Wednesday, October 31, 2007


Al and John both had long drives from meetings up-country to make it back for the regular weekly ride this evening from Jon's place. It had been a beautiful day - exceptionally mild for the time of year (some parts of Scotland would later record their highest November temperature since records began) - and the autumn colours were the most spectacular display in many years; a perfect evening for a ride.

Chichester was chosen as a starting point for the first Halloween ride since TCA records began but complications befell the occasion before we had even set off: Events had conspired to leave Al's #1 mountain bike stranded in John's garage, leaving him with only his rigid 'road' mountain bike. Essential adjustments were made as Jon P had deemed the set-up wholly unsuitable for the route he had in mind. A phone call to John H later and off came the slick Specialised Nimbus road tyres, to be replaced with John's spare set of Specialised Fast Trak dual compound XC tyres. Jon P pitched in to help as John H assembled his own bike, the matter somewhat complicated by the discovery of a puncture as the new tyres were fitted; Al had forgotten to bring a spare inner tube - John H to the rescue again! Finally we were ready to ward off any further evil spirits; we eased into our ride by cycling around the familiar Goodwood circuit perimeter track.

We encountered our first trick-or-treaters by the Royal Oak at East Lavant; the TCA are not in the business of treats and so the pesky kids got nothing as the trio disappeared in a blase of lights. The Jo(h)ns made it to the top of Chalkpit Lane some time before Al who was having problems shifting into a sufficiently low gear, a problem possibly compounded by his lack of sleep in the preceding nights. Regrouping at the top of the Trundle we managed to surprise two cars of courting couples as we headed west towards Kingley Vale. We followed a rutted footpath down towards Lavant valley, along Hayes Down and eventually towards a steep downhill section characterised by a grassy slope with hollows which eventually flattens out over a old disused railway line along the bottom of the valley - break-neck speed and great fun! Jon remarked that he felt that this was his first 'proper' night ride with the TCA (clarifying that although he had had to use his lights on occasion to get home by road, this was the first time he had done any off-road riding with lights, let alone having to start a ride with lights). With the nagging doubt of his credentials allayed Jon passed Ox Barn with the two veterans and crossed the A286 onto Binderton Lane. The bridleway which peels off it was christened 'rat alley' due to the number of rodents we spotted scurrying out of our way - precisely on cue for such a spooky occasion! Needless to say we did not loiter and descended quickly down to B2141 Harting Road.

Heading South along this road Al took the middle position in a group of three as he had also failed to pack his back light. Apparently his old one looked very similar to Jon's and accusations of stealing were bandied around. Jon's conjecture was that whether this was the case or not he did not think it a crime in TCA circles where one's kit is considered communal. Jon and John had ridden this route before and carefully looked out for the bridleway on the right which led to Kingley Vale; apparently this turning had eluded them for some time on the previous outing. At the top of their climb the Jo(h)ns paused briefly to wait for Al (gear issues again) and were reminded that last time they did this route it was summer; John had recently purchased his shiny forks and had posed for a picture at this very point. The next section followed part of the Chichester Challenge route; coming down from Kingley Vale where the track widens out at the bottom before getting to a five-barred gate which can be easily forgotten when traveling at speed.

Creep Show

Refreshments were beckoning on the road to East Ashling. Glowing candle-lit pumpkins adorned the entrances to houses and the Horse and Groom, an atmospheric 17th Century pub, had also entered into the spirit of things (above - how many spooky faces can you see?). In a bizarre case of mistaken identity some of the friendly locals seemed to think they knew us (how many people were out night-cycling on Halloween in East Ashling?!) but as soon as that was straightened out we tucked into some real ales. John, a self-confessed and hardened lager drinker, provided the revelation of the evening - that he was becoming quite fond of the variety of real ale encountered on TCA outings. He was close to admitting that he had become a convert and that the high quality of the pubs we frequent and variety of beer had helped to counter his previous bad experiences with 'ale'. A small victory for the TCA and real-ale fans everywhere! It was noted however that his palate was not yet fully converted as he preferred a pint of lighter, hoppier beer (Identification not noted, Ed.) to the darker Harvey's Ale preferred by Jon and Al, although there is no shame in that.

