LEL 2017

London to Edinburgh and back to London on a bike in under five days. Yes really. The hardest most gruelling organised cycling event in the UK. And I entered. Run every four years since 1989 this 1400km audax event is tough, very tough and I’d spent two years planning to enter and ride the 2017 version.

Sunday 30th July 2017 – Loughton to Louth – 244.7km – 9h18m – 1,171m – 26.3kph

I’d opted for a 2.30pm start, thinking I would cycle to Spalding (160km) and sleep on that first day. My (as it turned out, vastly over-optimistic) plan had me maintaining a 21kph moving average which would give me 45 minutes per control and 6-7 hours per night for rest and recuperation.

There were about 40 riders per 15 minute start slot and we headed off from Loughton towards St Ives in Cambridgeshire. Bizarrely I managed to drop my chain the very first time I changed down to the inner ring, right amongst the starters, n00b.

After about 10-20km, as is usual on audax, riders start to find their pace and small groups start to form. I rode a good while with a couple of riders, one called Mark, and we shared the work load for the first leg. Rather faster than maybe we should have but we had a lovely tailwind so it was good to make the most of it.

Arriving at St Ives at 18:10, it was time to eat and have a chat with cycling buddy Matt Chambers who was volunteering there. According to my Strava I stopped for an hour. Returning to the road on my own the next leg was across the fens to Spalding in the evening light. Thankfully the wind was favourable and the long straight roads didn’t seem too bad. Progress was good, I averaged 28kph on this section, and arrived just after sunset at 21:24. Way too early to stop so pushing on was the obvious choice. The control was absolutely heaving with riders and with a small dining hall I didn’t stop long, around 30 minutes.

More flat fenland roads from Spalding with a favourable wind, I was on my own in the dark, I don’t mind that, I rather enjoy cycling on my own. At one point I couldn’t see any other riders and the route sheet wasn’t making much sense but my Wahoo was confident I was on the right route. In the dark I trusted the computer and it was a few km later that I spotted riders on a different road parallel to mine.

The flat roads had to end though and we hit the Lincolnshire Wolds, they didn’t seem that bad on that first day, some steep climbs but not very long and there were other riders around now, not much talking but the bonus of having other riders nearby helped with motivation.

Eventually I arrived at Louth at 01:47 and I was one control up on my plan, bonus. So I had hours in hand and could take a break. Another friendly face was volunteering here, Harry who’d had a nasty crash on my Harlequin Hack audax earlier in the year, he looked even more cream crackered than I did! It soon became clear why. Louth was under siege by hundreds of riders, they had run out of food and there were no beds available. This is when I made the biggest error of the ride. I decided to sit it out, some food did come out around 2.30am, mainly croissants and pastries and they were confident beds would become available at 3am. I did get a bed at 3.30am and opted for a three hour sleep and a 6.30am wake up call. Looking back this is completely bonkers, over confidence of an easy first day and a plan that would fall apart.

Monday 31st July 2017 – Louth to Barnard Castle – 232.8km – 10h54m – 2,067m – 21.3kph

It just seems crazy to me now that I wasn’t on the road until 7.08am on Monday morning. Instead of pushing on in the night to Pocklington I wasted hours at Louth. Did it make a difference later? Hard to tell. I was still on plan. BTW Louth had no food and not even coffee that morning, so it was on the road with only my own snack supplies of Soreen malt loaf to keep me going.

My original plan was to get to Barnard Castle on the second day, but I was a control ahead now so maybe I can get to Brampton.

The wind was less favourable today, more of a cross-headwind and the terrain was a lot hillier. Firstly to negotiate the Lincolnshire Wolds and cross the Humber Bridge. I needed something to eat, I found an ace bakery in Barton upon Humber, with sweet delicious pastries and coffee. The staff thought I was mad.

The Humber Bridge was fun, if breezy, but the roads from it northbound aren’t very pleasant. But the next control Pocklington isn’t that far away. I was there at 12:07 for some lunch. Could I have made Pocklington in one day with an afternoon start? Possibly.

The next leg to Thirsk was VERY tough. The route basically crosses the Howardian Hills past Castle Howard. Lots of steep, difficult climbs. I opted to stop at the optional control at Coxwold just after the worst of the hills, they had proper coffee in cafetieres, pizza and cake. It was also almost completely deserted. A few sleeping riders and a couple of other stoppers like me.

