Tourmaking

In a fit of madness and generosity we volunteered to be Tour de France Tourmakers – a chance to be part of the event and to give something back for the great pleasure and interest it gives us for 3 weeks every year. Tourmakers only exist for the UK part, 2 days in Yorkshire and 1 in London, and are general purpose volunteers to direct people, traffic and answer questions.

We volunteered for all 3 days but only got asked for the final day. Even so, we went up to Yorkshire for the first two days.

Day Zero:

Destination Yorkshire, more precisely Ilkley. Chosen as it would be on the Tour route day 1 and only a couple of miles from the route day 2.

In a frantic night of Googling I had booked our campsite the night before, being stunned that anyone had places left. How wrong I could be – as we entered the target area North of Leeds it seemed that every farmer had opened his fields as impromptu camp sites, choice was unlimited.

And then the campsite – and a day that will be remembered for a long time, for the wrong reason. No, not the campsite, nothing about Ilkley Tennis Club was amiss. No, it was the critical lack of poles for the tent. We had brought our new super tent for its first outing and I, yes I, had managed to forget the upright fiddly parts.

Fran was less than happy, contemplating a night under a tarp or in a car or praying that any B&B had any spaces left 12 hours before the countries biggest free access sporting event of the year. But unpanicked I went for a technology solution. As Tourmakers we had been making us of the excellent forum that allowed Tourmakers to share info. So confessing all, I posted an electronic prayer for a good Samaritan with a tent for two night. And received a reply from Liz (Saint Liz of Leeds) that tent would be delivered in a half hour. And lo it was.

tent

The small two-person festival tent wouldn’t have faired well in most storms, but tucked under the extra shelter of the cooking tarp the two delivered a warm dry solution despite several hours of rain that night.

Day 1:

Fran’s mood wasn’t up to cycling out to any of the Tour viewing points so we headed out on foot to see what Ilkley was doing and it paid off. The sun had decided to shine, every, and I mean every, shop and business and school in town had decorated itself and the crowd was growing rapidly even with hours to go.

We browsed, grazed, chatted to folks and relaxed into the friendly vibe. I don’t know how many people were there in the end but it was easily thousands and that must have repeated at every town and village along the route.

The caravan came, the caravan went, a million police motor bikes passed by and then the Tour riders appeared – a massed peleton that at 25mph just cruised by making it look effortless – and were gone in 5 minutes.

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Fortunately, despite the rather brief appearance of the elite riders, Ilkley had put on big screens in the park, so still enjoying the sunshine, everyone went to sit on the grass and follow the action for the next few hours.

Day 2:

Today we had to cycle to the route. And starting early we were far from the first and most were cyclists. The Tour route was closed to motorised traffic from 5:30am but not to cyclists so we enjoyed the pleasure of safer roads. Which helped since we were technically climbing a categorized Tour climb to get to a viewing point – the great Côte de Blubberhouses – okay, not the biggest climb but steep enough. Our hope was that at least the peleton would be slowed by the climb as they reached the top.

The morning passed as the day before – waiting, waiting – except this time friendly Yorkshire folk had been replaced by friendly cyclists. The lycra content of the watching crowd hinted that it was maybe 80% peddlers plus.

And then they came. Slower this time; talking, chatting, eating and so close. Crashes just a few hundred yards back also meant some panic as teams worked out who was down and bikes needed replacing.

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And once the Tour had passed, we and a thousand other cyclist made our own mad freewheeling descent. For us, back to Ilkley and those so so nice big screens in the park again to once more catch the action.

Day 3:

Today was the day. After a long drive back home the night before, we were up early, dressed in our volunteer uniforms and on the train into London and then out to Plaistow, more precisely the junction just after the Olympic park.

We didn’t get the much coverted roles of flag marshalls but we were on route – for a busy day of directing people to where they could cross the now barriered and closed road. In some ways it was the model of disorganised mayhem, but with Tourmakers (green tabards), Transport for London (pink), Newham council (blue), safety stewards (yellow) and the local police the many many layers and hands meant nothing went awry. Sure some folks really really didn’t see why they had to detour 30 yards to cross the road but most were fine.

