Friday 26 August 2016

5 Favourites - Off-road biking trails

In this lovely weather why not get your bike out and have a quick spin on some off-road trails. They are mainly on disused railway lines and are easily rideable as they aren't too technical. Some are longer than others and are family friendly, with picnic areas and refreshment stops along the way.

Here are my top 5 (in no particular order) for the weekend:

Set in the Peak District: The oldest, and one of the most popular trails in England

One of the most spectacular off-road trails. You are never far from the coast as you journey between these two North Yorkshire seaside towns. Don't miss the beautiful views from Robin Hood's Bay.

A scenic ride through Cheshire. There are lots of little villages to stop at along the route, with the beautiful Lyme Park nearby.

A slightly longer ride, but very rewarding as you end up at the seaside on the Sussex coast. It might be a little long for a family ride with children, but it is perfectly possible to ride sections of it and there are various places to get refreshments along the way. If you have energy at the end of the Downs Link you can ride an easy 10 miles along a tarmacked coastal cycle path to reach Brighton. I did this ride earlier in the year, though rather than taking the coastal path I decided to challenge myself by going across the South Downs! 

Very pretty ride going along the side of the Torside reservoir at the north-west end of the Peak District. I rode along it while doing the Transpennine Trail.

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Notes from the Transpennine Trail - Stockport to Barnsley

Scenic Stockport!

Today's ride was distinctly more scenic day than Saturday's route. In fact in my opinion this is the most scenic part of the Transpennine trail as it involves crossing the Peak District with its beautiful moorland. The only snag is that when crossing a national park it is impossible to escape climbing up lots of hills!
Stockport viaduct peeping through the trees
 My ride started from Stockport train station, from where the Transpennine trail was signposted on immediately exiting the station.
Within a short ride of Stockport town centre I was in peaceful parkland with woods and a lake, giving intermittent views of the impressive Grade II listed viaduct - the most noteworthy thing in Stockport. The route was was pleasantly shaded, which was needed on this a hot day. 

At the other end of this woodland the path led me into the affluent areas of Godley and Broadbottom Village. They looked such cute neighbourhoods with just a few houses and pretty window boxes congregated around a mini hamlet green. Given the location, on the edge of the Cheshire hills the residents would have also had a permanent picture postcard to look at from their window. 

As I had paid handsomely for my train ticket to get there, and I had ridden cross-country most of the previous day, for a moment I wondered if I should pack up London life and come and live in Broadbottom Common permanently. Why not just stay and enjoy the idyllic life up here without having to schlep up and down on my bike!

Then reality hit me when I saw a few cars get caught in a mini traffic jam on the lane leading up to their homes, and I rode through a swarm of smelly flies. Maybe I prefer to just visit these places with their pretty cottages and decorative motifs, then admire them a little before heading homeward bound to London.

Motif near Broadbottom
In contrast to the previous day's ride, this day was definitely lumpy. There was a fair bit of climbing involved, and sometimes I had to wheel my bike. It was impossible for me to lift the bike or wheel it up steep inclines and at those moments I was obliged to remove one pannier and carry it in my hand while wheeling the bike, which was still not easy. 

The gravel bike is a robust machine, that is significantly heavier than my cross bike - even more so, with the panniers attached. Added to that all the hills I had to surmount meant this ride gave me a full body work-out! Having said that, being on the gravel bike I felt confident that it could cope well with the different types of terrain, and it moved quicker than if I had been on a mountain bike - particularly on the road sections. 

Torside and Woodhead terrible twins!

Broadbottom represented the end of one district - Tameside. I was now in Derbyshire where the landscape definitely took on a rural theme rather than a Manchester conurbation feel. Passing through the villages which were a magnet for country pub traffic, it was tempting to stop and join the masses on this sunny Sunday afternoon. But I was conscious of the time and didn't want to finish my ride too late in the day. So I pressed on with following the signs for Longendale and Torside.

