Saturday, 31 December 2011

A Year in Words

The weather in 2011 was quite memorable - from a snowy January in Yorkshire to a wet balmy December in Sligo. I got a good soaking on the Champs Elysees in July, though had enjoyed glorious sunshine on my bike tour of Cork and Kerry in April. We even experienced tropical temperatures on the North and South Downs in October. The weather did go a little topsy turvy in 2011 but it certainly wasn't dull!

With all this talk of revolutions and natural disasters, not to mention certain economic pressures on my purse it's not surprising that I didn't get out of the UK much. In 2011 I learnt to appreciate my home country that bit more. I did various trips to other parts of England - a boat trip along the River Ouse in November, riding around the South Downs in October and the New Forest in November, going to the Notting Hill Carnival for the first time in decades in August, Morris dancing in East Yorkshire in December, and walking the Three Peaks in June. I did a bit of English Theatre in February, French Theatre in March, and Italian poetry in May just by hopping on the number 3 bus to Oxford Circus!

2011 was a year in which I met lots of new folks - mainly through the cycle journalism. Jens Voigt (July), Victoria Pendleton (September), Mike Smith (December) were the more famous names, but I also met various cyclists when gathering vox pops for event features and through interviewing people. I found that no matter how confident you may be there's always that apprehension, during that first meeting, about making the first 20 secounds count. The pressure to have a stimulating conversation or get an interesting quote always lurks.

I have done alot of visualisation this year to get myself into the right frame of mind when leaving my comfort zone. I've visualised so much that I'm almost tuned out of the real world!

I don't know how much impact I actually made on the interviewees, or if these folks even remember me. Whatever, I'm happy with the way things went!

Of course this has been the year for lots of writing. In 2011 I had regular slots in Cycling Active and event features in Cycling Weekly magazines, as well as features in Cross-Crazy, Sportsister and Bike Magic online magazines. Thanks to the editors of the publications for taking a chance on me! :)

You may or may not have gathered that I do like putting pen to paper (albeit in a virtual sense). Sometimes it comes out abit waffly. Sometimes it's lucid. Occasionally it's higgeldy piggledy as I have been known to write my blog entries in the small hours of the morning after a tipple. Either way, writing has always been and always will be a pleasurable activity for me.

Huge thanks to you, for reading my bits and pieces during 2011.

Happy New Year!

Thursday, 29 December 2011

Cyclist meets Huntsmen

I usually like to take a walk on Boxing Day and burn off a few calories before the next deluge of Christmas stuffing.

As I was up North on this occasion I decided to add a little more interest to the outing by stopping by at the gathering for the Holderness Hunt in Beverley.

I'm not a fan of fox-hunting but I was still curious to see what goes on at these events and what type of people attend.

The masters of the Holderness Hunt had actually placed an article in the local newspaper inviting people to come along for a meet and greet session prior to them galloping off with their hounds.
So at around 11am on Boxing Day I and around 2,000 other townsfolk rolled up into Westwood Pasture. There were around 70 horseriders out and about all dressed up in their best livery. Their horses had also been dolled up for the occasion - with plaited mains, some with tinsel on, their coats trimmed and hooves clipped.

I was struck by how many women were out. It seemed like more than half the riders were women, many of them dressed up like Zara Phillips lookylikies. Once I got talking to them though, there was no chance of mistaking them for a royal. They were just straight-talking Yorkshire lasses! To be honest, in a funny way it made them seem more approachable and less stuffy. The riders were polite and friendly, and many of them seemed to have just come along for the ride. It was a chance to have a Christmas chinwag with other horsey friends and a quick hack around the local fields in East Yorkshire. The hunt was scheduled to leave around midday and finish around 3pm, though many of them were not expecting to stay out that long.

For some, a combination of the Christmas hangover and being up grooming and preparing their horse had put paid to anything longer.

Just before midday the master called everyone to order, ready for the off. Firstly he made the traditional Merry Christmas, "thanks to everyone for turning out etc," and then made the slightly controversial "please bear with David Cameron, I know he will repeal this unworkable hunting act, he's just got alot on his plate right now, please understand that the Conversatives are our friends and they have a strong bond with the Countryside Alliance."

And with that, the dogs were let out, the bugle sounded and the huntsmen and women rode over the Wolds in the December sunshine. Who knows what happened next....

I must say it was interesting to watch a few of the proceedings. I guess in that part of the world, these activities are part and parcel of their heritage and also the livelihoods of many folks in the area. It is still difficult to digest the brutality of what happens to the foxes though, so I can't say I am a supporter.
On a personal note, I was glad to meet the riders because I am likely to meet a lot of them on the local bridleways when doing my off-road bike rides. Speaking to the different horseriders in the area helps in maintaining good relations with other bridleway users - which is always a good thing.

Night Clubbing

You don't have to confine your weekend cycling to Saturday and Sunday morning club runs. How about a Saturday night?
That's what me and Higg did. Ok, so it was just a club run of two but then size doesn't matter as they say!

It's not always necessary to travel out so far to reach off-road trails. There is a pleasant circuit in nearby Banstead, so that's where we went. This was also the chance for me to use the Exposure Lights that I have on loan.
Good lights make such a difference to a night riding experience. I was using the Toro model on my handlebars and the Diablo on my helmet. As we weren't moving very fast it was possible to leave the Toro on the low setting and have the Diablo on medium. In fact, I found that if I left the Toro off completely it was still possible to see perfectly well with the Diablo alone. The Diablo has quite a powerful beam considering that it's just a helmet light.
Having two sets of lights is very helpful though when going round twisty trails, especially on a fast descent.

On we plodded through the Wallington small holdings and then on to Surrey Oaks Park and through to Banstead. It was great just riding along and not having anyone else around - not even animals. I think our presence scared away the most audacious of foxes - or maybe they just chose to have a night in with their mates! Ironically you notice so much more at night since your senses become heightened, and you see lots of lights in the distance from various places you had been unaware of by day - other buildings across Surrey, or the London skyline way in the distance.
There is also a night-time feel in the damp atmosphere which feels charged up as though something was about to happen, and you wait in anticipation. But nothing happens - it's just unassuming woodland in the London suburbs.

