Culture Wars

Posted Leave a comment

UTMB 036 UTMB 037

Every sport has its own set of rules and traditions. Some are formally written down. Others simply passed on as a sort of etiquette, refined over the years.

Take Golf for example. We’ll leave aside that it’s technically a game and not a sport. Much like tiddlywinks. Though clearly less physically demanding.

Golfers, seemingly without fail, wear those ugly Argyle patterned jumpers. To the best of my knowledge there’s no written rule that says you must dress in this silly way. It’s just what people do it fit in. Traditions passed on over hundreds of years, without anyone stopping to think how comical they look.

Surrounded by other players doing the same, the absurd attire becomes sane. A badge of identity. It presumably takes an outsider to point this out.   You might have guessed: I’m an outsider.

***

Which brings me to another absurdity: the world of extreme endurance sports.  For this, I’m very much on the inside.

Whilst the Ironman Triathlon might be pushing 30, the sport of ultra-running is still relatively new, at least in Europe.

You might think this wouldn’t leave enough time for strange traditions to develop. Though we’re not doing anything as daft as Argyle, endurance sports do have their own oddities and ways of behaving.

***

The strange thing though is that two of the biggest endurance sports – Ironman and Ultra-Running – which are similar in so many ways, actually attract very different people. And there’s surprisingly little crossover in participants. Each have their own set of rules.

Nowhere is this difference more evident than when you’re waiting nervously before the start.

At the Ironman, as the athletes prepare their £4000 bikes in the transition zone, you’ll hear a lot of brash talk and boasting personalities. Amongst the shaved legs (this is to Ironman what the Argle is to Golf) you can practically smell the testosterone.  Casual boasting is the done thing.

Some few thousand feet higher, at the start line of the Ultra-Trail, it’s a very different feeling. Brash boasting is definitely out. There is no one-upmanship to be had on the cost and sophistication of your bike.  It’s just you and the mountains.

At the start it’s the done thing to look miserable and terrified. And perhaps slightly tearful. To talk down your chances rather than talk them up. There’s no written rule that says this. It’s just what everyone does.

***

I’d run the Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc on three separate occasions, and spent the last five summers in Chamonix for one run or another, but skipped last year to run in Leadville.

Coming back to Chamonix after a year out – and on the back of an Ironman just two months earlier – I’d somehow lost track of the unwritten rules.

As the 2300 runners gathered in the Place Du Triangle De L’amitié for the UTMB, I’d forgotten the fear I’d had in previous years. Forgotten that with a 50% dropout rate, for most of us the race was going to end in pain, misery and failure.

Yet somehow I felt bullish and confident. I wasn’t hollering this at the top of my voice. But I was breaking the rules.

Well you know what they say comes before a fall…

***

The heavens opened just before the start at 6pm.  And it rained all night. Great torrents of rain came through my Goretex jacket. Like someone had stuck a hose down both the sleeves.

The nausea started about 2am. Great waves of nausea. I managed to hold-off being sick at Les Chapieux aid station and after nibbling on a bit of food jogged pitifully on.

Cold, wet and holding back the vomit, my mind kept wandering back to the fluffy white bed that was waiting for me back at the hotel.

Why really was I bothering with this race? I had nothing left to prove, I’d run it three times already. Through the rain and snow. Through a stress fracture and horrible knee injury. I’d done it already. Why not call it a day? It was the first time I’d seriously considered quitting a race.

Just before dawn I trundled unhappily into the aid station at Lac Combal, only 64km in, where upon taking up the foetal position I was immediately sick. Two doctors came over and tried to entice me into the medical tent. They had caught me at my lowest ebb.

Strangely it was probably their offer of help that drove me on. Through my heaves and retching I told them to leave me alone. They were really quite persistent. Again I told them to bugger off.

I knew that if I went into the warm embrace of the medical tent I wouldn’t leave. I think I was about to tell them to ‘fuck off’ but instead was just sick again. They stayed, hovering over me.

So I finally had something to prove. I pulled myself up from a pile of my own filth and despair and told them, with a smile, that I’d had a bit much to drink last night.

Sometimes a bit of bravado and a bit of brash is what’s needed.

