Flyup 417 Bike Park

One of my goals for 2019 was to ride at a bike park, and earlier this week a day off work, childcare and the weather all aligned and I could get to Flyup 417 Bike Park in Gloucestershire. And what a day it was!

For the non mountain bikers reading, a bike park is somewhere with lots of downhill bike trails, usually with an uplift service (van/chairlift etc) to get you up to the top of the hill. This means that you can concentrate on riding downhill. Although this may sound like cheating, lots of downhill riding can be quite tiring, as I found out…

When I got to the bike park and signed in, I realised that I was their first customer of the day – I had the whole bike park to myself! I could not believe my luck as I was driven to the top of the hill in the van. I started off with a few laps of “Blue Racoon” their new “easy” trail, which was a really fun, flowy trail, with smooth wide berms all the way down the hill. Perfect to warm up on! As the bike park had only just reopened after being closed by snow, I took it easy on my first run, making sure there were no ice patches etc, but it was clear and I was able to press on for the next few runs. Brandon, the van driver, later told me that all the trails are inspected before the bike park opens, but I prefer to check out a new trail before hitting it at full speed.

For my fourth run I tried their other blue-rated trail “Cheese Roller”, which is on the other side of the hill. This is a longer trail and one of the first trails they built, so is narrower and a bit more natural. The top section of the trail was closed due to ice, but that meant it could ride from where the van dropped me off, rather than pushing up to the very top of the hill. “Cheese Roller” was my favourite trail of the day, it is a fair bit longer than “Blue Racoon” and a nice step up in difficulty. The final section along the bottom of the field is a series of table top jumps, which looked like they were perfect for learning to jump on – assuming your legs still had some strength left after the descent. I say were, as I have since heard that they are rebuilding these jumps. As I was riding down, I saw someone else pushing their bike up the hill, which looked like a lot of effort to save a few pounds! He only did a few runs, so I still had the track to myself when I was riding. Having the uplift van to myself was great too, it would be waiting for me at the bottom of the hill, ready to whisk me back to the top. I was making the most of this and managed six runs in just over an hour, so when lunchtime came round I was glad to be able to give my legs a rest.

After eating my lunch I had a look at the indoor riding barns. The dirt jump barn looked fun, but I lack both the skills and bravery to ride it! The indoor ashphalt pump track looked like a lot of fun – I think Owen would have been in his element there. Next time we are passing by on the M5, I think we will be calling in for an hour. Whilst waiting for the van to come and pick me up for the afternoon, I rode up the push up track and back down the lower section of “Cheese Roller”. I felt like I could attack the line of jumps more, as my legs were feeling fresher than after riding down the whole trail. However I was still nowhere near making the landing – more practice needed!

My first full run after lunch was “Cheese Roller”, as I wanted to warm up with a familiar trail, before stepping up to the red graded trails. The main red trail, “Igneous”, has a couple of alternative lines, “Missing Link” and “Pinball Wizard”, which split off from, then rejoin, the main trail. Brandon advised that I should ride these alternative lines, by taking the left trail at both of the forks. “Missing Link” was noticeably rougher than the blue trails, with a small rock garden in the middle. The rocks continued as I rejoined “Igneous”, with a series of small drop offs in quick succession – this was probably the most technical section of trail I rode. It highlighted that I need to improve my set up to drops, as I could hit one, but could not get the hang of hitting multiple drops one after the other, as I was taking too long to prepare myself for each one. “Pinball Wizard” was a fun trail to ride, albeit slightly outside of my comfort zone. It had a few deceptive drop offs, that initially looked quite big, but were actually rollable. Then came two sets of berms, first a bigger set, then a smaller, tighter set, which again I struggled with, as I am not quite quick enough. The last section of “Igneous” has recently been rebuilt, with a series of large table top jumps. A couple of lads were seasoning the jumps on downhill bikes – the first point in the day that I was sharing the trail with anyone! Knowing the jumps were way too big for me to even attempt, I kept my speed down and just rolled over them.

After a couple of runs on the red trails I decided it was time to get my GoPro from the car and get some footage of the trails. I rarely ride with my GoPro, but the short repeated loops at the bike park seemed ideal to use it. I rode “Blue Racoon” down to the car park to collect my camera, then rode the “Missing Link”/”Pinball Wizard”, “Cheese Roller” and “Blue Racoon” trails, capturing the footage at the bottom of this post. For my last two rides up the hill I was joined in the van by a father and son who had been riding at the Forest of Dean earlier in the day, but fancied a few bike park laps on their way home. By the end of my run down “Blue Racoon” my legs were really burning. It was a different sensation to tired legs from pedalling, more in the calves than the thighs, but I knew it was time to call it a day and get home in time to wash my bike before it got dark.

