Thursday, December 30, 2010

Lack of Posts (and cycle rides) - PC repairs

So that is part of the reason I have not been cycling (or Posting), the other part of the reason is I have had to replace the disk drives in my computer. The computer has been crashing occasionally and has reported some issues with one of the hard drives. When I bought the computer I decided that I wanted a fast machine and specified a RAID 0 set up with two hard disk drives - which act together as one "virtual" disk drive. To be honest I am not sure quite how much faster, the data is striped across them so that files are stored across two drives in what is known as Raid 0. A quick search suggests something like 20-30% depending on what you are doing.

What I didn't think through with this particular technique is that if either disk fails then the virtual disk fails and the information stored on them is no longer available. So when I started getting messages reporting that one member of the array (which means one of the two disks in the array) was failing and that I ought to back up as soon as possible - if the failure was not too catastrophic, I decided I'd better sort it out over Christmas. There have been indications that problems were afoot earlier in the year. I then started running three backups a week after buying Acronis True Image 2010 software. I bought it because it was faster than the Windows 7 backup software, but it also came with a disk cloning capability.

Now I am not too unfamiliar with the insides of computers and although I have not built a PC from scratch I have replaced various graphics/sound and network cards and drives in computers before. My current desktop computer started life with Vista and I upgraded it to Windows 7 last Christmas. That went remarkably smoothly and certainly helped to boost the performance - or perhaps stopped smothering the performance of the computer.

So parts of Christmas were spent reading as much as I could on the Net about RAID disks and more specifically my particular computer - Dell 9200 - and what to upgrade it with. The electronics industry is full of acronyms, that even people in the industry find a challenge sometimes. However I worked out what type of disks I needed (SATA - Serial ATA or Serial Advanced Technology Attachment). I also checked out what upgrade-ability my computer had - the problem is that as technology marches on there is no guarantee an old computer can use it. More specifically I wanted to check whether the Operating System/BIOS had limitations on the storage capacity of disk drives.

The machine had two 500Gb drives operating as one 1Tb drive (with around 250Gb spare) and I wanted to both increase the storage and to make it safer. I also wanted to avoid having to reload the operating system and the various programs that I use. That would have meant finding various disks and keys and passwords. Even though I try to minimise the number of pieces of software I use it still adds up - not to mention configuring them.

At this point I ended up reading a lot about the chipsets used in my desktop Computer along with what RAID configurations they would support and also whether there was room in the computer cabinet for additional drives. It seemed that the despite its old age (in computer terms) there was still life in the iP965 chipset and associated ICH8DH raid interface. The computer had spare SATA ports but it was unclear quite where the actual disk drives might go. It was also reassuring that the documentation indicated that it was possible to migrate from a single (non Raid) disk to a Raid 0 or Raid 1 set up. I also discovered that in a Dell computer they might only support a subset of what the chiipset could support.

So the goal became one of replacing the two disk drives in a Raid 0 configuration with two larger ones in a Raid 1 configuration. Essentially in Raid 1 the second drive is a mirror of the first, so if either drive fails the other one still has all the data on it and continues to operate. The only downside is that you need twice as much disk space. So if I was going to replace 1Tb of storage (2 x 500gb disks in Raid 0) I would need at least 2x 1Tb in raid 1. So if I wanted to increase the amount of disk storage available I would either need to use larger drives or add additional disk drives to my system. (As it was an "old" machine I did not want to add to much in the way of additional load on the power supply either.)

My plan became one of buying one disk drive to check my system was capable of handling 2Tb. I was originally hoping to use a 1Tb Samsung SATA drive which was on sale at PC World, and seemed a sweet spot for storage versus cost but it had sold out and I needed 2Tb for Raid 1 so I bought one WD Caviar Green 2Tb disk instead to check it out before buying another The steps were:

1: Complete system back up

2: Additional data back up - pictures, music, cycling and email

Clone the C: drive (2x500Gb ) onto a single drive as a non RAID drive

4: Replace the two Raid 0 systems disks with the single 2TB cloned system disk

5: Re-boot the system - check it works

6: Buy and then add a second 2Tb Drive

7: Convert the non Raid system disk to a Raid 1 system (where the second drive mirrors the first)

To cut a long story very short that is what I did. However some of the steps took quite a long time. The first back up took around 6 hours. The second was much quicker as I had basically already synchronised much of the data and so it was only an incremental back up. For step 3 instead of plugging the new drive in the cabinet I bought a SATA/IDE to USB disk caddy. Basically it allowed me to plug in the new SATA drive to a spare USB port and use it a a USB drive. I was unsure whether it would work with the cloning software, but it would allow me to investigate the old drives from my laptop if necessary just in case. The first shock was that the cables in the Caddy did not fit my new drive, but the problem was quickly fixed, the Caddy did take both IDE and SATA disk drives I just had to swap the cables.

I then plugged USB from the Caddy into my desktop computer and waited. Software drivers loaded but no drive appeared - I needed to use an Admin program called Disk Management to create a volume on the new drive and then format it. I chose the simple options including setting it as an MBR (Master Boot record) type. I then made the mistake of not letting it go on to format the disk and had to go back and do it. Once that was complete it was ready and available as a new disk.

I had spent a lot of time on the Acronis forums looking at what was possible and was not totally clear whether the Cloning would work from a Raid to a normal disk and if it worked how it would deal with the dissimilar disk drives sizes (from 1Tb to 2Tb). It did work and I cloned all the partitions on the C drive, although some were related to the old Vista OS I suspect. I did have to download the newest version though - which meant creating an Acronis account, a minor delay.

I had some problems with the cloning options I had to specify a manual sizing of partitions but then accept the partition sizes from the original C drive. The cloning took around 8 hours, it might have been quicker if the drive had been plugged in as a SATA drive rather than through the Caddy - but this way seemed easier. One thing I was not prepared for was that the Acronis software needed the machine to be re-booted and then took over to run the Cloning operation. The graphic interface was a simple teletype format.

After the cloning had completed I re-booted the machine to find the new disk had a clone of the C drive on it. (With a different drive letter). The partitions were also identical in size leaving me with a 2Tb drive with only 1Tb available! Fortunately I was able to resize the partition using the Disk management software - although I was fooled at first by which disk was which.

