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The unpredictable art of running blogging

I have been blogging for some years. I was a writer and journalist first. My original purpose was to support the publication of my first book, Heights of Madness, and my second and third books thereafter. Over time, heightsofmadness.com graduated into a running blog – a blog that last week pleasingly surpassed 50,000 visits. Writing permits self-expression, reflection and can be a carthotic process, but writers also write to be read. As I tell my students, writing is meant to be read. Writing must have an audience. Writing must provoke a response.

What is always surprising, however, is what people want to read and what becomes popular. Every blogger will empathise with the time you spent hours crafting the apparently perfect blog, adorned with beautiful images and scrupulously edited, only for very few people to engage with your masterpiece. And then there is the blog that you knocked into shape in 10 minutes while on the bus or the train from somewhere to somewhere that racks up hundreds of visits.

What I have learnt about blogging, particularly in the overcrowded market of running blogging, is that if you don’t shout, no-one will listen. The most successful blog posts – and I certainly don’t mean the best written, most interesting or most entertaining – stem from exposure, be it on social media or the traditional media. The cream does not always rise to the top.

To mark 50,000 visits for heightsofmadness.com and in the spirit of if-you-don’t-blow-your-own-trumpet-you-don’t-get-anywhere these are my most visited blog posts.

1. ‘I was there…’ Marking 125 years of Herne Hill Harriers

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2. ‘Do you want beans with that?’ A tribute to Stan Allen

Stan Allen

3. Bob Graham Round – SUCCESS!

Hindscarth

4. Overcoming adversity and adverse conditions at the Box Hill fell race

 Box Hill village

5. Mont Ventoux

The north side of Ventoux

6. Beachy Head Marathon 2011 – race report

Beachy Head

7. The Bob Graham Round as seen from the water-carrier’s corner

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8. The madness of the ultra-distance runner

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9. Isle of Jura Fell Race

The finish

10. Running with the horses: Man v Horse 2014

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@MuirJonny

‘Be aware of large vehicles’ and other stating-the-obvious crime

Croydon Council have launched a cycle awareness campaign. The press release reads: ‘From 14 October, campaign banners will be displayed on lampposts, a promotional trailer will be driven around the borough, and stickers and posters will be sent to local business, and placed on vans and lorries.’

Marvellous. What do the posters say?

‘STAY BEHIND. I CAN’T SEE CYCLISTS,’ (shouts the personified lorry).

‘Be aware of large vehicles,’ (reminds the Croydon Council bureaucrat).

There is a glut of them at the interchange of Beulah Hill, Church Road and South Norwood Hill, south-west of Crystal Palace, roughly midway on my almost-daily commute. The English teacher in me bristles at the rhetoric.

Does stating the obvious count as a safety message?

What cyclist is not aware that lorries (because that is what it is in the picture) do not, cannot or will not see cyclists in their mirrors or otherwise?

Even more incredulously, what cyclist is not aware of large vehicles? As they thunder past my right shoulder, alarmingly close, and I gaze into their monstrous spinning wheels, I am explicitly aware of large vehicles. I worry about them a lot.

The message is the wrong way round. It is the lorry or bus driver that needs to be reminded of the presence (and, admittedly at times, the stupidity) of cyclists, who – after the jaywalking or legitimately crossing pedestrian – are the most vulnerable road users.

‘I am very aware of you, large vehicle, particularly following a Croydon Council poster campaign,’ I shall say next time a juggernaut jangles my nerves and rattles my teeth. Because that will help road safety.

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@MuirJonny

The madness of the ultra distance runner

‘Busy weekend?’ the Friday conversation goes.

‘I’m going to Jurassic Encounter Adventure Golf at New Malden on Saturday, then, on Sunday, I’ll run…’

‘How far?’

Sharp intake of breath. ‘Forty…’

‘Miles?’

‘Yes.’

I’ve had this conversation many times over the years. Or certainly words to this effect, as this will be my first visit to Jurassic Encounter Adventure Golf, which, judging by a website that roars at me every 20 seconds or so, looks ridiculous in comparison to the notion of running 40 miles.

Mad is the typical, thoughtless adjective my listener selects. You shouldn’t have asked the question then, I think; you know I run. One such conversation led to a colleague insisting I cease running because of my ‘knees’. Every time she sees me in my shorts, I sense her inwardly tutting at my imminent knee destruction. MY KNEES ARE FINE, I want to shout; in fact, apart from a drinking accident at university, my knees have remained injury-free in close to 20 years of running.

I’m not mad.

As I write, competitors in the Grand Union Canal Race are shuffling 145 miles from Birmingham to London. One of their number, Mimi Anderson, has already run the race route in reverse to get to the start line. Should she get back to London (on foot and in one piece), she’ll have run 290 miles. The numbers are mind-boggling. There are 89 poor souls out there.

