Sunday, 26 June 2011

The Arrival of Summer

This is my first blog entry in nearly two months. The recent inactivity is mostly due to a new hobby of mine called blipping, which has consumed almost all of my spare time - in a good way I like to think! There is a link on the right if you are interested in seeing what this is all about. I also picked up a nasty bug at the beginning of May which scuppered my Fred Whitton and meant that I struggled around the Etape du Dales with a chest infection and not exactly firing on all cylinders, getting home in just under 8 hours. In the meantime a new cycling club has been formed in Ilkley and has grown to have over 400 members already. Uploading my blip for the day, I was late arriving for the inaugural meeting and missed out on acquiring a job! The success of the club and its phenomenal growth has a lot to do with the power of social networking. This story deserves a post of its own, which I really must get around to sooner rather than later. Note to myself!

This morning I joined the Club A ride heading out to do the Buckden Triangle, but planned to leave the guys at Kettlewell to do my very favourite circuit in all the Dales, a 76 mile roller-coaster with every single one of those miles through the most scenic countryside imaginable. I've not completed a long ride since the Etape du Dales, so I was expecting it to hurt ... and it did! It probably wasn't the best strategy to do the first 22 miles to Kettlewell at such a brisk pace with the club, but it was a lot of fun.

I only need to report that once on my own I made a lot of stops to take pictures on what was a breathtakingly beautiful day. The weather forecast predicted a return to summer weather, and they were spot on. It did indeed get positively warm in the afternoon. I had to dig very deep in the last 20 miles, which was into a freshening southerly wind. Ideal conditions for dessication! There wasn't much left in the legs at the end. I clearly needed this ride to remind the leg muscles how to store Glycogen. It's a damn shame they forget so quickly!

No more words really necessary. The pictures tell the story ... (Click on any image to see a larger version, then click on the back button in the browser to return to this page)

Looking down Wharfedale from Kettlewell towards Barden Fell

The second section of the climb of Park Rash

Looking back into Wharfedale from the top of Park Rash

Stream feeding into Coverdale

Coverdale Hill Farm



Dales Barn

Cut and Uncut fields at West Grafton

West Witton

Muscovy Duck at the pond near Ellingstring

Mallard cooling off?

Leighton Reservoir

Who pulled the plug out?



The clouds are building to the East ... but almost home!

As I post this tonight I am feeling completely jiggered, but I really wanted to put up my photo account of such a great day. I know if I hadn't done it tonight it would never have happened!

Monday, 2 May 2011

Maytime Miracle

It used to be the case that at the beginning of every May I would change the focus of my running routine from south of the river on Ilkley Moor to north of the river through Middleton Woods. During the first week of this month the bluebells would be at the height of their bloom, the ancient woodland chromatically transformed by the magical appearance of a lavender-blue carpet flowering under a fresh canopy of leaves. The myriad little tracks through the woods appear like bifurcating veins, inviting you to make choices and explore.

Quite a few years ago I made the decision that it was impossible to capture this experience with a camera. Well before the advent of digital photography I think I had taken a whole roll of film and was rather disappointed with the results. There is just too much to take in. It's thoroughly three-dimensional, indeed even four or five-dimensional if you include smell and sound. I preferred to walk or run and just breathe in all that colour and scent.

Today though, with legs still a little heavy from our 'Republic 100' bike ride on Friday, and somewhat inspired by having taken the camera out on the moor last weekend, I thought I'd try to see what I could capture. The weather was certainly never going to be better than it was today, further cloudless skies and dazzlingly clear air. It's becoming hard to remember what a grey sky looks like!

The only intrusion into this perfect late afternoon's walk was the sound of the local carnival booming up from below. It was easy enough to tune out, but what struck me as strange was that down below hundreds, perhaps even thousands of people were paying out obscene sums of money on garish rides and amusements when these woods offered so very much more - and for free. I only encountered a handful of people in over an hour of walking. The sense of space was wonderful, but it seemed a little sad that so few were enjoying this spectacle. Not that I will ever put up a sign at the carnival field to lead people here!

