Friday, 30 October 2015

Dreaming Big

Thomas Ivor is seven years old. His ambition?

"To cycle the Rockies and the Andes".

He'd like to drive trains as well, of course, but at an age where I hadn't quite reached the point of reluctantly crossing 'astronaut' off the list of intended careers, he is remarkably specific about what he wants to achieve.

It has been wonderful, then, to see him taking inspiration from two men of my generation who have done just that - and more.

Despite a lot of opposition in his other home environment, the little guy has just romped through the final chapters of Alastair Humphreys' first volume of his children's book, 'The boy who cycled the world', which he and I are soon going to review together. I think it's a cracking idea for adventurers like Alastair to recount their amazing journeys in a way that children can access - having read and enjoyed the 'grown up' books he and Rob Lilwall wrote about cycling around the world, I am now just ahead of Thomas Ivor with the junior versions.

I am saddened by the paucity of expectation, and the paucity of aspiration, found in most state primary schools. The almost total absence of men from their classrooms is indubitably part of it, as are the entry requirements to a job which is too important to enjoy such low professional standards and standing. The fact is, children who dream big are those who think big, those who see exciting goals on the horizon, within their grasp but far enough off to make it a challenge, are the ones who stretch themselves, and scan the horizon for opportunity. Those who are encouraged to be disciplined in learning their chosen craft, become craftsmen. Sometimes that also takes for us to accept that academically bright kids might not want to spend their life at a desk, too.

For a boy like mine, to be able to open a book with a chapter entitled 'I am Going to Cycle Round the World' is precisely the spark that could light the blue touchpaper of something special in his life. I am sure that many children will read that heading and fail to discern the difference between that and 'The Hundred-mile-an-hour Dog', or 'My Hamster is a Spy', but even if there were other books on cycle touring aimed at primary school kids, I doubt they would capture the imagination quite as Alastair's book has. Thomas Ivor totally believes he can do it - and I wouldn't be surprised if he does, one day. Our task, then, is to help guide him, without pushing or projecting, and help him build the skills he needs whilst stoking his passion and letting him see where it takes him. Not all homes, or schools, provide that - and I'm not sure that parents are given the encouragement by our 'nanny state' to lead from the front in their children's upbringing. Every hero was once a child. Every school playground therefore contains potential heroes. What a precious commodity!

Sat around a restaurant table at lunchtime on Wednesday with a friend of ours, Thomas Ivor was told there was someone to speak to him on the phone.

Fresh off an aeroplane, someone stopped what they were doing in the middle of a busy day to spend a few minutes talking to a small boy from the other end of the country to whom he is an absolute hero. I wasn't party to it but we, and everyone else he has met since (the hairdresser in particular!) have heard so much about that conversation, and the dreams it has stoked.

Not so many years ago (ok, more than I'd care to count!) I photographed a young Lewis Hamilton standing atop the podium after winning a thrilling Formula Renault race in the rain at Silverstone. Still a young lad, he'd had the discipline to keep learning his craft, the drive to wipe the floor with the other kids in karting and the cheek to ask McLaren's Ron Dennis for a phone number, and then a contract. His Dad Anthony was the first one to reach his car as he parked it up at the end of the race. Three Formula One World Championships later, I can't say I am sure that the fame and fortune hasn't done him some harm, but the dreams of a little boy from Stevenage, fuelled by the interest and dedication of others, and the inspiration of Ayrton Senna in particular, led him to become that champion we saw crowned in Austin last weekend.

I am so grateful, then, to Mark Beaumont for making Thomas Ivor's day and talking to him about dealing with bears, and how he should spend the winter planning his next big adventure. Mark apparently joked with him about asking him not to break all of his records. The funny thing is, only this morning I was reading Hamilton's F1 column for the BBC, and of becoming a three-time champion, the former 'little boy from a council estate in Stevenage' said this:
"Breaking records has never really mattered to me, other than doing something similar to Ayrton [Senna].
Beyond that, if I was to match one of the others who have won more, it is not going to have the same special meaning that this has."
We must content ourselves as parents to give our children roots and wings - but a worthy target is something children must be encouraged to find, and dream of, for themselves.