After this refreshment the short distance to Thirsk was quickly despatched arriving at 16:43 although I still managed to stop there for an hour for some reason. I can barely remember Thirsk, so not sure what I was doing!!

Onwards to Barnard Castle in the darkening evening. This bit wasn’t that hard as far as I remember, I was very tired so not too many memories of this section. There was a diversion for a closed road, a ford and an interesting wooden bridge just before Barnard Castle.

I arrived at Barnard Castle at 21:02 and I was done in. There was no way I could get across Yad Moss to Brampton in the dark that night without some rest. The control is in a massive old school building and is very grand. I had a good shower, good food and a bed for a few hours. I opted for a four hour sleep although I stuggled to actually fall asleep. Still I was still on plan and my average speed was still above target,

Tuesday 1st August 2017 – Barnard Castle to Innerleithen – 282.4km – 13h31m – 2,595m – 20.9kph

In the end I was up after around 3.5 hours and after a quick breakfast hit the road at 3am for the long long climb over the Pennines. An Indian rider who had lost his Garmin asked if he could tag along with me, I said follow me out of town and then just keep going as there wasn’t a whole lot of navigating to be done on this section. It was a recurring theme on the next day or so of riders with no routesheets, lost or dead Garmins wanting to tag along for a free ride. Most of them couldn’t hold my rear wheel for more than a couple of km and there was no way I was compromising my ride for their lack of preparedness. Selfish I know.

The climb was long but steady, I find these climbs easier than lots of short steep climbs, but it was raining and it was cold and I was a bit fed up. There was a rider lying under a space blanket at the summit with another rider with him asking if I was a doctor or if I had medicine, he’d already send a rider down to the next control to send up help so nothing I or the riders around me could do. I have no idea if he’d crashed or was hypothermic.

I started to think about all the hills I’d ridden so far and on the steep descents down to Alston and Brampton the prospect of having to climb them later in the week filled me with dread. I had a coffee and cake at a petrol station in Alston from which it’s a surprising long way still to Brampton. I arrived at 8.05am, cold, wet and miserable. At least I could dump my dirty clothes here in my drop bag. I’d had enough, totally wiped out and ready to pack it in. On the way into Brampton I had formulated a plan to ride onto Edinburgh and catch a train home, I actually cried on the road as I had failed, I couldn’t face the return journey, it was too hilly and too hard. I basically put all this down to my friends on Messenger who urged me to rest and eat and see how I felt. Maybe it was my state of mind but I found Brampton a rather depressing control as well, I had some food, sat in the corner on my own and sobbed. Time to MTFU.

I stopped for nearly an hour and a half, way beyond my plan. But I needed that break.

Thankfully the next section to Moffat is probably the easiest on the route, it goes via Gretna into Scotland and along the old A-road alongside the M74. A lot of riders complain about how boring this road was, I was just glad of some easy miles. I started singing to myself and started to feel a lot better. Apart from the water from Brampton that tasted like hosepipes things were starting to look up.

I arrived at Moffat at 12:58 after a snack stop in Lockerbie and this was my favourite control, jugs of milk, jugs of juice, cake, quality food. Bright, airy and modern. It was a joy and I stopped for 70 minutes, it’s hard to keep track of time in controls. At the time it felt like a short stop!!

This was the last control before Edinburgh. Another long steady climb up the Devil’s Beeftub on the A701 which wasn’t too tough and a long gradual descent into Edinburgh which should have been a joy except for the road surface which was APPALLING and almost unrideable in places, I swore to myself almost constantly along here, I started shouting “FFS fix your roads” to random passers by who must have wondered what the random English bloke on a bike was on about. The traffic was also getting heavier as I approached the city, it was rush hour and I had an English flag on the sign on the back of my bike, there were a few close passes. The route eventually took us onto a cycle route, but because it was now raining quite heavily it was rather muddy and not as pleasant as it could have been. An Italian rider had crashed into a bollard and was lying across the path with what was apparently a broken leg.

The final approach to the Edinburgh control was steep and busy but eventually I arrived at 17:57 just before a Biblical storm hit. Halfway and no chance I was going to quit now.

