Thursday, 28 April 2011

Cambridge to Hitchin via Potton

I have only been grabbing short one hour cycles for the last couple of weeks. The children have been on their Easter holidays so cycling has been between family time, plus the good weather means my good lady wants to get some fitness rides in too which means I am competing for spare time. I have been gagging for a longer ride.

Easter Sunday meant a family meet up at the in-laws near Hitchin. This is conveniently 60km away which is a good 2hr road ride and quite nicely burns enough calories that I can enjoy a lot of the excellent food on offer.

Normally, I do the trip one way via an excellent route via Cambridge, Ashwell, Baldock, and Letchworth. I'll report on this separately in my next post. Normally, I get a lift in the car on the other leg.

This time however, I decided it was time to up the challenge now I have a road bike (£250 ebay bargain and not stolen!).

This time I would cycle both ways! (my max distance in one day was 107km and this will be 125km).

Upgraders are always selling Aluminium framed road bikes for a better model. Carbon forks are worthwhile to take the sting out of road buzz.

I wanted to take a different route on the way to make it more interesting so I spent quite some time trying to plan a route on BikeRouteToaster. This is the route I cam up with:

BikeRouteToaster Route: Cottenham, Potton, Stotfold, Ickleford(nr Hitchin).
67km, with 227m of ascending.

I must say that, the centre area of the map provides a lot of excellent on road cycling, especially if you like a few undulations. Most traffic follows the main roads leaving the back lanes quiet. The good area is the entire triangle bordered by the A14, A1, and A505 or Cambridge, Huntingdon, Baldock (next to Letchworth on the map).

The difficulty I had was how to cross the A1 (north of Letchworth and Baldock), and balancing that with a good cycle route West of the A1. What I wanted was a route from Sandy or Biggleswade heading South to Hitchin, but my knowledge of the roads was not good enough to want to risk using the B roads.

Overall, I enjoyed the route, especially east of the A1. Once on the west side it got a bit fiddly on NCN through Letchworth, trashing my hard earned average speed.

The 67km took me 2 hours and 20 minutes, averaging 29km/h. I had the average at 29.9km/h before I hit Letchworth. I definitely think about average speeds too much, but its what keeps me fit.

Here are the highlights of the trip:

Oakington to Longstanton Airfield road.

Normally this 'no motor vehicles except ...' road (also NCN) has a lot of motor cars all ignoring the traffic signs. (And they probably complains about cyclists ignoring traffic lights etc). Just for once, I saw more cyclists on this road than cars. What a joy.

Caxton Gibbet cycle path.

It's not the most glamorous of locations but this path surprised me.

(Click to see in Cycle Streets)

It runs parallel to the A428 but is separated by some 20 metres. I was upwind, but the traffic noise was incredibly low. The separation felt a little Dutch in style and was a great smooth path to cycle on.

I guess this was put in to help residents of Cambourne get to the Papworth Hospital (famous for Heart and Lung operations). Its a shame the cycle path dumps you onto the A1198. That'll encourage new cyclists (err not).

So, the path works as a prototype, now they need to build more of it.

Roadside memorial

This is really a bit of a low point. Somewhere after Caxton (Gransden or Waresley?), on a road between villages I came across a home made wooden cross with a motorcycle helmet placed on top. It had pink stripes so I guessed that a young teenage girl riding a scooter had sadly lost their life here.

I often notice flowers placed by the roadside which makes me stop and think, but as a society road deaths just don't seem to be treated seriously enough. Road deaths seem to be acceptable to so many until their family is affected. I would be all for more obvious markers like a painted skull and cross bones on the road to help remind people in tin boxes to take more care.

Thatched Houses

One of the things I love about travelling by bike is that you get time to admire scenery. Britain has some great old buildings especially in the centre of most villages. Today, thatched houses caught my eye. Crow Tree Street in Gamlingay has a very fine selection.

(click to see more in Google StreetView)

Beautiful churches.

There were many churches on the route, but Gaminglay Church provided a particularly nice view as I passed: a lot of people were coming out very well dressed like it was a wedding, but this time it was Easter Sunday best.

(click to view in Google StreetView)

Crossing the A1 at Astwick

My chosen crossing point of the A1 was near Astwick. I chose this in favour of using a motorway style roundabout by bike. I wasn't the only person - another cyclists was crossing here too.

I paused a while to work out how much time I had to cross two lanes (of 4) of the A1. Each gap was actually only 5 seconds. This was on Easter Sunday morning and the cars looked quite well spaced. Crossing here would be impossible in rush hour.

There is so much traffic nowadays, these roads start to act like barriers as rivers can do, and can only be crossed where there is a bridge. Places on either side must feel really cut off from each other at times.