I was now ready to do the disk swap. I labelled all the cables as I disconnected them from the Computer cabinet and then used the vacuum cleaner on the huge amount of dust when I opened up the cabinet. You'd be surprised how much dust builds up over a year. (It was last Christmas that I vacuumed the cabinet.) Then I took out the two old drives and popped in the new one, re-connected the keyboard, Ethernet and monitor cables and re-booted it. At this point it did recognise there had been changes and I went into the Setup mode. I set it to indicate there was no SATA 1 drive, but left it as a RAID configuration. I had read somewhere that to change the setting to automatically detect Raid could cause problems and that the RAID setting would recognise that it only had one drive. Relief it then booted up as "normal" loaded a disk driver for the drive it had just booted from and requested a reboot, so I did.

After a quick play to check everything was OK, including that the whole of the drive was available, I then bought a second drive (same type 2Tb WD) put it into the Caddy, went through the adding of a simple volume and formatting it and then stuck it into the Computer cabinet. I guess I could have done that without using the Caddy - but if it ain't broke don't fix it. On bootup I "told it" there was now a SATA1 drive and I now had a machine with 2 x 2T disks in it. One was the boot disk with everything on it the second was empty. I now needed to convert it to a Raid 1 set up. I ran the Intel Storage Console to manage the Raid system unfortunately it would only allow me to convert to a Raid 0. Ah well at least I had a functioning system. After some web-digging I found some new Intel software, renamed to put off people like me and with warnings about compatibility - so I installed it. After the inevitable re-boot I now had Intel Rapid Storage technology that had far more bells and whistles including the facility to convert from two separate disks to one Raid 1 volume. At this point I checked and re-checked that my conversion was the right way round. You have to nominate the source disk and select the option of retaining the information - I then put it to go.

This time around the program took around 18 hours to complete and all the while I had was worried that I might have got the source and destination the wrong way round. But no, it completed I then re-booted it, it loaded yet another driver and I re-booted it again and I now had a computer back to where it was before - with more disk space and maintaining a copy of the disk should problems occur. I can't say I've noticed it has gotten much slower either.

Since change I have also relaxed the back up and now only back up once a week. Which has left me with a minor problem that the old back up schedule causes problems in the Event logs. I can't really complain though the Acronis software did make it pretty painless.


Lack of Posts (and cycle rides) - boilers again

I am not going to hit my distance target for the year, I am not too bothered, I have gotten pretty close to it and the weather and Christmas have gotten in the way a little. The Boiler saga continues. Yesterday we had a very competent British Gas Engineer who rang in advance to understand the issue and had clearly read up on what repairs we have had in the past. Then when he got here he sorted what he could (a sticky valve) and ordered some new parts (heat exchangers) and arranged with his office that he would come back on Friday afternoon to do the repairs when the parts had arrived. As the weather has gotten warmer, around 5.9C on the external thermometer at the moment, we felt reassured that at last the matter was going to be resolved and frozen pipes would be avoided. The hot water boiler's leak now needs a bucket underneath it which I had to empty before going to bed yesterday. So it is getting worse

That was Wednesday, today (Thursday) I got a phone call from British Gas - yes you've guessed it they wanted to rearrange the date and time for the engineer's visit. I have to say I am finding this "Peace of mind" service extremely stressful. In fact when I explained the run around we have had including having to arrange our own Plumber to come in on Christmas Eve to make sure we had some heating over Christmas they agreed to stick with the appointment on Friday afternoon - so its fingers crossed.

I also got another call later from Customer relations saying that they would get back to me next week to review the matter with me. When I first started out in sales one lesson I was taught was if you make an appointment stick with it, don't change it. It would seem that British Gas (or at least the Homecare bit of it) does not follow that creed. We've been trying to get my mother-in-law to switch to a Service Agreement with British Gas, now I am not so sure it makes sense.

So that is part of the reason I have not been cycling, the other part of the reason is I have had to replaced the disk drives in my computer. It was not quite as easy as it should have been due to some specification choices I made when I bought it many moons ago - more to come, but I am now once again able to use it for Posting to my Blog.

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Boiler update

Christmas Eve: After the non-fix of our Boiler System by British we tried to get a local plumber in. I was sufficiently annoyed that I sent off a long email to Customer relations at British Gas and the CEO of Centrica who own British gas. The basic problem, apart from not getting the system fixed is that we have British Gas Homecare contract for peace of mind and we had had anything but peace of mind. We also did what British Gas suggested, which was basically their job for them and rang round to see if we could get a local plumber in. Thanks to my wife's tenacity we managed to get a plumber we know who promised to send along two of his lads (I assume trainees) and then come along as soon as he could. Phew - hopefully something could be sorted even if it was too late to get new parts. For some strange reason (perhaps one of trust) I believed he would send someone along. At this point I really didn't trust British Gas. I also popped into Comet and bought a fan heater for back up.

Oh did I mention that overnight we ended up having to turn the whole system off (10pm) - heating and water heating - we had less water pressure and more clanking. It was weird going from a very noisy system to nothing. I then got up early (5am) and turned on the gas fire in the living room and set up a fan heater in the utility room and another one in the kitchen.

When I got up the fan heaters had not been very effectual - it just shows how high the power output is on the Gas Boilers and why we need more than one. I also got a reply from the CEO of Centrica - whilst it might not be him personally doing it, it was reassuring that at least his emails are read and responded to - in less than 5 days (which is what the BG Customer rep said "because they were FSA regulated". I think that is the new Health and Safety excuse. Excuse me but the five days is the maximum, a back stop, not something to boast about.

My son and I went out to collect the turkey and as promised two young plumbers turned up and methodically began to work through the issues. At this point I was ready to buy three more fan heaters and borrow two more from friends when I got a call from my wife. They had worked through the problems and had explanations for what was happening. Although it was too late to get new parts ordered they had instituted some temporary fixes and provided we kept the water levels topped up (along with a bucket where one of the boilers was leaking) it should tide us over Christmas. Their boss then also came over and checked through their assumptions (which were correct). So despite not having been through the British Gas Academy they certainly seemed to know what was what. As it happened I also got a call from Customer Relations at British Gas (score another point for the CEO, when he said something was going to happen it did. They were ready to send in an engineer, something the Customer rep from the day before had said was impossible.

Having sorted out the problem ourselves we did not need the BG engineer to come in but kept an Engineer's appointment for the 29th. The Customer relations person also gave me direct phone numbers and names for contacts should further problems follow. We also arranged that a different engineer would be visiting (rather than the one that indicated the system had been fixed). So far so good (I am writing this on Christmas Day - the house has been kept warm and we have hot water.

