Wednesday, 31 August 2016

In Vienna...

Took the train to Gatwick airport, enjoyed a chicken sandwich and a glass of Merlot at the airport – by the time I was through security it was lunch time – and then I flew off with British Airways to Vienna in Austria. Great flight, the highlight being the Island Bakery biscuits that were handed out by the cabin crew. I was tempted to ask for more, but from bitter experience I knew I didn't want the portion control conversation. Besides, it was only a one hour, 55-minute flight so I wasn't going to starve to death.

The flight itself was amazing – British Airways always is amazing. Clear skies all the way and no turbulence – it's always good when there's no turbulence.

Mr & Mrs Feelgood's home-made cheesecake – excellent
We landed safely and it took me a while to get my act together and find a taxi, having taken the Express train to the centre of Vienna. But eventually I found one, and 12 Euros later I arrived at my hotel, which at first I thought was going to be a little suspect, but within minutes I realised it was – and I get accused of saying this about everything – a really good place.

My room was one of the so-called 'executive rooms' and it's nice: the bathroom door is made of frosted glass, which, for some reason, I like, and guess what? The hotel has everything covered, something I always worry about. Thanks to terrorism I didn't bring any toothpaste with me; always a problem: unless I check my bag in to the hold, I'm scuppered if I bowl up with a tube of toothpaste, but I was ahead of the game: I didn't have any toothpaste when I started out. The plan was to buy some when I arrived in Vienna, but of course I forgot. So it's late, I've had a cheap and cheerful meal in a Nordsee outlet close to the hotel – it might well have been my first ever visit to a Nordsee – and I'm back in the hotel wishing I'd remembered the toothpaste. Why is it that hotels NEVER have any toothpaste in the bathroom? They have everything else, even a sewing kit – does anybody ever use it? I know I wouldn't, because I can't sew to save my life. And then it happened! My hotel DOES have toothpaste! Top marks!

There was a minibar – always good, not that, these days, I go mad and work my way through all the beers, but I like minibars because there are hotels that offer the fridge, but it's either empty or, worse still, locked, and to me that means just one thing: the hotel doesn't trust its guests.

Free WiFi is available – great if you're a blogger, like what I is – and the bed is okay too, although European hotel duvets are just like making do with a paper napkin. What is good is the lighting, particularly the desk light; and let's give a bit of credit to the coat hangers as they're not at all unruly and are currently holding my shirts and stuff without complaining or making a fuss.

There's a safe, containing my passport, and a wall-mounted television – an LG. They're always LG, but all the stations bar CNN are foreign or dubbed and besides, I'm not a television sort of guy, unless I'm in the USA where the TV is so bad it's worth watching. More on the hotel breakfast later.

I brushed my teeth, jumped into bed and, well, nothing. I was wide awake, and while I might have nodded off for an hour, I awoke at 0100hrs and couldn't get back to sleep so I got up and worked. Yes, I worked! I wrote three news stories (I won't bore you about my job, though). By around 0245hrs I flopped back into bed and I must have got around four hours sleep before the alarm on my iphone shook me awake. I showered, dressed and hit the breakfast room. Wonderful! The whole works! It was all there and why wouldn't it be? Cereal, cake, fresh fruit, tea, fruit juices, croissants, yoghurt. I could have enjoyed a cooked breakfast, and almost did, but my pig detector kicked in and I settled for what I'd already eaten – which was virtually everything else, including a piece of cake. I like Europe. They eat cake for breakfast in Europe.

Vienna, of course, is a very cultured place; even the buskers here are classically trained musicians belting out Vivaldi's Four Seasons on street corners. There are some pleasant things to look at in the Austrian capital, like St Stephan's Cathedral – a short walk from my hotel – and it goes without saying that this city has a lot to offer. But I guess I'm not going to see much of it on this trip; there's no time to get around the city before flying back to London. All I'm going to see is shop fronts (yes, they're all here, Mango, Zara, they've even got shops that left the UK a long time ago, like Spar supermarkets where, incidentally, they don't appear to sell Lipton's Yellow Label tea. I bring that up because virtually everywhere else in Europe it's for sale, but not here in Vienna. I'm sure Unilever has its reasons, but who I am to know what they might be?
Nope, it's not a mosque...and it's in Vienna, not Abu Dhabi

With breakfast over I walked for about 25 minutes, well, possibly 20, and then I reached my business destination. Now I'm sounding like a SatNav. At odd intervals during the day I got out and walked around and on one excursion I found a bike shop selling those 'sit up and beg' Danish bicycles with chain guards, mudguards, dynamos and all those things you rarely see on bikes these days. Even Brooks saddles! I spent time chatting with the shopkeeper and he said that the more upright you are on a bicycle, the wider the saddle you'll need. Now I didn't know that before. I also didn't know that Brooks saddles can soak up water so if you have one you'll need to cover it with a plastic bag if it looks like rain as, apparently, they soak up the water and remain wet for days. Not pleasant.

