Cycling · Travel

Week 76: Cycling Time Trials, Penny-Farthings in London and Indoor Sky Diving

I spent Monday at home, servicing my bike. About a week ago, my freehub, the component in my bike that allows the back wheel to both pedal and freewheel, had broken and the bike was free-wheeling in both directions. I had also ordered a replacement drivetrain, so had to replace several different parts. I had to go to Halford’s in the morning to get a few smaller parts, but I had to go back as one of the items I had purchased was broken from the start. Eventually, all of the parts had been replaced. I also attached my clip-on aero bars, as I intended to race in the Cycling Cuppers event that weekend, and wanted some practice riding an an aerodynamic position. That night, Annalise came around and, along with Jacqueline and I, we watched one Kiwi and one Aussie movie, which was the severly dating Crocodile Dundee.

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On Tuesday, I took the opportunity to go out for a ride with my new aero bars and headed out in the morning on a loop via Willingham and Cottenham. I was surprised by how fast I was able to go with the aero bars on, but was held up by a series of traffic jams around the roadworks in Cottenham. Nonetheless, I posted my fastest time for a flat ride in my data records. I went to work later that day and spent my time trying to figure out how to export data from the program that I was using, in particular, trying to work out which physical processes were important or not important for each of the different models I was analysing.

This format was repeated over Wednesday and Thursday, with fast rides around Waterbeach and Landbeach on Wednesday, and then Dry Drayton and Cottenham on Thursday. At work, I generated some plots to show what the lightest particle in my models was, and then some more plots about the different processes being considered. This was punctuated with a few tennis games, and then grabbing dinner.

Friday was a slightly slower day, heading out in the morning for a more gentle ride along the bikepath next to the busway with Jacquline as far as Histon. At work, I managed to make some plots that looked rather like a display wall at a shop selling bathroom tiles. The highlight of the day came in the evening, where Kevin had invited Jacqueline, Emma and me out to a “formal” at Gonville and Caius. Formal is a rather loose term for it, it contained most of the elements of formals at other colleges: gowns, long sit down tables with a three course meal, but the feature here was that suits and dresses were not a requirement, and people were happily wearing casual clothing under their gowns. The food was decent enough, as we sat almost directly below the large portrait of Stephen Hawking, Caius being his college.

On Saturday, race day finally came. When the time ticked around, I dressed up in my cycling gear, did a last minute check on my bike and headed out towards the sign-on in the town of Stow-cum-Quy. My bike was fully equipped with clip-on aero bars to put me in a more aerodynamic, and hence faster, position. Barely a few hundred metres up the road, I was caught by a large group of cyclists also headed out to the Cycling Cuppers. These varied from people in Cambridge Uni skin-suits on sleek time-trial bikes to people in regular shorts and t-shirts on town bikes.

The sign-on was at the village hall in Stow-cum-Quy. The event format was a 10 mile time trial, starting in the next town over in Bottisham. My start time was at 12:57. I took some energy gels, drank plenty of water, and then went around the lanes near Stow-cum-Quy to warm up a bit. As my time approached, I headed out to the start line. A couple of the Cambridge Uni Cycling club members were holding us up on the start line and counting us down for the start. I got myself ready, set myself to go, and listened to the count down. My time came, and I pressed down on the pedals and took off down the road.

The course was an out-and-back loop to the east of Cambridge. I quickly pedalled up to speed and put my arms on the aero bars in an aero-tuck. The first two kilometres were flat, and I was able to keep pedalling through at a decent speed. The wind was a crosswind, so that was neither a help nor a hindrance. I was breathing heavily, trying to get as much oxygen into my lungs as possible. The first major challenge was a climb of about a mile long up to the overpass over the A11. I clicked down a few gears and pressed on up the hill, much harder than I would normally take such a climb. Here, I passed my minute-man, the rider who started a minute before me. But I had lost a bit of speed and had to try and recover a little on the other side of the climb.

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Next, there was a long straight road through the plantation forest. Here was probably the hardest section to maintain motivation, but I eventually reached the roundabout that marked the halfway point on the course. The roundabout had five exits, which tricked a number of the competitors who ended up going a fair distance in the wrong direction. Now it was back through the forest, a drag back up to the motorway overpass, and then a fast descent down onto the flats. Now, I was counting down the kilometres to go, pushing my legs as hard as they would go. Eventually, I could see my three-minute man (my two-minute man did not start), and I crossed the line a few tens of seconds after him. I rolled through back to the start, knowing that I put so much energy out onto the road. When the timers came back with the times, I checked the sheet. I had ridden the 10 miles in a time of 27:11, which placed me 21st out of around 60 competitors; a result I was very happy with considering the equipment and training advantage of those who finished ahead of me. I rolled easily back home and had a long shower, trying to recover energy.

That evening, I went out to West Road Concert Hall to see Jacqueline perform in yet another concert. Once again, I was stewarding, a task I’ve come to do a lot and rather enjoy. The concert was being conducted by Naomi, another Gates Scholar and a rather talented musician and conductor. Jacqueline was deputy section leader for the seconds violins. The program included Elgar Sea Pictures and Sibelius Symphony No. 2. Nothing really fell apart through the performance, which often happens with the student orchestras, which made it a rather enjoyable performance.

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On Sunday, Jacqueline and I headed down to London. Jacqueline had arranged a birthday present for me which we were going to celebrate two weeks early. I had no idea what she was going to take us to. We caught a train to King’s Cross and then the Underground to Holborn. The first step was to head to the Australian High Commission, where I intended to cast a ballot in the local elections being held back in South Australia, but it turned out the embassy was closed, despite the electoral commission website suggesting otherwise. Not deterred, we went and grabbed lunch at a nearby Asian restaurant.

