Friday, 27 June 2014

2011 - A Crank is Born

The trip to Winlatter got under my skin.  The long adventures we had taken in the past were great, but there had been something about the defined route, prepared surfaces and interspersed technical features that really appealed to me.  Maybe it was also the quick access to cake and coffee as well…  regardless of the cause, I found myself almost instantly looking at mountain bikes once I got home.  By the end of September 2011 I was in Halfords spending £850 on a hard tail Boardman MTB Team and shaking at the prospect.

You have to consider that the last bike I purchased was for £99 and this seemed to be a large sum of money to let go on something without an engine.  My first little run around 125cc scooter only set me back £650, but the obsession with Winlatter and the memories of the Black Hawk galvanized my resolve to put my money where my mouth was and the Boardman was reportedly the best kit I could get for under a grand.

I was not aware of the brand snobbery at the point of purchase and even now, when I do, I do not let it bother me.  The welding on the triple butted frame was exquisite compared to the rough handed job done on the Trek and Specialized bikes priced at 30-50% more than I was paying and yet the components were either the same as these pricier rides, if not slightly upgraded.

I collected the Boardman on a Thursday evening and on the Friday drove up to see Mark who now lived in Stevington rather than Olney, with my new and as yet to be ridden and unnamed steed on the roof.  On the Saturday I transferred my bike into Mark’s “Skoda Van” and off we set for Woburn to meet up with Paul.

Woburn was not a trail centre, but did have designated and easily followed trails.  It was on my first descent, following Paul, that I learned how sharp my breaks were.  Paul had stopped and in response I had hauled on the anchors, only for the wheels to lock and for me to complete a full, slow motion, overhead rotation, landing on the top of my head and sinking up to my ears in the mud.  The rest of the day was full of moments like this as I tried to get accustomed to the new bike, but I never once disliked the experience.  If anything, it fuelled the already growing love of the trail and set a fire beneath my need to improve.

The internet is a wonderful place.  I found technical articles on handling a berm, body position, drops, manuals (when did it change from being called a wheelie?) and drops.  I also unlocked the best playground ever, hidden away behind my house.  “The Heath” as we all now know it is MOD training ground spreading for mile upon mile.  Some sections are deeply wooded, littered with trails left by deer and other mammals.  Other sections are vast sand boxes, rutted and pitted by tank training and then there are long stretches of bracken, gravel and thick mud.  Every surface you could imagine can be found here as well as naturally formed drops, rock gardens, root sections and big jumps. 

I was up there at every opportunity, setting the gears too high so as to force the need to drive down the power and literally manhandling the bike so that I was the pilot rather than the passenger.  I was so rough on the poor thing that when the six week tune-up came about the poor guy in Halfords stood looking at it with real shock.  He was too accustomed to rich Surrey people buying expensive bikes and keeping them in the shed as a trophy.  He was not expecting a six week old bike to be so thoroughly ridden.

Thinking holistically and knowing many of the things I couldn’t do on the bike were likely caused by lack of fitness, I joined the local gym.  I was on a real devotion to improve and more so since Baz declared his Stag-do was going to happen in the April of the following year and would be “The Seven Stanes” which consisted of seven red runs in Scottish trail centres to be conquered over a period of just 3.5 days.

My gym workout every morning started as long efforts on the exercise bike and I felt I was getting nothing from it.  Searching the net again I stumbled across “Bike James” and read with interest as he explained functional movement, functional strength and functional skill forming a pyramid that we should fit our efforts into.  In effect he was telling me to look beyond the “bike” and get stronger in all aspects to be better on the real bike.

My gym didn’t have kettle bells so I used barbells and dumbbells for the various lifts and squats.  I then got creative and added dips, pull ups, inverted rows and all manner of exercises based on movement and then movement with weight.  The result was dramatic as my body fat percentage plummeted to just 11-12% while my weight, although falling off at the start, began to lift until my BMI put me as obese.