I popped into Mr & Mrs Feelgood, a kind of coffee shop with a health slant to it, selling drinks with the word 'Detox' in the title as well as a pretty amazing homemade cheese cake, among other things. I ordered the last piece and a cup of Earl Grey, the only black tea on offer.

All day I've been feeling depressed and sorry for myself and it's made me not want to be here to be honest. And that fact that I'm not going to get any time for sightseeing increases my overall 'down in the dumps' mood. I've kind of been looking forward to this moment all day, sitting here in front the computer in my hotel room, the sound of Vivaldi playing somewhere out there (seriously, it's playing now) and chilling out with a bottle of mineral water and a small bottle of Pago orange juice. It's almost 2200hrs and I'm looking forward to brushing my teeth and hitting the sack.

Normally, when I'm feeling a little more upbeat, I try to find a coffee shop from where I can read my book – currently Ken Kesey's One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest – and I chill with a huge mug of tea and a cookie. But not today. No, all I want is, well, I don't know what I want if the truth be known, but I do want peace and serenity more than anything, so I guess I do know what I want and I'm just kidding myself by saying I don't.

Somebody is out there, in the streets below me right, this second, playing Vivaldi on a violin. I hope he keeps it up as I'd imagine there's nowt better than lying on my back in bed, 'adopting the position' and hearing the Four Seasons, live and only a few feet away from me.

One thing I would like to see – and possibly experience – is that Ferris wheel that features in the film of Graham Green's novel The Third Man, which was set in Vienna. I've read most of Green's novels and I'm wondering now whether it was The Third Man that features a hotel room in which there was a painting of the Bay of Naples on the wall. Weird if it is, because here I am in Vienna and only a week or two ago I was in Naples. A long time ago I was on the Greek island of Spetses reading John Fowles' The Magus, now there's a coincidence (which you'll only understand if you've read The Magus).

I'm hoping I'll be in a more upbeat mood tomorrow.

Because the date and time is often out of kilter on this blog, I'll let you know now that today is Wednesday 31 August, it's currently 2155hrs and I'm considering hitting the sack. I know what you're thinking. You think I should be out there drinking in one of the many bars close to my hotel, munching a Viennese Whirl, perhaps, and listening to Vivaldi. Well, I'm doing the latter right now, but I'll give the bars and the cake a miss. Perhaps tomorrow, but in all honesty, I'm travelling alone, not that I'm complaining, but when you travel alone you walk a lot – or I do. In fact I've walked a lot today and now I'm feeling a little weary, and there's nothing better than hitting the sack when I'm feeling weary, so goodnight all and we'll talk again tomorrow.


Sunday, 28 August 2016

The signs of summer's passing...

Monday 29 August: Riding back from Westerham yesterday morning and Andy and I noticed the corn rolled up like huge, rustic old drums, slightly surreal in a sense, but also a sign that summer is preparing to leave the building – for some, me included, a depressing thought, as our bikes pick up speed, metaphorically speaking, and roll downhill towards Christmas and that Jona Lewie song.

Our bikes in the cornfield just outside of Westerham in Kent
We pulled off the road and Andy took the shot accompanying this post before we re-mounted and headed up the hill, me on my new Specialized Crosstrail Sport Disc. Earlier we'd taken around 25 minutes to get from Warlingham Green to the green in the centre of Westerham and had stuffed our faces, as usual, with BelVitas, washed down with a couple of mugs of tea.

We discussed many subjects, including casual racism, and watched as market stall holders erected their stalls in preparation for a summertime festival featuring live music, a fairground, chainsaw sculpture, Celidh dancing (featuring women with muffin top midriffs) and, of course, food.

Westerham early morning is an interesting place at the weekends as there's always something going on, somebody doing something in preparation for a fayre of some description: stands are erected, vans arrive, people congregate and then we leave and invariably we don't come back for the festivities.

It's been a long weekend. I took Friday off and today's Bank Holiday Monday. I didn't ride anywhere on Friday, but on Saturday I took the Crosstrail on its first urban ride to mum's where breakfast was laid on (boiled egg, fingers, bread, an orange and, of course, a cup of tea). Sunday (yesterday) was the Westerham ride with Andy (Phil's away and I'm feeding his fish) and today the plan is a bit retro as I'm planning a ride to Woodmansterne Green to meet Jon and then possibly we'll ride to mum's for tea and, who knows, another breakfast.

The Specialized Crosstrail on Woodmansterne Green...
Outside there is nothing but stillness, not even a breeze. Nothing moves. Yesterday leaving Westerham Andy and I both thought we'd get rained on as it was very dark, but nothing happened, things brightened up a bit and the temperatures remained warm. Today, it looks like similar weather and while rain, in the form of scattered showers, has been promised all weekend, I've yet to see anything or wish I'd transferred the mudguard Andy bought me from the Scrap to the Crosstrail, although I will be doing that sometime soon.

