Monday, 27 June 2016

A few of our favourite places to cycle

Decathlon recently approached me and a few other cycling bloggers to find out our favourite cycling routes.

I found it hard to choose because I am always in awe of the landscape in the different places I go to. In the end I plumped for the Madonna del Ghisallo climb in Italy.

I have written about it on my blog previously, and you can get a summary of the ride description on the Decathlon website.

best cycling routes

The great thing is there are other interesting routes mentioned by the other bloggers. I am familiar with the South London route described by the London Cyclist blogger, and the route around Harrogate recommended by North Yorkshire Cycling blog.

The one that sounds really interesting though, is around Giant's Causeway (recommended by Cycling Northern Ireland). I have not had the chance to ride in Northern Ireland yet, but I have heard good things about the scenery there. That is one to put on my bucket list.

Here is a link to the article.

It would be interesting to hear what cycling routes you and your friends like to ride. Feel free to post your ideas in the comments.

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Thursday, 16 June 2016

Can-do girls - Gutsy cycle commuting in Dublin!

I recently put together an article on Total Women's Cycling website about commuting, in which different women around the world talked about their experience of cycle commuting in their city.

Beth in action at the Cyclo cross championships
Beth McCluskey, a university technical officer and Irish national cyclo cross champion based in Dublin had a lot to say about her rides around Ireland's capital. I must say I was impressed at her perseverance and tenacity to continue cycling around, particularly as it is only recently that cycle infrastructure in Dublin has improved. 

Statistics suggest that women are put off commuting partly because of the various hazards on the road. So I have a lot of respect for her to have continued despite the incidents she encountered. Chapeau!

The good news is that Dublin, like London has seen a significant increase in cycling in the city, and motorists are now more aware of cyclists - making it a less daunting place to cycle. 

'My commute is quite long - 30km each way. I start in a small town called Greystones in County Wicklow and cycle into St Stephens Green in Dublin city centre. It generally takes 60-70 mins depending on the wind direction. The last 30 minutes of the inward commute are along a bike lane on a very busy dual carriageway, and I have at least one near-death experience every day. 

I’ve had several accidents, all of which have happened while I was in the bike lane.  I have been cycling this route all year round for 15 years so I know every pothole on the road and every dangerous junction along the way. It wouldn’t be a commute I would recommend for a novice cyclist.

Most of the accidents I’ve had while commuting have been at junctions where the cycle path goes straight on at a left hand turn junction. Cars turning left assume they have the right of way and will turn left and expect the cyclist who has the right of way to stop. 

I expect this at every junction and I am hyper vigilant for cars who are indicating left, I will generally move as close to the right of the lane as possible and use my hand to signal that I’m going straight, if that fails and the car starts to turn I will slow down and if I can’t stop I’ll try to turn left with the car. I always try to stay in control and not to panic. If you panic and slam on the brakes you could go head first over the bike so I always try to stay in control of the situation. This has taken many years to master!

The other near miss I have is the “girl on a bike” syndrome as I like to call it, and it’s particularly bad if I wear a pink jacket. This happens when a motorist at a junction, a garage or a house is crossing the bike lane to get onto or off the road. They see a “girl on a bike” and assume I’m not travelling very fast as I’m just a “girl on a bike” so they shoot out across the lane right in front of me.  

Well, I’m travelling at 25-30km an hour so even if they see me 100m away, by the time they decide to move I can end up right on top of them in an instant! So I always have to be on the lookout for drivers like that, and try to make eye contact whenever possible to make sure they see me.

Dealing with traffic hazards
The ‘punishment pass’ is another regular thing I encounter on my commute, whereby a driver will deliberately pass too fast and close to “teach that cyclist a lesson”. This can be quite scary for a novice, but I’m used to it by now. 

My tactic for dealing with that is to always allow myself a buffer space to move into if a car comes too close, so I never cycle really close to the edge of the kerb. I always take a position which gives me some “get out of danger” space between myself and the kerb if I need to take evasive action.

