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Wednesday, 16 July 2014

The Ride of Hope IV (TROH S04: E01-E05): The Bad, The Good and the Ugly.

As readers are aware,  the annual semi-planned "The Ride of Hope" (TROH) is  a series of disasters, or near disasters, interspersed with some enjoyable cycling, that for some unfathomable reason, its participants (who are also the members of  seminal folk-rock combo 'Cheek to Cheek') start talking about every Spring as a 'good idea'. A date for the ride is speculated on and a route decided based on as little information as possible. Then follows months of inactivity - equipment is unchecked, training rides are cancelled because a good footy match is on the tv, and hoteliers, camp site owners and hostels are left untroubled by enquiries about availability of accomodation. Finally, and usually about a week before departure, the participants realise that they either have to 'put up or shut up'. The results are invariably that  TROH comprises  a series of  encounters with strange people, unexpected diversions and wierd food....interspersed with great views, bizarre rambling conversations, hellish but brilliant ascents and unsuitable off-roading.   This year's TROH was no exception. Lets take a look at what a television documentary would call 'the highlights' starting, in a break from the normal order, with 'the bad'.

The Bad.

This year's Richard Dawkins Award for Sheer Awefulness undoubtedly goes to the food experienced on TROH S04. A high calorific intake is necessary when riding long distances and you need to eat constantly while riding as well - my friend's Canadian adage "eat before you're hungry, drink before you're thirsty" is some of the best advice I have ever found out the price of ignoring. So we do carry food while we ride but mostly trail mix, jelly babys', granola bars and the like. At the end of the day however, something more substantial is needed in the form of a full meal. One solution may be that riders carry their own food but that seems (or perhaps bearing in mind this year's experiences 'seemed') unnecessary in this crowded, but occasionally sceptered isle as you are never really far from population centres and decent grub can surely not be that hard to find, spilling out of roadside inns competing for a dwindling tourist trade? While it may be true that grub could be found, the microwaved slush that was delivered about thirty five seconds after our order was taken in Berwick on Tweed's best Chinese restaurant, costing about thirty five pounds for two main courses, cannot be described as decent. The chicken I ate in Seahouses most popular fish and chip restaurant, rivaled BOT's Chinese disaster in how extremely bad it was,  having the texture, and taste,  of  paint brush bristles that had been left in paint long since evaporated, and practically every bar meal we had - almost impossible to get wrong I previously thought - brought on hallucinations caused by salt overdose. As TROH S04 progressed, I began to dread the evening meal, a dread that was only surpassed by the dread induced by contemplation of the following morning's fat soaked sausages (I stopped eating pork years ago as a rule but vegetarian breakfasts are even worse, usually consisting of a warm egg (which obviously isnt vegetarian anyway) sloshed round a cooling pan and presented as scrambled eggs.)

The food though achieved a narrow victory in the Richard Dawkins Award for Sheer Awefulness because sections of the route - which is advertised as part of the UK's national cycle network were spectacularly bad in specific ways. Some photos may help understand this, starting with a ford crossing near the sea near BOT

It does, I have to admit look picturesque but I should remind readers that this is a cycling route. The fact that the bridge is only passable if you have a unicycle with off road capacity as the bridge is too narrow for any handlebars so even a mountain bike is useless is one thing, but the really annoying thing is the regularity of gates on the route. In some sections, you repeatedly have to get off your bike, open the gate, close the gate then ride another 400 metres before repeating the operation.This goes on for miles.

The next problem with the route - called 'Castles and Coasts' (see the Sustrans website) is that an awful lot of it appears to be designed not to give an interesting or even safe ride, but to get bikes out of the way of cars. Thus a typical section in a town involves directing bikes through car parks, toilets, gravel pits, and abandoned roads on the undesireable side of town which look like the British Army used them to practice urban warfare techniques. The photos dont really do this justice as I was either too scared for my personal safety from roaming dogs, too concentrated on not getting punctured tyres from needles or broken glass or just too busy concentrating on not bumping into concrete bollards or rubbish to take many shots but here's a couple of images:
 The crumbling waterfront north of Newcastle that ended in ...........
 The abandoned road ...........

  This is a constant problem - even when cycle lanes near main highways are provided, many drivers see them as convenient extra parking spaces...
 And back to the gates............

  and the car parks ..........

What must be borne in mind is that these are not short-cuts. In fact the contrary is true as 'Coasts and Castles' frequently involves massive detours from the crow flying to divert the rider to these places. In fact, the route frequently appears to be designed less with the crow flying in mind and more  as an analogue of the nocturnal ramblings of a feral cat. Naturally, with two different academic paradigms on the Ride, this characteristic caused some debate, reminiscent of The Paradigm Wars. While we agreed that the inadequacies of the designed route suggested that  in road planning meetings when " "Agenda Item 3: Planning for Cyclists" was reached the  consensus view on cyclists among representatives present was probably "F*** 'em", how we should react to this was debated.  The scientist among us , Iceman (by the second day we had decided we needed Top Gun style 'handles'),  stuck with the scientific approach that took the route literally. For him, the route existed objectively, to be examined as a cycle route. The Critical Sociolinguist, Flamebearer (AKA yrs trly), thought that the route was there to be interpreted, and possibly with a twist of post-modernism, challenged  fundamementally,  ontologically and epistemologically. The result was a compromise wherein we interpreted some parts choosing better routes that would have been obvious to the route designers if they'd bothered to look at a map. let alone try the route out for themselves,  and took other passages where the route was, possibly as an oversight, really good,  literally. Which leads us to the whole point of the ride, which was the Good Stuff.

