Saturday, 13 September 2014

September Song: The Hoy Hundred

They handed us maps. Two sheets of double sided A4 paper. I take them out now and again and unfold them. Tracing the route against my mind’s eye. These creased papers are now overlaid with sunshine, their contours conjour up the cliffs over Malham Tarn, chalky against the blue sky, the rolling lanes into Kettlewell, the golds of Fleet Moss glowing in the sun, the umbers and ochres of Park Rash and the light, sinking the heather to an inky purple on Barden Moor.
I’m stunned at how much landscape a day can hold. Turn the maps over again to relive the vertiginous descent to Nab End, the deadening right hander at the end that unfurled into a steep bank. Where the photographer, poised, shouted ‘come on young lady’ as I stood out of my pedals, straining to beat the gradient.
Young lady indeed. I wonder how, at this age, I’ve suddenly taken to hundred mile rides. ‘I’m 42 you know’ I call back. ‘Bloody hell’ he says. I’m not sure how to take that. Maybe I’m only as old as I feel.
I found the photograph of me at that point. Framed by the Dales pocket meadows, gridded with dry stone walls. I’m smiling the smile that is fixed somewhere between suffering and joy.
I think I’d decided on the ride quite lightly — the Dales did not conjour a tough century when I did. We’re not into lakeland fell territory, no jagged peaks or scree slopes, just the sweeping curves of moorland shaped with subtle shadows, blurred, rounded and softened by heather and grasses and topped by the occasional outcrop.
With my piece of BMC carbon loveliness, it would make a good day out, the passage into September, a reminder of road riding after being lured off onto trails and rocks all summer. And besides, I really enjoy putting my road kit on. There’s a calm in the order of having one of everything, peeling on each piece from my BMC armwarmers to my DT Swiss socks, safe in the knowledge that they all do their jobs correctly. The instant I step onto the Granfondo, everything just works.
We lined up at the start in groups for the pep talk and are set off together. But our groups strings out quickly. I have the hundred mile target in mind and I set myself a good pace from Skipton. A few men race ahead but it’s only a couple of miles down the line before I begin to pick them up. That’s me, steady, but unrelenting. I keep pushing and I don’t stop. I chat to a lad on his second best bike. Steel frame, down tube shifters and a self-confessed penchant for racing on the flat. Stunned when I tell him to do it before he gets to my age. I lose him on the hills somewhere beyond Malham.
It takes a while to realise that this ride is not to be underestimated. The tops may seem shallow but the roads that lead to them are steep and sapping, and as they level to threads of tarmac across the moors, they’ve already worked on my legs, persuading them they’re heavy and tired.
But the route is good. No, marvellous and magical. I don’t think I’ve ever been on a ride so gloriously and splendidly solitary. These deceptive sapping climbs lead to breath taking moor land roads, slender sinewy byways that just about take the path of least resististance over the tops to link parallel valleys. At these heights though, the lush valleys and pocket fields are hidden from sight, swept away and forgotten as the expanse of heather and hazy peaks draw the eye heavenwards.
I’ve mountain biked here, on bridleways that cross the roads and have the disconcerting feeling of the almost familiar. The route takes a sharp left at Cracoe, the foot of a hot, but fondly remembered, struggle up Cracoe Fell and over Bardon Moor. In Kettlewell I glimpse the insane climb above Starbotton, a loose stony limestone scar that rears straight up the face of the hill.
The difference is one of scale. Off road, each tussock and boulder of progress is hard won. On these magic little roads, we roll out along the valleys, brace for the climbs and then are bowled out towards the heather, the hills and the tantalizing horizon. We seem to fly towards it, suspended between the moorland and the sky, but before we can touch the distant peaks, the road dives and we plummet back to follow the green lined river routes along the valley floors.
The route takes us the length Wharfdale, out over the top of over Fleet Moss and into Wensleydale. I can feel the distance growing. Hawes is about the turning point, the top edge of the route, and we follow the river until we reach Wensley and turn back over the moors towards home.
And as the miles mount steadily, the amount of climb leaps up and up. It seems that every 30 miles we top another thousand metres. There are feed stations on this route. Cyclists congregate and eat. There’s quite a lot of sitting around but I worry about reaching home (and Clover the poodle) so I set off alone.
Just before the final feed station — as I tag onto a group for the first time in fifty miles I calculate that I have spent the best part of eighty odd miles battling my way into a headwind. In fact the best protection from the headwinds has been the shocking climbs.
Leaving the feed station I am grateful to join three southern mountain bikers -exiled on road bikes — for the last fifteen miles. These cheery chaps with broad shoulders usher me to the foot of Barden Moor. I am stunned at its bulk before me. From an entirely disinterested perspective, it is beautiful. Glowing in the slanting light of a September afternoon. But my heart sinks. There are only a handful of miles to go but it stands between me and my destination.
I have to put my head down and grovel in my lowest gear. Ignore the walking figures of broken riders ahead and pedal. Occasionally I look up. We are making progress. Even the retro Raleigh is doing well, zigzagging across the road ahead of me to stem its incline. I had exactly the same bike twenty odd years ago. Black and shiny with Raleigh emblazoned in gold. I loved it — the tall gearing was perfect for tearing round London but it was stolen in Clerkenwell.
Musing takes me up. The steepest section abates and from the shoulder I make better progress. My companions are waiting on the summit and we freewheel down the hill into Embsay and push on the last couple of miles back to base.
The day is wrapped up. I have hardly stopped. No photos. But my head is full of gold and light. Small green fields. Steep hills. And an infinite hazy moorland rolled out below blue skies.

Saturday, 10 May 2014

Putting the grrr in girl

So this week I've been following the first Women's Tour of Britain, noted the 100th birthday of Billie Dovey (now Fleming) who accumulated over 29,000 miles riding every day in 1938 to promote health and fitness, and read about Alfonsina Strada, 'the devil in a dress', professional cyclist who, in 1924, was the first and only woman to ride the Giro d'Italia.

They're interesting examples of women cycling. Alfonsina Strada. What a woman. She competed against the men and always put in creditable performances. Billie Dovey's amazing feat earned her sponsorship from Cadbury and a chain of bike shops. It's evidently brought her longevity and happiness (as in this article with Cycling Weekly).

