Thursday, 4 December 2014

The move - Part 1

If you’ve read the last few posts, you will have noticed that I haven’t said just where the Langsetts have washed up, now that we’ve jumped off the good ship Manchester.

Well, it was very nearly York.

Ah, York. The place where me and Mrs L first met. Like everywhere in the UK at the moment, York is riding the crest of a bicycle filled wave. In some places, that means that two people now cycle instead of one. In York, it means that more or less everyone cycles.

I lived there ten years ago, in a house full of students. In all my circle of friends, I knew three people who rode bikes and another one who sometimes left the "Bikes and bike accessories" pages of the York Press open on the dining room table. It never even crossed my mind to get a bike. Most of the time, I walked. On nights out, my housemates and I would occasionally treat ourselves to a taxi from Fleetways, which would often be a luxurious Mercedes driven by a doleful redundant structural engineer or something similar. These two modes of transport covered all journeys admirably, other than the trek out to that nightclub on the ring road (which required a special bus and a willingness to contemplate a drunken twelve mile walk home).

It’s all changed now.

These days, visiting York is hard work, particularly if (like me) you get a tiny bit excited and / or distracted every time you see someone riding a bike. When we visited to see whether we still liked the city, there were so many bikes being ridden all the time that it was more or less impossible for me to concentrate on anything, because I kept trying to check exactly what sort of bike each passerby was riding and decide whether I approved or not.

It’s in places like York that you can get an inkling of just how significant a major shift to travelling by bike could be. When I drove into the city to pick Mrs L up from her new job, I was pleasantly surprised to find out it actually was possible to drive into town and out again within a reasonable period of time. At rush hour, no less. Ten years ago, this would have resulted in a lot of sitting in traffic, interspersed with desperate lunges forward to try and get through traffic lights before they turned red. On the basis of my extremely unscientific - but nonetheless persuasive – test, either the drivers of York have fallen victim to some sort of mass illness which has left them unable to operate a steering wheel, or the increase in the number of bikes is as a result of a matching reduction in the number of cars.
Mrs L backed this up when she started work, confirming that her office – a recently completed conversion of a Victorian building that is home to 2,000 office workers – has no car park at all.
And it’s not just about the bikes. York is a very lovely place, chock full of interesting stuff left by everyone from the Romans onwards. Our old landlord used to host dinners for the York Georgian Society, meaning there was a very real chance that you would meet gentlemen in knee breeches and powdered wigs emerging from the portico of his home beside the Knavesmire. He had a superb story about meeting the Crown Prince of Jordan. It was that kind of place.

But as much as me and Mrs L loved it, we couldn’t quite bring ourselves to pay what was needed in order to get a house that would fit us and the girls inside it. So we looked a bit further afield

Sunday, 21 September 2014


While I have been neglecting this corner of the internet, things have been happening elsewhere. Mine and Mrs Langsett's time in Manchester has been running out. I'd always assumed it would be a life sentence, but there's a finishing line in sight (although it is moving around a bit at the moment).

So I've been trying to do a few things on the bike that I somehow managed to not do very often in all the time I've spent in Manchester. The middle of August was soggy, and I headed out to Longdendale early one Sunday morning to ride the Transpennine Trail from Hadfield up to Woodhead and back.

If you've never had the pleasure, Longdendale is a beautiful Peak District valley. At its lower end you can see Manchester taking up the  whole of the horizon, and sometimes Wales off in the distance. It's upper end twists and turns into the heart of the Pennines. The Woodhead Pass climbs up though the valley on one side, but you can also ride up the other side on the Transpennine Trail. 

The Trail used to be the main railway line between South Yorkshire and the North West, but it was closed and lifted in the early eighties. It is very hard not to ride this section of the Trail without chewing over the stupidity of not just closing this line, but also making it impossible to ever re-open it. But it is still a lovely place to ride a bike. Particularly, as it turns out, on a rainy August morning when the heather is in flower and there are clouds the size of Jersey rolling heavily over the surrounding hills. 

Hadfield looked great in the grey, early morning light, yellow sodium streetlights still lit, like the aftermath of some epic night out. There was a bit of sweating and huffing and puffing to heft the Inferno up the main street of the village to the station, where the railway line finishes and the trail begins.

It's uphill all the way to Woodhead, but the trail was graded for heavy freight trains to use so you'll be aware of the climb but not troubled by it.

One of the great things about this ride is the way that the hills unfold and change around you as you ride higher. On a quiet morning, you'll be able to hear each car passing on the road on the other side of the valley.

The trail is surfaced in limestone gravel and as it was wet, a soupy spray of the stuff ended up all over the Inferno and me.

Towards the top of the valley, the hills crowd in until all of a sudden, you're there at the summit. There are two utterly terrifying Victorian tunnel mouths; Gothic, dark and exhaling rotten, clammy air straight out of a graveyard crypt. And one larger, less scary tunnel which the National Grid are converting to carry power lines under the moors. If you climb to the top of the tunnel mouths, this is the stark, beautiful view back down towards Manchester.

The ride back down the hill is brilliant. You have the gradient with you, and it feels marvellous sweeping round the old railway line's graceful curves, hugging the shores of the reservoirs.

Heading back into my bit of Greater Manchester, I noticed that the local authority had burned off the cycle lane markings down one side of this road. The Transpennine Trail runs fairly close to my bit of town, and this road is how you reach it. You can see that the centre line of the road has been moved over, forcing cars and bikes to compete for space on one side.

And here's why the bike lane is needed. Most drivers clip the corner. If the markings were replaced instead of being removed, it would remind drivers that there's a good chance of finding someone on a bike just around this bend. Taking the changes at face value, it's hard to see how they can be in anyone's interest. If you're on a bike, they are just unsafe.

The Greater Manchester authorities are all supposed to be encouraging cycling. I haven't seen any kind of consultation or explanation of these changes. It will be interesting to see what the motivation is.

Tuesday, 5 August 2014

The new commute - Part 2: In which The Langsett's lamentably late looking locates a lovely little line linking home and work...

A few weeks ago I did some low level griping about the high-ish potential for death and serious injury that could be found on my new ride to work.

Since then I have dealt with used cunning and lateral thinking to circumvent the issue. In short, I have been driving to work.

And the drive is pretty good: there is a big motorway passing not far from the fragrant gardens and handsome wrought iron gates of Chateau Langsett, from where it sweeps over the Ship Canal and up the hill past Worsley - creating the formidable barrier which made me grouchy when I tried the ride by bike - through an excitingly curvy junction with another motorway before firing the Polo at surprising velocity into a new NCP multistorey car park next to a handsome Georgian church.

Furthermore, the immense gravitational pull of Manchester city centre sucks virtually all vehicular traffic towards in in the morning, while its gag reflex spits it all back out in the evening. So my side of the motorway is a kind of empty, Robert Moses designed fantasy world of empty tarmac a hundred feet wide, while the other side is crammed full of stationary vehicles of all shapes and sizes.

At times, it feels like I might be building up a considerable store of commuting bad luck which will come crashing down on me at some point in the future.

It has also been making my legs feel weird. Instead of pushing me and my bike to work and back, the right one depresses the accelerator slowly all the way to the floor as I go up the ramp onto the motorway, then presses the brake pedal slowly all the way to the floor when I arrive at the multistorey car park. My left foot taps nervously on bits of interior trim. I am not, in short, getting the same use out of them as I was when I was riding to work, and the result is me jogging up and down stairs at work to get cups of tea and stationary that I don't really need.

I need to sort out a better ride to work, I thought. If only there was some kind of route planning website  - oh! That was easy!

