Sunday, 31 May 2020

Cycle route: South London to Surrey and Kent lanes

As social distancing measures is getting more people to take up cycling, new cyclists are keen to find cycle routes they can ride for their leisure. With the glorious weather we have been enjoying in the UK for the last couple of months it's not surprising that people want to ride.

Here is a local cycle route from my home in South London, around the Kent and Surrey local lanes. It's a short route that can be done in under two hours - maybe one hour if you're a finely tuned athlete. I call it the "scout camp loop" because it goes past a scout camp along the way. It's a nice little route to do if you don't have a lot of time but want to feel like you've trained. I generally do it early in the morning before work, or in the late afternoon, after work.

The ride starts from near Elmers End, a common hang-out for bike riders in South London. There is a Tesco superstore nearby for any last-minute provisions or a cashpoint. Mind you, unless you are going there before 8am you may be in for a bit of a queue in these times of coronavirus.

Part 1

Apart from a fast descent at Spout Hill, the first half of this ride is mainly uphill, though nothing too steep apart from two sharp ramps. One comes early in the ride on The Glade, and the other one is on Featherbed Lane near the half-way point, just after the Scout Camp at Frylands Wood. After this ramp you are rewarded with a stopping point at The White Bear Pub. Well, actually it's not a real reward as government restrictions mean the pub is closed. However, there's a patch of grass you can sit on, or a wall you can lean against. When I went past yesterday, I saw a couple of motorbikers who had stopped and were having a mini picnic on the grass. There are benches and tables, but the owners have closed them off. Hey ho!

Part 2

On reaching the pub, which is at a crossroads it's good to know the climbing is more or less done, and there is a nice steady 4-mile descent along Layhams Lane to look forward to. Then in West Wickham there is one 8% gradient on Corkscrew Hill. It's very brief though, and over before you know it.

The last part of the ride, through Elmers End suburb would normally be a road where you see many groups of riders steaming through in a chain gang. I have been known to cheekily latch on to those groups to test myself and remind myself that I've still got it (or not as the case may be)! But nowadays groups are banned, so instead I do a mini time trial over the last couple of miles back to Elmers End Green. It's nice to open the burners - if only just to feel satisfied that I have used up more than a few calories and will deserve my dinner!

Part 3

I recommend this ride for anyone new to cycling for fitness and wanting to test themselves by riding it fast. It is also fine for those who are looking for a leisurely ride with a stopover in a country pub (once it has clearance to be reopen). The roads aren't flat, but they are not too steep and they give you a decent work-out over a short distance. It also feels good to be in rural lanes, even though you are less than 20 miles from Trafalgar Square. You won't be alone on these lanes, as many cyclists will be in this area too. Just give them a wave when you see them.

Find the route and stats here on Strava

Related posts
Lockdown London brings out large number of cyclists

Cycle route: South London to Westminster and Chelsea

Rapha Festive 500 - Park Life Tour: Richmond Park

Shout out to Geoffrey Butler Cycles

Rapha Women's 100 - A Royal Ride to Windsor

Sunday, 17 May 2020

52 Cycling Voices (in the time of coronavirus) - 29: Claire Floret

(Photo: Mickael Gagne)

Since 2015 during the month of July, Claire has done her annual pilgrimage around France in honour of women's cycle racing. With the women's cycling group, Donnons des Elles au Vélo she has ridden the entire route of the Tour de France one day ahead of the men's professional race to highlight the fact that there is no women's Tour de France stage race.

Like many women, the group is campaigning for a women's Tour de France to take place at the same time as the men's professional event, much like it did in the 1980s. The initiative started out as a couple of women from France in 2015, but has since grown to a larger group, including women from across the world, with support and sponsorship from big brands involved cycling.

This popular ride along the Tour de France route ahead of the professionals, known as Donnons des Elles au Vélo J-1 [J-1 meaning one day before] selects around a dozen women from a pool of over 100 applicants. Last year, Claire noted the large number of applicants from Anglophone countries who didn't speak French. She then suggested a need for a group where they could be part of the project and still bond, thus was born the InternationElles, women from various Anglophone countries, who rode the group in parallel with the Francophone group.

(Photo: Marie Istil)
I first met Claire last year in Paris, at the end of her three-week challenge around France with the team. I travelled to the Town Hall of the 8th arrondissement (near Champs Elysées) where Donnons des Elles au Vélo and the Internationelles were given a civic reception by the Mayor of the 8th arrondissement, and we all toasted their amazing achievement.

It was a good spread, and before I indulged in the canapés and Chardonnay I introduced myself to Claire and got chatting to her. Over the months I have followed what she and the group have been up to, including through these challenging times.

Claire Floret, aged 34

From: Bayonne, SW France

Lives: Courcouronnes, near Paris

PE Teacher, and Founder/Co-ordinator of Donnons des Elles au Vélo J-1

I don’t actually come from a cycling background, as I was originally a competitive rock-climber.

Previously, I lived in the Basque Country, in south-west France, and was working as PE teacher. Then I was transferred to the Parisian region where it wasn't easy to do mountaineering!

