Thursday, July 07, 2016

Sa Calobra, a Mallorcan Mountain Meander...

As many of my loyal and devoted readers know I quite enjoy a sensible and sociable bike ride with chums. 

The key word there is sensible so it's unclear to me why I keep agreeing to do very tough rides which would be testing for fit skinny young folk but turn out to be exceedingly arduous for this plump old fool.

Anyway, last year I agreed to a sponsored climb of Mont Ventoux and we raised about a quarter of a million quid for disadvantaged inner city kids through the Laureus foundation. 
You can read about it here ... 

So, predictably, when they decided to do something similar this year they contacted me and I, unpredictably, offered a very unpredictable "Yes".





All too quickly July loomed and along with another 80 or so cyclists, a sweaty mix of the good, the bad and the very, very ugly we did three days of extremely testing Mallorcan cycling culminating in the infamous Sa Calobra climb.





A few facts

  • 3 days of 90+ km in 35 degree heat.
  • Sa Calobra is a 10km downhill to a tiny port followed, (inevitably, there’s only one road) by  2,297 vertical feet, over 10km of tarmac, of sheer slow, arduous, solid uphill grind.
  • Going down took me about 17 minutes, coming up took an hour and 46 minutes. going down I hit 72kph, coming up I averaged just over 5kph.
  • Of all the 28,115 cyclists who have recorded the climb on Strava, only 262 were slower than me. 
  • However, (and I suspect this a weight-related anomaly) when going down the mountain 15,337 were slower. 
  • The team (and that includes me, and more importantly my generous sponsors) raised over £200,000 on this event

Highlights for me, beyond the major challenge of the Sa Calobra climb, were firstly, a 6 or 7 km section where I managed to get myself onto the tail of the Irish National Team, training on the island, they were barrelling along at an astonishing pace,with very little visible effort and by clinging close to them I enjoyed a terrifically fast blast through some delightful undulations from the Lluc junction to the top of the next climb. It was very kind of them not to simply put the hammer down and accelerate away from their very grateful tailgater.  

Second highlight of the trip was a splendid afternoon ride to Cap Formentor, a classic and very beautiful route but due to a mechanical problem with my rented bike I ended up having to borrow a bike from one of our team, Sheila. She was taking the afternoon off and I was just able to get the saddle high enough that despite it being four centimetres shorter than my own frame size I was able to ride a somewhat cramped but fast and fun trip to the lighthouse. 

So, a great trip overall, how do I feel?

It was tough stuff but pretty trivial compared to the daily existence of some of the kids that hopefully we've now helped to have a slightly better life.

If you care to see some of our snaps from the event there’s a little slideshow 
 Click me for the videohere https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FodBLAxQPuU


or click on the exhausted chap in the photo ...

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Thursday, June 09, 2016

To Customer Service at AO.Com

This should pretty much explain itself.