Thursday, 29 October 2015

Raining, nuts and bolts

Today's BBC weather forecast, like yesterday's, was somewhat off target. Just as we were getting ready to set out, rain came, about four hours ahead of schedule! In the end, vacillating between the intended trip and 'Plan B' (a long day trip to the National Cycle Centre at Manchester Velodrome) I eventually decided 'blow it, let's just get wet'. As we set off, the rain stopped.

We've lived in Northamptonshire for nearer three years than two now, but for various reasons have done precious little riding beyond the hundreds, if not thousands of laps of the bandstand we've done with the children, and the odd trip down the traffic-free path where I took Thomas Ivor to practice riding a laden bike. It is therefore something of a surprise to discover that even by British standards of driving, the attitude towards cyclists round here is very poor indeed.

Over the last few weeks I've been purposely driving round our town and its environs by odd routes, trying out different permutations and scouting out bits of cycling infrastructure. I've found very little that I would choose to use with the children, and pretty much none that I would use on my own. Width restrictions. Chicanes. Poorly maintained surfaces. STUPID DOG WALKERS! There's a rant for another piece of its own one day if ever there was one. As ever, contrary to the perception of most non-cyclists we talk to, we felt much more at home and safe on the road, being 'buzzed' by idiots in Evoques and Audis who didn't trouble to leave us much room or indeed see if anyone was coming the other way.

Anyhow, there was a purpose to our trip today. Thomas Ivor arrived from Devon last night for an unexpectedly lengthy weekend visit at the end of his half term, about which we are very happy. I decided that with the turn of the season, I really should fit the Busch and Muller lamp brackets we were kindly sent by the rep whom the girls and I met at the NEC recently.

When you have a handlebar bag, headlamp mounting becomes a little more challenging, and whilst I would love to have a posh dynamo lighting system, for the amount of night riding we do, the cracking Ixon 50 USB battery headlights we have are proving to be a super piece of kit (review coming soon). If you want to keep your bar bag on at night, you ideally need your headlight on your fork crown.

A nearby airfield also plays host to a cracking nut and bolt supplier, so going on the bikes and being able to be sure we had the right lengths and diameters was eminently sensible; £2:50 later we had everything we needed. The heavens opened on the way back but unperturbed Thomas Ivor and I braved it out, whilst the girls sat in the trailer singing nursery rhymes - snug, warm and dry. I have to say, despite the load it felt easier and the time passed more quickly than it does at the gym...

Tonight, Thomas Ivor has learned how to patch inner tubes and I have fitted his front lamp bracket as the first of the three that need doing. It always seems to be the case that fiddling with mudguards, racks and anything attached to your handlebars is always more bothersome than it ought to be. Something always won't reach, or isn't the right shape, or takes an age to adjust. I've learned to take satisfaction in getting it right rather than constantly being cheesed off about it, at which I am really rather pleased. It's good to involve the children in the mechanical tasks at a leisurely pace because it allows conversations you just can't have when you're fixing something on the road with time/light/patience/tools at a premium.

Thomas Ivor's Islabike now sports some new stainless steel rack bolts (one fell out somewhere in Lincolnshire and we forgot about it!), a set of lights nobody can claim they didn't see, his new Ortlieb bar bag has done the business and I'm not sure there will be a better-specced touring version out there. If and when he picks up his first puncture on it, after tonight, he should be able to fix that, too!

Tuesday, 27 October 2015

Put my panniers back on my bike

Ask my Dad to name three racing cyclists of his era, and you would expect three names to come out. Jacques Anquetil. Eddy Merckx. Tom Simpson.

