Thursday, April 24, 2008

Postcard fom Vienna

Like Copenhagen and some other European cities, Vienna is endowed with a fabulous network of dedicated cycle paths with which you can get anywhere, from a quick city-centre tour to a spin round Johann Strauss' eponymous Vienna Woods that surround the city. Visitors may hire cycles from various outlets, including a city-bike station where you can insert your credit card into a machine, select your bike and then release it from the stand. You can return it to any of the 50+ such stations located around Vienna.

A typical city-bike station.
The credit card control unit is in the centre of the row of bikes

After a quick buzz round the inner ring to see some of the palaces and state buildings, I headed off east to the Danube. There is a long flat low-lying island that runs down the centre of the river, which is effectively dedicated as a 30-mile long playground where you can do cycling (from 'professional cyclists' to tourists like me), walking, roller-blading, kite-flying or even messing around with radio-controlled models.

City bike ride on the Danube island.
Bikes are simple but robust,
with front brake and fixed wheel as rear brake

(Posted by: Maalie)

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Friday, April 18, 2008

Strontian Boy's Weekend

A delegation from the TCA were fortunate enough to be invited on the 11th Boys Weekend outing (a historical account of this institution can be found in the introduction provided in last year's visit to the Quantock Hills). An added twist to this year's Boys Weekend was that Peter, one of the founder members, was to host the activities at his home in Strontian, in the West of Scotland. Sadly, some weeks before the trip, Peter sustained injuries in a road accident and was unable to participate.

Thursday 17th April

Ian, Quilts, Jeremy, John, Matt, Jon, Billy-Bob and Al met at Southampton airport at some ungodly hour; having taken the day off work they had originally seen no good reason why they shouldn't make the most of it and get up to Edinburgh early. On arrival the party caught the express coach into the city and split into two factions - a delegation would pay our collective respects to our stricken host while the remainder enjoyed the delights of Edinburgh.

Peter complains of a 'stiff neck' after a 'prang' in his car.

Having enjoyed a pleasant bus ride through Morningside Ian, Quilts and Al were treated to generous slices of home made cake and steaming mugs of coffee when they arrived at Peter's house. The meagre offerings the trio had bought in Tescos seemed a paltry token of gratitude under the circumstances but Peter nevertheless seemed to appreciate the TCA’s gift of grapes and the flowers and wine which were also delivered in grateful thanks for Elspeth’s culinary exploits – more on that score later. Hungry and tired the remainder of the group flogged across the city according to Ian's directions towards the Commonwealth swimming pool where the party were to be reunited. Coffee and cake with our incapacitated host took the well-wishers a little longer than expected however, so the main party were already half way up Arthur's Seat by the time the trio arrived. All were reunited at the summit.

The advance party enjoy the view of the city from Arthur's Seat -
Above(From left): Matt; John; Jon; Paul; Quilts; Ian),
Below: Al

After the first disagreement about which route to take to leave the summit we descended via Salisbury Craggs down to Holyrood and on to the Guildford Arms to arrive just as they had stopped serving food and to be met by Ian’s daughter Ellie and boyfriend Jack who had escaped from Brum for a break (with Peter & Elspeth). A couple of pints of Harvistoun's Ptarmigan later and it was Big Macs for some and scotch pies for others and we were soon on our way down Princes Street to catch the return bus towards the airport from the Haymarket.

Bags were retrieved from the left luggage kiosk while Ian and Al completed the paperwork for the rented minibus. Evening meals typically consisted of pies and pasties from the various outlets in the terminal building. Fortunately the Gatwick flight carrying the Surrey Three - Alan, Brian and Graeme - was bang on time and we made our getaway in a timely fashion. The road up past Stirling, cross country via Callendar and Crainlarich to the highlands was spectacular and we were treated to a sunset over Glen Coe as Ian steered us carefully towards our rendezvous with the Corran Ferry and the last two members of the group.

The Road to Stronian, Glen Coe

Jim and Phil had independently and separately headed north in advance of the main group in order to check out the beer. In his eagerness to smell the tangle o’ the isles, Jim camped at Easdale on the Isle of Seil where he was able to visit the Oysterbar pub on his bike during the evening and sample local ale; breakfast the next morning was nothing less than a Loch Fyne kipper cooked on a trangia camping stove - more on his pre-weekend visit can be seen by clicking here. Jim and Phil caught up with each other in the Ardgour pub to receive the main party as they disembarked from the ferry from Corran at about 8.50pm , and the barman had been given the duration of the ferry crossing to pour 12 pints of beer!