Feeling a bit shamefaced for being so grumpy about cycling provision in Manchester, I realised that by stringing together the rubbish, painted on cycle lanes around the massive shopping centre, the Bridgewater Canal towpath and National Cycle Route 55, I could do almost all of the ride off road. Well, ok, the last bit into Bolton looked a bit flaky. But what would Fred do?

He would probably knock out the bricks on one side, hold it up with pit props and then get Mrs Dibnah to set fire to it, creating one of the most awesome spectacles known to man

The biking equivalent of which is trying it out right away. Out came the mighty British Eagle.

Over the miracle motorway...

...and then the Bridgewater Canal takes you to Monton, where you can nip up through this little gate onto NCN Route 55. This stretch of Route 55 runs along an old railway line, first on top of an embankment and then, as the ground rises, through a cutting. It's great: there were fields with cows having an evening snack over to one side, and then the quiet tree lined tunnel of the cutting with families taking an evening walk. There was even...

...a choice of routes. Tyldesley and Leigh are off to the left (I think). Bolton is to the right. The route is all uphill, but it's a nice, constant gradient and easy to steam up at a good speed.

There's a lot going on in this bit of Greater Manchester at the moment, as far as cycling is concerned. Part of the route into Leigh that you can see branching off to the left above is being turned into a guided busway with a traffic free cycle and footpath alongside. Also, Salford City Council have just secured funding to put in a further 1.5 km of traffic free cycle path to provide access to Port Salford, Peel Holdings' enormous distribution estate next to the Ship Canal.

It's not perfect: there are signs telling you where NCN 55 goes all over the show while you're in Salford, but none at all when you cross into Bolton. The other thing that happens in Bolton is that the route suddenly ends in a big clump of buddleia with someone's back garden to one side and a field to the other side. Somewhere close by the was the constant exhale noise of the motorway. A couple of miles zig zagging though random streets was needed at this point, but eventually:

In Bolton, it was very much all going off. Bradshawgate is deathly quiet in the day time, but now it was decorated with the blue flashing lights of a police car. Some ladies were sitting in the highway having a word with the officer while cheery revellers watched from the bars lining the street.

Feeling pretty chuffed with myself, I headed for home, back though the "challenging" bit of the route:

And then back onto the old railway line. It was properly dark now, and it turned out that my little Cateye front light was more for decoration than for actually lighting up the path. A lad in a dark hooded sweater loomed up out of the darkness a yard or two off the starboard bow and then just as quickly vanished behind. Some pale lumps in the path turned out to be another pair of Boltonians, both of whom had had quite a lot of Vimto, sitting on the ground discussing where to go next. Ten more minutes of being utterly terrified that I was going to ride off the side of the embankment, and I popped out of the little gate again back in Monton.

In other bike news, the cycling revolution is pretty much complete. Proof of this came from my brother Matt, a gentleman who routinely spends his Saturdays boiling his back tyres on drag strips up and down the UK.

"I noticed I was turning into a bit of a porker," said Matt, "so I bought a bike."

And this is what he bought:

Oooooooooooooooooooooooooooo yeah.

The realisation that I needed a BMX of my own so that I could pick up from where I left off - that is, jumping off ramps made from an old bit of wood propped up at one end with a brick - came more or less instantly. My own BMX arrived as a Christmas present when I was about 8. It was a chrome Kuwahara Laserlite. Of course I didn't know that at the time. I just knew it wasn't the Raleigh Burner that I secretly coveted. I nearly had a bit of a cry when I realised how much it would cost to go on that nostalgia trip

Thursday, 31 July 2014


Well, thank goodness for that:

Though I couldn't help but notice that even between John Kerry's announcement of the ceasefire last night at 11 and it coming into force this morning, more people have died. I hope that everyone involved makes full use of the opportunity to build a lasting peace that the ceasefire represents.

I was reading this by Ali A Rizvi last night while I was listening to the news on the radio. I think it's one of the sanest things I've read on the conflict. See what you think.

King (of the Mountain) for a day

I logged on to Strava after tonight's ride - of course, of course - and scrolled through the segments. It looked pretty swift - PB, PB, Second, BIG SHINY GOLD CROWN - Oh my word! My first ever King of the Mountain! I jumped up to go and get a bottle of Unicorn - mmmmm, lovely Unicorn - with a vague idea about checking the entry criteria for next year's Tour de France (looks pretty manageable, I thought). I stopped mid stride, half way across the kitchen.

"There's something not quite right about this sudden display of world beating athletic prowess." I thought to myself.

I went back and double clicked on the segment.Oh dear. First out of four riders. And the segment was created today. And actually it's all downhill. And I think I was trying to sing "14 Years" by Guns N' Roses, after yesterday's rediscovery of the band, while I was riding it. Which I don't think I have ever seen riders in the TdF doing, now I think about it.

I have still been back to look at the shiny gold crown about ten times though.

Wednesday, 30 July 2014

Guns N' Roses

Mrs Langsett's upcoming new job in a whole new bit of the country has prompted multiple trips to the tip, with the aim of leaving us with no more belongings than can be accommodated in a single knotted handkerchief on a stick. Prep was underway for yet another run, and I was emptying the cupboard in the living room. There was an old stereo in there, and I popped the cassette deck open.

"Oh YES!" I shouted, dropping to my knees and waving the tape that was inside at the heavens, "YYYYYYES!!!!"

It was "Use Your Illusion 2" by Guns N' Roses.

"Huh?" you might be thinking.

You know, "Use Your Illusion 2"! Part of the most unlikely outburst of musical productivity in the history of rock music (just how did they manage to be naughty on such an epic scale AND write all those songs? etc)! Very nearly the best album ever.

This was more or less the first album I ever got bought. OK, so a long time before there was not only an Ah-Ha album, but also a Walkman to play it on. And then there was that whole Phil Collins thing which I don't like to think about. But it was the first album I got in my teens, after realising that there needed to be a first album and lots of other music to follow it. I remember unwrapping it and generally treating it like a plasticky version of the the tablets that God wrote the Ten Commandments on. I was particularly awed by the black and white "Parental Advisory - explicit content" sticker on the front. As it turned out, Geffen need not have worried because in my case at least that explicit content went straight over my dubiously styled 1993 hair...

Of course, Use Your Illusion 2's already awesome levels of awesomeness are doubled - no cubed - by the use of You Could Be Mine on the soundtrack to the awesome-in-its-own-right Terminator 2. A few weeks ago, I'd found myself driving my small black Volkswagen in my dark grey suit towards my professional job and wondered whether there'd been some missed turning point in my early teens where I could have started riding a motorbike to school, smoking a lot of cigarettes and generally been more badass. A bit more like John Connor.

There was a Tuesday when I left Mrs Kennedy's history class and went down to the leaky Portakabin for my violin lesson (ok, so I know that on any rational assessment, the fact that I've just had to include the words "violin lesson" in an exploration of whether I could have been a rebellious yet heroic future leader of humanity probably answers the question fairly conclusively, but come with me on this) and my violin teacher had just not turned up.

"This is interesting, " I thought, " because no one's going to be expecting me back in class for a good half hour." I was hanging about in the bike sheds - no really! My secondary school actually did have bike sheds which really did lend themselves to being the setting for minor infractions of the school rules - thinking about what I could do with all this spare time I'd been given, when Fliss came down the path. Wow. Fliss. I worshipped her in a slightly unnerving way which would really take off a year later, after I decided that mixing Woodpecker and Guinness in a 1:1 ratio with my friends on a dark playing field was a legitimate social activity. But for now I just vibrated slightly and tried to look laconic. I might have leaned.

