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Saturday, January 14, 2012

Grand Union Canal

This journey has been planned for some time although the precise timing was never decided. Even the decision for this ride was only made during the week. Early on in our time in Birmingham, a fellow rider talked about having ridden from Birmingham to London along the canal paths in three days. That doesn't sound that challenging since the Grand Union Canal is about 137 miles from Birmingham to London according to one signpost on the canal.

I had explored the first part of the canal on 13 August 2011 on the trike and that made me decide that triking the canal path wasn't practical. Narrow paths and rough ridged humped bridges are not trike or non-suspension bike friendly. Today's ride was on the full suspension mountain bike, a GT iDrive. I had used this bike for the Big Coast ride, a 105km ride from Upper Hutt, New Zealand into the Wairarapa and then round the Southern Coast to Eastbourne on the Wellington harbour, in early 2002. That ride took in the Rimutaka Incline and a very rough and rocky southern coast. A ride achieved in around six hours but included some long stops to take in the scenery.

A canal path in contrast is relatively flat with most inclines being around locks or over the bridges. The English countryside is more rolling hills rather than the steep slopes of the Wellington hills. Maintaining an easy pace along these paths would only be hindered by other canal path users and the occasional place where the path narrowed, was boggy, or was broken up. Around populated areas where the canal paths are used for walking paths or cycle paths, they tend to be smooth and cared for. On this ride, the canal passed through a tunnel and the path went up through a short tunnel to a village and then down a country lane back to the canal.

The canals have their origin as commercial operations and this is reflected at the Digbeth end of the canal in Birmingham. However, the further out of central Birmingham, it is houses that back onto the canal until it opens out into farmland. There are surprisingly few places where the canal passes close to any town centre. In the 60 km of this ride, Royal Leamington Spa was the only town that clearly labelled it presence but even there the canal didn't seem to be near the commercial centre. I suspect that I did pass close to Warwick but all I saw was the backs of houses.

There were a number of boat yards along the path and two large marinas near the end of the ride. More frequently along the path were caf├ęs or small hotels. Signs pointed out for the canal boats when they were close to eating places or maybe shops. This really showed the changing focus of canal use.

The other change that occurred was a softening of the ground as the day warmed up and I got further away from populated areas. The signs of the recent frosts weren't just in the shaded ground area, there were patches of ice on the canal. None of it compared with the frozen canals of last year although I was still surprised to see so much.

Another contrast as I passed behind properties was the difference between those that made use of the canal bank and those that seemed to just fence it off. Some clearly saw the canal bank as a place to relax and enjoy a summer afternoon although at this time of year most had made some attempt to pack away the furniture.

The ride distance according the to the bike computer was 60.96km and took 3 hours 53 minutes and 4 seconds at an average speed of 15.6km per hour. As can be seen from the map, the GPS stopped tracking and when I realised, it simply straight lined across the terrain. Marilyn had been tracking my progress using location tracking for my phone on iCloud. This meant when I stopped for lunch at the Stockton Locks and rang Marilyn, she was able to tell me where I was and plan a pick up point for about an hour later.

I had intended to use software to plan my ride ( but it insisted on using roads even when I told it I was going mountain biking. It doesn't seem to think that the Grand Union Canal can be cycled but experimenting along National Route 5 and the Rea River and map my ride seemed to use Route 5 even though it goes through parks and along a river banks. In fact, Map My Ride is inconsistent in its planning. It is as though it isn't aware of all of the possible paths.

As I wrote this, I used to plot the ride (see map above) since it allowed me to travel off road but even its route planning is frustrating for such rides. Map my walk doesn't make any attempt to identify possible routes. It simply takes the straight line path between too points. You can grab the middle point of a line and adjust the route.

Sustrans ( route planning also uses straight lines between two points but it drags the line as I move the mouse across the map. You simply click when you want to drop a point and change direction. The problem is that the Sustrans map doesn't scale as well as map my ride or map my walk. Neither are there the range of options for printing especially when the ride is of any length. The Sustrans site does provide distance and time estimates as you plan the ride. It also shows the national cycle routes.

Cycle streets ( has been my preferred route planning tool. It shows some of the national cycle routes and uses them in its planning. When it plans a route between two locations, it gives a fastest, balanced, and quietest routes. The fastest usually takes roads although it will use off road routes if they will make the route faster. The quietest route takes in many off road routes including some that are walking only. The balanced route tends to take a more mixed combination. For this ride, I wanted to be more specific about where I wanted to ride so cycle streets wasn't appropriate. However, cycle streets will possibly work well for planning the John O'Groats to Land End ride although even on this, I may want to force specific routes.

For this ride, planning would have been best with map my walk or the Sustrans site. Map my walk would be best if I want to print or save the track. Cycle streets is still what I would use if I am looking simply to get from point a to point b.