Sunday 28 November 2010

Vuelta a Menorca

I had heard of this event when the organiser, Arturo Sintes Lluch told me about it last year at the Quebrantahuesos cyclosportive in Spain.

This year, as they were celebrating 10 years of the running of the event and giving it a bit of fanfare with the presence of Spanish Tour de France winners I decided to go.
With my club mates, Charlotte and Dyanne we made the trip over to Mahon for a weekend of racing around this Balearic island. It was a really fun weekend and we got to meet the guests of honour - Carlos Sastre (2008 Tour de France winner), Pedro Delgado (1998 Tour de France winner) and Jose Luis "Chechu" Rubiera (from Lance Armstrong's Team RadioShack).

We didn't actually do as much hard core racing as I might have anticipated, but in fact the ride was done at a fairly manageable pace that was set by the lead car, and the peloton was kept together. If riders were dropped off the back the car stopped for people to regroup, though that didn't happen much.

Stage 1 was a 113km ride from Mahon to Ciutadella and back, taking in towns of Es Mercadal and Alaior. Stage 2 was shorter, but was the main race where we raced up the highest peak on the Island, Monte Toro. Although it's not that high, 358m the height gain over the 3.5km is pretty significant so there are a number of 16% gradient ramps along the way - pretty tough work!
What really made this weekend for me was the whole social element. People were very friendly, with or without the language barrier. The pros were very amiable and approachable and were willing to chat about their racing days quite readily. I went to a mini Q&A session with all of the riders and they had a few funny stories to tell.
We made a few more friends - notably Gema from Madrid, and Patrick from Cycling Weekly magazine. Also, it was great to be somewhere in late October where the weather was warm and you didn't have to worry about taking your coat!

The final day consisted of a prize giving, where Dyanne, Charlotte and myself were presented with a prize for the "most friendly team"! I'm not sure what made us more friendly than anyone else, but it was very flattering all the same. I definitely recommend this for a pleasant end of season cycling weekend away.

Photos by Elena Gomila Pons

Friday 26 November 2010

Planning for the Big Day - 29th April

So Wills has popped the question and Kate said yes. They've done the interviews, shown off the rock and announced their hitching date. And guess what, we get an extra public holiday next year. And since it's happening at the end of Easter week and right before May Day bank holiday that means for those who are employed you could have a 10-day holiday and only need to get 3 days of authorized leave from your employer. Thanks chaps - jolly decent of you!

All the best on your big day and all that, but it might be that I'll have other stuff on that day so won't be able to attend the wedding.

Who knows, I might be at:
Tour of Sardinia cyclosportive from 23rd - 30th April
in Mallorca for Cyclosportive Mallorca 312, 30th April
I might go up to Scotland for the Drumlanrig Tearfund Challenge.

But then again I don't have to leave London. While everyone is getting stuck into watching the Royal wedding the roads will be so quiet. It'd be criminal to not make the most of this rare occasion and get out for long spin!

I don't know where exactly I'll be riding, but whatever it is, I'm sure it'll be a great day, especially in London!

Tuesday 16 November 2010

Sunny Days in the North East

Normally when I go up north with my bike I go to Yorkshire - the Dales, the Moors or the Wolds.

For the first time I ventured into the North East. It was to do a photo shoot for an article I was writing for Cycling Active magazine on the Pack Horse Trails.

I had a good two days of riding around various trails in the County Durham and Northumberland area with photographer Andy Jones, and our guide, Shane Harris of North Pennines AONB. We went through Baldersdale, Hamsterley Forest and Blanchland. The trails were great fun - a mixture of single track through heather, challenging stony descents, grass tracks and the odd bit of smooth paths and lanes for a rest.
Shane hadn't been sure that my bike would be up to the job, but I'm happy to say that the Uncle John cyclo cross bike handled the trails royally, and the rider survived too - even managing a smile! Thanks to Shane who took the snap. The full write-up on the ride is in the current issue of Cycling Active.

