Saturday, 30 October 2010

Off-Roading Again!

Cyclo cross season in London has been going since mid-August, but I've only just got round to commenting on it.

I've done a couple of races and other cyclo cross events. It's been fairly slow for me, but happy to say I haven't had any rear mech snapping so far and the weather has been largely ok. We were especially blessed at the race in early October at Hog Hill, where the sun came out and the rain stopped for one hour between the torrents while we raced. Needless to say we were all covered in mud and my bike was unrecogniseable afterwards! But it was fun!

Anyway, my first cyclo cross event was the Tour of the Cornfields. It took place near Royston on the Essex/Hertfordshire border. I'd describe it as a mild answer to Paris Roubaix - riding along largely flat windy roads which were interspersed with off-road sections round farmfields. The 60-mile ride did what it said on the tin. It was well organised and I'd recommend it, especially as it set me up nicely for the cyclo cross season.
Conditions were pretty dry, which meant was hard on the bones (and on the bike), but on a muddy rainy day this could be a real challenge! Thanks to Mark and Stevie Wyer for putting on a great event.

Patrick at Cycling Weekly magazine asked me for a few words about the event and I gladly obliged!

Hope to do it again next year.

Wednesday, 27 October 2010

Painful Moments on Yorks Hill

It was actually a painful 3 minutes and 45 seconds that I spent on Yorks Hill for the Catford Hill Climb. It wasn't that quick (the winning lady was about a minute quicker than me) and it hurt alot!!

When they pushed me off from the start line I gave it a lot of welly and momentum for all of 20 metres - that was easy! But then the false flat changed very quickly to hill and then stupidly steep hill. About half way up I felt sick and had that awful "how will I get to the top now??" feeling, just when the crowds were getting thick. I could vaguely hear the commentator shouting out my name as I was approaching. Oh God, I had no escape as I heard the cheers (and the jeers) while I hauled my heavy body with my light bike up the 25% slope. I was in pain but had to shut down my brain and switch to machine mode. With mouth hung open, eyes with a vacant stare, sweat and snot trickling down my face I ground up the hill. The path was really narrow, as people crowded the tight lane. Somehow they shifted out of the way just as my wheel reached them - good job, as I wasn't going to change my line! After what seemed like an eternity I saw the chequered flag and the finish line.

I rolled over, all hypoxic, gasping for breath. My legs were like jelly and I could barely hold myself up.

A few people came up and said well done, but I barely had the breath to reply to them. So I'll thank you people now!
Anyway, I managed it - through all the anxiety, nerves and humiliation I got to the top, and I was relieved!

Maybe one of these days I will be able to hill climb gracefully and quickly like those Tour de France guys - Maybe not!

Thursday, 21 October 2010

Travel Notes - Burgundy to the Alps: A Washout!

Monday 16th August

Bourg en Bresse - Les Rippes - Certines - La Trancliere - Priay - Chateau-Gaillard - Amberieu-en-Bugey = 20 miles
Train from Amberieu-en-Bugey to Aix-les-Bains

My arrival in Bourg en Bresse initially was a celebration that I had made it after what had looked like it would be a big wet one.

The historic town centre is very picturesque and lent itself very well to being photographed. So that's what I did for the first half an hour after I arrived there.

Being under the warm sunshine among 15th century buildings in the narrow walkways was a rewarding way to end the day's bike ride.

Sadly, all this was very shortlived. Within the space of 10 minutes the sky turned black, and worst of all the sky looked even blacker in the area where I was headed!

Like a fox trying to evade the hounds, I pedalled as fast I could to try to beat the rain, but I was very quickly caught. The raindrops were heavy and beat down on me hard as I tried to find anywhere that I could shelter.

If I'd known where I was going I would have continued to the hotel, however no one around here seemed to know where the Formule 1 hotel was. After a couple of hours sheltering in a dustbin area and also a supermarket petrol station I made my way to the hotel, which, I was reliably informed was about 3 miles out of the town.

Luckily I did't have to travel far for my dinner on this rainy night - just next door actually to La Courte Paille.

Despite the weathermen's best efforts to reassure us that there would be sunshine, I was determined to keep an attitude of "I'll believe it when I see it." I was right to have followed that line, for the following day the sun stayed firmly locked up and rain was once more on the menu. Not nice.

The rain lashed down around us, and I knew that the planned itinerary of going over the cols, including Grand Colombier had to be shelved. The only problem was that by staying in the valley I would be on the main road, which was not the place to be with reduced visibility on a fast road and with lots of trucks around.

In the end, I followed a convoluted route which took me around various little hamlets - still in the valley but away from the main road. It was all a bit testing as I was following an unfamiliar route and had to check the map quite frequently, which was made all the more challenging in the pouring rain. By the time I reached Amberieu en Buguey I was quite drenched. I'd also run out of quiet valley roads so I had to either go uphill and pray to that they bike would handle the fast descents in the rain - panniers, cantilever brakes and all, or stay in the valley and pray that no one wouldn't be broadsided by a truck or other vehicle at 50miles an hour.