Lets not finish on a low point. That was a top ride with some great sun and great food for lunch. Mmmmmm. Refuelling for the next leg.

Continue to The return leg

Saturday, 23 April 2011

Has the Cambridge Evening News turned over a new leaf ?

Local newspaper reporting is always on the Daily Mail end of the scale if you ask me. Designed to get people worried or angry and fist waving so much that readers feel compelled to write in to complain. I assume that by creating cattle prodding news from non stories people will buy the paper more regularly.

The Cambridge Evening News (circulation 21000) is no different. The bread and butter page filler is the the anti-cyclist story. So much so, I refuse to ever buy a copy of the daily paper, and I won't accept a copy of the weekly free version - Cambridge News and Crier - handed out in the streets for fear of increasing their circulation (57000). They do get me in a couple of places however, it drops through the letter box in Cottenham and I read stories on the website (259,000 unique visitors per month).

The website comments are where you find the depressing state of mind of some motorists. Almost any story with the word cyclist will always have comments about no lights at night, pavements and red lights. And those comments are not harmless - if I ever get overtaken dangerously, and if I can keep calm, I will tap on the window of a driver and try to have a civil discussion with them. Quite often I've had the you don't pay road tax and similar ill founded arguments replayed at me in some attempt to justify teaching me a lesson.

Over the last year I have noticed that local cyclists have got a lot better at defending their position, and immediately jump on any ill founded comments. I think it is working too - the road tax argument is definitely coming from less people when I read the comments. Similarly, arguments about danger and insurance are being countered and one day will get rarer. The latest online argument coming in from the sidelines is the cyclist holding up traffic is causing extra pollution (slaps forehead).

So, my thought process is that the CEN is anti-cyclist, but then I raise an eyebrow to the new Cycling Blog supplied by the Cambridge Cycle Campaign. Wow, space given over to a pro-cycling organisation.

I raised the other eyebrow when I saw that the front page had been given over to a helmet camera wearing cyclist, and in a fairly positive way too.

You can read the story, watch the video, and read the comments here: Video: Cyclists near misses caught on camera

There is also a follow up story on the website. Drivers hit back after cyclist's claims. Just to fan the flames of the the fake motorist-cyclist war.

I was thinking after seeing the new blog and the front page story that Cambridge Evening News was turning over a new leaf. But, alas, looking through older stories I think perhaps I was wrong in thinking they were anti-cyclist - they are not. The CEN are just happy to whip up a story in any way that will generate circulation and readers for their advertising, and I am feeding that troll.

Online news comments do seem to be one of the few places where motorists and cyclists will exchange views in a place away from the safety of discussion forums for like minded travellers. It's a shame that most news site comments are not threaded because they do not foster good discussion, just comment and exit which makes it difficult to follow up.

I urge all cyclists to comment online, it's important to, because online people's views are far less polite and more polarised, revealing the darker inner thoughts of a minority of motorists. When wrong, they need to be countered so those thoughts do not become acceptable to the majority.

Wednesday, 13 April 2011

The flies are on me

The recent weather has made for some really pleasant cycling.

I hadn't taken my absolute favourite long-route-home from work in Cambridge for a few months so I made sure I took it while the weather was warm. The route has a significant off-road portion, is really quiet, doesn't get too muddy, and has been one of my best finds whilst out OpenStreetMap-ing.

I call this the Childerley Hall Route (BikeRouteToaster link). It is 35k to Cottenham. I tried to video the route but failed. I'll have another go before resorting to still pictures.

Cambridge - Childerley - Cottenham

The route starts in tourist dream land and is a view I never tire of: Kings College, Great St Mary's and The Senate House, then west down Garret Hostel Lane, over the humped bridge, watch a few punts go by, over the backs and Queens Road into Burrel's Walk and past the University Library.

See photos of the area in Panoramio

The route then ascends (if you are local!) Adams Road, and then onto the Coton cycle path where you finally start to leave the city behind. From Coton, the route turns to bridleway which you can take all the way to Cambourne. The full suspension on my mountain bike means I can make really good progress along here and with no cars to worry about, just the occasional off road cyclist, dog walkers, and terrain.

At Highfields, I turn north to the A428. I smugly passed a couple of cyclists here only to discover that vague grip on my rear tyre was actually a slow puncture. I turned into the Childerley service road and pumped up my tyre to see how long it would last. Of course, the other cyclist passed me at this point - a real tortoise and hare moment with flies definitely on me.

If I ever mention Childerley Hall to anyone, they have never heard of it. "Do you mean Chilford Hall?" is always the response. Childerley really does feel in the middle of know-where. Fantastic ! All thoughts of work are gone by the time I get here.

