Monday 31 December 2012

My 20.12 memorable moments of 2012

1. Breakfast with Victoria

Attending the press launch in January, of the range of women's bikes launched by Victoria Pendleton. We were at the Berkeley Hotel, Knightsbridge all sat around various tables. Victoria took a turn to chat to all of us at our tables. Through all the cakes and breakfast buns Ms Pendleton looked lovely and radiant and had alot of time for us. It was great to meet an athlete who could still remain happy and upbeat even though she was right in the thick of her preparations for various championship cycle races. And the new bikes looked good too!

2. Chamonix x2

Higg and I had missed a few years of ski-ing and snowboarding, so this year we thought we would try and catch up by going twice. Twice to Chamonix (January and March), twice to the same neighbourhood, the same bars, though we skipped Courmayeur the second time around. The France side of the Mont Blanc Tunnel still has alot to offer - especially for snowboarders and those wanting to challenge themselves.
I particularly liked Les Grands Montets, where it was possible to find some lovely fast descents with not so many people on, and the mountains in  the sunlight looked stunning.

3. Team GB Cycling in Docklands

In February I met up with my friend Arturo, who was looking after the Spanish track cycling team while they were in London for the World Cup Cycling event at the Olympic Velodrome. We went back to the hotel in Docklands where the team was staying. It turned out that it was the same place where most of the cyclists from all nations were staying. So while there, I took the opportunity to meet some of the Team GB riders. Laura Trott, Dani King, Jo Rowsell, Sir Chris Hoy, Geraint Thomas and Jason Kenny were all mingling around. I don't really do starstruck. I just thought it was a great moment to see them out of situ and chat informally - that's where you get the best interviews too!

4. Milan here I come

After my contract at my old job ended, I kept an open mind about where my next post would be. I was interviewd for a couple of jobs in the North of England and in the Midlands. When my recruitment consultant mentioned a job in Milan, I was a little surprised. I had considered the prospect of going to Geneva, where medical writing is not uncommon. However, I had not considered Milan at all. I did not even know that there was much call for English speaking medical writers in Milan. Before I knew it I had landed a post in Milan, working for an advertising agency and I was due to start in March. Exciting, though a little scary!

5. New City, New Problems

So, I arrived in Milan one Tuesday night in March with my stuff, and 12 hours later I was walking down via Vicenzo Foppa, past Parco Solari to start my first day at the comms agency. I don't like much ceremony to these things. Just jump in and get on! Initially, it was all very exciting - seeing folks in their Milan get-up, hearing a very melodic beautiful language (even if I made a pig's ear of my attempts at speaking it), and enjoying lovely spring weather.
But April came, and I realised that April showers in Milan are absolutely torrential. Milan air is more polluted than London air and it caused me to develop asthma. Summertime came and I was bitten to hell by mosquitoes. I also had to get used to slow bureacracy and the sight of graffitti everywhere. These are the things they don't mention in the guide books!

6. Mashed up on Mortirolo (and on Stelvio)

One weekend at the end of May I went to Tirano. The landscape around there is absolutely amazing. The sight of the peaks of the Valtellina and the Stelvio National Park are so wonderful you wouldn't want to be anywhere else. From there you can ride up Passo di Gavia, Passo Bernina and get to St Moritz. You can also go up other climbs to Livigno ski resort. According to the local cyclists, this is God's country - and I'm not minded to disagree! On one day I rode up to Bormio and then began the climb up to Passo dello Stelvio. It was a beautiful, dramatic and a very long climb. The snow was very much still there, and that made the ride even more surreal considering it was almost June. Lots of cyclists were out and they all willed me along and applauded when I reached the top. It's a great climb to do - all 48 hairpins! The next day I rode along the cycle path to Mazzo and tackled the Mortirolo. For me this is the toughest climb I have ever done. It was only about 10km, but it took me forever to ride up - actually, well about 2 and a half hours! The hairpins are easily 15% and the average gradient is unrelentless. I almost cried when I reached the top. Try it and you'll see what I mean.

7. Interview with an Italian Legend

In May I rode the Gran Fondo Felice Gimondi. As it was held in Bergamo, this was quite local for me, being in Milan. I was lucky enough to be granted an interview for Cycling Weekly magazine with Felice Gimondi himself. His PR spoke to me in English, but I didn't actually know what language Felice Gimondi would speak to me in. I wasn't fluent in Italian so would not be able to think on my feet. I had rehearsed my questions in Italian, just in case.
When he came through to the garden where I was waiting to interview him he immediately spoke to me in French - I'm not sure why! So suddenly, I had to try and flick the switch in my brain to French mode in order to speak to him. I was a bit rusty as I had not anticipated speaking in French, but once I got into a groove it went well. Mr Gimondi was very charming and had alot of funny stories to tell. I feel very priviledged to have been able to interview him.

