Monday, 18 October 2021

Cycling in Paris - La vie est belle!


When I lived in Paris almost 30 years ago I never thought of travelling around by bicycle. Cycling was something I did while on holiday or as a special excursion out with friends. 
I only knew one person who travelled around Paris by bike, and he was a bit "bohemian" so I just saw it as part of his ways. Seeing cyclists go around the Bastille roundabout, or even worse the Charles de Gaulle Etoile roundabout with its 12 avenues radiating from the Arc de Triomphe made me think they must have a screw loose or are even on a death wish! 

But 30 years on, I have happily joined those folks. There is a difference though nowadays. I have just returned from a trip to Paris with my bike, and I must say it was very pleasant.

Commuting by bike is very much part of Parisian culture, and everyone seems to be doing it!

Over the years, various improvements have been made to the infrastructure to accommodate cyclists. I first noticed changes about 15 years ago, the first time I cycled from London to Paris. At that time the famous Vélib bike sharing bikes had just been introduced (the first major city in the world to have this system), and there was a segregated bike lane that went all along the boulevards north of the River Seine (the right bank) following the same route as Line 2 of the métro (Porte Dauphine to Nation). 



















It was great whizzing along there, even if you had to dodge the odd vehicle parked in the bike lane, or the errant pedestrian! Outside of this lane there weren't many segregated bike lanes - just cursory lines painted on the road. So it was no different from London. 

Personally, I was still happy to ride around Paris though, as by then I had started doing a lot of bike riding, be it my daily commute, training rides or cycle races. Also I felt confident navigating around Central London by bike, so I didn't imagine cycling in Central Paris would be much worse. 

The thing I did notice, and continue to see even now, is just how compact Paris really is. Back in those days I lived in the 12th district (arrondissement) next to the Marché d'Aligre. To get to Chatelet-les Halles would be about a half-hour by métro. But by bike you can do it in about 20 minutes. These days when I visit Paris I stay in Vincennes, a nearby Eastern suburb. To cycle there from Gare du Nord just takes half an hour.

Funnily enough when I lived in Paris back then, I thought any suburb was a long way away. But through cycling, I have realised that places really aren't that far away. 



















In the last four or five years there has been a massive growth in the number of cycle lanes in Paris. As well as the "line 2" cycle lane there are segregated lanes in many other places. My ride from Chatelet to Vincennes (via the Marais, Bastille, Faubourg Saint-Antoine, Nation, Cour de Vincennes) takes in separated lanes. Then there are cycle lanes along the "boulevard exterieur" (the boundary between Paris and the suburbs), plus along both sides of the River Seine. The right bank is actually a traffic-free path, the Voie Georges Pompidou, with various other activities going on - running, rollerskating, picnics, mini expeditions, and a few hammocks if you want to just lounge and watch the world go by. 

These days there are loads of people on all kinds of bikes - all shapes, sizes, genders, race, levels of fitness (and competencies), dressed however they want - some even with mini sound systems blaring out. It's great to see this democratisation of cycling. 

The improved infrastructure has largely been as a result of the policies of Paris Mayor, Anne Hidalgo, who is aiming to reduce pollution in Paris by slashing motorised traffic, and promising a bike lane in every street in Paris.

Last year I interviewed Jean-Sébatien Catier of Paris en Selle, Paris's answer to the London Cycling Campaign and they had similar gripes to their London counterparts - not enough was being done. 

However, it was acknowledged that for changes to be made to the cycling infrastructure, the road layout is altered and this needs approval from the Home Office (Ministère de l'Interieur). So it's all in the bureaucracy - just like London Mayor Sadiq Khan has to get the green light from each London Borough before he can change the road layout. 

A couple of other points of interest around the Paris cycling network are a) they took ideas from the London Cycle Superhighway network when they designed their lanes, which is interesting considering that folks in London regularly slam the London Cycling network and b) Anne Hidalgo was up for reelection last year (postponed to this year due to the pandemic). She was unanimously voted in for a second term, and now she's just been confirmed as the Socialist Party candidate in the upcoming Presidential elections. 

Does that remind you of a trajectory of another Mayor of a capital city across the English Channel who put in place a decent cycle network and later ended up as head of state....?? 

That aside, I would certainly recommend taking a bike to Paris. It really enhances your experience of a trip to this beautiful city. Granted, it's not yet Amsterdam or Copenhagen, but it's definitely going in the right direction.