But in the intervening almost-century, what have we seen? Women were promptly banned from riding the Giro after Alfonsina's attempt (she wasn't first, but neither was she at the back of the field). Women elite pro-cyclists today struggle to make a living - even our Olympic stars (as in this article about Emma Pooley). And the Women's Tour of Britain, today in 2014, is the first race to have similar logistical standards to the Men's Tour, and proclaim that its prize money is on a par with the men's.

Since riding the Tour of Flanders I've been chewing over women and cycling. It's kind of shocked me. I guess I live most of my life in a world where there's more equality - the industries I've worked in are teaming with women, and to be honest I've never felt that I have been judged on anything other than merit.

But in cycling I feel like I'm looking backwards, to a time when sexism was more acceptable. Where women are a very definite minority. And where expectations of us are, quite frankly, low.

I found it much more noticeable in my recent foray into road riding. I see many more women when I race cyclocross and mountain bike - they ride the same courses and compete in the same competitions as men. There's still a way to go and there could be more of us, of course, but I've not felt the difference as acutely as when I started paying attention to road riding.

The culture of road riding puzzles me. Why is it that the women's races are so much shorter than the men's? Why isn't there even a women's race for all the big races? Why are women-only sportives so short? Why is it that there were only two women riding the 180km Wrynose or Bust? Why does Cyclist magazine so rarely feature women?

So, I've thought about the process that got me into the events I've done so far. What made me want to do them when so few other women do?  For me, it was seeing events as a challenge I wanted to be part of and to say I'd done. I bought into the romance of the ride. I was more worried about my relative late-coming to cycling, not my gender. It was only later that I realised that there was a distinct lack of other women.

In cycling I'm an outsider. But in the rest of my life I was brought up to succeed at whatever I do - a girls' grammar school girl from three generations of girls' grammar school girls for whom the targets are there and hitting them is just a matter of hard work. Physics doesn't care whether you're a girl or boy. You learn, you take the exam, you make the grade. That was my approach. And that's been my approach to cycling challenges. Train, practice, ride. And hopefully finish smiling.

So what is it with road riding? Are we scared? Not fit? Not strong? I don't think so. There are plenty of strong, fit and amazing women out there who can (and do) ride the miles. Although they are a minority they show that it's perfectly possible. I suspect that there are others who probably haven't thought about doing it because it seems daunting. Or because they're training for the events which are there for women and they want to win what's there to be won. If you're brought up to be a female cyclist, you train to win the events that are there for you. I get that.

To my mind, the issue is one of low expectations. Here's your race, a nice little 135km (never mind the men are doing double). Or, we've got you a gentle sportive where you can choose to have your coffee and cake after 60km or 100km. And like so much everyday sexism, the expectations of those around us shape the expectations we have of ourselves. It's a mould which is hard to break.

I think we simply don't realise what we can do. If a 42 year old moderately fit female mountain biker can cheerfully ride 150 miles on six weeks of training, the rest of you can surely do just as well and better? And honestly, you'll love it. Great to be on the road for a good long day out, fantastic to feel the distance, see the passing landscape, challenge the legs and the lungs. Brilliant to be able to say 'I did that'.

So isn't it time we put up tougher challenges? Runners run marathons - not girl marathons and boy marathons. It's the same distance. We should get used to it in cycling.

Not to mention the prize money. Women get a fraction of the winnings men get. Turning pro is a difficult decision for a female cyclist. Not just 'will I win?' but also 'will I starve winning?'. And without there being more women in pro-teams - and races for them to compete in - we're just not going to get the growth that the sport needs. Our Olympic development programmes have shown how achievable growth and excellence are in the right environment. In cycling, this needs redoubling - not just for the Olympics, that tiny one in four year pinnacle, but for the year round calendar. Don't get me wrong, I think that in the UK we're probably as good as it gets. It's indicative that the Women's Tour of Britain is the first national tour to be as well supported as the men's. It's just time that more races take more steps to do the same.

Yes, we need more women to get into cycling and entry-level events are a part of that. Rides to get women hooked. To get the culture going. Not just the youngsters too. I love seeing that women I race against in cyclocross there also supporting their daughters in the youth categories - that's the kind of culture which will grow the numbers and quality of riders.

But we also need a ladder upwards. We mustn't stop on the first rung. The increasingly popular women-only sportives need to include both short distances and long distances (100km isn't long, 160km is getting there). Women's road races need to well, exist (heavens, this is the first year that there's a single stage of the Tour de France with a parallel, if shorter, race for women), and grow to a similar stature as men's. There's a feedback effect between creating opportunity and women seizing it which can and will grow the sport.

It's time to get the message out, 'Hey ladies, don't look down, you can go the distance. You can hold your own. Alfonsina Strada and Billie Dovey would be proud of you.'

Women. Expect more. That's all I have to say.

I'm just going to reiterate here another big thanks and massive kudos to the team at BMC for choosing me and Kathi Hausmann to ride the Ronde. Thanks for your faith in women cycling. There is hope!

with the indomitable Jane Chadwick

Wednesday, 23 April 2014

To Di2 for?

"Hello, my name is Beate Kubitz and I am a gear mangler."

Thus begins my confession at bike-wreckers anonymous. My fantasy self-help group who will listen sympathetically to my weekly unburdening that I am a klutz. A seasoned destroyer of finely machined chains and mechs, breaker of derailleur hangers and greatest fan of the power link.

Me? This?
So when I won my BMC Granfondo, once I'd finished squeaking with excitement and delight and utter overwhelmedness, I nearly called them right back to confess to them that I, in no way, deserve a bike with Shimano Di2 electronic gears.

Give me a piece of bling, and I will find a way to chew and snarl it up. I regularly ride with my chain in exactly the wrong position, at full diagonal stretch from front chainring to rear cassette. There's usually a gentle clearing of the throat from behind me to warn me that Chipps is about to commence his reproachful mantra 'darling, did you mean to be in your big ring right now?'.  'Oh no, I was just changing up (or down)' I lie cheerfully, whilst shifting away, accompanied by a horrendous set of clickings, crunchings and crackings as I try to find a more appropriate combination of cogs.

I couldn't quite admit to BMC that I wreak this kind of havoc. So the call wasn't made and the email remains unsent. And I went to Evans to be presented with the Granfondo, looking sleek and smooth and just beautiful. Press on the shifter paddle, and a discreet whirr indicates that you are shifting. Just keep turning the pedals and a new gear will present.

