Thursday 31 December 2020

Rapha Festive 500, London Waterways: Day 8 - Back on the Thames

Featured waterways: Croydon Canal, Grand Surrey Canal (disused), River Thames

Distance ridden: 30km 

Cumulative distance: 511km

Distance left: 0km

Terrain: Tarmac

Weather: Overcast, 0degC

Route on Strava:

Finally, I'd made it to the last day of the challenge! I just had 19km left to do, so barring a catastrophe I believed I would be able to achieve the 500km. All I needed to do was to pootle into Central London and then somewhere along the home run I would hit the magic 500km mark. I would treat it like the final day of the Tour de France when the riders traditionally do a leisurely paced ride from the Paris suburbs into the city centre. 

In fact, if I really wanted, I could stop riding at Brixton or Herne Hill and get on a train to avoid the big hill leading back into Crystal Palace. But that wouldn't be in the spirit of things really, would it? Furthermore, during these Covid-19 times I feel safer riding my bike out in the fresh air than sitting on a train with all the risk of people coughing or sneezing their coronaviruses onto me!

After a celebratory end-of-year 10km run around my neighbourhood, I had a leisurely breakfast and then set off on my final cycle ride of the Festive 500, and of 2020.
The route went through the vibrant Peckham Rye Shopping Centre, which is now traffic-free, and led me to the back of the library where I discovered another traffic-free path known as the Surrey Canal Path. What was previously known as the Grand Surrey Canal no longer exists, but this section of it has been made into a very pleasant cycle way that leads to Burgess Park. Both Burgess Park, and the site of thee Peckham library are built on what were previously basins of the Grand Surrey Canal. Who'd have thought there was so much history here - and so much water!

Glad to reach the finish line at Tower Bridge

After crossing the park and going through some back streets in Bermondsey, I arrived on the new segregated cycle lane at Jamaica Road, and shortly after that I was on the River Thames at Potters Fields, facing Tower Bridge - my virtual finish line. 

There was no champagne to pop - not even a celebratory tea and cake as everywhere was closed due to the pandemic restrictions. So I just smiled to myself in quiet satisfaction that I had achieved what I had set out to do, and the week had gone to plan without any significant hitches. 

One can never take the week-long Festive 500 challenge for granted, especially at this time of year in the Northern Hemisphere countries where the weather can be inclement and the days are short. You always hear stories of folks whose Festive 500 came to an abrupt end due to a significant mechanical problem, or sliding over on ice and getting injured. Then there are many people who just lose motivation at this uninviting time of year, get to day 6 and realise it's just not feasible to complete the outstanding 300km in two or three days! 

Talking of weather, there was no ice on the roads at the time that I was cycling, but it was freezing - literally, as temperatures were fixed at 0deg C. This wasn't the day to be standing around. One mistake I did make, was to spend a bit of time with my gloves off when adjusting my tripod, taking photos and recording video footage.
My hands got so cold I could barely change gear when cycling. It was only when I rode home and rode at near race pace that I began to regain any feeling in my fingers.

I was very happy to end my Rapha Festive 500 on the Thames - at the river in the city I call home. And Tower Bridge seemed like a majestic, backdrop as I felt like I was Queen of the Waterways - well at least for 8 days! The many passers-by and tourists gave me slightly bemused looks as I recorded my footage on the path, though to their credit they took care not to photo-bomb my pictures.

None of them will have imagined I had ridden my bike 500km over the last eight days or known that I had ridden along rivers and canals in all the corners of London and the suburbs - that was for me to quietly celebrate. 

But who knows, they might see or hear part of my stories if they are ever trawling through social media and looking for places to ride their bikes along a London river or a canal. Hopefully I will have been able to give them a couple of ideas!

I have discovered a number of new places during my rides around London's waterways over the last eight days. It has provided a different angle of London, and also given me ideas for traffic-free routes and short cuts. I only touched the surface in terms of the waterways I visited. There are many more to visit, plus many disused ones too. I hope to ride along them in the not-distant future.
Also, one tip when route-planning rides in London, is if you want to find a traffic-free area, look for a river, canal, brook or basin and you may well find that there is an associated traffic-free path or quiet road available.

So that's my Festive 500 over and out for 2020. I look forward to doing another theme in 2021.

Related posts

Wednesday 30 December 2020

Rapha Festive 500, London Waterways - Day 7: River Cray and River Lee

Featured waterways: River Pool, River Ravensbourne, River Quaggy, River Cray, River Thames, Limehouse Basin, Regent's Canal, Hertford Union Canal, River Lee Navigation, River Lea

Distance ridden: 95km 

Cumulative distance: 481km

Distance left: 19km

Terrain: Mainly tarmac, with gravel at Regent's Canal and River Lea, plus single track trails at River Cray

Weather: Sunny, 2degC

Nutrition: Half a banana, trail mix, a chocolate bar, half a litre of water

Route on Strava:

This was the day I had been waiting for, as it had been billed in my mind as a bumper day. The weather forecast was set fair - well by winter standards at least. That meant the sun would shine, and that alone motivated me to go out riding. I just needed to wrap up warm since the forecast was for highs of 2 degrees above zero, with the mercury at barely 1degC for most of the day!

I would be going into a fair bit of hazy or unknown territory, with some brand new waterways on the menu - for example, Quaggy River. Even though it's just in nearby Lee, near Lewisham, I had never heard of it. So I was looking forward to seeing this new place.

There were other places I had been to before, but so long ago that I couldn't fully remember. The River Lee and Hackney Marshes were in that category. I had even done a cycling article on canals sin East London for the former Cycling Active magazine years ago, before the Olympics came to town. So I did a few rides there at the time. I remember doing the photo shoot one Sunday morning with Andy Jones the photographer. He'd parked up at Hackney Marshes where loads of folks were playing football, when a random passer-by, intrigued by what we were doing as we set up for the photoshoot stopped to chat to us. He smelt of dope and seemed a bit stoned! I was quite embarrassed in front of Yorkshireman Andy, who had travelled down from his home in Sheffield to do the shoot. I had hoped he see a cool, hip side of London. Some might say, in a way he did!

I was also looking forward to riding along the River Cray, this time at the part near the Thames. I had ridden that area about a year or so before, and remember it being pleasant marshland with single track. I would be approaching the area at a different angle from my previous visit given that I would riding up from Bexleyheath. So for that reason it felt like a new venue.

One area that was completely unknown to me was the River Ching and the River Roding, further into East London. However, it wasn't sure if I would get to ride there. I had 114km left to do, and there was a possibility I would cover that distance before I had the chance to go to those places. 

The prospect of completing the Festive 500 a day early was quite exciting. I did so at last year's Festive 500, which was handy given that New Year's Eve was a wash-out in London.

So I set off first thing in the morning - not too early to avoid the icy roads - and looked forward to what would be a fun-packed day.

The River Quaggy was just a small river that flowed through Manor park in Lee, near Lewisham. It didn't look much more than the Croydon Canal, in the park near my home. It was much longer than Croydon Canal though, and I was able to follow it along the back streets of Lee, as far as Blackheath. If I had continued with this river I would have ended up in Chislehurst, where it joins with Kyd Brook, probably the original name of the nearby neighbourhood of Kidbrooke.

My ride pressed on into the bowels of South-East London - Charlton, Eltham, Bexleyheath - places I normally zoom past along the A2 in the car without taking any notice. So today was an opportunity to see these places and the folks a bit closer up.

As the weather was quite pleasant, many people were out in the parks, and town centres too. I discovered the area was surprisingly green, with Eltham Park, Oxleas Woods and Danson Park, all very close to one another. The nearby town centres of Welling and Bexleyheath were just town centres like anywhere else. Well, at these town centres seemed to have more shops open and people shopping there than I had seen in other places in London during this lockdown period.  

