Archive for September, 2011

Your song

September 29, 2011

Nothing to report on the running front. I’ve been up in the mountains for the past two days. The Dolomites, above Cortina d’Ampezzo in the very north of Italy, to be a bit more precise.

Spending time here has always been an integral part of the journey I’ve been on for nearly a month now. Those of you who know me will know something of my attachment to this area, and the work I later came to do here. This all came about in the late 1980’s through a mixture of good fortune, a good friend and some sheer hard graft. Those of you who knew me well in the 1990’s will fully understand why I am here on this journey, and what it means to me.

The good friend I mentioned went by the name of Butch. His real name was Frederick, but I never heard him called anything other than Butch. Even by his wife. An extraordinary guy, and given the connotations latterly attaching to a nickname like that, a man of real, unflinching character not to ditch it for something else.

Butch joined the climbing club I’d helped start in the late 1970’s. He was already a full member of the Alpine Club, had travelled and worked in many parts of the world, and was, it must be said, old enough to be the father of any of the rest of us in the club at that time. Butch also had a thing about the Dolomites. He’d spent time there regularly in the latter part of the 1950’s and was on the lookout for a climbing partner to return there with. It took until 1986, but he persuaded me in the end.

The place had changed beyond all recognition in the time since Butch had been there, except up in the mountains, and in the mountain huts. Unbelievably (to me) we even met the wife of an old hut guardian who remembered him! Not that it was hard, really. Think slightly slimmed down version of Ronnie Drew, from The Dubliners, similar Dublin-by-way-of-other-places Irish brogue, and humour and annecdotes well beyond the gifts any one man ought to have posessed.

We found ourselves in the Sexten Dolomites early in our jaunt. I’d never been anywhere like it before. Huge pillars of rock, Mountains like a young child would draw them. All either up or down. Very little sideways. Our mixture of good weather, good choice of routes to climb, including the first British ascent of one, and Butch’s natural garrulous nature in the mountain huts of an evening, made the trip for me. Frankly, it changed the course of my life for the ensuing twenty or more years. Tales for another time, perhaps.

I spent today in the Sexten Dolomites too, visiting a couple of readily accessible places Butch and I knew from those days. He was like a ghost behind me on the paths. I half expected to look back and see him sitting on a rock enjoying one of his “funf Minuten Zigaretten Pause”. But that wasn’t to be.

Because Butch died last Christmas. His descent into the hell of prostate cancer was at the time of my own battles with severe depression, and we didn’t even speak on the telephone. One of his daughters rang me in January. I’d been away, and missed his funeral too. I could have used today to scatter his ashes or something. I’ve actually no idea what he would have wanted. We were living life to the full on our original visit, and on several follow-up trips to the Dolomites, such that death was never a topic.

I mourn his passing and think of him often, but I owe to him the joy I get from places like the Sexten Dolomites. And today, that was some joy.

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O solo mio.

September 25, 2011

My wife left me today.

Nothing matrimonial, don’t fret. She just had to fly home from Venice, while I still have something like three weeks of this journey of mine still to enjoy. Still, parting is always hard. Even more so, when you’re left behind, walking the alleyways and canalsides alone that you walked together the previous day.

I mused a while ago about the difference between being alone, and being lonely. The waves of melancholy that have struck me today are the symptoms of loneliness. In a place as beautiful as Venice, lonliness is hard, because one wants to share every view, every thought. Anyhow, we had four very full days to do just that.

I’ve been ranting on Twitter, and to anyone who’ll listen, about the absurd imbalance of allowing huge cruise liners to sail down the channel a hundred metres of so off St Mark’s Square and to moor up at Rio Schiavon. Here, they sit beside a beautiful corner of Venice (near the Arsenale) with all the elegance of a mobile bersion of a 1960’s london council estate- because that is just what the modern cruise liner reminds me of. Close up, they are improbably huge. The Cunard liner Queen Victoria went through the other day. 2,000 passengers, and she’s a smaller one than most of the six that are sttting moored up at one end of the city, dominating the western skyline. Just a couple of them will disgorge the best part of 6,000 people onto the fragile infrastructure of one of the world’s most beautiful, and least suitable, cities.

