Toddler Climbing at Rock Up Birmingham

Owen is a little monkey, and like all little monkeys, he likes climbing things! I had looked at taking him to the Ballroom Climbing Wall in Coventry, where I occasionally go climbing, but they don’t really cater for toddlers. Then I learned about “Clip ‘n Climb“, which was suitable for Owen as they use a safety rope. Rock Up in Birmingham is our local one, and they run toddler sessions on some weekday mornings – including Friday, my day off! Perfect!

As expected, Owen was really excited about going climbing and enjoyed driving through Birmingham, especially looking at all the cranes and seeing a 911 GT3 in the car park. We got Owen rigged up in his harness easily enough and attached to the rope on the first wall. Owen seemed to get the hang of it fairly quickly, getting up to about my head height, with a bit of help from the staff. However, he didn’t like the idea of jumping off, even just to see how the safety system worked. I guess it must have felt a bit unnatural to him. At this point he got it into his head that he didn’t want to climb the wall again and as anyone with a toddler knows, once they have decided something there is no changing their mind!

Next we moved on to a ladder – at home Owen loves climbing ladders, but again after reaching roughly my head height on his first try he gave up and didn’t want to go again. We then moved on to the wall in the photo at the top of this post. He did really well on this one, coordinating his arms and legs to climb up to the overhang. He then needed some help to traverse across to where he is in the photo, where he climbed a bit more, once again up to about my head height.

By this point I think he’d had enough of climbing, so we moved from the walls to a circle of posts, which increased in height. Once connected to the safety system Owen was able to clamber on to the first post, looking pleased with himself. However the jump to subsequent posts was too far, so he needed help to jump between them. Fortunately the safety rope took most of his weight, so I was able to lift Owen until he was standing on a post taller than me! I think at this point Owen realised just how high up he was and he took a bit of coaxing to jump down into my arms.

At this point we decided to move to the soft play – when taking a toddler to an activity it is good to have a backup option included in the price. And all toddlers seem to love soft play! Especially in Owen’s case, when there are toy trucks to play with. Owen happily spent the rest of the session playing with trucks, jumping in the ball pit and running around, up and down the soft play. When it came to leave Owen had his only tantrum of the morning, screaming that he “wanted to stay here forever”!

Even though the climbing aspect didn’t go as well as I had hoped we’ll definitely be going back to Rock Up for their toddler session. At £6 (including three hours free parking) I thought it was good value for money and an ideal wet weather activity! The staff were great with Owen and most importantly he absolutely loved it!

Croyde 2018

Croyde, in North Devon, is one of my favourite places in the world! Ten years ago I visited for surfing trips with my mates, and fell in love with the village and beach. I have been back every year since. This year we visited again for a family holiday, with Owen and my parents. Owen has visited Croyde before, but Mum and Dad haven’t, so I was looking forward to showing them around our usual haunts.

Two years ago Jen and I drove down in the MR2, with minimal luggage, however this year the BMW was stuffed full of luggage, and a bike on the roof. I am going to need a bigger car! Traffic on the M5 wasn’t great, but Owen was a good boy, so the journey wasn’t too arduous. We met Mum and Dad at the holiday cottage, unpacked and formed a plan to head to Squires fish and chip shop in Braunton for dinner. The first of our regular haunts! After the long drive I didn’t feel like being crammed into the BMW again, so chose to ride over on my bike. I took the back roads to Braunton. It was a big climb out of Croyde, but the views down over Saunton Sands were worth it. The descent down to Braunton was fast. I was on the road, so without any tricky corners or rocks to negotiate I only had to slow down for a couple of cars coming the other way and made good time. I arrived in Braunton before the rest of the family, within twenty seconds of the time Google Maps had predicted it to take! I’m sure the fish and chips tasted even better than usual after riding over to get them! (I did wimp out for the return journey and got a lift back in the car – I didn’t fancy the narrow lanes in the dark).

We started our first full day in Croyde with a walk into the village, although Owen really wanted to go to the beach! Mum and Dad walked over to Saunton Sands, and Jen and I took Owen to the beach. He was in his element playing in the sand, digging and looking for shells! In the afternoon we walked up to Sandleigh tea room. Owen had fun exploring the garden and chatting to the scarecrow, whilst we enjoyed a lovely cream tea. Mum and Dad walked to Baggy Point, whilst Jen, Owen and I went back to the beach. As the tide was out we could clamber across the rocks from Sandleigh, rather than walking back along the road. At first Owen seemed a bit unsure, but he loved splashing through the rock pools and looking for creatures. However, he was even more excited to get back on the beach to dig some holes! In the evening he came up to me, gave me a huge hug and said “I love you Daddy” – the first time we’ve heard him say that. He is such a little charmer!

The weather forecast for Sunday was for rain, but we managed to get to the beach for an hour before the rain started. Owen did more digging and I flew my old Flexifoil Stacker kite. Owen had been captivated by someone flying a kite the previous week, so I thought he may be interested, but it was a bit too powerful for Owen to have a go with. The rain started just as we were walking home; we made it back without getting too wet, and spent the rest of the morning chilling out at the house. Whilst Owen had his nap, Jen and I escaped into the village on our own for a quiet cup of tea and a piece of cake! As we got back, Mum and Owen were heading out to the playground, so we joined them. It was good to get Owen out of the house and running around a bit. He also got to see the beach tractor – I don’t think it can get any more exciting for Owen than a tractor on the beach! We finished the day with Sunday lunch at the Manor House Inn, another Croyde tradition for Jen and I. The only problem was that due to it being a rainy Sunday the carvery had been hit hard. The roast beef, that I had been particularly looking forward to, had all gone. At least it gave me an excuse to try something else from the menu – the steak and ale pie was a good substitute! I thought it was funny that most of the other tables were also families with children and grandparents.

