“It’s the end of the world as we know it. (And I feel fine.)” A special last ride in New Zealand. Thanks to everyone that made the cycling on this trip possible.

Bluff Point sign

So this was the final day of my six weeks in Australia and New Zealand. It has taken me almost that long again to write it all up, but the last day’s ride was so good it feels vivid and fresh right now.

It was not only a symbolic end, I physically reached the end of New Zealand’s South Island, spending my last morning riding on Bluff Hill, a rocky dome of a hill that rises 265 m (870ft) straight from sea level at the very southern tip of New Zealand’s South Island. It has 360 degree panoramic views along the coast, inland towards Invercargill and even to the mountains far beyond. The Maori name for the hill is Motupõhue which means “island of põhue flowers”, because from the sea it appeared to be an island rising before the rest of the land could be seen. Despite its remote location Bluff has a claim to be the longest permanently settled European town in New Zealand, the first trader and farmer bought land off the Maori here in 1824. Today it is still an active port although many Kiwis will be much more interested in the seasonal Bluff Oysters, considered the finest of delicacies and craved by exiles.

I knew about Bluff Hill from my previous trips to Invercargill. Everywhere has a hill like this. The one you have to go and try when you think you have become a cyclist. The local cyclists talk about it in that tone that tells you it is a place of legend. When you are even part way up your legs are burning and you are frantically looking for a lower gear that you don’t have any more. Bluff Hill’s reputation is enhanced because the Tour of Southland, New Zealand’s toughest bike stage race regularly finishes at the top.

Flagstaff Road Bluff New Zealand

However I had never actually cycled there on my previous trips, mainly because it is 25 km south of Invercargill and the access is an open stretch of main road that I had never fancied riding. However this time I was updating my knowledge about what was going on locally when I saw a link to Bluff Hill trails on the Southland MTB Club web site.

Within moments I knew that this was a “must do”. A bucket list item almost. To know I had ridden on what is possibly the most southerly set of planned and maintained mountain bike trails in the world? To ride up above the countryside and sea and take in the landscape at this unique place. To know I could spend an hour or more playing on good mountain bike trails rather than just head-banging down a main road. You bet I was going to try and go there.

I hadn’t really planned on it being the last day but that is the way that time escapes on a short visit. So to maximise family time and get in my special ride I compromised and got up at 6am to drive my in-laws’ car out to the foot of the hill, ready to ride at first light.

Bluff Hill Flagstaff Road in the dark New ZealandThat part of the plan went perfectly. Too perfectly. I arrived just as there was a glimmer of dawn on the far horizon, but I couldn’t actually see a yard in front of my face at the trailhead so any prospect of riding up the hill off-road had to wait.

Instead I took the route of most pain and climbed the almost straight road to the top of the hill. It is 22% at the steepest point and an average of 11% so I certainly needed the mountain bike gears, doing that without any sort of warm up at 7.30 am in the morning would have had me walking for sure on a road bike.

But then my timing turned out to be absolutely perfect. As the light crept in under the clouds the landscape changed magically, second by second. Each time I lifted my head deep blues turned to pinkish hues behind me and the road surface became more visible.

Bluff Hill view New Zealand

Buff Hill sunrise New Zealand

Dawn from Bluff Hill mountain bike tracks New Zealand

As I got to the top a soft yellow glow was driving away the shadows right across the landscape.

Bluff Hill Sunrise over south coast of New Zealand

Way in the north Invercargill was visible a series of light spots on the flat plain.

Lights at dawn Invercargill from Bluff Hill New Zealand

I was also blessed by the weather. The start of winter and I was wearing a light cycling top and shorts in almost windless conditions, an incredible stroke of luck for the views and the riding. Despite it being winter clumps of hardy gorse were in bloom, the yellow flowers seemingly sucking up the rays and glowing against the grey-green backdrop.

Gorse flowers on Bluff Hill New Zealand

I don’t know how long I hung around at the top taking in the rising sun and the changing views but I had to pinch myself to remember I was there to ride as well.

