Friday 31 October 2008

The cold is here......bbrrrr

The late Indian summer is well and truly over, the sun shines even less than ever, the clocks have now gone back, the central heating is on more often than not.

It is cccooold !!

On Tuesday, for the first time ever, I did not enjoy my commute into work because of the cold. I was wrapped up, but had missed out that little bit above my ears, and that other bit in the nape of my neck, and I felt it - the full impact of the biting wind from Siberia!

I felt it as I zoomed down Dulwich Wood Park to Paxton Green, and it didn't go away until after I'd been sitting at my desk for more than an hour.
Needless to say I was not looking forward to my ride home.

In fact, I didn't ride home. I went to my Italian class at Covent Garden first, which meant it was quite late when I started the homeward trek. The rain was falling quite heavily. A bit of dampness wouldn't hurt, I thought.

But then as I headed down Drury Lane the rain turned into something heavier, colder and even painful as it was smacked against my face by the easterly wind. It was the white stuff. It was snow ! In October, and in Central London ! What is all that about ??

I'd been humming and ha-ing about getting the train. Well, my mind was now well and truly made up. I would scoot over to Waterloo where I could get on a train straight to South London.
Of course, this didn't happen without me getting completed drenched - not only by the heavy precipitation, but also by the double decker buses that thoughtlessly rolled close by me just where there was a large puddle !

Once I got home I spent another hour thawing myself out on the radiator.

Snow in October in London - tut tut, what next, I say, what next !

Wednesday 29 October 2008

Boris and Cycling

Hey Mister Johnson,

You know how you said you would improve the lot for the cyclist all those months ago while you were campaigning to become our Mayor ?

All that stuff about trebling the level of cycling as a proportion of all journeys made, introducing an even bigger "Velib"-style bike rental system in London.

There was that article where you hoped for cyclists to become ubiquitous in nature, around the streets of London.

And what about all that you said when you went to Redbridge and opened the new Cycling Centre (aka Hog Hill) ?

So, what have you done for cycling lately Boris ?

Well, there was that footage of you jumping red lights and scooting along the pavement, plus various pictures of you talking on your mobile phone while riding.

Ok, so you wrote your little A-Z guide to cycling. It may not have actually increased cycle usage, but admittedly it was a good read.

But what about the funding, the improved cycle lanes ? And what were you thinking when you decided to allow motorcyclists to join us in the bus lanes ? Is that what you call safer cycling ??

Well, you've been Mayor for 6 months now, and really we aint seen much improvement round here.

Ok, so Mr Livingstone didn't quite achieve the targets that he'd set out for cyclists either, and we never ever saw him on a bike. But then that may actually make his foibles more forgiveable.

So are we gonna get, yet again one of those typical political cycles (excuse the pun) ? The caravan passes with all it's publicity, you sprint around the circuit with campaign promises, freewheel across the finish line, hands in the air for the electoral victory salute - but just as the real work begins the wheels begin to wobble all over the place and we end up somewhere else - oh dear!

Well, you're only 6 months into the job. You have got 3 and a half years left. Who knows, you might deliver your promise.

So, while we wait for the promises to be delivered we'll read your A-Z of cycling. (We may have to read it more than a few times I suspect !)

"FOR the busy mayor of a capital city, a bicycle is an indispensable tool of survival. I can get from Holborn to City Hall in 11 minutes. No single piece of technology – not even the mobile phone – is so vital. So here is my list of do’s and don'ts of cycling in London.
A is for abuse, which you must, frankly, learn to accept. You will get it from people driving lorries, cars, rubbish vans or any other type of four-wheeled vehicle. B is for bollocks, which is the most vigorous rejoinder you are permitted, preferably under your breath. You may, at a pinch, mutter “belt up”. C is for crash helmet: I urge you to wear one – I don’t myself. D is for death: Every successfully completed bicycle journey should be counted a triumph over this. E if for exertion, endorphins and ecstasy: The first produces the next, which produces the next, as you whiz through London's lovely streets and look at the play of light through the plane trees, and you inhale the open air, and you think of the poor souls stuck in the taxis, the cars, the buses and, God help them, the Tube. F is for freedom: With no other means of transport, except possibly skiing, can you determine so exactly the path you intend to follow and arrive there so quickly.
G is for gears: I have never seen the point of the very high gears. Why sit and pump like a maniac when it is so much easier to stand up and grunt?
Once, my bike was nicked, but because my children had been fiddling with the gears I was easily able to overtake the thief on foot. H is for handlebars:The key thing about handlebars is not to shoot over them. I is for indicate: Something that I suggest you do. J is for jelly: This is what you become, psychologically and physically, if you forget to indicate, shoot over the handlebars and bite the asphalt of Trafalgar Square. K is for klaxon: Mine fell off, and I don’t really recommend them. Time spent parping a horn or ringing a bell would be better employed braking, weaving or possibly just screaming. L is for lights: You gotta have ’em – by law. Also, they will greatly reduce your chances – at night – of being squashed by a lorry. M is for mudguards I suggest you get some, as otherwise you’ll find that road spray will produce some embarrassing and wholly ambiguous trouser stains, even when it isn’t actually raining. N is for no-hands What I like to do at night, down a deserted street in Islington, when I have had a couple of pints and am feeling moderately invincible. O is for oil What you get all over your hands after executing the manoeuvres above, coming a cropper and being forced to spend ages putting the chain back on.

