Posted by: Ian | September 27, 2010

Before Blenheim

Often time runs by so quickly that it’s frightening and you wonder where it went. By contrast, so much has happened in the year since the 2009 Blenheim sportive that it’s hard to see how it fitted into twelve months. In cycling alone, there’s been the Beast, the Puncheur, the Hell of the Ashdown, riding up Haleakala, the Cornwall Tor, the epic Tour of Wessex and the Tour of Britain stage. Each of these holds standout memories, most of which are very good.

Now the Blenheim is coming round again – it’s on Sunday. This year Paula and Steve are doing it with me. Martin will unless it rains too much and Emily may possibly join in too if she feels half way human after her holiday.

I still haven’t decided which bike to use. It would have been an ideal run-in for the new Zephyr but I still don’t have any estimate for when I might get it yet (other than a very vague one that I think has passed). The Felt is my next obvious choice but with the Blenheim being so flat I’d like more of a training challenge. Last year Martin, Emily and I zipped round in just over three and a half hours with one spill (Emily) and no real sense that we were gunning it. Trying to beat that time this year would be somehow too serious an intention, and is in any case antisocial.

My current best plan is to do it on the Tempo. I’ve been aware for a while that the bearings are probably shot and, with the thought of doing a sportive on it in mind, I stopped by Condor last week who confirmed the fact. After selling me the (sealed) bearings they told me that it’s not a user serviceable part, requiring a special tool that they don’t carry. I’ve checked it in with Brian at Taunton Bicycle Chain who should be fixing it for me on Wednesday.

I’m a little concerned that even though the Blenheim doesn’t have big hills, in the course of 100 km I might get tired of the undulations. The gearing on my Tempo (48 x 16) is ideal for London, which is essentially pancake flat, but may be a shade severe for the rolling countryside. Certainly I couldn’t get around Somerset on it. I asked Brian to see if he could source a bigger sprocket to replace the 16T freewheel that I never ever use on the flip side of the hub.  If I had, say, a 20T to fall back on I’d have more peace of mind. So far he hasn’t found anything larger than the 16T I already have, and even if he could find one I’m not sure that the way the hubs are threaded permits a fixed/fixed config.

On Saturday I joined Emily for part of her ride, as she wrote on the previous blog. Her route took her along National Cycle Route 3, which I’d ridden previously with Zoe a couple of years ago. This was a natural opportunity to take a longish ride with the bike that I’d taken then – my Van Nicholas Amazon Rohloff. In contrast to the Tempo, the gearing on the Amazon is really low. There’s no problem getting up any hill at all but there’s a lot of spinning involved.

Emily’s new Van Nicholas Yukon, which finally arrived just in time for her holiday, looks (and is) fabulous and, even with its robust Tubus rack, much racier than the Amazon. The appearance of raciness is heightened by the fact that all the spacers are stacked above the stem. CycleSurgery claim that the cable housings are too short to enable the spacers to be brought into play. Van Nic claim that the cables are the same ones used on their 62 cm bikes so should be ample for Emily’s 52 cm frame. I’m not saying VN are categorically wrong but I’ve tried to adjust the set-up myself and I can confirm categorically that CycleSurgery are right. Since this constrains Emily to a low front end I decided to give her some bag relief and load up the Amazon with her panniers for part of our ride. Compared to my other bikes the Amazon is like a quality SUV: whatever you put on it or in front of it it will keep moving forward, in comfort but not at record-breaking speed.

It was a pleasure to follow a route from Taunton that I’d already done, without squinting for signs that are not always easy to see or having to track my location on a map. Eschewing the benefit this brought, before Tiverton we diverted from the route Zoe and I had taken to go more directly to Bampton. As Emily wrote, we paid a price for this, soon falling victim to dodgy signage and finding ourselves travelling in a loop. If you do the same journey let me know and I can warn you of precisely where you have to be aware of the right/wrong direction. Nonetheless, at the point we realised we were passing the same place for a second time there was a village tea shop. In the sunshine with our tea we had the spirit-lifting ham rolls, pioneered and provisioned by Paula but made before breakfast this time by Emily.

This obviated the need for a tea stop in Bampton. There is a super little bakery there where Zoe and I stopped in the rain on our trip: I’ve intended to cycle back there ever since. Although Emily and I didn’t there for tea, we picked up a couple of fruit scones to keep in reserve.

The next stop was at Dulverton for lunch. Zoe and I had passed our lunchtime there trying to dry our gear by the pub fire and peering out through the windows to see if we dare brave it up onto Exmoor. The wiser course may have been to stay at the B&B behind the pub but the rain eased off and we took our chances, eventually making it far enough across Exmoor to find a camp site in a village to the south. The heavy rain didn’t return but it had left the ground so sodden that our tent was too irretrievably muddy to use again on the rest of our trip.

Saturday was a totally different story. Emily and I had intended to part company at Dulverton, she pressing on up to Exmoor and me completing a circuit back to Taunton. But the skies were blue, the weather was absolutely perfect for cycling and I love cycling on the top of the moor so much that continuing further after ham, egg and chips proved irresistible. Ideally, I would have found a way to make my return across the north of Exmoor so that I could preview the roads that form the second half the Exmoor Beast route; but this was simply too optimistic and didn’t fit in well with the need to leave Emily with an achievable route down into Barnstaple.

The cycling on Exmoor was as glorious as ever. I’ve seen and enjoyed it in all weathers: it can be superbly atmospheric in the rain and the fog but the crisp autumnal sun is a treat.

On the way down from the moor we sped along lanes around the Yeo valley where the hedges and the air were thick with scattering pheasants. I’ve never seen anything like it and it reminded me that someone from the area told me that it’s a very exclusive and expensive place to shoot. At the time I had been sceptical: not any more.

After a few stops frowning over the iPhones we managed to GoogleMap our way onto the B road to the south and Emily and I parted ways for the day. We’d done a little more distance and ascent than Paula and I had covered on the Cornwall Tor and I still had a 30 mile ride left to get back to Taunton. It’s not so far but I felt more tired than usual. I kept looking down at my legs, surprised that they were still turning around in a disembodied kind of way. There was a stretch where the road rose steadily uphill for a while. I span up it, wondering how long it would go on for: could it last ten miles? No it couldn’t, I told myself, otherwise it would be the Tourmalet and I would have read about it.

I finished my Mule bar, chowed down some Clif Bloks and, crossing the county line back into Somerset, stopped to eat one of the scones that we’d bought in Bampton. Finally I made it home two hours after leaving Emily with enough in my legs to speed up with a flourish once I reached the familiar roads past Oake but not enough to be confident that I could have managed any more hills.

I knew that Emily’s itinerary for the next day probably featured the infamous Millook climb. When I heard about this before the Cornwall Tor sportive it sounded intimidating but studying Emily’s route I realised that it was the very same climb that Zoe and I had done two year ago on heavy bikes with all our gear and a tent. The first photo posted on this site was of this very climb. It’s quite steep but really, all of the moaning about it now seems pathetic.

For the next few days our attentions here are focused on our move from Hill Farm House to Crickleaze. I plan to retain the site name and hopefully soon post some news from a very slightly different corner of the county.

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