Thursday, August 18, 2016

Biking Nations: In Manchester, UK with the USK

I got over the jet lag from my trip to Japan about fifteen minutes before I boarded another intercontinental flight. Those Urban Sketchers - the passionate pen and paper people - were the reason my wife and I were making this trip. 

Portland, Oregon was the site of the first Urban Sketching Symposium. That was the only one my wife didn’t attend (which obviously means I didn’t attend it either). But each summer since then I got to go along with her and go biking while she’d sketch and attend helpful workshops and seminars: I basically owe the USK the Biking Nations series of posts since I got to do Portugal, Dominican Republic, Spain, Brazil and, last year, Singapore because of them - I also always learn something new each time I’d have one of these adventures. 

This year the symposium was held in Manchester, United Kingdom. I’ve biked in the UK many times but only in and around London

We did stop briefly in London before heading to Manchester by train. Still in the clothes I wore on the plane and functioning on 93 minutes of sleep, I went up 311 steps up The Monument to the Great Fire of London (called ’The Monument’ for short) because nothing quite diminishes the effect of jet lag like going up 311 steps to look out over London. 

We also did a side trip to Oxford where, unfortunately, I didn’t have a chance to ride. But if you are a cyclist and go to Oxford, you should stop at Bike Zone and go to The Handlebar Cafe & Kitchen.

Bike shop on the first floor. Cafe on the second. It’s a beautiful thing.

No trip to London is complete with riding a bike share bike. Since I hadn’t ridden this essential, wonderful and imperfect bike share system in over a year the bikes were now labeled Santander. Well-versed in how to use the system (and already carrying my helmet with the little rearview mirror mounted on the non-U.S. side) I took a short ride - admiring a staircase with a little ramp on the side.

My warm-up, pre-Manchester ride originated in Canary Wharf - which was where my wife made a warm-up, pre-Manchester sketch.

By the time we got to Manchester, I was raring to take the Bike Friday out of the case. It had been in Japan only two weeks earlier and I only had a couple of days between trips to get it back up and running again - which I did by replacing the rear tire and giving it a brand-new tube. 

Manchester is a beautiful city even though there are still some Brexit scars visible.

As usual, the urban sketchers captured the city better than I did this trip (See my wife’s beautiful sketches as well as ones belonging to Rita, Orling, Jessie, Fernanda and Amber - and do a social media search for #USKManchester2016 and offer to buy the originals from these and other talented artists). 

I have an excuse for taking a smaller number of photos than usual: it was raining. A lot. After more than a year of living in precipitation-starved Silicon Valley, I forgot how annoying it is to bike in the rain. But if one is cycling around Manchester there are plenty of bridges you can hide under when the skies open.

We stayed at Innside Manchester, which had a comfortable room, a convenient location, a breakfast buffet made for hungry sketchers (and cyclists) and a short walk from Harry Hall Cycles - the perfect place to buy a patch kit (more on why I did so later) and admire, yet again, Bromptons.

I found that riding around Manchester was a little easier than London: not quite as dense and at a pace that wasn’t turned all the way up to eleven. Infrastructure was scattered (but to Manchester’s credit a light rail is being built and that was the cause of a lot of the construction I had to contend with).

A particularly memorable moment when infrastructure did make an appearance was the Manchester Cycleway: a protected bike lane (learned more about why these matter from the Silicon Valley Bicycle Coalition Bike Summit the other day) with its own traffic signals.

I’m not going to say I got bored biking around Manchester but I did want to really aim high this trip and bike to Liverpool - about 35 miles to the east. On my second day of biking in Manchester, I made a go by using the Trans Pennine Trail

This wasn't the ideal terrain for 115 psi road tires. 

Very quickly, I discovered that a lot of the trail wasn’t paved. That’s fine, I thought. I’ll just ride anyway like I did up the mountain roads in Paraty

Unlike Paraty, I got a flat almost right away. I set the bike upside-down beneath an bridge to get out of the rain and quickly realized that horses use the trail as well since I could see (and smell) horse excrement that was sitting just a few feet from me. 

In spite of the omen, I pedaled on...and got a new flat barely a mile later - just as the rain was picking up. I stopped beneath another bridge to again get out of the rain to change a tire. A few mountain bikers (who were undoubtedly smarter than me as they were all riding pedal-powered versions of the Christopher Nolan-era Batmobile) offered to help but I had all the tools I needed. 

An old man walking alone on the trail stopped under the bridge to get out of the rain himself, and he and I talked while I mended my tube. His name was Patrick and was born in Ireland. I appreciated his company but just like The Washington Post said not too long ago I ended up having to answer his concerned questions about Trump - and also about mass shootings.  I couldn’t give him a good rationale as to why the U.S. has both, and when the rain subsided he headed off on his way. I never saw him again.

Hopefully, the next time I am in the UK I will be instead asked about happier subjects like, say, for instance, Lorca

Soon after the tire was changed, I headed off and the rain began to pester me once again. Just as I was wishing I had fenders, I stumbled across a front fender that looked like it had fallen from a mountain bike. I picked it up, broke it in half and fastened it to the Bike Friday in the hopes it would at least keep tire water from hitting my butt. 

Soon after attaching the fender - which I’d end up taking back to San Jose with me - I  became confused at a detour sign. 

Then I became lost. 

Or at least I think I did. Despite the international phone chip I put in my iPhone that gave me access to Google Maps I wasn’t sure I was even on the trail anymore. All I did know for sure is there wasn’t a chance I’d be able to make it to Liverpool and back without my wife and her sketching friends launching a search party. So I abandoned my effort and searched for pavement. I found it by crossing (what I later discovered) was private property. 

