The all singing, all dancing blog of Alex Guite

Monday, February 25, 2008

Top 50 Labour achievements since 1997

You get to have your say on what should and shouldn't be make it on a list of the top 50 Labour achievements since 1997.

Whether it's the big things like the longest period of sustained low inflation since the sixties, or the things that just make life a little easier like NHS Direct, it's hard to imagine a Britain without many of these achievements. The minimum wage. Power devolved to Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. The New Deal. Gift aid (worth £828 million to charities last year). A right to at least 24 days holiday for full time workers. Free museum entry. Civil partnerships. The debt of the world's poorest countries written off. Sure Start.

No doubt that there is a lot more to do, but I reckon Sir Alex Ferguson said it best just before the 2005 general election: "This Labour government has led this country into a period of unparalleled prosperity. Britain's a fairer, more prosperous, tolerant and caring country that it ever was under the Tories."


Sunday, February 24, 2008

HOWTO cycle Land's End to John o'Groats

How I, a racer with no experience of touring, cycled Land's End to John o'Groats in ten days solo and unsupported in August 2007 for charity.

How I planned it

I decided early in 2007 that it would be the year I would cycle LEJoG and the first thing I did was set a date so I would have something to aim for. I decided to ride it in late August through to early September in the hope of finding a meteorological sweet spot between too much sun and too much rain.

I didn't start route planning and finding accommodation till about two months beforehand, although in retrospect I should have started earlier because hostels and B&Bs were already getting booked up. In choosing my dates I inadvertently chose to ride over the August bank holiday weekend so finding accommodation was even more difficult. Avoid doing this.

A typical LEJoG route is around 1600km, although it is possible to plan a shorter one. I chose to do it in ten days because it sounded like a good number, I knew I could comfortably do 160km in a day (although I'd never tried getting up the next day and doing it again) and would represent a reasonably speedy LEJoG. That said, after planning this, a guy I sometimes cycle with told me he'd done it in six and a half days. Wow.

I planned the details of my route in several steps. First I decided the broad plan: stick to the North coast of Devon and Cornwall, cut across into Wales via the Severn Bridge, head straight North to pass between Liverpool and Manchester, stay West of the Pennines, cycle Carlisle to Glasgow, then to Fort William so that I could cycle up the Great Glen, past Loch Ness, to join the East coast of Scotland up to John O'Groats. This isn't the most efficient LEJoG route and totalled to 1700km.

Then I bought a whole bunch of maps. I recommend the series of OS maps designed for regional route planning (scale: 1:250,000, anything more detailed and you'd constantly be changing maps whilst cycling). They've also got contour lines rather than shading to indicate elevation which is very useful for a cyclist. With these I planned the specific roads I would take. Rather than use a piece of string and a ruler, I transferred my route as I was making it to Gmaps Pedometer to calculate the distance.

I mostly chose to ride along single carriage A-roads rather than B-roads. For a start they are generally more efficient (and at least in Devon and Cornwall, flatter as well). Although cars are typically faster, they also have much more room to overtake you than on smaller roads. I avoided dual carriageways as much as possible, although sometimes I opted to ride five or so kilometres on them to avoid ridiculous detours on minor roads. Up in Scotland I took a B-road dual carrigeway and it was desseted. Probably because it was one of the most poorly maintained surfaces I rode on in the entire journey.

I mostly stayed in Youth Hostels and booked these in advance. There was only once, on the East coast of Scotland, that I couldn't find one along my route, so I stayed in a Bed & Breakfast. By that point, not sharing my room with five or so other people was extremely welcome. I also stayed one night at the parent's house of a friend of my girlfriend. I'd never met them, but they made me very welcome and gave me some excellent food, good conversation and I had really good bed. That, as with the night in a B&B, was something to look forward to. Therefore, my top tip is to either stay with people you know along the way as much possible; or if you're mostly staying in hostels, occasionally plan a night in a B&B. The extra cost will be worth it!

The other school of thought is to plan your route and accommodation a couple of nights beforehand as you ride or even on the day. It would certainly give you more freedom and you won't wake up with the uneasy feeling of knowing that you need to ride over 100 miles to a certain location to get to your bed that evening. But really, the last thing I wanted to be worrying about whilst cycling was finding and booking accommodation. I reckon the even more uneasy feeling of not knowing if you'd find a bed after 100 miles would surely outweigh any extra freedom you'd have.


Even without the plan of cycling LEJoG, I do a lot of cycling anyway. So I can't say I had a training plan other than aiming to be out on my bike every weekend, some weeknights as well as commuting. I made sure I did some long-ish (~120km) fast-ish rides by going out with the Central London CTC, doing my own thing (fast laps of Richmond Park, cycling Reading to Bath) and incorporating some events such as the Dunwhich Dynamo and the Isle of Wight Randonnee for some more variety.

I also did a LEJoG in real ales at the Great British Beer Festival. As I said, you gotta have variety in your training.

My bike and what I took

My bike plus panniers.

I rode LEJoG on an entry-level racing bike. It really is nothing fancy (although it is yellow). In fact I got it from Halfords when I was still an undergraduate. The moral is this: an awesome racing bike would be cool, but an entry-level one is more than enough.

I kept with the fairly narrow racing tyres (700x25) I'd been using for commuting and although I considered swapping for sturdier, but slower, touring tyres, I'm glad I didn't. The back tyre was more than able to carry the weight of everything in my panniers and I only got two punctures over the 1700km.

My panniers, full of everything I would need for the next ten days.