I had a great day, possibly my best ever on a bike, and I am already looking forward to my next bike park trip. I know I was extremely lucky to have the place almost to myself, but on the other hand I can see how much fun it would be with a group of friends. I will need to work on my fitness before my next visit – I have already started doing calf raises on the bottom step of the stairs at home, and I am sure that more pump track sessions will help too. I also learned that I need to be less excited and actually remember to pause my Strava app before each uplift ride – I ended up spending way too much time tidying up the GPX file and uploading each individual run.

GoPro clips from each of the trails

Strava files for each of the trails

Ten Year Challenge

The #10yearschallenge has been all over social media the past few weeks, so I thought I would join in. I cheated a bit pushed the limit of the rules, as the 2009 photo was taken right at the end of 2009. Come to thick of it, the recent photo was taken at the back end of 2018, making it more of a nine year challenge…

The 2009 photo was taken by my Dad, we had spent Christmas in Perth, there was so much snow that the road to Glenshee was closed, so instead of going snowboarding with my brother, I went on another photo walk with Dad – we had already been out on Christmas day. The photo was one of a series my Dad took of me on Moncreiffe Island, in the middle of the River Tay in Perth, however this one is my favourite – it was the one I used on the online auction dating profile where Jen found me! I still regularly wear the blue Finisterre jacket, even if it looking a bit tired now. It is still a great jacket and I think I will be buying a new one in 2019.

The recent photo was an iPhone selfie on a local bike ride back in November. I remember the light in Tile Hill Wood was perfect, so I just had to stop for a photo! This was back before I had sorted out my MTB photography kit, but fortunately even the front camera on my iPhone 7 works well with good light.

From looking at the two photos I do not seem to have changed much, I am still have the same stubble and am messing about in the woods. However, in 2009 I was in the woods in Scotland because after travelling up there I could not go snowboarding. In 2018/9 I cannot even remember the last time I thought about snowboarding, mountain biking has well and truly taken over! Another thing that I realised has changed is that I have not been out with my Dad on a photography adventure for a long time – something that I need to address in 2019!

Pumptrack

Recently the real world seems to have got in the way of my planned bike rides. Including last weekend when I had planned a day at 417 Bikepark, but still hadn’t really got over the cold that had prevented me riding the previous weekend. This was particularly annoying as I had bought myself a full face helmet (Fox Proframe) in anticipation of the higher speeds on an uplift day. A full face helmet was possibly overkill, but I would rather not have to have my jaw wired shut for six weeks, like my best mate did after a big “over the bars” crash on my stag do! Despite my cold, I still wanted to get out for a ride. The helmet would have been a bit over the top to wear on a gentle local ride, but I thought I could get away with it at the pumptrack!

I decided to go to the pumptrack at Olton, near Solihull. I had taken Owen to ride there on his balance bike earlier in the year, and thought at the time it was a bit too big for him, but perfect for me! I had also recently watched the GMBN “How to get fit riding at the pumptrack” video, and decided that I should try to add some pumptrack sessions into my training regime.

This was my first time at the pumptrack without Owen, so I could go all out without having to keep an eye out for Owen (or anyone else, as I had the track to myself). I dropped in for my first run, pumped the downslopes, carved the berms, but still needed to put in a few pedal strokes to make it to the top of some of the hills. The lap took forty seconds, but when I checked my heart rate on my Apple Watch – it was up at 185bpm (roughly my maximum). Not bad for less than a minute of work!

After letting my heart rate drop down below 150bpm I set off again. And again, And again. I could feel my technique getting better after each lap, I wasn’t needing to pedal as much, but my legs were getting tired. Who knew that riding round in circles, without pedalling, was such hard work? After eight laps I decided to push through and round it up to ten. By then I was feeling sick – I’m not sure how much of it was down to the lingering cold, or if it was just down to how hard I had pushed myself. Whichever way, adding something new to my training certainly allowed me to get out of my comfort zone and push myself – and the thing is with pumptracks is that the faster you go the more fun it is!

Toddler Climbing at Rock Up Birmingham

Owen is a little monkey, and like all little monkeys, he likes climbing things! I had looked at taking him to the Ballroom Climbing Wall in Coventry, where I occasionally go climbing, but they don’t really cater for toddlers. Then I learned about “Clip ‘n Climb“, which was suitable for Owen as they use a safety rope. Rock Up in Birmingham is our local one, and they run toddler sessions on some weekday mornings – including Friday, my day off! Perfect!