P is for phone I see no reason why you should not treat your bike like an office. Provided you hug the kerb, you should be entitled to make phone calls. It is probably safer to use a hands-free gizmo, but to all those who want to ban the use of mobiles on bikes, I say this: there are plenty of one-armed people in the world. Are we so cruel as to forbid them from using a bicycle? We are not. What is a mobile phone-user but a cyclist who has, effectively, only one arm? I rest my case. P is for pavement This you should only mount in the most extreme circumstances (for example, if you are driven off the road by one of my predecessor’s demented new single-decker buses, so long that they can’t turn corners). Q is for queue As in queues of cars, throbbing, panting, waiting. Tee-hee. R is for Ridgeback This is the make of my bike. S is for saddle I have had five bikes stolen in four years, which is a pretty devastating comment on law and order. But the most traumatic moment was discovering someone had taken my saddle. Why? To what perverted end? T is for thieves Who are everywhere and who will be tackled with sharia ruthlessness when the Tories come to power. V is for V-sign Permitted, but only under the grossest provocation.
W is for women cyclists Who are indistinguishable, in manners and morals, from male cyclists. Some are charming and “After you, Claude”. Some are extremely aggressive and judgmental. Y is for yellow light
And the ancient dilemma: when you spot one of these 20 yards out, do you give it some welly and scoot across just before the first motorbike can knock you over? Or do you play safe, rest your left foot on the kerb and have a breather?
Z is for zoom Which is what you had better do if you decide to go for it, and I cannot, in all conscience, recommend that you do. Be safe, my friends."

Monday 27 October 2008

Sliding Around and Not Looking Pretty - Classic Cross (again)

Having missed a couple of weeks of cyclo cross I was keen to make it to the London League round at Reed Court Farm.
My knee had been playing up in the last couple of weeks so I'd had to rest up. Since it had been slowly getting better, and I was missing cycling I decided to go with Fred to the race on the Kent farm. My knee was twinging as I left the house, and at one point I thought that it might be better for me to just spectate.

But given the miserable weather conditions I was loathe to standing around in the pouring rain for an hour. When the weather is wet and dismal you tend to forget about those facts while racing. As a spectator, an hour can seem like alot longer.

So I paid my entry fee and joined the runners and riders.

This was the third time I was racing at Reed Court Farm - and still I hadn't quite got the hang of getting to that venue in good time. Well, at least this year I had 5 minutes to spare when I reached the start line !

The commissaire blew his whistle promptly at 1.30pm to set us off on our 60-minute mud-fest in the damp.
As I wasn't actually sitting on my bike when everyone set off, I immediately found myself at a 10 metre disadvantage to the herd !

This didn't phase me as I'd been in this position countless times. Anyway, given that I'd had no warm up and my leg was twinging, I preferred to ease my legs in gradually rather than rev them up too quickly.

Soon I gained ground on the riders at the back and managed to pass a few people, including Nicola from Kingston Wheelers. I must thank her for pointing out the various dismount points ahead of me like the big log and the steps to run up. These are the trip hazards for those, like me who try and race around in the mizzle without having recc'd the course.

I passed a few guys, then managed to catch more women racers - Sarah from San Fairy Ann, and Abi from London Phoenix, who put up a bit of a fight to not let me pass her. A couple of years ago she would have mown me down in this race. This time I managed to hang in there and make my move past her. All this catching and passing people during the race actually gave me confidence.

I was even beginning to enjoy myself. Not even the mud in my eyes or the grit in my teeth were going to spoil this party.
In previous years this course had been a real arduous task in the dry conditions. It had been an energy sapping boneshaker ride trudging across ploughed furrows. Today it was an energy sapping ride squelching and sliding around mud tracks. But the mud is what makes it fun !

I found that losing a few seconds at the start to let air out of my tyres had paid off. I felt comfortable taking the slippery corners at speed, and I didn't fall down at all - something that wasn't the case for my next opponent in the race - Helen from Crawley Wheelers. She took a tumble on the 180 degree corner while I was on her wheel. I would have preferred to overtake her while she was upright and riding, rather than while she was face down in the mud.

