Friday, 11 August 2017

Book Review: 'The Pants of Perspective' by Anna McNuff

We have a lot to tell you about recent cycling exploits at the moment, a number of comment pieces lie half-done in my drafts, but I just have to write this review first. That's right, a book about a woman who went for a run. Alone.

"Whoah! (English for 'stop a horse') - that's nothing to do with family cycling!" I hear you cry.

Wrong! 'The Pants of Perspective' has EVERYTHING to do with what we do with our children - and after a week or so of slogging away on the WattBike at the gym, reading Anna McNuff's first (and, to her great credit, self-published) book, smirking at the puerile humour, chuckling at the impeccably observed travel and popular culture references and trying to highlight the incisive, cerebral bits whilst my phone's touchscreen was covered in sweat droplets (you know, the kind where the phone thinks you have 17 fingers touching it at once, all trying to type drivel), I want to share some thoughts on this super book and its author.

We first encountered Anna at a show in London just over a year ago. I had three tired children in tow - literally, since two of them were in the Croozer - and as we made for the exit, passing a speaker's area in the 'adventure travel' bit of the hall, I just had to stop and listen to the crazy lady in the unicorn shrink-wrap and bare feet, dancing around excitedly talking about her plan to set off around Europe entirely guided by her social media following. We had a train to catch but I made mental note to find out more. There are too few engaging female voices in the adventure sphere - and we have two adventurous girls!

Fast forward a little while and I was brave (spelt 'm-a-d') enough to head into London one evening with Ruth and Rhoda in tow, to one of the mighty Dave Cornthwaite's 'Yes Stories' pub gatherings. Despite being on the bill, Anna made a fuss of the girls (despite one of them making a loud bodily noise during her talk) and was delighted when Ruth asked her to come on an adventure with her. We don't like to make any activity 'gendered' in our household, and that's best reinforced by a range of role models; try as they might, neither of them is likely to manage a Sean Conway style beard, this side of retirement, anyway - although I know Anna will be suitably impressed if they do.
Having followed, with the children, Anna and her friend Faye Shepherd's wonderful trip through the Andes at the turn of the year, on its recent release I started reading what I expected to be a runner's tale, only to be confronted by an insight into my own little girls' minds...
"Being the middle sibling between two brothers I quickly learnt that in order to get along in life, I must simply do what the boys did. And if I could do it better than them, faster than them, last longer than them, then that earned me something called respect. And I liked respect. I liked how it felt...
...So that’s just what I did. I did things as hard and as fast and for as long as I could."

Physiologically, there really isn't much to choose between prepubescent girls and boys. There certainly isn't any reason for their aspirations or opportunities to be different. Our girls want to go and explore the world. They want to ride their bikes. They want to camp outside in the rain. Ruth is made keen on her cycling and bothying. Rhoda collects sticks. There is no reason on God's earth to be limiting or steering the aspirations of little girls to be anything other than equal participants in the world - and most of all, I think, that means letting them develop some 'grit'. Letting them compete on level terms with everyone (and to hell with tokenism and 'best girl', or 'race against the boys from the year below' nonsense). Our daughters, just like their brother, are encouraged to aim to be the best at the things that inspire them. Not the best of some arbitrary or physiological sub-set imposed by themselves or society, but the best they can be, without limits to their aspirations!

What Anna unpacks in her book, the journey, the personal growth, that she shares in her account of running New Zealand's Te Araroa trail, is rooted in the gritty, competitive, won't-take-no-for-an-answer little girl she alluded to. She's a brilliant adventurer and a cracking story-teller, and she's still competing on equal terms with the boys, no quarter asked. How it should be, if you ask me.

The daughter of Olympic medallists, Anna was a top competitive rower who chucked in a dream, only to embark, almost unwittingly on a bigger one. She cycled across every state of the USA on a bright pink bike before setting out, unprepared in many senses, to run the length of New Zealand. Serious adventures.