The Corran ferry at Dusk

Friday 18th April
The amenities of Spring Cottage were appreciated by all and in the morning the vista over Loch Sunart and the snow topped mountains in the distance were impressive – especially as the weather in the West Highlands was sunny and warm throughout our stay. After Big Al’s porridge accompanied by bacon, sausage and black pudding butties for breakfast we were off to Nevis Range, minus Alan who had succumbed to a fever he brought with him.

This ain't no YHA hostel!

It was back to the Corran ferry in the bus and another 30 minute drive to the Nevis Range where the bikers and walkers split.

The Cycle: Having reached the car park at the base of Aonach Mor early the bikers paced up and down nervously. It was a cold, sunny morning and they relished the warmth and comfort of a cup of tea as they watched skiers and snowboarders gear up and take the gondola up to the slopes. The Witches Trails has a certain ring to it and phrases such as "fast flowing forest road together with technical single track climbs" and "tests the super fit of the World Cup circuit" gleaned from the brochures were adding to the sense of anticipation.

The Biker Boys 2008
(Left to right: John; Matt; Al; Jon; Billy-Bob)

The van from Off Beat Bikes rolled into the carpark at 10.30 and the 5 Specialised Rockhopper Sport bikes were unloaded. Billy-Bob listened intently to the briefing provided by our local contact and, in true TCA fashion, dismissed it out of hand preferring our own home-brewed plan: We would warm up with a longer (19km) 'blue' graded route in the morning (Route Map 1), before tackling the 'red/black' World Cup XC course in the afternoon. Helmets were donned, seats were adjusted and, with the maps stuffed into Billy-Bob's pocket, the gang of five shot off.

Route Map 1 (click to enlarge):

The intrepid riders got all of 200 yards before encountering their first technical hitch; Matt's seatpost was slipping badly, rendering his bike fit only for comedy acts in the circus. Al pressed on ahead to retrieve Jon and John who had pressed ahead while Billy-Bob did his best to assist Matt. Al rounded the corner only to find that Jon had also come to a halt with malfunctioning brakes.

Billy-Bob and Matt hit the trail

Thank heavens for John's multi-tool and Leatherman! After a few minutes delicate tweaking we soon decided that the only thing to do was to over-torque the seat post clamp and then rip the rubber sheathing from around Jon's brake cable. Let the ride resume! The ‘blue’ run consisted of a gentle (if unrelenting) climb on forestry tracks with spectacular views on either side of snow-capped mountains. There were a few niggles with the bikes; the odd loose seat post and crunching gears but on the whole the boys got to grips with their hired steads. Towards the top of the accent the trail turned into a pleasant single track through the woods high above the glen. The brochure had described at length the TTFs that would challenge the riders on the Witches Trail a phrase that, once we had worked out this stood for 'technical trail feature', was soon appropriated into the TCA vernacular with gusto.

Jon tackles another TTF

On the blue run the TTFs seemed limited to the occasional bridge across a burn but as the single tracked turned sharply downhill over rocky ground the ride became more challenging as it followed the course of the river Cour. Turning for home the trail once again followed the forest tracks as it wended it's way back to base. Apart from Al's over-the-handlebars dismount while trying to overtake Billy-Bob on a narrow downhill section (thankfully into a soft mossy bank), the ride remained incident free and we cruised into the car park after about an hour-and-a-half in the saddle.

Billy-Bob pauses for breath in the shadow of Ben Nevis

Lunch and liquid refreshment are always high on the TCA agenda and today was no exception - we had already planned to take the gondola up to the restaurant at the base of the ski runs. John negotiated a storage area for our bikes amongst the spare gondola cars and we joined the sallopette-clan throngs in the queue for the cable car.

Luncheon Transport

The short trip to the Nevis Range base station afforded us spectacular scenery and a bird's eye view of the trails below. On the accent we spotted two hardcore downhill mountain bikers pushing their machines up the 2000ft ascent of the World Cup downhill course. In the summer access to this 2.82km track is allowed via the cable car: Like us they had missed out on this facility by a couple of weeks but were obviously more dedicated to the cause. While the pair far below kept pushing we ordered butties, pies and pints of heavy (lager for Matt, obviously) and enjoyed the refreshing breeze on the veranda.

Above: Who ate all the pies?
Below: The Founding Fathers enjoy a beer.

After lunch it was back down the mountain by cable car and a swift re-mount before we tackled the World Cup XC course (Route Map 2). The heavy and lager, while providing a certain degree of Dutch courage, could not entirely suppress the anxiety of the group. Al's rear mech hanger snapping off within the first 100 yards provided some distraction - Matt kindly offered to sit the ride out and swapped bikes with Al so the ride continued.