Then I started to see adverts for the Venice Marathon. 7,000 starters every year. Why, for pity’s sake? Why does Venice, of all cities, need a marathon? Even allowing that it starts out on the causeway over from Mestre, there’s hardly more than a few hundred metres anywhere in the place without steps, blind corners, bottlenecks full of other visitors, and so on. I hadn’t heard of the event before, and I am sad to hear about it now. I am all for suitable places having good, well attended races, if they help put somewhere on the map, assist its tourism effort, and bring in otherwise unobtainable revenue. But I reckon the Venice Marathon would do none of this. Hardly needs “putting on the map”, has tourism coming out of its ears, and, if word got out, I bet marathon day would be one to avoid Venice altogether. I sorely doubt more than a small percentage of the participants actually stay in the city. Thus, they probably bring no revenue to its hotels. Just like the cruise liners, in fact.

Rant over. Please don’t send me comments to say you’ve run the Venice Marathon and had a good time. I’m not doubting it would be fun, just doubting it is needed, and expressing the view that unleashing that volume of people on the place in one go is bad news.

I am off to Cortina d’Ampezzo, unofficial capital of the Dolomites, tomorrow. It’s somewhere I have spent some solid blocks of time in the past 25 years, and it will have a charm to me that will be out of all proportion to its size and modest facilities. At this time of year, it is going to have a definite “end of season” feel to it. I’m just hoping the same won’t be true of the weather.

See My Friends

September 22, 2011

I take part in a sport in which I have many very good, dear friends. That’s perhaps strange, given that it’s also a sport where we pit our skill, strength and speed against each other and try to be the fastest, the best, the winner.

Nevertheless, it’s true, and when we meet, be it at local events at home (for us Brits), or in bigger international events, there is a real sense of friendship, almost of “family”, amongst us sprinters. I’m sure those involved in other distances, jumps and throws will say the same for their cohort. The internet, e-mail, blogs and stuff are also helping us stay better in touch between events, which is good too. However, it’s still the case that, when we’re on track, before and after the gun, and before the finish line, we are committed rivals. And then along comes something like the European Masters Games.

Now, don’t get me wrong. The individual track events at the Games were, even though this is a “Games” and not a championship, hotly contested by some of the best Masters athletes around. While total numbers taking part were modest, the quality was high. No, on this occasion, I’m referring to a unique feature at the EMG: the relays.

Of course, all big events have relays. I’ve been fortunate to support some of my GB team pals to World and European championship relay medals, at both outdoor and indoor events. My three Worlds gold relay medals have pride of place. But EMG isn’t about national teams, and inter-nation rivalry. It’s about celebrating competition between Masters athletes. The unique feature is that four guys, any country, same Masters age category, can get together as a team and chase that gold medal.

That’s how Yves, from Macon, in France, a fine sprinter/jumper, Rob, from the East Midlands, a gutsy racer returning to form after knee surgery, Ryzsard, Polish and sometime European sprint champion, plus yours truly, came to be sitting together in the EMG call room. We were about to do battle on the same side, as “Team Europa”, in the 4x100m sprint relay.

And we won. We won well, and celebrated together. At no other event than EMG would we have had the opportunity, literally as a bunch comprising “me and my mates”, to chase down a European track and field gold medal. These were only the second European Masters Games, and none of us four took part in the relays in Malmö, back in 2008, so this was a first, in more senses than one, for each of us. The medal, presented, fittingly, without rostrum ceremony or national anthems, will go on the list of those I will regard as very special. It carries on the back the names of four buddies who just went out and did what they do best, but on the same side, for a change!

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You keep me hanging on.

