Thursday, 21 July 2011

You Get The Ride You Deserve

The Sustrans routes around the Sperrins and West Tyrone are short, mostly about 30 mile circuits. Their challenge is in the gradient.
I grabbed a couple of hours on a midweek afternoon in Strabane to try a circuit that would take me from Sion Mills to Castlederg and Newtonstewart. It seems sometimes that the less time you have for a trip the longer it takes to prepare. Procrastination had already crashed into lunchtime -- so I had to eat. This could be the crassest doorstep cheese sandwich, the sort your wife would want to redeem with mayonnaise and rocket salad.
And I had to change clothes and in the flap and frenzy, even this could be complicated. Was it safe to walk across the kitchen floor in shoes with metal cleats under them.
But it was a nice day, slightly overcast but with no particular threat of rain. I started out along the Strabane bypass on a curiously pleasant incline, then to the roundabout on the Melmount Road and on to Sion Mills.
I had maps from Sustrans but these were not as detailed as I needed them to be so I soon lost my way. I didn't find any cycle route sign in Sion, though I'm sure there is one there, but turned right up towards the Glebe to find the hill road to Castlederg.
At the top of the hill I turned left. The map actually indicates a short detour to the right. But I was at least now on a lonely country road and high in the hills, with barley fields and pasture around me and little sound but birdsong and barking dogs.
Dogs seem to be generally primed for hostility to cyclists. Perhaps they sense that we are an affront to nature.
And soon the road was winding downhill, which should have been a warning to me. If I was coming off the mountain so soon, I was hardly going in the right direction.
I could have kicked myself when I saw that my soaring and banking down the road had only taken me back onto the A5 from Strabane to Newtonstewart. Properly, I should have gone back up that hill but the hills ahead always seem a more acceptable challenge for your not knowing them yet than one that has already impressed you with its steepness.
So I had another look at the map.
I found I could go down the A5 for a mile and pick up the route again in the other direction at Douglas Bridge.
So that's what I did. I turned off the main road at Victoria Bridge and then strove up another hill.
There I looked for the road that would take me to Newtonstewart. Again I couldn't find a route sign and tried one promisingly skirting the river only to meet locked gates crossing it after the first bend.
Further along there was a steep narrow road signposted to the town. I reconciled myself to their being a lot of climbing on this route but I was coming to understand how cycling illustrates the law of Karma. The world, I reckon, averages out as smooth, so ride for long enough and you will go downhill as much as up, and every struggle will be rewarded with a freewheeling thrill.
Try to live a cycling life without paying your dues in puffing, in breathlessness and sore legs, and you will always be denied your comfort when you are most hoping to indulge it.
Just like life.
It was a lovely road, high over the whole county and with almost no traffic on it. It was only wide enough for one car anyway and the hump along the middle was thick in small gravelly stones that, on a busy road, would have been brushed away by a car wheels.
I met one tractor and further on a farmer in blue overalls walking his dog. He was wearing incongruously stylish sunglasses.
And I saw the cycle route sign that confirmed I was going the right way, if in the opposite direction to the one I started out on.
At Newtonstewart, the signs guided me to an underpass and into the town.
Here the route diverged from another to the east of it with which it had shared the mountain road from Douglas Bridge. I could go left to Gortin forest or right to Harry Avery's Castle and the Baronscourt estate and Castlederg but I hadn't left myself enough time for the whole route. I took the long climb to the Castle in my lowest gear most of the way. I riled the dogs at every gate, some of them yelping in high pitch, others with the more worrying deep bass profundo growls of more dangerous beasts.
At the very top of the hill I was confronted with a large beefy reddish-brown mastiff.
I stood to watch him, expecting him to rage a while and then get bored. But I miscalculated my move when I chanced getting back on the bike and he rushed at me then thought again when I stood firmly and waited for him. I've little doubt he would have taken the leg off me if I had run.
This could have gone for an hour but a van came up the hill and as it passed between us, I stepped onto my pedal and rolled back the way I had come, leaving the dogs perhaps wondering if he should attack more confidently the next time a brazen cyclist chances a stand-off.
I was left wondering if there was some weapon I made legally carry that would empower me to kill or at least disable a dog like this in self defence.
Given the little time left, I took the A5 at Newtonstewart back towards Strabane.
This was mostly a safe and uneventful ride on a level road. The nearest thing to an adventure was having to stop with the traffic while a farmer escorted his cattle across the road.
Then just after Victoria Bridge I found the hill I had come down on my early exhilarating wrong turning. I had a notion that I could take that road now and recompense for my folly and bad map-reading, and my presumption that I could get to where I was going by rolling downhill more than puffing uphill.
I would climb that winding road back up to the Glebe then rattle downhill into Clady where I could take the Urney Road back to Strabane.
This was an ascent in giant steps, one wobbly exertion after another with the legs weakening further on every turn of the pedal so that in time it seemed a marvel that there was any work left in them.
Another hazard was the nettles growing out of the hedgerows, brushing the back of my hand as I passed, a particular danger when I was inching as close to the verge as I could to make space for unthinking drivers.
I stopped at a barley field to photograph the wet stalks in the evening light and clumsily wrenching myself from my cleats, bounced on the saddle with my whole weight descending abruptly on my right testicle. There is no way of explaining to a woman reader what this feels like and no need to explain it to a man. Perhaps it is something like the sensation of having a cattle prod touch a nerve or funnybone deep inside the abdomen. It is the sort of pain that the conscious mind usually interprets as terminally damaging. But I reassured myself that a lifetime of bad karma was probably expended in that one shocking moment.
The descent into Clady could not have been more thrilling in a plane. Here I had the value of my robust and heavy touring bike, stable in its own momentum, crashing the wind that opposed me, the road clear of all danger in front of me, freeing me to go faster and faster.
I had earned it.

