appearance of having had no treatment prior to our venture other than being assaulted with a large mallet. However, the breed Skarra typifies - psychologists - are a sensitive crew, trained in the ways of the mind. They know when a rider might need not to be doubted, but supported. So he offers sympathy:

"You know, this maintenance work you had done is so bad, it makes you wonder whether the whole bike is going to collapse under you on a steep downhill". He laughs sympathetically shaking his head "The luck you've had so far, it would probably happen right in front of an articulated lorry on a blind bend. Are you sure that your emergency brake repair is safe? Looks a bit ropey to me. Sheesh, that Bob!". With these comforting words he tuts and wanders off for an ice-cream.

Most of this conversation occurs somewhere along the Cumbrian coast. It is an amazing place, with an air about it of being lost in time. From the windy little village of Seascale, past the Sellafield nuclear power plant where armed police cradle machine guns(still an alarming sight in the UK), through the charming resort of Maryport up to Silloth, locals, whether in cafes or bars, garages or at emergency bike repair stops are friendly and interested. Even in Whitehaven, which only several months ago was subject to a mass murder, there is chat and advice. The pace of life seems slow, even to someone used to Hull's village-like atmosphere, and the advice (directions, weather, how to ride, what to go and see) is, like most village-borne advice, completely useless. We leave Cumbria with the sense that most of the people we speak to have never been anywhere else and dont see the need to do so. IN talking to us, they're just being friendly. It is the closest I've ever been to experiencing the unreality of Chatwin's Patagonia.

Dateline: Ride Day One
Location : Barrow in Furness Railway Station

"What I dont understand" says Skarra "What I really dont understand, is how we can have booked tickets for ourselves on this train, with seat reservations, and booked our bikes on the trains at the station, and have tickets for said reservations only to be told that those reservations are meaningless".

"Now, now " says the guard of the 14.36 Barrow to Ravenglass "The reservations arent meaningless, its just that there are too many people on the train. So you cant get on."

"You mean" I say "We cant get on with our bikes?"

"No" says the guard "You cant get on at all. Train's full"

I'm trying to make sense of what I'm being told. It feels vaguely familiar.

"Do all of those people" Skarra points at the single carriage train, which, at the moment resembles more a mobile sardine tin than a method of transport "Do all those people have reservations?"

"Probably not" says the guard, "But they were here before you. If you'd been here before them, we could have accepted your reservations. But we still could'nt have taken them bikes. Your best bet is to wait for the next train. You'd be first then, and the guard would probably accept your reservations. Still, that's no guarantee you could get those on" - he nods at the bikes as if they are back engineered alien technology, fresh out of Area 51.

Suddenly the engine driver appears, full of authority, and with the demeanor of someone who once knew someone who rode a bicycle and therefore can relate to wierdos, he announces he will try to get the bikes in his cab. The assembled crowd of Cumbrians (about fifty) give a small cheer and he grabs my bike and proceeds to attempt to ram it into his cabin, with the pointless optimism of someone who has never moved a piece of furniture in his life. He obviously has less chance of succeeding that the crowd of farmers and race-goers have of sobering up before Christmas but perseveres for several minutes. Then, with a few comments about "over-sized bikes", "just not made right" and (mysteriously) "its a train not a bus" he abandons his efforts and flings the bike back at me.

Dateline : Ride Day Three
Location : Somewhere in Northumbria, near Hadrian's Wall

We are on a deserted country road and have been riding for a few hours, and having argued ourselves to a standstill on the origins of agriculture, are discussing the current fad for sponsorship. It seems, we agree, that practically anyone who indulges themselves in vacations like the one we are having, feels the need to get t-shirts printed, whip up some press coverage and raise money for a 'worthy' cause as part of the process. The reality is that cycling coast to coast, snorkeling across the Irish Sea or playing poker non-stop are, like all human recreations, simply indulgences of the participants - but a wierd mass-guilt seems to have grown whereby people feel the need to justify such activities by getting "sponsored" to do them. It is unfathomable, but we feel we are missing something by not having a 'point' to our ride. So we decide to call it Broken Britain: The Ride of Hope and occupy sometime during the next few days speculating on how big the welcoming committee will be when we reach Newcastle, and discussing the good we are doing bringing hope to a blighted nation.

This however, doesnt really make us feel any worthier so attention is returned to the utterly selfish passtimes of measuring each climb, enjoying the silence, spotting birds in the hedgerows, and towards the end of each day, thinking about the meal ahead.

Dateline : Ride Day Five
Location : Downhill towards Newcastle

It takes about a day and a half to climb to the highest elevation on Hadrian's Wall by a circuitous route. And it takes about an hour and a half to descend to sea-level at breathtaking full speed. Descending on a bike looks easy, and up to a point it is - you just stop pedalling. But with some experience, you learn that there is an art to descending - techniques to employ, and lines to take that result in a faster ride. And it only gets really exciting when you are just at the limits of your ability to control the bike, but - and this is very important - are aware that you are at those limits. At that point - when it is just stupid to even attempt to apply the brakes - there are decisions to make. Such as whether to lean even steeper into the corners, whether to crouch down lower, whether to start thinking about what will happen if the chain flys loose and gets jammed in the gears. At some points in the descent, we went way past that point, and it really did become a ride of Hope.

Final Day on the Road.

The ride through Newcastle is horrible. Horrible because its through an identikit urban landscape. And horrible because we have to keep getting off to cross intersections. But mostly horrible because Red Bull has happened to Newcastle. In addition to being a favourite drink of alcoholics and heroin addicts, Red Bull are responsible for making sports like cycling, skateboarding, and even running, a fashion accessory. I dont really care about other hobbies, but the impact on such a Grand Old Man as cycling is to be regretted, and in Newcastle, once a favourite, down to earth Northern town, Bullites are everywhere. Throughout the rest of our ride, the on-road camarderie has been as it ever was. Passing cyclists wave at eachother, or you chat for a few kilometres if going in the same direction. In Newcastle however, steely eyed, lycra-clad, square-jawed Bullites overtake too close relentlessly. Approaching riders in this seasons 'must have' cycling shoes pretend to mess with their gears as we pass, refusing eye contact. Frantic 'exciting' heavy rock music pous from headphones and these boys look as if they want to look like they mean business. Personally, I doubt if, inbetween watching the 'Dave' TV channel, and flying off to Bucharest to 'grab a quick break' they've ever had the time to ride more than the ten mile poser ride along this horrible river path. There's a whole sporting culture developed of unfit, ill-informed ignorami (the plural of ignoramus) who, in the future will be fat lazy forty year olds, still drinking Red Bull and watching 'Dave TV' but with state of the art bikes gathering dust in the garage along with their snowboards, wind-surfers, skateboards and weights benches. The stuff should be banned.

Dateline: Evening of return to Hull
Location: Neighbour's back garden

"Hi, where've you been all week?" asks a friendly neighbour.

We are celebrating someone's birthday, and while I would rather be in a hot bath applying lanolin to some aching limbs, there is also a chance to talk, a little, about our adventures.

"Oh, you know. Just riding coast to coast. HAdrian's Wall actually. About 200 miles. Pretty cool".

"Wow" says the neighbour " That sounds brilliant. What charity did you do that for?"

Hadrians Wall