The dawn slowly broke. My stomach settled. The crippling visions of a white fluffy duvet slowly subsided and the rest of the race became much easier. Through the second day and through the second night I began to enjoy myself.

My confidence had been well founded. I finished in a little over 40 hours 30 minutes.

Through all four times I’ve run the race, I’ve learned one thing: It doesn’t always get worse. And sometimes you need a bit of bullshit to get you through.

But you need to know the rules before you can break them.

UTMB 039 UTMB 040
UTMB 042UTMB 034 (1) UTMB 043 UTMB 044 UTMB 045 UTMB 046 UTMB 047 UTMB 048 UTMB 049 UTMB 050 UTMB 051 UTMB 052 UTMB 053 UTMB 054

utmb 033

Hotel Tyrol

Posted Leave a comment

austria 029

Save for a few miles on the shores of the Baltic, the Germanophone world is sadly lacking much in the way of coastline.  What they lack in beaches, both Germany and Austria more than make up for with a thriving network of big resort hotels nestled in the mountains.

Hotel culture in France has been largely ruined by the rise of now ubiquitous Accor Hotels. Ibis, Mercure, Novotel and Sofitel have sucked any individuality out of the sector.  Each brand carefully graded so as not to encroach into the next price bracket.  You never experience any unexpected charm. You are guaranteed uniformity – which is generally uniformly bad.  Britain’s hotel sector was similarly saddled by kitsch bed-and-breakfasts and latterly by the rise of Holiday Inn and Premier Inn.

But in the foothills of the Alps, both Germany – in the Berchtesgaden National Park and Austria, in the Tyrol – have a vast array of charming resort hotels tucked away in mountain valleys. Designed for the ski season – but perfect too in the summer.

I flew into Innsbruck in a creaking Bombardier turboprop.  The creaking probably had more to do with the updrafts and assertive weather sweeping through the valleys than it did the ageing aircraft.  The approach to Innsbruck’s delightful airport (recalling the best of Berlin’s now defunct Templehof) requires proper old-school flying by the pilots as you sweep along the valleys, making sharp turns left and right to avoid mountains which obstruct the flightpath.

Moments after stepping onto the tarmac I was at the wheel of my hire car and heading south towards Italy. Fifteen minutes later – and just before the border – I’d turned off the Autobahn and trundled along a valley to find my hotel.

The hotel, despite being similar to the countless other spread along the valley – felt individual and built to its surroundings rather than a template.  It had solid-feeling wooden doors a vast Greco-Romanesque health spa.  Germans and Austrians do good health spas.

At check-in I was instructed that “I will” come for coffee and cake at 3pm – the linguistic false friends of English and German, mistranslating Will and Want.

Of course the hotel staff meant that coffee and cake is served at 3pm and I would be welcome to join.  But I very much liked the ‘will’ instruction. In fact this carried on for much of the stay.

I was tired and in need of rest. I wanted to have my choice limited and my decisions made for me.

Choice once was the luxury above all others. But now choice has become a chore rather than a desire. We are now surrounded by so many inane choices – often of such little consequence – that not having to chose is wonderfully refreshing.

At dinner that evening I was handed a five course menu in such flowery German, that rather than reach for the dictionary, I handed the menu back and told them to chose for me.  The food was wonderful. And each course a surprise.

Tucked away in a mountain valley, the television channels were strictly limited. I left the television switched off. Have you every found anything good to watch on a hotel television anyway? And how much time have you wasted flicking through the plethora of national propaganda channels. Russia Today anyone?  It was one less choice.

So I slept like a log. In the morning I descended to the breakfast room to be faced with a huge buffet breakfast. The choice was overwhelming.

What I would have given for a simple coffee and a croissant in the sun.

Tyrol 031 Tyrol 032 Tyrol 033 Tyrol 034

Tumbleweed Towns

Posted Leave a comment

Town

The horror film 28 Days Later depicts a (fictional) post apocalyptic UK in which our protagonists struggle for survival following the release of a deadly virus and the collapse of society.  When the protagonists reach London they find a ghost city – the empty streets around well-known landmarks looking eerie without people.

