Charity Ride – Foulness Island 10.09.17

Thorpe Bay Rotary Club have been running this annual ride around the otherwise off-limits Foulness Island for some time. For the last couple of years, they have allowed participants to raise money for their elected charity. I now work for Red Balloon of the Air, an educational charity providing academic and therapeutic programmes for children who have experienced trauma resulting in non-attendance at school. Based in Essex, I manage our provision in the county, teach online and support the face-to-face recovery of children who attend our satellite centre at The Notleys Golf Club, a popular stop-off for some of the local mid-week groups with which some readers of this blog also ride.

As I worked for 10 years at Thorpe Hall School, not far from the official start/finish point of the island ride near Great Wakering, I became used to the summertime commutes to and from work – for the most part in busy mid-week traffic. During rush hour, these are not the most pleasant of roads Essex has to offer, especially due to Rettendon Roundabouts Rage. However, I decided to resurrect that route last ridden a few years ago and ride to and from the start point. This would make a total distance, with the 23 miles around the island, of c. 75 miles which, although not a massive distance, I thought seemed a little more respectable to add to my sponsorship page.

There is a choice of Hanningfields to pick up the old A130 rise to Rettendon, and I opted for the gentle drag up to Butts Green and East Hanningfield to warm up. Setting off at 8am, I was too early for the road race mentioned below on Mel’s ride, but all the preparations were in full swing and other more competitive types were warming up more vigorously than me in anticipation of the racing to come. Once over the Turnpike and Hawk Hill roundabouts, the roads via Hullbridge, Rochford and the Wakerings are pan flat and certainly quieter and more pleasant than on weekday mornings.

The start/finish point was Cupids Country Club, where very helpful and friendly Rotary Club volunteers, including one or two friends from the school, were checking us in and generally pointing us in the right direction. I understand over 1000 cyclists took part throughout the day, but with half-hourly phased start times to avoid overcrowding. Simple refreshments were available, although the coffee was of the ‘brown-grit-in-a-styrofoam’ variety.

So what of the island itself? Most of the non-military ‘action’ takes place at the aptly-named Churchend at the far end. The road to get on and off was straight and exposed, as you might expect, with various checkpoints and rather ominous signs about the current UK terror threat level at regular intervals. The reminders of the military nature of the island were never far away in any sense. But the island is also home to some 150? residents. Some of the land (and marshes beyond) are often scattered with weapons, in tests we hope are rather smaller in scale than the more infamous shows of strength elsewhere in the world. But other areas of the island seem peacefully rural, with the village nestling among open, arable farmland. This rather well-written Southend Echo report from 2009 speaks of the paradoxical nature of island life – almost as paradoxical as the combination of the phrases ‘well-written report’ and ‘Southend Echo website’ in the same sentence!

The 4-mile circuit beyond Churchend village started with the same smooth tarmac as that which forms the spine of the island. However, after a couple of 90 degree turns and waves to children watching the spectacle from their garden gates, the terrain changed to gravel, some soft mud and puddles. Complete with strengthening headwind, this wasn’t exactly the pavé of Paris-Roubaix, but the same skills of relaxed vigilance, maintaining momentum and letting a road bike find its own natural line were necessary. One or two of those who visibly tensed up struggled a bit, and with worry etched on faces, there were a couple of spills, but nothing serious. There were several broom wagons and volunteers/first aiders dotted all around the route, so risks were managed very well and the emphasis on safe enjoyment could be maintained.

I did the recommended 3 loops of 4 miles, caught up with the school caretaker who was supporting by bringing the minibus as a very brightly-coloured support vehicle, then headed back down what for some had become the long walk to freedom. Freedom took a while coming for me too, as by now the wind had really got up and was doing its best to blow us escapees back the way we’d come. Cue 15 minutes of head-down effort, punctuated by cheery waving as I saw the happy, smiling faces still coming the other way on cheap, steel mountain bikes effortlessly pedalling towards the village. Inside, I was thinking, ‘You wait!’

IMG_0625No photography is allowed on the island, but here I am with my medal (a reward for the triumph against the headwind, if nothing else). As well as that recent effort, the fixed grin also masks the pain of 2 minutes previously, when, having leant my bike against the barrier and turned around, a considerable gust blew it straight back the other way, with all its steely weight transferred from top tube to midway up my left thigh. After a little recovery time, though, I put in a quick loop around North Shoebury (to make the total miles up to 75) and took it gently on the way home with a steadily increasing wind and a couple of short, sharp and squally showers for company.