As I hadn’t managed to get out on my bike on Sunday, I got out on the Monday morning instead, before meeting Jen for breakfast at Blue Groove – our favourite cafe. I have already posted about my ride, so won’t fill a holiday post with bike talk. When we got back Owen wasn’t too keen on going for his nap. The weather wasn’t great either, so Jen and I took him out for a drive to Ilfracombe. Owen was looking forward to seeing boats and trains, even though I had explained that there wasn’t a railway there. We parked at the harbour, so saw the boats, then at the end of the harbour we saw a little road train! We had to go on it, even if it was just for a little tour of the town, most of which we’d seen from the car on the drive in. Owen was very happy with his train ride and it gave Jen and I the chance to scope out ice cream shops. Joey’s looked the best, so we put that theory to the test. My Bakewell tart ice cream was nice, however Owen ending up wearing most of his bright green mint chocolate chip ice cream. To work off our ice creams we took a walk around the Capstone Parade, a traffic free promenade around the Capstone, a small hill between the town and the sea. It was good to let Owen have a run around without needing to worry about traffic. I also got to do some photography, I was particularly pleased with the photo above, looking past St Nicolas Chapel and the harbour entrance. By the time we got back to Croyde the weather had improved, so we went straight back out to the beach with my Mum. Owen enjoyed more digging and filling his bucket with water from the rock pools. It really was great having the beach a five minute walk from where we were staying meaning that we could just pop down to the beach after whatever we were doing during the day. After dinner, I went back to the beach to try and do some golden hour/sunset photography, however the light was rubbish. I should have listened to my Dad, who had declined to join me – as he thought the light would be rubbish!

Owen was in a funny mood on Tuesday morning, the weather wasn’t great either, so we had a quiet morning. We popped in to Braunton to do some shopping, then I took Owen to the playground. After lunch Mum and Dad walked to Mortehoe. Jen, Owen and I drove there in the car to meet them. Then we all walked down to Morte Point. The walk was about a mile, but as it was over footpaths/parkland we couldn’t take Owen’s pushchair -this would be his first hiking experience! He did better than I expected, I only ended up carrying him for about two thirds of the way. When we got towards the headland the wind was incredibly strong – the back end of Storm Helene was battering the UK. Mum, Jen and Owen held back and looked for seals in the sea, whilst Dad and I continued to the end of the point. It was probably a good job that Owen didn’t go all the way down with us, as Dad and I were getting blown about by the wind and struggling to stay upright – Owen would not have stood a chance of staying on his feet! After all that effort we went to Bllly Budd’s for dinner. The plan had been to get pizzas, but none of us ended up ordering one. I had a massive bowl of nachos with pulled pork, which I struggled to finish! Owen seemed to enjoy his fish fingers, but playing on the playground was his favourite part of the meal. I was impressed that he’d learned to climb up a rope net to get on the slide – he is getting very good at climbing!

Wednesday the 19th September was mine and Jen’s third wedding anniversary – time has shot by! Owen woke himself up coughing before 5:00 – I thought it was going to be an early start, but by the time I got back upstairs with the Calpol, he had fallen back asleep and didn’t wake up until 8:00! Thanks for the anniversary treat Owen! My Mum had offered to look after Owen all day, so Jen and I could have a day out – Jen wanted to visit Dunster Castle, so that’s what we did! I’m not normally a fan of stately homes, but fortunately Dunster Castle is a bit different! The sun was out when we arrived, so we had a walk round the gardens, taking a selfie on the Lover’s Bridge. Then we visited the working water mill, which was milling flour. It was great to be able to not only see the mill working, but be able to clamber around both inside and outside the building to get a closer look at the whole system – from the channels taking water from the stream and over the wheels, to the gearing inside powering a variety of machines, in addition to the milling stones. Naturally we couldn’t leave without buying a bag of the flour we had seen being milled. After the mill we visited the tea room and had my favourite holiday lunch – a Cornish pasty followed by a cream tea! As the weather was now turning, we decided to head inside and check out the castle. First stop wast the crypt, to learn about the life of the servants in Victorian times, and the resident bats. We had hoped to do the Victorian kitchen tour, but it was fully booked – if you’re planning on visiting Dunster Castle, make sure you call at the castle reception and book on as early as possible! Instead we did the self guided tour of the castle, which focussed mostly on its heyday, around 100 years ago. I particularly liked the dining room and adjoining blue 1950’s kitchen with views over the Bristol channel to Wales. When I heard that you could try billiards, I instantly thought of a photo opportunity with Jen looking down the cue and was pretty happy that I was able to pull it off, especially given I am still learning my Fuji camera. It seemed like we had missed the worst of the weather, as back in Croyde Owen and my parents didn’t even make it to the beach – they had to turn round as the wind from Storm Ali was whipping sand into Owen’s face. They went to the playground instead, ironically it was too windy to fly the new kite that Dad had bought Owen. In the evening Jen and I went back to Blue Groove for an anniversary dinner, just the two of us. Both of us had our usual dishes, chilli beef burrito and moules frites.

The weather was rubbish for our last full day in Croyde, after Storm Helene and Storm Ali rained on us we had Storm Bronagh. I’m not sure what we did to deserve three named storms on our holiday week! Dad and I braved the rain and walked to Blue Groove for breakfast and that was it for the morning! The weather hadn’t improved much after lunch, and Owen was in a funny mood, so we decided that there was only one thing for it – soft play. Jen found Quince Honey Farm in South Molton, which sounded more interesting than normal soft play and would give Owen a chance to nap on the drive there. At the honey farm we learned about bees, their hives and tried some different types of honey. When we got to the soft play area we were the only ones there! This meant I didn’t feel too guilty about taking Owen on the big slides etc. Once again he got to show off his climbing skills and graduated from sitting on my lap on the slides to racing me down! We had saved The Thatch for our final evening in Croyde and all had a good meal, making up for the miserable day. Owen was on top form, eating most of his dinner and charming the staff.