And thus I romped and slid around the course at speed, battling to catch whoever I could. I wasn't sure where I was among the women because I didn't know how many of us there were. Just when I was hazarding that I might be third, behind Nicky Hughes (Folkactiv) and Claire Beaumont (London Dynamo), I heard a female voice shout - "on your right" ! I moved out of the way to find myself being lapped by schoolgirl Corrine Hall (Team Corridori). And didn't she just make me feel like I was standing still !

So in the end, I finished 4th out of the eight women. I was pleased with my ride, considering I hadn't ridden much in the preceding fortnight.
With a snotty muddy face I didn't look very photogenic, but at least I'd put in a solid ride.
My next goal should be to do cyclo cross Italian style - with full make-up on, not a hair out of place, while still looking immaculate as I cross the finish line for a podium spot !

Thursday 23 October 2008

Age - I can feel it in my commuting !

There are lots of things around that are indicators of your advancing years - a few more lines on your face, getting more interested in classical music, favouring the practical over the fashionable, wanting to get home by 11pm on a Friday, needing glasses, forgetting where you put your glasses, etc etc.

I have found that my commute into work is as big a sign as any that shock horror, I'm getting old(er) !

When I first started commuting to work by bicycle in 2001, I was working at Marylebone. I had an 11 mile commute and could do it in 50 minutes. I had the same bike then as I do now - a heavy Ridgeback hybrid.
Also at that time I could fly up the 10% gradient of Anerley Hill on the 42 chainring first thing in the morning.

Nowadays I work at Westminster, 9 miles away, but it still takes me 50 minutes. In fact, when I go up Anerley Hill I rarely use the 42 chainring. The granny 32 ring is my gear of choice. I just don't feel I can attack any hill, first thing in the morning. Even the slight rise going over Lambeth Bridge becomes a slog !!

There's no getting away from it, I'm getting old. Just the other day I cursed the fact that I had left my wooley bonnet at home when I was riding in. It seemed like a more palatable solution to battling against the cold than riding my bike faster !
I spent the rest of the day at work trying to keep warm.

Having said all that, the age thing is not just about ability. It's also about my changing attitude. In those days my commute to work was treated as a (twice) daily time trial. I would try and get a pb each week. I didn't want anyone to overtake me -not even the flash harries on their Canondales. I was always up for a race, and I would even jump the red lights.

Nowadays I am much more sensible. I adhere firmly to the Highway Code, I dress appropriately, and most importantly for me it's about getting to my destination rather than beating the clock or anyone else.

Admittedly, I do alot more cycling outside of commuting nowadays than I used to. In fact, sometimes I see my commute as a good respite from the whole training/racing/training mill. Commuting should be enjoyed and when you get to work you should feel ready for work, not feeling like you need to lie down and stretch off your legs. Uh oh, these sounds like the words of an old CTC friend of mine who was of a certain age.

OK, so I admit it - I commute to work slower than I used to, and nowadays I am more of a sturdy mare than a dynamic filly. But hey, I'm allowed to. I'm the wrong side of thirty and I have a landmark birthday coming up so I've got my excuse.
I don't mind how the cycling goes as long as I'm allowed to age gracefully !

Monday 20 October 2008

On the road again in Northern France

I'd done my London - Paris bike ride, soaked in the vibe and dug the people of the beautiful French capital. Now it was time to make the journey back home.

It would've been a bit too predictable to jump on the Eurostar or get a flight straight back to London, so I chose a more convoluted approach.

The aim of my weekend away at the end of September was not just to get from London to Paris by bicycle, but I had also wanted to take in as many sights as possible while in Northern France.

So, at 9am I scooted from my youth hostel in Porte de Pantin, across to Gare du Nord and took a train towards the Compiegne area. I was back in the Picardy region but this was a very pleasant side to the region.

This area is a popular getaway for the bustling Parisians. I got off the train at Longueuil Sainte-Marie, just ahead of the Foret de Compiegne.

View Larger Map
It was a fairly sleepy town with a pleasant river running through and forested tracks. I did quite a few circuits of the village in order to find the road to La Croix St Ouen. Soon I bumped into a local who seemed very happy to help me out. It was an old "Marcel" type who was trundling along from the bakers on his bicycle. With a baguette, under his arm, riding an old sit-up-and-beg bike which he pedalled through his heels, wearing a beret and an old jacket, I wondered if I'd stepped into a timewalk of by-gone days in France. I could've sworn he had a string of onions around his neck under his jacket !