To Customer Service at AO.Com



How do you do?
Having purchased cookers, washing-machines and tumble-driers from ao.com we naturally went straight to the ao.com website when our elderly Amana integrated american fridge/freezer started to misbehave. 
We selected a glossy black Samsung model, specifically, this one…
Having selected our appliance we spoke with your team and scheduled disconnection, disposal, delivery and installation for Thursday 2nd of June.
We were informed that ‘expert logistics’ in the shape of ‘Rob’ would be delivering the fridge freezer.
We’d notified ao.com that the bridge near our property was closed by the Highways Agency and that the driver would need to approach from the village of Windlesham.
I’d also confirmed that plumbing would be required to install this unit
On Thursday morning it was a surprise to get a call from your driver informing me that the bridge was closed. 
I knew that, I’d informed you. 
I’d explained the alternative route.
I gave directions, again.
On arrival there was much head-scratching muttering and eventually a series of heated phone conversations between your staff in the call-centre and the two delivery gentlemen in my house who repeatedly expressed their disbelief that the existing unit could ever possibly be extracted. 
This, despite the evidence that it had obviously, some 16 years ago, been installed.
The bulk of their effort seemed to be spent in taking many, many photographs, of the fridge/freezer, the doorways, the floor, the plumbing and informing the dispatcher that this was no job for mere mortals and the AO.com equivalent of special forces needed to be dispatched. 
I spoke with a dispatcher who seemed to be quite confused but asked me to re-schedule. Naturally I was unhappy to do this having dedicated a day of my time simply to accommodate your delivery schedule. 
I should explain at this point that I charge £1,250 a day for my time so I was less than thrilled to lose that revenue simply to spend a pointless 30 minutes trying to understand why your folk didn’t want to do their job.
Your driver seemed to think I would enjoy having a brand new, shiny and exciting, but effectively surplus fridge/freezer sitting in my hallway over the weekend but I declined this offer and insisted that they take it back with them. 
They, in their turn, declined my generous offer to disconnect and extract the existing unit (and thus prove the viability of the delivery) on the grounds of “having more deliveries to do” and disappeared while I was talking to your dispatcher.
Your dispatcher re-scheduled for the following Monday, the 6th of June and I resigned myself to another day of lost income. 
I was assured that the next team would be highly skilled, very capable and fully briefed on all the relevant facts and your dispatcher cheerfully accepted my offer to disconnect and extract the existing unit.
As a ‘courtesy' she offered to commit to an afternoon delivery to allow me to do this part of your job for you. 
I was bemused by ‘ as a courtesy’ but had, by now, lost the will to challenge her understanding of the word 'courtesy’ in this context.
On Monday morning I removed all the contents and then removed the doors from the existing Amana fridge/freezer. 
It took about 15 minutes to single-handedly remove the doors and shift the item into the kitchen, making it easily accessible from the front door, conservatory or french windows. 
I hoped this might make things easier for your staff. More importantly I wanted to provide no excuse or obstacle to the installation of the new appliance.
This is not what I do for a living so I was still a little baffled by the lack of confidence of your original team in their ability to remove and install on the original, scheduled date.
I waited for your delivery.
Bearing in mind that I was expecting that the new crew, (allegedly the equivalent of the AO.com  A-Team), would have been fully briefed about all aspects of the previous abortive farrago I was a little surprised to get a phone call telling me that they were on the wrong side of the bridge, obviously ignoring the advice of their comrades, my advice and the relevant notes you’ll find printed (by your staff) on the attached delivery instructions.
Once they arrived I was also a little discomfited to find that they were not an elite crack team of AO.com problem solvers, they were simply another delivery team, mine was but one of 30+ deliveries, and, annoyingly, that they’d been given no information at all relating to the previous visit. 
It did make me wonder what the point was of all the measuring, head-scratching, ‘sharp-intake-of breath’ ing and photography that Rob and his chum had engaged in the previous week and indeed, the subsequent assurances given to me by the dispatcher that AO.com  were very unhappy with the inconvenience (and presumably the cost of missed work) caused to me.
The first piece of good news from Trevor was that they would be unable to connect the water inlet as it was an 'old style connection', apparently their 'plumbing skills’ don't actually include doing any plumbing. 
I was, again, intrigued. Young Rob had photographed every aspect including the plumbing of the existing installation, how was it that this, presumably, useful and relevant information had never been shared?
 
However Trevor and his chum removed the old machine to their van, and over the next thirty minutes, removed the doors from the new Samsung unit, put it in place, replaced the doors. 
Trevor then discovered, much to his surprise that Samsung had included an external in-line water filter and non-return valve on this item, thus allowing connection to the existing inputs.
How we smiled.
The team connected everything up and assured me that all was functional, they were apparently unable to demonstrate that either the power, the water or the ice-making could be demonstrated as the machine needed four hours for 'the gas to settle' before I could turn it on. 
I was told that I then needed to then leave it a further hour or so before using it in earnest.
I signed the paperwork, painfully aware that I was signing for a big shiny metal box and had no idea whether it did anything useful. 
They left.
After four hours, I turned the power on and after clearing all the packing material from the inside of the unit I set the temperature as per the instruction manual, which, luckily, I found inside the fridge.
All seemed fine until I attempted to use the water dispenser a couple of hours later (again, as instructed by the manual) to clear any residual muck out of the system.
All that happened when the dispenser was activated was the sound of a pump, no water, just the sound of a pump. 

I checked the ice maker, I tested it using the test button, (lucky I’d found that manual), nothing, no ice, no water, nada.
Once again I pulled the machine out of it’s alcove and got behind. 
Guess what? 
They’d only installed the non-return valve the wrong way round. 
I know, I was surprised too. 

I’m guessing that they’d installed it using the pipe colours (Which didn’t match the instructions) rather than the actual water-flow.
No longer a valve to stop the water coming back from the machine, it was now a valve to stop water getting to the machine. 

Excellent.
Despite not being one of AO.com 's highly skilled technicians I was able to (once again) turn off the household water supply at source, disassemble the non-return valve and reconnect it according to the huge arrow and picture of a tap on it’s case. 