As I draw nearer to the city the pedestrians pose more of a danger than the cars. Drivers in Dublin city have become quite observant and mindful of cyclists in the last few years, but pedestrians plugged into music and looking at their phones, texting, talking, taking selfies etc. are a real danger to themselves and to cyclists as they wander out onto the road without paying attention. 

This has become even more prevalent in the last two years I’ve found, as we get increasingly addicted to technology. People feel the need to be “connected”, but in fact they then become completely disconnected from the immediate environment. It’s a real problem!

Although I cycle quite fast I still ride defensively, I think every vehicle on the road has the potential to injure or kill me, so I never let my mind wander, I never wear earphones or let myself get distracted. I always wear a helmet and am well lit up in poor light.

I don’t get involved in commuter-racing as tempting as that might be on occasion. It’s a very dangerous thing to do as it distracts your attention from the dangers around you.

The cycling infrastructure in Dublin is not great. Driver attitudes are changing but there are still some who hate cyclists and think they have no right to be on the road.

Coca Cola Zero Dublin bikes have been hugely successful
Having said all that commuting by bike is a great way to travel. The Dublin bike-sharing scheme is brilliant. It has been the most successful scheme in Europe and there are plans to expand it. 
Bike-sharing has been great for city cycling as well as improving driver behaviour as there are now so many more cyclists sharing the roads with cars, taxis, buses.

My cycle commute forms part of my training. I can cycle 30km in the morning, then take a longer route to get home making a good 80-90km which is a good day’s biking.'

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Wednesday, 8 June 2016

Ride from London to London-by-sea (aka Brighton!) off-road

Here we go to Brighton!

Every year on a Sunday in mid-June thousands of people make the famous pilgrimage by bike from London to Brighton as part of a charity fundraising event. It's a great day out, and a chance for almost 30,000 riders of various abilities to challenge themselves on the 60-mile route from Clapham Common to Brighton seafront along country lanes and over the steep climb at Ditchling Beacon.

Many club riders, as part of a wider training plan to ride cyclosportives challenge themselves to riding to Brighton and back in a day.

So, the route to Brighton is a well travelled, and somewhat crowded road!

For those who want to ride off-road there is a way too. It doesn't start right in the heart of London, but rest assured you won't be cheated out of your 60 miles! It is also traffic-free, and very scenic.

Head for the Downs Link...

In search of getting in some beach action over the Spring Bank Holiday I set out on my gravel bike on the off-road route to Brighton. I cheated a little by not starting in London, but instead took the train to Shalford, just outside Guildford and started my ride there. Within a mile of leaving the station I was on the Downs Link, a disused railway line that runs down to the coast at Shoreham-by-Sea.

The route is generally well signposted, and goes through woodland, and many pretty villages where you can stop and go to a country pub or tea shop along the way.

As well as that, there are picnic sites and benches for a little breather. One particularly nice place to stop is the disused railway station at West Grinstead where there are picnic benches and tables, plus an information centre set inside a disused train.

Just like Bramley-and-Wonersh station earlier, West Grinstead also has the old platform, station house and signal box on show.

Further along, a cycle cafe at Partridge Green, Stan's Bike Shack is a great meeting point for off-road rider and roadie. It seems like every biker in Sussex turns up at this hang-out and swaps tales of their rides down to the coast so far.

For those on the Downs Link it is mainly a tale of pretty flowers, beautiful views, woodland birds and no steep climbs (apart from a short sharp shock at Rudgwick).

Some, particularly those out on family rides (of which there are many) may find this route a dream as it is scenic and has no technical challenges. Whereas those who have turned up on full suspension mountain bikes may find they are a little overequipped for this route which lacks any steep climbs, descents or technical single track to get into. Starting the Downs Link at St Martha's Hill, with it's steep climb and a tricky descent through sand may address the issue of a lack of anything testing.

...then into the hills

After that, it's a case of hang on until Bramber, three-quarters of the way along the Downs Link. At this point the Downs Link crosses the South Downs Way, and there, a world of technical challenges opens up!