"Where's Mr H?" asked Fliss, furrowing her brow slightly, but smiling in a way that suggested she'd realised she been gifted a pass out of lessons too.

I shrugged. If I'd had a Zippo and a packet of red Marlboro, they would have been utilised at around this point.

"So are you skipping lessons?!" asked Fliss cheekily, joining me in the bike shed. And - that's it! Right there. That's the John Connor moment. That's when I should have procured the keys to Mr Phelan's Yamaha by any means necessary and wheelied it across the playing fields with Fliss on the pillion.

Well, maybe.

Anyway, I was keen to stick "Use Your Illusion 2" in the Volkswagen's tape player and try it on for size. So that's what I did.

A few things struck me:

1. I should have given it more thought before playing this round at my nan's house.
2. Wow! Axl certainly had a lot of bad luck with girlfriends.
3. Actually, the fact that Axl is the common factor suggests that Axl's girlfriends had a lot of bad luck with Axl.
4. And even if 2. is correct, I would probably have been a bit more circumspect than Axl about writing songs about it, whilst being a member of The Biggest Rock Bank In The World.

But then I went straight from a radio news bulletin about Gaza to "Civil War". And there's a bit where Duff's peacemaker is answered by an end of the world chord from Slash's Gibson Les Paul and Axl's reluctant soldier growling "My hands are tied! / The billions shift from side to side / And the wars go on with brainwashed pride / For the love of God and our human rights..."

This is genuinely legendary, I thought.

I've come down off my giddy nostalgia trip a bit now, but I am still absolutely over the moon to have this epic slab of guitar heroism back in my life. Here's a quick blast to finish up with:

You Could Be Mine

Tuesday, 22 July 2014


I don't know whether it's my age or the fact that I'm a father now, or something else entirely, but the stupidity of the latest bout of killing in Gaza has struck me - and by "struck me" I means struck as in being on the receiving end of a blow, rather than struck as in "it struck me that I'd left my keys on the sideboard" - more than any other conflict I can recall. I don't think I'm alone either - my Facebook news feed is full of Youtube videos from Gaza showing apartment buildings being turned into rubble and re-posted news reports of Palestinian deaths. There is table after table listing Palestinian deaths and injuries opposite the much smaller numbers of Israeli deaths and injuries, as though some sort of horrific games is being played which the Palestinians are both winning and losing.

But there's something else. The vast majority of social media posts I've seen avoid any mention of the bombardment of Israel with rockets by Hamas.

That's understandable, to an extent. Hamas's attempt to kill Israelis has so far failed, more or less. I think as I write this that two Israelis have been killed by Hamas rockets since the conflict escalated. Israel's attempt to target Hamas has failed in the opposite sense, killing people who probably have little or no involvement in the conflict between Hamas and Israel.

But not mentioning what Hamas is attempting to do gives Hamas an implied moral authority that it has done absolutely nothing to deserve. Hamas wants to kill Israelis. Its public statements on that subject seem to have varied over time, and if you have a look on the website of the military wing of Hamas at the moment, it is careful to refer to its rocket attacks as being aimed at military installations. But to be honest you do not need to look at why Hamas says it is firing rockets at Israel. You only have to acknowledge the fact that it is firing rockets at Israel; rockets which can be aimed with no more precision than a bonfire night firework. And every time someone posts or publishes something describing the Israeli attack on Gaza without also mentioning Hamas's attacks on Israel, Hamas is being given a little pat on the back and being told that because it is doing such a poor job of achieving its aim of killing civilians, it is ok to go right on trying.

I can't imagine a more stupid approach to take in relation to Hamas. This is an organisation which prides itself in dealing with absolutes. It isn't a plucky underdog, fighting against overwhelming odds to secure a fair deal for Palestinians. It is a bunch of idiots betraying the trust of the people that it shares the Gaza Strip with on a daily basis, perpetuating the awful, cynical lie that attacking Israel will somehow make things better for Palestinians.

Let's look at that in a bit more detail: As far as I can see, Hamas's thinking follows two strands: First, it knows that firing rockets at Israel might kill Israelis. As I've said above, I think the fact that Hamas pursues this goal when it has the opportunity to do so is evidence enough that is is an aim of the organisation. Second, it knows that firing rockets will lead to an Israeli response, which in turn will lead to Palestinian deaths, which in turn will give Hamas headlines that it can use to weaken Israel's international standing. I'd hope that if you're reading this, you are hoping that you will live to see either a Palestinian state and Israel existing peacefully next to each other, or better yet a single state where Palestinians and Israelis both participate in a government and civic society that meets everyones' needs, regardless of their religion or ethnicity. And I'd also hope therefore that you'll follow me when I say that the last thing that you, I or anyone else should be doing is encouraging a lying, murderous, nihilistic organisation which glorifies the deaths of Palestinians but takes action directly leading to those deaths to believe that is it fires enough rockets and kills enough people, it will be able to dictate terms to Israel.

Hamas is morally bankrupt. It lies to everyone - to Palestinians and to the world at large. It knowingly perpetuates the idea that a military struggle will lead to victory over Israel, rather than the impoverishment and suffering of everyone in Gaza.  Hamas responded to the Egyptian ceasefire proposal first of all by continuing to fire rockets at Israel and second of all by suggesting that it was rejecting the ceasefire agreement because it would not allow it to claim a victory over Israel and it didn't like the way that it found out about it.

"In times of war, you don't cease fire and then negotiate." is how Hamas's spokesman Fawzi Bahum put it. Referring to the fact that the current Egyptian government no longer has the level of contact with Hamas that predecessors did, Sami Abu Juhri (described by the Washington Post as a "senior Hamas leader") said "We are holding in our hands a proposal that we got off social media. We refuse to be dealt with in such a way."

No-one should be encouraging Hamas to behave in this way. The establishment of a safe, prosperous Palestinian state  is going to take guts, wit and intelligence. Its going to need an ability to build bridges and accept compromises. It's going to need people who will start talking to their counterparts in the Israeli government and stick around to discover what they have in common, not throw their toys out of the pram because someone suggests negotiations without preconditions. I am sure there will be idiots in the Israeli government who will do their own bit to make things difficult. There will also, I am sure, be steps backwards every bit as bad as the Omagh bombing that followed the Good Friday Agreement in Northern Ireland in 1998.

But the best way of dealing with setback, however terrible, is to engage and negotiate constructively. Every contact between Hamas and the rest of world should be aimed at encouraging and rewarding this approach.

Saturday, 12 July 2014

The Tour de France

You might have been wondering when the Tour would put in an appearance. Well, I'd better own up right now and say that the Langsett household's interaction with The Most Watched Sporting Event in the World was pretty tangential, but enjoyable nonetheless. It went like this:

Thursday 3rd July
"We should go and see the Grand Depart!" said Mrs L, surprisingly. Mrs L does have a bike. It is a Raleigh Pioneer, from the heartbreaking period in Raleigh's history where they had learned to build bikes that were absolutely bulletproof, but sales declined nevertheless. It is The Bike That Will Not Die. For five years, my mum didn't ride it. And during all the time that she didn't ride it, it stood in the back yard of mum and dad's house getting snowed on, baked in the sun, refrigerated, blown over and drenched in rain. I borrowed it for Mrs L to have a go on. It needed a wipe down and some new tyres in order to be ready for the road again. It basically looks like new. Unfortunately Mrs L shows no more respect for the Pioneer's fierce will to survive than my mum did, and it is enjoying a comfortable semi-retirement in the shed outside. So I was, as I say, a bit surprised that she wanted to go and have a look at the Tour, which I imagined would be a bit like being hit around the head with a bicycle while someone bellows the Marseillaise at you, if you don't like cycling. Still, I jumped on Destination Yorkshire's website to have a look at how we might manage it. I wanted to see the peloton climb Holme Moss, the bleak and beautiful Pennine pass between Woodhead and Holmfirth. I had a bit of a moment, and couldn't work out a way to get up to the summit - all the roads seemed to be closed for miles on either side of the route. I thought about trying to explain to my daughters why we were hiking through the Pennines to the top of a windy hill to watch a race pass, when the passing would be over and done with in a few minutes at most. I imagined it raining while I was doing this. I wrote it off.

