Tour de Dyson – 60 miles on the unicycle

This will eventually be in the Outdoor Journal 2018 but I thought it would be nice to post it here.

The Tour de Dyson is an annual cycling event that raises funds for Alzheimer’s Research UK. Riders can choose between a 60 mile or 100 mile route. I wanted to do it on my unicycle and since I’m not completely insane I went with the 60 mile option. In the weeks leading up I had been busy in the kitchen making cakes and traybakes to sweetly guilt trip colleagues into donating to the cause. Thanks to their generosity and that of my family and friends I raised £377.19.

I was one of the first riders to arrive so the breakfast that had been laid out for us was barely touched. This was soon remedied as I got stuck into the pastries, bread, orange juice and any other treats I could find. Gels and energy powders were also provided but since I don’t train using those  I didn’t want to risk upsetting my stomach on such a long ride. I did pocket two chocolate chip “Clif” bars which are glorified flapjacks with added protein. Normally I stick with the cheap supermarket bars but with a long day ahead I wasn’t going to say no to some extra energy.

The cafe continued to fill up with lycra cladded roadies and mountain bikers in baggy shorts until 8am when we were herded outside for a group photograph. After a safety briefing (to paraphrase the main point: “don’t be an idiot”) we were divided into our groups. Those groups doing the 100 mile loop set off, the fastest leaving first to minimise the need for overtaking.

Unicyclists don’t match the pace of cyclists well at all. I can keep up with gentle, leisure cyclists on the flat and inclines but even the slowest cyclist will speed past me on a descent because I can’t freewheel. I dutifully took up my back marker position behind the last 60 mile group to leave and followed them out of Malmesbury. Town riding is about as bad as it gets for a unicyclist that can’t idle (move back and forth on the spot) because there are traffic lights, roundabouts and other obstacle that force you to dismount. At that point any riders that were looking back must have thought I would never finish if this was how slow my progress was going to be! I just about kept up until we left town and then the group disappeared from view.

As I was settling into a comfortable rhythm on the country roads I got a bit of a surprise as one of the fast groups had stopped (presumably to fix a minor mechanical issue) and cheered me as I passed. Knowing they would overtake me shortly, I pushed to see how far I could go before that happened; a slightly pointless endeavour but I’m sure most people who do long distance, solo events play similar games to entertain themselves.

The bus and driver that I normally use to get to work passed me in the opposite direction but I don’t think he recognised me. I didn’t see anyone else I knew out on the road, however, I later found out a few people spotted me. Perhaps most amusingly, it transpired that the estate agent I have been talking to about buying a house saw me on her commute. As we talked about this on the phone I could hear other people in the office on her end of the line saying they had also seen me. I might have made short term, minor celebrity status in Malmesbury…

At Sherston, the Performance Cycles mechanic stopped to take a video of me. Slightly distracted by him and the lady who decided to stop her car in the middle of the road to smile and wave at me, I managed to miss the turning for the road to Sopworth. I spotted my mistake almost immediately and the road was clear for me to do an easy u-turn. I just had to suffer the embarrassment of amateurish navigation in front of a “team vehicle”!

The road through Badminton, Acton Turville and Castle Combe was one of my favourite parts of the route. There were some long straight sections through the countryside and the scenery was beautiful. My legs were still fresh and I had found my rhythm so the miles steadily ticked over. Riding past the Castle Combe Circuit was disconcerting because the cars on the track sounded like they were on the same road and about to overtake at 100mph. At Corsham there was a long section on a busier road that wasn’t something I would include in my own route plans but it was over soon enough. When I checked my phone to make sure I was still going the right way (something I’ve learned to do regularly) I noticed that it would be lunchtime soon. This knowledge, combined with the more physical assistance of the Clif bar I stuffed down my throat, spurred me on at Gastard.

It’s a good thing I took on the extra energy because lunch was located near the top of Bowden Hill. As I began the climb I had unfounded fears that everyone would have eaten and gone but in reality the slowest 60 mile group had arrived just in front of me and some of the 100 mile groups hadn’t passed yet (they had done an extra section towards Bath). However, at the time I didn’t know this and still had a nasty little climb to do.