I rode out with trepidation. Expecting to do my worst and have to return to Evans, shame-faced and clutching bits of chain and cog in an oily rag, hoping they would sort out whatever disaster I'd created.

But that's the thing. The gears just work. The little motor shifts precisely so there's no doubt you'll be in the gear you ask. There's no cable stretch because you don't tension the cable. Di2 means that the cable is really a power lead between the switch (the gear shifters) and the motor which moves the derailleur. So I won't be having to change the cable or adjust the gears to allow for changing cable length as it stretches with use (something that has had me flummoxed on long rides before). It won't get harder to shift as the cable wears and is coated with road grime. It'll just keep transmitting a little electrical power surge to the tiny motor, which will make this shift exactly like the last.

So what else do I love about it? It doesn't moan when I put it into the wrong gear and it's by far the easiest bike to correct if I do (wrong gears are always a sign that I'm tired, so this is hugely appreciated). Ooh and you can press and hold the shifter paddles and the chain will skip up or down the back cassette as happily as a spring lamb for as long as you do. Gone are the days of multiple repeats of the shift, click, crunch cycle, and I feel a better woman for it.

Easily removed in a hotel room
Removing the derailleur for travelling is easy - you just unplug the cable before un-mounting the derailleur. And there's no faffing putting it back, it plugs in and the gears work without any adjustment (Well, they did for me. Adjusting them isn't too bad - there's a reset button or for finer adjustments, a YouTube video below). The battery pack needs unplugging when you remove the seat post too, but that's it.

This generation of Di2 is less chunky than the last, the motorised derailleur is remarkably compact with hidden battery concealed in the seat post so there's minimal extra paraphernalia other than a little junction box to be mounted on your handlebars (where adjustments can be made and the charger plugged in) which is the least aesthetic bit. Internal cable routing makes sense - given that it's an electrical cable, rather than a cable which is under tension - so routing round corners isn't an issue. It should be very low maintenance (the indicators are good so far but ask me again in another few thousand kilometres).

If you've always thought that gears were illogical (yeah, why does the same action shift up with your left hand and down with your right?) you can change that now and have your Di2 programmed however you like. All gears going up on the left and down on the right? Yes you can do that. All your other bikes are traditional and you don't want to be confused? You can keep it traditional too.

So, I am a starry-eyed Di2 convert. I already was secretly impressed when Chipps used one of the early models on his 2012 Three Peaks 'cross bike and it rode through the infamous Pen y Ghent headset-deep river which was a 'feature' of that year's race. The gears worked perfectly even after total immersion, and a couple of weeks later when we could finally face looking at our bikes again (it had been the worst race weather on record) the motor whirred obediently back to life as though the bike hadn't just been callously abandoned in a barn.

I've always thought that you need to work your way up on bikes - start with slightly clunky kit that you learn on and then finesse it over time. And I am wary of over-complication and over-engineering simple processes. But I'm changing.  Di2 has made my riding so much easier - I worry much less about gear changes and therefore am always seeking the perfect gear for the situation - that it's something that anyone who rides a reasonable amount should consider sooner rather than later.

Up, up and away

Monday, 14 April 2014

Wrynose. Not Bust.

This week I came back to earth with a bump. Everything seems to have gone wrong. Two days to sort out a faulty phone line in the shop, hardly denting the enormous pile of admin and Chipps is away so there's no cycling to work whilst I've sole custody of Clover the poodle.

So, what should a girl do to have something to look forward to? Oh, yes, of course. A 112 mile sportive from Lancaster, over the Wrynose pass and then back again. Can't be too bad can it?

The logistics were 'interesting'. A 4am start to walk Clover the poodle before setting off in the mighty Doblo to arrive in Lancaster by 6.30am. I've never done anything like this before on my own, but I quite enjoyed spending Saturday preparing for it. I cleaned the kitchen so that I could set my bike up in it. Popped over to Blazing Saddles for a spare power link for my chain (just in case) and they kindly gave my bike a quick once over and tightened a few bolts (!). Then I set out all the food ready. Got out my BMC bag and organised riding gear and post-ride gear. It was great having a set of kit that all worked together. Perfectly orderly and organised.

At 5.05am I set off for Lancaster. The motorways were empty and the directions all worked. I pulled into the car park. Signed on. Set myself up.  Chatted idly to the chaps in the cars next to me.

"How long do you reckon it'll take?"
"Oh, I'll do it in 7 hours". In a slightly disdainful tone which implied that I most definitely wouldn't come anywhere near that.

OK, so I am in flash new kit with a flash new bike. Maybe I look like all the gear, no idea. Or maybe they're just seeing girl on a bike. Of the 106 entries when I entered, I was one of two women. I wondered why?

I'd looked at the Wrynose or Bust route profile and it wasn't excessive, Chipps and I rode comparable rides in Spain. For fun. I've been over the Hardknott and Wrynose passes before (although I turned the air blue with expletives) and I fancied a rematch on my new bike. I was hoping that the Granfondo would give me wings. I decided I'd rather do it on a signposted route, in a group when there were people around, than on my own, whilst Chipps was away.

So there I was at the start, suddenly feeling that I needed to do it in a decent time just to prove that I was worth my amazing bike and my flash kit, and that it's no big for women to ride, and ride well.

It wasn't a mass start, we just trickled out, one at a time. Not a good sign for getting into a group and sharing the wind. I couldn't persuade my Garmin to work so I just decided to go for it. Found a bloke, chatted to him. Jumped into a little group, couldn't keep up with it. But found another. And so on. Taking my turn if they'd let me.

With nothing apart from a vague memory of the route and geography to tell me where I was or what time it was, it was quite a surprise when we hit the feed stop at 44 miles. This marked the transition from the rolling section of the route to the start of the Lakeland climbs. We'd come a fair way, round the coast and through changing countryside. A nice jaunt, but now it was time for the hills to turn into mountains, capped with fells and scree. Clouds hovering round them, but luckily today, not closing in.

I stuffed down malt bread and bananas and started out when another chap went. I couldn't keep up with him (or rather I couldn't accelerate when he did which amounts to the same thing but is an annoying process). So I slogged out that section on my own.  It took me through the gorgeous Dudden Valley, which rolls through stunted woodlands, and grassy sheep strewn verges. I recalled riding it once, in the opposite direction. And with delight realised that the route would only take us over the Wrynose, skipping its even nastier friend the Hardknott.