Packing the car back up seemed to be quicker than in Coventry and we were on the road fairly early. Even more unusually the traffic past Bristol was fine! There was a bit of traffic on the M5 as we got back to the Midlands, but we were still home by early afternoon. As we were driving back Jen and I reflected on our week and both felt that Croyde had somehow lost its sparkle, it could have been down to the weather, familiarity, staying at the other end of the village to normal, the seeds sown by watching a programme on TV about how Croyde is being ruined by holiday lets earlier in the summer or simply that our needs are different now that we have to think about more than where we are going to go for dinner! We still had a great time, but the chat in the car was more about where are we going to go on holiday next year, rather than what are we going to do when we visit Croyde next year. I’m sure we will be back though, as it is such a special place to us, but maybe next time it will be a romantic weekend away just the two of us…

Cotswold Drive – Throwback Thursday

As I have moved from Canon to Fuji camera gear, I was feeling nostalgic and looked through my Lightroom catalogue for the first photo taken on my Canon DSLR. It was this photo of my Dad driving his first Porsche Boxster – he’s on his third now! The photo was taken eleven years ago in Bourton on the Water in the Cotswolds, I was sat on another bridge over the stream, with my legs dangling over the side waiting for Dad to drive past.

I reprocessed the photo in Lightroom CC, to benefit from the newer tools and much more experience on my side. These days I would have gone for a slower shutter speed and panned with the car, blurring the background. However, I am still pleased with it as a first try at automotive photography.

Pre-breakfast Ride in Croyde

I’m currently on holiday in Croyde, North Devon, with my family, but I also brought my hardtail along, hoping to fit in a ride or two. On Friday I rode to Braunton for fish and chips, but that was just a road ride, and I really wanted to hit the trails! On my trip last year I bought a cycle map from Croyde Cycle, and had identified a suitable loop.

When I got onto the first bridleway out of Croyde, I had underestimated just how rocky it would be. It was also steep. Steep enough that I had to push my bike up it, which gave me plenty of time to worry about riding back down it at the end of the ride. The trail was similar to what I was riding around Ladybower – but I was on my Four there, with a dropper post, grippier tyres and much better brakes. Eventually I got to the top of the ridge that separates Croyde and Saunton Sands – time for the climb to pay off! The trail down the Saunton Sands side wasn’t as steep or rocky, but it was a lot narrower, a really good piece of single track. There were a few rock slabs at the bottom, which I got to inspect closely after choosing the wrong line. Fortunately it was at low speed. I then followed the bridleway/coast path behind Braunton Burrows. The first section had a “Beware of the bulls sign”, fortunately without any bulls. The next section was through the golf course, with signs warning about golfers – there were none. Then the final section was behind the Royal Marines training area. You guessed it, there were warning signs, but no Marines. It felt a bit like all of the “Bear” warning signs when Jen and I went to Yosemite on our honeymoon road trip!

Where the trail joined the “American Road”, I turned back towards Braunton, taking the byway across the “Great field”. The byway was only just about wide enough for a cauliflower picking tractor, so when two of them were approaching me I had to stop and wait for them to pass. From Braunton I followed the cycle route out of town, which eventually turned into a steep, rutted, muddy climb. I could probably have coped with any of those separately, but the combination meant that I felt safer pushing up. The climb did yield another rocky technical descent though, which gave me confidence for the return down the first bridleway I’d ridden out of Croyde. From the bottom of the descent it was a climb back up to the top of the ridge between Croyde and Saunton Sands, fortunately this was a gentle incline on the road, so I was able to maintain a decent speed. The narrow road, with grass growing in the middle reminded me of the roads in Normandy, where my Mum grew up.

The ride along the ridge had great views out to both sides, although the light was better on the Saunton Sands side. This is where the panorama at the top of this post is from. For the ride back down the steep, rocky trail to Croyde I dropped my seat as much as I could – only about an inch (no dropper post on the hardtail), hoping it would help with the descent. The trail wasn’t anywhere near as bad as I had feared – yes it was steep and technical, and I was slow, but I stayed on the bike and was pleased with how I tackled it. Hopefully all the practice I have been doing is paying off!

At the end of the ride I met Jen for breakfast at Blue Groove, our favourite place to eat in Croyde. I had one of their “Hogfather” breakfasts, which went down very well after an unexpectedly challenging ride!

Switching to Fuji

After eleven years using Canon DSLRs for my photography, I have swapped to a Fuji mirrorless system. It literally was a swap too – I walked into my local camera shop with a bag of Canon kit and walked out with my new Fuji X-T2 and 18-55mm lens!

The main reason behind the change is that in the last few years my lifestyle and priorities have changed and a heavy DSLR camera doesn’t fit in with my life in 2018. I’m not going out on photography adventures with my Dad anymore, Jen and I aren’t travelling as much as we were and my motorsport photography days are long gone! The Canon Eos 5D which I bought as a “temporary stop gap camera” in 2010, just wasn’t being used. It was too heavy/bulky to carry around. Especially when I am on a bike or out with Owen, and other than working and sleeping that is all I seem to do these days!