Monday, 25 April 2011

The Magical ShuttVR Racing Shirt

You'd think that after thirty years of regular training I'd know my body by now. I might be expected to have some kind of understanding of how it ticks. The truth is, though, that I really haven't a clue. Some days you feel great. Other days you feel sluggish. And I'm at a loss to discern any kind of pattern.

Last Sunday, as described in my last post here, I set out to do a hundred miler. I'd got plenty of miles in the legs. I'd rested for a few days and I fully expected to feel good. I even had half a mind to do a quadruple traverse of the hills between Wensleydale and Swaledale, a masochistic delight I've been wanting to inflict upon myself for years. But that went out of the window early on. The legs felt heavy on the very first hill, the tempo for the ride was set to steady (read survival), and it took a massive effort of will to pass by the cafe at Askrigg and commit to the full hundred miles. If I hadn't taken my camera with me, after being inspired by the beauty of the ride the weekend before, then I suspect I never would have made it over the hill into Swaledale.

After that ride I've had a relatively easy week. I did a 'steady with hill efforts' 30 miler on Good Friday and clocked up a few miles on Saturday taking in my two son's cricket matches. But plans for a longer ride on the Sunday went out of the window when I came down with a cold. It hit me quickly. Sore throat and a sniffle developing on Saturday evening and yesterday I only had energy for a walk on the moor on what was an almost perfect afternoon. Overnight rain had cleared the haze that had been building up and all the colour had been returned to the landscape. Fortunately, it wasn't too hard to simply take pleasure from being up on the moor rather than out on a training ride as planned.

I'd originally intended to go for a long ride with my Earlybird mates this morning, but I had a rough night, developing a hacking cough and I woke up with a very fuzzy head. I tried to get some work done, but it wasn't easy to concentrate. Come midday and my patience had gone. Enough of doing the sensible thing. There was a lot more cloud around today than we've had for a week, but it was still warm with just a gentle breeze. Damn it. I was not going to miss out on another ride.

I've not been keeping up with my laundry so I had a choice of just two shirts: my lightest summer Gore top or my ShuttVR racing shirt - which hadn't actually made it to the washing machine at all after three outings. For some inexplicable reason I chose the racing attire and I believe that making that decision switched something on inside my head.

Although never intending this to be much more than a tootle, I set off at a good lick, somewhat encouraged by overtaking a procession of riders heading out on the back road to Nesfield. Up the little hills there and I realised my legs felt good, and the tickly cough that I'd been plagued with all morning wasn't causing me a problem. I kept up the good pace, forming a plan to do the route out through Embsay, Airton to Malham and then over tops to Arncliffe and back down Wharfedale. I love this ride, and occasionally do it as a kind of time trial to gauge my fitness. I felt good all the way around and, quite astonishingly, clocked the fastest time I've ever recorded for what is quite a hilly 54 miles, averaging over 17 mph for the round trip, which included having to deal with a lot of bank holiday drivers who clearly had no sense for the width of their cars.

The unfenced road between Malham and Arncliffe

So, I'm feeling a whole lot better than I was first thing this morning! It can only be down to this ShuttVR Racing Shirt. It clearly must have some kind of magic power. That wasn't much in evidence when I first wore it at the Addingham Hilly 10 mile time trial a month back, but I suspect the shirt has to be worn-in first before it starts to cast its spell on the rider wearing it. Actually, I know for sure that this shirt is magical because it seems to require no washing. This Merino Wool fibre is quite astonishing. It dries in an instant and leaves no smell. I'm not sure I'm ever going to put it in the laundry, for fear of losing the power it clearly extends to my legs!

It's been a surreal afternoon. And to think I could so easily have spent the day moping around the house in a sulk.

Sunday, 17 April 2011

Ton up in the Dales

Can we ever have had two such exquisite weekends in succession at the beginning of April? The weather is sure to turn soon so I decided to make the most of it again today. I'd set my mind to doing a hundred miler and decided on a route which I thought would bring me home very close to that ton. It was basically a reverse of last weekend's ride, but with a variation in Swaledale to explore east, and also ride a few miles of road which I'd not ridden before. It's getting harder and harder to find these little sections of new scenery to explore.