The outward portion of the ride was a steep, unrelenting climb which, without exception no-one could complete without a dismount. It seemed to take forever to reach the apex of the ride just below the snow line and we took a welcome breather before the descent, the first section of which appeared at first to be impossible to traverse: We wondered what was in store for us as we looked down a near-vertical drop of approximately 2 meters of rock face, down which it was implied that we ride our hired bikes! Al went first but his bike refused on the first attempt. John showed the way as he fearlessly picked his way through this particular TTF... the others followed gingerly. This would set the pattern for the afternoon.

John excels on the technical circuit

The next stage of the course was a set of vicious switch-backs with steeply burmed corners which Al attacked with gusto, to his cost. He carried too much speed into a sharp jump built into the course on the descent out of the last burm. The distance of the first mark on the ground which Al and/or Al's bike made from the top of the jump was estimated at 4-5 meters. Al had not counted on the 'radical' degree of 'air' he would attain off the jump and, panicking to some degree, failed to execute the 'landing' effectively. He slid to a halt, a mangled wreck of man and machine and lay still. John and then Billy-Bob were first on the scene and assessed the extent of the damage: John proclaimed the bike unharmed; Billy-Bob told Al to stop whinging about the deep grazes which now covered his right arm from wrist to shoulder and similar wounds to the knee. The embedded soil seemed to stem the flow of blood reasonably well and the four were off again... somewhat more cautiously.

Route Map 2 (click to enlarge):
There followed a largely downhill course packed full of obstacles that provided a thrilling adrenalin-fueled hour's entertainment. Back at the car park once again we managed to catch up with the downhill pair we saw during our lunchtime excursion; it turned out that they were Polish sailors on shore leave while based in Glasgow. They had completed the 2.82km, 2000ft accent in a little over two hours, and the descent in a little less than 5 minutes. Al washed his wounds down in the toilets before enduring Billy-Bob's special form of triage. The injured party and nurse then found some comfort in the generous portions of Dundee cake and flapjack that the bikers had been packed off with courtesy of Mrs Webb. Once we had called Off Beat Bikes it was not long before we were all back in the van bound for the Ben Nevis and our rendezvous with the walkers.

The Walk: The walking party of Quilts, Graeme, Jim, Jeremy, Brian, Phil and Ian were following a walk recommended by Pete and Elspeth that took us 2km west, through Leanachan Forest and then south and upwards for 5km and some 1,900ft to the climbers’ hut under the north face of Ben Nevis. At this point we had gone about 150ft above the snow line. The walkers arrived in two parties but it was the venue for a short break and refreshment that included Elspeth’s Dundee cake and flap jack. The scenery was fantastic and it was topped off with sightings of Snow Bunting (above left) and Crossbill (below right) to keep Jim happy and ignite the nascent twitcher in the rest of the group.

The Walkers 2008(left to right):
Quilts; Ian; Jeremy; Graeme; Phil; Brian; Jim

The second leg of the walk took us 3 km north west then south to the 2,000ft cairn on the tourist path to the summit of Ben Nevis just before which we were treated to our own fly past of a pair of RAF Tornados. 3kms later and the welcoming doors of the Nevis Inn greeted us and with pints of Red MacGregor we soaked up the afternoon sun. It was whilst supping the first pint that a rare sight greeted the early arrivals, Phil broke his long standing habit of being last man in and arrived ahead of two fellow walkers. Our walk organisers said it would take 5½ hours and they were right but what a fine walk – forest, upland, mountains surrounded by snowy slopes with more snow topped mountains and the Great Glen in the distance.

Once the TCA party had been reunited with the walkers (above) it was shopping for essential supplies – beer, whisky, cheese and porridge – in Morrisons and then home to Mrs Webb’s beef in ale followed by sticky toffee pudding. Wrong John just couldn’t go wrong with that! Praise for Elspeth’s great food was a feature of the day, first with the Dundee cake and now the evening feast.

Jon and Matt make light work of washing-up

Saturday 19th April
Saturday saw both factions united but without Alan, who was still ill, and Jeremy, nursing blisters from the previous day's exertions, who took to a bike rather than put his feet through more punishment. Breakfast followed the previous day’s menu but the porridge lacked the Fowler touch. The party of 11 set off from Spring Cottage and, following a minor altercation with the landlady of the local pub relating to desecration of her lawn, into the community woods above Strontian and alongside the Ariundle National Nature Reserve.