The ground beneath my wheels shows up as varying shades of black, and I can't tell what the texture is until I ride through it. Generally, the going is a constant medium to firm and easy to ride through. The fun gets thrown into the mix when the bike suddenly decelerates and pedalling becomes laboured - I keep turning the pedals, without really knowing when this interlude will end, or what it has taken me through. It is only when I get home that I find out whether it was mud or manure that I rode through! It's also interesting to check out the other bits and pieces I inadvertently pulled on my night out - dried leaves, pieces of twig, even the odd piece of rotten fruit.
When we started our ride at sunset the weather was still balmy and mild, but once the sun has well and truly retired I notice the drop in temperature more acutely and it's therefore better to not be out for too long. After about an hour we turn around to take the descent back home. It was a good way to spend a Saturday evening. We didn't do an all-night session and we weren't treated to pumping techno beats, but going out on a night ride is a rave - it rocks!

Photos by Higg

Tuesday, 20 December 2011

Shoot Story - The Chilterns

My ride story on cycling around Great Missenden is in the current issue of Cycling Active magazine (The Dahling of the Chilterns, Cycling Active - January 2012).
The story's not bad if I don't mind saying (!). What I like best though is the "Big Picture" feature in the opening pages of the magazine. This month the photo chosen for that feature was one taken during the photo shoot for that ride story. Andy Jones, the snapper on the day did a great job on the photo and, what seemed like a rather tedious job at the time actually turned out very well.

The other photos featured in the article also look good too. So, with that in mind I thought I would put in a few memories of the day.
The ride was originally meant to take place one Thursday in October, but typically that was the one day that week when it poured with rain. Thankfully both Andy and I were able to rejig our schedules to do it the following day, which turned out to be lovely and sunny. Bad weather is one of the main occupational hazards when doing ride story photo shoots.

I arrived at Great Missenden train station feeling really good that I was going to do a shoot on a swish stylish new bike that my peers weren't riding. I had new cycling clothes, kindly sent to me by the cycling mag. I felt good in myself - and the sun was shining.

When I met Andy he told me straight away that my drop handlebars had been raised too high and it made my bike look stupid. He also said that one of the other writers had exactly the same bike and had been riding his for a few months. So I wasn't riding anything that original!

Like with other photo shoots, I had already recc'ed the area so I knew where to go for the shots. Our first spot was Great Missenden High Street, which had lovely quaint houses. When I had previously been there the road was nice and quiet - ideal for a country village shot. In fact on the day of the shoot it was not much worse than Piccadilly Circus! For a small high street there was alot going on. Even worse, it was the Friday of half-term school holidays and we were trying to get photos of the main attraction - the Roald Dahl museum.
Loads of kids were out with their parents going to visit the museum or its cafe. Some people politely stopped to allow Andy to take the shot of the building, but then a delivery van or a 4 x 4 or an Audi driven by a lady who lunches would pass by so everything was scuppered.

To get the shot I needed to wait, parked on my bike some distance from the cafe ready to quickly ride by and be photographed riding in front of the museum when the road is clear.
The folks who only saw me but not Andy must have thought I was a bit odd, just waiting on a bike in anticipation of something that wasn't actually apparent.
The folks who only saw Andy must have thought he was even odder. A bloke with 2 large cameras hanging from his neck, loitering around opposite a kid's venue! I assumed he had his explanation properly lined up if a police officer came along!

A man in one of the nearby shops came out and started chatting to Andy about photography. Andy, naturally very into his subject, talked quite knowledgably and enthusiastically and it was quickly apparent that the bloke didn't know much at all about this art. After a short while the man went back to his business. I guess he was just sussing out Andy, and the "conversation on photography" had been a pretext.

We finally got our pictures, thankfully without needing too many takes, and we moved on to the next part of the route.

Along many of the roads around Great Missenden are large "No HS2" posters giving out different messages of protestation to the Government. In case you don't know, plans are underway to route a high speed railway line from London to Birmingham straight through the Chiltern Hills Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty.
Looking at how beautiful the area looked on this autumn day it's hard to believe that anyone would want to destroy such an idyllic area. There are lots of nice cycling and walking trails (including the historic Ridgeway long distance trail) plus nature reserves. It would be a terrible shame to dig all this up.
On our travels through the woods we got chatting to local walkers and residents who highlighted the situation to us. Once they knew we were taking pictures for a magazine they encouraged us to take photos of the area to show the public what we would lose if this "monstrosity" were given the green light. One woman was prepared to give her name and be quoted in the article. Sadly, this didn't actually fit the brief of what we were doing.
Andy did take some great shots of the area and the beauty of the Chilterns certainly comes out in the feature. So if you look at the article, look hard at the pictures and enjoy them - who knows how much longer this will exist....

One of the conundrums of doing a shoot off-road is that you want to look stylish and neat on your bike in the photos, but in reality people don't look so well manicured when off road - especially when riding through muddy trails!

On a shoot with Andy we often just take photos in one area, dismantle the bike, put it in Andy's car and then drive to the next place. On this ride, I didn't think it was worth going through that palava just to drive relatively short distances so I rode to the different areas and arranged to meet Andy at the given spots.

Embarrassingly, in my wisdom I took one off-road trail that I thought would be a nice short cut. The trails we had been on that day were clear and dry. Sadly, this one wasn't. I got caught up in lots of brambles, it was extremely muddy and in parts the trail was too steep for me to ride. I ended up walking through the muddy trails and getting my hands cut on the brambles. When I met Andy in the next village my legs and shoes were all muddy and I was covered in catkins!

Also, the lovely new bike was not looking so swish and stylish anymore! This probably didn't impact on the shoot for this particular feature as we were at the end of the first session. The problem was the photos taken during the afternoon session were for another story that would be predominantly on road. So that won't look so good! Hopefully the picture editors will be able to salvage something decent. All the fun of a photo shoot!

