Saturday, March 31, 2007

The Black Stump Adventure

It has been mentioned on previous TCA posts that part of the ethos of its members is to continue onwards even if conditions are unfavorable. The previous week in the North Island had seen torrential rain following the tail end of Hurricane Catherine and conditions underfoot even on surfaced roads were at best described as 'wet'. Billy-Bob knew it was time for a ride and, when faced with the choice of staying in bed Saturday morning and listening to the howling rain, wind and splash of cars passing by outside the flat or ‘kit up’ at 8am and head north to the rolling volcanic hills of Glen Massey to take part in the endurance Black Stump ride, there was little choice…Bring it on!

A gathering of riders

The Black Stump Adventure Ride mountain biking event is hosted on a local family run sheep and beef farm and is into its second year. Race categories were 40km, 30km 18km and 12km: Knowing full well it was 100% off road action, with no metaled track or gravel surface in sight, Billy-Bob opted for the 18km ride. The average 18km time was given on the entry form as roughly 2h 15m, which would mean he would be back nicely in time for breakfast before Mrs B.B. awoke from her slumber…or so he thought.

Pre-race nerves

The race rules were simple; complete the course against the clock and make it back in one piece without injury. Billy-Bob arrived early and promptly registered ready for the challenge. Riders were herded into the four empty sheep pens depending on which race they had entered. Riders then assumed their positions to noises of Grrrr and Baaaa and waited for the staggered start at 5 minute intervals. The farm was rustic and the facilities were basic, with the owner standing on the back of his pickup and starting each race with a fire of his rifle. The shot echoed in the early morning mist and must have pierced an overhead cloud as seconds later it started to rain, hard.

The start was a steep climb, up and up some more, which immediately sorted the men from the boys. Billy-Bob felt his lungs rip and knee joints crack in this first mammoth ascent. It was so muddy under tire that it was hard to get any form of traction in low gear (a condition known only too well to TCA riders), and the rear tire just spun in the mud, the descents were not much better and saw many a rider lose it in the side ditches.

What was great about this ride was the huge cross section of riders taking part ranging from the hardcore full suspension crowd with energy supplements coming out of their ears, to the older rider on his/her shopping bike. Old and young alike were there and they meant to get muddy. After the second downhill Billy-Bob had to stop and give aid to a young rider, by the name of Scott who must have been 8 years old, and who happened to have lost his balance and gone head over heels on a sharp slippery downhill bend. He had landed awkwardly and sadly dislocated his little knee and embedded his SPD peddles into his thigh. Billy-Bob stopped and gave aid until his father arrived a few minutes later, but sadly it was the end of the race for this brave soldier deserved of a TCA junior merit badge.

Not a flat route

Not deterred by the sight of blood so early in the race Billy-Bob continued on this unforgiving rolling hill circuit and was reminded at many a juncture of a TCA ride in Dorset a few years back where hill after hill tested the stamina and sanity of riders. The circuit continued to get churned up by the lead pack and many a time were weary riders seen walking their bikes up steep mud chutes. The 9km point was reached at 1 hr 20 minutes. Surely this could not be right but the cycle computer did not lie! At the 11km mark, to Billy-Bob’s relief, the sun came out and the gradients became gentler, although the tracks were just pure clay. Some riders on the 30km race had taken the option to abort and switch to the shorter 18km circuit even though their times would not count. Billy-Bob was glad he had opted for the shorter circuit.

A tad on the muddy side

The ride was long and hard but the landscape was stunning with its rolling unforgiving volcanic hills. Whilst each ascent was hell in the mud Billy-Bob was grateful for the opportunity to once again get off-road on this private farmland which would otherwise be off limits to riders. The midday sun arrived to coincide with the emptying of Billy-Bob’s trusty CamelBak. The last 5km would be long and tiresome without hydration and cramp had started to set in. The finish line was a welcome site and crossed at 1pm - what he would have given for a cake stall at that minute but only a burger stand was on hand. To cap off a muddy, wet, sodden ride the bike was hosed down and then dunked in the communal bike bucket/sheep dip. To his amazement Billy-Bob’s name was called out and he had won a spot prize! – one months gym membership… perhaps they were trying to tell him something.

A quick sneaky burger then home for brunch.

On the Black Stump web site comments page one disheartened rider had said that the track was ‘far too muddy’ and that he had to ‘dismount far too often’. This comment was followed up with a stout retort worthy of the TCA ‘if you don’t like the mud stick to road riding!’.