A toast to absent friends Horse & Groom, East Ashling

Over their pints Jon and John got into a conversation about new bikes - it soon became apparent that John was already considering an upgrade to his relatively new bike (only a year-or-so old), despite taking the trouble to kit it out with new forks not so long ago: Apparently, like his motor bikes, John prefers not to hold onto cycles and other gadgets for too long before seeking a change. Jon was confounded - he thought he had just about sussed out his new friend but clearly he remained a man of mystery.

Hubble, bubble, toil and big, big trouble

By now we were nearing the end of the 16.5 mile ride and we cycled through the back streets of Chichester to the prospect a new dish on the TCA menu. With a slight sense of trepidation Jon spooned out Moroccan spiced lamb and apricots with cous cous (above). (His fears were unfounded - the delicious meal went down well and seconds were had by all, finally consigning the infamous 'night of the slow-cooked horse-meat' to all but a distant memory. Eat your heart out, Nigella! Ed.)

Route Map (click to enlarge):
Elevation Profile:
(Posted by: Jon)

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Saturday, October 27, 2007

Y Ddraig Goch Ddyry Gychwyn

After competing in the Helly Hansen adventure race the previous week, and still up for more challenges, John and Jon decided to head off to sunny Wales (well that’s what BBC weather site forecast) with Mrs John to tackle what has been called Mountain bikers Nirvana, Afan Forest Park. Concerned for the fearsome reputation of the Gaelic tribes (Twll dîn pob Sais! Ed.) we thought it best to go up in force, so teamed up with a posse that Ad and Ju had put together. With bikes prepared, Vince the camper van loaded with provisions and sufficient nutrition for the forthcoming assault (Al would have approved of the energy bars and drinks that J & J had prepared, but not the choice of music that accompanied the journey) the trio headed off on Friday night to Devizes to rendezvous with TCA veterans Ad and Ju.

Once ensconced in their house, having eaten and drunk Ad and Ju out of house and home, we went to bed at a reasonable time, as an early start was needed to get to Afan for a 10am start the following day.On arrival in Wales (just over the Severn Bridge) guess what..? It was raining! As we headed to Afan the rain got steadily worse. On arrival at the Glycorrwg campsite in Afan Park, we met up with the other intrepid adventurers: Scott the single speed king; Charlie Boy; Charlie Girl and Ed. After some debate the group split into 2, with Ju's heading off to the main park centre to meet with 3 more riders, where an assault on the “Wall” trial took place. The rest of us then decided to attack the infamous “Skyline” trail, or at least part of it as the weather was truly disgusting.

Croeso i Gymru

In for a penny and in for a pound, Mrs John decided that she too would come with us , on the basis that apparently after a fairly short but technical start the trail became easier. It should be pointed out at this stage that the only “serious” off road riding Mrs John had done up to this was some single-track riding in the relatively flat Thetford Forest, two weeks previous. The start was extremely technical due in part to its design, route, the presence of lots of boulders, tree roots, switchbacks and extent of the vertical ascent, but the extreme wet also added to the difficulty. After what seemed an age and with the majority of the group having to wait for the struggling but determined Mrs John (at this stage let’s introduce her real name - Emma) and her concerned (and feeling very guilty for getting her into this) husband, we arrived at the top. (it should also be added that although at times Em’s sense of humour failed, at no times were there any expletives or threat of divorce mentioned, unless that was they were under her breath).

Emma (centre) , still smiling!

The trail then switched on to mixture of forest fire break tracks, single track, with some spectacular downhill’s and allegedly some equally spectacular views over the Welsh hills (well that’s what Jon told John!), but being up so high and that we were in the rain cloud, this could not be validated. Due in part to the time it had taken and the fowl weather conditions the group decided to take one of the short cut routes back to the start. Up to this point the intrepid seven had suffered a number of falls, but Em was to suffer one which prevented her from riding further (it’s not so easy steering when one arm refuses to play). Fortunately a jeep appeared soon after Em’s fall with a very helpful couple of guys in who were doing a reckie for a forthcoming RAC rally in the park. Em and her bike were loaded into the Jeep for a trip back to the campsite (with mobile phone to let us know she had arrived safely). Joking aside the guys were very helpful and went out of their way to help so John owes them a debit of extreme gratitude. On the way back down to camp they gave Em lots of useful info about the area, think they were worried about her going into shock so just kept on talking to her (sometimes in Welsh). The infamous 6 continued onward - tackling an excellent, but technically and physically demanding downhill section - back to the site. The excitement for the day was not over; with several of the group suffering from falls, and one puncture, but all eventually made it back down in one piece. Back at the campsite the bikes were all jet washed down, the riders put themselves through cold showers (they were supposed to be hot, but the water tanks could not cope with the volume of people needing showers that day…still charged 50p for the privilege)!