Photos by Andy Jones

Monday, 12 December 2011

Boardman teams up with Dallaglio and Flintoff

This Autumn I have mostly been riding Boardman bikes.
Earlier in September I had the pleasure of riding the Boardman Team Carbon Fi (female informed) road bike at the CTC Champions women's cyclo sportive. It was a challenging hilly course but the lightweight bike coped well.
Since October I've been riding the Boardman CX Team cyclo cross bike. Again it handles well thanks to its sturdiness, and the disc brakes are very helpful when on undulating technical terrain. (See the reviews I wrote for Sportsister and Bike Magic)
I will soon have the chance to ride the Boardman Urban Mountainbike Team. Hopefully this will be just as much a joy to ride as the other Boardman bikes I have ridden.
It seems I'm not the only one riding Boardman Bikes.
Former rugby international Lawrence Dallaglio and cricketing legend Andrew "Freddie" Flintoff are embarking on a 2,817km gruelling cycle ride from Olympia (Greece) to London next year. It will be for their Cycle Slam 2012, in aid of Cancer Research UK and children’s charities. They too will be riding Road Pro Carbon bikes, as well as receiving mechanical support from Halfords.
The two sporting heroes are due to start their epic ride on 23rd April (St George's Day) in Olympia, and finish one month later in the Olympic Park, London. The terrain won't be easy. Who knows how they will fare! But at least they will have pretty decent kit to get them through the challenge. Best of Luck guys!
To find out more on how Dallaglio and Flintoff are getting on, and to help with their cause check out the DallaglioFlintoff2012 website.

Tuesday, 6 December 2011

SPOTY - It's not about the BBC

There's been a lot of furore over the lack of women featured on the nominations list for BBC Sports Personality of the Year (SPOTY).
Twitter has been virtually ablaze with fiery emails from female sports pundits and personalities, while others have branded the BBC as disgraceful and called on women to boycott the show.

I must admit that I was a little disappointed at the sight of an all-male shortlist, especially given that some of the men listed, eg Andy Murray have never won a major tournament, while the likes of four time World Ironman Triathlon champion Chrissie Wellington did not get a look in. True also that Sarah Stevenson should have been given credit for her inspirational victory, winning the World Tae Kwon Do championships shortly after losing both her parents to cancer a short time before (maybe she will honoured with the Helen Rollasson award). I could go on....

But let's look more closely at the situation. In its 58 year history BBC SPOTY has had 13 female winners (including ice dancer Jayne Torvill). Swimmer Anita Lonsbrough was the first woman to win this accolade in 1962, and Zara Phillips was the last female to win the award, back in 2006.

Every year there have been female nominees. I am therefore not in a rush to brand this award scheme as sexist when women have had a history of being recognised and celebrated in the BBC SPOTY awards. This year is the first time ever that no female sports star has been nominated under the current voting system. This year is showing as the anomaly.

Of the panel of editors from 27 publications 10 (The Independent, The People, The Irish Times, Metro, Evening Standard, Nuts, Daily Post, Western Mail, Daily Star Sunday, and Zoo) did not vote for a single woman. The Sunday Times, The Guardian and The Voice fared best by each voting for 3 women.
Rebecca Adlington received 6 votes, Keri Anne Payne had 5 and Chrissie Wellington got 3. After that there was a spread of various names mentioned - Jessica Ennis, Sarah Stevenson, Victoria Pendleton, Kath Grainger, Shanaze Reade, Hannah England, Stef Reid and Nicola Adams.

People have been outraged that the nomination panel included editors from Nuts and Zoo magazine. According to a spokesperson from the Women's Sport and Fitness Foundation a woman would definitely have been among the nominations if these strongly male dominated publications had not been on the panel, and women's sport magazine Sportsister had been included.

She may have a point. Boxer, Amir Khan, who is among the shortlist of nominees received just one vote more than Rebecca Adlington. But then again, why should we be worried about such and such a publication. Is it not a question of attitudes and awareness?

In the past, people like Paula Radcliffe, Kelly Holmes, Liz McColgan, Princess Anne and Fatima Whitbread have all been presented with the famous television camera shaped trophy.

What else do these women have in common? They all took part in sports which already had a high profile (apart from Princess Anne, who is high profile). So when the editors of the various publications have to submit their nominations they will automatically think of women in high profile sports - names that are already in the public consciousness.

Sports like triathlon and tae kwon do not quite fit that bill, let alone the names of the people who take part - still less the folks in these sports who could be dubbed sports personalities! Note that no male athletes from these sports made it onto the shortlist either.

The work to nominate a sportstar for the SPOTYs needs to be done a long time beforehand - at least before the request for nominations reaches the editor's desk. The role of the sports federations, governing bodies and sports marketing PR companies needs to be called into question here.

Nominations are made on the basis of the diet the editors and public opinion has been fed over several months - even years.
Cyclist Mark Cavendish appears to be a favourite among the nominees this year. It is only really this year that he has become a household name - despite claiming many victories in the Tour de France and in other major cycle races over the last 3 years. In fact it has only been in the last 4 years that the general public have renewed their interest in cycling as a sport.

In short, the most notable achievements by women sports stars this year have either been in minority sports or sports that do not have such a high profile.

Furthermore, the athletes in question have not been backed by a significant publicity machine.

Without these key elements athletes like Keri Anne Payne, Rebecca Adlington or Chrissie Wellington would not be absorbed so readily into the public consciousness.

So, let's look at those high profile sports that the general public follow - tennis, athletics, cycling, football, cricket, rugby, motorsport, golf, boxing. Have there been any outstanding performances by British women on the world stage in these sports this year? Tennis? absolutely not! Motorsport? Golf? Cricket? Cycling? Victoria Pendleton failed to keep her sprint title at the World Track Cycling Championships despite being the favourite. Nicole Cooke finished outside of the medals at the World Road Race Championships. Football? The England ladies made it to the quarter finals of the World Cup this year. A little disappointing considering they had high hopes - speaking of which, Hope Powell must surely deserve manager of the year for being the longest serving manager of a national football team in the Britain. Boxing? Interestingly Nicola Adams received one vote from the panel of editors. Athletics? Jessica Ennis literally threw away all hopes during the heptathlon. But hey, Hannah England won silver in the 1500m. The England women's rugby team, under their impressive captain Maggie Alphonsi beat the All-Blacks twice this year - a feat that their male counterparts can only dream of, and would have filled column feet of the back pages. But the public barely heard a peep out of the sports writers regarding the achievements of the rugby girls.