Bowden Hill is not the steepest ascent I’ve done on the unicycle but it is longer than most climbs I’ve done so far and it came after a solid hour or so riding. My heart rate was certainly elevated but my legs felt like they would give up first. One extra challenge of the unicycle is that if you dismount on an ascent you’ll have to push until it levels off. Perhaps better riders can mount on steep climbs but I’m not able to so. This limitation provides incentive and pressure to keep going as far as you can. As I finished the steepest part of the climb a group of cyclists in ARUK jerseys were standing at the side of the road. Relief that it was lunchtime now battled with the fear of fluffing the final section and having to push to the layby near Griffin Farm. Additional pressure was added when I realised quite a few phones had come out to record me.  Thankfully instead of being filmed stacking it from multiple angles the videos should show a slightly fatigued, but nonetheless graceful, dismount as I rolled up to the crowd.

After discarding my unicycle on the grass I wasted no time in selecting a sandwich and demolishing it. One of the small energy bars from the pocket in the back of my jersey didn’t stand a chance either. I had a good drink of water and refilled both my bottles. I knew this was about the distance I normally ended my ride so I didn’t want to hang around the lunch stop too long in case my body decided to go into relaxation mode. Perhaps unwisely I decided to have one final flapjack before leaving. I say unwisely because this was no ordinary flapjack. It was huge. And covered in chocolate. It sat rather uncomfortably in my stomach for the rest of the ride and I think I would have preferred to have been slightly hungry instead (a sentiment you’ll seldom hear me express)!

My departure was slightly delayed by the the chaotic arrival of a 100 mile group. Half of them continued up the hill to get a good Strava segment time before coming back down to join the rest of their group for lunch. I managed a clean mount first time and was on my way up the final part of Bowden Hill. Freshly fuelled and hydrated the last section was no problem at all and I passed by the appropriately named Wheelers Wood. A fair number of Tour de Dyson riders were on the road trying to regroup with the rest of their team.

The psychological benefit of knowing I was heading in a homewards direction helped me keep a good pace. But I was aware there were still many more miles to go so I was careful not to push too hard. As I descended Black Dog Hill towards Calne I was overtaken by one of the 60 mile groups who had stayed a little longer at the lunch stop. A few minutes later as I cycled the country roads towards Lowbridge I caught a glimpse of the same group going round a corner in the distance. We ended up alternately passing each other about 4 or 5 times over the next few miles until they eventually zoomed past on a descent for the last time.

Just before the route crossed over the M4, near Tokenham Bridge, I noticed my wheel wasn’t turning as freely as it should. After looking at it for a minute or so the final 60 mile group caught up. Someone was kind enough to give me a second opinion and we agreed it didn’t seem too serious so I just left everything alone. When I checked the problem out properly a few days later it turned out that somehow the bearing mounts were not evenly attached on both sides. A few minutes with an Allen key was enough to get everything back to good working order. My bearings are not quite as smooth as they once were but they are certainly not due to be replaced yet.

At Somerford Common the route turned 90° from a northerly direction to the west. From there it was practically a straight line back to Malmesbury. I didn’t feel stiff or sore but I could feel the fatigue setting in. I had been on the road for about 6 hours and pedalling almost constantly except for lunch. If I do attempt the 100 mile ride next year then I’ll need to do a lot more 50+ mile rides because currently my stamina is just not enough for such a distance. Fortunately this year I chose the achievable 60 mile option and I knew there was not much further to go!

The end of a long event is often a bit of an anti-climax and this one wasn’t really an exception. Before I knew it I was back in Malmesbury on familiar roads. I got my security badge ready and cycled through the security gates at Dyson. When I got to the pedestrian area I hopped off and stopped the track recording on my phone. It was finally over! Especially during the second half of the ride after lunch I hadn’t been checking my time so I was pleasantly surprised to find it had taken me a little over 6.5 hours. My original estimate had been about 8 hours so I had kept a pace up that was similar to what I normally do on rides of half the distance. A secret goal of the day had been to not be the last 60 mile rider out on the road. In the end I was about 10 or 15 minutes after the last group so it wasn’t to be!

As I walked to the building where I had stored my car key and left the unicycle outside  I chatted to a few colleagues. When I came back a minute or so later Mr Dyson himself was outside doing some filming for what I assume will be promotional material. A giant unicycle is probably not what the filmmakers had in mind for background props so I hastily removed it. As I did so, James Dyson spotted the unicycle and came over to ask a few questions. He has a well earned reputation for curiosity in all things mechanical so I was happy to give a quick run through of the basics.

