Copied with permission from Maynard Hershon

On Holiday, At the Back

By Maynard Hershon

I arrived in England mid-morning, red-eyed, cotton-mouthed, having failed even with the aid of Melatonin to sleep much during the flight.

On the airplane, I sat with two California women, a photographer and a painter, headed together for the wilds of Zimbabwe to shoot photos and draw preliminary sketches. Brave women, I thought.

How much adventure could YOU stand, I asked myself, and came up short of six weeks in a rental Land Rover, adrift in remotest Zimbabwe. A new bike, 10 bed-and-breakfast days in the English Midlands, 10 chasing the Tour in France: that much adventure I can handle.

At Heathrow, I lugged my soft-bagged bike, soft suitcase and laptop case from Luggage Reclaim outside to the bus lanes, and boarded a northbound bus that took 90 minutes to reach Coventry city center. Fifteen minutes in a cab had me installed at my B and B in Kenilworth, yes just across the road from huge, ruined old Kenilworth Castle.

The B and B's odd-job carpenter gave me and the bike-bag a lift to the cycle shop a mile away. Happily, Patricia Wilson of the Coventry Road Club had alerted Mike Vaughn, proprietor, of my eventual arrival.

I asked Mike Vaughn if I might use a repair stand to facilitate assembly of my bike. Use this one, he said, it's free at the moment. So I did. And forced the mechanics at Mike's Bikes to watch ME take an hour to assemble a bike THEY could've put together in 20 minutes.

Because I'd been away at the PowerBar Women's Challenge the last two weeks of June, I hadn't seen the Waterford until the day before I left for England, hadn't seen it and certainly not ridden it. I packed it up absolutely brand new, and entrusted it to airline baggage handlers. And -- I did it without drugs.

The S and S-coupled bike, once disassembled, fits in a case as big as a 700C wheel with a deflated tire on it, and about 10 inches deep. The case has backpack straps and you can actually carry it on your back, not for miles, but far enough to get you through an airport.

You pack the bike in the case, fill the empty spaces inside with shoes and cycling clothing and whatever. Then you stuff zippered pouches on the outside of the case with more soft stuff to pad the bike further. It worked fine for me; the bike suffered not at all.

And - on arrival back home in San Francisco, the bike came up the luggage conveyer and onto the carousel: No special handling, meaning (on US flights) no extra charge. Cool.

My Waterford is painted a very dark British Racing Green. The head tube is bright yellow. The Reynolds decals (transfers, they call them in England) are partly yellow, the buttons on the trick Eye-talian bottle cage are yellow and the Salsa stickers on the stem have dots of yellow. Great looking bike.

The Waterford lugs are ultra-short-tipped and clean. The whole bike is clean, clean. The soft-polished Campy stuff looks great and, I soon found, works great too.

The Air-Hardened 853 main triangle tubes look standard except for the stainless steel S and S couplings in them, which look almost elegant, not cobby at all. The fork blades and chainstays are fat, chunky-looking, I think, and so do others who've seen the bike.

On the subject of Reynolds 853: Terry Bill of Reynolds took me on a few industry visits in England, one to Orbit Frames. Frank Clements at Orbit showed us a foot-long piece of 853 he'd experimented with.

With a rotary saw, he'd easily cut a slot in the tube. He then heated the tube with a torch to the Reynolds-specified temperature and let it cool. When he tried to cut a similar slot in the heated, discolored area of the tube, the tube resisted the blade and tried to wear out the saw.

That first day in England, I had to learn to ride on the "wrong" side of the road, remember, on a brand-new bike (with a frame that comes apart) and unfamiliar equipment, meaning the ErgoPower-shifted racing triple.

My own road bikes have two chainrings and downtube shifters; the last handlebar shifting I used was Dura-Ace so I had lots to get used to. Hey, no problem. Well, not much of a problem...

The roads here are narrow and nearly shoulderless, and I'm not talking about the "lanes" - all the roads. Cars pass quite close, over your right shoulder, and it takes a while to get used to HOW close.

Drivers are rarely mad at you (the cows are mad) so no one screams at you to get off the goddamn road. But they do come close to you, and sometimes they have to swerve (looks like a swerve to me) to get back into the lane after they pass, and you COULD be intimidated.

I found I was hanging white-knuckled onto the brake hoods, where I could steer, brake or change gear instantly without changing hand positions.

I hardly used the tops, my usual perches, because I felt tense on the bike, unused to nearly everything: riding on the left, unfamiliar road signs, the closeness of overtaking cars and oh-my-Gawd TRUCKS, sewer grates that force you out into traffic every 100 yards, everything.