St Andrew's Cross ordered especially!

In characteristic fashion the party was soon strung out as various groups and individuals adopted their own pace. The terrain was more southern Spain that northern Britain as the day wore on and the sun climbed higher in the sky. The morning’s Dundee cake and coffee stop was had close to a bridge over the river we had been following and provided an opportunity for everyone to catch up with the leading party.

Ariundle Picnic: (left to right)
Jon; John; Billy-Bob; Jim; Al; Phil; Brian.

Big Al used his pocket rocket to brew tea, Ian passed around his homemade sloe gin. With refreshment over we left Phil to follow his own route whilst Ian lead the main group upwards and onwards assuring them that they could turn left onto another path soon and make our way back to the café. Some 5km and 1,400 ft later we were at old mine workings and, despite the singular non-appearance of 'another path', the decision was taken to turn left anyway and yomp uphill onto open moorland to find our way back to Strontian. Just as the decision was made Jim shouted “Ring Ouzel!” and we all saw Turdus torquatus (above left) take to the air - with that Jim turned back and headed downhill saying nothing could top that!

The party of ten became strung out across the mountainside (below) which was basked in sunshine and afforded tremendous views of the mountains around Loch Sunart and the old mines.

The party eventually found itself on a public highway back to the café at Ariundle, although Ian took himself off down the long road on the other side of the valley. He continued back to the cottage eschewing the café stop so he could attend to Mrs Webb’s chocolate tiffin and flapjack and have an impromptu afternoon tea ready on the terrace sun trap (below).

After a wash and brush-up, an update of the sporting scores from the 'real world' and a couple of cans of beer the party ventured to the Ben View hotel for an evening meal. Local produce of scallops, Stornoway black pudding and venison being very popular choices, although there was disquiet in the ranks as ceg beer was served. It was probably the latter which precipitated a rather more early departure than usual and the 'walkers' were bundled back in the van for the 2 mile trip home. The 'bikers' decided to walk back and pay a visit to the local pub, The Strontian Hotel en route. The local boozer offered a slightly less than warm welcome and a pretty average pint of heavy. There was also a distinct air of imminent violence therefore drinks were finished promptly and the remaining Boys also beat a retreat for beer, whiskey and The Shawshank Redemption back at the ranch while Phil, Brian et al. upheld the ancient custom of non-combat Scrabble.

The bikers yomp home from the pub
(left to right) John; Jon; Billy-Bob; Matt

Sunday 20th April
Al and Billy-Bob woke in the double bed of the master bedroom to yet another glorious morning, enjoying the magnificent view down the loch from where they lay. Under any other circumstances it would have been quite romantic but Al's seeping wounds had bled all over his sleeping bag liner and Billy-Bob's voice was ruined after another evening of heavy snoring and too much Ardbeg. The pair got up and cooked breakfast - Al back on porridge duty due to popular demand and Billy-Bob in charge of yet another fry-up.

After breakfast and the customary 'deep clean' of lodgings the 'bikers' were keen to fettle the host's small fleet of assorted bicycles. Graeme was also keen to join the ranks of the TCA and took the place of Al as his frantic repairs to a vintage racing bike systematically failed due to a broken inner-tube value. Al joined the remainder for a mooch around the village to enjoy the last of the Scottish sunshine.

Billy-Bob enjoys the view across the Loch

After coffee and a bit more cleaning the whole party loaded up the van for one last time. Jim left ahead of the main party in his own car and we would leave Phil to savor a night alone in our digs. We were bound for the 12:00pm crossing to Corran.

Ian wears the same colour scheme as the life preserving equipment for the return trip

After a 'comfort break' for pies and a pint in Callander and having reached the airport safely we were treated to a surprise visit from Peter and Elspeth whilst waiting for our flights. It was great to be able to thank them personally for the loan of their excellent cottage and for all the arrangements made on our behalf. We all enjoyed our stay at Strontian made superb by the smooth organisation, excellent home cooking and baking and there will have to be a return in the future for Peter and Alan to experience the great time we all had.

2008 Boy's Weekend
Left to right:
(back row) Jon; John; Jeremy; Billy-Bob; Ian; Matt; Alan; Jim

(front row) Al; Brian; Quilts; Graeme; Phil

On behalf of the TCA we should also like to add our thanks for the invitation to attend yet another Boy's Weekend - the best yet! We certainly have our work cut out to repay you all when we take our turn in organising next year's function.

