Mountain Bike - Riding The Thames Path

Posted: Sunday, 29 September 2013 by Mark Kinnon in Labels: ,

Having "pre-disastered" this run solo, back in the July heat, it is was now time to do it again but in the company of friends. With all my recent gallivanting I've hardly been on a bike for weeks, I tried to keep up my fitness by doing as much walking and stair climbing as possible, but there is a big difference between 50 steps and a 70 mile round trip on a chunky all terrain bike. So it was with some trepidation that I set off from Purley for the 11am rendezvous at Greenwich.
For once the weather forecast looked to be favourable, sunny skies were predicted only marred by a 15 mph North East wind. This would be right on our nose heading down the Thames towards Dartford, the only advantage being that it would gives us a fantastic push on the ride home.

I made good time and soon met up with "new boy" Andy Z out for his first ride with fellow RetroBikers, he had even managed to find a new recruit, Steve who had arranged to meet a mate from work to follow the same route as us, but had been stood up whilst waiting by the Cutty Sark, poor bloke. It was not the first time that this buddy had done this either, Steve, if you get to read this, remember, revenge is best served chilled.

Lots of heads down riding into the wind

Our other Andy, aka Buster soon popped round the corner of the Cutty Sark and we got started. The forecast wind wasn't particularly noticeable as we made our way past the historic landmarks  of Greenwich and Woolwich.
Some of the paths are quite narrow and the signposting can be confusing as there is both a footpath and cycle route which often merge only to separate a few hundred meters further on. On a couple of occasions the signs lead us into cul de sacs, I was paying so much attention to them at the Thames Barrier that I rode over some kerbing and made a sudden, involuntary dismount.

The industrial landscape of Thamesmead

Moving on through the industrial landscape of Thamesmead the wind became more noticeable and there was a little less chat and a bit more heads down riding. We had a welcome break at the Running Horses pub in Erith, just off the route and re-charged our batteries for 30 minutes or so.
From Erith yatch club the path becomes hard packed single track and follows dykes along the Thames and its tributary the Darenth, this involves a fair bit of zig-zagging and makes the short distance to the Dartford bridge last quite a while. Steve's knees were beginning to grumble, so he called time and headed back homeward, but not before posing for the victory shot.

Steve - posing for the victory shot

Getting to the bridge control from the riverside is quite awkward thanks to overlapping security fences around the base of the bridge and nearby power station, but after consulting the maps and some faffing about, we eventually found a way through.

Lots of barriers - finally a way through!

At the bridge we used the free taxi service to get across the river to Thurrock, this involved getting our 3 bikes onto an adapted pick up truck, once done there was the 5 minute journey through the tunnel to enjoy.
From Thurrock it is just 10 minutes to Purfleet and the start of a route through Aveley marshes, Buster expected a mud fest but it turned out to be well paved and civilized. We followed the route as far as the hill, unusual feature for this part of Essex and as far as I can tell man made. But it does provide some fine "big sky" views of Essex, Kent and landmarks in London such as Canary Wharf and The Shard.

Ever wondered where all the £60 mountain bikes go to die?

With the clock ticking and already feeling worn it was time to turn around, this being just the halfway point. Back at Thurrock we made the jaunt South taking the QEII Bridge which also gives some excellent vistas of the river. Back in Kent we said farewell to Andy Z who was off to Dartford for a crafty (car) ride home to Sevenoaks with his Mrs, well done that man, a sterling effort for a first timer and winner of the "I've been brave" award.

Andy Z - winner of the "I've been brave" award

This just left Buster and I to head back towards Greenwich, at least the wind was behind us, even so I called a 10 minute rest break to finish off the last of my snacks and get a quick energy rush. Fortunately Buster had left his car in Beckenham so we rode the last section from Greenwich together in the gathering dusk. It was with aching legs that I helped lift my bike on to his bike rack and we both marvelled at the iron man stamina it must take to do events like Mountain Mayhem.