And that was before I'd reached a roundabout...

I'd worried that tugging at the cables during packing and unpacking would disrupt the ErgoPower shifting. My fears were unwarranted: bike shifts great. All those gears, 24 of 'em, available instantly.

I rode back to the B and B and locked my new masterpiece in a sawdusty tool shed. Exhausted and jetlagged, I napped and tried to deal with getting online and letting Reynolds and Pat Wilson from the Road Club know by phone that I'd arrived, shaky but alive.

In the next few days I spent hours on the road, lost in the Warwickshire countryside on my new bike, stopping every so often for directions. I needed a lot of help at first (and later). Every Englishperson I met was friendly and helpful beyond belief.

Not only did each person I asked direct me carefully, each put him- or herself in the cyclist's place and tailored the directions to keep me on cyclist-friendly roads. I mean middle-aged women in the kind of green waterproof anorak that fills yuppie mail-order catalogs, guys at construction sites and salesmen at auto-truck dealerships.

It seemed to me immediately that Britons are more social than Americans. They look at each other intently while they're chatting. They meet "for a beer and a larf" at the pub several times a week, even the cyclists.

Pubs are nothing like bars. Bars give me the willies; pubs are the social centers of UK communities.

The English people I met and watched seem to love their friends and care about them far beyond superficiality. They form clubs for every activity and remain loyal to clubs they join. Some cyclists will jump clubs for whatever they can get but I don't believe that's the rule. Loyalty is the rule.

Perhaps my host, the Coventry Road Club, is not typical in its social focus. Perhaps it is. I heard people suggest both. Even if it is not typical, my impression is that the bike club life is fuller, richer than I've experienced in the U.S. The club represents a major part of many cyclists' social lives.

The weekend of July 7th and 8th was the club campout, in Broadway, about a half-hour in a car from Coventry. I didn't camp out, not into it really, but a clubmember picked me up at my B and B and took me out to the Saturday evening barbecue, where I joined a raucous game of no-rules football, soccer of course.

I played truly badly and fell twice, the second time grass-staining the knees of a pair of pristine Gap jeans. It was marvelous fun. I heard stories about more club fun on the Isle of Man during Cycling Week there only a couple of weeks before.

That club has fun, on the bike and off.

Hard training alone or in groups is done after work during the week. Fast group rides are called "bashes." If you're going as hard as you can, you're "on the rivet," an ancient phrase meaning sitting on the rivet at the front of your Brooks saddle.

Weekend group rides in England, I've learned, are typically planned around a stop at a "caff" or pub for tea or coffee and some snack food. As I understand, the stop will come perhaps two-thirds of the way through the ride, and the last third will be ridden at a civilized pace.

Even many racing clubs stop for tea on training rides. Some clubs never stop; those clubs do not, remarkably, always place riders on the podium at races. Stopping for tea (as we say) seldom hinders in later life.

Most English cyclists have several bikes. They'll own a summer bike, a best bike you might say; a winter bike with mudguards (fenders), typically a medium-priced sports bike with reliable, unflashy equipment and clip-on lights, and perhaps a timetrial bike with forward seat and aero handlebars.

I saw not one set of bar-end shift levers; they don't use 'em much except on 'cross bikes. I did see lots of downtube shift levers, far fewer brake-lever shifters than you'd see in the US and lots of older bikes on their second or third respray (repaint).

I saw more wool jerseys than you'd see here, a couple pairs of toeclip pedals; a Brooks leather seat or two, and more riders without helmets than I expected. They wear cycling caps; remember them?

Most of the bikes are British: Raleighs and Orbits and Ribbles and Mercians and names we've never heard. Trek does well in the UK. Most had mixed equipment (or "kit" as they say here), not some gleaming new homogeneous group like the one the visiting Yank had. Serviceable bikes, not glamorous bikes.

What they ride is not as remarkable as where they ride. Sometimes they ride the main roads, called "A" roads, typically narrowish two-lanes that feel kinda unsafe to me, wuss that I am.

But usually they ride "in the lanes," meaning the narrow paved roads, maybe one lane wide, that meander between the hundreds of villages that dot the gorgeous green landscape. During the week, there is very little traffic in the lanes, and not much more on the weekends.

Riding in the lanes may be the finest cycling it has been my pleasure to experience. Perhaps it ties with riding in the mountains in northern Italy. Riding in the lanes is less spectacular than a day in the Dolomites, but not a bit less satisfying.