It was quite chilly first thing so I delayed my start until after 9am. Even then, I still needed my top and full gloves, but the intensity of the sky held promise that they would be discarded soon enough. I had the same feelings today as I described in my post on last weekend's ride. There's nothing to add really. Instead, I'm going to let some pictures tell the story. I'm convinced more than ever now that there is no better place for cycling in the entire world than here in the Dales. It's the intimacy of the landscape that I think is unique. The scale is very human.

The Cavendish Memorial Fountain just past Bolton Abbey.

On the descent into Burnsall.

Looking up the Wharfe Valley shortly after Thresfield.

Stopping for water at Kettlewell.

The tranquil Upper Wharfe valley.

Ahead to the first part of the climb over Fleet Moss.

Looking back down from the summit of Fleet Moss with Penyghent in the far distance.

At the top of the flying 50mph descent into Hawes.

I had to include some sheep - grazing in the luminous green fields of Wensleydale.

At the bottom of the 25% climb out of Askrigg.

After cresting the summit and on to the roller-coaster descent into Swaledale.

A view of Swaledale looking towards Muker. This dale seems completely untouched by the passage of time.

A small waterfall near the wonderfully named hamlet of Crackpot.

Climbing back out of Swaledale, returning to Askrigg over the bigger and longer of the twin climbs.

The wild moors of Askrigg Common, looking south to the hills the other side of Wensleydale.

The village of Askrigg from Cubeck, and a view of the moors just traversed ... twice!

Back in Wharfedale, approaching Buckden. Homeward bound!

Burnsall village and fell from the Hebden road.

A view up a dramatic section of the Wharfedale valley from the same point.

99 miles on the clock and a sight of Ilkley. Almost home!

It was a grand day out. The legs are a little jiggered and I've definitely caught the sun. The ride was 100.5 miles. A shade under 7 hours in the saddle. Finished in good form again, so confidence for next month's events is growing.

Saturday, 9 April 2011

Springtime Revolutions

After today I'm convinced that Spring is my favourite season. It's early April, when it could easily be snowing, but the weekend has brought seamless blue skies and warm sunshine. I've been out for a long ride on my bike in the Yorkshire Dales, which I can only describe as sensationally beautiful at the moment. Almost overnight we seem to have gone from winter to summer! Everything is tinged with green; the trees are in full blossom; the daffodils are at their dazzling peak, no more beautiful than when picked out against the backdrop of an ancient drystone wall. How many times have the seasons revolved like this? How many cycles has this metamorphosis completed amidst the same idyllic countryside? The breathtaking fecundity of nature is simply enthralling. I'm left feeling immensely privileged to live where I do and have this amazing landscape on my doorstep, and to have the fitness to be able to experience it so richly, in this rather intimate way.

Mind you, that fitness doesn't come easily. It's hard won. Today was pay-back time for a lot of hard graft through the winter months. There were times just a few weeks ago when the commute back home from work, in the cold, sometimes in the wet, always in the dark, was wearing a bit thin. But I found myself being driven on by forces almost beyond my control. After what was often a ten hour day at the office, I was still turning left instead of right at Dick Hudson's to take the longer and hillier route home. Why would I do that? Today I found out.

For some, the training is all about performing well in races and events, and that certainly used to be the case for me in respect to running, and still is to some extent now with the cycling, but, most of all, it is about being fit to enjoy these long days out in the hills on beautiful days like today. There is this simple, indescribable joy about the rhythm of cycling around here, climbing steeply out of one Dale and descending quickly into another. Atop the hills you can retrace your meandering path through the landscape, and it's always impressive how quickly the bike eats up the terrain. I often stand in awe at the tops of the passes at just what our bodies are capable of. Today's ride was clocked at 92 miles, and all that was achieved on just a small slab of flapjack, a slice of coffee cake with a pot of tea, and two litres of water. It's a pretty efficient machine, the human body.