Keen to throw in a bit of something technical, I decided to treat myself to a bit of South Downs Way. It would have been rude not to include some of this beautiful chalky ridge into my ride, even if I was just on my rigid gravel bike.

Beforehand, I stopped off to get some sustenance at Bramber, a very pretty village with picturesque castle ruins and olde worlde cottages.

Soon afterwards, I was at the foot of the first serious climb onto the South Downs, grinding my way up to Trudleigh Hill along with a few guys on mountain bikes who started the climb at the same time as me.

There we all were, honking our way up the trail which was dry, rutted, full of stones and bumps, and with an unspeakable gradient! One guy in front of me dismounted for a breather. As he was in my way, I had to do the same - but frankly, it was a welcome breather! I waited for him to get his breath back and restart the climb, so we both climbed up together - except that he ended up dismounting again, a few yards later. This time I wasn't going to stop, and so continued on, huffing and panting so loudly it made him jump when he turned around and saw me. Thankfully, he ducked out of the way to let me pass through, as I didn't have the breath to say "on your right".

I really had to wrestle my bike into a straight line and keep up the momentum on this relentlessly steep path, which at times made my back wheel spin. With my nose on the handlebars, I was determined to keep going and not put my foot to the ground until the summit.

The mountain biker's friend, who was further ahead, was also determined to keep going as he twiddled his way up the climb with his low mountain bike gears - also panting and huffing. I caught him, and hung onto his wheel, hoping he wouldn't bail out and cause me to stop.

Luckily he carried on to the summit, and the road went from excruciatingly tough to manageably steep, allowing us both to heave a big sigh as we got the worst part of the climb out of the way. Then I waved goodbye to him as he stopped to wait for his friends.

I felt thankful that this guy had kept me going on this challenge, and felt quietly impressed with myself that I had managed it on my gravel bike. When I had initially seen these mountain bikers at the water point at the foot of the Trudleigh climb they greeted me, though looked at me almost quizzically on my gravel bike as if to say "Are you sure you want to ride the South Downs Way on that? The Downs Link is back the other way, you know!" So it was ironic that I managed to outride these fully kitted up mountain biker blokes with gears a lot lower than mine.

Having successfully crested Trudleigh Hill on my gravel bike I felt emboldened about riding other climbs along the South Downs Way - as long as they didn't come too rapidly in succession! So I got through Edburton Hill and onwards to Devil's Dyke, which were slightly easier hills to do.

The vast majority of riders out on the South Downs Way were on mountain bikes, though I did see three or four people on cyclo cross bikes and we acknowledged each other like we were special kindred hardy spirits in a world of wussy full sussers!

I must say the vistas across the South Downs were beautiful, and it's always lovely to be up on the peacefulness of the hills while having a view of the sea way over in the distance.

Long way down

My trip across the South Downs was limited in the end, as I was keen to get down to the seaside and soak in some Sunday afternoon sunshine. I therefore turned off the South Downs Way after the Fulking climb and dropped down to Southwick via the Sussex Border Path, another rather scenic trail.

The hardest part of riding the South Downs Way on a rigid bike is all the bumps, particularly when going downhill. It's better to go down with minimal braking, as the bike floats along the tops of the bumps. However, too much speed would cause me to lose control and either crash, or I would hit a hole and cause the bike to break a spoke. So I had to brake a little bit - the problem then is even fractionally too much braking would mean a massive lot of jolting and a "headbanging" experience!

Sea at last!

Once on the seafront I had a big smile on my face as I got tantalisingly close to Brighton, rejoining the riders who had just come off the Downs Link. We rode along National Cycle Network route 2 via Shoreham Harbour to reach Brighton Pier, feeling pleased with our respective rides, and finally knowing that we had made it to that place in the sun.

It was great to be at my favourite weekend hang-out, Brighton. It has such a trendy feel about it just like the cool parts of London, except that you have this lovely coastline to go with it and there is laid-back relaxed atmosphere. In fact, a lot of people who work in London actually live in Brighton. I know, because I see them whenever I catch the packed Thameslink train into work! And then there are folks like me who live in London and like to go to Brighton at every spare moment. I look forward to meeting a genuine Brighton person who lives and works in Brighton!