A chap caught me and we played tag as he out-climbed me, but I raced past him on the descents. Eventually he overhauled me, and became a marker ahead, a white shape leading onwards, towards the Wrynose Pass.

There's a long, flat aisle laid out before the alter of Wrynose. Which means that, as you look ahead, you see the procession of cyclists that clearly sped before you, suspended on the face of the pass to come. With a few moments observation, it's apparent that they're slowly hauling and winching themselves up and over the pass. And soon it will be your turn.

I took the road that reared before me steadily. It's not quite as intimidating if you keep your eyes down and only look at a section at a time. I was standing in my pedals over the steep bits, sitting every time the gradient lessened. It's always a relief to reach the top. And the air was not blue.

The descent is rapid and twisting, a case of not overcooking the brakes whilst looking looking looking round corners and down the valley for approaching cars, stray sheep and any other impediments. A guy in front of me had blown his tyre. I tried to let my brakes breathe whenever I could see far enough ahead to let rip.

The killer with the Wrynose is not the pass, that's done in the head and with will power. The kicker is the steady climb after it towards Ambleside. It's where the damage the pass has wreaked on your legs is apparent. I could feel the start of cramp. I swallowed a gel. Fumbled for more food. But kept spinning. The battle between relief that the pass is over and disappointment that it's not all downhill from there has to be won.

I was expecting Ambleside at any minute, but the route swung round before reaching the town proper and took us to another timing station (66 miles done) and then towards Hawkshead. I'd forgotten where the next feed station was on the route and was feeling my legs. Another gel helped. A couple of guys passed me at the feed station. I caught one of them and we chatted our way along Windermere.

Someone had meddled with the arrows and there was confusion in the last few miles before the feed station at High Newton (86 miles). I panicked that we'd never reach it and when we did, relieved, stopped a little longer than I should have done, hungry and tired. My companion over the last section left whilst I was still stuffing down an egg sandwich and second cup of tea. I thought there were people with me when I left, but ended up ahead of them and riding alone.

There was a great descent out of High Newton, twisty and steep and rough. Kind of fun. Perfect on the Granfondo, which feels stable and secure even on the steepest bends. But then the route was back into ripping along flat lands and rolling hills. There was a series of climbs which started to put me into the wind. A couple of pairs overtook me, but I couldn't keep with them for more than a mile. If I could settle in behind I was fine, but I need to learn to accelerate. On the other hand, I'd see groups ahead and speed along to catch them only to realise that they were slower participants of the shorter routes. Sitting behind them would only get me home to my poodle at a snail's pace.

Overtaking one such group, I suddenly realised that I'd ridden ninety odd miles and could still outride people who'd done a shorter course. Maybe my training had done some good. I could feel proud.

The last ten miles was howling, and I felt battered by the constant onslaught. I was joined for maybe the last three by the chap I'd played chase with on the Dudden Valley. Funny how things pan out. We chatted and took turns to deliver ourselves out of the wind and home to the blessed relief of the Halton base.

I took 8 hours and 9 minutes to complete the course. 112 miles and 2,800m of elevation. Overall, I was 35th, out of over a hundred entrants. I hope that was respectable enough for anyone who raised an eyebrow at the start not to do so the next time they see a woman signing on.

As for the other lady, she finished last, in 11hours and 14 minutes. But she did it. Where were the rest of us? There were plenty of women doing the two shorter rides run alongsdie, but just the two of us taking the route more epic.

For our pains though, we had a great day out. There was all the cake a girl could eat (if she wanted) and some very fine chaps to chat with on the ride. The event was well organised, sign posted and marshalled. The checkpoints and feed stations were run by jolly, kind and encouraging people - despite standing at their posts for goodness knows how long.

I suppose it's reasonably hard work to see the scenery, but a ride like this is rewarding. Each variation reminds you how far you've come, from the flat lands of the coast, inland to touch the clouds and back, rolling through woodland, then farmland and to within a breath of the sea. There's all that landscape wrapped into the pride and elation of reaching the end of the ride.

Wrynose or Bust
SportIdent times
The beautiful bike

Thursday, 10 April 2014

The Big Day

I spend quite a number of rides wondering why I am on the bike, debating with myself the relative merits of a nice sit down with a good book or simply pulling the duvet over my head and rolling over into blissful sleep. 

I can't say that this was one of them. 

Despite the desperately early start. Being ready to leave with bike, back up bags, organised food supplies and wearing the appropriate clothes by 6am was a challenge. I'm rubbish in the morning and this compounded my fear that I wasn't properly prepared or would screw up by forgetting something essential. I arranged my sink so with everything I needed to do around the edge. Spread clothes out on the floor and wrote a series of notes in block capitals. Do I really need to be told to brush my teeth? Yes I do.

Fill bottles, brush teeth, drink beetroot… etc


BMC had arranged cars to get us to the ride and to meet us with food and spares along the route. It was still black when we loaded up, clutching croissants from the deserted breakfast buffet, and an eerie quarter light when we unpacked into the Bruges square. The police were moving cars on fast and we fumbled, flustered and scurried to get wheels on and kit sorted. Squeezing gels into my pockets and hoping it was enough. Wriggling into last minute leg warmers having underestimated the pre-dawn chill.

Then we were ready, the light was clearing and we made our way to the inflatable arch which marked the start. I was glad to be with the BMC group - guys who'd ridden the Ronde many times and some who'd done it as pro riders as well as us, the six lucky Granfondo Experience winners. I was so nervous I just needed to follow the group.

But that's the thing. As soon as the cranks turn and the wheels spin, it's all familiar again. The timing beep sounds as we scoot over the line and then we're bowling through Bruges streets in the early light. It's started. A great big rush of joy starts at my toes and ends in a grin. That hardly departs all day.

We are stopped at a bridge being raised to let a large boat sail downriver. I look at the guys round me in BMC jerseys. The first ear worm of the day wriggled awake: I'm sticking to you, because I'm made out of glue. I don't think Lou Reed and the Velvet Underground were really into bike riding but this incongruous 70s number fuelled my magnetic attraction to the BMC jerseys and wheels in front of me.