Sunday 14 November 2010

Travel Notes - A Day in the Briançonnais

Wednesday 18th August

For those of you who have descended from the col du Galibier and turned right at the bottom to go down the col du Lautaret towards Le Bourg d'Oisans, I'd recommend trying something different. Try turning left!

This road, which leads towards Serre Chevalier and Briançon is equally exhilarating - possibly even more so than the road towards La Grave and Le Bourg d'Oisans.
You are in a wide open valley and can see the panorama with the various ski resorts of the Serre Chevalier and Meije region quite clearly. The descent is not so techical as the curves sweep gently round and the gradient isn't particularly steep. Some parts of the road don't curve at all, and your bicycle picks up great speed on the straight drop down. Just don't dare look down at the speedometer! Above 40 miles an hour on a bike I'd rather not know my travelling speed until afterwards!

I very quickly reached La Salle les Alpes and then went up the short steep climb to the old part of the ski resort, known as Le Bez.
This hamlet had a very authentic homely feel to it. All the folks hanging out in the street knew each other, and it seemed the sort of place that people live in, rather than visit, unlike the neighbouring villages that make up the Serre Chevalier network.

At the youth hostel in Le Bez the receptionist introduced me to the only other woman who would be in my dormitory, Ivana a Czech girl who'd been living in France for 15 years.

As we'd both arrived within a few minutes of each other, tired and having had our own challenges getting through the Alps, and it was just the two of us, we went out for dinner in the neighbouring Le Cavaillou restaurant.

It was a good night out. Like me, she was on her way to Nice except that she'd set off from her home near Strasbourg that morning on her motorbike. She'd been slightly anxious as she'd not travelled this far on her own on a bike before and she'd had some dicey moments riding over mountain passes in the rain. Tomorrow she'd be continuing her route to Nice via the Route des Grandes Alpes. If only I could have had assisted power to get over the cols around here! So what possessed her to ride all the way from Strasbourg to Nice on her motorbike all alone? Ivana said it was the challenge of pushing herself out of her comfort zone and striving for the desired result. She'd gotten used to going on motorbike trips around Europe with other biker friends and for once she wanted to try something different. I could fully understand that. We got through a fair bit of wine and chatted to the locals as well as the bar owner. It ended up getting quite late, and although the effects of the wine put paid to me getting an early start the following morning I didn't feel bad about that at all! It had been a good night.

Thursday 19th August

With a seriously achy back I didn't feel that brilliant when I woke up. I considered enquiring about seeing a physio. It was a shame I felt so bad as the sun was definitely out and it was a glorious day for being out on the bike. I made a decision not to ride over the col d'Izoard which would have been too much for me.
In fact, it felt like any hill would be too much for me so I decided I would get the public transport to Embrun, and then ride to my next stopover point from there, thus avoiding any high mountain passes.

I have ridden over the col d'Izoard and through the Casse Deserte on a previous occasion and I would thoroughly recommend it. My back was not ready to go over the 2360m summit today though. A local guy mentioned an alternative lower road, the N94 through Queyrières to reach Mont Dauphin. Apparently that is a popular scenic road too. I didn't take this. Instead I went to do some sightseeing in Briancon before getting my train to Embrun.

The roads leading up from modern Briançon to its old town are very steep. If I couldn't put my back into getting up those roads I certainly didn't want those roads to put my back out! So I did as much as I could in the upper Old Town before leaving to get to the train station in the lower town.
Briançon Old Town with its Vauban battlements is delightful. The main road, known as La Grande Gargouille is steep, quite narrow, cobbled and fully of arty boutique style shops. The other main feature, as per its name is a drain that runs down the middle of the whole street. For me it was work enough just walking down this street with my bike and trying to avoid tourists and this gap in the road. This road is sometimes used as the home straight during the Dauphiné Libéré professional cycle race. Rather them than me!
Briançon is definitely a sunny town. At an altitude of 1300m it boasts of not only being the highest altitude city in France, but also the city which receives the most days of sunshine per year.

Sitting on the Citadel admiring the views of the town and the nearby mountains became a moment not for taking photos as planned, but for talking to folks. The locals all seemed to have something to say - whether it was to ask where I was from and where I was going, recommending where I should go, asking about cyclo cross in England (Some recognised the type of bike I had.) etc the people had something to say.

