Friday 30 November 2012

BBC (Beryl Burton Cycling) on the BBC

In recent times the BBC has become more generous in its coverage of cycling on TV, now regularly covering the World Road Racing Championships and international track cycling races on free to air channels.

Of course in this Olympic year cycling hit the jackpot with the Beeb, with tens of broadcast hours dedicated to cycle racing.
It seems that the BBC's new pet sport has really been taken to its heart since they have started airing a cycle show on Radio 5 Live.

But what has shown how much cycling really is in  the BBC psyche was when cycling became the subject of the highly esteemed Radio 4!

I was very impressed to hear that the theme of the "Afternoon Drama" on Radio 4, would be my favourite two-wheeled activity - and, it wasn't even predictably about Bradley Wiggins or Victoria Pendleton. This time it was on one of our greatest unsung heroes - Beryl Burton OBE! Beryl: A Love Story on Two Wheels is the story of the life and times of Britain's most decorated female cycle racer.

BB, as she was known in her native Leeds, dominated cycle racing in the UK for almost 30 years between the late 1950s and 1980s. She won the female Best British All Rounder in time trialling for 25 years, and set the still unbeaten 12-hour time trial record in 1967. For a few years this time was the record across both genders!

Mrs Burton's success was not just confined to the UK. She was twice the World Road Racing Champion in the 1960s, and she won the World Individual Track Pursuit championships five times. And what was her success down to? A passionate love of cycle racing, combined with her husband's equal love for her, and his commitment to supporting her.  

I really enjoyed listening to this play - not just because of the excitement that Radio 4 was showing an interest in this subject matter, but also because of the personal way in which it portrayed Beryl Burton's determination and her personal battle to success.

From the childhood illness which doctors said would prevent her from doing strenuous exercise, through the hard labour of working on a rhubarb and beetroot farm, travelling around the country in a 750cc 3-wheeler Robin Reliant car packed with people and bikes that she would sometimes have to push up the hill when it broke down - these were all just part and parcel of Beryl Burton's humble everyday life. There were no National Lottery bursaries or British Cycling coaching teams in those days!   

The "Afternoon Drama" has commentary from Beryl Burton's husband Charlie as well as her daughter Denise - who was also a cycle racer.
According to Charlie "If Beryl had been born a French woman she would have replaced Joan of Arc!"

Sadly BB died one week short of her 59th birthday in 1996. Beryl Burtons's memory is still very much alive, especially among female cycle racers. Every year the Beryl Burton Trophy is awarded to the best female all rounder in time trialling, and there is a Beryl Burton cycle way in Yorkshire.

Despite all her success, the British media gave very little coverage of Beryl Burton's achievements, and even though no other female cyclist has matched her range of titles Beryl Burton's name has remained largely unknown.

I am glad the BBC decided to raise her profile in this way, and it was a well produced programme too.
Anyone who wants to listen to Beryl: A Love Story on Two Wheels can download it from BBC i-player

Monday 26 November 2012

Bella Sella Ride!

It may be a little late in the year to do this ride now, and I guess the guys in Canazei and Arabba are preparing for the ski season (which is an area I would recommend, by the way!).

However, this is certainly a route to consider for next spring/summer. I rode around this area in August this year and I must say it is one of the nicest routes you can ride in the Dolomites. It is a classic circuit that many cyclists do, as it consists of four mountain passes - If going anti-clockwise from Canazei you do Passo Pordoi, Passo Campolongo, Passo Gardena, and Passo Sella.

People who have ridden the Maratona dles Dolomiti will be familiar with these climbs as they are included in this very popular Italian cyclosportive. The good thing about the route is that it is not so long - around 60km, so can easily be completed in half a day. Or you can make a day of it and stop to visit the pleasant villages that you pass en route. By the way, you do have 2,000m of climbing to ride along the circuit, so a rest in between the climbs is not such a bad thing!

I have recorded the route here if you would like to see more details on the stats.

