Saturday, 28 September 2013


Despite having climbed abroad a lot I'd done very little biking outside the UK, a wet trip to Ireland and a couple of mountain biking trips to Peru and Cyprus being the only exceptions. So a long weekend road biking in Majorca would be quite different. Nine of us were going but flying from different airports so transfers were a bit tricky to arrange.

The main problem with flights on the cheap airlines (or Budget carriers as they like to call themselves) is the anti-social flight times. Our flight out left at 0630 which meant getting up at 3AM! :-( As it happened the return flight got delayed and it was 0145 before we got home.

Rather than take our own bikes, Cath and I decided to hire: for a long weekend there's not much difference in cost between hiring and baggage charges plus you get the chance to try out a different bike. Andy had a series of routes planned for the weekend so after a bit of lunch we set off. We were stopping at Puerto Soller on the north of the island which has three roads leaving it - all uphill. Our introductory route was out by the easiest of these, round to Valldemossa and back over the Col de Soller.

Climbs on the continent tend to be different to those in the UK. Here we take the line that means least amount of building work so the gradient varies enormously. Also whilst the actual elevation gain isn't much the desire to take the shortest route possible means that the gradients are often severe. Continental road builders tend to pick a gradient then stick to it so when a sign says "5Km 5.4%" That's pretty well what you are going to get. There is some variation of course but not to the extent of UK roads. All this means that you need a different approach to cycling up the hills: rather than pushing through short steep sections you have to find a gear that you can keep spinning for the whole climb. You might go up or down a gear occasionally but generally that's the strategy.

Of course since we were setting off in the mid afternoon we were in the full 30C mediterranean heat which despite our brilliant summer was a bit of a shock. Cafe stop in Valldemossa then a zoom downhill and along the plains to get to the foot of the Col de Soller. This used to be the main road but there's now a tunnel through the mountain and bikes aren't allowed so it's up and over.

The final switchbacks to the top of the Col de Soller. There are five cyclists in the shot.

On the descent we seem to be waiting a long time for Andy, when he arrives it's because his pedal has come out of the crank. It happens again just before reaching the hotel and it seems like the bearings have seized so he hires some from the shop. Not to be the last "mechanical" of the trip.

Cath isn't impressed with Andy's mankini impression.

Day two was to be the longest ride of the trip: same climb out of town then along the coast to Andratx and back via the Col de Soller again. Some truly amazing scenery and at times it felt as if you were floating above the Med as the road twisted in and out of the ribs and gullies dropping down to the sea. By the time we were heading back it was hot again and we'd still the Col de Soller to do. Dropping off this Tim came to a halt - a broken spoke. Which shouldn't be so bad except he'd got some stupid bladed things which are very hard to get hold of. Back to the shop.

In the morning they said that they'd lend him a wheel while they sorted his out. Then the problems started: Tim's bike was fitted out with Di2 electronic gear shifting and when putting in the new wheel they trapped and broke the wire so he couldn't change gear. They decided to lend him a bike for the day while they fixed it. Today's ride was basically ride up to Puig Major, down to Sa Calobra then back again. Out of 75Km of riding just 8km could be regarded as flat!

Again the difference between UK and continental climbs became apparent - the climb to Puig Major was 13.5Km at an average gradient of 6%, it took me just under an hour to do. In the UK even the biggest climbs only take 20 minutes or so.

Down the other side then turn left and over a small col for the descent to Sa Calobra, which is back at sea level. The road is one of the tourist attractions of Majorca and is truly spectacular, in order to keep the gradient to a reasonable level the road designer had to build in a 270 degree bend where the road cuts back under itself. 9.6Km of descent gets you to the village which isn't much to talk about really. What gets you is that the only way out is back the way you came. Only one thing for it: man up and ride the bike!

Rick heading back under the loop on the descent to Sa Calobra.

The problem isn't so much the 7.1% gradient but the tourist coaches - you just hope that you don't meet them on a bend. There's a lot of cyclists on the road, it's a popular ride in spectacular surroundings, but mostly you just keep pedalling away counting down the kilometres to the top. Fortunately there was some cloud keeping the sun off otherwise it would have been a cauldron with all the limestone reflecting the heat. All that's left is the climb back up to Puig Major and the long blast back down to the hotel.

Ian, Rich and Tim in front of a heat damaged road sign - the boys were scorching!

Our last day was meant to be a ride across the island but eventually we decided on getting a taxi through the tunnel and riding the first day's ride in reverse. There were just six of us doing it and the first flattish section became a bit of a chain gang - we only took 36 minutes to get up to Valldemossa where we thought we'd better have a coffee as otherwise we'd get back too soon. Coffee done, we'd only two short climbs on the way back to Soller but with the first day's two long climbs as descents.

All that was left was to take back the hire bikes; pack our kit and wait for the transfer taxi.