The urban ride to mum's on Saturday was wonderful. I followed the usual route, up Hayling Park Road, down past the vast expanses of Purley Playing Fields, across the A23 and through the industrial estate. With the Crosstrail, things are much faster, including the corners and I think I shaved a good 10 minutes off the journey. Mum let me bring the bike into the hallway (it's new and I'm being protective, like a mum with a new baby). I didn't fancy leaving it unpadlocked on the front drive, not that where mum lives is in any way dodgy.

Mum was in fine form as usual as she rustled up my breakfast. I sat in the 'new room' – it's been the 'new' room for well over 30 years, as I've probably said before – and I sent Jon a text, hoping he'd turn up on his Cannondale, but he had a wedding and couldn't make it. Mum gave me a bottle of beer and I've still got it in the fridge, mainly because I had two bottles last Sunday at a garden party near East Grinstead. I try to keep my alcohol intake low these days and I feel much better for it.

Right now I've just finished some Weetabix with sliced bananas, a slice of toast and a mug of tea and now I'm wondering when I should text Jon to say I'm on my way. I'm thinking we should meet on Woodmansterne Green, like in the old days, and then head down to mum's. It's almost 0700hrs as I write this (0656hrs to be precise) and I'm engaged in idle chit chat about this and that, mainly the rubbish nature of Waddon swimming baths. Yesterday we went for a swim and it was freezing cold. Normally I get straight in, but not on this occasion. I had to edge myself into the water, like I did once in Cannes in October. There was no temperature gauge, but I'm guessing the water was well under the required 29 degrees, unless, of course, it's got something to do with the last time I had a swim – in Ischia. But no, it was cold, very cold, and not pleasant, although once in I did manage 10 lengths in the slow lane, which we eventually got to ourselves.

So far, so good on the bike front. The Crosstrail is performing well and I might investigate a more comfortable saddle, not to mention bicycle maintenance lessons. I'm also planning on taking it back to Evans for a six-week check-up, which is free.

Today, the plan is to take it easy, possibly go out for lunch somewhere, but generally chill out rather than drive aimlessly around the countryside in search of tea and cake. Outside it's very still, but brighter than earlier. I'm hoping there won't be any rain before I hit the road and I'm hoping to see Jon either on the green at Woodmansterne or round at mum's. Knowing us, we'll end up at mum's.

As it turned out, I reached Woodmansterne Green and waited around for Jon before calling mum to see if he might be there. When I got through I heard his voice and he later told me, after I'd cycled over to mum's, that his phone was out of power and he hadn't picked up my messages. I enjoyed a mug of tea and some Crunchy Nut Cornflakes before heading home via the smallholdings, turning left on to the Croydon Road and riding through Purley along Foxley Lane, straight across into Pampisford Road and then through the side streets towards Sanderstead and home. Coming up the southern end of West Hill was far easier on the Crosstrail than it ever was on the Scrap.

Before bidding each other farewell, Jon and I said we might meet on Woodmansterne Green next week, but we'll see how things go.

Monday, 22 August 2016

The Specialized Crosstrail Sport Disc hybrid

On Saturday morning the weather was lovely. There was a breeze and the trees sounded like waterfalls. The skies were blue and dotted here and there with cotton wool cloud, but a threat of rain loomed – or showers – and I would have liked a ride, but didn't get one. Too much was going on. I had to pick up my new bike, a Specialized Crosstrail Sport Disc, from Evans Cycles in Gatwick and that involved a train journey.

I jumped aboard the 1108 from Sanderstead, changed at East Croydon and sped towards Gatwick on a brand new Thameslink train.

'Police' escort...
At Gatwick I knew I was going to have problems finding James Watt Way, home of Evans Cycles in Gatwick. The SatNav on the phone was useless so I asked a man sitting behind the wheel of a huge Mitsubishi four-by-four, part of Gatwick's road traffic team. I thought he was a cop, but, as he later explained as we drove towards Evans Cycles, he gave me a lift there purely because the roads were 60mph and there were no pavements. Nice guy, lived in Eastbourne and was half way through a 12-hour shift (he starts at 0600hrs and finishes at 1800hrs). We talked about his job and he said he's seen a few sights in his time.

Soon we arrived at Evans Cycles' Gatwick store. It was a big shop, full of decent-looking bikes of all shapes and sizes plus clothing and various accessories, including saddles. It was early, just before noon, so I browsed a little, before taking possession of my new bike. I love bike shops and I'll admit now that all week I've been like a little kid waiting for Christmas Day. I wouldn't say I've been counting the days, but in a way I have been. Last week was my first week back from holiday and I was still very much in holiday mood, although I still got work done.

