Monday, 13 December 2010

Winter Cycling - Part 2

I'm pleased to say that, despite the snow and sub-zero temperatures, I've managed to keep the cycling up - the first time I've managed it over winter!

Somehow I imagine myself looking somewhat more stylish, and svelte, than this...

Once I'm onto the main roads it's clear and it's just the -5C temperature and icy wind to worry about.

And after 10 miles heading westwards, and upwards, I get to the top of the Waseley Hills...

This is my regular 20-mile loop that takes me out of Birmingham towards Hereford & Worcester.  Here's the same view in the summer.

It does give you a warm glow, both literally and metaphorically, although the fingers and toes do need a little de-frosting, despite the layers...!

Monday, 15 November 2010

Now is the Winter of our Discontent - Cold Cycle Gear Part 1

It's getting dark at 4.00pm, there's frost on the ground and it's miserable....perfect cycling weather!

The Thames Frozen Over in the 1950s...

Well, thanks to my slightly obsessive desire to lose weight, it certainly looks like it to me.

After 3 months of Weight Watchers (well, I go every week to get weighed, if that counts) I've lost 2 stone of flab and I've got another stone to go. More on this next week...

But dieting alone won't shift all the blubber, unless I give up every last semblance of pleasure, so cycling is having to pick up the slack. And at anywhere from 600-800 kcals per hour, that's enough to make up for the odd sneaky curry and the Friday and Saturday night booze!

Monday, 18 October 2010

Swiss Roll - Thank You!

I've now got the final figure for this summer's 'Swiss Roll' cycle ride from the Dunkerque to Zurich and it is:


That's twice what we hoped for and, once Gift Aid is added, the total is actually:


So a big thank you to everyone who donated - and I think James and I should permit ourselves a small pat on the back too...!

Monday, 6 September 2010

Tipping The Scales

Since returning from our cycle to Switzerland, I'm afraid to say that the touring bike hasn't yet found it's way out of the flight bag. But I have managed to get out on the road bike, with 30 mile rides the last two weekends and 60 miles next, plus I've been busy catching up on the calorie-burning chores in the garden.

It's a good job I've kept active because I received an unpleasant shock when I got on the scales at my brother's flat near Zurich about 6 weeks ago. Despite having just cycled nearly 600 miles, I tipped the scales at 16 stone.  Which officially makes me a cycling elephant!

An elephant, cycling...

That, and the pictures of me looking like Big Daddy in lycra, finally convinced me that I needed to lose a considerable amount of weight.

So for the last month I've been going to Weight Watchers, eating super healthy, having no treats and restricting booze to the weekends, as well as keeping up my exercise.

And the fantastic news is that I've already lost a stone!

I'm starting to fit comfortably into my favourite clothes (some of which had been retired, in shame, to the loft) and my build is really starting to change. I can see how it will be possible to get to what I would consider an ideal weight of 13-13.5 stone.

But that weight would still leave me at the very top of the 'normal' weight range according to the BMI measure - after losing 3 stones!  My current weight of 15 stone is, at a BMI of 28.5, on the verge of classifying me as 'obese' (for reference, I weighed around 14-14.5 stone in the picture at the top of the blog).

And this shows the idiocy of BMI for anyone athletic - the weight/height figure doesn't take into account lean muscle mass (I must carry an extra 20+ lbs of muscle on my legs alone).

I'm not using this as an excuse, I haven't weighed less than 13 stone since I was 17 and looked like a whippet!

So I was pleased to find a BMI measure designed for people who have an athletic build.  According to that, my current Lean BMI is 24, which is at the upper end of 'acceptable' - fair enough.  13 stone (180 lbs) would put me in the 'desirable' range (hopefully in more ways than one!).

My aim is to lose an extra stone (or stone-and-a-half) by Christmas and then make my mind up about an ideal weight.  Then I have to keep the weight off, which is a whole new challenge...

Tuesday, 17 August 2010

Passing The Test...

It's been a few weeks since our ride from Dunkerque to Zurich and while I've been on the bike a few times, my brother James has had the cycling bit firmly between his teeth.

Not content with completing the final day of the 'Swiss Roll' route a couple of weeks ago, James has now tackled the Klausenpass in Switzerland - at 1952 metres it's actually higher than Mont Ventoux, which I've cycled a couple of times, once with James.

I'll hand over to James:

At the top - and visible from space in that tshirt...

After an abortive attempt last year I finally hauled myself up the Klausenpass on August 7th.

It was a 70-mile route with 9,908 feet of climbing. Last time I made the mistake of cycling from home. I was already worn out, and it was late in the day, when I reached the actual mountain. I just didn't have enough energy, or time, to complete the ride.

This time I took the train to Glarus. From there it was 10 pretty easy miles to the base of the climb. I took the touring bike, rather than the Trek racer, first because I've just done 600 miles on it and second I thought I'd need all the gears!

Number of cyclists I overtook: none. Number of cyclists who overtook me: quite a few.

But who cares? It was a great day - the weather was perfect too - and what a view!