So, women's versions of these sports do exist. But there's just not that much coverage of it.

Which leads to another very important point - investment in women's sport. A recent report by the Commission on the Future of Women's Sport revealed that between Janary 2010 and August 2011 UK Sponsorship of women's elite sport was a paltry 0.5% of the total sports sponsorship market. Small wonder that public awareness of women's sport is low.
According to the BBC, the SPOTY award goes to the sports person "whose actions have most captured the public's imagination." It's hard to capture the public imagination if the public is unaware of the actions!

So, if this is the landscape in which women's sport exists, how can you expect to reap a healthy crop of female SPOTY nominations when it is ultimately down to a handful of esoterics and experts on minority sports to come up with some names?

It is not wholely down to the BBC to change prevailing attitudes. There needs to be a concerted policy across all quarters to shift public opinion of women's sport in general. Investment, sponsorship, greater support from sports federations, and a joined up communications plan.

Meanwhile, the BBC stands to gain out of this polemic. As a result of the countless comments and analyses on SPOTY, this award ceremony which was previously perceived as a dreary, cringeworthy display of mutual back-slapping has instantly become a cool, must-be-seen-at gig!

Who knows, as a result of all this talk we may see a change in the nomination patterns. Or might we see something new borne out of this along the lines of the Edinburgh Fringe? An alternative women's SPOTY could be set up which becomes bigger and more coveted than the stuffy bland original! And maybe that would change perceptions.

Wednesday, 30 November 2011

Off-Road Spin - 2

Here's another route which goes through the Surrey hills. This time it's going up to Leith Hill Tower, the highest point in Surrey.

I have ridden there from my home before, using the network of trails from West Croydon and the trails mentioned in Off-Road Spin-1. That ends up being quite an epic day.
It's probably quicker to jump on one of the frequent trains to Dorking and then start from there, as shown on the map. You then have the chance to try out other places along the way, such as Box Hill - or go further afield towards Gomshall and Peaslake, another big mountain biking meeting point in the Surrey Hills.
Anyway, enough waffle - here is the route from Dorking to Leith Hill Tower - a full write-up can be found on the Sportsister magazine website, where I originally wrote this piece.

(photos by Higg)

Thursday, 24 November 2011


We don't do Thanksgiving in the UK as such, though since many people know someone from North America people usually acknowledge this feast day - rather like how many non-Irish people celebrate St Patrick's Day.

So I usually pick this day to say thanks.

I have had a reasonably good 2011 so far. Finding myself out of work, and a small problem in the family have stopped 2011 from being a great year. However, there have been lots of good things that have happened to me and I still feel that I have been lucky.

I haven't had any serious illness, or any family tragedy. I haven't been hit by any of the terrible natural disasters there have been this year.

A few people I know have had the misfortune of breaking bones while cycle racing, or being knocked off their bikes while commuting. None of that has happened to me.

I feel very thankful to have stayed healthy, to have been just about able to make ends meet, and to have had healthy food - as well as good wine and some enjoyable bike rides.

Touch wood that the trend continues. And if it does, I will be even more thankful!

Tuesday, 22 November 2011

Off-Road Spin - 1

I like to get out on a little off-road spin around London. It doesn't need to be anything hardcore or onerous. It's surprising how many little cycle paths and trails there can be not far from your doorstep.

I'm always impressed at how easy it is to find nice country lanes even within the London conurbation. Fair enough, this isn't Wales or the Lake District, but the areas still make for very pretty views on an autumn day and they are fairly easy to get to. Overall the trails are a good starter for 10 before you get into more involved stuff, and they are also a handy half-way house if you can't be out cycling for too long.

Surrey Trails - Wallington to Reigate
Today's route goes from Wallington to Reigate via Banstead, Epsom Downs and Walton on the Hill, fringing the North Downs. From Reigate the route then goes over a of couple of ridges near Kingswood and through Chipstead to reach the start point. We don't quite get to the famous Box Hill, but we go quite near to it. You do get comparable vistas when you reach Reigate Hill though, and you can even say hello to the cows up there!

This route is 98% within the M25 motorway boundary so you are very much in the London area. That means there are lots of roads that you can take if you need a fast run in home on the tarmac, and there are lots of suburban train stations if you completely run out of gas!

(photos by Higg)

Wednesday, 9 November 2011

Tour de France : Fun on the Last Day

When the Tour de France route is announced, as well as keenly looking to see which mountain passes are going to be included, I also like to see what the last stage will be. This year the route into the Champs Elysées was from Créteil, in Eastern Paris and I went along there with Higg.
This route, though short was a spectator's dream. Créteil is at the end of Line 8 of the Paris Métro (Balard-Creteil Préfecture), so for us it was an easy direct half-hour tube journey from where we were staying in Bastille. The route up to the Champs Elysées was equally straightforward. Actually, there was a slight hitch on the day as Line 8 had engineering works taking place at Charenton and the replacement bus was not running due to the Tour de France. No problem at all though. The engineering works were only taking place on a short section between Charenton and Maisons Alfort and there were RATP (Paris Transport) members of staff on hand to give directions for the 10-minute walk to pick up the Métro to reach Créteil. Even better, was the fact that this walk took us right through the Tour de France route. On our way to Maisons Alfort we saw the locals setting up picnics and laying out banners in anticipation of the arrival of the publicity caravan and the peloton.
On we went to Créteil, where we arrived in time to see the publicity caravan leaving. The local council had laid on a mini outdoor cycling exhibition and activity area with freebies for spectators. Many people spent only a limited period of time in this area and instead, headed past the cordoned off VIP area to the car park where all the team buses were.

