Thursday, May 16, 2013

Pretending to be a Roman, part II

After a fitful nights sleep, punctuated by one of our room's occupants getting up to go to the loo, one snoring, one farting and one making the bunk creak every time he rolled over, we got up. At this juncture I should probably point out that we were sharing a 3-bed family room, and let you try and figure out to whom each of those four categories applies.

YHA breakfasts are as they were way back when I worked in the YHA - basic, stodgy, cheap and very much worth it. Geoffrey and I split the last bit of Black Pudding, since apparently the lady booking the breakfasts at reception had got the numbers a bit wrong. Ross got extra veggie sausage, and declined the black pudding - strange that. And there was plenty of cereals and toast available to plug the gaps around the fryup, if so required. We so required, plugged said gaps, donned our best (or second-best) lycra and got the bikes ready for the off. Before we offed, we also donned our best waterproofs, since the morning was, frankly, a bit miserable. Leaving Once Brewed was easy, down the hill into a big dip. Climbing the other side was a bit of a stretch, and led to a wee bit of frantic thrutching, grinding and crunching gears to get up and over and then turn left onto the Stangate towards Vindolanda. This turn marked the start of a long, straight, smooth downhill, which again ended abruptly in a big dip. I think the Romans needed to work on their engineering: They'd mastered straight roads, but they still went down and through some nasty dips. More bridges needed next time, Romans.

The dip at Vindolanda was also particularly rough. It's a shame, as there's good tarmac in one side, a horribly washed out, chopped up, pitted crap bit in the middle, then good tarmac out the other side again. Being the only one with drop bars, I clung grimly on down the rough bit. That said, being the only one with disc brakes, at least I knew I could stop a bit quicker if needed. Anyway, more thrutching and grinding and we were soon up the other side and up to the high point of the ride at Crindledykes. Since it was still precipitating upon us, a continuous heavy drizzle with additional road spray, we didn't stop to take a picture, but plodded on, knowing full well that about 5 miles of continuous downhill was to come. A steady trod alongside Grindon Lough and then the gradient started to decline, and we rolled downwards with ever increasing pace, swiping at the glasses every now and again to clear the spray, and in my case wishing I had brought my waterproof shorts, since through a single layer of lycra my thighs were completely frozen. We finally bottomed out at Newbrough, and tried to ease some life back into frozen fingers, toes, legs and backsides as we started having to pedal again through the backroad to Fourstones, and through another 'Navigator's Choice' route, direct along the South Tyne, rather than loop north-east and come down the North Tyne from Warden. At least it had stopped raining, and once along here, we were back into familiar territory for me, cruising under the A69 into Hexham and across Tyne Green, which doesn't look quite the same when it's not covered in tents, gazebos, and mildly inebriated kayakers.

The first appointed coffee-and-dry-out stop was Tesco cafe. We left the bikes locked up and under the watchful eye of the carwash blokes, in a bike park apparently built to house the entire Tour de France peloton. Ours, oddly enough, were the only bikes in it. The place was just what we needed: cheap, cheerful, has toilets and hand dryers and perhaps most importantly, wipe-clean chairs ("I feel sorry for whoever sits down on these after us" was Dad's considered opinion). After the gap-filling and cooked breakfast, none of us was in need of cake, but a large mug of coffee certainly hit the spot. We trooped to the bathrooms one-at-a-time to try and get some bits dried off and warmed up, then finished up and rolled back out of town.

The next stage of the route was a gentle, undulating roll along easy and well surfaced back roads, via Corbridge (a little bit confusing, signage could be a touch better/more frequent), Bywell (Ross: "I recognise this bit: Last time I drove along here we had to wait for the floodwater to drop") and then absolutely parallel to the river to the first of the 'Tyne Crossings' at Ovingham. Unsure of the signage at the narrow Ovingham bridge (there's a "Pedestrians Only, No Horses" sign on the footbridge, and the vehicle bridge is only just a single car width) we fired across the vehicle bridge and waved to the nice man who'd stopped to let us across. A sharp right just after the bridge and we were into car-less trail in the Tyne Riverside Country Park. Nothing exceptional to reports from here, a couple of short-steep climbs of the 'where the hell did that appear from?!' ilk, then over a lovely old metal railway bridge and along the old lines through and beyond Wylam, birthplace of George Stephenson. That probably explained the railway, then.