I'm sure I'm not the only one who right at the moment can't be going off on such mega expeditions but is encouraged (some simply content!) to read of and live vicariously through following the travels and adventures of others. As such, each adventurer-turned-author has two fundamental things to proffer with their tale - the nuts and bolts of a journey, and a portion of themselves. Sometimes you get a good balance of the two. Sometimes you get a bland account of someone's trip without an inkling of how it moved them inside. In other accounts, from the self-pitying to the self-aggrandising, you hear so much of the person you don't feel you travelled with them, or in the case of one celebrity traveller's book, a recital of all the people they fell out with on the way, and why it was definitely all their fault.

It's the style, the shape, the tone, of Anna's writing and the sense of just the right balance that made the journey, which you must read the book to learn more about, so absorbing. An epic journey worthy of Mark Beaumont, intimating the delightful unpreparedness that reminded me of Sean Conway, the erudite, well-read commentary of an Alastair Humphreys or a Tom Allen - and the downright joyful ridiculousness of, well, Anna herself! There's even a love theme, which will lead you on to another super book which Thomas Ivor is going to review soon.

As she runs through New Zealand, Anna hits a man with a 'hug tornado', contemplates having a bath in Fanta, likens herself variously to both a chimp and a crab, invents the name of a new STI... and still (and this is significant) finds time to use the word 'ineffable' as she shares the beauty of the land and the mental ups and downs of parallel journeys.

Via unicorn hair, an entire Avicii album (there was more than one?), named trainers, poo jokes and copious chocolate consumption, the reader is happily carried along on a journey that speaks with erudition right into the developing life experiences of a traveller of our generation, with or without children. I was transported back to my own visits to Crianlarich YHA, a decade or so apart:
"I realised that the last time I’d been in a hostel, I was nineteen. I strutted around the kitchen, considering the differences between my 19-year-old and 30-year-old self. I remember being more nervous back then, awkward, self-conscious even. Now I definitely couldn’t care less. If I wanted to use the only remaining ring on the hob in a crowded kitchen, I would damn well use it. I decided I liked being 30, and carried on making my noodles."
By the end of the journey, both literal and metaphorical, both Katie and I had thoroughly enjoyed ourselves in the company of an accomplished storyteller. Anna's tale of an astonishing feat of endurance counterpoints serious contemplation on life and how we life it, with joyous silliness and observational humour. We can't wait for her cycling books, which must surely follow!

'The Pants of Perspective' is available on Kindle or in hard copy from Amazon - or you can order a signed copy, with or without your own pair of said pants, from Anna's website.

Friday, 7 April 2017

My day at Islabikes - by Thomas Ivor

My day at Islabikes was amazing thanks to Isla Rowntree, Rob Burns and the rest of the team at Islabikes.

Firstly I had a tour of the factory and met all the sales and social media people and had a quick look at some #Imagine project frames ready for testing to see how strong they were. Next we moved on to the customer service team who you will speak to if you need anything from them. After your call they will find the spares and send them within two days. That room also is where the Luaths, Creigs, Pro series and adult bikes are built; there is a conveyor belt to take those bikes down for the 4pm lorry to arrive and take the bikes all over the world.

We went downstairs and met all the people who build the Beinns, Cnocs and Rothans. I also met RJ who was going to help service King Louis with me. The people who build the bikes take a box with a bike in it and build it to RJ's exacting standards. All the standards and rules are in a big folder for all the bikes.

Rob B took us for a drink upstairs and then we went back to RJ to strip King Louis. I learnt about lots of parts and looked inside them. We then swapped bits over like the gear cables and bar tape. Once we had finished it was time for lunch. We had to get out more chairs because not all of us could fit round the table!

After lunch Steve, Rob and I got changed to go for a mountain bike ride; they had lent me one of their Pro series Creig 24s to ride and kindly put my pedals on it. Our route was very hilly. There was one enormous hill where Daddy had to start walking half way up!

We were about to enter a long boggy section where the ride really was going to begin. I had never been mountain biking before, and it was a good job I had watched some GMBN videos or would have had no idea of what to do.

We finally got to the end and went back to the factory where I watched the team test their puncture repair kits for a big ride they were preparing for. Afterwards Rob took me into the showroom, where there lay a new bike for me to have new adventures with - I loved it. I named it 'King Louis II'. I said so many 'thank you's and said goodbye. It had been a grand day out in Shropshire and I hope that we can do some more things together again.