Here is a brief description of my ride:

I started from the main road through Canazei, and headed towards Falzarego and Cortina. Shortly after the Belvedere ski lift I turned left to begin climbing. That was pretty much my activity for the following 90 minutes. It might have been better to do a warm-up by riding around on the flat, since the sudden climb was a bit of a shock to the system on my legs. The early part of the slope, which is the Passo Pordoi, was a little steep, and it had me wondering if I would be able to cope with this amount of climbing for 16 kilometres. Thankfully, the road levelled off once I reached the junction with the Passo Sella. I was happy to turn right and continue on the Pordoi rather than to tackle the steeper Passo Sella.

Riding up the climb was very straightforward and there were lots of beautiful views to take in as I passed in and out of the woods, rounding hairpin after hairpin.

This ride is effectively a tour of the plateau shaped massif of the Sella mountain range, and Piz Boe, the highest peak in the area. The whole time that you are riding this you get spectacular views of the snow-capped peaks of these dramatic mountains, including Sass Pordoi, which stands out as a high rocky balcony.

Along the ride I was overtaken by various cyclists, many of whom looked like they were on a mission to complete the circuit in record time. I also passed a number of recreational riders who were out with their panniers tootling up the hill. Under the summer sunshine it was easy to work up a sweat even though we were at almost 2,000m above sea level. Picnic sites at various intervals along the side of the road made it all too tempting to stop for a breather, however I was eager to reach the top of the climb and see what was there.

Around three quarters of the way up the climb there was a crossroads of mountain folk. One of the switchbacks I rounded was criss-crossed with trails from a downhilling track so it was advisable to keep an eye out for dirt jumpers hairing down the mountain as I ground my way up. There were also lots of walkers spilling out of the cable cars from Canazei. Some were curious and stood and watched us cyclists "showing off our skills". Others continued their way up to the Pordoi summit on foot.  By now I was just sauntering up the climb and I was sure the walkers were scaling their trails quicker than I could manage the switchbacks!

Finally, I reached the summit at 2239m and was greeted by many walkers who actually complimented me for having managed the climb. A Fausto Coppi monument and a big "Arrived" signboard let me know that my challenge was over - at least for the moment!

After a quick snack at the hilltop restaurant I rolled down the twisty, descent to reach Arabba, and then started a short climb up Passo Campolongo.

It wasn't actually that longo! This 5km pass was just a tickler before the other big climb of the loop, Passo Gardena. Before starting the third climb, I took the time to look around Corvara, a large village which is a good base for skiing and other walking activities. Riding up Passo Gardena was easily the most beautiful climb of the circuit, but for me, it was the hardest. It's  the sort of climb where you can see where you were meant to go, but it is a long, long, way off and the road twists in various directions along a torturously long route. An ariel view of the road gave an impressive succession of switchbacks snaking backwards, forwards, sideways, etc. just like spaghetti. I regret not having taken a photo of the road, but at the time I was so focused on just trying to complete the route. Even though the climb was not so long - 12km, my legs felt a bit tired and my lack of fitness was really showing.

Boy, was I glad to reach the 2136m summit and get a bite to eat - even  if I had to share my table with a load of hairy leather-clad bikers! I was just glad to have made it, and I felt so pleased to have managed this climb.

The last section of the ride was probably the easiest. There wasn't much of a descent. Over the next 5km the road only descended around 200m, however the lack of an exhilarating descent was more than compensated for by the lack of a tough final climb. In fact, to reach the summit of the final pass - Passo Sella, I only needed to climb about 4km. Once I had crested this, I was able to enjoy a lovely 12km descent all the way back to my lodgings in Canazei. The interesting thing about this ride as well, is that people can ride it either clockwise or anti-clockwise, and I found myself seeing people riding up the Passo Sella, who I had earlier seen riding down the Passo Pordoi!

The Sella Ronda ride is one of the most pleasant mountain cycle rides I've done. It is easy to navigate, scenic, and short enough to not feel too onerous for slow-coaches like me!
Next time I am there I will try ride the clock-wise version of the route.

Also, for those who would like to make more of an event of it there will be 2 days next year where all these mountain passes will be closed to traffic and thousands of cyclists can get a free run of the 60km route. These Sella Ronda Bike Days take place on June 23rd and September 15th 2013. I've mark them in the diary!