September 18, 2011

The Italians have a nice name for it. “Medaglio di legno”. The wooden medal. Fourth place. This evening, in the European Masters Games 200 metres final, I “won” another one. But I’m pleased, really. We could have come close to not running at all. Some might say “should”.

Over the weekend, some really bad storms had been tracking across Europe. Snow closed a major Swiss motorway, etc. In Lignano, between Venice and Trieste, it came over quite dark while we were warming up for the race, late in the afternoon. You could tell it would be a biggie. We were called to the Call Room early. Call Room is where they hold you immediately before the race, check your shoes, put your track suit and other kit in a box, etc. You’d normally expect to be there for about ten minutes, then be led out on to the track, introduced to the crowd and finally, race.

The Call Room at the European Masters Games comprised a connected pair of small, basic tent-like things with a table for the officials and their computer, plus a couple of wooden benches, and a stack of plastic boxes. Usually very adequate as a pre-race holding area. As we got there, the heavens opened. And I do mean opened. Thunder and lightning, the lot. Suddenly the Call Room became home not only to a group of rapidly cooling down athletes, but a bevy of officials, and some quite worried looking young kids, who were the volunteers who ferried the athletes’ kit to the race finish/media area. Assuming that the weather would pass quickly, the officials asked us to get ready to race. Peering outside, we declined. It was getting cool enough with track suits on!

There followed a deluge, with rain running through the tents, dripping in through the canvas and on to the flourescent tubes rigged up inside. Unfortunately, the race officials maintained an almost religious belief that at any moment, they would get word by walkie-talkie to take us poor victims out on to the track. But no. The storm raged, and we waited. And waited. Lycra race gear is not what you want to be wearing at a time like this. It has the insulating quality of tissue paper. We could, had we been permitted, have made a run for nearby stadium buildings, and shelter, but like the boy on the burning deck, the officials doggedly held their post. For us athletes, breach of Call Room is a disqualification offence, so we were stuck. For fifty – yes 50- minutes.

Like all thunderstorms, this one eventually rolled away, leaving a totally drenched track, and a group of now pretty chilled athletes. We assumed we’d be given the opportunity to warm up again, and our race delayed. But read on. We were instructed to get ready. Athletes for the next race were already arriving at the Call Room. So, out we were marched, in vest and shorts, for our race. Individual preparation rituals began. Soon we’d be doing what we’re best at.

Starting blocks set and adjusted, some last preliminary strides etc, then we heard “Sorry gentlemen, but there will be a twenty minute delay while the technicians mend the photo-finish equipment”. We could hardly believe it. We jogged the 150 metres or so back to the Call Room, but found it already full with the next group of athletes, and our kit already moved to the finish zone. Our only option was to spend the time jogging about (in race gear) and hoping the rain, now little more than fine drizzle, stayed away.

I can’t recall when I last raced off, effectively, no warm up. I am pleased with my time. I was beaten by three better guys on the day, and by one of these, only just. But after such a show of determination, verging on pig-headedness and insensitivity, by the track officials, the race hardly mattered. We felt we hardly mattered either. Proper procedures had, after all, been followed thoughout. “Nos perituri mortem salutamus” I think the gladiators in Rome used to say.

Keep on Running

September 15, 2011

I am in Lignano Sabbiadoro. Ever heard of it? Look on a map, midway between Trieste and Venice. Italian seaside, and on the “Mosquito Coast” of Europe. There.

Regular readers will know I’m here for the European Masters Games, of which more anon, but I nearly didn’t get here! Nothing life-threatening, I just came very close to running out of petrol! The nearest fuel stop to last night’s hotel had been closed yesterday. I was confident, but wrongly so, of it being open this morning.

GPS Jane said 40 miles to the next petrol (think mountain area). Trip computer said 35 miles in the tank. I was stuffed if either was wrong. It took the edge right off riding through a simply beautiful Dolomites early autumn morning. I was also in an area I’d never been through before. Rare but true.