Posted by: Al, Ian and Jim

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Thursday, April 10, 2008

Spring Saunter

Detained in recent weeks with rounds of travel for work John and Al both needed to stretch their legs. Sadly all others were otherwise engaged and with no pressure the relatively easy decision was taken to tackle the regular route from Hambledon. Em accompanied John on this occasion, not to take advantage of the world-class cycling coaching but rather to catch up on gossip with Tee while the boys hit the trail.

The boys were both rather nervous with respect to their ability – John had been abusing the hospitality afforded to the international traveler while in the Middle East; Al was recovering from a coccyx injury after a fall down the stairs the previous week, compounded by a couple of long-haul flights. However, with recent significant outlay on a new frame (John) and a comprehensive service (Al) they were keen to justify the expense. Both mounted their bikes tentatively, blinking in the sunlight – the first ‘daylight start’ either recalled this year. They headed up Cams hill as usual to start the ride.

John’s indulgences seemed not to hinder him significantly while Al complained of shooting pains in his posterior as they got off-road. The Hampshire bridle paths were in good condition though after several days of dry weather, despite the recent snow. The pair pulled into the White Lion, ordered their beers and made the most of the fading day-light (below). It was the first real chance that Al had had to admire John’s new Kenesis Maxlight frame, the aesthetic of which was clearly augmented by yet another set of new tyres.

The disused railway was dry but a leisurely pace ensued as the pair caught up with recent each other’s news. Before long the pair had reached the fearsome embankment: It took Al a couple of shots to make it all the way to the top but John, failing on his first attempt, uncharacteristically refraining from blaming his new tyres, satisfied himself that in his current form he would not be able to do the challenge justice.

Up and over the hill in the Forest of Bere as usual the pair were soon in the Traveler’s Rest. The ranks of the locals swelled by the early-season campers who had started to fill the field behind the pub. John plumped for his regular pint of Bombardier while Al had his usual, a pint of Abbot. Within a few mouthfuls John had to return his beverage though – it seemed clear that the lines had not been flushed through sufficiently, reminiscent of a previous trip here.

Beers sunk all that remained was the short ride down the country lane back to Hambledon. The temperature had plummeted – and to think that Al had considered wearing shorts! It was only 4ºC when they got back to base. Thankfully Tee and Em had not been so lost in gossip that they forgot to put the dinner on – a wholesome meal of chilli and rice greeted the boys on their return.

Route Map (click to enlarge):

(Posted by: Al)

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Monday, April 07, 2008

Three Planners Planning

'You can borrow my old stead' said Jon. 'Alright' said Billy-Bob, it will do the job... or so he thought. After a quick assessment of the mighty orange bike, a hydro spanner adjustment and prising the welded brake blocks from the muddy rims they were good to go. Matt aided the pre-ride adjustments by providing candle light from his lighter. John later revealed that he had not used or cleaned his bike for well over a year.

Which is brighter - the lights, or Jon's Bike?

The Chi bimble was a trusted soft ride yet a reliable jaunt to dust off work-stiff muscles. Jon was in confident mood and led off in a meaningful manner. The ride was set at a medium pace dictated by Jon, quick enough at least to prevent Matt stopping en route for a cheeky nicotine break. The evening route took in the trusty favorite watering holes of The Partridge and the Fox Goes Free, the latter was quite busy with hungry well-dressed punters. It was a still dark night only just deserved of thermal wear, Billy-Bob was glad he was wearing his shorts on this occasion.

A Toast to Absent Friends, The Partridge

The evening was pretty uneventful, blighted by only minor equipment failure on route to Chalton where Billy-Bob dislodged Jon's antique rear light fixture which spilled out over the road and narrowly avoided being crushed by an oncoming vehicle. The infamous climb up to the Goodwood trundle followed the second pub stop then it was a direct road ride back to Jon's. Unfortunately the return trip was conducted in complete darkness as all three intrepid biker's had complete light failure. Jon's nasty orange machine had its uses as it lit up the route home with its slightly suspect paint job!

Back at Chez Jon, Billy-Bob and Matt sat down and sank into his over-soft sofa in preparedness for a fine plate of slow cooked chili, followed by seconds (and for Matt, thirds). Billy-Bob complimented Jon on his new shiny bathroom fittings and ample supply of lavatory paper, this was followed by a brief discussion on Eco Towns. Alas there was no dessert to follow only a feast of bad television and Matt's even worse jokes. Notwithstanding the pud disappointment, all in all it was a fine evening's ride for the trio.

(Posted by: Billy-Bob; pictures by Jon)

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