Perfect mountain scenery

Here's the route:

Bike route 629765 - powered by Bikemap 

The Klausenpass was/is famous for the 'Klausenrennen' - motor racing hill climbs. They must have been nutters, given the gradients and precipitous drops...

Hope the brakes work

I'd love to start working my way through some of the other passes here in Switzerland - there's hardly a shortage.  But I suspect the more likely outcome will be for the bike to go back into storage and for me to succumb to the lure of computer games again...

Sunday, 1 August 2010

Swiss Roll - Cycle Video

My brother James and I finished our 7 day, 550-mile cycle ride from Dunkerque in France to Grafstal in Switzerland last weekend.

Following the route of the First World War Western Front, the ride was in memory of our mum, Shirley, and is raising money for Leukaemia.

So far people have very generously donated over £1,500.  If you'd like to donate, it's not too late, either via or, if you don't like giving your bank details out online, you can post a cheque to:

Leukaemia & Lymphoma Research
43 Great Ormond Street

I've also had a chance to edit the footage into a short video of the trip:

Sunday, 25 July 2010

Swiss Roll Day 7 - Basel to Grafstal - 78 miles

It's the last day of our ride and not only has my cold got worse, but James has come down with it too. In fact he feels so bad that he's decided to take the train home - well he has ridden all the way to Switzerland, which was the deal!

His decision is certainly the sensible one, but I'm feeling a mum-like determination to see this through to the end, however bad I'm feeling, foolhardy or not.

It's raining and cool too as I set off at 9.30 to complete the trip on my own. Sadly I follow James's advice and head south through the suburbs of Basel to find the Rhine cycle route.

I say sadly, because after 45 minutes and 8 miles I'm back in the centre of the city having been unable to get onto the route - every time I got near, the roads kept turning into motorways that I wasn't allowed to ride on...

Back in the centre, I head to the Rhine and find the path straight away (which is what I wanted to do in the first place, but James is the Swiss expert!). However it quickly peters out and I'm cycling first through industrial docks and then along a rough path.

So after an hour and a half I've managed about 5 miles towards my destination. I give up and find a road with a perfect cycle route running alongside it...

I try the route again a couple of times, but it's much too indirect and the surface too uneven, so I stick to the road.

That's much better and I'm soon zipping along at 17 mph (not bad with panniers on) with a brisk breeze right behind me, following the river.

Pass through Rhinefelden and I'm back on track, having managed 42 miles by the time I stop for lunch at 1.15. I'm having to force myself to eat and drink, as I've got absolutely no appetite. I seem to be coughing up half a lung too, which can't be healthy.

But I seem to have turned into some sort of cycling machine and carry on at the same rate. Before I know it I'm turning away from the Rhine towards my brother's village.

It's another couple of hours of gentle hills, through very pretty countryside, before I arrive at his door gar ahead of schedule.

So that's our ride from Dunkerque to Switzerland done. Around 563 miles (compared to the planned 550) in 7 days.

I hope mum would be proud...

Mum in Switzerland

Post script: James is feeling much better and rode the Basel to Grafstal leg this weekend!

Here's a video of the day:

Swiss Roll - Day 6, Le Thillot to Basel, 74 miles

Wake up feeling awful, with sore throat and stuffy head, but not so bad that I can't cycle.

Ready to set off at 9.30 and the cycle path is literally outside the gate of the hotel, so no chance of getting lost.

Ride 5 miles to the base of the Ballon d'Alsace and set straight up. The mountain is 3,841 feet high, starting from 2,000 feet, and the climb is at a healthy 7% over 9 km (5 miles).

Swiss Roll Day 6 - Ballon d'Alsace Ascent

It's roughly half the climb of Mont Ventoux, which James and I rode in 2007 - although that was without panniers!

The road winds and doubles back through forest and the traffic is very light, although we are passed by several club cyclists near the top - although they're not carrying panniers and, in my case, more than a few excess pounds...

A kilometre from the col the rain starts in earnest and the visibility drops to less than 100 metres, so not much of a view when we reach the summit.

Matthew - Ballon d'Alsace

And, since you ask, yes James made it too.

After coffee/hot chocolate and a pastry we head down. It's cold and the road surface is wet and slippery, so we take it very gently with the brakes on most of the time.

It gets warmer and drier as we descend and we are back in pretty valleys.

But even though we've completed the biggest challenge of the day, we still have 45 miles to cycle to Basel. We find another cycle route and manage 10 miles before deciding to stop for lunch.

The cycle route continues in the afternoon, for part of the way alongside a railway line. 20 miles from the end we are forced to stop by a violent rain storm, but then we have a strong wind behind us as we zoom along beautiful back roads.

The last 10 miles into Basel are downhill, although we have a tricky time finding the hotel - a converted block of police cells which is much more luxurious than it sounds!

Here's a video of today's ride:

Thursday, 22 July 2010

Swiss Roll - Day 5, Nancy to Le Thillot, 88 miles

Weather forecast awful today - rain, followed by more rain...

Get up later than recently and cycle into Nancy to take a look at Stanislas Square, which is absolutely delightful.

