Saturday, 3pm in January

In years gone by this meant the FA Cup 3rd round. 32 ties simultaneously kicking off around all corners of England and Wales in worn pitches in any weather, with all teams fielding their strongest line-ups in pursuit of domestic honour which was on a par with the league championship. Sadly, along with test matches starting on a Thursday (with a rest day) and home internationals, ‘progress’ has put paid to this tradition. Last weekend, the FA Cup 3rd round was spread across four days and eight different kick off times and Premier League teams, whether they be fighting for the title or against relegation know there is more value in a good league position than a decent cup run, and fielded teams to reflect that.

So where can you go to experience the Saturday afternoon cup feeling? Look no further than the FA Trophy. Yesterday, I had the pleasure of watching Ramsbottom United take on Weymouth in the second round proper (last 32) of this year’s competition. Both clubs are semi professional and play in the Evo Stick league, around level seven and eight of the football pyramid. The Rams has already negotiated eight rounds to get to this stage. Well over a hundred Weymouth fans made the 250 mile journey to the Riverside Stadium for yesterday’s 3 o’clock kick off, creating a great atmosphere alongside 300+ home fans.

Non-league football really is a throwback to simpler times, and a reminder that progress isn’t always positive. For less than a tenner (not to mention pie and peas for £2.50) my son and I were treated to one of the best games I’ve seen in years. We were sat so close to the pitch, at times I felt like I was playing myself. The match itself was played out by two hard working teams showing total commitment in tricky conditions. A marked contrast to the antics of 22 prima donnas on show at a premier league ground near you. There was barely a cross word to the referee and the crowd were equally polite and respectful. I’ll even forgive the chant of ‘dirty northern b******s’ which greeted every foul by a Rammy player, although if you’re from Weymouth I guess you can sing that every week…

The game finished 2-2 with United twice equalising, the second time in the 95th minute. That earned the Rams a Tuesday night replay in Weymouth, which I imagine will be quite a logistical challenge for their squad and supporters, but if anyone captures the spirit of grass routes football it will be the dedicated few who make that journey.

The contrast between the riches of top level football and non-league was made clear by the sight of a £200k+ Bentley in the car park. That alone would probably fund the wages of the whole Rammy squad for an entire season, or transform the state of the often flooded pitches the club’s youth sides have to contend with. Only later did I realise that the car in question actually belonged to none other than Liverpool and England’s Adam Lallana, a purchase funded by less than a month’s worth of his £65k a week salary. I don’t want to be critical – he spent time having photos with the mascots, and he clearly still has a passion for the game – but his presence really served to highlight the difference between the haves and have nots in football. I can only hope that he takes some of the honesty and endeavour he witnessed on the pitch back to his multi-millionaire team mates at Anfield.

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Review – R.E.M. at the BBC

It was March 1991. I was 17 and had just saved up for my very first walkman, ready to take on a school skiing trip to France. As well as the walkman I bought an early copy of Q magazine, and on the cover were an American alt-rock band from Athens, Georgia promoting their new album, Out of Time. They were, of course R.E.M. I had heard Losing my Religion on the radio, and I decided to buy the CD on the basis of that song and the review in Q. Just in time to take it to France I taped it on to a C60, and the rest is history.

R.E.M. have stayed with me ever since. I started by buying their entire back catalogue, when funds would allow. I have seen them live three times, once they finally toured again after not putting either Out of Time or Automatic for the People on the road.

When I first heard about the release of R.E.M. at the BBC, I wasn’t sure what to think. In recent years there has been a series of releases plundering many of their rarities and live performances. There are already three or four live albums available, depending on how you count them, each with a different twist. Unplugged 1991/2003 charts the development of the band from their commercial peak to a more reflective period and is really two albums, including rare performances of songs from ‘Out of Time’. R.E.M. Live was released in in 2007 and is taken from two shows in Dublin from the Around the Sun tour and finally Live at the Olympia is a collection of songs from a 5 night residency in Dublin and was a series of working rehearsals for Accelerate. In addition to these releases there are numerous live performances on various re-issues of their earlier albums.

With all this in mind, is there space for yet another live release?