I've read a lot of travel books lately, from my son's heroes - Mark Beaumont, Alastair Humphreys and friends, whilst on my trips to Devon to fetch him, listening to the audiobook of Tyler Hamilton's controversial autobiography. Looking for a change of pace, but perhaps coloured by these tales, and our recent trip to Brittany, I reached for a book my Dad bought when it first came out - William Fotheringham's 'Put me back on my bike', the definitive autobiography of Simpson, famous as the first Brit to wear the maillot jaune and the rainbow jersey of the World Champion, and indubitably more famous for dying, dehydrated and suffering the effects of a cocktail of amphetamines and alcohol, on Mont Ventoux on Stage 13 of 1967's Tour de France.

I very much enjoyed the book, with its clever non-chronological structure, dancing back and forth between present, past and 13 July '67 to maintain a thematic approach to help us build a picture of the man as much as the life he lived, each chapter of insight illustrated by an episode from Simpson's career.

In view of his status as one of the heroes of my father's era, and with a cycling-mad little lad of my own, I couldn't help but consider Simpson's story in terms of examining my own reaction to his sad story, the lessons I would want to share with Thomas Ivor in consequence.

Despite being a lifelong teetotaller, and never having touched drugs, I can empathise with much of what Fotheringham reveals of Simpson, I daresay my Dad could, too, then and now. My paternal grandfather, like Simpson's father, was a miner. We've experienced social lift. As a railwayman, I can appreciate the idea of being part of a family in one's chosen trade. As an activist and advocate for causes including cycling, I can certainly recognise his efforts to build cycling's profile and stature as a sport - indeed, he spoke of it when made 'Sports Personality of the Year', calling it a "big honour" for the sport as much as himself.

As a cyclist, well, Katie will probably have a wry smile when I say I recognise Tom Simpson's riding style - it was literally 'death or glory'. On a decidedly more modest scale, I too have a tendency to ride hard and run the risk of 'blowing'. It is no accident that sees Katie do most of the towing when we're touring, because she is much better at a measured, steady effort than I am. I do the heroics. I step in at the end of the day for the last few miles if we end up going further than we'd budgeted for, but Katie, ever the more organised of us, matches supply and demand and holds a much steadier pace than me.

The trouble is, you can't speak of Simpson, or indeed Anquetil, or Merckx, without thinking about drugs. Even the era of my own youth disappointed. There is conjecture about the achievements of 'Big Mig' Indurain, and Riis, Ulrich, Virenque, Pantani, Armstrong et al were all outed as cheats. As Fotheringham notes in his updating 'Afterword':
"...the question of whether Simpson was a cheat can be answered in this way. He broke the rules... 
...Simpson's drug-taking should not be glossed over. It was as much part of his life as his whaler-dealing, his dreaming and his will to win; indeed, these four sides of this personality were all tangled together. And his use of amphetamine clearly played a key part in his premature, tragic death. What he did wrong was to take drugs, apparently to excess..., and to ignore the advice of those around him whom he should have trusted."
My Dad was almost of the same generation as Simpson. I grew up watching Virenque and co. It was one thing to have been immersed in the joy and excitement of those years of bike racing at the time, and subsequently disappointed, but for all they achieved, it's awfully hard to present Simpson as a role model to my children any more than the others. Indeed, I think the thing Thomas Ivor could learn from Simpson is that as noble as it is to dig in on the bike, there is a limit beyond which it is foolish to push past by any means.

It is also fair to say that there are other cycling heroes to be found, close to home. The rider who made the most impression on me as a boy was Boardman - I was ten when he lit up Barcelona on his space-age Lotus bike, and I remember what felt like a stampede at Leicester Velodrome when I tried to get his autograph soon after. Boardman deferred treatment which required banned drugs, to conclude his career. Graham Obree missed out on likely glory in the Tour de France Prologue, ditched by the pro teams when he declined to cheat.

