July, in like a lion?

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There are certain things that you should perhaps never look up on Google. Despite the obvious topics that are going to get your name added to some MI5 watch list, and medical topics with pages of bad news. Now add to these the stuff I found out when I went looking for information on the noises coming from my Ti frame and the bulge in my carbon forks.

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You would never ride a bike if you knew what I now know about material failures and delamination. Which is how I ended up spending hours on eBay having declared I would not ride the bike ever again, not ever. 17 years or so and thousands of miles we were together and it was not how I expected things to end. The bike had been bought within 2 days of my previous winter bike being totalled by a young lady high on drugs who hit me at 40mph from behind, but that is another story so back to eBay.

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Every bike I wanted had issues that would require further messing around and expense. I think I also wanted to change to wider tyres and disc brakes if possible. Call me shallow or whatever, but the frame had to be titanium even though I have now had three frames crack on me. My love for the timeless classic and beauty of the earths 5th most abundant element has very little logic. It comes from the heart and bypasses the brain totally.

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There is only one answer in the UK if you want cheap and surprisingly well made, is Planet X. Customer support is zero. You need to know what you are doing and still there is a nauseous light headed guilt at pressing go on a spendy bike that you will first view and assess when it turns up in a very big cardboard box that has been handled by a baboon paid £1.37 to deliver it to you. It all worked out, so hurrah indeed.

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There are those that hate Rapha because it is too expensive and Planet X because it is cheap and can be rubbish or fantastic in equal measure. One is now owned by Walmart and funds Trump and dodges taxes and workers rights, the other by a workers co-operative who share ownership and profits. You just can not win.

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Whenever we meet any of our friends who own companies that have anything to do with tourism there are sad conversations and you quickly have to try and steer the conversation to ” How is your vegetable garden? ” before everyone goes into a tailspin of despair. We own and run Galloway Cycling Holidays, the Visit Scotland Thistle Award winners – Best Outdoor Company for the west of Scotland. We last made  money in September 2019 and have been refused all but 20% of the grant we asked for to get us back up and running.

98% of our guests came from the USA, Asia or Europe and that is where we spent our energy and a big bill for advertising. We are good, very good at what we do with pages of 5 star reviews but we now have to start again as a UK focused cycling holiday company with very little budget to crack a new market. You can see from this blog just how amazing the place is, but that is not enough. I can ride to the highest village in Scotland on Alpine style roads or take the gravel bike along clifftop tracks and ride for miles along quiet roads where we see 1 car an hour. But it is not known, not THE HIGHLANDS an almost unknown place where there are 6 cows per person and you could sit in the middle of a road and read a book in peak holiday season if you picked the road carefully.

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The garden is starting to pay back the trips to local farms with the back of the car full of pony poo. The crop of the year has been spinach requiring us to trawl the WWW. for meals that use a minimum of 1Kg per serving. It does not taste like shop bought stuff, it has a taste not just a green colour and texture. Then the local Elder trees came into flower and our own posh red version in the garden. Everyone we know makes a version of Elderflower cordial. It varies from house to house like a farm made wine in colour and taste depending on how much the maker hates to use sugar in anything.

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There have been days at the computers in our ongoing challenge to our full grant refusal. Letters to politicians and council members and companies we partner with. There have been hours spent doing bookkeeping projections with figures that made us wince. In amongst it all there were HEADSPACE RIDES and thank goodness for those and the whole body care of Dr. BIKE and the landscape of Galloway.

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We rode the clifftop track again between Rascarrel and Balcary and met not a soul. Colonies of seabirds are raising chicks above vertigo drops with crows, ravens and hawks paying them close attention. There have been gravel rides to search out new tracks in the heart of the Galloway Forest.

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Yesterday’s ride was in the wet on winter bikes. My new Ti bike’s discs squealed like a pig on heat every time they got even slightly damp, but that can be dealt with if it doesn’t go away. The Carradice bag had a big flask of barista level coffee and my signature flapjacks. We stopped to take a photo that captures the way the clouds hung onto the tops of the hills, the world of green and grey we were riding in. Quiet, silence and a strange call from the open moorland. I knew it was a bird calling despite it sounding more like someone blowing across the top of a beer bottle. A little more tuneful than those hose things that the crowd had in the world cup in Brazil, similar enough but quieter.