Friday 23 November 2012

Thanks Guys!

Sorry I'm a day out, but better late than never! Just wanted to say thanks to all those who read/have read/will read my blog. I've somehow managed to keep it going since 2007, albeit with a few gaps.

I have tried to make it an interesting, enjoyable read, and hope that folks have found some useful tips from my travels and experiences.

I plan to keep the blog going and will post items as much as I can. As my daily activities involve writing in various capacities I have found in recent years I have spread myself a little thinly. But I don't plan to abandon 2wheelchick just yet! Hope you bear with me!

Anyway folks, thanks for reading my musings!

Happy Turkey Day to my US readers, and cheers, to everyone else!

Wednesday 21 November 2012

What I don't like about Milan

Although there a number of things I like about living in Milan (as detailed in my previous blog post), I must admit there are still certain things that I am not keen on. Some of them are things which you encounter to an extent in other big cities, but in Milan these things are exaggerated to the point of being quite annoying.

Things I don't like about Milan

1. The place is dirty. Even though there is no shortage of dustcarts, road sweepers or even proprietors cleaning the pavement outside their own property, Milan still has an innate scruffiness about it. I go through a number of streets that have a stink of pee. Also, many pavements have those familiar streaky patches across path where people have clearly pissed against the wall the previous night, or even shortly before. Many people smoke, and there are no end of cigarette butts littering the streets.
Furthermore, most of the walls you go past are full of graffiti - not necessarily of the artisitic variety, but mainly folks spraying offensive slogans against the government or some other political initiative. Like I said, you can't blame the council. The authorities do what they can. It's just not possible to stop every man, woman and child from dropping their pants or spitting in every street corner!

2. People seem to be quite stressed out and rude. Being a Londoner people might say I should be used to that. But in fact, I think that Londoners are comparatively polite. True, folks are in a rush, but even these busy city types have standards. There seems to be something in the mind of a Milanese that if they need to get on that bus or train, they will boot out of the way anyone in their path - whether they are pregnant women, children, disabled people or old age pensioners. They will make sure they get that seat, and they make no apologies for it. It sucks, but sadly it seems to be quite acceptable round here.

3. Theft. As far as I can see, people steal anything and everything. I had my racing bicycle stolen a few months ago. At the time, I was loading two bikes plus my luggage through a tight door to the courtyard in my flat. I put one bicycle down, put the other in the courtyard, and in that 10 second period someone had ridden off with my bike. I actually saw the toe-rag riding down the road with it, but I was unable to catch him.

Some people say I shouldn't have had my back turned for even one second. Maybe they are right, but it's pretty sad that you can't even load stuff into your home without fear of someone pouncing on you and your stuff. That never happened to me back home. Before that incident. I had never had a bicycle stolen from me, and I have owned a few in my time. I have also heard of people having their luggage stolen from trains while on their way to/from the airport, and folks failing to receive goods which had been pocketed by postal staff. I definitely feel that there is a bigger theft problem in Milan than I have known in any of the other places I have lived.

4. Small town mentality. People often mention Milan in the same sentence as New York, London and Paris. I have never been to New York, but I have lived in the other cities. And on the basis of my experience I don't understand why Milan is put in the same league as the other cities. True, I can understand why this would be the case when thinking about fashion, business and commerce. But on other accounts, I can't see why Milan merits this accolade. London and Paris are places where you can walk down the street and anything goes really. There are all kinds of people, with all kinds of ways of living and dressing, and more importantly there is a melting pot of people of various cultures.

I remember on my first day in Milan I walked to work. I couldn't really get why people were staring at me so much. Did I have two heads, was it my lack of visible designer labels? Well, I was wearing a sharp suit and brogues like many others. No, they had never seen a black person before. I guess they were curious. But, we were always taught not to stare - even when something did look a little strange or different to us. These folks had no compunctions and stared like it was normal to do that. The last time people stared like that at me, was when I was growing up living in small villages in Yorkshire during the 1980s. The folks in Milan behaved just like that. Furthermore, when I get asked where I'm from, and I reply that I am from London this is usually followed by: "but where were you born? It wasn't London was it?", or "yeah but where are you really from? That can't be your home town!" When I reply that I was born in London and I'm British I get a somewhat quizzical look. Some have even commented that "I speak English really well!" What can I say.....