Crayford marshes with Queen Elizabeth Dartford crossing in the distance

Eventually I reached the River Cray, which at this end looks totally unglamorous compared with where I had been the previous day at St Mary Cray. The whole area is industrial, with a couple of desolate dual carriageways to cross. I almost wondered if I totally gone the wrong way, as the only sign of life I saw were folks wearing hard hats and driving cranes. 

However, there was a small sign on a lamp post indicating National Cycle Network, and that was reassuring. Nearby, another sign pointed down a driveway into an industrial estate, apparently to reach the Thames Cycleway. I wasn't sure if I should blindly follow the sign, but the direction did correspond with what was on my Ordnance Survey map. Furthermore, there were additional signs instructing cyclists to stay on the pavement. That made sense, as I wasn't keen on the idea of riding down this narrow carriageway and coming face to face with a fork lift truck on a blind corner!  

At the end of the road, a narrow gap in the wall opened out onto marshland, and the sight of a guy with a camera and birdwatching binoculars told me I was in the right place. In fact, it was quite a pleasant place, and I was treated to a fun bit of single track that twisted and turned through this marshland in the shadow of the M25 Dartford Crossing. 

Canary Wharf complex seen at a different angle to when I normally head the away

Apparently, this confluence of the River Cray and the River Darenth is popular with birdwatchers, walkers and recreational cyclists, as a number of people were making the most of the bright sunny weather. Surprisingly, the ground was dry, in contrast to some of the rather muddy riversides that I had been to over the week. It seemed that I wasn't the only club rider enjoying the Crayford trail, as some cyclocross riders were doing on full-on training rides along this section. Maybe this is a local haunt for club cyclocross riders like we have at Addington Hills near where I live. 

Considering the back-end of nowhere atmosphere, with just the Dartford Creek Tidal Barrier, Queen Elizabeth Dartford Crossing Bridge in the distance as the main landmarks, and a waste management company nearby, this was quite a popular place!

Thames Path at the Thames Barrier

Eventually, the River Cray joined into the Thames at Erith and I was back on the old favourite, the Thames Path, which I followed for a long stretch all the way to Greenwich. Along the way, I got the chance to see the Canary Wharf complex and the Greenwich Peninsula from a whole manner of angles as I meandered along.

After a quick snack outside the Cutty Sark, I headed north via the foot tunnel (both lifts were working, which is always handy) to reach the East London canals.

By this time, it was after 2pm, and the prospect of getting to ride along the River Ching or the River Roding was becoming unrealistic. Sunset would be at 4pm, so it was questionable how far I would even be able to advance along the River Lee.

I hurried myself along the Regent's Canal, which was quite busy like it had been a couple of days previously, and then dropped down onto the Hertford Union Canal. Now that Canal was quite refreshing and peaceful. There were very few people on it. Since it runs along Victoria Park, people probably preferred to be in there than on the canal towpath. That was handy for me as I was able to pick up a bit of speed to reach the Lee Navigation. This area definitely brought back memories of the time I did the photoshoot for my Cycling Active article. It looked quite familiar, apart from the addition of the Olympic Stadium (now the The London Stadium, the home of West Ham United).

River Lee Navigation

The canalside looked arty, with lots of barges owned by hipster looking folks playing music. It had been a sunny day and folks had made the most of it, even having lunch parties on their boats that afternoon. As well as folks hanging out at the side of the canal there others gathered near different microbreweries enjoying a takeaway beer with a slice of gourmet pizza. 

Although it was still bright, I could sense that nightfall was not far away, and I realised the farthest I could go would be to the Friend's Bridge where I double-backed along the River Lea along Hackney Marshes.

Riding a themed Festive 500 makes for a great opportunity to discover and rediscover places. Nowhere was it more apparent than today, when I passed through Crayford marshes, and then later on in Hackney Marshes. This vast area, famous for its 82 football pitches is more than a Sunday league paradise, but it is also flush with nature reserves and woodlands. Sadly, I couldn't spend much time there, but I know I will definitely be back there to explore the area further in the near future. 

It was now dark, so I knew this was the time to make the homeward trek, through Bethnal Green, Broadway Market, down to Aldgate and then along the River Thames past a very colourful Tate Britain Gallery.

I had hoped to wrap up the whole Festive 500 today, but time ran out on me. Once night fell, the temperature dropped dramatically. Luckily I had and extra gilet and jacket to put on, but it wasn't pleasant being out in what was now 0 degC. 

Tate Modern being especially jazzed up in its latest exhibition

It had been a good day, and I thought it better to quit while I was head, so I crossed Vauxhall Bridge to return to Crystal Palace. I had done 95 km, so there were just 18km left to do for my final stage. I could taste the finish.

Related posts

Rapha Festive 500, London Waterways - Day 1

Rapha Festive 500, London Waterways - Day 2

Rapha Festive 500, London Waterways - Day 3

Rapha Festive 500, London Waterways - Day 4

Rapha Festive 500, London Waterways - Day 5

Rapha Festive 500, London Waterways - Day 6

Tuesday 29 December 2020

Rapha Festive 500, London Waterways - Day 6: River Cray and River Darenth

Featured waterways: Croydon Canal, Chaffinch Brook, River Beck, River Pool, River Ravensbourne, River Cray, River Darenth

Distance ridden: 68km 

Cumulative distance: 386km

Distance left: 114km

Terrain: Mainly road, with gravel in Beckenham Place Park

Weather: Overcast, 3degC

Nutrition: None. I felt too cold to drink anything! I just wanted to burn off yesterday's dinner and return home!

Route on Strava:

Whenever I do the Rapha Festive 500, there is always a slightly difficult day. It can be for different reasons. Sometimes it is because the weather is challenging; maybe there's a mechanical issue with the bike, or maybe I just feel tired and slightly demotivated.

Today seemed to be that day for me. The weather looked very dull and uninviting, with temperatures forecast to not go much above 3 degC - colder in the suburbs. Also, I had a slightly tickly throat and a runny nose.

The thing is, I was getting tantalisingly close to the end of the challenge. I had roughly 180km left to do over three days - 60km per day is doable. I could even get this done in two days. The weather was forecast to be quite nice the following day, so I could do 100km on that day and then spread the remaining 80km over two days. Or maybe, I could just do nothing today and then do 180km over two days. It would still be doable, but there would be a bit less margin for error, and a bit more pressure. Also the weather forecast suggested there might be snow on New Year's Eve. I wouldn't want to ride 50 miles in that!

My original itinerary had been to go out to the River Cray and Darenth confluence, ride up to where they meet the Thames, follow the Thames Path to Greenwich and then return home on the Waterlink Way (Ravensbourne and Pool Rivers).

In the end, I decided that given how I was feeling, I figured it would be prudent to be kind to myself and do a ride that allowed bail-out points if I genuinely was feeling unwell. I calculated that a 40km ride taking in the River Ravensbourne and the River Cray would be just about doable without breaking me; I could finish early, get some rest, and then still be able to resume tomorrow with a doable 140km over two days. 
If, after 40km I was feeling fine, I would carry on, and aim for the River Darenth at Eynsford, then turn back. These are the thought processes that go through my head on days like this - as well as just willing myself to get on my bike.

Before heading into these nearby suburbs, I gave a nod to a couple of the waterways right in my neighbourhood. Just around the corner from me in Betts Park, is the Croydon Canal. The original canal ran from Croydon and fed into the Grand Surrey Canal at New Cross. But it is now defunct, with only a small channel of it still functioning in this local park. 

