Plumb lines and cockpits The upshot of my visit, on a hot June day, to Neil’s upstairs studio was spending a penny to save a pound. Reader: I needed not a larger frame. I needed data.

Of plumb lines and protractors

A couple of weeks ago, I thought I needed a whole new bike—or at least a whole new bike frame. The Dunx chassis that I’d driven a ridiculous distance to collect came out bigger than my old Marin and I worried that my pedal position was more torture rack than action settee on a thousand-mile ride.

Knowing the knee-clicking importance of a well-fitted bike, I was fully prepared to drop another undisclosable sum of money into the laps of the aluminium founders.

But first, fearful of returning to square zero, I needed confidence on exactly what size of metal triangle would best accommodate my thorax, levers and abdomen. So I booked a professional fitting with Neil of Fit To Ride, Poole.

The upshot of my visit, on a hot June day, to Neil’s upstairs studio was spending a penny to save a pound. Or spending £110 to save at least £500. Reader: I needed not a larger frame. I needed data.

Data worth ~£400

I perched astride Martin, fixed in place to a roller with a fan blowing hot air into my hair, distracted by a motionless wall-sized panorama of the Alps; Neil tinkered around me with plumb lines, rulers and protractors.

He’s used to tuning up road bikes for max power. I warned him not to laugh.

The most important thing I learned from Neil, however, was that frame size is much less important than I thought. In the hands of a professional, dramatic micro-adjustments of the seat post, saddle rails, handlebar stem, angle and rise can admit even the most monstrous of riding positions.

I ride upright—a position so unaerodynamic that I must be at least twice as fit as Mark Cavendish. I had managed to achieve my absurdly erect posture by cranking an adjustable handlebar stem way past its vertical limit for the utmost rise and utleast reach.

The effect was, in Neil’s words, cramped and hunched; in my words, relaxed and comfortable. Although, now he mentioned it, a folk memory arose from tours past: a shooting stiffness in the shoulders that only hypodermic massage could relieve.

After raising the seat post an inch and shuffling the saddle back a few mill, Neil proved his point with a protractor. My lower back was indeed of the military persuasion, but my handlebars were so close to my belly that, from the fourth thoracic north, my vertebrae had no choice but to volte-face, kink and plunge.

The results of such a posture are not only painful in the neck, but also, Neil assured me, inefficient in the muscle groups engaged in forward propulsion.

Neil’s response was to exchange my over-wrought stem for one that did the diametric opposite, one that pushed my fingers far over the front wheel. The knock-on effect was to straighten my back and edge the angle between spine and shoulder closer to its biomechanical sweet spot.

I’ve been riding with this new setup for the past couple of weeks, but Neil warned me that it could take five hundred miles before my body works out its new muscle memories. I haven’t had knee pain while cycling for many years: any change to my pedal practise, even change dictated by protractor, is a gamble.

Tomorrow, I leave for a thousand kilometre ride around Wales. Soon I will learn whether the gamble has paid off.

Of cockpits and cash

As anyone who owns a bicycle well knows, the goddess of the highway giveth with one hand and taketh away with the other. The money I hypothetically ‘saved’ by not buying a whole new frame, was spent with thrilling liquidity on an array of instruments for what Neil persisted in calling my ‘cockpit’.

Ever since I’d been struck dumb in Romania by the enviable cockpit of a moustachioed Steely called Bertie, I have wanted aerodynamic tri bars on my touring bicycle. Goaded on by Neil—‘All the long distance cyclists have got them these days’—I have finally taken the swallow dive.

As the owner of a flat-bar touring bike, my life has already been transformed once by the addition of end bars (credit to John in Newcastle for that innovation). Could it be transformed a second time with these sleek arm rests? Time shall tell.

But that is not the only new member of my cockpit crew. I have also succumbed to bikepacking fashion and acquired a handlebar bag—supposedly of ten litres, but I’m not about to waste perfectly good drinking water checking that. In my case, this handlebar bag is nothing more than a robust dry bag zip tied to my bars.

The pièce de résistance of my pimped up cockpit is a brand new GPS computer—the admirably typo-ridden Wahoo Elemnt Bolt. This frighteningly loseable piece of hardware is a tiny, yet incredibly detailed world atlas, onto which I can superimpose the turn-by-turn instructions for my intended route.