Again a longer stop than envisaged of around 75 minutes and into the Scottish Borders. The ride to Innerleithen was magnificent, beautiful scenery in the evening twilight, hilly but fantastic. I bumped into fellow YACF forumite and Dutch rider Ivo and we chatted for a while. I arrived at Innerleithen at 21:47 in two minds what to do next. The next control at Eskdalemuir was small and certain not to have beds but it would get the hilly miles between here and there out of the way and allow a shorter day tomorrow. But Innerleithen had good food, was warm and had beds. I could put on clean kit and have a sleep. I opted for this. I asked for a 2.30am wake up call.

Remarkably I was still not far off plan, Still averaging nearly 21kph and at the control I expected to be at this stage.

Wednesday 2nd August 2017 – Innerleithen to Pocklington – 326.2km – 17h19m – 3,042m – 18.8kph

Around this time I started paying more attention to the cutoff times on my brevet card, I had to be at Eskdalemuir at 07:39. I left Innerleithen at 3am with just a coffee and muffin for the lumpy section to Eskdalemuir. There was some light rain but as dawn broke the scenery was again stunning. River vallies, mountains and moorland. Beautiful. Eskdalemuir, arriving at 05:54, was small as expected but they had good breakfast food so I re-fuelled.

The route south through Scotland was different to the north but the next stop was Brampton again, the ride here was generally downhill along the Esk valley but with a few tough lumps to get over. I got to Brampton at 9.31am with almost exactly 3hrs in hand.

This is when I made my second big error of the ride which almost cost me dearly. I had bag drops at Pocklington and Brampton with clean kit in each, plus a set of clean kit in my saddle bag. I had now used all of this kit apart from the stuff left at Pocklington. When I packed my dropbags I was going to put two jerseys in each but opted at the very last minute to only put one in each. At Brampton I now dumped all extraneous clothing, dirty or otherwise into my drop bag, this would save me weight for the climbing to come. I think I had a spare pair of socks, nothing else. It wouldn’t matter I had clean, dry kit at Pocklington and I had to get there tonight as the cutoff was 5.50am, if I didn’t get there tonight I would DNF.

On the way to Alston it started raining, I found this section unbelievably dull for some reason, I put all my wet weather gear on, waterproof gloves, shorts, gilet and jacket. I stopped again at the petrol station at Alston for fortification for what was to come. The hideous climb up Yad Moss.

Steep, long and hard and then the weather really went to shit. Torrential rain, low cloud and strong winds. It was horrendous. Luckily it wasn’t actually that cold. But I was soaked through, my waterproof kit was OK for summer showers and light rain. It was not designed for monsoonal rain and wind. Someone had helpfully mentioned earlier that the weather was going to be bad and I thought if this continues for the rest of the day my ride is over. There was no way I was ever going to get to Pocklington that day, I swore as I’d realised how stupid I’d been not to leave some dry kit (even if it was dirty) in my saddle bag. That mistake was going to cost me.

The descent in the rain and wind was horrific. I’d never cycled in worse. Eventually arriving in Middleton in Teesdale I spotted some bikes outside a café and stopped. It was some riders I had spoken to a couple of times at controls. The café owner kindly turned the heating on full and hung our jackets in a warm room, I ate toasted tea cakes and drank coffee whilst drying out a bit. We all agreed the conditions were the worst any of us had ever cycled in. The rain was stopping and I started to feel a bit more positive, let’s see how it is at Barnard Castle.

After a decent break, it was VERY cold starting off again for the lumpy few miles to Barnard Castle (arrived 16:53) where the Sun started to come out. I could hang up my jackets and dry out a bit. I ate and rested. I still had a couple of hours in hand despite the conditions. But I still had to get to Pocklington around 120km further on.

The next control is Thirsk and the route there is fairly straightforward, the Sun was out and it was warm, I dried out. I was very lucky with the weather here. I made decent progress but I don’t remember it well. Again Thirsk hasn’t left strong memories and I arrived there at 20:58. I do remember being very tired but I had to push on to Pocklington that night.

Thank goodness I met up with Glaswegian Neil Mcdade (GG18) soon after setting off, we were both 2.30pm starters so were both in the same boat about getting to Pocklington that night. We were both extremely tired and the Howardian Hills are extremely hard. We talked nonsense for hours to keep each other awake, we took breathers together and eventually we dragged ourselves into Pocklington, it had taken us five hours to cover the 67km. If I hadn’t ridden with Neil then I don’t think I would have made it, he was a ride saver and I’m forever grateful for his company that night.