Nancy - Stanislas Square

However, leaving the city going south is even worse than entering it last night. The signposting is terrible and we nearly end up on a motorway!

But after wasting half an hour we finally find the route to Epinal and cycling is a real pleasure.

It starts to drizzle, but the road - which slowly traces the Moselle back to it's source, is wonderful - although we rise nearly 2,000 feet during the day it is barely noticeable...

As we get close to lunch the rain gets worse, until at Epinal, after 45 miles, I feel absolutely sodden. Although it is an improvement on the previous daus' scorching heat (the journey is starting to feel a little like a biblical epic!).

And the dreadful weather persists as we continue. Eventually we reach Remirement, only 12 miles from our destination for the day, Le Thillot. Of course bicycles aren't allowed on the main route and the only alternative involves taking a 9-mile diversion.

But eventually we find a fantastic cycle route that weaves in between villages and away from the main road, taking us right to our hotel door and we arrive, looking rather disheveled, for a gratefully-received bath and meal.

Swiss Roll - Day 5, Le Thillot

The route has been 88 miles, 11 more than planned.

Tomorrow morning is the Ballon d'Alsace, 3,841 feet high and currently shrouded in cloud. Hopefully the weather will improve and our legs will hold out...

Here's a video of today's exploits:

Wednesday, 21 July 2010

Swiss Roll - Day 4, Sainte Menehould to Nancy, 88 miles

Even earlier start today - awake at 6.30, set off by 8.00. Expecting more heat, bigger hills and rain, so a good idea to get ahead...

There are already clouds forming as we leave and head up and down a series of hills.

Swiss Roll - Day 4, Sainte Menehould

With less sun and a breeze it feels cooler. We reach a plateau and enjoy the morning, making good progress to arrive in Verdun for early elevenses.

The town is pretty normal, apart from being dotted with tributes to the hundred of thousands of men who died fighting in the First World War in forts that surround it. From the official monument:

Swiss Roll - Day 4, Verdun

To Rodin's impassioned sculpture:

Verdun - Rodin Sculpture

After the town there are a series of long hills, reaching 1,200 feet. But they are followed by a long downhill and a race across flat terrain with a strong wind behind us for the first time.

With 20 miles to go we make relatively easy work of more hills before dropping down to the river Moselle for the last miles to Nancy, where drizzle starts just as we arrive at 5.

The city is the capital of Lorraine and crammed with history, while also seeming rather bohemian.

Nancy Cafes

The weather gods have been very kind today. The route tomorrow should be easier, but it will depend on the sun, rain and heat...

Here's a video of today's ride:

Tuesday, 20 July 2010

Swiss Roll - Day 3, Soissons to Ste Menehould, 90 miles

Manage to get up earlier for breakfast today and set off by 8.30. It's due to be a longer - 87 mile - and hillier day today.

Leave Soissons and take the route east along the Aisne river. It's a beautiful morning, sunny and not too hot, and the countryside is lovely, despite the Rough Guide rather un-gallantly describing it as 'uninspiring'.

This is a region with one real claim to fame, as might be guessed from it's name: Champagne - it produces the world's favourite (and most expensive) sparkling wine. But we go the whole day without seeing a grape growing, in fact most of the agriculture is wheat and vegetables growing in vast open fields.

There are suddenly fields of sunflowers, though...


Leaving Soissons, we head east towards the historic centre of the region, Reims. The first thing to say is that pronouncing the city's name is, perhaps appropriately, a minefield. Brits would probably say "Reams", but the locals would call the town something more like "Ranse" (pronounced with a rolled 'R', and while holding your nose). Click here for the real thing...

The morning goes well and we arrive in Reims after 40 miles to buy lunch and have a look (though no time, sadly to go round) the cathedral.

Swiss Roll - Day 3, Reims Cathedral

To follow our route we have no choice but to join a huge dual-carriageway for 5 miles. It's really not much fun having lorries shooting past you elbow at 110 kph!

But then we're back out onto a country road and lunch.

However it's got much hotter and the sun is getting really intense. We have another 40 miles to go and the wind is blowing in our face. It's really tiring and dispiriting...

But we manage to buy more water - and ice lollies, which makes a big difference!

The last 20 miles are tough, it's hilly and hot - 33 degrees in the shade and hot enough to start melting the tarmac. Here's the road down to Valmy, with a beautiful old windmill in the background.

Swiss Roll - Windmill

But we arrive at our hotel at 6.30 in time for a welcome shower. And dinner is escargots and pied du cochon (pigs' trotters, a local speciality). Delicious, if a little on the bony side...

Here's a video of today's ride :

Monday, 19 July 2010

Swiss Roll - Day 2, Arras to Soissons, 80 miles

Wake up not feeling too bad and my sun burn/tan is looking a little less pink. Breakfast at the hotel and start at 9.00.

It's easier today to get out onto the country roads and we make good progress, managing 20 miles in a couple of hours (including drink/map reading breaks).

We leave Pas de Calais and enter Picardie amd the Somme, a name from The First World War which has become shorthand for pointless sacrifice. Revealingly, we pass a monument to an early conflict, the Franco-Prussian War, which shows how history repeats itself again, and again...