 

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Spinning

This weekend I had the thrill of finding out what riding on an indoor cycle track is like. Answer: Exciting, fast, hard and a little scary.

It was just a simple taster session at the Lee Valley Olympic park in London and I would thoroughly recommend it to any keen cyclist – if only to get a real insight into the how good the pro’s are.

I’ve been to two events at the velodrome as a spectator, the place packed with people, all lights and noise and beer and food and its great fun (much better than on the telly). But empty at nine in the morning the atmosphere was very different. Most impressive is how light it was inside even without any artificial lights on. Some architect deserves an award.

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The session included bikes, helmets and cleated shoes – just bring you own mitts and lycra. And all seemed to be both good quality and plentiful to cope with the variety in our group of 15.

The bikes were nice – anything from Condor would be – but nothing special, just a basic alloy frame with carbon forks. But picking one up reveals just what a difference it makes not having all the usual extras: no brakes, no gears, no mudguards, no bottle cages, no cables, no levers; just an absolutely pared down bike.

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And sitting on the bike to set up the seat height revealed the first real challenge of the day, fixed gear, no freewheel. Even simple things like clipping in were now that bit harder as you couldn’t simply rotate the cranks back half a revolution. I’ve ridden plenty of single-speed but have never had the bravery to go fixed. For the track there was no choice (surprising given that some on the taster might be novices so we had to hope the coaches knew what was good for us all).

The session started with the basics and several laps on the flat sections of the track. Learning how to get started and, more importantly in the absence of brakes, how to stop. Stopping by back pedaling is not easy. Maybe it would improve with experience but at this stage the first thing learnt is that stopping without brakes, stopping by just pedaling slower, takes an awful lot more time and distance than usual. Fortunately with everyone circulating the same direction not stopping was solved by just avoiding.

After a few more rounds of this, at steadily greater speeds I learnt the other useful thing. All the scare stories about people who come to grief on a fixed when they suddenly forget to keep pedaling are rubbish. It may happen but I found that once I was up to any speed, not pedaling was not an option, the shear momentum of the bike forces you to pedal. Okay, maybe helped by the shear momentum of my being a heavier rider than some.

We then moved onto the lowest part of the sloped track for a few circuits and this is where I had my one wobble, quite literally. It wasn’t riding on the boards that was the problem or steering the bike on the bend. The straight was fine but coming into the first bend I suddenly became aware of how truly steep the rest of the track is – imagine cycling just inches from a 7 metre wall and wondering how you’ll ever lean a bike over that far. I will admit that I found myself shaking a little and very concerned about whether I would be able to do it.

But next we were encouraged to get onto the lower part of the sloped track and then progressively higher and higher on each circuit and fortunately it all turns out to be largely self-fulfilling – to get up the slope you need to have speed and if you have speed you have no problem staying on the slope. The issues of how to cope with the leaning and steering on a 42 degree bend never arose, its all seems to happen largely automatically and you just concentrate on pushing to maintain your speed.

And so eventually we were let loose for 15 minutes of ride as far and fast as you like. And what did I learn from that. Well, getting to the very top of the track and staying there is hard work, very hard work. It was sad that we weren’t able to take any Garmins or similar onto the track so I can’t tell you anything about speeds other than I went for it with my single fixed gear and had fun. Even as my legs got tired (how do they do 100 plus laps!?) I pushed as it might be my only chance.

Summary: A great experience. If you’re a cyclist and coming to London pack your mitts and book a session.

Next: My roller bike, used for the days it is really wet was a single speed. Its now a fixed speed and we’ll see what ‘training effect’ that has. Since its on rollers it won’t have the benefit of my personal momentum driving things if I should pause pedaling so it might be hairy – finger’s crossed.

Total Banker

In a falling market the brave look for opportunities. I’m sure someone on Wall Street probably said that. If they didn’t they probably should. So in a year where the stock of bankers has plummeted I chose to become one – and boy is it easy money. I’ve invested in shops, farms, transport companies, garages. I’ve invested in people and businesses on four continents. This month I backed three more, and the great thing, it cost me peanuts. How? – the repayments from the 34 other businesses I’d already invested in just got recycled.  So after a year I’m a true banker investing other peoples’ money in other peoples’ businesses and seeing my pot just grow.

