Friday, 2 December 2016

30/12 /2016 Wednesday Chain Gang – Ice Cold in Sussex

Last night we had perfect conditions in every way other than the temperature – dry and little wind, but freezing, literally. This did not stop 17 riders turning up for the ‘chainy’, the fools! There followed a pre-eminently sensible discussion on the conditions, it being cold enough to freeze the eyelashes off a pig. Sluice Lane was adjudged clear of standing water and ice. We discussed the likelihood of moisture condensing on the road surface, especially the tar strips, and then freezing. We agreed that the moisture content of the air was low and that the risk was negligible. Risk assessment complete.

There were two newbies, only one of whom I managed to speak with before the start.

‘What’s your name?’ I asked.
‘I’m Rovers’ he replied. Blimey, that sounded posh, a bit like ‘Travers’ or ‘Elvers’, so I assumed he was with Lord B.
‘Listen everyone, this is Rovers!’ I announced to the freezing throng.
‘Er, no, I’m Elliot, but I ride with Rovers…’ he clarified.

How we laughed! Well, ok, how I laughed. It did make me giggle. Stewart, let me know if I need to explain the joke to you.

I said we should set off as one group, as the usual Ultras were thin on the ground and those present were reluctant, the plan being that the naturally faster riders would be off the front before long. In practice, this was me and the two newbies, both of whom were quick. I looked around for more, but one of them told me ‘it’s just us three’. Could we keep this up? Well, not with me in tow – they very politely eased off a few times to let me catch back on, but we were caught by a largish group by the Herbrand Walk level-crossing. It was good whilst it lasted.

I guess I’ll get to the point upfront; this was not a tidy chain gang. I’m not going to write a long list of do’s and don’ts here, or a long list of rules (we’re not that sort of club), just sprinkle a few reminders along the way as there has been plenty of discussion since.

First, it is better (for which you can read safer) to single-up between the Herbrand Walk level-crossing and the Star Inn. This is because the road is narrow and twisty, with two narrow bridges on it, on which cars can appear with little space or time in which to avoid them. The one nearer the Star Inn is a tight left-right, with poor vision, but the first and less obvious bridge is also hazardous. Single-up or file-up means ‘ride in single file’. Now, I am not interested in policing this, so as with all these things it is UP TO YOU to take responsibility for your actions. So, you might think it’s safe to go two-abreast at some point, or to overtake someone. Fine – that’s your decision and you can take the consequences for it. The club has been clear in what it recommends.

Anyway, from the back of the group it was clear that folk were finding it hard to find a reasonable common pace. Spooky Hill loomed large. I have learnt that it’s probably best for me to be at the back of the group for this part of the ride, as I can become a hazard to others who are stronger on the hills than me. Perhaps the spread of abilities is what led to people riding three and four abreast at the top of the slope.

Second then, is a reminder that going three or four abreast increases the risk of a crash. It’s not so much about cars at the top of Spooky – you can see car lights coming – but more about the actions of others. The road is narrow and has a crappy, pot-holed margin. Rider one, on the inside, veers to the right to avoid a yawning chasm, forcing rider two into rider three, and then into four… It couldn’t happen, you shout! Well, read on. My other concern about this sort of riding is that it leads to a feeling of ‘anything goes’ when, in fact, anything does not go (sorry).

On we rolled. I managed to catch the group on the slope (I’m much better downhill than up!) and there was a rolling turn or two. About two-thirds of the way from Spooky to the roundabout, I found myself at the front. There is a new pothole, although it’s more like a sinkhole – not very wide but deep. No time to gesture, just to shout ‘hole!’. The rider behind went over it, but survived. The rider after that survived also, but something happened in the group and a rider went down. Yep, these things happen, but two things made this a more likely occurrence – the uneven group pace and the erratic movement of riders. Thankfully, the result was some grazes and bruises, but we were travelling at a good speed and I think the rider was lucky not to hurt himself more seriously. Or, heaven forfend, his bike (shudders).

So, third, give each other space and avoid overlapping your front wheel with the rear wheel of the rider in front. If they need to flick out suddenly, you’ll be out of harm’s way. Ride consistently and smoothly; look back before you move out; let people know what you intend to do. Be consistent and communicate. To do both well you need to concentrate – this is not a wild, free-for-all, but a disciplined ride.

We made it to the roundabout and shared a number of tasteless jokes about the fallen rider and Neil Shier’s winter stockings, the gallows humour of diehard chain-gangers. I guess it is a pretty hard-core activity – I know my non-cycling friends and family think we are nuts, riding fast in the dark and cold weather. It’s a buzz, isn’t it, and that’s partly why we do it, breaking away from the constraints of work and home. But as Dan ‘Confucius’ Selmes wisely says ‘he who rides on Wednesday must work on Thursday’, and we don’t want to arrive at the office / factory / massage parlour covered in cuts and bruises, do we?

So, we do it because it’s exciting, fun and a hard midweek workout. It can be all those things and safe; nearly all of the chains have happy endings. The chains I enjoy the least are those where I have to give people ‘reminders’, or where it gets hairy. Last night was mostly just messy, rather than scary, but we had a faller and that’s one faller too many.

So, fourth, if you do get shouted at for some reason, please do not take it personally. The person shouting to you and others is doing so because:

a   They have to shout to make themselves heard.
b   They have as much adrenaline in their system as you, so words can be sharper than intended.
c   They perceive a risk in the way you are riding.
d   They want you and everyone else to have a great time – hard, fast and safe riding.

There are those in the club who would put things more forcibly, but they also acknowledge that we all make mistakes. So, allow a margin for error and exercise some give and take.

And finally, rider etiquette. As I said last week, those that can, should i.e. if you are in a well-matched group, you should take your turns at the front. That is the deal. You cannot save yourself for a sprint finish as we are NOT racing – it is a fast group training ride to prepare you for more competitive events. There is some friendly competition, but you have to earn the right by taking your turns!

Those hanging at the back should do so because they are struggling to keep up, or need a rest before their next turn. This is fine, but you need to tell the rider in front! Say ‘GO’ to them, or ‘I’m hanging on’. People ride in a group that is too tough for them in order to improve – this also is fine, although you will probably get dropped.

Malc D led us back across the marshes to Herbrand at a steadier pace, looking for our fallen comrade who we surmised had returned to Bexhill as recommended (he was not alone, and we spoke to him once we arrived). The return leg was a bit better than the outward leg, but again enthusiasm got the better of some and we ended up with three and four abreast. It’s not on chaps – we weren’t doing it a few weeks ago, so why are we doing it now?

How should you ride on the chain gang? There is a short animation on the club blog that shows you how it should work – ‘rolling turns’ that give everyone in the group a hard ride and then a rest. It’s a kind of interval training, the advantage being that you get pushed harder than you would do on your own and the group can also achieve higher speeds. This sharpens your riding skills. You can find other videos on YouTube.

Ride safely, Neil

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