Happy Christmas.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Problems come in more than threes!

Sorry about the lack of Posts recently. Although we haven't had the coldest temperatures in the UK here in the flatlands they have been pretty cold and seem to have stressed out our heating which has broken. For a variety of reasons we replaced a large boiler with separate gas boilers for water heating and house heating. Apparently this means that they can be run more efficiently. There is no point in heating a large boiler for a bit of hot water, yet when the cold weather comes along there is enough power to heat the house. The house is not new and so probably not the most well-insulated house - although we did add further insulation when we bought it. The boiler system circulates hot water around when needed. The problem comes when the water disappears from the system.

Given the recent cold weather you might think it was a leak - but no, the Hot water boiler was basically sending a plume of water vapour out of the flume until there was no water in the system and then it started making loud clanking noises. This seems to be a fail-noisy mechanism to ensure that when it happens it wakes everyone in the house. The good news is we have a maintenance contract with British Gas - the bad news it is Winter and they are busy. So we rang them up at the weekend and were told to expect an engineer sometime between 12 and 6pm on Wednesday. Now this is in the middle of last-minute present buying (yes I am bad!) and relative collecting and food buying - so unfortunately cycling takes the lowest priority possible.

On Monday the heating boiler also started "burning" water and making clanking noises. My wife spent ages not getting through on the phone to British Gas to alert them to the problem but failed. Still they were coming - it would be already - enough time to find the problem get some parts fitted surely. So on Wednesday we arranged to have someone in all afternoon. At least we have the Immersion heater to heat the hot water and a gas fire in the living room. Mind you when the weather is really cold the hot water heater also heats towel radiators which keep the bathrooms warm - that doesn't happen when the immersion heater is used.

Did I mention that one of our cars showed a warning light. We have a small Honda Jazz, about 5 years olds. The handbook's advice, "hardly drive the car and get it to a garage quick". Fortunately although British Gas were busy the local Honda garage wasn't and we took it in. The problem a sticky exhaust gas return valve - the cost of repair huge ( a couple of hundred quid for the part!!!) - it happens often enough that there are comments on Bulletin Boards.

Finally a British Gas (BG) engineer turned up around 4.30pm, but admitted she was fairly new, two years on the job and basically just seemed to top up the water and pump the expansion tank up. Hum - not my idea of a fix. We rang BG she had booked for another engineer to visit today (Thursday) between - well the whole bl**dy day actually. So we have lots of curtains closed trying to keep the house warm, fortunately it is not freezing going down to -8C overnight, but we do have an elderly relly staying.

So I am the appointed house-sitter today, feeling slightly cold and trying to not get annoyed sitting in a gloomy house. Things don't look to good for a warm Christmas at the moment. Still at least we do have hot water and two working gas fires.

Still we do have the Cambridge Guided Busway to look forward to in the New Year.

Monday, December 20, 2010

here, there and everywhere - but not on a bicycle

One of the things you I forget about the run up to Christmas is all the extra stuff that needs to get done. In my case I had planned to drive down to Bath to pick up my son at the end of term and then visit Liverpool on the way back to deliver Christmas presents for my Mum and sister and aunt. Not all in one day, we planned to stay overnight with my Mum.

There was an immediate hitch I had forgotten that on that the day I had planned to go down to Bath we were going out with some friends for a Christmas meal in the evening. So the journey got shifted by a day. You might wonder why he wanted collecting when there is a perfectly good train service between here and there. Well he has some exams after Christmas and wanted to bring his books up as a security blanket for revision. This meant two large plastic crates full of books sufficiently heavy that I didn't even try to lift them, I left that up to him.

The trouble was this meant my journey down was now on Saturday with weather warnings in action. To be fair there were also warnings about not driving unless it was essential. The trouble is what is essential? I am never sure quite how essential a journey has to be to qualify. Clearly my journey was not life and death essential - however he would have had a pretty sad Christmas on his own in a bedsit and my wife wouldn't have been happy. Anyway I might moan about my Landrover Discovery but it is right sort of car for this sort of weather - so I set off.

When I was younger and lived in the Mendips we often had snow up on the hills and would go out in our old cars to do a bit of skidding on the empty roads. So I have practised a bit in icy and snowy weather. My most memorable skid was unplanned though. There was a lot of snow lying on the road, several inches at least and very few cars around. Which is what I like - however as I was driving quite slowly down a hill where there were dry stone walls on each side of a road of moderate width a car failed to stop on a side road and slid out slightly. I did what you shouldn't do and braked - old habits die hard, I also turned the wheel. At this point the car lost all grip and I did a neat 360 degree spin in the middle of the road - I sat there thinking how lucky was that and then carried on. There was no skill - just luck.

This time, when I set off the temperatures were around -5 to -6C according to the car thermometer and despite it probably being a very busy last shopping Saturday before Christmas I decided it was better to take the Motorway route (M11, M25, M4) rather than the shorter more direct cross-country route. I had allowed myself plenty of time and set of around 9ish to allow the rush hour (those people working on Saturday) to clear, but before the shoppers descended upon the roads.The roads were good, well gritted and dry so I made good progress along with the rest of the light traffic. The M11 was fine, even the M25 was pretty clear, despite the road-widening works taking place.

It all changed when I reached the M4. As I turned off a clear M25 it was if I had been through the Narnia wardrobe - suddenly there was snow on the road and more snow swirling down. As I got closer to Reading it got worse with most of the traffic driving in the middle lane and snow collecting on the first and third lanes. My average speed also dropped dramatically. What did worry me was every now and then a car, or more commonly, a speeding van would pass one one side or the other churning up snow.

The trouble is with that sort of behaviour is that it is selfish, the risk of an accident massively increases and when a Motorway gets blocked in the snow it turns into a car park, sometimes for hours and hours. A few years ago under similar circumstances (taking my son to Bath) a white van whizzed by in the snow lane, much faster than the rest of the traffic. Not more than 10 miles down the road the same van was slewed on the hard shoulder. Judging from the skid marks he had skidded slightly, hit the central barrier and then ended up on the hard shoulder. Fortunately he did not appear to have done too much damage to the van, although I am not sure it was drivable and he had not blocked the road for the rest of the traffic.