We arrived at 2.08am. I had to sleep, but I wanted to shower and get into clean kit. Unfortunately the school at Pocklington is set over several buildings and it was a long walk outside for a cold shower with no clean towels, and then another long walk to the cold sleeping hall.

I did however get a couple of hours sleep and was up at 5.30am (three and a half hours after arriving) to set off again. My average speed was now well down on my plan.

Thursday 3rd August – Pocklington to Loughton – 362.1km – 19h23m – 2,191m – 18.7kph

After a quick breakfast I was riding again by 6am. How the hell I managed this day I still don’t know, the previous day had been massive and I was now faced with an even more massive day.

The hills were becoming ever more painful, my right ankle was very sore and each pedal stroke was agonising. The ride was becoming torture. The Yorkshire Wolds are tough. I stopped again at the bakery at Barton upon Humber, the cheery shop assistant glad to see me again, I ate like a horse from their sweet and savoury selections.

The wind was also getting up, it was bonkers windy across the Humber Bridge and it was getting worse. The Lincolnshire Wolds to Louth were absolutely the worst hills on the whole route, progress seemed so slow and painful now, this was a real test of willpower. I got to Louth at 12:10, my average speed seemed pitiful, six hours to do 100km. The ride was now a war of attrition.

The food selection at Louth wasn’t great again but I had a 45 minute nap at a table.

The wind was now atrocious, galeforce gusts bringing down branches and the Fens lay ahead, it was going to be a headwind. I met up with Neil again on the road to Spalding and we rode together on and off throughout. I got some food from a co-op in Horncastle.

My ankle was now really hurting badly, I tried pedalling one legged but I couldn’t keep it up for long. I plastered it with Voltarol in a bus shelter, and started to munch Ibuprofen. It wasn’t until I combined this with Paracetamol that the pain began to subside.

The wind across the Fens to Spalding was horrendous, very very hard cycling. The last 20km especially was into a block headwind. But I had a second wind myself and decided to power it out and fight the wind and not let it beat me. I managed to grab the wheel of a local bloke on his mountain bike for a few km respite, he couldn’t hear me ask permission as he had earphones in so I don’t know what he thought. We must have looked a right pair!! He was riding strong into the wind.

I got to Spalding at 18:22 with just over two hours in hand. The wind was abating and the route changes direction slightly from here so maybe it wouldn’t be too bad? I left after about an hour. Good food here. Club mate Hugh Falkner was on volunteer duty here so we had a quick chat and he took a few photos of me.

The ride onto the levees towards St Ives as the Sun was setting was fantastic, so beautiful.

As it became dark though I hit the long straight roads across the Fens, I kept looking at my Wahoo willing the distance to disappear. This was probably the most boring section of the whole ride, total tedium. After what seemed like an eternity I got to St Ives at 22:55. Time to formulate a plan. I knew my average speed now was going to be around 18kph, It had been for the last couple of days. I had about 12 hours to get back to London and about 8 hours cycling left. If I ate had a nap here and left in a couple of hours, it would be 5 hours to Great Easton, nap, 3 hours to Loughton and I should finish about 9.30am with a cutoff time of 11:35am.

I ate, and slept at the table and left for Great Easton at around 1.30am. The cycleway alongside the guided busway towards Cambridge was extremely dull in the dark and I was struggling to stay awake.

Luckily once I got to Cambridge the novelty of cycling through the deserted city in the early hours of the morning kept me awake. I had a drink and snack at a 24hr petrol station in Trumpington. The route profile from here suggested a gentle incline to Great Easton and for the first section through Duxford that was pretty much it. I was extremely sleepy though and was going slower and slower, was starting to hullicinate and I had to take a break. I broke my audax hotel virginity at 4am, I found a wooden bus shelter with a nice flat bench, propped the bike up and set myself a 30 minute alarm. I fell asleep instantly.

That 30 minutes did me the world of good though, I was much quicker and fresher even for that short break. The route was cruel though and there was some very nasty hills just before Great Easton. I got there at 05:24. I had been cycling for nearly 24 hours with barely any sleep in two days. I ate some cornflakes but couldn’t face anything else and crashed on the classroom floor. I slept for about an hour, I wanted to leave at 7am to coordinate meeting my family at Loughton. When I re-entered the dining hall Neil had just arrived having also just cycled through the night.