As near as we can tell, all is now, finally, working well with our new fridge/freezer. 

Great
But I can’t help thinking, one of the reasons we selected AO.com was your claims (and to be fair, in the past, justifiable claims) to offer a highly-effective disconnection, disposal and connection service. 
That’s why we chose you.

This experience however, was, on two separate occasions, shambolic, frustrating, incompetent and (for me at least, expensive ).
So what are you going to do about it?




Update:  so far they've refunded all the connection, disconnection and disposal service costs, I still think they owe me a days billing though.

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Tuesday, May 31, 2016


Every year I enter the ballot to compete in the Ride London 100, a 100 mile closed road event starting from the Olympic Park and passing through the many Hills of Surrey finishing on the Mall. Every year I fail to get in... this year was no exception, but my chum Winston who rode for a charity team last year suggested that we should put a team in. 

Despite this being my second Charity event this year, (I hate my sponsors to feel abused) I agreed, as did a few others...

We're riding as a team for the charity, United Response who are now looking for more team entrants so they asked me to do a Q&A about the TeamBreakfastBike entry in the hope of inspiring others. 

They put this on their blog, I thought I'd share it with you...


Team Breakfast Bike tackle RideLondon


by Sarah Riddlestone



On 31st July, Steve, and 6 of his friends, will be cycling RideLondon on behalf of United Response in a bid to raise much needed funds. We spoke to Steve to see how they’re getting on…


So, what’s the meaning behind ‘Team Breakfast Bike’?


There’s around 20 of us, we meet each Saturday (usually at my place) for coffee, cake and general banter, then struggle out into the world for either a road ride, or a mountain bike ride. The ride depends on the weather and what people fancy, and an average ride will see between 4 and 10 folk turn up. 

The breakfast bit of #TeamBreakfastBike is that although there’s often cake before the ride, (I like to bake), there’s usually a communal breakfast on our return, team-cooking of eggs, bacon, toast, sharing chat and eating before dispersing to do other Saturday stuff. Which is nice.





How do you know each other? 



We’re a sociable group mostly local to Surrey but we also have joiners from as far afield as Germany, France, and even Singapore. It started off as an occasional mountain-bike ride followed by breakfast about 5 years ago. Some of us have known each other for 30 years, others have met one of us in a pub, on a ride or at the gym and said, "Do you fancy coming along", it usually works.




What are you doing to train? 



Most of us do a ride or two a week. We have a cavalier approach to training, most of us are heading toward elderly and staving that off with visits to the gym, the doctor and our wine merchants. An average ride can be around 25k off-road or 60 to 90k, on a road ride, depending on the quality of the route-finding. A couple of us drove to Scotland to take part in the 132k Etape Caledonia, a drive of 1000 miles for an 81 mile bike ride! But it was a very nice ride.



Steve cycling one of his sportives 

What made you want to cycle RideLondon for United Response?


Winston is a big fan of United Response and he suggested we put a team together. A few of us failed to get ballot places so it seemed like a good idea, it’s a worthy cause and we generally have nice lives, so it’s nice to give a little back.
Winston at RideLondon 2015


Do you have any special plans for fundraising? 


Anna tends towards making cakes and encouraging people to pay generous amounts for them, it’s like a Mafioso Mary Berry, but most of us rely on the good natured generosity of clients, suppliers, business acquaintances, friends and family



What are you looking forward to most about the race? 



Pssst, it’s not a race!!! :) We’ve all done closed-road rides and that’s always fun, obviously the Surrey leg is an area we know and cycle a lot so we’ll be looking for lots of our supporters to be out there shouting for us. Personally I’ve always been jealous of my marathon-running wife who’s enjoyed a finish up the Mall, that will be a first for me and I’m really looking forward to it.

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Thursday, July 16, 2015

Mont Ventoux, the 'easy' way ...

You may well recall my dear and valued reader that I was conned into signing up for an arduous charity event spending three days cycling in lovely Provence.

As I mentioned before in my “That’s only me and Jens Voigt” missive  the way it was sold to me was like this:
" do you fancy a ride in Provence?" 
Well why not, 
" it's for charity" 
even better! 
"and finishes climbing Mont Ventoux" 
hold on, what was that last bit?

For those sensible folk, those who avoid cycling, Mont Ventoux is a legend, the monster, the destroyer, the toughest climb on the Tour de France, an iconic breaker of souls and legs. 