Bluff Hill viewing point at dawn

I looked momentarily at the entrance point to the “Downhill route” which descends a terrifying straight line and is graded “Black” or “expert”, but knowing that it was not for me I dropped down the shallower side of the hill and played for an hour on the intermediate trail network. It weaved its way up, down and around the hillside, offering me a good variety of riding. But what made this set of trails special today was that every corner offered a different sea view, and when I was sure I had gone round a section more than once it didn’t really matter because the effect of the sunrise was to make it feel subtly different each time.

Bluff Hill Mountain Bike Trails New Zealand Bluff Hill Mountain bike tracks New Zealand Bluff Hill Mountain bike track with sea view New Zealand

All the time in my head I was revelling in where I actually was, at the far end of the world and at the end of my holiday. Throughout the ride a song played in on permanent repeat in my head. REM’s “It’s the end of the world as we know it” was the song of the day. Inevitably? Maybe, in the odd way my mind works.

Then time was up and I let the bike flow its way down the lumps and bumps in the track to the parking where mine was still the only car, another joy of riding on a winter dawn. It was indeed the end of the trip, and fate intervened to tell me so in no uncertain terms. As I freewheeled into the car park there was a horrible rending noise, all pedalling ceased and I looked down to discover a very distressed gear mechanism in quite the wrong position. My last seconds, my last ride and my only mechanical failure of the whole trip.

Time to go home, but what a way to finish.

My huge thanks to everyone who made the cycling on this trip possible. The mountain bike trail builders of New Zealand and the local authorities building bike paths all over Australia and New Zealand. The friends, family and commercial companies that made it possible to beg, borrow and hire eight different bikes in six weeks. Jason I am really sorry about the last day mishap on your nice mountain bike – I hope you have it fixed now.

Last and by no means least the family, friends and hosts who indulged me once again while I went off at all times of the day to get my cycling fix. I had come to see you all, of course, but a bit of pedalling made me a nicer human being – trust me. As my favourite travelling companion knows best of all.

If you cannot see a link to the REM song here in the email version of the post click “View in Browser” for a working link.

Music for cycling – Queen providing the sound track to a stormy Belgian commute

I haven’t had a “Music to Ride Bikes By” post for ages, I don’t seem to have had the muse.

However this morning was my first ride to work for the year, an hour and a half through the dark and the wind to get me into the pattern for the year. As I have written before the ride to work is my meditation so I was actually quite looking forward to having the time to sort my thoughts and prepare for the week ahead.

However in that completely weird way that “Music to Ride Bikes to” always happens a piece of music came from nowhere, took over my brain and excluded all other thoughts.

But why? Why do Freddie Mercury and Queen sing “I want to break free” for a whole 90 minutes. And the video was there too, the completely barking mad video that was Freddie at his most over the top, so out there that a lot of US TV channels banned it at the time. There is no thought in the world that stands a chance of competing with that.

I am a big Queen fan but I haven’t heard that song for ages so no idea why. It is however a good thumping riff for pedaling so it did help me keep the wheels going round so it can take its place in the record list. However I do hope it is gone tomorrow.

For previous music and the background to “Music to Ride Bikes By” click here.

NB – I now understand that a lot of my email readers don’t get any embedded video links because they are removed by virus checkers or email software, if I put them in posts I’ll try to make it clear so you can link back to the Blog to see the originals. Like now!

Over to you Freddie.

How did I miss this at the time – David Byrne’s brilliant “Poem for Cyclists” (from 2011)

One of the joys of blogging and social media such as Twitter is the constant sharing. Little gets by the eagle eyes of the on line world, I am a bit of a newbie here so it is a complete delight when somebody comes up with a past gem that I didn’t see at the time rather than always chasing the new.

Last week I just happened to see a Tweet from journalist Carlton Reid who is always a good source and I couldn’t help but click.

Carton reidThe link took me to a 2011 Youtube which was apparently hand-filmed from the audience at the 2011 International Green Energy Economy Conference in Washington DC.

It is little wonder it is great, David Byrne’s book Bicycle Diaries is one of my very best cycling reads and a bit of an inspiration for this blog, he captures the feeling of cycling round cities so well. I have also had Talking Head’s “Once in a lifetime” on an old compilation CD that I carried round the world since 1986, so his music has been a companion too.

Play this full screen. relax. Breathe.