Friday, 15 October 2021

Excitement at the reborn Women's Tour de France - it doesn't need to be three weeks long!

At Palais des Congrès, Paris
Yesterday I attended the presentation of the 2022 Tour de France, at the Palais des Congrés at Porte Maillot, Paris. 

It's a pretty big affair with the auditorium being packed out with a couple of thousand people - among them, team riders, sponsors, dignitaries, community cycling groups, and journalists. 

This event always garners excitement - finding out what novelties there will be in the route, but the really noteworthy thing was the unveiling of the route of the inaugural Women's Tour de France. 

Yes, a women's version of the men's 108-year old event will take place next year. As the men finish their race on Champs Elysees on 24th July, the women will begin their event shortly afterwards at the Eiffel Tower.

The race will then consist eight stages, all in the North Eastern part of France, and will have use the infrastructure of the men's event organised by Amaury Sports Organisation, as well as being televised.

After the 82km-race around central Paris, the remaining stages will be around 130km, passing through towns like Meaux, Epernay, Troyes, Bar-le-Duc, with a 175km-stage to Saint Die Des Vosges and finish on the really challenging Superplanche des Belles Filles. 

Auditorium filling up at Palais des Congrès

Although they will only be racing for eight days, the women will have some pretty tough stages. A couple of stages will include steep gravel roads, and a couple of stages will go over the Grande Ballon, the Petit Ballon, and the Ballon d'Alsace - some infamously steep hills in the Vosges regions. 

The stage race will see an exciting end as women have to race up the 20%+ gradients of the Superplanche des Belles Filles, and sprint to the finish line along a 1km uphill stretch of gravel road.

These stages do look exciting, and it will be great to see them getting the scheduled two-hours' TV coverage that was announced, as women contesting for a share of the 250,000-euro (£210k) prize fund.

This is not the first time an ASO-organised women's Tour de France is taking place. This event took place between 1984 and 1989, with the winning woman being pictured on the podium alongside the winning man. The women did not win any prize money, and the event was not televised (though there was print media coverage). However, the event was not financially viable and was difficult to manage logistically.

Much campaigning has been done for a women's ASO-organised event that would get the same coverage, and be on par with the men's event. Since 2014, a one-day race, La Course has taken place during the Tour de France, on the route of one stage of the Tour de France, and that was televised. However, activists were quite dissatisfied with the event and saw it as a token gesture.

When this women's route was revealed, the audience response was positive, with spontaneous applause. The professional women racers I spoke to - Audrey Cordon-Ragot, Cecilie Uttrup Ludwig, Elisa Balsamo, and Evita Muzic - for Cycling News, were glad to have Tour de France and saw the route as correct, and in line with their expectations.

Tour de France Femmes with Zwift 2022 route

Some observers have bemoaned the fact that this so-called Tour of France is only concentrated within one region within Northern France, and is only eight stages long. But it has to be understood that a) women's road racing teams are smaller than men's teams (~13 riders vs. 30 respectively) and so there is less rotation of riders in races. Riders end up doing different types of races back-to-back, where men's teams operate a double roster. So a women's team doesn't have enough riders to compete in three-week stage races; 

b) there are a few stage races taking place within a short time frame - the Women's Tour of Italy, the Women's Tour, and another new stage race in Scandinavia (Battle of the North), so rider well-being needs to be kept in mind when setting out the number of stages in a race (as well as following the UCI rules on the length of races); c) over an eight-stage race it would be impractical to move the whole peloton across large geographic areas of France within an eight-day time frame.

In the last nine years that I have interviewed professional women, I have never met anyone who said they wanted to do a three-week stage race with 200km stages. It seems that these calls have been from activists who are calling out for their ideals of what equality means, independently of what current professional women's peloton actually want.

So I would rather take my lead from the feedback of the professional women racers. For them, the rebirth of a women's Tour de France is a very positive thing, and so I am inclined to agree with that. Of course, there are a few outstanding elements like a lack of a time trial stage. 

Also, the prize money, though significantly higher than other women's races is still a long way behind the 2.3M-euro (£1.9M) fund set aside for the men's Tour de France. This is something that can only really be addressed over time as media organisations gain confidence in televising women's cycle races and viewer numbers increase.