In the end four members of #TeamBreakfastBike signed up, and in early July we rocked up at Heathrow, in various stages of trepidation to flit to Nice and from there to the first of our host hotels. Although the event organisers delivered amazingly good selection and signage of the routes over the three days they failed to meet my unreasonably high standards on some of the logistical and accommodation factors. 

As an example, on arriving at the first fairly rustic auberge a number of us were informed that actually we were to be housed in a different hotel, within walking distance but would still be joining the core group for supper and breakfast. OK, but our suite for the night turned out to be a room just about big enough for three beds, containing, I guess inevitably, three beds. 

This lovely building, rejected by 'Le Probation Service de France' as too spartan for young offenders did have a lovely communal shower area dispensing 5 second bursts of bracing chill and each of the cells had the ability to simultaneously manage the level of both heating and mosquito activity through the simple opening and closing of a window. And that's pretty much it. Oh, to be fair, we were each issued a threadbare towel and a piece of soap when we arrived, It's a long time since I was so forcefully reminded of my time in prison. 

Dinner in the more upmarket (relatively) hotel was a classic holiday hotel buffet, can't really fault it and the highlight of the evening for me was spending twenty minutes practicing my execrable French with one of the waitresses before we mutually discovered that we shared Cardiff as a birthplace. 

So back to our barracks for lights-out and the less said about that night the better, three middle-aged to elderly, mildly intoxicated blokes each of whom swore blind as the sun came up that they'd all been awake all night listening to the snoring of their roommates. Which begs the question, if none of us slept, who the heck was doing the snoring?

Day 1 - Verdon to Apt

Forget the insomniac trombonists, a nice breakfast, setting up the bikes, Provençal sunshine and the prospect of a fine day in the saddle and the world looked immeasurably better. We set off in raggle-taggle groups on our first day full of joie-de-vivre and boundless optimism. Which, for me at least, lasted for nearly 20km until the first horrible hill, I'm not a natural uphill cyclist, my bulk makes me pretty effective going down but makes any incline a challenge, and this thing got to 20% in places. I arrived at the top, giddy and breathless, spreading concern, sweat, part-digested insects, phlegm, swearing, wheezing and gasping amongst my assembled colleagues and then sat on the ground until the world stopped moving.

Recovered, we set off once more, I was now getting warmed up and the countryside was stupendous, field after field of beautiful lavender in full bloom, a perfect purple patchwork interspersed with occasional vineyards, sunflowers and fruit trees. Having got my breath I started to enjoy the ride, to enjoy my fellows in the peloton, old chums and new,  and a delightful sense of fellow-feeling and well-being descended which, for me at least, never really went away over the next three days.  

We rode some 500km over the three days, long days in the saddle but thankfully, with an adequacy of water stops, really important in 40-42 degree heat. Lunch on the first day was in a large hotel, on the second and third in much more attractive and atmospheric smaller inns.

Our arrival at the new accommodation at the end of day one revealed that we were still three to a room but in a much better class of barrack, spoilt rotten by the discovery of an ensuite toilet (not as much fun as you'd think with three men sharing) and a large rotating-still-air-movement-device attached to the roof.

We took refuge in beer.

Day 2 and Mont Ventoux.
We set off for this most momentous of days in mundane fashion, boarding a bus to take us to a lavender field some 30km from the mountain where our bikes had been laid amongst the crops. We had a choice of two routes, one (my choice) longer but with a slightly gentler gradient for the first 20km or so. The second route went through the town of Bedoin, the classic Tour de France approach but after my giddy spell on day one I opted for (relative) caution over machismo. 
Absolutely loved the ride to the town of Sault where the climb begins, starting among the houses, wending, continually rising through farmland and pasture, still, at this point with the energy to raise a smile at the occasional roadside spectator. 

The incline increased and I found myself entering the trees, after an hour or so of relentless slog through the forest, beset by flies, heat and younger, fitter folk passing me I eventually emerged from the trees and bimbled along to the next water stop. Here both routes merged at Chalet Reynard for the final slog through the moonscape of chalk, flint, gravel and the broken dreams of many, many cyclists. I knew there was a steepness to the final stretch but didn't realise it was actually about a kilometre or so from the Tommy Simpson memorial (where I stopped to pay respects, and breathe and refuel). 

After what seemed like a lifetime, but was actually two and a bit hours I turned the last corner and in a gesture of bravado, (and to circumnavigate two big fat tourists who chose that moment to lumber into the road) I triumphantly stood up on the pedals and danced like a cycling God to the summit. 1911 metres high and I'd cycled up it, (with only a stop for water and a tip of the hat to Tommy) and frankly my dears, I felt awesome!