Doesn’t that feel better.

And it is the perfect follow up to the “14 best cycling movie clips” that I posted a few weeks ago. This filmed poem has an astonishing 45 cycling clips in just under 4 minutes. If I ever run a cycling quiz again I know where I am going to source my questions for the film round. I reckon I got between 10 and 15. Anybody out there want to claim a better score?

And of course it is now added to my Video Library of best cycling clips, which I do hope you have visited at some time.

Can you identify Wallonia’s most famous citizen? Come to Dinant

Wallonia Belgium

There is a cruel and extremely patronising saying in English “bet you can’t name five famous Belgians” which is a rude way of decrying the impact this country has had on the world.

However when tested sadly most of us can’t. Especially when we discover detective Hercule Poirot doesn’t count because he is fictional and cyclists are banned from rattling off anyone other than Eddie Merckx on the grounds that nobody outside our world has heard of Rik Van Looy.

Hergé, Rene Magritte?

A recent trip to Dinant in Wallonia threw up a name who deservedly needs to be on any list of people who have made an impact on the world far beyond their shores.

Where would my “Music to ride Bike By” be without Gerry Rafferty’s “Baker Street”, Pink Floyd’s “Us and them” and the Clarence Clemen’s solo on Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band’s “Jungleland”?

What links these seemingly disparate pieces of music? The saxophone. Invention of Alolphe Sax from Dinant in 1846 which makes him by far this region’s most famous son. Best saxophone solos ever? That’s a topic that keeps lots of lists going on the blogosphere.

Dinant itself should be an attractive place in the valley of the Meuse south of Wallonia’s capital Namur but it has a slightly down-at-heel atmosphere which reflects the economic reality of southern Belgium. Things are fairly tough in a region that once depended on coal, steel and shipping down the river which still acts as a freight route. Tourism is doing its best and the riverside is being gentrified to complement the Notre Dame Church and the imposing Citadel which overlooks the town. Belgium

Dinant Citadelle Belgium

The dark grey stone doesn’t help the scene, it looks slightly overcast even on a bright day. By far the most colourful scene in the town was the bridge named after Charles de Gaulle because the future French president picked up a war wound here during the first World War.

Dinant Saxophones

Here Sax was being celebrated with a colourful display of 28 painted saxophones, each painted to represent a country of the EU and the EU itself.

Dinant saxophones  Pont Charles de GaulleIt is nice to go somewhere else this year where you just end up smiling and humming to yourself, it gives Dinant that something special, and I would much rather be in a place that should burst into a chorus of “Jungleland” than the “Sound of Music”.

Web site Famousbelgians.net agrees, they have Sax at number 2 after Eddie Merckx in their role of honour. That is almost perfect for Idonotdespair –cycling followed by music. Bring it on boys.

Wallonia offers up another perfect day’s cycling

Walloon skyline

Cycle Touring Wallonia

There’s nothing unique about today. We didn’t go further than usual, it wasn’t especially hilly. We just cruised the rolling countryside to the South West of where we live. But it was just the perfect way to spend a cycling morning.

CycleottigniesJust over 90 minutes into today’s club ride a thought popped into my head. I couldn’t recall us passing any moving cars, from the front or the rear. There might have been one in Ottignies at the start of the ride by the station, but after that I think we opened up with about 30 traffic free kilometres.

It was almost windless so that the even the giant turbines out in the flatlands were still. And if there is sound I can recall beyond the clicking of freewheels it is the sound of skylarks above the fields which are almost ready for harvest.

Cycling in Wallonia

Some of that was definitely the wonderful network of tiny lanes found by our ride leader but also it reflects how sleepy rural Belgium is on a Sunday morning, especially a hot summer’s day when so many people are on holiday. The villages and farms were no more active than Spain during siesta. Imagine that just 50km from London, or indeed most big cities.

Cycling WalloniaWhen we first came here it all seemed a bit old fashioned. No Sunday shopping. A ban on noisy implements on a Sunday – so no diy, lawnmowers or hedge cutters. Now we welcome the wonderful tranquillity and the fact that there is no incentive at all for anyone to get up early.