As I write, racers in the Hardmoors 110 event have been running for more than 12 hours through the night, following the Cleveland Way in Northumberland. The cut-off time limit is 36 hours and to be an ‘unsupported’ runner you must have completed a race of the ilk of the Ultra Tour du Mont Blanc, the Lakeland 100 or the West Highland Way.

As I write, 1000 athletes (an incredible number if that’s the case) are leaving Richmond as they begin the 60-mile London to Brighton Challenge. It’s not the Cleveland Way, but the North and South Downs stand between them and the sea.

As I write, there are runners in the Lake District attempting to crack the 24-hour, 42-summit, 66-mile Bob Graham Round. They started at 1am and I imagine they are somewhere high on the Helvellyn range, perhaps gliding along in the glory of a Lakeland morning, perhaps struggling and cursing their own ambition. They literally have Everest to climb.

As I write, runners will be emerging from their tents on the Hebridean island of Jura. I wish them no midges. They will look skyward at the three glorious Paps – if the weather allows – over which they will later run as part of a 16-mile loop from the island capital.

GUCR, Hardmoors 110, London to Brighton, Jura. And people say I am mad. Madness – and I don’t mean this in the genuinely mentally unhinged way – is relative, of course. There is always someone madder. One person’s madness is another person’s mundane. Step forward Mimi Anderson. Step forward the Bob Graham runner who isn’t happy with 42 peaks in 24 hours; he must claim 50 or 60. Step forward the Jura mentalists who will today seek to gallop up and down thousands of feet of loose, ankle-jarring scree in three hours. It’s not an exaggeration to say they all risk their lives in their particular pursuits. But then isn’t that a prerequisite of madness?

I sought to explain this obsessional need in Heights of Madness, my first book about cycling and walking 5000 miles between the UK’s 92 traditional county tops. I tried to explain how failing to meet arbitrary daily targets, set by myself, for no-one else and for no deadline, such as climbing a Munro, cycling 60 miles, camping, eating, reading a map, being warm, being safe, simply surviving, must be achieved or I would be reduced to a depressed wreck guzzling chocolate biscuits in my tent. I still struggle to fathom that level of obsession, despite having been the obsessive. I do not know what drives Mimi Anderson. Does she know herself? Perhaps, like me, when she woke up, she thought: My legs really hurt, but I said I was going to run to London today, so that is what I am going to do. I will stop when I get there.

Tomorrow, I will run a seventh of the distance Mimi Anderson will cover this weekend: 40 miles (or thereabouts) from Newhaven to East Grinstead, following the Vanguard Way, as I prepare for my own piece of madness in three weeks time. If this makes me mad, then several hundred ultra-runners will have to be sectioned on Monday morning.

You know who is really mad? To use a playground taunt: what you say is what you are. Those are the people who are mad. Those who haven’t felt the wind grip them on Helvellyn. Those who haven’t seen dawn rise across the North York Moors. Those who haven’t snatched a breathless view from the summit of a Jura Pap.

Those who haven’t dared to dream about where madness could take them.

Running the Bob Graham

What is Alan Hinkes up to at the moment? … and other questions

Traffic – is that the right way to describe people? – to this blog arrives via a plethora of web searches. Handily, WordPress lists these terms. Many are questions: some are perfectly logical, others make me question the sanity of the human race. However, according to the web search questions, people do not want much. Generally, they care about three things.

– How hard things are.

– Ben Nevis.

– What Alan Hinkes is up to.

Here are my Christmas top-20 (and some helpful answers). The hard stuff first –

1. Is it hard to row the English Channel solo? Probably, yes.

2. How hard is the Inaccessible Pinnacle? It’s tricky, rather than hard. Take a climber with you.

3. What is the hardest Corbett to climb? I really don’t know. For the hardest Munro, see above.

4. How hard is the Beachy Head Marathon? Not as hard as the Ben Nevis Race.

5. How hard is the Ben Nevis Race. Harder than the Beachy Head Marathon.

6. Is the Highland Cross harder than a marathon? If it’s the Beachy Head Marathon, yes.

7. What is the weather like on Ben Nevis in September? Wind, rain, fog, sleet, snow, mist, and probably all at the same time.

8. Which Munro should I climb in preparation for walking Ben Nevis? Why are people obsessed with this mountain?

On to the information seekers-

9. How do I prepare for cycling Mont Ventoux? Cycle. Lots.

10. Where is there a half-marathon tomorrow in UK? Tomorrow? Nowhere.

11. When are midges worst on Rum? All summer long. But don’t let it put you off, though.

12. How high is Worcestershire Beacon? 425 metres.

13. Is Catbells on the Bob Graham Round? No – unless you’ve had a navigational catastrophe.

14. What speed do you need to run for a Bob Graham Round under 24 hours? Three miles per hour-ish. Sounds slow, doesn’t it?