On the rare occasions I was using my camera I was only taking the camera and 24-105mm lens with me, to keep both kit and faffing to a minimum. On checking my Lightroom catalogue I had only taken one picture in 2018 with my 70-200mm f2.8 lens. I had been looking a a more advanced compact camera to replace my Canon S90, but my long term plan had been to get a new full frame Canon DSLR. However, given the amount of use I couldn’t justify it. Then I started to notice a lot of my photographer friends moving to mirrorless systems. With both Canon and Nikon announcing new mirrorless ranges recently the tide seemed to be turning towards mirrorless, so I decided to ignore my misgivings about electronic viewfinders and do some investigation…

Sony seemed to be the popular choice; I liked the idea of full frame sensors, and had heard a lot of good things about image quality. Then I checked the price – way out of my league! The Canon Eos M series was more reasonably priced, but I got the impression that they were aimed at amateurs, especially the range of lenses, probably too much of a step down from my 5D and L series lenses. Whilst looking I came across the Fuji X-T2 and thought it looked good, compact and well built, but too expensive, especially for a cropped sensor camera. However the seed had been sown. My search then brought me to the Fuji X-T20 – the X-T2’s baby brother, and its cousin, the X-A3. They were more in my price range and shared the same sensor/auto focus system as the X-T2, but crucially were within budget! I read a lot of reviews and convinced myself that Fuji with manual control dials on top of the camera and well built lenses was the mirrorless system for me.

Then it dawned on me – we were off on holiday in a few weeks time, a week in Croyde would be the perfect opportunity to get to know a new camera system! I sent details of my current kit to a dealer to see if the numbers would work – fortunately they did! Now all I had to do was decide which Fuji camera to buy, I preferred the layout of the X-T20 but the features of the X-E3. The only way to make a decision was to get to a camera shop to try them out. Whilst waiting for an opportunity to visit a camera shop, Fuji announced the X-T3. It looked perfect, except it was way too expensive for me, and in any case wouldn’t have been available before my holiday. However, it did mean Fuji reduced the price of the X-T2, just about bringing it into my budget! I now had three cameras to decide between. The main attraction of the X-T2 was the better build, including weather sealing and even simpler controls than the smaller X-T20. The downside was that I would only be able to afford one lens initially. By the time I got to the camera shop I had pretty much decided on the X-T2, deep down I knew that I if went for the cheaper model, I would either end up wanting to upgrade or breaking it whilst out on my bike. Therefore buying the more expensive X-T2 was actually the cheaper option. The camera just felt “right” in my hands, I didn’t need to try the X-T20, I was taking the X-T2 home!

As is usually the way with these things, I didn’t get to use it over the weekend, I certainly didn’t want to risk taking it to the Peak District with me. Especially as I haven’t got any protection for it – all my existing camera bags are set up for full frame DSLRs, so the little Fuji is just rattling around it them. Other than a few test shots at home, my first proper go with it was taking some headshots at work – no pressure then! After eleven years using Canon DSLRs I can change anything on them instinctively, and whilst the Fuji controls are intuitive, I struggled a bit. The zoom ring being the opposite way round to Canon, is going to take some getting used to. However, the electronic viewfinder was awesome, I could see what the photo was going to look like before I took it and the shooting information was all there too. I really don’t know why I was so against them previously!

Since then, I have been tweaking the settings to my liking and practicing on my tame(ish) model – Owen! Jon Caz’s guide was a particularly helpful starting point for settings, as there is a lot more to configure than on my old cameras and to be honest I am still getting used to them. We took Owen to get his haircut in Rugby, so I knew we would be going to the GEC recreation ground after – Owen loves the sandpit and mechanical diggers there! With Owen entertained, I was able to concentrate on taking some photos of him and trying out different settings. I particularly liked the one at the top of the post because of the expression on his face. Jen even used the camera to get some good pictures of Owen and I playing on the mechanical diggers, she noted how much lighter the Fuji is than my old set up.

I had read about people having issues processing Fuji files in Lightroom, this was a concern for me as moving away from Lightroom would be a much bigger change for me than changing camera system. My friend Graham sent some raw files from his X-T2 for me to try in Lightroom, I was able to get results I was happy with. However it has highlighted that I need to revisit some of the new features in Lightroom, especially the “Profile” section of the Develop Module, but also the sharpening controls. I had the same experience with the photos of Owen, I’ve been able to get photos I like, but possibly not as good as they could be.

The main thing though is that switching systems has got me interested in photography again! Instead of finding excuses to leave the camera at home, I’m finding reasons to take it with me!

Ladybower Loop

For some time now I have been wanting to ride the trails around Ladybower Reservoir in the Peak District, so as one of my goals for 2018 was to ride more natural terrain I decided to make it happen! Two weeks previously I had been planning to head to either the Peak District or the Elan Valley, but the weather was rubbish. I ended up riding at home, smashing the derailleur on a trail I’ve ridden hundreds of times. With a fixed bike and slightly better weather, I was finally able to head up the M1 to Ladybower.

My plan had been to follow the “Ladybower Best Bits” ride on Trailforks. However, a last minute check in my “Good Mountain Biking Guide” threw up a slightly shorter option, with only two major climbs, rather than four. As seems to be usual, I was running late, so opted for the shorter loop. Not really knowing the area, I started from Fairholmes Visitor Centre, as per the book, it was £5 to park and added an extra ten minutes to the drive – next time I’ll park by the Ladybower Inn.

After riding along the shoreline, with a stop to adjust my newly fitted derailleur, the climbing started. At first on a steep stone slab path, to the barn in the photo above, that had me off the bike pushing, then on some equally steep rocky paths. I pushed the bike for over half of the climb. The next section of trail, to Whinstone Lee Tor, was flatter, but really rocky, it was a fun challenge picking a line through the rocks without losing too much momentum.

At Whinstone Lee Tor I chatted with a group of local riders, who explained the different routes down to Ladybower Inn. Declining their offer to lead me down the most technical trail, I stuck to my original plan and took the easier route, via Cutthroat Bridge. It was a wide, rocky trail with just enough gradient to carry speed, but not so much that I was going super fast. Perfect for practicing picking lines through rock gardens. Towards the bottom of the trail there were some large drainage ditches which were fun to ride over.