Route Profile:

Male Age 18-34 Results:

(Posted by: Paul)

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Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Lone Ranger Rides Again

Fortunately John's 'rear end trouble' has cleared up by this week but he is still unable to make it for a ride with the TCA as he’s in Brecon catching up with some old friends from his days as an air steward. With no one else to consider I make an impromptu decision to make Tuesday TCA night, since the weather was perfect: In contrast to last week it was nearly 20°C, warm, windless and sunny. I leave a little earlier than usual as I had my favorite regular route in mind - The Old Winchester Hill and Beacon Hill Summit Circuit.

In the murk of last week I didn't make the slight diversion to the top of Old Winchester Hill after traversing the ridge. This week though I made the short trip down the track to take in the view from the trig point (above, left). This is one of my favorite places and being alone on the summit brings a smile to my face as I remember good times: Butterfly spotting with my father; the legendary Bowman cook-off; bonfire night with Tee and the many walks I've done with an assortment of people in an assortment of weather that take in this ancient and special site. Still, I can’t hang around this ride generally takes about three hours and I am conscious that I might make it round before dark if I keep pressing on.

The descent into West Meon is an exhilarating ride down a single-track road into a chocolate-box village of thatched roofs with a couple of country pubs. It is however on a nusy road and experience has taught me that the pubs are not as good as they look. Rather than take the busy main road I make a short detour staying on country lanes before starting the gradual ascent of Beacon Hill from Warnford. As I climb the hill past a couple of impressive Aberdeen Angus bulls the sun slips behind the hill, the light fades and the temperature starts to dip.

I put my feet up after the long climb (right), check in with home by ‘phone and eat an energy bar. Although climbing is obviously more tiring it’s important not to be too worn out before a long descent – standing on the pedals and concentrating on the line can be strenuous. The ride from Beacon Hill all the way to Soberton is about 3.5 miles at top-speed and re-fueled I hit the road again and enjoy the chilly drop.

Back to Sheep Pond Lane then, and the familiar return via Soberton. Whistling past the pubs I am tired and hungry after nearly two and a half hours in the saddle. Tee had prepared mock chicken risotto on my return; I wolfed it down even before getting changed. After the routine shower and change I have a satisfying glass of wine, after all TCA night just wouldn't be the same without a tipple.

Route Map (click to enlarge):

Elevation Profile:

Speed Profile:

(Posted by: Al)

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Thursday, March 22, 2007

Lone Ranger

While the lights were already on charge Jon called in with 'rear end trouble' (in the biological sense rather than some technical bicycle- related complaint) so I was left on my own, all geared up and nowhere to go (above, left). I opted for an old favorite route of mine - usually reserved for training rides and marathon training - the 'Bat & Ball to Old Winchester Hill Ridge ride'. Solo off-road riding in the winter at night is probably not the best advised activity therefore I chose a relatively quiet route, but one where it would be perfectly apparent to passing motorists that there was a fallen cyclist in the road if I did have a mishap. I double-checked my kit this evening too, there would be no borrowing new chain links, inner tube patches or a pump if something went wrong.

It was a bit murky as I made my way out of the village up towards Broad- Halfpenny Down, the cricket pitch and the Bat & Ball pub (right) (where, it is reputed, rules for the noble game of crickets were first written down). As I climbed the hill towards the South Downs the drizzle got heavier and the mist got thicker; not a pleasant evening but at least it wasn't too windy. I was on my 'road' bike: For those technically minded readers amongst you it is an old Giant 'Cold Rock' with a light aluminum frame and CroMo forks. It was originally sold to me as a good 'all-rounder' but, rather frustratingly I soon discovered that it's lack of suspension forks meant that I would have to buy a more sophisticated machine as I graduated to more challenging off-road riding. However, the simple modification of replacing the standard issue 'nobbly' tires with slicks (Specialized Nimbus) transformed the bike into a perfect on-road training bike. (I would urge anyone reading this who uses their mountain bike mainly on the road, but who still has off-road tires fitted, to try this - the difference in rolling resistance is almost incredible).