Nearby, at Elmers End, is Chaffinch Brook. I don't know anything about it, but it is there and runs through South Norwood Country Park, where I do my runs as well as behind people's houses at Clockhouse before joining the River Beck, and later the River Pool.
We don't have significant rivers in my neighbourhood, but it seems there are enough waterways to create a mini flood risk if we had lots of rain!

From there, I moved on to Beckenham Place Park, which was still very busy despite the dismal looking day. It was good to bump into Geoff Nutter, a local cyclocross racing buddy while there. I was happy to stop and chat, where normally I would have ploughed on trying to keep to my schedule. But today I was feeling half-hearted so didn't mind looking for an excuse to stop! He seemed impressed when I told him I would be riding out to the River Darenth and the Cray, so in a way I realised I had inadvertently roped myself into carrying out the task!

Eynsford Village (the only photo I took on this grim day)

When I reached the River Cray at the village of St Mary Cray I was pleasantly surprised to find a little cycle path that ran alongside the river. I would have liked to follow it all the way to Footscray Meadows, a place where we used to do Christmas cyclocross races a few years ago. But my plan was to move East rather than North, towards Eynsford. By this point I was feeling quite good, and distinctly more motivated than at the start of my ride, so the idea of turning back early was now history and I was happy to continue a bit farther along the route. 

Soon I reached Lullingstone Country Park and castle, which made for a handy spot to take a break - and more importantly, to go to the loo. The cold was having that effect on me.

The River Darenth runs through the Country Park, with a path alongside it. However, it is prohibited to cyclists, so I had to ride parallel to the river, on the road - not a problem as the road was quiet. 

From here, my route followed the River Darenth right through to Eynsford, and beyond as far as Horton Kirby and South Darenth. If this had been a long sunny day in the summer I could have just continued North towards Dartford and Crayford to reach the Thames, played around in the marshes and then ambled along at a leisurely pace to reach Greenwich. 

But this was not one of those days. It was cold, and the day looked grim. I would normally have seen lots of club cyclists along these lanes, but it seemed that the weather really had scared people away. At Eynsford I saw four or five hardy souls out too, but that was it. Most people had the good sense to stay home and watch the latest Neflix series or Shrek or Wallace and Gromit!

Once I had reached the apex of my ride, at South Darenth I turned back towards home. I must say, a lot of the villages around this area are quite picturesque - Eynsford - with it's picturesque bridge and riverside, with the Darenth literally flowing right through it, plus Farningham, and Horton Kirby with their quintessential Kentish village ambiance. But South Darenth somehow seemed to buck that trend, and just looked rather shabby. Not sure what was going on there.

Once past Swanley, I felt more content and relaxed to be in familiar territory again. There remained the small matter of climbing up Leeson's Hill - probably the only hill of the whole of my Festive 500! It was no pimple either. Leeson's Hill, just outside Orpington, lasted about a mile, and was similar to Anerley Hill, in Crystal Palace. I should be used to this sort of gradient, but on days like this the cold saps your energy so I had to take it easy when going up and not think I was in a hill climb race! 

By the way, I wouldn't recommend riding on this road. It's not pleasant - not simply because of the hill, but it is a popular cut-through for motorists heading towards Orpington and maybe joining the M25. Plus everyone seemed to drive at ridiculously fast speeds like they had to be somewhere yesterday. It seems as though since lockdown some people think empty roads mean people can just drive as fast as they like. It was similar on St Paul's Cray Road, going into Chislehurst too. If I had given it more thought I would have taken the bridleway that was in the nearby woods. After all, I was on a gravel bike, the Liv Devote, which would have been well suited for it. I will probably do that next time.

Finally, I reached Bromley where I felt very much in the home strait of my ride. I hadn't seen many cyclists today - but I did see a man on a Penny Farthing riding through Bromley Town Centre. He was dressed in Tweed, and looked very elegant, attracting lots of stares. Initially I saw him on the main road, and then later I saw him again riding towards Shortlands where he gave me a wave. He was probably doing circuits of Bromley and waving to everyone. He was properly perambulating, 19th century style in a 21st century world. That was quite a fun sight, and brightened up an otherwise gloomy day.

Soon, I was back in my world ready to rewards myself with some left-over turkey and a mince pie. I was glad to have got in almost 45 miles, and the scratchy throat I had had early in the day had gone. So the remaining 70 miles looked very doable. 

Related posts:


Monday 28 December 2020

Festive 500, London Waterways - Day 5: River Wandle (Wandle Trail)

Featured waterways: River Wandle

Distance ridden: 41km 

Cumulative distance: 318km

Distance left: 182km

Terrain: Multi-terrain: gravel, grass tracks, muddy sections, tarmac

Weather: Initial frosty patches, cloudy, 3 degC

Nutrition: Water

Route on Strava:

During the Festive 500 challenge I always think it is important to schedule in a few "easy" days at around the half-way mark. It's good for the soul, and you don't have a feeling of beating yourself up to get this done.

So today, was that day - a 25-mile ride that took me along the River Wandle from Croydon to Wandsworth, and then back home via the different commons in South-West London along a largely traffic-free route.

This is quite a pleasant waymarked route, known as the Wandle Trail, so there is no need to do much in the way of navigation. It's just a case of following the white stickers with a green arrow marked on the lamp post. You can also follow National Cycle Network Route 20. 

Look for the green arrow won the whit background, or NCN route 20

From my home in Crystal Palace, I cycled down to Wandle Park, Croydon to start the route. That went through places like Waddon Ponds and Beddington Park, and then largely followed the River Wandle. I went past various residential properties, nature reserves, woodland, parkland, light industrial estates and retail parks. There is a bit of everything along this 14-mile trail. You get to see areas that you wouldn't normally visit. Even though the route passes through Wimbledon, you get to see a totally different side of this area associated with strawberries and tennis.

One pleasant find, is Morden Hall Park - a reason to go to the end of the Northern Line. It is set in 125 acres of parkland and there is a nature reserve adjoining it. Within the grounds is also Deen City Farm, as well as Morden Hall, a stately home and functions venue. 

Many walkers were out in the park with their families on this dull chilly day, but it didn't stop them from enjoying being outdoors.

Morden Hall Park

One thing to note was how muddy the place was. Now, I do remember that this park has been used as a cross country running venue in the past. There is a reason for that! This would also make for a good cyclocross venue too, which is what I ended up doing by default as I weaved around the walkers.

I was conscious about not going too far into the swamp though as I really didn't want to muddy my lovely Liv Devote too much (even if it performed well in these conditions). I am more a fan of riding bikes than washing them!

In fact, some parts of the park were so muddy that I would have feared for the safety of a small child falling in!

After Morden, my route took me around places like Mitcham and Colliers Wood, then on to Earlsfield. Along various parts of the River Wandle people were out fishing. I didn't realise it was the season to do that sort of thing; it would be interesting to know if anyone ever caught a monster carp there, like they show on the fishing programme that comes on after the Tour de France broadcasts!

For a brief section, the route leaves the parks and traffic free paths to go down Earlsfield High Street, a handy spot. Normally (when there isn't lockdown) many cyclists hang out in this area - recreational riders and club riders sitting in the cafes with their bikes parked nearby. Also, if you feel too tired to ride all the way to the end of the route, or if for some other reason you can't continue cycling, Earlsfield train station is right there.

Cake time in Wandsworth Town

I was quite happy to go all the way to the end of the route close to Wandsworth Town train station. The first thing I noticed when I arrived there was the change since my previous trip along the Wandle Trail. The "planters" had gone. Previously, Wandsworth Council had closed Old York Road to traffic, and put in plant pots and cycle lanes. With the cafes along the side of the road, it gave a pleasant "Copenhagen-like" feel. But that has all changed now. The road has been re-opened to traffic, and cyclists are sharing the roads with all kinds of users. The planters had only ever been a temporary measure, and Wandsworth Council decided to scrap these "so-called" low-traffic neighbourhoods (LTNs) due to them causing more congestion than before.