Before the trail dropped to the road, I hooked a right, riding along another flat, but bumpy, trail parallel to the road. The trail then dropped through a fairly technical rock garden, finishing at a gate. To give an indication of how big the rocks were; they were the perfect size to sit on an eat my “PBJ” sandwich. After the gate it was a fast rocky decent to the Ladybower Inn – it actually felt a lot like the terrain I had been riding with BasqueMTB earlier in the year, minus the van to drive me back up to the top. This descent is the only time I’ve been able to smell my brakes at the bottom of a trail!

This would have been the decision point between the longer route with an extra climb/descent, or the shorter route, skirting around the reservoir. However, as I’d already chosen the shorter route, I pushed my bike across the dam and followed the shoreline. I was expecting this section to be easy, however there were more gradients than I expected. It felt a lot longer too, so I was relieved to finally pop out into the A57, aka the Snake Pass, for a short road section.

Ladybower is “Y” shaped, I’d ridden down one side, round the bottom and up the other side, now I had to cross the ridge between the two top bits! The climb was mostly paved, so terrain-wise it was easier than the first climb, but still bloody steep! I eventually got to the top, with a bit of pushing and a few stops to munch on an energy bar. From the top I had the option to turn south, back towards the Snake Pass. The trail looked fun, but I couldn’t face the climb back up again. Instead, I turned north, back towards the car along a double track section which turned into a descent known as “the screaming mile“. This trail was just at the right level for me, just a little bit more technical than I am comfortable with, but not so much so that I couldn’t ride it safely. The trail was a bit damp, with wet rocks and even a bit of mud, but there was just enough grip to still feel like I was in control. I was buzzing when I got to the bottom of the trail, with a mud splattered smile for the gentle ride along the reservoir back to the car.

Riding in the Peak District is different to riding at a trail centre – a lot harder, but ultimately more rewarding. The rocky trails add an extra dimension to the riding, needing to pick a line well in advance, going both up and down. I would really love to do the longer route, but I think I will need to work on both my fitness and bike skills first to get the most out of it.

Hardtail v1.2

After clocking over 5,000km on my Vitus Nucleus hardtail, I decided it was time to treat it to some upgrades. The original Suntour fork was a weak point in the spec, and was past its best. So when I spotted a great deal on the same Fox 34 fork as I have fitted to my Orange Four I had to buy them. They weren’t a straight swap onto the bike, meaning I had to replace the front wheel. I had planned to upgrade the wheels on my Four, then fit the old front wheel onto the hardtail. However, I spotted a stupidly cheap front wheel online, so ordered that. Although it meant I didn’t get the nice new wheels on my main bike, the total cost was a fraction of what I would have spent. I already knew the new forks would be good, due to my experience with them on the Four, but what I hadn’t expected was how much lighter they are than my old forks. I tried to pop a manual (rolling along on the back wheel only) and the front end came up so easily that I almost went over the back of the bike.

You may be wondering why a new fork and front wheel are v1.2 and what happened to v1.1… Shortly after getting back from honeymoon, and three quarters of the way through my 2,015km in 2015, the original low end 3×9 drivetrain was pretty worn out. As it was clear that mountain biking wasn’t just a passing phase I decided to upgrade to an XT 1×10 set up – not quite top of the range, but still high end. At the same time, fed up with repeated punctures, I fitted the “Protection” version of the Continental X King tyres and set them up tubeless. These upgrades cost roughly the same amount as the whole bike had the previous year, however they totally transformed it. The drivetrain was significantly smoother, the bike lighter and crucially, more reliable. I had three years with the bike in this v1.1 configuration. Riding it on local trails, at trail centres, pumptracks, training rides and the odd commute, the bike felt much better that the sum of its parts.

Since fitting the new fork I had done a few local shakedown rides, but with my Four out of action, after I smashed the rear mech on a log last week, I used the hardtail for my big Sunday ride. I decided to do my Kenilworth loop, a mixture of single track and bike paths, to Kenilworth and back. Before I stopped working on Fridays, this was my regular extended commute. I hadn’t ridden it for a while, so thought it would be a good test of the new fork. Even just rolling down the lane behind the garage the bike felt amazing, it seemed to carry speed better than the full suspension bike. I expect this is down to the faster rolling tyres, but the lack of suspension won’t have hurt. Normally on this route I ride straight through the middle of Park Wood, but this time I decided to add in a full loop, to test the bike on the downhill sections. It felt good, really good. Checking Strava when I got home, I’d got my second best time ever! When I got to Kenilworth I did a lap of my old Friday interval session – up Coventry Road, down the Common bridleway and back up the Greenway, taking it easy on the flat bits in between. I shocked myself by how easily I got up the hill on Coventry Road. I still remember struggling up it a few years ago, but now I was even able to climb it fairly quickly and I don’t think that was to do with the bike!

I was really enjoying riding the hardtail, until I got to a bit of trail, that I’ve only ever ridden on my Orange. It isn’t a frequently used section of trail, and was quite bumpy – not something I’d ever noticed on my full suspension bike. I don’t know if I was tired, after pushing on earlier in the ride, or if it was the bumpy trail, but I just couldn’t get any flow. In contrast to the rest of the ride I felt so slow. I see this as a challenge for next time I ride that trail on the hardtail. Later in the ride, I managed to equal my personal record on the “Milk Bar Trail”, a fun little trail in Earlsdon that I’ve ridden almost 100 times according to Strava. I wasn’t sure if I should be pleased with my time, especially as the trail has got harder since setting my best time, or if I should be annoyed that I set the time on my old hardtail, rather than my “good bike”.