As expected, Owen was really excited about going climbing and enjoyed driving through Birmingham, especially looking at all the cranes and seeing a 911 GT3 in the car park. We got Owen rigged up in his harness easily enough and attached to the rope on the first wall. Owen seemed to get the hang of it fairly quickly, getting up to about my head height, with a bit of help from the staff. However, he didn’t like the idea of jumping off, even just to see how the safety system worked. I guess it must have felt a bit unnatural to him. At this point he got it into his head that he didn’t want to climb the wall again and as anyone with a toddler knows, once they have decided something there is no changing their mind!

Next we moved on to a ladder – at home Owen loves climbing ladders, but again after reaching roughly my head height on his first try he gave up and didn’t want to go again. We then moved on to the wall in the photo at the top of this post. He did really well on this one, coordinating his arms and legs to climb up to the overhang. He then needed some help to traverse across to where he is in the photo, where he climbed a bit more, once again up to about my head height.

By this point I think he’d had enough of climbing, so we moved from the walls to a circle of posts, which increased in height. Once connected to the safety system Owen was able to clamber on to the first post, looking pleased with himself. However the jump to subsequent posts was too far, so he needed help to jump between them. Fortunately the safety rope took most of his weight, so I was able to lift Owen until he was standing on a post taller than me! I think at this point Owen realised just how high up he was and he took a bit of coaxing to jump down into my arms.

At this point we decided to move to the soft play – when taking a toddler to an activity it is good to have a backup option included in the price. And all toddlers seem to love soft play! Especially in Owen’s case, when there are toy trucks to play with. Owen happily spent the rest of the session playing with trucks, jumping in the ball pit and running around, up and down the soft play. When it came to leave Owen had his only tantrum of the morning, screaming that he “wanted to stay here forever”!

Even though the climbing aspect didn’t go as well as I had hoped we’ll definitely be going back to Rock Up for their toddler session. At £6 (including three hours free parking) I thought it was good value for money and an ideal wet weather activity! The staff were great with Owen and most importantly he absolutely loved it!

Pre-breakfast Ride in Croyde

I’m currently on holiday in Croyde, North Devon, with my family, but I also brought my hardtail along, hoping to fit in a ride or two. On Friday I rode to Braunton for fish and chips, but that was just a road ride, and I really wanted to hit the trails! On my trip last year I bought a cycle map from Croyde Cycle, and had identified a suitable loop.

When I got onto the first bridleway out of Croyde, I had underestimated just how rocky it would be. It was also steep. Steep enough that I had to push my bike up it, which gave me plenty of time to worry about riding back down it at the end of the ride. The trail was similar to what I was riding around Ladybower – but I was on my Four there, with a dropper post, grippier tyres and much better brakes. Eventually I got to the top of the ridge that separates Croyde and Saunton Sands – time for the climb to pay off! The trail down the Saunton Sands side wasn’t as steep or rocky, but it was a lot narrower, a really good piece of single track. There were a few rock slabs at the bottom, which I got to inspect closely after choosing the wrong line. Fortunately it was at low speed. I then followed the bridleway/coast path behind Braunton Burrows. The first section had a “Beware of the bulls sign”, fortunately without any bulls. The next section was through the golf course, with signs warning about golfers – there were none. Then the final section was behind the Royal Marines training area. You guessed it, there were warning signs, but no Marines. It felt a bit like all of the “Bear” warning signs when Jen and I went to Yosemite on our honeymoon road trip!

Where the trail joined the “American Road”, I turned back towards Braunton, taking the byway across the “Great field”. The byway was only just about wide enough for a cauliflower picking tractor, so when two of them were approaching me I had to stop and wait for them to pass. From Braunton I followed the cycle route out of town, which eventually turned into a steep, rutted, muddy climb. I could probably have coped with any of those separately, but the combination meant that I felt safer pushing up. The climb did yield another rocky technical descent though, which gave me confidence for the return down the first bridleway I’d ridden out of Croyde. From the bottom of the descent it was a climb back up to the top of the ridge between Croyde and Saunton Sands, fortunately this was a gentle incline on the road, so I was able to maintain a decent speed. The narrow road, with grass growing in the middle reminded me of the roads in Normandy, where my Mum grew up.

The ride along the ridge had great views out to both sides, although the light was better on the Saunton Sands side. This is where the panorama at the top of this post is from. For the ride back down the steep, rocky trail to Croyde I dropped my seat as much as I could – only about an inch (no dropper post on the hardtail), hoping it would help with the descent. The trail wasn’t anywhere near as bad as I had feared – yes it was steep and technical, and I was slow, but I stayed on the bike and was pleased with how I tackled it. Hopefully all the practice I have been doing is paying off!