The scenes were laboriously filmed early on Sunday mornings during the long days of summer – when the sun was up but Londoners were still in bed.  The early morning light adding a gritty cinematic feel to the vacant streets.

The film would have been much easier to shoot – though less cinematically arresting – if it had been filmed in any provincial town in Britain where shops routinely shut up shop at 5:30pm – and town centres soon after take on that empty abandoned quality in the film.  

The photo above was taken at just after 6pm on a Saturday afternoon – a time when town centres should be buzzing.  The photo was taken in Eastbourne – but it doesn’t really matter where it was taken as the scene is played out across the country.

I was looking for nothing more than a coffee and newspaper. But the streets were so barren I began to fear the zombies were coming and the break down of society had already begun. And we wonder why we have a problem with the decline of highstreets in this country.

When the shops close there’s no reason to come into town. And the problem is that there’s no incentive for one shop to extend their hours as no one bothers to go into town after work, or on a late weekend afternoon because they know everything’s closing. 

But imagine if provincial town centres were routinely open for business untill 9pm. Cafes and restaurants could spill out onto the pavements. People could pop into their local shops for the odd last minute dinner ingredients and wind down with a drink –  rather than face the hassle of a vast soulless hypermarket and sprawling car park. 

As businesses close so early, what remains for local youths to do? Bored youngsters are a recipe for trouble. Empty streets encourage crime and antisocial behaviour as the moderating oversight of others vanishes.  The zombies really do come alive when the streets are empty.  

What’s required is for one brave town centre to take a punt. Perhaps to cut business rates for shops that are prepared to help add some life to town centres after hours.  Shops that only open whilst most people are at work have never struck me as a recipe for retail success. 

In 28 Days Later it was a virus that wiped out the population and laid the capital low.  London’s now buzzing late(r) into the evenings with shops and cafes routinely open till 10pm.  And the economy is doing better for it. 

It’s a simple cure. But there’s no one left to hear it.

The Do Over

Posted Leave a comment

IronmanBy their nature all sports are physical. Few sports though are quite so physical as the Ironman. Sustaining the body’s power output over a 3.8km swim, 180km bike race and 42.2km marathon is nothing if not brutally physical.

But the Ironman is also a sport that, if not exactly cerebral, is at least equally mentally demanding.

The decisions you make before the race play a large part in your performance. What heart rate can you realistically maintain on the run? How many calories should you consume on the bike? And what will your rate of fluid loss be? How much do you need to drink? What gear ratio should you use on the bike? Are you a climber or better on the flat? Should you attack on the hills or conserve energy? Do you go with faster tyres or heavier more puncture resistant ones?

And then there’s the mental process of dealing with the pain. Of compartmentalising it and working through it.

These decisions and mental processes can make the difference between a personal best and that awful abbreviation – DNF. Did. Not. Finish.

***

Everyone goes into a race with their own plan – whether they plan to win or just to finish.  Failing to plan is planning to fail – so that awful cliched slogan goes.

Perhaps you plan to go out fast and hard, then try and hold on later in the race when it gets tough – or you start out gingerly to conserve energy and finish strong?

But how long will your plan survive? It’s said that no military plan survives first contact with the enemy.   And the Ironman is a battle. The history of the Ironman is littered with broken plans and discarded hopes.

Often in the heated adrenaline-fueled start, you go too fast; burn too much energy; and you pay for it later. Then somewhere after the swim and the bike, things start to go wrong.

Your pace starts to slip, or you’re gripped by nausea, or cramp, or a pain that emanates from nowhere and everywhere – and you’re forced to watch that target time slip out of reach. And your plan goes belly up.

Or you curse that you started too slow and can never make up the lost time and distance you’d planned on banking early in the race.

***

For my first Ironman my plan was simply to finish the swim. If pushed – really pushed – I might have coyly admitted to wanting to finish in under 13-hours. And perhaps pride would dictate a sub-four-hour marathon.

The joy I experienced after dragging myself out of the water during that first Ironman, relatively unscathed,  an hour and 17 minutes after starting, almost made me forget I had a cycle race and marathon to complete.

Six-and-a-half hours later, I’d finished on the bike and set out on the marathon. Starting out I held a decent pace.

