Bike-Touring England: (Part 3.) Portsmouth, Chichester and the Brompton World Championship
We awoke in Portsmouth sore as a spanked bottom. Luckily, our destination was Chichester, a mere 17 miles away. I had booked lodgings at a small bed and breakfast and we made our way there slowly and deliberately, but not before stopping at the stunning Porchester Castle, a breathtakingly massive, well-preserved fortress built in the 11th century. We took in the scenery and had some lunch.
The way to Chichester was not particularly scenic. We rode on major roads, some with pretty fast traffic. In England, people walk places and there are sidewalks practically everywhere, so we stayed off the roads as much as we could. At some point, we had to cross a busy intersection with a hazardous traffic circle. It took almost 15 minutes before we hurriedly dashed across, leaving the selfish drivers scowling at having to stop for 10 extra seconds.
The final 3 miles were on a dedicated walking/bike path that was as nice as any we had seen. It was newly paved and offered a perfect mixture of sunlight and shade. Along the way, we passed some awesome sculptures made of old farming tools and saw sprawling hay fields with interesting circular patterns.
We reached our destination in the late afternoon. The B&B was a beautiful cottage, some 250 years old with only two rooms for let. We settled in, had a chat with the hostess, and took a walk through the nearby farms. I biked to the nearest store to grab some beer and snacks, and Nava and I sat in wheat fields enjoying the sunset, the horses, and a very unwholesome supper.
Our reason for visiting Chichester –and one of our main reasons for coming to England– was to participate in a series of bike races (3 to be exact) spread over 2 days, exclusively for Brompton riders! Now Bromptons are great bikes and superior to conventional bikes in many ways, but fast they are not, and they look somewhat clownish, so any race involving them is bound to be rather comedic and we gleefully anticipated the silly sight of those little wheels spinning along.
In the morning, we headed over to the race venue, the Goodwood Motor Circuit. The Goodwood is one of the most famous car-racing venues in all of England (so naturally, no one besides the Brits has heard of it). The 2.4 mile track surrounds a live airfield and small planes are continually taking off and landing—loud, but spectacular. What an incredible venue for a bike race!
We picked up our race materials, and headed to the festival, a small area of vendors pedaling (sic!) their wares. There were also a couple of areas where BMX bikers were performing tricks, which reminded us of home, but we tired of this quickly. We saw a food cart that advertised vegan flapjacks and excitedly ordered some. It was then that we learned that a flapjack in Britspeak is what we call a granola bar. Notwithstanding, they were delightful.
At 11:30, we headed to the first race, the Brompton Sprint. This sprint is a 500 meter race intended to test just how fast the bike can go. We lined up and started in groups of 12. Nava and I were in separate starts and we each managed to do miserably (although we did both average about 25 mph. Are Brompton racers on steroids?!). Although the race was over in no time, we were both exhausted, having pushed ourselves to the limit. We sat in the Brompton chill-out area, enjoying gin and tonics and resting our poor legs.
We didn’t have too much rest before the second event, the Brompton Eliminator. This race was pretty mean-spirited in nature: a 2 lap race around the course with seven “checkpoints”. After the first lap, the last person to cross each checkpoint is eliminated (cannot finish the race). My only goal was to not be eliminated, and from the very start, I took an aggressive stance towards my competitors, trying to gain as much distance as possible on the weak ones, and blocking the racers of comparable strength from passing me.
After the first lap, I was doing just fine and I forced myself passed a group of carefully pacelining Frenchmen. In the end, I finished in 13:48 (averaging 20.6 mph!!!) I was exhausted, but thrilled with my new-found knowledge that I could go that fast on a folding bike! Lest I seem a braggart, I might add that my performance was pitiful compared to the winner.
Because of an annoying downpour, Nava didn’t get to race in the eliminator. Instead, we congregated under the Brompton tent with everyone else. A Brompton folding competition that had hitherto gone unnoticed became the center of attention, and I even had a go, but only humiliated myself but still got a cheer out of the crowd. We biked home, arriving absolutely drenched. We dried off and went to bed. The next day, we would race in the main event, the Brompton World Championship.
In the morning, we put on our ties and jackets and headed to The Goodwood. Ties and jackets? To a bike race? What What WHAT?!
Bromptons are marketed to business people who want to commute to work on bicycles and want the convenience of stowing their bike anywhere (including under their work desk). We had spent only a day in London, but had seen several people commuting on their Bromptons in suits or dresses. True to this, the Brompton World Championship rules require every participant to wear a jacket and tie to the event, and no lycra whatsoever is permitted.
The Brompton World Championship was the main event of the weekend— 4 laps around the track for a total of 9.6 miles. As we arrived, we saw hundreds of dapper ladies and gentleman in their finest attire riding, wheeling or carrying a Brompton. There were Bromptons of all colors (truly a “Kumbaya” moment), titanium special editions, modified Bromptons with Dura-Ace groupsets, and even a recumbent Brompton.
About half the people had switched the standard flat pedals from clip-less pedals to go faster during the race. Many people had slick racing tires, which are quite a bit faster than our ultra-durable “marathon” tires, but are infamous for developing flats.
The outfits were very entertaining, and in some cases, hilarious. Nava spotted a bunch of Scotsmen in kilts, and we chatted briefly with a guy dressed as a bumblebee (his bike was also dressed up!) There were women in elegant dresses and birthday cake hats concealing their helmets and folks in Victorian-era tweed suits. In some cases, people just put on the most garish tie/jacket they could find. As we waited to check our bags, we saw a couple dressed as smurfs. Nava and I briefly entertained the idea of swapping clothes (at least we’d get some ‘shock value’ attention), but decided that the British may not yet be ready for such a bold and progressive statement.
We folded our bikes and parked them in designated spots on the lawn. The race start was a traditional “Le Mans” style, which means that competitors run to their bikes before unfolding and hopping on. This was great fun, except that some really competitive woman kicked Nava as we were running to our bikes. Very unsporting, old girl!
We stuck together, and went at a leisurely pace. We saw aircraft taking off and landing, a guy riding on a flat tire (poor guy), and hundreds of people having the time of their lives. At the end of each lap we passed a grandstand packed with cheering spectators. Somewhere in the middle of the second lap, the peleton (fast group) zoomed by us at a ridiculous speed.
For the final lap, we went at top speed, passing the elderly, fat and slow who were still riding. This also happened to be the best dressed group, so the scenery was great. We crossed the finish line, grabbed a drink and lay down on the grass to catch our breaths.
After the race, everyone spread out on the lawns to enjoy a proper English picnic: sandwiches and hot tea which they came around with in steaming teapots. It was about 85 degree. So British!
A couple of hours later, we assembled for a very entertaining awards ceremony. The winner of the big race was some guy who wins every year. He got a limited-edition Brompton. Much more entertaining were the smaller awards—bottles of Champagne for one of the other races, which were shaken up and sprayed onto the crowd and the best-dressed award, which went to a Seikh who dressed up as Aladdin. One awardee named Antonio decided not to show up, and the announcer, who was standing on the awards balcony, called “Antonio…Antonio…. wherefore art thou, Antonio?” We burst out laughing, partially out of amazement at the high-brow humor.
We had an amazing time in Chichester and at the Brompton races. It was a great opportunity to interact with slightly eccentric British people, who take their folding bikes way too seriously. Our lodgings were also memorable. For two nights we slept on a farm, with clean air, stunning pastoral views, and a feeling of being isolated from civilization. We had lots of opportunities to chat with our hosts Sue and Chris, and learned a lot about English country living which the Brits are so proud of.
More to come, stay tuned!
(Update: Read part 4!)