Saturday 5th July
I honoured the Tour by getting up early and sneaking out of the house for an early morning ride. It had been raining, so I needed mudguards but I was (naturally) feeling all roady, so I took the Sludgy Green Bike rather than the Inferno. The Sludgy Green Bike is a relatively recent arrival in the Langsett bike cave, and it is another Viscount. However, it occupied a less illustrious position in the catalogue than the mighty Aerospace Pro when it was new, and mine is a bit dog eared and tired. In addition it is, as the name suggests, a sludgy green colour. And as you can see, it has all been co-ordinated pretty thoroughly to create a slightly camouflaged effect:

In the right conditions, the Sludgy Green Bike can actually disappear entirely, merging seemlessly with the greenery behind it.

It was a great little ride - out past the paper mill at Carrington with its weird freshly braked bread mixed with sweaty socks smell, up the hill after Oughtrington (with the gradient issuing its customary reminder that a bit more self control when it comes to late night snacks and all-Pasty lunches would be no bad thing) and then right on to the empty A56 and the long run downhill into Lymm. Through the S bend down onto Lymm Dam at a positively conservative 29mph, through Lymm village and then home.

I got back and stuck ITV's wall to wall coverage of Stage 1 on. Kate looked at me askance, while I excitedly rattled off a series of unrelated Tour facts, the closest I could come to actual conversation.

" Look, there's Ned Boulting!" I said excitedly, bouncing up and down a bit. I read Ned's book about the Tour de France earlier this year and it was nice to see him doing his day job.

"Daddy, why do you like bike races so much..." said Kate in a pitying tone of voice.

We were in and out for the rest of the day, so I caught bits of the coverage. I heard about how the stage ended, but I didn't see it.

Sunday 6th July

The Bike that Will Not Die's former owner came over in the middle of the day to visit my uncle in hospital, and I had a secret mission to a classified location in North Yorkshire to complete later that afternoon, in connection with Mrs Langsett's new job. The Tour was impossible to avoid completely. It was on whenever the television was on. My uncle lives up the hill from Langsett, and my aunt described seeing the peloton coming down to the hill before taking on the Cote de Midhopestones when we spoke to her from the hospital. Later on, when I set off for North Yorkshire, the westbound lane of the M62 was full of cars with bikes on the roof or hanging off the back - more than I'd ever seen before - all returning from watching the Tour. Crossing over the stage route outside Huddersfield, there was a brief glimpse of blue lights and the debris that was the race's aftermath being scrupulously collected.

Checking Facebook later, it seemed that everyone in the world had managed to catch the race. Helen and Martin had made it to Holme Moss with their lads, as had Kate and Rick. The sun had shone, and this bald hilltop between Manchester and Sheffield looked thoroughly tamed, with thousands of people (accompanied by thousands of bikes) spread out along the final few hairpins to watch Blel Kadri storm the last ramp before the summit.

Monday 7th July
I got to work on my TdF television coverage backlog, watching the bits of stage 1 that I'd missed. The speed that Yorkshire whipped by at was eye opening. Familiar landmarks and places that we've been meaning to visit for years tripped by in turn as the peloton rolled onwards, until it felt like there wasn't a bit of the county that I'd seen where the TdF hadn't also swooped past. There was that side road on the way to Malham where Mrs Langsett demanded a comfort break, only to be surprised by a farmer on his tractor! There was the bit on the Harrogate road where, in the minibus on the way back from Kate and Rick's wedding, I'd realised that getting stuck into the chocolate fountain was going to have toilet consequences! And then there was that stage finish....

I haven't watched that much cycle racing. So the way in which the peloton sorted and distilled itself as the last few kilometres wound down was like a magic trick done in plain sight. One minute, there was a huge, chaotic, multicoloured group of riders rolling along in a way that looked almost relaxed. The next minute, the speed was up, and the group had separated into neat little lines formed of the riders of each team, each working to move their sprinter into the best position.  Mark Cavendish's Omega Pharma-Quick Step team in their black and white jerseys came hammering down the right hand side; Cavendish was tucked away third from the front. I instinctively wanted to duck out of the way. The Katusha team jinked and swerved to the left, trying to find a way through but had nothing. They were coming up on the last kilometre. I knew what would happen next. Those first two Omega Pharma riders would fall away. Cavendish would engage warp drive, treating the whole peloton like his own personal launch pad. The background would blur. The Manx lad would scream across the line and punch the air. Except nobody had told Cancellara that: he put the hammer down over on the other side of the road, racing ahead of the pack so fast he looked like he was leaving his bike behind. Omoega Pharma's hold on the front broke. I lost Cavendish and only saw him again when the crash happened, Simon Gerrans' bike going under his front wheel. Mark of course, was trying to find a gap to get himself back to the front.

Here's the thing: I knew the end result before I sat down to watch. But it was still the most exciting bit of televised sport I've ever watched. It was just incredible watching the peloton form up for the sprint, and just as incredible seeing it suddenly come unstuck.

Like I said - tangential, but enjoyable.

Tuesday, 8 July 2014

Death Fork Rally

I'm writing this, of course, in the euphoric aftermath of the Tour de France bobbing and weaving though the hills that are the heart of my bit of England. Superb as it was, it doesn't overshadow the mighty lane conquering bike behemoth that was the Second Annual Death Fork Rally. But before we get to that, you might be thinking to yourself, why "Death Fork"?

Well, there's a story there of course.

The Death Fork Rally is for Viscounts, like my blue and silver Aerospace Pro. The first generation of Aerospaces were built with a fork made out of a very beautiful bare aluminium casting, joined to a steel stearer tube. The persistent rumour that follows this design of fork is that the aluminium casting can separate from the steel steerer tube. If you tap "Viscount" and "Death Fork" into Google, you don't have to go very far before you come across stuff like this, from bicycling legend Sheldon Brown.


There was a recall of Aerospaces in the US too.

Which all sounds a bit scary. doesn't it?

Fortunately, Viscounts have a quietly spoken hero on their side. His name is Steve, and he lives an hour or so up the A6 from me. Steve loves his Viscounts, and when faced with this death fork legend, he dealt with it in the best possible way: he found and spoke to the people that made these bikes back in the seventies. There were, in short, three versions of the aluminium fork and the last version (which is the version fitted to my bike) has no recorded failures.

Still, that recall notice and Sheldon's stern warning add a certain something to the time I spend with the Aerospace. Just occasionally, when I'm on a fast descent, I'll sneak a look at the fork flexing and moving to take up all the bumps in the road and wonder about whether it and I understand each other's requirements...

So that's why its called the Death Fork Rally. Jem did the organising this year, and sorted out a brilliant route through the beautiful countryside to the north of Burton-on-Trent.This turned out to be a land of steep little hills, oak woods and villages built out of warm red brick. In the middle of the ride was a very good pub, and at the end was another one along with tea and bacon butties courtesy of Mrs Jem. My day pass from Mrs Langsett expired at about tea time, but I left behind a campsite full of Viscount owners planning their second pub mission of the day.