But each lap of the course saw my pace gradually slip and that target time went with it.

My first Ironman time stood at 12 hours 12 minutes. As I slumped over the line I was both delighted with my performance and relieved that it was all over. But I also knew that it wasn’t all over. It was only just beginning.

***

As the aches and pains wore off in the intervening weeks, a thought began to crystalise: I could do better. 11 hours 59 minutes would be possible. I deserved an 11-hour-something Ironman. I would have to go back and do it again.

So I entered the same race again the following year. I fitted Aerobars on the bike. I did more sprint training. I trained at altitude. Improved my swim.

One year later I went back to Nice with one plan, one goal – 11 hours 59 minutes – or bust.

And then, in the race, something quite unexpected happened. The swim went well. Then I slashed 30 minutes off my previous year’s bike time.

As I set out on the run, I worried that the extra speed on the bike would take its toll on my legs. But somehow I was running comfortably. It began to dawn on me that I wouldn’t just comfortably beat my target time – I would obliterate it. My plan had gone haywire. So I had to mentally scrabble around and change my plan on the fly.

The heat in Nice that day was stifling. The nausea set in during the second half of the marathon. I was sick. Twice. But still the marathon pace kept strong. I endured – there is no other word for it – a 3 hour 54 marathon, going on to finish my second ironman in 11 hours 34 minutes.

As I finished I was genuinely shocked and surprised at my time.  I had taken over 40 minutes off my previous time. I revelled in the finish. I knew that such a stark improvement would never happen again. I had more than achieved my plan. I thought that would be my last Ironman.

***

I sat the next year out. Ironman training is, after all, quite disruptive to a normal social life.   Perhaps I thought my time was a fluke. I didn’t want to go through all that training again only to get a worse time. And I couldn’t figure out how I could possibly beat it.

But gradually I became less and less satisfied with my new time. I met more and more people with faster times. I began to want a time that was nearer 11 hours than 12. That would be more respectable..

During that year out I realised there were faster and flatter bike courses. Why was I punishing myself in the mountains above Nice?  There were also were swim courses that were in pancake-flat lakes rather than choppy-jellyfish-infested seas. If I didn’t fancy my chances at going quicker in Nice I’d have to go elsewhere.

The fastest Ironman course in Europe is reckoned to be Klagenfurt in eastern Austria. But it sells out almost immediately after entries open – a whole year in advance of the race. This would take some planning.

And so at midnight on 1st July 2013 I waited in front of my computer for online registration to open. So did some 3,000 other athletes.  Just a few hours later the race was full. And I was in.

So over the intervening year plans were made. And revised. And made again

Which brings me to now in Klagenfurt –  some four years after I first dreamed of doing my first Ironman.  I’ve got a plan finish in 11 hours 29 minutes. A plan that has been honed and refined over years. All that stands between me and it is some 140.8 miles of racing.

Once the starting gun goes off, how long with that plan survive?  That’s the real test of the Ironman – how you change your plans on the fly. For better. Or worse.

P.S. Again

Posted Leave a comment

PS Again 009

Palm Springs, you may have noticed, has started to make a regular appearance on these pages, with something approaching an annual visit.

Whether it’s the guaranteed winter sun in the gloomy depths of December or proper desert heat in the scorching summer months – Palm Springs always offers a welcome change of climate.

PS is known as a Mecca of mid-Century modern design, tucked away in the desert. And from the desert floor it offers awesome trail climbing up to 8,000ft-plus peaks in the San Jacinto Mountains.  For me this affords perfect mornings full of training runs and lazy afternoons by a pool.

The town itself feels effortless. Big wide roads. Easy parking. Surprisingly good food for provincial America.

A perfect candidate then, you might think for a direct flight from London.  This, I fear, would be a mistake.

Palm Springs deserves to be approached properly. That requires a flight into LAX – followed by a roof-down, wind-in-your hair dash along Interstate 10 in a Mustang Cabriolet. It’s a sure fire way to reset your jet lag.  And incidentally am I the only one who finds that despite the extra time zones,  the longer West Coast flights to and from Europe are much easier on the system than the punishingly shortly red-eyes back from New York, Boston and Philly?