I can thoroughly recommend this ride: it’s well-organised, easy cycling, for all my histrionic hyperbole, and a good opportunity to see a quirky little part of Essex that would otherwise be inaccessible. This is the ‘Relive’ video of the ride, which takes the gps mapping data from Strava:


Sunday Ride to Cornish Hall End – 10.04.16

Diana led, starting off promptly at 9.15am (I only just made it!) on a bright but chilly Spring morning.  With quite a collection of pockets and maps, she succeeded admirably in choosing increasingly quiet and pleasant lanes as the day progressed.  After a relaxed, unhurried route to Andrewsfield via Great Leighs, the peace and quiet was balanced out by a steady stream of assorted light aircraft taxiing, taking off and landing, including an instructor and pupil repeatedly doing all three in quick succession and a helicopter that seemed to be manoeuvring alarmingly close by (but I’m sure they knew what they were doing).  Amidst all this aerial mayhem, two of our bikes were blown over and the feeling was unanimous that this was the busiest anyone could remember – there was even talk of Stansted being less busy on a Sunday morning.

Four of us continued to lunch, with topics of conversation including the recent opening of the new bridge connecting Chelmer Village and the Army and Navy.  With such pretty rural surroundings, you’d have thought we’d have banished thoughts of urban infrastructure, but as we arrived in Cornish Hall End, a group of bikers, about to leave, were sharing opinions on exactly the same topic.

Lunch done, we headed via Finchingfield (where a much larger group of bikers was gathered, as is customary on a Sunday afternoon) and Shalford towards Rayne.  Despite the early promise, the sun’s warmth never quite established itself; the same couldn’t be said of the cool easterly which strengthened during the afternoon.  As a result, we were quite happy to sit inside with a mug of tea at the Booking Hall Cafe.

At the race course I said cheerio to John, Martin and Diana, who turned right towards Littley Green while I headed home with a tailwind via Boreham, after a pleasant 57 miles.

Garmin 10.04.16

Seven Day Cyclist (and other inspirational cycling-related reading)

Forgive me if I’m hopelessly behind the times, but I’ve only just come across a website/magazine called Seven Day Cyclist with a strapline ‘Cycling, but not usually racing’.  Links to the first eight Back Issues, which can be read online, should provide something of interest.  I’m finding getting out for more than an hour or so is increasingly challenging, especially unless there’s more of a sense of purpose than just cycling ‘for its own sake’.  So instead, I enjoy reading about others’ experiences, including on this blog, other CTC group blogs, such as CTC Cambridge or CTC Northampton or the wealth of cycling touring travelogues in the form of old-fashioned books.  When I’m about 70 (or later?) and finally allowed to retire, I might even be in a position to embark on some sort of cycling adventure myself (or at least the odd day ride) but, for now, reading is at least some sort of substitute.  That’s how I’ve been consoling myself, anyway.

However, I recently had the pleasure of listening to adventurer, writer and cyclist, Alastair Humphreys.  He writes about adventures at either end of the scale, from 40000 miles around the world by bike to what he calls ‘micro-adventures’, smaller-scale, short, spontaneous experiences:

Microadventures from Alastair Humphreys on Vimeo.

Although these encompass many modes of travel, it seems the bicycle is where his adventuring heart lies.  I feel certain we would all have an opinion on his advice for ultralight cycle touring.

I am sure Alastair would approve of reading about the exploits of others at times when it is difficult to fit an active lifestyle around busy lives, especially as his latest book has just been published.  After all, it was reading travelogues that inspired the latent adventurer in him, and I’ve certainly enjoyed books such as One Man and his Bike, about cycling around the coast of Britain, for example.  But I’ve also heard his particularly persuasive form of outdoor evangelism.  It’s based around a premise that it’s all too easy to remain in a comfort zone, procrastinating, waiting for a time (such as retirement) when there is more time.

So for those of us still very much working full-time and with busy family lives, reading provides entertainment and inspiration, but even the types of day rides described on this and other CTC groups’ blogs, and in Spotlight magazine, are ‘micro-adventures’ well worth recording.  After all, there are the surprises, the chance encounters with fellow humans and with wildlife, the impromptu stops at the side of the road (for all sorts of reasons) the planned stops, food and drink, the conversation, the British weather (always a talking point) the bizarre and the unpredictable.  And, of course, the enjoyment.  I guess for me, the key is making the time to do both the reading and the doing, so I hope to see you soon on a Sunday, and thanks to those who make the effort to continue to contribute to the blog and to ‘Spotlight’ magazine.  A small but interested readership appreciate it!