Riding back to Gatwick station...
Having taken possession of my new bike I rode it around the car park just to acclimatise myself to the new machine. It was fine and soon I headed off in the direction of Gatwick airport along those aforementioned fast roads. When I reached the station it was jam-packed with people who had returned from holidays abroad so I went to the rear of the train and still had problems squeezing myself and the bike into the carriage. I had debated riding all the way home, but the weather was changeable. Windy and rainy and then sunshine. I might have taken a major soaking had I cycled towards Redhill and then through the Surrey Hills to Caterham and, ultimately, Sanderstead.

The bike was perfect. The gears changed up and down smoothly, the ride was smooth too and when I reached East Croydon I decided to ride home and not wait for the connection to Sanderstead. I don't know if I've mentioned this before, but Southern trains are shit. For the last six months, if not longer, they have been delayed and cancelled and I've been late for work and all sorts of things. They can't be trusted and should be stripped of their franchise. Now that I've got a bike that handles on and off road with ease I might even cycle into work once or twice a week and reduce the fares a bit. Either way I'm going to take the bus from now on, it cuts the fares in half and it's fairly pleasant sitting there, reading, as the bus trundles its way along the A23 towards Redhill.

When I got the bike home I couldn't stop going into the garage to stroke the frame and generally act like a kid about it. When I was a kid I remember once taking a new pair of Wellington boots to bed with me, although I think eyebrows might have been raised had I clambered upstairs with the Crosstrail and spent the night arm-in-arm with it in the bedroom.

What's really good about a new bike is the 'owners' manual', although I was expecting more in the way of diagrams and maintenance guides. These days, however, things are a little more stripped down than they used to be: I was directed on-line for a lot of stuff and there was a CD that contained an electronic version of the printed manual.

The first proper ride...
I could hardly conceal my general excitement over the forthcoming ride, my first on the Crosstrail. Fortunately it was a pleasant day. There was no rain and it was fairly warm. I was up with the lark at 0600hrs and by 0700hrs I was in the garage unpadlocking the new bike. Phil saw me wheel it out on to the drive and needless to say he was impressed. Soon we were on our way to Warlingham Green. The Crosstrail took everything in its stride and provided a fast, smooth ride characterised by easy gear changes.

Speed, that was the key, and the Crosstrail had plenty of it, facilitated by its 27 gears and egged on by its sleek design. It looked good and, as we headed towards our chosen destination – Tatsfield village – I opened it up and found it had plenty to offer. Beddlestead Lane, normally a big ordeal for yours truly on the Scrap, was a walk in the park and seemed to rush by in a matter of minutes. Once on Clarks Lane I powered towards Approach Road, hanging a sharp left and metaphorically putting my foot down. The speed was incredible and some of the turns were a little hairy, but the Crosstrail handled them well. What also pleased me about this excellent bike was its stability. The fact that the forks could be adjusted for on- or off-road riding was a major bonus, even if it made the odd bump harsher in terms of impact than the spongy front suspension of the Scrap. But it was great to be able to turn around and check on possible traffic behind me without losing balance, as I used to on the Scrap.

The Crosstrail has a solid feeling about it; not indestructible, but a dependable strength. Gear changing is smooth, both front and rear, and braking equally soft, but effective. The ride was comfortable too, more so than I expected having not riden a bike with a conventional saddle for the past decade.

I was looking forward to the return ride, especially the 269, and the Crosstrail didn't disappoint; it sped along at lightning speed and maintained a fast pace all the way to Warlingham.

The fact that the Crosstrail is a hybrid means 'access all areas' – the trail and the tarmac – and this gives the rider added freedom as it means the bike can go virtually anywhere.

Sizing guide
Problems? None at all bar the Specialized sizing guide, which says that, at 6ft tall (I'm probably slightly taller) I should have a large frame. Anybody from 5' 9" should be riding a large framed Crosstrail, according to Specialised. Fine, that's what I've got, but the manual says there should be around 2 inches clearance, when in the standing position, between crotch and crossbar. There isn't. The big inner debate I'm having, therefore, is whether to take it back and replace it with a medium-sized frame.

The Crosstrail lives up to the name of 'Sport Disc'. It's fast, it's energetic and if it's fitness you want, combined with safety and dependability, then it's the bike to own. Sleek good looks are an added bonus.

For a full specification of the Crosstrail Sport Disc, click here.

For the reason why I bought a new bike, click here.




Sunday, 14 August 2016

Bicycle dilemmas...

I always thought that bicycles were indestructible. For me, a bike is for life, not just for Christmas, but that said, in my life time, I've owned five bikes, including a Moulton Mini, and I only know the whereabouts of one of them, my Kona Scrap, which, right now, is in the garage, unpadlocked, having been on what might have been its last ride.

Shock! Horror! It's last ride? Well, it's like this...