The last section from Greenwich in the gathering dusk

So that's another route in the bag, I still think it could do with a few more tweaks and would definitely benefit from being a circular route, I just need to find a pleasant way to get from Rainham Marshes to Gallions Reach. My thanks go to my fellow riders for making the effort and look forward to the next time, #2 Suburban RetroBike is this Saturday coming!

Summer SkiBiking - AlpinCenter Bottrop

Posted: Saturday, 28 September 2013 by Mark Kinnon in Labels: , , ,

I was hardly back from my recent London to Rome road trip, before it was time to head back out again. This time pleasure was on the agenda and Alpincenter Bottrop, near Essen in Germany was the destination.
For a change I was to company in the shape of Tim and Lesley Brooking, with Tim supplying the transport and driving, oh the luxury of it. Somehow his car managed to carry both of my DIY Skibikes and a Lenz Brawler, borrowed from Carl Day, plus a veritable ski shop full of miscellaneous winter gear.

Image of the Alpine chalet entrance at the AlpinCenter Bottrop
AlpinCenter Bottrop - almost "another day at the office"

For me the trip was almost "another day at the office" but for Tim it held far great significance. In recent years problems with his joints had brought him close to become wheelchair bound. A shocking scenario for a person who previously taught Physical Education and had some 30 or so years of skiing experience behind them
In the last 12 months Tim has been through a series of operations to replace both knee joints, and other parts. I suggested he was truly the "6 Million Dollar Man", but sick humour aside, it is remarkable what modern technology can now do to turn someone's life around, in ways that would previously have been unimaginable.

At my suggestion, we started our day by putting in some runs on skis in order to become better acquainted with the layout and generally warm up. For Tim this was to be a unique challenge, for the first time he was having to ski with legs that weren't significantly off camber! It was amazing to see that, in just a handful of runs, how he "dialled in" and transformed from wobbly beginner to smooth expert.

Tim Brooking - photo opportunity

After taking some photos and videos it was time to make the switch over to the skibikes. But the morning session had been such a success that Tim was almost ready to quit at that point and not even bother with the skibikes. I did mention that the disciplines can be very complimentary, besides which we had come an awful long way not to get Carl's bike out. So we set about assembly in the car park in lovely sunny autumn weather, before we returned to the relative gloom to continue.

I knew that Tim had previously been on a skibike with Serge Mermillod from Firem and his friend and ESF instructor Jef Exertier. So rather than hover over Tim and put him off, I left him to try things at his own pace. Once again he gained control and confidence, then the speed began creeping up and he was soon spending much longer going up than coming down.

Whilst he took a break for refreshments, it was my opportunity to hop on the Lenz Brawler and find out what all the fuss is about. I had a first run, then took another to be sure the first wasn't a fluke, I stopped myself from making third, I can't afford to get used to this.
The Lenz Brawler is an impressive ride, the steering is so beautifully weighted, it has a rock solid and stable feeling with none of the twitchiness typical of a skibike. Oddly, it is just as easy to ride standing on the footpegs as it is sitting down. The skis fitted give great control and coped with some slick icy patches exceptionally well. On most skibikes you feel like it's a push bike, but the Lenz Brawler feels like a big motorcycle by comparison.
The only minus points I can find are; the size, weight and sheer momentum of the beast. I can turn my skibikes pretty quickly, sometimes when I don't even intend to, but riding the Lenz within narrow confines or having to make emergency stops on a crowded French piste would be an issue for me. It also gave me the impression that I could get into trouble so easily by going a lot faster than normal without even realising it.
But if I ever have the need to do some back country riding of say Mount Everest, the Lenz Brawler would now be my number 1 choice.

A Lenz Brawler skibike or ski bike at Alpincenter Bottrop
Lenz Brawler - perfect for back country riding at Mount Everest

In the late afternoon Tim and Lesley where tiring and I have to confess I was too, my runs were getting lazier and I even had a couple of falls. There was no point in riding for longer, it had been a great day and I intend to be back again for another pre-season session.

Whether Tim with his new bionic powers will continue as a skier or become a skibiker remains to be seen. Perhaps like myself and Wayne Richards the answer is that; like apples and oranges, you simply don't have to choose between one or the other, you can enjoy both. I feel that for early morning iced over runs there is no substitute for a pair of skis under each foot, but for late afternoon slush or off-piste exploration the skibike is truly the weapon of choice.