Monday, 9 September 2013

King of the Pennines

There's been a huge increase in the number of sportives (timed road rides) in recent years. Some, like the Fred Whitton or the Etape du Dales, have been going a number of years and are a good test of a rider's fitness and might be considered in the "classic" category. Others seem as much a money making exercise as anything else.

Of course there are many that lie between these two extremes and there are new "rides" appearing all the time. First run/organised two years ago, the King of the Pennines is a pretty tough ride starting out from Skipton and taking in 100 miles and some of the bigger climbs in the southern Dales. It's nowhere near as tough as the Etape though. I did the first event and suffered towards the end getting cramp at 90 miles and just 200yds from the finish (!) mainly because I hadn't got the base miles in.

Cath had entered for the long event and there were several club members who planned to "bootleg" the shorter event. The roads aren't closed during most sportives so there's nothing stopping anyone riding all or part of the route whilst avoiding or ignoring the food stops. There was no point in entering the short event as it wasn't much different from one of our standard club runs - £27 to do what we can and do ride over most weeks.

My plan was to see Cath away then ride the short route but with a cafe stop in Kettlewell then back to town. Things didn't start out too well - Cath got a puncture within ten metres of the start! Fortunately we were stood right next to her at the time. The event's mechanic came out with a spare inner tube as well so she was soon on her way again.

There were six of us on the club run so not a lot of waiting around. The route is initially a bit strange going through housing estates on a loop that is surprisingly hilly but it's to avoid a busy roundabout on the bypass. The next section to Malham is straightforward rolling lanes but then the fun begins with the Cove Road, one of the 100 best climbs in Britain apparently.

This is where you reach the conclusion that overweight middle aged men should be banned from wearing lycra - as we pass one such gentleman we are treated to what might best be described as the cycling equivalent of "builder's bum" with a white panel of lycra stretched over corpulent buttocks. Cathy (different Cath) got a bit too close and reckoned it was spotty as well!

The short route then continues over Malham Moor to Arncliffe and on past Kilnsey down the dale. We turned right at this point to Kettlewell and our cafe stop. Actually this was on the long route and after we'd finished in the cafe I decided to find out how far Cath had got from the event's Kettlewell food stop. "About ten minutes ahead" was the consensus so I decided to try and catch her up.

Just one little bit of the climb of Fleet Moss to do!
It took until the start of the final climb up Fleet Moss before I picked out the Skipton jersey ahead. All I got when I reached her was a grunt. By the time she'd decided that she'd like me to carry on with her we were at the summit. I've never really liked the descent from Fleet Moss down the north side, usually there's a cross wind and it feels very insecure so we just took it steady.

The route doesn't just head straight down Wensleydale but does an awkward loop round Burtersett and Semerwater just to get the vertical ascent figures up. Then once you are at Bainbridge it's mostly a long gentle downhill to the next food stop at Redmire. This is just over 60 miles in to the ride but you still feel as if you are heading away from the finish as you continue down the dale towards Leyburn.

The climb up Gayle Bank to get to Coverdale is more awkward than you might think but the loop around Middleham High Moor just seems unnecessary. Then it's Coverdale which I hate. It's a long deceitful drag of a climb with lots of descents to take away your hard earned effort and the wind is nearly always in your face. Today the wind had picked up again, not as bad as our first ride up here some years ago but still annoying. The steepest part of the climb is the last bit and as the gradient eases you are exposed to the full force of the wind so even the flat summit area of Park Rash is hard work.

Finally it's the steep descent down Park Rash back to Kettlewell and the familiar roads down the dale. Cath decides not to use the last food/drink stop but continue straight on as it's only an hour back to Skipton.

Cath at the top of Black Park.

Of course there's a sting in the tail in the form of Black Park. It's a long drag from this side but being local I know the effort needed and soon I'm passing riders who passed us earlier some of whom are walking. Finally it's the top and the blast in to Skipton. A couple of club members are out cheering us on.

So well done to Cath for her first 100 miler for a while. Not an easy one, I reckon there's only a handful of sportives that are harder. With the lack of food (not officially entered so couldn't use the food stops you see) my legs definitely felt it as well.

Tuesday, 3 September 2013

Dry Stone Walling

Out of the many jobs I've done over the years my favourite has always been dry stone walling. This is the means of building a boundary wall using rough stone without the use of mortar to bind the stone together. There's the satisfaction of putting something together that isn't obvious how it's done and that fits in to its surroundings. I've done walling since I was a child helping my dad repair walls on the farm filling in the hearth or heart of the wall while he handled the stones that probably weighed as much as I did at that age.

Building of the garden wall back in 2006
Dry stone walls are particularly prevalent in the upland areas of northern Britain and two main types can be distinguished: those built from stone recovered during ground clearance and those built by contract wallers either following the enclosure act or renovating much older walls. The dry stone wallers association estimate that it would cost around £3bn to repair all the walls to the top stock-proof standards, current labour prices are around £30 per metre. Walls provide both stock-proof boundaries as well as shelter to animals in poor weather, walls on the high fells aren't completely solid and the gaps allow wind to pass through so that snow doesn't drift next to the wall and burying animals sheltering there.

