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The Tandem Diaries

Tue Apr 17 2012

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So, a week after the end of the triumphant Anthem tour, it’s high time for the four tandemeers’ blog entry we promised Ellie and Ceri in the office.

Firstly a few bald numerical facts, totted up on the train home from York as the tandem rested in the guard’s van, sleeping off its glut of miles:

10 days
11 concerts
703 tandem miles
45 hours, 17 mins cycling
1146 man miles and 5417 man minutes – a minute and a bit for every child we saw during the tour!)
2 tandems
36 cooked breakfasts
4 kilos of flapjack
2 swims
4 trips to bike shops
4 new brake blocks
3 new gear sets
2 new chains
600 jelly beans

And second, a fleeting elaboration of those facts, starting with the magnificent send-off JRed and MT (see below for abbreviations) received at the beginning of the first leg. After an interminable half hour of finding, losing and finding things again in front of a crowd of eager onlookers they finally managed to wheel away with mock-confidence from the sparkly heights of Devonport Town Hall. As they negotiated Plymouth’s roundabouts, the surprising timidity of non-London cyclists and various minor mechanical setbacks they mused on the indignity of faff. That ride to Totnes was a gorgeous and exhilarating taster of the tour to come – riding out into a sunny Devon evening with the first of many stirring renditions of “My Cry” (composed for the Anthem tour) ringing in their ears, the loveliness of the English Spring rolling past. After a while their hectic huffing and puffing eased to a smoother pace and the happy discovery of how convivial tandem journeying can be.

JT and MT needed all the conviviality they could muster in the next leg the following afternoon, a brutal 67 mile parade of very nasty ups followed by thrilling but too-brief plummets down while the horizon rapidly rose again to ominous heights. It was at the top of Blackmoor Hill ( ‘Black ‘ being their mood and more hills sadly inevitable) while lorries whooshed angrily by that MT had to ask JT whether they were going slightly uphill or slightly down. That was also the day MT discovered what glutes were and how much they could hurt.

JRed and JRees had a contrastingly delightful stretch from Crewkerne to Bradford on Avon the next morning, stopping for the tandem’s third trip to a bike shop (gears) and a most civilised morning tea in Frome. Meanwhile JT (doing workshops) and MT (a session with local music teachers) had the growing and unnerving sensation that the only place they could ease their spinning heads and aching limbs would be On The Bike.

The opportunity to indulge the onset of addiction came in the afternoon on the short ride between concerts in Bradford on Avon and Chippenham. Here was the first case of set-in-their-ways oldie control freakery in that MT found he could manage only a few minutes stoking on the back with JT as pilot, blaming his neurosis on some elaborate wobbles early on as JT set about taming the beast. For the Chippenham concert MT kept his padded lycra leggings on under his concert trousers, something he will never do again. It made for a swift get-away though, as he and JT (kindly stoking) sped off into the clear cool evening for another winningly lovely night-time ride through the English countryside.

Salisbury Plain the next morning was windy, beautiful and a touch alarming with JT spotting some live shelling to the West beyond the high calling lapwings. It takes more than this kind of churlish MoD manoeuvre to rattle your brave tandemeers though and they arrived in Southampton having recovered themselves with tea, fresh delicious scones and a bracing dip in the River Test.

Southampton to Worthing saw JRed edging grimly off as stoker for JRees. Barely had they gone ten miles before the second oldie succumbed to no-control anxiety, those rear handlebars so unmoving and ineffective, those brake levers so very far from his grasp, his destiny so horribly in another’s hands. JRees manfully relinquished the pilot position, which ‘put all the fun back into the ride’ as JRed cheerfully reported. Fun for whom JRed you father-of-two you?

Worthing-Hastings provided the young bucks, as JRed and MT had tentatively taken to calling them, with an opportunity to reach a dizzying tour top speed of 41.9 mph coming down Beachy Head into Eastbourne. Not for the faint hearted. Their gathered momentum carried them into the sea at Hastings for the second dip in as many days in the unseasonably glowing weather.