At the end of the ride I met Jen for breakfast at Blue Groove, our favourite place to eat in Croyde. I had one of their “Hogfather” breakfasts, which went down very well after an unexpectedly challenging ride!

Ladybower Loop

For some time now I have been wanting to ride the trails around Ladybower Reservoir in the Peak District, so as one of my goals for 2018 was to ride more natural terrain I decided to make it happen! Two weeks previously I had been planning to head to either the Peak District or the Elan Valley, but the weather was rubbish. I ended up riding at home, smashing the derailleur on a trail I’ve ridden hundreds of times. With a fixed bike and slightly better weather, I was finally able to head up the M1 to Ladybower.

My plan had been to follow the “Ladybower Best Bits” ride on Trailforks. However, a last minute check in my “Good Mountain Biking Guide” threw up a slightly shorter option, with only two major climbs, rather than four. As seems to be usual, I was running late, so opted for the shorter loop. Not really knowing the area, I started from Fairholmes Visitor Centre, as per the book, it was £5 to park and added an extra ten minutes to the drive – next time I’ll park by the Ladybower Inn.

After riding along the shoreline, with a stop to adjust my newly fitted derailleur, the climbing started. At first on a steep stone slab path, to the barn in the photo above, that had me off the bike pushing, then on some equally steep rocky paths. I pushed the bike for over half of the climb. The next section of trail, to Whinstone Lee Tor, was flatter, but really rocky, it was a fun challenge picking a line through the rocks without losing too much momentum.

At Whinstone Lee Tor I chatted with a group of local riders, who explained the different routes down to Ladybower Inn. Declining their offer to lead me down the most technical trail, I stuck to my original plan and took the easier route, via Cutthroat Bridge. It was a wide, rocky trail with just enough gradient to carry speed, but not so much that I was going super fast. Perfect for practicing picking lines through rock gardens. Towards the bottom of the trail there were some large drainage ditches which were fun to ride over.

Before the trail dropped to the road, I hooked a right, riding along another flat, but bumpy, trail parallel to the road. The trail then dropped through a fairly technical rock garden, finishing at a gate. To give an indication of how big the rocks were; they were the perfect size to sit on an eat my “PBJ” sandwich. After the gate it was a fast rocky decent to the Ladybower Inn – it actually felt a lot like the terrain I had been riding with BasqueMTB earlier in the year, minus the van to drive me back up to the top. This descent is the only time I’ve been able to smell my brakes at the bottom of a trail!

This would have been the decision point between the longer route with an extra climb/descent, or the shorter route, skirting around the reservoir. However, as I’d already chosen the shorter route, I pushed my bike across the dam and followed the shoreline. I was expecting this section to be easy, however there were more gradients than I expected. It felt a lot longer too, so I was relieved to finally pop out into the A57, aka the Snake Pass, for a short road section.

Ladybower is “Y” shaped, I’d ridden down one side, round the bottom and up the other side, now I had to cross the ridge between the two top bits! The climb was mostly paved, so terrain-wise it was easier than the first climb, but still bloody steep! I eventually got to the top, with a bit of pushing and a few stops to munch on an energy bar. From the top I had the option to turn south, back towards the Snake Pass. The trail looked fun, but I couldn’t face the climb back up again. Instead, I turned north, back towards the car along a double track section which turned into a descent known as “the screaming mile“. This trail was just at the right level for me, just a little bit more technical than I am comfortable with, but not so much so that I couldn’t ride it safely. The trail was a bit damp, with wet rocks and even a bit of mud, but there was just enough grip to still feel like I was in control. I was buzzing when I got to the bottom of the trail, with a mud splattered smile for the gentle ride along the reservoir back to the car.

Riding in the Peak District is different to riding at a trail centre – a lot harder, but ultimately more rewarding. The rocky trails add an extra dimension to the riding, needing to pick a line well in advance, going both up and down. I would really love to do the longer route, but I think I will need to work on both my fitness and bike skills first to get the most out of it.

French Roadtrip: Days 4 and 5 – The Long Drive Home

It is a long drive from Brittany to Coventry, but at least we were on our own schedule for this part of the trip, so decided to split it over two days, with an extended stop on the first day. I had planned to stop in Honfleur, a lovely little fishing port, but realised that it wouldn’t be suitable for Owen, so decided to stop a few miles away in Deauville, so that Owen could run around on the beach and dig some holes!