I deposited the unicycle in the car and went for a shower. Feeling a bit fresher, I chatted to a few people in the office before going on the hunt for the free post-ride pizza. I nearly managed to finish the whole thing but had to leave a slice for later in the evening. After chatting to a few other riders and representatives from ARUK I eventually made my way back to a friend’s house in Malmesbury. Driving back to Bristol was an option but I decided to allow myself a lie in on Friday morning, which was just as well because I could feel my body slowly going to sleep after the day’s effort!

Pearls of Juggling – book review

I’m a keen juggler that doesn’t practice enough. As young teenager I was given a few basic “learn to juggle” books and although they are handy references, I find them difficult to learn tricks from (online videos work better for me). However, I do enjoy books on the subject of juggling and its theory so I was keen to get my hands on Pearls of Juggling after seeing it promoted on social media and juggling conventions.

It’s unusual for a book on juggling be a “coffee table” book, that is to say, one you could leave lying around for casual browsing but Pearls of Juggling achieves whilst simultaneously being an in-depth discussion on niche topics. It works as the former because the presentation is executed perfectly. The illustrations are from the students of the Scuola Internazionale di Comics and their beauty cannot be overstated. It would be no exaggeration to say the artwork is calendar worthy. A Pearls of Juggling calendar? I’d be tempted!

The layout has clearly been carefully considered, from the symmetry of the Egyptian/Indian illustrations on the opposite sides of the front and back cover to the structure of the paragraphs. Another nice touch is that Instead of regular drop-capitals at the start of a chapter, little juggling figures in the shape of the first letter are used.

If the aesthetics capture your attention then the contents keeps it. So many pretty books don’t have enough substance, that’s not the case here. Anthony Trahair has enough juggling experience to fill the pages without resorting to fluff.

The book begins by exhorting the joy of juggling and its benefits. For me this was preaching to the converted but it’s nice to be reminded why jugglers love to juggle. Perhaps the most pertinent chapter for me was about “Improving your training”. To be honest, just doing any training would be good in my case because I fall in and out of routine practice. Circumstances in the last year have meant my clubs and balls haven’t seen much action.

I liked the anecdote about Anthony Gatto’s training session at the British Juggling Convention. Luke Burrage uploaded the footage from his video camera about a year ago and it is worth watching. Mr Gatto commanded a large audience and it clearly has made an impression on many of people.

The tips are both practical (eg. warning that practicing over concrete will damage your props) and more theoretical (discussing Maksim Komaro’s “fun wave” theory). There is also “wisdom philosophy” such as the reminder that a beginner knows there is much to learn and if we can keep that mindset then perhaps we won’t get stuck in a rut. I think most jugglers who have stuck at the hobby would admit there are periods of great frustration and its important to have the right mental aspect to get past these times.

There are also nice bridges between different expertises. For instance, contemporary dance is something I am unlikely to ever spend time studying, however, there are tools such as the Laban effort categories that are relevant to juggling. It’s this kind of knowledge that I enjoy learning from workshops at conventions but it’s nice to see it presented in a clear and concise way on paper.

The only aspects of the book I disliked stemmed from my technical background.  Extraordinary claims like a movement technique that allowed masters to position themselves so that they “cannot be picked up or moved” are sometimes presented without any qualification. This dislike is perhaps literalness taken to excess but I like claims to be backed up. Another example would be the claim that one of the four qualities a Native American warrior must have was humour. I wanted this to be true but there was no source and a 5 minute search on the internet came up with nothing.

I am a strictly amatuer juggler with no intention of performing but I enjoy watching jugglers on the the stage so I still appreciated the chapters discussing these topics. There is good advice such as that simply putting on a costume is not enough to build a character. There are times that  I have been confused about why a performer came on stage and didn’t make any apparent attempt to stick with their character except for some token use of a prop at the start of the act. I enjoy a routine that just has good juggling but when the performer gets the rest of the act right it really makes the performance.

It is also good that pauses get a special mention because when used correctly they really improve the experience of the audience. The instructions given in the book about how to do this and other techniques well should improve my critical appreciation of a juggling act. I would particularly recommend the “Juggling and Comedy” section which contains extended quotes from successful performers.