8. The end of the Giro

I have seen the final day of the Tour de France in Paris on a few occasions. I had never seen the end of the Giro d'Italia. It was great to be able to just head out up the street from my flat and see proceedings at the Piazza Castello and the Piazza del Duomo. It was possible to just mingle around the various team buses and team warm-up areas quite freely, and there was a clear view of the riders. It was certainly less stuffy than the Tour de France.
Unlike the Tour de France, the final stage of the Giro was a time trial and there was alot to play for. The atmosphere in the Duomo was electric during the commentary, and the hitherto leader of the race, Rodriguez was in the process of losing his lead to Hesjedal. You could hardly hear a pin drop. I still won't forget the mighty gasp from the thousands of spectators in the Piazza when it was officially confirmed that Rodriguez had lost the Maglia Rosa. It was a day full of excitement and emotion, which I would defintely recommend.

9. Football crazy

Being in Milan you can't get away from the football frenzy. The two teams, Inter Milan and AC Milan are sworn enemies and local derby matches are avidly talked about.
The enthusiasm for international tournaments doesn't wane either. In June when Euro 2012 was on, this was a crazy time for Italian football fans (basically most Italians). The Milaneses were even more excitable given that they had a few of their players in the national side. When the Italians beat Germany and got into the final, the excitement just didn't stop. Cars were tooting all night. People were singing and dancing in the Piazza del Duomo. I hardly got any sleep through all the noise.
Thankfully, I was not there when Italy got trounced by Spain in the final.

10. My new weekend retreat

One word, Como! When I want to get away from Milan, I jump on a train from Cadorna station and it gets me to Como Nord Lago, where I can feel fresh air, ride my bike in interesting places and even go on lovely hikes if I feel like it. The first time I went there, in May, I was really struck by the beauty of the lake and the mountains around it. I didn't want to go back to the claustrophobia and greyness of Milan. But at least I know that on any weekend I like, the greenery and beauty of Lake Como is not far away.

11. Mashed up at La Marmotte

I have ridden this event 3 or 4 times now, and it seems that with each year I get slower! Life gets in the way and I can't train as much as I would like. This year I messed up though. I hadn't helped myself by riding the Vaujany cyclosportive the previous Sunday. So, for La Marmotte I rode round the 174km-course at a consistently slow speed, and consequently missed the cut-off at the foot of Alpe d'Huez. Oh dear! I got a Marmottan certificate, so my day wasn't completely wasted! I was also treated to the same beautiful scenery as those who rode the full thing. Also, as I had ridden up Alpe d'Huez earlier on the week I didn't miss out on the 21 hairp-pins either. My legs were mashed-up after my exploits but, as always I had a good week at the Bourg d'Oisans area.

12. Ladri di Biciclette

Not great. In July, somebody stole my road bike as I entered my flat in Milan. It was pretty audacious, as they saw me loading my stuff into the porch, and I saw the lowlife riding away with my bike but couldn't catch him. In fact, I have seen these lowlives since, at a dodgy playground in the neighbourhood. They actually tried to sell me a very nice Cinelli bike single speed bike randomly in the park. It was obvious that it didn't belong to the geyser, for it was too big for him. I told him I wasn't interested as I was "looking for a roadbike to race with". He replied that the Cinelli was suitable for road races like the Tour de France! On another occasion, they asked me if I was selling my folding bike. (I guess it had been a slow day for them at the office.) The local police just parade around the place, not doing anything in particular - just parading around...

13. It's all happening in London

London 2012 Olympics - a great couple of weeks to have been in London. I saw the cycle road races, athletics in the Olympic stadium, beach volleyball at Horseguards Parade, and fencing at the Excel centre, and Boris Johnson doing a very bad Mexican wave. I also saw various events at Hyde Park and Potters Field, near Tower Bridge. It was all amazing. London had a lovely atmosphere and everyone was friendly and good-natured.
Super-Saturday was something completely out of this world, both in terms of the gold medals that Team GB achieved and in terms of the atmosphere from the crowds. I got emotional when watching the Olympics then, and I still get goosebumps when I watch footage now. I thought there might be something wrong with me, but it turns out many other people get the same emotional reaction, I hear! I hope someone has bottled this stuff from August so we can use it in 2013!

14. A fun day out in Southend

I regularly do photo shoots with Higg and other photographers for the ride stories I write for Cycling Active magazine. I really enjoyed the one we did in Southend in July though, because that was with my young nephew. We hired a Zipvan and threw the bikes in, then went up the motorway to Southend. We took photos in various places - the pier, the fairground, the promenade, and then on to the more leafy suburbs and quieter beaches of the Essex coastline.
I think for a teenage boy from Yorkshire it was an exciting day for him, and a different type of activity to do during his school summer holidays. I was glad to have given him a good day out.
Picture by Higg

15. Delightful Dolomites

In August I spent a few days in Canazei. I know the area, having been there on previous occasions for walking. This time I took my bicycle and rode the Sella Ronda circuit. This is definitely one of those rides that a club cyclist can do. It's around 40 miles and there are 4 mountain passes - Pordoi, Campolungo, Gardena and Sella. They are not so difficult, and as it's only 40 miles you have all day to complete it. The best bit is the landscape. The plateau of the Sella range and the Sass Pordoi are amazing!