Everyone has their favorite hotel in their favorite town. Perhaps it’s a quiet, undiscovered place you’d rather not tell anyone about for fear of it being discovered.

For me, dear reader, it’s the Parker in Palm Springs. Confidently and yet understatedly cool, it used to feel both undiscovered and underpriced. It’s the only hotel I know with a tongue-in-cheek manifesto.

I can tell you this now because it is alas, no longer under- anything.

When I went to book the Parker this Easter it had become both over-priced and over-discovered. It was fully booked.

So we moved down the road to the Ace Hotel.  And it was… well, you get the picture.

PS Again 018 PS Again 019
PS Again 012 PS Again 014 PS Again 015 PS Again 016 PS Again 017PS Again 013 PS Again 020
PS Again 022 PS Again 023 PS Again 024 PS Again 026PS Again 025 PS Again 027

Race Across the Sky

Posted Leave a comment

Leadville

Pacing. Muleing. Crewing.  These three simple words are the difference between European and American ultra racing.

In Europe, mountain ultra marathons are a solitary affair. You carry what you need. You run alone. You get lost. You struggle.

In America, ultra racing is akin to a team sport. Whole teams of friends and family come out to support their runner; supplying them with food and encouragement at aid stations; taking it in turns to run with, and pace them between aid stations; helping them find the route; keeping them awake; even carrying their backpacks.

They seem almost different sports. But they have one thing in common.  With all the help, or without it – you still have to run 100 miles across the mountains.  And that’s no mean feat.

***

My adventure in ultra racing began some five years ago in the little French Alpine town of Chamonix. It’s a relatively young sport in Europe and I got in at a good time, when it was still easy to get into the big races.

I’d had some five years of racing around Mt Blanc.  There weren’t that many people wanting to run 100 mile races.

So the Ultra Trail du Mt Blanc – the  brutal 100 mile race around Mt Blanc – became my race. Year in, year out I entered the race.  But each year it was never the same. I had terrible luck with the weather. Some years it snowed, others it rained relentlessly.  Over the years the races were cancelled or curtailed; rerouted or restarted.

It was with some pride that I finished every race I started, including that epic year where the race was lengthen mid-race and the runners informed by text message.

None of the races were simple. And none were the distance that was advertised.  I grew tired of all the changes. I thought it was time to spread my wings and stretch my legs.  I decided to call it a day with the Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc. Finishing the UTMB last year, I vowed that my next 100 mile race, would be in America. But I would do it the European way – without crew or pacers.

***

I won’t pretend that Leadville was my first choice. I’d applied, unsuccessfully, for a place in both the Hardrock 100 and the Western States Endurance Run.

But Leadville doesn’t have a lottery for places. You just have to get up early to register. First come, first served.

So one quiet morning last January, in Melbourne, I sat in front of my computer waiting for registration to open. I paid my money and got my place. It was also rather simple given the lotteries, ballots and uncertainly that plague other races.

A few minutes later the confirmation email came through and my journey Colorado and the High Rockies was just beginning.

***

Leadville is famed for being the highest town in the United States. It sits a breathless 10,200 feet above sea level.  The town grew rich on the spoils from its silver mine. It was once the second biggest city in Colorado. But like so many mining towns, in the 1980s the mine closed, leaving thousands out of work and the town falling on hard times. Leadville would probably have become a ghost town were it not for the start of a bizarre race.

The Leadville Trail 100 race began because the mine closed.  An out of work miner called Ken Clouber dreamed up the race as a sort of homage to the back breaking work of the miners.

In 1983 when the race was first run, they weren’t sure anyone would be able to finish it. This was long before the huge popularity of marathons and triathlons.  Running 100 miles non-stop was a big deal then.  There were 45 brave souls who started that race, and just 10 who finished.  They couldn’t possibly have known what they had started.

Thirty one years later, the race has spawned a number of spinoff races, including a mountain bike race that has outgrown the run. But the run now attracts nearly 1000 starters and amazingly almost half go on to finish.