5. Very slow delivery of services. When I first arrived in Milan and I went to the supermarket I chose to use the self service check-outs as I figured they would be quicker than using the manned check-outs. They are usually quite quick. I even thought it was great because you can get the voice to speak in English (in full Dolby stereo so everyone in the supermarket knows you're not Italian!).

Things go well until I have to pay. I end up having to wait for an assistant to key in the code that will allow me to pay. However, said assistant is busy either having a cigarette, taking a coffee break or chatting on the phone. So I have to wait patiently for all of 10 minutes while the folks in the humongous queue for the manual check-out somehow manage to sail past me and get served first. And don't even think of complaining, as that is rude and you are not respecting employees' right to have a break from all those long hours they have been working. Ditto for any other shop or service you can think of. Efficient service does not exist in the vocabulary of your average shop in Milan!

6. Queues. Coming from a nation where standing in line is instilled into us with our mothers' milk it comes as quite a surprise when you get on a bus and notice that everyone crowds through all the doors mob style. Queuing at the train station ticket office is not much better. It's not so much a bun fight as people surreptitiously and slyly sidling in front of you as though they didn't realise what they were doing. And people of all ages are the culprits. Elderly women are the worst!

I guess that's why some shops have a ticketing system for even the most basic of operations like going to the bank or getting served in a mobile phone shop. Without this system there would be no discipline, and folks would just not be able to get themselves organised into an ordered line. Yeah, I have noticed the same problem in other countries, but in Milan it seems worse and I have witnessed, as well as been involved in spats over queueing!

7. Pollution. As well as Milan being one of the fashion hotspots in Europe, it also has the shameful claim of being one of Europe's major smog spots. In recent years Milan has earned the title of the most polluted city in Europe. Reports have even shown that childhood morbidity has increased due to the excessive level of particulates in the atmosphere.

Thankfully steps have been made to reduced the amount of motorised traffic - ie, introducing a congestion charge, holding car-free days, and encouraging greater use of public transport or environmental friendly transportation. I am not sure how much difference this has made, as I find that I am not able to go for a run whenever I like. In the summer especially, I can only go running early in the morning before the traffic begins. Once the traffic begins you can feel the smog and heaviness in the air. Many people run in the evening regardless, but as someone who is prone to asthma I can't take that risk.

8. Mosquitoes. This is one of those things I'd been unaware of prior to coming to Milan. Even when people told me about the mosquitoes I had not thought it would be such a problem. After all, when
growing up I lived near a canal which attracted mosquitoes, and I coped then. But really, not even that prepared me for the little beasts that plague Milan during the summer. The problem is exacerbated even more by the presence of the canals and the extremely humid weather.

The authorities have put in place various measures including the introduction of bats into parks and green spaces, but short of a massive Deet cloud over the city I don't know what else can be done. Unsurprisingly, I end up suffering from sleep deprivation in the summer. If it's not the hot, humid nights that keep me awake it's the annoying buzz of those blighters. Needless to say I was relieved when autumn came and conditions became tolerable. And at least I could turn up at work feeling
fresh and not covered in bites!

9. The weather. We grew up complaining about the dreary British weather and wishing for a more "continental" climate where we have lots of sunny days and we could enjoy riding our bikes in wall to wall sunshine, and eating al fresco. When people hear that I live in Milan they envy the fact that I am treated to lovely warm weather.

Actually, wrong. The weather is good, but on balance I don't think conditions are much better than in London. At least, in London the summers are not unbearably hot, and the winters are manageable. While spring and autumn in Milan are very pleasant, summer and winter are a different story.

Milan is located on a plain in Lombardy, surrounded by hills about 30 miles from the city. It's like being in a bowl. We get very little wind, and weather just settles within the bowl and sits there for days. So when it's hot, like 35degC and over 50 per cent humidity that's your lot for at least the next 2 weeks. Ditto in the winter when it's 0degC and also above 50 per cent humidity. And when it rains, it properly rains! None of this British drizzle, oh no. We get the full monty - highly charged electric storms with full on torrents of rain that last for days. It's not weather you want to be caught in. Once while out cycling I was caught in a massive hailstorm, that was so violent and with hail stones the size of golf balls. Cars were damaged, and I was glad I was wearing my helmet at the time!

