Playing catch up 4

Chris in Ireland and Tim busy. Henry and I spend the night on the Cabby before going for a Dun Run. Get the miles in the legs 120 miler and similar gung-ho chat.

The tandem is not an option for me to bring back on the train so I am on the Brompton and we fix up Justine’s beautiful, orange, hardtail Kona Lavadome – an original one that has previously done both the Dun Run and the North Himalaya plateau.

We lift it down to the pontoon and, of course, the tyre goes flat. Again, I can not find the right tube. Inner tubes are proven fans of Douglas Adams and, like biro’s they hide when you need them. The wheels are smaller than the Kona Sutra I discover. I also find the missing tubes for the Helios Circe that were nowhere to be seen a couple of weeks back. Even more obscure, tubes for the beautiful and expensive Pacific Reach IF – sadly crushed between my neighbours barge and the shore when he was borrowing it. While interesting to see it folded in a completely different way than intended, it was 1.6k down the drain as you smile and say, ‘don’t worry about it, accidents happen’ or something similar. Still gutted as it was a designers wet dream. I digress.

Tube patched. Henry exclaiming about what a real bike feels like and we are off. It is even still early – 6.30ish, no less! Up the Limehouse Cut, out through Epping. Tracking the route on Strava makes checking directions easy without anything annoying as Sat Nav talking to you.

I have the advantage of the Brighton ride in my legs, much as I hated it at the time, and feel as though I can ride for ever. Henry is strong for the first 40 miles and then the pass slows. Fair enough, we have covered a whole county and over 60 miles by the time we reach Sudbury. Lunch and a train home to collect the children in time – again! – seem to be a far better idea.

Although, I had to collect the children from a play date at a charming house on Elsworthy Road –  a strange road that runs alongside Primrose Hill (NW3), but is neither that or quite St Johns Wood (NW8), which I like. The children are still eating and I have to remove my shoes while waiting. Not good after a ride and I am painfully self-conscious, to the extent of wishing I had faced the wrath of being late…



Playing catch up 3

Tim can’t get the day off, but is likely to let the team up by being the only fit member, so this is not really an issue. Henry is also busy, so I set off on the Brompton from Sailing Barge Cabby almost on time having cleared the decks (no pun intended) of the work I needed to do.

Grey weather, threatening rain, and a headwind making the most of the non-aero-dynamic front bag that Brompton’s sport. I am knackered by the time I get to Streatham with Brixton Hill sapping any strength I may have had. Chris arrives and he too is without a map. 66 miles to Brighton and the two people with the worst sense of direction I know are having to work from memory – I mean, the Marrakech Atlas Etape is a single road up and down and we struggle not to get lost on that – what could go wrong.

I struggled. Rose Hill, that dreadful slog past Sutton, Mitcham or somewhere. Main roads eventually stop as we turn onto the Dorking road, cross the M25 and pass the Pfeiffer factory. Christ this is hard (pun intended). Chris feeds me a bar of some sticky muck and the liquid foulness of a gell – as he describes below, I am in dire need of food.

Beyond Box Hill, the staff at the small post office, general store combo we stopped at looked shocked as I purchase Lucazades, greasy bacon and cheese number, 4 snickers and a couple of packets of jelly babies, however, it hit the spot and around 30 miles in I had warmed up.

The Brompton, while making me look like a bear on  clown bike, felt twitchily responsive. The handlebars of the P-type, while looking like an exercise bike, providing the variety of positions required for distance, climbs and the like. This is the bike I want to ride this year. I want to get a Brompton up the Ouka Monster for the third time – how to break it to Henry that I do not want to ride the tandem again?

Devils Dyke, Beach, beer, burgers and home in time to collect the children – that alone is a record!


Hello 2017

Now we are four…

The fifth Marrakech Atlas Étape supports Education for All which is 10 this year! With the first students now coming through University, the charity now provides access to secondary education for nearly 200 girls who would otherwise not have had the opportunity. The current campaign raising money to support a sixth boarding house.