After the obligatory self congratulation, congratulating others and 'grinning like an idiot' classic photos, it was off for the amazing downhill, now this is where my ability to turn food and alcohol into bodily mass starts to show benefit, like a giggling tummy tsunami I barrelled down the mountain touching 77kph at one point, a delightful ride to a lovely restaurant for a well-earned lunch. 
Following another round of "didn't we do well" with those of the team who'd made it that far and a light lunch of green salad,(and everything else I could lay my sweaty hands on) it was off for the second stage of day Deux. 

A controversial bit of route planning meant that there was a second serious hill to be conquered before the relatively flat section back to our hotel. As the temperature was again in the forties, quite a few folk called it a day at the lunch stop but as Eddy Mercx probably said "you don't get a tan in the van" and I must say I, unusually, quite enjoyed the long and arduous uphill. Probably down to the very evident suffering of others on the hill, there's no motivator like schadenfreude. 


Day Three - Apt to Aix

This 'enjoying the last third of a long ride' is a characteristic of your humble correspondent and his cycling style that has long been evident to my co-riders on a number of longer rides, a sluggish first third, starting to enjoy the second third and a positively energetic finish and I'd always put it down to having the sort of musculature that takes an hour or two to get warmed up.  I'm now working to a revised theory that suggests that the first couple of hours are simply sweating out the hangover and I'm not actually achieving anything but detox until 40km into the day. 


The third day demonstrated this very well with a horrible, horrible, horrible steep climb out of town in the first thirty minutes but once that was accomplished (easier said than done) we moved into a long hot day of attrition, some lovely cycling through some delightful countryside as we meandered toward Aix en Provence accompanied by the cacophonous soundtrack of heat-struck cyclists tumbling off their machines and into the verge and being bundled by the medics into the broom wagon for re-hydration and transport home. 

 Take me to steves fundraising pageAgain, weirdly, I was fine, pacing carefully, not fast but sensible and finishing the day at yet another unremarkable chain hotel with a sense of real achievement, a whole load of new cycling chums, a sharply defined cycling tan, a new appreciation of post-ride recovery drinks (mostly beer) and a couple of grand raised for a very deserving cause.

What a great trip… Thank you St James's Place for inviting me, and if you’ve not made a small gesture in the direction of the very deserving Laureus, 'Sport for good’ foundation, hie thee to my sponsorship page (click on the shirt)  and do the right thing.









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Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Speed bonny ford, like a hire car in the wind, o'er the sea to Skye ....

A few months ago we were dining with some chums and it was unanimously agreed that we should get a small group of us together and spend a couple of days on the Isle of Skye, (for the benefit of the geographically challenged, (we do have some American readers) that's a big island on the West of Scotland. 

We thought we might do a little cycling, definitely some fine dining, a little strolling on the strand, a few days of much needed chilling out. Inevitably the real world intervened and the list of enthusiasts in the small group dwindled to the extent that it gradually turned into a two night trip for just the missus and I.


We booked into the world renowned restaurant, the Three Chimneys, situated about a century north of anywhere and workplace of a storming chef, winner of three rosettes, a Michelin star, The Great British Menu and many more accolades, Michael Smith. His philosophy at the Three Chimneys is all about very fine dining using local fish, meat and veg and since it's bloody miles from anywhere I suspect that makes both financial sense and meets the current demand for proof of provenance, sustainability and responsible farming, fishing and foraging.

We flew to Inverness, for the first time since our wedding, rented a shiny new Ford Something and set off on the three-and-a-half-hour drive across the country to the magical West. I have to say that I'd forgotten it can sometimes be fun to drive a car but finding myself on roads delightfully free of the many variations of moron who clutter the highways of Surrey, on decent tarmac, across stunning and sparsely populated countryside I arrived at our accommodation with an unusually broad grin on my ugly mug.

The restaurant has half a dozen rooms in an adjacent building, open for a year or so and delightfully and thoughtfully appointed. It's definitely a well-done operation and the rooms bit deserves the five star label.
The staff were welcoming, surprisingly multinational, (where are the local kids?) thoughtful, professional and seemed to really enjoy their work, nice folk doing good stuff.

We had time to unpack, shower and enjoy a G&T before dinner, we were only there for two nights, the first in the restaurant, the second would be at the'Kitchen Table'. 

The restaurant, bearing in mind its remoteness, was packed, we enjoyed a delightful three courses with a nice bottle of pink from an intimidating wine list then returned to the lounge in 'the House over by' (they're confused by grammar, the Scots). 