15. Why is Twmpa called Lord Hereford’s Knob? I’m still not sure. Something to do with Lord Hereford? And his…

Now for the ridiculous –

16. What’s going on in the Cotswolds? You’re in the wrong place.

17. How long will it take for my blood blister to go away? Umm…

And the utterly ridiculous, the bang-your-head-against-a-table level of ridiculousness.

18. Is Marble Arch the same as the Arc de Triomphe. NO!

19. What country is the south of England? Country?

And one that only Alan Hinkes can answer –

20. What is Alan Hinkes up to at the moment?

Ben Nevis pony track

Ben Nevis: very hard

Back to the Fellsman

I have been back to Fellsman country: that April-time place of 61 miles of running, 13 hours of pain and pleasure, self-doubt and wonderment. I was on a bicycle this time. And rather than retracing every bump of the Fellsman horseshoe, I was simply slipping thorough the valleys and springing over the high road passes of the Yorkshire Dales. It was unintended, but it was a chance to see the peaks of the Fellsman from a different perspective.

After a 26-mile blast from Skipton, we passed the start line in Ingleton, before fighting a northerly headwind through Kingsdale, Gragareth on the left, Whernside on the right, both smeared in mist, to gain Dent. In the Fellsman, an apple and a handful of biscuits sufficed here; today I felt decadent eating bubble and squeak, with bacon, poached egg and hollandaise sauce, at the Stone Close tea room. Stonehouse beckoned thereafter; I gazed to the right, tracing the path that cuts across the high flank of Whernside and eventually leads to Blea Moor. Life is easier on the road. We spun under the Dent Head viaduct and churned up to the 433m Widdale Head pass, leaving Great Knoutberry Hill in our wake.

We overnighted in Hawes, sleeping peacefully until about 3 or 4am when we were woken by the inevitable sound of Snoring Man. We swore at him, he turned over, snorted and – eventually – shut up. We woke again to mist and we were soon in it, slogging a steep way up to Fleet Moss, checkpoint number 15, topping out an altitude of 588m. Fleet Moss was as I remembered: big and bleak. The road plunged violently downhill, then swept north again, past the Cray checkpoint beneath Buckden Pike to West Witton. Above the village, our haphazard route took us southwards again on a sharply-rising road to Melmerby. ‘Get up that road without walking and I’ll give you a free slice of treacle tart,’ the man in the shop in West Witton had promised. We did not return, but we had earned it. A cruise up Coverdale followed, bringing us to Park Rash. There, to the left was Great Whernside, looking every bit as dreadful as it had done in April, only time this time its profile was blurred by hill mist. I remember little else about Park Rash from my previous visit, apart from gorging myself on cocktail sausages and being overcome with panic when we realised the marshalls were not going to group us.

I could say how after two days of cycling, with the route of the Fellsman seemingly being everywhere, I was overwhelmed by the enormity of it all; Park Rash, in particular, was the defining moment of my Fellsman; I had run a mountain of miles to get there, then, on shattered legs and waning morale, I forced myself up Great Whernside, racing darkness, standing firm to an awful wind; in truth, however, I had been overwhelmed at the time and being back merely confirmed those feelings.

Thinning brake pads had given up by the time I urgently needed them most – on the one in four descent to Kettlewell. I had to walk the cycle down the steepest sections. I can not ever recall having to do such a thing. Back in Skipton, I read the papers: a big freeze was on the way. A local paper was reporting on the OMM, due to happen this weekend in the nearby Howgills. Even after 36 hours of romanticising about the Fellsman, nothing could have persuaded to brave the cold of the OMM. Back to London, for now.

 

View of the cox

Marble Arch to Arc de Triomphe – 300 miles of running, rowing and cycling

Party poopers. That’s the French. We had run 90 miles in relay from Marble Arch in Central London to Dover; we had rowed 26 painful miles across a lumpy, brown English Channel; we had cycled 185 miles from Calais to the Arc de Triomphe in the chaotic heart of Paris. After cycling a loop around the roundabout of the Arc, we swerved into the middle and walked beneath the triumphal French monument. Two police officers were on us in seconds. ‘No bicycles.’ One photo, we begged. One led to two, then several more, with the officers loitering close by. We had just enough time to pull on Bradley Wiggins face masks before we were shooed to a bar on Avenue de la Grande Armée. And – courtesy of officious French police officers – there ended a four-day, 300-mile Arch to Arc adventure that pushed mind and body to their limits.

