Sunday, March 22, 2009

For those about to board...

... we salute you. This entry is dedicated to all of the colleagues with whom I have sat and discussed one of the traveler's perennial problems: hotels. Before I begin I must, if I may, place one disclaimer. For all of my friends who bunk down in cockroach infested bunks in war zones and under mosquito nets in jungles all over the world, this entry is not for you. It's for the pasty, pampered, powdered-ass corporate business travelers. Like me.

First of all, the inspiration for this post. I'm on the road. Right now I'm in St. Petersburg, Florida and I'm in a regular business hotel. Last week I was in New York City staying in an up market 'boutique' style hotel. I noticed, when I arrived at this hotel that I was almost embarrassingly happy to be here. This post is an attempt to explain that odd fact and, finally, to put into words all of those conversations I've had with fellow road warriors about designing the perfect business hotel. This one is for you, F-Troop.

First of all, this is a nice idea but not wholly necessary. It's a power socket in the bedside lamp. So that if you want to work in bed and plug in your laptop you don't have to yank the bed away from the wall and thrust your hand down into places that you really don't want to think about for too long. Just to get some juice.


It used to be, just a few short years ago, that the amount of cables and power supplies I carried was nothing short of staggering. I staggered through airports and staggered into hotels carrying all this stuff. These days most of my stuff is 'bus-powered', that is to say, it takes it's power from being plugged into my laptop. Here are three Firewire 400 hard drives and one Firewire 800 hard drive plugged in. The Lexar card reader is also Firewire 800 and plugs straight into the back of the G-Tech drive. All neat so far.


So with that being said the shortage of power sockets in hotel rooms is rarely an issue these days although this idea is neat. The two power sockets I do need (laptop and camera battery charger) are both built into the lamp stand. Again, no fiddling on the floor under the desk just begging for the cleaner to come in, see you and lead to you being cited as the reason for her quitting the profession. Notice, also, the ethernet. Ah yes, the internets. A critical part of everyones life these days. Here's a tip if you're building a hotel; make it easy, make it everywhere and make it free. Charging me 20 bucks for 24 hours of internet is like charging me for the water in the taps. I like having the option of a wire, it allows me to create my own wireless network in the room if the wireless signal ain't up to much.


So here it is all plugged in.


And yes, even this little doodad is synced and charged directly so I only need the USB cable and no charger.


So what else? Well the rest is rather basic but amazingly arsed up by a great deal of hotels. Give me a comfortable clean bed with sheets that feel like they might have been made sometime within the years I've been alive on this planet. Pillows that feel like they are stuffed with the packing material you can eat don't work either. And don't put 58 other assorted items on the bed. I can't tell you how many times I've had to spend 10 minutes placing bolsters and fluffy embroidered carefully on to the floor just so that I can get into bed. Actually they usually get flung across the room in a bizarre 'padded cell' parody of a Rolling Stones style hotel room trashing. I also don't want those odd Scandinavian style make-it-yourself beds. One last thing; no recognisable bodily fluid stains. Please. For the love all that is good, I don't want to see that.


Hot water. It seems so basic. It is. It's one of the three essentials I'm paying you for... bed, hot water and a crapper. It's what I need.


Shower pressure. Seriously, the hotel room I stayed in last week was right beneath the water tower on the roof and had zero water pressure. It had a funky trendy 'rainhead' which kinda drizzled on me which was fine for an overall misting but I really need some kinda hot high pressure hose for a decent scrub down. They also had one of the hand held shower heads that you pull off the wall to wash those, er, tricky to reach areas. If you turned it upside down the water simply stopped. What do you want me to do with that? Use it as a loofah?


Give me some space around the sink. I don't have much but I'd like to be able to put it down without having to balance things.


These are the basics. Now let's have a gander at some really nice things to have that really aren't difficult. A decent iron and ironing board. The key word is decent. I don't need to brand a sheep, I need to occasionally press a shirt. And spend the extra two bucks fifty to buy the irons that you can put water in...


A coffee machine. Anyone that knows me knows that I really don't like to be up in the mornings. I certainly don't want to have to talk to someone. Having to talk to someone before I've had coffee is almost painful. Having to make my first conversation be my ordering of coffee is going to make the rest of the day just seem Sisyphean. So put a small coffee machine in the room. I'm not asking for beans that have passed through a small animal and been sifted from their stools. Farmer brothers will do at a pinch. And, yes, I know that Farmer Brothers tastes like it's been passed by someone but you catch my drift.


A fridge. I know you might put your fridge in there. It's full of tempting goodies that seem value for money when it's 2am and you really feel like a bottle of water. But I'm really not going to respect myself in the morning when I've been taken advantage of by paying 10 bucks for a bottle. For those of you out there that make signs saying, 'please don't put your own stuff in the fridge', what's wrong with you? What possible damage can happen? Give me a fridge. If I'm staying somewhere for a few nights I'm going to want some basics from the store. I need somewhere to put them. I'm not going to put them in a bag of ice and hang 'em out of the window. We've moved on since then.