Stella brought her top secret, newly restored pink "Viscountess"; John rode his incredible 24 karat gold plated Lambert; and Whippet's essentially brand new, ruby red Aerospace Sport proved once and for all that if you make your bike clean enough it will eventually become so clean that dirt just slides right off it. There were plenty of other beautiful bikes there, but also a brilliant, kind and warm hearted group of people riding them.

Here are a few pictures from the day:

Team photo. Keen eyed readers will spot The Langsett's confused pairing of shorts with long sleeved top. The weather hadn't made up its mind yet and neither had I.

John and Rhona, quite possibly thanking their lucky stars that the sun wasn't bright enough to light up John's golden Lambert.

Whippet's beautiful, better than new Aerospace Sport, set up for time trialling: the cogs on the back wheel ready to provide five slightly different sorts of pain and suffering to the rider.

Rhona and Stella's bikes having a rest before the off.

Jem and his world tour ready Deore 18AX.

Thirsty Viscount owners being attracted by the gravitational pull of the pub, Timothy Taylors' Landlord and lovely, just made pizzas.

The Aerospace getting its post ride wash.

Sunday, 22 June 2014

Death Fork Rally: Countdown

A warm and friendly welcome to all my new readers from Russia looking for big, sturdy pants. There's only one week to go until the second Death Fork Rally. Which means it's probably time I put the wheels back on my silver and blue speed machine...

With thanks to Jem's son for the great posters.

Monday, 16 June 2014

Incontinence supplies at internet prices

It's all change in the Langsett household. I've landed myself a new job; although Mrs L quickly out-newjobbed me by also getting not just a new job, but one in an entirely different bit of the country. In the meantime, there's a new commute to get to grips with. The old commute is pretty good, too. It starts in one Manchester suburb and ends in another one, but in between there's quite a lot of this:

So the new ride to work has quite a lot to live up to.

Let's get down to the nuts and bolts. My destination is a place where this man is rightly revered as a god:

A place where, if the massive piece of machinery behind Fred is anything to go by, the entire town centre is powered by steam. A place where there are whole mirror glass fronted shops entirely devoted to the sale of Quality Meats:

I tried the route out on my Claud Butler first thing on Sunday morning, which is where the photos came from. But I first rode it at night, a few of weeks ago. And it gave me the creeping horrors.

For the most part, I notice the dodgy bits of riding on the road for only as long as it takes for them to happen. Someone overtakes you with a couple of inches to spare. But a couple of seconds later, they're gone, and you're still getting lungfuls of fresh air and the sun on your face. If I do stop to think about making roads safer for lads and ladies on bikes, my big plan starts and ends with fitting uncannily accurate rocket launchers, like on Chuck Norris's bike in Delta Force to all bikes.

This ride was different though. It was cool and late when I set out. There was barely anything on the road, apart from me. And the absence of cars, buses and trucks made it easier to appreciate what a pig of a route this is. It is structurally unsafe.

The first big obstacle is a monster, out of town shopping centre. It should be easy to get past on a bike, because there are bike paths all around it. But they're the kind of bike paths that consist of red paint on the pavement. I might be doing the designers an injustice by saying that the paint has been splashed down at random without any thought about where each path is trying to get people to, but that is exactly the impression that's been created. A couple of years ago, a young woman from my part of Manchester, Georgia Flynn, was knocked down and killed trying to figure out her way to work at the shopping centre on her bike.

I carried on, over the Ship Canal and up the hill towards Worsley. The next obstacle was a motorway junction. There's a steep uphill gradient in the mix here, so there is absolutely no chance that you'll be travelling anywhere near the speed of the cars that come belting down the slip road from the motorway. There are no crossings or traffic signals to make it easier for you. If you're on a bike- or on foot for that matter - the motorway might as well be a wall.

In Walkden, there was a particularly evil one way system - one of those which maroons a whole town centre in the middle of a constant, revolving wall of traffic. It was late on a Tuesday evening, so the roads were really quiet. But you could imagine the roaring, swirling maelstrom of vehicular death that it would be at 8:07 on a Tuesday morning, where the weekend might as well be located in another plane of existence. And in case you can't imagine it, I found this short film of it on the t'internet.

Finally, there was this terrifying invitation from Bolton Council to maroon yourself between two merging streams of high speed traffic waiting for - hell to freeze over? I dunno. Clearly there's no realistic way of getting across the slip road without a lot of sweaty palmed stumbling over your own bike.

But then there was this very direct bit of advertising, which lifted the mood a bit:

Greater Manchester has just won £20 million to improve cycling provision in the city - the website setting out the plan for spending that cash is here. Let's get involved in a bit of internet activism: if you're reading this, and you live in Greater Manchester, and you've ever found yourself thinking - as I did at that junction in Bolton - that the road designer must want you personally and thoroughly dead, then get in touch with the people holding the purse strings and tell them where the money needs to be spent

This new commute of mine is not all bad. As you're coming over the top of the hill to Bolton, you get this lovely teaser view of the town hall clock tower with Winter Hill rising behind. I would love to ride up here when there's snow on the top - I bet it looks beautiful.

Coming back down the hill towards home, there's Worsley Delph - two hundred yards and a world away from the motorway, with the half timbered Packet House hidden amongst the trees.

And that's why some thought and money needs spending on cycling provision in this bit of town. This could be a great way to get to and from work. But at the moment it feels a bit too much like an audition for a part in Casualty.

Thursday, 5 June 2014

Thursday, 15 May 2014

Bike building

A bit of sanding, polishing and painting has been taking place recently at Langsett Towers, and the result looks like this:

This old Carlton was made in Worksop, one of the unlikely stars in the bike building universe. It is a bike which I very definitely Should Not Have Bought. Carlton spent years building incredible, dazzling bikes painted the most amazing colours which must have looked all the more incredible in post war Britain, a country which The Langsett (Sr) tells me was actually beige. Pop your sunglasses on and have a look at the beautiful Carltons on Classic Lightweights and you'll see what I mean.

Then, towards the back end of the 1970's, Carlton produced the charmless, pillarbox red Grand Prix and garnished it with some dodgy, faux Art Deco decals. My own particular Grand Prix came from a beautiful bit of Shropshire, tucked away behind Birmingham. It had had every possible kind of abuse inflicted on it. As a result it was a scratched, faded pink, rusty, bent, battered cycling disaster area. I responded to its terrifying air of neglect by hiding it in the back of the cellar.

Eventually I buckled down to the job of getting it working and looking a bit better again.

Then I stopped. Then I started - and then stopped - again. In fact, totting it up on my fingers, I think I did this for about three years. Until last night, when I stood back and realised the Carlton was a working bike again.

Even with a new coat of paint, the Carlton's no racing rarity. But seeing it in the evening sunlight reminded me that even humble bikes have their moments.

Tuesday, 13 May 2014

Inferno: renaissance

As you'll know if you call round here frequently, The Langsett's awkwardly coloured, heavy-but-fragile British Eagle Inferno recently did itself a mischief while climbing a Welsh stream.

Back home, Kate came to give me some advice. "Daddy's bike is rubb-ish and he's going to cry because it's broken!" she sang happily. This was a pretty accurate summary of the situation. In the bike cave, I took the back end of the Inferno apart and stared in slack jawed horror at the chewed up drop out. I didn't want to take the bike to the tip. But I also didn't want to spend any money on repairing it. Or any time. Or any physical effort. I just wanted it to carry on working without getting all mardy until a sudden financial windfall allows me to replace it with something amazing and totally bulletproof.