16. Walk to Bellagio

This walk, from Como to Bellagio is known as the Dorsale del Triangolo Lariano. It is around 16 miles long and takes 12 hours to complete if walking at average pace. It is doable in one day if you are feeling fit and looking for a challenge. But most people do it over two days to get the chance to look around at what's going on. I did the walk over two days and really enjoyed it. As the hiking trail twists and turns you see Lake Como, and other lakes from very different angles. It is also quite surprising just how many mountain peaks there are to climb. Lake Como is around 250m above sea level, and the actual walk starts from Brunate at around 700m. From there you climb steadily, and get up to around 1600m above the lake. So you get beautiful vast views over the region. I did this walk in September and loved it - even if it was on one of the hottest days of the year! I hope to do it again next year, and maybe even on a mountain bike. My lasting impression was from one of the refuges where I was able to see the promontory with Bellagio and both arms of the lake on either side of me. That alone made the walk worthwhile for me.

17. A hard day's bike

What should have been a straightforward, if long ride from Milan to Rapallo, on the Ligurian coast turned out to be a 230km-long epic. I got the profile of the ride completely wrong, and I ended up doing more climbing than anticipated - in fact, more than my body could cope with!
Although I set off at 8am from Milan, I was still riding at 10pm, snaking my way through a lonely road in the woods in pitch black. Things were not easy. I could feel myself getting colder, everything was so quiet, and any small russle or screech made me shriek thinking I'd be attacked by a wild beast! Even though I did have appropriate provisions (lights, food, high vis clothing etc) my imagination was still running wild, and I was getting rather scared in this unknown territory. Just when I thought I'd reached the coast, a local told me I still had 15km left, most of which would be on another tough climb through lonely lanes. In the end, a barman called over his mate, an off-duty taxi driver who gave me a hitch up the last climb at 1am. I was that tired, I didn't care how I got to Rapallo in the end. I was just so relieved to see my hotel. Whoops - not a mistake I should make too often! Anyway, the following day, after a short sleep I was up to enjoy the delights of the area and I must say I was glad to have made that effort to get there.

18. Run Like a Deejay

I have not taken part in many cycle events since being in Milan, but I have done a few running races. One of them was the Deejay 10 (km). It was a 10km race around the centre of Milan on closed roads, taking in the famous landmarks in the area. I got a Nike T-shirt, a kitbag, pasta party and a free massage. I moan about how in Italian amateur sports events you need to show your codice fiscale (like a National Insurance number) and get a medical certificate, but one thing I do like is the fact that the events are good value for money. I only paid about 10 euros to enter but I got a generous goodybag. I wasn't fussed about the time I took though. With around 10,000 runners, and running in the "non-competitive" class (due to no medical certificate) it was hard work getting round the walls of fun runners!

19. No cyclo cross for me!

This is the first year since 2003 that I have not done any cyclo cross racing at all - a bit of a shame. They don't do cyclo cross in Milan, so it's easier for me to do cyclo cross when I'm back in London. I even got my bicycle prepped up so I could race. I had meant to do a few London League events on my trips back, but I ended up visiting other people on the day. I got ill over the big Rapha Supercross/ Rollapalluza Muddy Hell weekend, so that put paid to anything.
So now, I am so unfit to do cross that it is a waste of money entering a race at this stage! I have cut my losses and stuck to bicycle rides with the cross bike, in a hope that by Autumn 2013 I might just be fit enough to give it another bite of the cherry.

20. Words in a new place

This year articles that I have had published appeared in Cycling Weekly and Cycling Active magazines. This year I actually had items go into another print magazine. This time it was Urban Velo. It was not a feature - just something on why I like riding in the city. I was just surprised to see the article in their November issue, as I had sent it in to the magazine 4 months before, and had not had any indication that it would be published. It was quite shocked to see the piece.

It was also a surprise for Higg who took the photo! We're not complaining though!

0.12 of a moment - Usain Bolt strking gold once again at the London 2012 Olympics - his time was just too short to call it one moment, so I have classed it as a fraction of a moment!

So, there you have it. My most memorable moments of the last twelve months (or at least as I remember them!). It's not been a bad year at all. Fingers crossed for a healthy and happy 2013.

Happy New Year!

Tuesday 25 December 2012

Wanna do the Prix des Rousses?

Whenever I ride La Marmotte, I don't go solely to ride this legendary cyclosportive in the French Alps. I go with the attitude to "make the most of all that's to be had while you're there!"

With that in mind, when entries open the December before, I don't simply sign up for this iconic 174km amble through the Rhone-Alpes region. Instead it's a case of subscribing to the Trophee de l'Oisans, a week-long extravaganza of cycle challenges organised by Sport Communication in the area surrounding Le Bourg d'Oisans and Alpe d'Huez.