In the Touchdown Café the group tucked into some excellent cakes and hot drinks, and collectively decided that we would call it a day and head back to their respective homes. The weather forecast for the following day was as bad, the campsite was looking like a water meadow, plus the promise of warm beds, the thought of a lie in (plus the extra hour in bed due to change to GMT), Sunday papers, Sunday roast, etc etc (you get the idea) all contributed to the decision. Vince was packed up with soggy clothing and tired, cold riders (John, Jon and Em). We set off home, arriving some 3.5 hours later, in time for Jon to get home to order his takeaway curry. Afan park offers an extremely diverse range of trails, all of which clearly have been thought through and are well maintained. The campsite at Glycorrwg offers a good site with, showers, an excellent café open to 10pm and a very good mountain bike shop. Despite the weather and difficulties encountered, John and Em were very happy to be asked along, as the group were all very friendly, helpful, and patient, and despite all there was still an excellent sense of humour present. Ad and Ju’s hospitality was much appreciated on the Friday night so we will hopefully be getting back to Afan at some stage next year, but better prepared next time (including first aid kit and strong painkillers)…and hoping for some good weather (Don't bank on it - it is Wales after all! Ed.)

(Posted by: John)

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Sunday, October 21, 2007

Helly Hansen Adventure Challenge

Dubbed the "Weavers Down Autumn Assault" this was the third of four events which make up the Helly Hansen Adventure Challenge Series 2007 organised by TrailPlus for teams of three, and TCA(UK)'s first foray into the world of multi-sport, long the staple of TCA(NZ) activities. John had spotted an advert for the event and he, Al and Jon all hoped the rather steep entry fee of £125 a team would prove good value for money.

Having topped up with a high-carb breakfast John and Emma picked Al up at 07.45 on a cold, frosty morning for the short trip up the A3 to the Longmore Camp army base near Bordon; Emma had volunteered for marshaling duties and we were bound to arrive well before the start. Early arrival gave John and Al plenty of time to register the team, pick up the finalised itinerary, check out the transition area and discuss tactics as they waiting for Jon (who had a cross-country journey following a wedding in Gloucestershire) to arrive. We wondered what kind of state Jon would turn up in; whether he would have been able to avoid temptation at the reception the night before. With the ample car park steadily filling up Jon finally arrived at 09.00 a little tired but having only had a small glass of wine to toast the happy couple. Jon reassured the others that his breakfast of buffet leftovers: Pizza; quiche; sausage rolls; crisps and sandwiches, was what all the elite athletes were eating these days.

Pre-Event Fettling

Wrapped up against the cold we assembled our equipment in the frost then made our way to the transition area to set up our bikes, accessories and nutrition - finally assembling with the 750+ other competitors for the first leg of the challenge: The pre-event instructions had suggested that we would have (in no particular order) a 10km run, a 20km cycle, a 1 km kayak and some 'surprise challenges along the way'. We were issued with final instructions as we registered and considered the implications of the finalised itinerary: 3km run, 25km cycle (2 x 12.5km laps), 3km run, kayak, 3km run and an assault course. ASSAULT COURSE? We certainly hadn't bargained for that!

Team Titchfield Cycling Association, ready for anything
(Left to right: Al, Jon, John)

The horn sounded at 10.10 and we set off at a reasonable pace towards the back of the 'first wave'. There followed an uphill run on sandy terrain, though some woods and finally a descent back to the transition phase. It was incumbent on all teams to stay together for the full course of the event and the first run provided us with an early opportunity to get the hang of communicating in a pack of other athletes, pacing ourselves and generally sticking together. We were so confident towards the end of the stage that we even up-ed the pace a little, overtaking a few of our competitors on the downhill section.