I tried to eat some toast, but my body didn’t want to eat. I packed my kit for the last time and started the 48km to Loughton. The Sun was out, it was warm. The first third of the ride passed quickly. The traffic around Stansted Airport wasn’t great, I started to worry I’d get taken out by an Essex man in his van this close to the finish. I also started panicking I might get a puncture. My hands were virtually crippled by this point and with only about an hour in hand a puncture would see me DNF as it would take me an hour to change an inner tube even if I could.

The middle third of the ride was very hilly, up and down, up and down. It felt like cycling in treacle, I just wanted to finish.

The last third didn’t seem quite so bad but I started to distance watch, the last 10km seemed to take forever. But there were only a few instructions left on the routesheet and adrenaline started to kick in and I sped up, I nearly came a cropper on a speed hump as I entered Loughton, how awful to have fallen so close to the end. I sprinted like a nutter up the final slope to the finish. I crossed the line, my family were waiting, I waved. I had finished with about 90 minutes time in hand.

The Statistics

Distance = 1,448.2 km

Cycling time = 70h 27m

Total time = 115h 17m

Stopped time = 44h 49m

Average moving speed = 20.56 kph

Overall average speed = 12.56 kph

Interestingly when I was moving my average speed was pretty close to my estimated 21kph. It was the stopped time that made it so hard on the return south. Longer and more frequent stops were required as I became increasingly tired and sleep-deprived. I took over an hour at nearly every control and probably at least another hour on each leg southbound taking rests, shop and snack stops etc.

Conclusions

Physically I have bad cyclists’ palsy, with numb fingers and toes. A sore swollen ankle and a general feeling of being spaced out and weak even several days later, I blacked out and was violently sick Tuesday night.

Easily the hardest thing I have ever done, not necessarily due to the distance or hilliness which I could cope with but the short time in which to do it and to try and fit in eating, sleeping, resting etc. I can see improvements in technique and equipment I would make if I ever tried it again (I won’t!).

Massive thanks to my wife and children for supporting me in this mad adventure, I couldn’t have done it without you. Thanks to all my friends and family on Facebook and Messenger, your messages of support and letting me know my time in hand was incredibly useful. There were some really tough moments and your help got me through.

Observing Asteroid Occultations

You’ve probably seen me wittering on about asteroid occultations at some point or other, or you’ve seen the links to my results page on the left. Maybe you’ve even read my Asteroid Occultation 101 page and still have no idea how it’s done or why.

It’s rather complicated but the idea of this post is to try and explain how I observe asteroid occultations.

Let’s have a look at a schematic of my setup. Click to see the full size version.

Schematic of Asteroid Occultation Equipment

I told you it was complicated! Basically what we have here is a computer controlled telescope. The laptop controls the pointing of the telescope mount via software (Cartes du Ciel). This allows me to find and point the telescope at the star I want to observe. The gamepad is used as a remote control for fine movements to align and centre the star in the field of view.

Another piece of software (FocusPal) controls a motorised focuser on the telescope so I can keep the star in focus without having to touch the telescope which would cause it to move and vibrate.

The third bit of the jigsaw concerns the video recording aspect. A very sensitive video camera (Watec 910HX) records what it sees through the telescope, it’s sitting where I would put an eyepiece if I was observing visually. The camera is clever in that it can do internal frame integrations. It can take exposures of up to five seconds allowing fainter stars to be observed. Typically exposures of 0.16s or 0.08s are used.

The video signal passes through a Video Time Inserter (VTI) which adds a GPS accurate time stamp onto the signal. I want to record the video on the laptop so the analogue video signal passes via an Analogue to Digital (A/D) converter to the laptop. VirtualDub software is used to record the digital video signal and because the raw video would result in huge files a non-lossy compression codec is used to reduce the file size somewhat (Huffyuv codec).

Once this is all setup and working and I’ve found the star I want to observe I get a 728×576 25fps video recording of the event. I usually take a four minute recording centred on the predicted time. This allows for time errors and/or the possible discovery of asteroid satellites.

A still image from a typical recording looks like this.

I usually put the target star right in the centre of the frame, as I have done above. It needs to be visible but not saturated. Using the camera controls I can adjust the exposure, gain and gamma settings to get a good signal to noise ratio. The timestamp from the VTI can be seen lower left. The time this frame was recorded was 18:23:02.0866 on the 17th February 2015. Accurate timing is essential for asteroid occultation observations. It can be done with radio signals or even a synced PC clock but a 1 pulse per second VTI makes it a whole lot easier.