La Marmotte and La Vaujany - the big cyclosportives that take place during that week in July have been documented by many people - including by me on the 2wheelchick blog.

Today, I would like to give mention to the Prix des Rousses, the mid-week race in the series.

1. The Prix des Rousses is named after Les Grandes Rousses mountain range in the Oisans area of the French Alps that includes a number of high peaks and lakes. There are also a number of glaciers which make it a very attractive venue for skiing and walking all year round.

2. The race takes place at around 9am on the Wednesday before La Marmotte and starts at the foot of Alpe d'Huez.

3. From the foot of Alpe d'Huez the riders follow a 40km route which finishes at the summit of Vaujany ski resort, taking in around 1600m of climbing.

3. You start the race by going up all 21 hairpins of the famous Alpe, and then proceed through the village before turning round and leaving Alpe d'Huez via L'Eclose.  You then start the descent of the 21 hairpins, but at Huez (roughly turn 7)  turn right and drop down to the village of Villard Reculas.

4. This is a lovely section, where you are basically riding part of the Vaujany long course in reverse, zooming all the way down to Allemont.

5. Once at Allemont you begin climbing again and you ride exactly the same route as the last part of the Vaujany cyclosportive except..... that you don't finish in Vaujuany village. You go a further 2km to what is known as Le Col. Many riders are not aware of this slightly extended route to the finish, and are faced with a demoralising 2km climb to the chequered flag! Don't get caught out!

6. As 40km races go, this is quite tough. The fastest rider will do it in a little under 2 hours while the last finisher takes almost 4 hours.

7. It is a mass start, with riders from various clubs and teams from around Europe taking the start line. The times when I rode it I was not particularly warmed up when the gun went, and it was a bit of a shock to the legs having to immediately tackle the steepest section of the Alpe d'Huez climb. In fact, when I did it this year I very quickly found myself at the back of the race as I watched everyone sail away into the distance and the broom wagon was practically up my bum! If this happens to you don't get too disconcerted. Just keep a steady pace, get into a rhythm and your legs gradually find their climbing ability somewhere along the 21 hairpins! You will even begin to catch those who had set off at a blistering pace and begun to run out of steam. That's what I managed to do anyway!

8. Keep in mind that you spend the first hour or so climbing. This is followed by lovely descents, but just remember that you will also spend the last 30-40 minutes climbing. Although the final climb is alot shorter than Alpe d'Huez, it is steeper. The gradient is comparable to the first couple of kilometres of the Alpe d'Huez climb, and stays like that all the way to Vaujany! Save something in the tank for this last section!

7. At the finish you are treated to generous snacks, as well a nice garden in which to sit, and the chance to chat with other riders. The views of the nearby mountains are spectacular, and they make your ride up to this area well worth the effort.

8. If you enter the whole Trophee des Grandes Rousses package of events this race is automatically included. Alternatively, you can just enter the race on the day. Turn up at the car park at the foot of Alpe d'Huez at around 8.15am, pay your 10 euros and set off with the other 500 or so riders.

Even if there are times when it feels like hard work, just enjoy the views. This is one of the most beautiful 40km races you will ever ride!
(The 2016 edition will be on Wednesday 29th June.)

Related posts:

Alpine challenge - La Marmotte

Wanna do La Marmotte?

Alpine challenge - La Vaujany

Wanna do La Vaujany?

Monday 24 December 2012

Shoot Story - Como

The story for this was published some time ago, in the November issue of Cycling Active. Unfortunately, I wasn't able to get the shoot story written while the magazine article was in circulation. Better late than never I guess.

Firstly, here are a few words from Higg the photographer, and how it is for him when he has to get those all important shots which make a story come to life.

"It's not as easy as it looks:

Some shots just present themselves to you, if you climb a mountain first.

But even then, it's good to get the best light and just the right amount of people around.

Even in these points it's possible to grab an extra shot which gives a bit of local flavour.

Other locations have all the ingredients for a good photo but there are way too many people around.


In those cases it takes a bit more thought to get a clean photo that shows off the location.

Sometimes taking photos attracts unwanted attention.

Taking the photos in a busy park at midday has its pitfalls. There's a bit of waiting around to be done....

......and a bit of repositioning..... order to eventually get that clean shot."

For me, this was a good day just to be out on a bike. I had had my own road bike stolen about a week before so I was just happy to have a steed to ride for the weekend. Thanks to Lake Como Cycling, they were able to hire me a pretty descent roadbike at short notice.

Luigi, the guy who met me with the Pinarello was an older guy but I could tell that he was a pretty handy cyclist, despite his advanced age. I had had in mind to include Monte Bisbino, one of the highest local climbs in the area. On chatting to Luigi he said that advised that Brunate or even Madonna del Ghisallo would be nicer places to ride.

I only wanted to focus on routes that were very local to the immediate vicinity of Como, so we decided to leave out Ghisallo, and focus on Brunate and the nearby roads.