Pearls of Juggling is unlike any juggling book and I would strongly recommend it to anyone interested in the artistic side of juggling. There is easily enough to appeal to anyone that likes to throw stuff around on a regular basis For the non juggler, the artwork alone is reason enough in itself to own a copy and the inspiration from the next text should help convince the unconverted”. There is something inexplicably nice about Pearls of Juggling, it is the kind of book you can take out repeatedly and find pleasure from reading it.

Disclosure: I received a discounted copy of Pearls of Juggling from the author (Anthony Trahair) when he was promoting his book. I was not obliged to write this review and this review has not be influenced by the author.

Juggling club keyrings

Next Wednesday will be my goodbye party at Glasgow Juggling Club. Since I’ve been doing a lot of turning recently I thought I should get round to making some juggling club keyrings as gifts for the guys I’m leaving behind. It’s a project I’ve been meaning to do for ages and I had the mini eye pins and keyrings ready. I chose pine because it turns easily so I could get them finished in a day. The grain is also really nice!

I used a 4 jaw chuck to hold the blank in the headstock and a live centre on the tail stock. After completing most of the shaping I ‘cut’ the wood and the knob end of the club and move the tail stock out of the way. I didn’t use the parting tool to completely separate the club, instead, I took the whole piece of wood out of the chuck and cut it with a bandsaw. Finally I used a disc sander to tidy up the end. I needed to get myself one of those skinny parting tools but until then I trust my bandsaw and disc sander to do a cleaner removal! I used the morse taper drill chuck in the live end to make a small pilot hole for the eye pin screw that connects the club to the keyring.

I used relatively coarse sand paper (120 grit) and single coat of mineral oil as the finish. I don’t think beeswax would have lasted given the application and it would have also added time to the making process. I need to invest in a wider variety of finishes, I think I a good lacquer might be valuable for a projects but like this. However, I need to educate myself further on this topic! On the whole, I’m pretty happy with the outcome.

Burr Bowl

AThis is the first time I’ve turned a burr, it came out quite well! The inside is not perfect because I didn’t sand it enough and it’s not a continuous curve. However, I now possess a power sander attachment so future bowls should be perfect! I like the bark feature on the outside face, it came out really well.

Before turning:

After turning:


Dumfries to Sanquhar cycle ride

I needed to drop off and pick up some wood from someone at Sanquhar so it seemed like a good excuse to get the road bike out for a long trip. I spent 2 hours chatting so that should be taking off my time!

Total distance: 111.35 km
Max elevation: 337 m
Min elevation: 60 m
Total climbing: 2646 m
Total descent: -2647 m
Average speed: 21.24 km/h
Total Time: 07:19:23

Glenkiln heart rate monitor test

The Glenkiln loop that starts from Dumfries is my favourite road ride just now. This isn’t the fastest time I’ve made it round but it was the first time I have tried it while wearing my new heart rate monitor.

Total distance: 39.54 km
Max elevation: 217 m
Min elevation: 9 m
Total climbing: 487 m
Total descent: -488 m
Average speed: 26.65 km/h
Total Time: 01:29:03

Party Popper Alarm Clock

Start your day with a bang and possibly a heart attack! I made this years ago (before I had access to a 3D printer – the structure is a bit ugly) but I though it would be worth posting on my new website.

You can find more information about it at Letsmakerobots and it was also featured in The Latest in Hobby Robotics where it was described as a “classic” that has “silly written all over it”. That’s praise that I am happy to receive any day!

Omega Man Unicycling

This video was a one man job.  I rode, filmed and edited! I’m not happy with the colour balance and exposure from some of the shots so I’ll need to work on that. I have lots of practice using my Canon EOS M for photos but not videos. It was filmed at the Omega Man at the end of the Red Route in Ae Forest.

DIY Radio Show Mixer

One of my friends, David, has just bought a second hand Berlinogo. It’s a great car but doesn’t have any modern multimedia connection capabilities, only a CD player. I took it upon myself to start doing “radio shows” with the free DJ software Mixxx and burning them to CDs. The look on my friends’ faces when my voice came over the car speakers was priceless! Controlling the faders, volume levels and buttons with a mouse is tricky and I wanted something a bit more professional so I made this little gizmo. The case is made from 3mm plywood cut with a laser cutter (file here), the white knobs are 3D printed and the microcontroller is an Leonardo Arduino.

Right click the image to save the OpenSCAD code.
Right click on the image to download the code. You will need to install the libraries mentioned in the code.