Why fish don’t wear shirts

I should have seen it coming. The van that is. Three thousand miles across car-obsessed, gas-guzzling America without a scratch. Three hundred miles in bike-obsessed, pedal-pushing Holland and…

I’d arrived in the Netherlands a few days earlier to put in some training for Ride for Willen 2015 – an eight day, 800 mile ride from Paris to Nice via two Tour de France summits in aid of Willen Hospice. Not, on the face of it, an ideal place to prepare for a ride that takes in Alpe D’Huez and Mont Ventoux. But my thinking was this: what the country lacks in vertical ascent it more than makes up for in bike friendliness. And, I have to admit, beer. Those seductive blonds that at the end of a long session make you realise just why you took up cycling in the first place – to eat and drink what you want.

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Nothing like a cold one after a long ride.

Beer apart, the Dutch don’t do things by halves. There are dedicated cycle lanes in virtually every major town and city. The tarmac is smooth. The demarcation lines freshly painted. Why, there are even traffic lights just for bikes! And even where two and four wheels share the same bit of carriageway, drivers behave so impeccably towards cyclists that you can get your head down and concentrate on your training regime without worrying about where the next threat is coming from. It’s probably because, when they aren’t behind the wheel, motorists are themselves cyclists. You see everybody in Holland rides a bike. All except one.

…without an alstublieft the driver of the black Renault Trafic (funny how you notice these little details) a wheel-length or two ahead of me swerves into the cycle lane to avoid a car pulling out of a side road. I swerve too. But the hastily- executed manoeuvre only results in a face plant on the van’s right rear door instead of the van’s left rear door. I say face plant. It was more of a head plant, as I had just enough time, or instinct, to tuck in my chin to let my helmet take the full force of the impact. Which it did very well. Though it’s a shame cycle gloves aren’t made out of the same material because my right thumb took the next full force – of my impact with the black top. It’s only when you break such a small and apparently insignificant bone that you realise just how significant it really is. With one hand’s worth of opposable digits out of action for at least a fortnight,  you don’t need an evolutionary biologist to tell you that human beings wouldn’t have made it down from the trees without fingers and thumbs. Hell, they probably wouldn’t have made it out of the water and up to the trees in the first place.

So next time you’re asked why fish don’t wear shirts you’ll know the answer: without thumbs they can’t do up the buttons!

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Thumbs up.

Back home the nurse in the minor injuries unit at Ludlow Hospital (note to NHS do NOT close it) entered the word TOOSH in my medical notes. Ever the journalist I asked him what it meant. “Trauma on out-stretched hand'” he said.

“No trauma at all,” I replied. “Not compared to those at the end of their lives being cared for at Willen Hospice.”

You can donate to this exceptionally good cause on my Just Giving page. Please do. I’ll give you a thumbs up.

Ride for Willen 2015

Eight days, 800 miles, 45,000 feet.

Last year when I cycled nearly 3,000 miles across America you asked what are you doing it for and how much money do you hope to raise and, to my shame, I had to reply just for me and nothing!

Well this year I’ve decide to salve my guilty conscience with a sponsored ride. I’ll have a lovely time. But it’ll be even lovelier if I know that every turn of the pedals is bringing me closer to my individual target of £1,000 and the collective target of £100,000. So please give as much as you can via my Just Giving page and click donate.

The cherry tree (with apologies to Housman)

I’ve long been struck by the saw (old saying) that says a dead tree is more alive than a live one. Which is why I’d been reluctant to take the other kind of saw to the cherry at the bottom of the orchard even though – to misquote Housman – of my three score years and ten it wasn’t going to bloom again. At first I hoped it had succumbed to some temporary malaise and that the following Spring would turn slowly green via a drift of baby pink confetti as it had done every April for the 22 years I’d lived at Crosshands. But now I’ve been hefted to this Shropshire spot for 25 years and instead of dropping leaves it’s dropping branches. It was the smaller ones at first. Twigs really. Sapless stick-fingers the first to dry and brilliant tinder for the wood burners we’re still lighting (in late May) to keep the latent chill of the clay earth from creeping up the solid cottage walls. But now the bigger branches are falling too, threatening the limbs of those whose lifeblood is still rising should they be unlucky to pass underneath at the wrong moment. Which, statistically, may be unlikely but a chance increased because the tree is on the path to the compost heap – a part of the plot frequented more at this time of year than in winter. Rhubarb leaves and the less malignant weeds piled on top (we burn the really persistent ones like dock and dandelion); sweet-smelling mulch to nourish this season’s vegetables pulled from the bottom. An eternal cycle of death and re-growth. And a handy home for hedgehogs.