Road Trip - Rome Via The Mont Blanc Tunnel

Posted: Monday, 23 September 2013 by Mark Kinnon in Labels: ,

As everyone seems to be getting all stoked up over the forthcoming ski season, I have  decided to step slightly outside of the remit of this blog and slip in some reportage from a recent trip to Rome. Why? because I got to see some real snow.
Normally, Rome is just a 2 hour flight from any of the London Airports, but for various reasons I was asked to take a van overland from the UK and back. This is a distance of around 1200 miles and at least a 2 day road trip in each direction.

There would be the chance to make an overnight stay in Ferney-Voltaire near Geneva, have dinner with my older sister, who has done so much to "sponsor" accommodation on my many trips to the Alps and also drive past my spiritual winter home.
The down side was that I wasn't going to be able to stop off and go walking or biking, it would be strictly a case of "Say Hello Wave Goodbye" whilst heading down the A40 Autoroute Blanche at a steady 65 mph. On the up side this would be my first journey through the Mont Blanc tunnel which cuts through the highest mountain in the European Union and was, for a time, the longest highway tunnel in the World.

View from inside a van whilst passing through the Mont Blanc tunnel
The Mont Blanc tunnel - once the longest highway tunnel in the World

The entrance to the tunnel on the French side is accessed by a huge long and very exposed viaduct, which winds it way up to the surprisingly high entrance at 1274m (over 4000 feet). On a calm and warm September morning it was blissful, but this must be a daunting place to wrangle a heavy goods vehicle in winter time. 
Once you have passed through the toll gates the journey is somewhat of an anticlimax, following a disastrous fire in 1999, speed and minimum distance restrictions are actively enforced. I rolled through at around 50 mph in my Iveco 3.5t van, always keeping the correct two blue marker lights distance from the truck in front. A discipline, I should add, sadly lacking in the Italian cars whizzing towards France bumper to bumper.
On the Italian side you catch a quick glimpse of Courmayeur before heading rapidly down the Aosta valley through a long sequence of smaller tunnels.

When in Rome... visit the colosseum

A week later with my job in Rome all done and dusted, it was time to head back in the reverse direction. This time, thanks to some clever wheeler dealing by my guvnor, we where both to make at overnight stop in the village of Pré-Saint-Didier some 10 Km from the tunnel at the charming Locanda Bellevue hotel.

View of Pré-Saint-Didier and a backdrop of mountains in the early evening
Pré-Saint-Didier at dusk

I have to confess that I had never heard of Pré-Saint-Didier but it is just below the much better known ski resort of Courmayeur. The village itself is very quaint and much larger than it first appears from the main road, it reminded me a little of Andorra, where every last scrap of free space has some or other vegetable or fruit growing on it. It must have been a very poor and isolated place before the tunnel opened, made Geneva a little over an hour's drive away and brought a steady stream of tourists eager to ski, hike and soak in the thermal baths.
Having made a little exploration, we returned to the Locanda Bellevue hotel and enjoyed a great evening meal, most notable was the starter; a mountain stew of broad beans, dumplings and croutons covered with a thick coating of melted cheese. I had just enough room left for a jumbo salad and some wine, but desert would have been a bridge too far.
Other diners seemed to have no problem making their way through piles of typical mountain fare; cold meat platters, cheeses, roasted joints and being Italy, pizzas and ice cream too.

A splendid view of the Mont Blanc from a window at the Locanda Bellevue hotel
Locanda Bellevue hotel - room with a view

The following morning, it was a crisp 8 degrees as I departed, a far cry from the 28 degrees it had been in Rome. There had been fresh snow higher up on the Mont Blanc, I stopped just by the tunnel on the French side to grab a few snaps then headed homeward. I struggled against the pull as I passed Cluses, the exits for the Portes du Soleil and The Grand Massif, this was work, pleasure will come later this year.

View of the peak of the Mont Blanc through a pine forest
Fresh snow on the Mont Blanc