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

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Thursday 21 May 2020

London gears up for more bike riders

It's official. Bike riding is very much on - even if other activities are off. And many people have been gearing up for it in this glorious weather (excuse the pun). Folks are buying bicycles or digging out their old bikes and taking to the streets up and down the country.

Many businesses have suffered during this coronavirus crisis, but bike shops have remained buoyant with some having their busiest period ever, especially as they were on the list of essential shops that could remain open.

With such quiet roads, people have taken the opportunity to cycle around unhindered with their families. Even my brother was able to go out riding with his seven-year old daughter on the roads near his home without any problem.

Now that people are steadily resuming work, the government is strongly encouraging us to cycle, in order to ease the strain on public transport and maintain social distancing. Extra pop-up lanes have been constructed too.

I think this is great, and it has been one of the few glimmers of light in what has otherwise been a rather grim period.

I must say, though that despite the efforts being made by local councils to erect pop-up lanes there are still people who want to complain about the government not doing enough for cyclists in the UK.

Central Paris, near Chatelet and Rivoli
People have a tendency to post photos of cycle lanes in other countries and then automatically claim that their system is better than what exists in our country - then proceed to slam the government.

Personally, I find that kind of talk quite tiresome. Firstly, from my experience of cycling around cities around Europe and beyond, most major cities don't have a cycling infrastructure that is so much better than what you find in London.

I have been doing conversation exchanges with folks in France, Spain and Italy recently and one thing I have found interesting is that every one of these folks - based in Paris, Toulouse, Valencia, Madrid, Milan, Verona, Bari, Florence, Brussels have all said that they do not enjoy cycling around their cities because it is too dangerous. Only one woman, based in Lyon said that she would be happy to ride around her city.

Bridge going to Saint-Michel
Interestingly, I have recently seen photos people have post on Twitter, showing these great cycling plans and lanes in Brussels and in Milan - and yes, you've guessed it - they dismissed London's efforts as comparatively poor!

I wrote an article earlier this year in which I compared the achievements of London mayor Sadiq Khan, with those of his counterpart in Paris, Anne Hidalgo. Both mayors were up for re-election this year (until COVID-19 halted the process).

Where Khan had realised around 90% of his plans for London, Hidalgo had only achieved 60%. Yet people began to rave about her plans to make Paris a 100% cycling city by 2024 with every street in Paris being cycle friendly. I am always sceptical about politicians announcing ambitious plans for the future - especially when they have fallen short with their pledges in the current manifesto. (Where have I heard that before?!)

As someone who uses a bicycle as my mode of transport whenever I visit Paris, I have found my experience of cycling around the French capital to be quite pleasant. Who wouldn't enjoy pedaling down the traffic-free path along the River Seine in the shadows of Notre Dame, the Eiffel Tower, and the Louvre? But that's just the equivalent of someone going along the cycle superhighway on the Embankment in London, with the Eye, the South Bank, and the Palace of Westminster opposite.

Cycle path along the River Seine near Chatelet
Meanwhile in Paris I get dumped off this lovely path along the River Seine and find myself on Place de la Concorde ready to start the fun and games of getting across that big square, when there's no specific cycle lane.

It's even more fun riding up the world's most famous avenue, Champs Elysees, and mixing it with all the traffic. Fortunately there are so many sets of traffic lights to stop at that vehicles can't really pick up any speed, so it's not so intimidating.

The merry-go-round continues at the Arc de Triomphe roundabout with its 12 - yes 12 exits. You are on the right (as is the case in Europe) and you need to turn left to get to the Eiffel Tower. Try negotiating that when there is no system. It's just every man, woman, and their dog for themselves and you just have to wing it and grow a few extra pairs of eyes - and balls!

Birdcage Walk, near Buckingham Palace
Back in London, the nearest we have to that is Hyde Park Corner, which is a comparatively dull, uneventful affair as you are guided safely across the round through Wellington Arch via a set of pedestrian/cycle/horse crossings.

Of course, you can always jazz things up if you choose to ride your bike around that roundabout. No doubt there are people who do so, and then complain that London roads aren't set up to accommodate cyclists! But the vast majority of people use the available cycling facility.

Then with cycle lanes through Hyde Park, and now Park Lane, and cycle paths going back towards Buckingham Palace, with dedicated cycle traffic lights cyclists have a perfectly safe and trouble-free passage across the most famous parts of Central London.

I just randomly chose Paris as the comparator, but if I substituted Paris for other cities (apart from Copenhagen and Amsterdam) similar issues would be noted. But I think you get my point, dear reader. My point is that riding through the centre of other major cities is pleasant enough, but the issues there are not so different from what is London. In fact, in few ways, London fares better.

Cycling through Central Paris at rush hour
So, I am reluctant to knock the cycling facilities in London, as I feel that they are quite good, and furthermore the Mayor of London has a lot more to juggle compared with other cities.

Sadiq Khan has a surface area to manage that is in some cases five times the size of other major European cities. Furthermore, with permission needing to be granted from each of the 33 boroughs that make up London, it makes the planning and decision-making process much more complicated than other City Councils that just deal with local government in that city alone, and maybe central government.

These factors definitely have a bearing on the way things are done, and I think that all things considered we haven't done so badly. So in these times of coronavirus I would prefer to celebrate what is being done for cycling rather than criticize it.
Cycle superhighway on Blackfriars Bridge

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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.

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.

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,

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

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

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.

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 (

I also love Cecilie Uttrup Ludwig (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

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.

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