The group was to stay together for the first 100km. This was a mixture of major and minor roads and bike lanes. Some of the bigger roads were really exposed and a couple of guys from the BMC Concept store made it their mission to keep me out of the wind, making sure I was protected by being in groups and that I didn't drop off the end at junctions and traffic lights. I watched the speed on the Garmin. 35, 36 even 39 km per hour. And the distance counter ticking up at a hitherto unimaginable pace.  Peloton riding is fun. 

The riders in the Granfondo experience were a mixture of the uber trained and the more mortal. Davy from Belgium belonged in the former category and rode rings round us - literally.  Dropping back to make sure we were all there and then accelerating forward to span the whole group with good humour. He gave me the second ear worm. We're nearly there, he quipped, at about 45km. And we all roared with 'Tell me lies, tell me sweet little lies'.

Kathi and Frank, her partner who came along for the ride.
Christoffe in the foreground and Steffan in the back.
At 100 km he roared off to meet the cobbles singing 'Here comes the sun', only (we heard later) to be beasted by fellow Belgian, Steven, whose brainchild the Granfondo Experience is. The next group was also pretty fast -  ex-pro riders Christoff and Stijn on the front with super fit athlete Fiola keeping them on their toes whilst shepherding Alex and Peter from Brazil and Sweden respectively. I could catch the BMC train and stay with it for a while, but I didn't dare accelerate when they went off. I wanted to have enough in my legs to climb the cobbles and I worried that blasting off would use them up. I was, compared to Peter, Alex and Davy, very underprepared. They were all aficionados of the 200km+ ride. I'd never ridden this far in my life.

So I let them go. There were three stops when the van met us though, and each time I found that I wasn't really far behind. The youngsters (as I like to think of those under 30), Joe from the US and Kathi from Germany would roll up a little behind me. Kathi, determined to take it at her own pace was honing a special range of German expletives to describe the cobbled climbs.

Positive Vibrations

I loved riding the flat and rolling pave, pulling out the stops to overtake everyone in front of me, thrilling at the whirr when I reached the magic speed at which it seemed to smooth (a little). Then on the roads I'd judiciously sneak into groups and sit behind bigger riders until my mind was filled with a jumble of club jersey names from Belgium and Holland. I wondered what van Meesters did and mused that surely Mulder should be accompanied by Sculley. Sometimes we chatted, sometimes not.

Find a big bloke and sit behind him...

At one point, someone came alongside me shouting a cheery 'congratulations'. I realised that probably quite a few people around me had entered the Granfondo competition. I countered with 'it's the hardest prize I've ever won' and he pedalled off, laughing. 

I rode for a while behind a chap from Witham Weavers. I asked where that was (Lincolnshire) and we rode along discussing where we'd come from and the utter splendidness of the day.

Once we hit another cobbled climb I went steady.  My gears were just perfect and before I realised it I was up the Koppenberg. It has an interesting and distinctively steep section with wheel-catchingly wide gaps between the cobbles half way up. But the bike climbed over them smoothly and I used the descents to make up places, loving the bike for letting me blast out of corners and storm past people on the long straights. Which is how I would catch the train a last time.

The BMC bus with Joe, Fiola, Christoffe, Peter and Steffan
I was in the BMC train when the Garmin clicked past 180km. I was now riding the longest distance I have ever ridden. It was sunny though, the lanes were lined with new green foliage, the light was glorious and I was happy. It was great to share the moment.

Then more cobbles and I let the train go. There were several bergs beginning with K before the final climbs of the day and the names - on a convenient sticker on my top tube - had begun to swim before my eyes. I didn't really storm up any of them, letting Fiola and the other fast guys do that for the team.

The penultimate berg, the Oude Kwaremont at 223km was my real nemesis. The climb itself is not too bad, but it's followed by a mile or so of flat cobbles which I had to take with no momentum and tiring legs. That was my only real moment of earthy German expletives.

Smile or grimace? A bit more tired now.

Then just the Paterberg. I'd caught up and then lost Pete from the Witham Weavers a few times, but this time he waited for me at the top. It was short and steep but over quickly. Relieved that we'd effectively done the Ronde, and without stepping off on any of the climbs, we chatted our way back to Oudenaarde, sitting behind a Belgian cycling club who kindly took the wind. My feet were pretty sore, but that could not damp my elation.

The faithful BMC van was waiting at the finish, there was beer. And frites. And a strange feeling. There were times that day that I didn't want it to end, the streaming sunshine, the speed, the warm air and the laughter. It was almost hard to finish, but good. A warm feeling of completion and pride. And I was still smiling.

Brilliant bike!

Wednesday, 2 April 2014

With these hungry eyes

From this...

To this…. 

In just a hundred and eighty kilometres

'Hungry eyes' isn't awful as ear worms go. It was definitely on repeat in my head as we started out. We'd decided to go big with our first ride in Spain, and put together a huge loop, as long as we could string together. Travelling out north from the flat we are borrowing, out along the coast for nearly 50km before heading inland and up into the mountains that crowd the Costa Blanca.

'Now I've got you in my sights' as I kept my eyes on Chipps, not letting go of his back wheel. Drafting is a skill I have to practice. We were bemused that our 'flat' start climbed 800m before we even hit the first climb into the mountains. It was the hottest part of the day and suddenly seemed very quiet, stifling and I felt slightly sick. 

I had ordered lunch at 50km, deciding early that we needed to supplement the bars we were carrying. The dish I ordered turned out to be cold potatoes thickly coated in a delicious aioli. So much for my Spanish. Not plain boiled potatoes then. Also, so much for my cycling nutrition. Delicious, maybe, but heavy? Definitely. I am sure I read somewhere that fat makes carbohydrate more difficult to digest and slow to use. 

Perhaps that explained why, two and a half hours later, I still felt leaden, lethargic and nauseous as we wound up hill and into the mountains. The agriculture changed from orange to olive terraces, then downhill and back into pollarded cherry trees, thick with blossom.

Still smiling… how that would change!

The roads changed to high and rolling rather than continuously up hill. I tried eating a bar. We carried on, passing towns, contained to little islands hovering over the orchards. We lurched into one, Vall de Alcala, low on water and hot, and combed its little streets for a cafe. It's the only time I can drink Coca Cola, as my legs start to empty and at the onset of dehydration. We chased it down with coffees. With sugar. And with hindsight we'd have used our last 5 euros for extra provisions. But we didn't. 