In short, when the weather is good in Milan (ie during spring and autumn), it feels like the best place in the world to be. But Milan weather has quite a few extremes that can make the summer quite unbearable. It's not surprising that so many people escape from the city in July and August.


After reading this blog post and the previous one, you can probably gather that I have a love-hate relationship with Milan. Indeed, there is lot to like about Milan, but there is a fair bit not to like about the place. However, despite all this there is something that continues to draw people there.....

Sunday 18 November 2012

What I like about Milan

It is now 8 months since I arrived in Italy's second biggest city. I am now used to the routines, idiosyncrasies and officious bureaucracy of the place. I am enjoying my job, and it is very handy living in the centre of Milan.

I thought that now would be a good point to list what I like about being here.

Things I like about Milan

1. The transportation is quite efficient. There are buses, trams, metro and suburban trains. The taxis don't cost so much and there is even something called a radio bus which is a minibus you can call and get it to pick you up at unscheduled stops and destinations. There is also a bike sharing scheme (like the Boris Bikes in London) and a car sharing scheme (like Zip Car), so between all of these it's not too difficult to get around.

2. The compactness of the city means that many areas of the city are within walking distance. Before I got my folding bike I used to walk to work - something I'd never be able to do in London.

3. There are plenty of events going on - whether it's the routine "happy hour" in most of the bars, a book festival, a film festival or fashion week, there is always something to do. Because of the city's compactness it is quite easy to reach those places.

4. The car free days that they have once a month. One Sunday per month central Milan becomes closed to motorised traffic, apart from trams, buses, taxis, emergency services, and elecric vehicles.
This makes alot of difference to the atmosphere in the city. The authorities usually put on events like making the museums free, have an open market, or stage a mass participation running race or bike ride. It certainly makes Milan a pleasant place to be.

5. Hidden beautiful courtyards and churches. Most tourists flock to the Duomo and the Castello Sforzesca, the most famous tourist attractions in Milan. But there are some other quaint churches and squares that are less well known. The small squares near the St Ambrogio church (behind St Ambrogio tube station) are very pretty and have cute cares. It is true that Milan is not the prettiest of Italian cities! But there are still a few very old cobbled streets and ornate monuments. Another nice area is a the zone between via Torino and Corso Magenta, where there is an outdoor bar/cafe close to some ancient ruins, nestled among the trees.

6. The Navigli. Near where I live are the Naviglio Grande and the Naviglio Pavese. These two canal ways (navigli) which were previously the main trade routes into Milan are now more ornamental than commercial. The canals start from the Darsena channel in Central Milan and run all the way out of Milan to other towns like Pavia, and out towards Varese where they join into tributaries of the River Po. 

The great thing is that the navigli have cycle paths all along the way so they make for very pleasant bike rides out of the city. Another Naviglio to the northeast of Milan runs out towards a national park close to the hills near Bergamo.
If you are not cycling the Naviglio Grande and Pavese are trendy places to hang out due to the numerous cafes, bars, restaurants and independent shops.

7. Easy reach of Lake Como. Milan very much a working city. Ask anyone what brings them to Milan and invariably it will be for lavoro - work (or maybe to study, in order to improve job prospects). There is a smattering of folks who are born and bred in Milan, but many people are from somewhere else. 

So naturally, Milan is one of those places that people escape from as soon as they get a chance - at weekends, during the ponte (long weekends associated with public holidays), or as soon as the weather is fine. My personal escape route is a train from Cadorna station to Lake Como. I am just a 20 minute walk from the station, and it is a 1-hour train ride to Como where I am treated to one of the most lakes in Europe, and lots of walking trails and beautiful cycle routes through the mountains to lovely towns like Lecco, Cernobbio, and Bellagio. I feel very blessed to be able to have this regular route away from the hustle and bustle of this city.