***

So my journey to Leadville started in Melbourne in January ended, eight months later here in Leadville.  Where a tougher journey began all over again. Here’s the video:

SPEEDBIRD ONE

Posted Leave a comment

Speedbird 1

What do you regret?  What did you do that you wish you hadn’t?  Or didn’t do that you wish you had? Are you a cautious person who sits things out then wishes they’d been braver? Or the gun ho type who acts rashly and regrets at leisure?

On balance I’m not one for regrets. I like to say yes and hate being timid. Better to try – then fail, than not to try at all.

But there’s one big regret I have.  For once in my life, what others would call ‘common sense’ prevailed over desire. Timidity triumphed over throwing caution to the wind.  I fear it wasn’t common sense at all but an uncharacteristic conservatism.

In 2000 an Air France Concorde crashed whilst taking off from Paris.  With that one crash, civil aviation was never quite the same again. The crash mark the turning point when civil aviation became less civil.  It was the time when those ghastly Ryanair planes were becoming ubiquitous and flying becoming less glamorous.

Those graceful Concordes were quickly fixed and deemed skyworthy again, but a series of faults and unhelpful diversions to places like Bangor and Cardiff meant that the premium service was getting difficult to maintain as the jets started to show their age.

The ‘war on metal cutlery’ that began after the 9/11 attacks the following year didn’t help maintain a premium service.  I can’t help but think Concorde was doomed after they were forced to service their meals – caviar and foie grass – with plastic cutlery.

Correlation is not necessarily causation, but it wasn’t long after plastic cutlery was introduced that it was announced that the whole Concord fleet – both Air France and British Airways’ aircraft – were to be retired and would no longer be plying the supersonic route across the Atlantic.

The end of supersonic aviation was suddenly in sight. We were no longer moving forward into a bold technological future. We were rapidly moving backwards. Getting slower. Never before had technology taken a leap backwards.

***

I was but a poor university student at the time of Concorde’s demise.  My student loan cheque had just come through and I through –  ‘it’s now or never’.

I priced up the cost of supersonic ticket on flight BA001 to New York, and the cheapest economy ticket back.  I phoned my bank and asked how much I could extend my credit card limit.  I contemplated a semester or two of penury at university.

And then… and then I wimped out.  I made the mistake I would forever regret.  I decided it was too much money.

A few months later a British Airways Concorde – with the flight number BA001 and that famous callsign ‘Speedbird One’ – made the last trip to New York and back again as BA002.

The jet touched the edge of space for the last time, allowing its passengers a final glimpse of the curvature of the earth and the blackness of space before bringing a sad end to the supersonic jet age.  And I never made it.

***

For years aviation lacked the excitement that Concorde used to bring.  Even new planes didn’t help. No one gets excited at the prospect of flying on a whale-like A380 or fire-prone Boeing 787.

Of course I continued flying. But it was all rather routine.

Then, quietly, British Airways did something rather innovative.  British Airways revived that famous call sign and flight number for another rather special flight.

***

Like Concorde, the new BA001 also whisks passengers across the Atlantic to New York. While Concorde packed 100 passengers into the plane, the new BA001 feels a little more exclusive. With a maximum of just 32 people on board, the new flights makes Concorde seem positively mass transport.

Six years after the final Concorde flight, British Airways procured two stubby little airbus A318 elite jets.  Both were retrofitted with extra fuel tanks and just 32 flat bed seats.  The planes were adapted to allow them to fly into London City Airport. Thus was born the Club World London City service.

***

And so some ten years after the last Concorde touched down, I finally booked myself on flights BA001 to New York and back on BA002.  This time there was no indecision and no regrets. There are rumours the flight is not making money and might not last.

By far the best thing about flying out of City Airport, is that you can arrive just 20 minutes before the flight – 15 minutes if you’re travelling without luggage.

I’d broken my first rule of travelling – that only losers check in luggage – and arrived some 35 minutes before take off.  I breezed through the security. City airport has no proper business lounge but BA have turned the tiny area around gate 24 into a makeshift lounge with a light breakfast on offer and a coffee machine.

There you’re welcomed by a ground crew who explain the details of the flight. They too seem genuinely excited by the flight, as do my fellow passengers.  There were just 16 of us on the flight so boarding – just walking 30 or so metres across the tarmac – was rather relaxed.