The translation of improved functional movement and strength when applied to the bike was incredible.  If the Boardman thought it had a hard life before, it was now in hell.  I rode it harder and faster and more aggressively until one day it earned the name.  I was tearing down a twisting piece of single track between the tight packed trees, slamming down the power even though it was downhill.  A click, click, click started plaguing me but I ignored it, but then on a sharp turn I buried the right hand pedal for speed out of the bend and the crank came clean off.  I was clipped in so did not lose it as it hung to the sole of my shoe, but I was now hurtling down the trail with barely any control until I finally managed to balance enough to sit back using the one leg and brake. 

“So that is the point of a Bulgarian Split Squat” I thought as I giggled and there was the name “Crank” created.  Once again the boy at Halfords was also in for a shock.  He was also shocked later on when I separated the cassette from the rear wheel (earning me a brand new Mavic on warranty) and they also had to replace the entire unit of my front Avid Elixr 7 brake.

The next time we were at Woburn I was a new animal and had transitioned from the poorest rider in the group to the most technically able (excluding Baz who could not travel from Cumbria to the South for a day trip to Woburn).  We then hit a new place close to Woburn, named Chicksands, which again was not a trail centre but more a Haven for downhillers who like to push their ride back to the top after each run.  Mark and me did no such thing and earned our descent by pedalling to the top and on a few sharp transitions, where I stood up and put down the heat, I even left the master of climbing behind.

It was early 2012 before I knew it.  I knew I had the movement and strength and the heath sessions had bagged me plenty of functional skill, so I suggested to Dan, Paul and Mark a visit to a place known as Aston Hill.  There was no green option here.  There was no blue option either and the red runs were accessed only by surviving a portion of the black run.  The hill is steep and earns the name Aston because it was the testing place of the Aston Martin for hill climb racing.  Now it is “Plastic People Mecca” where people arrive on full mountain bikes with more suspension that my Honda had, wearing more body armour than a Storm Trooper.

We rocked up on hardtails in bagged shorts and with no pads.  Of course we wore helmets and gloves, but it was not long before I wished I too was clad like one of the “Plastics”. 

The early part of 2012 was wet and Aston hill is formed of chalk.  The two together explained why it was relatively quiet when we arrived, but this revelation only came after the first section of black trail that claimed a lump of flesh from my shin as I took the lead at full pelt and crashed out of a drop from roots into a wet, chalky berm.  I actually lost count how many times I hit the ground that day, but every time I ignored the blood pouring from my legs and carried on, sometime crashing just metres from where I had last landed.  The others crashed far less than me, but mainly because they had sense to judge Aston as out of our league and sensibly chose to walk many of the sections that had claimed my flesh.  I guess in many ways, my lack of self-preservation (I see it as an unending desire to be good at something awesome via a baptism of fire) served as a trigger for them to either continue or get off.  My scars therefore saved them from harm, justifying my idiocy completely.

I do remember one particular section well as it was almost a disaster for Paul.  I had taken the lead down the run and managed to remain on the bike all the way down to the bottom, but had put enough pace between me and the others to have to wait.  When Paul finally came into sight he looked down at me and smiled as he rolled onto the last section of North Shore, considering himself home and dry.  Watching that smile alter into horror as the North Shore ended in mid-air and dropped him down onto the trail beneath will remain with me for a long time.

Despite being completely battered by Aston Hill we all came away from it feeling we had achieved something great.  There was a little fear that the seven trail centres would in fact be seven Aston Hills, but I found it better not to dwell and to instead maintain the training.  After all, it was too late now; I had mud in my blood and it was never getting back out.

Thursday, 19 June 2014

2011 - Medley

August 2011 saw a return to Cumbria.  Baz had moved to Cockermouth and his house was opened to us to come and explore the fun Cumbria could offer.  This was not to be a journey like the Coast to Coast, Cutty to Castle or run to Cambridge, but instead a gathering of friendly souls and a long weekend of laddish tom-foolery.