The lanes feel "cycling-appropriate." The few cars you see are too much for the lanes: too fast, too big, too clumsy. You see runners in the lanes and a few walkers, but mostly you see cyclists, singly and in groups.

Cyclists, you feel sure, are the proper inhabitants of the lanes.

In groups, English cyclists behave much like their U.S. counterparts. They say "car up" and "car down," "on yer left" and "on yer right." They point out holes and cars parked where one would not expect cars to be. They say "single up" when it's time to ride in a narrow line.

In the group ride I did, termed a typical English club run by someone who should know, I used only one chainring, the middle one, a 42 on my Waterford. I noted with surprise that the other riders, 12 or 14 of them, also used only one ring, their 39 or 42.

When I commented on that, I was told: "We're pedalers, not pushers." And they are. The hills are not so steep and not so long, with a few notable exceptions. You climb them and coast quickly down in the same ring. I shifted a lot, but only in the back. Curious.

The "lads" on our ride were one woman who mysteriously disappeared from our ride half-way to tea. No, I don't believe it was something I said. And men from late-teens to around 60 years old, men who clearly enjoy food and beverage but move along pretty good on their bicycles.

You're not an old-timer at 60 there: A few people in the Coventry Road Club who are a decade or so older than the oldest rider on our outing still ride a couple (or more) time trials every week. They're not just riding -- they're racing!

You can ride several time trials a week around Coventry without driving your car, unless I miss my guess. You pedal out to some spot along some road, remove your saddlebag, pay a tiny amount to the club promoting the race, pin on your number, wait your turn, do the ride, then enjoy tea or coffee and granola cookies, say, and the post-ride camaraderie.

Afterward, you take the battery lights out of your saddlebag, clip 'em on your bars and seatpost, put on your legwarmers and pedal home.

Sean Yates, now retired, commented recently in Cycling Weekly that he has just ridden his best-ever "10," or ten-mile time trial. At the start, he noted with some surprise that the gentleman holding him up by the back of his saddle was the same man who'd held him up before the first time trial he'd ever ridden, years and years ago. England.

Touring continues to thrive; you'd see Cyclist Touring Club types with mudguards and big canvas undersaddle bags pedaling alone in the lanes. Reportedly, the annual York Cycling Rally attracts them in the 1,000s.

York, by the way, is in Yorkshire, in the north of England, where, it is said, the heart of British cycling beats. When I return to England (and I will return to England), I intend to ride in Yorkshire.

At the Women's Challenge, I met Caroline Alexander, UK Olympic road and mountain bike rider from Cumbria, in the north. She told me about Yorkshire and, having read my stuff in VeloNews, assured me that I'd love it there, that I "must go."

I met Alexander before the first stage of the Challenge in Boise. I told her that my friend Anton, originally from Southampton, England, was a total Caroline Alexander fan, that he scoured Cycling Weekly for news of her racing, on 'cross bikes, mountain and road bikes.

I asked her if, while she was in the States, she would call Anton at home on my credit card, and just introduce herself: "Anton, this is Caroline Alexander." Sure, she said, or we can write a postcard. I wasn't sure if she were sincere or merely being nice. I hardly saw her off the bike the rest of the 12-day race.

Then, at the end of the last road stage, I saw her on a stretcher on the runway of Mountain Home Air Force Base. She'd become dangerously dehydrated and needed oxygen and several liters of IV solution. She wisely abandoned the race that afternoon.

The next day, the phone rang in my hotel room. It was Caroline Alexander, voice cracking, recovering in her own room, suggesting that today might be a fine day to call my friend from Southampton.

You can imagine how my friend went weak at the knees when he heard her say in her northern accent: Anton, this is Caroline Alexander. They talked for a few minutes about racing at home and here. Thanks again, Caroline, if you read this.

The Tour de France was well underway while I was in England. UK cyclists enjoyed Tour coverage much like we see in America. Phil Liggett and Paul Sherwin provide commentary, which in the UK focused this year on British riders Chris Boardman and Max Sciandri.

Watching the 30-minute Channel Four Tour shows, I could not help marveling at Phil Liggett's achievements. He makes U.S. and UK versions of those shows, he provides print Tour coverage for the Daily Telegraph -- and he rides his bike. He participated in Cycling Week on the Isle of Man, according to Coventry Road Clubbers...

Whatta man: Phil Liggett.

More summer fun to come in VeloNews: Chasing the Tour de France with Breaking Away Bicycle Tours... At the Back in France...


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