After a little navigational dispute ("The pub's thataway!" "Yes, but the NCN Signs says thataway!"), a bit more riverside gravel track and our first bit of dog-dodging since Carlisle we arrived at Feed Station 6, otherwise known as the Keelman Inn, Newburn, home of the Big Lamp Brewery. Dad had been raving about this place since we left Hexham, and he's a fan of both his food and his beer, so we assumed it'd be alright. Credit to the staff, they didn't bat an eyelid at a trio of grubby blokes in lycra standing at the bar on a busy Sunday lunchtime, though they did look relieved when told we were sitting outside. Two stotties full of meat (with chips) and one Mediterranean veggie wrap (with chips) and a pint each and we sat in the sun, enjoying the day and watching the lady in front of us's dog chew its way through a half pack of paracetamol it had found. We obviously weren't the only ones getting anaesthetised.

The Keelman was a bit of a turning point, in a way: We knew that at the YHA, most of the weekend's climbing was done with; we knew that, from Hexham, we had no more big descents; and from Newburn, we were more-or-less off the pleasant, leafy backroads and gravel tracks, and into the urban streets and concrete. After Newburn you start hitting the industrial estates that line the Tyne, and while a good effort effort has been made to put cycle lanes in, make dual-duty pavements, make crossings easy, like a lot of urban cycle infrastructure it's very stop-start. Riding along the dual carriageway through Scotswood might be intimidating and dodgy, but it's more flowing than having to skip backwards-and-forwards across at the traffic lights to follow a cycle path that isn't sure which side of the road it's supposed to be. Things got better as we got closer to the centre, and the Quayside path started, taking us off the busy main roads, and rounding the long corner to the famous view up the Tyne, past the famous bridges - Redheugh bridge, Edward VII rail bridge, Elizabeth II Metro bridge, High Level, Swing bridge, Tyne bridge and the Gateshead Millenium 'blinking eye' - gave a fantastic view. The traditional Quayside Sunday Market was just starting to close, a tradition that even the old restrictions on Sunday trading couldn't stop, and it's been going since the 1700's. There's a temporary restriction on cycling through the market, but instead of following the proscribed detour signs we just dismounted and walked through the crowds.

Beyond the market was the place I'd been raving about since the Keelman - The Cycle Hub at Ouseburn. I first came up here for a 'bike jumble' a while back, and thought it was a cracking little place, part bike shop, part hire joint, part cafe. It seemed to be well timed on our route for the afternoon coffee stop, so stop we did. We locked the bikes up outside and wandered in, ordered coffees and cakes, had a bit of banter with the staff, Dad wanted to know "who do I see about a pot of arse lard?"; Ross, settling into the sofa just asked "I wonder how much they charge for an hours sleep here". I spotted the three-person bike suspended up above the doors and wondered if that would be a good solution for our next tour. We re-sorted ourselves eventually, gathered our belongings and wits about us, and set off once more. We were all wincing at getting back on the bikes at this point, bums a bit sore from the previous miles, but onwards we wandered. This final leg was actually one of the least pretty of the whole ride, a mix of industrial estate, housing estate, glass-strewn cycle path and urban pavement, with a short stretch that looked like it had been the scene of this year's annual 'burn-out-a-car festival'. Not quite the same as the big views and open sky up on the Wall itself, but a necessary evil, and probably better in general than trying to ride along the main roads would have been.

Soon we were at another landmark on our ride, albeit a not-very-scenic one: The Tyne Pedestrian and Cycle Tunnel. The escalators were closed, so we looped round to the lifts, and wheeled our way through the deceptivel short tunnel to the far side of the river and into Jarrow, then through more urban streetwork, though a bit better signed, through old terraces of housing and around the port area into South Shields. One more obstacle, though, a split in the signage, two different cycle routes, and obviously, we took the wrong one. Rather than follow the signs for the Tyne Ferry (since, y'know, we'd just used the tunnel) we followed the Route 1 signs, which took us up and over the ridge upon which South Shields sits, then started to turn Southbound. Knowing that that wasn't quite right, we stopped to ask a couple of people if the knew where Arbeia, the famous (or at least, fairly well know) Roman fort was. The first one: not a clue. While I know we all take our own locality for granted to an extent, not knowing that there's this whacking great Roman fort in the middle of your home town? Crazy. Fortunately, the second one did, and it wasn't that far away. For future reference, it's on Fort Street, surprisingly enough.