The sun doesn't always shine in Como. On the Saturday, we knew we were up against it timewise as heavy rain was forecast to arrive from around 2pm. We managed to get in some great shots around Lake Como, Piazza del Duomo and Piazza Cavour before the rain came down. Unfortunately we weren't able to get shots of the funicular, a quaint cabin building which is the doorway to the magic stairs that winch you 500m above the lake.

In various parts of Como we kept bumping into the local Police who were also on bicycles. They looked very dapper in their blue suits. As they rode past us, they nodded a hello - partly out of curiousity, and partly as they may have wanted to be included in the photo!

The following day we took shots around Brunate, the village that sits way above Como. We could have taken the funicular, but we needed to get shots along the road so leg power it was! My main focus was to try and ride up the hill without working up a sweat for the photos - a task easier said than done when you have to get up a 10km/7% climb on a scorchingly hot Sunday afternoon!

Thankfully we stopped at intervals along the way to get various aerial shots of the town below us. Some of our shots were done right on steep switchbacks. That led to a bit of fun and games when I had to dismount from my bike and remount in order to repeat the pose, all with the local traffic passing by!

Things were compounded even more when one guy stopped his car to chat to us while all the traffic was backed up behind him. He wanted to know where we were going, what we were photographing for, and what we would be doing later! At that point the sound of impatient tooting of horns from motorists was my cue to say goodbye to him.

We reached the summit at Brunate just as the funicular was spewing out lots of visitors onto our path. The tourists were impressed that we had ridden all the way up. At Volta's Lighthouse a couple of kilometres further up the road folks, including the restaurant owners were even more impressed with our exploits - though not impressed enough to give us a free lunch!

Back at Como we capped off our day with a well earned gelato and beer.

Wednesday 19 December 2012

What is the Cost of a Cyclist's Life? £2,700?

Millions of people around the country have hailed Bradley Wiggins's cycling achievements and hundreds of thousands recently voted him as Great Britain's BBC Sports Personality of the Year. However, a few days ago a more sinister public vote on cyclists' lives took place.

At Snaresbrook Crown Court, East London, a jury of 12 men and women voted not guilty in the case of a lorry driver who crushed a cyclist as she rode to work.

On the morning of November 4th 2011 as Mary Bowers was cycling to work along East Smithfield, London, a lorry driven by Petr Beiu turned left across her path while she was pulling away from traffic lights to go straight on.

Beiu was completely unaware of the fact that he had crushed the 28-year-old journalist, and had to be alerted by passers-by of what had happened as Mary lay screaming. When Beiu jumped out of his lorry he had failed to engage the handbrake, and the vehicle rolled forward, crushing Mary even more.

If it hadn't been for the swift actions of the emergency services and the excellent care by staff from the Royal London Hospital, Mary Bowers would not be alive today. Sadly, for Mary and her family and friends she is only just alive today. After being in a coma for many months, Mary is now in a barely conscious state. As well as horrific injuries to her pelvis, legs and lungs, she suffered significant brain injury. Mary will need 24-hour care long into the foreseeable future. This must be agonising for the friends, family and colleagues of the previously bubbly, hard-working, talented, and likeable young lady.

 Petr Beiu admitted to talking on his mobile phone while driving (after initially having lied about this face) at the time of the incident. He also admitted to failing to check his mirrors properly before turning left. But yet the jury chose to find Beiu not guilty of dangerous driving, and instead found him guilty of the lesser charge of careless driving. This led to the subsequent sentence of a £2,700 fine and an 8-month driving ban. 

Is that really how much a cyclist's life is worth?
Is this is all the recognition that is given for the anguish and the loss of life as Mary Bowers previously knew it? Her father deemed the £2,700 fine as insulting, as is mentioned in this newspaper article.
You can find out more about how Mary is getting on this blog which was set up by her sister and friends.

In another case, a jury voted to acquit a motorist who caused the death of a cyclist as he rode over to the new home that he was moving into with his girlfriend. On 6th August 2011 Sam Harding, was riding his bicycle along Holloway Road, London when a motorist in a parked car opened his door suddenly and hit the 25 year-old cyclist. Harding was thrown to the ground, directly  into the path of a double-decker bus behind him. He was crushed under the wheels of the bus and died at the scene as a result of extensive injuries to his pelvis and arms.

Even though the driver of the car, Kenan Aydogdu had tinted his windows with black film, making his windows less than 17% transparent, and therefore very difficult to see traffic properly, a jury still voted to acquit him of manslaughter. The driver walked away from court scot free after killing someone and causing devastation to the lives of the young man's girlfriend, family, and friends. Is this really all that Sam Harding's life is worth?
These verdicts make me very angry and disgusted.