After stopping at a random fast food restaurant for a late lunch (that was so late I was bordering on ‘early dinner’ territory) I headed back to Manchester by trying to ride along the canals. 

Again, not all of it was paved but it was nice to look at. 

When I returned to the hotel I discovered, to my dismay, that my rear tire had gone flat for a third time. It was irksome. I didn’t understand how I could ride up a mountain and back in Paraty and only get one flat for the entire trip (in the hotel room, no less) but a brand-new tire and tube in Manchester, UK already had this many punctures. 

Before meeting up with my wife and her fellow artists I headed to Harry Hall Cycles for another patch kit. I had brought two new ones with me (lesson learned from Barcelona, Spain) but at this point I was worried I’d run out. I ended up purchasing the glue-less kit from Park Tool - and hoped I wouldn’t have to use it. 

The next day it was raining again, but I decided to bike to Liverpool. This time, I was going to use the A5 and I stretched a hotel shower cap over my helmet before setting off. Soon after finding my way to the A5 in the rain something odd happened: I nearly hit a human head that was in the road. 

Well it wasn’t a real human head: it was the kind of head one would find at a hairdresser school or it was broken off of a department store mannequin. But for a quarter of a second I thought it was real. I picked it up and decided to take it with me until I found a trash can for fear another cyclist with worse eyesight would see it and lose balance. 

However, motorists along the A5 began giving me noticeably more space when overtaking. So I decided to carry the head with me for the rest of the day. 

Motorists of Great Britain: meet the woman who cut me off with her Ford Focus! Don’t let that be you!

Soon after picking up the head, I noticed a wide, paved path running alongside the A5. Almost immediately after noticing that, I got another flat tire and stopped yet again to change it. 

Even though I had once again found a dry place to mend the tire (the Park Tool patch kit worked quite well, I have to say) I was still getting annoyed at the frequency of the flats. 

“You’re not even a Beatles fan!” I growled to myself as I pumped the tire back up. “Why are you even going to Liverpool?”

The head - staring at me through the mesh of my CamelBak - declined to answer. 

I pedaled on and without even realizing it at first: the rain stopped and I had nothing but open trail ahead of me. 

Aside from negotiating the occasional traffic circle (and thus having to mingle with cars that would either gaze upon my backpack with fear or amusement) there’s not much of interest along the route to Liverpool but it was nice just to go fast. Miles dropped away one by one. 

I stopped at a convenience store for a sandwich about seven miles from the town The Beatles are from. When my odometer pushed past thirty miles I had to leave the bike path on the A5 and hop on secondary roads to get to Liverpool - passing by some unremarkable buildings to get there. Heading toward what I thought led to downtown I came to a couple of backpackers juggling at a red light; a sign was nearby explaining they were seeking tips to fund their travels. I tipped them.

A few blocks after leaving the jugglers I headed down a ramp that looked deceptively like I was about to get on a highway. But instead I was greeted by the following sight. 

I had made it to Liverpool. And the sun was finally out for real. 

I noticed my rear tire was going flat yet again so I stopped in front of The Fab Four Cafe (which is exactly what you think it is) to change it once more. 

By now I pretty much needed to do an about face and head back to Manchester, so I bought a cookie from the Fab Four Cafe, ate it, and turned around so I could return the way I came.

Before getting to the bike path that was separate from the rest of the road I had to, of course, ride in the street and thus take a photo that I have taken in just about every country and every city and every small town I had biked in: a clear path for a clumsy American cyclist with no sense of direction while cars are backed up at a near standstill.

Thankfully, the tires stayed intact and the sun stayed out. Even though there still wasn’t a lot to look at the clear skies meant I could actually see Manchester when I got to within ten miles of it. 

Not exactly tired and liking the way the sun looked this time of day I headed back to the canals, where I ran into two artists I’ve met at previous symposiums: Fernanda and Jessie. They were enthused to hear I had made it to Liverpool and back and laughed at the mannequin head that was still on my back (having been there, rain and sunshine, for about seventy miles). 

The next day I packed the bike up and headed on foot to the Museum of Science and Industry. There’s a great building there with a lot of cars and planes on the first floor…and a fun exhibit on the second. 

Shortly after, I met up my wife and the other sketchers at the closing event of the 2016 Urban Sketching Symposium. There, I learned that the 2017 Urban Sketching Symposium was going to be in Chicago. I’ll be able to ride on the right side of the road and unlike the last four out of five USK events, probably won’t have to deal with a language barrier when ordering lunch, but I’ll find a way to make another cycling adventure out of it. 

As for the head I found in Manchester: I put it in the hotel fridge and wondered if I should leave it there for my wife to discover later. 

In the end, I did as one of our sketching friends had advised me to do and put it in her side of the bed (But I ended up just showing her this photo since she had already gotten word about the head before we caught up with one another the day of the Liverpool ride). 

What I didn’t do is bring the head back with me to the U.S. - it stayed in Manchester, but I promise that whatever obscure item(s) I find on the road I will tell you about and keep. And if I find another head I’ll make either a Halloween decoration or a diamond lane buddy - not sure which. In the meantime, enjoy the rest of your summer (and, if you find yourself fixing punctures frequently, check the tire to make sure there isn’t a tiny piece of glass lodged in it - and try to do it when you get the first flat and not when you get home from a fun bike trip in the UK - told you I always learn something new). Thanks for reading and thanks for riding. 

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