After a quick stopover, at the popular Gail's Bakery, I trundled home via various quiet roads in Wandsworth and then through Wandsworth Common, Tooting Common and Streatham Common. The welcome sight of the Crystal Palace transmitter as I crested Streatham Common signified to me that I was near home. Once past Beulah Hill I was back at base where I enjoyed a leisurely lunch and reminisced on the pleasant morning I'd had.

Related Posts

Rapha Festive 500, London Waterways - Day 1

Rapha Festive 500, London Waterways - Day 2

Rapha Festive 500, London Waterways - Day 3

Rapha Festive 500, London Waterways - Day 4

Sunday 27 December 2020

Festive 500, London Waterways - Day 4: Regent's Canal

Featured waterways: Wapping Ornamental Canal, Shadwell Basin, Thames Path, Limehouse Basin, Regent's Canal 

Distance ridden: 53km 

Cumulative distance: 277km

Distance left: 223km

Terrain: Tarmac

Weather: Sunny and breezy (after earlier torrential rain), 3 degC

Nutrition: Water

Route on Strava:

The weather had been pretty scary in the morning, with torrential rain and very low temperatures. So I decided to defer my ride to later on, as the forecast was for an improvement in conditions during the afternoon.

Due to the late start, this was going to have to be a short ride, and also a day to avoid riding off-road given that the trails would be very muddy. So today's ride was urban, going through the middle of London. The cycleway along the Thames is a well-used route, but I decided to cycle along another cycleway through London - the Regent's Canal. 

This is one route where you see real London life, as opposed to the Thames cycleway which goes past lots of tourist attractions. 

Shadwell Basin

Before reaching the Regent's Canal I rode along the Wapping Ornamental Canal, which until a couple of days ago, I had never heard of. It was actually suggested to me by a cycling friend, Abi Armstrong. So I headed down past St Katharine's Dock and took that route. It was quite a find. There was nothing particularly ornamental about it, but it looked pretty and the buildings reminded me of posh dockers' houses from the time when that was a big thing in London. Eventually I reached Shadwell Basin. The first thing that came to my mind about that place was how this would be a great place for open water swimming - another activity that has become popular of late. Sadly, there are lots of signs up forbidding people to jump in. Apparently the water's not lovely. 

From here I followed a few signs to get to Mile End Park, via the Thames Path and Limehouse Basin, to reach the start of the Regent's Canal.

Initially, the path wasn't so busy. But from Victoria Park onwards there was a much greater flow of people along this waterway. Along the Regent's Canal you see ordinary London life - both in terms of those based on the water, and those along the path and adjoining parks.

You pass offices, the backs of people's flats, as well as various sections of artistic facades, also known as graffiti. In some areas, notably around Islington and St Pancras, people had set up little makeshift bars where folks had gathered to enjoy a few Christmas beers. Some were also lounging on benches, or on grassy stretches. Quite a lot of barges are moored along here, with people getting on with their everyday life. One person's barge had so much smoke emerging from it, it made me wonder if the occupant had burnt their dinner as well as a few logs.

Regent's Canal

Along the stretch near Haggerston, I noted a lone canoeist who appeared to be enjoying an afternoon "stroll" with his dog trotting alongside on the towpath! That was quite a sight, though I think I was the only person to find it amusing. I think it was just normal life for folks in East London!

This canal was quite technical to ride as it was twisted around blind corners and dipped under various low bridges. A bell would definitely be useful on this stretch. There were also a couple of steep inclines at the different locks. At Islington, where the path reaches the Islington tunnel I was forced to leave the canal to get onto street level. At that point I crossed Upper Street, the main road through Angel, to reach the back end of King's Cross and rejoin the canal. 

Camden Lock

I had originally planned on riding as far as Regent's Park, but the canal path was becoming hard work to negotiate at this time of the afternoon, with many people walking along it, and the pace was slow-going. So when the path made a natural pause in the trendy Camden Lock, I saw it as my cue to leave the canal completely and head home via the traffic-light C6 quiet cycle route, and the segregated CS6 Cycleway.

I had enjoyed my stint along the Regent's Canal, though I think it is best appreciated first thing in the morning by bike, rather than on a sunny afternoon during the Christmas holidays.

Related posts

Festive 500, London Waterways - Day 1

Festive 500, London Waterways - Day 2

Festive 500, London Waterways - Day 3

Saturday 26 December 2020

Rapha Festive 500, London Waterways - Day 3: Thames Path and Wey Navigation

Featured waterways: River Thames (from Kingston to Weybridge), Wey Navigation, River Mole, River Wandle 

Distance ridden: 81km 

Cumulative distance: 224km

Distance left: 276km

Terrain: Gravel, Muddy track, 50% on tarmacked road 

Weather: Overcast, light rain, 8 degC

Nutrition: Water, half a banana, Ryvita with peanut butter

Route on Strava:

It's good to get out of the house at 9 o'clock. The first day I managed this, on day two I was out at 9.30. Today, was a lethargic 10.30am. But hey, one is allowed a Christmas hangover. Today's ride focused on South-West London. So I cycled over to Kingston. Instead of taking the main Hampton Road with all the other club cyclists and trying to beat my Strava time on this popular segment, I dropped down onto the gravelly Thames Path to reach Hampton Court Palace.

Hampton Court Palace

For sure, if you are wanting to ride at training pace this is not the route to take, but it is a very leisurely and scenic way to get to Hampton Court. It was almost midday by this time, and more folks were flocking there for their Boxing Day walk. However, it was still possible to ride through okay and share the path with other cyclists as well as walkers. I am not sure it would be quite so easy to ride through in the afternoon, though.

Hampton Court is one of those places I really enjoy visiting - the palace, the quaint flats overlooking the River Thames, the barges, and the independent bijou shops on the high street make this the sort of place I could hang out in all day.

I am not sure I would want to live there though. I think it's all right to be there and be cut off from the rest of the world for a short while, but I would worry that I might end up with a very insular outlook on the world. And on a more practical note, the traffic on the roundabout heading towards the M3 can be a nightmare!

River Thames at Hurst Park, near Hampton Court

So I continued along the Thames through Sunbury, Walton, and on to Weybridge. Up to Hampton Court, the terrain had been compact gravel. Once past Hurst Park, the track was muddy - at times very muddy and it would have made for a decent bit of cyclocross training.

Talking of sport, there was a lot of that going on here. As well as cyclists, there were joggers, people playing football in the nearby park, canoeists, and a bit of stand-up board paddling - something that has really taken off this year.

Once at Weybridge, the Thames fed into the River Wey. Rather than follow the signs to get onto the River Wey, I followed signs for Addlestone to reach the Wey Navigation - a canal parallel to the River Wey. I figured that this would be less muddy than the main river.

Initially, I thought my hopes of avoiding a mudfest were dashed as the start of the Wey Navigation was so claggy - even with the straw laid on the ground to make it passable. The path was narrow, and at times I worried I would slide and fall into the water! I felt a little guilty that the friendly folks around there looked at me expecting to bid me "good day" or "Merry Christmas", but I couldn't look at them as I was focused on my bike handling!

After a couple of hundred metres the path rose up to a higher elevation and the ground was much drier than earlier. I heaved a sigh of relief and was able to appreciate my surroundings, which were very pretty - even under the gloomy skies.

Eventually the path reached the road, at New Haw Lock. Sadly, I had to make the prudent decision to return home as the sky turned deep grey and the drizzle became more like rain.