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We stood next to the bikes and waited for the call to drift to us again. It is a sound once heard widely in bogs, fens and marshes throughout the British Isles. But in the last few decades Snipe have declined as breeding birds in many places and are now very local. It is easy to assume the sound is coming from the birds bill, which is wrong. Down at the other end Snipe have a special hinge to their outer tail feathers, which when they fly rapidly causes them to flutter like a flag in a strong wind. The strangest sound made by any British bird.

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We stopped to talk to a neighbour here in the village. A good half hour later we knew more about old tractors than we may ever need. He had worked his life on local farms and finding money short and needing transport now does the run to Tesco by tractor and longer trips by Suzuki.

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We have been meeting a few friends as lockdown has eased. With my recent interest in bicycle materials I have been looking more closely at forks. I pointed out the stain of rusting on a pals bike. An old mountain bike that should perhaps have made a sad oneway journey to the recycling centre rather than having an ebike conversion with a deregulated motor that takes it up to 40 mph. ” Have you ever had a fork snap? “, I just wanted to draw attention to the consequences of failure. ” Oh yes I have. But there were 11 of us on the bike “. Some people have charmed lives.

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How to have a small adventure.

P1510020Down on the coast the bluebells are starting to fade a little in the unseasonal heat and dry of a record breaking run of weather. It amazes me that small streams and even mud enough to make your tyres spin without grip, can still be found. The shady woods of the uplands are still carpeted with fresh young vivid summer sky blues.

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The name bluebell is just 200 years old and before that referred to our own bluebell, the Scottish harebell. Keats called it ‘ the Sapphire Queen of the mid-May, and Tennyson ‘ the blue sky, breaking up from through the earth’. Britain from the far north to the south coast has fallen in love with the bluebell.

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I want to explore somewhere new up in the fringes of the Galloway Highlands and I want to ride my gravel bike. It is so easy now to access maps and they are always the best place to start an adventure. From your computer you can now travel in time and space if you know where to look. In Scotland – and there are Google versions for most places. Pastmap.org.uk allows you to go back in time with layers of maps that you can dive into.

I always start with Bing.com/maps even though we have an OS subscription. Up there in the top right of Bing is a box labelled road which opens to show a scroll down menu; road, aerial, streetside and Ordnance Survey. This is all the OS maps for free and able to zoom to very fine detail. But it is not all there, even the OS leaves things off, which is where ridewithgps alerted me to an airstrip high in the hills that is not on the OS maps.

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I use ridewithgps to create gps or more often the more detailed gpx files to drop on my Garmin 810. In the ridewithgps map menu there are 9 types of maps and I flick between them. If I want to ride on roads then I use OSM cycle and this knows if I am trying to ride the wrong way up a one-way street and keeps me safe and finds the bridges and usable routes. When you want to go off road it can become unhelpful. First I flick to OSM Outdoor which is expecting you to be on foot and is happy to take you where cycle thinks it is unwise. If I want to check if it is very much a bad idea I click up to satellite and zoom in to have a look if the track is there in reality.

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If the tools don’t want to take you along a track that clearly exists, you have to draw the route by hand to the point where the system is happy again and allows automation to work again. Up at the airstrip none of the maps agree about the way forward through the forest and is where you just have to give up and hope it is clearer on the ground, which often it is not.

I have no idea how anyone without a bike to ride is coping with the pandemic. Headspace rides or Boris Rides as we now label them are perhaps the most important thing in the whole week. A week that is now divided into days when we have a milk delivery – Tuesday and Saturday and the one when the bin goes out, Friday. Every day can be an adventure when you have a bike, but it is even better when you have a purpose. Today it was to find the airstrip.

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Crossmichael and turn right by the church onto our new favourite climb. Today as we get onto the slope there are groups of people out walking, taking their exercise, “ more people today than anytime in the last 100 years “. We are climbing slow enough to chat with people which is all part of the new normal perhaps. We leave the tarmac at an old water mill, it’s rusted wheel unturning for a generation or more. Loch Roan and then at the end turn left on the road down to Barwhillanty estate and then right. Nether Laggan and then left at  Diamonds Laggan and eventually a right into the unknown and begin a slow climb up Glenlaggan Hill.

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Tarmac runs out then the gravel becomes rougher. It is hard to believe that up ahead is an airstrip tucked in the forest. You have to keep faith with the faint purple line on the Garmin and hope you plotted in the route correctly. Adventures in forests require absolute faith as tracks turn up that are not on any map, many take you miles to a dead end and an unhappy retreat.

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Up ahead is a wind-sock. Bright orange against the forest greens behind and close clipped grass, an airstrip is ahead. A hanger with the outline of a plane behind the plastic cover and stone chip runway cut into the forest with a dramatic view and a stone wall at the takeoff end. We ride to the end for the view of the Ken valley.