First, like a lot of people, I tend to expect things to work without question, particularly my bike. I ride it, I finish riding it, I chuck it in the garage and then I repeat the process as and when. Occasionally I get a puncture, I fix it and get back on. Sometimes the bike takes a trip to the repair shop, but then I carry on riding it week in and week out.

Castello Aragonese, Ischia – just part of this wonderful Italian island...
What I fail to understand is this: bikes are like cars; they're like human beings. They must be taken care of or they will buckle under the strain of things and die and that, my friends is what might be happening to the old Kona Scrap.

Cycle Republic...
You might be wondering what I'm talking about, I know that I wonder sometimes; so I'll relate the tale to you. The week before I went on holiday – yes, I've been to Ischia for a relaxing week in the sun – I decided that I'd mosey on into Purley (a 15-minute ride from where I live) and put the old Kona in for a full service at Cycle Republic, which has just opened and now occupies the same large space once occupied by the great Motorcycle City, a place I used to go religiously on a Sunday morning to sit on the cruisers and fantasise about owning a motorcycle. Call it a mid-life crisis. I never did buy a motorbike and that's probably why I'm still alive, writing this blogpost; had I bought one I might be dead or limbless.

How much?
So I take the bike in for a service and tell the guy manning the workshop that I'll be away for a week. I went into work and then around lunchtime I get a call from the shop. "It's going to cost around £200," said Cycle Republic's Brian. "Personally, I'd buy a new bike," he added. A new bike? He started speaking in the same way a mechanic might disparagingly discuss a clapped out old banger of a car and to be quite honest, I couldn't believe it. Surely, I thought, bikes went on forever, they're basically a frame, two wheels, brakes and gears and if you replace bits that are faulty you're merely prolonging the bike's life. They're not write-offs like cars.

But oh how wrong I was! Apparently. For the rest of the day I worried and fretted and thought things through. A new bike? The thought has rarely crossed my mind to be honest. My bike is my bike, it's 10 years old, I can't just sling it on the scrap heap and buy a new one! Or can I? No! If it's £200 then so be it, I'll get it fixed. So I called back and told him to go ahead and then I went on holiday for a week, fretting a little bit and losing sleep here and there because I'd have to explain away the £200 bill, possibly more, that I'd be getting when I returned sun-tanned and relaxed from Ischia. It was a great holiday, thanks, I just wished I'd booked a fortnight and not just seven days, but you can't have everything.
Should it stay or should it go?
Getting back to the bike, for me, the 'big day' was Saturday, the one just gone, as I'd have to go and fetch my bike and hand over the money. I levelled the situation at home and headed off to pick up my 'new' Kona, but when I reached the shop, the bike hadn't been fixed at all. "I'm still trying to get the parts," said Brian. This, of course, was great news. He said he wouldn't push ahead until he'd told me the price, but that he'd need a few more days.

I ought to explain exactly what needed to be done on the old Scrap. It needs a new chain and block, the gears need servicing, it could do with a new bottom bracket, the brakes need a service, the crank needs replacing, the pedals are edging towards the day when they'll have to be replaced and the bearings in the front wheel are completely blown.

Is bicycle servicing a bit of a scam?
Up until this point I was quite happy with Cycle Republic. I was not committed to pay the aforementioned £200, they'd let me know the final cost once they'd sourced all the parts and then I could either go ahead with it or take back my bike unserviced. I left it with them, but then I remembered Cycle King, another bike shop about a mile or two down the road in South Croydon. They were an honest bunch of guys and would give me a quote while I waited, so I shot back into Cycle Republic and asked for my bike. I must point out that I was a little annoyed with Cycle Republic mainly because Brian said that for the money it would cost to repair my bike he could sell me a Carrera. Hmmm... is this whole bicycle servicing thing a bit of a scam, I thought? Fine if you bike doesn't really need a servicing, they can replace a few cables and charge you £40 or £50 and laugh all the way to the bank. But if your bike really does need to be serviced, then hey, why not try to sell the customer a new bike. "Not worth fixing, mate," they might say. Not worth fixing? A write-off? Surely not. But it's true – or so they say.

A courtesy bike?
So I took back the bike and asked them to let me know the cost of the servicing as and when they'd sourced all the parts. Something else that riled me was the whole notion of a 'courtesy bike'. Things really are beginning to sound pretty car-like. Soon we'll have to get our bikes insured and have number plates fitted. A courtesy bike? It's not a bad idea and the wheel of the Carrera Brian tried to sell me had a circular piece of card stuck to the front wheel saying something like, "why be without a bike while yours is being serviced? Take this courtesy bike." It was a blatant message. Basically you could have the Carrera as a courtesy bike while yours was being serviced. So I asked Brian if I could have it. "No," he said, not really explaining why, but he did say I could have a rather crappy old bike they kept round the back. This pissed me off. Why advertise the Carrera so blatantly as a courtesy bike when it actually wasn't? Unless, of course, he simply didn't like the cut of my jib.

