Wednesday 25 May 2016

Rail trails galore!

I recently wrote a 6-week series on rail trials around the UK for Total Women's Cycling website. The great thing I learned was just how many traffic-free trails we can enjoy by bike (or on horseback or walking).

We have Dr Beeching to thank for that. Following the closure of around 5,000 miles of railway lines in the late 1960s various authorities converted these disused railway lines into off-road, traffic-free cycle routes for our enjoyment. With around 1,200 miles of rail trails around the country that's a lot of traffic-free fun!

The trails are variable in length, surface, quality and difficulty. For instance the Alban Way between St Albans and Welwyn, in Hertfordshire is fully tarmacked, 7 miles long, and is designed so that children can ride from home to school safely. By contrast, the Downs Link, which starts near Guildford, Surrey, and runs down to the Sussex coast is around 40 miles long and is essentially a mountain bike route (though doable with a cyclo cross bike), so that one is more for the fitter, experienced cyclist.

The selection of trails I wrote about are on the women's cycling website and they include the Tissington trail in the Peak District, Forest Way in Sussex,  and the dramatic Cinder Track that goes between Scarborough and Whitby on the North Yorkshire coast.

One that isn't on there which I would recommend is the Hudson Way rail trail - a 10-mile trail between Beverley and Market Weighton in East Yorkshire.

I like this trail because it runs from one pretty market town in Yorkshire to another one. It is interesting to see the gradual change of landscape. When starting in Beverley you are on pan flat terrain in the outer reaches of the Humber Estuary, surrounded by arable fields. The area is pretty flat and it is possible to see far across the East Yorkshire plains. In fact, to the right you get a good view of the Sledmere grounds, with the Tatton Sykes obelisk rising up in the distance. By the end of the route the landscape has morphed into rolling hills of the Yorkshire Wolds.

There's pleasant woodland along the way, as well as a convenient stopping point at Kiplingcotes disused station, which still has a station house (now residential property), platform, and benches for a well earned picnic stop.

On the outskirts of Market Weighton is St Helen's Well, an ancient well that dates back to Roman times. I didn't have time to visit it, but it is an object of interest for the history buffs among you, particularly as it has been recently restored.

What was quite interesting to me were all the various colourful ribbons hanging from the branches of the tree near it. Leaving a piece of ribbon on the tree apparently brings you good health and good luck. I didn't have any ribbon on me, so I guess that's me doomed!

Still, it was a good afternoon. I was out on the Raleigh Mustang Sport gravel bike which I have been loaned for testing and I must say, it was a very comfortable ride. It certainly liked playing on the dirt track, and there were a few bits of single track where my skills were put to the test.

This felt the right bike for the job as it was robust and held it's place when trying to stay in the groove of the narrow track. Once in market Weighton I could have done another rail trail to go towards Bubwith and Howden, but time ran out on me so I just took the road route down to Brough and then got on a train to Hull. Again, being on the Mustang Sport was handy because although I had spent my afternoon on trails, which it does well on, it was still just about light enough to ride it quickly - which is what I needed as I was in a rush!

I will be back in the area to explore more trails in the near future, and will take some ribbon with me for the tree at St Helen's Well!

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Thursday 19 May 2016

Joining the global commute on two wheels

Last Tuesday week I joined the tens of thousands of in 180 countries around the world for the Strava Global Bike to Work Day. I don't normally join these different challenges, but I fancied this one because it was really something that sits firmly within an activity I do a lot, and enjoy doing.

Disappointingly, in typical British style the sun shone on the Monday when I rode in, and it shone on Wednesday too. But on the Tuesday, the day of Global Bike to Work day it was tipping it down!

As it's a 10-mile ride from my house to the office in Clerkenwell I normally give myself a rule that I won't ride in if it's raining, given the distance (although I still ride in if the evening forecast is for rain).

So, really I would have abandoned my bike for the day. However, because it was Global Bike to Work Day and I had even gone to the trouble of signing up for it, I made a special effort to do my bit.

I took the Overground to Shoreditch High Street and then picked up a Santander Cycle (formerly a Boris Bike) for the 3km bike ride through Shoreditch to my office in Clerkenwell. It's handy that there was a docking station right outside my building, and even handier that I had no difficulty picking up a bike or finding space to drop off my bike at the end of my journey!

