Friday, 20 January 2017

room for improvement

One should never assume that a given endeavour, enterprise, project or venture cannot be improved, that whatever you’ve accomplished so far is the best you can do. Indeed, I spent the years between 1971 and 1984 promoting this philosophy as an instructor with Outward Bound. So how is it that I failed to live up to my own maxim with respect to the bike ride that I called ‘the long and winding road’?

Well, my excuse is that after I’d worked out the route, I didn’t do it that often anyway, preferring instead to concentrate on the journey to the west because it was longer and meaner, with some tough hills. However, because of ongoing problems with my knees this winter, I’ve been doing the shorter routes more often. And, inevitably, I started to wonder where paths went that I hadn’t paid attention to in the past, and whether I could incorporate them into the route.

The concept behind the long and winding road was to link the two roads that cross the area via narrow paths, and I’d managed to find three such paths between the two roads, meaning that it was then possible to follow all three in both directions (narrow paths present different problems, depending on the direction of travel). Those readers who are mathematically inclined will know that there are six possible ways of linking these three paths in both directions, assuming that you can’t immediately return along a path that you have just traversed, and this ‘rule’ was the motive for seeking a third link in the first place.

However, despite there being six different combinations, we always used to cycle the paths in the same order, mainly for historical reasons—this was the order in which the paths were originally explored. I did once turn right after crossing the river on the return leg of the third path. Almost immediately, I came to a short but steep hill, but this road led to the same place with little additional interest, so I didn’t think it worthwhile to incorporate it into the route:

However, a few days before Christmas, I decided to take another look. What I had failed to notice the first time was a rough track leading off to the right just before the top of the hill. When I followed it, I found that it led me first through the village of Lin Tong Mei (which, unsurprisingly, isn’t in the location indicated on Google maps), then through a series of quiet lanes, and finally, unexpectedly, to ‘the spiral ramp’. Here are two photos of Paula on this formidable obstacle, the gradient of which is well in excess of 30 percent near the top:

It’s also extremely narrow, and it’s difficult to hold the line. I failed on my first attempt, mainly because I wasn’t in the right gear, and you need to be in bottom gear from the start to have any hope of getting to the top. Needless to say, I proudly announced to Paula ‘a major upgrade to the long and winding road’ that evening. However, much to my surprise (and delight), there was more to come the following week.

Merely to avoid cycling on the road, I’d been following a narrow path on the south side of Tsiu Keng Road, the second of the two roads referred to above, for quite a while, but it was only what I would class as ‘routine’. However, there was a junction with another path halfway along. I’d previously glanced along it and decided that it looked like a dead end. You’d think I’d know better by now, but I thought that I’d better check it out after the success of my ‘major upgrade’. Everything seemed very straightforward at first, but what had started as an easy concrete path soon turned into a narrow dirt path between two fences. Then I reached the river, and it looked as though I could go no further, but on closer inspection I found a narrow concrete path, again between two fences. The surface of this path is convex, which makes some of the tight turns quite tricky, but I eventually reached the river again at ‘the iron bridge’. This isn’t as nerve-racking as it might appear in the photograph below, and the path continues across farmland until it reaches the main Fan Kam Road close to its junction with Tsiu Keng Road.

The following map shows the section of path between the main road and the river. The entire path, which is about 900 metres in length, can now be done in both directions.

The numbers on the map refer to the positions from where the five photographs in the following sequence were taken while following the path in the opposite direction to that described. The continuation of the path can clearly be seen sweeping across to the left in the first photo. In the fifth photo, the right-hand path is the correct one. The left-hand option is a dead end.

And this is a photo of Paula on the iron bridge, taken from the same position as the previous photo:

The next two photos were taken where the route returns to the river, and the final three where the path finally becomes easy to follow. The path west of the river shown on the above map is not accurately located:

*  *  *

It goes without saying that I was delighted to have found such a long, exciting addition to the long and winding road, but I also had something else to check out once I’d ridden along the new path described above in both directions. Next to the start of the alleyway that leads to the spiral ramp, there is another path, less obvious, that drops down to the right and out of sight. I quickly discovered that after about 10–12 metres it reaches a T-junction. I intended to find out eventually where both directions would lead, but I initially turned left here, and after many twists and turns I ended up in the large village of Hang Tau. I continued through the village until I found an alleyway that led to a bridge across the river:

This photo was taken from an early section of the original route, which then continued past the entrance to the footbridge. However, it was obvious that reversing the route I’d just followed would be a major improvement, although it would have been very difficult to find the start of the path had I begun my initial exploration from this end. The first three photos were taken before the path leaves the village:

Once out in the open, the path is easy to follow:

After passing the small group of squatter houses seen in the last photo, the path crosses a bridge over a major drainage channel. The following photograph, taken from the bridge, shows a Drainage Services access path on the right of the channel, which is where the route goes next:

At the end of this access path, the route crosses the channel via the bridge seen in the distance in the next photo:

…and continues up yet another narrow path:

…eventually reaching the T-junction referred to above:

*  *  *

Having added two new narrow paths to the route in a single day, I found myself lying awake on the next few nights trying to figure out the optimum way of linking everything together. Clearly, the second path I’ve described would have to come at the beginning, and although it would be possible then to continue with the original sequence of three paths, this would have involved a long (and boring) road sequence.

It made more sense to start with the third of the three original paths, but then if the ‘rule’ about not returning immediately along the same path were to be adhered to, then a simple topological analysis shows that it would be impossible to leave the return along this third path to the end, yet that would be necessary if I wanted to include the spiral ramp in the route. I solved the problem by including a traverse of the ‘iron bridge path’ between out and back traverses of the second original path. I included the traverse of the iron bridge path in the opposite direction immediately following the outward traverse of the third original path.

I mentioned earlier that narrow paths present different challenges depending on the direction of travel, but there is one section where I’ve decided to waive this procedure. The top of the path shown in the previous photo leads immediately to the spiral ramp, so I’ve included this extreme test of handling skill in the revised route at this early point in the overall journey. However, the first of the new additions to the main route, which I described earlier, also included the spiral ramp, although it originally reached the top of this slope via a different pathway. “Why not do the ramp twice?” I thought. And in the process of trying to rationalize the various options here, I found that I could reach the T-junction from the opposite direction simply by taking a longer approach route:

What’s not to like? I’ve included three photos of the T-junction because, although the slope is not excessive at this point, the turn, from both directions, will catch you out if you are not in a sufficiently low gear, but especially if you are coming from the direction indicated by this final photo. Then, to finish, the second path described above, in reverse, completes the route.

I asked Paula her opinion of the new additions to the route. Her verdict? “Hard work” and “technical”. When I took my Aussie friend Bernie around the original route last Easter, he rated it as “thrilling”. I’ve told him that he will need to do it again the next time he’s in town after I’d discovered the spiral ramp, but I haven’t yet told him about the other new additions. I wonder what he’ll have to say.

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