Thursday, 22 May 2014


Enthused with my new Look 566, and the prospect of some heavy cycling these coming months, I considered it appropriate to invest in new cycling apparatus. The need wasn't pressing; I behaved as if it was. Three items, essentially: cycling shorts, a base layer, socks. (I bought a set of cleated pedals too, but until I acquire compatible shoes this doesn't really bear my attention.)
I decided which jersey I would wear for this year's London to Brighton some time ago: my Etxeondo (pronounced Etchayondo, so I'm told – it’s a Spanish/Basque marque) Team ONCE shirt, a habiliment of consummate fit. Last year I wore a La Vie Claire jersey – a contemporary version of a 28-odd year old design reissued by its original manufacturer, Santini. The ONCE top, however, is the real deal. A garment of approximately 19 years, but looking good with it, I purchased it off of eBay.
I needed new white socks to replace my Mavic editions, which have a hole in one of them, and another pair of cycling shorts followed. I also felt I could do with a sleeveless summer base-layer, because they’re quite useful things and my short-sleeved, almost silver, Mavic base layer is not fitted enough to wear with the ONCE jersey.
My motives are probably of little interest, but to explain them helps convey an element of indulgence on which this introductory passage depends. It reads better if you think that I've been seduced into extravagance by something as essentially trivial as cycling apparel.
My cycling outfit at last year’s London to Brighton – Santini La Vie Claire top, Santini cycling shorts and Mavic socks – was never consciously coordinated, and was only slightly coordinated at all. This year shall be different. I have purposely targeted Etxeondo gear to match my ONCE jersey. The unifying thing is the Etxeondo logo, which is a strange looking motif. It fairly resembles an upturned acorn's cupule, painted in black and white like some disfigured yin-yang. This symbol features on the left breast of my cycling jersey, on the left haunch of the Etxeondo Bira cycling shorts I've just purchased, on the inside of the ankles on my new pair of Etxeondo Tarte socks – and it presents a pleasingly subtle cohesion to the whole ensemble. I like that – motif aside – the Bira shorts are totally black (as my Santini shorts also are). My white socks, however, aren't completely white: there’s a mysterious rectangular light grey stripe on the back of each ankle, which I find strangely satisfying as a visual aberration but can't fathom quite what it’s doing there. According to the pictures of the sock on the various websites that sell them, it shouldn't even be.
My latest base layer is not made by Etxeondo but an Italian company called De Marchi. I was looking for a discount on a sleeveless layer, couldn't find one on Etxeondo, did on Santini, and then again on De Marchi. Santini's offering resembled a string vest, which I didn't care for, so I went with De Marchi. This is my first De Marchi purchase and the early signs are good. Summer base layers are designed to 'wick' sweat away from the body, and they need to be tight to succeed in this. The material is as thin as it needs to be and all-white. There is, however, De Marchi's name italicized just above the chest in black cotton, which is almost as pleasing as those grey rectangles. A few years ago this Roman script didn't feature. Instead, there would have been De Marchi's cockerel emblem on a small, red rubber square, but they seem now to have eschewed this particular brand representation in favour of something less oblique.

I wore all of this on a recent ride out to Box Hill. I cycled through Kingston, Surbiton, and then Chessington (South), getting lost along the way, before arriving to meet a fellow cyclist in Epsom. On towards Box Hill, we passed Ashstead and Leatherhead, where I observed the preponderance of trees. Along country lanes and down penumbrous glades, I considered the insouciance of cows, the texture of tarmac and the peril of potholes. I thought about the stiffness of carbon as a material, the arbitrary nature of country roads, and the folly of a winged descent. I pondered the suspended drama of hills, the stoicism of muscle, the perseverance of the sun.
            It took it out of me – again. My life is nothing if not inconsistent, and my vigour fluctuates as much as anything else in it. Less than a month to go until the London to Brighton, and still a bit of work to do. This 45 mile round trip to Box Hill is a start.