THE RUN

Team Arch to Arc – Nick, Tom, Will and I – set off from Marble Arch on a Saturday morning as Olympic volunteers swarmed towards a Hyde Park that would later host the women’s triathlon. The start of our personal triathlon took us to Victoria, then over Vauxhall Bridge, where – as planned – Tom continued alone, while Nick, Will and I met our directeur sportif, Nick’s dad, Steve. One of us would be running continuously for the next 14 hours. Escaping London via Crystal Palace, West Wickham and Biggin Hill, we then followed the rough lines of either the North Downs Way or the Pilgrims Way to gain Dover.

We ran, some quicker than others. It wasn’t terribly eventful. Nick earned a few hoots and cheers by virtue of running in a Team GB vest; we only got lost on one occasion; I had a lovely piece of coffee and walnut cake in Charing. We ran the last 5.5 miles – from Capel-le-Ferne to Dover – together, arriving in time to watch Jess Ennis win heptathlon gold on the big screen in Dover, and taking our personal daily totals beyond 30 miles. Ordinarily, I’d write more about a run, particularly a 90-mile one, but something awful was about to happen.

THE ROW

First, a back story. The four of us had only rowed together on three occasions. Those occasions were very hard. My longest row on a rowing machine was 80 minutes. None of us are natural rowers or have any real rowing experience. We were, in hindsight, setting ourselves up for failure. We didn’t fail, but success would prove desperately hard. It all started so well, however: a steady row, a good rhythm, to emerge from Dover harbour. We watched those famous white cliffs recede very slowly and – gradually – began to detest them. Three hours in and we were almost half way. Nick and I were taking turns to stroke. We were eating and drinking regularly. Spirits were relatively high. It was magnificent to just be there – in the middle of this great expanse of water, a vast sky above us.

The sea became choppy and crumpled. Waves buffeted our bows. The boat went silent. What followed was some two hours of dreadful exhaustion. We were rowing through concrete. I was shattered, overawed by the waves, watching them approach, watching them slap our gig. Our pace dropped alarmingly. The French coast was a grey smear on the horizon, a million miles away. The cliffs of Dover – clearly still visible – mocked us. I can’t remember feeling much worse in my life, physically annihalated. We pulled through. Looking back, I’m not quite sure how. It wasn’t pretty or heroic. It was gritty and bloody-minded at best. What kept me going was the knowledge that others were probably suffering more. Nick’s hands were badly blistered and bleeding. I at least had the benefit of recent experience of endurance events.

If it were possible, there were worse moments. France was at last looming large; we thought we were nearly there. Oh no. Five miles to the beach, the information came from our pilot-boat. An hour later there were still two miles to go, although in far calmer sea. As much as we had hated the cliffs of England, we abhorred the cliffs of France. They formed a cruel optical illusion. Seemingly so close, but never getting closer. Stroke by stroke we got there until our pilot-boat stopped us going as far as the beach at Sangatte. Rowing crossings agonisingly stop some 20 metres shy of the beach, apparently. I imagined all of us had been hallucinating about dragging ourselves onto a French beach in the style of shipwreck survivors. It wasn’t to be. A rib would fast-track us to Calais. Never mind, we had rowed the English Channel – 26 miles in all – in seven hours and 26 minutes, of what, frankly, had been a hellish undertaking. Redgrave-esque statements about never stepping into a boat again were muttered. We meant it. Yet, wandering through Calais I was struck with the realisation that I will do few greater things than row across the busiest shipping lane in the world – and being able to say that was just about worth the seven-and-a-bit hours of agony.

THE CYCLE

The cycle had always seemed to be the easy bit. While running 30-odd miles in a day would be hard and rowing a marathon a logistical nightmare, the challenge of a ride to Paris paled into comparison. We were wrong on that front too. We departed Calais (Nick’s hands bandaged to prevent further aggravation) in pouring rain and proceeded on a surprisingly undulating route south. Fields of wheat and maize, and towering wind turbines, framed much of our route as we dropped to Desvres and Hesdin. The general idea was to cycle together, but our quartet was continually splintering, with the man up front typically determined by the terrain. I prefered the climbs, Nick the flat, Will and Tom were solid all-rounders. We had split up again as we entered Amiens, but, miraculously reunited at the cathedral, ending 96 miles of effort.

After easing weary, stiff bodies out of bed, and eating another unhealthily large but entirely necessary breakfast, the day two journey was more of the same – wide rolling fields and undulating roads – all the way to Beauvais. Leaving Beauvais we had our first accident: Nick was alerted by Will to the fact that the quick release bolt on his rear wheel was open. So shocked by this news, Nick immediately tried to bring his motion to a halt, only to be unable to drag a foot from a cleat. He clattered to the floor, cycle and rider flailing across the road. Luckily, the driver immediately behind him was his dad. Tom and I had cycled on obliviously, having only been alerted by a passing motorist. We cycled back, expecting the worst, relieved to find Nick unscathed.