Thanks to the ministrations  of the hospitable Scot (that's both his name, and his nationality) I was, after 59 years on this planet finally introduced to a whisky that I actually enjoyed drinking, a delight enhanced on the following eve when I was instructed in the use of a pipette of water to free the aromatics.

Up the next morn to an excellent breakfast, cooked perfectly, served with warmth, enthusiasm, a great view of rain,wind, rain and more rain. I'll not mention the weather again because it remained pretty much liquid and grey through the visit. Strangely though, I think that works for this ragged, rugged, rural land.

We did some desultory sightseeing, empty roads, straggly villages, too many art galleries and craft shops selling pretty much every possible view of an otter.

The harbour in Portree was pretty and our visit there was (for me at least) much enhanced by a chance encounter with Alan, an eccentric and dysfunctional visitor from England with a mild personality disorder and extremely poor decision-making skills when it comes to selecting an opponent for a grumpiest old man contest. 

We returned early to the hotel and enjoyed the rainswept views through the rainswept windows of the rainswept loch. We read our books, took tea and relaxed. Relaxing is not one of my strong suits but if you feel the need to relax, this is absolutely the right place to do it.

So, supper time. Off to the kitchen table, a six seater high table, massive wooden pieces of furniture in a well lit annexe to the restaurant kitchen. We, and two more couples of evidently keen foodie types were seated and her ladyship was delighted to see that the "most attractive chef" her words, not mine, (and she's going to have to explain that to Tom Kerridge next time she sees him) was on station. 

I've been in a few high quality restaurant kitchens now, and the thing that impressed, as here, was the sense of ordered calm, no shouting, no panic, no drama, lots of activity, many smiles, much communication, a comfortable interaction between all the kitchen staff, extended to and including the waiters. 
Gordon Ramsey is a great chef but the prolific TV coverage of his angry, sweary, shouty style has done the profession few favours.

We were invited to stroll around and chat with the cooks, really tough to do, it seems a little like wandering into an operating theatre and asking the surgeon "what does that bit do?" However once we'd individually plucked up, (or had a glass or two of) courage we found the brigade focussed, friendly and informative, a really relaxed team, and they seemed quite inured to the process of having these idiots galumphing around getting in the way and asking silly questions. A tribute to the team and I'm assuming it's partly a side effect of this happening every night. 

We all had the "Taste of Skye" menu, eight courses and for most of us 'the wine flight', carefully chosen wines to compliment each course.

I can't fault the food, I am not a fan of shellfish and we'd flagged that in advance but when he mentioned it I asked the chef not to substitute anything, he probably had already decided I was too high maintenance but I'm trying to expand my piscatorial horizons and although the first four courses were crab,scallop,prawn and a variation of Cullin Skink I enjoyed each dish in its own right. I'd not have selected them from a menu but I devoured them enthusiastically  along with the lamb, the venison, the cheese and the marmalade cake soufflé which was demonstrated for us, then cooked and delivered with Drambuie and panache.

We were invited to join Michael in the kitchen as the final few dishes were being dispatched to the front of house and thanks to my excellent volunteering skills I found myself plating up the venison dish for the last two diners. I felt that I did OK and the plate went out with no last minute fixing but the young guy slicing the meat was not letting me anywhere near his knife despite his boss suggesting that I'd be fine. I think after my eight glasses of carefully chosen "finest wines known to humanity" his judgement was probably spot-on.

The star turn, Michael Smith was an excellent host, really intense, focussed, affable but definitely in his space, and definitely in charge. Sadly he finishes at the Three Chimneys at the end of the month. A shame for the restaurant but they've an excellent replacement in the shape of Scott Davies (who has got Welshness going for him). Michael has has been there ten years and it is a beautiful and otherworldly place but it's a bloody long way from anywhere and maybe he'll turn up somewhere more accessible. 
Definitely a highly skilled cook, great chef and 'twas an education to watch him running a kitchen.

He did inscribe my souvenir menu with "probably the best sous I've ever worked with" but I suspect that statement may contain large elements of tongue in cheek.

If you've the inclination, the time, the enthusiasm for good food and fine folk, if your relationship with your credit card company can take the strain, I'd recommend the Three Chimneys. Go on, relax...




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Wednesday, April 08, 2015

Mallorcan madness, a cautionary tale ...


So foolishly I signed up to do a very silly bike ride in July, the way it was sold to me was, 
" do you fancy a ride in Provence?" 
Well yes, why not, 
" it's for charity" 
even better! 
"and finishes climbing Mont Ventoux" 
hold on, what was that last bit?