What has been announced is a good start, and I look forward to seeing the race play out next year. As Tour Director Christian Prudhomme says, I like to see it as something that will still be going in 100 year's time.

[I also wrote about the Tour de France reveal for The Times. Link here.]

Monday, 4 October 2021

Paris-Roubaix Femmes: Pre-thoughts and after-thoughts from the riders

It was great to see this big moment in history over the weekend, when women raced the Paris-Roubaix for the first time ever. I remember asking Christian Prudhomme, of Amaury Sport Organisation (ASO) in 2018, when he thought there would be a Paris-Roubaix for women. He said, at the time that they were focused on a junior race for the male riders, and that they would put on a women's race but there were time constraints and it would be something to look for in the future. Naturally, campaigners for women's cycling were not impressed with this reply.

So it was great news to hear, last year, that a woman's race would be taking place. Finally it came to pass, over the weekend, and it didn't disappoint. Although the route was less than half the distance of the men's race, being 116.4km and without the infamous Forest of Arenberg cobbles, the race was anything but easy. With the women hitting the cobbles after just 30km and going into Mons-en-Pévèle as well as Carrefour de L'Arbre, the racers will have their work cut out for them. Many women were quite clear that they would be in for a tough ride - and it certainly was.

Photo: Trek-Segafredo

There was no bunch finish for first place, as Lizzie Deignan (Trek-Segafredo) won from an 85km breakaway, with Marianne Vos (Jumbo-Visma) who made a spirited attempt to chase down the British rider, entering the famous Roubaix Velodrome more than a minute behind to finish in second place. Deignan's team-mate Elisa Longo-Borghini not far behind in third place. There was a bunch sprint of around 10 riders for the minor placings and thereafter women finished in ones and twos.  

Of 129 starters, just 61 finished, with riders either missing the time cut or dropping out following a crash, notably Annemiek Van Vleuten (Team Movistar) who crashed and broke her pelvis.

Interestingly, the race was topped and tailed by British riders, with the first placed rider being Lizzie Deignan, and the last classified finisher, in 61st place being Abby-Mae Parkinson (Lotto Soudal Ladies). 

I interviewed a number of different women before the race. It is interesting to hear a few of their reactions after their first experience of the Hell of the North:


Alice Barnes, Canyon-SRAM Racing [26th]

Before: 

"I would say it’s [Paris-Roubaix is] one of the races on the calendar that suits me the most, with it being flat, but with the cobbled aspect which will make it a tough race. So I am glad that in my lifetime I will be able to race it. Hopefully I will have some good luck and good legs and get a good result. I heard a lot of people say that there’s nothing like Roubaix cobbles. I would say in Holland or Belgium I have ridden cobbles a bit like it but I think it’s the back to back cobbles and the relentlessness that makes it a much different race from any race on the calendar. Hopefully with it being the women’s first edition we can put on a good race, and it’ll be exciting and I’ll be there in the thick of the action with the rest of my team.

"I am really excited. I do like the cobbles – I don’t know if I will be saying that at the end of Saturday, but it’s just an exciting race and I’ve watched it for years and years when there’s been the men’s racing. I’ve been inspired from that, but hopefully having a women’s edition will inspire more women to want to race the event as well."

Photo: Tino Pohlmann

After:

"To be honest, overall I am disappointed. I just didn't have the legs. I tried to block this out and just kept pushing which seemed the common advice anyway. I found myself in a group that was working fairly well together, and when I got to the velodrome, I just had to ride for the best place I could.

"I wish I could have soaked in the atmosphere at the finish, but I couldn't help but feel disappointed with how my day went. As a team, we had bad luck with losing Kasia [Niewiadoma] early and the puncture of Elise [Chabbey]  as she was really well positioned when she got this and felt she had good legs."

Asked if she would like to return to next year's edition, to be held in April, Barnes was quick to reply. "Yes, 100%. I know this can be a good race for me. I can see myself and Paris-Roubaix having a love-hate relationship for the rest of my career."


Chantal van den Broek-Blaak, SD Worx [10th]

Before:

"The cobbles are bad. They are flat, but there are holes everywhere and you need to have speed to ride over it, and that’s the problem because if you are tired you won’t have the speed anymore. And also the rests [on the tarmacked roads] in between cobbled section are so short – sometimes only 2km or 3km before going into the next section, so that makes it hard. 