An off-road bike-ride down to the coast is highly recommended. You can make it as easy or as tough as you like. The Downs Link would earn you a plate of chips, adding in one climb of the South Downs Way earns you fish and chips, but getting as far as Plumpton, especially on a cyclo cross/gravel bike definitely deserves the Full Monty! I hope to do that next time.

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Wednesday, 25 May 2016

Rail trails galore!

I recently wrote a 6-week series on rail trials around the UK for Total Women's Cycling website. The great thing I learned was just how many traffic-free trails we can enjoy by bike (or on horseback or walking).

We have Dr Beeching to thank for that. Following the closure of around 5,000 miles of railway lines in the late 1960s various authorities converted these disused railway lines into off-road, traffic-free cycle routes for our enjoyment. With around 1,200 miles of rail trails around the country that's a lot of traffic-free fun!

The trails are variable in length, surface, quality and difficulty. For instance the Alban Way between St Albans and Welwyn, in Hertfordshire is fully tarmacked, 7 miles long, and is designed so that children can ride from home to school safely. By contrast, the Downs Link, which starts near Guildford, Surrey, and runs down to the Sussex coast is around 40 miles long and is essentially a mountain bike route (though doable with a cyclo cross bike), so that one is more for the fitter, experienced cyclist.

The selection of trails I wrote about are on the women's cycling website and they include the Tissington trail in the Peak District, Forest Way in Sussex,  and the dramatic Cinder Track that goes between Scarborough and Whitby on the North Yorkshire coast.

One that isn't on there which I would recommend is the Hudson Way rail trail - a 10-mile trail between Beverley and Market Weighton in East Yorkshire.

I like this trail because it runs from one pretty market town in Yorkshire to another one. It is interesting to see the gradual change of landscape. When starting in Beverley you are on pan flat terrain in the outer reaches of the Humber Estuary, surrounded by arable fields. The area is pretty flat and it is possible to see far across the East Yorkshire plains. In fact, to the right you get a good view of the Sledmere grounds, with the Tatton Sykes obelisk rising up in the distance. By the end of the route the landscape has morphed into rolling hills of the Yorkshire Wolds.

There's pleasant woodland along the way, as well as a convenient stopping point at Kiplingcotes disused station, which still has a station house (now residential property), platform, and benches for a well earned picnic stop.

On the outskirts of Market Weighton is St Helen's Well, an ancient well that dates back to Roman times. I didn't have time to visit it, but it is an object of interest for the history buffs among you, particularly as it has been recently restored.

What was quite interesting to me were all the various colourful ribbons hanging from the branches of the tree near it. Leaving a piece of ribbon on the tree apparently brings you good health and good luck. I didn't have any ribbon on me, so I guess that's me doomed!

Still, it was a good afternoon. I was out on the Raleigh Mustang Sport gravel bike which I have been loaned for testing and I must say, it was a very comfortable ride. It certainly liked playing on the dirt track, and there were a few bits of single track where my skills were put to the test.

This felt the right bike for the job as it was robust and held it's place when trying to stay in the groove of the narrow track. Once in market Weighton I could have done another rail trail to go towards Bubwith and Howden, but time ran out on me so I just took the road route down to Brough and then got on a train to Hull. Again, being on the Mustang Sport was handy because although I had spent my afternoon on trails, which it does well on, it was still just about light enough to ride it quickly - which is what I needed as I was in a rush!

I will be back in the area to explore more trails in the near future, and will take some ribbon with me for the tree at St Helen's Well!

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Thursday, 19 May 2016

Joining the global commute on two wheels

Last Tuesday week I joined the tens of thousands of in 180 countries around the world for the Strava Global Bike to Work Day. I don't normally join these different challenges, but I fancied this one because it was really something that sits firmly within an activity I do a lot, and enjoy doing.

