Thursday, 4 November 2010

Captain Haddock

So we left Annie's, and the weather had improved, slightly. It was one of those bright white skies, thick with cloud, breezy, and pregnant with rain. But we pressed on.

NCN4 is a funny onion, sometimes it meanders through beautiful countryside, sometimes it goes through mud, sometimes it goes along the corners of industrial estates, giving the rider commanding views of a fence, and a wall. It tries to be all things to all cyclists, and ends up doing none well.

However, the bit after Annie's pub was fun, lots of fast b-roads with almost zero traffic, save for the occasional souped-up Ford Focus, driven by what Dr Matt drolly referred to as 'Boyo Racers'. It was a great section, and lulled us into thinking that having arrived in Wales, NCN4 would magically be transformed into a wheelers' paradise.

Then we hit some tracks, and it was a bit muddy, but we suspected it would only be temporary. Negotiating a herd of cows, and a wrong turn through a small swamp, we were back on tarmac, but being pursued by a slow moving van. Oh good, we thought, our Bristolian traffic adviser had tracked us down. We reached a junction and the van passed, and swerved to a halt ahead of us. I calculated how swiftly I could extract my d-lock (that was pushing my saddlebag onto my mudguard, and inspiring the most awful poetry from Dr Matt), Doug went ahead to negotiate.

It turned out that the driver wasn't offended by our presence on earth, but was in fact a keen cyclist himself, and was just about the only person on the whole trip who didn't ask us if we were there for the golf. He offered advice on how to avoid a particularly muddy section of the route, which we subsequently ignored, and also asked us if we were trying to get to the transporter bridge in Newport. We had absolutely no idea what he was talking about, but nodded and smiled. It was kind of him to stop, and we wished him well.

Newport was where the industrial estate aspect of NCN4 came to the fore. We wound our way under grimy bridges and past disused warehouses and new build light industrial sheds. Then we found the transporter bridge. Looming in the sky, four giant pylons over a river. The purple line said we had to cross, but there seemed to be no way to do so, and then the cables on the pylons juddered into life.

We looked across the, and a pontoon, festooned in bunting, suspended in mid-air, floated across towards us. The miracle of Newport. The transporter bridge.

We were all impressed, delighted even, but Doug and I were mostly grateful for shelter and a seat. Dr Matt, however, was a bit more excited, and skipped gaily around the bridge photographing everything, while the bridge operator gave us a look which clearly asked 'is he soft in the head or something?' We smiled reassuringly, and soon the captain was joining in with Matt's hijinks, and took this piece of hardcore dragon action.

More industrial estate followed, and then the swamp that the kindly van driver had warned us about. It started off as a reasonable well packed track, then it went across a field, then through several lakes, and then into the woods. Here the track simply became mud, and our pace slowed to a crawl. We didn't trust each others' lines, and strung ourselves out along the path, trying to find a way to make progress and stay upright. There was little talk, and much concentration, but an odd thing happened - we started to really enjoy it. I knew from the sounds that my bike was making that there was barely any oil left on the drivetrain, the forks and frame were covered in mud, but I suddenly felt really, really happy and proud. Happy that I was upright, proud that my bike was handling this crap. The two, not flying at the moment, doctors clearly felt the same. This was slow, muddy, but fun. In fact, they used to run cyclocross races on this part of the NCN:

Back on road, we continued towards Caerphilly, our chains gleaming after their mudbaths. In a town that might have been Machen, I knew the rest of the trip would be difficult for me. The hill was, in Dr Doug's words, no joke. In my words it was effing steep, and totally unnecessary - a typical NCN diversion to try and avoid any possible interaction with other road users, and it hurt. Luckily Doug, with his engine built on years of sub five-minute miles as a distance runner, and Dr Matt, with his 29 tooth cog, had disappeared up the hill and didn't have to suffer my pathetic squeaks and grunts as I refused to give up. But as I crested the hill I knew that giving up was in my future, my legs had gone, and I doubted that Caerphilly would have the necessary amounts of pasta to enable recovery.

We arrived in Caerphilly at sunset, and tried to match the poorly printed map with the poorly rendered GPS. There was a summit held where the NCN intersected with the on-ramp to Caerphilly's B&Q. We decided to head for the
castle, seeing as how it's the second largest one in the UK, and recce from there. Turns out that sunset is the perfect moment to view the castle, but not the perfect moment to remember to photograph it.

But we didn't have time to hang around, we had a b&b to get to and another pub to find. We asked a local for directions. I say we, but I wasn't really listening, too busy eyeing up his bottle of coke. 'Golly that looks tasty' I thought. Happily the Trois V patented adult behaviour rota meant that the others were on the case, and we were soon into the Caerphilly gyratory system, heading for our beds.