After another great breakfast, we said our goodbyes to Michel and Collette, my Mum’s cousins who had been hosting us in St Brieuc, and my parents, who were extending their trip with a few days in the Massif Central. We made plans to meet Simon and Sophie in Deauville, then set off, initially retracing our route from day 2. It took around three hours to get to Deauville. Owen only slept for the last hour, despite still seeming tired from his late night previously. There were a few traffic snarl ups around the Caen ring road, but we made good time and even managed to find a parking space right next to the beach. Ideal when you have a grumpy toddler who just wants to dig holes in the sand!

Whilst Owen was building, then immediately destroying sandcastles, I went to find some ham and cheese baguettes for lunch. Deauville beach is really well set up, with a boardwalk, little cabins (named after Hollywood stars, who may or may not have visited Deauville) then little kiosks selling beach essentials – including lunch! After eating our baguettes we walked along the beach road, checking out the impressive old buildings. The Normandy Hotel, where my Mum used to work, was the highlight, with its half timbered exterior. We then walked back along the boardwalk, stopping for ice cream. I found my new favourite ice cream flavour – chestnut. I’m not sure where else I will be able to get it from again. Although I do know some chestnut farmers, so have got them on the case! Whilst we were eating our ice creams, Simon and Sophie turned up, so we spent some time with them whilst Owen played in the sand some more. When it was time to leave, he ran all the way down the boardwalk to the car – quite a long way for someone with such little legs! It was a good job he was tiring himself out, as we had almost another three hours of driving ahead of us.

Our overnight stop was in Le Touquet, and we spent most of the drive looking out for tractors with Owen – he seemed way more impressed with them than the huge bridges we went over. As we were getting closer to Calais we noticed that most of the cars on the road were British registered, which I thought was funny. Not having been to Le Touquet before I wasn’t expecting to drive through pine forests on the edge of town and was pleasantly surprised to see that everything was really well set up for cycling. We were less impressed with our hotel, which felt really tired and due to a strange layout we were in the 153rd of 156 rooms down a really long corridor. At least the location was good – right on the beach! The town itself seemed nice though! We walked along the beach, past the wake boarding pool, the beach bars, kids clubs and volleyball courts to the town centre. I wasn’t prepared for just how busy the town centre would be – there were people everywhere, shopping, drinking and generally having a good time. As we were all pretty hungry, we went to the first place we found, a little pizza restaurant just off the main street. The pizza was amazing! I love that in France you can get pizzas with an egg on – quite a rarity in the UK. Owen was a bit of a monkey during dinner, I guess he had loads of pent up energy, after being cooped up in the car most of the day. So while Jen did some last minute shopping in town, I took Owen down to the beach for more digging! This is the photo at the top of the post. Once again, Owen enjoyed himself on the beach, hopefully two beaches in one day made up for all the time stuck in the car!

The tractor and combine harvester conversations we had been having with Owen in the car must have been playing on his mind, as he work up at 5:45 asking about combine harvesters! We let him get into bed with us, forgetting that toddlers seem to have an inbuilt need to sleep perpendicular to anyone else in the bed. With only a tiny slither of bed to balance on, I didn’t manage to get back to sleep. At least this meant we were ready to leave early for the relatively short drive up to the Chunnel. When we got there we were given the opportunity to take an earlier train – result! Jen had never used the Le Shuttle, and was wowed by how seamless it all was. We were pretty much straight off the motorway and onto the train! Before long we were speeding along under the English Channel. Whilst I was stretching my legs Owen took the opportunity to commandeer the drivers seat, thinking he’d get to drive the next leg of the journey. He was so upset when I put him back in his car seat.

We’d worked out that it would only be a twenty minute detour to visit Jen’s sister, Heather, in Hackney. So as it was her birthday it would have been rude not to call in! I love the drive into east London, with the Canary Wharf skyline, Olympic Park and the O2, then through the 120 year old Blackwall Tunnel. At this time on a Sunday morning it was a pretty easy drive too. Owen was very excited to see Heather, especially as this was the first time he had been to her flat. We had brunch at the cafe around the corner from Heather’s flat. As I was in East London I felt that it would be rude not to have smashed avocado on toast (and of course post it to my Instagram story).

I was surprised at how easy it was to get from Heather’s flat to the M11 for the start of the final leg of our journey – two hours back to Coventry. I was back on familiar roads, and driving on the left, so it was the easiest drive of the trip. We were home by 14:00, exactly five days since leaving, having covered just over 1,000 miles!

