New Year Ride: Wirral Way

On the trail near Thurstaston

It seems to be a bit of a cyclists’ tradition to have a New Year ride to get rid of that festive fuzziness and start the year as one means to go on. With this in mind, me and my three sons (Tom (18), Sam (also 18) and Harry (11) met up in Liverpool’s languid Leaf tea bar with a plan to ride the Wirral Way – a 12 mile traffic-free former railway path that follows the track-way of the old Hooton to West Kirby branch line, which closed in the 1950s. The trail is a mixture of gravel, compacted earth and shale and is always fun to ride on a road bike.

It was a cold day, only scheduled to reach 2 degrees Celsius at best, so we wrapped up warm (apart from Sam!) and hopped on the train to Hooton, our starting point. The train journey was quick, but not too quick that I didn’t have time to fix Tom’s loose front cone (Tom and Sam always present me with a mechanical puzzle on every bike ride – I think they think that I’m their team mechanic).

The wonderfully evocative old station at Hadlow Road, Willaston

Once on the trail, we rode out to Hadlow Road station, a fully restored time warp station, preserved as it was circa 1952. We took a look around the ticket office, checked out the old fashioned points shed and stood on the railway tracks that had been re-laid in front of the station, safe in the knowledge that no trains would come.

We pressed on along the trail, with a few grumbles from Harry the Younger, who was finding it hard to rediscover his cycling Mojo. The sparingly dressed Sam, who always chooses style over practicality, was beginning to suffer in the cold. We stopped at Thurstaston nature reserve, looked out over the Dee estuary to the Welsh hills, and ate jam sandwiches (which perked up Harry no end).

From Thurstaston, it was only another few miles to the end of the Wirral Way at West Kirkby, where we jumped on the train and headed back to Liverpool and home, where a warm pot of beef stew awaited.

I usually ride alone, but every now and again it’s great to ride with the family and share some of the places and experiences that I usually covet for myself. I plan to return to the Wirral Way soon, with the aim of putting together a video ride guide for the Way and the Wirral Coastal Path. Watch this space…

45 Minute Escape

Croxteth Country Park is my favourite destination for a quick escape

A few days ago I had one of those sublime, snatched-from-nowhere rides. I had an hour to spare before the children returned from school and college and the evening ritual of food, TV, baths and chores began. Time for a ride.

The day had been cold (1 degree Celsius) and magically dry and clear so I head out towards Croxteth Country Park to see how the woodland trails were. I had a hunch that the season and the weather conditions would work some magic. And I was right.

My favourite local trails are usually difficult to ride for most of the year. In the summer, they’re usually overgrown with brambles, nettles and suchlike. During the autumn and winter, they’re usually too muddy to ride without having to clean the bike for an hour after every ride (which sort of defeats the purpose of a quick ride).

However, today was perfect. The ground in most parts was frozen solid and the vegetation had died back for the winter. So wrapped up in three layers and thick gloves, I swept around the trails as if it were a dry dusty summer’s day, only taking care for glassy areas of sheet ice. It’s been a year since I rode some of these paths, but it’s amazing how their every root, dip, rise and sketchy section gets imprinted in the memory.

Late afternoon, winter sun, not a soul about.

I came home refreshed and later on, read Chris ‘Pondero’ Johnson’s wonderfully inspiring piece on the Micro Tour – a chance to snatch some of the pleasures of touring in just a few hours (like an S240 but without the sleepover!). I think next time I escape, with a little more time to spare, I’ll pack the coffee flask (or maybe the Esbit stove and Billy-can) and a snack, find a stump and brew up.

Snow Day #2 and Ponderings on Civilised Modes of Travel

“Should we talk about the weather? Should we talk about the government?” REM, Pop Song ’89

Freezing temperatures overnight meant that yesterday’s snow stuck tight this morning. On the news last night, tales of traffic chaos, gridlock on the M25, school closures, the usual UK winter headline grabbers. For the next few days it would seem entirely excusable that this blog should become a rant about the weather and our collective inability to cope with its more extreme moods. However, today’s experience has been, thus far, strangely sweet.