Swiss Roll - Day 2, Memorial in Picardie

We stop in Peronne to buy drinks and factor 50 sun cream - it's already hot and there's not a cloud in the sky. This is my 4th long tour (plus several shorter ones) and I've never experienced this much sun before. It's not as nice as it sounds - I would guess it takes 25% more effort to cycle in the sun and heat than when it's cooler and cloudier, and there's a danger of dehydration, salt loss and heat stroke.

We carry on, passing numerous military cemetaries - some large, others small - for French, British, Australian and German soldiers. It's pleasing that they are so well cared for and each nationality has it's own distinctive style - the British the familiar white tablets, the French white crosses and the Germans slightly sinister grey crosses which apparently each mark the grave of four men. Here's one of the British cemeteries.

British Cemetery in the Somme

It's a pleasant morning and we make good progress, stopping for lunch in Ham after 40 miles.

Lunch is baguette, water, sugary drinks and donuts. The more calories the better when you are burning through 6,000 a day - in fact it's almost impossible to eat enough, especially as the exercise seems to suppress your appetite...

The boulangerie is the only place open on a Monday lunchtime. I'm torn between admiration for the way the French don't let the modern world (serving customers, opening at sensible times) get in the way of doing what they like when they like, and bemusement...

The afternoon is tougher. It's still hot and sunny, road signs add 5 unnecessary miles to our journey skirting around Noyonne, and it starts to get hilly.

In fact we climb steeply up and drop down a 500-foot plateau several before we eventually arrive in Soissons, after 80 miles and 6 hours of pedalling, at 6.00 pm.

But it gives us more time than yesterday to clean up and go out for a meal - pasta - and a couple of well-earned drinks.

Here's today's video, don't forget to select 720p HD on the bottom right of the video:

Sunday, 18 July 2010

Swiss Roll - Day 1, Dunkerque to Arras, 80 miles

It's sunny as we start at 9.30am and there's already a breeze - sadly it's racing along the coast, so off to one side, and not much help.

We head south east out of Dunkerque, initially aiming for Ieper (Ypres) over the Belgian border. It's a very pleasant route, mixing main roads with cycle paths and back routes.

After a few miles we come to Bergues, which is an amazing little arsenal town, surrounded by ramparts and a moat, and with streets arranged concentrically. James tells me it was made famous as the setting for a French film comedy called Bienvenue Chez Les Ch'tis (roughly 'Welcome to the Sticks').

Then we're cycling across open countryside, with the harvest (a mix of wheat, potatoes, reeds, etc) being collected.

Swiss Roll - Day 1, Nord Pas de Calais countryside
The Nord Pas-de-Calais countryside

We cross into Belgium toward Ieper, but the border is only guarded by a statue...

It's a perfect morning (aside from not having a tail wind) and we make good progress to arrive in Ieper just before 1.00pm. The town is very beautiful, with a stunning cathedral and cloth hall - particularly striking as it was reduced to rubble during the First World War - here's a similar view from 1919.

Swiss Roll - Day 1, Ypres Cloth Hall
Ieper Cloth Hall

With an expected total distance of 75 miles today, and having only managed 35 so far - we decide to press on. Just before we stop, after a further 10 miles, I have my traditional first day puncture. It's a big shard of glass that would have gone through a tractor tyre, so can't blame my Marathon Supremes.

But James finds a lovely place to have an omelette and frites, while I fix the puncture.

It's getting hot and the sun is unrelenting as we continue, plus the air is thick with thunder flies, attracted by the ripe wheat, which crawl all over us.

The countryside is also full of war cemeteries, they come thick and fast, mostly British and French, but also German, and we spot Indian, Portugese and Moroccan sites too.

We lose our way a little, thanks to following road signs rather than our map. It all makes for a frustrating couple of hours. But we get back on track and make good progress through La Bassee and Lens.

Our final goal before the end of the day is to visit the Canadian War Memorial at Vimy Ridge. It marks the site of a much fought over hilltop, which was eventually captured by Canadians in 1917 at great cost. It's up a very steep hill, which is hard going in the heat, but makes us feel we have earned the stunning view.

Swiss Roll - Day 1, Vimy Ridge

The memorial itself is very powerful, a split pylon with grieving figures. The area around it has been left as it was at the end of the war, pocked with thousands of shell holes and still unsafe to walk over.

Swiss Roll - Day 1, Canadian Memorial Vimy Ridge

Then it's mostly downhill to Arras. A few miles from our destination we spot a huge, if understated, German cemetery - all the more poignant with quite a number of graves for Jewish soldiers who were prepared to lose their lives for their country...

Arrive in Arras at 8.00pm, shower and head out to eat quickly before bed. Another 80 miles in the saddle tomorrow...

Here's a video of today's ride:

Saturday, 17 July 2010

Swiss Roll - Day 0 - On my way...

Waved off by Clare and Oscar at 10.30 this morning on my way to Dunkerque to start the ride tomorrow morning. Of course, the rain started on cue, but it's only a shower.