Concorde used to engage the afterburners during takeoff which led to a powerful surge down the runway. The A318 does’t have the afterburners but it still leaves City like a rocket.  The plane has the range to fly non-stop to New York, but the short runway at City Airport means the plane can’t take off fully fuelled.  So when flying west-bound you make the short hop to Shannon where the plane takes on extra fuel. This means the plane is exceptionally light leaving City. You take to the sky like catapult.  (Flying back from New York is non-stop.)

Landing at Shannon an hour or so later has an upside.  As the plane refuels the passengers disembark and pass through US customs and immigration – or doing the ‘Shannon Shuffle’ as it’s affectionally called by regulars on the route. All this mean you arrive in New York as a domestic passenger and avoid all the queues.

Shannon is an altogether different experience to border control in the US mainland. You’re escorted off the plane straight to customs. With virtually no queues and border staff who actually smile, all make this a pleasant way to enter the country.

Back on the plane half an hour later we lumber back to the runway, somewhat heavier on fuel.

Inside the plane, the cabin, while technically like any short haul airbus, feels more like the upper deck of a 747 but with much more space. There are just eight rows of seats.

After takeoff the champagne begins flowing again. Ipads are handed out, stocked with movies. Lunch is served – complete with metal cutlery.  The crew – who are all based out of Gatwick – seem genuinely happy to be on this unique flight.  Most of the BA crew out of Heathrow seem jaded by an airline that’s lost it’s mojo. But on BA001 you get the impression that civil aviation can still be civil and anything but routine.

BA’s normal Club World seats apparently don’t fit easily into the A318, so they had to come up with a new design, which I actually found exceptionally comfortable.

After lunch I commandeered a few spare pillows, reclined the seat into bed mode and settled down for a nap.

Concorde may have been quick but it wasn’t half a comfy for a nap.

I didn’t get to see the curvature of the earth or the darkness of space. I didn’t get to go supersonic. But I did get to sleep very well. And to dream.

Flying may have become horribly routine and formulaic, but there are still little corners of the industry doing something a bit different.

I’m not crossing the Atlantic any other way.

Speedbird 2 Speedbird 3 Speedbird 4 Speedbird 5 Speedbird 6Speedbird 1 (1)


Speedbird 2 (1)

 

Crippled in the Caucasus

Posted Leave a comment

‘Oh for a Landcruiser and a pair of snow chains’ I thought as I desperately dug snow out from under the wheels of my rental car. Ironically it was only when I decided to turn back that I got stuck.

Anyone who skies will know that it’s a fairly simple proposition that mountains get covered in snow over winter. I spend a lot of time in various mountain ranges, but invariably only in the snow-free summer months.

I’d picked up the car at Tbilisi airport.  I knew the road north would be bad but it came as something of a surprise to find the High Caucasus covered in feet of snow.

I had planned to drive North from Tbilisi along the Georgian Military Highway to the little hamlet of Kazbegi, now known as Stepantsminda, just a stone’s throw from the Russian and Ossetian border.  I had wanted to fit in a bit of mountain running as early spring training.

Looking forward to warm spring weather, I pictured that I’d be able to dump my car in the village and disappear for a run across beautiful mountain meadows, with snow capped peaks in the distance. What presented me were virtual blizzard conditions.  Not at all the training weather I’d hoped for.

It was after the village of Gudauri – altitude 7,200 ft –  that the road really got bad. I could feel the car squirming as I moved slowly over the snow, sliding gently every now and again as I veered across the road to avoid huge potholes.  Even at my slow speed the car’s anti-lock brakes kept firing and unpleasant noises were coming from the suspension struts.  Several times I had to reverse then accelerate hard to get up particularly slippery climbs.

There wasn’t much traffic on the road.  A few tough looking military trucks emerged from the gloom every now and then, with wheels bigger than my car and snow chains to match.   I slowly began to realise that this wasn’t the place for a Toyota Yaris.  I’d have to try reaching Kazbegi another day.

I drove on a little further considering my options but quickly the wind picked up and the visibility dropped to virtually zero. I could hardly see past the bonnet.  I was getting hungry and was increasingly conscious that getting stuck in the snow would not be a particularly enjoyable situation.