At that time I met my partner, Matthew who is a cyclist, and he introduced me to road cycling. Initially, I took part in cyclosportives, then I moved on to take part in French Cycling Federation road races.

Nowadays road racing is much better than the early days of getting dropped (M. Gagne)
I was just 24 at the time, and would get dropped within the first 3km. It was such a massive jump in level for me. 

More than ten years on, I am still doing road races and doing okay, though sometimes I wonder to myself these days what made me stick with road racing back then when it was so tough

Donnons des Elles au Vélo is part of my cycling club, Courcouronnes Omnisports Cyclisme Feminin – based in the Parisian region. We created this club five years ago because we weren’t able to fit in well in a club that was predominantly male. 

Although we were made to feel welcome there were so few women that it was difficult to develop a training and racing programme specifically for women. So in order to deal with the things that were specific to our needs we decided to create a women’s cycling club, with it's own committee to make decisions. So the club is exclusively for women, run by women. 

As I got into cycling and saw that there was no women’s stage race at the Tour de France I thought, "I can’t believe it - we really have to do something about it."
I have always done what I can to achieve equality between boys and girls and between men and women. Since I was a child, I have never liked the thought of being prohibited from doing something because I was a girl. So I have always fought for equality. So I decided we have to do something about it. From our women's club we launched Donnons des Elles au Vélo J-1.

Sometimes the days can very be long!! (photo: Mickael Gagne)
The first year we did this J-1 ride, in 2015, everyone thought it was a crazy idea and people didn't believe we could succeed. 

We were an intimate group of just me, my sister-in-law Marie, and Matthew to set off from Utrecht, Netherlands. Then on Stage 3 in Belgium, a cycletourist, Marion, who was also doing the ride, joined us for the rest of the challenge. Along the way a few people would join us to do a stage or two, but most of the time there were just four of us. 

We rode as a chain gang, but with just four of us that made for each person doing some long turns on the front and the days were very long!!

Although we had a support vehicle in case of mechanical problems we still had to sort out our meals, laundry, and self-massaging after every stage. Then the rest days were spent going shopping for food and replenishing provisions.

Our arrival on the Champs Elysées, in Paris was a bit strange. There we were in the middle of all the cars, trying to navigate our way through the traffic. No one knew who we were or what we'd done. We used up most our energy trying to pass the cars safely, and in the end we didn't think so much about celebrating this great thing that we hadn't been sure would succeed.

We had aimed to do this ride in 2015 as a one-off, but then we received interest and engagement from others, and people were interested in our story. 

Then we had a boost when organisations came forward to provide funds for us to do another ride. The French Cycling Federation, the Minister for Women's Rights, and Cycling Fans who sponsor our club, plus other companies all sponsored our ride. This was really good to receive this recognition of the message we were sending.

Logistical support is very important in completing the challenge (photo: Mickael Gagne)
So as a result, we ended up doing a second, a third, a fourth, and a fifth edition of the event with more and more people wanting to join us. 
The second year that we did the ride there were eight of us and I felt more emotional on that occasion than on the first time, as it was great to share the moment as a group, and see the others cry for joy.

In the last three years we have had a great support team of eight or nine people - physiotherapists, osteopaths, mechanics, a photographer, and a safety and support motorbiker, along with others who deal with our logistics. 

Within the riders and the support team we motivate each other during those difficult moments, as we are all working towards the common goal of reaching Paris. The project is as big as it is ambitious, and even though we have managed to get around the route previously, we can't be complacent and assume that we will get there the following year.

In fact, in 2017, the third year of the tour I got food poisoning and came very close to not completing a couple of the stages as I could barely eat or drink anything. But somehow I managed to put myself into autopilot and carry on!

Conquering the col d'Izoard (Photo: Mickael Gagne)
Normally we break the stage up by having a few cafe stops - a 10-minute break in the morning and then in the afternoon, and a 30-minute stop at lunchtime. 

The mountain stages are the hardest, but they are less monotonous as we have different cols to climb. 

The long flat stages are the hardest psychologically, as your mind is less focused, and you notice the aches and pains that bit more, especially in the undercarriage department!

I do have some great memories though. For example last year, I really loved the climb up the col d'Izoard because the previous time I did it was in 2017 and struggled so much. This time I enjoyed every metre of the climb and really took in the scenery. It was lovely to go over the summit with Matthew, and do a victory salute. 

It was a beautiful stage from Embrun to Valloire where the Mayor and hundreds of people welcomed us with a guard of honour like we were professionals from the Tour de France. Then a few days later ASO announced that they were working to organise a women's Tour de France.

Civic reception in Paris (photo: Maria David)
We start the process of recruiting team members for the following year's tour around November. 

We decide how many places there will be on the challenge, depending on the available vehicles and logistics. 

For the last three years we've had around 100 applicants for around 13-15 places. 

We receive the CVs and make an initial selection of around 50 women whom we interview to see how engaged they are in the campaign for the developing women's cycling. 

We also want to see how athletic they are, and how sociable they are, given that we will be spending a lot of time together. Being able to speak French is therefore quite important. Based on that we make a final selection for who will be on the team. 