We launched into the Paris suburbs at Taverny and passed through an area twinned with Clydebank in Scotland before finding our passage blocked by cycle-free tunnels. We teased a way through, finding a less severe tunnel to dart through, bringing us to Puteaux. Soon we were pedalling through the Bois de Boulogne and then after two hours of tiptoeing progress through Paris we turned a corner and there it was, the Arc de Triomphe. We cycled briskly over the cobbles of Avenue de la Grande Armée to gain the roundabout ringing the Arc and simply rode straight across, forcing French drivers to either stop or run us over. They did the former, fortunately. If only the gendarme could have shared the motorists’ temporary generosity of spirit.

There is a point to this. We are raising money for two charities, The Stroke Association and Kith and Kids. To sponsor us, please visit this site. At the time of writing, we have raised more than £2100.

@MuirJonny

London to Paris: running, rowing and cycling – please sponsor!

PLEASE SPONSOR TEAM ARCH TO ARC HERE

Remember comedian John Bishop crossing the English Channel in a rowing boat to raise money for Sport Relief? Bishop raised more than £3million for charity in his so-called ‘week of hell’. He cycled from Paris to Calais and rowed the Dover Strait before running three marathons in three days to reach London. He looked pretty tired at the end.

A fortnight today Team Arch to Arc will be following Bishop’s route in reverse, with our starting point Marble Arch (if we can reach it in the Olympics melee) rather than the Arc d’Triomphe. We won’t match his extraordinary fundraising effort (although we will be rowing in the same boat), but we hope to do our bit for two charities: The Stroke Association and Kith and Kids. Beyond charity, we want to cross the English Channel (and the land-based parts) in the spirit of adventure, because, as Mallory said of Everest, ‘it’s there’. 

10 reasons to sponsor us –

1. John Bishop’s rowing team boasted two sporting ex-professionals (Freddie Flintoff and Denise Lewis). We have none.

2. Nor do we have Davina McCall in our team, unfortunately. Our team is made up of two journalists, a teacher and a farming lobbyist.

3. Rowing is really hard. Sea rowing is even harder. See my last post.

4. However, if we get a move on, we’ll be the fastest four-person team to row the English Channel.

5. Rather than running three consecutive marathons, we will relay run the entire London to Dover route over around 12 hours, with each of us averaging at least 30 miles.

6. We will be cycling some 180 miles across France having run in excess of a marathon and having rowed the English Channel.

7. We are all going to grow Bradley Wiggins-style chops to sport on our cycle to Paris. Okay, that isn’t quite true (as I’d have needed to start growing them in January), but we will be wearing Wiggins face masks in the run-in to the French capital.

8. The Stroke Association needs little introduction, but Kith & Kids is a lesser-known worthy cause: the charity provides activities, opportunities, information and support for people with a learning disability or autism, their parents and siblings.

9. Giving money to charity will make you feel better about yourself. Apparently.

10. And, finally, we (and the charities) will really appreciate it.

Mallorca: the cycling bit

I didn’t want to go to Mallorca. I wanted to go to Tenerife. I wanted to go to Tenerife to climb 3718-metre Pico de Teide, and thus have stood on the highest slab of ground in Spain. I was overruled. We went to Mallorca. As I said, I didn’t want to go Mallorca. When I thought of Mallorca, I thought of Magaluf and Palma Nova, and, consequently, the very worst of Brits abroad.

Mallorca appeared respectable from the plane. Are those mountains? High, snow-capped mountains? Not that I could appreciate them much. I’ve never been a good flyer. This time, I genuinely thought my ears were going to explode. I’d spend the next three days recovering, half-deaf. We’d gone to Mallorca to cycle. We didn’t take bicycles with us, however. The destruction of the front forks of my previous bicycle by an over-zealous baggage handler at Marrakech airport taught me two things: one, always buy insurance; two, there are no cycle shops in Marrakech (if the front forks on your cycle are smashed, so is your cycling holiday).

We caught a bus across the island to Port de Pollenca and picked up our hired racing cycles. They didn’t look quite as glamorous as their images online, but – thankfully – front forks were in full working order. Day one started badly. I was first in the shower, using all the hot water, which wasn’t so bad. I was merrily scrubbing an armpit when I noticed something horrible crawling up the shower curtain: a cockroach. I flicked it to the other side of the bathroom. Mr Cockroach re-appeared a few minutes later in the kitchen (of course, it is perfectly possible that this was a different cockroach; I find it hard to tell them apart). I had the chance to end the insect’s life – with the stubby end of a broom, incidentally, but chickened out. That decision and that damn cockroach plagued me for the rest of the time in Mallorca. When I went to sleep, I fancied it was crawling all over me, in my ears, up my nose…

We cycled along the coast towards Alcudia, the winter training base of Bradley Wiggins, with Tom assuring Rich and I we were going the ‘right way’. I knew we were going the ‘wrong way’, but I didn’t want to verbalise my thoughts, seeing as Tom was so blindly confident. Ever the optimist, he assured us that this ‘wrong way’ was actually a ‘short cut’. I took over the map-reading.