We arrived at the front door and took a look at ourselves.

We were brown.

We knocked on the front door hoping to be shown where the back door was and not shown the door altogether. Business is business though, and sure enough we were soon in the back yard, peeling our sodden luggage off our bikes, and fiddling with our brakes in the soft, forgiving light of the cateye.

Suddenly, a voice other than the owner's was heard:


We turned round. A small redheaded boy was sticking his head out of the kitchen door.

"Hello, I'm [name redacted to protect the innocent]. What are you doing?"

We explained ourselves, and offered names, but none of it really sank in. We kept getting the same questions.

Over. And. Over. Again.

Doug spotted a Thomas the Tank Engine flag in the garden, and tried a stirring rendition of the Emily song from the same programme. I puzzled as to why Matt wasn't the one singing 'there's no-one quite like Emily', and the small boy ignored Doug. Then he said that he had a bike too. We asked what sort. He said it was one with a puncture. His mum said she didn't know how to fix it.

Pennies dropped for the TroisV, wherever dad was, he didn't seem to be here, and the obsession with the three 'men' in the backyard was likely because there wasn't much in the way of male role model in the house.

The TroisV are nothing if not chivalrous, and since we were stocked to the gills with tools, we (I) said that we could fix it. This was a mistake. Not the offer, but the offer then, because the idea became lodged in the kid's head and would not be moved.

His mum tried the distraction of letting him show us to our rooms, and he took great pleasure in telling us that the last living thing to have slept in there was a dog. We speculated that the smell of a dog would be infinitely preferable to what would linger in the air after we'd spent the night in the room. We settled in, and started to removing stinking and sodden kit, but not before we followed the advice of Jens Voigt - "when you check into a hotel, always check the TV works, that way you unpack while watching TV". Wise words from Jens, but we couldn't find the remote. Then we realised we were standing on it, the world's largest remote control:

Having obtained low-quality entertainment, we established a shower rota and entertained ourselves by reading the labels in our Rapha kit. I came back from my shower to find our redheaded friend in the room with the others. He was demanding a bicycle repair. Doug was desperately trying to explain that it was too dark. Only the intervention of his mum could pry him away from us, and we legged it to the pub to consume the most half-arsed nachos we've ever seen.

The next morning, we headed to breakfast to face the barrage of 'are you here for the golf?' questions from our fellow guests.

At the table next to us were two fellow diners, a retired couple who had emigrated to Texas and were returning to Wales. Their opening gambit was about the golf, I'm sure, but they also asked if we were part of a club. Blushes, all look at plates. Trois V, we are not worthy of your name. Using his world-class social skills, Dr Matt enquired why they were visiting, and did they come over often. They didn't get over all that much, but were visiting family while they all still could... i.e., everyone was dropping off their perch. This conversational Momenti Mori being done with, Doug discovered that the wife was from Germany. I left unvoiced the speculation that they had met in some sort of POW/nurse or liberator/grateful Fräulein situation, and listened to her ask Doug a series of questions to test his claim to be able to sprechen Deutsch. Unfortunately all of her questions could be answered 'Ja', and you didn't need to be any sort of linguist to detect that the woman was becoming very doubtful of Doug's claims. So he turned it on with the "Wovon man nicht sprechen kann, darüber muß man schweigen" and Matt and I concentrated on absorbing protein.

Doug went to pay a visit, and Matt and I were left undefended as the sound of Fireman Sam concluding filtered through from the other room, and a ginger head appeared around the side of the door.

Small boy: "Fix my bike now!"
Mum: "That is not very polite!"
Small boy: "Excuse me! Fix my bike now!"

The TroisV, as well as being chivalrous, also know when they are beaten, and so we quickly repaired to our room, packed, and headed downstairs to fix the puncture.

Although there were plenty of spanners around, there were none that were made of metal, so we had to fix the tube in situ.

It was pretty obvious where the hole was, and Dr Matt's instasticky puncture patches did the trick nicely, and soon our new chum was dodging traffic in the carpark and getting ready to go bowling later that day, having firmly turned down the opportunity to visit Barry Island.

Our work in Caerphilly done, we headed west, whistling 43% of the theme tune to the Magnificent Seven, and stopping for Matt to reveal himself as history's greatest oil snob. A climb out of Caerphilly was next, and how dearly we would wish that he'd bought whatever oil they were selling.

Next up, broken chains and statistical significance.



  1. Seriously: We've had enough Billy Bragg on this blog. Buy some new records, Jon!

  2. But we can have more Thomas, right?