The worrying thing about these verdicts is that they were delivered by ordinary folks - people that you see going about their business in an ordinary way. They would be people like you or me. They could be secretaries, shop keepers, civil servants, healthcare workers, housewives, artists or professionals. Some may have children, some may have brothers, sisters, boyfriends, wives, some may live in a house or flat like you or I. They may go to a pub on a Friday night, and have a joke and a banter among friends. Some might like X-factor, Eastenders, or Panorama. Some may cry when watching a moving TV programme or film. Some may belong to sports clubs. I'm guessing none of them cycle.

They could have voted on a verdict to reflect the severity of these culprits' actions. But they chose not to. This sends out a very worrying message about people's attitude towards the conduct of motorists towards cyclists on the road.

Up and down the country, these so-called SMIDSY (sorry mate I  didn't see you) incidents between motorists and cyclists take place and the general population doesn't seem to care or place much importance on the seriousness of causing injury and even death to cyclists. (Even Bradley Wiggins himself was recently knocked off his bike while out on a train ride.)

Something needs to be done. British Cycling, Cyclists' Touring Club (CTC) and London Cycling Campaign are campaigning for changes to the laws, so that motorists face tougher sentences if they kill or injure cyclists on the road.

Following Mary Bowers's accident, her colleagues at The Times launched the Cities fit for Cycling Campaign, which campaigns for safety improvements to be made for cyclists up and down the country. There is also an All Party Parliamentary Cycling Group, which has opened an inquiry into barriers to cycling, including issues over road safety and highway design.

I hope that all these actions lead to changes in road design which improve cycle safety. However, it seems that there is a very fundamental need to change people's general attitudes when they see cyclists riding along public roads, and understand the value of all road users' lives.
In the mean time I can only say my thoughts are with the friends and families of Mary  Bowers and Sam Harding, plus all other cyclists that are involved in road traffic accidents.

While I have written about cases in London, many people will probably identify with similar issues in their own towns and cities in the UK and beyond. I spend alot of time in Milan, and in Italy cycle safety is also very much on the agenda. This year, an initiative was started to bring the issue of cycle safety to the forefront. You can find out more about what they are doing in Italy on the Salva i Ciclisti website.

Above: Sam Harding Ghostbike on Holloway Road. Photo by Nicsarebi

Tuesday 11 December 2012

Our Lady of Cyclists - Madonna del Ghisallo

View Como-Ghisallo loop in a larger map

One must-do loop while in Milan is the one where you go and pay tribute to the patron saint of cycling in Italy.
In this day and age of road rage, restricted budgets for cycle safety or staging cycle races, it's good to appreciate the positive things in place for cyclists.

Situated near Como, at the top of a village called Magreglio is the Madonna del Ghisallo - a chapel dedicated to cycling, and a museum. Thousands of keen cyclists come to this place at weekends to either visit the museum or to light a candle and say a prayer.

I have found a very pleasant loop from Como to the Ghisallo and back. It's very scenic, especially on the road up from Como to Bellagio. Also, if you get the chance to hang out in Bellagio do so. The town is a marvel.

It's quite upmarket, even compared to Como so try and ride your best looking bike and your most stylish cycling clothes. (This advice is aimed at all nationalities of bike rider apart from the naturally stylish Italians, for which this tip is completely unnecessary!)

Riding along to Bellagio is easy enough and is a joy, especially as it is the least busy of all the lakeside roads. 
The road twists around the rocky facades and the lake meanders in different directions, revealing more surprises. There are a couple of tunnels along the way, but they are well lit.

The Madonna del Ghisallo climb is a well-known feature of the Giro di Lombardia professional cycle race - one point where the decisive moves can be made. As with other climbs in iconic cycle races, lots of club riders like to have a go at riding up this climb "at their leisure".

 It is not a long ascent - around 8km, though the first 4km are the toughest. Some sections of the hairpins are above 15%, and the road twists and turns as you tackle one relentlessly steep hairpin after another.

After around 3km there is a wide lay-by with a viewpoint. It makes for a very convenient spot to stop and admire the view of Bellagio and Lake Como down below. It's also a good excuse for a rest! As you look behind you feel quite impressed with yourself at how far up you have climbed.

Once you reach this point the worst of the climbing is over, as the gradient becomes a little shallower and there is even a mile or so of descending.

After the village of Civenna the road begins to climb again for about a mile and as you reach Magreglio you begin to see cyclists milling around. You then know you've reached the summit. This place definitely merits a stopover.

The chapel is like a mini museum, with various exhibits - bicycles from past and present professional cyclists, plus other memorabilia including cycle jerseys. The bicycle that Fabio Casartelli rode at the time of his fatal crash in the 1995 Tour de France is even on display. Also Cadel Evans donated his World Champion's Jersey and his 2011 Tour de France yellow jersey to the chapel too.
Inside, lots of people light candles and make a charity donations. And for a bit of divine inspiration there is also a little prayer for the welfare of cyclists (in Italian) that you can say before hitting the road.

If you haven't seen enough cycling exhibits there is an actual museum within the grounds, just 20m down from the chapel. For those who aren't bothered about cycling memorabilia there are stalls selling sweets, and some great areas for more photo snaps of Lake Como and the surrounding area.