Entering the transition we were amazed to see how many of the bikes already seemed to have disappeared. Nevertheless we took our time changing shoes, taking in fluids and gearing up for the mountain biking. It soon became clear that the field had not spread out as far as we thought; the early single-track sections of the route were clogged with competitors. Again we had to put some work in simply to stay together but we effectively started to work our way past natural obstacles and other competitors stranded in the mud. The course itself was a undulating track over variable, occasionally muddy terrain: The early sections of the course were sandy, heavily rutted and hard-going; the course then opened out onto the heath-land of Weavers Down and into the woods. On both laps we chose to take a break in a clearing at the top of the most punishing climb; it seemed that many of the other competitors chose to get their breath back here too and there was some friendly banter amongst the teams. There then followed a descent through the woods which made up approximately a quarter of the route and which was the most enjoyable section with steep drop-offs, jumps and perhaps more significantly a break from the unrelenting climb. As usual where Jon and John had pulled away up to the apex of the course, Al made up for his lack of progress on the way down. Clear of the other competitors, and with a mutual understanding of each others technique after hours in the saddle together on weekly rides, team TCA really came into it's own; the second lap seemed much easier desite a few minor gremlins in Al's front mech and we entered the transition together and relatively happy with our performance.

The TCA in their natural environment

Off the bikes and into running shoes once more; yet more sports drink and a welcome breather at the transition. We set off on the second run of the day bound for the kayaking event. While we did feel tired it was disconcerting just how much our legs were complaining about being made to run again. Our pace was limited as we left the transition and settled into a jog. All the training seemed in vain as we struggled to run at any sort of pace and were forced to walk up even the slightest incline. The run took us through a wooded section, over some heathland and then through the marshy bed of Woolmer Pond, often ankle deep in mud.

Like fish out of water

Eventually we reached the lake and listened to barked instructions relating to the next stage: Two out of three competitors were to paddle the kayak a third of the way round the lake while the other ran to the same point. The runner would then swap with one of his team members who would continue the run, returning back to the starting point while the others completed the lap of the lake (this longer run section suspiciously felt as if it had been cobbled together at the last minute to keep the third team member occupied!). Since John H was the only team member with any significant experience he was chosen as the only member of the team to stay in the Kayak for the course of the section; Jon P had demonstrated that he had the freshest legs and was up for the longer run; Al therefore pulled on a life jacket and set off on the shorter run to the rendezvous point while the others grabbed a two-man inflatable kayak. Al observed the other team's techniques as he waited for his by-now water-borne team mates: A pair had capsized their inflatable kayak and others were struggling to find their footing on the unstable fringes of the lake while swapping crew. When team 39 Kayak arrived Al hauled the bows ashore to help John disembark onto sound footing before he got in and pushed off. We had a sense of satisfaction with our change-over as we watched others get into a terrible mess with their's. Al and John's morale was further boosted as they steered their way through the numerous rudderless teams having trouble even paddling in the right direction. There were even some close encounters with more competitive teams, at one stage Al caught the rear crew member of another kayak in the face with his paddle... but stopped short of pulling his cutlass - avast me hearties!

John and Al completed the course, disembarked and hauled their inflatable kayak onto the shore where a scene of confusion and disarray greeted them: Other competitors with (and without) life jackets waiting for their team mates on the longer run, some setting off to meet them. John and Al waited a few minutes and finally saw Jon approaching them through the marsh. Having discarded our life jackets we jogged back out to the first rendezvous point and on towards the rather ambiguous point where Jon had had to run to on the longer leg. This section was treacherous under foot and made more difficult by competitors running in either direction. Still, we gained some sense of satisfaction that we had miraculously understood the instructions as we saw whole teams still in life jackets, or individuals who had misinterpreted the instructions in some way.