Wanting to get back sooner rather than later, my route home was practically all on road. I went through Byfleet, Cobham, and Stoke d'Abernon where I briefly rode alongside the River Mole. Then I continued on through |Oxshott, Ewell, Cheam and Sutton. These are all places I was familiar with, having done training rides there on my road bike.

At Carshalton I entered Beddington Park to pick up the Wandle Trail, which follows the river Wandle to Croydon. It was quite a surprise to bump into Louise Mahé, a fellow cycle racer who I have raced with in the past. It had been ages since I last saw her, and so it was quite a fluke to just randomly cross paths with her just outside Croydon.

I could hang out at Hampton Court all day!

Eventually I reached home, just as it was getting dark and the rain became heavy. Weatherwise, it had been a grim Boxing Day. But I must say I was glad to have been able to get out and ride along the Thames and go through the pretty side of Hampton Court, as well as to discover the Wey Navigation. This year's Boxing Day is certainly an improvement on last year's when I left my house as a mountain biker and returned home as a drowned rat after being caught in torrential rain and sploshing my way across muddy trails in the local parks. 

Today had certainly been a fun day.

Related posts

Festive 500, London Waterways - Day 1

Festive 500, London Waterways - Day 2

Friday 25 December 2020

Rapha Festive 500, London Waterways - Day 2: Thames Path

Featured waterways: Waterlink Way (River Pool and River Ravensbourne), Thames Path, Docklands, Limehouse Cut and Basin, River Thames (from Greenwich to Woolwich)

Distance ridden: 63km 

Cumulative distance: 143km

Distance left: 357km

Terrain: Mainly tarmac, with a short gravel section at Limehouse Cut

Weather: Sunny but cold, 4 degC

Nutrition: Water

Route on Strava:

As is the tradition for me, the second day of my Festive 500, Christmas Day is a ride in Central London. The routes vary each year, but they always pass through the central area London. I often find it a treat to cycle around London when the roads are empty compared with how they are on other days of the year.

Mind you, with the exceptional year that we have had with the Covid-19 pandemic this has meant that we have already had a number of weeks of deserted roads in Central London. If anything, the roads on Christmas Day were busier than they were in April when we were in lockdown!

These Christmas Day rides also tend to be shorter than other planned rides because I like to finish early so that I can get on with other things like seeing my family and having a leisurely Christmas dinner.

Cutty Sark, Greenwich

My route went along the Waterlink Way, which I pick up in Beckenham and travel up through Sydenham, Catford and Lewisham to reach Greenwich. There were quite a lot of people in Greenwich; most of them were queuing up outside Starbucks. That must surely have been the only café open in the whole of London!

From there, I took the Thames Path East to reach Woolwich. This path was tarmacked and you could ride through quite quickly. However, this path is popular with walkers and joggers, so I had to temper my speed especially on blind corners. There were a few narrow sections too where I had to be ready to give way to other cyclists and pedestrians.

As well as imposing vistas of the Canary Wharf complex on the opposite side of the Thames, the other big feature is the Thames Barrier. This feat of engineering is the one thing that protects London from being flooded. It is possible to do day trips there and find out more about the Thames and the London flood barriers. I've heard it's quite fascinating. That is something to look forward to once we are out of lockdown.

Thames Barrier

 At Woolwich, I took the foot tunnel to head North of the river. According to the Greenwich Borough website the lifts were out of order, so I went into the tunnel expecting to carry my bike down and then up the steps. To my pleasant surprise the lifts were working - that must have been the Council's Christmas present to me!

Once on the North side of the Thames I headed for Docklands. Unlike the North end of the Greenwich foot tunnel where you arrive at the Isle of Dogs and there's a mini park and snack bar area, the North end of the Woolwich foot tunnel is a bit lost, lonely and desolate with various industries in the area and not much else too see. It's not particularly well signposted for cyclists - almost like the authorities don't expect anyone to go cycling there. Granted, there is no real reason to be there unless you work there, are lucky enough to live there, or are doing a project on light industry!

Royal Victoria Docks

Thankfully, there was one sign for Beckton, and to be fair, there were a few cycle paths too. So I managed to get myself to the Excel Exhibition Centre (latterly known as the Nightingale Hospital for Covid-19 patients), and to Royal Victoria Docks, a place where I have been for open water swimming.

This area had more people and even group bike rides taking place as people were making the most of this sunny Christmas Day.

After navigating through the myriad of lanes and segregated cycle paths I reached Limehouse Cut. It is when I go through these parts of East London that I really notice the contrast in the different neighbourhoods. 

For example, Poplar in Tower Hamlets looked pretty deprived and reminded me of those documentaries like "World in Action" I would watch in the 1980s, where they would talk about life in the inner city. Although many depressing high-rise blocks have been replaced with cute sized semi-detached houses, there was still a lot of graffiti around, with rubbish in the streets and beat up old cars. One small road just off Cable Street stank of urine and was full of homeless people with all their wordly goods in old shopping trolleys. Depressing. 

Limehouse Basin

Meanwhile, in the nearby Limehouse Basin were trendy, plush apartment buildings facing onto the marina, where people can just pop across the way to their gym club or a restaurant (once they are open).

I must say, Limehouse Basin was a new find for me, and it did look picturesque - as evidenced by the many people who stopped and photographed the various barges and boats moored there.

From Limehouse I did a brief unplanned stint along the Regent's Canal. By unplanned, read "I took a wrong turning and realised I'd gone the wrong way after a mile or so!"

Not a problem - I quickly wound my way through Stepney Green to reach Cable Street and head towards Tower Bridge where I picked up the cycleway to Westminster. I have probably said it before, and will say it again - this is my favourite part to cycle in London. It is great to be on a segregated cycle lane, riding past all the well-known landmarks in London. That is quite a luxury. Many people had had the same idea as I did, to go cycling along there. Cyclists of all ages and abilities, on different types of bike populated the cycle path on this sunny Christmas Day. 

The last part of my ride in Central London took me over Westminster Bridge, and along the South Bank. It was quite a treat to be able to do this, as normally this area would be heaving with people making it difficult to cycle through. Granted, there were still enough people to create a buzzing atmosphere, but the government rules around going out with just one other person, meant there weren't massive crowds. So I was able to go from Waterloo to Tower Bridge unhindered, before dropping down onto a new segregated cycleway at Tower Bridge, which took me down Jamaica Road and to Surrey Quays, from where I continued east to Deptford Creek. 

As we were getting well into the afternoon, I realised the time had come to return home as I still wanted to get back and do the normal Christmas things (well as normal as we are allowed to do things at the moment). I wasn't going to miss out on enjoying some Christmas dinner and stuffing myself with chocolates and mince pies while watching the rather aptly named Home Alone!    

It was a good day.

Related posts 

Rapha Festive 500, London Waterways - Day 1

Thursday 24 December 2020

Rapha Festive 500, London Waterways - Day 1: Grand Union Canal

Featured waterways: Grand Union Canal; River Thames 

Distance done: 80km

Distance left: 420km

Terrain: Road, compact gravel, muddy grass, a bit of cobbled road

Weather: Sunny, cold, moderate breeze, 7 degC

Food: Half a banana, Ryvita with peanut butter

Route on Strava:

As with previous occasions when I've done the Festive 500, there is once again a theme. After last year's Park Life Tour, this year's rides will be around London Waterways. Doing the research I discovered that there are so many more waterways in London than the River Thames, the Regents Canal and the Lee Valley Canal and the rivers near where I live, in Crystal Palace  - the Ravensbourne and the Wandle.  There are various other tributaries of the River Thames as well as numerous brooks, canals and basins. So over these 500km or so, I hope to learn a bit about them.