The first time I rode up this climb I found myself among a group of cyclists who were taking part in a cyclosportive - the Gran Fondo Fabio Casartelli. I ended up playing cat and mouse with a few of the competitors.

It made me feel good that I managed to do the climb quicker than some of the guys around me - I didn't even need to stop, unlike a few of them. The thing is, I was climbing this at the same time as the stragglers in the race, and I don't think any of them were under 55 years old! Also they had probably already ridden around 100km prior to reaching this point where I only had about 20km in my legs! I got a clap and a few cheers of "complimenti" from the spectators, which made me feel even more of a fraud!

Completing the loop back to Como is not difficult. The Ghisallo climb is the hardest part, so afterwards it's a case of sitting back and relaxing while you enjoy lots of descending. The best part is the section down to Canzo. You then head towards Ponte Lambro and Erba where you have a bit of false flat and a mini climb. After that it is a flat ride through various small villages (Albavilla, Albese, Tavernerio, Solzago) after which you enjoy a final whooshing descent into the centre of Como.

When I finish this 70km-loop I always arrive back into the town feeling all exhilarated at having done a very pleasant ride and appreciated one of the most beautiful views around.

More details of the route are here.

For those wanting to try something slightly more challenging, instead of descending all the way down to Asso/Canzo from Ghisallo, take a sharp right hand turn to Sormano. This road climbs gradually up many switchbacks to reach the village,  where you have the option to attempt the infamous Muro di Sormano (2km at an average of 15% gradient).

After Sormano the route goes through a high glacial valley known as the Pian del Tivano - big tourist spot for walking, cross-country skiing, caving, or popping into an agroturismo. The road then descends dramatically to Nesso where you rejoin the original outbound lakeside road back to Como.

This is definitely a route to go for if you are in the Como/Milan area. There is even a local company that hires out nice road bikes if you don't have your own. So there's no excuse not to ride it!

Thursday 6 December 2012

Is the grass greener in Milan?

I always thought being in Italy would be great for cycling.

On a number of occasions I’d been on cycle tours or taken part in cyclosportive events wishing I could have stayed longer – even done a full racing/cyclopsortive season in Italy.
So coming over to Milan on a one-year work assignment filled me with excitement at the prospect of being able to join a team, wear snazzy kit and even get fitter.
My racing bike was one of the first things I put on my packing list.

Where are the cycling Tifosi?
On my first weekend in Milan, the Milan-San Remo cycle race took place. Living a short distance from the Piazza Castello I went to watch the rider presentation and the start of the race.
I felt quite lucky to witness the fanfare, even if the vast majority of the spectators were Italian blokes of a certain age.
Yes, that’s one thing noted. Following professional cycle racing in Italy is still a minority activity just as it has been in the UK - and it is heavily male dominated.

When I told my colleagues I’d be going to watch this race many of them didn’t know what it was about – and they were even born and bred Milaneses! The main sport around here is “calcio”, and maybe Formula 1. Not many people do cycling as a sport it seems.

Ditto for the Giro. If you think that Italy’s biggest professional cycle race will be the talk of the town, you are mistaken. More people talk about fencing!

Can’t join a club, won’t join a club
So, after a few forays riding along introductory routes around the Navigli between Pavia and Bergamo I though the time had come to look for a cycling club to join some club runs. A lot of the “clubs” on the website are more like racing teams. That means I would not be able to join up if I wasn’t near the top of my game.

There is one team in Milan that boasts of having a significant women’s section. Apart from that club, none of the other teams in the Milan area seemed to have women.
I was a little mystified by this. I’d met cycle racing women from Milan in the past on cycling holidays to Italy. Where were they hiding now? As it happens, many of these “Milan based teams” are based in the outer suburbs - a fair distance from where I lived, in the centre.

To join any cycling club/team in Italy you need to have a codice fiscale – something you need in order to do most things in Italy. Luckily my employers had organised that for me. You need a medical certificate that specifically mentions that you are healthy enough to take part in competitive cycle races. You get this from a sports doctor who charges around 70 euros a shot. This has to be done annually. You can then pay your membership fee, which includes a racing licence. So for around 140euros you can join a cycling club, and then pay the extra 50 euros to ride in club kit. This amount of outlay and procedure doesn’t really allow for people to just “turn up and have a go.” You need to do all of this before you can join the group rides. And you have to do it in December/January as your licence and membership runs specifically from January to December only.
So, when I decided to join a club in July, I realised I was a bit late. I didn't fancy paying over 140 euros to join a club for less than 6 months!
And what about group rides?

Group rides are not openly advertised. To turn up on a group ride you need to be “in the know”, and also feel confident enough that you can keep up with whatever pace is thrown at you. This didn’t fill me with confidence.  In fact, I was quite self conscious at the prospect of turning up, being the only female and being summarily dropped once the paced picked up to anything near male club-cyclist speed.
In fact, when I asked about group rides at my local bike shop the shopkeeper said that the pace was very fast and the few women who did turn up were very fit. If he was trying to deter me from joining the group he definitely succeeded!