These riders are part of the official sponsored team that rides the full Tour de France route, but during our ride, people are welcome to sign up to ride with us for part of a stage or for one or two stages along the way as guests. Those people sort out their own logistics and support for the time they are with us.

The riders on the team don't have to be road racers, but they need to be fit enough to ride 3,500km in three weeks at a comparable pace with the rest of the group (25km/h on flat terrain).
The training to prepare for this varies depending on the person in terms of their experience as a cyclist and if this is their first time doing this challenge.

For me, it'll be the sixth time I'm doing it so I guess I have a bit more muscle memory. I can't say it gets any easier though as each year my body is that bit older! I don't tend to do specific training for the J-1, as my training is for my overall racing season which includes various road races in the national and regional series.

(Photo: Mickael Gagne)
My training consists of five sessions per week, and I do around 1,000km per month. I also do two sessions of crossfit per week and training camps at Christmas, February, and April. In addition I simulate the cols, given that I don't have access to mountains in the Parisian region!

This year, because of coronavirus, our ride will be M-1, and not the usual J-1. That means we will be doing the ride one month before the Tour de France, from 29 July to 20 August. We would not have been able to ride the Tour de France route during September as most of the team have professional and family commitments which would make it difficult to take time off in September. 

Of course we will still be promoting our message on equality, and promoting women's cycling. We also hope people can join us along the way for one or two stages (depending on government coronavirus policy at the time). I understand the InternationElles are planning their ride for September.

Like with everything else we are going to have to be flexible in our organisation, given the changing circumstances and announcements the government makes. With this in mind, we will adjust our logistics in line with the government rules and the local rules in the different regions at the time. This could be in terms of accommodation or the number of guests that can ride with us on the different stages.

Team-mates can provide a great support network (Photo: Mickael Gagne)
We are also keen to support good causes during this time, and so profits from the sale of our Donnons des Elles au Vélo jerseys will be donated to a medical research organisation. So we will dedicate our ride to the current medical crisis, as well as to equality in sport.

For me, this has been a difficult period. When the lockdown was first announced it really knocked my schedule off balance and my goals were uncertain. I didn't know what I would be training for, or if my events would be taking place at all. It was difficult to stay motivated. 

I was lucky enough to live in a house with garden, though the hardest days were on those when it rained and the effect of being under lockdown felt even more acute. Initially I had a routine where I would do core stability work first thing in the morning. Then after a one-hour walk to the bakers I would do cross fit, pedalling on the turbotrainer, kettle bell, step-ups and virtual yoga classes.

I was still quite busy as I was giving virtual classes to my students. I also saw it as a time to try new things like making puff pastry, picking dandelions to make a salad, doing gardening, and playing board games.

Unfortunately, I was diagnosed with COVID-19. Initially felt tired, with aches and pains all over my body for about two days. After recovering from those symptoms I lost my sense of taste and smell. Two months on I still haven't regained those senses. Furthermore, I also experienced neuro-psychological symptoms - something that is hardly ever spoken about as one of the effects of COVID-19. I suffered from depression, like I had never had before, and suddenly lost all sense of direction and life no longer had any meaning. 

Claire with Trek-Segafredo's Audrey Cordon-Ragot (Photo: Mickael Gagne)
It was helpful to be in the Donnons des Elles au Velo chat group and we could support each other - especially as a couple of the women are nurses working in the front-line and things were stressful for them.

Things are getting better for me now, and having something like the M-1 to plan has been the best form of therapy!!

There are a few people who inspire me in my cycling. I admire Audrey Cordon-Ragot (Trek-Segafredo) who is straight-talking, and not afraid to step forward and stand up for the interests of professional cyclists. I also really like Roxane Fournier (Chevalmeire Cycling Team), who I had the pleasure to race against in the Parisian region before she turned professional. Like me, she is a sprinter who I really like to emulate. 

I also love Cecilie Uttrup Ludwig (FDJ Nouvelle-Aquitaine Futuroscope), who is a super ambassador for women's cycling. I love her fresh, spontaneous, sincere way of speaking. When you listen to Cecilie you really feel like getting on a bike and racing. And let's not forget to mention the men.....I like Mark Cavendish because he small and a sprinter, like me, and he is a bit of a rebel!

Shared cause and celebration: Donnons des Elles au Velo and an InternationElle (M.Gagne)
Being part of Donnons des Elles au Vélo means a lot to me. 

I really like the human aspect of it, and how it brings so many different people together - amateurs and professionals, cyclists and triathletes, or skiers - French with foreigners, young riders with experienced racers, men and one cares where you are from, or where you're going, but we are all together for one common cause - to advance cycling for women.

Other Cycling Voices
Maria Canins

Janet Birkmyre

Monica and Paola Santini

Cecilie Uttrup Ludwig

Jenni Gwiazdowski

Sarah Strong

Rochelle Gilmore

Rebecca Charlton

Giorgia Bronzini

Emily Chappell

Friday, 8 May 2020

Lockdown London brings out large number of cyclists

In this period of lockdown people have made the most of the rules allowing us to go out once a day for cycling, running or walking. Suddenly large numbers of joggers are pounding the streets and parks up and down the country. My local park which is normally empty first thing in the morning when I go running, suddenly has many other keen athletes who have had the same idea as me - getting in their runs while they can be socially distant from the dog walkers and other numerous park users.