It was pretty easy to see the different cycle racers and in fact spectators had just as much chance of seeing their cycling heroes as those with media passes. Whether you were in the private area or on the other side of the fence you had just as much of a scrum to see the stars if you had not made a special arrangement to meet the riders. There was also the dilemma as to which team bus to crowd around.
It was hard to predict which racer would emerge from their team bus when, and the buses were arranged in such a way that it was a good 150m walk to get from the first bus to the last bus in the line. There was a distinct order in the way the buses were arranged and a definite hierarchy could be seen. Teams like HTC-Columbia High Road, Garmin-Cervelo, Sky, Cadel Evans' BMC team, Leopard-Trek of the Schlek brothers and Thomas Voeckler's Europcar team had barriers around them and some security staff in the vicinity.
There was a long wait to see any of their riders come out of the bus, and whenever anyone emerged there was a big cheer followed by a surge of microphones and cameras from professionals and amateurs alike. The lower ranked teams like Vacansoleil and Movistar were way down at the rear of the line of buses and didn't even have barriers. There were no journalists around, and barely any fans pandering to see them. The racers got on with their business completely unhindered, practically unnoticed. Team RadioShack were also in this category. What a difference a year makes!

It was easy to spend a couple of hours watching the pre-race activity. As this was the last day of the tour most of the riders were quite relaxed and there was a last day of school atmosphere. Riders were amenable and happy to greet fans, even if it was just to say a quick hello or pose for a photo.
Also, there was a sense that the townsfolk of Créteil were thrilled to have Le Tour in their neighbourhood. Créteil is a suburb of Paris - not quite in the same league as Versailles, but more like Croydon, South London. Creteil forms part of "la banlieue", but thankfully not as bad as other eastern Parisian suburbs that endured riots in 2005 and there's no furniture store that got burnt down either. Having Le Tour would have been a real boost to the morale of the folks and this must have been very inspirational for the young people - even more so, as a plaque was unveiled there in memory of the late great Laurent Fignon.

There was a very friendly atmosphere among spectators, and even when it got a little crowded when taking photos people were happy to take their photo and politely stand back to let others have a turn to take a few snaps.
After the presentations of the various cycling stars on the stage, everyone ran across the large green to watch the riders set off. To accompany the 170 odd riders there were countless vehicles in tow - team cars for each of the 22 teams, cars for commissaires, first aid, neutral service, ambulances, media, VIPs, TV crew, motorbike outriders, motorbike photographers, time keepers on motorbikes and of course the team buses. There must have been around 80-100 vehicles plus a a couple of helicopters. Cycling is dubbed a carbon neutral sustainable form of transport, but when it comes to the Tour de France all that goes out of the window!
To the cheers of all the crowds the riders set off on their final stage into Paris. We had only been at the departure town for a couple of hours but it already felt like we'd been there all day, with everything we had seen.
I managed to see Jens Voigt, Cadel Evans, Philippe Gilbert, Thomas Voeckler, Frank Schlek, Alberto Contador, Mark Renshaw, Juan Antonio Flecha and George Hincapie. Ironically I didn't see any of the British riders. It was good to have seen a few high profile riders in the flesh anyway.

Next stop was Maisons Alfort. We had to walk between there and Charenton during our tube journey back into Paris, so we stopped at the side of the road where by now the crowds had thickened, and we waited for the peloton to come by. We waited, and waited and waited. The race had started at 2.30pm and they were due to hit Maisons Alfort at 3.10pm according to the schedule sheet. But there was no sign of the riders at all. The peloton eventually came through at around 3.50pm, riding along slower than me on a bad day!
They were chatting and in no mood to make any effort. I guess everyone has the right to an easy Sunday club run every now and again!
The real action would begin when they reached Paris proper. It was great that the riders travelled along so slowly as this lent itself to taking half decent pictures - at least for Higg, that was. My photos still came out blurred!
After this rather pleasant interlude during our return trip to Paris we picked up the Métro to Concorde station, where we literally arrived there as the riders were doing their first lap of Central Paris. Concorde was so packed and there was no chance of us getting a decent view so we walked down the back road, rue St Honoré to get us out near Tuileries station, then found a great spot on the rue de Rivoli as the peloton blasted right past us.

I was really enjoying the atmosphere in the July sunshine and it was really uplifting everytime the pack of riders steamed along at a phenomenal pace all to the cheers and claps of the crowds, as well as to the excitement of the commentators.

Suddenly we realised we were cutting it fine to get our train back to London. Sadly, we had to abruptly leave behind all this excitement to hotfoot it through Place Vendôme and pick up the Métro to Gare du Nord. So it wasn't until I reached London and turned on the TV that I was able to see Mark Cavendish clinch victory on the Champs Elysées! How ironic!

Not seeing the heartstopping finish of the race was a bit of an anticlimax, but it had still been a really fun day out. I would definitely recommend going to the departure town for the last stage of the Tour de France. Some departure towns are easier to reach than others. This year was an extremely good vintage in that regard and I am glad to have been there for almost all of the Tour de France proceedings of the day!

The final stage of the 2012 Tour will start from Rambouillet, a western suburb of Paris. When I lived in France's capital city I remember Rambouillet being this deep in the forest, out in the styx place. Who needed to go all the way over there when we had Versailles?! I therefore don't really know the area, but what I do know is that it will be in a leafy suburb that has a big forest and a castle; I will need to catch a suburban train rather than the Métro; and I should book a late Eurostar when returning to London!

bottom 3 photos by Higg

Tuesday, 8 November 2011

Don't be Afraid of the Dark!

Once again, the annual Rollapaluza Muddy Hell cyclo cross took place at Herne Hill. I had deliberated somewhat because I wasn't sure I'd be fit enough to race, given my acute lack of cycling fitness. In the end the prospect of doing a women-only race in fancy dress in the dark was all too tempting. Something about dressing up in a daft costume for a bike race always makes it more fun. It also diverts attention away from how bad you may be cycling!