Just as yesterday, the bicycle proved to be the only way to get into town, with bad weather, road-works and just too many damned cars making it a sad procession. Resurrectio sailed resolutely past them all, her fat, gripsome tyres tenacious on the tarmac, her full-length mudguards keeping me clean and dry.  I sailed down to the railway station, using the main roads to avoid the really slippery stuff. Once at the station, a fair amount of chaos ensued. The arrival and departures board flashed maniacally with words like ‘cancelled’ and ‘delayed’, written in angry orange letters. However, my usual train was running and on time, a veritable ‘Little Train That Could’, today full of poor folk whose trains were cancelled. I got to the train first, just as the inbound passengers were pouring onto the platform. I stowed the bike and found a table seat, plugged in the earphones and listened to Fleet Foxes as the wintry landscape slipped by the window.

Around me, people chatted, sharing their ‘we’re going her; where are you going?’ stories, thrown together on this packed train by a combination of fate and meteorological circumstance. Some were off to lectures, others weddings, others visiting relatives. I was happy to sit back and be a spectator to the scene. Funny how complaining about the weather and bad transport planning gives people such pleasure. At this point it struck me how much more social and convivial my travelling arrangements are than the auto-traveller. A stretch of my regular rail journey passes close to the M602 motorway into Manchester. The contrast between the tense, miserable faces behind the wheel and the relaxed folk on the train could not be more extreme than today. My fellow travellers are talking, reading, sleeping, working. Me? I’m  listening to music, sipping a coffee, writing this blog piece, watching the fields pass, surrounded by the gentle murmur of strangers’ conversations.

Snow Days

The morning commute on the Ashton Canal behind Eastlands Stadium

After holding out for a few days of sub zero temperatures, Liverpool finally succumbed and got its first snow of the winter last night. I awoke at around 6am to see a thin covering of the stuff on the pavement below and the prospect of a slippery and challenging commute ahead.

I went downstairs and cleared the step and the pavement outside while my wife made coffee. I wished I’d been able to continue sweeping the snow all the way down the street to the point where rush hour traffic had already obliterated it to sludge.

However, I didn’t consider driving for a second. After a car crash in last year’s snow, I’ve vowed not to drive in the white stuff unless absolutely necessary, figuring I can do a lot less damage on the bike. Just a simple case getting to the railway station a few miles away…

The Liverpool end of my journey was easy enough, the roads were only thinly dusted with powdery snow and the temperatures were already beginning to rise above freezing. However, at the other end of my rail journey, further inland in Manchester, things were pretty icy once I’d left the city centre, with packed snow and deep, rutted slush on many of the roads. A few slips and slides (but thankfully no falls) and I was in work, feeling rather pleased with myself.

All day in the office, my return journey was on my mind. “The day’s snow, slush and meltwater will turn to ice as soon as darkness falls and temperatures drop”, I thought as I sat in my warm office. And sure enough, that’s exactly what happened. However, I was committed now – the bike and I had to get back to the station.

On the way in, I’d used the canal towpath, which was great fun and blissfully traffic-free. However, now darkness had fallen it was out of the question. In low light, it would be difficult to differentiate between soft, grippy snow and slick compacted stuff. The thought slipping, unnoticed, off the edge of the path, through the ice and into the inky water below was also a pretty big factor in my decision-making process.

So the road it was. The first few hundred yards were challenging; the minor roads and paths hadn’t been gritted or cleared by traffic. However, once I was out onto the well-travelled routes, things were grippy enough and I managed to get to the station in Manchester without a glitch.

Just the final leg of the journey to contend with and I’m home and dry… Once in Liverpool there were just a few miles on mercifully clear roads to contend with. Just a few dodgy icy areas at the mouths of sideroads to keep me on the ball, then home to a well-earned meal and the warmth of the fire. More snow forecast tomorrow and freezing temperatures all week, so a few more snowy commutes ahead…

The frozen canal on Monday's commute, before the snow fell.