Working air conditioning. My least green requirement but when I'm on the road and working anywhere up to eighteen hours a day someone had better let me sleep the remaining 6 or else I'm going to get cranky. Can you tell? A hot room is my fastest way to hotel room misery.


That's about it really. Some other things which are nice are things like an in-house guest laundry room. Awesome. Serves two functions; gets your clothes clean without needing a mortgage AND makes you realise that you aren't that hot shit and that you do put your pants on one leg at a time like anyone else. Oh and this bit is green... have you seen the elaborate packing from the hotel dry cleaning service? Silly and unnecessary.

Inexpensive and easy valet parking is nice too. The hotel in NY last week charged 50/day which, actually, is not bad for Manhattan but at the very least give me in and out privileges. They wanted to charge me 50 each time I brought it out. Imagine that. Two trips out and you're on for 150 for that day's parking. Obscene. Breakfast too, make it nice, easy and quick. I frequently skip the buffet in hotels that charge 22 bucks for it. Because even a fat biffa like me can't do 22 dollars worth of damage to a breakfast buffet.

A couple of other niceties. Lay on the odd decent sunset, it's always appreciated by the weary traveler.


And when I shut the curtains make it look like this.


To this end, the Courtyard Marriott is pretty much the perfect hotel. All of the above pictures were taken there. Decent room rate. Valet is thruppence ha'penny with in and outs, internet is free and the breakfast is 9.50 all you can eat. And, yes, I can do that much damage to a breakfast buffet.

Monday, March 2, 2009

Bike In Time

There's a photo, in my parents photo album, of a smiling, no-spectacles me. I must be around 6 or 7, maybe 8 or 9 and I'm in the back garden at the house I grew up in in Nottingham, England. I'm crouched down at the top of the steps and I have my arms around Lucky, our much beloved one-eyed dog. It's obviously summer (wasn't it always summer?) as I'm wearing a short-sleeved shirt and shorts. In the background the lawn is dry and brown as I remember it and on that lawn, out of focus, is a bicycle lying on it's side where I'd clearly left it in a hurry to hug the dog.


Lucky and me, circa 1975. Scan courtesy of my dad. Thanks dad.

That bike was the first bike I really remember having. It was an old black-painted Phillips steel framed bike with 3-speed Sturmey Archer gears. It weighed probably more than I did. If I remember rightly it was also the bike I brought down on my head, in the shed, one fateful day around 1970. I split my head open and needed hospital treatment to stitch it all back together again. When I was tall enough to ride it, I loved that bike. It was old, it was heavy, it had straight 'bars and only three gears but I rode it constantly. In the summers my brother and I would 'speedway' it around the back garden. No wonder the grass was all brown.

Not long after that my older brother got his first 'real' bike; a gleaming blue Carlton Continental 10-Speed - old school 10, as in 5 at the back, 2 in front. It was a work of art. I have no idea how much it cost or how we could afford it but it was a beauty. My brother was in 'high school' at the time so I think he was riding to school and back every day. I remember that it was built in Worksop, just up the road from Nottingham.

When I went to the 'big school' I remember that the 'hot' bike at that time was the Raleigh Europa, next down was the Arena, which looked a little like my brother's Carlton. I owned an Arena for a while, bought second hand. I seem to remember that I bought a no name bike off some boy at school. A few months after I got it it was stolen from the side of the house. I'm pretty sure it was a liquid commodity.

I remember that, eventually, I got a really nice Peugeot road bike. I tricked it out a bit and it was my first 'serious' bike. I rode that bike thousands and thousands of miles and became terrifically interested in my own cycling and with the pro cycling scene.


'Big' Miguel Indurain taking his lap of honor at the Tour de France, Paris, 1991(or2)

One day, in a spectacular bit of smartassness, I fell off the bike. I came home after a long Saturday ride of, in those days, about 80 miles. I changed into some regular shorts and a sweatshirt and went for a cool down ride. I rode up our insane hill and, cresting the hill, my cap flew off. I jammed on the brakes, turned on a dime, scooted back, unclipped my foot from the clipless pedals, stuck my foot into my hat as I rode past and kicked it up into the air. I caught the hat, plunked it on top of my head, clipped back in, hammered the brakes and turned on a dime again. Except this time I missed it and went crashing to the ground. Blood came trickling down my leg from a wound on the front of my knee. I rode off to kinda loosen it up and ride off the pain. But the blood wouldn't stop running out. So I rode down to the hospital where some of my friends were student nurses and stayed in the nurses quarters. My friend Tammy patched me up and we sat and chatted for a while over a cup of tea. When I came out of her room my bike was gone.

Once I got home I did the math and figured out that I was earning enough money and riding enough miles to warrant doing the riding thing properly. I took the plunge and bought my first and, so far, only 'expensive' bike. It was hand made by Dave Marsh of Rotherham out of Reynolds 753 tubing. It had Campagnolo kit throughout and I had him put on a special edition Rolls saddle on to match the red/white paint job. A bang up beautiful job.