Torside reservoir
This area was vaguely familiar to me as I was near the villages of Padfield and Hadfield which I recall going to a couple of years ago when the Tour de France came to Yorkshire. For Stage 2 of the 2014 Tour we parked in Padfield, cycled down to Torside Reservoir, and then climbed up Holme Moss to see the professional cyclists struggle over what must have been one of the hilliest debuts to a Tour de France edition.

As Torside had been part of the stage into Sheffield I had lured myself into a false sense of security that once I got to the reservoir I wouldn't be far from Sheffield, and then it would just be a hope, skip and a jump (or as near as is doable on a bike) to  Doncaster, my planned destination for the day.

Arriving at the start of the reservoir I was greeted with a beautiful sight of the Peak District hills surrounding clear blue water laced with yachts. The path went slightly awry at this point and I had to take a detour as work was being done on the paths. A local mountain biker offered to ride with me in order to show me the revised route. But I felt I would be so embarrassingly slow that I declined his offer.

Fortunately, I was able to follow his detailed description of the directions, but unfortunately this was the most challenging part of the day up to that point. It involved riding (mixed in with some walking) up an incredibly steep trail over stones. Even pushing my gear up the hill was a challenge.

Longendale trail
What a relief to get to the top, even if I was absolutely dripping with sweat! As I heaved a big sigh of relief, trying to get my breath back, my heart sank as the bike decided to get another puncture!
Typical! Well, punctures had been the order of the day over the last 24 hours so I just got it sorted and pressed on.

This section of the route goes along the Longendale trail which in my opinion really is the best part of the ride. A welcome change from the pull up from Torside, this disused railway is nice and flat, and you are accompanied by spectacular views of the reservoir as you pass intermittently through woodland. The trail is around 6.5 miles long and not technical so you can motor along this trail on a mountain bike or cyclo cross bike - and there were many cyclists out doing exactly that.
Sunbathers along River Etherow at Woodhead
Finally, the trail ended at the Woodhead disused railway station and tunnel. Also at that point the flat riding stops and I was back honking my way up a gravelly path with all my baggage. Note to oneself - there is a river below (the Etherow) where it is possible to lounge on the bank and sunbathe beneath the Woodhead tunnel. A few sunbathers were down there enjoying the last part of this sunny day and it looked better than any beach - views of the majestic mountains, a peaceful lake and no fights over beach space. I must go there. But not today!

Fleeced on the shear climb over Woodhead!

There I was thinking I was about to embark on a long descent into Sheffield. But in fact I was caught out and ended up climbing even more! If the hill up from Torside reservoir was tough, the climb over the Woodhead Pass was a real knock-out. The trail twisted and turned as I headed higher and higher. The main Transpennine road sank lower and lower beneath me, as I was winched further and further skywards. At times it was impossible to ride, such was the steepness of the gradient. I was all alone on the moorland at this point, and became slightly worried that I might have taken the wrong way only to be lost in depths of the hills and I would never get home that evening.

In fact, even though I was in a remote place there were still signboards for the Transpennine trail, and also signs to get to other places like Stalybridge and Ashton-under-Lyne, which were near where I had come from. This was not the time to get the signs wrong!

It was really eerie being up there with just sheep and cows for company, and even they ran away from me at the sound of my desperate panting!

Although I could see where I needed to get to the bridleway seemed to took a somewhat circuitous route which made it somewhat disconcerting and I wondered if a mischievous sheep had managed to jump up and twist the signs the opposite way as a joke!

Later on through my trek I bumped into human life - three mountain bikers passed me in the opposite direction and greeted me. It was a relieved to know that I wasn't the only mad person up on this Godforsaken place on my bike at a time when folks would be settling down for Sunday afternoon tea or even dinner!

Eventually the bridleway threw me down onto a tarmacked road which took me on an amazing descent to Dunford Bridge. Was I near Doncaster? Nowhere near at all!

There still remained the small matter of getting across to Penistone, onwards to Barnsley and then passing loads of other former mining villages before eventually reaching Doncaster,

Well it was 6pm and I wasn't really in the mood to do all that. So in the end I followed a disused tarmacked railway line through Penistone (formerly known as the Great Central Railway line) and then diverted to Silkstone Common just outside Barnsley, where I got on a train to Sheffield. Doncaster could wait till tomorrow.