By now our legs were really complaining; stride lengths getting involuntarily shorter and shorter as we followed the track back to the transition on our final 3km run through Woolmer Forest. With no hydration since the bike stop our resources where running out and many others running along side us seemed in similar shape. We re-crossed the A3 and finally made it back where the elements of the 'assault course' were explained:

'Walk the Plank' entailed the three of us standing on two planks (one for left feet, one for right) with loops of rope for the toes of the persons at the front and rear. Teams had to walk on these like some bizarre snow shoes around a marked course. It took us a while to figure out the best technique but after much wailing and gnashing of teeth we could eventually give up the planks and jog to the 'Sack Race'. Here we were each required to put one leg in a single sack and navigate another short course. This we did without too much fuss before another short run to a more conventional element of an assault course; the Cargo Net, under which we had to crawl. This inevitably ended in a muddy puddle a few inches deep from where we had to tackle the final obstacle - the Slippery Wall. We watched as the team in front made a complete hash of this, their final stranded member struggling to grab the apex of the wall before sliding back into the mire from whence he came. Somehow, instinctively we knew what we had to do to end our ordeal - John and Al, with their low center of gravity conquered the leading edge of the wall, sitting astride the apex, before grasping Jon's hands as he reached up and helping him over, the perched pair finally descending. The applause from the crowd which greeted our efficiency was almost worth the effort! Crossing the finish line felt even better.

Teamwork proves the key to the 'slippery wall' obstacle

Finishing the event 91st out of 132 all-male teams (134th out of the total 219 teams) we had our official photograph taken and were presented with our 'goody bag' which contained all those things an exhausted athlete might require after 4 hours rigorous exercise: the obligatory t-shirt,a packet of pretzels, a Helly Hansen catalogue, numerous fliers advertising future TrailPlus events and a box of 10 Yorkshire Tea bags: "They're just on the sell!" exclaimed Jon. Fun though it was we were expecting better considering the comparatively high entry fee. Between us we had few minor gripes about the event: It could have a been better organised (an apparently hastily arranged 'wave' start, further delay to the start because registrations could not be processed quickly enough, hurried final instruction issued via megaphone before the start and incomprehensible instructions barked at us before the kayaking event); it could have been better marshaled; it could have had more water stops (it was incumbent on competitors to be self sufficient in terms of hydration 'as part of the challenge' but we felt this was a cop-out on such a long and grueling event). What did TrailPlus do with the all the money... teabags? I ask you! We wait in anticipation to see the inevitably exorbitant prices of the 'official' event photographs!

Thank God it's all over!

Typically the completion of such a strenuous event should leave competitors with a sense of achievement but we just felt worn out; it was difficult to benchmark our performance against other more standardised formats of event or anything else we had taken part in. While this event certainly provided a unique challenge we found it frustrating to have to complete such random exercises at the 'plank walk' and 'sack race', losing time we had tried hard to accumulate in the running and riding sections (and put weeks of training in to attain).

Nevertheless, back at the van we reflected that the real achievement was that our differing personalities complimented each other so well when team-work was required. We already have an ethos of sticking together, going at the slowest participant's pace for the benefit of collective enjoyment at the TCA, but our teamwork as such had never been tested. For this reason it was deemed a highly worthwhile and enjoyable exercise, worthy of a second attempt at a similar event in due course.

The camper van was a God-send - providing a place to get changed and allowing John (above, left) to whip-up a cup of tea to compliment the fresh cream scones and custard tarts he had bought in advance; now THERE'S organisation for you!

Area Map (Click to Enlarge):
(Posted by Al; Photos by Em)

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Thursday, October 18, 2007

Hill Head Hogs

With the Helly Hansen Challenge imminent Al and John seized the opportunity to put in some last-minute training for the dreaded 'run' section of the event. Meeting at John's they drove to Hill Head and ran the 2-3 miles along the seafront promenade to Lee-on-Solent and back. It was a clear, crisp, starlit evening and a rewarding location for a gentle run - the lights of the ships and the Isle of Wight in the distance reflecting on the mirror-calm Solent.

Having completed the circuit in about 40 minutes the pair returned to Johns for curry (provided by Al) and bottled beer (provided by John). In time-honoured fashion the pair sat down to a film well-worthy of a TCA viewing; the 2007 film starring John Travolta - Wild Hogs. At the very least it took their minds of the weekend's activities which were looming large in light of disrupted training regimes.