One lady got into a long discussion with me about cycle touring. She'd been wanting to do it, but didn't know what type of bike to use or how to plan it. So I ended up giving her a mini talk about my journey so far. She seemed glad of what I had to say and seemed fired up to have a go. I should have set up a stand in one of the square and given a formal presentation. By the looks of things I would have had an audience!
By lunchtime I'd seen most of Briançon old town (Cité Vauban), and alot of its townsfolk too! So I made my way down the steep hill to get my train and start my ride from Embrun.

Wednesday 10 November 2010

Travel Notes - Onwards and Upwards - Part Two

Wednesday 18th August

Grenoble (Echirolles) - Le Pont-de-Claix - Vizille - Sechilienne - Livet-et-Gavet - Rochetaille - Le Bourg-d'Oisans - Le Freney d'Oisans - La Grave - Le Monetier-les-Bains - La Salle-les-Alpes = 65 miles

This was a tough day in more ways than one. The ride was simply a 65-mile grind along the same road, the D1091 between Grenoble and Briancon. It was difficult to keep motivated, just looking at the road in front of me.

The ride was also very tiring - more tiring than I'd imagined it would be. The col du Lautaret was the main climb of the route, and I'd naively thought that it would be just a little bit harder than a false flat!

Well, to be fair it was like that just outside Grenoble, but once past Le Bourg d'Oisans I began to get a full appreciation of just how tough this is. I have ridden this section of the route in reverse a few times in the past - usually during La Marmotte cyclosportive, and it's a lovely descent. Practically no pedalling from the summit of col de Galibier to the foot of Alpe d'Huez! So the difficulty of riding from Grenoble in the direction of the Galibier should have given me a clue really!

So the day consisted of me riding uphill for most of the route, with the worst section being the 11km climb from La Grave to the summit of col du Lautaret.
The whole day's ride was done under a grey threatening sky! The sun was not in a mood to come out and smile!

Despite all of the above I still found the landscape to be truly awesome. Where the previous day I had been surrounded by the green peaks of the Chartreuse, today was about towering majestic jagged peaks of the Parc National des Ecrins, many of them covered in snow even at this time of year.

It felt strange passing through a deserted Bourg d'Oisans, a place which I associate with being full to the brim with cyclists taking part in La Marmotte.
Actually, there were a few cyclists around on this day, but nothing like the numbers you see during that first week of July. I even spotted the AG2R-La Mondiale professional cycling team, all kitted out, speeding round the corner and up towards Allemont, their team car in hot pursuit behind them.

So after my feed stop at Le Bourg d'Oisans I ground my way up the remaining 40 miles to reach my destination - La Salle-les-Alpes, just outside Briancon.

As I said, the ride was basically a gradual climb, with some notable steep bits near the Barrage du Chambon and La Grave. As I heaved my way up the col du Lautaret I could feel my load getting heavier and heavier and my breathing was more laboured as I was gaining significant altitude. A few times I had to stop to get my breath back, or just to rest my back which was aching alot. I was hungry but I was getting sick of eating the same biscuits and jelly babies. It was after tea time and I wondered if I would ever get there. The ride seemed interminable! I began to curse the fact that I'd planned such a long ride. Why couldn't I have just ended my day's riding at Le Bourg d'Oisans, or even La Grave? What a silly idea doing a whole 65 miles + 10kg of uphill!

I had to forget about the above and remember that the last 12.5 miles would be downhill. Even at this hour of the day lots of motorists were still coming up and down this very zigzaggy climb. Maybe I was just getting tired and everything just seemed to roll into one, but I could have sworn I was just seeing the same old camper van, Renault Megane or motorbiker driving up and down to the summit!