I set out from Farnham on a Thursday evening after work astride my beloved steed, a Californian 2012 Honda Shadow I referred to as “Hekate”; Goddess of the Crossroads.  This was a bike that needed no pedalling, with a 750cc V-twin between my legs.  

I loaded up my Boblee pack with my clothes and strapped a kit bag to the pillion seat with bungee ropes, containing my walking boots, the black Bell helmet and a sleeping bag.  As I set out, the heavens opened.

I arrived in Olney, stopping at Teddington services to get some feeling back into my toes and fingers, close to 8pm.  half an hour later I arrived in Olney and Mark had beers waiting for me which soothed my aching body.  A few single malts and a game of drunk chess helped close off the night and I slept in my sleeping bag on the couch, excited about the weekend to come.

Dan arrived early the next day and we quickly packed.  Also parked on the road behind Mark’s house was his brother Paul, so rather than being slotted into a small hole in the back of the car, I was entitled to ride shotgun with Dan while Mark jumped into his brother’s Audi.

We made good time and reached Baz in the late afternoon, quickly decamping into the loft room he had prepared for us to sleep in and then jumped back into Paul’s car for a trip to Buttermere lake for a spot of wild swimming.  

The water was cold, but delightful.  We splashed and laughed, hurling an American football at each other as we leapt from the shale shore into the deep, crystal clear waters.  When evening approached, Baz set up a small BBQ on the shore and cooked us marinated chicken and sausages.  After this feed (along with the mandatory beers) we had an overly rough full contact game of American football.

We headed back to Baz’s house fizzing with energy.  Paul had been wounded in the ribs during the games but it didn’t affect his self belief at being a rally driver on the dark country lanes.  Sheep literally threw themselves over the edge of the road as he tore past them and when we finally parked outside Chez Baz, Paul wondered why the rest of us began to kiss the pavement in relief.

Day 2 - Winlatter MTB

Saturday dawned slightly misty, but overall fine.  Baz cooked us a breakfast worthy of a King, but left the kitchen as if hit by a nuclear bomb and then we set out for Winlatter.  This was to be a true eye-opener for me as I had never before experienced a trail centre before.  The first thing that stuck me was the sense of order about the place, but I was not immune to the surfacing of memories of the last time we found ourselves at the signpost for Winlatter.  This had been all the way back in 2008 when we tackled the Coast to Coast, but still had the potency of recall to make me gag.

Putting this aside, I followed Dan into the bike hut to hire a bike while the others prepared Baz’s new Gary Fisher full sus 29er, the old GT Avalanche I had ridden on the Coast to Coast which would be Mark’s ride and also Paul’s Specialized hard tail Rock Hopper.  Dan and I were given hard tail Cubes and we both purchased a pair of Royal gloves to really feel the part.

I could not believe what was beneath me as we pedalled up to the start of the blue graded Quercus trail behind Baz.  I had suspension in the front forks and hydraulic disc brakes on a bike that weighed as much as half of what the Black Hawk had weighed.  I was pumped for this, desperate to do well and believing I would too.

The trail started halfway up the hill from the trail centre cafe and swooped off down into the forest on a thin line of track surfaced with loose chippings.  This meandered back and forth, zigzagging across the face of the hill until coursing through sections of grass enclosed tracks all the way to the bottom.  When we reached this point my smile was close to splitting my face in half and I could see the others were in agreement.

This trail was 7.5 km long, but I have to admit that it felt a lot longer.  For the first time I was being faced with technical features which at that time, despite being on a blue graded trail, really tested our abilities (excluding Baz who commanded skills we only dreamed of having).  One particular section asked us to navigate a sharp left hand turn, downhill around a tree stump.  Baz showed us how to beat it and we followed one by one, each of us either putting feet down and walking, or like me, refusing to put feet down and hitting the ground hard.  The result was the same even when I carried the bike back up to have another stab at it.

