Thursday 30 May 2024

Operation Etape du Tour - May update

It's time to fit in some fast riding in earnest, so I took myself to take part in my local races. Crystal Palace park criterium on Tuesday nights must be the best work-out in town. Then over at Herne Hill Velodrome crit races you get to do the best bike handling in town!

Racing at Crystal Palace Park (photo: Honor Elliott)



In my preparation for the Etape du Tour it's important to get in some fast cycling. It's easy to go plodding around, particularly over long distances. So the way to ride faster is to well, ride faster.

I like to do track cycling at Herne Hill Velodrome, as well as doing training rides around Regents Park in Central London. These have definitely helped increase my natural speed.

But why not go one step further, and do some actual racing. I had renewed my British Cycling racing licence earlier this year, but didn’t feel quite ready to pin on a number.

At the epoch when I was cycle racing regularly, Redbridge Cycle Centre was just a schematic design on an architect’s desk, and people entered cycle races by sending their entry form with a cheque [remember them?] in the post.

I did do a lot of racing at the time. Over the summer months I would race maybe four times a week - at Hillingdon Cycle Circuit, the former Eastway circuit [now occupied by the Olympic Park], track league at Herne Hill, even a bit of summer cyclocross. A few of us got together and formed the original London Women's Cycle Racing League too, which we did as a way to encourage more women into racing. That was when I had more free time and fewer responsibilities. Then things got busy with work, especially as I worked abroad and in other parts of the UK and so racing died down.

I did make a brief comeback to cycle racing when I raced on a circuit at Dalton Barracks, Oxfordshire a couple of years ago. Nobody knew me, and the young girls kindly gave me encouraging tips as I was blown off the back of the group like a proper newbie! I concluded I was too old for this sort of thing and returned to my life in retirement. I would still do the odd bit of cyclocross racing, more as a way to brighten up a winter's day, than be competitive.

But in the end there’s always a little bit of hunger for competition that remains in you. Maybe it is that mid-life crisis that drives you to feed the hunger before old age really sets in – rather like my motivation for entering the Etape du Tour.

So I decided to ride the Crystal Palace circuit race. It's by no means the easiest one to start with. The circuit is only about one kilometre and during that time you have three tight bends, including one that is 180°, one on a fast descent, and another one around a corner obscured by a bush. The saving grace there’s a soft grassy bank to roll down if you go wrong there! Oh, and there's also a cheeky uphill – something you can’t avoid in that part of South London.

Crystal Palace Crit Circuit

It might be one of the scariest circuit races you can do - the organisers, Dulwich Paragon dub it "the best crit in town" - but it’s just a 10-minute ride uphill from my home, which doubles as my warm-up. I prefer to stay local when racing.  

Standing on the start-line in my Penge Cycling Club kit, alongside a 15-strong field of women who were half my age I knew it would be a fast race, but I had no expectation. That attitude meant that I didn’t feel nervous.

From the whistle, I was dropped by most of the field apart from one of the London Dynamo women. We were quite close together for a short while but then she put in a dig out of the saddle on the hill, and left me for dust.

As someone familiar with this circuit from doing my own training laps I know the course very well. But riding at race pace was a very different experience. I scared myself on the tight corners and at times had to slow right down, before accelerating back up to speed.

That put me at an even greater disadvantage, as I was probably using more energy than the other riders and would burn out quicker. Given the small field, I knew I would come last, so resolved to ride at my pace. I'd paid my entry fee, pinned on a number and so it was my choice how I would do my race!

These races attract a lot of spectators, so I got quite a few cheers of encouragement.  I must say I am grateful of their support - even if I barely had the breath to show it mid-race.

There are various racing going on simultaneously at this Tuesday evening event, so it's not always obvious where a rider is in a race, and pelotons tend to fragment with many riders racing around in ones and twos. So if you're on your own it's not an issue. Just stay off the racing line when a bigger group of riders lap you.  

I was lapped about three times by the top women. After speaking to them at the end I concluded that it doesn’t matter how fast or slow you are – Crystal Palace is a scary course for everyone. But you get such an adrenaline rush that you want to race there again!

I certainly hope to go back, regardless of where I finish. For me, it's the best work-out in town!

Another place to get a good work-out is Herne Hill Velodrome. Of course doing the regular track cycling sessions such as the morning sessions on Tuesdays or Thursdays is a great work-out. What I am referring to specifically are the races on a Friday evening.

Herne Hill Velodrome Crit Circuit

The folks at Herne Hill Velodrome have very cleverly designed a criterium course within the grounds of the velodrome that includes parts of the main velodrome and also the inner section of the track where they normally have sessions for children. Given how compact the area is, this has shown how creative course designers can be. What it also shows is how twisty and technical a course can be, and how much I need to practice my skills. On one section you come off down the ramp of the velodrome and drop down into the inner section at speed and straight into a chicane. It's not something that you want to get wrong - handily there is padding on the corner in case you do miss the corner!

I found the Crystal Palace course technical, but this Herne Hill circuit is technical to another level. One lap of the circuit is probably around 600m, meaning the tricky sections come round with greater frequency than at the Tuesday night race. There are no fast descent at Herne Hill, but you can gain high speed on the flat and on the ramp. With 180-degree and 90-degree turns a-plenty I found it hard to pick up speed, knowing that I would need to slow right down to negotiate these sections safely. 

In the old days when I raced at Herne Hill Velodrome there would be literally one man and his dog spectating. So for that reason when I turned up at the venue I hadn't even considered that anyone would be watching the race. I had been hoping to race in relative anonymity given that most of the other competitors would be younger women who would have been still in primary school when I was regularly racing.  

So imagine my shock when I arrived there to the sound of pumping music, a commentator on the loudspeaker and loads of people actually sitting in the stands watching, cheering while drinking beer. Crikey. That alone almost made me say to myself, "There's been a mistake. I hadn't meant to sign up for this - I should go home!" But I guess deep down I wanted to get a work out, regardless of where I finished in the group. So I just took the start line anyway.

Just as with Crystal Palace, folks cheered me on, but in even greater numbers than at Crystal Palace. It was actually quite fun being part of this dynamic event, even if I did finish in last place again. I must also admit that I wasn't out of breath at all - it wasn't for want of trying, but simply because the corners were so tight that there was a real possibility of stacking it if you went too fast. In fact, one woman did crash, though without any injury and she managed to get up and carry on racing. In a group that lapped me, one girl skidded when she applied her brakes to suddenly, which sent her fellow riders and myself into a brief panic. Thankfully she managed to stay upright. Those two scenarios were exactly what I wouldn't have wanted to be involved in, and was ready to be dropped in order to avoid that.

It was a good evening, and I was glad I went. If nothing else, the Herne Hill Velodrome circuit is a great place for improving your bike handling skills.

So between racing at Crystal Palace and racing at Herne Hill you definitely get in the best racing in town.

Friday 17 May 2024

Freewheeling: Closing a legal loophole so cyclists are no longer above the law

From now on cyclists can face prosecution and up to 14 years in prison for causing death or serious injury by dangerous cycling. Causing death by careless cycling is also set to become a criminal offence. 

Hilda Griffiths died in collision with a cyclist in June 2022

These changes to the law will then bring cyclists into line with motorists and motorbikers who do the same. It comes at a time when Gerald Griffiths has had to commemorate the sorrowful two-year anniversary of the death of his mother.

81-year old Hilda died after suffering multiple major injuries when she was struck by a cyclist, Brian Fitzgerald in Regents Park early one morning in June 2022. 

The cyclist was travellng at 29mph at the time of the collision - 9 mph over the speed limit in the royal park

However, Fitzgerald could not be prosecuted under UK law because the speed limit does not apply to non-motorised vehicles. 

In another case in 2017 when a cyclist knocked down and killed a pedestrian the perpetrator, Charlie Alliston was prosecuted under a law from 1861. He was charged with "wanton furious driving" when he rode along Old Street, London, at 20 miles an hour on a track bike, an illegal vehicle as it had no front brake, and collided with Kim Briggs. The 44-year old mother of two later died from catastrophic head injuries she suffered in the collision. Alliston didn't help his case when at the scene of the crash he shouted at the HR manager who had been crossing the road while out on her lunch break, and he later wrote in social media about how it was her fault and this incident would teach her a lesson.

In the case of the accident in Regents Park the cyclist, who was doing training laps on a legal bicycle, there was no evidence of wanton furious riding. This loophole means that the cyclist was beyond prosecution.

I must say, that does not make me feel comfortable to think that in such situations, crudely put, a person can literally get away with murder.

I don't believe that a person riding a bicycle can be above the law, and so I think this law, proposed by the MP Iain Duncan Smith is reasonable and correct, given thatcthe loophole needs closing. It is true that there are infinitely fewer incidents of pedestrians being injured or killed by cyclists than there are pedestrians killed by motorists.

There are also much more cases of cyclists being killed by motorists than pedestrians being killed by cyclists too. But that doesn't mean that there should be nothing in the statute book to deal with those rare occasions when such a tragic incident occurs. The judiciary should not have to be reverting to laws that date back to the 19th century. 

This must have been even more devastating for the family of Hilda Griffiths when dealing with their loss, and then the Crown Prosecution says "Sorry but there's nothing we can do about it."

Certain cyclists give we other bike riders on the road a bad name doing things like running red lights, or riding on the pavements and they are beyond punishment. Folks resent the fact that cyclists can and do escape legal action given that there's no way to identify them or stop them when they jump the lights. There's no wonder that the general public get pretty irate with cyclists. 

So I must say I welcome this proposed new law which will bring cyclists in line with other vehicles on UK roads. Not only does it close that problematic loophole, but it can also make cyclists more wise to the fact that they could be prosecuted. That way they'll ride more responsibly - which will be a positive thing, particularly in the way that we will be perceived by the public, moving forward.

Monday 13 May 2024

Back up in the Lake District for the Fred Whitton Challenge

Another year, another trip to the Lake District, and once again I did the Fred Whitton light (also known as the Lion and Lamb Challenge), which still has some tough climbs. I felt definitely fitter than the last time I did it though.

Once again I made my two-yearly trip up to the Lake District for the Fred Whitton. The last time I was there it was a good day out. I must say that whenever I go to this part of Cumbria, in north-west England I always say to myself the same thing - why don't I come here more often?

Newlands Pass
It's such a stunning part of the world. Nothing beats the sight of the mountains surrounding lots of beautiful lakes. When I'm up there I feel really invigorated in the pure clean air set in peace and tranquillity.

Okay, I mustn't exaggerate. You do get lots of traffic jams in the Lakes given the comparative scarcity of roads, so that's going to give rise to pollution - certainly between Windermere and Ambleside. Also, in a scandal with the water companies, Lake Windermere has been flagged as being severely polluted as a result of extensive sewage flows.

So, it's not all rosy - but nevertheless - I do enjoy going up to the Lakes, and particularly to the lesser frequented areas nearer to Keswick.

When I arrived at Grasmere to sign on for the Fred Whitton the sun was out and lots of folks were out sunbathing or having picnics in the surrounding field at the registration hall. Crikey a heatwave had come to the Lakes - it was 25 degrees Celsius. That's not normal!

Picnic area at Fred Whitton Challenge HQ, Grasmere
Unfortunately, the weather forecast for the following day, when the ride was taking place, wasn't looking great. After a sunny spell, heavy rain was due to hit the area in the mid-afternoon - right when I would be cresting Hardknott and Wrynose Passes. Well, I really didn't want to be caught up in that. 

Those hills are bad enough in the dry. I was already prepared for a walk up Hardknott Pass, considering I have never been able to ride up this climb with the 30% gradient yet. The 25% Wrynose Pass would be doable for me, provided I could get out of the saddle. But in the wet, I would have had to do that while seated, in order to maintain traction of the back wheel and avoid wheelspin. Could I ride up a 25% gradient in a seated position? Probably not. Crucially, would I be able to ride down a 25% gradient in the wet? I don't think so - or at least not safely. I really didn't fancy risking a crash and breaking my collarbone.

Of course I could avoid all these issues by setting off with the speedy bunch of local riders who do a really fast chain gang, cane it up Kirkstone Pass and blast around the 180km (112-mile) route in six hours and be finished by lunchtime - in my dreams!

I could also have ridden around with a nagging thought in my mind, hoping and praying that the weather forecasts had got it all wrong. But to be honest, I just wanted to feel comfortable during my ride. My motto has always been to arrive on the start line feeling confident that I would be able to do what I needed to do, and that I would be able to handle the situation in a stress-free way. If I want stress and worry I can do that on Mondays to Fridays between 9am and 6pm. Weekends are for fun, care-free pursuits.

So I made the decision to ride the Lion and Lamb Challenge like I did last time around. With the spare energy I would go for a pleasant walk around the nearby trails.

As I drove along the main road to Grasmere from my lodgings at Bowness on Windermere I spotted lots of mini pelotons of cyclists starting out their ride. They had keenly started at 6am, though I got going at 7am - which was fine for me, knowing that I would be doing the 118km variant (73-mile). 

Compared to two years ago I was setting off about an hour earlier, which meant that I saw more riders along the way - though many overtook me. Riders were friendly though, and we all greeted each other and wished each other well.

Kirkstone Pass, with The Struggle in the background (Photo: SteveFlemingPhoto.com)
The initial part of the ride was a fast spin along the main road back through Ambleside, towards Windermere. Then after five miles (8km) came the first difficulty of the day, Kirkstone Pass, via Holbeck Lane. This climb is easier than The Struggle, but is harder than the first part of Kirkstone Pass near Windermere.

There were a couple of steep stretches above 10%, so was a little bit of a rude awakening for the legs. Once Holbeck Lane joined the main Kirskstone Pass road I was in a lovely wide valley. Great views, shame about the road surface. Every time I come here I like to think the road might have been resurfaced. But it isn't. So I just have to put up with heavy rutted roads, because I'm just not working hard enough! At least the gradient was manageable. 

Once the steep winding road to my left, The Struggle, came into view I knew I was near the summit of the Kirkstone Pass, the highest point of the ride at 454m, and I would get the chance to rest a little during the descent. Soon enough I arrived at the Kirkstone Inn at the top of the road, and I could enjoy a beautiful descent. On this side of the hill the road surface gave a sharp contrast to what I had previously endured. The descent was lovely and smooth, with sweeping bends. It was still important to pay attention though when handling the bike. 

After a short stint through the Patterdale valley the next climb was Matterdale End, where I was entertained by a couple who were belting out Europop and cheering me on madly as though I were Wout Van Aert. Sorry to disappoint you guys!

A few other folks overtook me on this climb, though they were still going slow enough that they were in view when doing my least favourite part of the ride, along the A66 towards Keswick. It's nice to go along here and not feel totally alone.

I wanted to keep my stoppages to a minimum, but Borrowdale, just below Keswick was a good time to stop and eat. before tackling what would be the toughest ride for me, Honister Pass.

When the Fred Whitton Challenge comes to town everyone in the Lake District knows about it and the locals are always very enthusiastic and supportive of the riders. Many of them cheered, applauded or gave me the thumbs up along the way as I rode along. Funnily enough, even while I was standing at the side of the road close to Derwentwater people still cheered me - for eating Clif Bar? Well, I'll take that!

This day seemed to have a few amateur sports events going on. I saw various riders travelling in the opposite direction doing what appeared to be a charity randonnée ride. Furthermore, a couple I had met the previous day had said they would be doing a type of quadrathlon involving cycling, running, paddle boarding and something else. There's no shortage of sport to do in the Lake District.

After a long stint in the valley in the shadow of such peaks as Skiddaw, the road ramped uphill suddenly at Seatoller. A guy passed me at that time, saying "This is where the work begins". I knew what was coming, after having suffered it in the past. My main strategy was to twiddle in the lowest gear and at the lowest cadence I could get away with just so that I could save a bit of energy to deal with the really steep hairpins.

Hard work riding up the Lakeland climbs, like here at Newlands Pass
A couple of ramps at the start of the climb, which included a steep bend to the left had me panting slightly. I still felt ready to take on this fight. But every 20 metres another short extremely steep section was thrown at me. I recall being in this situation last time and having to wrestle the bike to the ground as the bike tried to pull a wheelie. No such thing happened this time, as I felt very much in control. Meanwhile, my fellow rider who had passed me earlier smoothly riding past out of the saddle had suddenly stopped riding and was resting at the side of the road. He then got off his bike and walked. He was actually a pretty strong rider, but I think his bike was a bit over-geared to cope with the gradient. I passed him on the climb and he later caught up with me once the road finally levelled off at the Slate Museum. Do you know when the feed station is? He asked me. By his accent I could tell that he was French.

The poor lad must have underestimated the English roads thinking that nothing would be harder than Col de Galibier or Alpe d'Huez. He was properly being proved wrong!

I told him it would probably be after the descent in around three miles (5km), and also cautioned him of the descent, which would be very steep and would need a lot of care and attention. I bid him good bye, thinking I wouldn't see him again, as he sped off. In fact I caught up with him again on the descent as he came to an abrupt stop having been freaked out by the steepness of the descent. 

It's fair to say the descent from Honister Pass is not to be underestimated. It is probably the most technical descent of the whole ride, and was evidenced by the numerous mountain rescue staff and first aiders ready to help any rider who came into misfortune. I had to use my mountain biking skills to the max by keeping my body weight so far to the rear of the bike that my bottom was almost resting on the back wheel! That was the safest way I knew.

Thankfully I got down the hill okay, and enjoyed a lovely twisty ride along a more reasonable gradient, towards Buttermere and into the feed station.

By this time I was close to the cut-off of being past Braithwaite village by 11.30am. To be honest those of us at the feed station had already decided we wouldn't be doing the full Fred, so I was able to enjoy my stop and chat to the staff and volunteers there. I was very pleased to chat to Lynn Whitton, Fred's widow. She was very happy with the way things had run, particularly on this 25th Anniversary of the event.

One tip she did tell me was that although the race is oversubscribed there is a 10% drop-out rate and so you can actually get to ride the Fred Whitton if you contact the organiser a couple of weeks before the event.

After stuffing myself with some tasty Ritz biscuits I was back on the road and taking on my favourite of the Lakeland climbs on that ride, Newlands Pass.

Reaching the summit of Newlands Pass (Photo:SteveFlemingPhoto.com)
The 2km climb up Newlands Pass is not easy, but it is more of a steady climb with a few short 10 or 15% ramps at intervals followed by sections to relax the legs. Meanwhile, as the road twists around Buttermere Moss on my right, on the left are the dramatic fells at Whiteless Pike and Bleak Rigg. You never quite know when you are at the top of the road as the road twists and turns quite a lot, and reveals a little bit more of road to climb up. Then the very last bit of the uphill includes a steep gradient at more than 15%. Then you feel pleased with yourself for having done something that was hard enough to be a proper challenge, but not so hard it's not doable. Having said all that, I could see a couple of riders ahead of me in the distance who did have to walk up Newlands Pass. So maybe it wasn't that doable! 

Descending into Braithwaite was not straightforward as the road is not a steady downhill, but a mixture of ups, downs, twists and very sharp turns. Once at Braithwaite a marshal let me know that I wouldn't be able to do the full distance - confirmation that I would definitely be doing the Lion and Lamb! "No worries," I smiled. "I hadn't planned on doing the long course." 

The road from Keswick back to Grasmere
My route back to Grasmere via Keswick was once again along the main A591 trunk road. When I cycled along this road two years ago it had been a real struggle to get up the hill out of Keswick, and the main road had seemed interminable.

On this occasion, however, I was able to tackle the climb with gusto and enjoy the ride and the views of Helm Crag and Thirlmere. I passed a few riders along the way, and there were others who passed me looking pretty fit. It seemed that the Lion and Lamb was not necessarily a route being done just by slow riders. This section of the ride was quicker than I had anticipated. In fact when I saw Grasmere lake come into view I hardly believed my eyes. It was a surprised to already be in the home strait.

Crossing the finish line with the exhausted fast guys who had done the full distance, I looked suspiciously fresh, and felt compelled to admit to the marshals that I had only done 73 miles. Just to be clear!

As ever, there was a fun ambiance at the HQ, with a descent hot meal, deck chairs and picnic area on the grass, as well as a band playing. I got chatting to a woman called Katherine from the Isle of Wight. Rather like Sonia who I'd met two years ago when having my post-race meal, she was also disappointed not to have been able to do the full Fred. Where Sonia had missed the cut-off because of mechanical issues with her bike, Katherine had been caught up in traffic entering the event HQ. Apparently the queue to get into the car park early in the morning had been so long that Katherine was not able to start her ride at 6am as planned, and didn't get going until around 7am, which put her under pressure to get through the full ride in a timely way. In any case, we both enjoyed the event and hope to be back again.

Personally, I would like to be back again because I do enjoy the Fred Whitton weekend, and being in the Lake District. Also, I must say the number of women participants is very low - less than 10% - and it would be good to see more women getting involved. So I would be more than happy to get in my participation in the ride on behalf of the fairer sex!

All smiles at the finish line in Grasmere

After the cyclosportive I drove over to Pelter Bridge car park, from where I went on a walk around Grasmere and Rydal Water. I must say that I felt a bit silly in the end because the weather turned out to be very pleasant, and the rain didn't arrive until around 8pm. So in fact, I could have done the full Fred. Given how I got round the ride, and how I felt at the finish line compared with my previous experience, I definitely felt fitter. So I really must do the full course next time around.  

I hope to see you on Hardknott Pass in the not-distant future. 


Related posts

Operation Etape du Tour - Understanding the challenge 

The Struggle is real - especially in the Lake District

Tackling Fred Whitton light (aka The Lion and Lamb Challenge)

Cycling my own mini Surrey Hills climb classic

When in Geneva get on a bicycle

Tuesday 30 April 2024

Operation Etape du Tour: April update

This month was about getting in bigger miles and bigger hills, notably when I returned to Barcelona and rode a few of the long climbs in Catalunya. I am feeling happier to have done some Alpine style climbs. I must also say that having a lighter bike with lower gears makes a difference to my bike riding experience, but sadly the UK weather doesn't want to play ball. The weather has been all over the place this year. It's still cold even in April, and days have been very wet and windy. So it was useful to spend some time somewhere warm.

I have two months to prepare for the Etape du Tour, which will be on July 7th. In the week before the big day I expect to be doing light rides just to keep things ticking over, rather than building on more miles. So for me, my end date is June 30th.

The road to Montserrat
I must say I am feeling more comfortable than I did at the same period a couple of years ago, when I was hoping to ride the Etape du Tour between Briançon and Alpe d'Huez. For a start I haven't had any injuries, which is always a bonus at my age. The fact that I have done a few rides in excess of 100km, and I've ridden alpine-style climbs abroad makes me feel like I'm on track with me training, and gives me more of a can-do attitude. I have also continued to go to Herne Hill Velodrome and to Regents Park to help with my speed work.

In mid-April I took myself to Barcelona for a mini training camp. It was easily done - flight from Gatwick to Barcelona, local bus from El Prat Llobregat airport into Plaza España and bus or metro to Gràcia, where my youth hostel was based.

Then it was less than a mile walk to Terra BikeTours, where I hired my road bike for the week. The place where I stayed, Casa Jam, had a terrace where I could leave the bike, and was in a secure area.

My first bike ride was around the city, which was just a pleasant early evening spin along the numerous cycle lanes. The following day, Friday, saw a late start to my cycling after I had spent the morning doing a walking tour around the city - I couldn't miss out on that given how sunny it was and how beautiful the architecture around the city is.

My afternoon train took me to Terrassa, from where I began my ride up into hills around Montserrat.  I hadn't expected to be out for a long time, but the ride was cut short due to a puncture and defective rim tape.

For Saturday the original plan had been to do a ride to Montseny and Turo de L'Home, one of the highest peaks in Catalunya outside of the Pyrenean area. But given the previous day's fail, I decided I had to return to Montserrat. 

That was a much more productive day, with a two long climbs - one from Terrassa to Coll d'Estenalles, a popular route with the locals. In fact there was a very popular café at the top. It reminded me of the National Trust café at Box Hill.

After a long descent to Manresa, I was then faced with a long demoralising climb up to Montserrat. Never have I been so happy to see a pile of rocks! They are the famous Montserrat rocks characteristic of the area. It was a tough old ride, and I stopped a couple of times for a breather and a snack. But I guess this is what I need. The boredom, the feeling of wondering when will I get there, the fatigue...these are all sentiments that I can say I know how to manage and more importantly, that I can keep in my mind that I will get there.

Glad to have made it to Montserrat

While in Barcelona I found out about a cycling group, the Barcelona Road Cycling Group that organises rides a few times a week - mid-week chain gangs of different levels and longer rides at weekends. They ride out to places that I have become familiar with, so that has been one discovery, and something which I plan to do next time I'm in Barcelona - that and to ride up Turo de L'Home.

My next mini test of where I am will be the Fred Whitton Challenge, a cyclosportive in the Lake District in early May. I like to hope that will show me too, that things are moving in the right direction fitnesswise. 


Related posts

Operation Etape du Tour: March update

Operation Etape du Tour: February update

Operation Etape du Tour: January update

Operation Etape du Tour: December update

Back to Barcelona for more cycling

Sunday 21 April 2024

Cycling my own mini Surrey Hills classic

In the spirit of the Liège Bastogne Liège race I thought I would do my own mini Surrey classic and find my climbing legs by riding up a few of the Surrey Hills. 

My route through the Surrey Hills

At this time of year when there are various classic professional cycle races in France, Belgium, Spain, and currently in Italy - races that feature iconic climbs - I wanted to do my own version of a classic ride in my local area.

With my new Liv Avail Advanced 2 and its low gears I decided to put them, and my legs of course, to the test. So where else would I find a route befitting a classic than in the Surrey Hills. After all, I needed to get in a fair bit of climbing ahead of my little cycle challenge in July.

Coldharbour climb near Walden woods

Well, actually there is a choice of places to get in climbs when you're based in South London. Contrary to popular belief, London has hills. Getting to my home from central London involves going over one of a few steep hills at Crystal Palace - Sydenham Hill, College Road, Dulwich Wood, Gipsy Hill, Central Hill - take your pick. Then you enjoy a big drop down the other side, past Crystal Palace Park. By the same token, when riding towards central London from home I have to take these hills in the opposite direction. That's just my neighbourhood - there are other hilly areas too. London-based cyclists can certainly get their share of hills if they wish. Don't underestimate the climbing powers of a London rider - myself not included!

Farthing Down overlooking Croydon and South London

Feeling in the mood to go further afield, I headed south of Croydon and over Farthing Downs to enter the Surrey Hills. Technically, the range of downland terrain  begins at this expanse of ancient grassland and woodland owned by the Corporation of London, that gives views of the City skyline in the distance. But commonly folks think more about venues in the heart of these chalky downs - Box Hill, Leith Hill and Peaslake. That's where I was headed.

 After passing through the suburban town of Reigate I crested my first named climb of the day, Pebble Hill [2.2km; average gradient 4.5%]. These statistics are misleading as parts of the climb are considerably steeper with a short stretch at almost 20%. I had to keep calm on this road and not waste any energy grimacing or getting stressed. It was a real quad-buster and I just had to focus and not allow myself to wobble as the cars chugged on behind me. I saw many groups of cyclists on the road - all of them were going downhill. I wonder why?

Pebble Hill, near Betchworth, Surrey was a quad-buster 
This was definitely a climb where I needed to rest. While recuperating, I spotted a guy pushing his hybrid bike up the hill, then he flaked out in the grass verge while trying to get his breath back. “Are you okay?” I asked him. “Yeah,” he replied, still heaving. “I just hadn't realised how hard the climb was.” I was glad to know he wasn't having a heart attack. “Yeah, it's certainly a toughie,” I replied. Well I'd gotten the hardest climb out of the way first, so from here on in everything would be a piece of cake. Er, kind of!

A loop through Headley and down Lodgebottom Lane, on what was the former Ballbuster Duathlon course took me to the foot of Box Hill. It wasn't quite time to ride up my favourite hil, as it was a case of saving the best till last.

Next up was Ranmore Common [1.8km; average gradient 4%], what I call a Cinderella climb. It is set in very pleasant woodland on a country lane that has few cars on it, though hardly anyone talks about it. Near the top comes a small sting in the tail on a 15% left-hand bend. The first time I rode up this I had to walk. Nowadays I am used to it, and these days the gears on my bike are low enough to crest it in the saddle.

Ranmore Common, where you can go to church or even a vineyard - take your pick

Depending on your preference you are rewarded at the top with either a trip to  Denbies Vineyard or a stopover at the church.

I then dropped down to Dorking and enjoyed lovely views over the North Downs before taking on the longest climb of the ride, Coldharbour [4.5km; average gradient 4.5%]. This climb is the other side of its steeper counterpart, Leith Hill. Where Leith Hill has you honking out of the saddle, Coldharbour takes you gradually up to the eponymous hamlet where road bikers can meet mountain bikers, hikers, and horse riders at the Plough Inn, or at the picnic site below Leith Hill Tower. Nevertheless it's not entirely plain sailing as mid-way up the climb are a couple of 10% ramps, notably at Boar Hill. However, I couldn't ignore the sight of beautiful coniferous woodland near the top.

The Plough Inn, Coldharbour - bolthole for hikers and bikers 










Coldharbour: Snack point and gateway to Leith Hill Tower

An undulating ride over rough roads meant I needed to pay attention as my bike handling skills were put to the test. Having decent tyres was definitely helpful at this time. Back to Westcott, and then Dorking where I could look forward to my final climb of the ride, Box Hill. A classic bike ride can't end without an iconic climb. At 2km and an average 4.5% gradient with no steep ramp, Box Hill is probably one of the easiest of the Surrey Hills. It is the alpine-style switchbacks winding their way to the top of the chalky escarpment and among the box trees that make it famous. For many it's a big-ring climb that can be done after the other significant challenges along the way, often at attacking pace. Then it does become difficult, and at that point you can justify having an extra slice of cake at the National Trust café.

I took the climb at a steady pace, without trying to get a personal best. That was the most appropriate speed given the energy I had left. After all, I still needed to save a bit in the tank to comfortably get me back to London.

Box Hill Zigzag

As ever there were lots of others pedalling up Box Hill at a variety speeds, with many of them overtaking me. Whatever our ability we all met at the top and enjoyed a snack at this hub in the heart of the Surrey Hills.

Box Hill, National Trust Centre café
After a short break I headed home, feeling satisfied with my mini classic in Surrey, and glad to have gone some way towards finding my climbing legs for the Etape du Tour - and the bike fared well too!


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Operation Etape du Tour: Understanding the challenge

Box Hill Zigzag is my best fitness test

Tuesday 16 April 2024

Back to Barcelona for more cycling

My previous trip to Barcelona in February had been fun, but quite rushed. I barely skimmed the top in terms of bike rides. So I thought I would return there and do the place justice. My cycling holiday had a slightly frustrating start though.

My cycle route on Strava

Passeig de St Joan, Barcelona

On my arrival in the Catalonian capital the first thing that struck me was the weather. Just like on my previous trip in February, the sun was shining. The difference was the radiant heat accompanying it. The temperature was around 25°C - quite a contrast from the cool atmosphere in London where my journey had started. Furthermore, the temperatures were set to rise even more over the coming days.

After settling into my hostel in the Gràcia neighbourhood and completing some work for one of my clients, I walked down Passeig de St Joan to my new regular place, Terra Bike Tours to pick up my steed for the trip, a Canyon Endurace bike.

Then I did a customary pootle around the city, mainly taking in Avinguda Diagonal. I needed to return to the shop to make a couple of adjustments to the bike in terms of the saddle height and to change the saddle for a more comfortable one, though the staff were able to oblige. I enjoyed my ride around the city at this time as it was rush hour, and like in many cities around the world it is at this time of day that you see the cycling community in all its glory as the locals make their way home from work on two wheels.

Barcelona cycle commuters

The following day was saw me cycling in some lovely areas in the Parc Natural de Sant Llorenç del Munt i l'Obac just North of Barcelona, but it was a slightly frustrating ride that was abruptly truncated. 

As I had spent the morning walking around the neighbourhood among the tourists taking photos of the beautiful architecture and notably La Pedrera, I didn't start riding until the afternoon,  

La Pedrera

Close to where I was staying was Gràcia FGC suburban train station, from where I caught a train out to Terrassa. The plan would be to ride to Montserrat. 

Once out of Terrassa Estacio del Nord station and in the blazing heat on the high street, I followed the cycle path to the end of the town and continued on the road uphill.

Initially the road was busy, but once I had passed the roundabout for the motorway the road became practically devoid of vehicles and I was left to my own devices to tackle the 10km climb. It wasn't particularly hard, and was more of a undulating road than a full-on climb.

It was a nice Friday feeling to be among the oak and pine trees with all the aroma associated with this part of the world, as well as the peaks of the Montserrat mountain range to my left in the distance. I saw a few cyclists along the way, though I guess there would be far fewer folks who would take a Friday afternoon off from work to cycle, compared with the numbers who would be out on a weekend. This route I was probably more frequented by locals than by visitors, too.

On the road to Castellbell from Terrassa

After around 10km the road levelled off and I enjoyed a lovely be descent. It wasn't my first switchback descent of the year - I had done a few in February - but being the first one of this trip I wanted to take things easy.

Then just as I was really enjoying everything and thinking "nothing beats this" I heard a pop like a bursting balloon. 

I looked down and saw that I had a front wheel puncture. How did that happen? What the hell's going on?? The road was beautifully smooth with no débris on it at all. Yet the tyre had suddenly punctured. I'm just glad I'd been able to  hold my line as I was on a bendy descent at the time. This was a massive heartsink moment, but I had to keep my cool and just get on with remedying the problem.

Luckily, the place where the puncture happened was near a small settlement of houses and farms. So I was able to wheel the bike to a little driveway and sit on a sandstone rock, a characteristic feature of the area, to sort out the technical hitch.

A number of cyclists passed by, and a few of them asked if I was okay, to which I replied in the affirmative. Well, I thought I was fine. There were two problems to deal with. One of the spare inner tubes I had had a loose valve which snapped off when I was trying to pump up the tyre. That left me with only one spare inner tube, which would leave me feeling vulnerable as I would no longer have a spare. Furthermore, I discovered that the puncture had been from the inside of the wheel rim because a part of it was not fully covered by the rim tape. That would therefore leave me prone to another puncture. So I didn't feel confident about riding much more.

An old local guy, Pedro, who lived in the nearby village of Castellbell i el Vilar stopped to help me, as I realised I would need to call on extra strength to pump up the tyres to a good pressure! 

Monterrat peaks along the route where I was hoping to go

Pedro's old sinewy arms did just the trick in putting in enough air to give me the confidence to ride any further. He had lived in the area for over 40 years and knew the roads like the back of his hand. Riding up the local hills was probably just a little tootle for him, where for me it was a real outing which required a bit of effort. By the time we'd sorted everything it was almost 4pm, though I had begun to feel a bit more positive about continuing my ride. When I told him I was hoping to get to Montserrat he looked a little shocked and said, "Do you know what it's like to climb? It's much harder than what you've just ridden up. How strong are you?" I told him I was hoping to test myself out on the hill. "Well, try it but you won't get to the top before 6pm. And then if you are hoping to return to Barcelona you could be out all evening! Don't worry, it gets dark late around here!"

I realised that he had a point and there was no point in continuing. He reckoned that my tyre would be okay and the chance of getting a puncture would be low, though the issue was more to do with how long I was prepared to stay out riding. He said he could give me his phone number and if I got into difficulty he would drive up and collect me and take me to one of the nearby train stations. That was kind of him, but I decided it would be best to go straight to the train station and get back to Terra Bike Tours before they closed. I bid Pedro good bye and rolled down the hill to the train station at Castellbell i el Vilar where very handily the Barcelona-bound train was due 15 minutes later.

Back at Terra Bike Tours the mechanic sorted out the problem and was extremely apologetic, saying this had never happened before. He assured me that the bike would be fine. 

So, it was slightly annoying to have had to cut short my bike ride, but I felt confident that there's a lot of good will in these parts, and that made me feel positive about my ride for the following day.


Related posts

Operation Etape du Tour: February update - trip to Serralada Littoral

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Tuesday 2 April 2024

When in Geneva get on a bicycle

On my way to Chamonix I decided to stop off in Geneva city centre to do a little bike ride. The reasonably-priced bike hire shop was nearby so it would have been rude not to do a mini tour while over there.  

My route around Geneva on Strava

I enjoy going skiing in Chamonix and have been there quite a few times over the years. Like many people, as soon as I have touched down at Geneva airport and gone through the rather long queue at passport control I get whisked down the motorway to this town situated in the shadow of Mont Blanc, the home of mountain sports, and the place where the winter Olympics began.  

When a Geneva, hire a bike and ride around the lake

Well, in recent times I had considered the idea of not just passing through Geneva Airport,  but of actually going into the city itself. A pretty-looking city that sits on the edge of the eponymous lake (though officially known as Lac Léman) surely must be a lovely place to hang out. Many years ago I spent a couple of days there at the start of the Route des Grands Alps cycle ride. That was by default than by design as I had a mechanical with my bike, so needed to stop off and get it fixed.

A couple of years ago I did a very swift spin on the cycle path along the lake when I had an hour to kill while waiting for my flight back to London. 

But on this occasion I thought to myself that it would be nice to spend quality leisure time in Geneva. Okay, so it would cut into valuable skiing time, but given the grim weather on the slopes I didn't feel I'd be missing out on anything.

So on my arrival at Geneva Airport, instead of catching a transfer straight to Chamonix, I took the 10-minute train ride to the city centre, and hired a bicycle in a little place right behind the train station. 

What better way to explore a city than by getting on a bicycle. Very handily, there's a shop right behind the station that hires them out. It's called Genèveroule - a little cooperative that hires out various types of bicycle - city bikes, hybrids, a few low end road bikes, e-bikes, and now cargo bikes - which seem to have taken off everywhere. 

I had hired a city bike from this place the last time I was in Geneva, and enjoyed the experience. Given that I'd only be spending the day there I hired the same type of bike.

So with my bag and packed lunch in the basket, I set off on the short route through the city to reach the lake. Finding the lake was very easy. With a length of 45 miles (72 km) and an average width of 5 miles, you can't really miss it.

Cycle path around Lake Geneva

There are cycle paths through central Geneva, and a signboard indicates the cycle path to the lake, and then to cross the confluence between the lake and the River Rhone to reach the southern lake cycle path. I took the Pont du Mont Blanc, then followed the signs through the park and under the bridge to reach the lakeside, close to the Jet d'Eau. 

This signature fountain that sprouts up water in a boisterous way asserts its presence among the various vistas of colourful lakeside properties and the Alps in the majestic background. This view makes it unmistakeably Geneva.

Working out where to go was easy. I just followed the dedicated cycle path along the lake towards the neighbourhoods of Eaux-Vives and Cologny. This section was flat and you pass day trippers walking around the lake, plus folks hanging out on the various seats. To my right is the main road where all the traffic continues without interaction with cyclists. The cycle path is properly segregated. 

Initially the cycle path is two-way cycle path and is heavily used by tourists and local commuters alike. After about 1.5 miles a sign indicates to cross the road where I am on a path travelling in the same direction as the traffic, though still segregated. Also the road goes uphill and I reach Corsier. By this time I have passed all the tourist sights, the path has taken me away from Lake Geneva, and I am just in an ordinary, non-descript neighbourhood where life goes on in a bog-standard way like it could be any neighbourhood in Europe. 

As it's Friday noon, pupils are tipping out of their schools for their lunch. This means I have to be mindful of errant pedestrians walking on the cycle path, as well as delivery vans. At this point there is a distinct cycle path, but it is not completely segregated from traffic. 

After a couple more neighbourhoods the route takes me onto a trunk road surrounded by fields. Although this is a faster road and the main road to Thonon-les-Bains, in France, it doesn't feel unsafe. Parts of it have a separate cycle path so I felt quite secure. I must say I felt a little silly on a sit-up-and-beg city bike though, as the other cyclists I saw at this point were club riders. I wondered if the bike hire shop had thought that I might be riding this far out of the city.

Just before the border crossing into France, the road became faster, and at that point I took the right-hand turn somewhere I was completely unfamiliar with. I didn't want to be on a fast road, and in any case the sky had turned black and it looked like heavy rain was about to hit.

The road back to Geneva

Luckily, I found a farm outbuilding where I was able to take shelter, and used the break in proceedings to have my lunch while watching the rain tipping down.

A few club cyclists passed me on this stretch of road. Interestingly, none of them were wet, meaning that I should ride in the direction they were coming from.

So after my sandwiches I followed the road to Veigy-Foncenex, which was in dry French territory. Veigy was a quaint though desolate border village which I whizzed thorugh quite quickly. It took me back onto the main Thonon-Geneva road where I was able to pick up a few small lanes (chemins) and ride past more farms, to eventually take me back to the other side of Corsier, where the lake came into view. By now the rain had stopped in Switzerland and the sun had returned. The views over the fields and the lake below looked very pretty.

This was my favourite part of the route, and in this area there were quite a few leisure bike riders and joggers. I noticed signboards for a waymarked route to cycle the circuit of Lake Geneva. That is a reason to come back to Geneva. The circuit is around 170km and not too hilly, so would be a nice little challenge ride to do with my road bike.

Back to Geneva, and I crossed over to the north side of the lake via the pedestrianised Pont des Bergues and followed the cycle path past the botanical gardens and the United Nations complex. This section of cycle path was quite hilly, and would also take me to the hilly neighbourhoods of the city.

View of Lake Geneva from a quiet lane (chemin) near Corsier

 As time was marching on, and my bus to Chamonix would soon be due, I turned back and returned to Cornavin and the bike hire shop. They were surprised, but quite impressed that I managed to take the bike so far all that time!

My impressions of cycling around Geneva are very positive, and I would certainly recommend doing a little trip around the city on two wheels. You don't need to go all the way to France to enjoy the experience though.

Here's a link to Geneveroule, where I hired the bike.


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Quick spin by Lake Geneva on a hire bike

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