A few years ago if the observation was positive (the asteroid passes in front of the star) I would have to bother myself with complicated calculations of internal camera delays (see video exposure time analysis). Thankfully it’s a lot easier now with software which automates a lot of the processes.

Firstly I run the video through Tangra 3. This piece of software measures the light output of the target and comparison stars. If the result is negative the light output of the target star (flux) will essentially be a flat line (with random noise) and that’s the end of the processing. The result is reported to the PlanOccult mailing list as negative.

If the result is positive the light output of the star will drop to zero or to that of the asteroid alone. A light curve of a positive result is shown here.

The cyan line shows the light output of the target star. As the asteroid moved in front of the star the light output dropped to that of the asteroid alone. The yellow, green and pink light curves are for nearby comparison stars which are also visible in the video recording.

As this is a positive result I needed to take the data from Tangra 3 (basically a text file of light output values) and import it into the Asteroidal Occultation Time Analyser (AOTA) module of Occult 4 software. After setting some parameters this very clever piece of code automatically looks for occultations in the data, finds them and works out the time of disappearance and reappearance of the target star. It can then correct the times taking into account the internal time delays of the video camera.

The output from AOTA looks like this.

Hey presto, the times are calculated and all that’s left to do is fill in a report form with the observation details and result and send it off to the PlanOccult mailing list. A few days later the result will appear on the European Asteroidal Occultation Results page (euraster.net). Every so often the results are compiled and appear in a peer reviewed journal with my name in the contributers list for use by professionals and future observers.

Easy innit!

Well it is easy once you’ve got the hardware and workflow sorted. It typically takes me less than 20 minutes from the predicted time of occultation to be up and and running and ready to record. Having a permanent setup helps enormously. It means I have been observing many more low probability events that I wouldn’t have bothered setting up for before. I’m still waiting for my first <10% probability positive result though! In fact positive results are rare, about 1 in 20 of my observations have been positive. But the next one could herald a major discovery. The first set of rings around an asteroid were discovered in 2013 using pretty much exactly the same methodology as described above. Maybe I’ll discover the second…

An Insight to PixInsight

A colleague and fellow astroimager (Welford Observatory), with whom tips and tricks in the coffee lounge at work are exchanged, suggested I try PixInsight (PI) for processing some astroimages. I tried the demo version once before and I, like many others before me, found it very complicated and daunting and gave up quickly.

He pointed me towards Harry’s Astro Shed as he has posted various get you started video tutorials for PI. So I bit the bullet, paid for a licence (£lots) and got stuck in.

Yes, it’s still very complicated but with Harry’s help I also discovered it’s very powerful. The calibration routines for applying bias, dark and flat frames to the raw data are the best I’ve ever used. Move over Nebulosity 3 you’ve been outdone.

After practicing on some old images it was time to try it out on some new data using the recommended workflow.

The first thing to do was to take a new library of dark frames. They shouldn’t change from one imaging session to another so you can take them, create a master for different exposures times and they can be used over and over again. I did these on a cloudy night, a bit time consuming but the system can be left to do its thing.

The next night was clear so I decided to have a go at the region around the Horsehead Nebula in Orion. This is a region full of nebulosity which responds well to H-alpha filters. I took 36 exposures of five minutes each, not really long enough for faint nebulosity but I wanted to get as many exposures as possible in one go as a test of PI.

I’m often a bit lazy when capturing flats but I was careful to make sure I got good ones and then calibrated, registered and integrated the images in PI. With some histogram stretching, denoise and contrast enhancement I’ve ended up with possibly the best astroimage I have ever taken.

Horsehead Nebula Region

Be sure to click through to Flickr and see the full resolution version.

I’m now a total PI convert, it’s expensive and complicated but now I’ve got a hang of the basics there’s no stopping me now!

 

Sport Is Bad For You

I suppose it had to happen at some time. I have a sports injury. I fully expected to get injured running at some point, everyone seems to suffer injuries running. Cycling less likely, unless I crashed or got knocked off. But injured at table tennis? Wasn’t expecting that. I’ve played league table tennis for 30 years and I’ve never missed a match through injury. I suppose I’ve had a good run so should be grateful for that.

Hearing your calf muscle audibly pop, feeling the pop and instant searing pain is not a good sign. I wasn’t doing anything different to what I’ve done thousands of times before, reaching for the ball to return my opponent’s shot. Maybe I wasn’t properly warmed up and the room was cold. Maybe the 10 mile run the day before and left me vulnerable to injury.