The start of Grand Union Canal at Paddington Basin

Today's ride featured the Grand Union Canal. I set off from South London to join the canal on the Paddington arm, at Paddington Basin. This canal goes all the way to Birmingham and has a few different arms/branches. At the London end you can start at the main arm, at Brentford Lock, West London, or you can start in central London, on the Paddington arm at Paddington Basin. 

So I headed out from Central London, passing nice areas like Little Venice and Ladbroke Grove. I wouldn't be doing a cycling version of Dominic Cummings and going all the way to Birmingham. Just the London area would be good enough for me to test my eyesight! 

Soon after Ladbroke Grove, the scenery became more like a derelict backwater with graffiti, dumped household waste, bike share bikes and shopping trolleys as I went through areas like Harlesden and Kensal Green. Then around Greenford, Horsenden, and Alperton the neighbourhood was tidier as I passed a golf course.

At Greenford the canal took a sharp right-hand turn and headed South to Southall. The surrounding area was a mixture of light industry and residential, with parks and playing fields nearby. Lots of folks were out jogging or doing family walks and bike rides.

At Southall I reached the main arm of the Grand Union Canal and turned right to head North West. Up to now, the terrain had been good. Apart from a brief Paris-Roubaix cobbled section at Paddington Basin, beside St Mary's Hospital, the terrain was a mixture of tarmac and compact gravel. 

However, from the junction, at Bull's Bridge, I was on a soil/grassy track that was quite stony, with muddy sections. The going became slow, it was a bit narrower than the previous sections and there was a lot of stopping to give way to other path users from the local area (mainly pedestrians plus a few cyclists).

Grand Union Canal at Little Venice

I had originally planned to go to Denham, and do a loop around Colne Valley country park. But looking at the map and how much further I still had to do, it didn't seem a sensible option to carry on. I had already done 25 miles (So I would have roughly that to get home.) Doing the planned loop would have added on an extra 20 miles approximately. It would be a slow 20 miles, given the terrain, and I was not feeling fit enough to do 70 miles. (I had had an unprecedented 2 weeks off the bike due to work commitments, prior to starting the Festive 500 so was slightly off form.)

I think in these early days of the Festive 500 challenge it is better to stay comfortably within your limits, get home before dark and feel like you're looking forward to the next day.

So my decision was made - after a brief stint around the nearby Lake Farm Country Park, in Hayes, I made the homeward trek along the main arm of the Grand Union Canal, back to Brentford. 

After passing Bull's Bridge, the terrain was initially compact. But at one point in central Southall things got very muddy, cyclocross style. I only had gravel tyres on my Liv Devote Advanced bike, and I had to be careful not to take risks on the narrow path. I didn't want to end up in the water!

I did wonder if I should duck out and ride on the parallel road. But thankfully, at Hanwell the terrain became more like solid grass. There were still lots of slightly muddy sections and puddles, but with prudence and mudguards, things were manageable. 

My glistening clean Liv Devote gravel bike was being put to the test, and was no longer looking pristine. It coped well, but I realised that I would need to get home promptly so that I would have time to wash the bike before sunset (at 3.55pm).

I pressed on through this rather scenic part of the canal, which doubled as parkland, hoping to reach the end soon. The sight of the big GlaxoSmithKline building at Boston Manor told me I would soon reach Brentford. 

Once I reached the end of the Grand Union Canal, at Brentford Lock, I changed plan again, deciding to take the quicker route home on the roads, rather than following the convoluted dirt/mud track along the River Thames. 

It was a sunny, but very cold breezy day, and I was beginning to feel it - not least the fact that I needed the toilet. During these coronavirus lockdown times most shops, bars and café are closed, so that leaves few options for spending a penny. I therefore had an extra reason to get home sooner rather than later.

The initial on-road section (along Brentford High Street and around Kew Bridge) passed very close to the River Thames. But after Mortlake I said goodbye to waterways for the day. There will be more. 

My route wound it's way through Putney, Earlsfield, Mitcham and Thornton Heath before the familiar Crystal Palace transmitter came into view, and I felt relieved (though not quite in more ways than one), as by now I was feeling a bit tired and hungry.

Then I was relieved (in more ways than one) once I got home and managed to throw on some Muc-Off and hose down the bike before dark and enjoy a well-earned lunch. 

Related posts

Festive 500 (2019) - Park Life Tour, Day 7

Why I like the Festive 500

Friday 4 December 2020

It's beginning to look a lot like.....Festive 500!

It only seems like yesterday when I was doing my Park Life tour as part of the Festive 500 at the end of last year. Once again the Festive 500 is happening, just like in previous years. That challenge of cycling 500km (310 miles) between Christmas Eve and New Years Eve captures the attention of millions of bike riders around the world since it began in 2010. Since then, 130 million kilometres have been covered by cyclists all around the world.

It's not always an easy challenge for people, particularly those of us who live in the Northern Hemisphere and have to battle through cold, gloomy, sometimes rainy days - riding over damp, gritty roads, sometimes through the dark. It's not always easy to find the time either when you'd rather be home with friends and family, playing Monopoly or bingeing on Christmas movies. Consequently, most people who start the challenge don't complete it. For example in 2015, of the 72,000 people who started the challenge, only 13,310 finished.

Given the potential lockdown challenges of completing the distance outdoors in different parts of the world, and also the popularity of the indoor cycling programme Zwift, Rapha have modified the rules and are allowing virtual kilometres to count to wards the 500km, as well as those ridden outdoors.  

To help people complete the challenge Rapha, in conjunction with Zwift will be organising some virtual bike rides, and there will be two Q&A sessions on the @Rapha_UK instagram accounts - one with Team GB paralympian Kadeena Cox on December 8th at 7pm, and the other one with Team Canyon-SRAM racers Hannah and Alice Barnes on December 22nd at 6pm.

As before, folks who complete the 500km will receive that all-important rondel. Then, as an added incentive, all finishers will be entered into a draw and will have the chance to win a Canyon Grail CF SL 8 (including SRAM AXS eTap electronic groupset).

Many riders have reacted negatively to the news that virtual rides can count. The very essence of the Rapha 500 is about riding outdoors and battling the elements. Where is the element of challenge if you can just ride your bike in a cosy house while watching a video, or join a virtual ride with friends and a couple of professionals?

I am inclined to agree. But on further reflection, two things come to mind. Firstly, riding your bike 500km outdoors during the Northern Hemisphere winter is a challenge. But given that the Festive 500 is a global event, there are many people around the world who won't have those issues at all when riding outdoors. People in Australia or South America will benefit from long days in glorious sunshine. So where's the challenge there one might ask? In fact, looking at people's recorded kilometres on Strava the many riders reach 500km within three days! Secondly, I have never ridden Zwift and don't plan to get into the habit of doing it, as being old school I prefer to ride outdoors. I do ride on my rollers and my turbo trainer, and I must say that the idea of covering 500km on those machines within eight days sounds like nothing short of excruciatingly boring! Give me a gloomy day on the road any time!

So, I will actually tip my hat to those who manage the Festive 500 on Zwift! At the end of the day, I say each to their own. I think the most important thing here is to give people the incentive to stay active over this period, which is not necessarily the easiest thing to do at this time of year. If the Festive 500 manages to achieve that, I think it is a win-win situation for everyone.

First day of my Festive 500 last year at Richmond Park

For my part, I will be out riding my bike outdoors for the Festive 500, and once again basing the rides around a theme. My theme this year will be British Waterways. So watch this space for more updates.

Related Posts

Wanna do the Festive 500?

Why I like the Festive 500

Reflections on the Festive 500

Monday 30 November 2020

Christmas gift ideas for cyclists - 1

We are less than a month away from Christmas - yes that December celebration that I assume won't be cancelled by Covid-19. 