A second section that had us quaking was a simply rock slab, this time on another left hand turn.  Baz led the way again and I followed, this time succeeding and feeling boosted by the success.  Then a long chase downhill on long straights peppered with jumps and leading into 90 degree berms had us all smiling, until we realised that Baz had not quite remembered the 90 degree berm and had assumed the run down to be straight.  His bike lay above him on top of the berm and he sat further down, clutching his leg and wincing.  The handlebars had been twisted until they were in line with the frame rather than opposed to it, but after a quick check and a brief pause to allow Baz to catch his breath, all was back in order.

The end of the route took us over our first ever section of northshore (although all of us took the chicken route rather than the final stretch of skinny, and we were back at the cafe.

We took the Blue a second time, but all refused to follow Baz onto the red Altura trail afterwards.  Two blue runs do not a mountain biker make – but it had planted the seed for me between road and dirt.

We concluded the day with a trip to an indoor go-cart course where Paul’s driving prowess was put to the test against Baz.  Foul play aplenty adorned the track to the point where I no longer wanted to race and instead amused myself with the art of drifting, wining me no records on lap time, but at least maintaining the smile that Winlatter had graced my face with.

The night ended with a Cockermouth bar crawl, to the Bitter End…  literally.  Is that not how any great day should close?

Day 3 – Grassmere Scramble

Our original plan for our final day in Cumbria had been for us to conquer the climb to the summit of Skiddaw, but this had been under debate from the moment we dipped a pinky into Lake Buttermere and looked up at the brooding shadow of the rock-slide through the heart of Grassmere.  This “Scramble” was a well-known route, was still classed as a mountain climb, would be dramatically less populated than Skiddaw and was also practically next door to Cockermouth rather than over an hour drive.

We set out early, slightly foggy on the roads as well as in our heads from the night before (aside from Paul who no longer partook in the devil’s juice).  We parked and looked up at Grassmere, not really daunted by the task ahead.

We walked together over the grassy foothills to the beginning of the scree slide and Paul pushed us on with his phone blasting out DJ Fresh’s “Louder”.  We sang along boisterously; “It’s gonna get, it’s gonna get…”   All, save for his brother, found this amusing.

The scree was a challenge and looking back towards the car it began to dawn on me that Grassmere was bigger than I had first thought.  Already the car was but a speck in the distance and yet we were still far from the summit.  A helicopter took off from a plot of land near to where our car was and we looked down on it as it flew by which really gave us a sense of altitude.  Over to the side stood another imposing mound of Cumbrian rock and I could hardly believe my eyes to see a lone woman running up the near impossible slope.

Onwards we pushed, staying together for safety right up until the point it got dangerous.  At this stage we made an unspoken decision to screw our companions and find our own individual way up the treacherous climb to the summit.  Mark and Baz slipped off down one way, Paul took a ludicrous route up a rock face and I decided to do as the name of the route suggested and scrambled up in my hands and knees between rocks and boulders on the slick grass and scree.  Dan followed Paul for a little while and then switched to following me when sense prevailed.

Paul, Dan and myself made it to the top and looked down to locate Baz and Mark.  The view set all of our stomachs turning and worse of all, we could not see hide nor hair of .  To make matters even worse, when we called out there was no response; not even the chanted phrase of “it’s gonna get, it’s gonna get, it’s gonna get louder!”

When they finally did come into view it was along a desperately dangerous ridge that ran up to where we stood waiting and I could see the sun reflect from Mark’s overly pale face.  The weather too had conspired to make matters worse and added a few strong gusts and flurries of misty rain to the mix, but at last we were all back together.

We meandered, drunk from the excitement and fear of the climb to the rock pile marking the summit.  Here we partook in a wee dram from Mark’s hip flask and then took the long, leisurely slope back down to the car.

That marked the end of our adventure.  The morning had been used up and the rest of the day would be spent in the car driving back south, but I had a seed planted by Winlatter and the Cube.  I also had a deep seated love for Cumbria, cemented in place by our time at Lake Buttermere which had somehow connected with the fondness I have for Lake Wanaka in New Zealand to make the two the same within me.