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None of the paths shown on some of the maps are there on the ground allowing us to link up to the road ahead, so we turn and head down into the valley. I am not sure we achieved anything other than we now know that the airstrip is there. But the point of it all is that we had one of the best rides of the year along roads we do not often ride and never in that direction. To end the adventure we visited the grave of James Clerk Maxwell who was Einstein’s hero. If you ever use a phone or gps, you have his work on the theory of electromagnetic radiation to thank, so it felt just right to close the loop. Get out your maps or dive into the web and get out and do stuff, have an adventure very soon.

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The Lockdown Diaries.

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The Sand Martins returned a few days after the last blog and exactly where I see them every previous year. I guess they were there as  far back as the Romans in the fort and settlement that is marked on the maps. Just upstream those that buried the Viking era horde knew to look for the Martins and know that winter is ending, the seasons moving on. They have no idea what a comfort it was to see them this year and the times since I have ridden that way to check up on them.

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Now I am waiting for the Swallows to return to our village and I know they are all around already – one of the plus points for social media. Two or three times in the last few days I have snapped to attention as something went across the sky with Swallow like speed and arrow line. Then I feel stupid when it is a bee just a few feet from me. They always arrive before the final geese have left to make their way to exotic bits of the far north.

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The world has changed since that last blog, changed forever perhaps. It feels just days since we were at award ceremonies with our cycling holiday company and we had the 2020 year planner on the office wall filling up with bookings. Winter is a lean time with short days of focused existence. The good weather for ridding a bike grabbed as a perfect gift before dark at 3.30 in the afternoon. We had a good winter season.

March and our first guests and already we had to change things by the day and then by the hour. Then lockdown anxiety and they had to leave, return home. They may be both our first and last guests of 2020.

P1300931P1490175I knew this before but thought nothing of it, but almost all of our friends are self employed. This part of Scotland has so few normal jobs that to live here you have to improvise and dream into reality a job out of nothing. This is all rather thrilling usually and far more difficult than cycling around the world which by comparison is easy. It hit home when it looked as though the self employed were not going find any help from government as the lockdown tightened.

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We had days of trying to adjust our business to the new model. Then the rules changed and changed again. It was exhausting trying to find a way through. Then everything shut and there was no plan that could work so you could not blame yourself for not being quite smart enough, for not finding a way.

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Across the road there is a big old tree. An Ash that has survived the fungus that will kill 95% of all our Ash. This year for the first time Rooks have built three nests in the canopy. First two and later a third. We have watched the fortunes and power struggle, the stealing of twigs and nests all but destroyed. I have no idea how much nervous energy the Rooks use up in defending territory and fighting. It is exhausting to watch big nests pulled apart and the power struggle. This is the year of the Rook, a signal perhaps but there are more nests than ever around here, dozens within a mile or so.

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The village has always had Rooks I am sure and records from places we ride confirm a long history of 80 to 100 nests in Rookeries going back a 100 years or more. They are there in the names of woodlands and villages. Having had the graffiti on bridges pointed out to me I was told of some close to our home here in Rhonehouse. The road to Ireland ran by our door and our house was one of 13 pubs in this very small village. Down on the bridge where the road crosses the River Dee someone had time enough to carve what they knew, a pack horse. I stopped to look for it on what we now call our Boris Ride. Once a day we are allowed to take exercise and we go for a ride.

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The small things that cost next to nothing are now more important than ever. We ride somewhere and make the experience special by taking a flask of coffee with us or making a brew as we sit and look out to sea. Gardening is now the focus of our days, growing things that we and our friend will eat if we get things right. We make coffee in the garden using the wood stoves that we love to play with. Lighting a fire using a steel, connecting with a skill. We have labelled these Lockdown Life Skills, the key things that we enjoy and like to practice.

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It is hard to know which Rook will win across the road, which will raise a family or will they all fail. Which of our friends will still have a business at the other end of this. For the time being we all shout greetings and wave on our daily rides. Galloway has to be one of the best places to live and it is good to be surrounded by wonderful people. But even here there are a those taking the opportunity to lock gates. ” Get off my land, you are spreading the virus “, is what I had shouted at me the other day by a landowner as I used a right of way.

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We will be talking about this in a hundred years time. Where were you when Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon or when Elvis died, John Lennon shot. Where were you in the year of Lockdown? I am happy to be in Scotland and very happy to be in Galloway.

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