I did some half hearted searching on ebay to see whether I could get a similarly free replacement. I actually found another British Eagle in a white and fluorescent orange paint job with a similarly fiery name - it might have been called a Conflagration or something - but I wasn't able to bridge the gap between what the seller wanted for it (£90) and what I was prepared to pay (£0). So in the end I called Phil at my local bike shop, Eddie McGrath Cycles. I gave him a full blow-by-blow account and asked him what he thought.

Phil sucked his breath in.

"I wouldn't go riding it up a stream again. " he said.

He thought about it a bit more. "Don't worry about it.", he said, "It'll probably bend back with a bit of heat. The main thing is to stick something in the derailleur hanger so it doesn't go all wonky." He was as good as his word too. A couple of hours later, the bike was back together and not working any more badly than it did before its brush with the rocky Welsh stream.

I noticed some extra bits of rust and scratched paint when I was putting the bike back together, but to my mind these just contribute to the badass aesthetic of the Inferno. It is a bike that wears the evidence of its frequent chaotic passage through undergrowth and mud proudly, and I like to think it commands respect because of this.

By coincidence, The Langsett and family visited friends in Yorkshire over the weekend, including all star engineer and generally top lad Rick. Rick lives at the top of a lovely hill in a scenic bit of the Yorkshire Pennines. His engineering job is at the bottom, and Rick's decided to get ripped by cycling to work and back. "So I set a limit of £25 on ebay and had a look to see what I could find." he said. "And I got this..." He showed me a picture of the bike on his phone; it was a very fresh aluminium Claud Butler mountain bike, more or less never used. It cost Rick exactly the same as it cost me to have Phil straighten the Inferno's drop out.

Wednesday, 30 April 2014

The free bike: or, The Ballad of the Inferno

Riding a bike often feels amazing. After all, who would  not be seduced by racing though a forest, being whipped across the face by tree branches, on something which looks like it might have been built in a secondary school CDT class? Or leaning your bike over so far in a fast corner that your pedal bounces of the tarmac?

There's another side to cycling that I love and that is the bizarre economics of it. Riding a bike can be incredibly expensive. Bike firms like Specialized will happily let you hand over a massive dump truck full of money in exchange for a bike a bit like Mark Cavendish's. Who buys these things? Chaps who wax their legs, that's who. This approach to cycling is built on a massive surplus of cash and a willingness to indulge certain well known bike firms in their experiment to see what kind of price tag they can attach to a bike before someone claps them on the back in a manly way and congratulates them on the scale and ambition of the joke. Turned one of the simplest and most useful machines ever invented by man into a weird plaything for the super rich? Well done!

There's another way to approach cycling, which is essentially to try not to spend much money on it. Bikes - some bikes - essentially last for ever. While other pieces of machinery expire around them, bikes can keep rolling along, sustained by their extreme simplicity and the surprising expertise that often went into making even basic bikes. My Claud Butler is like this. I bought it from its first owner, whose mum and dad had got it for him as a present for getting a grammar school place back at the end of the 1960's. Every major component is the one that the bike left the factory with, and none of them show any signs of wearing out. You might not think that extreme tight fistedness is a sound way to enjoy something. But the Claud is a little tangerine miracle, full of soul and warmth. As you can see, I invest a fair bit of emotional attachment in the bike. But the bike pays me back. It is game for whatever, and when I catch sight of it, it always makes me smile. There it is, orange paint glowing slightly, looking fast even when it is standing still. Saddle up, handlebars down, fewer spokes on the front wheel than on the back.

The Claud taught me that dramatic improvements in athletic performance can come with practice. I kind of knew that already. But the Claud doled out an actual three dimensional lesson, so that I really know that now. What happened was this: I did a charity bike ride through the night to the coast. It was only 54 miles, and the gradient profile was beautiful; all the climbing was in the first third of the route, and the remainder was gently downhill to the sea. It nearly killed me, and my legs felt so weird - massive and useless - at the end of the ride. Watching the black sky fade to grey behind Blackpool Tower, I promised myself I would never participate in this kind of self inflicted pain-a-thon again.

Luckily the ride was not repeated for a year, which was exactly the amount of time for me to doubt the horribleness of the experience and sign up again. It also allowed me to get a bit of practice in. Well, a lot of practice in, actually. I changed bikes too, dropping the heavy, uncomfortable bike for the Claud. The Claud is, according to the scales, only a kilo lighter. But is has magic and alchemy powering its moving parts as well as me, so it feels a lot lighter. The ride out of Manchester was completely different. I kept wanting to overtake and going for it. I told myself to calm down a bit, and started looking around for someone who was going at a pace which seemed quick but not exhausting. I didn't have anyway of seeing how fast I was going, and I knew it would help me pace myself if I had someone else for reference. Eventually, I found two lads who were making good speed on an Enigma and a Specialized. I tucked in behind them, and drafted them up the long, steady climb towards the summit in Blackrod.

It felt much quicker, and it was: when I reached the finish in Blackpool, it was still definitely Saturday night rather than Sunday morning, with scenes of drunken carnage being acted out one street back from the seafront. I checked my times when I got home, and was pleasantly surprised to find I'd knocked an hour off my time from the year before.

Then there's the money side of things. Because the Claud was built with components that apparently never wear out, all I have to do to is ride it instead of driving the car and my bank balance automatically starts to look healthier. I keep expecting this trick to stop working, but it will be four years next month since I bought the Claud and so far it never has.

A word of caution though: Bicycle economics works on slightly different rules to normal economics. So you can't assume that all bikes will work in the same, miraculous way that the Claud does. This piece is really about The Free Bike. The Free Bike is a British Eagle Inferno, a not-quite-mountain bike from the dawn of the 1990's, afflicted with a Global Hypercolour / Jamaican flag themed fade paintjob and a name which slightly sounds like the name of far right political party's journal. I got The Free Bike when Mrs L was having one of her periodic sessions of throwing away anything not part of the fabric of the house. I was cheerily throwing the latest load into the tip when I noticed a gentlemen unloading a couple of bikes from his car. I hailed him, and enquired whether the bikes would be going into the tip. He confirmed that they would. I immediately found a place in my heart for The Free Bike (though sadly not for the pink and silver Emmelle that was its companion) and took it home. If I hadn't been steering, I would have been doing some Fagan style rubbing my hands with glee. I made the mistake, you see, of assuming that because The Free Bike charged me nothing for the privilege of coming to live with me, it was - like the Claud - going to cost me nothing for the duration of its stay.

In fact, The Free Bike quickly revealed a massive appetite for components. It snapped a brake cable, exploded a tyre, massacred a seatpost bolt and bent a saddle. It shattered a chain, ate the bearings in the pedals, destroyed a cassette and snapped another brake cable. I loved it though, and treated it as though it was a reliable way of getting to work even though it clearly wasn't.

The Langsetts went on holiday to Pembrokeshire last week, and The Free Bike came with us. That's where the picture at the head of this piece was taken, half way through brilliant blast along some forest tracks, watching the sun sparkle on the rain drops. But this was the ride where The Free Bike's appetite for destruction finally caught up with it.

Coming back up the hill, there was an innocuous "Twang!" noise from somewhere down in the engine room. The back wheel abruptly stopped turning, so I got off to see what the problem was. In fact, there were about four or five separate problems, each one of which had caused another failure to follow it until the back end of the bike looked like this:

The back wheel that has slipped out of alignment, the derailleur caught in the back wheel, the chain down the back of the cassette - all these things are fixable. But if you look closely, you'll see that the drop out - the little yellow 'C' shaped bit of metal that holds the back axle - has peeled open. You might want to amuse yourself by zooming in on the earlier photo to see whether you can spot any evidence of the whole back end falling apart; I know I have.