There might be restrictions on mass gatherings, but that won't stop people from enjoying a bit of turkey dinner (or a vegetarian/vegan alternative), overindulging on Quality Streets while watching the Queen's Speech or Home Alone, and of course exchanging gifts. 

So here are a few ideas:

Sealskinz waterproof socks

These are actually waterproof and windproof. The socks have a specific lining which helps to keep your feet warm at this time of year. I have worn these in wet conditions a few times, and I can say they do work. The material is significantly thicker than an ordinary sock, as it is triple layered with a mixture of merino wool, acrylic, and polypropylene. Some might feel the socks are slightly bulky within the shoe. It is important to get exactly the right size, or else your foot won't fit comfortably in the shoe, and you won't get that snug fit that you get with ordinary socks. It's that snug fit that helps to keep your feet warm too. What I like is that the socks are seamless and smooth, to avoid rubbing or blisters. 

Size: S, M, L, XL

Colours: Black/Grey Marl; Grey/Grey Marl; Navy Blue/Grey Marl; Red/Grey Marl.   

Price: £30



Sealskinz cold weather gloves with Fusion ControlTM 

With three layers, including a merino inner layer, a waterproof membrane, and a goatskin outer layer - altogether know as Fusion ControlTM these Sealskinz cold weather gloves aim to keep you warm throughout the winter months. The goatskin on thhe palms of the glove also offer better grip when holding the handlebars. I found these gloves did the job of keeping my fingers warm, when I was out on my rides into the country lanes of Kent. Again, they felt slightly bulky compared with other fabric gloves that I am used to wearing. But that could also have been because they were new. In any case, I would recommend them as they are good quality gloves that do what it says on the tin.

Sizes: S, M, L, XL

Colour: Black, Grey/Black

Material: Outer lining - goatskin leather and softshell; Palm - Goatskin leather plam; Middle layer - 100% hydrophilic membrane; Inner layer - Merino wool.

Price: £75.00


Rapha + Outdoor Voices jersey


I was lucky enough to receive one of these Rapha + Outdoor Voices jersey earlier this year. It was the first Rapha jersey I have had that is not in their signatory bold colours with the band across the chest. This is a much more laid back kind of jersey, with an association more akin to leisure bike riding and relaxing while off the bike. It's a nice light jersey in a silky-style fabric. This shade, like the other shades in the range are more around a rustic kind of look. It may be a little cold to wear this, but it can still be a good gift for when the weather turns fair or even for use while cycling indoors - which I understand many people do.

Sizes: XXS, XS, S, M, L, XL

Colours: Red, green, blue

Price: £120


Canyon Precede:On E-Bike

As this has been the year for people to take to two wheels you might want to consider this as a very special gift for a very well-deserving person. This isn't just an E-bike. It's a Canyon E-Bike. That means it's a high-end piece of kit that will be a cut above other e-bikes. Why? Because it's got automatic gear shifters, so you don't have to change gear when you ride - like with an automatic car. You just set the cadence that you would like to ride at - 85, 80, or 75 rpm - and then the motor programmes itself to find the right gear and power (or torque) to move the bike along via it's Shimano 12-speed derailleur and a belt instead of an ordinary chain. There are other modes to choose from, like Tour, Sport or Turbo. It is all powered by the highest spec Bosch motor that gives a range of around 65 km when ridden in Tour mode. You can get a full-carbon fibre bike, like the one I tried, or you can go for an aluminium version. They also come as step-through or step-over versions. I generally like a step-through as it's handy for if I am wearing a skirt. The bike has other useful touches to it, like mudguards, and a rack that can also attach to a trailer, built-in front and rear lights, a bell, and a kick-stand - which I found especially useful.

This is a high-end bike, and with that comes a higher price than you might usually spend on a bike. In fact, for what the Canyon Precede:On offers it is reasonable value for money. But it is true that for whoever you buy this for, that person will probably mean a lot to you - and that might person might even be you!

Price: £4,699


Biography of racing legend, Beryl Burton

To add to your Christmas reading least, how about the life and times of one of Britain's greatest female cycle racers, the unstoppable Beryl Burton. 

This biography by respected cycle journalist, William Fotheringham looks at the life of the Yorkshire woman who got into cycling after accompanying her husband to races. The book about what her drove her, in a world where women's cycling was a marginal sport, with fewer opportunities for aspiring women racers than there were for men. Nevertheless this didn't stop Beryl Burton from clocking almost 100 victories during the 1960s and 70s and holding the 12-hour record for both men and women! All this was against a backdrop of her having overcome lengthy spells of illness - an inspirational read.

The Greatest: the Times and Life of Beryl Burton (Hardback)

Written by William Fotheringham

250 pages - Published by YouCaxton Publications

Available at Waterstones - Price: £20.00

Friday 27 November 2020

52 Cycling Voices (in the time of coronavirus) - 31: Bithja Jones

Given the effect that coronavirus has had on sporting activities all over the world, it is not surprising that cycle racing has been affected too. A number of the national championship races didn't take place in the UK either. One event that did take place, and didn't fail to disappoint were the National Hill Climb Championships. They took place on Streatley Hill, just into the Chiltern Hills near Reading, and had a record turn-out of women. There were 110 entries and 93 women took the start line. Among them was local racer, Bithja Jones who started cycle racing a couple of years ago, and did her first hill climb race last year. With dedicated training, and help from her club Pankhurst Cycles she only went and won this year's championships, even beating the experienced hotly tipped favourite Mary Wilkinson. As an also-ran in the race who finished quite at the opposite end of the result sheet from Bithja, I was interested in talking to this single mum of two, who is also an artist, and finding out how she rolls. 

(Photo: Tim Phillips)

Bithja Jones (aka B, to her friends) aged 41

From: Kaltenkirchen (near Hamburg), Germany

Lives: Reading

Occupation: Support Assistant at a Special needs school

I have always been a keen cyclist, and cycled everywhere. I didn't get a driving licence until my son was born in 2012. As a 15-year old, when I had my first little jobs -  a paper round and then a cleaning job at a hair dressers - I saved up all that money to buy myself a decent bike. It was a Schwinn Crosspoint and I was really proud of it. My father took me and my siblings on bike packing holidays and those weeks were always very special. My longest ride was when I did a cycle tour from Germany to Croatia and back. I was 20 at the time, studying sculpture at Dresden University. 

Always cycling with the kids - even as toddlers
When my kids were in preschool, I started cycling with them. 

Then as soon as my daughter was old enough to sit on a bike seat I bought a Dutch-style Bakfiets. Like that, I could ride my bike with them and didn’t feel stuck at home. That was a great investment and it made me very happy. 

When I moved house 18 months ago, we started cycling the 4km-journey to school every morning, each of us on our own bikes. My daughter had just turned 5, and my son was 7 at that time.

I had a couple of years of running, which I loved. I enjoyed competitive events and got quite fast, coming 3rd at the Windsor 10k. But then at the end of 2018 I had to stop because of injuries. So I went to my local bike shop, Pankhurst Cycles, and bought my first proper road bike - another really good investment.

At Windsor 10k
I joined Pankhurst Cycles cycle club and started going on their weekly shop rides, recording my rides on Strava. My club mates commented on my speed and my power up hills. At first I was a bit embarrassed, because I got between 10 an 20 new Queen of the Mountains (QOMs) every time I went on a ride.  I thought my Garmin was broken, but it turned out that wasn't the case - I was just quite fast! 

Olly and Rikki from the shop supported me when I said I wanted to give track cycling a go. They prepared a bike for me, and gave some helpful tips and advice (I had never ridden a fixie before). Then after a successful track season I took part in my first hill climb race up Wittenham Clumps, near Didcot, in August 2019.