Good Stuff:

The views were occasionally stunning. The best thing to do is to just show a few pictures, although they do lack the smell of brine where we skirted the coast or the scent of wild garlic as we mountain biked through forests. Incidentally, mountain biking through forest trails with full panniers is not for the faint hearted but if it ever becomes an Olympic sport (and it should) I am stupid enough to enter as its an altogether different type of exhilirating, mostly terrifying.
 This trail started off looking dead easy like this, but it quickly got narrow and very fast...wild garlic everywhere .. just incredible.

 Fields of flowers like in a magazine (with a Newcastle housing project in the background to bring you back to earth)...

 A river somewhere in Scotland I think...
 A castle, of course..........
 Same river as above...

 Looking north to Bamburg castle ( I think) ...........

 Next few  (And one above) are from the final climb before Edinburgh - a ten mile climb, quite gentle, but we had miscalculated distance and the whole day was close to seventy miles with this climb the last thing we did before an exhilirating fifteen mile descent into Edinburgh. It would be pretty easy on a road bike, but on a loaded bike, you just have to slog up the hill. Iceman hates these climbs but I love them..

 Iceman at the top looking down on the Edinburgh plain..

Final word goes to buildings and friends.

On buildings : we only stopped at one castle Bamburgh Castle. It is magnificent in some ways ..

.... but the miserable-ist in me cant help but think that the craftmanship and energy on show also represent a mind set of exploitation - the beams of the ceiling of the great hall were hewn from a type of teak  (600 tonnes) that is now practically extinct as the tour guide - a definite enthusiast of Empire -  almost gleefully recounted. The same guy, describing a piece of furniture in another part of the castle, described how it constituted part of a dowry. He then went on to explain that the dowry wasnt just the furniture, gold and cattle a bride's family gave to a husband, it also included the bride herself as property . He appeared to find this rather "charming" but the resonances of a man owning a woman remain in Western cultue today in all sorts of ways so I left pretty depressed.

What didnt depress me was the wigwam we stayed in, our only night's camping.
 We lit a fire, bought a bunch of beer and just talked.
And finally what was best was the people, first of all Iceman........riding partners are not the easiest thing to find but we always quickly get into a rhythym, spelling eachother at the front, giving eachother space on descents and agreeing on rest stops without really discussing it..

 .. and secondly our friend Sarah who we met in Edinburgh on the night of the World Cup Final...Sarah is an ex-colleague of RHB and Iceman, a keen scuba diver, sportswoman and a great laugh.

 I have to finish by saying that The Ride of Hope is something me and Paul dreamed up as a jokey reference to the fact that whenever we told people we were doing a long distance ride, we would be asked "What charity are you doing it for?".  In fact a whole industry of sponsored bike rides, hikes, climbs and runs in support of one good cause or another has grown up in the UK. Its almost as if you cant do a bike ride unless you're supporting some good cause or another - some people look askance as if its somehow selfish of you just to do a ride for pleasure. I'd never de-cry a good cause but when you consider that commercial companies are now heavily involved in these events, requiring a minimum sum to be pledged, from which they take a handsome cut and are effectively  profiteering from say, cancer or mental health issues, the cynic in me wonders about the ethics of some of these events. It's true that these events raise awareness, but in many cases that's the best thing that can be said about them: when you examine the books (as I have done in the course of my research into the so-called Third Sector, an umbrella these companies fall under) they not only make profit from the participants ( who have to pay a fee)  but also from the donations the participants raise and  simultaneously they  take advantage of tax-relief for charities, thereby increasing their profits further. Simply put, they profiteer from misery. As for the participants, the activities are often things they would love to do, like sky-diving or trekking in remote places. I have to wonder whether, if the event was to spend an equivalent amount of time looking after a person with mental  health issues or involving experiencing the hardships of a condition in some way - a much more direct way of raising their own awareness  - as many people would participate. So I'm pretty sceptical of many of these events.

But not all of them, which is where my friend Reka comes in. Nel and I met Reka (her house is about fifty feet away) shortly after we moved into Large Mansions. She was among the first to welcome us to the area and,  as I soon found out,  was pivotal in local community action, including arts projects I later got involved in. She was also instrumental in integrating us in what is a truly unique local community based on our experience of living in two countries and numerous cities: :  summer barbeques, dancing at the Adelphi, house parties, sharing cars, helping with DIY - we became friends over the last five years -  Christmas parties, Halloween, mad arts projects, street festivals, just hanging out. She was also a keen cyclist who had cancer. As such she did participate in bike rides for a cause but for her it wasnt a 'holiday' or stumbling into making a  profit for someone else, she rode because she loved it and because she wanted to show the value of exercise and that you could live even as a cancer 'sufferer' (although she was never that). Her own awareness could'nt be questioned and at times she seemed as interested in getting people into cycling or fitness  as 'the cause'. We talked about bikes, about the advantages and disadvantages of using cleats, about climbs and descents and about food on the road. We even talked about my cynicism about 'sponsored bike rides' with Reka telling me off for being so cynical, although I (think/hope I) was clear that it wasnt her type of ride I was sceptical about.

Reka died three days before I left for this years TROH. I did think about her a lot on this year's ride and will miss her an incredible amount. I never went with Reka on one of her long rides only  going  for a couple of trips locally, which ended up in the pub. We almost never talked about her illness although she did  raise my awareness of cancer - I never imagined someone as ill as her could ride from Lands End to John O'groats while having chemotherapy.  But most of all she raised my awareness of how much difference a brilliant  person with a warm heart and  mad enthusiasms can make. This one was for you Reka.