I'd kept nibbling at the bars I was carrying but they were diminishing. We were back onto roads that we recognised from last year.  Familiarity might have cheered us up, but did not reduce the number of calories we needed for the climb up the pass from Benasau towards Confrides. We passed some stragglers who'd fallen off the back end of a train of cyclists that had passed us earlier. I exchanged a conspiratorial smile with one, but then got my head down and keep going. At least we knew how far it was and were bent on getting to the other side. 

It was slowly occurring to me that 'Hungry eyes' on endlessly in my head was telling me something. Urgently. I finished the last bar and launched into the descent. It's fast and winding and flashed past. Chipps is much faster than I am downhill but on my new bike I could keep with him by half a bend (rather than losing sight of him). 

There's a brief steep kick of a climb into the town of Confrides, and I stood up in my pedals to crest the hill. And realised that my pedalling was erratic. Somewhere in that last few miles, and unnoticed, all my last energy had been spent. I felt wobbly. And now that I noticed it, slightly sick.

'Come on' said Chipps, in a doubly, extra cheery voice. 'We're nearly at Benimantell'
'I'm hungry' 
'Yes, I am too' he said, redoubling the cheerful, making-an-effort voice. We pressed on. At Beninmantell, I looked sideways. But the cashpoint is in Guardalest. 'Another couple of miles. Then I can get some extra money and we can buy lots of food.'
'I feel sick'
'Yes, that's because you're hungry.'

He was holding out for Guardalest because it's a proper tourist town. A pretty fortification on top of a craggy plinth almost inaccessible to enemies. In the daytime, sunlight glints on gilded domes.  There are cafes and cashpoints right on the main road. There's even a snack vending machine on the roadside. With the benefit of hindsight, I wonder how many broken cyclists collapse across their doorsteps. The proprietor was amazingly understanding as Chipps ordered hot chocolate and tortillas and I sat with my head in my hands. The idea of just closing my eyes was so soothing and comforting. I could blank out the pounding in my temples and the weird nausea and feeling of seasickness that was closing in.

'Don't go to sleep' said Chipps. 'Drink this.'
I still felt sick, my head was hot. Everything hurt.

I sipped the chocolate. Even in my dreadful state it tasted good. Thick as custard and warm. I tried to eat. But the tortilla tasted too strange and strong so I tried nibbling the bread that came with it. I've never struggled to eat, but chewing seemed almost impossible. I had no saliva and the bread was (to me) dry and hard. Chewing the tiniest bit seemed to take hours. I collapsed back, head in hands, taking comfort in the dark and hoping that something would take effect and I'd get the strength to eat more.

How could I have got into such a state so quickly? In truth, you don't ever really get into a state instantaneously. It's the product of too few calories for too long. Not packing enough bars. Perhaps the indigestible potato aoili had not helped. At any rate this was a proper, full on, road riding tank emptying bonk as I had never quite experienced it. 

Yet the chocolate was working. I got through it and, as the bread was such an effort, ordered a second chocolate. Probably two or three hundred calories per cup. I hoped. The spoon almost stood up in it. Ruminating on the writing on the rim which seemed to indicate that it was fair trade and organic. Win win. After two chocolates each and when Chipps had wolfed his way through his tortilla with apparent ease, we thought we'd better get on our way. It was dark. He pocketed the remains of my tortilla and we set out.

I can't quite believe that we made it home. But once I got back on the bike everything seemed to work again. Fifteen miles flew by. I thanked the heavens that the bike seemed to know what it was doing, twisting round the bends of the descents at speed and taking every bump in the dark in its stride. We rolled down towards the sea, counting off the little climbs until we hit the coastal road that took us back to our door. 180km behind us and 3,000m of climbing.

Back home and a couple of slices of easy pizza before sliding into a very welcome bed. I couldn't eat too much but by 5am whatever metabolic processes had worked themselves out and prodded me until I was wide awake and had to acknowledge that I was starving. The leftover tortilla was found and scoffed. Followed by a banana and some rice pudding I'd luckily thought to buy and leave in the fridge. 

I am trying to avoid ever humming 'Hungry eyes' again.

As a post script, I have bought a stash of Spanish gels to ward off this kind of disaster. It was a very unpleasant lesson. But it's better learned today than in ten days time on the Tour of Flanders.

Sunday, 30 March 2014

Advanced Road Bike Maintenance

I'm reasonably happy with technical things but of a very German persuasion. I like to read the instructions and follow them precisely. I like logic, numbers and measurable certainty. Six turns of that nut, precisely. A definitive click when the plug is inserted into the socket. Angles you can verify and torque you can measure. Chipps belongs much more to the British Leyland school of creative bodging "oh yes, it comes like that but we find it only really works if you reverse the wires there and give it a good shove". He's great at making things work, and knows by feel that that will be tight enough with a thumb and forefinger, whereas this bit you need to give that a good wrench with your fist. I have to admit that I leave most of my bike maintenance to him - he's got years of experience that makes it much quicker.

With this bike though I want to be able at least do the basics myself. Which started with putting it back together after flying it out to Spain for our riding holiday.

So here I am, working my way round the bike, one bit at a time. Return the handlebars to the stem (but not in position yet) and secure the seat post. Then mount it on the work stand. Start with the front wheel in (oh yes, there's the little lever that releases Shimano brakes, just like it says in the book). Then screw on the derailleur. That's scary, hundreds of pounds of Di2 in my hands. But it goes in and screws tight. Then the back wheel. A process of reading the instructions and looking. I've done it hundreds of times with other bikes but with this new bike I feel the need to double and triple check before I touch a thing. The DT Swiss quick releases are neat and clever but not familiar. Wire up the Di2, pushing the cable home with the little tool supplied. Not really difficult. Pedals on, and tentatively turn the cranks. Change the gears. It works. I'm proud and relieved.

Then I can stand the bike on the ground and go round again. Set up the handlebars, straighten out the stem. Secure everything. Check the headset. Undo the wheels to let them settle into place and retighten. They run smooth now. Check everything is tight. But not too tight, carbon doesn't like that. The required torque is conveniently written next to every screw, but we don't have a gauge so I rely on Chipps' rule of thumb. Apart from that I've put it back together myself.

There it is. I read Advanced Road Bike Maintenance on the plane over. Anything to distract me from the fear of flying. And it's paid off. I'd recommend it!

I could have danced all night...