After the ridge ride to Old Winchester Hill I'd had enough of the murk and descended quickly into Soberton off the edge of the downs. I rode past our regular watering hole, the White Lion and carried on back over the hill towards home. I took a convoluted route back into Hambledon, losing my altitude gradually rather than the more usual kamikaze descent of Cams Hill. I'm really pleased with this decision as it provided the high point of the ride, a close encounter with a young badger, in fact such a close encounter that I had to slam my brakes on to avoid running it over! A sighting of some nocturnal wildlife is always a thrill on a TCA night out; the occasional fox or owl are special enough but badgers are my personal favorite. This route eventually took me past my local, and 'Good Pub Guide' listed, Vine which I could not resist. The tankard my brother gave me on his wedding day as thanks for sorting out the pre-nuptial piss-up and getting him back alive hangs behind the bar where it's been gathering dust a little recently. However it was a delight to again see it filled (with a pint of Jennings Cocker Hoop) while I caught up with the land lady, Vicky (above, left). Vicky's hubby and resident chef popped his head round the kitchen door to say 'hi' too. Two nicer publicans you would be hard-pushed to find, just another thing that's so good about living in Hambledon. I had a punt on the Vine whiskey lottery too - an opaque bottle on the optics which is filled between 1/2 an 3/4 full. A shot of whiskey is free but - beware - if yours is the last dram you have to stump up £25 to refill the bottle! A really good idea, particularly this evening as I was relieved to see the sight glass slowly refill...

My chat with the few locals and bar staff went on somewhat longer than expected so, after three pints of Cocker' inside me, I meandered the hundred yards or so home and threw the bike back in the garage. I had a makeshift dinner of stir-fried pork, apple and spring onion sandwich and a can of Guinness as I tried to focus on Desperate Housewives and reruns of the Cricket while downloading the evening's pictures (above, right).

Route Map (click to see full size):

Stats (click to enlarge):

Elevation profile (click to enlarge):

Speed Profile (click to enlarge):

(Posted by: Al)

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Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Signs of Spring

It was back down to earth for us with a return to our nocturnal mid-week activities. Jon and Al met at Hambledon for the regular ride taking in Soberton and the Forest of Bere. The evenings are really drawing out now and, although we set off in the dark, Jon could at least take the bike off his car in daylight. These tale-tale indications of things to come have always been an encouragement of the TCA through the years; setting off in day light means longer, more adventurous rides. What's more we were blessed with a clear, mild evening after solid rain since our return from our weekend in the Quantocks.

Sections of the ride were still very heavy, particularly the Driftway Track which had seen some tractor action during the rain – it was easy to get a wheel caught in the tyre marks.
This was the first Wednesday we’d been out in these parts for some time and we were greeted enthusiastically by the ‘regulars’ in the White Lion at Soberton: Wednesday is the big night out in the Lion, with a band playing every first Wednesday in the month. We had a pint of our usual Palmers 200 as we caught up with the familiar characters in the bar.

The old railway line was a bit of a slog but we worked well in tandem, slip-streaming each other in turn, which made less heavy weather of the two or three miles. We didn’t even make a serious attempt of the railway embankment challenge; it was thick with mud and would have been a difficult ask after our exertions on the railway line.

The familiar haul up and over the hill through the
Forest of Bere passed without incident; the decent was a little more tame than usual as the rain seemed to have packed down the loose, sandy surface. We did note however that amongst the obvious signs of spring the bluebells are preparing themselves for their annual spectacular display (previously described). Men of habit we ordered our usual pints of Green King Abbot Ale in the Travelers to toast absent members and pose for our routine photograph (below).

After this second pint of the night it was back to an empty house for a meal of Al’s famous beef in Guinness and an episode of Desperate Housewives. Perhaps not the most extraordinary of evenings but sometimes comfort can be found in the routine.

(Posted by: Al)

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Friday, March 02, 2007

Quantock Hills Boy's Weekend

Introduction - By Ian
The Boys Weekend started with a group of 13 at Alan Miles' stag weekend at Litton Cheney Youth Hostel in January 1998. This takes advantage of the YHA's 'Escape 2' scheme whereby you can hire the whole hostel for your exclusive use out of season. It was a two night affair formed of friends and acquaintances and culminated in a gourmet Indian food feast of all you could eat for a fiver at Tesco in Dorchester. The pub next door to the Hostel came in very handy and was really appreciated by the Guinness drinkers on our return visit in 2004. The inaugural event was such a success that it has been held for ten years and taken in venues in Somerset, Devon, Leicestershire and Buckinghamshire. It usual centers around a day and half walking with an afternoon in the pub watching Six Nations rugby - provided (unlike this year) we correctly guess when the fixtures are when booking the hostel. The success of the weekend is down to good planning, camaraderie, plenty of beer and good basic food. Four years ago the group was augmented by the "biker boys" a more youthful group mad keen on taking to their mountain bikes, leaving the older members to enjoy the walking.