This ride really had a bit of everything, starting up Wharfedale to Buckden with my Earlybird mates, enjoying some banter, and some drafting, then on my own, in meditative mode, past Cray, over Kidstones to Thoralby and Thornton Rust and Askrigg, then over into Swaledale with the awesome descent into Muker, then back over Buttertubs to Hawes for that cake and tea, before the ridiculous climb up Fleet Moss into a freshening breeze. This is where the ride turned from pure enjoyment of the scenery to become a physical challenge, sort of equally enjoyable in the masochistic way that possibly only other cyclists can appreciate. Having ridden 40 hilly miles the day before, the legs were starting to feel heavy, so the final phase of the ride was really about digging in and finishing in good form ... which I did. It was very satisfying to complete the last few miles at a respectable pace and pass a few people on the final little hill at Nesfield. I may wax lyrical about the spiritual dimension to cycling, but, at the end of the day, I'm ego-centric enough to thoroughly enjoy creaming a few other riders with 90 tough miles in my legs!

Days really don't get any better than this.

Saturday, 2 April 2011

Goodreads: Baring your soul to the world

Over recent weeks I've found myself becoming increasingly evangelical in relation to a web site that's now my spiritual home on the internet. I refer to Goodreads. The more time I spend on this web site, the more amazing it seems to me: that this simple concept, implemented with such wonderful attention to detail and design, can create so many possibilities. It's been said here before, repeatedly I'm sure, that there is a danger of spending so much time just browsing the site for books that there's no time left for the real business of actually reading books. It's a genuinely serious problem. This is a thoroughly addictive experience.

I'm in the business of writing this kind of software myself and I'm simply blown away with the work that's been done here. From the very clean and elegant design - with the most immaculate use of fonts - right through to the very clever functionality, this site, for me, is the best implementation of its kind I've seen anywhere on the internet. I would dearly love to be working as a developer here. There are just so many neat things that can be done with all these ratings and links. It's a fabulously rich network of data. I'd love to get my hands on it!

Just as it's hard now to imagine how we ever kept in touch with people and organised our lives before the mobile phone, it is difficult for me now to work out how I ever found the books I wanted to read before Goodreads came along! I feel almost ashamed to admit that there are classic books which I had never even heard of before I came across them here, but which are now on my to-read shelf. Serendipity has thrown up many books for me to read over the years but I can't help feel that there are many She's missed (or for which I've missed the signs!). She has never had such rich fields to furrow as these on Goodreads. If there is a book out there with your name on it, so to speak, then spend some time on this site and you will surely come across it.

Indeed, it's so easy to stumble across an interesting book, so easy to be seduced by the beautiful presentation, the ratings and reviews, so easy to click on that button to add it to your shelf, that before you know what's happened you are staring at a towering pile of books. There is this sense of not wanting to miss out on the chance of reading any book that piques your curiosity. You don't want to lose that connection you've made. But there are just so many books out there that I want to read that I can foresee myself easily getting overwhelmed at the sight of them all stacking up on this virtual shelf. It serves as a rather poignant reminder of my mortality, that I'm never going to have enough time to read all the books I want to read. Mind you, that's always been the case. Nothing has changed in that respect, it's just that Goodreads reminds you of the fact every time you log in!

A friend on Goodreads helped me out with this problem. She has almost two hundred books set to-read - which is nothing I now realise compared to some (one person I came across recently having over 50,000 books marked as such!) - and simply regards them as a resource for her journey. The right book will be there at hand to be picked at the right time. I rather liked that way of framing it and I've adopted that philosophy for myself. I still think there is a need to be reasonably selective, though, and I'm trying to restrict myself to books that I can't imagine not reading at some point in my life. Perhaps Goodreads should help us out by implementing some sort of realistic load factor for our shelves such that they start to buckle under the weight past a certain point, perhaps even collapsing if you try to add too many books!

For me, the most wonderful thing about this site is the simple ability to take a favourite book and then see who else is enthusiastic about it. You can then see what else that reader has enjoyed - because, of course, there is a good chance that you're on the same book wavelength and will also like those same books. It's a fantastic way to make serendipitous discoveries. It's also just fantastic fun, reminding me of when I used to browse second-hand book stores looking for nothing in particular but ever open to a book calling out at me. Goodreads is giving me a chance to relive that experience from the comfort of my own home, enabling that phenomenon of having a book jump out of the page demanding to be read.