French Roadtrip: Days 2 and 3 – Brittany

We woke up to rain, not ideal on holiday. After a good breakfast at the hotel in Coutances, we loaded up the car for the drive to Brittany. It was still raining. At least it was a good opportunity to test the new wipers and RainX on the windscreen of the BMW. My main niggle with the car since getting it, is that there is no intermittent setting on the wipers, only an “intelligent auto” setting. Which isn’t that intelligent. Even on the most sensitive setting it waits until you can’t see anything ahead, then wipes the screen. I found an old bottle of RainX in the garage and thought it would be worth a try. I wish I’d thought of that a few years ago, as it worked a treat! Even in the heaviest rain I could leave the wipers set to auto and I could see the road ahead clearly!

Just because I could see where I was going didn’t mean that the journey went smoothly. Our first stop was in St Malo, and we had been sent directions to the car park we were meeting everyone at. However the directions opened in Google Maps, and we find that whilst the directions are usually spot on, they aren’t communicated well. It seems to be a lottery if it tells you the road name/number to turn on to and doesn’t show the number of the exit from roundabouts. To be fair we also didn’t have the audio mix tuned, so I could barely hear the turn by turn instructions, so we took a few wrong turns. I think I’ll stick to using Apple Maps.

When we arrived in St Malo the car park that we were looking for was full, so ended up parking somewhere else anyway. It was still raining. The plan had been to have a walk around the old town, but no-one really felt like it, so we followed my Dad straight to his favourite ice cream shop – Sanchez. He seems to have a favourite ice cream shop in every town we visit! 11:00 isn’t really ideal ice cream time, but it was somewhere we could sit in the dry, and I’d heard Dad saying how good this place was for a few years,. So we had to try it out. I had a giant sundae, with coconut, white chocolate and banana ice creams. It was good, but even I struggled to eat it! The plan had been to get “galette saussice”, for lunch, but I was so full of ice cream I couldn’t face one, so shared with Owen. For those that don’t know, a “galette saucisse” is a buckwheat pancake wrapped around a sausage. It is a typical Breton street food and one of my favourite lunches in France.

From St Malo we drove an hour along the coast to St Brieuc, where fortunately the weather was better. We were staying with my Mum’s cousin Michel and his wife Collette. We saw them in the UK last year, but it is probably 25 years since I last visited them. I didn’t really remember their house, but it is lovely, with the living areas (and a massive garage, with workshop) downstairs, then the guest bedrooms upstairs. The downstairs is very modern, with each of the guest bedrooms decorated with a different theme. Jen, Owen and I were in the historically themed room, with a Louis XIV wardrobe that Michel restored in his workshop. The wardrobe was an ideal place to hide all of the breakable ornaments from Owen – as it is very much the sort of house that a two year old could cause trouble in! Michel is also a petrolhead and has a lovely classic Simca 1000, that was manufactured in the year he was born, so we did some tyre kicking. Owen liked the “old car” too.

We drove into the centre of St Brieuc for a walk around, then down to the harbour, where the Rosengart car factory used to be. We had a little walk around, looking at the boats and one of the cars made in the factory. On the way back, we stopped at the supermarket to pick up some essentials: milk for Owen, chestnut puree for me and wine for Jen! Owen was disappointed that this supermarket didn’t have a tank of live crabs/lobsters, unlike most other French supermarkets. Michel did a BBQ in the evening – french sausages and merguez (a spicy north African sausage), which was one of the foods we particularly wanted to eat on our trip – result! Michel and Collette are great hosts (they used to run bars), and we had a lovely three course meal, with the sausages/merguez as main course. Owen loved watching the sausages being cooked on the open fire, and wolfed his sausage down. Then stole some of my Mum’s merguez too! We had to break our “no iPad after dinner” rule, as toddlers and extended French meals are not an ideal combination – something I remembered from when I was a little boy. He sat happily on my Mum’s knee playing tractor/digger games whilst the grown ups chatted, mostly in French.

After his late night Owen had a short lie in, and when we got downstairs Michel had just arrived with croissants for breakfast from the local bakery – they were still warm! They were the best croissants I have ever eaten, they were so light. Nothing like the croissants you get in the UK. The bread was amazing too, and this is just from their local neighbourhood bakery. After breakfast we went to the beach at Les Rosaires, as we hadn’t really done anything aimed at Owen and digging holes at the beach is his favourite thing to do. We were there about an hour, Owen made sandcastles, paddled in the sea, explored rock pools and generally had the time of his life! However, we had to leave, as we had to fit in a three course lunch before our afternoon excursion!