Because I knew it was going to be a wet ride I was well kitted out - in waterproof trousers, and also a new top from Wiggle - a dhb Aeron rain defence short-sleeved jersey. This was a great little number as the weather was quite mild so I didn't really need a heavy jacket with long sleeves. But the waterproof properties of the top kept me nice and dry.

In fact, I didn't find the rainy weather that bad at all, and ended up making a couple more journeys to enjoy London in all its glory through the dampness! Lunchtime saw me ride along the Regents Canal through Islington, and then in the evening I rode down through the City of London to get to London Bridge.

At the end of the day, my mileage was only 10km - a third of what I would do when cycling to work, but I was glad to have been part of this global phenomenon and to have registered my rides among the almost 80,000 cycle commutes and 1,350,000km made on 10th May. Better still, the UK was the country that garnered the highest level of participation, ahead of USA and Brazil. Look forward to doing another of these days - hopefully with a full commute to work in lovely sunshine.

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Tuesday 17 May 2016

Can-do Girls! - Women's World Hour Record Breakers

Bridie O'Donnell - record breaker!
In the current issue of Cycling Weekly is my feature on the women's World Hour Record. I'm not mentioning this purely as a shameless plug, but I guess there's no harm in spreading the word!

The main reason why I give a call-out to this piece I wrote is because I was genuinely really impressed at the efforts that the different women made in their preparation for the event.

Of course, in history many women have attempted this feat, some of them, including current record holder, Evelyn Stevens had the backing of their professional team.

However, I wanted to give particular mention to the two women who broke the hour record in this recently - Molly Shaffer Van Houweling and Bridie O'Donnell.

Molly, a Dean and Senior law lecturer at the University of California, Berkeley broke the record in September of last year, and the record stayed until it was broken by Bridie O'Donnell, a doctor from Melbourne, in January during the Tour Down Under.

Although they are both very strong athletes at masters level in their respective countries, they are amateur athletes who had to juggle full time jobs, training for their regular local competitions, go round knocking on doors to obtain funding for the challenge, as well as live a home-life with their families.

Molly Van Houweling and husband Rob, set up a Kickstarter crowd-funding scheme to raise funds to carry out the project, which involved several trips to their temporary mountain base to acclimatise, and a few trips to the velodrome in Aguascalientes to do dry runs and attempt the pan-American record along the way. Even with financial help from friends and family they still had to use a large chunk of their own funds.

As for Bridie O'Donnell, she didn't do crowd funding but went round knocking on doors of local businesses and her bank to help with the cost to register with the biological passport scheme. As well as that, she spent valuable training time chasing up equipment suppliers around the world for the various components she needed - something that you would never imagine Bradley Wiggins doing in the run-up to his preparation to break the record last year. As for going up to a mountain base? Travelling from Australia up to a mountain base in the US or in Mexico was completely out of the question. So her attempt was done at sea level in a more local setting of Adelaide where she let the crowd, enthused already by the Tour Down Under, be her performance enhancer! She had to hope for the best as there had been no dry run, and her own coach had initially thought the odds were stacked against her.

Molly Van Houweling with Rob

There is always so much pressure on any athlete when they are attempting such a feat - particularly with the eyes of the world on them. But knowing that you got there by the good grace of friends and family and many other generous people who have given their free time to help you along the way, that must give an extra sense of motivation, but an even greater onus not to fail.

So I admire the fact that these two women were able to break the World Hour Record and get their name into the history books.

It just goes to show, it can be done even if you are not Bradley Wiggins or Jens Voigt!

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Monday 16 May 2016

Bike Review: Boardman Team Carbon women's bike - great for a sportive

For my ride at the Etape Loch Ness I rode a Boardman Team Carbon Fi bike, kindly provided by Halfords.

I had ridden older versions of this bike in previous years, and was happy with the geometry so I knew what to expect. There is the eternal debate as to whether a women's specific bike is necessary for women, but for me it’s a no-brainer.

My legs are long in proportion to the trunk of my body, and bike geometry that caters to that gets my vote every time!

Having been apprehensive about my ability to get through the cyclosportive in a reasonable time, I believed that riding a light enough bike as well as low gears would be of significant help.

As this would definitely be a case of riding a bike that would get me out of trouble a carbon fibre frame was the right option for me - a lightweight bike for a lightweight!