It’s very frustrating as it’s totally ruined by preparation for my first half marathon at the end of March. And it’s quite likely that I won’t be able to run it now. I’m just going to have to see how the injury goes in the next couple of weeks, hopefully I’ll be able to do some gentle exercise quite soon. I might need to get some specialist therapy, e.g. ultrasound, to help the recovery.

Meanwhile I’m hobbling around on a crutch.

2014 Cycling Summary

Time to look back at my 2014 cycling stats.

The major achievement of the year was completing Randonneur Round the Year which is an award for completing a 200km or longer audax in each of twelve consecutive months.

In total I cycled 5,080 miles (8,176 km) which easily surpassed my previous best in 2014 of 4,516 miles. The cumulative monthly mileage is shown in the graph below.

2014 Cumulative Mileage

Other than May 2009 which includes my LEJOG I was ahead of every previous year. I cycled 847 miles in June, my highest monthly total since May 2009.

A heatmap of my cycling in the UK for 2014 shows where I cycled. Areas of yellow and orange show where I cycled most frequently. Purples are roads I cycled once or twice.

2014 UK Cycling Heatmap

As is usual the ‘hottest’ part of the map is close to home including my commuting routes. Several audax rides can be picked out in the Midlands and away rides with CTC Wantage can be seen scattered around the country.

I also went to France with CTC Wantage where we cycled near to Carcassonne with one memorable ride on the French and Spanish coast. One ride in central France isn’t shown in this map of the rides from that trip.

2014 France Cycling Heatmap

In summary my stats for 2014 were as follows.

Rides 172
Days Ridden 120
Total Distance 8,176 km (5,080 miles)
Total Climb 68,274 m (223,996 ft)
Total Time 359h 29m 50s
Longest Ride 276 km (171 miles)

My plans for 2015 took a blow when my brother died suddenly in December, we rode together and had planned to ride the National 400 audax together in July. However I’ve kept my run of 200km audax going and I might attempt back to back RRtY. I also want to try and ride a 300km audax to complete Randonneur 1000 for the season.

(357439) 2004 BL86

There are currently (as of 11th Feb 2015) 1544 Potentially Hazardous Asteroids (PHAs). These are small bodies that have the potential to make threatening close approaches to the Earth.

Most are very small, from a few metres to a few tens of metres across, but there are quite few larger ones a few kilometres across. Clearly if one of these larger bodies hit the Earth it would make a mess. A big mess. Fortunately no PHAs are known to be on a collision course with the Earth.

2004 BL86 is one such PHA which was thought to be around 600–700m across. It’s orbit is known well enough that it has been given a numeric designation (it’s name means it was discovered in 2004 and BL86 is a sequential tag indicating it’s order of discovery in that year).

On 26/27 January 2015 it made a close approach to Earth, about 3.1 times the Earth-Moon distance away at closest. Small asteroids come close to Earth all the time, often closer than this, but what made this one unusual was the size of the object. This large size meant it would be bright enough to be readily visible by amateur astronomers.

As it approached Earth professional observatories started observing the asteroid using radar and it was discovered that it was an almost spherical object (unusual for small bodies) around 325m across. They also discovered it has a small moon (this is not unusual for PHAs).

After observing the asteroid visually through my telescope (likely to be the highest numbered asteroid I will ever view visually) I took a couple of videos using my asteroid occultation setup and a sequence of 20s images taken 20s apart. Once aligned and stacked these images show the asteroid’s movement as a dashed line.

(357439) 2004 BL86
The asteroid appeared about as bright as a 9th magnitude star (typically stars down to 6th magnitude are visible naked-eye from a very dark site).

Horsehead Nebula

B33 – The Horsehead Nebula

Imaging opportunites have been few and far between this autumn. Whenever it has been clear there has been a bright Moon, it has been too windy or I’ve been busy. But at last we had a clear night with no Moon and I could finally image something!

My choice was the Horsehead Nebula in Orion. An object I’ve not imaged before. The Horsehead is a famous dark nebula (Barnard 33) shaped like a horse’s head which is silhouetted in front of a huge bright emission nebula (IC 434 or Sh2-277) known as the Flame Nebula. The whole complex surrounds Alnitak which is the lefthand star in the distinctive line of three stars that make up the Belt of Orion. The Horsehead is found just below Alnitak.