And for the 2017 Étape Tuffcall return as a team of four – Chris and myself for the fifth time, Henry, last year’s stoker on the tandem is back for a second time and Tim is the new member for this year. There is also a chance that we will swell in numbers to six if Paul and his sister do more than threaten to sign up – potentially giving the tandem an airing.

Our foursomes’ current collective age is over 200 with the usual collection of beer bellies and random gear. Tim, by far the fittest of the group, has a proper mountain bike; Chris will have whichever bodged together stead that is most ‘road worthy’ at the time; I am not sure if Henry has upgraded from his boneshaker yet and I am planning, having ridden the small wheel tandem with Henry last year and the Pacific folder the year before, to revert back to the trusted Brompton. If nothing else, an eclectic mix to bring up the rear of the field.

Training to date has been a stop start affair with a lot of time dedicated to the former. Staying in the Cevennes in the summer saw Mike, one of the founders of the EFA, and I taking on some serious climbs at altitude before breakfast. A healthy life stretched before me – as far as the return to London and the reality check it transpired.

There followed a long hiatus. The agency world workload got heavier and Chris and I hardly speak to each other, let alone go for a ride. Work dominates most waking moments without any concept of balance – more going for the burn-out rather than the burn.

A confidence shaking crash and a ski holiday cancelling fracture in my foot add to the delays.

Off the crutches for Christmas and walking for new year. It is February and all prevarication has to stop.

So, I purchased some weighing scales.

Little steps.

Actually, more like one almighty jolt. I am back up to 16 stone. Something has to happen. I must act.

A blog post will help, surely…?

Marrakech Atlas Etape 2015

I find a hard to believe that we are into June and it is over a month since the Etape!

Chris has been doing the odd other ride or two and we both took a spin out to Dunwich as neither of us are free for the Dynamo – quite a way to go for a pint at the Ship, but, if anyone knows the Ship at Dunwich, definitely worth it.

It also led to an amusing incident where, having thrown the bikes in the car to be given a lift to Darsham station, I demonstrated how much of a city boy I am by pointing out a convenient layby to pull into – unfortunately, and slightly unexpectedly, this turned out to be the railway at the level-crossing that I failed to recognise. Regardless, we made the hourly train with seconds to spare. Chris had more grease on his head than his chain – a point Henry had delightfully described as an odd smudge – which nicely offset his silver hair and caused the side of the guard’s mouth to spasm when we were buying out tickets.

Still, I digress.

The Marrakech Atlas Etape 2014 for me was followed by a run in with a taxi and injuring the pelvis. I foolishly managed to get the children back to the boat, collapsed down the hatch and then realised I was stuck. Misconstrued by my partner, on her return, as drunkenness she brilliantly slammed the hatch and went out for the evening – so it was not until the next day that a hazardous rescue crew came to the barge to reunite me with dry land, hospital and eventually the lucky escape of crutches rather than several months in a cage.

This did mean that a lot of the run up to the 2015 Etape was wondering if I would actually ever get there.

Eventually, I taught myself to ride and then walk – which may have been the other way around, but was a close ‘hobbled’ thing.

The ensuing months had not left either Chris or myself in very good shape with us both being noticeably more portly.

Training started late and in a bit of a panic – we kept telling ourselves this will prevent us peaking too soon and becoming complacent.

This was aided any further by the fact that we struggled to get a ride in where either one or the other of us wasn’t suffering – either from overwork and long nights at the office or from the excess to counteract such abuse of the European Time Legislation.

And then there was the threat of humiliation – our blog readership went up by 100% as Chuck stumbled across it, filled out the form and joined the team. Who was this dark horse, this ex US military, European dwelling, cycling ninja? We were cycling scared. So scared I almost lit an ‘altitude training’ cigarette!