Whilst I really enjoyed my ride on the hardtail, there are still a few bits that I need to sort out:

  1. Brakes – The original Tektro brakes aren’t great. It could be that they need a good service, but they are much harder to work on than the Shimano brakes on my Four. I expect that when I see a good deal on some Shimano brakes I’ll upgrade.
  2. Lack of dropper post – Going from the Four to the hardtail I don’t miss the rear suspension, but I do really miss the dropper post! Being able to get the seat out of the way makes it easier to move your weight around the bike for better control over technical terrain. It also makes it easier to get on and off the bike. On the Four I just press a button on the handlebar to change the seat height, or the hardtail I have to physically swap seats/seat posts depending on the sort of riding I’ll be doing. Unfortunately this isn’t something I can upgrade easily.
  3. Fit – The biggest problem with the hardtail is that the frame isn’t quite long enough. Even with a layback seat post (which is one of the reasons I can’t fit a dropper post), I feel like I’m sitting over the back of the saddle. This won’t be an easy fix, fortunately most of the parts on the bike will transfer over to a new frame.

Realistically I’ll have at least this winter to ride v1.2 of my hardtail, before building v2.0. I will be making sure I take it out on the trails, rather than just using it for more mundane rides, because with the new forks it is such a fun ride!

French Roadtrip: Days 4 and 5 – The Long Drive Home

It is a long drive from Brittany to Coventry, but at least we were on our own schedule for this part of the trip, so decided to split it over two days, with an extended stop on the first day. I had planned to stop in Honfleur, a lovely little fishing port, but realised that it wouldn’t be suitable for Owen, so decided to stop a few miles away in Deauville, so that Owen could run around on the beach and dig some holes!

After another great breakfast, we said our goodbyes to Michel and Collette, my Mum’s cousins who had been hosting us in St Brieuc, and my parents, who were extending their trip with a few days in the Massif Central. We made plans to meet Simon and Sophie in Deauville, then set off, initially retracing our route from day 2. It took around three hours to get to Deauville. Owen only slept for the last hour, despite still seeming tired from his late night previously. There were a few traffic snarl ups around the Caen ring road, but we made good time and even managed to find a parking space right next to the beach. Ideal when you have a grumpy toddler who just wants to dig holes in the sand!

Whilst Owen was building, then immediately destroying sandcastles, I went to find some ham and cheese baguettes for lunch. Deauville beach is really well set up, with a boardwalk, little cabins (named after Hollywood stars, who may or may not have visited Deauville) then little kiosks selling beach essentials – including lunch! After eating our baguettes we walked along the beach road, checking out the impressive old buildings. The Normandy Hotel, where my Mum used to work, was the highlight, with its half timbered exterior. We then walked back along the boardwalk, stopping for ice cream. I found my new favourite ice cream flavour – chestnut. I’m not sure where else I will be able to get it from again. Although I do know some chestnut farmers, so have got them on the case! Whilst we were eating our ice creams, Simon and Sophie turned up, so we spent some time with them whilst Owen played in the sand some more. When it was time to leave, he ran all the way down the boardwalk to the car – quite a long way for someone with such little legs! It was a good job he was tiring himself out, as we had almost another three hours of driving ahead of us.

Our overnight stop was in Le Touquet, and we spent most of the drive looking out for tractors with Owen – he seemed way more impressed with them than the huge bridges we went over. As we were getting closer to Calais we noticed that most of the cars on the road were British registered, which I thought was funny. Not having been to Le Touquet before I wasn’t expecting to drive through pine forests on the edge of town and was pleasantly surprised to see that everything was really well set up for cycling. We were less impressed with our hotel, which felt really tired and due to a strange layout we were in the 153rd of 156 rooms down a really long corridor. At least the location was good – right on the beach! The town itself seemed nice though! We walked along the beach, past the wake boarding pool, the beach bars, kids clubs and volleyball courts to the town centre. I wasn’t prepared for just how busy the town centre would be – there were people everywhere, shopping, drinking and generally having a good time. As we were all pretty hungry, we went to the first place we found, a little pizza restaurant just off the main street. The pizza was amazing! I love that in France you can get pizzas with an egg on – quite a rarity in the UK. Owen was a bit of a monkey during dinner, I guess he had loads of pent up energy, after being cooped up in the car most of the day. So while Jen did some last minute shopping in town, I took Owen down to the beach for more digging! This is the photo at the top of the post. Once again, Owen enjoyed himself on the beach, hopefully two beaches in one day made up for all the time stuck in the car!

The tractor and combine harvester conversations we had been having with Owen in the car must have been playing on his mind, as he work up at 5:45 asking about combine harvesters! We let him get into bed with us, forgetting that toddlers seem to have an inbuilt need to sleep perpendicular to anyone else in the bed. With only a tiny slither of bed to balance on, I didn’t manage to get back to sleep. At least this meant we were ready to leave early for the relatively short drive up to the Chunnel. When we got there we were given the opportunity to take an earlier train – result! Jen had never used the Le Shuttle, and was wowed by how seamless it all was. We were pretty much straight off the motorway and onto the train! Before long we were speeding along under the English Channel. Whilst I was stretching my legs Owen took the opportunity to commandeer the drivers seat, thinking he’d get to drive the next leg of the journey. He was so upset when I put him back in his car seat.

We’d worked out that it would only be a twenty minute detour to visit Jen’s sister, Heather, in Hackney. So as it was her birthday it would have been rude not to call in! I love the drive into east London, with the Canary Wharf skyline, Olympic Park and the O2, then through the 120 year old Blackwall Tunnel. At this time on a Sunday morning it was a pretty easy drive too. Owen was very excited to see Heather, especially as this was the first time he had been to her flat. We had brunch at the cafe around the corner from Heather’s flat. As I was in East London I felt that it would be rude not to have smashed avocado on toast (and of course post it to my Instagram story).