My ride home from Olney on “Hekate” was the last long ride I would make on it because my first child was born in May and the pressure was on for me to shed the bike and to opt always for the safety of a car, but the ride was in beautiful sunshine and savoured fully.  A month later I paid for a new set of two wheels, without the V-twin adding weight to the frame.  This was the birth of Crank and this was the real start of the new me. 

2010 - Cambridge Calling

2010 almost slipped away from us as a group, as if the disaster of the Cutty to Castle trip attempted to put a nail in the coffin of our annual adventures before even having a chance to bed in to a firm tradition.  I started the year in Gambia, soaking up both the sunshine and drink, chilling out with giant crocodiles named Charlie and suffering the Gambian phrase “it’s nice to be nice” that was always thrown out in conjunction with a raised palm.

We returned from Gambia to find Britain thoroughly frozen over so my mind moved to boarding rather than cycling and the Heathland behind the house proved a cracking venue.  A quick trip to Cardigan Bay led to an increase in the Elliott family size with the inclusion of Taffy the Cockerpoo and the cold snap endured until the end of March.

This was not to say that the transition had not moved on though.  As soon as Mark had the use of his knees again he entered the world of road bikes with gusto, treating himself to a bike that cost enough in the mond of a Scotsman to force him to ride it.  Dan also treated himself to a new bike which meant even though I had banished the heavy and useless Black Hawk, the GT Avalanche that Dan had ridden on the Coast to Coast was sitting there in his garage waiting for me.

It did not have to wait long.  Mark, keen to explore his new prowess on the bike, encouraged both me and Dan to join him on the relatively flat route from his house in Olney to the beautiful city of Cambridge and back.  This was not to be done in a day, but instead spread over two days with a bedding down overnight in the University dorms.  Against all wisdom and forgetting all lessons learned on Cutty to Castles, we said yes.

Despite the frozen start to the year, May turned out to be a scorcher.  Armed with the black Bell helmet from my days with the Black Hawk, I hoped into the car on a Friday night and was driven up to Mark’s house by my wife Anna, with Taffy in my lap.  Dan drove over on the Saturday morning with his two bikes on the roof of his car and that is where the easy ride began.

Much had changed, even if not in terms of me, because Mark was no longer the 18st drinker and smoker he had been on the coast to coast.  Six months of riding had seen his weight plummet and he had started to wear actual cycling apparel.  Not Lycra yet; that would follow later, but a jersey and clip in shoes.  He looked the part as he clipped his Garman onto his handlebars to lead us to Cambridge.  Unfortunately me and Dan didn’t.

This was a frustrating day for Mark.  We set off from Olney and within minutes he was waiting at the top of a small hill while me and Dan pushed our bikes up to join him.  His plans for us to achieve a 13 mph average were shattered very quickly and rather than lunching in Cambridge at the end of our first 50 miles we found ourselves eating in a pub beside the river at St Neots, less than half way to Cambridge with an average speed of 6 mph so far achieved.

It was a rushed lunch as Mark was worrying about our timings; something he had not even dreamed would be a problem when he cooked up the idea of the trip.  It was also a highly inappropriate lunch on my part, being a bowl of dirty chilli on cheesy chips which sat in my gut like a lead bar as we set out.  To put a real shine on things, coinciding with our return to the route was the emptying of all the water the heavens had to offer.  This was a storm that was brief and yet brutal.  Rain drops the size of ping-pong balls slammed into us and bounced up from the road into our faces, drenching everything and even penetrated the hastily donned waterproofs.  It was such a deluge, even the water resistant Garman fizzed and blinked out of action and the well planned route, much like the considered average miles per hour pace Mark had envisaged at the start, swirled with the rain water down the drain.

We arrived in Cambridge over three hours later, dry from the roasting sun that followed the storm, but embarrassingly defeated despite the non-existent challenge of the terrain.  Of course this sense of defeat and exhaustion only related to myself and Dan, but we were blue enough to bring Mark's spirits down too.