All was well until about 15 miles in when we reached a T-junction. I went one way, up a hill; the others another; down a hill. A couple of minutes of confusion later, spying two cyclists coming up the aforementioned hill, without even glancing at faces, I latched onto their back wheels, then huffily shouted: ‘Are you sure this is the right way?’ Two Spanish cyclists peered back, apologising profusely. I mumbled something, did a U-turn and swept downhill.

Soon after came magnificent cycling: over the 490-metre Coll d’Orient, then the slightly higher Coll d’Honor, reached by a series of hairpins through forest. And so onto the Coll de Soller, a 497-metre pass famed for its 50 hairpins. There were numerous cyclists on the roads now, many of them clearly top amateurs or professional teams training for the upcoming season.

Rich approaches the final hairpin of the Coll de Soller

Puig Major awaits

The long climb to the tunnel beneath Puig Major, the highest point on the island, remained. The top of the road would touch the 870-metre contour – still hundreds of metres lower than Puig Major. The military road to the summit was shut by snow (the worst in 50 years, we were told). The climb to the tunnel was a joy – in a sadistic sort of way. Snow was banked up on either side of the road; the Soller valley now far below. Tom and I arrived at the top long before Rich; he got there, eventually, some 30 minutes later. He wasn’t happy. His longest previous climb before today was Devil’s Dyke in Sussex. Incomparable. Laughably so. Unfortunately, for all of us, we were still some 25 miles distant from Port de Pollenca.

The tunnel beneath Puig Major, the road’s highest point

The closed road to Puig Major

Next came an entirely predictable race against time: a race to beat the ice freezing on the road, a race to beat nightfall. The scenery was startling: snowy, awesome mountains, while the Mediterranean had appeared on our left shoulder. It was bitterly cold, though, and I was bonking. Never has a single finger of a Kit-Kat, devoured on the Coll de Femenia, been enjoyed so much. Albeit a meagre number of calories, it was enough to ensure survival. We made it – Tom and I, at least – back to Port de Pollenca before darkness. I wandered around the supermarket plucking food off shelves in a daze; Tom stood outside, similarly, in a daze.

The race against sunset begins…

‘How do you think Rich is?’ Tom asked on the way back to our cockroach-infested apartment. We hadn’t seen him since pedalling away from the closed access road to Puig Major.

’90 miles of cycling in one day? More than 2000 metres of climbing? Devil’s Dyke? Not good, I’d imagine.’

We waited, quietly, scoffing biscuits. Rich had actually made good progress. Some 30 minutes after we’d arrived home, in he came and propped his cycle in the corner, uttering some Steve Redgrave-esque comment: ‘If you see me on a bike again, you can shoot me.’ At this point, it was probably more likely that he wanted to shoot Tom.

*

Rain was falling on day two. Rain! I said we should have gone to Tenerife. We set off late, therefore, this time towards Cap de Formentor, a bluff containing the northernmost reach of Mallorca. I started way too fast, sprinting a sea level to 225-metre Coll de la Creueta (not to be confused with the massive one on mainland Spain) in an unsustainable pace. The col was a tourist spot, for Germans, in particular, and a narrow walkway took walkers along a cliff edge atop a forbidding, sheer drop to the ocean. The road descent was like a film set. ‘I can imagine a James Bond car chase down here, ‘ I shouted to Tom. My words were lost on the breeze of downhill motion.

Shoes off on the Cap de Formentor

Looking west from the Cap de Formentor

The road was immaculately tarred – then all of a sudden, the money for road improvements had clearly ran out. The road became rutted and pitted, slowing progress markedly. Nor did it help that we were being sent uphill again. After beating Tom to the tunnel yesterday, the race was on (although this was unsaid, we both knew that). He slipped away from me on a steep section of hill and suddenly I was playing catch-up. I gave furious chase: through a tunnel, up and over and down undulations, rattling and jangling on a rubbish surface, all the way to the lighthouse on the top of the cape. It was a fruitless chase; I couldn’t breach the gap.

He got the better of me again on the sharp, lactic-inducing climb back to the Coll de la Creueta. Here, rather than descend immediately to Port de Pollenca, we climbed a side road to a watch tower atop 381-metre Talala d’Albercutx. Two sets of iron ladders led to the top of the tower and, from this lofty perch, we could survey a sparkling world beneath us. I had been hard on Mallorca, I realised. Ignorant is perhaps a better word. I had experienced two of the finest cycling days I had encountered anywhere in Europe. Mallorca’s quality lies in its landscape and cycling through it, I saw traces of the Lake District, the magnificence of the Highlands and even glimpses of the Alps. I can’t pay the place any greater complements than those.