So I made a snap decision to turn the car around and head back. I touched the brakes, the ABS fired and the car slid gracefully into a six-foot high wall of snow on the side of the road.

I quickly popped the automatic transmission into reverse but outside the front wheels just spun worthlessly.  I turned the steering wheel and tried again. Still nothing. I was stuck.

Through the gloom and snow I couldn’t see more than a dozen or so meters.  I looked out of the side window and along the road. Suddenly I felt extremely vulnerable. If another truck came along it surely wouldn’t see me until it came crashing into my side door.

I turned the steering wheel full lock and fiddled with the gearbox to engage a higher gear, but however gently I was with the accelerator, the wheels just kept spinning.

Exasperated, I climbed out of the car, listening carefully for the sound of trucks above the howl of the wind.  I started scraping snow out from under the front wheels with my bare hands.  I tried reversing again. Nothing.

I got back out of the car and rummaged around in the snow for rocks that I could move to provide extra traction.  Only then did I start to think what else I had in the car that I might be able to shove under the wheels to give more traction and how much I might risk letting the tyres down.

Back in the car I gave the accelerator the lightest of touches. The car dithered for a moment then shot back into the snow on the other side of the road.  I engaged forward gear and set off a little too fast back down the road, deliriously happy to be free.

I found a hotel in Gudauri and set about trying to find something decent to eat. Even the simplest of food tasted great after a long day in the car. I went to bed promising myself that I’d make it to Kazbegi the next day.

In the morning the weather had cleared, but the roads had frozen over, making them even more treacherous than before.  The views were stunning but so too were the drops into the valley.

Retracing the route of the previous day was even more taxing. I was driving at little more than walking pace. With just the most basic maps on my GPS, I worked out it would talk the best part of the day to make Kazbegi, if I made it at all.  I cursed myself for not splashing out on a bigger car.

But Landcruisers and big 4x4s can get you into more trouble. As you drive into a small town they draw more attention than you might wish to have.  They encourage you to take more risks. And digging a Landcruiser out of snow is a much bigger job.

And besides, it’s always good to have the car wimp out before you do.

Baku Bound

Posted Leave a comment

The British Midland flight to Tbilisi does something rather odd. It flies right over Tbilisi, as if the pilot has forgotten to disengage the autopilot. It carries on for another hour or so across the Caucasus before landing in Baku.

After landing in Azerbaijan, the crew twiddle their thumbs for 40 minutes whilst refuelling and offloading passengers – overfed oil executives mostly. The aircraft then trundles back to the runway and flies half empty – back the way it’s come – to Tbilisi.  On the return trip, the A321 does the same thing in reverse – first flying away from London to Baku, before doubling back on itself to London. It doesn’t seem the most sensible route planning.

But then British Midland was never the most sensible airline. It had been haemorrhaging money for years.  Even its current German owners, Lufthansa, failed to stem the slide.

For years British Midland was my airline of choice. It always seemed rather random. That was part of its charm, with its eclectic collection of destinations, aircraft and business lounges. Often I would fly on tiny but full-to-bursting Embraer aircraft. Other times I’d be virtually the only passenger on a large Airbus. Then there were the times when I’d have the whole business lounge to myself.

So I flew a lot with British Midland. Whilst not quite an airmiles millionaire, over the years I had accumulated a hefty six-figure sum from rattling around Europe and the Levant.

As it looked increasingly like British Midland might go bust, I grew alarmed that I might lose all those miles, so I set about spending them as quickly as possible. Use them or lose them, I thought.

With perfect timing, my flights to Tbilisi virtually exhausted the remaining miles – right before the airline was taken over by British Airways.  I thought it fitting that this should be my last hurrah with the airline I’d spent so much time with. A flight as random as all the others had been.

It’s sad that soon the planes will be repainted and will become just another part of British Airways. To me the British Midland crew looked like they worked harder than those over at BA and the seats were always a little bigger. British Airways always seems more corporate and more efficiently run. And yet more ordinary.

Efficiency might be good for the bottom line. But it’s not as fun as flying to Tbilisi the long way round.