The bigger deal for me, however, was the scam behind bike 'servicing' and the fact that people with bikes that really needed a service, like mine, were basically told that it's not worth it, but how about a new Carrera? When Brian presented the Carrera to me as a possible new bike, I was appalled. "But isn't the Carrera Halfords' own-brand bicycle and aren't they, well, a bit crap?"

The horror! The horror!
In many ways, it was the sort of statement that could 'rumble' the true identity of Cycle Republic. Fine, it comes across as a radical-sounding, left-leaning, Guardian-reading sort of establishment full of potential Jeremy Corbyns going everywhere by bike. That word 'Republic' brings a touch of Che Guevara to the proceedings, perhaps. But, hold on, it's owned by Halfords and possibly it's a kind of undercover Halfords ('nobody needs to know our true identity'). Perhaps mentioning the word 'Halfords' in a Cycle Republic store is a bit like bringing up Voldemort's name. Imagine horrified customers stopping dead in their tracks. "Halfords? We're really in Halfords?" they might exclaim in horror prior to running into the streets screaming. But when I mentioned the word there was nobody around so Cycle Republic lived to trade another day.

Cycle King
The old Scrap creaked its way along the A23 for a couple of miles and eventually reached Cycle King where I was met by the store manager, an amiable gentlemen who knows a thing or two about bikes. I've always trusted Cycle King because they're a no-nonsense outfit that always calls a spade a spade. He looked at the bike and very quickly told me it was going to cost me an arm and leg, more than £200, nearer to £250 – "you'd be better off buying a new bike," he said, pointing me in the direction of some Ammaco hybrids, the CR750, and the CR450 (the latter being the same as the former, but with block brakes).

Cycle King in South Croydon, a trustworthy place...
I wasn't convinced, but I was getting there. That whole argument about the old Scrap being totally inappropriate for what we do, the fact that a more conventional bike would do the trick, the reality that servicing the Scrap would cost roughly the same as buying a new bike. It all started to add up. Or was the argument really that servicing my bike would cost roughly the same as buying a crappy bike, like the Carrera? Yes, that is the answer and when I really think hard about it, I wonder whether the reason Cycle Republic didn't touch my bike while I was away on holiday was because they wanted to wait until my return to see if they could sell me a new bike? Put it this way, I took the bike away but asked them to call me Monday – when they said they would have a price for me – and it's now four days later and I've heard nothing. Why? Because they're not interested in servicing my bike when they could sell me a new one instead.

The best comparison, however, would probably be something like this: you own a classic Aston Martin DB7, it needs around £5,000 worth of work doing to it and somebody at the garage says, "Not worth it, mate. You could buy a brand new Kia Piccanto instead."

Today we rode to the Tatsfield Churchyard, me on my beleaguered Scrap, which creaked its way up Church Way and along the Limpsfield Road. I hadn't seen Phil since the wedding and he said he'd enjoyed his honeymoon in Sardinia. We met Andy at the Green and rode off. Later, at the churchyard, we discussed the whole bicycle dilemma, running through everything that needed fixing: bottom bracket, gears, crank, wheel bearings...and we ended up deciding that a new bike was the best way to go.
The old Kona Scrap in happier times...
I'm going to be very sad to see the back of the Scrap, even if it is an inappropriate ride for me. I've had it for 10 years, but now, perhaps, it's time to get a more sensible bike, a hybrid, something with more gears, something lighter, with thinner tyres. But what? A Specialized Sirrus or one of the Ammaco bikes, the CR750 or CR450? It's what you might call a 'bicycle dilemma'.

Or is it? I've made the decision NOT to buy a bike from either Cycle King or Cycle Republic purely because they suggested I should buy a new bike – in other words, buy a new bike from them rather than service my Kona. How very dare they! There must be some kind of sales policy linked to bike servicing. "If the bill is more than X, try to sell the customer a new bike." And besides, Carrera and Ammaco are not exactly a match for a Kona, they're cheap bikes with cheap parts and they're not really designed to last. Furthermore, you really do get what you pay for in this world. I realised I'd be better off with a proper brand, a leading player in the field, be it another Kona, a Marin, Trek, Specialized or Giant.

The Specialized Crosstrail Sport Disc...

As luck would have it I found myself in a bike shop in Forest Row, near East Grinstead, and there it was: the Specialized Crosstrail Sport Disc. 27 gears! Lock-out forks for on- and off-road, available in matt black, just like my old Marin. The shop was offering 25% off the RRP so it was only to be £412.50. Not bad. In the end, however, thanks to Evans Cycles' Price Match policy I was able to buy the bike for the discounted price from an Evans store in Gatwick. I pick it up on Saturday and we're keeping the old Scrap in the garage until we can fix it. All's well that ends well, thanks to Evans Cycles where, incidentally, I bought the Kona Scrap 10 years ago.