"I didn’t really dream about this race when I was younger, as you don’t really know what kind of rider you are. But in the last years I have seen that I am a pure classic, one day racer. I am normally good in the Spring. I have won Flanders and Strade Bianche and those kind of races. So then you know you are able to do it; so of course when I saw this race on the calendar I was directly super-happy. That was my first reaction. My second reaction was I probably can do it, but I didn’t really know, so that made me nervous. I think I prepared well, and in the end we will see how it goes. Maybe I’m not made for it, I don’t know!" 

Photo: Tornanti
After:

"It was super tough, but what a cool race this is. I think everyone is completely empty. It was a really chaotic race, but we were sitting pretty comfortably in. I did not expect [Lizzie] Deignan's attack on the first cobblestone section, however. Super clever of her that she could stay ahead until the end with so much wind and such a tough course. Hats off."


Jolien d'Hoore, SD Worx [Finished outside time limit]

Before:

"Paris-Roubaix is just beautiful. I love it. It’s a hard race. We never experienced anything like this before so it’s going to be new for everybody and I’m really looking forward to it.

"I live on the course of Tour of Flanders and so we have cobbles, but you can’t compare them with these ones in Paris-Roubaix. The cobbles in Paris-Roubaix are more like a bunch of rocks thrown together, whereas the cobbles in Flanders are still pretty smooth.

"I am more a fan of a dry race, where it’s safe for everybody. When it’s raining it’s just going to be a matter of surviving and not crashing. And that has nothing to do with cycling anymore; I just want the best rider to win on Saturday and not the ride who has the most luck.

"Paris-Roubaix is the race I remember the most when I was a little girl. I was watching it on the television from the start until the finish. I can still remember riders like Johan Museeuw and especially Tom Boonen. I can remember 2012 when Boonen did a long solo, so it’s crazy that I am now riding on the same cobbled sections as he did. That just gives me goosebumps."

Photo: Cor Vos

After:

"It was literally hell. We explored the course in dry weather, now the cobblestones were super slippery due to the rainfall. One brake and you crashed. That's Roubaix.
Mentally it was difficult to continue the race after my second crash, but there was never a moment to give up. In my last race [of her career before retiring] I didn't want to get in the broom wagon. I had only one goal left: ignore the pain, get to the finish, and enjoy the last kilometres."


Lizzie Deignan, Trek-Segafredo, [Winner]

Before:

"Paris-Roubaix Femmes is something that should have happened long ago, but it is a big step forward in women’s cycling, and it’s great to see the respect women are gaining in cycle racing. 

"I think the course is fine as it is. When designing the course we have to think about the race and the various teams and riders involved. The most important thing is to have a women’s Paris-Roubaix. Which cobbles should or shouldn’t be included can be looked at in the future."

After:

"I feel very emotional. I am just really proud....I cannot believe it happened.... At the start of the day we said, 'you know the rulebook: anything can happen'. It was a case of just fighting to be at the front in those first cobble sections, and I knew that Ellen [van Dijk], one of our [team] leaders, was not in such a good position. And I thought, 'well if at least I am there [at the front] I can cover something'. And when I looked behind, no one was there, and I thought 'well at least they will have to chase me down, so I carried on.' I was riding with the assurance that my team-mates Ellen, Elisa [Longo-Borghini] and Audrey [Cordon-Ragot] were behind me. We had the best team in the race and that's why I won. 

"I didn't know I was going to win until I entered the velodrome! I couldn't hear anything, my legs were cramping, and I knew that even on the last section you could lose two minutes if you cramped and blew up. I really just tried to keep a regular pace. At this point in the season, I am tired and I knew the best thing for me was to keep a steady pace and stay in front for as long as I could. Paris-Roubaix has always been a men's race and I am just so proud that women's cycling is on the world stage now. I am proud that my daughter can look at the cobblestone trophy."




Thursday, 30 September 2021

Photo of the day - 30: Joss Lowden, new hour record holder

Photo: Matt Alexander/PA Wire

Congratulations to Drops-Le Col rider, Joss Lowden who broke the women's hour record at the Velodrome Suisse, in Grenchen, Switzerland. The distance she covered in one hour, 48.405km, beat Vittoria Bussi's hitherto record of 48.007km achieved in 2017.  