Cycle Club Ottigines Louvan La NeuveExcept the cyclists. I wondered if our group would decline during holiday season but when I rolled up to the station meeting point for 8am if anything it was bigger than usual, well over 60. So in addition to the wonderful riding conditions there was lots of company for our 85km spin.

Not much chance for quality photography in a cruising club-run Cycle Club Ottignies Louvain La Neuve at Ottignies Stationso only a few atmosphere shots on the mobile as usual.

Music of the day? When I am spinning in a group I am usually concentrating but to today I was so relaxed the music just flowed. What to recommend for “Music to Ride Bikes By”? Lou Reed and Perfect Day seems a bit obvious, but I did manage a few verses. So that’s a good start.

Much better “Summer’s here and the time is right, for cycling in the streets”. At least that’s what Martha Reeves and the Vandellas could have sung. For sheer exuberance let’s take the 1985 Live Aid version which was running through my head for hours today.

Over to you Mick and David.

Time to support the musicians of Mali

I would like to offer a recommendation as I look out of the window onto melting snow.

While you are reading blogs and doing your emails or whatever it is you claim to be doing when you are in front of your computer click on the Youtube link below and leave this music running in the background. Feel the warm heat of the desert blues blow over you, soak up the magical music of Mali.

And as you do so now consider that music is now banned in two thirds of the country that can make a reasonable case to be the birthplace of the blues.

Reflection on the music was particularly provoked recently because the Glastonbury Festival which has featured a lot of African music in recent years announced a couple of weeks that Rokia Traoré will be its first act this year and now a group of Malian artists have got together to release a peace record.

I know very little of the regional politics of the area but for years I have really enjoyed the sounds of Malian artists such as Miriam and Amadou so I find it a real shock to imagine music being supressed in the country and it makes me even more angry to feel that this should be done in the name of any religion.

The world cannot afford to lose this music. If you happen to click on a link and enjoy the sounds I hope you might be inspired to buy some music or forward a link to some music lovers and help keep it alive.

All credit to the journalists of the Guardian who have really made an effort to keep the story of the music alive. To get a feel for the whole range of Malian music and the political context read some of these articles.

Music is vital to political struggle across Africa – not just in Mali

Banning music in Mali is outrageous, not least because it’s crucial to the country’s wellbeing “The banning of music is hideous anywhere, but in Mali of all places it seems somehow sacrilegious”

Ian Birrell today – 27th January

 

 Mali’s magical music

Music is central to Mali’s identity – and yet the conflict there has led to it being widely banned. Here, African and western artists pick their favourite tracks from this most musical of nations

18th January.

 

Fatoumata Diawara gathers Malian supergroup to record peace song

Group calling themselves Voices United for Mali, featuring Amadou and Mariam, Oumou Sangaré, Bassekou Kouyaté, Vieux Farka Touré, Toumani Diabaté and many others, release song called Peace in response to country’s troubles

18th January

 

Mali: no rhythm or reason as militants declare war on music

Islamist militants are banning music in northern Mali, a chilling proposition for a country where music is akin to mineral wealth

23rd October

Today’s music to ride bikes by: “Slip sliding away”. Must change that tyre!

I haven’t updated my “Music to ride bikes by” blog page in ages, I think my head has been too full of other stuff for songs to sneak in and take over.

Not today!

Within minutes of starting to pick my way through the fresh fallen snow even my intense concentration was taken over by Paul Simon’s “Slip sliding away”.

There is little doubt that it was prompted by my two wheeled behaviour. The Belgian schoolboys trudging alongside the road were highly entertained by the chap doing a 180 degree spin in front of them and wobbling off down the hill sliping from side to side.

No real risk, a friend has given me an almost car free back route to the station. But I am a victim of my own complacency. I am a huge fan of the puncture proof Schwalbe Marathon Plus tyres, over 10 years since I first reviewed them for the CTC magazine and still puncture free. But this does mean I put them on the bike and completely ignore them until the carcass completely falls apart. This is exposed at some point each year when the bike becomes mysteriously unstable on mud, snow or ice and I finally look down to discover the rear is completely bald.

Today appears to have been that day, thus Paul Simon is now in my head for the rest of the day.

Over to you Paul.