To carry my stuff I got two back panniers (a pair of Ortliebs- thoroughly waterproof and worth every penny). Into them I stuffed everything I would need:

  • Tools and spares: four or so inner tubes, a spare tyre, spare spokes, puncture repair kit, a little oil, allen keys (only the ones needed for my bike), a screw driver, a spoke key, a lock ring, a spanner, a chain whip (the last three so that I could replace a damaged spoke on the back wheel).
  • Gaffa tape. Always useful.
  • Minimal toiletries, including three-in-one shower gel, shampoo and conditioner as well as a Lifeventure rapid dry towel (you really should take one of these, to avoid lugging around a heavy damp towel).
  • Basic first aid kit: stuff like bandages and disinfectant wipes (I find I always end up with some unexplained cut after a long ride), a foil thermal blanket just in case, some pain killers, some midge insect repellent for Scotland, etc... If you're travelling in a group you probably won't need to be so worried about carrying all of this.
  • Sun tan lotion. Well, I am a ginger.
  • Evening wear: one pair of shorts, two t-shirts (in case one got wet (I did drop one in a shower so was a good move)) and (to save weight) flip-flops.
  • Two 500g bottles of electrolyte powder. About enough for two bottles of the stuff per day.
  • Waterproof cycling trousers, windproof jacket (which I would end up wearing most of the time North of Ross-on-Wye).
  • Pen and a log book. Telephone numbers and adressed for everywhere I was staying at.
  • A bike lock (not as hefty as the one I would usually use in London).
  • Probably some other stuff I've forgotten. More coming soon.

Doing it solo

I chose to do the ride solo for a couple of reasons. Primarily I wanted to be able to set my own pace and although I knew of people interested in riding LEJoG, I didn't know anyone who was keen to do it in less than about fourteen days. But more than that, navigating solo from one end of the country to the other appealed to me as an adventure.

It hadn't occurred to me that it might also have considerable downsides until a couple of weeks before I set off. A friend commented to me that whilst he thought I could manage the distance he thought the biggest challenge would be staying sane on my own for ten days. And he wasn't the only one. The idea that doing it alone would be a bigger challenge than the ride itself seemed to be a common theme amongst people wishing me luck. In truth, I know part of me enjoys having an audience, and even if that's just an audience of one other cyclist, it would be sufficient for my purposes. And so I set off by train to Penzance just as worried about the distance, as I was about not having anyone to share it with.

But, I really enjoyed the ride and cycling it solo wasn't a problem. Ten days on your own really isn't very long and it wasn't as if I was sailing solo across a sea. There were loads of other people around (~60 million in fact). No doubt that my spirits would have been higher at times if I could have shared setbacks with a cycling buddy and perhaps I could have even enjoyed day 7 if I'd shared the barren roads with a mate. But I met plenty of people along the way, in hostels, other cyclists and even the guy on the bunk below me in the sleeper train back to London was excellent (he had whisky).

Battling headwinds on my own was the physical downside of doing it solo, but for the extra adventure it was worth it. However, if (or rather when) I do LEJoG again it won't be on my own. Next time I think a bigger challenge will be to do it faster.

Doing it for charity

I read a lot of other people's experiences of LEJoG whilst I was planning the ride. A good number did it for charity, but there was also a view that by raising money for a cause you remove the option to give up and go home if it the ride seems too much after a couple of days.

Nonetheless, I figured the oppurtunity to raise some cash was too good to miss, so I chose to do ride it for Afasic, the chairty for children and young people with speech problems. It probably helps if you feel some connection to the charity, but I found it to be a good motivator (particularly, when I was cycling downhill and spinning out of my saddle, but still only managing 20kph into the wind).

I could be wrong, but I got the impression that some people were donating more than they normally might have, if say I was doing a fun run. There is no doubt that cycling Land's End to John o'Groats captures the imagination, so if you're planning to do, its a great oppurtunity to raise some money.

Finally, a big thank you to everyone who donated. I really appreciate it. Also, thanks go to Mark at Afasic.

On the ride

Coming soon.


A kick in the Nad(er)s

Ralph Nader has just announced he's running for US President. Hey, the year 2000 just called and they want their third party candidate back.

The thing is, when you read about Nader it's hard not to get inspired. He fought for safer cars when he was just out of Law School despite General Motors hiring private detectives to tap his phone and dig up dirt about him. He made car safety the responsibility of the manufacturer, not just the driver, and so we got seat belts and tougher windscreens. Amongst a whole bunch of achievements, his activism bought the USA a government agency responsible for ensuring safety at work and another one to protect the environment.

But the inspiration starts to run dry in 1996 when he became a serial candidate for the US Presidency. Of course it's his right to stand, but as the Guardian's Richard Adams points out, when Nader stood as a Green Party candidate in 2000 he took the handful of votes that denied victory to "the world's most famous environmentalist", Al Gore. (The figures make a compelling case that Gore could have won without a Nader candidacy. Even though many of Nader's supporters would have stayed at home in 2000 if he hadn't run, polling shows that almost half would have switched to Gore whilst only one in five would have voted Bush. In Florida, where Nader polled 97,421 votes, that would have been enough for Gore to take the state with a comfortable margin of over 25,000. In the event, Bush won in Florida by 537 votes and with it, the presidency.)

Nader's claim, made in 2000, that Democrats and Republicans are essentially the same, or "Tweedledee and Tweedledum" as he put it, looks disastrously wide of the mark after eight years of Bush. It's hard to see how he advances his many causes by becoming a perenial presidential candidate and I thought that this time, when Democrats have a real chance to take the White House, Nader wouldn't risk jeopardising that prospect by standing.

On that note, this video makes some good points:

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