The 33-year old from Lewes, East Sussex had had her eye on the record for many months since she unofficially broke it last year while training at the Derby Velodrome, so she knew she would be capable of doing it again. However, doubts always set in during the preparation. Lowden, who is a road racer and one of the team captains at Drops-Le Col/supported by Tempur team, has been having a good season having won the Tour Feminin in Czechia and placing 5th at Brabantse Pijl. A week before her world record attempt, as part of her preparation she competed in the mixed relay time trial, the time trial and the road race at the World Road Cycling Championships in Flanders, Belgium. 

What is impressive about this record is that it beat other records that were achieved at high altitude. Apart from Bridie O'Donnell who cycled at 46.882/hour in 2016 in Adelaide, all the other hour records were broken at around 2,000 metres altitude - either in Mexico or in Colorado, USA. Joss Lowden's record was not completely at sea level as the Velodrome Suisse is at 450m altitude, but it is far from high altitude. This record also beat the ultimate speed of 48.149/hour, set by Jeannie Longo in 1996 but was not recognised by the cycling governing body (Union Cycliste Internationale) due to her having adopted the banned "Superman" position.

Given that Joss was constantly ahead of schedule throughout her ride, it seems that she would probably be strong enough to break her own record in the future. So who knows, we may see her again in the Velodrome Suisse.

Wednesday, 29 September 2021

Photo of the day - 29: Catching up with SD Worx ahead of Paris-Roubaix Femmes



There's been a buzz this week as folks gear up for the inaugural Paris-Roubaix Femmes race. The Paris-Roubaix is one of the oldest professional bike races, and arguably the most gruelling one-day race. The full distance is 258km (161 miles) and the last 160km include 30 sections of cobbled roads (pavés) with most sections being between 1.5 and 4 km long - a total of 55km of pavés. These cobbles aren't of the neat variety that you find in quaint touristic towns or even the ones you see during the Tour of Flanders bike race. They are just jagged, irregular rough and ready cobbles of all shapes and sizes on old narrow roads. Riding your bike along them is a massive test in bike handling and resilience on your body. When it rains it's treacherous, as has been seen over the years in the men's race. 

After a lot of campaigning for a women's race, the organisers ASO finally decided to stage the race last year. Unfortunately, like with many events during these coronavirus times the race had to be postponed twice, and so we now have the race taking place this coming Saturday. It's going to be a real moment in cycling history.
The women's race will be a shorter version of the men's race, with the distance being 116.4km (70 miles) and 17 sections (29.2km) of pavés. The women will tackle iconic sections of Mons-en-Pévèle and Carrefour de L'Arbre, though it doesn't include the Trouée d'Arenberg.

Given the magnitude and excitement of the occasion, I was keen to talk to as many women as I could in advance, as part of an article I was writing for Cycling News website. One of the teams definitely worth speaking to was SD Worx, with its star-studded riders and a couple of riders who could be in with a realistic chance of winning.

So today, for my article in Cycling News, I spoke to Chantal van den Broek-Blaak, Christine Majerus, and Jolien d'Hoore, who is retiring from professional racing straight after the Paris-Roubaix Femmes. As expected, all three riders are very excited at the prospect of competing in this race. 

They had just finished doing the reconnaissance of the course, and it was fair to say that they all found it a very tough course, that is going to be risky if it is raining. None of the women were concerned by the fact that they won't be doing all of the iconic stretches of cobblestones, or even that the fact that the race is less than half the distance of the men's race. For them, it was the fact that there is a women's Paris-Roubaix at all, and that in itself is a good thing.

Tuesday, 28 September 2021

Photo of the day - 28: More Italian cycling success, even ahead of the mighty Dutch

 

Getty Images

Continuing the theme of Italians winning things this summer, this was once again repeated at the Women's World Road Racing Championships. The noteworthy thing was that it was Elisa Balsamo who managed to outsprint Marianne Vos, the greatest female bike racer of all time. Those who have followed the season will not be surprised that Elisa was in the mix at the end, given that with her sponsored team Valcar Travel & Service she has tended to contest sprints and be in the minor placings.

But to get ahead of the great Marianne Vos was an achievement at another level. I think the difference between Marianne and Elisa was that Vos probably launched her sprint a little late, and furthermore Balsamo had a very strong cohesive lead-out team in the shape of Elisa Longo Borghini, Marta Bastianelli, Marta Cavalli and Maria-Giulia Conflonieri. Interestingly, the Dutch team was also very strong on paper. People have been talking about them for the last couple of years being a formidable team, and the team to beat.