Given that we can't travel out of our neighbourhoods the roads are suddenly eerily devoid of vehicles. In my neighbourhood there are key workers like supermarket delivery vans, utility engineers, dustbin lorries, postmen and women, plus buses. But there are hardly any private vehicles.

Then when you go into central London the place is even more deserted. Trafalgar Square at 1pm on a week-day looks more like 7am on a Sunday morning. It's extraordinary.

So with such quiet roads, that has led to one thing - so many people are getting their bikes out. People of all ages and abilities are going out cycling - either one their own, with a member of their household, or as a family (as per the Government rules).

London has become Amsterdam - or even Copenhagen. Yes, I have even seen people on cargo bikes carrying their children. Mind you, that was in leafy burbs like Dulwich and Richmond.

It was even striking that when taking my bike to the repair shops for for tweaks I was turned away as the shop was already overwhelmed with so many bookings for bike servicing.

When I have ridden through central London recently I have been quite blown away by the number of cyclists wending their way around Westminster, Camden, Islington, The City.

It makes me want to quote something allegedly said by HG Wells, "Every time I see an adult on a bicycle, I no longer despair for the future of the human race."

Or to quote another inspirational figure, John F Kennedy, "Nothing compares to the simple pleasure of a bike ride."

For sure it's a great pleasure to ride through London on days like these, and I am determined to make the most of this opportunity during the lockdown. It certainly adds a chink of brightness to London - despite the gloomy veil of coronavirus hanging over us.

Notably, the World Health Organization recently advised that people consider cycling or walking whenever feasible, as a way to maintain social distancing and  meet the minimum exercise requirements since we are spending a lot of time at home. Details on active transport are giving in it's information sheets on Moving Around during the COVID-19 outbreak.

There has been talk of more pop-up cycle lanes being installed in London as a way to encourage more people to choose cycling as a mode of transport, in a hope that social distancing on the public transport network can still be maintained.

To facilitate cycling in the post-lockdown period the Transport Minister, Grant Shapps announced some new measures. The government plans to install pop-up bike lanes with protected space for cycling, wider pavements, safer junctions, and cycle and bus-only corridors in England as part of a £250 million emergency active travel fund. This is the first stage of a £2 billion investment, as part of the £5 billion in new funding announced for cycling and buses in February.

In London the Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan has said that new measures would include temporary cycle lanes along Euston Road and Park Lane, an upgrade to existing cycles lanes, as well as pavements being widened at 20 locations including Brixton and Earl's Court.
This all sounds positive news and I hope that the authorities do honour their pledge.

Furthermore, various organisations and shops are providing bicycles or cycle support to key workers (people employed mainly in the NHS, schools, supermarkets, and others providing key services).

Brompton have provided free bike hire of its folding bicycles for NHS workers, and Cycling UK via funding from the Department for Transport are providing grants to independent bike shops and mechanics to provide free bike maintenance and parts.

In any case, the weather in London has been glorious these last few months, and even on the current network, the facilities are there for people to ride their own bike or a Transport for London bike. So it is worth getting out on two wheels on London streets these days - all while maintaining a social distance, of course.

Related posts
Coronavirus Lockdown

Cycle route: South London to Westminster and Chelsea

 Rapha Festive 500: East and Central London

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Friday, 10 April 2020

Cyclists battle through the lockdown

I recently worked on an article for Cycling Weekly about cycling during lockdown, and how professional cycle racers are managing to stay fit and healthy during this period.
Opening pages of the Cycling Weekly feature I co-wrote with Rebecca Charlton
There's nothing more frustrating than not being able to do the sport you love. But spare a thought for those who cycle train and race for a living - those whose lives are dominated by a timetable of races, and a training schedule plus lifestyle based on being on top form for your next race.

Imaging you are all set to thrash it out on the roads of Belgium or Italy at the Spring Classics races, then suddenly you are told that you have to stop everything and staying indoors for the foreseeable future. That has been the case for those professional cycle racers living in Italy, Spain and France. Strictly speaking, it's possible to cycle outdoors in France but given the rules only one hour of exercise within a 1km-radius of home, biking options outdoors are quite limited.

Attilo Viviani, the younger brother of World Track Cycling Champion Elia Viviani had endured a 10-day lockdown in Abu Dhabi when the United Arab Emirates Tour was abruptly ended after some team members tested positive for Coronavirus. He then returned to his home in Verona, only to be enter into another lockdown throughout Italy the following week.

"This is my first season as a pro so it is strange for me, but also for guys aged 35 as well - no one has ever lived through a season like this. To stay motivated, I speak to our Italian Director Sportive, Roberto Damiani every couple of days."

Then Elisa Longo Borghini didn't even get to race at all. After overcoming an early-season flu which precluded her from competing in the Omloop Het Niewsblad race, she was all set to do the Strade Bianche a race where she has previously performed well. But the computer said no, and she has had to stay at home.

"I had been really in shape for the Spring Classics. So now it's like starting winter training again; I have space in my house to do gym work and the rollers. Using Zwift helps, as the time passes faster than with just music. [....] I just have to believe things will come good. I need to do what my trainer says and what my country says, to protect the weakest. My motivation to train is knowing that once I am able to wear an Italian jersey, I will wear it with pride." 