Rode the few miles into Birmingham to catch the train to London along my least favourite stretch of road - the French roads will be far more enjoyable.

The train is delayed, so I arrive in London Euston 15 mims late, but luckily I've left enough time to get to St Pancras to catch the fast train to Dover. And it is fast, racing along the Eurostar track in just over an hour.

Text James and he is making good progress too, so far, on his cross-Europe train marathon - he's on the TGV from Strasbourg to Paris. It's already his third train journey of the day. He just needs to catch the Paris-Arras and Arras-Dunkerque trains now and he'll be home and dry...

On the train, I get talking to a retired American guy who is about to accompany a friend who is swimming the Channel - although he will be in a boat...

Arriving at Dover

Very easy to get the bike onto the ferry, there's a specially-marked route and I'm one of the first on - and there are bike stands too.

Crossing fine, sunny and only a gentle roll. Arrive on time at Dunkerque ferry terminal, but realise after miles of cycling that it is nowhere near Dunkerque itself. In fact it takes me a good hour to cycle to the hotel on the other side of the town at Malo-les-Bains, a 19th Century resort, which makes it at least 10 miles.

But the hotel is fine and we have a room with a balcony overlooking the sea - although the 2nd bed is definitely James-sized.

The restaurant is lovely too - specialite de la maison is moules. How can I not have that so close to the sea?!

The view from the restaurant

James arrives at 10.30, 20 minutes late thanks to a delayed train, and just as the restaurant is locking up. We dump his stuff and head out for a quick nightcap.

Here's a video of the day:

Friday, 16 July 2010

Swiss Roll - Day 7 Route

Rather late in the day, here's the route for the last day, 70 miles from Basel to my brother James's flat in a village near to Zurich.

Bike route 385881 - powered by Bikemap 

This is only an approximation as we're actually following one of the Swiss National Cycle Routes (No. 2, in fact) along the Rhine.

It could turn out to be the best day of the tour, depending on the weather - the Swiss really know how to do cycle routes. This kind of thing...

The Rhine Cycle Route

That's it. All we have to do is cycle it.

The weather forecast is sunny and warm for the first half, with storms later in the week...

Final Preparations

Everything ready to set off on our cycle tour from Dunkerque on the French coast to Zurich in Switzerland tomorrow morning.

I'm getting a train to London from Birmingham, on to Dover and then catching the ferry to Dunkerque, arriving at 7.00pm.  My brother James has a hellish 12-hour journey from Zurich, on about 5 trains.  He won't arrive until 10.30pm, by which time I will probably be 'over-refreshed'...

Bike ready and gear all packed, here's a little video about what I take on these trips.  I'm hoping to do updates and more short videos whilst we are away if wi-fi permits...

Friday, 9 July 2010

Swiss Roll - Day 6 Route

It's just a week until I set off with my brother to cycle from Dunkerque on the French Channel coast to Zurich in Switzerland. As well as the sense of achievement, we'll be raising money for Leukaemia Research.

I've been posting the day-by-day routes, and here's the penultimate day, 61 miles from Le Thillot to Basel:

Bike route 385878 - powered by Bikemap 

Day 6 takes us over the Col du Ballon d'Alsace, which was the first official mountain climb of the Tour de France in 1905.

montée du ballon d'alsace
Cycling up the Ballon d'Alsace

The mountain pass is 1,171m (3,841ft) high. But we will be staring from Le Thillot, which is already at 497m (1,633ft), almost halfway up. It's 4 miles in the valley and then 5 miles up to the top, at an average gradient of 7%, which is steep enough.

Col du Ballon d'Alsace - Gradient...

We've both cycled up Mont Ventoux (I've done it twice), which is steeper and nearly twice as high - and from a lower starting point - although not with panniers.  We'll just have to take it steady...

Then it's downhill for most of the rest of the day, with a short climb near the end, until we get to Basel in Switzerland for our last night before the final day.

Monday, 5 July 2010

Swiss Roll - Day 5 Route

It's less than a fortnight until we head off cycling to Switzerland. I've booked the plane, train and ferry, plus the hotels (in French, quite pleased with that).

Training has pretty much ground to a halt (although I've done plenty of miles), it's more about keeping my legs fresh now.

So, Day 5 - it's 77 miles from Nancy to Le Thillot in the Vosges mountains. Here's the map:

Bike route 385903 - powered by Bikemap 

Despite the fact it's going into the mountains, and takes us nearly halfway up the Ballon d'Alsace, the route follows a river valley and the climb is very gentle.

How gentle?

Well, it's 1,935 feet - which sounds quite a lot - but bear in mind that's over 77.2 miles (407,616 feet), which by my reckoning is a 1-in-210 hill - ie less than 0.5%.

Snooker tables are probably allowed greater gradients than that. And, as Geoffrey Boycott might say: "My grandmother could do that on a penny farthing".

Well, if she can do it...

In terms of the actual route, that's another unknown quantity - it could be pretty, it could be a day of industrial estates and switching banks of the river, but I doubt it.

Nancy itself is full of history and we travel through Épinal, the capital of the Vosges departement, which looks pretty.

Épinal - Click here for a panorama...