At this point I rang my son (hands-free) to find out what it was like in Bath and to find out how bad the snow patch was. Apparently it was sunny in Bath, although they had had snow and the smaller roads were tricky, including the small hill where his flat (think bed-sit) is. It also seemed that the snow storm around Reading was fairly localised. After a while the falling snow seemed to lessen and two lanes became drivable (by normal people rather than van drivers) and the driving got easier and the skies bluer.

I did find myself using lots of screen wash and decided to pull into the Motorway Service station at Leigh Delamare, just before the Bath turn on the M4 to pick up some more screen wash (and for a wee, I'd been in the car longer than originally planned.) This is the road into the car park at the service station - a very picturesque row of snow-covered trees and a few inches (and even more centimetres) of snow.


I had taken my camera with me, but it is a bit tricky taking pictures when driving and unlike on a bicycle not so easy to stop when a picturesque scene unfolds. This is one of the trees in the car park, with the Petrol sign peeping through.


The car park was not that busy, which shows there were fewer people about on the roads. They did have screen wash though so I picked up a gallon (£5.49) - mind you the screen wash tank on the Disco holds over a gallon (5.8l / 1.3 gallons) - but it is better to be prepared. Mind you even with concentrated screen-wash in these freezing temperatures it has frozen up and seems to take ages to un-freeze.


The rest of the journey to Bath was uneventful and when I arrived at the little lane where my son lives I maintained reasonable momentum up the hill alongside the flats, despite the compressed snow/ice on the road. In fact I was so keen on going up the hill that I drove past the entrance to the car parking area so I turned into the next driveway just a little bit further up the steepening hill thinking I would reverse of go back down. As I reversed out of the drive back onto the hill slightly sidewards the car started slipping down the hill side on. I stopped and got my Son out to act as a spotter and set the car into snow/gravel mode and panicked carefully thought out my options. I have done some off-roading and as there was no chance of turning round I decided to attempt to reverse down the hill. It was no fun, but the electronics managed to find bits of grip and I slipped and stopped, slipped and stopped, back down the hill to the point where it was not quite so steep and I was able to park in the car parking area.

Once we had loaded up the car - (so much stuff that we didn't have space for his bicycle) we set off back down the hill - it was much easier facing forwards although we still did a bit of slip and stop until we reached the cleared bit of road at a junction with a main road. Then we set of up to Liverpool. Once again the Motorway (M4 to M5) was clear and with blue skies and sun it was delightful although as we progressed up the M5 there were worrying reports of a problem on the M5.

It turned out that there were problems near the M42 with a jack-knifed lorry and then off-ramps at other junctions were too slippery because of snow and at each traffic bulletin the reported delays seems to get longer and longer. As we approached, within 15 miles of the trouble the snow got worse and then the number of snow-clear lanes dropped to one and then none and then we basically stopped. At this point we had a look at the map and looked at alternative routes. to both the East and West, however to the East it sounded even worse. So to cut a long story short we queued for a while (at least an hour) before deciding to bail out and try out an alternative route. By now three lanes were full of traffic and every now and then a stream of vehicles would disappear up the hard shoulder. The traffic news also played clips from people stuck on the M5 further up and it seemed to be getting worse, not better. In the end I think some people were stuck for around 6 hours.

Our new route took us through Kidderminster and although there was a lot of snow around and a lot of care was required to drive on the roads they were moving and we by-passed the Motorway problems and rejoined the route on the M6. Although there were reports of problems with snow slowing down traffic, as we went further North, the roads got clearer and the last third of the journey was uneventful. I never feel the anti-lock braking kick in normally it happened more than once on the middle bit of the journey. (As well as on the hill in Bath!)

We managed to get up to Liverpool later than planned but still earlier than we might have. At one point I did think we might end up sleeping on the M5. (I had plenty of fuel, I never let the tank go below half-full and as well as coats and gloves and we had bags of my son's dirty washing as a last resort.

Overnight it got very cold and despite all the anti-freeze in the screen wash I had to wash the windows by hand and had to stop every now and then to clean the windows. At first I used the screen-wash (applied with a hankie) but it seemed to dry to a smear. In the end I used a dry cloth to polish the dirt of the windscreen and it stayed clean for much longer. Because of the problems the day before we also decided to head East rather than back down towards Birmingham - just in case. We went down the A50 which was clear. The only challenge was watching the temperatures drop from around -6C at my Mum's to, at one point, -11C. We also had to call in at a village near Leicester and once or twice the steering went "light" as we passed over black ice on the country lanes.

The rest of the journey was easy. There had been snow in Cambridge, but the roads were clear. Mind you I was pretty tired by the time we got back. Two days of having to really concentrate on driving is quite tiring. I know it was my choice - but it was still tiring.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Cycling News snippets - it's not all about the bike (except it is really!)

The freezing weather continues, it was -3.7C when I checked the temperature outside the house this morning. although the Weather monitoring at the University indicated it got down to around -4.8C on their roof. It was cold enough to put me off fixing the puncture on my Marin bicycle. Generally bringing in dirty bits of bicycle is frowned upon, but I think I could have gotten away with bringing in the wheel - but it was too cold to wash it really. So I cheated and went to fetch a newspaper on one of my other bikes. It always surprises me how different they feel when I switch and yet how quickly I get that sense of familiarity. Mind you my Marin is also in need of some new brake blocks whereas my Longstaff (which I used today) has the brakes set up to work with barely a twitch - which did surprise me a little as I negotiated the icy roads.

The subject of bikes prompted a study of the difference when commuting using a light-weight carbon-frame bike compared with a steel bike - it's not about the bike. The study was undertaken by a cyclist who also happens to be a Consultant Anaesthetist and so the got published in the British Medical Journal. As you might imagine the study also throws up lots of comments. The "executive summary" is that the weight saving (around 4Kg) had little effect. Now before you ask too many questions about the methodology and implications check out the paper. The two bicycles were similar apart from being made from different materials and the author does go on to discuss some of the variables. Ultimately if you want to go a bit faster then it might be better to lose weight.

Mind you the two bikes I use most of the time are a Marin hybrid with flat handlebars and a Longstaff tourer with drop handlebars so I find that my average speed tends to be higher because when crouched down there is less wind resistance. The Marin's handlebars are also very wide which creates even more frontal area to increase wind resistance further.