Bikes crow-bared into their ever-so-slightly too small bags, covered in (more) grease and swearing at the jokers who design these things purely to frustrate. They don’t fit the bikes and there is that cycling smugness where they never supply instructions – somehow, this magical metal origami you need to perform should be second nature – at birth you howl in that first breath in response to a man in blue smacking you on the back and instinctively fold a bike despite the fact you are yet to open your eyes and brave the brightness of this new world.

Despite this and my self-indulgent rant, both Chris and I get to the airport early and with everything we need packed for once.

Time to change some money have a beer and jet to sunnier climes.

Ah, but despite all our meticulous last minute rushing around, we hadn’t allowed for Easy Jet – Or ‘Easy’ as they had temporarily rebranded, as they were not intending to jet anywhere.

Not knowing when the flight was going to be announced, we couldn’t really sit down to a sensible meal, so we carb-loaded at the bar with a view to eating whatever delights are on offer on the plane – and that’s where the plan backfired. The delay ended up being quite substantial, and when we eventually did get off the ground it transpires that they had forgotten to load any food!

Allowing for the fact you could have probably grown a balanced diet in the time we were waiting, we were less than impressed and had to drink through it.

Marrakech airport, late at night and perfectly timed to coincide with a group of rich party goers and their collective private jets –customs took so long we were sober by the time we left ‘airside’ and stepped onto Moroccan soil.

Astoundingly, our car was there and our driver smiled through his yawn and shrugged, ‘that’s travel’. Perfect. And minutes later we were in our hotel. Great rooms with doors opening onto a private moon bathing area, leading onto a lighter shade of darkness that was probably a pool – still, no time for that – food!

It appeared that Marrakech was closed! Deflated, we returned to the hotel re-affirmed the lack of room service, other than the sort that may land you in prison, and assembled the bikes before collapsing hungry and already hung-over.

While the dawn chorus of calls to prayer didn’t wake me, the alarm that followed on close behind did the trick and I rolled out of bed to roll on the far-too-tight lycra on auto-pilot. Catching a glimpse of myself in the mirror did at least raise a smile – A Carter USM cycling top fitted the bill allowing for their, ‘You fat bastard’, chant – although the top had swapped ‘fat’ for ‘fit’ which was slightly more debatable.

Some bread for breakfast was followed by a dash to the start where, maintaining the late theme, we just made it in time to register, turn around and immediately set off.

With the increased coverage and popularity of the event, more slim and professional looking people seemed to have turned up.

Richard Freemantle was looking fit and determined – as was his friend Simon Rich, while Derek Workman had lost enough weight to wear a cycling top, no doubt increasing the speed of his writing by lowering the wind resistance of his pen. Meanwhile, I sucked my tummy in, clenched and held my breath while hating them all.

Learning from last year, Chris and I did not chase these lean things with their lack of air friction over the opening leg. A gentleman in full GB gear of similar stature to me seemed to be setting a suitable 16+ stone pace, so I covered the first 30k chasing him – partly because he had bigger wheels and partly because people my size are great to draft.

Meanwhile, behind me I could hear an American accent commenting on the small wheels – finally, just as we were pulling into Scorpion City we had met up with Chuck and his son. – big accents, big hearts and big wheels!

A couple of banana’s and off before the legs seized – rolling hills through increasing rural villages as we approach the mountain proper. Then the road forks and, bang, the first hill hits. It was further away than memory had it, yet, at the same time, there was the advantage of knowing it was short and sharp and suddenly you are flying into a dip to the second stop. A further 10k on, with the effort being getting to the menace that is the hill, rather than the climb itself. From here on it is 30k of climbing with a further two stops – how hard can it be?

Carnet stamped and on. The answer is rapidly apparent to the ‘hard’ question. From 40 – 50k in there are a couple of pretty steep moments. One is increasingly more exposed, it is 34 degrees and there is no training one can do in the UK that prepares one for the constant uphill flog.