Let’s start by looking at the track listing. The performances on this 8 CD set are taken from a variety of sessions and live recordings chronologically beginning with a full set from Nottingham Rock City recorded in November 1984 to a Radio 2 live set in September 2004. There is a notable bias towards their later career, which reflects the increased coverage they received once the breakthrough happened, however, I think it’s a shame that the Rock City gig is the only content from the IRS years. There is nothing from the Fables of the Reconstruction, Life’s Rich Pageant, Document or Green tours, which is arguably the band most important period as they made the sometimes uncomfortable transformation from a college band to stadium headliners.

There are two performances which stand out for me – one because I felt like I was there, and another because I actually was there. The first was an ‘Into the Night’ session recorded in March 1991, right at the time I first discovered the band, which I listened to live and recorded onto tape – I hate to think how many times I have heard it. The second was the full set from the National Bowl in Milton Keynes in 1995 – one of two shows from the Monster tour that I was lucky enough to get to, a gig notable because their support was an emerging indie rock band known as Radiohead…

Listened to back-to-back, the three full gigs – the two mentioned above plus their 1999 Glastonbury set are a good summary of the band’s evolution, albeit with a chunk missing in the middle. The Nottingham Rock City set is wonderful, it’s fast, energetic and packed with many of their brilliant songs from the Murmur and Reckoning. Two of my highlights come from elsewhere – a great performance of 9-9 is followed by a rambling rendition of Hey DIddle Diddle which kicks straight into a blistering version of Windout, which would later be released as a bonus track on a 1992 reissue of Reckoning. The other standout is Wendle Gee, a beautiful, swooping song which would be included on their next album – Fables of the Reconstruction. There are four other songs which would make it on to later albums, a real indication of the confidence the band had in their material, released or unreleased, if it’s good enough it’s on the set list. Michael Stipe is in typically enigmatic form, at one stage apologising for their incumbent president, Ronald Reagan – sometimes I think it’s a good thing they’re no longer performing…

The second full set, from Milton Keynes documents (pardon the pun) the bands switch back to rockier arrangements following the subtler arrangements of Out of Time and Automatic for the People. The set is very biased towards Monster, which is not my favourite album, but the energy is undeniable. Highlights include a swirling version of Undertow, with Mike Mills stunning backing vocals really driving the song along and a great performance of Strange Currencies which is so much more powerful than the recorded version. Stipe plays the reluctant frontman with ‘Here’s another song’ preceding almost every song. Listening to it back again has really rekindled my memories of a special gig – it was a beautifully hot July day and despite the less than promising setting of a field in the middle of a new town, there was a real festival vibe.

The Glastonbury performance is brilliant. The reluctant stadium band is nowhere to be seen – Stipe is on great form, engaging with the crowd throughout. It’s clear that Glastonbury was a rite of passage for the band, and they celebrate it with one of their very best performances, culminating in a chaotic, joyous chorus of It’s the end of the world as we know it (and I feel fine). In terms of a live act, this is R.E.M. at their very peak – a great setlist from throughout their catalogue, celebrated at an iconic festival, a perfect combination of time, location and performance.

Away from the full concert live sets there are a selection of live sessions and one-off gigs. A Radio 1 public Peel session from October 1998 features a number of songs from Up alongside a few of the regular favourites. Many of these really come alive away from the original album, and Daysleeper stands out. Another highlight is the closing three songs from a Radio 2 gig at St James’ Church London from 2004 – Leaving New York, Imitation of Life and Man on the Moon are all cut from the same cloth, but put together towards the end of the band’s life, they represent the depth and quality of the band’s work.

If you’re looking for new tracks or rarities, there’s not a lot on offer, although there are a couple of interesting tracks. The cover of Editors’ Munich is really strong. It’s a song which suits Stipe’s voice well and he delivers it with real menace. Thom Yorke’s presence in the Patti Smith role on E-bow the letter is also worth a listen – for me it’s an intersection between two of the most influential bands of the last 30 years and is a nice point back to the Milton Keynes gig when they shared the same stage.

Taken as a whole, R.E.M. at the BBC is a great representation of their existence and their presence as a live band. The only disappointment is the void between 1984 and 1991 when they were at their most active. Despite this I’m glad this set has been put together, and I’ve really enjoyed dipping in and out of over the last few weeks.

**** – 4/5

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Goodbye to an old friend

Finally, after 20 years faithful service the end is night for my ancient Trek mountain bike. When I first got it, almost 20 years ago to the day it was at the cutting edge of mountain bike technology – front suspension, full Shimano Deore groupset, including v-brakes and a triple chainset and full Bontrager/Icon finishing kit. In metallic blue it looked the business and rode really well.