On the subject of trials - the Cambridge Guided Busway Trials were a success apparently. The journey time from the Cambridge Science Park through to St Ives took 16 minutes (and is scheduled to take 20 minutes when picking up and dropping off passengers). There are 12 junctions and the CGB has priority over other traffic at them. Here is a video of the bus in action. (Or should that be inaction). The reporter does mention how smooth the journey was and also how evident the flooding on the maintenance path is. Which he goes on to say means that it will "clearly be some time before cyclists get the route they were promised".

And finally the road works over the Hill's Road Bridge about about to be completed after five months. it is not a route I use very often, there are more pleasant routes when I head South - which I tend to only do for leisure rides. So I must give it a try and add to the over 4,000 cycle trips made each day over the bridge.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

The Lodes Way is not paved but has some good intentions!

Wednesday, 15th December: I've said it once and I'll say it again I am impressed with the way our County (Cambridge) keeps on top of the problem of fly-tipping. No sooner had I seen a load of dumped corrugated asbestos roofing on the Low Fen Drove Way bridge over the A14 than an article appears in the Cambridge News - "Hunt for fly-tippers who blocked A14 bridge". It was discovered on the 9th December, before I cycled over the bridge and blogged about it. According to the news report offenders can receive an unlimited fine or a five year jail term. (I assume that is up to five years.) Just to remind you what it looked like here is my picture from the 11th December 2010. The rubbish joins previously fly-tipped rubbish from earlier.

I had a social lunch planned with friends today (Wednesday) and because it is Christmas we chose the Dyke's End at Reach. It is just the sort of pub you want to be in on a Winter's day with a log fire blazing and instructions to the people sitting closest to it to stick logs on the fire as and when needed. As I have not been out cycling as much as I would like recently I planned on cycling up to Ely along NCN51/Lodes Way/NCN11 and then back to Reach and then heading back to Cambridge after lunch. Unfortunately I ended up leaving the house 30 minutes later than I had planned (in order to cover the distance comfortably).

I was both a little late sending emails and since I was going to be sitting with other people I had to dig out some clean and warm cycling clothes. It is not really the done thing to subject others to stale sweaty smells when having lunch with them. In the end I put on some of the new cycling clothing I had bought after finding two pairs of leggings with holes in them. I threw the worn out togs away.

I also topped up my MP3 player with some Radio podcasts to listen to as I cycled - none of the little jobs took long it is just they all added up.

By the time I had gotten ready I was really looking forward to a pleasant ride and then my wife returned with the news that it was raining. Arghh - the last straw. In the end I decided it wasn't bad enough to put on waterproof leggings but I did wear a different jacket. It was quite a relief to be on my way - the way out of Cambridge on NCN51 is on decent paved path Once I had reached White Fen (the start of Lodes Way) it was a different matter. There is a lot of agricultural work going on at the moment with beet harvesting, ditch mending and ploughing and drilling. This all means that the country lanes tend to get covered in black, peaty mud. At the point along Lodes Way where Headlake Drove meets Split Drove the road users are farmers and cyclists. This is what Headlake Drove looked like, looking back from where I had cycled. The mud tends to disguise the ruts and rocks as well so every now and then instead of squelching through a lump of mud the wheel jolts as you go over a rock.


The view along Split Drove towards the Reach Lode Bridge was no better - there is some ditching work take place a bit further along. You can't really blame the farmers they have got work to do. They do clean the roads from time to time, in fact back the way I had come a tractor was dragging a rotating brush behind it on the more main part of Headlake Drove between Swaffham Prior and Upware.


My bike waited patiently on the remains of the fencing on the bridge over Commissioners' drain. The bridges were built a while ago when farm machinery was not quite so large, nowadays it must be quite a challenge getting around the country lanes. This is Headlake Drove where it continues up to Rand Drove (a peat byway) Split Drove is to the right.


The point where Split Drove ends and it crosses Straight Drove is even worse. I find the best thing to do is build up some momentum and pick a line through the mud ruts and just keep pedalling. When I got to Reach lode Bridge the large ridge appearing between the bridge and the ramp had been filled. It looks as if a vehicle of some sort has been over the bridge, although the width between the tyre tracks is not great.


As I was cycling along the Fen part of Lodes Way there was another snag with my planning. The track seems to have gotten quite soggy and whilst being perfectly cycle-able is also much, much harder work. In fact I reckon it slowed my already slow speed down by around 20%. I know it sounds like I am moaning, and maybe I am, however it is very noticeable and on a journey from Cambridge to Ely has quite an impact on the timing. (Well on my journey it did anyway anyway.)

The other challenge faced by the NT is one of theft. One of the rather nice wooden benched placed along the route has been stolen. In fact the one that was here, near where Newnham Drove meets Lodes Way. There even appears to be a rut where it was dragged away. I just hope it breaks the suspension of the vehicle used to steal it. (Actually it was MikeC who pointed this out to me - I might have gone past it without noticing as I did the other night!)


After several hours (alright a slight exaggeration) I finally reached the bridge over Burwell Lode and hauled my bike over - the wheels were so muddy they skidded down the channels on the steps designed to help lug bikes over. The track through Wicken Fen is somewhat firmer and I found myself speeding up a little until reached in the bit near the Ticket office for Wicken Fen. At this point I finally gave up on the plan to reach Ely before turning back and decided to cycle up NCN11 until 12 noon before turning around to get back to the Pub for 12.30pm. I reached Padney and although this road is also heavily used by farm vehicles it was pretty much clear of mud it must have been cleaned since the last time I ventured this way.

I did stop to take a picture of this plough resting after the hard work of ploughing the field to the left. I think the track meets Sealodes Road and will get you to Soham Drove after passing Wet Sealodes and Dry Sealodes.


Instead of cycling along Lodes Way I took the roads down through Burwell to Reach instead, it was quicker and easier. As it happened I got to the pub early, in fact our table was booked for 12.45, if it had been 12.30 I would have been slightly late. Our table was near the fire so I put bits of sweaty clothing such as my hat to dry by the fire, I hate having to put on wet clothing when setting off, especially on a cold day. The lunch was excellent and it was a good chance to catch up. As a penance (actually no penance at all - I wanted to) I headed back towards Burwell and then up Newnham Drove to join the Lodes Way as a long-cut.