I had to wait a couple of weeks for the bike to get made and then I arranged, with Dave, to meet him at the local track night to take delivery of the bike. I'll never forget that Wednesday night. He took the bike out of the back of his car, fitted the bars and the saddle and then fitted me up for it. Then I clipped in and rode away down the track for a couple of hundred yards. I'll never forget the sound the hand made wheels made as the spokes settled into place. It was the single most wonderful biking moment I'd had up to that point.

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Lance, Champs Elysées, Tour de France, 2003.

From that point on I rode like an insane crazy beast, eventually clocking up regular 400 mile weeks - I'd ride a century on a Saturday, then another on the Sunday, then a 60, then an 80 and a couple of 30's. I was probably in the best shape of my life. In one season my I broke all of my skating personal bests and by a considerable margin. This period lasted until I was 24. In the first skating meet of the new season, in Peterborough, I fell in a 500m race. I slid, ankle first into the barrier matting and heard something let go. I'd broken my ankle. By the time I was able to skate again it was the end of the season. I was running out of money and sold my bike to buy a less expensive Trek Aluminum bike - one that I never liked, it was early days for aluminum frames and I just didn't get on with it. At about the same time I lost my job and had to move to a different city. They had no skating team and whilst I rode a bit on the Trek I never really got back into it. I still followed pro riding with a passion. That interest followed me in my move to London and then to Paris where I was lucky enough to see several Tours and then photograph a couple of World Cup Cycle races. But I didn't ride any more.


Lance, Prolog, Tour de France, 2004.

So lets fast forward to now and its eighteen years since I gave up 'real' cycling. I'm 42 and I weigh 240. It's time to start again. I've been trying to figure out what bike to get - and the technology has moved on considerably. I decided that I wanted a straightforward, simple bike. One that I'll ride. One that doesn't need endless maintenance. I'm going to ride in my garage on a trainer for a few weeks while I make myself physically less embarrassing. After that I hope to start riding to work and back a few days a week. If I can do that for a year and I'm STILL riding, well, then I'll think about dumping down some dough for a serious road bike again.

So what did I plump for? I plumped for a Raleigh Rush Hour. It's a flip-flop i.e. the rear hub has a fixed sprocket one side and a freewheel the other. I'm going to ride the freewheel for a while to build up some baseline fitness, then alternate into the fixie side to regain some level of 'souplesse' in my legs and my pedaling action. Once I'm out on the roads I have very flat terrain nearby so I'll make the most of the simplicity of the bike on rides to work and occasional shots to the store etc.

Of course as soon as you mention your intentions about anything all of the experts crawl out of the woodwork to tell you where you are going wrong - whether you want to know or not. They'll tell you that don't want to get that, you ought to get this. They'll tell you their riding credentials and how many bikes they've had and how many years they've been riding. Sometimes people even make assumptions based on their own life stories instead of yours. And it's all great. I mean, I appreciate immensely some of the help I've had in the past week or so and I appreciate people giving their time. I know I could have gone for a road bike... or a commuter... or an urban. I could go with a hip brand like Surly or Swobo. I could go for a hip mainstream brand like Kona or Specialized. But I'm going for the Rush Hour by Raleigh. Why?

Back in the late 1800's a chap called Frank Bowden bought a bike by Messrs. Woodhead, Angois and Ellis. They made about three bikes a week in their little workshop. Bowden bought the business and three years later, with production increasing, he moved the company to a new building. He also renamed the company Raleigh to commemorate it's start on Raleigh Street in the city of Nottingham, my home town. The business became enormous and they became one of the most famous bike makers in the world. In the 1950's Tube Investments created the British Bicycle Company by merging a bunch of companies. They then acquired Raleigh. Then Carlton cycles. They also owned Phillips, remember them from the beginning of this story? By the time the 1960's came around TI also owned Brooks (saddles), Sturmey-Archer (gears) and Reynolds (makers of the tubing used to make bikes). In Nottingham the Raleigh factory was a landmark - people will still call the junction 'Raleigh Island' even thought the factory was knocked down years ago.

Todays Raleigh bears only the name in common with the Raleigh of old but in it's symbolism lies my home town's history and the history of me on a bike. Along that timeline lies so many memories and so many miles. In the letters of the name lie the face-pressed-against-the-bike-store-window aspirations of the boy and the pride of the Raleigh riding teenager. So what better way to restart my love affair with bikes than to ride a simple steel-framed black-painted bike with the Raleigh logo? Because, you see, there is more to riding than what is 'right'. There is more to cycling than having the right kit or the right brand. Much more than fitting in with those riders who ride road, or those who courier or those who scream down mountains on bike that look like they might have a motor attached. It's can be much more than a lifestyle choice. In fact, sometimes, it's not a choice you make but a choice that makes itself.

Sometimes you need to light the right fires in your soul to reconnect with something that sits deep inside of you and your history. Sometimes you know, that if that spark takes, then the fire will burn bright and it will burn strong. I'm hoping that my single-speed Raleigh will do exactly that. I can't wait to ride it.


Raleigh Rush Hour 09, picture courtesy of Raleigh USA.