The redeeming factor is its all for good purposes, investing through the micro-finance bank Lend with Care. The sums are small but with multiple lenders it works. The interest rate is zero. But with the charitable intention of never want the money back the loans are recycled from one business to another. Its not much, for me I’ve made £500 of loans but its only cost me £300 (this month £45 of loans needed only £10 from me as the rest came from repayments). Its not charity in the tax mans terms- so it doesn’t get any tax benefits, but unlike other charities who only want my direct debit each month, this form of giving requires me to make some decisions each month. To scan the loan requests and make some choices. Its not earth shattering but it is more involved that just giving and forgetting.  

BB5 to BB7

Recently, through the excellent YACF forum (Yet Another Cycling Forum), I have been able to upgrade my general purpose bike from Avid BB-5 disc brakes to Avid BB-7’s.

The BB-5 brakes are excellent brakes, great stopping power without being harsh and wonderful even in the wet, but only when adjusted well. And doing that adjustment and maintaining that adjustment is a challenge – a serious, fiddly, only good for a couple of rides, pain to keep doing challenge.

Reading various reviews of alternate disc brakes, the BB-5’s big brother the BB-7 got consistently good reviews. Whilst different reviewers had different preferences, they all agreed that the Avid BB-7’s were the benchmark against which all other cable operated disc brakes should be measured.

So having upgraded what did I find.

– First the upgrade was easy, lots of bolts to undo/redo but overall a simple swap between systems.

– Being a weight wennie I weighed things as I went. The saving isn’t great, some 100 grammes, but that’s roughly 20% and every little helps.

– Once fitted came the adjustment and wow, the BB-7’s are a breeze to position around the disc. Much better than the BB-5’s. The only thing I miss are the cable adjusts. Yes they aren’t needed to position the pads but every brake cable always seems to have some slack that needs taking up before it actually start moving the pads.

– In operation, I can’t say they feel more powerful, but with larger pads maybe that will become apparent should I have to do an emergency brake with urgency but we won’t go seeking that. However, they do seem to keep operating well for longer than the BB-5’s. So less frequent fiddling and easier fiddling when it does become necessary. In the long term I’m hoping to see much more even pad wear, on the BB-5’s one pad always wore far faster than the other.

So overall an upgrade well worth it. The guy from whom I got my BB-7’s was upgrading to the new TRP HY-RD’s which look a great option, but they need a year for the market to see if they are the new benchmark. Meantime, we each got our desired upgrade for half the price.

Tent Battle Royale

Over the Christmas break we, myself and my wonderful partner, got to planning and day-dreaming and that somehow segwayed into deciding to do a joint French end-to-end cycle trip – all well and fabulous. Both experienced cyclists, both fit (or will be by then we hope) and both keen campers – all good and tickity boo. But then came the first serious question – “Which tent?”

As regular campers, between us we have six tents; tents big, tents small and one tent fit for a circus. Naturally, amongst those we each have our own personal favourites. In each case those were super lightweight two-person tent – luxury when used by a single cycle tourist but a little cosy when actually used by two. Still, taking two tents can’t be justified so the choice was critical (that and settling some personal my tent is better than your tent ego).

So let me introduce the contestants. In the blue corner a venerable Saunders Spacepacker Plus, in the red a Wild Country Quasar Ultra.

Seconds out. Round 1: Biff!
And the Spacepacker comes out hitting fast with a stunning 2.25Kg against the Ultra’s rather plump 3.8. The fly-weight runs rings around the heavyweight for compact packing and a single pole.

Round 2: Bam!
The Spacepacker continues to hit fast with the outer up inside two minutes. Not fully pegged out but with the single pole inserted and two pegs, its already fit to provide shelter to all the other bags and goods should it be raining. Sadly the Ultra has to be erected inner first with four poles.