Disappointingly, in typical British style the sun shone on the Monday when I rode in, and it shone on Wednesday too. But on the Tuesday, the day of Global Bike to Work day it was tipping it down!

As it's a 10-mile ride from my house to the office in Clerkenwell I normally give myself a rule that I won't ride in if it's raining, given the distance (although I still ride in if the evening forecast is for rain).

So, really I would have abandoned my bike for the day. However, because it was Global Bike to Work Day and I had even gone to the trouble of signing up for it, I made a special effort to do my bit.

I took the Overground to Shoreditch High Street and then picked up a Santander Cycle (formerly a Boris Bike) for the 3km bike ride through Shoreditch to my office in Clerkenwell. It's handy that there was a docking station right outside my building, and even handier that I had no difficulty picking up a bike or finding space to drop off my bike at the end of my journey!

Because I knew it was going to be a wet ride I was well kitted out - in waterproof trousers, and also a new top from Wiggle - a dhb Aeron rain defence short-sleeved jersey. This was a great little number as the weather was quite mild so I didn't really need a heavy jacket with long sleeves. But the waterproof properties of the top kept me nice and dry.

In fact, I didn't find the rainy weather that bad at all, and ended up making a couple more journeys to enjoy London in all its glory through the dampness! Lunchtime saw me ride along the Regents Canal through Islington, and then in the evening I rode down through the City of London to get to London Bridge.

At the end of the day, my mileage was only 10km - a third of what I would do when cycling to work, but I was glad to have been part of this global phenomenon and to have registered my rides among the almost 80,000 cycle commutes and 1,350,000km made on 10th May. Better still, the UK was the country that garnered the highest level of participation, ahead of USA and Brazil. Look forward to doing another of these days - hopefully with a full commute to work in lovely sunshine.

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Tuesday, 17 May 2016

Can-do Girls! - Women's World Hour Record Breakers

Bridie O'Donnell - record breaker!
In the current issue of Cycling Weekly is my feature on the women's World Hour Record. I'm not mentioning this purely as a shameless plug, but I guess there's no harm in spreading the word!

The main reason why I give a call-out to this piece I wrote is because I was genuinely really impressed at the efforts that the different women made in their preparation for the event.

Of course, in history many women have attempted this feat, some of them, including current record holder, Evelyn Stevens had the backing of their professional team.

However, I wanted to give particular mention to the two women who broke the hour record in this recently - Molly Shaffer Van Houweling and Bridie O'Donnell.

Molly, a Dean and Senior law lecturer at the University of California, Berkeley broke the record in September of last year, and the record stayed until it was broken by Bridie O'Donnell, a doctor from Melbourne, in January during the Tour Down Under.

Although they are both very strong athletes at masters level in their respective countries, they are amateur athletes who had to juggle full time jobs, training for their regular local competitions, go round knocking on doors to obtain funding for the challenge, as well as live a home-life with their families.

Molly Van Houweling and husband Rob, set up a Kickstarter crowd-funding scheme to raise funds to carry out the project, which involved several trips to their temporary mountain base to acclimatise, and a few trips to the velodrome in Aguascalientes to do dry runs and attempt the pan-American record along the way. Even with financial help from friends and family they still had to use a large chunk of their own funds.

As for Bridie O'Donnell, she didn't do crowd funding but went round knocking on doors of local businesses and her bank to help with the cost to register with the biological passport scheme. As well as that, she spent valuable training time chasing up equipment suppliers around the world for the various components she needed - something that you would never imagine Bradley Wiggins doing in the run-up to his preparation to break the record last year. As for going up to a mountain base? Travelling from Australia up to a mountain base in the US or in Mexico was completely out of the question. So her attempt was done at sea level in a more local setting of Adelaide where she let the crowd, enthused already by the Tour Down Under, be her performance enhancer! She had to hope for the best as there had been no dry run, and her own coach had initially thought the odds were stacked against her.