The drop out's going to need replacing, and I'm not sure what The Langsett Guide to Frugal Bicycling says about damage to frames which would cost more to repair than a replacement frame would cost to buy. The Free Bike is up on the repair stand at the moment waiting for me to work out how to deal with the fact that it suddenly is not free at all.

Monday, 28 April 2014

Pendle Witches - the trial

Outside the pub, Sean's immaculate TI-Raleigh was leaning against a wall, gleaming red, yellow and black in the watery sunshine. Someone had kindly pinned a gradient profile for the route up on the door - it looked like a particularly vicious set of shark's teeth. There was a massive point somewhere near the middle - Waddington Fell. This had utterly humbled me two years before. I ended up walking up the thing in the rain and the fog, thinking I'd reached the top three times but each time finding more hill beyond the false summit. Still, at least I could see why my legs had thrown the towel in.

Inside the pub, there was a fire going, vintage bikes on display and free brews getting handed out. But it was nearly time for the off, so I went outside and lined up the Aerospace with a pride of beautiful vintage bikes. There was Mark's Daccordi, a spotless Hetchins in black and red, and a couple of burgundy Carltons. Lightweight British bikes are often covered in the heraldry and gothic detailing of the middle ages, so we looked a little like a bunch of knights getting ready for a cavalry charge.

Not all of the townsfolk of Rawtenstall were pleased to see this beautiful collection of classic machinery. While we were lining up, a Nissan Micra pulled to a halt. The window rolled down, and a visible fog of Lynx Africa wafted out. One spark would have seen the whole lot engulfed in a massive fireball.

"Is there a bike race today?" asked the panicked, but extremely well deodorised lad driving. I said that there was. "Are they closing the roads? Only I'm moving house!" I assured the gentlemen that the highway would remain open, and returned to my pre-ride prep of noting everyone else's sensibly sized chainrings.

There was a lad on the PA system giving a blow by blow account of the route; the only words that lodged were "tailwind to help you up the last hill..." I'll have that! I thought, losing myself in a sunny daydream of being gently wafted up the last hill before the finish. Then it was time to go.

The cruel, energy sapping evil of the route comes from that gradient profile. Even while you're steaming up the first hill out of Rawtenstall, feeling a hundred feet tall and like you have literally had all of your Weetabix, the gradient is taxing your muscles and stealing calories which you will need later on. I got a bit carried away and tried a bit of a break away, getting wound in about ten seconds later by a group lead by Daniel and Zena on the Hetchins and a lovely blue Roberts. We summited - and there was a miniature Burnley and Padiham down at the bottom of the valley, backed by green and brown hills.

(Childzy's picture of Burnley from Wikipedia)

This is the good bit: I got my head down and shoved the gear lever forward, listening to the "...clatter bang! clatter bang!" of the chain jumping all the way over to the fast cog. I booted the Viscount up to 35 - 40 mph and screamed down the hill. It was still early, and the roads were totally clear. We raced through Padiham and climbed out of the valley. This was steeper than the first climb, and I had the Viscount in the lowest gear all the way up.

Cresting the top of the hill gives you your first view of the Nick O'Pendle. This brutal hill climb looks like a grey stripe painted up a green wall. Looking at it from across the valley, there is no indication that it is anything other than vertical. The sun was out, and it all looked glorious. Hard on the brakes, all the way down the hill into the tiny village of Sabden, a place presumably entirely inhabited by people who enjoy witnessing human suffering close up.

Chris Boardman has an absurd course record for climbing the Nick O'Pendle in about ten seconds flat. And that included a short break near the top to plan his excellent, world conquering range of bikes. I gave it my best shot. I hammered across the bridge at Sabden at full chat, and then starting to work down through the gears, ending up on the big ring at the back frighteningly quickly. Steve Ransom steamed past, winding his Thorn up the hill as if gravity did not apply. "Fair play pushing those gears." he said, giving me a good wide berth in case the insanity was contagious.

I realised I was actually slightly scared of the Nick. It was demanding a level of physical effort which I just wasn't comfortable giving. It looked more massive this year in the sun than it had a couple of years previously, when the mist had at least hidden the top. Jonathan passed me on his sparkling red, turquoise and chrome Eddy Merckx  He'd said a little while earlier that he'd put some effort into training this year, and it looked like it had paid off handsomely.

The hill won. I got off before the cattle grid and walked for a couple of hundred yards. Last time, I'd taken my time over eating a Boost, as though the middle of this vertical incline had just struck me as being the best place to enjoy a bit of glucose. I hopped back on and gave the pedal an exploratory push. It turned! Magically, my legs both reported for duty and I got the Viscount moving again. Photographic evidence suggests that I managed a ghastly, re-animated corpse style smile as I passed Rick Robson, the event photographer, towards the top of the climb.

Once you've wrestled the Nick into submission, you really do have a day pass into heaven. The middle bit of this ride is just beautiful, treating you to brief views of perfect villages, church bells ringing, the smell of bacon frying. The sun was sticking with us, and the leaves on the conker trees were the most incredible green colour. Coming up Waddington Fell, there was even some cowbell. The halfway point is at Dunsop Bridge, where there is a very good chance that HRH the Queen is the postmistress. Here there were tables creaking under the weight of homemade cakes, boxes of bananas and gallons of water to refuel us all.

For me, the ride back down was tough going. There is a long, steady climb out of Whalley, but my legs had started to cramp before we even got that far. Rain came on as I started the climb, and the wind got up too. I was waiting, of course, for it to turn into the tailwind that we'd been promised at the start, but it kept on stubbornly boxing me in the face and around the ears as I rode through Blackburn and tried to get some steam up for the last big climb, up to Haslingden. This was sheer torture. It felt like I would have been faster if I'd got off and walked, and I had to have an argument with myself before committing the effort required for each pedal stroke. My speed readout on Strava is a crazy little zig zag, dependent entirely on what the wind was doing and how steep the hill was. I had the Arctic Monkeys on my walkman and tried keeping time to the music. And then, almost before I realised it, the last descent into Rawtenstall was in front of me, and I'd done it. Paul and Sarah - who'd just done the short route on their Carlton Corsair and Raleigh Candice - gave me a finish line interview before I staggered into the warmth of the pub to tuck into the pie and peas.

Monday, 21 April 2014

Pendle Witches

Of course, if you read the last post, you'll know that I am a bit in love with the Pendle Witches Vintage Velo. Last year it took place a couple of weeks after my youngest daughter was born, so I skipped it. I was late getting my entrance form in this year, even though I very much wanted to do it again. So I had a few weeks of fretting before I got a phone call from the incredibly modest and down to earth organiser, Sean McAdam, to let me know that I had forgotten to sign my cheque, but not to worry, because he does that sort of thing all the time too. Sean works in a bike shop a few miles from me, so I called in when I was doing my Christmas shopping to turn the cheque into a valid means of paying the entrance fee. Between then and race day, I spent a lot of time anticipating. And when I say anticipating, I mean either:

- Making plans to modify my bike to give me a hope of hell in getting up the hills; or

- Making plans to implement an epic, pro standard training regime, to give me a hope in hell of getting up the hills; or

- Imagining myself sprinting across the finishing line to the cheers of thousands and immediately having a massive bottle of champagne thrust into my hands. Possibly some sort of complimentary "sports massage" might happen shortly afterwards.