For new rider, Teniel Campbell she has had a lot to process. In this, her first year as professional, after arriving from Trinidad and Tobago and completing the UCI training course in Switzerland, Campbell was all set to make her mark. She became the first woman from Trinidad and Tobago to qualify for the Tokyo Olympics cycle road race, and with her Valcar-Travel & Service Team she had finished in the top five in a few races.

Based in Bergamo, the epicentre of the pandemic in Italy, and for a time in Europe, Campbell has had to deal not just with being unable to ride as normal, but also living alone through the angst, anxiety and ambulance sirens far away from her family.

"Initially professional riders could train on the roads, and my coach told me I must always cycling in the company of another rider, which was safer because some drivers got angry at us when they saw us on the roads and would honk their horns a lot more. But now under complete quarantine, the only time I go outdoors is to the supermarket or to take out the garbage.

"It has become a mental challenge. I am alone in the house and I am also now training alone indoors. However, I have the necessary support both in Trinidad and Tobago and from my team here in Italy. I have realised I do not know how not to be an athlete. For two years, I have been a full-time elite athlete 24 hours a day - training, stressing my body, coming home tired, eating, sleeping.[....] Now there is more free time, I must find a way to make the most of my time and be productive. It's not easy, but this too shall pass." 

No doubt turbo trainers and Zwift apps are getting used to the maximum right now, and I guess there's a lot of discipline and self-control needed to avoid the biscuit tin or the wine rack.
In addition, team support has become ever more important, with sports directors, coaches, and other team mates having to look out for one another, as the mental health is just important, if not more important than the physical health of the riders.

It is not clear how long the lockdown will continue for, or when this dreaded disease will subside, but we can only hope that riders and teams will come out on the other side of this scourge without long-lasting scars.

Here is the full article on the Cycling Weekly website

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52 Cycling Voices: Rebecca Charlton

Tuesday, 24 March 2020

Coronavirus Lockdown!

So, after all this talk of coronavirus firstly hitting Asia, then coming over and ravaging Northern Italy the thing just got all the more real, now that it has arrived in the UK and has claimed the first few victims.
Breeze Yoga, like other leisure places, sadly had to close
After what appeared to be a smug insouciance by many, including the UK Prime Minister, we have been forced to face the harsh reality that Coronavirus disease, Covid-19 (offically known as SARS-CoV-2) is taking hold of the country. In short, we are in deep s***.

Folks thought that it might be the capricious behaviour of certain world leaders, or even Brexit that might cause a socioeconomic meltdown. But no, all it has taken to bring the country into disarray is a tiny monster. And it is tiny. This organism of just one thousandth the size of a pinhead is causing havoc to countries across the world.

I was saddened to hear about what was happening in Asia, when the disease intially struck China, South Korea and parts of Japan.

However, I must admit I felt a certain complacency about the situation knowing they had overcome the first SARS outbreak 17 years ago, and so they would have the means to overcome this not dissimilar situation. I also perceived it has a problem that could potentially affect people in the UK, but not to any life-changing extent.

But then when I heard about the number of people killed there, it became more of a talking point. While I was in Milan, and then skiing in Courmayeur and Chamonix at the start of February coronavirus was a prominent talking point on the Italian news programmes. At that time a couple of people with the disease had been identified in Rome. But in a way people weren't so alarmed because they were folks who had returned from China, and as they were in isolation everything seemed under control.

But then one Sunday evening in late February when I was looking at the figures showing the number of coronavirus cases around the world, I was shocked to see how many people in Milan and the Lombardy region had been affected.

Once the disease had come to Italy everyone instantly knew it would be a matter of time before the scourge would arrive on UK shores.

My friend Silvia, who lives in Milan, spoke to me from her flat where she was holed up due to the government-imposed isolation measures. The thing that struck me was when she said that she did not mind being stuck there if it would help protect people, notably her elderly parents, from succumbing to the disease.

You need this when you go out in Italy during Lockdown
It was then that I first heard about the horror of people who die being left with no loved ones around them. Such is the contagious nature of the disease that sufferers can't make contact with anyone other than the hospital physicians and nurses.

Apparently some seriously patients, on realising that their days were numbered would ask to see their daughter or their husband, only to be told this wasn't allowed. I couldn't think of anything more heartbreaking and ruthless.

The other measures in place in Italy seemed equally alarming. No one in Italy is allowed to go outdoors at all unless it is to see a doctor or pharmacist, or to go to the supermarket. Even then, only one member of the family is allowed to go out and do the shopping and you can only go once a week. Furthermore, you have to go to the nearest supermarket to your home.

No outdoor exercises are permitted including cycling, but dog-walking within 200m of your home is okay.

All this was underpinned by a special form, known as an "autocertificazione". The form has your name, address, date of birth, ID number, reason you're going out and address of the place you're going to. You take the form with you every time you go outdoors, and be ready to show it to the police if you are stopped. Failure to have the form, or a breach of the rules leads to a heavy fine and potentially a prison sentence.