Tuesday, 2 August 2016

Is it just me?

Sometimes, when I'm on my way home from work, feeling tired, weary and occasionally troubled, I look longingly at a green GWR train to Reading that always seems to be sitting on the platform awaiting a green light. Often I arrive in time to see the driver exit the rear of the train and make his way to the front and then I get the chance to take a peek into the driver's cab and imagine myself sitting there on the comfortable seat, driving the train.

As the train's diesel engine ticks over I find myself drawn to the First Class carriage – or rather the rear of the carriage that is given over to First Class ticket holders. I'm not a First Class ticket holder for one reason: I don't believe that the addition of a white napkin on the back of a seat warrants additional spend.

But putting class aside, all I'm seeking out is comfort and peace. Not First Class comfort and peace. I peer into the coach and imagine myself sitting in the seat at the rear of the carriage, having already purchased a half bottle of decent red wine, a plastic cup, a decent sandwich, possibly a cake or a pastry and an insulated paper cup of tea with the milk already added – and the teabag left in.

The rest is simple: the train embarks upon it's journey to Reading, once on the move I have a glass or two of wine and a nibble of the sandwich, a bite of the cake, and I just sit back, look out of the window and chill out. To be honest, I rather hope that the train never stops and just keeps going, but I know that sooner or later it will arrive at Reading and I will disembark, slightly bleary-eyed and wishing I was closer to home.

It could, of course, all go wrong. Should I ever take the train I'm likely to do so on impulse, meaning I won't have a valid ticket. Having consumed the wine I might be approached by an inspector who might threaten a penalty fare. I might get shirty. Alcohol is involved. I might find myself ejected from the train at an obscure station, like North Camp, where I might be met by the transport police. It could all get very nasty and I might end up spending the night at Her Majesty's Pleasure somewhere in the Reading area. Oh dear!

Sunday, 31 July 2016

The last of the short rides to Botley Hill...

Botley Hill, Sunday morning. Photo: Andy Smith
Fortunately, today, Sunday, represents the last of the short rides to Botley Hill. Last week, as avid readers will know, I rode to Botley Hill twice, early, as I had stuff to do during the day that required me being back at the house before 0930hrs. Alright, once in a while it's fine, but it's nice to ride a little further – to the churchyard or the village or even Westerham, not to mention the lakes, although we haven't been along Pilgrim's Lane for a long while.

It was just Andy and I today – and for good reason. Phil was in Sardinia embarking upon day two of his honeymoon. On Friday just past (29th July) Phil married Jane and now, as husband and wife, they're probably soaking up a few rays of Sardinian sunshine.

Both Andy and I and our respective other halves attended the wedding at the splendid Wiston House near Steyning in West Sussex. It was a great day in so many ways – decent weather for a start, great food and, of course, great company.

Wiston House has to be seen to be believed. It's an amazing place surrounded by beautiful grounds and it even has it's own church, although the wedding was a civil ceremony, and I gave a reading at the beginning and managed to finish it without any hiccups, which is always good news and fortunately, is generally the case.

The Kona Scrap at Botley Hill

The weather wasn't supposed to be as good as it was. During the week Phil had been watching the forecast and was concerned that there might be rain, but there was nothing but hazy, English summer sunshine throughout the day and into the early evening.

There's accommodation at Wiston House some of us stayed over and had the pleasure of continued decent weather the following morning. After breakfast – and having said our goodbyes – we took a stroll around the grounds and then headed south to Shoreham, the plan being to take a look at the place before driving home, but there was a sudden (and prolonged) downpour of rain, which prompted us to find the A23 and drive home. The rain stopped as soon as we moved away from the coast and the good weather continued for the whole of Saturday.

Sunday was the same. I left the house for Botley Hill around 0635hrs and was quite surprised to find the temperature a bit nippy. So nippy that I considered returning to the house to pick up the rust-coloured jacket, but decided instead to push ahead along Ellenbridge, up Elmfield and, ultimately, up Church Way.

Like last week I was cycling alone, leaving the house earlier and meeting Andy at Botley Hill. This was to save time and to ensure that I was back home before 0930hrs (I got home around 0906hrs). Thinking about it, however, it was pointless leaving earlier as I met Andy, who left at the usual time and we both headed home at the same time, so why I pushed the envelope and left early I'll never know. I think it made me feel more comfortable in myself in the sense of getting there early, being there when Andy arrived and then seemingly have greater control over the time we headed back. Whatever the reason, I don't have to do it again.