I imaged using my QHY22 camera and a H-alpha filter. This filter only transmits light from a specific deep-red visible spectral line. This light is emitted when a hydrogen electron falls from its third to second lowest energy level. H-alpha light is interesting to amateur astronomers as it’s emitted by emission nebula and local light pollution (even moonlight) won’t interfere with the imaging. By imaging using a H-alpha filter you can get great images of nebulae with high contrast. The payoff is that you need long exposures (typically 5-15 minutes each) and for that you need really good auto-guiding.

Auto-guiding involves using a second telescope mounted in parallel to the imaging telescope with a second camera taking continuous short exposures (typically 1-2s long). Using a clever bit of software the position of a ‘guiding star’ on each exposure is compared to the previous and if it has moved due to errors in the telescope tracking the rotation of the Earth the software automatically applies a correction to the position of the telescope so that the star remains exactly in the same place whilst you are imaging. Without guiding you are limited to shorter exposures of around one minute each as the errors in tracking add up and the stars will start to trail slightly.

My guiding setup has been working really well since I set up the Starshed Enterprise and I can usually get five minute exposures with no visible star trailing. To reduce noise in the resulting image you need to stack as many exposures as you can get and I typically aim for a minimum of 20 exposures. Twenty exposures of five minutes each is around two hours of imaging including taking dark frames for calibration.

It’s preferable to get all of the imaging done before the object crosses the meridian (due South) as although you can continue imaging for a while afterwards eventually the telescope tube will hit the mount and you have to perform what is called a ‘Meridian Flip’. This involves re-pointing the telescope from the eastern hemisphere to the western hemisphere and is a bit of a faff. On this evening I started early enough and the Horsehead was far enough east that I didn’t need to perform a flip for two hours worth of imaging.

In the end I managed to get 19x300s exposures. I had to stop as the secondary mirror was completely dewed up (a bit like how a bathroom mirror steams up after a shower). I could have cleared it with a quick blast from a 12V hairdryer but the whole observatory was dripping with dew and it was close to flip time so I packed up. I need to experiment with heaters or fans to prevent dewing up of the secondary as it has been a bit of a pain.

Capturing, stacking and processing was all done in Nebulosity 3. The resultant image is still a little bit noisy (grainy) but I’m pretty pleased with the result. I plan to capture some more exposures at some point to improve the image further. I might even be able to take some of the surrounding area and create a mosaic image as the nebulosity stretches way beyond the field of view of my setup.

M51 – Whirpool Galaxy

I’ve been taking some images from the Starshed Enterprise when it has been clear over the past few weeks. Experimenting with different settings etc. I’ve now got a nice system going, autoguiding is working well and I’m starting to get some nice images.

Messier 51 (Whirpool Galaxy) was the first galaxy shown to have a spiral structure when in 1845 Lord Rosse observed it with his giant 72″ telescope in Ireland. It is found in Canes Venatici below the tail of Ursa Major (the handle of the Big Dipper) so is well placed for observing at this time of year as it’s almost directly overhead. It has a smaller companion which it is interacting with (NGC 5195) seen as the compact galaxy at the end of a dark dust lane in one of the spiral arms. Tongues of material are being thrown out from the system as they interact, three distinct fingers can be seen stretching upwards in my image.

M51 - Whirlpool Galaxy

First 5k Race

I took up running (again) in January. This time properly by joining the Didcot Runners club’s improvers group which has helped me enormously with pacing, increasing my endurance etc. The “reward” for finishing the course was participating in the Abingdon Parkrun, my first timed 5k race. I had run 5k on my own and with the club a few times and got close to beating 30 minutes so that was my target for Saturday.

I set off aiming to run the first three km at around 6min/km pace and then I would up that to around 5m20s/km for the final two km. In the end that is pretty much exactly what I did, thanks to having a Garmin Forerunner which meant I could keep an eye on my time and pace!

I finished 85th from 146 starters (I was the 57th male to finish) in a time of 28m50s which was very pleasing. I deliberately didn’t push myself too hard and was keeping it comfortable throughout so I know there’s a bit more to be had still. I have to say how excellent the Parkrun system is, very friendly and very well organised, I’ll be there again for sure!

My first 10k race is in May, I’ve not actually run that far yet so I will be looking to up the distances I go out for over the next month!