We wearily climbed the last hill, having failed to spot a certain Blue octavia pulling across the junction just ahead of us, and spotted the Fort Street sign. Turning the corner, I spotted Mum climbing out of the car, camera in hand: Time to pose as a team. Geoffrey arrived at the summit, we formed a rolling roadblock, and cycled slowly in to the finish.

The end - Centurions Armer (Jr), Armer (Jr) and Hendry

All in all, we had a fantastic weekend of riding. Nothing majorly taxing, around 90 miles total (42 on Day 1, 49 on Day 2), plenty of coffee and cake stops (no need for energy gels and bars on this one!), lots of chat, and excellent company. We weren't racing, just enjoying a couple of days of pushing ourselves a little bit, and getting in some lovely scenery on the way. Thanks to Ross and Dad for planning, sorting and being part of the ride, and to Mum for dropping us off, picking us up, and providing the pink fizzy stuff to rehydrate with at the end. I've my eye on a very different coast-to-coast next, but Hadrian's Cycleway was a (mostly) lovely way to get one under the belt.

Thanks for reading!


Thursday, May 02, 2013

Pretending to be a Roman, pt I

It's been a good while since I did anything in the way of long-haul cycling. There's been a fair bit of commuting to work, but that's only a handful of miles each way. There's been a few short MTB rides over the winter. Aside from that, the last time I did any serious riding was the 12hrs of Exposure and since then, I've just been bimbling. So when Dad came out with the plan to ride the Hadrian's Cycleway, it seemed like something that would probably kill me. The full route is 174 miles, Ravenglass to South Shields (or Glannaventa to Arbeia, if you're pretending to be a Roman), but with only a weekend we decided Bowness-on-Solway (Maia) was the better start point. Apparently, this is the actual western end of Hadrian's Wall itself, and the rest down to Ravenglass an extension, the Western Sea Defence, plus for our purposes, it brought the first distance estimate to a nice round 100 miles. And cleverly remembering the old adage that 'misery loves company', I roped in Ross to suffer along with me. It seemed like the best idea.

The appointed weekend came, and we gathered in Torpenhow on the Friday night, faffed with kit, deliberated about weather forecasts and tried to work out what we needed in terms of clothing. It became obvious that it didn't really matter, so we gave up on all of that, had a beer and relaxed. Saturday morning came and after more faff and a short drive we were at Bowness unloading and getting ready to ride.

Our bike choices all varied: Dad had gone for his MTB with slicks, rather than the higher gearing of his road bike; Ross opted for his flat-bar cross-inspired Cube; I, being a geek about these things, had rebuilt my old singlespeed up into an off-road drop-barred, hybrid-tyred, fully rigid 69er mongrel. Since we were YHA-ing for the night we didn't need much kit, so I'd restricted myself to my 15l OMM Pack, Dad had packed his small rack-top trunk, and Ross seemed to be carrying the kitchen sink. Still, as we pottered along the Solway coast, none of that mattered, it was sunny, we were on bikes, and another little adventure was on the go. The roll along to Carlisle was utterly uneventful, a little bit of tweaking saddle heights, a little tweaking of brakes, a lot of chatting, and a solo breakaway by Geoffrey (only to be reeled in on the next climb) and we were soon through Burgh by Sands and passing Ratlingate Scout camp at Kirkandrews-on-Eden, the scene of my first Cyclocross event many many years ago. We were soon over the Carlisle northern bypass, off the tarmac and onto the gravel and mud round Bitts Park and pulling up for our first appointed coffee stop of the weekend at the Turf Tavern. Large coffees all round, no muffins available but Mum had given up a Tunnocks Wafer each before we set off, so the refuelling commenced.