Hairy legs and all

To shave or not to shave, that is the question (with apologies to Wm Shakespeare’s Prince Hamlet).

It was always going to happen. In all honesty I’m surprised I’ve lasted a whole year. But it’s time I came out of the closet. Or rather it’s time I came out of my wife’s closet. You see I’ve been in there casting lascivious looks at her hair removal mousse more than a real man really should.

It all started with a trip to the loo at the start of a cycling event last summer. I know a true gentleman is supposed to stare nonchalantly ahead in such circumstances. But I couldn’t help myself. A furtive glance left revealed the smoothest pair I’d ever seen. To the right it was a similar picture. If anything they were smoother still. Silky, in fact.

I looked down, despondent. Mine, by comparison, were hairier than Lemmy from Motorhead. I decided there and then that I wanted  to look like the other boys.

Trouble is I wasn’t sure how to go about it.  Mousse, wax, razor, tweezers, sandpaper? Wax I ruled out for two reasons: one, that it hurt like hell when I tested a sample patch with the molten bit from the top of a candle; two, that I wasn’t sure I could trust myself not to “rise to the occasion” whilst having hot towels or whatever they use flicked dangerously close to my proverbial nether regions at the local beauty salon (assuming they’d even have let me through the door in Lycra). A wet shave I discounted on account of the fact that if I’m as careless as I am with my face some morning’s there wouldn’t be a bog roll long enough to staunch the arterial flow. My electric shaver struggles with a five o clock shadow like an old car with a flat battery on a winter day so I was certain it couldn’t slice through hair that’d been growing continuously since puberty (for the record at least 40 years). And if my Braun man tool wasn’t up to the job then I wagered the good lady’s Ladyshave wouldn’t cut it either. So that was out too. Along with the tweezers which, I concluded, would’ve taken far too long and, though I’d never plucked anything other than a guitar string and a chicken, would almost certainly cause my eyes to water more than a bit. Same thought process applied to the sandpaper. All of which left the mousse as the only viable option.

That was a year ago and I’ve yet to do it. I’m still not like the other boys. A point brought into sharp relief in the gents at the start of the Autumn Epic in Knighton last Sunday. So now, to misquote Shakespeare for a second time, I have to screw my courage to the sticking place, unscrew the lid and give it a go. I’ll keep you posted on progress.

Incidentally, if you’re more interested in riding than hearing about hair then I’d thoroughly recommend the Autumn Epic. I managed the 95 mile course in about 6 hours 15 minutes (6′ 30″ with two feed stations stops). Next year I’ll be going much quicker. Less wind resistance!

ABB Day 27 – Vidalia to Tybee Island (the end)!

So we did it. Not sure what to think right now less than 24 hours after rolling into the Atlantic Ocean nearly 3,000 miles and three plus weeks after setting off. Think it’s going to take a few days to sink in. Can’t believe I’m already itching to get back in the saddle. I’ll add some reflective words as they come to me. For now I’ve gotta find a cold beer and some healthy food (in that order).

ABB Day 26 – Perry to Vidalia (one more day to go)

Boosterism.

We all like to big ourselves up a bit. (Hell if it wasn’t for the photographic evidence to the contrary I’d probably claim to have crossed America on a unicycle – half the number of wheels equals double the achievement). And so it is with towns. Especially small towns. Places  like Vidalia where we’re staying on our final night before – all being well – crossing the finishing line and baptising our wheels in the Atlantic tomorrow, a mere 27 days and 3,000 miles after christening them in the Pacific. Vidalia, you see, is home to the “world famous” Vidalia sweet onion (Vidalia’s quotes not mine) . Now I’m not terribly well versed in culinary matters but have you heard of Vidalia sweet onions? Thought not. Talking up one’s town is called boosterism (thank you Conal) and it became endemic as America expanded westwards with new towns trying to outbid one another for residents and in doing so boost land prices.  Not so much supply and demand more lie and demand. But on balance I suppose it’s better to be famous for sweet onions than, say, Anaheim’s claim to fame. The Californian city is home to the inventor of the “world famous” pooper scooper (my quotes not Anaheim’s).