Still, the Pacific is much better on hills than the Brompton and there is always an end. Unfortunately, the end is almost just after everything feels like it is going to explode.

Stop 3. Banana, water, olives, carnet stamped, pain – despite everything, the back and pelvis are now giving me bloody hell. 20k to go and off – have to go, despite not having seen Chris for ages, if I wait I will seize up – and, in fairness, the fact it is a single road with no turning means that however bad our combined sense of direction is, neither of us could be lost. So, he either has a ‘mechanical’ or has collapsed and died. If the latter, I both envy him and can pick him up on the way down.

The going is tough. An old(er) chap pedals past in such a low gear that I am amazed that he can stay upright on the the bike – that is, until I realise that I am slower still and almost fall off in shock at my amazing balance.

I come across a chap who, albeit much younger, is flabbier and starting to struggle. I feed him water and energy gels and we cycle a way together – panting a broken conversation in a combination of French and English. Allowing for the fact I have only just mastered the latter will give one an idea of the level of coherence involved, however, there was a shared bond between the sweat and pain that somehow bypassed the need for language – a good job in the circumstances…

I get off to stretch my back. He goes ahead. I catch him. Overtake. Get off, stretch my back and so the pattern continues. And then I creep ahead while making a mental note not to break my pelvis before doing something so stupid as this again.

The air thins and the view improves. Hairpin upon switch-back as we gain altitude. And then the last water stop. Just 10k to go.

I remember previously feeling this 10k being longer than I can remember, but strangely can not remember any of the longer bits. It is only 10k, it can’t be too far, surely?

Having stretched, I feel better than I have ever felt at this point before. Crack on…

People are heading past me at speed, shouting encouragement with the cheerful voices of those heading in the opposite direction.

How many more turns are there?

And then my gel consuming friend drives past on the back of a scooter. For some reason he gets off to keep me company and lets the scooter go – why let the scooter go for god’s sake? It could have towed me to glory. I would have paid. I didn’t even have any energy gels left as I had given them to the kid who used them to hold his bike over his shoulder while getting a lift.

Anyway, anger aside, we ground on – he leads, I catch up and etc. It transpires (and perspires) that fat English men seem to be tougher and I left him behind – eventually.

It felt like the end. Every craggy turn should show the end. I must have covered the last 10k. No, please not more… This mixed with the cheery shouts from the gravity aided returnees was the tune of the last 5k. And then, at last, there is the dam, the ski station and that little drag across the impossibly uphill flat to the finish line.

Chris (McHugo) is a legend in his own lunchtime. He calmly marks my card and then casually releases a couple of beers from the boot of his car. Gratitude doesn’t cover it. I force one on the guy who, through suffering worse than mine, I had paced the last few k’s – it was probably the last thing he wanted, however, it is the thought that counts.

I waddle over to the food tent, ignore it and collapse on the grass, roll a fag and revel in the view, the pressurised hiss of the can opening and the sparking scrape of the flint as I lit the cigarette.  Derek is a familiar face at the top and someone to chat to in that semi-rambling way of the drunk, stoned and exhausted. In my mind though I am lucid and feeling pretty good, I may have even enjoyed myself!

Must force some olives down while waiting for Chris, salt required.

Chris appeared looking wired, triumphant and having spent a lot of the climb overcoming cramp – maybe an olive?

Maybe not the best time to offer…

Mike, suffering from a lack of training, makes it up among the back markers. This is a man in his early sixties who has just cycled up one of the longest single ascents in the world without really training!

Massive respect.

I must digress briefly. The previous year he cycled the 24 hour Le Mans. Allowing for the slope on the track, over the 200 odd miles he rode he actually climbed more in the day than the Ouka Monster – did I already say respect?!

Mike, being late to the top and having an evening to organise literally arrived, made sure the back marker made it – a feat of heroism as the back marker pulled his 16 stone + to the end (trust me it is an effort), realised his body no longer responded, went into shock followed by the ambulance and eventually the military hospital. Anyway, having checked up on the back marker, Mike was off without a break.