I love bike racing, in all its forms. It still inspires me, I still enjoy going to watch, but there are causes to be disillusioned, and my most memorable days on the bike involve panniers. One day time and fitness might allow me to do more riding on my road bike, and to get more from it than just a sore bum. In this most exciting of eras for British cycling, which has inspired so many and for which Simpson must have yearned fifty years ago, I hope that history will ultimately manage to be both searching and favourable to todays British champions - Wiggins, Pendleton, Hoy et al, and restore once and for all some dignity and integrity to cycling as a sport, in Thomas Ivor's lifetime.

Doliprane - French cycle touring drug of champions...
Touring is probably the only recognised cycling discipline that is not an out-and-out competition as its raison d'ĂȘtre. True, the Mark Beaumonts and Alan Bates' of this world inspire us with their adventures and feats of endurance, but nobody gets pulled up for participating in a doping 'arms race' whilst flogging along with a full set of Ortleibs on the bike. There's an income to be made from selling adventures and tales thereof, but not from beating someone else at all costs. If you ride on the road, touring is the discipline which teaches measured endurance on the bike, and introduces us to the world under our wheels. Our competition becomes with ourselves; the biggest challenge to get out of the door and actually pursue the particular adventures that drive us. Nobody needs to cheat or put themselves in an early grave to do that. If it is possible to cheat on a cycle tour, the only person you can cheat truly is yourself, by not taking every opportunity that comes your way.

The more I consider Simpson's life and legacy, the more I want to go and take on Mont Ventoux myself - with a nod to the premature death of an incredibly gifted but flawed 29-year-old racer, but perhaps, rather than on my road bike, I would do it in a measured, budgeted effort, knowing that with my panniers on the racks, it is not the clock, or cash, but the journey itself, that is my reward. 

'Put me back on my bike' by William Fotheringham is published by Yellow Jersey Press and available in print and on Kindle.

Monday, 26 October 2015

Welcome to Big School

We've done it. We've joined the gym.

Thanks to a new Vitality life insurance policy we have commenced a potentially 27 year long version of the Crystal Maze. Between various qualifying forms of exercise, recorded using gadgets, or attending the gym, we pick up points which earn us rewards in the form of reduced premiums in coming years, cheap kit, and perks like trips to the cinema, iTunes vouchers and coffee.

All in all it should be a good thing for us. The cover will be cheaper, and the half price Virgin Active membership means the policy as a whole costs us nothing compared to the full fees at the gym.

In our first week, Katie, now back in her London commute, has walked almost as far as the Proclaimers with her new FitBit, and I have been for some sessions on the WattBike. We've also taken the girls swimming, twice.

Ample trailer parking at the gym!
I'm starting to fit in - or, at least, starting not to draw attention to myself looking like a 'noob'. It's like being at a new school. I've had to learn where the water is. I've demolished (and learned to fix) the paper towel dispenser in the weights area (I wasn't doing any weights, don't worry!). Being there at closing time allowed me finally to work out the layout of the changing rooms without looking dodgy, or walking into the mirrors. I am still mildly perturbed by some of the people and events I have seen, from men in tight white T-shirts and pyjama bottoms eating ostentatiously healthy food and drinking stuff from plastic pots, to the crazy lady who leads the aqua-aerobics. In both cases, I'm convinced they're on something...

The one thing I still can't quite get my head round the idea that driving to the gym to ride on the spot is not quite as much fun as, and more expensive than, hitching the trailer up and just going for a ride. Oddly, when I arrived at the gym having ridden ten miles with the girls in the trailer, the staff on the reception thought I was seriously hardcore!

I suppose when the weather turns foul, I will be glad to have the option - and by the spring maybe I will find myself all the more ready for another season of touring. After all, until we get Ruth riding, the weight in the trailer only increases!

Thursday, 22 October 2015

Review: Anker PowerPort 5 40W Multi-Port USB Charger

Picture the scene. You're on a self-supported tour and happen across a single power socket in a ferry terminal waiting room. What will you choose to charge for the next hour?