We had pizza in Zizzi and a couple of beers, but I could not convince the other two to turn the night into a real  beer-fest.  Dan wasn’t much of a drinker and also in a rather dark place personally due to heath issues.  As for Mark, he  was concerned about us even making it home the next day and encouraged an early end to the day for an early start the next.  Considering our performance that day, who could blame him for worrying?

The next day dawned bright and hot and we had a hasty breakfast before collecting our bikes from the cavernous bike shed beneath the university.  We set off at a good pace despite me wincing at the touch of the saddle against an already raw behind.  This was all before I discovered the genius of technical clothing and more importantly, the padded pant.

After a couple of hours Mark was surprised to report that we were averaging close to 12 mph.  His fears of the night before seemed almost unfounded and we pressed on towards Olney.  We had a brief stop to turn Dan’s bike upside down to inspect a clicking noise; fears of bearings seizing and resulting in absolute carnage seemed very real to us in those days before actually understanding how the bikes we were riding worked.  I also flipped my bike and turned the front wheel only to find it stopping almost instantly, revealing that I had cycled the day before with the brakes so badly adjusted that they were effectively permanently on.

Mechanicals resolved and our average speed seriously depleted, we carried on towards Olney without much drama until 10 miles out from the finish.  Dan had received a call from his wife insisting he get back home promptly.  Our planned route had many more miles left to go and with the absence of a working Garmen we thought we were in trouble until Dan explored the power of a smart phone.  Nowadays this isn't too amazing, but back then it was like a miracle device, plotting a route for us that shaved many miles off the day.  Yet despite the marvel of technology and the shortening of the route, there was still an injection in pace which simply destroyed me.  The last two miles for me, regardless of it being flat and the weather divine, took me into a pain cave I will not quickly forget, but I finished the job and took some pride from it.

Of course, in reality the trip had proven I was still awfully out of shape, technically inept and lacking in prowess, but internally I was euphoric at such an achievement.  Mark also took pride from the journey, despite it having been far from dynamic, so at last we had a success with which to banish the Cutty to Castle memories. 

That was however it for lads adventures in 2010.  A wedding in September followed by a very poorly wife; an oddity for a woman that could hold her own when it came to drinking, led to the surprise revelation of a child on its way for us and it was this very significant piece of news that would trigger what would be for me the most dramatic change of all; the need to regain my true former self.

Monday, 2 June 2014

2009 - Cutty to Castle

Buoyed by the success of Coast to Coast I felt invincible and utterly capable, so as 2009 ticked away I set us a southern challenge and treated myself to a bike.  This was a rigid Black Hawk and set me back a princely £100.  In many aspects of life we are told not to blame our tools for our failings, but in cycling, up to a certain price point, there is validity in the correlation between kit and ability.  The bike won me over by being chrome…  and that is where I had stopped when considering the purchase.  I did not consider that it weighed as much as a small continent or that the components were from the dark ages.  The chain received a free upgrade on the same day of purchase because the original snapped less than a mile from the shop and even this failed to flag any issues with my purchase.   

The challenge I put together to test the merits of the new bike was to pedal from the Cutty Sark in London to Hastings Castle (Stopping overnight in East Grinstead), from Hastings castle to Bramber Castle and from there to Farnham Castle.

To us there was no way this was going to be difficult.  First off, we could not imagine how the South could complete with Cumbria and assured ourselves the route would be mainly flat.  This also meant that our daily mileage could be increased to 50 miles a day and all in it was going to be about the riding in company rather than any real challenge.

Mark was not physically fit for the challenge when it finally came around.  His knees betrayed him and his doctors persuaded him to forgo anything physical.  This did not exclude him from the ride as we were able to enlist him as a support car, reducing the challenge further still.  It really was turning out fine, with great weather predicted, no need to haul tents and four splendid days of cycling with friends on easy roads.

Mark collected me from my new house in Farnham on a Thursday morning in August, with Baz riding shotgun and Dan in the back.  Baz and Dan had their rides from the Coast to Coast on the roof of Mark's Mazda and my Black Hawk was lifted into the boot.  With only three able bodied men in the group it was a good job my bike was not going up top.  I also threw my tent and kit bag in the boot and climbed in beside Dan for the drive to the Cutty Sark.