Snow Riding Tips

Although riding in the snow is a very inexact science (OK it’s a lottery) there are a few things you can do to maximise your chances of staying rubber-side down.

  • Just accept that you’re going to be riding slowly – don’t fight it
  • Ride big tyres – my bike has 35mm tyres all year around – this gives you a bigger contact patch. If you’ve got a mountain bike, use it.
  • Ride lower pressures – I’ve dropped my tyre pressure to around 45psi – again a bigger contact patch, handles road irregularities better. If you’re running wider tyres you can go lower without risking pinch flats.
  • Don’t touch the front brake. Keep your hand away from it and use the back brake progressively and judiciously. With care, you can test the level of grip by applying the back brake before trying any manoeuvres.
  • Pedal smoothly in a medium gear – fast, erratic pedalling will upset the bike and lose traction – stay seated in a medium gear.
  • Turn slowly and smoothly – no erratic jerks on the handlebars
  • On downhill sections, regulate your speed gently with your back brake – don’t let your bike run away with you.
  • Survey the road far ahead for potential slippery spots
  • Ride out of the slush and in driver’s line of sight – take the lane
  • Soft, untrodden snow can be very grippy but avoid hard-packed snow, it’s extremely slick.
  • Avoid traffic wherever you can – you can control your riding to an extent, but you can’t control the movements of the cars around you. Look for traffic-free options when you can.
  • If you do ride the roads, you’ll find that major routes are often cleared by snowploughs or the action of traffic.
  • Take extra special care when passing junctions, anticipate cars failing to stop at Give Way or Stop lines
  • Above all, try to relax – don’t tense up and keep everything smooth.
  • Enjoy the thrill of riding in the snow!

Birthday Ride

Sometimes even rusty old railway bridges can show beausage

What better way to treat yourself on your birthday, than a long bike ride around your hometown.? Many people would disagree, but that’s exactly what I did the other day on the occasion of thirty-eighth birthday.

My hometown of Liverpool is blessed with many miles of traffic free paths, with diverse and interesting landscapes and waterscapes to explore.

Like all of my favourite rides, it started at my front door (I have problems with the notion of packing the bike into the car and driving out somewhere). My destination was the Liverpool Loopline, a 13 mile former railway track that circumnavigates the city from Aintree in the north to Halewood in the south. The Loopline forms one of the most westerly sections of the Trans Pennine Trail, which stretches all the way from Southport in the west to Hornsea, near Hull, in the east. The Loopline was formerly the Cheshire Lines railway, before Beeching’s axe fell. After a couple of decades of redundancy and decay, the line was cleared and restored by Sustrans and now serves a Liverpool’s primary cycling artery.

One day I'll ride all the way to Leeds. But not today...

I took the Loopline north as far as I could go, on the edge of Aintree’s famous racecourse before a short hop onto the roads to link up with the Leeds and Liverpool canal towpath at Melling Road. From here I followed the canal towards Liverpool City Centre. The towpath had a wide variety of surfaces, from narrow muddy paths at the start, through to recently improved tarmac sections at the end. The scenes along the canal are always equally various, from leafy autumnal colours to old abandoned warehouses.

Even deep in urbanity, you can find moments of autumnal tranquility.

I followed the canal as far as I could, until a diversion took me onto the roads in Bootle. I made a beeline for the docks and the Mersey waterfront, passing the massive brick-built Stanley Warehouse and the equally impressive Waterloo dock. Closer to the Liver Building I stopped to take a look at HMS Argyll,  a modern warship which was docked just north of the isle of Man Steam Packet Company jetty. An impressive sight. From here I cut through the city centre and headed home, calling in to see my Dad in hospital and grabbing a Starbucks along the way.

Resurrectio at the riverside close to Liverpool's famous Pier Head.

All in all, a satisfying ride of around 25-30 miles, during which I was never more than about 6 miles from home.