Round 3: Whack!
A shocker, the slow but steady Ultra hits back with a stunning blow. With all the poles inserted the inner is totally freestanding. Wonderfully handy, it can be picked up and moved with ease, making the classic game of “where should we site the tent” so much simpler.

Round 4: Blow for Blow
Despite a fast flurry of blows back and forth it looks like the fight might go to the judges and points. The numerous additional pegs required to give the Spacepacker its full shape have allowed the Ultra to catch up as its outer quickly slips over the freestanding inner.

Round 5: The Judge’s Verdict
The final test, get inside and lie down, sit up, and general be silly. The Spacepacker boasts tons of space but like a pyramid to sit up you need to be in the middle, hard when there’s two sharing. The Ultra, with its four poles, achieves more upright walls, so despite less floor space it has much more sit space. It may be heavier but that will be shared between two. So on a narrow margin the Ultra claimed victory.

How to Lose All Good Will

Marketing folks will give you all sorts of psychobabble about retaining customers through good service – and despite them it is largely true. So today I had a phone call with Virgin Media that left me shaking with anger.

True, I was a customer who was leaving – ending my broadband contract with them. But not for any negative reasons – the service has been rock solid and hyper fast – just a lot faster and more expensive that I really need – especially in these belt tightening days. So my opinion of Virgin Media’s broadband was “great product, solid, reliable and fast”.

Anyway, the deed was done. With the slower but still blistering BT service in place it was time to end the Virgin service. So having navigated the dial in menu puzzle I got through to David who transferred me to David. Fine so far. But then began the haranguing “We could have got you a better price if you…”/”I just want to cancel the contract”/”You should have talked to us, we could have”/”Please, I want to cancel the contract” and so on and on. For some reason David wanted me to feel like a total idiot for having been so stupid as to want to give Virgin the elbow. Somehow he didn’t pick up on the increasing anger as I continue to try to ask how to cancel the contract over and over again. Maybe it was some weird game to taunt the soon to be ex-customer.

The final insult was being told “You’re the one holding the process up by still talking” in reply to yet another one of my requests to “Just tell me how to end the contract”.

David refused to give his full name – that I understand. But he also refused to give any call reference for the call or to transfer me to any supervisor. Basically he refused me any method of follow up to make a complaint.

Now having had my rant, what is the point? Simple, despite being someone who was leaving Virgin Media, it was for purely practical/cost reasons and I had good opinion of the company. Thanks to David that opinion was now down to a zero don’t do business with these people level.

You might say that it’s no cost to Virgin as I was leaving anyway. Sure, but I’m now very unlikely to return and extremely unlikely to recommend them to friends or family. And they have lost further business. I have a new mobile phone and was about to move my existing Virgin Mobile number to it. Thanks to David I rang again, went through the auto attendant menus again, got transferred around again, got put on hold several time, but eventually came away with the PAC (Portable Access Code) for my existing Virgin mobile number so I can move my mobile number to a new provider. So thanks to David, Virgin has directly lost money.