Italy had suddenly become a police state.

And now, given that there are over 8,000 who have tested positive with 422 deaths, including 87 in the last 24 hours the government has decreed the same measures in the UK as in other major European countries - well almost the same. We are allowed to go out and do one form of exercise - cycling or running; there is no time or distance limit, though we just have to make sure we maintain a social distance of at least 2m from others. We can do the activity alone, or just with members of our own household, but we can't do group activities.

So there you have it. We are offially in lockdown.

My first inkling that things were going wrong for us was last Tuesday when the Prime Minister, Boris Johnson announced that schools would be closing at the end of the week, and then on Friday he suddenly announced that sports centres and bars should close with immediate effect.

At that point I rushed out to get in my final class at Breeze Yoga. When I parted company with the instructors and other regulars some were optimistically seeing it as a couple of months' pause to catch up on other things. But now, given the extent of the disease I suspect that I won't be seeing the guys from Breeze at the end of May. In fact, given that so many businesses are now in trouble as a result of the enforced closure I really hope Breeze Yoga stays afloat through this difficult period.

As for me, I am just going to hope that I can stay in employment as well as remaining healthy. We have a physical and mental health lifeline in the shape of being able to go out and be active, as well as cycling. So I intend to make the most of that opportunity. Here's hoping that the Covid-19 reaches its peak soon so that we can then return to some semblance of normality as sooner rather than later. (Though sadly, it could be later.)

Tuesday, 17 March 2020

52 Cycling Voices - 28: Maria Canins

For those who are into cycling history the name, Maria Canins may well be of note to you. She was one of the stand-out acts in women's cycling during the 1980s. La mamma volante (the flying mum), as she was affectionately known by her Italian compatriots, won 20 races between 1982 and 1995. Bear in mind that this was at a time when there weren't many women's international races.

Apart from the World Championships, the big international races in those days were the Tour de France, Giro Femminile (Tour of Italy), Coors Classic (Tour of Colorado), Norwegian Post Giro, and Trofeo Alfredo Binda. Maria won the Trofeo Alfredo Binda four times - a feat that has only been matched by Marianne Vos - and the women's Tour de France twice.

The modern-day calendar still includes those races (apart from the Tour de France) as well as many other international professional races. The women's Tour de France was originally held as a subsidiary race concurrently with the men's professional event, (over a short section of selected stages of the men's race) between 1984 and 1989. Thereafter the event was spun off into a separate stand-alone women's stage race under various names, most recently La Grande Boucle Feminine, until it was last held in 2009.

Now in her 70s, Maria enjoys the good life in the Italian Dolomites, where she has lived all her life. I caught up with Maria Canins recently and she reminisced about her racing days, and talked about her cycling today.

Maria Canins, 
aged 70

Lives: La Villa, Italy

Women's Tour de France Winner (1985 and 1986); Cycle tour guide in the Dolomites

I got into cycling when I was a competitive cross-country skier, and I would sometimes ride a bike as part of my training. 

What got me into cycle racing was the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics where they had the first women’s road race. 

In 1982 the Italian Cycling Federation was looking for athletes who were good enough climbers to tackle the hilly course at the upcoming Olympics. 

There was a lack of good climbers in the Italian cycle squad, so a coach came to the cross-country teams and presented the idea of trying cycle racing with a view to competing in the Olympics.  

No one in my team wanted to do it, but I was quite enthusiastic and decided to have a go – it sounded great. They sent me a training programme and a racing schedule that included a few hilly races. At my first race in June 1982 I came 7th, in my second race I came second, and I won my third race. I found I was quite strong in the hills and was able to stay with the select group, and be in the final sprint for the line with the few remaining riders. 

So based on my strength I was able to compete in the 1982 World Championships in England at Goodwood. There, I came second behind Mandy Jones. And so I became so enthusiastic about cycling and things just continued from there. 

I enjoyed cycle racing so much more than skiing because it gave me the opportunity to travel, and see lots of places. Cycling allows you to go out in the streets, look around and get to see different places.

The 1980s saw a growth in women's cycling, generally led by the Americans. The first women’s Olympic road race was held in Los Angeles, and that was of huge interest to everyone as well as the media. The race was won by Connie Carpenter, and Rebecca Twigg got silver - two American racers. 

America was always a good place to launch something new. I did the Tour of Colorado a few times, and when I did it we were treated the same as professional male cyclists, with television coverage, journalists and the public who were interested. 

The Europeans were like "wow"; they wanted to copy what the Americans were doing. This gave a boost to women's cycle racing.

I didn't do the first women's Tour de France in 1984 because I was at the Olympics, so my first one was in 1985. 
Canins on the col d'Izoard (1986) ( Rene Boulay)

The women's Tour de France was a wonderful new experience for me. I didn’t know France very well so it was great to see more of the country.

I have great memories of us racing for many days in many different places. We were constantly packing our suitcases to go to the different parts of France.

Having the Tour de France on television made it like a big party. There were loads of people in the street. We did our race before the men's – the professional race. 

When we raced it was more like a hobby as women's cycle racing wasn't professional, but we still had a lot of spectators. 