(Posted by: Al)

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Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Hobgoblin Horror at the Traveler's Rest

Our pre-ride tea and cakes were polished off quickly as we rushed to get out; this evening provided almost perfect autumn conditions - a dry, mild dark night with soft (yet not too muddy) ground after the previous week's wet weather. Hitting the lights we turned onto bridle path at the top of Cams Hill to tackle (for the first time since June) our once regular 13.5 mile Hambledon route; the first time in many months that lights were required virtually from the off - a proper TCA night ride!

Early pace was sociable: Jon and a sleep deprived Al had not seen each other for a while and there was much to catch up on. Conversation occasionally turned to the impending Helly Hansen Challenge and the progress (or lack) of our training for the dreaded run section of the multi-discipline event. It soon became apparent that while Al had spent the last two weeks changing nappies Jon had been working hard - putting in 9km and 10km runs the previous week alone.

The going on the trail was perfect - the ruts on the bridle paths had been softened by the rain but the recent sunny weather had dried up the mud. Al could not work out how his shorts had got so wet on the short trip over to the White Lion. It has been mentioned before that Wednesday night is the big night in Soberton and this week was no different - all the regulars were there and seemed pleased to see the TCA contingent on their first Wednesday trip to the pub for several weeks. Having chatted to the various characters around the bar for a while the duo escaped to enjoy their pints outside on a mild star-lit night: Thermal base layers were in operation for the first time in many months and the warm bar was making things a little uncomfortable in all the layers! We chatted to a couple of ostracised smokers while we enjoyed our regular pints of Palmers 200.

Jon and Al enjoy a pint outside the White Lion

As we began to get back in the saddle Al realised the source of his wet behind - a rupture in the bladder of his hydration pack. Discarding what remained of his water Al remounted and the pair flicked on their lamps: The smokers marveled at our retina-burning lights (although Al actually felt that it was probably time for a new 12w spot light for his Lumicycle Li-ion lights his looked a little more dim than usual). Jon, lit up like a christmas tree with his 3-lamp VistaLite system led the way from the pub to the disused railway line where we geared the pace up a little. Taking it in turns to provide the relief of the slipstream for the other we made good progress. This section of the ride has proven over the years to be where we are most likely to encounter some nocturnal wildlife. Tonight it would provide the highlight of the ride, affording us an excellent view of a barn owl; as we rode two-abreast it crossed the beam from the lamps which blazed a tunnel of light down the trail.

We left the railway using the steep path up the railway embankment. Neither rider seemed in the mood to procrastinate over the railway embankment challenge this evening so we did not turn for a second attempt having wheeled our bikes to the top. We pushed on through the Forest of Bere, our conversation turning to the weekend's Rugby World Cup and Grand Prix, and to the following week's England European Football Championship matches.

We had a clear run through to the Traveler's Rest and parked our bikes out front, leaning them against new picnic tables. Inside there also seemed to be a bit of a refurbishment underway and a conversation with the bar staff revealed that the pub had changed hands (the third time in recent history) in April. The beer selection had also been revamped - the boy's eyes lit up as they saw Wynchwood's legendary Hobgoblin ale on draft. We waited as an inexperienced-looking bar maid disconcertingly pulled pint after pint of colourless fluid from the pump. After a brief chat with the manager she pulled another few clear pints before the characteristic dark nectar began to flow. We took our beers outside to savour the taste but a little way down the glasses we noticed a decidedly detergent-like aftertaste and a vinegary nose developing. Unfortunately we had tasted a sample at the bar and given our approval so we could hardly return for a replacement; unprecedentedly we left about a quarter of a pint in the glasses and saddled up with a bitter taste in our mouths (both literally and metaphorically).

A toast to absent friends, the Traveler's Rest
over the worst pint of Hobgoblin in TCA history

We enjoyed the gentle ride down the country lane bound for Hambledon and our dinner of chicken & mushroom balti, strawberries and cream and - a real special treat - Crocodile Dundee; "You call that a knife?". Lights will be a must on rides from now until until Spring - TCA season is upon us!

Route Map (click to enlarge)

(Posted by: Al)

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