Next, I did the Reading CC double Hill climbs on Flint Hill and Streatley Hill and won both, including breaking Maryka Sennema's record on Streatley Hill in a time of 3:03.  I also raced the National Championships in Haytor Hill, Devon and came 13th.

After more training, I did the warm-up hill climb on Streatley Hill in September, run by Didcot Phoenix and Reading CC and broke the record again in 2:54. At the Nationals I went even faster. It's true I like to really immerse myself in what I do and try to do things as well as I can. 

Breaking the record on Walbury Hill
(photo: Steve Dixon)
Then nationals were definitely my biggest win so far. This has only been my second hill climb season and the Nationals this year was my 12th hill climb race.

This year's event was very different from what I had anticipated a year ago. Streatley is a short course and it would have been lined with spectators and would have been very noisy. 

I was hoping to get loads of my friends to support me and cheer me on and, of course, members of our cycling club Pankhurst Cycles which is very local. But given that there were no spectators allowed, it was great that the marshals on the course made an effort and cheered everyone on. It felt good!

I knew I had given everything on the climb, I had nothing left, and I think I also knew somehow that I had done well. I heard someone shouting ”new course record”. I couldn’t stand on my legs and I had a massive headache and quickly found a patch of grass to sit down and recover.

I knew my time quite quickly after I finished and when I heard I had done 2:47 I was very happy. It had been my goal to ride a sub 2:50. But I knew that the strongest rider, Mary Wilkinson was still to come. I had never raced against her but had heard a lot about her. Someone came over after a few minutes (maybe just 2 minutes or so after I had crossed the line) and told me that I had won. It all felt very strange and surreal, sitting there on the grass feeling awful and so happy at the same time!

At once, everyone around was very nice to me and congratulated me. I think the hill climbers are a fantastic lot. They are so friendly and welcoming and everyone cheers everyone on and every rider gets the respect they deserve. 

A hill climb is always hard. Even if you end up with the slowest time, it is still a hard effort and you get applauded for doing it and for putting in that amazing effort. And, of course, I am massively proud that I was able to keep up and even beat some amazing and experienced riders!

A very supportive environment at Pankhurst Cycles
This was such a special and fantastic event with a great atmosphere despite the difficulties of the pandemic.

Pankhurst Cycles is a very cool bike shop with very friendly people running it. They have a cycling club affiliated with the shop and organise weekly group rides and there are a handful of people racing in the track league in Reading, and a few do cyclocross races. 

They have always been very supportive and I love going there at the weekend for a coffee and just to hang around and catch up. Their support in the run-up to the Nationals this year was amazing. A friend from the club sponsored me and provided the Tifosi Mons frame that I rode this season, and Pankhurst Cycles equipped it with all the right gear for my hill climb races. Rikki Pankhurst was my supporter at most of the races this season and I didn’t have to worry about anything other than cycling up a hill as fast as possible.

The campaign run by Laura Hayley to get more women entrants was very successful. It made this year’s event very special, and seeing so many women at the Nationals was just fantastic. It would be so great to see more of that!  I hope lots of women get inspired and feel encouraged to enter events. We are getting a road bike ready for my daughter.

To get more women to participate in events there are a few things like equal prize money and separate results on the Cycling Time Trials webpage that need to be sorted. It’s a surprise really that things are so unequal still in some places, when you think about it. 

But I think it is also really important that we women encourage and motivate each other and set good examples. The press could help with that too and give the women’s event more coverage. 

To any woman who is considering doing a hill climb race I'd say just do it! If you are scared or feel intimidated, find someone to support you. Enter events together as friends, never hesitate to ask other women who are already racing. I am 100% sure they would love to help anyone with worries or concerns and would love to be helpful and supportive. I am always happy to chat if anyone has got questions. Get in touch and just do it!

Hopefully there'll track cycling in 2021
Rumours are that next year's race will be on Winnats Pass. I don’t know the hill but it looks great on Strava! I can’t wait, and will train hard, explore the course and do my best to defend my title! I am planning to do a bike packing holiday next summer and will cycle to the Peak District for some climbing practice.

I also do track cycling but because of the pandemic there were no events this year and I have only done one season since gaining my accreditation in April 2019. My first season on the track went quite well, as I became the track champion at the Reading league.

Next year, hopefully, track cycling will go ahead again. I also want to do lots of rides to the sea, get a little stronger and faster, and maybe give road racing a go if I can fit it in. I also hope I can win some hill climbs, and of course defend my title. The children and I want to fly to Hamburg to collect a tandem that is still at my sister's place. We will fit a tag-along to it and then cycle from Hamburg back home to Reading. That’s going to be our first cycling adventure holiday together.

My everyday schedule means I am quite busy, and often feel like there is not enough time to do all the things that I want to do. I am a single mum-of-two, with a full time job. I also love doing art and book illustrations and go cycling as much as I can. 

It’s a good balance though and it’s great to be able to go for an explosive quick ride after a tough day at work, or go cycling with my children. They are very passionate about cycling too, and hope to cycle around the world with me in a few years. 

Bithja's cycle-themed art
My art is often about cycling as well, so all the different areas of my life feed into each other. So I get ideas from my work for my art, or go cycling for mindful recovery time, and it all works together really well. I also cycle with my children 4km to school every morning, then cycle to work (another 6km), then do the same thing again in the afternoon. Some of my training is done on this daily commute.

Overall, my cycling is done for fun. I don’t really feel the pressure so much, but I do get nervous before a race. Mind you, I think you need that to perform well. 

With my art, it's the other way around. I feel more pressure doing a commissioned piece of art that someone is paying for, than I do for a bike race, as it has to be perfect. Having said that, I do a lot of art for myself, and I still do my best because it gives me great satisfaction and I love it!

When I first arrived in the UK 12 years ago I was terrified of cycling on the roads, but now I find it a lot easier.  I don’t know whether cycling has improved or maybe I have just got used to it. 

Reading is not bad for cycling. There is the cycle path along the River Thames, which I use a lot with the kids, and lots of short cuts where you can avoid the major roads and the traffic. Also I just love the countryside around Reading. The Chilterns and the North Wessex Downs are beautiful, and on a long ride you can cycle to the South coast and back.

At work in Pankhurst Cycles
Overall, I think it’s much more common in Germany to use a bike as a means of transport than in the UK. Therefore there are more cyclists on the road, and the awareness for cyclists by motorists is much better. The road surfaces are a lot nicer as well. Schools have large bike parking areas as most students ride to school on their bikes.

Dealing with the Covid pandemic has not been easy. I live in a small flat with my kids and we haven’t got a garden. We are all outdoorsy people, so it is hard to deal with, but you just have to get on with it and make it work. 

The pre-school I was working in closed down for good partly due to the pandemic, so I lost my job there. I continued my other job, working two days a week at Pankhurst Cycles but it was not an easy time. 

Luckily, I found a new job in a school for children with special needs and I absolutely love my work. But sadly, this new job didn’t leave me enough time to carry on with my work in the bike shop.

When it comes to favourite places to cycle - I went on a cycling holiday in the Alps in the Summer 2019 and that was brilliant. I really want to go back again. Slovenia is also a very beautiful place to cycle through, and there are so many places I haven’t explored yet, even quite close here in Britain. I hope my children’s passion for cycling will carry on and we can go do our round-the-world trip, exploring many new places together.  

My favourite person to cycle with is someone a tiny bit stronger and faster than me so I have to work hard to keep up. I just like pushing myself! For a long tour I would like to go with my sister, Sarah. We haven’t been on a bike ride together for many years but we did lots of bike packing tours together in the past and we would get on very well. She visited me here in England last year when I won on Streatley Hill the first time. It was great to see her here and to have her support.

Bithja Moor Illustrations