Coming soon: Islabikes - A parent's perspective!

Tuesday, 4 April 2017

Trailerbike Time

One of the peculiarities of cycling with a family, particularly over significant distances, is the array of peculiar and bespoke kit you end up using. With the size of children being an ever-changing feast, one year's solution may well not be the next, and when you have multiple children, different pieces of kit go from irrelevant to indispensable and back on a seemingly reciprocal basis. Having first been used seven years ago, our trailer is potentially about to drop out of use again and we joke that maybe we should have another child so we don't have to deal with saying goodbye to the trailer! 

Watch out for an article soon about the different ways to tow your children.

It's also the case now that our growing family cannot afford to lose load capacity, which for us is more about volume than weight. As Ruth and Rhoda have grown, we need fewer nappies but a bigger tent. Their clothes take up that bit more space, although they need fewer spare sets. They weigh more, but are almost ready to start carrying some of their own weight. It's a moving feast. With the trailer leaving our touring setup imminently, we needed options to claw back some capacity.

Now that Ruth is riding by herself, one tool that is about to come back into play after a few years off is the trailerbike, with which we last rode in 2014 when we traversed the Outer Hebrides - Thomas Ivor's first proper tour.

That first trailerbike, a Trek Mountain Train which we bought off eBay for just £34, did us sterling service, but there's no escaping the significant weight and ungainliness of the thing. We had one of two problems with it of late, particularly the occasion when the folding arm's hinge bolt undid itself and the arm fell off the back of the car - mercifully at low speed in a town with no damage done. Unfortunately, the bolt, which has a rare locking head, was lost; Trek no longer stock the parts. It's been sat gathering dust in the basement for a while, and I couldn't help but feel it was a little more agricultural than the rest of our kit.

When one of the old Islabikes trailerbikes turned up for a reasonable price on the excellent Facebook group, I decided to go for it, with an eye on Ruth's next move. The weight difference is significant, and best of all it mounts to the adult's bike using a bespoke rear rack, rather than the seatpost. Our frustration at the small gauge of the rack (requiring adjustment to our Ortlieb panniers' clips to take up the slack, meaning our fronts no longer fit on the rear for short trips) was more than tempered by the stability of the setup, and the adjustable handlebars, which meant we got Ruth riding straight away, to our surprise.

It was then that progress came to a grinding halt, when our touring bikes (and crucially, that special, not-made-any-more rear rack) were stolen off the back of our car.

The chances of us obtaining a replacement rack were slim-to-none - but first impressions of the trailerbike had been so strong we weren't going to give it up that easily. Only a couple of days later, the children and I waited at the station for Mummy to arrive home having been to the south coast and back after work, on the all stations stopping train, to fetch another identical trailerbike, which was being sold with two racks. We were back to two bikes and two racks, even though it would be a while before we would use them all. I'm so glad we did.

Soon I discovered that for short trips and day rides, I could hitch the trailer to the back of the trailerbike, and we were mobile as a three-up combo. I will admit, it's like trying to fly a freight train when hills are involved, but on railway path, it worked a treat. Ruth got to ride, and if ever she tired, she could jump in the trailer. As it happened, the threat of the latter always caused her to dig deep and keep riding!

As we looked to another year's touring needs, I decided it was probably the right moment to invest in making the trailerbikes ready with a bit of a makeover, and so the #PimpMyTrailerbike project began...

Coming soon: How we rebuilt our Islabikes trailer bikes for touring with the littlest people!

Friday, 31 March 2017

Mike Hall - Ride in Peace

"I have hosts of friends, but not more than half a dozen the news of whose death would spoil my breakfast." - Lord MacAulay
Woken earlier than normal today thanks to a reminder for a dental appointment, I groped for my 'phone beside the bed and couldn't quite believe what I was reading. I was back in May 1994, with a sick feeling in my stomach, for the loss of a man I never even met.

By Cm2white - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,
Mike Hall and Ayrton Senna were both extraordinary men. Both died at almost my age, doing something they loved, doing it flat-out, at the top of their game, and in days where they had expressed concerns about safety.