The first time I cycled around Wales, back in 2011, I used a road atlas for navigation and, with no digital Hermes to guide my wheels, I furiously spent many hours lost, as this extract from my bicyclogue of the journey reveals:

Through Harlech, with its men, to Barmouth, where I cross the mouth of Afon Mawddach. Happily swishing through the fields and woods of the hills, I’m expecting to hit the seaside again soon. I’m constantly looking ahead, around this bend, over this hill, through this wood, soon I’ll hear the swish of the sea, soon.

Then I hit a town that shouldn’t be there. I cycle along vaguely, bewildered by my map. It’s a pleasant enough town, with grey slate and flint buildings and a few people enjoying the gap between rainstorms. It’s just that none of it should be here. Eventually, after dawdling through the town, trying to find a comprehensible road sign that might indicate where the hell I am, I find a bike shop. I tie up and go inside.

‘Excuse me,’ I ask the vigorously tanned bike mechanic. ‘You couldn’t tell me where I am, could you?’
In fairness to him, he would be well within his rights to look at me now as if I’m insane. But he doesn’t. He just says something like: ‘Dththgththaye.’
A look of panic flickers over my face. I check my map. ‘Erm, where?’
‘Dththgththaye,’ he repeats, patiently.
I panic again. He takes pity, turns the page on my road map and points: Dolgellau. There is no way we can be there.
‘Are you sure?’ I ask before I can stop myself.

Now he is looking at me as if I am insane. Somehow I have managed to cycle north-east, when I should have been going south-west. For eight miles. After all my anxiety about avoiding Anglesey and other diversions, I feel strangely liberated from the tyranny of Knowing. Not Knowing, I’m not worried about where I am, where I’m going or how fast I’m going wherever it is that I’m going.

That was then, but how now will I suffer this year, at the mercy of the all-knowing Wahoo? A Wahoo that, all being well, shall, by the end of the summer, be a world record holder, no less. Will I pass muster? Or will I long for the days of unknowing?


Thanks to Dunx Cycles and Fit To Ride for their help putting together Martin II.

If you’ve got any recommendations of places to explore in Wales, then please let me know. Likewise, if you live in Wales and fancy joining me for a turn about the hills.

The First Stile

One man chased after me waving his stick because my train ticket fell out of my pocket. Another beckoned me down a shortcut into town.

The pasty saleswoman seemed to be competing with me for variety and number of ways to say thank you.

The cafe owner took me outside to show me the Three Peaks (they were hidden by the houses and a dense bank of cloud), describing the distinctive challenge of each and the wonderful views to be had (on a fine day).

I set off down the pedestrianised centre of Abergavenny, clutching my map and compass, in a thoroughly good mood, and in thoroughly the wrong direction.

Correcting my course back to what turned out to be the wrong church, I realigned my map and strode up the lane to The First Stile. Continue reading The First Stile

Black Sheep Backpackers Hostel: A mild review

Exceptional holiday accommodation deserves – nay, demands – to be saluted in that most modern of valedictions, the online review.

Sadly, my 1,000 word review (not including photographs, diagrams, maps, illustrations and appendices) of the Abergavenny Black Sheep Backpackers Hostel exceeded Hostel World’s paltry 500 character limit, so instead I will post it here and urge you all to make your own visitation at the earliest imaginable convenience.


My attention was first drawn to The Black Sheep Back Packers by a Malaysian gentleman’s almost poetic review on the Hostel World website:

8/10 Fabulous
Value for money. Lovely staffs.
Just need to throw a stone to hit the train.

And I knew I was in for a treat the moment I checked in. Onto a perfectly professional backpackers business card, the barman copied out the front door code, my room door code and, hallowed be, the wifi code.

Security here was obviously of primary importance. I disregarded the lager umbrellas, the daytime telly gameshows, the rising taste of damp in my nostrils, the enormous bulldog fast asleep on the table, and I considered myself reassured.

I waved away the kindly barman’s offer to show me to my room and mildly asked, ‘Are you busy tonight?’ The barman checks his bookings book: ‘There’s a couple of guys in the other dorm, but looks like you’ll be on your own in Number 4.’