The price of this bike is surprisingly low at under £1,000, and that may partly be explained by the use of lower-end Shimano Tiagra groupset. Overall,  the bike rode well, but sometimes I found the gear changing clunky compared with the old Shimano Ultegra that I have on my usual bike,  and I worried I might break or jam something. But everything worked okay and all my fussing had been for nothing!

Handling was good and the Team Carbon still had the sturdiness to hold the road even when it went over rough areas - of which there were a number of such sections, particularly in the first part of the route.
Wheels are the standard for a Tiagra gearset, and tyres are Vittoria Zaffiro Pro. With 10-speed compact chainrings and a weight of 8.8kg I had what was needed to get through the 66-mile cyclosportive comfortably.

The saddle is a Boardman women's-specific, though I would say, for a long ride it's best to get a saddle that suits you very well. A stock saddle was okay, but my derriere would probably have been happier seated on something it is more familiar with for a 4-hour+ ride! Saddles are a very specific piece of kit and while this saddle was okay for me, it felt different from my own usual women's specific saddle and it may suit some people more than others.

I have ridden the Team Carbon on training rides and then last weekend it was the horse I used when visiting a friend in Wokingham, Surrey. In fact the route I took as far as Guildford (from where I then caught a train) was the same route as Day 1 of the London Revolution cyclosportive. It was a gloriously sunny day so I was glad to be once again riding in favourable conditions.

I wasn't part of the cyclosportive, particularly as by the time I was setting off most of the participants had already passed by. However, I did see a lot of the support staff of the event that were looking after the backmarkers and slower riders. This route took me through the Kent and Surrey lanes which a lot of the local cycling clubs ride on any given weekend - Layhams Lane, Edenbridge, Lingfield, Horley, Ockley and then into the Surrey Hills via Ewhurst. If I wasn't visiting my friend that day I would have just signed up for the event as it would have been nice to do the whole thing with support from what appeared to be friendly staff and feed stations that were more like mini event villages with lots of facilities.

This route was a nice training ride for me as I was tested both going uphill - the long drag up Layhams Lane, and the very steep Pitch Hill in the Surrey Hills plus Guildford Lane (St Martha's Hill) which was not part of the event, but I took it to get to Guildford. I was thankful that the bike didn't weigh much at these points and the gears were low enough to get me over the short 20% stretches.  There were also the twisty descents of Titsey Hill, Okewood Hill and Pitch Hill to negotiate where you needed to have your wits about you. I had a lot of confidence in the Team Carbon and once again, it held the road very well on these sections.  

Overall, the Team Carbon is a good little bike for cyclosportives, which is what I have used it for in the past. I am sure it would be fine to race with as well as it has the lightness  and quickness for you to be able to react quickly in the changing dynamic of the bunch during a race (though I haven't tested it in that setting). The Team Carbon is good value for money and a great buy as a first "serious" road bike. Check out the full specifications.

Friday 13 May 2016

First test at Etape Loch Ness

Why did I sign up for this challenge?

So I signed up to ride Etape Loch Ness, a 66-mile cyclosportive around the famous lake in the Scottish Highlands. Such a pursuit shouldn't have been a big deal for me a few years ago, but in my current state of fitness it was going to be a little challenging for me.

It didn't seem that long ago that I was making my first tentative steps back into cycling after my operation. I already talked about what it was like to do that first mega long bike ride to Richmond Park!

I had been gradually increasing the mileage and got up to riding 30-40 miles for the rail trail rides that I was testing out for my articles on the Total Women's Cycling website.

But then the bar was pushed that bit higher when I received an invitation to ride the Etape Loch Ness. I have not done loads of cycling in Scotland even though it is an area where I would like to ride more. I had heard of two popular cycling events up there - Bealach Na Ba cyclosportive, and Etape Caledonian - both of which are very popular. In terms of independent cycling there my main issue had been knowing where to ride, as looking at a map there don't appear to be many quiet roads, and when to ride - it's too cold and rainy in winter, and completely plagued with midges in summer!
Photo by Tim Winterburn

In any case, a trip up there was the last thing on my mind as I had yet to conquer cycling around South London!