Collette made us an amazing lunch – cockles, pot roast pork and raspberry panna cotta – I think they also grew/caught everything in the dinner apart from the pork and the milk! As is the way with French meals, it took a wee while, so we were late leaving for the pink granite cliffs at Ploumanach. The drive took just over an hour and Owen slept for most of it. When he woke up we were in a little seaside town that reminded Jen of Lulworth Cove in Dorset, and me of 17 Mile Drive in California. We had to carry him past the ice cream shop and the beach (“sandpit” in Owen’s words), then up the hill to the pink granite outcrops. He absolutely loved it there! Climbing on the rocks and posing for photos. I also like to think he was taking in the amazing views and wondering what geological and ocean forces were at play to form these amazing rock shapes. As the grown ups were taking their time walking back, I sat Owen on my shoulders and carried him to the beach, to do more digging in the sand. I’m not sure where he learned to do it, but he has taken to using my head like a steering wheel if I’m not walking the way he wants to go. Then if I mention it, he tries to steer me off the path or into something. He is such a cheeky little monkey!

Michel led us back the scenic route to St Brieuc, so it was already past Owen’s bed time when we got back. Collette made him egg and toast for dinner – his favourite. He had also asked for baked beans, not understanding that you don’t really get them in France. As we’d had a large lunch I was expecting a light dinner, but it was a 6 course job, including the aperitif and cheese! Aperitif (nibbles), mackerel pate, mussels, cod in white sauce, cheese and fruit salad! We were all stuffed after that. After his dinner, Owen had perked up a bit and didn’t want to go to bed, he sat quietly on his iPad, until the fruit salad came out. He took a liking to the homegrown blackcurrants, stealing them from my Mum’s bowl, then requesting more from the serving bowl! He actually stayed up later than his grandpa!

French Roadtrip: Day 1 – Normandy

We are in France for a few days visiting my Mum’s family. As we are visiting a few different places we are roadtripping in my BMW – our first proper road trip as a family of three! Our ferry left Portsmouth at 9:00 this morning, so we travelled down to the south coast yesterday.

As I was loading the car Owen asked to sit in the drivers seat, it is one of the few places where he can sit still for ages, so I took advantage. The only problem was that he thought he was going to be driving us down the motorway. He was absolutely gutted when eventually removed him and strapped him into his car seat. He had a proper tired two year old tantrum. Luckily within a few minutes of setting off we saw a tractor, which cheered him up. Then before we even got to the city centre he was asleep!

The journey south was uneventful, we called in at Itchen Valley Country Park in Eastleigh, to let Owen have a run around and stretch his legs. The drive took us two hours and Owen woke up just as we pulled into the park. Owen enjoyed both the playground and the play trail, which had animal themed play equipment dotted around in the woods. It also looked like there was a decent, albeit flat, bike trail, but there wasn’t room for my bike on this trip. Only a few minutes off the motorway it makes a much better stopping point than a service station!

All the fresh air made us hungry, so we tackled the rush hour traffic and drove to Whiteley for dinner. It is a nice little out of town shopping/leisure area, which seemed to cater well for kids with animatronic dinosaurs and sand pits to play in. We ate at Bar + Block, a steakhouse which I think may be coming to Coventry soon. Jen and I enjoyed our steaks, but I’m not sure Owen was too fussed about his – he still has a lot to learn!

In the morning we woke up early and called into McDonalds for breakfast on the way to catch the ferry, on the basis it would be cheaper and probably better than what was on offer on the ferry – we were right! Despite the early start, we only just got to the port in time. It has been well over ten years since I last caught a ferry from Portsmouth (I think it was 2005, when I first had my mk1 MX-5!), but it seemed strangely familiar. Owen was very excited to get on the ferry, looking out of the window at all of the activity on the Solent and waving at the boats.

The crossing wasn’t great, Jen and I don’t really have sea legs – I suppose that is because we live about as far away from the sea as you can get in the UK! Owen didn’t seem too bothered though, wanting to explore the ferry. It was funny watching him wobbling around as the boat pitched and rolled. We were definitely glad to dock at Cherbourg and that we will be coming home on the Chunnel!

The first stop of our trip was a very small village called Gonfreville, where my Mum grew up, to visit her friend Christiane. Gonfreville is about an hour south of Cherbourg, slightly longer with a boulangerie stop for lunch. The French really know how do make a perfect ham and cheese baguette. Jen’s theory is that it is down to the butter, and Normandy butter is supposedly the best in the world. Owen slept the whole way, only waking up when he heard my Mum’s voice, as they had arrived at Christiane’s a few ays before us. The excitement of being on a farm, with rabbits and an excitable dog meant that Owen woke up quickly and was soon practicing his French, by saying “bonjour” to everything!