In 2006 I'd cut down a line of leylandii and built a wall on the side of the garden next to the lane. The wall on the other side of the garden was slowly deteriorating, partly as a result of cows picking apples from our fruit trees! After confirming with the farmer that he wasn't planning on putting stock in the field for a few weeks I set to work.

Starting to pull down the old wall. It's in a sorry state really.

The pile of stones always looks as if it's too much.

As a rough guide, you can reckon on one tonne of stone per running metre of wall and I'd about twenty five metres to sort out. Day one involved pulling down the old wall making sure that the cams or top stones were kept to one side. Some walls have dressed stones for cams but most field walls simply have large stones of a similar size and shape to do the job of protecting the top of the wall. The section of wall changed direction and went across slopes of different angles so I began with the main length of about sixteen metres. Shifting sixteen tonnes of stone is quite hard work and I was definitely tired by the end of the day.

Getting the footings in and then up to the first line of throughs.

Most of day two was getting the wall footings sorted out - no point in rebuilding a wall if the foundations are all wrong. Some of the footings were in good shape but a lot had slipped meaning that they needed pulling out and the earth digging away to get to firm ground. Fortunately this didn't take all day and I was able to begin building the first few metres.

The wall is now up to the level of the first set of throughs. Although this one doesn't go all the way "through" it was too good to not use. It actually is the roof of a rabbit smoot.

The two end guide towers are now up. The batter or lean can be seen on the upper tower.

The construction of a dry stone wall is in some ways very similar to that of a brick or block cavity wall. From the foundations two towers or skins of bricks/blocks/stone are built and then tied together at regular intervals. For brick walls you use brick-ties which these days are also used to support cavity insulation whereas for stone walls you use throughs: these are large flat stones that span the full width or more of the wall. Depending on the height of the wall there may be two or even three courses of throughs, this wall had two courses. The height of a wall is measured to the base of the cams and typically is four feet. The width of the wall at the base is half that of the height whilst the width at the top would be around 12 -15 inches. This means that, unlike a brick wall, the sides of the wall lean inwards, this is known as the batter and can indicate several things.

A wall can be built with equal batter on both sides or with one face almost vertical and the other with the majority of the batter. In this instance the vertical side is the face and usually indicates that the wall is the responsibility of whoever owns the land on that side of the wall. However if a wall goes across a slope then the face will always be on the uphill side as earth creep will naturally try and push the wall downhill - think of the cross section of a water dam. Often the batter is provided naturally by the stone itself, when stone is broken it doesn't break at right-angles but actually has a slight lean to the face, this means that a stone has a right and a wrong way up when placed in a wall, get it wrong and the profile of the wall looks like a saw tooth, get it right and the profile of the stone fits in with the batter.

This run of wall went straight up the slope plus I wasn't sure who had responsibility for it so I went for equal batter on both sides. I couldn't use the pieces of wall to either end as guides as they were just as dilapidated as what I'd taken down so my plan was to build a small section of wall at either end of the run then stretch a line between these and fill in the middle part to that level, put on the throughs then build the end sections to the height of the next row of throughs and repeat, finally building to the finished wall height.

At the height of the second row of throughs.

Finally at cam height. The run of wall to the right was later re-built as well.

Once I'd got to cam height on the main run of the wall I then pulled down the section at the lower end of the run. This both kinked through two slight bends and was partly on a flatter section of ground so needed a bit closer attention than would a straight run. I'd decided not to repair the final few metres down to the field gate as it wasn't bounding our garden - I might do it later if it nags me - so the last bit of this part of the wall was slightly rough in that it hand to match in to a wall that might be getting pulled down. Then it was on to the cams.

As well as being the final set of stones that bind the wall together, cams can help in stock proofing a wall. When jumping a wall, sheep actually run their feet up the stonework so a set of cams that overhangs the wall interrupts this movement and forces the sheep backwards. Thus a relatively low wall with overhung cams can be more stock-proof than a high wall with flush cams. One style of walling around here (West Yorkshire) has small cams resting on a layer of large throughs that overhang each side of the wall by three inches or so thus providing this protection.

Most of the wall is now complete.

Just the last bit to do and tie in to the wall running along the bottom of the neighbour's garden.

Amazingly I'd actually managed to keep enough stone back for cams for the length of wall I'd done so far. Phew! Then it was just the final few metres at the top of the run to patch in to the wall between our garden and that of our neighbours (actually this needs rebuilding as well). Finally it was done, ten days' work for roughly twenty five metres of wall with eight days of actual construction, not the fastest bit of walling but the fruit trees you can see in the photos meant that I was working from one side for most of the time. Unusually I actually had some stone left over, normally I run out and have to pilfer stone from wherever. I reckon that the new wall is just under an inch lower than the previous wall. Still, if I rebuild the bit next to the gate I can use it there.

So, as promised, that was something completely different.