The Grass only looks greener!

So, with all the fiddlinesss of trying to adapt to the new conditions described above, it’s not surprising that this year I have ended up not doing much club cycling at all. I am am probably now at my most unfittest as a cyclist. And don’t even mention cyclo cross or track cycling. They don’t do that in Milan.
I now realise that in London life was certainly easier when it came to getting involved in club cycling. Not only do many clubs and organisations offer group rides for new riders and women, but costs to join cycling clubs are accessible – around £25. You then purchase optional membership to British Cycling or a similar organisation for £25. If you do decide to race you can purchase an optional 12-month racing licence which runs for 12 months from the time of purchase, and without the need to undergo a medical examination. You also do get 12 months worth of racing because there are moutain biking and cyclo cross events that take place through the winter months. If you don't buy a year-long licence you can just purchase a day licence as you do each race.

Hmm, club cycling in Milan has not been so straightforward - contrary to how it appeared when I used to come over here as tourist.

As we approach the start of a new calendar year I have started taking steps to join a cycling team. I have seen one that looks quite dynamic and interesting, with lots of female riders. I hope I do get to enjoy cycling racing as much I did in London.

Sunday 2 December 2012

Mo' facebook friends Mo' problems!

Social networking and maintaining a profile for yourself can be a mental conundrum sometimes!

A recently published study from the University of Edinburgh Business School claims that the more friends a person has on facebook the more stressful it becomes maintaining your presence on the social networking site.

Previously, people were friends with their contemporaries at college, or other local students. Nowadays with the 1 billion facebook users worldwide, people are more likely to have different networks of friends in different places, all having access to your status updates. As well as college friends, people befriend work colleagues including their boss, friends from the sportsclub, members of their family including parents, friends of friends, even ex partners.

All this can result in a potential landmine when you write status updates or post photos. There is always the fear of offending someone if you use bad language or say something that is politically incorrect. You worry about photos showing you having too much of a good time in a bar on a Saturday night. Over half of potential employers in another study admitted to rejecting prospective job candidates after having checked out their facebook profiles.

It's true, I sometimes find the whole facebook thing a headache!

As a club cyclist, it is quite useful to find out what is going on in the cycling community by looking on facebook, especially as many of my facebook friends are cyclists.

It is quite common for them to put in their status updates how much cycle training they've done, where they went etc. It's all very interesting, but sometimes it becomes a competition. One person posts that they rode 50 miles through the Kent hills, and will include their Strava statistics. Someone else posts that they did 70 miles through the Surrey Hills, someone else will say they rode up the steepest hill in Yorkshire 10 times, another hardy soul spent 4 hours on the turbo trainer, then another gladidatorial pretendent outdoes everyone by saying they rode all the mountain passes of the Alps!

I sense another round of competitive bravado approaching as people talk about how long they spent out riding in sub-zero temperatures, and how they soldiered on despite losing all sensation in half of their limbs, and their saliva freezing to their membranes!

The other source of peer pressure is regarding where to go cycling. It's not enough to ride your bike around your local area. You have to go away somewhere with it. So folks will post pics of riding up or down switchbacks in scenic places like Mallorca, the Alps or mountainbiking in Colorado. You have to be seen in some exotic, sunkissed place in your most sylish kit, sporting bronzed, rippling calf muscles, and preferably alongside a high profile cycle racer. It all goes towards looking like you are "Someone" who is doing "Things".

And it's not just about where you go, and what you do, it's also about what you ride. Lots of folks now post photos of their brand spanking new steeds, complete with go faster stripes, superfast wheels and all the other gadgets that give marginal gains. If you can't psyche out the competition with your athletic prowess do it by showing off your tools!

Mind you, I must say that is one competition I can't and won't engage in. For me it's just a sure way to attract bike thieves - potentially another source of stress!

So yes, all this keeping up with the Jones can be a source of anxiety when on facebook. I no longer feel that I can just post an ordinary photo of me riding my bog standard bike in the lanes near where I live. And there's no point in mentioning my bike ride unless it involved riding 100 miles and it took in at least a few quad-busting hills! I won't even mention taking part in any cycle race unless I have the silverware to show off. (So no one will know anything about my cycle racing exploits on facebook!)

Oh, and another thing is the parents/employers. You can't mention anything about crashing or falling off your bike as you will have them all worried. I once made the mistake of mentioning that I fell off my bike on my way to work on facebook, and a colleague who had seen the post spread the word straight away. By the time I arrived at work I had all the staff ringing asking if I was alright, and my worried boss suggesting I stick to public transportation! Thankfully my mum hasn't yet caught on to social networking. I guess I need to think carefully about who I befriend on facebook!

.............the way of doing this without Facebook preying on our minds! I think I'll just stick to blogger!