I'm sure that ours can't be the only household now with a box, cupboard or 'man drawer' full of assorted cables, many of them proprietary, a good few probably bespoke to pieces of long-since-obsolete technology, in a tangled PVC-and-cheap-Chinese-copper mess. For years, we had a plethora of different connectors and currents used for charging different brands of electronic device. Throw in having a toddler who loves nothing more than to chew on the end of a cable or two (Rhoda loves Lightning leads, but can't eat a whole one) and charging things becomes a right old nuisance, before you even leave home.

Things have at least been simplified somewhat since the advent of USB, which seems now to have lasted much longer than most of the other connectors. On tour we are now carrying USB headlights on our bikes, USB tail lights on the trailer, a USB GoPro charger, an iPad mini, two or three Kindle paperwhites, and three iPhones. On top of that, there's the battery packs we use when we're 'off the grid', which also charge via a 2A USB supply. That's four on Lightning, six on Mini USB and three on Micro USB, and if Katie has to take her work Blackberry with her (heaven forbid!) that's another Micro, although if you can't make a Kindle Paperwhite last a fortnight on a bike tour, you're not doing the cycling right.

Replacing the previous plethora of unique leads, we now have the world and his wife's take on the 'Plug for the mains socket that creates a USB output for our product' bit. Some really don't like being plugged in adjacent to anything else, they can have vastly different current outputs; the 'Universal' bit has become anything but! Packing for a touring trip, especially to a country using different plugs to ours, has tended therefore to include having to work out the best permutation of plugs for the tasks required. They become the sort of 'bogey item' that serves to fill your panniers by stealth, in terms of weight and cube. Being pointy and not tessellating makes it worse!

It was as I was looking for another battery pack for our trip to Brittany in the summer that I discovered a stroke of genius, in the form of the Anker Powerport 5, which by the power of Amazon Prime showed up the night before we left. It worked a treat.

iPhone, iPad, two GoPro batteries and a pair of 20,000Ah battery packs. One socket!
At the time of writing, you give Amazon £18 (the penny's price rhetoric) and they give you a five outlet USB charger, which automatically tailors the output of each port to the device it is charging, so you can plug a USB lead for anything into it and charge it as fast as the device can handle. The unit is capable of supplying up to 2.4A to any single port, up to a total of 8A across all five. With the right USB lead, everything is catered for - indeed, you can also use it to charge your USB battery pack whilst topping off the devices themselves. Doing all this with one mains plug makes it much easier to take advantage of mains electricity wherever you find it on your travels - on public transport, in hostels and private homes, eateries... You only need one socket and you're in business, still only drawing 1.1A from the mains.

Not only is the PowerPort 5 efficient to use, but in replacing multiple plugs it takes up less space and potentially weight in your bag, and if you're going abroad, one plug means far fewer mains convertors you'll need, too. In our case we took a Continental 'Figure of 8' C7 lead with us to France, which was very handy.

The weight savings are not enormous. Ignoring the USB leads (the common element), I weighed a few chargers:

Five into one...
Smatree adaptor for GoPro charger (Twin 5v output, 2.1A total): 97g
Apple 10W iPad adaptor (5.1v, 2.1A output): 92g
Apple iPhone adaptor (5v, 1A output): 43g
Amazon Kindle adaptor (5v, 1.8A output): 70g

The PowerPoint weighs in at 255g with a UK mains lead, but is much, much easier to pack. If you are going to need socket adaptors, the savings are naturally much greater.

'Do you mind if I plug in my charger' is a lot more likely to be a successful request than 'Do you have five sockets I might use, please?'. Being able to charge multiple devices quickly and without fuss dramatically increases the prospects of success. Fewer items to carry, easier to pack, the prospect of cube and a little weight saved, it 'just works', and the Anker build quality is supported by a decent warranty and Amazon's customer reviews for the product are very strong indeed.

We have no connection with Anker other than as satisfied purchasers of this and other products; the first thing we did when we got back from France was to order a second one. Highly recommended.