I was surprised at how easy it was to get from Heather’s flat to the M11 for the start of the final leg of our journey – two hours back to Coventry. I was back on familiar roads, and driving on the left, so it was the easiest drive of the trip. We were home by 14:00, exactly five days since leaving, having covered just over 1,000 miles!

French Roadtrip: Days 2 and 3 – Brittany

We woke up to rain, not ideal on holiday. After a good breakfast at the hotel in Coutances, we loaded up the car for the drive to Brittany. It was still raining. At least it was a good opportunity to test the new wipers and RainX on the windscreen of the BMW. My main niggle with the car since getting it, is that there is no intermittent setting on the wipers, only an “intelligent auto” setting. Which isn’t that intelligent. Even on the most sensitive setting it waits until you can’t see anything ahead, then wipes the screen. I found an old bottle of RainX in the garage and thought it would be worth a try. I wish I’d thought of that a few years ago, as it worked a treat! Even in the heaviest rain I could leave the wipers set to auto and I could see the road ahead clearly!

Just because I could see where I was going didn’t mean that the journey went smoothly. Our first stop was in St Malo, and we had been sent directions to the car park we were meeting everyone at. However the directions opened in Google Maps, and we find that whilst the directions are usually spot on, they aren’t communicated well. It seems to be a lottery if it tells you the road name/number to turn on to and doesn’t show the number of the exit from roundabouts. To be fair we also didn’t have the audio mix tuned, so I could barely hear the turn by turn instructions, so we took a few wrong turns. I think I’ll stick to using Apple Maps.

When we arrived in St Malo the car park that we were looking for was full, so ended up parking somewhere else anyway. It was still raining. The plan had been to have a walk around the old town, but no-one really felt like it, so we followed my Dad straight to his favourite ice cream shop – Sanchez. He seems to have a favourite ice cream shop in every town we visit! 11:00 isn’t really ideal ice cream time, but it was somewhere we could sit in the dry, and I’d heard Dad saying how good this place was for a few years,. So we had to try it out. I had a giant sundae, with coconut, white chocolate and banana ice creams. It was good, but even I struggled to eat it! The plan had been to get “galette saussice”, for lunch, but I was so full of ice cream I couldn’t face one, so shared with Owen. For those that don’t know, a “galette saucisse” is a buckwheat pancake wrapped around a sausage. It is a typical Breton street food and one of my favourite lunches in France.

From St Malo we drove an hour along the coast to St Brieuc, where fortunately the weather was better. We were staying with my Mum’s cousin Michel and his wife Collette. We saw them in the UK last year, but it is probably 25 years since I last visited them. I didn’t really remember their house, but it is lovely, with the living areas (and a massive garage, with workshop) downstairs, then the guest bedrooms upstairs. The downstairs is very modern, with each of the guest bedrooms decorated with a different theme. Jen, Owen and I were in the historically themed room, with a Louis XIV wardrobe that Michel restored in his workshop. The wardrobe was an ideal place to hide all of the breakable ornaments from Owen – as it is very much the sort of house that a two year old could cause trouble in! Michel is also a petrolhead and has a lovely classic Simca 1000, that was manufactured in the year he was born, so we did some tyre kicking. Owen liked the “old car” too.

We drove into the centre of St Brieuc for a walk around, then down to the harbour, where the Rosengart car factory used to be. We had a little walk around, looking at the boats and one of the cars made in the factory. On the way back, we stopped at the supermarket to pick up some essentials: milk for Owen, chestnut puree for me and wine for Jen! Owen was disappointed that this supermarket didn’t have a tank of live crabs/lobsters, unlike most other French supermarkets. Michel did a BBQ in the evening – french sausages and merguez (a spicy north African sausage), which was one of the foods we particularly wanted to eat on our trip – result! Michel and Collette are great hosts (they used to run bars), and we had a lovely three course meal, with the sausages/merguez as main course. Owen loved watching the sausages being cooked on the open fire, and wolfed his sausage down. Then stole some of my Mum’s merguez too! We had to break our “no iPad after dinner” rule, as toddlers and extended French meals are not an ideal combination – something I remembered from when I was a little boy. He sat happily on my Mum’s knee playing tractor/digger games whilst the grown ups chatted, mostly in French.

After his late night Owen had a short lie in, and when we got downstairs Michel had just arrived with croissants for breakfast from the local bakery – they were still warm! They were the best croissants I have ever eaten, they were so light. Nothing like the croissants you get in the UK. The bread was amazing too, and this is just from their local neighbourhood bakery. After breakfast we went to the beach at Les Rosaires, as we hadn’t really done anything aimed at Owen and digging holes at the beach is his favourite thing to do. We were there about an hour, Owen made sandcastles, paddled in the sea, explored rock pools and generally had the time of his life! However, we had to leave, as we had to fit in a three course lunch before our afternoon excursion!

Collette made us an amazing lunch – cockles, pot roast pork and raspberry panna cotta – I think they also grew/caught everything in the dinner apart from the pork and the milk! As is the way with French meals, it took a wee while, so we were late leaving for the pink granite cliffs at Ploumanach. The drive took just over an hour and Owen slept for most of it. When he woke up we were in a little seaside town that reminded Jen of Lulworth Cove in Dorset, and me of 17 Mile Drive in California. We had to carry him past the ice cream shop and the beach (“sandpit” in Owen’s words), then up the hill to the pink granite outcrops. He absolutely loved it there! Climbing on the rocks and posing for photos. I also like to think he was taking in the amazing views and wondering what geological and ocean forces were at play to form these amazing rock shapes. As the grown ups were taking their time walking back, I sat Owen on my shoulders and carried him to the beach, to do more digging in the sand. I’m not sure where he learned to do it, but he has taken to using my head like a steering wheel if I’m not walking the way he wants to go. Then if I mention it, he tries to steer me off the path or into something. He is such a cheeky little monkey!