World Hour Record Secrets

Those of us who cycle regularly through the Chignals to the NW of Chelmsford are used to seeing plenty of other cyclists – after all, these are some of the most popular quiet lanes anywhere around the city.  However, some new faces, admittedly mostly straw-filled, have appeared in the last couple of weeks, including two very different cycling types.

Scarecrow WigginsThe first is an uber-cool Tour de France winner.  The build-up to the successful world hour record attempt was shrouded in secrecy, with all sorts of rumours circulating about the most cutting-edge equipment tested for those marginal gains.  How many of us knew, though, of the 16″ wheels that were tried on the former record-holder’s local roads?  And with an even more radical innovation to shed weight that not even Mr. Brailsford could have dreamed up, who could have predicted that ‘going the extra mile’ meant replacing the entire body’s content with straw?  Surely the UCI will have something to say about this when they see the evidence.

This sort of ‘Sky Blue’ thinking isn’t entirely original, though.  I think we can clearly see that these latest innovations have come from the other end of the cycling spectrum.  Compare Wiggo with new local Chignal St. James resident, Sally, warming down after a particularly hard effort, and it becomes obvious who the real (straw) brains behind last weekend’s record-breaking triumph belong to:

Scarecrow 1

The cycling media have been keen to ask more about the so-called ‘Chignal-effect’.  However, these two local residents remained poker-faced:

Scarecrow 2

Sunday Ride (Part 1) to Aldham – 24 May 2015

With rain not scheduled until later in the day, there was a reasonable turnout of 10 as we headed NE in the direction of Colchester.  Included in that number were Delia and her friend from the NW, getting in some steady miles before an exciting cycling holiday in Vietnam in June.  We look forward to hearing about that, maybe with a blog post and one or two pictures when you get back, Delia?

Dave R. led us on a slightly longer ride to elevenses of just over 28 miles which took in Broomfield, Terling, Witham, Rivenhall, Messing and Copford, before passing Marks Tey station on the way to the Mill Race Garden Centre in Aldham.  A good steady pace and no unforeseen incidents meant we arrived by late morning in the by-now warm sunshine.  After some sustenance in pleasant surroundings, I was the only one to turn right to head back for 30 miles home via Kelvedon, Silver End, White Notley, Great Leighs and Boreham, adding about another 30 miles.  By early afternoon, there were some big spots of rain in the wind which didn’t amount to much until about 4pm.  I hope the rest didn’t get too wet on the return leg?

This was the first part of the route:

Cycle to Work Day – 04.09.14

As the Indian Summer finally gives way to a British Autumn, and warm sunshine is replaced by squally showers, I thought I would mention Cycle to Work Day, which took place recently.  This is a national event, championed by multi gold medal winning Paralympic cyclist, Dame Sarah Storey, which aims to encourage everyone to take to two wheels and cycle to work for just one day.  With a website a social media presence and press coverage, this year’s day was a glorious Thursday in early September…perfect conditions in fact.

A warm, clear late summer's evening in Battlesbridge

A warm, clear late summer’s evening in Battlesbridge

My round-trip commute between Great Baddow and Thorpe Bay is around 47 miles which makes a daily cycle unrealistic due to time constraints.  However, up until very recently, it has been possible to continue cycling to work once or twice a week in dry and warm conditions.  Even the usually aptly-named Watery Lane, connecting Battlesbridge and Hullbridge, remained bone dry for weeks on end.  This two-mile cut-through, where the national speed limit applies, is often something of a race track during rush hour, but the construction of a new bridge meant that this section was closed to vehicles.  This left just the minor inconvenience of having to walk across the temporary pedestrian bridge, treading carefully to avoid glass and loose gravel.

I am a bit sceptical about ‘National’ days, weeks or months.  After all, October boasts such milestones in the almanac as ‘badger day’, a ‘global handwashing day’ or how about ‘wool week’?  They always give the press easy copy to fill column inches and airtime on a slow news day.  When it comes to cycling to work, the real story is the benefits of a year-round lifestyle change, which is surely a no-brainer.  It is for me, at least, with work and recent personal circumstances making it difficult to get out on Sundays.  Even if this type of ‘National Day’ encourages just a few more commuters to leave the car at home now and then, it has to be worthwhile.

Plans are already being made for ‘National Cycle to Work Day 2015’.  In the meantime, once I have attended the autumn AGMs, I shall while away the coldest months with delights such as ‘Bubblewrap Appreciation Day’ and ‘National Doodle Day’.  Those long, dark winter evenings look set to fly by!