Either way, it should be a good day before we hit the proper Col du Ballon d'Alsace on Day 6...!

Monday, 28 June 2010

Swiss Roll - Day 4 Route

After a day off (to an extent) from prominent battlefields, the fourth day of our ride to Switzerland along the route of the First World War's Western Front takes us to one of the bloodiest encounter between the allies and Germans - Verdun.

Like the Somme for the English, for the French Verdun has come to symbolise the horror of war (or, to use a later example, France's Stalingrad).  While it was a battle that the French ultimately won - in the sense that the Germans failed to accomplish their goals - it was at a terrible cost, with a quarter of a million dead and at least half a million injured.

The iconic photograph capturing the death of a French Lieutenant, during the battle of Verdun
Verdun was a crucial point in the French defences against the Germans, with a string of forts around it.  In 1916 the German offensives elsewhere on the front had stalled so they planned to attack Verdun to 'bleed France white' with a battle of attrition (or so they claimed after the war, they might very well have hoped for a breakthrough).

But in the event, the French held - making the reputation of  General (later Marshall) Petain, who went on to ignominy as the collaborationist leader (whatever his motivation) of Vichy France during the Second World War.

Anyway, back to the day's cycle, which takes us 86 miles from Sainte-Minehould to Nancy.  It's mainly flat countryside with short sharp hills around Verdun and before Nancy:

Bike route 385870 - powered by Bikemap 

After leaving Sainte-Menehould we have thirty miles before Verdun.  As well as the town itself, James is keen to see the Ossuary at Douaumont a few miles north, which is a memorial to the men who died, from both sides, and contains the skeletons of around 130,000 unidentified men.

Douaumont Ossuary, Verdun
Unless we start very early, we won't have much time to linger as we have another 15 miles before lunch and 40 miles in the afternoon before we get to Nancy, which looks very beautiful from the guidebooks, to stop for the night.

Monday, 21 June 2010

Swiss Roll - Day 3 Route

The third day of our cycle to Switzerland continues to follow the route of the First World War's Western Front. But, because this was a relatively quiet sector of the front, hopefully our focus can be more on the countryside than the suffering of the young men who fought here nearly 90 years ago.

The route is 87 miles - a few more than previous days so hope we've found our touring legs - from Soissons to Sainte-Menehould.

Bike route 385868 - powered by Bikemap 

The city is, as the French might say, "très historique" - and one that has been fought over for nearly 2,000 years. It was well established by the time of the Romans, was wrecked by the Vandals and the Huns.

Reims cathedral became the site where French kings were crowned, rather like Westminster Abbey for us Brits.

Reims Cathedral
Of course the Germans made a terrible mess of the town, but it's been pieced back together and the champagne still ferments in miles of caves under the city streets.  Anyway, should be a good spot for lunch...

The afternoon is more of a blank, an area overlooked by t'interweb and guidebooks so much that a cartographer might mark it 'here be dragons'.  All I know is that there's another 40-odd miles of gently rising countryside to our overnight stop at Sainte-Menehould...

Monday, 14 June 2010

Swiss Roll - Day 2 Route

Continuing the routes for our cycle to Switerland next month, here's the route for Day 2, from Arras to Soissons, around 80 miles in total (luckily it's nice and flat, as you can see on the elevation):

Bike route 385866 - powered by Bikemap

While Day 1 takes us through the World War 1 Flanders battlefield, centred around Ypres, Day 2 moves on to the Somme battlefield. The Battle of the Somme, which ran from July to November 1916, was the first major test of Kitchener's volunteer army. The two (yes, two!) mile advance cost 420,000 British casualties.

The Germans had two years to prepare their defensive system of trenches, and the casualty figures show how the military leadership was struggling to adapt to the new realities of war.

The battle also marked the debut of the tank.

A British tank at the Somme

The route takes us south from Arras through Bapaume, Peronne to finish in Soissons (which is apparently one of the oldest towns in France).

Here are German troops (hard to mistake them with their pointy helmets!) marching through Peronne during their occupation:

Having cycled near here in 2006, I know it's a beautiful area and almost impossible to link to such pointless death and devastation on a sunny summer's day...

Tuesday, 8 June 2010

Swiss Roll - Day 1 Route

It's only 6 weeks until I, with my brother James, set off to cycle from the channel coast of France to Switzerland to raise money for Leukaemia research - 550 miles in 7 days. The route follows the Western Front of the First World War.

Training is going pretty well and I'm feeling ready - just need to book the travel and the hotels.

In the meantime, here's the route for the first day.

Bike route 385863 - powered by Bikemap 

It's 75 miles from Dunkerque (Dunkirk in English) to Arras, pretty much flat.

Of course this is an area with a lot of history. Dunkerque is obviously famous as the site where over 300,000 British and allied troops were evacuated from the beaches in May and June 1940 during World War Two, turning defeat by the German Army into an almost mythical victory.

From there we head South East to Ieper (Ypres - known as 'Wipers' to British troops) in the Belgian province of Flanders. It was the site of three major battles in the Great War, which saw the first use of gas on the Western Front.  The poppies that grew on the shattered ground inspired the poem In Flanders Fields and the poppy used to commemorate the war in Britain.