Michel led us back the scenic route to St Brieuc, so it was already past Owen’s bed time when we got back. Collette made him egg and toast for dinner – his favourite. He had also asked for baked beans, not understanding that you don’t really get them in France. As we’d had a large lunch I was expecting a light dinner, but it was a 6 course job, including the aperitif and cheese! Aperitif (nibbles), mackerel pate, mussels, cod in white sauce, cheese and fruit salad! We were all stuffed after that. After his dinner, Owen had perked up a bit and didn’t want to go to bed, he sat quietly on his iPad, until the fruit salad came out. He took a liking to the homegrown blackcurrants, stealing them from my Mum’s bowl, then requesting more from the serving bowl! He actually stayed up later than his grandpa!

French Roadtrip: Day 1 – Normandy

We are in France for a few days visiting my Mum’s family. As we are visiting a few different places we are roadtripping in my BMW – our first proper road trip as a family of three! Our ferry left Portsmouth at 9:00 this morning, so we travelled down to the south coast yesterday.

As I was loading the car Owen asked to sit in the drivers seat, it is one of the few places where he can sit still for ages, so I took advantage. The only problem was that he thought he was going to be driving us down the motorway. He was absolutely gutted when eventually removed him and strapped him into his car seat. He had a proper tired two year old tantrum. Luckily within a few minutes of setting off we saw a tractor, which cheered him up. Then before we even got to the city centre he was asleep!

The journey south was uneventful, we called in at Itchen Valley Country Park in Eastleigh, to let Owen have a run around and stretch his legs. The drive took us two hours and Owen woke up just as we pulled into the park. Owen enjoyed both the playground and the play trail, which had animal themed play equipment dotted around in the woods. It also looked like there was a decent, albeit flat, bike trail, but there wasn’t room for my bike on this trip. Only a few minutes off the motorway it makes a much better stopping point than a service station!

All the fresh air made us hungry, so we tackled the rush hour traffic and drove to Whiteley for dinner. It is a nice little out of town shopping/leisure area, which seemed to cater well for kids with animatronic dinosaurs and sand pits to play in. We ate at Bar + Block, a steakhouse which I think may be coming to Coventry soon. Jen and I enjoyed our steaks, but I’m not sure Owen was too fussed about his – he still has a lot to learn!

In the morning we woke up early and called into McDonalds for breakfast on the way to catch the ferry, on the basis it would be cheaper and probably better than what was on offer on the ferry – we were right! Despite the early start, we only just got to the port in time. It has been well over ten years since I last caught a ferry from Portsmouth (I think it was 2005, when I first had my mk1 MX-5!), but it seemed strangely familiar. Owen was very excited to get on the ferry, looking out of the window at all of the activity on the Solent and waving at the boats.

The crossing wasn’t great, Jen and I don’t really have sea legs – I suppose that is because we live about as far away from the sea as you can get in the UK! Owen didn’t seem too bothered though, wanting to explore the ferry. It was funny watching him wobbling around as the boat pitched and rolled. We were definitely glad to dock at Cherbourg and that we will be coming home on the Chunnel!

The first stop of our trip was a very small village called Gonfreville, where my Mum grew up, to visit her friend Christiane. Gonfreville is about an hour south of Cherbourg, slightly longer with a boulangerie stop for lunch. The French really know how do make a perfect ham and cheese baguette. Jen’s theory is that it is down to the butter, and Normandy butter is supposedly the best in the world. Owen slept the whole way, only waking up when he heard my Mum’s voice, as they had arrived at Christiane’s a few ays before us. The excitement of being on a farm, with rabbits and an excitable dog meant that Owen woke up quickly and was soon practicing his French, by saying “bonjour” to everything!

We worked out it must have been seventeen or eighteen years since I was there, as I remembered Christiane’s granddaughter being about Owen’s age – she’s twenty now! My brother Simon and his wife Sophie also joined us, which made both Owen and Lola, the dog, even more excited. We had a drink, ate some cake and looked at old photos, including one of me as a baby. Owen and Jen thought that was funny. I’ve seen photos of me at around nine months old and I looked exactly like Owen did at that age, but at a few months old we looked nothing alike.

Leaving Christiane’s we had a tour of Gonfreville, my Mum showing us the houses she’d lived in and her old primary school. We drove in convoy to Coutances, which was our overnight stop. Our hotel was on the edge of town, so we dropped our bags and walked into town, down a steep hill and then up the other side. It was hard work in the sun, especially pushing Owen’s pushchair, so our first priority in town was to get an ice cream! Suitably cooled down we had a wonder around town, Owen particularly liked the public gardens, with ponds, a playground and a maze. We also went to see my Mum’s secondary school before walking back down, then up the hill to the hotel. I haven’t been to Coutances for over twenty years, some bits of it seemed familiar, but I’m glad my Mum knew where we were going.

We had a bit of downtime before all meeting for dinner. As is the French way, dinner seemed to last hours, so whilst Owen was well behaved to start with, he was getting grumpier and grumpier as the meal went on. Jen and I both had melon and parma ham to start, chicken tagine for main and apple tart for dessert. All the food was really good, Owen seemed to enjoy his too and seemed keener to try new things than he was in San Sebastian a few months ago.

I didn’t manage to take any photos in Normandy, so the one at the top of the post is of Owen, whilst I was loading the car back in Coventry.