The 2007 Boys: Left to right
(Top) John, Al, Ad, Jon, Matt, Barry, Alan Q, Jeremy, Brian
(Bottom) Graham, Pete, Ian, (missing) Alan M, Phil

Thursday 1st March - Arrival
Ad and Al both bunked off work a little early to make tracks for the Quantock Hills Youth Hostel and, after stopping to ask directions at the nearest house, were surprised to find all the lights already on at 19:00. The first arrival was not however one of 'The Boys' but an electrician who was replacing all the fire alarm sensors. Supplies and equipment were offloaded, beers put on ice and the sound system set up in the sitting room while the repairs were made upstairs. Soon after the first can was cracked Ad and Al were joined by Barry who had a similar adventure finding the hostel. Ad and Al received a tutorial on the intricacies of resetting the fire alarm as Barry made himself comfortable but it was not long until they were all enjoying a drink together.

Over the next two or three hours various participants drifted in, introduced themselves and opened a beer. The bikers (above, left), keen to fuel-up with all the appropriate nutrients pre-ride, were last to bed at 01:30 after an ill-advised cocktail of white wine, beer, whiskey, beer and red wine. They even managed a sing-along as they bunked down for the evening.

Friday 2nd March - The Big Ride
We woke to the sounds of walkers making tea and fettling equipment ready for their hike. With military organization industrial quantities of porridge, bacon, black pudding, sausages, toast, beans and scrambled egg were cooked by the well-drilled team. Alan Quilter was getting agitated by 10:05 as the walkers missed the deadline for their departure; the bikers were some way further behind, nursing sore heads they sprayed and squirted lubricants on the various moving parts of their bicycles to protect them for the day ahead. However, by 10:30 the hostel was deserted and the bikers shot off down the hill at full speed, in the wrong direction. After much checking of GPS and map we turned round and walked the bikes back up Pardlestone Hill, abandoning the intended start of the route that had taken Al weeks to plan.

On a more positive note the weather was glorious after a rather damp evening the night before; we took a breather once we were up on the ridge to admire the view across the Bristol Channel all the way to Wales to the north (above, right) and across the plains to Glastonbury in the east and Exmoor in the west. Heads were pounding but spirits were high; out in the open air rather than stuck at work! The four riders made steady progress across the ridge (below, left), past Crowcombe Park Gate and over Great Hill without incident. We skirted the edge of Great Wood and had an exhilarating descent to Hawkridge reservoir about 90 minutes into the ride.

Diverting from the published mountain biking routes we followed the road round the southern edge of the reservoir and turned right onto a steep bridle path over Hawkridge common, which required the dismount-and-push approach up the hill. Things didn't get any better at the top of the hill as the path turned into a quagmire. We had calculated that our lunch stop was only 4km away but we pushed our bikes for at least one of these. Eventually the boggy bridle path turned downhill and we were able to slither to the road at the bottom. After a brief stop to remove the worst of the mud from our bike frames, brakes etc we followed the network of country lanes to Enmore and the Tynte Arms (below, right).

Bowls of soup and ploughman's lunches were ordered and followed by a selection of home-made puddings with custard. At 15:00 we left the pub having seriously revised the intended route which was meant to take us west via Broomfield and Cothelstone hill, picking up our outbound route at Triscombe. Instead we headed by road back to Hawkridge reservoir as the rain started to fall. The road route took us back to the Great Wood through Plainsfield; or should that have been ‘painsfield’, as the climb back up to the ridge was a tedious slog. Al, puffing and wheezing, had not completely recovered from his cold and scrabbled desperately for his inhaler in Ad's backpack every time he managed to catch up with him. By the time we reached the top of the ridge the rain was persistent, the wind had picked up and the temperature had dropped by several degrees; the boys needed a shower and a cup of tea but instead had 8km of trail ahead.

After a breather morale sank further as Adrian snapped his chain soon after setting off on this final leg. With little fuss and impeccable teamwork the old link was removed and a new link replaced in a matter of minutes, morale was restored and we were back in the saddle (a far cry from a similar incident four years ago which took more than an hour to resolve!). Puddles, avoided on the way out, were driven straight through on the way back to avoid delay (above, left). A strong easterly wind had picked up help push the riders home but the mist was descending to make the conditions even worse. Before long however we were at the top of the last major descent, a steep path down through the woods to the hostel.