On reading with disbelief of Mike's death, hit by a car near Canberra, Australia, in a part of the world where cyclists  are by all accounts pretty poorly esteemed, I was reminded of the moment, sat in the back of my parents' car on the way back from church all those years ago, I heard the radio news announce that Senna had died. It couldn't be true - he was one of the greatest. He was only 35. He was an inspiration. It wasn't right.

There are those that have died during heroic feats of human endeavour, where the risk of their activity was created by nature - but Mike was doing something we do. He was riding his bike. He was better at it and more dedicated to it than most of us can hope to be, but it really hit home that this was a man-made danger to which he had succumbed. An avoidable loss.

Today's devastating news cuts to the heart of the long-distance cycling community - our community. As a family we offer our condolences to Mike's family, and to his friends and ours who today mourn his untimely loss. A fund has been set up to support his family, and the love and respect from the cycling community towards one of their own, a true one-off, is palpable. He lived life to the full and inspired so many.

Mike Hall won the 2012 'Round the World Cycle Race' in 91 days, 18 hours. He went on to win other ultra-cycling races, and to organise them. He was chasing the leader of the Indian Pacific Wheel Race when he was killed. 

As the dentist drilled my teeth earlier, I heard the Divine Comedy on the radio. "You have got to love what you do". We have the consolation that Mike, like Senna, did just that - and he leaves as his legacy a challenge that we should do the same - and do it to the full.

I wasn't privileged to have met Mike Hall, but I didn't have any breakfast this morning.

Wednesday, 1 March 2017

7 great reasons to take your family bothying

It's been a long time coming but following the girls' foray into bikepacking, we broke new ground at the weekend with a trip to a bothy in Mid-Wales with our girls Ruth (4) and Rhoda (2). What an experience! It's something we want to share.

What's a bothy?

The term originates in Gaelic and these days a bothy is generally taken to refer to a shelter (often in the way of old crofters' cottages or estate huts) in a wild place, which is available for the use of passing travellers. The vast majority are in Scotland but there are a few in Northern England and in Wales, lots of which are cared for by the Mountain Bothy Association. We visited one of two belonging to the Elan Valley Trust.

A bothy isn't likely to impress Lenny Henry. You're going to have to bring your own sleeping gear. And cooking gear. And lighting. And make a fire. Oh, and you'll probably need to take water with you, and a trip to the toilet may involve a spade and a bit of a walk...

Hold on, though, - that's wild camping with the benefit of four walls, a roof and guaranteed permission! Here's why we think any adventure-loving family should give 'bothying' a shot:

1. It's free!

So many opportunities to do things in the wilds actually come at a cost. Even campsite prices seem to be rising steadily, often calculated in such a way as to penalise families travelling light and bright, who aren't turning up with a Chelsea tractor, a tent the size of Belgium, more Christmas lights than Oxford Street and a shrunk down, folding and ultimately dismal version of every appliance and item of furniture found in their home. 

You've got to get to your chosen bothy, but that goes for any outing. You've got to eat and keep warm, but you'd have to do that at home. Fundamentally, using a bothy needn't cost you anything. How many forms of under cover accommodation can claim that?

2. They're always open

Not only are bothies free to use, they're a reliable place to stay the night - particularly at a time of year when campsites are closed and the weather even less dependable than normal. Just be prepared to share with whoever has had the same idea as you! We had the bothy to ourselves on a Saturday night, and judging by entries in the 'bothy book' it looked like most visitors had enjoyed a similar stay, but we reckon you could have slept twenty in the bothy we visited, without trouble. Of course, you might find a bothy equally welcoming and useful as a lunch stop during a day in the wild.

3. The adventure begins at home

I've always reckoned that the best adventures begin with map sheets spread across the lounge floor, or multiple browser tabs open on the computer, at least one of which is Google maps telling you the distance from your home to somewhere exciting.

A very distinct part of bothying is that the onus is on you to find them, not only when you go, but beforehand! Locations used to be protected by almost masonic-like secrecy, but no longer! Nevertheless there's still a school of thought that says that these wonderful places should be kept for those who will cherish them. If you want to try this bothying lark badly enough, and take the trouble to do some basic research online, you'll find all the information you need for a wonderful adventure. Then, you just need to decide how you're going to get there! For a first trip, we would recommend choosing somewhere relatively low-risk - some bothies are surprisingly close to public roads - and be sure before you set out that you have the tools and skills to navigate to your destination.