At the end of every day’s riding I take a shower. Get rid of the grit and the grime. Freshen up. Let the jets of water ease tired muscles. Well today I had three showers. It’s not that I’ve developed some cycling-induced obsessive compulsive disorder. It’s just that it rained on us for the first time. The rain showers were nearly as hot as the one in the hotel bathroom. In fact if I’d slipped a bar of soap into my cycling pants I could have saved a whole lot of time later and finished the ride squeaky clean. Or at least squeaky. I enjoyed riding in the rain. It reminded me of  home. Reduced the air temperature and increased the speed. The only down side? Prune fingers, prune toes and, though I didn’t look to check, prune cheeks.

Not many pictures, by the way, because I didn’t want prune iPhone.

ABB Day 25 – Columbus to Perry

No dogs today. Except one firmly on a leash, cast in bronze and, therefore, not chasing cyclists (though I swear I saw his nose twitch as I rode past). We saw the hound in question at the Fort Benning army base where he and his master are part of a memorial to the hundreds of “combat canines” killed in action – many of them in Vietnam. Just goes to prove that they can be man’s best friend – just not so much in Alabama.

Yesterday I was decrying the fact that riding across America at an average of 16 mph leaves little time for proper inquiry at the places we pass and that consequently our view of them is impressionistic – urban, hot and dry, windy and cold, dusty, hot and wet, green, very green, very hot, very wet…

Well a little inquiry into last night’s stopover – Columbus, Georgia – reveals a few interesting facts. The last battle of the American Civil War was fought there in 1865 after General Lee’s surrender and the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. Nobody had thought of  informing either the Confederate stronghold or a Union detachment sent to sack it.

The inventor of Coca-Cola, Dr. John Pemberton, was wounded in this battle. Had he died how different – and thinner – America might be. Apparently he developed the drink to try to wean himself off an addiction to morphine which he was taking to ease the pain of his sabre wounds. Little was he to know that a whole nation would become addicted to the stuff. Hell even I’m becoming addicted to it. I rarely if ever touch fizzy drinks (beer and sparkling wines excepted) back home but here I’m drinking a can of his brew every day. It’s refreshing in temperatures nudging the 90s (Fahrenheit) and the sugar “rush” keeps the legs spinning. With only two days of riding left I’m going to be getting cold turkey. Or getting fat.

ABB Day 24 – Prattville, AL to Columbus, GA

One of the biggest differences between travelling by two wheels instead of four is that a bicycle journey can be enjoyed not only by the eyes but also by the ears, the skin and the nose.

As far as those last two senses are concerned Alabama feels like a wet blanket and smells like a wet blanket. Or, at the risk of sounding like some poncey wine connoisseur, at least the base notes are wet blanket. The top notes range from the cloying sweetness of honeysuckle through freshly cut grass (the Americans love their ride on mowers) to gut-wrenching road kill. Armadillos may have a tough exoskeleton but it’s no match for a 40 tonne semi-trailer (that’s juggernaut to non-Americans).

Little things remind you how bloody big this country is. And not the obvious little things like sitting on a bike for seven or eight hours a day to get from one reasonable sized town to another. Things like house numbers. Imagine living at 15,887 Vicious Dog Creek Road. Actually I made the road name up but not the number (see picture below). In the UK I’ve never lived in a house with a number greater than 75.

And it’s not just house numbers that are big. Everything’s big.  Including the people. Supersize humans waddle (and I mean waddle) around supersize malls that they’ve driven to in supersize cars. They eat supersize meals (which is, of course, a part of the problem). In fact people with an athletic build are so few and far between that they are the ones who turn heads. Fat is the new norm. Going large is easy and cheap. Or rather it’s cheap in the short term. The long term costs – for example in terms of public health – are huge. Or should I say supersized?

Crossed into Georgia today – the last state in our epic ride across America. Three days to go. Three hundred miles to go. Will I be glad it’s over? I’ll let you know…