After ten miles, the trip computer was confirming I was down to 25 miles fuel. Then I reached the Passo Staulanza. This is no great Alpine pass. Very nice, very twisty. Probably Tour de France Cat 1, just, if you moved it to France. Trouble is, the ascent ate my precious fuel fiercely. My trip computer goes blank with less than 15 miles range left. Rather like a blindfold for the guy facing the firing squad. You can tell this isn’t exactly the first time I’ve run this low. The computer went blank before I reached the top of the pass.

Were you ever any good as a kid with a go kart/soapbox type of thing? I was tops with them, and could make them roll forever on the slightest slope. Might have been those skills, and 40 years riding a motorbike, that saved me, because the downward side of the Passo Staulanza went on for ever. Perfect for coasting in neutral. 40 mph in neutral in places too. The trip computer loved it, of course. Now all I needed was the fuel stop to be open. It was. My tank holds 26 litres. The fill was of 24.5 litres. Close enough for comfort.

So, the European Masters Games. These are the second to be held. I was one of the select who went to the first, in Malmö, Sweden, in 2009, against the wishes of my national federation. They saw no need for another international competition. At least, not if they and their pals weren’t running it. The situation gave rise to a wonderful piece of ambiguity when, after a lot of fuss, and athletes pointing out that they attended EMG as individuals, we were told the federation “would not sanction” athletes going to Malmö. Think about it, and consider the two contrasting meanings of “sanction”. Well, I went anyway, and came home with two gold medals. This time, no fuss, and much more interest amongst my fellow British Masters athletes. Not nearly as much interest as in other countries, though. You might think the largest number of participants here would be from Italy. Wrong – Russia. Presumably because the World Masters in July were in the USA and it’s still off limits to many, or just far cheaper to come here.

These games are unique. Think mini Olympics for competitors over the age of 35. Add in Masters “paralympic” events this time. Take out the nationalism. No anthems, national vests optional, though most wear them. They are open to athletes from all of the world, too something I don’t think is properly promoted yet. The “European” in the title is just where they are being held. I’ve already met some Canadian, Australian and American friends. Track and field athletics is not top dog by a long chalk. In Sweden, handball dominated. Not sure which leads this time. They provide a situation I find myself always wishing the Olympic Games would emulate. And, as in Sweden, these have every sign of being very well organised indeed. Tale a bow, EMG.

I race tomorrow. I’m glad things kept on running, and I got here!

The Winter and the Summer

September 13, 2011

I am in the Dolomites. I have spent more time here in the last 25 years than anywhere other than home, yet for a variety of reasons, this is my first tme back since 2006.

I wasn’t expecting much to have changed. One probable outcome of the photo project I will be starting here in a few weeks will be to show how little has altered in 100 years. So I wasn’t expecting much in just under six.

Yet, in a way, I was wrong. Even GPS Jane was foxed by two brand new tunnels, for example. Both are in places that were desperate traffic bottlenecks previously. I’d heard talk of the one, bypassing Moena in Val di Fassa, but locals dismissed it even in 2005 as a pipedream. There was clearly no way they’d have bulldozed a dual carriageway anywhere here, even under Berlusconi, and I think the tunnel entrances have been landscaped rather well. I do fear, however, that they have been built simply to manage today’s traffic volumes, and not those of tomorrow.

For Brits involved in walking, climbing and other outdoor activities, the Dolomites were long a source of mystery or disdain. Many of us were brought up on tales of alpine derring-do from the 1950s, when “the Dollies” was somewhere climbers went when the weather broke in the real mountains, in places like Chamonix. Given the distance and nature of the roads between the two, I doubt that was ever really true. Nevertheless, it gave rise to a myth of “sunshine and second best”.

I finally gave in to the badgerings of an old, and now sadly departed, friend in 1985, who wanted an accomplice for several mad schemes. We struck lucky (tales for another time), I was captivated. Within two years, by luck, coincidence and hard graft, I found myself spending more than two months every year, often in winter, always in summer, leading groups in the mountains or on the cross country ski trails. I absorbed the geography, culture and a lot of the language of the area like a sponge, and came to know what it was like to have a “spiritual home”. You’ll find some of the many thousands of photos I took over those years on my web site.