I took no photos on my first ride. Because I didn't want to stop. The bike just danced under me. Over the hills and a great way off. We rode to Ripon. 55 hilly miles starting in Calderdale with the climb up over Oxenhope moor (the reverse of the Tour de France route) and through Keighley (where new Tour de France tarmac was being freshly laid, ready for July).  Then up from Addingham into North Yorkshire and the gorgeous cycling lanes of the Dales.

I felt at home on the bike, climbing with a steady speed I'd never managed to realise before. Waiting at the top of every hill for Chipps - who has started muttering about how he needs a new bike. I suppose that's the penalty for winning the Granfondo, it makes everything else pale slightly beside it. 

The weather turned just as we hung a right, climbing the lonely road towards Pately Bridge into the wet. But the bike was no less happy in the rain and wind. The Green Howe descent into the town is alarmingly steep, but at no point did I feel out of control. Half an hour and we had cleared the clouds, and the sun shone on the last stretch into Ripon.

A chap on a Pinarello breezed past. He was halfway up the next hill before pride won over staying back with a (much less competitive) Chipps. I couldn't let the GF be overtaken on her first proper outing. Off we went. And with a tiny bit of acceleration she sprung into action. Flying along as though we were meant to race. Catching the chap a couple of hills later, I had to explain, slightly pink-faced (with embarrassment rather than exertion), that I was only chasing him to see what my new bike could do. And then wait at the next junction for a bemused Chipps. 

And before we knew it, we were in Ripon. Just a brief outing to look at a new van.

Wednesday, 26 March 2014

It's all about the bike

This is the bike I collected last Saturday morning. I was so excited that there was no traditional Saturday morning lie in for Chipps. We were on the train to Manchester first thing before the Saturday shoppers' rush. Before 11am, the man at Evans had said, to beat the crowds.

And here she is…. all the bells and whistles. I am still stunned that I could possibly own such a gorgeous piece of engineering. She's light as a feather, carbon all over. I've never owned a proper road bike so much of her is a mystery. But my first spin, just out of the door and round the block is of speed, put your foot down and she shoots away, wherever you want to be carried.

Everything about her is optimal, neat, right for a bike that wants to go the miles. I pop up onto a kerb and drop back off onto the road. No worries, we can take the cobbles with the smooth. Her Di2 gears whirr gently and put me into precisely the right gear. Nothing is too much, too difficult. We want to stop here? We stop. We want to go? We go. And we don't stop. It amazes me how well she carries speed. Inject just a little acceleration downhill here and she'll eat the following incline up. Magic.

Saturday, 15 March 2014

A journey in pictures

It's not all grim. This week my 'just ride into work and back' training landed on the most beautiful March day. The season is on the turn and this week it was already light when I left. So, no moaning about the weather, saddle up and go. This was a treat of a ride. 

Glodwick as the sun comes up, with the hills beyond.

Charlesworth, and I'm really out of the city.

Above New Mills and the hills of the Peak District ahead.

More Peaks. Amazing light.
Long Hill looking wonderful in the sunshine. Not as Long.

Then obviously, there's the riding home part. Be knackered.
Be surprised that the bike keeps going.
Take advantage of a pretty sundown.

New Mills looking to Manchester.
Then onwards into the the sodium lights and home.
Well, that was a long day. 

Friday, 14 March 2014

Be my hero!

There's been quite a bit of getting on my bike when I'm not quite in the mood lately. Once I've launched myself into the wet, the cold or the dark (and sometimes a combination of all three), I've had time to think about the people who overcome their circumstances, and in some cases, themselves. My heroes.

I'm lucky to have grown up with a couple of genuine, copper-bottomed, real-life heroes. The kind of people who make heroism sound really quite everyday. My Dad tried to escape from Cold War East Germany; succeeding, after several audacious attempts, with sheer, unadulterated, nerve. My Mum's blithe oblivion to temporal and topographical realities and her constant refusal to bow to political realities or the space time continuum made us a family, on this side of the Iron Curtain.

I've known many more - both in life and sports. These are there the people I meditate on, wonder about how they see the world, how they do what they do. There is one single unifying feature; strength of spirit which defies the set of circumstances.

Preparation is one thing but it's the nerve, the audacity and the sheer belief that pushes us beyond what we're sure we can do into the realm of uncertainty and amazing achievement. Where we're both fragile, vulnerable and awe-inspiring.

I was lucky to have sat at the knees of the late, great, John North, drinking in stories of the Three Peaks Cyclocross race, racing in Belgium; the Paris Roubaix and the local 'cross scene.
'Well, I looked round at the top of Ingleborough and the three Swiss chaps were still hot on my heels, so I had to go to plan B'
'What was that John?'
'Well, to run up Whernside as well'.
He was talking about running up the near vertical side of Simon Fell, dropping down the other side and running straight up to the next summit. With a bike on his shoulder. No wonder he won. And the question 'what would John North do?' still prompts an extra mile or an extra push out of us whether training or racing.

Sporting heroes are wonderful (and I have glowed with joy at the achievements of the British women's cycling team) but it's the amazing things my friends and contemporaries do that truly spur me on. Some of their achievements are world-class. Others may seem more everyday. But they're still important. They make me picture myself trying that bit harder. Reminding myself not to be narrow, not to stop considering new challenges and absolutely definitely not to give up.

Jane, who trained and prepared meticulously to ride the famous deep winter Arrowhead endurance race, completing all 135 miles of the trail in extraordinarily cold conditions (down to -55ÂșC!). Tiny and slight, she had to do a series of 10 second sprints just to keep warm. Her description of her ride terrified me, but she rode, and trudged for 34 hours to be the first European lady ever to finish the course. A ride in which more people failed to finish than actually completed it.

Jane's one of a crazy crew of people who think that racing on mountain bikes for 24 hours (or longer) is a perfectly normal weekend activity. I bow to her - and other 24 hour racers I know - like the redoubtable Amy,  irrepressible Jason and genially stoic John Pitchers who recount their tales of racing through long nights, deep mud, hard rocks and all weathers.

They almost make it look too easy though - easy for people who inhabit a world apart. It's the people like Lisa, a woman I normally know as a beautiful and well-dressed customer, devoted mum and supporter of her 'cross riding husband and son, taking on her first 24 hour mountain bike race who make me think. Seeing her standing, make-up-less and full of fear on the handover line but absolutely determined to do her lap, instantly made her into a hero to me.

