Flatlands photo essay without photos
September 2018
How do you take photos without a camera?

I had intended to take plenty of photos on this years Flatlands. I have described the event three times already, once as a straight ride report, once as ‘creative non-fiction’ in The Red King and once more in bad verse, so I thought that photos might be a good way ahead.

Sadly I completely fluffed my GPS load routine. I always check that GPX files have made it fully onto my GPS by loading them and checking they show on the map preview. Because I always do that (last five years, every time) this time I didn’t do it and guess what? I rode off from the start and realised there was no little purple line guiding me ahead.

Cursing myself, I returned to the start where Andrew P was still waiting. I knew Andrew had ridden up to Dunmow from London but was DNS as he felt a bit rough. So I asked if I could have his route sheets. He was more than happy to give them to me and, because he is a nice man, he offered me his tandoori-lid emergency route sheet holder as well. Legend!

However this meant that I had to keep my phone on my handle bars for navigation and, as it was attached to the tandori lid with tape and rubber bands getting it out to take photos become impossible.

So here are four key photos from the ride, just in words.

1

In this photo I am stopped on a scrap of pavement beside a too-busy B road somewhere in Cambridgeshire, cursing in frustration. I have just realised that I had lost the route for the second time in 40km. I had two things in front of me - a GPS a map but no route and Tom’s route sheet. People driving past would have seen an angry looking middle aged man stopped by the road thumping his handlebars and thought and they say cycling is good for you?

Tom’s route sheets are challenging. They are old-school, more aide-memoires than actual guides. There is nothing wrong with them per se, but they lack distances. Other route-sheets (I won’t say better) have elapsed distances between instructions on them 3km, 10km etc. Without these distances you have to guess at what point the next instruction applies.

SO @ mrb (straight over at mini round about)

R @ RBT $ WILLINGHAM B1050 (straight over roundabout sign posted Wiliingham, the b1050)

SO all junctions, thru Willingham, over River Ouse to Erith where L@ mrb no$ (A1123) (straight over all juncitons, through Willingham, over the river Ouse to Erith to take aleft at mini roundabout, no signpost)

Over New and Old Bedford rivers (self explanatory)

There is no way to tell that the first and second instruction actually happen very closely after the first. I missed the crossing and so sailed onwards down the wrong road for 5km before thinking that I was in the wrong place. The really amazing thing is how the mind retrofits what’s in front of it to fit what it is expecting - on the wrong road there were rivers and I blithely considered them to be the right two rivers. They were not.

To be fair the instructions can almost make sense later, after the ride. But by then it’s a bit late.

Click.


Just after this photo I reached for my phone, loaded up the ridewithgps app and hoped it might work. If it hadn’t worked I would just abandon the ride - I really hate not being able to make my own way around if needed and there is a lot of scope to get lost between Essex and Yorkshire.

2

This is the moment I kept returning to many, many times. It’s a picture of my hand stabbing at my mobile screen.

The mobile is held onto the Tandoori lid by two rubber bands. On the mobile I have the RidewithGPS app which is meant to show you a map and your route as well as how fast you are going and so on. All well and good, but the problem with an app is that it lives on a phone. And a phone is meant to do a whole range of useful things, like alert you to weather, take calls, tell you you have an incoming email or that someone likes an instagram post. These are the kinds of things that you want a phone to do, just not when you are riding towards a busy intersection at speed and you just want to see the effing map and nothing else.

It took me a few sessions of hunting around in phone settings to make the bloody phone behave more like a GPS. Day two was less frustrating, but compared to the ease of using a sorted Garmin it was still poor. Nevertheless it was a lot better than trying to use the route sheet.

3

1:30AM a few kilometres outside Lincoln, 364kms into the ride.

Jan and I are staring at a tiny bus shelter and deciding that it was good enough to kip in. We’d passed any number of other better shelters but they were all occupied with crazy cyclists.

Our ‘strategies’ had been the same - ride through the night but carry enough gear to get buy if the dozies struck. Normally I would think nothing of riding through to 400km-450km without a sleep but I really hit the wall early this time. As much to do with the weather and the closing in of night hours as anything. Suddenly, after a long summer with warm nights and endless light, it felt like autumn.