Thus, in my own small way, enthusing, writing magazine articles and having photos published, I was actually part of the process that created some of the bottlenecks. It was very much a case of feeling that the area sort of deserved to be better known, even if that brought with it drawbacks. What I have enjoyed seeing today, though, is evidence of civic interest in the area. Not just the tunnels, but derelict rustic buildings from rural heydays being brought back to commercial or community uses. Stuff like that. Time was, I’ll admit, when the crumbliness had a charm, but it was at the cost of unemployment, no homes for the children of locally employed people, and so on.

I’m not such a fool as to think what little I’ve seen today represents a complete turnaround for the area, though. I am just passing through right now. In a couple of weeks I hope to be back for a longer stay, and more blogging, no doubt.

The Times They Are a-Changin’

September 12, 2011

One delightful coincidence of timing on my current Big Trip was that I could be in Bellinzona, in Ticino, on the Swiss/Italian border on the very day that the annual Swiss Masters International track and field meeting takes place. This is a meet with a great reputation, and over the years, several Brits have taken part in events at it. Bellinzona is also a very attractive town, worth a visit in its own right.

My wayward route (see previous blog) meant I’d hardly had the best preparation, and an 80 mile ride from Luzern to Bellinzona was also tacked on to the day of the event. I was thus a bit apprehensive to say the least. This was going to be my final preparation before racing at the European Masters Games, so it was do or die.

Like many other things Swiss, this event ran like clockwork. Simple check in, clear programme, decent intervals between races, electronic timing, and prizes, more of which anon! I was pleased to find that, in addition to my buddy Pino, there were several other German, Austrian, Italian and Swiss athletes there who I knew from European or World competitions, and a couple of other Brits, who lived in that part of the world and were keeping the event a secret!

Since the recent Worlds in Daegu, I’ve been psyching myself up for 100m races with the words “Kim Collins”, such did this 35 year old wonder’s leg and arm speed impress me when I saw him on tv. His inspiration got me a second place, and somewhere close to my season’s best time, despite a 1.7m/s headwind. It also got me a kilo of Swiss cheese as a prize. The meet is sponsored by a local co-op, I think. Gotthard Lucendra for the cheese-ophiles amongst you.

I don’t really like excessive heat, and found it hard to keep cool before my 200m race, despite the breeze in the stadium. Thus it was that I went to my blocks feeling heavy and lethargic. But a gun is a gun, and a sprinter is a sprinter, and, though I say it myself, I ran well. I won by a considerable margin, in the fastest time I had run for two full years, since just after the fateful (for me) World Championships in Lahti, Finland in 2009. into another 1.7m/s wind, too.

I was thereafter a worried man. If second place was a kilo of cheese, would first be two kilos? I need not have worried, on that score at least, given that the winner’s prize was, in fact, a container of 5 litres of Swiss apple juice.

Now, if you have been paying attention, you’ll remember that this tour I am on is by motorcycle. Packing it with everything I need is a daily art. I needed a kilo of cheese and five litres of fruit juice like a hole in the head. Pino and I, plus several other of the athletes stayed that night in the Bellinzona Youth Hostel. This is a great place. A former sanatorium or asylum, I think, and architecturally very grand. Avoid Room SF02 though, it has a resident scorpion! Happy to say, the hostel kitchen was delighted to have a donation of a kilo of cheese. By chance and a reshuffle, I had space for the juice, which, as I write, seems to have come in a self-refilling, magic container, hitherto known only in fairytales. As fast as I drink it, more seems to appear.

As warm up for the European Masters Games, this is all quite unconventional, of course. But I think they are going to prove to be unconventional too. On Twitter tonight, the organisers have posted the proud boast that everything is still coming together for a successful Games. That’s comfort, I suppose. They actually started yesterday.