I must be honest here and admit that I often find myself browsing reader's bookshelves for no better reason than simple human curiosity. Now, whenever I visit someone's house for the first time I always find myself gravitating towards their bookshelves, often somewhat furtively. I love to see what books people own, but this has always been a slightly guilty pleasure for me - perhaps because of some deeply-rooted reserve (the curse of being English) around seeing so much revealed of someone's inner life. The books we acquire are nothing less than an outer narrative of our inner life. Each set of books will be unique. They tell, for every one of us, a very personal story. I consider my books to be a window upon my soul indeed. From my passions to my peccadilloes, everything about me is revealed in the books I own and that have informed my life. I've only entered a small portion of my book collection so far, but I intend to put them all up there for the world to see - with perhaps the exception of a couple of embarrassments. I think it is wise to keep one little corner of your soul from prying eyes!

I'm grateful then that a majority of readers here are generous enough to leave their front doors open to me. It really is an astonishing privilege to be able to just walk through that open door and spend as long as I like browsing a book collection. Complete strangers bare their soul to me! But even though it's entirely anonymous, and I've clearly been given tacit permission, I still feel like a voyeur. I'm still a little furtive in my browsing. I can't help but regard it as just a touch clandestine. I'd rather not be caught!

This is an abridged version of a piece originally posted to my Goodreads Blog.

Thursday, 24 March 2011

Myth and Magic

I've just finished reading The Tiger's Wife, an astonishing first novel by Téa Obreht. I've had to fight hard with myself not to rush and finish this book too quickly. It is breathtakingly well written. I've been repeatedly going back and re-reading passages to enjoy again the sublime beauty of the prose. The stories within the main story are layered and folded into each other in the cleverest way, myth and magic interwoven with the brutal realities of war. It's a story very much about storytelling, but also about the aspects of stories that cannot be told, perhaps the most important aspects of all - those that are rightly left to the imagination. Great stories linger in the mind more through what is left untold. They leave us open to wonder.

And The Tiger's Wife is indeed a wondrous story. It took me out of myself like no other book has for a very long while, transporting me to a whole different world. I feel like I want to thrust copies into the hands of complete strangers - to simply share the joy I've experienced reading it. In my opinion, it really is that good ... so if you've not read it yet go and buy yourself a copy and let me know what you think. Trust me!!

After my last blog post on Serendipity it seems appropriate to relate the route by which I came to read this book. It was firstly on the back of a review that I read in the Metro, the free daily paper which I occasionally read on the train into work. And it is very occasionally now, for if I'm not biking in, my head is straight into a book. This was possibly the only time I've picked up the paper in the last month. I think it was because I had just finished a chapter and was almost home so didn't want to start another. That night, without any intention to read it anytime soon, I added it to my To-Read shelf. A few days later, browsing Goodreads, I stumbled across it again and read a few reviews. Despite already having a number of books on the go, I felt this almost irresistible impulse to get a copy. I almost always wait until a book comes out in paperback, but this compulsion overrode that. A couple of clicks, and a few hours later I get an e-mail telling me it's been dispatched from Amazon. It's waiting for me when I arrive home from the office the next evening.

I can easily rationalise how I come to have a copy of The Tiger's Wife here in my hands. There is a strong buzz around the book at the moment which I was almost bound to pick up on, and I've always been drawn toward Magical Realism as a genre. There was an immediate appeal to me, especially at this stage of my new journey. That's all very logical, but there is still this part of me that wants to believe there is more to it. I want this magical book to have been brought to me in a magical way. And this, in a way, is a central theme of the book. The main character, Natalia, is a modern doctor with a rational world view, trying to fight superstition with reason, yet she still wants magic in her life and cannot let go of the possibility. We never really discover whether she finds it or not. And that is the main point really. We are left wondering in the story, just as we are in life.

This is an abridged version of a piece originally posted to my Goodreads Blog.