For those sensible folk who avoid cycling Mont Ventoux is a legend, the destroyer, the toughest climb on the Tour de France, an iconic breaker of souls and legs. 

But I'd already said "yes".

So I started fundraising here   Click here to donate
And then I had a chat with my chum Richard who does lots of charity cycle stuff and runs a company specialising in such things. He suggested that the pair of us slope off for a weekend for a little gentle hill-climbing practice, well, it sounded like a laugh. 

Why not?

It turned out that the devious little weasel had already got a training camp organised in Mallorca for very skinny fanatical cyclists to get even skinnier, faster, fitter and more fanatical. 

I don't know how I keep falling for these things.

On a grey misty Friday we arrived in Las Palmas for a week of too many hills, too many beers, just the right amount of cake, too many kilometres and a chance to ride around many of the most lovely bits of the island, vaguely visible through the constant red mist that largely and consistently obscured my view of the world. 

There were a number of things making this week attractive to the lithe young whippets who rolled up, significantly the presence of some very nice and really, really famous professionals including the

It's only bloody Jens Voigt....

legendary Jens Voigt, (Yes, Jens bloody Voigt)  up and coming superstar Songezo Jim, a wiry wisp of pure Northern class James Moss and various guest riders and supper chums including the lovely (3 time World Record holding, Olympic Gold Winning MBE and really nice lass) Dani King. 

My interaction with most of these folk, to be fair, (away from the dinner table and bar) mostly involved feeling a welcome helping hand in the small of the back as they pushed the old fool up a gentle incline, I think they drew lots every morning, more likely it was a short straw exercise. I also got great support (well, being shouted at from the support van) from the Cosaveli team, Mark and Michelle, Wavey Davey and the lovely Mrs G.   A special thank you to Henry, my guardian and coach who shoved, shared and supported way beyond the call of duty. 

Mallorca is a great place for cycling and luckily the weather was fair for much of the week. I will now confess that I'd been steeling myself for the cries of disappointment that would inevitably greet my Wednesday breakfast declaration that I was taking a desperately-needed day off but fortunately (for one of us) the day dawned so wet, violently windy and immeasurably miserable that we all moped around complaining that we couldn't go out. And secretly, dear reader, I was so relieved. 

The week finished with more of the same, breakfast,banter,slathering cream into gussets, a Lycra convention outside the hotel then a ride into the lovely countryside gradually, naturally, separating into groups A (nutters) B (more nutters) and C (me and my minder). The ride done we'd regroup at the hotel over beer, chat over the highlights of the day and answer polite and interested questions like, "and where have you been all day Steve?"

That's right, it's only bloody Jens Voigt.....again


Joking aside I enjoyed a delightful week, I learnt a lot, thus disproving that piece of "old dog, new tricks" misinformation and it's just possible I got a teeny bit fitter.

What I mostly did enjoy was (off their bikes) some really pleasant people, diverse, engaging, interesting and supportive so a big thank you to all the Trois Etapes training camp attendees and I might see you next year… (then again, I might not)





A pithy comment from multiple Tour de France jersey winner and previous holder of the one-hour record Jens Voigt

Me "I quite enjoyed riding in the velodrome"
Jensie " well of course you did, no hills” 


So true...

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Monday, February 23, 2015

A very organic approach to engineering, bamboo bicycles...

The back story, my Christmas present this year (from the current wife) was a two-day workshop building a bicycle, from bamboo! A pretty niche idea but I'd enjoyed making my fixie (click here for that tale) so much last year that Mrs Stuffy felt that I'd like this. 


Bikes made from wood? I admit that it took me by surprise but apparently bamboo is a very strong and light material and anyone who has seen it used as death-defying scaffolding in the far East knows how much load, stress and movement it can bear. The company, www.bamboobicycleclub.org, sell kits (for home assembly) and also coached sessions in their studios in increasingly trendy Hackney Wick. 

So I researched (well I googled 'bamboo bikes') various possible bikes and despite the obvious challenges, and the relatively small number of examples I  decided to build a mountain bike, no real logic other than the amount of MTB bits I had lying around and a fortuitous, for them, marketing email from Chain reaction cycles offering a half price groupset. For the uninitiated that's the brakes, gears, pedals, cranks and chain, all designed to work together. A few late night drunken internet shopping sessions later and I had a bulging box of bits, saddle, handlebars, forks, wheels and tyres. 