Molly Van Houweling with Rob

There is always so much pressure on any athlete when they are attempting such a feat - particularly with the eyes of the world on them. But knowing that you got there by the good grace of friends and family and many other generous people who have given their free time to help you along the way, that must give an extra sense of motivation, but an even greater onus not to fail.

So I admire the fact that these two women were able to break the World Hour Record and get their name into the history books.

It just goes to show, it can be done even if you are not Bradley Wiggins or Jens Voigt!

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Monday, 16 May 2016

Bike Review: Boardman Team Carbon women's bike - great for a sportive

For my ride at the Etape Loch Ness I rode a Boardman Team Carbon Fi bike, kindly provided by Halfords.

I had ridden older versions of this bike in previous years, and was happy with the geometry so I knew what to expect. There is the eternal debate as to whether a women's specific bike is necessary for women, but for me it’s a no-brainer.

My legs are long in proportion to the trunk of my body, and bike geometry that caters to that gets my vote every time!

Having been apprehensive about my ability to get through the cyclosportive in a reasonable time, I believed that riding a light enough bike as well as low gears would be of significant help.

As this would definitely be a case of riding a bike that would get me out of trouble a carbon fibre frame was the right option for me - a lightweight bike for a lightweight!

The price of this bike is surprisingly low at under £1,000, and that may partly be explained by the use of lower-end Shimano Tiagra groupset. Overall,  the bike rode well, but sometimes I found the gear changing clunky compared with the old Shimano Ultegra that I have on my usual bike,  and I worried I might break or jam something. But everything worked okay and all my fussing had been for nothing!

Handling was good and the Team Carbon still had the sturdiness to hold the road even when it went over rough areas - of which there were a number of such sections, particularly in the first part of the route.
Wheels are the standard for a Tiagra gearset, and tyres are Vittoria Zaffiro Pro. With 10-speed compact chainrings and a weight of 8.8kg I had what was needed to get through the 66-mile cyclosportive comfortably.

The saddle is a Boardman women's-specific, though I would say, for a long ride it's best to get a saddle that suits you very well. A stock saddle was okay, but my derriere would probably have been happier seated on something it is more familiar with for a 4-hour+ ride! Saddles are a very specific piece of kit and while this saddle was okay for me, it felt different from my own usual women's specific saddle and it may suit some people more than others.

I have ridden the Team Carbon on training rides and then last weekend it was the horse I used when visiting a friend in Wokingham, Surrey. In fact the route I took as far as Guildford (from where I then caught a train) was the same route as Day 1 of the London Revolution cyclosportive. It was a gloriously sunny day so I was glad to be once again riding in favourable conditions.

I wasn't part of the cyclosportive, particularly as by the time I was setting off most of the participants had already passed by. However, I did see a lot of the support staff of the event that were looking after the backmarkers and slower riders. This route took me through the Kent and Surrey lanes which a lot of the local cycling clubs ride on any given weekend - Layhams Lane, Edenbridge, Lingfield, Horley, Ockley and then into the Surrey Hills via Ewhurst. If I wasn't visiting my friend that day I would have just signed up for the event as it would have been nice to do the whole thing with support from what appeared to be friendly staff and feed stations that were more like mini event villages with lots of facilities.

This route was a nice training ride for me as I was tested both going uphill - the long drag up Layhams Lane, and the very steep Pitch Hill in the Surrey Hills plus Guildford Lane (St Martha's Hill) which was not part of the event, but I took it to get to Guildford. I was thankful that the bike didn't weigh much at these points and the gears were low enough to get me over the short 20% stretches.  There were also the twisty descents of Titsey Hill, Okewood Hill and Pitch Hill to negotiate where you needed to have your wits about you. I had a lot of confidence in the Team Carbon and once again, it held the road very well on these sections.  

Overall, the Team Carbon is a good little bike for cyclosportives, which is what I have used it for in the past. I am sure it would be fine to race with as well as it has the lightness  and quickness for you to be able to react quickly in the changing dynamic of the bunch during a race (though I haven't tested it in that setting). The Team Carbon is good value for money and a great buy as a first "serious" road bike. Check out the full specifications.