(Ken Johnson's picture of Eddy Merckx doing his thing in Montreal - 1974 - hosted on Flickr)

None of these things actually happened, but although all three turned out to be wild fantasies which I definitely should not be publishing on the internet, they weren't entirely without merit. For instance, that first idea of doing the ride on a bike which is fit for the job: Modern bikes are welcome on the ride, but vintage bikes and the people who are prepared to try and ride them up some of the fiercest gradients in the North of England are part of what makes the Pendle Witches special. Which suits me just fine, as I have three bikes in the cellar that are older than me. Of those three bikes, one of them has only five gears. On a bike, gears work a lot like they do in a car: the lowest gear is the one where the engine turns over the most umber of times during one turn of the road wheels. It is the gear where the engine is strongest, the one that you use for starting and for climbing massive hills. My first bike is extremely flattering to ride - it always feels lighter than it is, and it is always egging you on and telling you to go a bit faster or ride a bit further. It is also an astounding, lit-from-within orange colour:

But the Pendle Witches is a serious morning's work, and none of the five gears on my first bike are low enough to get me up the hills.

My second bike has more gears - 12 of them in fact - but I am half way through trying to build a new rear wheel for it at the moment. Also, it is heavy and incredibly uncomfortable to ride. Going over a pothole on it is similar to what I imagine being set about by some sort of Chuck Norris style martial arts expert with a nasty glint in his eye might feel like. So that was my second bike ruled out.

My third bike is the Aerospace Pro. I knew without thinking about it very hard that this was the bike to ride the Pendle Witches on. It is a working class hero for one thing: built in Birmingham and sold for peanuts, it was in its day a featherweight miracle, as light and as fast as bikes costing many times more. It is comfortable and fluid to ride, regardless of what the road surface is like. And like all heroes, it has one fatal flaw: the front fork - that's the bit that holds the front wheel and connects it to the frame and handlebars - is made of an aluminium casting joined to a steel tube. The rumour that has followed the Aerospace almost since it was born is that the casting and tube have a habit of separating from each other.

However, I must have ridden hundreds of miles on the Aerospace since I finished putting it back together, and over that time I have come to trust the bike in a way which demonstrates a fundamental lack of understanding on my part of the way that metal fatigue occurs. So, the Aerospace got the job - again.

There was just one problem. While the Aerospace's designers created a fine, beautifully engineered bike, they sort of did so on the assumption that anyone wishing to ride it up hills would first go out and get some legs like Sir Chris Hoy's. On a geared bike, the bigger the biggest cog attached to the back wheel is, the easier going up hills will be. The smaller the smallest cog attached to the pedals is, the easier going up hills will be. On the Aerospace, the smallest cog at the front has 42 teeth, and the biggest at the back has 25. What this adds up to in practical terms is an invitation from the designers to get involved in some Spartan style training or suffer. Although I did spend an hour the day before the race trying to find a bigger cog to go on the back, ultimately I chose the latter option.

I couldn't sleep the night before the ride. I tinkered with the bike before bed time, and I was up and away early. The Pendle Witches starts from the Craven Heifer in Rawtenstall, and I got there before the weather had decided whether it was going yo be cruel or kind.

To be continued.

Wednesday, 2 April 2014

Cycling: it's time to come clean

And there's a lot to confess. It's going to take some time. So I'll start off with a picture:

That's my bike! It's a 1974 Viscount Aerospace Pro, a beautiful thing which shares its creation myth with the Advanced Passenger Train and the TSR-2 - talented aerospace engineers put energy into doomed later flowering of British industrial prowess, since forgotten by nearly everyone. Actually, I think I might have made up the Viscount's inclusion in that myth myself. But it kind of fits.

We have done some amazing things together. That bike gave me my first, genuine, entirely-cycling-fuelled
moment of euphoria.  I was half an hour into the Pendle Witches Vintage Velo ride a couple of years ago, and along with a couple of hundred other riders, I'd climbed out of the Irwell Valley to the hills above Padiham and Burnley. The sun came out, and half of Lancashire was spread out in front of me, with the road down into the valley twisting and turning nicely. "Oh yes!" I thought, instantly ruling myself out from any future competition to find the next Poet Laureate.

An amount of acceptance of the effects of gravity was required, along with a high degree of faith in the forty year old bike I was sitting on. A bike which had until 12 months previously, been in bits in a box in a Brummie bloke's garage. I stuck my head down, tucked my elbows in and dialled in some more speed as gravity took over. Smashing down  the hill with a sonic boom rattling the windows of the houses is probably one of the finest things I have ever experienced, or ever will experience. There is something magical about how little stuff there is on a bike. It heightens the illusion that it's just you that is racing down a hill at forty five miles per hour; that you have been endowed with modestly superhuman powers for a short while.

That picture above was taken on January 1st 2013, and I can vividly remember the screaming red wine hangover which I had at the time. It's a measure of how much I love being on the bike that when I rolled out of bed that morning, I somehow landed in the saddle.

Pride and Prejudice

The Langsett family had Radio 4's Pride and Prejudice adaptation on, on the way to the seaside a few weeks back. I was being a bit grumpy about it, but in all honesty I love Pride and Prejudice as much as everyone else does, and it was a genuine pleasure to have another version of it to enjoy. Particularly as I could do so even though I was in the fast lane on the A64 at the time. Also, it reminded me pleasantly about my Christmas time Austen overdose. Let me explain...

The Langsett spent three exceptionally happy evenings over the Christmas period experimenting with my new Martini fixation, surrounded by mince pie crumbs and most importantly, watching the superb Death Comes To Pemberley on the Beeb. I had unknowingly been setting myself up for this thrilling and totally unexpected three day Austen themed treat for months, starting in the autumn when Mrs Langsett met Jo Baker, the author of Longbourn, at a bookshop signing evening. It's been a few years since I last read any Austen books, so I steamed through this lovingly crafted retelling of Pride and Prejudice from the servants' perspective.

Then, I looked around for some more slightly oblique ways of enjoying Austen, and -courtesy of the surprisingly large band of Spanish Colin Firth fans willing to take the time to post chunks of it on Youtube - managed to watch the whole of the Beeb's 1995 adaptation of Pride and Prejudice. The picture quality was awful, but of course it didn't matter a bit - I could still hear the words, and they were brilliant. I loved it all, but there were a few bits that I particularly enjoyed. If you can spare me a minute, I'll just mention one:

That's Lizzie of course, taking a turn about the garden with her fantastically caddish and rascally brother in law who, in spite of having been lately discovered living in sin in London, is still having a go at spinning the hard luck story that Darcy deprived him of a living as a clergyman.

Lizzie responds by deftly warning Wickham off, suggesting Darcy's younger sister will turn out well as she is "...over the most trying age." She's referring to Wickham having tried to talk Georgiana into eloping, and also to how young her own sister - Wickham's wife - is. But that's not quite enough to get Wickham back in line, so she gives him both barrels, conversationally speaking: letting him say how much he wanted to be a clergyman and then setting out what actually happened. And then, while Wickham is still flapping about and wondering what has just happened, sweetly extending her hand for him to kiss and popping inside.

There is a real beauty to the way in which the two characters interact. Wickham, unable to stop himself from lying in order to make himself look wholesome, and Elizabeth meeting his behaviour with an incremental, exquisitely measured reveal: she knows it all, and he can't pull the wool over her eyes any longer. It's a tiny, brief scene, but the emotional payback that comes from reading or watching it is enormous. That's something to do, I think, with how measured and intelligent Elizabeth's response is. The fact that it's a private exchange between the two of them is important too. It's a reminder that no audience is required for the nature of a relationship to completely change.

The best thing of all though is that this is pretty much how it happens in the book. Two hundred years ago, Austen put together this beautiful little scene. There is no exposition, so you can just get on with enjoying these two characters jump off the page - or screen.