4. There's less to pack - and you already have the gear

It's always great to discover a new activity for which you (not to mention the children) don't need to go out and buy a load of stuff up front. The great news is, if you camp as a family, you already have what you need - you just leave the tent at home and throw in a few candles instead. Boom. For us, that's a significant weight saving on our bikes. Ruth and Rhoda took the opportunity to test out their new Alpkit 'Cloud Covers' which reduced the bulk still further. There are a few consumables to consider, but the equipment you'll want, you are sure to already own and be familiar with if you camp as a family, with or without bikes.

With a bit of research you can get an idea as to whether you will want to take fuel with you for heat. Some bothies have a ready supply of wood nearby, but by no means all. We chose a bothy which we could get relatively close to with the car, so took in a 10kg bag of coal as insurance. It turned out we didn't need it and as a result, subsequent visitors will get a pleasant surprise and a warm night, too!

5. The weather doesn't matter (so much!)

We can't promise that the bothy you visit won't be draughty. We won't tell you that the night won't be a cold one, and getting there will be an adventure in itself, and subject to the great outdoors, but four walls and a roof is a major game-changer when the weather is marginal - or downright awful.  We went all-out to test this theory by going to Wales in February, in the back end of the mighty storm 'Doris', with a forecast for it to blow a hoolie and persist with rain. Camping would have been miserable. Anything else would have been too urban and too expensive. The bothy was brilliant.

6. Peace and quiet - remember that?

Mrs Large (the elephant) should have visited a bothy - although the book might well have ended up being called 'We're going on a bothy hunt'. If you want solitude, you will find it in the back end of nowhere, especially at times when others are dissuaded from going there. One of the main rewards for the schlep to a remote bothy is getting away from it all. To step outside your front door at a time when the world is still busy, and to see - and hear - absolutely nothing artificial, is priceless to us.  We put the girls to bed and sat with a roaring fire on, totally undisturbed, before retiring for the night without having to lock up.

7. Have a unique adventure

How often do you stay somewhere that is a destination in itself? Every bothy is different, not just in setting and geographical location, but the structures themselves, the rudimentary facilities they offer, and indeed the fellow travellers you may meet there. There is a bothy to suit every taste - some are little more than a hut, a few have toilets and running water. Some are many miles from the nearest road, set in rugged mountains or on desolate moorland; others enjoy their own beach and view of the coast, and a good few are accessible to adventurous families.

Where to find your first bothy, then? Well, that's easier than it used to be. The Mountain Bothy Association decided not so long ago to start publishing the locations of their bothies, and some super books have emerged in recent times. We really like "The Scottish Bothy Bible" by Geoff Allan (review coming up!), and an enchanting film from Alastair Humphreys which our children have loved for some time.

We're already looking for an opportunity to go bothying again, with our bikes and Ruth's new bikepacking setup. We've been tipped off about one or two interesting options in Scotland. Be sure to bookmark our blog and follow us on social media to find out more, and if you've got a question, or you've got a bothying story to share, please do so in the comments below!

Thursday, 16 February 2017

Going with the flow - Bikepacking for pre-schoolers

"Daddy, look!"

More than a little alarmed by the accompanying ripping sound, I darted out of the kitchen wondering what on earth was going on, only to find Ruth in the hall trying to velcro her big brother's bikepacking bags to her 16" Islabike. Too much 'Mountain Bikes and Bothy Nights' on YouTube...

In trying to help her complete the 'play' task she'd started, it became tantalisingly apparent that yes, Thomas Ivor's top tube bag did fit nicely in the Cnoc 16's frame, and yes, you could strap a drybag to the handlebars without impeding the function of the brakes... and good grief! The seat pack fits under her saddle, too!

Before any of us knew it, we had stuffed some down jackets in the bags and were out at the bandstand, little Ruth lapping with tremendous fervour. A little boy on a kick scooter tried to race her, and that was it - she was off like a miniature, female, cycle touring Jeremy Clarkson.