Newnham drove is pretty chewed up at the Lodes Way end and as luck would have it I got a front wheel puncture. Picture this, wheels clogged with mud, rain, wintry wind - the choice - stop and fix it or wobble home. For me it was no choice I wobbled home sitting as far back on the bike as I could to take the weight off the front wheel. I use Schwalbe Marathon plus tyres and they are pretty tough, so I figured as long as the tyre didn't roll of the rim it would still protect the rim and I would carry on. It didn't roll over - now I have to wash the bike and see what caused the puncture and fix it.

One other thing I noted is that my Speedo just worked so I think that the new front light must be jamming it - I will try moving the light a little further along the handlebars (after doing the puncture and sorting out the mudguards!)

When crossing the new Lode Pedestrian crossing (it was busy there were quite a few cars) there was a police car with siren on and lights flashing - it seemed to "provoke" some really bad driving from a lorry driver who seemed to try and block the police car's progress rather than get out of its way. The Police drivers must get used to it I guess. I can't say it fills me with confidence as a cyclist road-user when I see such little awareness from drivers. If they can't see a police car with blue lights and siren then what hope is there that they will see me?

The best laid plans of mice and cyclists

Tuesday, 14th December: I had a meeting around 9.45am with someone arriving from London - so I chose a convenient location that worked for both of us - Le Gros Franck on Station Road. My plan was to cycle in and probably park in the Station car park - despite the fact that it can be a real pain trying to find a place to lock up a bicycle there. I used the Cyclestreets Wesbite to check out what other parking was around but none of the places nearby looked very promising. I was not planning to eat breakfast before leaving home - which meant I would probably deserve a bacon sarnie when I got to the restaurant, especially if I took a slightly roundabout route to the Station Car park.

That is when my planning went wrong - or rather, why blame yourself when you can blame someone else - my wife's planning went wrong. My daughter had to be delivered somewhere that morning for around 8.30am and my wife was going to deliver her. Unfortunately my wife had double booked herself and so goodbye pleasant morning cycle ride through Cambridge and hello unpleasant car journey queueing through Cambridge. I delivered my daughter on-time and also managed to park on Station Road and only had to wait for an hour before my meeting. Although I had done no physical exercise I felt I deserved the bacon sarnie and it was delicious made with a fresh baguette (French).

Thinking about it later I should have got my camera out and strolled around and taken a few pictures whilst waiting, I was more sensible I did a bit of work instead. (I did have a camera with me - I just didn't use it.)

Talking about dodgy planning, you've guessed it time to comment on the Cambridge misGuided Busway (CGB) again. I could give up on the photographs and cycling in my Blog and just talk about the CGB - but I don't need to when there is the - although his new picture is a bit of a "toad in the hole".

There will be busway checks this week - so be warned all you cyclists, pedestrians, horse riders and toads. Just before the Christmas fines - "Busway contractors fined for Christmas break". Although this is not quite like a speeding fine, rather it is money that will (or should that be might) deducted from the payments to BAM Nuttall for the construction of the CGB. The break will apparently costs £238,000 in "fines", which implies that the "fines" aren't really doing their job in terms of providing an incentive to get the job done. Perhaps the over-time costs would be even larger than the "fine" or perhaps so much profit is being made that it is a drop in the ocean. The Council's take on the matter is here which also provides a bit more detail on the way the fines work. Apparently 5% of the cost is held back in the stage payments, the amount of the "fines" is over £9m so far. I do hope the 5% of the cost is going to be enough to pay for the fixes. I wonder who pays for the legal battles. I still don't quite understand how this makes sense from BAM Nuttall's point of view though.

The confusion over the Air Ambulance and Magpas is "clarified" the Air ambulance service says "it's in no danger of closing". It appears that this is all part of the charity turf wars. Personally I am not sure that this public spat helps either of their cases Magpas Helimedix (a charity having run for 40 years) needs more money but East Anglian Air Ambulance (EAAA) is ok seems to be the situation?

The good news is I will be able to cycle to a purely social Christmas lunch with friends now - if I hurry up that is,

Saturday, December 11, 2010

The Lodes way Return

With having to attend various meetings I have been wearing long trousers most of the week - but the good news is that, at least when I don't have meetings, I am back in shorts again. Coincidentally the weather seems to have also turned warm. Although if you'd asked me a while ago I would not really have thought of 6C as warm - it seems it now though.

It turns out that the Council's eagerness to please motorists has caused a bit of a problem for cyclists - but this being Cambridge something is being done about it. It turns out that a junction was having a raised table at a crossing to make it easier for pedestrians, cyclists (it is a shared use path) and disabled people. But road works are being suspended for the Christmas period because the "Council has committed not to impede the flow of traffic during the Christmas period". So it really is an accident of timing I suppose.

I have mentioned the medical charity Magpas before - it turns out they are in desperate need of funds to keep running. It seems they have been so busy doing that they have not been able to focus on fund-raising.

And finally - well in terms of looking at the news - that old chestnut about, well cyclists' chestnuts. The Daily mail, who else, reports "Cycling just five hours a week 'could damage a man's fertility'". It is not easy to ascertain quite what is going on in a news article on research (perhaps I'll wait for New Scientist!). And since I've got kids I am not going to worry about it - but, in my mind, it is a classic report which creates FUD (fear, uncertainty and doubt) without really giving much context. It did end with a quote from the Researcher that "more research would be needed before concluding that cycling was causing the sperm problems".

Talking of problems as I have not managed to get out much into the Countryside the warmer temperatures on Saturday were very welcome. I did buy some new cycling boots, via Wiggle. They were not the cheapest, but they were in stock and my experience of Wiggle is that it is easy to send things back and get things that don't fit sorted. I got Shimano MW80 boots in the end. I have been struggling to keep my toes warm on sub-zero days after more than around 2 hours of cycling and in the past have not been very impressed with overshoes. I have a pair of older Shimano MTB boots but the soles are cracking and the fabric around the ankle has torn.

The challenge was choosing a size, I would normally buy this sort of thing from a shop - but I failed to find one in the Cambridge area - cycling shops aren't quite at the level of some of the larger IT savvy chains where you can check stock levels and reserve on-line and collect items in person. The reviews I'd read did imply that it was better to choose a size larger than you might normally choose. So the conundrum for me was I had a range of sizes to choose from - Cycling (Keen) Sandal size: 42, Cycling (Shimano) Shoe size: 43, Cycling (Shimano) old MTB Boot size: 44. But my MTB boots felt a little tight with Sealskinz socks. In the end I went for 45. At this time of year some of the On-line organisations seem to really have their skates on in getting their parcels delivered - my Wiggle order turned up the next day - perhaps they'd been "watching me" browse on-line and had a cache of boots ready at my local Post Office.