We worked out it must have been seventeen or eighteen years since I was there, as I remembered Christiane’s granddaughter being about Owen’s age – she’s twenty now! My brother Simon and his wife Sophie also joined us, which made both Owen and Lola, the dog, even more excited. We had a drink, ate some cake and looked at old photos, including one of me as a baby. Owen and Jen thought that was funny. I’ve seen photos of me at around nine months old and I looked exactly like Owen did at that age, but at a few months old we looked nothing alike.

Leaving Christiane’s we had a tour of Gonfreville, my Mum showing us the houses she’d lived in and her old primary school. We drove in convoy to Coutances, which was our overnight stop. Our hotel was on the edge of town, so we dropped our bags and walked into town, down a steep hill and then up the other side. It was hard work in the sun, especially pushing Owen’s pushchair, so our first priority in town was to get an ice cream! Suitably cooled down we had a wonder around town, Owen particularly liked the public gardens, with ponds, a playground and a maze. We also went to see my Mum’s secondary school before walking back down, then up the hill to the hotel. I haven’t been to Coutances for over twenty years, some bits of it seemed familiar, but I’m glad my Mum knew where we were going.

We had a bit of downtime before all meeting for dinner. As is the French way, dinner seemed to last hours, so whilst Owen was well behaved to start with, he was getting grumpier and grumpier as the meal went on. Jen and I both had melon and parma ham to start, chicken tagine for main and apple tart for dessert. All the food was really good, Owen seemed to enjoy his too and seemed keener to try new things than he was in San Sebastian a few months ago.

I didn’t manage to take any photos in Normandy, so the one at the top of the post is of Owen, whilst I was loading the car back in Coventry.

Let’s Ride Coventry

Today was the annual British Cycling Let’s Ride event in Coventry, and it couldn’t have been any more different to my ride with the Orange Riders last week! It is a family ride around the Coventry ring road, with a festival atmosphere in the city centre. Most importantly, it wasn’t raining! It was a warm sunny day, I was dripping with sweat after returning from a short warm up ride, on my Orange Four, to clear my head after a stag do the previous evening.

Both Jen and Owen joined me for the Let’s Ride event, although Owen was on the back of my bike, rather than on his Strider. We rode to town via the woods on Hearsall Common, Owen was disappointed not to see any dogs, after seeing loads up there a few days ago. We joined the event outside the Transport Museum, where they had a fun looking track for kids to ride round and a more technical track for a mountain bike trials demonstration. We watched the trials riders for a bit, they were impressive and made me want to work on my basic bike handling skills. They were balancing their bike stationary on a thin rail, I can’t even stop at the traffic lights without having to put my foot down!

We set off round the event route on the ring road, and it was good being able to see all the places we usually whizz past in the car. Owen was particularly excited to see all the construction equipment on the building sites. After half a lap of the ring road, the route took us back into the city centre, to the festival zone on Broadgate. We picked up our event vests, but didn’t hang around as it was pretty busy and we were getting hungry! In a change to the route from last year, we actually rode through the ruins of the old cathedral, before dropping on to University Square, which was the street food area.

I was initially disappointed to only see three vendors, until I noticed that one of them was The Flying Cows. These guys make the best burgers I’ve ever tasted, and I have tasted a lot of burgers! Their “Flyer” burger has also been crowned best street food burger in the UK. Jen and I both had burgers, which were utter perfection. Owen even had a few bites, and he’s never shown interest in burgers before. He also had a massive hotdog from the stand next door, and did really well eating it. I had a bite or two and it had a strong smoky taste, almost like a peated whisky, I was surprised that Owen ate it, as he can sometimes be fussy. There was also a churros stand, so we had to share a bag of those too, even if it wasn’t really churros weather. We’d found a shaded spot to sit to eat our lunch, and it was good to just hang out watching everyone riding past. Owen enjoyed climbing the steps and watching the skateboarders too.

With full bellies, we got back on the bikes and rode through the university and back onto the ring road. Owen and I took part in the “Sir Chris Hoy Speed Challenge”, we must have gone pretty fast, as Jen didn’t see us and we had a long wait for her to catch up. Our speed was 19mph, which I was pleased with, bearing in mind it was on the flat, from a standing start with Owen on the back of my bike. Before returning home, we did another half lap of the ring road, back to Broadgate. Riding round I was impressed at how many people were out enjoying bikes, but especially some of the kids who were probably only a year or so older than Owen and riding really well. Hopefully Owen will be up to riding it himself if they have one next year!