It was already creeping up to 10am when we disembarked from the car and partook in a Starbucks before setting off.  I had maps of the routes and opened up the first which was the Sustrans Down and Weald route 21.  This would take us from London to our stop in East Grinstead and was mostly off-road.  Meanwhile, Mark had taken a drive and was pitched up near Godstone, overlooking a sailing club and enjoying the view of girls in bikinis.

As we cruised along the Waterlink Way out through South London to Beckenham our spirits lifted and I phoned through to Mark to let him know we would be finishing early.  He was overjoyed when I stated we would likely reach Redhill by lunchtime and we could meet in the Garland pub (my old local) for a pint of Lewes Tom Paine.

2pm came and we were not yet in Redhill.  Mark had left the bikini girls and was waiting at the Garland, but unable to have a drink due to driving limits.  He asked for an new ETA, which I gave him as 3pm, unaware that we were now entering the Downs proper as we crossed the border into Surrey.

3pm came and went.  Baz suffered from having to wait at the top of climbs, or amused himself by trying to get snapped by speed cameras on descents while he waited, managing to do the race down the hill and cycle back up before we even reached the top.  Dan suffered as he pedalled up these climbs and I generally walked behind pushing my lead horse beside me.  4pm came and went and 5pm drifted by too, but at last the signposts spoke of Redhill.  Unfortunately the "hill" was present in more than just the name and my face bloomed red with effort to complete the name as I tried to climb it.

6pm ticked by as we hurtled downhill after a gut busting climb from Bletchingly Road to High Street, past the Nuffield Health Centre.  We rolled onto the forecourt of the Garland and never have I been so pleased to see a pint of Tom Paine waiting for me.

As we supped we discussed the failing light.  Our route was supposed to take us from Redhill to East Grinstead where we had a camp site booked.  Sore legs and logic saw to it that this part of the route would forsake pride and be completed by car.

Day 2 – East Grinstead to Hastings  

Ashdown Farm was a wonderful camp site, with chickens and cockerels roaming around and a purpose dug fire pit on our plot.  We set the tents up using the car headlamps to aid us in the dark and drank beer by the fire, realising how much we had underestimated the Surrey Downs.

The next morning after packing up we had breakfast in the farmhouse and discussed plans again.  Our route from East Grinstead took us on country lanes for about 10-15 miles until we picked up the traffic free Worth Way and Forest way.  These were both disused railways and promised a well-earned break from the hills encountered the day before.  Then in an attempt to reach our destination in the daylight we skipped the country lane section and had Mark drop us off at the start of the Worth Way.

3 minutes after drop off we called Mark back to almost where he had left us to drop off the tools to fix a puncture.  He drove by slowly with the music slamming out of his car, wound down his window and pretended to put "a cap in our ass" before speeding off laughing.  On his second drive-by he actually stopped and the puncture was fixed, so we were able to drop down from the village onto the cycleway.

We set off at a good pace and we held it too, cruising along what really was a beautiful and not at all challenging cycle path.  We passed through tunnels created by the canopy, passing dog walkers and like-minded riders, encouraged by the miles that seemed to be slipping away behind us.  We moved along so effortlessly that we were able to chat and for some reason a news article one of us had seen moved the subject onto our disgust of child abuse.  This subject set a flame inside Dan who had not long become a dad and was the only one of us currently with children.  This flame then became a fury and his legs transformed into maniac pistons.  He was off like a rocket, driven mad by whatever he had imagined and it took Baz and me every ounce of energy to catch him up.  

The "Rage Burst" did the trick at calming Dan down and we continued on the cycleway talking on different subjects, but then a beast I was not expecting to show started to make a noise.  I was not completely surprised as I carried the relevant drugs with me just in case, but the warnings of the first cluster headache of the season started to get clearer and clearer.  Idle chat as had been the staple for the day started to become a chore for me as my eye experienced the boring pain, my head became heavier and my jaw tighter.  Miles started to feel very long and the unchanging cycleway started to become monotonous. 