This stage had been hard work but I was really glad to have ridden through it. I can see myself returning there with no luggage and doing a training ride from Stockport to Penistone. The Longendale trail is very pretty and would make a great training route. During the day lots of mountain bikers were out on that route doing just that. I would also say it is a great route for a cyclo cross rider too and I would definitely use my cross bike.

For now though, I just had to resign myself to the fact that I was a sluggish cycle tourist!

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Notes from the Transpennine Trail - Southport to Warrington

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Leisure Cheshire bike ride

Saturday 20 August 2016

Notes from the Transpennine Trail - Southport to Warrington

Official start in Southport
In June this year I rode from Southport to Hull along a largely off-road and traffic-free route. Also known as the Transpennine trail this 215-mile sign-posted ride starts from the seaside town of Southport in Merseyside, in the north-west of England, and finishes in Hornsea, another seaside town on the East Yorkshire coast.

Given that I have read accounts of people of all shapes and sizes doing this ride I thought it was about time I had a go.

So, with the help of some wheels on my Raleigh Mustang Sport gravel bike, and with a few panniers loaded on it I caught the early train up to Southport.

Golden Sands of Southport!

I'd never been to Southport before, but just thought it'd be a seaside in a similar vein to that other big north-western seaside town, Blackpool. But I have to say it was all a bit dowdy. I could imagine in the 70s Southport would have been the place to be - all that candyfloss, the lovely arcades, the Big Wheel and loads of fish and chip shops to your heart's content......

But today it just looked like tired old coastal town - still popular with the youngsters, and a way for mums to keep the kids from under their feet for a few hours. Sadly, Southport is also popular with a few drunkards and ne'er do wells, as I found when I was trying to take photos of the Marine Way Bridge! 

Still, I had no plans to hang around as I had an itinerary to get through and needed to be in Macclesfied that evening.
Southport sea front
As Southport is not very big (but then that's what I think of most towns, coming from London!) I was quickly in a new area with a different kind of landscape. This first part of the ride was parallel to the coast with sand dunes nearby. It also overlapped with the Sefton trail, a long distance walk where there were quite a few walkers and runners out on this sunny morning. 

Great Rail Trails of the North-West

Next the route went along the Cheshire Line, an old disused railway line through fields. I came across quite a few runners along this route, but nothing else. Given that it was a pleasant day it was strange to not see other riders along the way. I hadn't gone the wrong way had I? Regular signs with "TPT" writing on them showed me that I was on the right track.

As someone who has written about cycle routes along disused railway lines I am always on the look-out for new lines. The Cheshire Lines path is one to keep in mind for the future, and one that I would recommend if you are looking for a real getting-away-from-it-all traffic-free bike ride. There are no cars, no animals, hardly any people - also, no refreshments so stock up before going along this long stretch.

Netherfield, Liverpool
This disused railway line eventually took me into urban areas and at that point I realised I was on the outskirts of Liverpool, in the area of Netherfield. After a pleasant ride along a canal, albeit peppered with graffiti and broken glass, I arrived at Aintree - quite ironic to be at the home of the Grand National on the day that the other famous UK horse race, the Epsom Derby was taking place just 10 miles from my home.

Up until this point signage had been quite clear, but as I ventured further and further into Liverpool I was losing more time stopping and looking at maps. Maybe it was a conspiracy to not let me out of here!

Liverpool loop line
I wasn't going to let any amount of spinning around the city stop me moving further, so I pressed on through this frustrating section of the ride. Eventually, navigation became easier thanks to reaching  another disused railway line.

Ah, another chance to just sit there, pedal and follow the path in front of me. Cue, the Liverpool Loop Line. This is a great little commuter path that runs the length of Liverpool, allowing you to ride to other parts of the city. As the path is tarmacked it was also a chance to pick up a bit of speed after having spent the morning on rough stuff.