My business partner, Nicola, is a crack road runner who has juggled her children, our business and her own fitness. Getting back into form after the birth of her first son was such a challenge. Fitting in training and especially achieving a racing weight. But after a few attempts (and still not clipping below the goal she'd set herself) she won a race for the first time in her life at 31.

They're all there to remind me not to limit myself. Fear and self-doubt are there to be overcome, and it's amazing what you can achieve.

Then there are the people who don't let circumstances stand in their way.

My first landlady, Bridget, in my 20s, who as a teenager recovered from polio to resume training and become a professional dancer. The doctors told her she'd never dance again and would always walk with a limp. If you were very perceptive, you might still notice her slight limp, but dance she did. John Pitchers, the 24 hour racer, who has repaired himself, mind and body, after being thoroughly broken by a driver not paying attention. Another friend Liz, not giving up on life when struck by a severe mental illness and inching her way back to reality and happiness. Lately, my friend Sarah who has got back onto her mountain bike after a severe rupture of her shoulder joint. We ride together with Kat, who wheezes her way up every climb, asthma inhaler in backpack, just in case.

And a friend who only just held onto life after he broke his neck when he fell awkwardly during a bike ride; Michael Bonney. He lives on a ventilator, unable to move from the neck down. Yet he's not given in to despair. He has kept on adapting technology until he can use voice operated computers to work, keep up with friends and squeeze every possibility out of the limitations which have been set for him.

We need these people around us to show use the way to do things - the people who face adversity and deal with it. When every day is a struggle, finding the strength to believe that things will get better and to persevere. That's inspiring.

And closest to home, the person who doesn't crack under pressure. My partner Chipps never loses his head or his sense of humour no matter how hard the circumstances. He seems to draw on special reserves when the going gets tough, cheerily fixing broken things or shepherding broken-spirited people off hill sides.

The people around me set examples - none is perfect but between them they grab life, defy gravity and  push frontiers. A conspiracy of trying, keeping going, keeping smiling; everyday heroism.

As I pedal along, I meditate on this human thing, this glorious web of endeavour and aspiration that provokes one step after another, all our achievements spurring better out of each other.  Each one reminding me that there's a point to keeping on. They all say 'don't give up'. And every little thought that keeps me going past that point or this is important.

I need them, that is you, all of you with your stories, your triumphs and heroics - to help me stick to the plan, persevere and believe that if you all can do it, then I can do it too.

Monday, 10 March 2014

My first century and other novelties

For a person who blithely applied to ride 244km of Belgian roads, bergs and cobbles, I've not actually been very far on a bike. I've never even quite tipped the 160km which makes up an imperial century, for instance. And I've never really had a structured approach to training. So there's a lot of new at the moment.

So far, I've followed The Plan. This in itself is a novel approach to cycling for me. But there's more, besides building up the distance (about which later), first I have embarked on a completely new experience:  intervals.

On Monday, Jason took me in hand to show me the ropes. So brief, so innocuous. Just three mad dashes up a long gravel slope, spinning my legs each time on the way down. Then circling the Philips Park trails for five minutes. And repeat. And again. Then I was allowed out to play on my mountain bike hard tail with the regular Monday Pub Night Ride, where I ambled along at the back with a cheerily deflating rear tyre.

Intervals. Serious face.

The following day I felt, ever so slightly, crushed to a pulp. The plan required that I repeat my efforts on Wednesday. Cheers Jason. I didn't make the mistake of going out for a social ride straight after, but the effect on Thursday was, if possible, even greater. My legs appeared to be made of lettuce.

This seemed to please Jason quite a lot.

Lettuce-legged and ready for the super-commute home on Friday

He instructed me to commute to work, not to do too much on Saturday then get 'a decent ride' on the Sunday. By which he meant at least half the length of the Ronde, or more; two thirds maybe, on a flattish route.

Setting out from Warrington with Si

Nothing, if not obedient, on Sunday I found myself heading out on my first ever hundred mile ride. My fellow travellers were my partner, Chipps, and our friend Si, who planned our route from his home in Warrington. It seemed odd driving out of the valley to find somewhere flat, but it was what was prescribed. It was even odder as we realised that the day had dawned bright and clear and promised to be not only warm, but also, sunny.

The ride was a treat - not quite flat but definitely more rolling than we're used to. Si had found a sequence of the quiet kind of lanes, mainly lined with hedges and trees, that are one of the defining characteristics of the English countryside. We rolled southwards through farmland, arable and dairy, in which Spring was definitely springing. Nantwich and Crewe were to the east, but we were oblivious to them as we skirted towns, and avoided traffic, chatting about rides, and road surfaces and bikes and events.

Chipps and Si on the lanes

Our destination was The Old Priest House Coffee Shop in Audlem, a cafe famous with cyclists. Our stomachs grumbling that bars and gels eaten on the hoof (or should that be wheel?) were not proper food, we stacked the bikes and sat down for the treat of the day; a quiet lunch of Staffordshire oatcakes - an oatmeal pancake served warm (unlike the Scottish variety) - rolled around eggs and bacon. With a pot of tea, quickly and sympathetically refilled, it was a perfect stop.

Rested and refuelled, we pressed on. After turning east for a few miles, we began to work our way northwards. I realised that our route crossed and recrossed the M6 motorway. Come this far and we'd usually be dodging juggernauts and weaving through traffic on our way to or from visiting friends or some far flung mountain bike event. But the little lanes had - almost deceptively - coaxed us fifty miles in the sunshine, left here, right there, freewheeling down hills and straining in the pedals to crest little ridges. We had left Cheshire, almost touched Wales and were beyond Stoke-on-Trent in Staffordshire whilst scarcely noticing the distance.

Emergency pie

The afternoon set in as we passed the Jodrell Bank observatory. A quick stop for a snack whilst admiring the view. It's an amazing construction, bright white in the sunshine against the blue sky - and for a second a couple of russet pheasants posed in a bare field in the foreground, creating a postcard scene.

Dusk started to fall as we spun the last ten miles back into Warrington, with Chipps encouraging me to practice sitting on his wheel, a vital energy-saving skill on a long ride. Somehow a hundred miles had slipped by, a hundred sunny miles, easy and sweet.

So, that's training so far. The things you think will be hard will be easy. The things you think are easy wipe you out. Your legs are sore, but you get used to it. And it's not (thank heavens) always raining.