This ride was the moment of truth - cycling shoes/boots are means to be firm and supportive - were these OK? The quick answer is yes - just the right size. Although I didn't both putting cleats in them for the first ride. The trouble is with the warmer temperatures (6C) my feet were almost too warm (some people are never happy eh!). The weather is going to turn colder again during the week so I'll be able to give a more measured assessment. The boots did feel a little stiff at first and I did slacken the Velcro fastenings around the ankle after a few miles.

I have not been out and around Lodes Way for a couple of weeks - what with lethargy and having to go cycling elsewhere. (Technically it was more having to go elsewhere and I chose to cycle.) So I popped out round Low Fen Droveway up to Horningsea and then over to Lode via the Harcamlow Way. Then it was up to Upware, Wicken, Burwell and back along the Lodes Way to NCN51.

This is the rubbish dump Bridge over the A14 heading towards Low Fen Drove Way. As you can see it has gotten so bad that even the illegal tippers are struggling to leave their rubbish. What is really appalling is that this is not just any old household rubbish, the pile to the right is corrugated asbestos roofing - and yes is is not safe and subject to HSE additional regulations.


The thaw has meant that the frozen bridleways are now muddy and soggy. It was all passable, but my wheels picked up a lot of mud and I did get a fair bit of wheel-spin. It was hard work and perhaps another reason why I was very warm.

The Horningsea Cycleway and Car park - kind of them to leave a gap wasn't it and so thoughtful not to park where the car would block the road


Although the sunset was not as spectacular as some I have seen recently the clouds over White Fen had a nice tinge to them.


I wanted to try and get round before it got too dark so did not have time to stop and chat with MikeC (sorry Mike) as we passed on Headlake drove. There was a lot of mud around. I also had a brief chat with another cyclist I met heading into Wicken (village) he reported that the NCN11 route to Ely was also pretty muddy in places. I returned detouring through Burwell and back up Newnham Drove onto Lodes Way. Newnham Drove is a bit lot of a trial at the moment with lots of mud, ruts and then the rubble works at the Lodes Way end. At one point there are strips of rusty metal across the road and at first I thought something had dropped off my bike and then I thought I had a rear puncture. Fortunately it was neither.

I did stop to take a picture of Swaffham Bulbeck Lode - mainly because I had taken so few pictures on my way round.


I also noticed that the concrete anti-car bollards at each end of the tunnel under the A14 near Quy on NCN51 have had yellow tape put around them to make them more visible - well done to whoever made this happen.


I had to use chose to use my lights from about White Fen and realised that the Speedo was showing a speed of 0 Kmh - I might not be fast but I am not that slow. The strange thing is that the sensor was still blinking when the wheel magnet passed it and even more strangely the distance cycled was still registered. Thinking about it I wonder if there might be some interference with my new, more powerful light. LED lights are not on permanently, but rather switched on and off at high frequency. It allows them to operate more efficiently and generate more light and use less power. It also means that they can generate a small amount of radio frequency interference which might be "jamming" my wireless speedo. I have not noticed it before because I normally only use the light at night when it is dark and I can't see the speedo. This time around I had started using it at around dusk - something to look out for.

Friday, December 10, 2010

More meetings mean less pictures!

The end must really be nigh for the completion of the Cambridge Guided Busway (CGB) - it surely can't go on much longer. At least judging from the increase in Press on the CGB. Apparently "Buses set to run on Busway for Final Traffic Signal Checks", according to the Cambridge Country Council (CCC), BAM Nuttall will be running Buses on the 16th December to check out the traffic signal sensors. Apparently they will make use of a guideway gritter if we getting more freezing weather. Which is the current forecast.

This is what the maintenance path/ice skating rink looked like near St Ives earlier this year.

The losers in all of this are really the public, who are paying for it (through taxes) and the Bus Companies who invested in the CGB Buses only for the completion to be a couple of years late. Unlike the CCC they "Missed out on a penalty clause". There is also concern that the first stage of the Northstowe development has still not seen a planning application submitted as a significant amount of the bus usage was expected from the development.

As seems to be the case this week I was out in Cambridge again, from 11.30am through to around 10pm. The sun was shining on my way there. I was not running late, but I was not quite sure where I would be able to park my bicycle when I got there. Fortunately the excellent website has a map showing cycling infrastructure which meant I could have a look at the area from the comfort of my desktop and see photographs of the actual cycle parking facilities. In the end I parked my bike against the fencing alongside some wheel-breaker bicycle stands. (In case you are wondering here is a link to pictures of such stands at Durham University - pictures 3 and 4!.)

I didn't take many pictures on my way and it was dark on the way back. I did take this picture from the pedestrian/cycle bridge over the Cam by the Fort St George pub. Good cycling weather - not much wind. The bridge in the picture is the Victoria Avenue Bridge built in 1980 to provide the good residents (and the bad ones as well) easy access to Cambridge. It was re-built in 1992 - but I can't remember that far back.


T have been feeling just a tad under the weather for the last few days - not enough to stop me cycling, but enough for it to take ages for me to warm up on my return. So I did not take a roundabout route home - although it was very still and although cold not too unpleasant. Mind you whilst most people wore suits to the meeting I wore a pair cords and a jumper - warmer for cycling. Substance over style matters when cycling I think. My new front light was fantastic. The cycle paths had gained a layer of frost, but the light illuminated a safe path. I only passed four other cyclists out - they were either still in the pub or perhaps it was too cold for cycling.

And finally - there are going to be extra coaches on the various trains from King's Cross to Cambridge and an improved timetable!

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

A quick loop out to Wilbraham and back - via the Carpenter's Arms

Wednesday, 8th December: Despite what the weather forecasters told us about the temperature I found it colder cycling today than the previous day, which really was colder. Here in the flatlands it was around -6C at 9am on Tuesday and around -2C to -3C today. I am struggling to get any real cycling distance in at the moment, caused by a combination of things to do and weather that is off-putting. So I am combining the two and trying to add a few kilometres/miles when I cycle off to meetings.