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You Can Go Your Own Way

September 11, 2011

Events of the last few days have taught me how much care and psychology must go into choosing the voices that are used in modern GPS systems. I was in a situation a couple of days back where I found myself very late, in a foreign country and with the wrong maps, needing to get from A to B as fast as possible. Even if that did mean 500km and 7 hours.

The start point was the wrong end of the Frejus Tunnel, that links Italy and France. The end point was Luzern, in Switzerland, home of Pino, my great friend from Masters athletics, and his wife Barbara. I’d promised I’d be with them at about 6.30pm , but delays made that look more like 10.30pm, and only if it all went to plan. So, GPS, strut your stuff.

I find it mind-boggling even now, to think that I am using a piece of equipment on my motorbike that talks to satellites in space, and relays information to me through the voice of someone I know I can trust. Well, most of the time. That the little box I have with me can hold and interpret every twist, turn and road junction in the whole of France, Switzerland, Northern Italy, Austria and Germany is something even twenty years ago I would not have believed had you told me. And even those limitations are because I chose only to load those maps.

The voice (let’s call her Jane, because that’s what she calls herself) has become like that of a friend and counsellor I’ve never met, but one whose words are seldom to be taken lightly. Up to a point, Jane knows my travelling preferences. She never shares my sense of urgency and frustration at delays, contraflows, traffic lights, etc, but is a constant and necessary task-mistress as I travel. Especially when she knows routes I’d never even think of, if I could even spot them on a 1:400,000 scale map (that’s four real kilometres for every map centimetre). That’s even more telling when he map is sitting on the table back at home, having been forgotten in my packing.

Jane’s outward limitation is that she can only show me things in two dimensions. Thus, if a road climbs ever upwards or (later) downwards, she’s as likely just to show me a series of purple squiggles on screen, and a moving arrow. She’ll leave the rest to me, saving a slightly hectoring “Recalculating”, or (worse) “When possible, make a U-turn” for the times when pilot error prevails, or the roads have simply changed. The former happens a lot, the latter very seldom. However, like a track coach with a stopwatch, Jane knows how long every metre takes, up down and along, and how much remains.

After several epic mountain passes (Petit St Bernard, Grand St Bernard being only the last two), I had still failed to make my route before darkness fell. this was despite some heroic blatting along some Friday evening Swiss motorways. Thus, I needed to place total trust in Jane’s prior knowledge, to take me on a route that then wound its way across pitch black countryside. Never before has man/machine put so much utter trust in woman-voice/little grey plastic box. Sensation-wise, it did become like an arcade game. It needed my total concentration. The music that usually accompanies my travels went off. Jane reeled off for me a perfect succession of junctions, roundabout exits, bears-left, and keeps-right. The kilometres counted down inexorably, the hours crept by equally so. There were few other constants. The pain in my backside grew quite steadily, and my left hand occasionally seemed to have gone awol. For a small country, as I observed later, Switzerland can sometimes seem like a very big country.

And make it we did. Team effort. I’ll forgive Jane not knowing of the temporary closure of the very final road I needed to go down in Luzern. She did know another route, though. When I arrived, spot on when Jane had told me 7 hours earlier I’d be there, the malfunction of lesser technology (a microwave) had ruined supper. Thies meant that, dead on my feet or not, I was treated to a whistle-stop tour of Pino’s beloved Luzern, and a beer.

Jane, duly thanked, just sat back and waited for next time.

That Lou Reed Song

September 8, 2011

Yeah, had it going round inside my helmet almost all day long.

Today was about ambition. It was, I admit, a bit of a triumph of hope over expectation as well. Four times I’ve set out to ride over the Col du Galibier. Twice I’ve been beaten by crap weather, twice by closed roads. Given that I awoke to clear blue September skies and a decent forecast, whoever you asked, today was going to be my day, I guess. However, until I passed the first sign saying “Galibier Ouvert” as I weaved up the Col du Telegraphe I didn’t dare believe it, to be honest. We were in “too good to be true” territory.