Given that the guy wouldn't have been much under 70 years of age he was incredibly spritely in the way he spoke. Again, as with other folk I had met in the provinces he was very surprised and almost flattered that an outsider was in his town touring around.

I'd been trying to get to Pierrefonds, and my initial question had been to ask him the way to the D85 towards La Croix St Ouen. "You don't want to take the road - not with all these tossers that are gonna knock you off," he said. "No, follow me - I'll show you a really beautiful ride along the side of the river, where the birds sing and there are cute rabbits. You can even get little views of the castles around here. And right at the end of the ride there's a pretty little bridge to go over."

"You see," he continued, "You're in the most important part of France, and I know everything there is to know round here. I was born and raised here, and I don't know anywhere else - I don't need to ! Follow me !" He was lively and enthusiastic, but not a psycho so I obliged and followed him.

In the 3 mile ride that I did with the old boy I was given a brief history of the local area and a quick low down of all the best places to visit around. Judging by the ecstasy he displayed when talking about the castle of Pierrefonds it was apparent that that was the number one place to visit.
"But take it easy," he said, as he bid me good bye. "It's a good 15km to Pierrefonds. It could be a long day !"
"I'll be careful", I replied. I didn't want to give him a heart attack by telling him where I was really hoping to get to. (Amiens).

The ride to Pierrefonds was beautiful. I could see why he was excited about me going there. Compiegne forest is idyllic, and provides lots of possibilities for off-road biking. All the trails are waymarked as well. The sun, shone and there were hardly any cars. It was great. The terrain was fairly easy too, apart from a mini climb up to St Jean des Bois.

"Marcel" was definitely right about Pierrefonds castle. It was a very imposing august piece of military architecture which dates back to the Middle Ages.

I stopped, along with a whole load of tourists, to marvel at its sheer size. The way it suddenly surges into view as you approach the village is so impressive that you can't help but stop and stare.

That was the high point of the day as far as scenery went.

I then pushed on back through the forest to reach the town of Compiegne itself. I could have stopped and looked at a bit more of the town, but I didn't. There's a very nice town hall and castle there too, but I didn't stop. Too much spinning around the outskirts of towns looking for the road I was after meant I wasted a bit of time and was keen to make progress Northwards. Still, I was glad to have made the circular detour around the Compiegne Forest. It was definitely worth the trip.

The road back up to Amiens took me through the Picardy region. This department of the Somme is quite undulating. As well as fields, there are a few military cemeteries reflecting its war-time past.
The road may have had a desolate feel it, but it was more interesting than say the road to Gisors, as it undulated constantly and twisted through various small quaint villages - Rollot, Montdidier, Moreeuil, Boves.

Also the wind was behind me, which made a lot of difference. I could have taken the quieter D26 through Ailly sur Noye. But really the more principal D935 was very quiet on this sunny Saturday afternoon. In fact I saw a number of club cyclists along this road. So it seemed like this was the place to be.

From Mondidier onwards - around 18 miles from Amiens I could see a tall tower and a church steeple over the hills in the distance. Could that really have been Amiens ? I hoped it was, as it was good to have something concrete to aim for. In fact, this proved to be true as I reached the main suburban road that led to Amiens city centre. My bike ride ended right in front of Amiens train station - next to this tower. Well, I had been wanting something concrete to aim for - that's exactly what I got !

In the distance the tower had been a guiding light - a star to follow, an expectation of making it through the end of a long journey.

Once past the initial celebration of achieving the goal, it then became apparent what an architectural monstrosity the Perret Tower really is ! This ugly ode to concrete makes for a stark contrast to the beauty and intricacy of the world heritage site of Amiens cathedral.

I had around 2 hours to kill before catching my train to Calais. So I used the time to stroll around, and have a well deserved quiche, cake and beer. Apart from the Tour Perret, this town was quite pleasing to the eye. There was even an affluent feel to the place. I could have fallen asleep in the park quite comfortably, but I decided to do that on my train journey.

Once in Calais, I felt a real sense of achievement that I'd it made it round Northern France. There may not be the breathtaking sights of the high mountains characteristic of the Alps or the Pyrenees while out cycling, but Northern France is definitely worth a bike trip as there are still lots of other sights to see.

Sunday 19 October 2008

Paris in the Autumn

Paris in the Spring may be a beautiful time of year with the wide array of bright colours from flowers and blossom, bright sunshine, birds singing, love in the air.....and all that.

But I just love Paris in the Autumn. Ok, maybe I'm biased - Autumn is my favourite season.

The day after my arrival in Paris (on my recent cycling trip there) I spent the time just strolling around my favourite places in Paris, digging the scene and feeling glad to be alive.
Here are a few picture memories.