Initially the landscape is just a bog standard urban park with lots of remnants from Liverpool's industrial past. There are iron bridges, old railway signs and disused factory plants.

Added to this, the skyline is decorated with tower blocks and other monuments reminding me of the opening sequence of that old Channel 4 TV series, Brookside. I wondered if this had been left there as a tribute to the old world of Barry Grant and Phil Redmond. Or was it more to remind us of the painful past of the Boys from the Black Stuff. I half expected Yosser Hughes to pop out from one of the many side paths saying "gizza job"! (Give us a job!)

Further along, the scenery became scenic with a lot of recreational walkers and cyclists in this area known as Halewood Park.

Liverpool Loop line near Halewood
People were very friendly, with many people saying hello - walkers, joggers and cyclists alike. If I had stopped to look at my Ordnance Survey map (just to study the area a bit better) people automatically approached me and asked if I needed any help finding my way.
Even when I just stopped at the side of the path people took the time to ask if I was okay. The people of Liverpool definitely have a warmth and kindness about them that I haven't seen anywhere else. I liked people talking to me too, because I really dig the Merseyside accent!

Opposites and Contrasts

Once off the Liverpool Loop Line, it was back to stopping and checking maps again as I went through another network of roads that took me down to Speke, a pretty run-down, depressing neighbourhood that backed onto a lovely bijou village, Hale. These two areas were like night and day.

The one thing they had in common though was living under the same low-cost skies - being right in the flight path for the John Lennon Airport meant Easyjet and Ryanair planes pass overhead every few minutes.
Mersey Estuary Nature reserve opposite industrial plant

I couldn't help noticing the massive contrasts in Liverpool - the folks loitering along the Liverpool Line versus others jogging along it with an exercise mission, modern buildings set against old industrial relics, impoverished council estates alongside affluent villages, and the Mersey Estuary where the most beautiful nature park and picnic area sits right opposite a large industrial and chemical plant at Runcorn. Saturday afternoon leisure right opposite Saturday afternoon graft! So many opposing aspects side by side in perfect harmony! That's Liverpool!

Stairway to Purgatory

Talking of graft, this section of the ride was the hardest for me. The first day on the Transpennine Trail is characterised by two things: firstly, a lot of broken glass throughout the urban areas so use decent tyres and make sure you are stocked up on inner tubes! Secondly, there are lots of gates and obstacles to pass through that aren't designed for a bike with 10kg of panniers!

I therefore ended up having to lift my bike a number of times. It was slightly inconvenient having to dismount and squeeze my bike through a narrow gap, but when it came to carrying the bike up long staircases that was no joke!

Getting onto the Liverpool Loop Line from the main road at Aintree involved climbing up a narrow staircase that had around 30 steps. Once onto the path I was boiling hot and definitely needed a breather. That was bad enough, but this other set of steps along the Mersey Estuary Trail up to Widnes was something else! Basically it was a zig zag wooden staircase that seemed to carry on forever. When I first caught sight of the steps in the distance I refused to believe that my route was going to take me up to that place 30m  above me! No way!

Those scary zigzags ahead!
But as I drew nearer to it, my lovely twisting meander through the nature reserve became tinged with the harsh realisation that I would have to surmount this beast!

Riding up it was out of the question. So the only way I could do it was by removing my panniers, leaving them on the ground, carrying the bike a few steps up to the first zigzag, leaving the bike at the zigzag, going down the steps to fetch my panniers, bringing them up to the first zigzag and leaving them on the ground, then carrying the bike up to the second zigzag, leaving that to go and pick up my panniers and bring them to where the bike was.

Yes, that was the only way I could do it and it ended up as tedious a process to do this, as it is to write it now! With six zigzags I ended up being stuck on that bridge for a wee while!

Those who do cyclo cross and in particular the Three Peaks cyclo cross challenge, this makes for great ideal training!

I can't say much more about the ride as it was all pretty non-descript, or maybe it was scenic but the fact is I was just too busy recovering from my zigzag ordeal!