I've written before about giving little children opportunities that others might think beyond them, but a bit like the cadence sensor when I taught Thomas Ivor to change gear, this one came as if from nowhere. It's only last June when Ruth was helping to hold her big brother's bike when 'King Louis' was being measured for a frame bag, and here we were witnessing another seminal moment. I mean, why shouldn't a little girl of just turned four have a set of bikepacking bags?

The next day we found ourselves in Newthorpe once more, and this time it was 'Merida's turn (it would seem so to have been named!) for 'the treatment' (see below for spec list).

Self evidently, it would be pointless spending a significant amount of money on a lightweight bike only to hand a child a load of weight to slow them down, or to impede their recently-learned steering, pedalling or braking, but the three bags come to a total of less than 450 grammes, and so far they've largely been filled with feathers, in the form of the down jacket she would otherwise be wearing, and her sleeping bag. At that, along with her spare inner tube, Ruth's bike still only weighs about 7kg - that's still only half the weight of a 16"-wheeled bike-shaped-behemoth from Halfords, before you add the tinsel tassels on the handlebars and the 'Tiny Tears' threatening to fall out of the basket. That's before you consider that many children of four years old are still using the 'S-word'...

Children love carrying something on their bike, especially when everyone else is. Family life is a team sport, and they feed off feeling like they are an integral part of the mission. In this case, Ruth has decided that now she has the bags, she wants to go 'bothying' even more than she did before (which was a LOT), so we've had the maps out and have a plan in development. When we tour longer distances, we'll still use her trailerbike to make sure we cover the ground and stay safe on the road, at which she will have a pair of panniers on her rear rack, once more feeling like she's part of the team. She can probably use her 'frame bag' off her Cnoc as a top tube bag on her trailer bike.

A ride out today, five miles or so, with Daddy on foot and Rhoda on her balance bike, has proved that the Cnoc remains stable, handles fine, and most of all that the little girl at the helm of what looks every inch a touring machine is exceptionally proud of herself, to the point of stopping to tell everyone coming the other way that she was carrying her sleeping bag!

We had a little play with our new Alpkit Krakau stove as well today, and had a hot snack next to the river, on the edge of the woodland where Mummy and Daddy went canoe camping last summer.

A very productive couple of days, which we never saw coming! Above all, a lesson in 'going with the flow'; of letting the children lead when it comes to their adventures and their kit - because if they, like you, don't enjoy it, you probably should be doing something else.

Ruth's Islabikes Cnoc 16 luggage:

Bar bag: Alpkit Airlok Extra Dry Bag (£12) with Dual Straps (£5) - contains Alpkit 'Cloud Cover' down-filled blanket for sleeping in.
'Frame bag': An upturned Alpkit Small Fuel Pod (now discontinued and replaced with a slightly different shape. Luckily found one in their bargain bin for £12 which fits perfectly!) - contains spare inner tube, and possibly a favourite pebble.
Seat pack: Alpkit Small Koala (was called the 'Wombat' originally - review here) - £70 (some in the bargain bin with minor imperfections for £40 if you don't mind grey or yellow at the time of writing!) - contains Spotty Otter Drift Down II combo jacket.

Total Cost of luggage: £99

That's less than the cost of two nights in a Premier Inn - excitement aside, by your third night in the bothy, you're quids in!

Wednesday, 8 February 2017

We've been expecting you!

A special welcome to Family ByCycle if you've found your way here from Thomas Ivor's interview for Islabikes' Cycle Touring article this week!

We love cycling, we love adventures with our children, and the two go together wonderfully, whether you're taking your four year old on a gruelling three mile traffic free expedition to the supermarket, or lugging your brood across a country with a trailer and a drybag full of nappies. We've taught, trained and toured with several Islabikes, from the Rothan balance bike, through the Cnocs and Beinns to the Luaths - we even have two much-loved Islabikes trailer bikes in our touring arsenal.

You can follow us on Facebook and Twitter, and find out more about us by clicking here - or perhaps start with a video? Here's a selection to get you started, with cyclists small and, er, smaller...