Hastings-London with a latish start of 4pm had always seemed a daunting item on the tandem agenda but such was the balminess of the evening and the spring in their step that JRed and MT soon found themselves immersed in yet another rural idyll, this time passing through the Ashdown Forest. There JRed kindly shared a one-man picnic (packed by mother Red) perhaps in tacit recognition of MT’s acceptance of the stoker position? A position it was possible to relish in fact, rushing through the alternately cool then warm evening air, rich with fragrance in the gathering dusk. MT discovered the unexpected pleasure of closing his eyes on the downhills, uniquely possible on a tandem. The only way in which this leg was ill-fated is that somewhere between the picnic and Edenbridge the frame of the tandem, very kindly lent by OAE first horn Roger Montgomery (thank you Roger), came apart where the crossbar meets the back seat post. Sorry Roger. JRed and MT talked over their options eating Marathon bars (Editor: You’re showing your ages there guys…) outside an Edenbridge newsagent, beset by enthusiastic bystanders (‘Hey can you wheelie that thing? Bet I can.’) The only thing was to press on, ‘gingerly’ being the adverb of choice. Biggin Hill is no misnomer but the rewards to the north great as they drifted serenely down into the orange glow of the metropolis.

The prognosis for Roger’s tandem is that it could (and will) be welded back together but our by now obsessive tandemeers had quickly to find a replacement. This was achieved by the miracle of social media, JRed’s wife and writer of the pitch-perfect words for ‘My Cry’ Hazel Gould putting out a plea on Twitter and Facebook even as JRed and MT rode out of Edenbridge. By the next morning a saxophonist friend of JRed had offered his tandem (thanks Pete) and the rest of the day off in London was spent with various tandemeers heroically battling with logistics in order to maintain the Essential Purity of our voyage. That evening the replacement tandem arrived in SE London at the place where the previous one had breathed its last (for the moment at least), and so the Plymouth/York parabola continued uninterrupted.

Revised timings meant that JRed had taken on a monstrous day on Sunday, starting with 25miles on the tandem in freezing fog with JRees very early doors, going on to take choir rehearsals and a concert in Bury St Edmunds and, by now a man possessed by tandem fever, ending with a 72 mile stretch to Sutterton. JRees’s efforts were similarly manly, covering 75 miles before the concert that day and still having energy in those pedalling legs to hold his spikeless cello.

After the stark contours of other parts of the route JRed and MT very much enjoyed whizzing along the flat from Bury St Edmunds, again the sky clear, air warm and the tandem increasingly feeling an island of clarity in a hectic tour. They covered a lot of ground before reaching the A17 about an hour after dark, where fog, heavy traffic and a head wind put the grit back into the endeavour.

The next morning JT and JRees set out gamely for Chesterfield, the longest morning stretch and a hilly one at that. They certainly needed bright sun and their cheery dispositions. Soon, by sheer exertion of their bulging tandemeer’s legs, all but one of the central cogs and two of the rear had buckled more dramatically even than Chesterfield’s famous spire, mangled to the point of uselessness. Sorry Pete. With a large portion of their 70-odd miles still before them they discussed their option then forged on undaunted into the rising peaks of Derbyshire, arriving triumphant heroes with ten minutes to spare.

Chesterfield boasts an excellent bike shop called Je James Cycles where in only a couple of hours, replacement blocks and chains were fitted, leaving JRed and MT with a perfectly running machine for the leg to Thorne. By comparison with the steely focussed determination of the previous evening’s 70 mile ride, our older pair suddenly found themselves trundling dreamily along, enjoying the post-industrial landscape and a cup of tea along the way. Darleys brewery in Thorne, remembered with infectious fondness by horn-player Martin Lawrence, turned out to have closed down 25 years ago(!), so they were sadly denied a pint or two of the best beer in the world.

The home-straight to York was another sunny affair but with lots of traffic. JRed and JRees swanned in barely having broken sweat, men now at one with their steed. They graciously allowed MT and JT the lap of honour/flag-waving/crowd-lined route of glory from the university to the Early Music Centre, which they accomplished in hapless style in their concert clothes, taking only one wrong turn.

Thanks to OAE Education Director Cherry for indulging the idea, to Roger and Pete for lending their magnificent machines, to Ellie and Ceri for constant support and baggage handling, to Sue for jelly beans, a warm car and blankets and to the whole touring orchestra who were all so very encouraging and helpful.

JRed: James Redwood
JRees: Jonathan Rees
JT: James Toll
MT: Matthew Truscott

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