Once at Childerley my tyre was going flat again so I swapped inner tubes whilst watching cows munch grass in this very pleasant location.

From here the route stays off road to Lolworth, a place marooned by the A14, except for bridleway west via Yarmouth Farm to Boxworth and past another hall, Boxworth Hall, with a nice looking lake and garden.

Over the A14, towards Swavesey for a short stretch. This could be quite unpleasant but I am normally here at 6:30pm with lighter traffic. Then via some gravel tracks to the NCN51. From here I normally go into Longstanton and take the back route over the guided bus and into Rampton, then by shared use path to Cottenham.

I must be getting fitter, 1hr33m without pushing really hard or taking on food before I left. Last year that time felt incredibly hard. Maybe I can break the 1h30m barrier this year.

Cycling with my 5 year old

The weekend saw my son finally be able to get on a 16 inch wheel bike. His 12 inch bike was just not fast enough and he was always taking it to blurry pedalling RPMs, funny to watch but always frustrating when racing your big sister.

I took him out down Broad Lane (Cottenham) as usual and towards Archie's Way. We didn't get there. With bigger fatter tyres, today was the day he could fulfil his sense of adventure and we darted off down random side tracks for an explore. What a great time we had.

And why is there a pile of concrete rubble in a field ? And why is there farm machinery left lying at the side of the track ? The world is a strange place when you are five.

Tins and the River

With a takeaway curry and beers night to look forward to, I like to dump a few calories in advance. Inspired by Jme's post saying the Tin's path was open again, I decided to take this home, very pleasant too compared to Cherry Hinton Road, then via Fen Ditton, Bates Bites Lock and up the river to Waterbeach.

I hadn't taken the river route home in the evening since the nice weather started. What I forgot was that if you go in the hour before sunset, you are regularly engulfed by clouds of flies. I definitely spat a couple out.

Red lights

When it comes to red lights, I have decided to stop at all of them however inconvenient just to prove that not all cyclists jump red lights.

On the way to work, I passed a colleague on his rather fine Brompton, and arrived at a temporary traffic light outside the fabulous Corpus Clock. Almost every cyclist went through this red light including my colleague to which I jokingly said "red light!" as he went past.

I waited there for what must have been almost two minutes able to see that no other traffic was coming from the two other directions. I shrugged, gave up and went through. I think the traffic could quite easily self manage here.

That was the third and final time the flies were on me. Still, what a great week of cycling.

Wednesday, 6 April 2011

Night Riding Thetford Forest

Britain is a pretty dark place over winter. For five months of the year its dark just after you leave work which, if you love off road cycling, is really quite a drag. There you have your £1000+ MTB sitting idle except for the odd weekend day for what amounts to about one third of the year.

Well fret no more ! The last decade has seen a revolution in lighting with brighter than ever lights and longer run times thanks to LED technology. More on the technology I am using later.

My current two light setup pumps out enough light to ride offroad at night. I have tried this out on local byways and bridleways and have had a blast. But, it wasn't until last weekend, I got round to went to Thetford Forest to try some technical riding with a friend.

Here is the video of that ride. The light captured is a small fraction of what you can really see but at least gives a sense of what it is like. The opening scene is at dusk with no lights.

The footage was captured on a camera called an MD80. This is a £10 camera you can get from Ebay and it a copy of the Veho Muvi. You have to add an SD card to that price. I have tried videoing with my stills camera and it is unable to capture anything at all. The MD80, although very blurry at least capture something and in daylight does a pretty reasonable job for £10.

Riding at night is a absolute hoot. It is really quite different to riding in the day. The lighting of obstacles is strange and at times misleading so you make more mistakes but this adds to the challenge and fun.

The lighting of the landscape makes everything look really different too. Thetford looks really pretty by night. Something that did surprise me was the lack of wildlife. On bridleways you see loads, but at Thetford, there was only three packs of deer in two hours. Very easy to spot with a head torch as you see the backs of two eyes shining back at you and they stop blinded. That works on dogs too.

There is something really satisfying about riding at night. I recommend it.

I will say that my cheap setup is good enough on the flat, but doesn't throw enough light forward to downhill at speed.

About the Lights

My first LED light was (still is) the CatEye HL-EL135. This is a light that great in town to be seen with, but between villages, it is almost useless, illuminating a tiny dimly lit spot in front of you.

For commuting and off-roading I decided it was time to upgrade.

Investigations showed that you could spend: £50-150 to get a reasonable front light for on road riding, or £300+ plus for real and capable MTB offroading lights. I wasn't ready to spend £300 and forum reviews of the cheaper lights were telling me that they were not good enough for off-roading.

There was another option. Some riders had discovered that torch technology was advancing too, and that they were much cheaper than bike specific lights. To make even further savings it was possible to import from China to cut out the middle man. This is what I did.