Bikies amongst you can sneer now. I am talking about motorcycling the Galibier, not pedalling. Well, sneer if you’ve done it, perhaps. I passed dozens of riders today giving it their all. Young and less young. Those few who reached the summit in the hour when I was there adequately demonstrated what it meant to them.

My heart did sink when I came to a sign just past Valloire saying “Route Barré a 400m” but it was just a small detour around a collapsed culvert.

What made the ascent even better was the near total absence of other traffic. I was running a video camera bolted to the bike and looking at the film later, I really didn’t dream those clear roads.

Views north and south from the 2,645 metre summit were huge. The small, scruffy carpark was filled with good-humoured German and Italian riders. There was no wind, just contented voices and the sound of camera shutters.

I filmed my descent to the Col du Lautaret as well. Once I can download the stuff, I might put it on YouTube, but it’s really going to be for playing back over and over again on the telly screen when I get home.

I’m not enough of a Tour de France scholar to know whether the Tour ever does the Galibier in the north-south direction I rode it in today. The traditional televised battles go the other way, up the steep but short side. But I am blown away at the thought that the Galibier is seldom the first steep pass on those days, and never the last. This year, as several others, have ended on the Alpe d’Huez.

The inner tourist has been well satisfied today.

The Lou Reed reference? You decide whether it was “Wild Side” or “Perfect Day”.

Motorways tomorrow.

(This is a) Strange Affair

September 7, 2011

As is my wont, I have been listening to lots of music as I travel. “What, on a motorbike?” I hear the uninitiated cry. Yes. I have access at any one time to seven CDs, and an iPod containing 400 tracks. Several hundred more if I plug in my iPhone too. All piped in stereo to my helmet. Bless you, Autocom.

There is a real intimacy from having music piped in this way. Yesterday it really added to the almost video game quality of the journey, blatting along near-empty, perfectly surfaced French motorways at a steady 80mph, cocooned from reality behind a perspex screen, a visor and sun shades. Mind you, The Bad Shepherds (punk songs set to British/Irish folk tunes) wasn’t that “intimate”, perhaps.

But today, meandering round hairpin bends above the Lac d’Annecy, the dark velvet voice of my musical heroine June Tabor grabbed my emotions by the throat and gave them a right good shaking.

“This is a strange affair.
The time has come to travel and the roads are filled with fear.
This is a strange affair.
My youth has all been wasted and I’m bent and grey with years.”

(The rest is here.)

Said to be based on a Sufi poem, written by the ever present Richard Thompson, and performed by June Tabor on Martin Simpson’s new album “Purpose and Grace“. That’s some pedigree. And I’ve known it for more than 30 years from earlier versions by all of the above.

This is indeed a strange affair. I am in exile from significant human company for another two days yet, before landing on the doorstep of my good friend Pino and his family, in Lucerne. Tomorrow, as I write, I will be taking the motorbike over the Col du Galibier for the first time. I’ve been defeated by bad weather or the road still closed by snow every other time I’ve set out for this. Tour de France fans will know the attraction of this particular road, but I am fretful about it, because I have made my route dependent on it, if I am to avoid a big detour to get to my next stopping point. I am then in Briançon, and a more stupid starting point in order to get to Lucerne I cannot imagine!

Mind you, though I am very conscious of being alone, I am not lonely. There’s a difference, as anyone who has been lonely will testify. I can still conjure up the feeling I had, suddenly, one evening, in July 1986, in a one person tent, miles from anywhere, in that vast lung of wild country NW of Ullapool. That gnawing, leaden feeling of being totally isolated and self- dependent. I know the date, the spot, the meal I’d just cooked. That’s the impression it all made on me. Just part of me wasting my youth. Had I made too much of a habit of carrying the rucksack I had that day, I’d now be “bent and grey” as in the song, too!

All this and more came back to me today, through the wonder of song.