There was a lot of press and interest from the French. Around Grenoble there were many Italians fans too. They were Italian immigrants, nostalgic for their former country and so they really enjoyed watching Italian riders in the women’s race. 

There was a male Italian rider called Vesantini who was quite strong, but during the Tour de France he was a bit slow, so the Italian journalists focused more on my results than on his. I was riding well and was also a novelty in every sense - being a woman, not very young - aged 35, having my daughter, Concetta [now a journalist and lawyer] with me. I had only recently started cycle racing having done cross-country skiing and had won championships in that sport a few years before. I even made the cover of Gazzetta dello Sport newspaper.  

It was great to be on the podium with the men's winners. I shared the podium with Greg Lemond and after with Pedro Delgado, and Stephen Roche.

I retired from cycle racing because when I was at the top I didn't feel I could get any stronger. The cycle of preparing myself psychologically for a race, getting to the start line, talking to journalists got really demanding. I was no longer enjoying it and I realised it was time to get out. 

Nowadays there are international stage races of eight or ten days, but it is not like the Tour de France that we had in our day which took place at the same time as the men's race. 

I think the fact that it was possible to hold a Tour de France in the 1980s means that it would surely be possible to do that today . All that’s needed is the wish to do it, and it would be wonderful. Nowadays there are massive sponsors, so it’s only fair that there be a women’s event. They just need to allocate a bit of television time for women’s professional cycling.  

Sometimes you have stages in the men’s race where there isn't anything interesting happening. So during that time you could do a quarter of an hour of the women’s race – a type of round-up in which you show highlights of the women's race including the winner, and then return to broadcasting the men’s race. 

All that is needed is a quarter of an hour out of a three- or four-hour long men's race. This wouldn’t need to be so much extra work, in my opinion. It’s important to give more broadcasting time to women’s cycling, and also give the spectators something else to see. 

Women's Tour de France attracted a lot of public interest (Rene Boulay)
I know there are many logistics involved and the organisers mention that, but when you don’t want to do something it’s natural that you will find a reason to not do it and say that the logistics make it impossible. 

In short, the organisers have a budget for the Tour de France, but it seems that they’re not prepared to add much else, like a women's stage race, to the event.

I must say I prefer the racing from the 1980s rather than what it is today. When I raced I never had to use an earpiece. I didn't have anyone saying to me “now you have to attack” “now you have to go in the breakaway” “attack on the climb." I think this is absolutely wrong. 

In my opinion an athlete should be strong, and also be able to read the race and race intelligently. Yeah, losing out because of a tactical error is part and parcel of racing, and if you don’t win you learn something and think about how you will do better next time. I don’t understand how a person can race with an earpiece. A racer is not a machine. 

Cycle racing was a lot more raw back in those days. When you watch someone attack on a climb for 5km or 10km you don't know if they will stay ahead of the bunch or if they will get caught. This sort of thing is what makes cycling wonderful, and a great spectacle on TV. 

Yes, I sometimes I got it right - sometimes I got it wrong. It's like when playing a game of cards, and you have to decide when to play or not play an Ace or a Joker. Whatever the outcome I still enjoyed the race. 

Cycling needs moments where people can improvise and get things right or wrong. That’s what makes cycling great. Riders don’t have radios during the World Championships, but then suddenly people don’t know how to race – even those who have been racing for 20 years - because they're so used to using earpieces. How miserable is that! No, I don’t like earpieces.

Of course, sponsorship has a lot to do with the way cycling has gone. We didn't have so much sponsorship in my day. It's only fair that sponsors want something back after spending so much money. For sure, cycle racing needs money, but when there’s too much it spoils cycling – the races, the athletes, sometimes taking a psychological toll on them.  

Also women’s professional cycling is a bit strange nowadays because although there is more money, there is less coverage compared to the 1980s. People don't seem that interested in women’s cycling, unless a woman does something particularly impressive. I think that applies to all women’s sport, not just cycling. 

Women's cycling is seen very much as a minority sport with a lot fewer fans than men's professional cycling. In the area where I live, in Alta Badia there are many women cyclists who cycle as a hobby, but no women’s professional cycle racing. 

Often when I look on the internet to find out about, say the Giro Rosa (Women’s Tour of Italy) to know when or where the stage starts, who won, etc I can’t find anything so - I just don’t know what has happened in the race! Nothing is reported in the local paper unless the race starts or finishes right in that town. 

Maratona dles Dolomiti (By Maratona dles Dolomiti organisers)
It just seems like women’s professional cycling is snubbed around here. Women's professional cycling is invisible.

Nowadays I still ride - usually about four times a week. I am also a cycle tour guide and do rides during the week of the Maratona dles Dolomites

We have around 20 or 30 people in the group and we ride at a leisurely pace. I enjoy these rides, showing the people the area, talking about the local culture and history, and taking photos.

We get a lot of young women who join the rides too. They look so elegant in their chic jerseys and shorts on stylish bikes. Sometimes they worry about not being able to manage the Passo Gardena or the Passo Pordoi. But then they only need to look at me and how old I am, and they think to themselves "if she is doing it at her age then I should be capable too!" I usually ride the Maratona too, with my daughter and a friend.