So, it was quite a surprise when Eoin (pronounced Ian) from Tricker PR contacted me about participating in the event. To me it was a no-brainer. Of course! I would grab the opportunity to ride in Scotland now, and sort out my ability later! Previous events I had done in Scotland - Rachel Atherton Red Bull Fox hunt, and a triathlon at Gullane Beach - were very pleasant experiences and I have good memories of those times when I was north of border.

However, this trip would be a bit of departure, not least because I would be going into the wilds of the Highlands rather than places close to the Edinburgh metropole.

So here I was on a flight to start a 66-mile cycling event around Loch Ness, which included a big climb up a military road. This would be my first cyclosportive in four years!
As well as being slightly apprehensive about the distance, I was also worried about being overtaken by the broom wagon! I understood the maximum time to complete it would be around 5 hours 40 minutes. I had put 5 hours 30 as my estimated time - not much wiggle room!

Just getting out and getting on

Once at the event village in Inverness, I felt happy to be among cyclists and I immediately settled into the mental frame of mind I adopt prior to a cycle event. I began to feel a can-do attitude, and I was swept along into the groove of being able to ride. I didn't really know if I would be able to get round. I may have just developed a false sense of security! I once failed to complete La Marmotte cyclosportive in France when I missed the cut-off for riding up Alpe d'Huez., and this happened despite me feeling all right during the ride, and having successfully completed this gruelling cyclosportive on two previous occasions!

Sometimes the wheels do fall off....

So after a pleasant meal with a couple of journos, both of whom looked set to complete the ride ahead of me, I went to bed thinking whatever will be.

The following morning, appropriately kitted out with extra layers to deal with the Highland weather, a decent Boardman bike, kindly supplied by Halfords, lots of encouragement from the local folks, all I needed to do was to get to the startline by 6.15am and find a good wheel to tow me round - preferably by a rider who could make a big hole in the air in front of me! By 6.45am we were whizzing through the outskirts of Inverness and soon we were spinning along past the lake.

It was great setting off in a wave of 200+ riders. In a group this large you just get pulled along by the slipstream of the group. Being on closed roads was wonderful as well. It felt relaxing, riding along in the early morning sunshine. I felt like I was in a professional cycle race - albeit with 3,199 other participants.

At the first feed station I felt fine, possibly a little overdressed even, particularly as the main challenge of the day came shortly afterwards - a 5-mile climb up to Glen Doe via General Wade's Military Road. This climb was pretty tough and had a lot of people walking, particularly on a few short sections where the gradient went above 16%.
Photo by Tim Winterburn

If you hadn't studied the roadbook beforehand you would have found it a demoralising ride as there were a few sections where the road levelled off or went downhill and then you would round a bend and suddenly the road would kick upwards again with an even tougher gradient than before!

The sight of a lone piper and lots of folks cheering and clapping at the summit showed that our slog was over and I could smile at the fact that I had overcome this hurdle. Heaving a massive sigh of relief, my focus then turned to making up as much time as possible on the descent so as not to risk falling behind schedule.

Tired legs, strong spirit

We managed to form a good working group, working together in a chain gang on the flat. Actually, when I say flat read that as constantly gently undulating! The route was never really flat, even when we were next to the lake, and I began to flag from all the ups and downs.

Thankfully the feed station 12 miles from the end was just what I needed, with some lovely doughnuts and bananas on offer, which was good news.

The bad news was I had lost my group which had decided to skip the feedstation - it was all so tempting to stay at this lovely location for the rest of the day, but hey, I had a challenge to complete! When I got going I realised my legs were heavy and tired. So it was just a case of twiddling home at a modest pace on my own and just willing myself along through the suburbs of Inverness, hoping that there would be no more hill that might make my legs conk out completely! Thankfully the run in to the finish line was generally downhill and I was able to feign a focused racing look (as opposed to a clapped-out folorn look) in front of the numerous spectators.

At the finish line I had the biggest smile on my face as I found that I had taken 4.5 hours - an hour quicker than scheduled and no broom wagon was in sight, plus a realistic chance of comfortably making my flight back to London!

I would definitely recommend the Etape Loch Ness. You don't need to be superfast to do it (though there were people around who were!) - just ride at 12 miles an hour (which is doable in a large group), and the landscape is the most amazing you could wish for. It was well organised, and I'd say the Highland folk are wonderfully friendly.

Thanks to Tricker PR and Caledonian Concepts for organising my trip, and to Halfords for providing me with a Boardman Team Carbon Fi bike.

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