A fine morning at Botley Hill...
The weather warmed up as I rode along the Limpsfield Road, past Warlingham Green, then Warlingham Sainsbury's and, of course, Knight's Garden Centre. From then onwards the 269 was very quiet and there was hardly anybody around as I rode towards Botley Hill. I arrived at just gone 0730hrs, quite early, and parked the bike. I took off my crash helmet and paced up and down, partly to warm up as my back was cold. That might sound odd, but having had my rucksack pressing against me for the duration of the ride, the sweat cooled and I found myself feeling a little chilly.

The sun was up and the skies were blue and, like last week, there was a paraglider in the skies. A motorised paraglider who had taken off from a nearby field and was now buzzing around above me taking in the same scenery he took in last week. Wasn't he bored? Soon Andy arrived, from a different direction than last week. Instead of following the tried and tested route, he came from The Ridge and was riding his racer. Today, he told me, was Ride London.

Out came the tea and biscuits and Andy and I talked about Friday's wedding and Wiston House, which had impressed us both. Then we moved on, for some reason, to winning the lottery. I said if I won millions I'd buy a house on the beach, nothing the size of Wiston House, but probably something with five or six bedrooms and a decent sea view. That said, I'm quite happy where I am and what about the cycling? If I lived on the South Coast I wouldn't be riding to the Tatsfield Bus Stop or the village or the churchyard. I wouldn't be riding to Westerham or the lakes, but I guess I'd find other places to visit on the bike, like Arundel and Littlehampton and Pagham beach, which is always a little desolate. I'd probably give up work and travel a lot. I might have a place in Italy and I'd let my pals visit rent-free and I'd probably spend a lot of time out of the country, on holiday.

It was soon time to ride home and there was still a mildy cool breeze as we headed down the 269. It made me wish I'd worn that rusty old jacket. Andy and I parted company at the green and I headed home on the Limpsfield Road, getting home, as I said, around 0906hrs.

Later I went to mum's and sat in the garden eating fruit cake and drinking tea. Being round at mum's always reminds me of when I was a kid and dad was alive, reading his newspaper and smoking his Three Castles cigarettes in the sunshine.

During the summer months mum's garden is completely secluded, which is great. But the sound of mowers and radios in adjacent gardens and the occasional train travelling from Carshalton to Sutton or vice versa can't be shut out – not that I've ever shunned the sounds of trains and radios and neighbours mowing their lawns.

Sunday, 24 July 2016

To Botley Hill – twice!

The weather throughout the weekend was fantastic, requiring little more than a tee-shirt and trousers on both rides. We rode to Botley Hill, mainly because of time constraints for both of us. I had to drive to west London for a family event and Andy had to go shopping – Phil gets married on Friday and both Andy and I, plus our respective other halves, are invited.

Andy's Kona Blast at Botley Hill. Pic: Andy Smith.
On a good day, even Botley Hill looks like an inviting destination. We met at the green as usual and enjoyed a short but pleasant ride, the fast way along the 269, stopping outside the pub where there is a strip of grass on the roadside. It was then a simple matter of eating a few biscuits and drinking tea.

After a short while we headed home, parting at the green and vowing to ride again on Sunday, which we did, although this time it was only me with the time constraints. I texted Andy saying let's meet at Botley. I planned to leave around half an hour earlier than usual, get to the green and hang around for Andy, then drink the tea and munch the biscuits and then head home. I needed to be back by 0930hrs, hence the earlier start. It all worked fine. Having made the tea I left the house just before 0645hrs and reached Botley Hill at 0737.

It was such a wonderful day. The sun was out, the skies were blue and everything was still. All I could hear were the birds in the hedgerows and possibly the occasional sheep in a distant field. If it wasn't heaven on earth it was pretty close. You couldn't really get much better and once again I felt as if I should camp somewhere, in an adjoining field. It would have been great, I thought, to wake up here at sunrise with nothing but the cool air, the blue sky and the sound of the wild life waking up to a new day.

Andy arrived just before 0800hrs and, like yesterday, we chatted about stuff while drinking tea and eating those BelVita biscuits. The subject was the pointlessness of social media, a subject we have visited before. Once again I found myself saying how I'd been on Linkedin since early 2009 and have only ever been singled out for a job interview once – back in 2010. Facebook with paperclips is how I would describe Linkedin. Like most social media I could live without it. Likewise Twitter, although the blog, the one you're reading right now, is fine. Fine because I'm not doing it for any reason other than my own entertainment.

We could have spent the rest of the morning there chatting about this and that, although the tea had run out and so had the biscuits. There was, however, the Botley Hill Farmhouse pub and it's so-called Sheep Shed, which sold tea and cakes, so we wouldn't have starved. But it was time to head home.

The day remained warm and sunny and I spent most of it in the back garden mowing lawns and pulling out sycamore trees growing in the flowerbeds.

My next ride will be Sunday and it will probably be similar to Sunday's ride as I have to take somebody somewhere early in the morning. Botley Hill will beckon again and if the weather holds, all will be fine with the world.