…and with some more detail

…and having listed the films some description of each…

  • The Sapphires
    Enjoyable. Predicatable and still enjoyable. Chris O’Dowd steps up well to film.
  • Skyfall
    Phew, Quantum of Solace just lacked something and goes down as one of the worst Bond films ever. Skyfall saved things though with a good load of classic 007 hookum well delivered.
  • Hyde Park on Hudson
    One of those ‘it would be great to know how true it all is’ movies.
  • Side Effects
    My first film at our new Royston cinema. A strange story that twists direction several times so without spoilers its not the movie you think it will be at the start.
  • Argo
    Entertaining boys own action story and highlighted well that action films don’t need to all car chases, fights and gun battles.
  • The Great Beauty
    Oh wonderful cinematography of Rome and wonderful lack of any purposeful story or reason to watch.
  • Lawrence of Arabia
    Celebrating 50 years a remastered version for the big screen and now sadly a tribute to Peter O’Toole.
  • Tu Seras Mon Fils
    Of the non-English films of the year this and Populaire tie for best. And the first French pensioner on pensioner violence movie of several – something about French society?
  • Armour
    Painful and touching.
  • The Hobbit
    Fortunately I got given the DVD for Christmas as I really can’t recall what happened in the film. A lot of running around and jumping.
  • A Good Day to Die Hard
    It had to be watched but it was regretted. The fourth film managed to relaunch the idea but this one added nothing.
  • Hitchcock
    Brilliant look into the mind of a great film maker and the partner who helped keep him on track despite himself.
  • Silver Linings Playbook
    One of those films where two characters with few redeeming or likeable characteristics manage to grow on you despite everything.
  • Papadopoulis and Sons
    Gentle English (should that be Cypriot) comedy.
  • Promised Land
    A topical look at the hoodwinking of communities in the ‘fracking’ debate.
  • History Boys
    A special showing to honour the passing of the great Richard Griffiths.
  • A Hijacking
    Yikes. Probably very real. Felt like it.
  • Man of Steel
    Yet another relaunch/restyle for the pants wearing one. Enjoyable but a bit too heavy of the crash bang action.
  • Worlds End
    After Shaun, Paul and Hot Fuzz I was hoping for much better. Sadly not.
  • Alan Partridge Alpha Papa
    Not an award winner but some chortles and as a Norfolk boy had to be seen.
  • The Deep
    The more real side of Icelandic life and a single minded survival against the sea and volcanoes.
  • Hortense
    What a strange story. But I suppose the way to tell it was good was the want to know what happened to the characters afterwards.
  • Plein Soleil
    An original version of the ‘Incredible Mr. Ripley’ story but go for the later Hollywood version.
  • Blancanieves
    Stylish and well told. If inspired by the success of The Artist for black and white silent films then well and good as this one was better.
  • Blue Jasmine
    Into every life some Woody Allen must fall. It just didn’t click with me.
  • Filth
    Deep dark and fabulous. Made me want to read the book.
  • Gloria
    A strange Chilean movie. Enjoyable at the time, especially the anticipation of the paintball assault.
  • Enough Said
    If you’re in a couple then you’ll understand the attraction of this film and why to root for the main pair to get together again. If not you may think ‘so what!’
  • Philomena
    An interesting and touching story, though hard to fathom and understand the reaction of the main character.
  • Secret Life of Walter Mitty
    Each year the Rex has a mystery film on the cinema’s anniversary and this year it was a preview of the Secret Life of Walter Mitty. A pleasant story well told but the cinematography was the real winner with great landscapes for the places visited.
  • Muscle Shoals
    Very enjoyable despite Bono, wonderful sounds. But the best bit was discovering that Keith Woods was the basis for Patsy from Ab Fab.
  • Saving Mr Banks
    Fortunately not over sweet despite the Disney connection. Solidly crafted work from some serious actors.
  • Singin’ in the Rain
    Every year, its become a regular event. An enjoyable film that even gets applause at the end of some scenes.
  • Lincoln
    Actors galore and historic detail in droves. One of the best films of the year along with Mud below.
  • Mud
    Superb. See the comment for Therese Desqueyroux below, in this case Matthew manages a serious role seriously.
  • Populaire
    Enjoyable piece of rubbish. You could predict 90% of the plot after the first 5 minutes but that didn’t matter as it was delivered well.
  • Star Trek Into Darkness
    My first 3D movie. Excellent big screen action fun. Love the relaunch of Star Trek and it continues with this one. Already on the DVD purchase list.
  • Therese Desqueyroux
    So it happens to all actors at some point, they take on a project that they hope shows that they are a ‘serious’ actor. Just this time in French.
  • Fifth Estate
    Apparently this movie won a few raspberries but I suspect that has more to do with the close match between fans of Mr.Assange and the film awards web site.
  • Rush
    Surprisingly engrossing even if you don’t follow or like motor racing. Amazing look back at a world unencumbered by our ideas of health and safety and the like.
  • Gravity
    A birthday treat in huge wonderful iMax, and yes Sandra, it does look big in 3D. Still a good film, wonderfully crafted but for that price its what the studio would expect.