Gravity is a wonderful thing. Mike set a cracking pace as we cut through some of the world’s best scenery. He paused to put some gloves on saying his was fine – a good thing as my breaks were smoking and stopping was only going to happen the hard way.

30k down in under 30 minutes before the rude awakening of an upward gradient. Still the next 10k was made up of the sharp up and downs through the villages to Scorpion City – blasting through the dust and back among the traffic, powering forward like souls possessed.

And then the long straight run into Marrakech.


Head wind full of dry dessert heat. Cant take any more caffeine drinks as my guts are twisted and I need buckets of water. Cars screaming past and the kilometre markers not coming quickly enough. Here the Pacific can’t handle the flat – when Chris takes the lead I spin trying to keep up.

Just horrible.

And finally, there is the race track – spinning off the roundabout and back to the start having battled through the journey to get here, the ride – literally the ups and the downs.

I am sure we would have been met with rapturous applause on our return if it hadn’t been for the fact that we were so slow that things were being packed up and the few people left were, rightly so, concerned as to Mike’s whereabouts.

Oh well, our 15 minutes will have to wait. Chris and I wended our way to the hotel – obviously having ensured Mike had calmly cycled home first – showered and donned our evening wear and headed out.

Chris had a dapper shirt on and I wore a skirt – always amusing in Morocco as men in dresses point and laugh at the kilt, no doubt in the same way landowners mock those with sawn-off shotguns…

…And to the EFA meal.

Chris M slipping Gordon’s Export in the punch at the head of the red carpet. A reunion with our American friends, who are both good value and smoking companions. Ambassadors, both English and Danish, the uncomfortable English reaction to a belly dancer and a chance to ‘meet the girls’.

‘Meeting the girls’.

I was not comfortable with this. Are they being put on display or are we? How does this work? One is shared out per table? Is it going to turn into the worst type of ex-pat nightmare?

Well, as it transpires, I met two truly inspiring people who, having gone through the system, are now in their second year at Uni, one studying law and the other biology, which at the risk of becoming a Nobel Laureate and getting distracted, is a science.

The evening was a lot of fun with amusing distractions; Chris M auctioning bank notes for higher than face value – before I fleeced him of his Fez – which, tassels and all, he still owes me.

Mostly, however, it made me realise what an excellent job the EFA do. It is run by volunteers and all, well, all but the Just Giving fee, but otherwise, all money goes towards educating these girls. Giving them a safe environment in which to learn rather than being married off early. The results and wider benefits from ambulances, bin collections, a council across the three valleys and, most importantly, the inspiring pupils who are truly amazing.

People working to do little things that collectively can add up to changing the world using the most powerful weapon you can give someone – education.

I am proud of the effort Chris and I have made, hugely grateful for the support and will be doing this again next year.

Tuffs 2015 x

The new Brompton

Well, I am all paid up and there is now only the new year celebrations to go before the training starts in earnest.

Four months to swap the ‘a’ in fat to an ‘i’!

Having spent a lot of 2014 relatively immobile following my bike crash straight after the ‘Ouka’, I am amazed at how much larger I am – not good. On the bright side the Brompton has also grown proportionally. Having had the trusted folder, veteran of two Marrakesh-Atlas Etapes, stolen from the boat in September, I decided to replace it with a Pacific IF Reach – the ‘IF’ standing for integrated fold.

Was this wise?

On paper the Reach looks the business (and the RRP of 1.6k means it should be). Reality has proven to be slightly different. The integrated fold is ingenious, however, the magnet solution to hold the two folded halves together does not work (note to self, must buy a bungee). The cables get in the way and can jam the brakes are on when folded, meaning the bike will not wheel. Often, when unfolding, a cable will get jammed between the joining parts.

In an effort to make the folded footprint small, the handle bars also collapse – as the clip for this requires an additional velcro safety strap to hold it in place, it also means they are in danger of collapse when cycling!