What lights are available from China is a moving target. For the latest advice, checkout the BikeRadar forum's MTB - What Lights thread.

This is the setup I was using in the video:

The What Lights thread was suggesting that you needed a wide angle bar mounted light, plus a more focussed spot light on your helmet to see further. I agree that this setup works well for technical trails. For standard bridleways with few sharp turns you can happily use a bar light alone.

What I can say is that the wide angle beams are not suitable on road and are blindingly bright to look at no matter where you angle them. I managed to get a car to turn off its high beams half a kilometre away with mine. When commuting I use my spot light torch mounted on the handlebar and angle it well down. That way I do not get flashed, but can see far enough ahead.

These are the torches I have bought:

These were bought from a site called Deal Extreme
The larger is known as a P7, is wide angle and cost £25. The smaller, C1-R2 cost £15. One year later when technology improved I was able to upgrade the LED module to a Cree XPG R5 for £9.

The batteries inside are not generally available on retail shelves. They are a standard known as 18650, are lithium rechargables and push out 3 to 4.2 Volts. These are not the sort of batteries you can buy in the local shop as they are pretty serious - if you mistreat them they can explode. They are inside Dell laptop battery packs - typically about 6. You can buy protected and unprotected cells with safety circuitry to prevent overcharging by poor chargers. That added safety cost a few more pence.

Two of these batteries cost £10 and one lasts about two hours in my P7, and in my more modern XPG module, at least 10 hours on max.

Below, one of the torches is disassembled. They are very simple. A body to hold a single battery; a tail cap with on/off/mode switch; plastic lens. The final part is the drop in module. It is an LED with circuitry on the end which controls the mode (low/medium/high/strobe/sos) activated by a half press on the tail cap.

A word of caution. Initially, I bought a fairly cheap charger from Deal Extreme which claimed to cope with 240 volts but went bang when I plugged it in. Then I discovered on a forum that my torch was a copy and not a manufacturer original. Then I read on the DealExtreme forums that people were having trouble with a branded charger. A copy ? I don't know. I decided to take no chances a order a new charger from the UK for £17. Also, anything ordered from DE seems to take a couple of months to arrive. Also, one torch would also change mode randomly with bumps. I traced this to a rattling battery and wrapped in paper to take up excess space. Build quality is questionable with these fake/cheap products.

My total investment has been about £100 and allows me to go offroading. I am pleased with the final setup despite the initial teething problems.

My friend has an Exposure MaXx-D on his bar, which is far brighter and an excellent light - it is about £300. In the video he was running at 50% power. This unit contains 4x Cree XPG modules (note: the same module as my head torch except I have one). It would be interesting to know what batteries are being used. His unit comes with a charger.

If you don't want the hassle and worry of a cheap Chinese import, then the Exposure light is well worth the money. If you are an electronics dabbler and a fixer, then checkout the What Lights thread. Last time I looked, the Magic Shine unit was being recommended.


Futher testing is showing that each of my lights run for about 2 hours on maximum setting on one battery.  They pump out enough light to have a good time in a flat but twisty forest.  More lighting would be better but for the price I am very happy with the setup.  I am confident enough in their ability, so I have entered the 2011 Thetford Dusk 'till Dawn 12 hour endurance relay race.

Update: Winter 2011

Every year new LED technology comes out and this year is no different.  This year I bought a torch with an XM-L T6 module inside for US$31 (£19).  My DealExtreme delivery took 4 weeks this time.

Being torch based, I am not buying the charger and batteries with the light which is why it is so cheap. Two batteries are US$8 and last two hours each on max.

I have to say that this light is insanely bright in the middle, if it was any brighter, the ground would be too bright to look at. It over powers the helmet light I have been using so I may relegate that to commuting only now as it has a nice tight spot which lights in front of you but it not too anti social.  I will try putting my P7 on my head for off roading.

One advantage I have found with my torch setup, is that the torches can be dipped by physically pointing the light down.  I have the simple mount tightened enough that it wont move on its own. This is not possible with the bigger bar mounted lights, although as technology moves on, lights are becoming smaller and lighter.

Another update:  Feb 2012

I found a fab site with comparison shots of the light output.  Torchy the Battery Boy Click on the Bike Light Database section.

Also worth noting is my first failure.  On my first light, now three seasons old, a P7 based light with two modes, the lower setting has failed.  It is unregulated so I suspect there is a simple resistor that has failed.  Unusually, this torch is glued together so I have not bothered to break into it.  I only use it for off-road cycling so the high mode is fine anyway.  If I ride with the XML-T6 torch on my helmet, I don't need another light, although the P7 does have a very nice wide flood for peripheral vision.