Chateau Wood, Ypres in 1917
Almost completely destroyed, the town centre has now been restored to its former glory.

Ieper ruins in 1919
Further south we will pass the striking Canadian War Memorial at Vimy Ridge, dedicated to the 60,000 Canadians killed in the Great War, including nearly 4,000 who died capturing Vimy Ridge in 1917.

We finish the day in Arras. Another beautiful medieval town reduced to ruins during the Great War, and since restored. The city was a centre of the wool trade, and it provided the name for the wall hanging behind which Polonius was killed by Hamlet.

Thursday, 20 May 2010

Time To Up The Ante...

With my ride to Switzerland only two months away, it's about time I stepped up the mileage.

But with an increasingly active 3-month-old boy and plenty to be getting sorted around the house and garden - as well as a full-time job, of course - the challenge is: when?!

So killing-two-birds-with-one-stone is very much the order of the day.  One answer would be for me to power my laptop by some Heath Robinson (no relation), bicycle-powered contraption.

The other is to combine any necessary trips with a bike ride whenever possible, hence the trip to my Dad's the other weekend (60 miles), and now something a bit bigger - we're going to my brother's in Cheltenham on Saturday, so there's a chance to do 90+ miles...

Bike route 498692 - powered by Bikemap 

Once you get past the M42 it's downhill to Redditch and then pretty flat until Cheltenham.  With any luck I can have my elevenses at my favourite Italian pork bap emporium on the Evesham bypass too.

I've added Leckhampton Hill onto the end - more in hope than expectation - just in case I've got a bit of juice left when I get there.  It's looks reasonably short, but certainly more than steep enough...

If I can do that, I should be fine cycling to Switzerland.

Wednesday, 12 May 2010

A Walk (well, a cycle) in the Park

The sun was shining as 110 riders of all ages and sizes cycled along the Rea Valley cycle route through Cannon Hill Park in Birmingham on Sunday in aid of the Midlands Centre for Spinal Injuries on Sunday.

Rachel's Headstrong Ride (Photo: John James)
There's a lovely slide show of the event by photographer John James here.

And the event smashed it's fundraising target, with a total (so far) of £2260.03!

Thursday, 6 May 2010

Charity Ride Thanks NHS Carers

I'm joining a really worthwhile charity cycle ride this Sunday organised by a woman who survived a horrific cycle accident.

Rachel Burrows broke her spine after a high-speed bicycle crash and wants 106 volunteers to join her on the ride along Birmingham's Rea Valley Cycle Route – one for each of the NHS staff who helped her to recover.

Rachel with the helmet that saved her life

Tuesday, 4 May 2010

Wet, Cold & Windy - Bank Holiday Cycling

Another classic Bank Holiday weekend - wet, cold and windy...

But those miles won't cycle themselves, so I dug the winter gear out and headed off into the gale-force wind, north towards Sutton Coldfield (sadly my wife took the camera out with her, so the pic on this blog post are sourced from Flickr).

Bike route 477057 - powered by Bikemap

Tuesday, 27 April 2010

Cycling For Parents

With my tour to Switzerland less than 3 months away, I've been struggling get in regular rides, let alone longer routes.

Being a new parent is obviously a major factor - apart from being tired, I'm preparing most of the meals which makes evening rides tricky.  Plus it's busy at work and there are endless jobs on the house and garden at weekends.

Plus I don't have a commute to give me regular rides any more, like I did when I lived in London - the 100 feet to the bottom of the garden isn't quite the same.

Every new year seems like starting from scratch as I build up the distances for the summer tour, but this year seems particularly tough.  This is how I felt in February...

 © Cristina Del Moral & James Murphy
Old Chinese Cyclist (Photo © Cristina Del Moral & James Murphy) 

Tuesday, 20 April 2010

Off-Topic Post: The Joy of Veg

This post may not be about cycling, but I'd like to think it ties into the same sort of world view...

The empty shelves in the fruit section of our local supermarket (thanks to the current volcanic ash flight restrictions) only serve to reinforce how reliant we as a country are on imported food.

But like many people lucky enough to have access to some outside space, we grow some of our own veg, admittedly with mixed success.

Some of our home-grown veg
We started a few years back and have expanded to produce quite a bit of our summer and autumn needs - salad, herbs (rosemary, sage, basil, mint, etc), spuds, carrots, courgettes, beans, onions, cucumbers, cabbages and cauliflowers.  Although many of them get eaten by slugs and pigeons before we can get to them, of course...

Tuesday, 13 April 2010

Cannondale Lefty For Sale...

Spent a bittersweet few hours last weekend getting my Cannondale Lefty ready to sell - cleaning it up, servicing everything and turning it back into a full-on mountain bike with riser bars and knobbly tyres.

It's a fantastic bike that I absolutely love, but with the current one-in-one-out policy it's got to go to make way for the new touring bike.