No room for cars

This is on the Sustrans cycle route around Strangford Lough, on the hills over Killyleagh.
I was still fairly fit and fresh when I got this far, but I was burnt out by the time I got home that night.

Sunday, 10 July 2011

A Reason to Ride

For a start, I am small. After a physically exuberant early childhood in which I ran and jumped and wrestled like a puppy, I discovered that I could not compete with other boys. The race was indeed with the swift, and I was not one of them.
So I grew up with the expectation that I would never do anything marvellous with my body. As a grown man of 5 foot 2 and 130 pounds, I did challenge that through hatha yoga, hill walking and cycling for periods in my 20s and 30s. But the conviction that I was a natural sloth settled deep in me. After marriage I acquired the 'married person's allowance' of an extra stone in weight and a slacker rounder girth.
For another, I am now 60. If I was ever going to be a real cyclist like my father, who had a silver cup for his achievements -- and a sore leg -- then it would have been earlier than this.
When he was the age I am now the old black bicycle on which he had taken his sons to school had long disappeared. I doubt he was ever on it after the age of about 50. Yet I remember observing that he had a natural complicity with his bicycle that I could only dream of achieving with any person or machine. He seemed able to command it to stand erect and roll forward at the slightest touch when he stepped on to the near pedal with his left foot and swung the right over the bar. This was almost like a dance step, that left foot crossing in front of his right shin and the right leg arching behind him as the centre of gravity was appropriated from the bike to be shared with the body.
Perhaps it was in observing this kind of movement in another that Flann O'Brien concluded that a man might merge with his bicycle, the premise of the humour in The Third Policeman.
Neither my father nor I turned into the 60-year-olds that we expected to be. He should have been cycling to the pub and home along some broken boreen, the way his uncle Dan did into his 90s.
I enter my seventh decade a little trimmer than the recent trajectory of my life anticipated.
At 59 I was diagnosed with type 2 diabetes and told that I should lose weight, by a doctor who gave this news to men my age everyday and expected none of them to do anything about it.
With the incentive of reducing my prospects of heart disease and maintaining the span of life I had set that heart on, I set myself a target of losing two stone in six months and achieved that, learning to think of peckishness after a small meal as confirmation that my body was happily consuming its own fat. I had only to pick up a bale of peat briquettes to be reminded that my normality of a year before was to be carrying this load everywhere, like leaden smudge all over my body but more densely concentrated in the abdomen.
An additional benefit of slimming was that I could now comfortably ride a bicycle again. The last time I got on one, about 10 years before, my knees, as I pedalled, pressed into my gut when I raised them, not only finding their movement restricted but also pumping vital snatched breath back out of me. Merged with a bicycle, we made a good bellows but a poor system of the locomotion.
That had now changed, so I decided to start cycling again, having discovered that my body could be restored to what it was earlier -- or at least to the shape it was -- and I wanted to see if it could be really fit again.

Saturday, 2 July 2011

0 - 60 in Sixty Years

This is a little report I made for Radio Ulster to mark National Bike Week. Actually, recording while cycling proved difficult. There isn't much to hear of the bike itself; it would be easier to put cycling on radio if the things made more noise.