We walked down the Strand to Trafalgar Square, and after a short bakery lunch in St James’s Park, we wandered over to St James’s Square, a relatively quiet back street square between The Mall and Piccadilly Circus. This was were Jacqueline had been trying to take me. There we met Neil, who was going to be our guide for today. He was dressed up in Victorian tails and a top hat, and was gleefully holding a penny-farthing bicycle. He told us that we would be riding these around London!

First, we had to get accustomed to the strange bikes, whilst in the middle of London. He pointed out the small peg on the back of the frame which is used to push up onto the seat while the bicycle is starting to roll down the road, and then to find the pedals. Having been invented before chains and free-wheels, the wheels of the penny-farthing move at the same speed as the pedals, so if the pedals stop, the bicycle stops. He gave us each a penny farthing, and got us on the bikes and started riding around the square. At first it was strange getting used the fixed wheel and the rather sensitive steering, but after a few laps we began to get the hang of it. Jacqueline had a small incident here, where a car stopped in the middle of the road waiting for another car to pull out, but she didn’t yet know how to stop correctly, so she fell off. Stopping and dismounting a penny farthing are the same concept, meaning that riding one on busy modern streets requires a lot of forward planning and cooperation from other road users.

Neil decided that we looked fairly competent and that it was time to go out and face the traffic. We went south from the square onto Pall Mall, Neil leading the way. When we got to a junction, we couldn’t really stop and wait for a gap in the traffic, so he would hold out a hand and get the other road users to stop and let us through. For the most part, three people on penny farthings was such a novelty to most other road users that they gave us the space that we needed. We did a few laps of the streets around St James’s Palace before Neil lead us up Haymarket. Haymarket was the busiest road we had encountered yet, and was mostly uphill. Around halfway up, there was a bus pulling out of a bus stop with a second bus in the rightmost lane. Neil went between the two and I followed close behind, but there was an ambulance behind us that overtook Jacqueline and stopped in the shrinking gap between the busses. Now stuck behind the ambulance, Jacqueline couldn’t get off quickly enough, and fell off, landing badly on her ankle. My dismount wasn’t the best either, and so we instead pushed the large bicycles around the corner to a cafe on Piccadilly.

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At the cafe, Neil told us about his mountain climbing exploits at Mount Everest, including his upcoming world record attempt for the world’s highest dinner party. We were also interrupted by a rather cute video call from his daughter. Once we had had something to drink, we headed out again, this time headed for Trafalgar Square. Somehow, we made it through the busy sequence of taxis, bikes, busses and pedestrians and went down Whitehall and around Parliament Square, all without stopping or getting off, barring a small incident at the Cenotaph where I collided with Jacqueline.

The easier bit of the ride followed, going up Horse Guards Parade and along The Mall, which was closed to traffic and by far the nicest part of the ride. All along the route, just about everyone walking past was, to varying degrees of subtlety, trying to get out their phones and take pictures of us. Nowhere was this more the case than when we got to Buckingham Palace and dismounted in front of the Victoria Memorial. Here, all the tourists came and gathered around to start taking pictures and asking us questions. The tour came to an end heading back up The Mall and turning back into St James’s Square, only this time a taxi stopped in the middle of the road, leading to a quick dismount. However, when getting back on the bike, Jacqueline rode through a pot hole without enough speed and fell off, again aggravating her ankle. We packed up the bikes and farewelled Neil, heading for a pharmacy at Piccadilly Circus to get some painkillers for Jacqueline.

Our next destination was a tube train to Euston, where we connected with a train to Milton Keynes. This was for another activity that had been planned for a while, and happenstance meant that we could only do it on the same day as the penny-farthing ride. We grabbed some food from near the station and caught a bus into the centre of the town. Our destination was a large activity centre centred around the indoor ski slope, but we weren’t here for the skiing (that was last month). Instead, we followed along to the base of the slope, where there was a small activity company offering indoor skydiving.

We checked in to the sky diving, and after going to the observation deck to see a few of the groups before us, went to the staging area to be introduced to the routine and technique of sky-diving. There were a half-dozen of us, and we were shown the signals that our instructor would give us to improve our technique as we flew. Once we were all comfortable, we were given flight suits, helmets, goggles and ear plugs and went up to the chamber. The flight chamber was an octagonal shape, with glass walls and a viewing gallery on one side, a control station on another, and a waiting area on the third. We watched the group ahead of us do a few flights, and then it was our turn.

Our instructor took us into the chamber; when it came our turn we were to fall face first into the wind, which resulted in being suspended about half a metre from the floor by the rushing air. The instructor was able to stay standing, and would hold us in position and give us instruction on how to modify our technique such that we wouldn’t drift or fall. We each got two jumps. In my first, as I fell forward, I was initially kind of confused by the sensation of not hitting the ground and it took a few seconds to compose myself to be looking forward with my hands in the right position. Eventually, when we were each sufficiently composed, the instructor would let go of us briefly and we would simply float there in the air, at least until we started to drift. At the end of the second jump, the instructor would hold onto us, and start to spin us around, the wind would increase, and we would fly several meters above the wind machine, then back down again. At the end, he showed off some of the more advance level skills that he was capable of, and then it was time to leave.

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Our night ended with the train back into Euston, and then a rather hobbled walk over to King’s Cross and the late train back to Cambridge. Jacquline’s ankle was now starting to swell from the penny farthing fall and it promised to continue to be an issue over the week to come.

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