In between my first few fleeting uses of it and now it has seen periods of action, inaction and even neglect. It has racked up the miles on mountain bike trails around the Pennines and, briefly as a commuter bike on smooth tyres. Thanks to a bullet proof frame, high quality components and the odd bit of maintenance it has kept on going and going. Pretty much everything on it now is original, even the tyres.

However, its age is now beginning to show, and nowhere more so than in its natural habitat. On the trails the suspension is woefully inadequate compared to modern equivalents and the lack of disc brakes makes every descent a highly stressful experience The narrow bars don’t help either.

I hope someone takes it on and gets as much enjoyment from it as I did. With a hard fork and smoother tyres it would make a great commuter/city bike, particularly if the route involves hills. If you’re interested, it’s one ebay here.

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#Ride4Remembrance 2016

It was an honour to take part in the 2016 #Ride4Remembrance. The event was hosted by the rather excellent Drop Off Cafe in Edenfield, and follows tracks up to Pilgrim’s Cross, one of the highest points on Scout Moor. On a beautiful November morning, over 150 mountain bikers (and one brave soul on a cross bike) braved the mud to complete the 1,000ft climb.

Here are a few pictures form the event.

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Exploring North Wales

Yet another mismatch of half-terms has presented us with the usual child care dilemmas and me the inevitable list of jobs, however, every cloud has a silver lining…

I took the opportunity to get away for a couple of days on my bike. The brief was somewhere scenic, hilly and within a couple of hours of home. Having explored bits of the Yorkshire Dales during my C2C ride last year, and not knowing the Derbyshire Dales as well, I settled on North Wales.

The initial plan was two full days of cycling; the first exploring the Llyn Peninsular and the second around the Snowdonia National Park, both from a base in or around the beautiful town of Beddgelert. With the weather forecast looking promising, but notoriously changeable in that part of the word, we arrived prepared for anything.

Day 1 – The LLyn Peninsular

An early start from Rossendale saw us arrive at the YHA in Beddgelert by 9am in good light, albeit with a low, threatening cloud base. After 10 minutes unloading and kitting out the bikes, we set off on the first leg towards Caernarfon along the A4085. Following a steady climb out of Beddgelert, which warmed us up nicely we made good time, descending gradually to the coast. From Caernarfon we headed south west, hugging the north coast of the Llyn Peninsular. This was the beginning of about 30 miles of seriously hard cycling, through a combination of a nagging headwind, persistent drizzle and one very sharp climb. Initially it was flat, but the wind increased steadily, so progress was modest. With the LLanaelhaearn climb approaching, it was about to get (for me at least) funerial. This was a brute of a climb, featuring three ramps separated by a couple of short flats. The first ramp gets steadily steeper, increasing from a manageable 8-10% to a short section of 20%. Following a short breather the second (and longest) ramp again features sections of up to 20% before a shorter and more agreeable third section to the summit. in terms of effort, it was right up there with some of the toughest climbs I’ve attempted, and even though I completed it, the effort expended would come back to bite me later.

If the good news was the hardest climb was behind us, the bad news was that we had left behind any protection against the wind which was now whipping off the sea. The next 20 miles were a slow and steady grind towards Aberdaron with the miles seemingly to clicking by ever more slowly. Finally we got to the welcome descent into the most westerly village in the Llyn Peninsular at 1.45pm for a welcome rest and a bit to eat. Conscious of the time, with 45 miles still ahead of us and dusk at 6pm we soon got back into the saddle. 

Under different circumstances, a nice tailwind would make the climb out of Abderdaron towards Abersoch a good test of fitness and strength, however on this occasion all I could do was keep my legs turning and wait for the energy from lunch to kick in. The effort was rewarded with stunning views from the top across the bay to Abersoch. It’s a beautiful stretch of road which is well worth riding. Be prepared if you tackle it from East to West, the climb is a lot steeper.