It's in amazing nick - the custom paint job is immaculate (I can't stand the recent Cannondale paint jobs and decals, so had mine re-done), the rear wheel, brakes (Shimano XT, far better than the original Hayes efforts) and drive train are virtually new and the fork has been serviced recently.  The tyres were taken off in the shop before I even took it home.

I mean, who wouldn't love this?  Oh well, I'll be putting it up on ebay in the next couple of weeks and somebody will be getting themselves a bargain...

Cannondale Lefty

Tuesday, 6 April 2010

More from Danny MacAskill

If you haven't heard of Danny MacAskill, he's an amazing trial bike rider who does the most incredible tricks you can imagine - who knew it was even possible to do a front-wheelie going backwards, for example?!

He released a fantastic video last year, shot in Edinburgh. Now he's gone one better in Chamonix:

Monday, 29 March 2010

Cannondale Touring Ultra Review

I've had my new bike - a Cannondale Touring Ultra - for a month now and thought it's about time I passed early judgement on it.
Cannondale Touring Ultra

I've been thinking about getting a proper touring bike that could replace the mountain bike/tourer I've been using for years. It needs to be a bike that will last for years and can cope with serious miles in comfort.

I looked at a number of options for the bike, including Trek and Dawes tourers, plus custom bikes such as Santos and Thorn. Decided pretty quickly that I a mountain-bike style bike was the answer for me, partly because I'm getting rid of my mountain bike to make way, and it would be useful if the new bike could see service off-road if needed.

MTBs are also more upright, safer in traffic and the braking is more comfortable on long descents. Plus 26" wheels are tougher than road (700c) ones...

The bike came from Evans (not my first choice retailer, but it was cheap and the only one in stock in the right size I could find). It's a 2009 model, which has a similar spec to the 2010 but is £500 cheaper (although they've brought in a new frame design, plus integrated lights, this year).

Overall I really like the bike. It's not immediately 'sexy', but it's very well put together, is great to ride and I have high hopes for its long-term prospects. Many of the components are excellent, others are sensible if not top drawer and a couple are junk.

Overall rating: 9/10

Anyway, here are my detailed thoughts. Please feel free to skip if you're not a cycling geek...

Sunday, 21 March 2010

'The Swiss Roll' - Cycling to Switzerland 2010

Last November my mum, Shirley, died at the age of 68 as a result of Leukaemia. Mum was very active and did a huge amount for others. Sadly she never got to meet her first grandchild, our son Oscar, who was born in February.

This summer in memory of her, and to raise money for Leukaemia Research, my brother James and I are cycling the 550 miles from the Belgian coast to Zurich in Switzerland in 7 days (subject to complex negotiations on the home front, I'm hoping to start 2 days - and 200 miles - earlier in Birmingham).

James and me at the top of Mont Ventoux in 2008

Starting on July 18th, the route will take us along the First World War western front, through Belgium (including Ypres), northern France (including the Champagne and Alsace-Lorraine regions and the Vosges mountains) and Switzerland. We also hope to find where our great-grandfather, John Cope, was injured during the war.

Here's the route (and, before anyone asks, I'm not going to be cycling the Channel - that bit's by ferry!):

Bike route 322271 - powered by Bikemap 

If you want to make a donation completely securely via, please use the icon top right or go here.

This isn't one of those 'sponsor my holiday in Peru' jobs - first, we'll be cycling for at least 6 hours a day, and second, none of the donations will go towards our costs!

For more details, and to follow the ride, go here.

Monday, 15 March 2010

Cycle Commuting in London

Collecting my new touring bike from London last week was the first time I've cycled in the city in five years, since I moved back to Birmingham to work from home.

Cycling in London (Photo: Crispin Hughes/Getty Images)

And, boy, have things changed in that time - and not necessarily for the better!

Wednesday, 10 March 2010

Evans Cycles Waterloo Cut - Quick Review

Picking up my bike from Evans Cycles ('the UK's largest specialist cycle retailer') last night it had supposedly been through a full check-up before I arrived.

So why was the front stem not on straight and the tyres only inflated to 30psi, when they should have been at least 60psi? Did it include checking spoke tension, I asked (as they are machine-built wheels)? 'We look to see if the wheel is wonky' was the reply.

Evans Cycles, Waterloo Cut (Photo: Evans Cycles)

Having said that, the price was fantastic (and they knocked an extra £150 off the sale price without a quibble) and the advice on buying a new light was good too (the salesman even told me not to replace my existing rear light). I would have to say that the quality of advice given by other staff was pretty poor (one even claimed not to know anything about lights!).

They also offer an excellent price match service which means that even if you find the item cheaper in the seven days after you've bought it they will refund the difference.

So good value, but don't expect to get the same service as a proper local shop (although they can also be very grumpy and stuck in their ways).

So overall rating: 7.5/10

Monday, 8 March 2010

Another New Arrival

After a lot of thought, and bank account checking, I've finally taken the plunge and bought myself a new bike.

Why on earth would I need that, you may well ask, isn't the side passage of our house already cluttered enough with bicycles? You can only ride one at a time, after all.

How many bikes does one man really need...? (Photo: Flickr User Ms. Abitibi)

Well, let me explain...