So at 7pm I lined up in the dark with the other fancily dressed ladies to do my first cyclo cross race of the season. Even though the obstacles were largely similar to last year's course I felt a certain level of apprehension. The ramp up to the bridge seemed higher, or maybe the ramp was on a steeper gradient. One thing was for sure, we were not going to have the full momentum from a downhill slope to carry us up the ramp like we did last year. No, we we're going to have to work to reach the summit. A sharp right hand turn after running over the planks meant that we would have to remount our bikes and give it some almighty welly to develop the speed to ride up the 25% gradient. Many people just didn't get the pace and ran out of momentum two thirds of the way up and either fell sideways or just put a foot a ground to walk. So for me, not only did I have to think about how I would get up the ramp but how I would ride around people who couldn't quite climb it in the saddle (which was about 20% of the field). Once up the ramp and on the bridge a down ramp threw me at full speed towards a table-top jump which made my bike leap for a split second! Not something to be doing on a full stomach! I would be in for some fun.

This year I was riding a Boardman CX Team cyclocross bike, kindly lent to me by Halfords and my path was being lit by USE-Exposure, who had provided me with a Diablo helmet light and a Toro handlebar light. With this combination I knew I would have no problem seeing the path ahead. Also with my new bike that had disc brakes that would help me on those short sharp descents. With all this new gear I felt motivated to give the best performance I could. It's funny how new kit raises your motivation!
So, on the whistle I set off in my Halloween dress and facepaint ready to blast around for 40 minutes. It was great. The course was a real fairground ride. From the sandpit to the bridge with table-top jump, via the BMX berm, the steep "Galibier" run-up, the single track, the muddy strip, the whoop bumps and the plank barriers. All this to the beat of the pumping sound system made it a real fairground ride. Small wonder I didn't get dizzy!
Anyone who thinks 40 minutes is easy, think again - the pace is almost twice as fast as what we do at the usual London Cyclo Cross League 60-minute races, but as this paricular course had so many obstacles in it, there was extra energy needed to hold it together and not completely "stack it" in front of everyone. It goes without saying that spectators were gathered around the trickiest parts of the course! I was happy with my race considering it was the first one of the season. I felt surprisingly more fluid in my movements, though I was lapped by a clown, a witch, and Batwoman!

The women's race has definitely become more competitive, as the top 3 women were regular National Trophy riders, and there were a number of strong women who had travelled down to South London from other parts of the country who raised the level of the race that bit higher. (The generous prize money may have had something to do with it!) Even with really fast women racing, there was room for all levels and I had fun on the course. I was glad to have signed up for it and I executed my best race possible.
Once across the finish line all that was left to do was to get on with enjoying the evening over a beer and catching up with folks I hadn't seen for a while. Another great night from Rollapaluza!

Photos by Higg

Thursday, 27 October 2011

From Crystal Palace to Alexandra Palace

So I took out the new steed I'm testing, the Boardman CX Team cyclo cross bike. It was a shame to have to put the tyres out on the road, and even more so on the muddy grass and gravel in my neighbourhood, but it had to be done.
First of all, I resolved to nail the cyclo cross mount. How many years have I been riding cyclo cross and I still haven't learned to mount and dismount the bike confidently and in that lovely fluid motion that you see the Belgians do! Ok, so I'll never be at that level. I'd even settle for a stuttering mount and dismount any day!

Sometimes I wish I could have been a bit of a "youf" where my parents could have left me out all day doing tricks on BMX bikes in some dodgy car park or skateboarding on the ramps under an urban tower block, instead of reading books all the time - then at least today I would be a lot happier to fling myself and my bike around a cyclo cross course!

So two weekends ago I decided to learn the mount and dismount in the playing fields by South Norwood Lake. The dismounting was not actually a problem. It was more about mounting the bike and putting the two elements together.

Initially the beginner stuff was to be done on my own Planet X bike since I felt more comfortable about falling over with that than with the brand new Boardman!

Feeling motivated I set out to the playing field with my bike in the morning. After about half an hour of looking at the bike, wondering where to put my legs and what the sequence of movements was meant to be I made a few half hearted attempts where I committed myself to a run and then suddenly uncommitted myself on the jump mid-flight, thus tumbling down. Then I stood looking at the bike again for another 10 minutes willing myself into thinking I'd be ok. By lunchtime I'd spent 10 minutes looking at the bike, 20 minutes psyching myself up to mounting the bike, 20 minutes running with the bike, 30 seconds jumping and 2 minutes falling to the ground and picking myself up - not very productive, in fact quite demoralising. It must have been quite amusing for the dog walkers and joggers wondering curiously what this cyclist was doing in the park wandering with a bike and then falling over with it!

Then suddenly something slotted into place - I'm not sure how, or what. For some reason unknown to myself, I did a cartwheel. I hadn't done one of those for about 30 years! Something about the act of throwing my body in the air into an unnatural position translated exactly into the same movement process as doing the cyclo cross mount. I had nailed it. It was a nice feeling to suddenly be able to do it. It wasn't pretty, but at least I knew what to do.

Being able to do the cyclo cross mount and dismount was something that made me feel like a wholesome cyclo crosser, and not a phoney! After five years, I had passed my cyclo crossing initiation and could now join the big wide cyclo crossing world!

Once I had made this significant milestone I went to the nearby Crystal Palace Park where I could practice on a whole range of surfaces - grass, tarmac, gravel, wood chip - on the flat, going slightly uphill, going slightly downhill. My new found skill meant I was now worthy of getting out the Boardman and practising all of this on the new bike. The handlebars were slightly wider than on my own bike, and I was using different pedals but that was not an issue. It was actually easier to do the mount and dismount - not just because the new bike didn't have a rack on the back but also because the higher grade aluminium frame was lighter and therefore the bike could move along that bit quicker on the rough terrain. This lightness was particularly useful for me when running up the steps at Crystal Palace five times over.

With my new found confidence, and only slightly more fitness my prepping at Crystal Palace was done. It was time to face the Rapha Supercross race at Alexandra Palace the following week.

Ally Pally, which is about as far North of London as Crystal Palace is South, has a very similar feel to my neck of the woods. It's at the top of a steep hill, where there's a television transmitter and a grand Victorian Grade II listed structure. Set in pleasant parkland this area commands impressive views over London. In fact from Ally Pally you can see the two Crystal Palace transmitters.