Despite all the cleverness, the folded version is still large, fragile and awkward to move around – the handle being as likely to break fingers when the bike unfolds itself (due to magnet) at every opportunity.

Add to the list that the supplied seat post is too short, it is hard to get tyres to fit in the UK, the plastic pedals need replacing and rack and mudguards need to be imported – still something I need to get around to which means I arrive everywhere with a sweaty back (from pack) and a wet bum (London rain).

None of the compact and robust benefits of the old ‘go anywhere’ Brompton then.

Despite all the negatives, however, once unfolded the Reach is a joy to ride. The long wheel base make it cycle like a proper bike, yet it is as nimble and responsive as a folder and, although the mountain bike gearing feels like a lack of flat-line ‘omph’, it is faster than the Brompton.

All-in-all, it is like riding a ‘thoroughbred’ – equally, there is all the trouble that goes with this as some of the more ‘mad professor’ ideas backfire in reality.

Regardless, it is all worth it – now to get fit and see how the Reach handles the High Atlas…
Pacific 'IF' Reach

All change

Well, my reader, it has been a while. Following the Etape with it’s death defying descent and the Brompton screaming around corners at 50+kmh – so fast that Strava got in touch and removed both my climbs (2013 and 2014) from my profile as it must have been done in a vehicle!

I was going to make a fuss, but on my return to London I got hit by a taxi – honestly, how often can you get a taxi on a Friday night in London – and broke my pelvis in three places. On the bright side the Brompton was unscathed and I am now able to forecast rain 24 hours in advance.

So, a summer of restricted movement and chasing two children taking advantage of the crutches, meant that I was unable to carry out the much needed maintenance on SB Cabby – the last wooden Thames Sailing Barge made, a Dunkirk Little Ship and a member of the National Historic Fleet, I was determined to get back on the bike and, taking a break from fund-raising for Education for All, start raising money to get the old girl fixed up in a Charity or Trust status.

Two days after getting back on the bike, the boat was broken into and, as luck would have it, the bike stolen!

So, a second sea change. I made the decision not to buy Brompton number three. They are great, very well geared and as I proved, despite Strava’s doubts, you can get them anywhere – however, they are heavy (even with the wheels on the stand), which does not go with the weather forecasting pelvis and, when contacted to support EFA, they were far from helpful.

Having said all that, I am still getting a folding bike. This time it is one you can wheel around a little easier in the form of a Pacific Reach –

A numbers game…

  • 200 riders
  • 34 degrees heat
  • 1 very large climb – 140k / 2624m
  • 3 ‘fat dads’ who cycled down from England (!) – Of whom, Douglas jnr was the winner on the day
  • 1 Brompton
  • 6.8 miles – Strava underestimating  the distance I covered hmmm
  • 12,932 Nike Fuel Points of cycling

So the new blood this year were mainly younger and whippet thin. Particularly from a distance – which was the main view I had of them as they disappeared over the horizon.

Of the rest, shall we say determined amateurs, we struggled up via litres of water, liberal application of sun cream and ever increasing amount of cramp. The heat turned it in to a massive feat of endurance, broken briefly by the break-neck descent and then the 30k run in to Marrakech on melting tarmac into a hot, dry headwind.

Very, very hard – harder than in the cold, but all worthwhile once an ice-cold beer at the finish started to numb the pain.

Extremely well organised in the charming, understated way that made in so enjoyable last year and bought Chris and I back for more.

Great to meet Linda of Riad Linda, our host during our brief stay and the one reader of this blog! – a pleasure to share a drink at the finish.

Respect to Mike, Chris, Gareth and all the rest of the Education for All team for making it all happen.

Thanks to Argan Xtreme Sports for the Pepsi and Marlboro red in my hour of need!

And, finally, a massive thank you for all the support – we have raised enough money to support three girls for a year at the EFA houses.

Right, I need some sleep


Chris smiling: