Friday 1 March 2024

Sports training camps: Why go to Mallorca when there's Manchester

Ready for my taster session at Manchester Velodrome

People tend to go on sports training camps in warm weather destinations abroad - Spain, South of France, Portugal, even Australasia. But I think that it's still possible to do and enjoy a training camp close to home, right in the UK. So I chose to go to the North-West of England. 

It's that time of year when elite athletes and amateur athletes, including some of my contemporaries head overseas to places where the sun shines a lot more than in the UK, there's less chance of rain, it's that bit warmer and folks don't have to hear stories about the latest political scandal in UK politics  [not that this sort of thing doesn't happen elsewhere, mind you!].

A large group of runners have just jetted off to Club La Santa, in Lanzarote. Some people in my cycling club went to Alicante in Spain's Costa Blanca, while a few others are preparing to go on a women's cycle training camp to Mallorca. 

I'm not averse to these sorts of trips - indeed I have done them in the past, and I've even enjoyed them. These days, I shy away from trips purely to go training because I like to get more out of my trip than each day just riding around somewhere, including a little cafe stop on a sun-kissed cafe terrace. You repeat the process every day, probably varying the café and eating a tostada instead of churros, and perhaps adding in some swimming and maybe running. 

Don't get me wrong - I love a sporty holiday. But I also like a cultural element too. When you go on these camps you are just beaming up your cycling club, or usual cycling buddy group from the UK to Spain. So you are effectively creating your own temporary British enclave in the Balearic Islands or somewhere on the coast of Spain. I must admit, that doesn't excite me. If I go to Spain, I want to be in Spain - mixing with Spanish people, soaking in Spanish culture, and vising the places that make Spain famous. 

Doing a SwimRun race while on a trip to South of France

Also, I like to give my training a bit more meaning, so with that in mind I like to take part in some sort of local sports event while there - maybe a mini cyclosportive, a running race, or as I did last Autumn in the South of France, a SwimRun race

Not only was there a specific focus to my trip, but I also got to mix with local-ish athletes and make new contacts.  I don't know if people would necessarily call that a training camp - I don't know what the term is. But those sorts of trips with different dimensions are what I enjoy doing when I travel abroad to do sport.

In terms of training camps in the pure sense, I am quite happy to do that nearer to home. So with that in mind, I Manchester - well, 20 miles South, to the North-West's finest place, Macclesfield. 

It was just a case of throwing the bike and all my other sportswear in the car, heading up the M6 and less than four hours later I was at my apartment in the middle of Macc. There were no worries about dismantling the bike for the airline or paying extra to have it carried, no worries about what to take or not take through security, or keeping my luggage within the weight limit. It was all just straightforward and hassle free. I didn't even get caught up in any traffic jam on the motorway.

It was early evening on Saturday when I arrived in the East Cheshire market town at the end of a sunny day. However, sods law was that on my arrival the sky turned grey and as I set out to do a mini local spin. I felt a few drops of rain and the precipitation became heavier and heavier as I proceeded along the disused railway line, now known as the Middlewood Way. I hadn't planned on going far, and was only looking to stretch my legs after having spent a few hours in the car, so I was happy to cut short the ride.

Middlewood Way in Macclesfield

Sunday morning involved a four-mile early morning run in the sunshine along the Middlewood Way, and across to the Riverside Park through woodland between Macclesfield and its posh neighbour, Prestbury. I enjoy this area and have good memories of doing regular runs along here a decade ago when I lived in Macc. Even though its right in the town, there is a feeling of being out in the countryside, especially since livestock roam around the place in Springtime.

After breakfast I then took out my bicycle and did my training ride. This is a big area for cycling. The British Cycling talent team, based up in Manchester often come down to this area to do their training rides, and lots of local riders gather here. The equivalent of Box Hill, is a climb called the Brickworks. It's a 2.7km steady climb from the village of Pott Shrigley over moorland and past farms to near Kettleshulme, on the edge of the Goyt Valley. As I trundled along various riders past me, and said hello. I also saw a group of women on a ride. It looked like they were from the local Rapha Cycling Club. There's a cafe part way up the climb, though it would probably be better to go there on the way back down to Pott Shrigley. In fact I saw a lot of bike riders travelling down in the opposite direction, as I was winding my way up. Perhaps the cafe was their destination. I had no plans to stop there as I had a few places to visit from my itinerary and I was sure I would find an alternative place to stop if necessary.

Once over the Brickworks climb, I then climbed up the winding scenic road to be level with Blaze Hill, then took the fast descent through Rainow to return to Macclesfield and start the climb up the town's most iconic climb - the Cat and Fiddle. This is climb of  just over 10km (6.6 miles) takes you to the eponymous pub in the Peak District National Park, before dropping  6 km (4 miles) to reach Buxton. 

Despite the climbing practice I had had in South London, and earlier in February in Spain, I still felt unfit when tackling this climb. The road surface was quite rough, which didn't help. I figured that that would make me stronger. Once past the big turn in the road at Walker Barn I was officially in the Peak District, and with that the weather also became wilder, as the area seemed more desolate. There weren't that many vehicles, despite it being a main artery. There were very few cyclists too. Much fewer than I had seen on the other nearby roads.

Blaze Hill, outside Bollington, close to the Goyt Valley
Soon I reached a crossroads - a de facto decision point. I could continue to the summit, some 5km (3 miles) away, turn right towards Wildboarclough, turn back and enjoy a lovely descent into Macclesfield where the monthly Treacle Market was taking place, or turn left towards the Goyt Valley. Not wanting to disappear into some sort of Bermuda triangle along the A537 road, I decided not to continue towards Buxton, and I chose to do the latter option. This involved a very technical descent past Lamaload Reservoir. It honestly felt like riding down a wall while trying to avoid pot-holes and gravel. For the first time in decades I actually had to dismount and walk down the hill! On my way down, a few motocross bike riders came up in the opposite direction and waved at me, probably wondering what the hell a road cyclist was doing on this road! 

What goes down must come up, so I then crested a series of hills on the edge of the Goyt valley that took me back to Blaze Hill. By this time my legs were quite tired and looking at my Garmin watch I could see that progress through my itinerary had been very slow. You can't fake your fitness in the Peak District. It finds you out very quickly! And I found out that I still had some way to go to reach optimal fitness.

So with that, it was a very easy decision to return to Macclesfield via the gentler roads in the Cheshire Plain. After a long downhill along Blaze Hill, my ride then took me to Bollington, then through to, Tytherington, Adlington and onwards to Prestbury where life was very leisurely and folks were displaying their Sunday best al fresco at the local cafes. Getting out of Prestbury was more challenging than I had anticipated as there were a few hills to get over before reaching Macclesfield.

Finally, I reached my lodgings at Waters Green feeling satisfied that I had had a proper work-out. Indeed I had, as Garmin showed that I had done - more than 1,000m of climbing over 51 km. That was certainly the hilliest ride I had done all year.

With the limited amount of energy left, I then enjoyed a walk around Central Macclesfield to see the popular Treacle Market.

Monday was planned as a slightly less onerous day than on the Sunday. My bike ride consisted of a loop from Alderley Edge, a popular National Trust area of outstanding natural beauty, and heading through the nearby village of the same name, and home to many a footballer's wife (and in theory their husband) or Coronation Street actor. My loop also included Mottram St Andrew, once again Prestbury, before doing a loop up a local climb in that area, Artist's Lane. Nearby is a Flandrian type hill called Swiss Hill, but I decided to leave that one until another trip. 

Time was short, and I wanted to also do a little trail run through the woodland at Alderley Edge. One way I did this was by running along a Permanent Orienteering Course and identifying checkpoints. It's often a great way to make a run more interesting, and also to discover a new area. My run ended up being just a couple of miles as my orienteering skills were good enough to find the checkpoints quickly (That's what I like to think, anyway!) 

Straight afterwards it was a case of hotfooting it to the National Cycling Centre in Manchester, where I signed up to take part in a taster session at the Velodrome. It was billed as a taster session, but in fact I just took one of the reserved hire bikes and rode around for as long as I could in the time allowed - for me it was 40 minutes as I turned up a little late. I am not sure if I could have survived the full hour going up and down the steep bankings! 

Taster session at Manchester Velodrome

Had I been a complete novice at track cycling the coach would have spent time showing me what to do, but because I had been to the Velodrome in the past (though was not yet accredited), and had become a regular rider at my local velodrome in Herne Hill, I was allowed to get in an individual training ride, under the watchful eye of the coaches, in order to increase my fitness. 

There were a handful of other riders doing a paceline, but I wasn't strong enough to join the line, so I did my own thing. The coach said that I looked fine, but I would just need to do a couple more taster sessions so that I can then gain clearance to join the Regular Riders sessions which is the stepping stone along the way to gaining Accreditation.

By the end of the day, I was feeling a little pooped and was ready to check into my new lodgings, a private room in Central Manchester YHA. There, I had a well-earned meal and an early night to prepare for an early start at the Manchester Aquatics Centre.

Early the following morning I put on my running gear, gathered my swimming kit, and did the two-mile run from Castlefields to the university district where I joined the other swimmers doing training laps in the 50m pool at the Aquatics Centre. This popular venue is a legacy facility from the Commonwealth Games, and still gets a lot of use. It was a clean modern pool, and quite swish following its refurbishment in 2021, compared with the spartan facilities at Crystal Palace. I felt quite motivated, so did one kilometre. That was as much as I could do in the time allowed, as I still had to have breakfast, check out and then make my way back down to London.

The end of my training camp in the North-West had come, and I feel that it had been fun-packed, productive, and I like to think I have increased my fitness. Who knows, I may even be feeling fitter than if I had just doing a few kilometres here and there with my cycling buddies and sitting in a sun-drenched cafe. 

It has to be said that some people do these so-called training camps just so that they can spend time away from the UK, and some coaches that advertise the trips talk more about the well-being benefits of enjoying a cafe stop on the coast while sipping some local patisserie and coffee that is better than back home. Indeed, I see more Instagram photos of what's on people's plates than where they actually rode their bikes! 

Potato Wharf, close to where I stayed in Manchester

Granted, there's no contest when it comes to comparing the weather in Manchester versus Mallorca. But then again, wind, rain and snow are not entirely alien to the Balearic Islands. I have certainly been caught out without a pack-a-mac while cycling up to Puig Major. Even this year there have been weather reports of strong winds on Spanish soil. So weather is not entirely guaranteed even in traditionally warmer, sunnier countries. 

At least in Manchester, it's a case of better the devil you know. In any case, UK weather is so changeable that it is still possible to find a reasonable window in which to get out and ride a bike. Then of course swimming and track cycling aren't even weather dependent. 

So overall, I am happy to ride my bike abroad as long as I get the full cultural and social experience of being in that particular location. However, if the aim is purely about getting in a training camp and keeping fit I would rather keep the logistics simple and stay closer to home. 

But no doubt, I will at some point in the year end up getting a fix of riding my bike along sunny roads in a French, Italian, or Spanish hotspot, and I certainly won't complain about it!

Related posts

Barcelona cycle ride: Montjuic and Port Vell

Bella Italia by bike - Bergamo to Como

Cycle route: Bollington and Blaze Hill loop

Wednesday 21 February 2024

Operation Etape du Tour: February update

Training for the Etape du Tour has given me a greater motivation to ride my bike. I have firmer objectives when I ride, plus a stronger wish to incorporate bike riding into my travels. So this month I did some cycling in and around Barcelona.

Check out my route into the Parc Serralada Litoral on Strava

My training for the Etape du Tour is getting more and more sustained and I am finding myself more into the groove. At one point the idea of getting out on my bike regularly had been a conscious mental shift. There are moments when you almost have to remind yourself of the need to get out on the bike regularly. 

Parc Serralada Litoral, just outside Barcelona

It's not necessarily that I don't want to ride my bike or that I don't enjoy it. It's just that between working as a freelance writer and keeping those plates spinning, keeping fit for my other sports, practicing my musical instruments (flute and clarinet) to play with my different bands, and just literally keeping my house in order, it's easy for cycling to end up taking a back seat. 

When I say back seat, I don't mean not doing it all. I have ridden my bike consistently for the last 25 years, but there's a difference between training and just riding your bike - using the bike to commute around or pootling around the park, versus frequently riding the bike with a mission and hitting certain mileages or making sure you get in power and speed training.

Cycling is a time consuming activity. You can't really get a training benefit by going for a quick spin like you would when going out for a run. So it has meant the need for a mental shift in getting in at least two hours every couple of days to ride my bike. I must admit I also watch the weather forecast very closely so that those couple of hours coincide with decent weather. If I am going to be doing this much bike riding I should at least enjoy the experience! Of course in all of this I also do longer bike rides too, which also requires planning so that I can in the most useful and beneficial ride as part of my Etape du Tour training.

I recall when I prepared for the Etape du Tour in the early noughties I had fewer things on my plate than I do now as a middle-aged person with more life responsibilities. Back then, getting out on my bike at various times of the day was easily done. And so, for sure I've come to realise that fitting in lots of cycle training is easier said that done - especially for a multi-faceted person like myself.

What I also try to do is to incorporate cycling into any trips I do. The rides might not necessarily be as long as something I would do at home, but I having cycle training in my everyday life like brushing my teeth makes is what is more important when it comes to keep up the habit.

So, earlier this month when I decided to go on a birthday weekend to Barcelona it was a no-brainer to factor in some cycling. Folks tend to go to Girona a lot, and it is home to many of the professional cycle racers. With lots of hills to train on in Catalunya and a strong cycle culture and community in the centre of the town this area has become a bit of a draw. But don't forget there is Barcelona too.

It's a also lovely touristic area, so you can get in some good bike riding in the hills, get to the coast, and see lots of interesting cultural sites - the sort of way I'd want to treat myself on my birthday.

While in the Catalunyan capital I hired a road bike, a Canyon Endurace for a couple of days and did a few bike rides around the area. My first outing was a city tour which was quite flat. Then came a bit of climbing - Montjuic, and the big one in the area - Tibidabo. These rides were done during the week, and once the weekend came I decided to go further out.

Because I had to return the bike at lunchtime on Saturday, I didn't want to go too far out of the city. The ride I chose was to head out North-east from where I was staying, close to El Bon Pastor and Sant Andreu, and head for the local hills. 

By 8am I was out of the door and riding on the cycle path along the River Besos heading towards Badalona and the Catalunyan coast. Interestingly, just outside Sant Adria de Besos close to the train station, I saw groups of cyclists congregating, waiting for others before starting their group ride. It seems that this was a well-known meeting point for the various club cyclists - a bit like Crystal Palace Parade on a Saturday or Sunday morning.

I had an idea of where I would be going and followed the route I had chalked out from my map research. In these situations I tend to be flexible and do check out other new roads I see when on the  ground. So with so many cyclists out and about it was a no brainer to follow where they were going, and I found a nice quiet road, slightly inland from the coast that everyone was following. I didn't join any group, but I followed them at a distance, which was as much as I could do given my fitness level, then followed the many that also overtook me. They seemed a friendly bunch, and some gave an "hola" as they passed me. Perhaps on a future occasion after more bike rides I will properly join them.

We formed a long trail of riders along the coast and eventually joined a main road known as the N-11 which led towards Mataro and onwards to Girona. I followed in the wheel tracks as far as El Masnou and then turned inland to head towards Alella, while they all continued straight on. I don't know if they were going all the way to Girona, or if they might turn inland later on at Arenys de Mar, perhaps to tackle Montseny, one of the major climbs in the area. I wouldn't have minded continuing on and exploring the hills further along the road, but I was conscious of the need not to be late returning to the bike shop as they would be closing in the early afternoon.

My ride therefore took me up through Alella, a residential area. Then the houses became more sparse and the uphill switchbacks began as I entered into the regional area of outstanding natural beauty called the Parc de la Serralada Litoral. This was my first set of mountain-like roads since when I road up the col de Braus and col de Turini a couple of years ago.

Even though a fair bit of time had passed since that occasion, I still felt in my element taking on this climb. Many outings up the steep hills in my South London neighbourhood had set me up well to deal with uphill roads.

This road, up to Vallromanes only lasted three miles but it wasn't a neglible challenge and it properly switched on my climbing legs.

From here my ride took me to Montornes del Valles where this town seemed to be a cross-roads for cyclists riding through in various directions. I was definitely in club run territory. I could see why there'd be a lot of cyclists around as the roads were quiet, despite there being wide trunk roads nearby. My ride took me up more climbs then a another pleasant descent to Martorelles as I headed towards the Parc Serralada de Marina. 

Given that I was slightly in a rush to get through the ride and be back to Terra Bikes in central Barcelona in comfortable time, I didn't feel like stopping to take any photos. I know when I do this sort of thing it always cuts into the time. When I stop to take one photo I end up stopping five or six times and before I know it I have used up almost half an hour!

It has to be said though, that the weather was not really conducive to taking photos. Up in these Catalunyan hills it was a little bit grey and morose. The view of Barcelona and the coast in the distance looked impressive as they were bathed in sunshine, but I knew that I didn't have a good enough phone camera to properly capture that light in my snaps. So I just resolved to use my eyes as a human camera, and hopefully keep them in the views in my internal memory bank. I am sure I will be back before long and will take some actual photos on a future visit.

The final climb of the day went over La Conreria, a deserted area where there were just lots of trees a few fincas a livestock, plus a few trails. It wasn't a very well frequented road at all, and in fact when I took the left turn to go up it most of the other cyclists around went straight on. There had been no sign board indicating this climb. For a while I wondered if I was going the right way too. But after a about a kilometre a sign indicating Pomar and Tiana I knew I was going the right way. But why were there so few cyclists here? I wondered. Was there something I should have known? 

I felt pretty safe so I just carried on. There were very few cars and the views across the mini mountain range looked great, so I just focused on taking in and enjoying the landscape while I could. Soon came a very long fast descent back towards Badalona. Interestingly it was at this point that I saw more club riders - except that they were riding up the road. It seemed that riding up the road was the more common way of travelling through the area when leaving behind the semi-urban sprawl. I didn't mind going things a little differently.

This road then abruptly dumped me into a slightly industrialised area followed by the town centre in Badalona, which I picked through in order to reach the peace and tranquillity of the River Besos cycle path. I guess doing this ride in reverse would have meant getting the urbanised parts out of the way first and finishing the ride with a long ride along the coast, which probably does appear more attractive than starting on the coast and finishing with the anticlimax of a busy town centre on a Saturday lunchtime. Furthermore, I must say some of the roads through Badalona main drag were in poor condition - almost like Roman roads! I'll think twice before complaining about the misshapen surface on Anerley Hill!

Quick stop outside Sagrada Familia, Barcelona

After an enjoyable morning in the nearby hills around Barcelona it was time to bid my hire bike adios. Xavi with whom I had previously dealt with when I hired the bike from Terra Bike Tours was not in the shop, so I was served by an English guy who was quite friendly. Funnily enough we chatted to each other in Spanish for about 10 minutes before we realised we were both from Blighty! He mentioned the good rides to do in the area as well as a couple of hip cycling cafes nearby. My weekend cycling in Barcelona had been enjoyable - pity it was quite short and a little rushed. But it has given me even more reason to return to Barcelona for a more extensive cycling trip to this fantastic area. 

It has to be said that training for the Etape du Tour has given much more direction to my bike riding and I feel a renewed motivated to get out and ride in new places both in the UK and abroad. 

Related posts

Barcelona cycle ride: Part 3 - Tibidabo and Sagrada Familia

Operation Etape du Tour: January update

Barcelona cycle ride: Part 2 - Up and over Montjuic and down to Port Vell

Saturday 17 February 2024

Barcelona cycle ride: Part 3 - Tibidabo and Sagrada Familia

After a ride around Montjuic, I then attempted the other great vista in Barcelona, Tibidabo, followed by a stopover at Sagrada Familia. I ran out of time to reach the summit, but it was still a pleasant if tough uphill ride.

Check out the route I took on Strava

Unlike Montjuic, this area is not in the heart of Barcelona, but it is a popular venue visited by walkers, joggers, on- and off-road cyclists, plus joggers. Set in the suburbs of Barcelona a trip to Tibidabo makes for a pleasant day trips given the pleasant trails and also the amusement park. 

So on a Friday afternoon I set off by bicycle from my lodgings, feeling a mixture of apprehension and excitement. The excitement was around discovering a new place to cycle, but knowing how high above the city this place is I was slightly apprehensive about how steeply the road would rise. At 512m above sea level Mount Tibidabo is the highest peak in the range of hills outside the city known as the Serra de Collserola. Would I have the legs or low enough gears to get up the ramp? Would it be like the Mur de Sormano in Italy, or Hardknott Pass in the Lake District?

Tibidabo skyline

On my previous visits to Barcelona I had not managed to get the time to go to Tibidabo. On public transport it's a bit of a trek as you have to get to the Avinguda Tibidabo by metro or local train, or bus and then pick up a funicular. When standing in the city, particularly to the North, the iconic view of the Sacrat Cor cathedral next to the vintage-style fairground rides look distinct, and evoke a kind of other-wordliness in a far-off land. Indeed the Tibidabo amusement park dates back to the early 1900s and is one of the oldest in Europe.

From my flat I passed through the neighbourhood of Saint-Andreu before riding along the very long Passeig Maragall, a road heading up north with a gradual uphill drag. Interestingly this road didn't have any cycle path, and so it was a question of me freestyling it along the road and keeping my eyes peeled for the many buses that would stop at the frequent bus stops. Despite the Friday afternoon traffic, I didn't feel particularly unsafe and motorists generally gave me a wide berth.

At Horta market, a signboard indicated for me to go straight on up a quiet but the slightly steep Carrer de Lisboa, which meant that I was that bit closer to my destination, as the signature big wheel and cathedral appeared bigger than it had done half an hour earlier. However, there would still be more climbing to do. Hopefully I would have the legs.

Eventually I reached the women and children's hospital at Vall d'Hebron. At this point I became aware I was quite on the outskirts of the city given the suburban feel of the area, and the city centre looked quite small down below in the distance. Even the Sagrada Familia, a behemoth of a monument in Barcelona looked small. Furthermore, I was on a slightly busy ring road characteristic of the edge of any city.

This was probably the most unpleasant part of my cycle ride as there was no cycle lane and I had no choice but to join the fast road. Thankfully it only lasted a couple of miles before I took a right-hand turn to get into the meaty part of the ride - climbing up the hill the Tibidabo.

Climbing stats for ascending Tibidabo from Barcelona

Folks that live around this residential area, Vall d'Hebron, must be pretty fit as you can't go anywhere without going up a steep hill. It was like a hardcore version of Crystal Palace - after all my neighbourhood in South London also has a park at the top of a hill, and a fairground at various times of the year!

So my work began by tackling the Carrer de la Enginyeria which round around through various hilly residential streets, which were actually a hive of activity given the slightly remote location. In fact this wasn't just a Friday - it was also the last day of school before the half-term holidays, and more importantly for the excited kids, it was carnival weekend. So the street was full of groups of children walking around wearing elaborate costumes - and there was I thinking it was their normal school uniform! 

This road wound round and round a few switchbacks with distinctively short sharp steep sections where I had to get out of the saddle and push hard. Thank goodness for 30-tooth sprockets on bikes!

Eventually I reached a point where the road levelled off and reached a car park where many people were pulling in to take part in different outdoor activities. It was a crossroads for various activities as some cyclists and joggers were arriving from downhill while others emerged from trails that were coming downhill. A few motorbikers arrived too. If I wanted to proceed further uphill I would have needed a mountain bike or gravel bike. In fact I saw a few mountain bikers doing just that. But on my road bike it would not have been possible, so at that point I rolled downhill. 

A ride all the way to the summit would have required for me to have left the main road at Vall d'Hebron to head towards Sant Cugat, then taken the longer road to reach the Mont Tibidabo. Unfortunately, just as with the previous day when I went to Montjuic, time was marching on and sunset was approaching. It's a shame as the area where I had to head downhill, Passeig de les Aigues, looked very picturesque with trails as well as beautiful vistas across the city.
My Canyon Endurace bike outside Sagrada Familia, Barcelona
Wanting to be prudent, I decided to take the long twisty road back down to the city centre. 

It was necessary to pay attention on the descent, not just to watch out for other vehicles, but also the tramlines that were part of the funicular going to the summit. 

I'm sure many a cyclist riding up would wish they could throw their bike in the carriage and get a lift up!

After the long downhill my route arrived back at the roundabout at Vall d'Hebron from where I followed Avinguda de la Republica Argentina to the city centre, and made my way to Sagrada Familia, the centre piece landmark in Barcelona. 

I must say I find this cathedral incredibly impressive as it dominates all the other buildings in the city. Antonio Gaudi, the architect, must have had an incredibly expansive mind to have dreamed up this creation.

By the this time it was early evening and Barcelona was full of  tourists enjoying an early evening drink. (The locals probably wouldn't start their night out before 10pm!) 

It had been a very pleasant ride, even if I didn't get right up to Mont Tibidabo, but I hope to return there in the near future. I can't imagine I will be very fast given the gradients, and I must say that the guys who race up it sometimes at the end of a stage of the Tour of Catalonia professional cycle race are blooming impressive!
And for those who are brave enough to race it, there is a hill climb race that takes place on Tibidabo in November.

Related posts

Thursday 15 February 2024

Barcelona cycle ride: Part 2 - Up and over Montjuic and down to Port Vell

Kitted out with my hire bike, a Canyon Endurace from Terra Bike Tours, I did a couple of mini tours around Barcelona - My first ride was a short spin around Montjuic

Check out the route I took on Strava

I cycled out to Montjuic, a popular area with tourists. Its castel by the same name, and the Joan Miro museum at the top of the hill make it a draw already, and the vistas over Barcelona are stunning. Pedestrians can use the funicular to reach the top, while those of us pedalling rely on our quads.

My route to Montjuic and home via Port Vell

My ride to get there was practically all on segregated cycle lanes. I crossed the area of St Andreu, up some quiet streets through this rather arty neighbourhood of Barcelona, then I joined the Avinguda Meridiana, one of the principal axes through the city. The road itself is quite busy, but as a cyclist you are shielded from all of the traffic thanks to cycle lanes. Initially the lane passes close to the pavement and you have to pay attention as it sometimes juts right onto the pavement, weaving around recycling bins and bus stops.  Then soon the route crosses the road to put you onto the central reservation, which has a two-way cycle path bordered by trees. A lot of care has been taken to make this part of the itinerary pleasant for cyclists. 

At the bottom of the wide avenue comes a narrow less picturesque section bordered by construction railings as it passes Gran Clariana park to reach Avinguda Diagonal where there are various building works in progress (as described in my previous post). 

A typical cycle lane in Barcelona

A short stint along Diagonal, a main thoroughfare that runs through Barcelona from south-west to north-east, led to another road called Carrer de la Diputacio which seemed to continue forever, passing through various neighbourhoods and landmarks. The beauty of it was there was a parallel cycle lane the whole way along, and a well-used one at that.

I knew I would have to turn left at some point, but it wasn't clear when. Although it's great to have lots of cycle lanes and special bike traffic lights, not putting up sign boards to indicate the route to the most famous landmarks and neighbourhoods was a significant omission. Who knows, maybe it was a deliberate ploy to not flood the cycle lanes with local riders and tourists. I seem to  recall when the local authority first introduced the city bikesharing scheme it was only open to those who had proof of residency in Barcelona.

With the help of Google map I found the correct turning to head towards Montjuic. There was no cycle path for this part of the route at Carrer Vilamari and Carrer Lleida which ran uphill past the Barcelona Teatre Musical, but the road was comparatively quiet. At this point I began to see the first of a few other brave souls like myself who had opted to take on this climb to the highest point in Central Barcelona. 

My hire bike from Terra Bike Tours - Canyon Endurace WMN Disc AL 7.0

The last time I was here I had taken the funicular to reach the summit, and marvelled at those who had walked or cycled all the way up. And 15 years on, here I was taking on the same challenge. 

I must say it didn't actually feel as tough as I had expected. My hire bike, a Canyon Endurace felt very comfortable to ride on this terrain. It was light and responsive as I pushed on the pedals. In fact I didn’t have to press that hard, as the gears were low enough to just twiddle up the hill comfortably. Sure, it was possible to use a harder gear and make an out-of-the-saddle effort, but I was feeling slightly tired after my early start, so wanted to take things easily. I was glad to have had this bike to do the job. 

Montjuic is a popular climb with road cyclists, and professional cycle races have taken place there over the years. In the 1960s and 70s Eddie Merckx won the famous Escalada A Montjuic cycle race many times. More recently Montjuic has been included in the Vuelta a Espana, the Tour de France in 2009, and a couple of editions of the World Road Race Championships too.

Unfortunately, due to time constraints I couldn't hang around long at Montjuic as sunset was approaching and I didn't want to get back to my lodgings too late. I was able to quickly check out the various ornamental gardens and certain landmarks - the National Museum of Art, the Museum of Ethnology and a museum of archeology, as well as various Olympic sport venues. The place looked very neat and prim, set among buildings with a mixture of modern and catalan modernism architecture, set among stone pine trees.

Being up at Montjuic was like being in a large fortress surveying the city, ready to spot any unwelcome advances. In some ways it reminded me of Edinburgh when at the castle, or on the other side of the city, at Holyrood. Sadly I only had mental picture memories to take with me of Montjuic as I didn't even have time to take any photos. 

My ride finished with an enjoyable, long, sweeping descent to Plaza España, and then the homeward bound trip via another principal axis with a central reservation cycle lane, Carrer Paral-lel, and onwards through the old port, Port Vell.

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Tuesday 13 February 2024

Barcelona cycle ride: Part 1 - Picking up my hire bike

I decided to do a city break in Barcelona and while there I would rediscover the area by bicycle. That's my preferred way of getting around any place I visit. Taking my bike on a flight wasn't worth doing for just a weekend, so I managed to hire a nice road bike and check out the city, using its various bike lanes.

On a long weekend to Barcelona I couldn't pass on the opportunity to get out on a bicycle. Barcelona is pretty bike-friendly too.

It's been a long time since I was last in the capital of Catalunya - probably about 15 years ago. I don't know why I left it so long before returning, The city has a laid back atmosphere, coupled with an artistic vibe which I guess is in no small part influenced by its most famous son (after Pep Guardiola), Antonio Gaudi.

I remember on my very first trip, being impressed by the Casa Batllo and La Pedrera-Casa Mila, especially when I got on the roof of the latter. Of course I walked around his opus magnus, the Sagrada Familia cathedral - which was then probably the most touristic building site in the world!

Anyway, after all this time I was happy to return to Barcelona, and hopefully visit the surrounding area too.

Whenever I visit a city I try and get around by bicycle - either with my own bike or a hired one. Given that I generally only spend a few days away and the cost to transport a bike on a flight can be over £90, hiring would be a no-brainer. 

After a quick Google search I identified a couple of companies to hire from. Given that it was February I figured it wouldn't be a problem finding a bike at short notice. So I emailed the company, Terra Bike Tours while in the airport lounge at Gatwick Airport. 

By the time I touched down at El Prat de Llobregat I had received a reply saying that the women's specific bike of my exact size (2XS) was not available, but I could try the XS which they did have. That slightly surprised me, but I was willing to give the XS a go.

As soon as I had checked into my apartment to the East of Barcelona, I hurried across to Terra Bike Tours, in the heart of the city before they closed for lunch, and tried out the Canyon Endurace they had set aside for me.

It felt fine for, so we did the paperwork and the mechanic put on my Look pedals and pumped up the tyres, ready for use.

Xavi the sales assistant told me I shouldn't have problems with punctures as the roads were of smooth quality and without much débris. That was reassuring to hear given that my run of punctures of late in London had made me quite pernickety about keeping tyre pressures high. He reckoned I only needed 90PSI in the tyres but for peace of mind I asked him to go to at least 100 PSI.  

As well as Terra Bikes being a bike shop, they also organise cycle tours around the city and club rides in the surrounding areas. So very helpfully Xavi gave me the QR code to download routes from the members section of their website, and talked through a few of them. 

When I told him I was hoping to ride to the nearby seaside town of Sitges he made a point of strongly advising me not to do so because the road is narrow, busy and with fast traffic. It's not even a route they include among their itineraries.

"It's really not a nice route, I must tell you," he warned. It would be better to catch the train for part of it to the less busy section of the road, and go to the other side of Sitges."  

He continued advising me that if a coastal ride was what I was looking for it would be better to head in the opposite direction, towards Girona.

Another customer in the shop, a local guy, joined in the conversation and added his opinion, saying to avoid cycling towards Sitges. He knew of people who had been hit by a car cycling that way. 

So it was clear, Sitges was off the menu - at least by bike. Given that it was almost 2pm and I hadn't eaten since early that morning it was unlikely I'd be riding out much further than the city limits so riding to Sitges or along any coastline became academic.  

I paid my 70 euros for 2 days' hire and we wished each other a good day before I hit the city streets of Barcelona. Unfortunately because they don't open on Sundays and my flight back to London would be first thing on Monday morning I had to bring back the bicycle on Saturday and hope I could find an alternative bike hire place for Sunday.

For the afternoon my itinerary would be fairly basic - just a discovery ride around the local neighbourhoods of Barcelona - more like a rediscovery ride.

On previous trips I had ridden around the city to reach Sants train station and also the Port when I sailed to Mallorca once. 

My recollection was that the roads were okay - no worse than Central London, though the motorists would generally give cyclists more space - which is always a good thing. 

The main difference on this trip was that the city council, like many city councils around the world, had splurged out on cycle lanes - lovely smooth cycle lanes with no débris in them, and cyclist traffic lights. Many roads in central Barcelona are one-way streets and the cycle paths generally follow the same direction. But there are some streets with two-way cycle traffic within a cycle lane, like what you see in central London on Park Lane, or along the River Thames at Westminster.  So that makes it handy that you don't have to navigate the one-way streets network. 

The cycle paths network was still under construction in places, so at times you were randomly dumped into the road, or would have to ride on narrow sections of path between building site railings.

One of the main roads, Diagonal, notably near the park by the same name, was a building site. When riding down the narrow path among all the various cyclists and e-cyclists and scooters either privately owned or from the city transport sharing scheme all travelling at vastly varying speeds, you had to pay attention. But I'm sure it'll be great when it's completed. Another main road, Avinguda Meridiana was one I used a lot and that had a two-way cycle lane down the central reservation and was bordered with trees. Again, it wasn't complete but will be a great lane eventually, especially as it's a lovely downhill to the heart of the city.

My focus was on getting back to my lodgings near Sant Andreu, resting up and grabbing some lunch before going out again to Montjuic.

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Tuesday 30 January 2024

Operation Etape du Tour: January update

In my third month of preparing for the Etape du Tour, January was a bit of a challenge as I had a wobble in my commit to the cause and I ended up playing catch-up to get in the miles - in the dark, damp weather

My ride around South London took me out past Hampton Court Palace

I am beginning to step up my training for this year's Etape du Tour. It still seems a long way off though, and in these dreary winter days it's hard to imagine riding in brilliant sunshine over lovely dry roads through the countryside or National Parks in the UK or beyond. A lot of my riding has been done in darkness or semi-darkness, on damp suburban streets of London, and only venturing into the countryside on the odd ride.

As much as I would rather ride outdoors than in the rarefied virtual world of a smart turbotrainer, riding outdoors still has its challenges and frustrations to deal with. 

So this is how I've been doing my riding in January. Firstly, I ride alone. I find it hard to join in with club runs because my daily schedule is a movable feast. I like to have flexibility in when and how I do things, as well as where I go. 

My cycling club has a system of signing up for a ride via RiderHQ, a platform for signing up to sports events. As it's a big club the rides can sometimes get fully booked as they want to limit the size of groups on a road. That's understandable. So that means for me, that if I sign up for a ride I should commit to going, or go online to remove my name, and thus free up the space for another club member - which I must admit is a palava. The thing is, I just like things old skool - wake up in the morning, see if the sun's shining. Go if it's a nice day, or do something else if the day looks dodgy.

As someone who is generally motivated and a self-starter, I don't need the pull of a group or someone else to get me out on a ride. I've taken myself out on rides since I was in my late teens, so at the age of 54 I'm unlikely to stop doing that now!

As someone who is a bit of a map geek I know the roads around my local area, so am capable of planning myself a route, and maybe discovering new ones too. So I don't need to have a group leader showing me which way to go.

So ultimately, I am happy enough to decide when and where I go on a ride. The whole concept of signing up onto RiderHQ and committing to turn up at the bike shop meet-up point at a given moment on a Sunday morning come rain or shine has all the charm of wearing a straight jacket. My working week is full of appointments and deadlines, so the weekends need to be more chilled and laid back.

So with all that, I do my own rides on my own, deciding the day before, on the day itself, or even during the ride on where to go, and I am happy enough to say hello to other riders that I see along the way. For me, it's freedom and it's bliss!

Spotting other Sunday morning riders at Kingston Bridge

Secondly, I do my rides at slightly unsocial times. As a person who has a tendency to take on various activities, I need to optimise on the hours of the day. I prefer to do sporty things first thing in the morning - like as soon as I wake up. It's the purest time of the day. No one to disturb you, and I feel at my most motivated and energised. So for me, that means 5am - sometimes even before that. So that's when I've taken to going out. 

The London streets are great. There's hardly any traffic - just Uber drivers, a few black cabs, the odd night bus. When cycling through Central London at that time the traffic lights are generally with me, so I hardly have to stop - which is handy for someone who is not a red-light jumper.

You get to see a bit of London life too - the fox community, clubbers tipping out at Vauxhall or Brixton, lovers tiffs, all the action at the 24hour grocers or the kebab shops. During the week, I say hello to the dustmen and I can learn the different days when the different London boroughs do their refuse collections!

In the early mornings  I prefer to ride through London rather than in the country lanes which are unlit and for which I don't have suitable lights. For me, the Royal Parks serve as a great place to do laps - be it the cycle path around Hyde Park, the loop of Regents Park, or the very Royal loop around St James's Park, taking in The Mall, Birdcage Walk, and Horse Guards Road. 

So, even if I did think about doing a club run it'd have to be one that does this sort of itinerary at this time of the day. I am not aware of any cycle clubs that do that.

So that has been my riding I've been doing in January, with a few rides out to another Royal Park, Richmond Park, when I break a habit and decide to ride during daylight hours.

My routine consists of doing a hilly ride on the local hills around Crystal Palace, a fast ride through Regents Park, and then medium paced rides around Cator Park, Crystal Palace, Park or Dulwich Park, plus rides around the Bromley and Beckenham suburbs. The aim was to get in 600km for this month.

The only issue was I did suffer a little wobble in early January and I came very close to deciding not to ride the Etape du Tour and just giving myself a quiet life, tootling around doing leisure rides. Sometimes getting motivated to ride frequently when the weather is rubbish and you get punctures can be demoralising and sucks the joy out of bike riding. As mentioned before, I am not cut out for indoor cycling. But in the end, the fire in my belly wouldn't let me give up on targeting this epic ride through the Alpes-Maritimes, so I got my act together.

Roehampton Gate Cafe at Richmond Park

Once I regained my resolve, that left me with around 300km to ride within around five days. For some, that may not seem an unreasonable distance to cover if your days are free from other activities like going to work and getting on with the every day chores of life. But with full-on days at the advertising agency I was working at it was quite a tall order.

But by putting in place a strict plan of starting rides even earlier than 5am, and fitting in rides at lunchtime and in the evenings, I somehow managed it. There were a few rides done when it was pretty gusty as January seemed to have one gale-force wind storm after another, and there were a few drizzly days too. But my determination got me through. 

I was happy to have gotten in a 100km ride as well, when I did a big suburban ride around South-West London, going past Hampton Court and out to Walton-on-Thames, and then heading into South-East London into Greenwich and Lewisham. It was one of the few days where there was wall to wall sunshine, the day was dry and there was no wind or rain. Lots of cyclists were out too, and there was a genuine feelgood factor, especially at Richmond Park, as always.

My South London ride took me to the South-East corner of London to Greenwich

Achieving the 600km has emboldened me to know I am capable of dedicating myself to quality training rides, and hopefully I will be able to build on that over the coming months.

Related posts

The sound tha sucks the joy out of cycling - the puncture fairy

Etape du Tour comes to Nice and I'm riding it (hopefully)!

Another cycling mission for 2024 - Fred Whitton Challenge 

Thursday 25 January 2024

The sound that sucks the joy out of cycling - the puncture fairy

Getting punctures can be one of the most frustrating things when out cycling, particularly over the winter months. I had so many punctures that I almost gave up my bike rides. But a hunger to ride the Etape du Tour kept me going.

I must say, I have had a wobble in my preparation for the Etape du Tour. I am normally pretty motivated in the things I do, but my patience has been tested recently. 

Over the Christmas period and in the early part of January my rides have been plagued with punctures. The wet conditions have just led to ride after ride being interrupted, even aborted due to a puncture. 

Punctures: they happen and they're frustrating 

I don't enjoy my rides as I even feel anxious when riding. Every time I go over a bump or see broken glass I feel stressed thinking, this is it - ride over. And of course it then becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy when that heart-sink moment comes, as the bike suddenly becomes sluggish to handle, and I see that the tyre - usually the rear one - has gone down like a failed meringue.

That happened on Christmas Eve while I was out in the lanes at Cudham. After folornly changing the inner tube, I decided I no longer wanted to continue along these damp roads on a tyre with a sub-optimal amount of air. (I am not physically capable of pumping a tyre up to 90 psi with a hand pump.) So, with Dunton Green just being a short distance after Star Hill I rolled down to the station and wended my way home, thanks to Souteastern Trains, via Sevenoaks and Orpington.

I then got another puncture on Boxing Day, this time in Brockwell Park, Herne Hill. With it being local, and in any case having no choice due to no trains running on this public holiday, I hobbled home. Thankfully I salvaged the ride session by picking up my cyclocross and doing a comparatively stress free, albeit more energy taxing ride on fatter tyres.

There had been other puncture incidents in Hyde Park,  and at Elmers End, too. This compares with previous years when I might have had just one puncture a year if that. 

Putting on new Continental tyres for front and rear wheels hadn't made much difference. It's not necessarily a negative reflection on the tyres, but probably more an illustration of the condition of the debris-covered and pot-hole infested roads these days. It's not helped by the fact that our roads are almost permanently damp with all the rain we've had over winter. 

My road bike is a bit "old skool" with no disc brakes, and the wheels aren't set up to hold tubeless tyres. So I may just have to suck it up - which sadly also leads to the joy of cycling being sucked out of me.

Given that there are other sporting activities I like to do like running, swimming, or even ice-skating, all of which are low maintenance and don't require hours of practice, it would be easy enough to ditch the bike for a hassle-free activity. After all, I do cycling for my enjoyment. There's no fun in sitting at the side of the road in the wind and rain fixing punctures.

So I decided not to do anymore riding for the time being. For about a week I felt quite relieved to not have to get out and ride during these dreary winter days, and was happy to hear about my sporting mates' tales of derring-do from the warmth of my home, while looking at their records on the Strava app. I was looking forward to spending Sunday mornings going for a mini run, followed by playing my flute or clarinet, and maybe doing some crochet or reading a book. 

But of course there was the small matter of the Etape du Tour which I had entered and paid for, along with all the other logistics, and more importantly my friend Angie with whom I had organised to do it with. I didn't want to let her down, particularly as I was the one who had been going on about what a great event it is.

Deep down, I wanted in. I wanted to be part of that massive merry band of 10,000+ riders wending our way through the Alpes-Maritimes, one of my favourite parts of the world. 

Also being in my mid-50s you don't know how much longer you will be fit for. There are lots of illnesses or other things that can suddenly generate from here on in. Sadly, a few people I know have even died suddenly. 

Without wanting to go any further down the morbidity road, I'll just say the whole carpe diem spirit began to wash over me and I realised I do want to ride the Etape du Tour and give it my best shot. So I will get in some miles for January.

What I decided for January and February would be to ditched the road bike and do all my rides on the cyclocross bike.

So that's what I've been doing. It's not ideal given the sluggishness of the bike on the road, but it's better than nothing, and is probably making me stronger - which isn't a bad thing.

Related posts 

Operation Etape du Tour: December update 

Freewheeling: Why I'd rather ride outdoors than use Zwift - even in mid-winter

Operation Etape du Tour: Understanding the challenge