The good thing is that most of my meetings also seem to involve lunch which helps to break up the cycling into smaller chunks. This means that even though I am not wearing quite as much cold-weather clothing I am not suffering from the cold too much. If anything I tend to get to my destination rather hot and sweaty. Smart (er) trousers tend not to offer much warmth so I probably over compensate with a warm jacket and jumper.

The meeting was held at the Carpenters' Arms in Great Wilbraham - a pub that has recently been updated into a gastro pub. This meant quite a pleasant cycle out of Cambridge along NCN51 to Bottisham and then down through Little Wilbraham to Great Wilbraham. Not the longest of rides, but quite pleasant in the middle of the day. It was definitely not as cold as the previous day there was very little frost in the fields or on the trees.

I had have to do a hard reset on my Garmin GPS as it had started reporting memory full errors and then failed to record the last ride. Despite having deleted the ride history! This happens every few months and I have a file containing to remind myself what needs to be programmed in again. The hard-reset doesn't actually delete the history I had to use my computer to access the directory directly to delete the files. Although the hard-reset is supposed to! It is a nuisance but at least I can work around the little foibles.

The food was good - soup to start, always welcome on a cold wintry day and then bangers and mash - again good for cold weather. To cut down on stuff to carry I had taken my pocket camera and only stopped for one picture. (Actually 2 x 3 - HDRed and then combined in a "panorama".) This one - the fields between Wilbraham and Fulbourn, green rather than white. I had also not bothered to take a front light with me and so did not hang around too much and headed for home back through Fulbourn and then along Airport Way onto NCN51 on Newmarket Road.

Clouds over Fulbourn.jpg

What I did notice when I got home was I took ages to get warm again. The ride back although shorter had chilled me down and even though the house was warm I shivered for a long time after getting back. I did wonder whether I was sickening, there are cold germs floating around the house. But after supper I felt fine again. So hopefully it was just the cold. On Tuesday, although it was colder it wasn't difficult to breathe when cycling, but today (Wednesday) the air did "burn" my lungs a little. Perhaps because I was going faster and so having to breathe in (and out) more air.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Wintry Cambridge and last minute fixes on the Cambridge Guided Busway

Tuesday, 7th December: I had an excuse reason to temporarily put a hold on pre-Christmas chores and go out for a ride use my bike as an appropriate and eco-friendly form of business transport. I had meetings at the St John's Innovation Centre to the North of Cambridge City and despite the temperature dropping to -7.2C at 9am (or should that be because) it was a clear day and the trees and hedgerows were laden with frost in a most picturesque fashion.

Mind you it is also that time of month for the Cambridge County Council to agonise report on the state of play on the Cambridge Guided Busway. As heralded by the Cambridge News headline: "Busway bosses ready to ditch BAM Nuttall". Apparently guided bus tests will start in two weeks. The CCC press release goes on to mention the "cycleway that is underwater and impassable for more than half the year" and that they expect the late delivery cost to exceed £9m (to the contractors). The report (.doc file) that is being presented to the Cabinet on the 14th December gives even more detail on the acceptance and snagging processes and what will need to be done for each of the alleged defects.

The part of the report that interests me (as a cyclist) is Section 3.12 - 3.14 which deals with the maintenance track. The report does state that in its present form it has been unusable by cyclists and pedestrians for more than 6 months over the last year, but that it is not necessary to do the work before bringing the Busway into use. Which "happily" means the work can be done in the Summer when the risk of flooding has receded. The short term fix will be to put up barriers gates with signs "advising against trespassing on the guideway track". They will be locked when the track is flooded. So it seems to me that the plan is basically to "ban" users of the maintenance path whilst it is flooded. Cyclists (and walkers) end up being treated as second-class citizens yet again. It also worries me that any proposed solutions to the flooding of the path will be mediocre/sub-standard in the name of cost-saving - yet hailed as being "better" over-looking the fact that the Busway is almost two years late.

Before my blood pressure gets too high I'd better switch to the actual ride yesterday. As is often the case I took a very roundabout route around Cambridge and headed the wrong way to check out the fields outside the City. On my way through I took a picture of two forms of well tried and tested means of transportation happily coexisting and being used. Although as it happens one of them, the river, was frozen. The cycle path (NCN51) passes along a wooden bridge under the railway bridge alongside the river. I once ended up in Casualty when I fell off passing over the slippery wooden bridge. It turns out that one of the people I met with has fallen off his bike twice in this spot. I always take care passing this way now. (NCN11 is on the other side of the river.)


Once I was a bit further out of town this is what it looked like - heavily frosted fields, hedges and trees.


The trees were very heavily laden with ice, I did wonder how much weight the ice adds to the branches. I guess they must suffer a few bough breaks.


Yes I got to my meeting on time, one of the advantages of a bicycle is that if you know how far it is then you can quite reliably estimate the time it will take. In fact despite the very cold temperatures the various cycle paths were pretty clear after the slight thaw at the weekend.

Afterwards I headed of to Histon to visit a cycle shop. I need to replace my cycling boots and would prefer to buy them from a shop after trying them on. I went to Station Cycles shop in Histon. Unfortunately they had sold out of the type I wanted (Shimano MW80) which get a good write up and I have been pleased with their predecessors. They did offer to let me try on other Shimano cycle shoes so that I could order them off the web - which I think is very sporting for a cycle shop (forgive the pun).

The clouds over Cambridge did look as if there might be some snow in them - this picture makes them look rather more dramatic than they really were though.


After Histon I cycled back along the CGB and passed quite a few groups of workmen doing snagging work. Just after passing under the road bridge after Histon there was a lot of fencing where the track infill was being lifted. I did not hang around to find out quite why or what was happening but assume this won't be happening up the entire length of the CGB. I also passed some electricians fixing one of the CGB street lights.


Afterwards I popped back up to Quy to get a picture of the skies over the frosty fields. The skies weren't quite as dramatic and the fields were looking a little less frosty - but it was an excuse to do a little more cycling.

Quy fields.jpg

On the way back the River Cam was still frozen as I passed through Ditton Meadows. But the frost on the grass was not quite as impressive.


The Cambridge to King's Lynn Railway line as it passes between Ditton Meadows and Stourbridge Common. At times it felt as if there were a few flakes of snow, although it think they were really bits of ice "dust" falling off the trees.


And finally an Air Ambulance has moved to Cambridge -no mention of the situation with Magpas though.