With the 'flat bit' of the first day out of the way, we knew the gradient was going to start going upwards as we set off again for Brampton, through the riverside parks and then backroads to Brunstock. After a short spell on the main A689The 'official' route takes a somewhat circuitous route through a bunch of little villages, which our official routeplanner had decided was 'too much of a faff', so we pacelined it along the main road. Not sure what the copper with the speed camera thought as we chuntered past:
Pyro: "He'll have a speed gun."
Ross: "Nah, I bet he's just pulled over for a snooze!" 
< pedal-pedal-pedal *peek into van* pedal-pedal-pedal >
Pyro: "Nope, he's definitely got a speed gun. Alright"
Officer "Alright."
But he didn't pull us over, so we must have been doing less than 60. One quick stop for a jimmy and a handful of Jelly Babies and we were off again, heading straight into Brampton itself with lunch in mind. After a bit of faff (the Farmer's Market was just shutting up shop, the pub that had outside tables wasn't serving food, the pub that was serving food didn't have outside tables, neither did the obvious tearoom) we found the Off the Wall coffee shop, grabbed the two little tables outside and parked ourselves. Toasties, wraps and a brew (and the only salad of the weekend), a nice sit in the sun, some funny looks off a gentleman on a mobility scooter and the world set almost to rights, and it was time to get going and get the legs ready for some proper hills. Oh joy.

From Brampton it was all fairly gentle to begin with, then just after Lanercost Priory, it started to rise. The climb up to Banks is a steep little so-and-so, and due to tuning issues, neither Dad or I could get into the 'Granny Ring', so it became a game of muscle. Through the hamlet and onto the scarp top things eased off, but it was the first properly out-of-breath moment of the weekend. The long undulating run to Birdoswald (Banna) was pleasant though, and one of the few bits that actually runs alongside the wall itself. We stopped for a quick picture on a section of the wall, then commenced descent, dropping down to Gilsland just as the sky darkened and a hailstorm started. We hit the T-junction as a group, Ross and I breaking right, Dad breaking left. "Where are you two going?" he yelled after us, as the hail started to fall. "Tea shop!" we replied, pointing out the chalkboard sign at the junction. We parked the bikes up and dived inside, found comfy chairs by the fireplace and ordered our coffee and teacakes for that vital mid-afternoon refuel.

Rising, sated, from our comfy chairs, we returned to our marginally less comfy saddles for the last leg of the day, the final 8-mile stretch to the YHA (and pub) where we were staying. The gradual rise out of Gilsland and over to Greenhead was okay, steady and undulating again. A nice little track diversion took us round over the Tipalt Burn and along the back side of that and the railway. Coming into Greenhead, we had the option of crossing back over the burn by bridge or ford: The ford looked more interesting, but discretion being the better part of valour, we all chickened out. And with good reason, the one bit of the ride we'd sort of been fearing (well, the next bit after the climb to Banks): Greenhead Bank, a quarter mile of 1:4, then 1:10 to the summit at the turnoff to Carvoran. Sustrans have done a great job of putting in a gravel cycle path set back off the road, but there's only one small hitch with it: Turning off the road and up through a bike barrier (presumably to stop motorbikes using it) robs you of any momentum you might have wanted for the early - and steep - bit of the climb. Since two of us were having front mech issues, we decided that walking is just another gear, and proceeded to engage that one.

From the top we had another 'Navigator's Choice' route, and deviated from the official Route 72 guide. The main route descends back down from beyond Carvoran to Haltwhistle (supposedly the 'Centre of Britain', but the Ordnance Survey and a farmer from Dunsop Bridge disagree), then follows the valley to Bardon Mill before climbing the same height back up to the Stanegate, just south of Once Brewed where we were staying. Instead of playing this game of drop-and-climb-again, we gave small thanks to General Wade and pacelined along the old Military Road, undulated along at some pace, fuelled by the knowledge of impending shower and food, and soon saw the big green triangle come into sight. Shower, clean clothes, pub dinner, a pint of liquid anaesthetic or two, a little light conversation and an early night and we'd be all ready to do it all over again tomorrow!

(Pt. II to come soon!)