A mini-Welsh adventure

The first thing – and it really is the very, very first thing – you notice when you return to London from cycling pretty much anywhere in the UK that is not a city or large town, are traffic lights. Hideous, everywhere-you-turn, always-on-red traffic lights. I once counted 60 sets of traffic lights on an eight-mile journey between Streatham and Euston; I’d have had to spend another week pedalling through Wales to tot up that many. Still, there is one consolation to being back in London. Every male cyclist will empathise. No cattle grids.

So, three days in Wales, cycling from Swansea to Chester via Aberystwyth, 170 miles in all. It rained only slightly on day one, a day I’ll remember for a formidably tough climb north of Trefilan. On the evening of day two – after a visit to the Centre for Alternative Technology near Machynlleth, we found ourselves thundering along dark, windy roads (in a car, mercifully) to attend a two-hour public meeting about wind turbines in Newtown. These are the perils of travelling with an environmentalist. We returned to a hostel dormitory full of hot air and, later, the detestable, infuriating sound of snoring.

Rolling north from Corris on a crisp, almost wintry start to day three, Cadair Idris loomed ahead. The mountain was shouting to be climbed. It was a straightforward affair along the Minffordd path. Ascents of the Nuttalls, Craig Cwm Amarch (791m) and Mynydd Moel (863m), sandwiched the real business of the day, the Penygadair summit of Cadair Idris (893m). What a lovely view from this top, the blue and yellow glow of the Barmouth estuary and the striking outline of the Lleyn peninsula in particular. Llyn Cau was a pane of glass. The summit hut was a surprise too; I didn’t know it was there. A welcome retreat on bad days.

I broke into a trot off Myndd Moel as I contemplated the hours it would yet take me to cycle to Chester. I was fine until I hit midway point on the ever-rising Dolgellau-Bala road. I had avoided Dolgellau to shave off miles, but was paying with the bonk. Then a gear cable snapped, leaving a bonking man with just three gears in his armoury. I ate to excess in Bala, then again in Rug 10 miles up the road. A food-induced recovery did not transpire, however, and I spent 15 or 20 miles of up and down feeling sorry for myself. I can’t remember exactly where – shortly after Rhydtalog perhaps – the view ahead altered very suddenly. Ahead and below were the seething tentacles of civilisation – houses, cities, factories, shopping centres. No hills, no lakes, no sheep, no cattle grids. And then, also quite suddenly, there was a long, gradual (and, as it turned out, extremely welcome) escape route to England.

 Preparing to depart Brechfa

 Aberystwyth beach

 Llyn Cau

 Craig Cwm Amarch

 Llyn Cau from Craig Cwm Amarch

 Looking east from Cadair Idris

Mont Ventoux

There is something extraordinarily compelling about Mont Ventoux – a mountain of pain, a mountain of victory, a mountain of ghosts. The ascent – 1617m over 21.8km – is one of the most challenging of cycling climbs in the world, with its long association with the Tour de France elevating it to legendary status.

Eddy Merckx won a stage here in 1970; Lance Armstrong and Marco Pantani sensationally fought on the slopes in 2000. Most famously (and tragically) of all, the British cyclist Tommy Simpson collapsed and died close to the summit during the 13th stage of the 1967 Tour. He had consumed a deadly cocktail of amphetamines and cognac in the previous hours.

There being no easy way to climb the Giant of Provence, we chose the hardest way (the one with the largest ascent): starting from Bedoin, a village at the foot of the extinct volcano, following the route traditionally taken by Tour riders. Accepting that the next two hours of our existence would bring inevitable suffering, we set off, sure that the summit would offset that suffering.

There was nothing terribly taxing about Mont Ventoux until the village of St Esteve had been reached, some 7km out of Bedoin. Here the road disappeared into forest, rearing alarmingly steep. First there was a kilometre at an average gradient of 9.4 per cent, then 9.1, then a huge one – 10.8. The trend continued: 8.8, 9.5, 9.9, 8.8, 9.6 and 8.6. The figures were mind-boggling; there is nothing in the south-east of England that can quite prepare a cyclist for this brutal test of attrition.

There was a brief respite at le Chalet Reynard, where the kilometre average dropped to as low as 5.4 per cent – so shallow it felt akin to riding downhill. But a new difficulty emerged: the surroundings had abruptly changed. Gone was the forest – and with it valuable protection from a sweltering sun. Sweat poured off me. The road found an ever-steepening way up through the moon-like scenery (the ferocity of the wind here means trees do not grow) of the upper ramparts of Ventoux, with our destination still several kilometres distant.

