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Writing guidebooks

Monday, 10 September 2012

Tom Fenton riding his bike in the Lake District. Photo: John Coefield.

Tom 'working' in the Lakes. Photo: John Coefield.

I get paid to ride my bike.

Apparently, I’m supposed to write about it too, and sometimes I’ve even noticed that I don’t get any money until I’ve put pen to paper, but I try to do this as little as possible because it’s not as much fun as riding.

I write guidebooks. And, as jobs go, it’s not a bad one. It’s certainly produced a few memorable moments:


A service station somewhere south of Glasgow, March 2008

I’m about to have a month of fun. I’m going to ride around every trail at every trail centre in Scotland. How good is that?

I’ve just teetered along Mabie, swooped through Kirroughtree and admired the view at Glentrool. Then I clipped a rock at Dalbeattie and it all went wrong.

My rear mech has swung into the wheel, destroying itself, the chain and several spokes. That, however, is not the problem. The problem is the frame. The (non-replaceable) mech hanger is twisted upwards and outwards and the only way the rear dropout is going to hold the wheel is if I invert the bike and balance it there…

No local bike shop can help. No shop nearby can help. A frantic phone call reveals a shop offering ‘frame repair’ in Glasgow. Ninety miles later I discover that they don’t even know how to help. I have no idea what they think ‘frame repair’ entails.

I head south, pulling over at a service station to contemplate the 700 mile round journey I will have made for nothing. I am not happy.

In a last-ditch attempt to save my trip, I rummage around for the tool that can fix anything – my adjustable spanner. And, after a bit of clamping, a bit of twisting and a bit of loud grunting, the hanger looks straight…ish. That was the easy bit. I flip the bike and balance the rear wheel in what looks like the right place. I raise the spanner and bring it crashing down upon the frame again and again and again. A cacophony of metallic twangs later I have succeeded in removing most of the paint from the rear of the frame but also, crucially, re-creating something that resembles the back of a bicycle.

My trip can continue.

Many people aren’t fans of adjustable spanners. I am not one of these people.


Hexham Common, North Pennines, July 2009

Tonight, I’m sleeping in the car. Why? Because it’s late, I’m a cheapskate and I picked my car because it has a boot long enough to stretch out in. I actually went round one of those second-hand car warehouses testing out boots. I pull into a lay-by and shuffle bike parts around until I’m comfortable.

Around midnight, I am woken by an engine grumbling past. I stay awake as it fades, chugs through a three-point turn and heads back towards me. My stomach tenses. Who is out here at this time? Why are they here? Why are they stopping? Then the sky lights up red and blue and I have my answers.

Nothing happens. No stern-looking policemen. I squint out of the window. Nothing. I wriggle out of my sleeping bag, roll around for a pair of shoes and tumble out of the car.

'What are you doing?'

'I was sleeping … '


Penmachno, August 2009

I have just been outpaced by a sheep.


A tiny village in South Wales, September 2010

As a rule, I ride alone. I dissuade my friends from coming with me. I ride midday, midweek and avoid weekends. Obviously, I’m talking about ‘work’.

I relaxed my rule once. I was off to South Wales and fed up with riding alone, so when Pete suggested joining me, I said yes. Pete is a handy rider and I had my routes planned. It would be fun.

Now, at 10 p.m. on a Saturday night, we’re shivering in a bus shelter, surrounded by bike tools and puddles of corrosive brake fluid. It’s drizzling and our main source of light is a flickering streetlamp. Pete’s rear brake has exploded.

I have three days’ of riding to cover before a looming deadline and we’ve already cut one day short, we’re down a bike and we’re in the middle of nowhere.

But Pete isn’t giving up. He doesn’t have the correct tools, but somehow cracks open his rear calliper to re-seat the pistons. He balances his brake pads over a camping stove in an attempt to burn off the leaked fluid. And he prays the forum myths are true as he attempts to empty a small bottle of sunflower oil into his brake. Apparently olive oil was too expensive.

Somehow, and I really don’t know how, he fixes his bike.


New Radnor, Mid Wales, June 2011

This rain is ridiculous. Absolutely ridiculous. Raindrops the size of grapes are splatting off the tarmac. The trees, once overhanging the road, are now flopping wetly on to it. I can’t hear the car radio over the machine-gunning on the roof. 

I rode 70 kilometres through the rain yesterday in North Wales. I’m due in the Brecon Beacons tomorrow and I’ve got to get a set of directions sorted today. If I don’t, I’m going to run out of petrol money trying to make a return trip. Unless they figure out a way of making cars run on rainwater in the meantime.

I’ve got to ride. But I don’t really want to.


Quantocks, April 2012

I am riding on some of my favourite trails of all time. The sun is out, the sky is blue and the singletrack is bone dry. In the last week I have discovered new singletrack in the Mendips, ridden on Exmoor for the first time ever and spent two days in the mist on Dartmoor. I love Dartmoor in the mist.

The week before that I rode the fantastic techy singletrack along Bowderdale in the Howgills, and prior to that, I was in the Lake District.

I like bicycles.


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