Rain on my parade (but I'm still smiling)

Then all the broken class caught up with my tyres and I got a puncture! Feeling a bit worn out, and being conveniently positioned near a local Halfords store I let the mechanic take the strain, and like a professional bike rider I got a support team to sort out my bike! Shamefully lazy, I know!

Puncturing put a little a blemish on the ride, but the real downer was the storm that I got caught in just outside Warrington. It had been a beautiful summer's day and everyone was enjoying being out at the marina, as I rode along the St Helen's canal. Then suddenly the sky turned black and the heavens opened out of nowhere.

All the folks at the local country pub had to quickly pack away the barbecue and round up their kids and animals, not to mention their pints and take shelter indoors. Those that couldn't fit into the compact lounge ended up huddling up in the conservatory, and I joined them as we all talked about the great British weather while willing the rain to stop some time soon.

After around 20 minutes I decided to take the plunge - literally, as the rain was still coming down but I decided my best bet at this time of the early evening was to ride the five miles to Warrington train station and complete my journey to Macclesfield that way.

Macclesfield bound
For me, it wasn't a problem missing out the stretch of Transpennine trail between Warrington and Stockport. I had done a good stint of riding (and carrying my bike) for the day and I had had my fill of nature trails and industrial monuments so I was glad to be whisked to the B&B in my old stomping ground of Macclesfield.

It had been a fun day with a lot of variety and I looked forward to the sights along the way for the following day.

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Ride from London to Brighton Off-road

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Thursday 18 August 2016

Fuel your ride with real food - Energy bar generator

When I go out on a ride I don't tend take out much food these days - because lately my outings have not been long enough for me to need to refuel! (Wish I could be out for longer but life gets in the way sometimes!)

However, on those long rides such as the Ride London 100 which I did recently it's worth giving some thought to energy supplies during a 100-mile bike ride.

Realising that a Mars Bar may not quite do the trick I then take to the energy bar cupboard, and there are quite a few to choose from.

I can't say I have any real favourites as the fact is I really prefer to eat real food when out riding. Energy bars probably hit the spot but a lot of them begin to taste a bit plasticky and my stomach gets sick of them after 4 hours in the saddle.

So I am always on the look-out for solutions that involve real food while getting the energy that'll take me to the finish line without a hunger knock!

Decathlon sports shop has put together this clever interactive tool call the Energy Bar Generator. Basically you answer some questions about what sport you are doing, your favourite foods, whether you prefer gluten-free, etc and it comes up with a recipe to make your ideal energy bar using real foods.

I put in strawberries, raspberries, banana and walnuts. I'm not mad keen on chocolate and not bothered about it being gluten-free.

The Energy Bar Generator came up with a wonderful recipe based on the food I mentioned plus figs and oats thrown in.

That's yummy! Well it sounds good - I haven't tried it yet! I will certainly give it a go, though knowing me if I like the taste of it I will most likely end up eating it even before I have picked up my bike!

But hey, it'll be great fuel for that marathon TV-watching I've been doing for the Olympics!

Try the test yourself and see what you end up with.

Tuesday 9 August 2016

7 Soundbites from... Chris Froome

It was great to catch Chris Froome in person when he recently came over to England for the Ride London Classic.

It was a bit crowded trying to catch him in the mixed zone straight after his ride, but I was glad to say a few words to him, even if they were just your usual finish line platitudes!

As he is the man of the moment though, I still would like to put down a few of the words that he said to me as well as what he said to my fellow journalists at the BBC at the finish line in Rio de Janeiro after the Olympic Road Race.

My mission is to catch him and have a more in-depth interview in the future - Sky permitting!

I am glad that we did not see the return of Crash Froome during the road race given the hazardous nature of the descent, and hope he can get some sort of silverware in the time trial tomorrow.

1. Ride London is amazing. Seeing how many people there were out on the roads shows how far cycle sport has come in Britain in the last few years.