Given that a number of these riders have been Olympic Champion or World Champion, it isn't without reason that the world is talking about the team from the Netherlands. The question isn't will they win? It's more - which one out of  Marianne Vos, Annemiek Van Vleuten, Anna van der Breggen, Demi Vollering, Amy Pieters and Ellen Van Dijk will win? 

Unfortunately, the team has lost out in recent major competitions. At the Olympics, they totally failed to spot that a relatively unknown rider from Austria (Anna Kiesenhofer) had done a breakaway off the front to win. In fact, when Annemiek Van Vleuten crossed the line in second place she did a victory salute, thinking she had won! Apparently, some members of the Dutch team new that there was already a woman ahead on the road, but this doesn't seem to have been communicated between them. (Radios weren't allowed during the race.)

Then at the World Championships communication was better, but they still didn't manage to get organised to launch Marianne into the best position at the right time for the sprint for the line. So their most decorated rider failed to catch the young speedy Italian in the home straight. 

Marianne looked extremely disappointed - more so than I have ever seen her after a race - and she was in tears on the finish line. I must say, I felt bad for her and would have like to see her win.

But I think here, it is a case of the strongest team isn't always the team that wins. What counts more is using your resources wisely and working better as a team. And I think that's where the Italians were able to make the difference. So the buzz word is "team work". And that's something that the Italians seem to excel at where the Dutch need to do better.

Monday, 27 September 2021

Photo of the day - 27: Bike to School Week

 

Photo: J Bewley/Sustrans

At a time when we are looking for ways to reduce pollution and carbon emissions, and even more now that there are issues with fuelling at the filling stations, it is worth considering providing a favourable environment for children to ride or walk to school.

As it happens this is the start of Bike to School Week, a time to encourage children to go to school on two wheels. However, there is an issue in getting children to go to school by bicycle. In a recent survey involving over 1300 children aged 6 to 15 years old, only 2% of them children currently cycle to school. The YouGov survey commissioned by the walking and cycling charity, Sustrans, also found that about 14% of children would like to ride to school. 30% of the children said they were worried about cycling to school, and 57% felt that there were too many cars in the immediate area around their school.

Some local authorities have decided to close roads to traffic in the areas around a school first thing in the morning and at school closing time (known as School Streets). Southwark Council have done that near where I live, in some of the roads around schools in Dulwich. 

I have noticed that there are more children on bikes on those roads. As a car driver (as well as a bike rider) it does sound a bit irritating that some of the roads I normally drive on are out of bounds at rush hour. But I must say, there are alternatives including taking the train or cycling too. I think it's more important to give children the opportunity to ride to school in a clean, safe environment, and enjoy bike riding. It's that sort of thing that can help girls and boys develop more of an appetite for bike riding, and in future we can become a nation more geared towards bike travel and active transport.

Also for those who would like to improve their bike riding skills and confidence when riding on the roads, Bikeability is a scheme that provides free training. I must say that the earlier you learn to ride a bike on the road, the more confident you will be on the road through the rest of your life. I have certainly found that through taking my cycling proficiency test - many many moons ago!

Sunday, 26 September 2021

Photo of the day - 26: Final SwimRun of the year, at Bewl Water

 

Exiting the water after the first of six swims

The second part of my final weekend of multi-sport races for this year was the As Keen As Mustard SwimRun at Bewl Water, near Tunbridge Wells. There was a choice of three distances - a 5km, 10km, or 21km. I chose to do the middle option, which consists of a total of 1800m swim split over six swims and interspersed with seven runs which totalled 8.2km.

Nowadays I feel comfortable with the swim, especially after all the training I've done and having swum two miles in the Serpentine last week. The run was something to just get around, because I haven't done a lot of training due to me trying to learn to run in minimalist shoes. Because I haven't fully mastered that, I have to take it easy during the SwimRun races to avoid injury as I am running without my usual orthotics - something I wouldn't advise if you're jumping in and out of the water!