I was carrying a light-weight down jacket and bivvy bag. This takes up as much room in the pack as a large bidon and weighs about 600g. It is just enough to keep just warm enough to sleep when you are trashed. By wearing the jacket on my legs (one leg in each arm) and putting on every stitch of clothing and then pulling the bivvy bag over my head I was just about warm enough. After a five minute shuffle to find the optimal position on the five foot long wood bench seat that was just about comfortable enough, I was ready for a quick nap.

I was expecting to wake up shivering cold in 45 minutes. Instead I tossed and turned for what felt like 25 minutes, dropping in and out of moments of sleep before giving in and sitting upright and getting ready to ride on. But when I checked the watch I had been asleep off and on for nearly 3 hours. A big surprise. I am still not sure if that was a win or a fail.

Jan and I both agreed we felt a lot better for the sleep and then rode very slowly for a long time feeling like shit. It was a long slow drag to Sleaford in the stiffening wind, and we arrived there bang on eight for a ‘spoons breakfast.

The barman was a little astounded when Jan ordered  a double gluten-free breakfast on one plate. It was an elegant solution to a problem I have too, so I ordered the same thing.

A double double gluten free breakfast on the one plate. That’s worth another photo.

4.

Sometimes I just want to kick back and ride by myself. While you miss the aero advantages and the conversation it’s less demanding to ride at your own pace. You don’t have to make the continual micro adjustments that group riding requires, and you can stop looking at back wheels and bums in lycra. Particularly if I am in a recovery phase I will try to ride by myself for a bit, turn off all process indicators on the Garmin, lift my head up and look around me.

It’s easy to be snobby about the landscape of Lincolnshire and the Fens. It is not  spectacular. A lot of it is flat, agricultural land. A field of brassicas. A ditch. Another field of brassicas. Oh look - a pile of swedes!

It’s the kind of landscape that offers a narrow palette. There is the green of the fields and the blue of the sky but the dominant colour is a translucent grey that overlays everything, like you are seeing everything through a milky cataract.  

The minimal variation in outlooks as you ride, the endless flatness, produces a hypnotic visual rhythm. It’s a bass line of sights with little melody.

It’s the kind of landscape that makes sense in slow motion, in black and white. You can imagine the film that Rapha would make of it: A long shot of an endless lane being lashed by wind. A close-up of a dry face, eyes squinting, fortitude written into every crease of skin. An ad for Rapha face balm.

The image then is of a capacious sky, an endless arch of light blue smeared with thin light clouds, like a wiper had just passed over a windscreen. To each side an endless, flat grid of fields designed for automated harvesters - vast expanses of single crops, each one a distinct weft and warp of crop and earth, the effect is like looking at bolts of subtly different cloth side by side, a warehouse of variants on the theme of denim and serge washed with the green light from an aquarium.

Around the edges of fields stand sharp dividers made of hedge. They don’t do anything useful, they are cheaper than fences and act as real world stand ins for draftsman’s lines on OS maps, less organic matter than the smudge of ink, personified.

Tucked inside the fields is a strip of road, the only thing that is not moving in the wind. Eschewing the fastest line between two villages, the road favours  zig-zagging around the farms, following the lines of ownership rather than lines of convenience. The effect as you ride is like tacking a yacht, the wind offering different aspects as you are forced through a series of ninety degree turns that slowly add up to forward progress.

There’s a rider ahead of you, maybe half a kilometer away. You are travelling at more or less the same speed. It feels like you are both stationary, that the fields and road are flexing beneath you, two reference points in a physics experiment. You start thinking he is wearing red and then, an hour later, realise she is wearing orange.

But always across the top of everything, the brash, unavoidable sweep of wind. It’s not that the wind is an aspect of the experience, it’s that the experience is an aspect of the wind. It wraps you up, pulling you inside itself - a jealous and needy god.

5.

One more. The sudden joyous hush as you turn away from the wind and, after ten hours of parting it with your nose, it is on your back and pushing you along at 35kph with barely any effort.

Wind-friend, weather Huskie, a team in your favour.

A long exposure, a speed-blurred hour of bliss, one long frame of release.