One key difference between Ally Palace and Crystal Palace is that there is an actual Alexandra Palace building, whereas it's Southern counterpart was sadly burnt down in 1936. The other big difference is that last Sunday we had to ride all the way up the Ally Pally Hill between eight and ten times and carry our bikes up a series of steps every time, in front of lots of people while feeling sick and sometimes seeing stars! I've never done that at Crystal Palace!
Yes, despite a warm-up of riding around Crystal Palace and a cyclo cross race at Herne Hill, nothing could prepare me for the gruelling race at Alexandra Palace. It wasn't just the fact that the long steep hill had to be scaled so many times, but also the fact that once at the top of the hill I had to do dismount from my bike, while my legs felt like jelly, run up the steps and then remount the bike - all in front of the cheers, jeers, ringing cowbells and flying marshmallows from spectators and photographers. This was a real test. At one point I felt so tired, that I fell over as I remounted my bike. I just didn't have the energy to lift my legs high enough! Falling over was actually a relief as it gave me a brief respite as I lay on the grass!
Just when I was wondering how many more laps I could take the "one lap to go" bell was rung, which was a Godsend. Strangely enough I got a second wind and gave it all I'd got on what would be my last lap for quite some time at this formidable but very scenic venue. I crossed the finish line happy to have survived the race.
My Boardman CX Team bike performed very well - certainly better than I did, and I think the bike was a help to me in quite a few ways. It's wide range of gears meant I could ride 34 x 32 gearing on the steep hill, and the SRAM Apex double tap system meant that I could click between gears quite smoothly. Furthermore, the disc brakes meant that on the twisty descents I could slow down without worrying about sliding around and I could take the corners with confidence. Most importantly, the bike was nice and light when carrying it umpteen times up THOSE steps!
From my lows atop Crystal Palace I had grappled to reach the heights at Alexandra Palace. It wasn't a walk in the park, I wasn't pretty, but I just managed it - and with a smile on my face.

Most photos by Higg

Thursday, 13 October 2011

Cross is coming!

Well, cross has been here for over a month but I'm only just getting into it! Better late than never. I haven't ridden my cross bike since February this year when I took part in the final race of the 2010/11 season. I hope I haven't forgotten how to ride a bike. I am ashamed to say that my lovely red Planet X has been sitting in the hallway, unkempt, untouched, unloved. So it's time to dust it down and ride it - soon.
I have just taken loan of a brand new Boardman cyclocross bike thanks to the good people at Halfords. The bike is going to be used in ride story shoots and of course a few races. So there'll be a few sightings of the bike in my features.

At the moment the bike is lovely, clean and bright - so much so that I dare not go out and sully it on the trails. It's gotta be done though. So I'll be going to a cyclo cross race at Hemel Hempsted this weekend. Then the weekend after will be the big cross weekend in London, with the Muddy Hell race at Herne Hill, and Rapha Supercross at Alexandra Palace. Although I haven't done much on my cyclo cross bike for a long time I have been doing mountain biking regularly, so hopefully things shouldn't be too much of a shock to the system. I will need to practice mounting and dismounting from the bike though. So I will have to brave the strange looks as I wheel my bike around my local park, not riding it but trying to jump on and jump off the thing, probably very clumsily! I'm looking forward to the cyclo cross events. Having seen the courses there will be some uphill struggles - literally! My Planet X bike will get its day out soon, but I sense that the Boardman will be my new best friend over the coming weeks. Turning up at a race with both bikes? It's an ordeal to have to clean one muddy bike when I get home after a race. Why would I want to add to the task by bringing home 2 dirty steeds? As well as that, if I turn up at a race with two bikes people might start thinking I'm really good! Gee, what a scary thought!

Saturday, 1 October 2011

One Day One Photo - 30

We are experiencing a heatwave in London. It's pretty strange that the hottest days of the year are at the end of September/beginning of October! Furthermore, London is experiencing temperatures that are higher than Madrid and Rome! And that's official! It was a shame that this was the very time that Fred chose to go to a very cold and rainy Ireland for a long weekend. Anyway, while he was away I used my day off work to go on a mountain bike ride. I don't know if riding around the Surrey Hills was the wisest choice considering the scorching temperatures. I even rode up the killer bridleway that climbs up to the summit of Box Hill. No it wasn't easy, and yes I was completely drenched by the time I reached the top. I'm glad I didn't see anyone there who knows me! Once I'd got my breath back I took a couple of photos of the view of Mole Valley and Dorking down below. It doesn't matter how many times I go to the viewpoint at Box Hill. I always love watching the world go by from this high point in Surrey. Many people were out having picnics. It would have been nice to do the same, but I had to push on to bag a couple more hills, albeit easier ones further along, near Reigate.

So, there you have it. That was me for 30 days of September. I hope it has conveyed a little bit of what I get up to during a typical month.

One Day One Photo - 29

The Cycle Show is a one of those annual events that everyone in the cycling community tries to make. In many cases it's a chance to catch up with other folks you know in the cycling community than about visiting stands. Of course looking at the latest novelties and having the chance to see some of our top cyclists is a draw in itself. This year, for the first time the show was not held in London. Instead, the NEC Birmingham was the venue for the event. I wasn't sure whether I wanted to travel all the way there, especially as I wasn't convinced of the use in me going. In the end I decided to give it the benefit of the doubt and I went there on the Trade/Press Only day, with no expectation. The train ride from London to Birmingham International was quicker than I had imagined so it almost felt like travelling locally! At the NEC I made a number of connections - mainly in relation to women-specific items and future cycling events, so the trip was beneficial to me after all.