Strangely enough, neither option appealed to me. So after a quick drying off session in a local hypermarket I made my way to the train station and luckily found a train that was going to Aix-les-Bains.

It was great to be in the Alps, especially to be there earlier than planned. But this was not quite the entry I'd been hoping for! Once in my youth hostel I used the rainy afternoon to get my laundry done and relax at the youth hostel. By evening, the rain was drying off a little so I explored the nearby Lake and the town centre of this somewhat regal spa town. That was the most I could salvage of this day, which had effectively been a washout!

Tuesday, 19 October 2010

Travel Notes - Burgundy Wine and Chicken

Sunday 15th August

Train from Dijon to Chalon sur Saone
Chalon-sur-Saone - Ouroux-sur-Saone - Cuisery - St Trivier-de-Courtes - Montrevel-en-Bresse - Bourg-en-Bresse(Peronnas) = 53miles

My trip to Dijon was abit of a non-event. Not that Dijon is an unpleasant town at all. On the contrary, with its Palais des Duques, and Centre Historique there's quite alot to see. The shame of it was that this was a pretty grim day and the forecast suggested the rain over this part of France was here to stay a while. Thing is people couldn't complain too much. This département was among the ones which had experienced drought for a large part of this year. Typically, the heavens opened when I arrived there!

So I made a decision not to hang around much in Dijon. Instead I took a train a few miles south to a place where I believed there would be less rain, Chalon sur Sâone. Sorry to say that I did not see the wine producing areas around Nuit St Georges or Beaune. The memorable moments of my trip to Dijon were firstly, having a very nice glass of Burgundy and secondly, falling off my bike when my wheel got caught on some tram lines. These instances are not connected - honest!

From Chalon sur Sâone I took the road direct to Bourg en Bresse. I could have ridden via Macon, but as the weather wasn't too brilliant I was more keen to get the riding over and done with. Chalon was pretty but didn't have much else going on, except for a suspension bridge. It looked quite impressive, though a little overstated compared with the unassuming sleepy town this was!

The terrain for this ride was quite easy. No real hills to speak of. It was definitely easier than the previous day's cycling. Thankfully as I progressed further south the weather improved, and after a couple of hours the sun even came out. As I passed more and more villages there were more and more signs of life in these country villages in the heart of the French countryside. It was Assumption Day and also a Bank Holiday in France, so some places had put up bunting and banderolles for a village fête. I wasn't sure if the festivals were for Assumption or for chickens. There seemed to be loads of monuments, posters and pictures of chicken everywhere. This place gave a whole new meaning to Henmania!

In one village - Saint-Trivier-de-Courtes - a local man got chatting to me. Intrigued by my panniers and my cycle touring get-up he asked where I was headed. When I told him Bourg en Bresse, he was very impressed and told me how I was in the best place in France because I could get the best chicken. It's the only place where I would find Appellation d'Origine Contrôlée chicken. I should therefore have a good plate of Poulet de Bresse with cream, and a glass of vin jaune,the local sweet wine, which would see me right for the rest of my trip. It's very important to eat well for long rides like this one to Bourg en Bresse. Take care now, he said as he waved me good day - you've got 30km so you'll be riding for at least 3 more hours!

Sunday, 17 October 2010

Travel Notes - Paris to Burgundy - Part Two

Saturday 14th August

Train from Paris to Montbard
Montbard - Venarey-les-Laumes - Saint-Seine-l'Abbaye - Dijon

So I finally left Paris on the 1.24pm train for Montbard. As it was really just a glorified local train, my travel time would be abit more than 2 hours. Significantly slower than the TGV option, but then I didn't want to pay 50 euros when I could have paid 25!

The journey was pretty straight forward, and at nearly 4pm, somewhat later than scheduled, I began my ride to Dijon. This area is quite scenic with lots of old dukes' palaces to visit and hill-top villages.

On this Saturday afternoon in August there was hardly anyone around. It was brilliant just having these quiet roads to myself. My ride on Friday through Normandy had been flat with hardly any hill to deal with. I had ridden almost 70 miles without thinking about it.

Today's 45 mile ride was actually quite challenging. It would be the pre-cursor to what I'd be riding in the Alps I guess. There were a number of mini hills and climbs with switchbacks. It looked as though this might be an area where they hold cyclo sportives or time trials as there were lots of markings and people's names written on the road, and "Allez Allez" slogans. So it's not just on the Tour de France climbs where they write stuff.

If I had more time I'd quite happily come back to this area between Auxerre and Dijon, known as the Côte d'Or, and make a long weekend of it. There are lots of cycle lanes around, some of which climb quite high. So no worries about getting in a good work-out. Then finish your day with a glass of locally produced wine - maybe even from the nearby village of Chablis.

Sadly, on this particular day I was riding against the clock so didn't have time to stop and visit sites. My target was Dijon and I needed to get there before dark. After meandering around lost and lonely burgundy villages I was then dumped on to the main road to Dijon and gradually counted down the remaining kilometres to reach my destination.