Thursday, 15 May 2014


Road cycling has defined for me certain environments. Or rather there are physical spaces that I relate to purely within a cycling context. Such psychogeographic relationships are particularly pertinent to cycling, a pursuit that demands mobility and encourages an acquaintance with one’s milieu.
            It is more to do with perpetuating a mind-set, rather than covering physical ground. The cyclist is restricted to the road, and certain roads at that: motorways are out of bounds, many A roads are best avoided, and cul-de-sacs, crescents and alleyways will rarely feature on any cyclist’s itinerary. The quotidian commute to work is particularly limiting, informed as it is by the need to move from A to B as swiftly as is feasibly possible, but wherever one cycles, and for whatever reason, there will always be constraints.
Geographical abandon is not what it’s about. It could be, if you liked, but cyclists tend to want to know where they are going, how much ground they might cover, and the time all this is expected to take. The physical dénouement is the thing, as opposed to an interrogation of the landscape for its own sake.
            For illustration, the first 7 miles of a 30 mile ride I take semi-regularly out to Chertsey are of no great consequence – I am too familiar with them and the attendant roads are trammelled with traffic, uneven surfaces and perpendicular junctions. It is not until I reach Marshall’s Roundabout and pull clear along the B375 that I begin to feel some sort of harmony with my location. Passing through Shepperton the road rakes upward. The approach into Chertsey itself offers a portside vista over the Thames which, on a hot day, is singularly reminiscent of some of the riparian features I've come across in Southeast Asia (I think it’s the boats moored along the Thames’ riverbank, obscured by reeds and framed by Dumsey Meadow to its north and Chertsey Meads south). And then, as one leaves Chertsey via the A317, there’s another roundabout, which is the fourth in a whole series of roundabouts that will ease my passage all the way into Kingston some 14 miles later.
            It is this corridor – from Chertsey to Kingston – that more vividly conveys these psychogeographic elements I wish to explicate. I mix my route up a bit once I'm south of Thames, which is not so easily done on the northern approach through Twickenham, Hampton and Sunbury. Occasionally I’ll head down to North Haw and Byfleet, but more often than not it is through and around Weybridge, Hersham, Molesey or Esher where I seek to venture.
            Chertsey itself is something of a dismal vicissitude, a necessary portal I must navigate to reach more fluid pastures, and through which I take the path of least resistance. I did venture to its heart once, intent on pausing somewhere for coffee, but very quickly actuated an about-face and didn't stop again until I’d made it all the way to Kingston.
Anyway, one needn't hang about: crossing Chertsey Bridge, I effect the first meaningful left turn and then take it all the way out the other side of Chertsey, almost bypassing the town entirely. Next, I attack the first climb – a steady 700 metre push that is Woburn Hill. This is my least favourite section of this second stage of my round trip. One is encouraged to diverge off the road and onto a cycle path that takes up much of the pavement. I might occasionally disregard an injunction such as this, but for some reason motor vehicles are want to floor it up this particular incline, and the road itself is fairly narrow. Then the road levels out again for the short approach into Weybridge – or the part of Weybridge known as Elmbridge – with its peculiar High Street and incongruous collection of boutiques. If I'm going to be impeded by traffic then I’ll expect it here. There are potholes to be mindful of too, and then the next climb – a sharp 300 metre kick up Monument Hill – where after I’ll pass Weybridge Green and start on the 3.5 km long stretch of Queens Road as far as the five spoked roundabout that grants access to Hersham. This might be the best part of the whole ride. The roads are in fairly good condition and are flanked by many trees. The air smells fresh along here. If it’s been raining then you might find yourself cutting through cool pockets of air – something to do with Walton Common being there, I think.
Weybridge is an odd place. I like passing through it but wouldn't want to live there. It epitomises some sort of suburban ideal, although I'm not sure whose. There's no sense of there being a central hub, and neither any distinct periphery. The merest hint of a town centre will dissipate no sooner than it’s appeared, but will then resurface again, apparently at random, despite the woods that intervened in-between. I do like the preponderance of trees but I'm not so keen on the fact that the general environment is so governed by groves, crofts, closes, drives, walks, and so on – residential avenues that lead nowhere, or do lead somewhere but forbid you from finding out. It is these gated communities (as well as the many golf courses) that seem to define much of Surrey, and Berkshire too. There's something of a castled mentality going on here. It might be why certain locals have recently been complaining about the volume of cyclists riding in the area, as if Surrey is worthy of some sort of dispensation. It is a terrible attitude, and completely unsustainable on countless levels. This is not something I want to get into here, suffice to say that such people might benefit from a little reflection: they have the home and the grounds, probably the car, and relative peace of mind. Meanwhile, the Levant festers and trouble cooks in West Africa.

(Chertsey Meadow - Courtesy: Alan Hunt. Southeast Asia can look a bit like this)

Eight roundabouts on from Chertsey – after having passed through Weybridge/Elmsbridge and Hersham (nothing doing there) – I enter Esher. There's an 800 metre climb up Lammas Lane before I decide whether or not to take the northerly route around Sandown Park or continue east through Esher town centre. Esher is only marginally more intriguing than Weybridge and I will invariably have to stop at traffic lights. Still, from there it's an almost uninterrupted run into Kingston along Portsmouth Road, 6 km of fast riding before negotiating Kingston's one-way system. I might stop for coffee here or may continue on to Richmond and the Hollyhock Cafe off Petersham Road, where familiarity nullifies the psychogeographic potential of not knowing exactly where I am.