With the current situation with Coronavirus things aren't going well in Italy. The tourists have left and there is no one in the streets. In this area of Alta Badia there are only a few people infected compared to other regions, but we still have to follow the measures in place.This is not the time to be selfish.

Dolomites viewed from Passo di Sella
It's not easy to stay at home all the time, but I prefer to go out as little as possible, and be safe. 

It’s a difficult situation, but we are staying calm. People aren’t panicking but they’re scared for the future.

I normally go out and do  activities like walking, cycling and skiing, but with the Coronavirus I am finding other things to do at home. People are having to learn to change their lifestyles.

At times like this I feel lucky to be blessed with beautiful countryside in Alta Badia. But I realise that life isn’t always beautiful. Life also has things that aren't so good and we have to know how to deal with that. As an old lady that's how I see things at least! 

But overall, when I look out of the window at the beautiful landscape, the animals and breathe in the clean air of the Dolomites I feel grateful to still have these lovely things to appreciate. 

Other Cycling Voices
Janet Birkmyre

Monica and Paola Santini

Jenni Gwiazdowski/Bike Kitchen

Judith Worrall

Helen Wyman

Rochelle Gilmore

Gema Fernandez Hernando

Giorgia Bronzini

Tracy Moseley

Lucy and Grace Garner

Carolyn Hewett-Maessen

Maria David

Tuesday, 10 March 2020

Cycle route: South London to Westminster and Chelsea

Cycling through London need not be an experience to be endured. Many people fear riding through the streets of the capital, thinking that it is at best a test of battling through traffic negotiating unfriendly motorists, and at worst a pure daredevil activity.

On Blackfriars Bridge - from one segregated cycle path to another, along the River Thames 
As someone who has cycled around London since 2001, I must say that cycling in Central London is not so bad. Facilities for cyclists have improved a lot in recent years, particularly with the advent of the Cycle Superhighways, Quiet Ways, and the Transport for London bike sharing scheme for those who need a bike.

I have been riding the Liv Thrive E+ E-bike and found it really useful for getting around London. It's particularly good if you are new to cycling and/or you don't want to exert yourself too much when riding. As someone who lives in a hilly part of London, I know what it means to exert yourself when cycling!

So here's a loop I recommend when cycling from South London, into Central London and back again.

Entrance to Dulwich Park with the Picture Gallery opposite
Start off in Crystal Palace, where you can ride up through Crystal Palace Park, and exit the park on the East side to arrive at the top of Crystal Palace Park Road.

A bus lane and an assisted crossing can get you onto Fountain Drive, where you drop down a speedy descent through the toll road section of College Road. 

I always feel good going down the road and not having to stop to pay, unlike the motorists queuing at the barrier near Dulwich College.    

College road leads into Dulwich Village, where you can stop off at the Park, the Picture Gallery opposite, or at one of the cafes on the main street. 
It's quite a nice corner of the world.

Onwards and the road continues straight on to Red Post Hill, which on the E-bike felt effortless. On a manual push-bike the climb is not too steep, and is the last climb before reaching Central London. What goes up must come down, and true to form the road drops down to Loughborough Junction - what I call the gateway to inner London. 

From here the route goes past social housing estates at the back of Brixton and Camberwell, before crossing a quiet road that leads behind Kennington Park and eventually emerging at Elephant and Castle.

The main street through Dulwich Village, which has a few cafes
Now, this is a junction, which in the past has been a place that many cyclists have avoided. But in recent years a lot of work has been done to develop a cycle-friendly passage across the junction.

And I must say, it is very good now. There is a segregated path that runs alongside the junction and cycle specific traffic lights.

Then another paths leads towards Lambeth North and you can pick up a segregated Cycle Superhighway that goes through Southwark and all the way to Clerkenwell if you feel like heading that way.

The route I took went over Blackfriar's Bridge and then I turned immediately left to ride alongside the River Thames on another segregated Cycle Superhighway that goes past all the famous landmarks of London - The Oxo Tower, The Eye, The National Theatre, right up to Westminster and the Houses of Parliament. Still following the segregated path you go across to Parliament Square and Great George Street to reach the serenity of St James's Park and Buckingham Palace.

I felt spoiled for choice to be able to either ride up the Mall or Birdcage Walk, both of which have cycle lanes. I went on the latter (as I have ridden up the Mall loads of times in the past) and then cut in front of Buck House to then ride along the side of Green Park on, you've guessed it - another segregated cycle path.

Birdcage Walk on the way to see the Queen!
 Then it was a case of going under Wellington Arch to enter Hyde Park, along South Carriage Drive, and when I was almost level with Harrods I left the park to head into Chelsea along some quiet streets and make my way back home via Belgravia and Pimlico, and over Vauxhall Bridge to regain the depths of South London.

This was a very pleasant 22-mile loop around London, with lots of traffic-free sections and rides on traffic-light roads. I would certainly recommend this route even to a newby rider.

Of course there are various sections where you can do a shorter ride and just do the section nearest to your home. Depending on current rules you may wish to photograph the various pretty sights and landmarks you will spot along the way.

Cycle Superhighway along the River Thames towards Westminster

Here is the route as recorded on Strava.

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