On the outskirts of Hastings we came out of the cycleway and climbed a shallow ramp to the road, with tall grass meadows to one side and tarmac to the other.  As I climbed so too did the pain in my eye and by the time I reached the path beside the road I was already entering my personal hell and swallowing my opiates.

I knew I was taking the drugs too late to halt the rise of the cluster.  A short ride through searing pain took us to a Halfords car park and I dropped the Black Hawk down and embraced the pain, marching in bare feet and clutching my face, oblivious to the others or the Halfords customers passing who thought I was having a stroke.  Mark soon met us and the car was loaded while I clenched, paced and writhed in agony.  The attack and the drugs sent me into a fragile state and fatigue washed over me as the attack subsided almost an hour later.  Again the day ended with a car ride to our camp site.

Day 3 – Hastings to Shoreham

We had camped at Shearborne Holiday Park which was everything that our farm from the night before wasn’t.  Campfires were the art of the devil and natural darkness was banished by jaundiced lights on leggy poles at every fifty yards.  Breakfast, rather than in a cozy cottage, was in a bar that stank of the binge drinking from the night before.  I would normally have been one of those drinkers but my Cluster attack and the challenge itself had robbed the option from our group.

In the morning we set off down a steep hill in the rain and my cheap brakes reminded me of my mortality.  Very quickly, a little too quickly, we reached the coast and turned into a fierce headwind, heading for our next stop at Shoreham.  I was weakened by the Cluster attack and aware that another was due without warning.  I was however comforted by the thought of a 48 mile flat ride along the coast to our next stop.

The wind was soon accompanied by showers but we made good time, despite the headwind, and stopped for coffee with Mark at Eastbourne.  The rain died off soon after we restarted, but the error of my ways (and revelation on my appalling geography knowledge) began to take payment.

Eastbourne is the start of the South Downs Way and the first climb is not to be sniffed at.  Well known, Beachy Head will test the finest legs, but mine were far from fine and the headwind had reached hurricane strength gusts that simply stopped us all in our tracks when it blew.  Baz was first to the top, Dan after him and me last.  The descent should have given some reprieve, but the wind was strong enough to even deny us the ability to roll and we found ourselves pedalling down.  We were now also competing for space alongside traffic.  When one driver actually went out of his way to block Baz from passing, nearly knocking him off his bike, our enthusiasm started to plummet.

We were a trio of broken men as we rolled into Brighton to share a beer with Mark at a pub near the foot of the pier.  We each opted for a Dark Belgium and maybe it was the effect of the morning or just a reluctance to return to the headwind that encouraged us to order a second.

We had 7.3 miles to go before reaching The Red Lion Inn at Shoreham.  We cycled 5 of them and travelled in the car to the end, which was firmly becoming a theme of the challenge.

Day 4 – Shoreham to Farnham 

Sadly, this part if the day with regards to cycling is all for Baz to tell.  Our night away from camping, staying in a relatively adequate Inn, led to indulgence in food and drink on a grand scale.  Despite being harangued by a couple of local girls and nearly being married off against his will, Baz was back on the road riding solo.  This had been agreed the night before after another cluster had taken the last of my optimism and enthusiasm. Dan's Mark's and my day instead started with a full English breakfast and  a quick visit to Bramber Castle before driving home.

We Met Baz back at mine, coming into Farnham after him as his pace was no longer hindered by me or Dan.  The reward for his efforts was to have his toe sliced open when my wife dropped a vase on his foot.

All was well though.  The Black Hawk went on ebay and was not missed.  In fact it sold for £40 more than I had paid for it and Surrey and Sussex now had my respect.  I had been thoroughly defeated by lack of fitness, poor planning and a rubbish bike; not to mention cluster headaches and a little too much fondness for real ale.  At this point in my cycling career I was again thinking about fishing.  Hell, I was low enough to even consider golf.