With around 2km to go, I passed Tommy’s shrine, decorated by gifts left by cyclists – water bottles, cycling trinkets, shoes, tubes and, ironically, energy bars – how Tommy could have done with one of those. A load of tat really. Symbolic tat, nonetheless. Yet this was the place where Tommy Simpson pedaled his last stroke: I shivered, despite the baking heat. His final words were apparently: ‘Go on, go on!’ As the French would say: ‘Chapeau Tommy!’

I took his advice, although my legs began to wilt terribly in the penultimate kilometre. The bonk was upon me. It was little wonder, for the gradient had ramped up to 10.2 per cent. But the summit was in sight, and inspired by thoughts of Armstrong, Merckx, Pantani and Simpson, and the maniacal crowds that cheered them on, I dropped into the easiest gear, hauled myself off my seat and pedaled as furiously as I possibly could to the roof of Provence, gaining the summit one hour and 46 minutes after leaving Bedoin.

There waiting for me was a majestic vision: Provence spread out before us, the snow-capped Alps to the east, Bedoin a long, long way below. One by one cyclists crossed the line: some shouting and punching the air, calling out their times; others slumped over their handlebars, pain etched across their faces. I will never live up to the standards of Armstrong or Ullrich (or for that matter Iban Mayo, who cycled from Bedoin to the summit in a record-breaking 55 minutes in 2004), but at least I had followed in their tire marks, and, in doing so, had contributed in a small way to the glorious history of Ventoux.

Armstrong attacking Pantani, Ullrich and the rest in the 2000 Tour:

 

Botley Hill

I’ve no desire to climb all the Marilyns – UK hills and mountains with a drop of at least 150 metres on all sides, meaning summits of the ilk of Cairn Gorm, Sca Fell and Carnedd Dafydd are excluded. Besides, there’s more than 1500 of them. It is a list for the super-devoted and the ultra-motivated only. Two of the Marilyns are perilous sea stacks located among the isles of the St Kilda archipelago, making the accomplishment of climbing them all a colossal undertaking.

Munro-tagging has a degree of coolness associated with the pursuit. Scotland’s 3000ft mountains are, after all, at times challenging and cruel, but always immensely rewarding. The Marilyns, despite many Munros and numerous other entrants on the more glamorous hill lists of the UK being among their ranks, lack the same prestige. I’m a fine one to talk, however. At least the Marilyns are ‘proper’ hills, unlike some of the obscure molehills I conquered in pursuit of the UK’s historic county tops.

So the odd Marilyn won’t hurt. Botley Hill is my nearest such peak, rising on a ridge of land on London’s southernmost fringe. Being the only Marilyn inside the concrete ring of the M25, the hill has heightened kudos. I found the hill south of Woldingham, set among green and pleasant land punctuated by transmitting paraphernalia, after cycling 15 miles from inner London, most of it, naturally, uphill.

So what of 270-metre Botley Hill? Not a lot, unfortunately. The hill was crowned by a circular water tower, surrounded by three further transmitters. Pretty, this summit is not. Listen hard and the drone of the M25 is just audible. There was no view to the south, trees obscuring the vista. To the north, London nestled in its river-split bowl, the arch of Wembley stadium the most prominent landmark. Still, I had reason to be glad. The sky was blue and cloudless, and I had made it to the zenith of the inner-M25. I could go no higher (until next year that is, when the newly-constructed Shard – and obviously unnatural – will stand 40 metres loftier).

Bicycles, Brighton and origami canoes

Origami – the traditional Japanese art of folding paper – has never appealed to me. That was until someone came up with the idea of an origami canoe, although made of plastic, not paper (that would be disastrous).

Tom and I cycled to Brighton, where the canoes are being developed, to see if it really is possible to fold plastic into the shape of a canoe. Rather than battling London traffic for 20 miles, we caught a train to Reigate, then cycled the remaining 45 miles to the south coast.

Rather than taking the traditional, cross-Ditchling Beacon route to Brighton, we leapfrogged the South Downs via Devil’s Dyke. The landmark – a V-shaped valley – is so named, according to legend, because the devil dug the glen to drown the parishioners of the Weald.

From Devil’s Dyke, the descent to Brighton was glorious: fast and furious. And so to the canoes (or origanoes, as they are called). The handmade, flat-packed canoes (not on general sale, yet) are designed and made by Plunge Productions in a studio near the city. They are billed as the cheap, lightweight (weighing around 10kg) alternative to expensive, heavy canoes, and have already been tested – with success – on a trip along the entire stretch of the navigable, non-tidal Thames. Which is just as well, as Tom and I will be paddling the canoes for ourselves on the Thames later this month. 

Tim Simpson, the creator, has also used them to get around the waterways of Kerala in south-west India. He envisages that the canoes, which are held together by plastic plugs, could one day be airlifted into flood-stricken regions. They are, I think, a bold, innovative (if not quirky) idea; I would buy one.