2. The 20-minute break did disrupt the race a little bit as we were in a good group and had got a rhythm going. We completely understand why we had to stop. We didn’t want another Ventoux situation!

[The race was stopped for 20 minutes to allow the road to clear following delays as a result of a couple of serious incidents during the cyclosportive, and a few of the later riders were still out on the race route.]   

3. This is the first time I’ve stopped to pose for pictures mid-race!

4. Some of the difficult moments I had during my early career in Kenya have definitely taught me to be self-sufficient in my approach to racing.

5. I really appreciate the set-up that I am in now in Team Sky and in Team GB. It’s second to none.

6. It [the Olympic road race] was a seriously full on race. Quite a few people have complained how dangerous it was but it was exciting. No one would have predicted that podium. [1, Greg van Avermaert (Bel); 2, Jakob Fuglsang (Den); 3, Rafal Majka (Pol)]

7. I don’t really think I have affected my chances in the time trial I buried myself in London four years ago as well. I was completely spent. And I was fine in the TT a few days later. Three days should be enough time to recover.

Thursday 4 August 2016

Can-do girls - High Speed Fixie Chase!

Meet 23-year old Ainara El Busto, track and road racer, but also Queen of Red Hook racing!

I met Ainara at the Red Hood Criterium when the second round of the series was held on the Greenwich Peninsula in London last month.

For those who aren't familiar Red Hook is a series of town centre criteriums held on track bikes. No brakes are allowed, so you really need to have top-end skill to get round the course which can be pretty technical. Or failing that, be prepared to kiss the tarmac a few times!

Red Hook first began in Brooklyn, New York, in 2008 and over the years they have added on rounds in other cities around the world. London, which was round two is a relatively new addition, while rounds three and four are held in more established venues at Barcelona and Milan respectively.

Ainara has been a real dominant force in the Red Hook series, and was consistently the series leader for 18 months, until the London round. Her party was spoiled firstly by the arrival of London 2012 team pursuit champion Dani King, who obliterated the field. To add insult to injury Ainara unceremoniously exited the race when she got a puncture and has dropped to third place in the rankings.

According to Gabe Lloyd, the commentator, this is really big news that Ainara has lost the top spot in the series, and to get back on terms Ainara is going to have to not only win the remaining rounds, but her rivals, new leader Ash Duban, and Vittoria Reati will need to have a bad race or puncture - beware of stray nails and tacks!

When I spoke to Ainara on the night I was quite impressed at how gracious she was in defeat, and was able to still speak very positively about her racing and the talents of her other competitors.

"I really enjoy racing at Red Hook. There is always a good atmosphere. The girls get on well and we support and encourage each other. Dani (King) is a phenomenal rider and it was good to race against her. It is a shame that I could not properly compete against her. I'm keeping my fingers crossed that things go better for me at Barcelona and in Milan. The support from the crowds in London was great.

I started racing in Red Hook in 2014, when I received an invitation to compete in the Barcelona round. At the time I had never heard of this type of racing, so myself and my coach Hector looked into it and thought that this was something that could work well for me. I really enjoyed the race and have carried on doing them since.

Coming from a track background meant that it wasn't too difficult for me to get into it. The thing I like about it is that it isn't just about how strong or fast you are, it also depends very much on your bike-handling skills.

Also the atmosphere is different from that at a criterium race on the road. It is friendlier and more relaxed.

The training I do tends to be road/crit race training, and up to two weeks before the race I was doing interval training. The courses at the different rounds are fairly similar, though I have more fun when it is very technical!

For new racers at Red Hook I would say the most important thing is to get used to riding a fixed wheel bike, and after that you can enjoy it!"

On the night I also spoke to some of the other gutsy women who pitted themselves up against the best at the London race. The sound of tearing around a technical course on a fixed wheel bike with no brakes is pretty scary. But hearing what the women had to say, I am half tempted to have a go! Perhaps!

For those wanting a high adrenaline fixie fix the remaining Red Hook rounds will be held in Barcelona on August 27th and Milan on October 1st.

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Fast, furious and risqué - Red Hook comes to London!