Although it was the main National 71 road, this was pretty quiet. It just constantly twisted, turned, dropped down rapidly and then climbed up steeply all the way to Dijon. Along the way, I got a great view on the approach to a village called Saint- Seine-l'Abbaye, a very old settlement at the bottom of a twisty steep drop. That part reminded me of the villages you see in certain mountainous parts of Italy, where you approach the down via a steep twisty switchback.

I'm not sure if it was a good idea to stop here, but I couldn't resist it, and wanted to rest a little. Seeing the sky turning intermittently grey and black at the end of what had been a sunny day was a sign that I shouldn't hang around too long so I pushed on reached Dijon around 7.30pm that evening.

My stop-over was the Formule 1 hotel on the other edge of the town, out near a big retail park known as La Toison d'Or. It was handy having shops and a cinema nearby, but it was hardly the most touristic part of the city.
By the time I'd checked in it had started raining heavily so I decided that sight seeing around the city would have to wait until tomorrow.

Saturday, 16 October 2010

Travel Notes - Paris to Burgundy - Part One

Saturday 14th August


Once I'd found my way to my youth hostel in the East of Paris I dumped down my stuff, got showered and was out again to see the sites of this town which I never tire of visiting.

I could have got on a vélib and zoomed in. There were a couple of stations near Porte de Pantin. I'd had enough of two wheels for one day so used some old RATP metro tickets which I'd been hoarding since last year. Luckily enough they worked, so managed to use my carnet for the day without forking out for any new ones.

Since I'd arrived in Paris a little later than planned I didn't really have the chance to do too much. I did get to see an innovative sculpture based on a kiddies' playground outside the Pompidou Centre. Although it was quite simple there was something quite delightful about looking at the various colours over the fountain. There were more adults interested in it than children. I guess we are all big kids at heart!

Les Halles/Beaubourg area was as crowded as ever. People say that Paris is empty in August as most folks have decamped to the South of France. I think that phrase applies less and less - especially at these times of measures of austerity where people don't really want to go away anywhere. From what I could see Paris was swelling, even positively inflating itself during the month of August - almost to the point of bursting!

I didn't stay out too long as I wanted to be up for my early start to get down to Dijon the following day. So I had an early night and was up early to get the 10am train out of Paris-Bercy train station. I had to get from the edge of the 19th arrondissement over to the 12th. The most logical way to do this would have been to take the Boulevard Extérieur. That was pretty straightforward. It was just a case of following the road which circumvents Paris. You pass all the various Portes or gateways into Paris.

I started out at Porte de Pantin and went through Porte de Bagnolet, Porte de Montreuil, Porte Vincennes, and finally Porte d'Orée, close to where I used to live. It was just a case of turning up the big Avenue Daumesnil and then over through Boulevard de Reuilly to reach the train station.

I must say, everyone talks about how hilly it is around the 18th arrondissement and the Montmatre/Sacré Coeur area, but the area of the 19th should not be forgotten either. Having to work my legs so hard to get over the Buttes de Chaumont at 8.30am was a rather rude awakening!

The other thing which I noticed riding around Paris is how haphazard the roads are. The numerous road works did not help much, but the layout of traffic lights is a maze itself. They seem to be placed so you can't see them very well unless you are standing right up close next to them. Also the lack of an amber light for you to get ready for the green makes you feel like you are about to start a sprint race. You stand there in a state of being "on your marks" ready to burst forth ahead of the eager vehicles behind you.

Junctions are not of a regular shape. They are mini versions of the Charles de Gaulle Etoile roundabout, so you are never sure which way you are meant to go until you have gone right up close to the arrow to know which way it is approximately pointing. You also need to be ready to suddenly change direction when you realise that's not where you want to go. And guess what, the motorists are no more enlightened than you are when it comes to knowing where to go! They chop and change too, so cycling definitely involves constantly factoring contingencies as well as the obligatory risk assessment at each junction! Thankfully, there wasn't that much traffic, and I reached Bercy unscathed!

I was all set to get on the 10.24 to Montbard in Burgundy when I noticed from the long queues at the information desk, and people wandering around that there was a problem. How could it not happen while I'm in France - a transport strike! A trip to France just isn't complete without some sort of disruption due to industrial action! And this was my day for it. Thankfully this was not a full on general strike with demonstrations. It was so discreet that no one really new - apart from the people who needed to use SNCF-TER Bourgogne services to get to Dijon and Burgundy, right where I was going! I didn't have any particular contingency, apart from to book a later train, which I was assured would be running. So I had to suffer the inconvenience of being held up in Paris for an extra 3 hours - what a shame!

As I was in the 12th arrondissement I decided to hang around mainly in that area, with one of my first ports of call being Gare de Lyon and the Bastille area. The clock tower at the station, and the coloumn in the middle of the busy junction are sights which I've taken so much for granted. On this sunny day, however I thought I would look around them a little more, and then visit other less touristy areas which are just as interesting - the Promenade Plantée, The Viaduc des Arts and the bohemian Marché d'Aligre with the Baron Rouge bar. These areas have a warmth and a character that is quite appealing, and it's not surprising that I really enjoyed living in the 12th arrondissement even all those years ago.