The workshop itself simply delivers (hopefully) the frame, 7 pieces of bamboo, custom designed to fit my bodily dimensions (normally a secret between myself and my tailor). These bamboo bits are bonded together with delightfully gloopy mix of hemp and epoxy resin to make a structurally sound bike frame capable (allegedly) of taking my not inconsiderable weight crashing down a hillside. Making it pretty and adding all the expensive metal and plastic to turn it from bits of wood into a rideable bike is phase two of the project.


Day 1

Thus it was that I arose at silly o'clock and schlepped on a Saturday morn to a chilly space filled with bamboo bikes, bamboo bike frames in various stages of construction, there I found two couples (dad&son and sister&brother) of similarly slightly bemused punters and James, our coach, instructor and bamboo evangelist for the weekend.

James had prepared aluminium jigs to hold the bamboo elements in the right place based on our physical dimensions and the type of bike we'd each selected. The other participants had opted for simpler challenges, road bikes, and James cheered me up by congratulating them on their wisdom in not taking on the technical challenges that I'd accepted. So far, so bloody typical,sorry, so good.





We picked out various lengths of bamboo, learning about fibre lengths, nodes, strengths and weakness and using various saws, knives, drills and jigs I then chopped pieces out of my fingers, thumbs and forearms until we had something that looked a bit like the pre-printed scale drawings we were supposed to be working toward. 

Maybe it's James' laid back approach, maybe my choice of bike but it turned out to be a far more flexible and organic process than a classic engineering one, solving challenges and redesigning bits of the frame as the practicalities caused a series of minor compromises. 




The others rushed on, unhindered by the need to consider fat tyres and disc brakes but by the end of day one we'd all assembled our frames, tacked together with glue, tape and in my case wishful thinking. Off home to shower off a bucketful of sawdust, stickiness and sweat, a sustaining supper and a good nights sleep.


Day 2
and a beautiful sunrise as I headed into London





So,here I am in sunny, chilly Hackney just a stones throw from the Olympic Velodrome, on day two of the bamboo bicycle workshop, the day which I like to think of as Gloopy Sunday. 

The areas where the lengths of frame join are to be held together and reinforced by strips of hemp cloth saturated with epoxy resin, the basis of fibreglass. This layering and wrapping is similar to the process of making bikes and cars from carbon fibre, similar I think in the same way that TeamBreakfastBike working up an appetite on a Saturday morning is like Team Sky attacking the Tour de France.  

The glooping, wrapping, slopping, sliding, slicing and taping was pretty much full-on all morning, but by late lunchtime we'd jointed all of our frames. We made a cursory attempt to lessen the amount of gum on clothes and skin and then strolled into the Arctic winds to a local Hipster hangout the Crate Brewery for some excellent pizza and engaging chat whilst the miracle of exothermic chemistry turned our squidgy matting into rock hard lumps of plastic and cloth ready to be sanded, smoothed, filled, sanded, filled, sanded, smoothed, polished, painted and lacquered.

The BambooBeast (as I've provisionally named it) is now back in my workshop, ready for the next phase...

I really enjoyed the two days with James and the team and I'm looking forward to the next week or two of organic engineering... 

Watch this space...

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Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Set the bar low, enjoy the surprise, a movie review of Kingsman

One of the inevitable outcomes of living in a polite, democracy, and many social commentators seem to gloss over this, is that one often finds oneself watching a film which would not have been ones first choice.

So it was that I found myself, my wife and some really decisive friends watching a class cast, Michael Caine, Mark Strong, Colin Firth and Samuel L Jackson hamming it up in Kingsman. I was not looking forward to this, the spy parody has been done badly (The execrable Avengers) and very well,  Austin Powers and True Lies leap to mind.


I feared the former based on reviews and trailers.

However, as it went on I started to enjoy it, the lead character played by Taron Egerton developed in a predictable but well-judged way, Colin Firth never looked comfortable but kept on trouping, manfully. There are some nice touches, the blade-runner assassin played by Sofia Boutelle is a great concept, I bet the James Bond producers are kicking themselves for not thinking of her.

The violence was cartoonish but hey, that's what one expects from Vaughn and Goldman. I particularly enjoyed the Busby Berkely-like fireworks, I'll not spoil it for you but you'll see what I mean,

Kingsman doesn't take itself too seriously and I'd caution anyone who sees it to take a similar relaxed approach. I think the message is that it's surprising how low expectations can set the scene for a surprisingly enjoyable experience.


A parodical paradoxical Haiku

Justice is dealt out
With colour, style and panache
Foolish,fancy fun

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