Cyclists regrouped and checked the map a final time (Matt at this stage realising that his phone was completely water-logged). We then rode the last leg of our journey together and posed for photos, like four creatures from the black lagoon, for the incredulous walkers. Ian explained that fish and chips, and skittles had been organised in a nearby real ale pub; there was no dissent from the bikers. After hot showers Ad and Jon (christened 'The Chummers' by the rest of the group for renaging on the 'go hard or go home' ethos of the day) went for a nap in their bunks. Matt and Al enjoyed a cup of tea and uploaded the track from the GPS - 24 miles all told - and shared accounts of their day with the walkers, whose fellow GPS users had recorded about 9 miles, or 509 miles depending on whose unit was refered to.

The bikers return (left to right: Al, Matt, Jon, Ad)

By the time we piled into cars and headed off for the pub the conditions had completely deteriorated so we were glad to be in Graham's Land Rover Discovery and not back on bikes as we battled through the fog, rain and wind. Fish and chips at the Carew Arms were superb, the walkers generously (although not without some abuse from certain quarters) let the exhausted cyclists, even The Chummers, have the first portions.

Ian and Alan (right) declared skittles would be a battle of 'Old' versus 'Young': Predictably the veterans won hands down on account that the four 'young' cyclists made up a significant part of the juniors team and could hardly focus on the skittles let alone pick up a bowling ball. After two or three pints cyclists were home and in their bunks by 22:30, asleep by 22:32, woken briefly at 23:00 by Jeremy who decided to join their dormitory, and asleep again shortly after. It had been a tiring but satisfying day in the saddle and a brilliant way to unwind.

Route Map (click to enlarge):
Outbound Elevation:

Inbound Elevation:

Saturday 3rd March - The Walk

With aching limbs but a clear head Al got up, keen to make amends for his poor efforts at breakfast time the day before. All except Jon were grateful for a cup of tea bought to them in bed by Al before he took over the porridge duties (he had had serious issues the day before with Ian's method of microwaving a sloppy mixture of oats and milk until it was lukewarm then declaring it fit for purpose). Following Al's traditionally made hob-heated porridge the main course consisted of bacon croissants. With time to discuss the various options on their trek the day before the walkers had already hatched a fine plan for the day's activities, and a much more leisurely start to the day. 10.30 saw us pile into the cars again to catch the West Somerset Railway steam train from Watchet to Minehead at 11.10.

On arrival at Minehead the bikers and walkers again went their separate ways as Matt wanted to buy a replacement phone. While we failed to find any phones we did managed to buy some delicious pork pies before finding our way to the coast path around Blue Anchor Bay, which would take us back to Watchet and the cars. It was a glorious day; sunny and unseasonably warm; the bikers put their best foot forward and caught up with the rest of the part just as they decided to stop for lunch at a very dodgy looking pub - The Smugglers.

The bikers, fueled by pies, decided to push on without lunch but could not resist the lures of the more cosy looking Blue Anchor a little way up the coast. We were joined a few minutes later by the rest of the party; apparently the Smugglers not only looked dodgy but was staffed by a menacing rottweiler-owning landlord. After a couple of pints and a catch up with the football scores it was back onto the path which wended it's way through pleasant woodland at the top of the cliffs overlooking Warren Bay (above, right).

Al lets the other bikers test the way

The party had regrouped over a pint at the London Inn in Watchet before the short drive home. A traditional night-in was planned for the evening's entertainment with curry and beer bought in industrial quantities from Tesco.

After dinner the group retired to the sitting room for games of Scrabble (from left: Alan, Ian, Phil, Barry) and cards (cribbage and the more dubious 'shit-head', taught to the group by Ad) but the total eclipse of the moon trumped the lot at about 23:00 with everyone leaving the hostel to view the spectacle - widely reported as the best view of this phenomenon for 15 years (below). Concurrently, and almost to the exclusive interest of the two participants, a 'battle of the DJs' was waged well into the evening by Ian and Al, armed only with their MP3 players.

Sunday 4th March - Home
With arguments still raging about the use of 'zo' and 'wizen' during the scrabble the evening before [both later verified as valid, Ed.] the well-oiled machine ground into action for a final time. With breakfast of porridge and hot cross buns out of the way Peter and Alan Q bid farewell leaving the remaining Boys to clean the hostel from top to bottom. With everyone helping this was accomplished by 10am before bikes were lashed back onto cars, routes were devised and everyone was on their way.

The bikers would once again like to extend their thanks to all The Boys for the invitation to join this institution again - we had a magnificent time, the best yet!

Map of the area (Quantock Hills, near Bridgwater) Click to enlarge:

(Posted by: Al)

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