Gleefully, I bound up the stairs, ignoring the peeling paint and not testing the cracked bannisters with the full weight of my backpacker’s frame. I carefully tap out the dorm door code and throw open the door: only to be greeted by a wave of sweat and Lynx deodorant, then by the shock that I am far from alone.

Choking, I stumble to the windows, pull aside the curtains and, by now gasping for air, jam the windows open. The light reveals my predicament in all its glory. Room 4 is fully occupied by a menagerie of foresters who’ve been living here for at least a couple of months.

I return to the bar, where the barman frowns at his bookings book, apparently somewhat mystified by the presence of half a dozen woodsmen in his otherwise respectable establishment. I am reassigned to Room 5, across the hallway.

The barman, once again, meticulously copies out my new door code and I retrace my climb up the stairs, with somewhat diminished enthusiasm.

It soon becomes apparent that, no matter how carefully transcribed, I won’t be needing that door code. Although there is a keypad, there is no longer an actual lock mechanism in this door. Indeed, there is not even a catch.

A quick scroll through the online reviews for the Black Sheep shows that this may have been the case since at least April.

It is at this point that I wonder what possessed me to pay for two nights up front. And, of course, being congenitally English, it is my genetic inheritance to save complaints for the Schadenfreude of friends and family. You’re welcome.

Luckily, there is a fire extinguisher in the room which, when propped against the door, at least stops said door from swinging in the wind that blows through the ample cracks in the hostel walls.

To be perfectly fair to the Black Sheep, the bedsheets have been washed with Lenor or own brand equivalent and I’ve got the whole dorm to myself. Can’t think why.

That night, I struggle to sleep. Not merely because the broken bed (whose springs are like fists) is only held up by a tub of ‘Anabolic Muscle Fuel’, but also because I fear some benighted traveller might haplessly book into Room 5 and, in gaining access, set off the fire extinguisher and trigger a spectacular discharge of pressurised water all over my belongings.

Sleep, nevertheless, comes and with it the morning. I stretch, pull back the curtains, and admire that famous Brecons view: a pebble-dashed house sporting, in the garden, an aggressively massive Welsh flag and, on the exterior walls, an enormous replica spider.

I shift aside the fire extinguisher and step into the hallway to locate the showers. The first bathroom I try does indeed possess a shower cubicle. Sadly it appears to be for decorative purposes only: the shower head is Missing In Action. Perhaps the foresters prefer to hose themselves down of a morning.

Undeterred, I try another door. This one, perhaps, could be a broom cupboard, so imagine my delight when I see that the owners have snuggled another shower inside! Sadly, this one doesn’t even dignify its purpose with a hose. It’s just two taps and a shower tray.

Where the water emerges when the taps are turned remain a mystery that I will leave to the more adventurous spirits among you who follow.

I head downstairs and into the basement. A Times New Roman sign points the way through to the kitchen and ‘Backpackers Lounge’.

The kitchen, it’s fair to say, most resembles a warzone. The windows are barred and the brickwork has suffered heavy shelling. A George Foreman grill is covered in a thick layer of dust (and probably shrapnel).

A man sits on a leather armchair in the ‘Backpackers Lounge’, rocking gently back and forth, staring at the blank wall. Almost certainly Gulf War Syndrome.

With a faraway look in her eyes, another of the foresters directs me to a twin set of showers just down the corridor. Now, remember that this is a basement: ventilation is at a premium, and the walls bear the brunt of the mildew and mould.

One of the urinals has been ripped from the wall in what can only have been a fit of sleepless rage. Someone has tried to punch their way out of one cubicle, and another has had its floor stolen.

I undress on tip-toes, trying not to imagine the germs leaping delightedly onto the exposed soles of my feet. Needless to say, the taps marked H do not proffer H water, but most definitely C. Luckily, it’s a vice-versa situation and I’m able to wash off the worst of the bacteria.

Suitably refreshed, I load up my pack a day’s hill walking. I walk into the bar and see, like aboard the Marie Celeste, a breakfast abandoned midway. I dimly recall from the website that breakfast is included.

For a moment I weigh up the risk associated with eating anything that has emerged from the kitchen below. But, ultimately, the decision is made for me. There’s no sign of the proprietor and my damp allergy is rising, so I step out into Abergavenny.

Having said all that, I escaped with my life, my possessions and an entirely new set of anabolic muscles, so: 10/10 HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.

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