One Day One Photo - 28

Some of you may have already seen my stories in Cycling Active and Cycling Weekly and also on-line on the London Cycle Sport website. As well as these publications I have now started doing features for Sportsister, a sports magazine for women. I think this is a great idea for a magazine. Even in this day and age people seem to think that women aren't that bothered about sport. Wrong. We are but it's not always easy to get involved and get the coverage when the various sports disciplines are so male dominated. Women's sports receives less media exposure and sponsorship sport can be quite lean as well. Anyway, this magazine, which was the idea of Danielle Sellwood and Louise Hudson is great for raising the profile of what women do across the various sports. Of course they cover cycling, but they also cover all other sports. Through Sportsister I have had the chance to take part in a few events on their behalf and write event reviews. I was recently at the Cycletta South event, and my next challenge will be to do the Royal Parks Half Marathon. I guess that as well as being able to write I need to be fit! So, after a 5 year absence from any sort of long distance running I will find myself lining up in Hyde Park ready to put myself through 13.1 miles of London Parks. Hopefully I'll get round it before they take down the event hoardings and the marshals go home! In any case, there will be a story from me about the race. I look forward to writing more stories and sharing creative ideas with Danielle and Louise.

Friday, 30 September 2011

One Day One Photo - 27

I haven't had much time to get involved in that other ongoing cycling project I'm part of, the London Women's Cycle Racing League. In case you didn't know, it ran during the 2011 road season, and with the same level of interest as last year. The main difference was that the publicity side of things was scaled back. We had a few commercial organisations provide prizes, which was good. We also had a few hiccups with commercial organisations. I guess they are just lessons one learns when you get involved in this sort of voluntary organisation-commercial partnership. Also, after two years of running this with a couple of other amazing women I am stepping aside from the league and leaving it to others to run. I am quite looking forward to taking a back seat. It's not that I didn't enjoy it. On the contrary. I am just glad to have one less thing to think about. Being a co-ordinator is quite time consuming when juggling it with the writing projects that I am doing more and more. On top of that there's also the day-to-day business of keeping the wolf from the door, which in these economic times is becoming more and more tricky. Anyway, I have enjoyed running the league, it's been fun, and I've met lots of great people. It's not over just yet though - we've got our prizegiving social on October 20th. I look forward to it!

One Day One Photo - 26

If you want to win the bike bling competition between you and your cycling buddies forget about your stylish carbon fibre Colnago or Pinarello, ditch your pretentious steel Independent Fabrication and go for one of these. This relaxing Swarovski-studded low-rider designed by Ben Wilson comes complete with approximately 110,000 crystals encrusted into the bike. It's on display at the Power of Making exhibition that I went to at the V&A museum in London. If you really want it you'll have to wait a few months. The exhibiton runs until January 2nd 2012. I guess that gives you a bit of time to save up!
For a less expensive alternative you may want to consider other interesting offerings on show, including a Sanomagic Mahogany bicycle and a Nylon Airbike. Whichever two-wheeler you go for, you'll be the envy of everyone around - well at least the guys on your weekend club run!

Thursday, 29 September 2011

One Day One Photo - 25

What can I say. This has definitely been Cav's year. Points jersey and victory on the Champs Elysees at the Tour de France, victories in London at the Olympic test event and the Tour of Britain - and now World Champion. It's thoroughly deserved. I was really pleased that he won the World Champs because that was as much down to the efforts of the other Team GB guys as to Mark Cavendish's sprinting efforts. Cav's HTC-Columbia team boasts the best lead-out squad in the world, and they have mastered to a T the art of delivering Mark Cavendish to the best possible sprinting position 200m from the finish line. The lads at Team GB did not have the same reputation as the power houses of Team HTC. So grand chapeau too to the likes of Ian Stannard, Jeremy Hunt, Geraint Thomas and David Millar. Particular mention has to go to Bradley Wiggins who practically turned himself inside out during the penultimate lap. He towed round the whole peloton just to bridge the gap to the leading riders and set up a favourable position for Cav to deliver his trademark explosive sprint to the line. It was definitely one of those moments when it felt really cool to be British!

I must also mention Fabian Cancellara, who may not be feeling too pleased with his performance at the Worlds, after having failed to defend his title in the time trial. However, it's always amazing how he manages to be in the mix during the dash for the chequered flag in a road race, considering he's anything but a sprinter! That shows what a great all-round cycle racer he is, and I admire him for that. In the grand scheme of things he shouldn't feel too disappointed with his performance.

One Day One Photo - 24

I like to keep fit. Of course I like cycling and running, but I like just bog standard fitness activities like what I used to do as a member of a gym many moons ago. I'm not keen on what gyms have become nowadays. I don't understand why I should get locked into a practically unretractable contract to pay at least £60/month to join other mice running round wheels and trying to do aerobics in a crowded cage. These days I enjoy doing simpler stuff. I like the activities we did as kids, which back then we did without any effort. As an adult, I find doing those activities quite physically demanding and they actually keep me in shape, cakes permitting! I have a hula hoop, which I bought in a toy store - great for the waist, hips and bum. I also have a skipping rope - great for the arms and legs. Ten minutes of jumping with a rope in the park at the end of my road gets me as out of breath as a half-hour run, or riding up the hills in my neighbourhood. Once you get over the initial self consciousness of jumping up and down in a public park, it's no big deal. People have a sort of curious admiration that you are doing something that many can't/wouldn't dare do. So thanks to £15 spent on a length of rope and a plastic hoop I have managed to stay basically in shape. I just hope the park doesn't get full with everyone trying to do these activities now - could get a little crowded. I may just then take up hopscotch instead!

One Day Three Photos - 23

Every few weeks I have a bad hair day. Well it's not so much a bad hair day as the regular grind of having to undo my plaits, comb out my hair and then have the plaits put back in again. I might only have cornrow plaits but the process still takes more than half a day. My bedroom becomes a hotbed of hair as I meticulously unpick the plaits and comb out the knotted mesh. It's all very tedious. Thank God for trashy soap operas, X-factor and the Dave Channel! Once the plaits are out I have to run the gauntlet of travelling down the street to the hairdressers with scary hair until the good ladies have styled something that makes me feel like me again. Not long ago a boy was banned from school for having his hair in cornrow. The school feared his hair was synonymous with gang culture. If his hair's anything like mine then I'd say more fool the school! People in gangs have their hair in many styles, including short back and sides! Cornrow is neat and keeps my hair nicely in place. It would be nice to keep a nice massive mane like Angie Stone but in reality my 'fro is high maintenance, and it's scary - well it scares me! Thank God for cornrow.