After skirting around Abersoch we headed North West along the Southern coast towards Pwllheli. With the hills behind us, the wind finally became our friend and we made good progress along quiet lanes. However, with the legs still feeling heavy and even the smallest hills feeling like Alp D’Huez, a final pitstop was required. This came in the form of a cappuccino and the biggest slice of cake I could find from The Witches Brew Tea Rooms

That combined with a couple of gels a few miles down the road fuelled me up enough to get back to Beddgelert.
The last few miles were in darkness, which offered a rare opportunity to test my lights on unlit roads. After initial disappointment with the beam my Knog Blinder 3 offered, I soon realised it was a lot brighter when I took my tinted glasses off… There’s something really satisfying about riding on quiet lanes with good lights. You’re probably more visible to traffic than you are in the day and you really get the feeling you own the road. It was a great finish to a very memorable ride.

Day 2 – Porthmadog Recovery Ride (and more cake)

After a fitful night’s sleep, we got down to breakfast just in time – if you ever stay at the Beddgelert YHA, when they say breakfast finishes at 8.30, they mean it… Pretty quickly it was evident that Matt was in better shape than I was. i could feel every single of the 95 miles we had done before, and the planned 80 mile jaunt around Snowdonia was out of the question. Even with good legs, a very low cloud base would’ve made much of the route fog-bound, so a rethink was required.

Having enjoyed the final stretch from Porthmadog to Beddgelert the previous evening we decided to head back in that direction. 

I took a good few miles to warm up, but eventually at least some of the lactic acid shifted and I managed to spin through 30 miles. In the spirit of the holiday we found a couple of excellent coffee stops – The Big Rock Cafe in Porthmadog is a wonderful bakery and cafe, with huge cakes, pastries and a great selection of artisan breads. 

The final stop was at Caffi Gwynant just outside Bedgellert, another great find in a converted church and a fitting end to a fantastic couple of days cycling in one of the most beautiful parts of the UK.

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Mamil Climbs #3 – The Nick O’ Pendle

This is another to feature in Simon Warren’s 100 original 100 Greatest Cycling Climbs. It is an iconic climb for anyone from around the South Lancashire area, the place of many great hill climb competitions and has made an appearance on the Tour of Britain as recently as 2015. Warren rates it at 7/10, which I think is a touch conservative – this is a tough climb.

The problems arise before you even get to it. It begins on the outskirts of the town of Sabden. To get there (from whichever direction) you have to tackle a significant climb, so you arrive at the bottom already blowing. The rise out of Sabden is immediately steep and sustained, before the gradient eases briefly. You need to gulp any oxygen you can at this point because the worst is yet to come. There is a vicous section of between 15-20% which lasts just a bit longer than you would like. Once you cross the cattle grid you are over the worst before the final kick of the two hairpins at the top of the climb.

The bare statistics don’t really do it justice, it feels a whole lot more than a height gain of 135m at 11%…

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Mamil climbs #2 – The Rake, Ramsbottom

Disclaimer: this is the one climb in this series which I have not completed on my road bike – that’s one of my 2016 ambitions. I have done it on my mountain bike which has much more favourable gearing.

Update: I have now done it on my road bike. For me, it is just about possible with 34/28 gearing.

This is one which features in the original Simon Warren book and is one in which I have a special interest. When I originally moved up North from Bristol my future wife had just moved into a house on Tanners Street in Ramsbottom which is about a third of the way up this climb. This climb was therefore responsible for me not riding a bike for more than 10 years, as one way or another any ride involved getting up half of this savage climb!

It starts outside the library in Ramsbottom, the first few yards are relatively gentle, before it kicks up almost immediately to around 20%. From here on it is steep all the way, with only patches of respite where it is a little less severe. The next serious kick is the left hander opposite the Rose and Crown pub which takes you on to Tanners Street. Don’t let the easing gradient fool you, you’re still climbing at more or less than 10% on this section. By this point your legs will already be burning, which is unfortunate because the real fun is about to begin…

Once you turn right on to the Rake itself you hit 20% before it gets worse halfway up, peaking at 27% for a short time. The only way to get up this section is to grit your teeth and grind, it’s not actually that long and once you pass the steepest section it gradually eases as you get nearer to the top. If you do this in anything less than perfect road conditions you are likely to experience wheel slip, so it can be a good idea to slightly reduce your rear tyre pressure.

One of the great features of this climb is that it is used for an annual hill climb event. This is great to see how it can be ridden – because it is short, it’s a climb that suits stronger riders who can effectively sprint it. You can also marvel at the measures some riders will go to to trim weight from their bike – who needs brakes anyway?

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