Eventually after alot of battling internally with my mind, and externally with my bike I saw the characteristic dark blue sign that told me I was at the summit of the col du Lautaret, at 2058m.
I was beaming from ear to ear. It was a combination of the relief that I'd made it, the joy of beholding the most spectacular views, and the prospect of riding an amazing descent that put me on such a high - well that and the 1800m altitude gain! It had been a long day but I was happy to know I would make it. Some people may have thought I was a bit weird walking around with a permanent smile on my face, but I didn't care. I knew what I'd been through to get there and I was looking forward to zooming down the slide that would get me to the warmth of my lodgings at La Salle-les-Alpes below.

Sunday 7 November 2010

Travel Notes - Onwards and Upwards - Part One

Tuesday 17th August

Aix-les-Bains - Le Bourget-du Lac - Chambery - Entremont-le-Vieux - St-Pierre-d'Entremont - St Pierre-de-Chartreuse - Le Sappey-en-Chartreuse - La Tronche - Grenoble
= 60miles

After a day of getting soaked in between watching the rain I was glad to see the sun come out in the morning. The youth hostel staff seemed more relieved for me, knowing what I was about to do!
One of the members of staff was born and bred in this area and hoped that I'd be able to see the best of the area as it really is beautiful. "You'll not be disappointed." She said.
As I left she asked me to say hello to the manager at the Grenoble youth hostel for them, as that was where I was headed.

The ride from Aix-les-Bains to Chambery is very pleasant indeed. It's a purpose built sign-posted cycle track that goes along the side of the Lac du Bourget and through the woods. You are distanced from the main road and there are just lots of other cyclists and runners around.
The Lac du Bourget is worth a stay in itself. It's pretty big - the largest and deepest lake situated entirely in France. There's a marina and a beach area. Various cycling challenges take place where you can ride the whole circumference of the lake. One for next time.

So it was on through Chambery, another old pleasant town and up through the mountains proper for the first time on my trip. What a pleasant introduction it was - all the way into the Massif de la Chartreuse.
With these things it's those first few kms where you rise out of the town that feel the hardest. It was quite hot on this day as well. Sweat poured down my face as I went over the first climb, the 15km col du Granier. Once over the initial shock of no longer being gravity assisted it was just a steady ride up the gradient that averaged 5.6%, with sections through the trees to keep me cool.

A nice descent though Entremont and then I was up again going up the col du Cucheron, an average of 6.3% over 8km. I didn't take any cafe stops along the way - just kept riding. Seeing lots of leisure cyclists stopped at the little mountain cafes taking lunch or afternoon tea made it tempting to stop, but I soldiered on.

The final climb was col de Porte, which was around 13km. This one went on forever, but I really enjoyed looking at the views around me - the green peaks that watched over me in the afternoon sun were very welcoming. I was getting a little tired though. There hadn't been any long section of valley road between each of these cols. It was just a case of going up, then down, then straight back up again. I was overtaken by a couple of club cyclists along the way. One of them wasn't going much faster than me! I almost caught him at the summit - with my 8kg of panniers racing someone had not entered my mind!

The summit formed a crossroads point with people arriving from all directions. This area seems to be a hub for cross country ski-ing, off-road driving and paintballing. Not feeling in the mood to any of these activities, I rolled down the 18km long descent straight into Grenoble. Lovely, I didn't need to pedal at all. The views of the Grenoble conurbation looked very impressive, nestled in the valley between the two sets of mountain ridges.
Once in Grenoble I crossed the Isere river and then picked my way through the town centre to reach my youth hostel in Echirolles, to the south of the City.

Thursday 4 November 2010


Ha ha! Well, not exactly the centre pages of a mag, and there's no hint of a sultry looking semi clad playmate model either!

But for me, it was just as much a shock when I featured in the "Big Picture" double page spread photo in the current issue of Cycling Active!

Nice photo taken by Andy Jones when we were doing a shoot for our London ride story around Hampstead Heath, Primrose Hill and Regents Park. Some of you may recognise the bridge as the one leading from Primrose Hill to Chalk Farm. It was actually a busy Friday afternoon, so credit to Andy for catching the right moment when there was no one coming through.

I also note that quite a few of our shots featured in Mark Ronson's Transport for London/"Ride My Bike" video. Copy cat!