It was a very pleasant event, running around the woodland and country trails and then at intervals wading into the water to swim, getting out and running again. I ended up right at the back during the first run as I stopped to properly tie my shoe laces and adjust my pull buoy. But I managed to catch a few women, and we formed a little group at the back. I gnerally feel quite relaxed in these events because they usually start with a run, and by the time you reach the water you have warmed up a bit and so when you get in the water it's quite refreshing. There's no need to take time acclimatising or warming up; you just get on with it. When swimming you need to keep your eye on where you're meant to be going as there aren't any buoys in the water. There's just a flag and a marshal at the other end of the lake, so it's up to you to pick the shortest line. Be mindful that the swimmer in front of you may not be very good at sighting, so it's always good to check for yourself where you're going. I finished fifth from the back, but it was nice to see the women at the finish line, and we congratulated each other as well as talking about our exploits during the race.

I do like these events. There's no argy bargy in the water and people do them at various paces - some people are competitive, especially those intent on qualifying for the major events in Sweden. But then there are other folks who tootle round. I'd say SwimRun is in the same vein as orienteering, where some people are mighty fast and then others just trot round and enjoy the scenery. But whichever level you are everyone feels like they've had a workout and there's a friendly atmosphere. I look forward to doing more of these events next year.

Saturday, 25 September 2021

Photo of the day - 25: Castle Series Aquathlon at Hever Castle


For the first part of my season-closer weekend of multi-sports I took part in an Aquabike race. I'd not heard that such a thing existed. Aquathlons (swim and then run) are common-place, but an aquabike (swim and then cycle) is almost unheardof. It was organised by the Castle Series crew, and that's the only place where I have seen it organised. 

We started in the same wave as those doing the aquathlon, meaning that we all swam 750m in the lake at Hever Castle and then in transition half of the field ran 5km and the other half of us cycled 20km through the country lanes of the Kent Weald. It was a fairly lumpy course that went out towards Cowden, Penshurst and Chiddingstone. I was familiar with those places from doing training rides, though it's been a while since I rode those lanes at any fast pace. 

The race was enjoyable, but I must say it was a strange day out. I had originally planned on driving there, but given that all the queues at the filling stations were spilling out onto the roads I was worried about getting stuck in a traffic jam, and arriving late to the event. So I managed to get on a train at East Croydon make the half-hour journey to Hever, followed by a 10-minute ride to Hever Castle. I thought I got there in good time for the start of the race, but the event was quite big, with about five or six races going on concurrently. There was a lack of signposts on the site indicating where people had to go, so it was easy to get lost. 

I couldn't see how to get to the start line at the lake and when I asked a volunteer he didn't know either! So he had to look for another volunteer to ask and then when he found out, although he was nice enough to accompany me to the lake, he kept saying I had plenty of time even though my race was starting in 10 minutes and it was a long walk to the start line. I arrived at the start line with about 2 minutes to spare, and missed the pre-race briefing.

When racing, the marshal in the swim to bike transition didn't give any instructions on where I could mount my bike and start riding, so I had to stop and ask her. Then when I finished my bike ride the marshals didn't give any instruction on what I should do next, given that it was effectively the end of the race. It seemed weird that there was no finish gantry to go to, and my race would just finish abruptly in the bike funnel. Then a marshal in transition gave me a medal. So it was a bit of an meh kind of end to the race. In fact, it was only when I asked to go into the finish area to pick up some refreshments and saw a marshal collecting timing chips that I remembered to remove my timing chip. If I hadn't asked to go into that area I would have gone home with my timing chip still on.

Then to cap it all, when I got home and looked at the results my name didn't feature as I had been classed as a DNF! Eventually, my result was added to the list, and I apparently came about 14th or 15th out of 20. I don't know how accurate that was, as my Garmin had recorded a faster time. 

So, it was all a bit of a non-event in the end. I am not sure that an aquabike works because you need a finish line for cyclists. It's reasonable for competitors in an aquabike to expect a finish gantry where they can power through, give it that final spurt and even a victory/achievement salute. The way the course was set up, it would have been dangerous for us to do that while a triathlon or aquathlon or running race were taking place. But then to not have a finish gantry for cyclists does feel like you are being short changed, and potentially lead to you being accidentally classed as a non-finisher. It was a different experience, but I probably won't do it again - especially as it cost £70!

Friday, 24 September 2021

Photo of the day - 24: Another great result for African Cycling

Courtesy of Bettini Photo

History was made again for African cycling when Biniam Girmay won silver at the U23 men's World Road Race Championships. The 21-year old from Asmara, Eritrea, finished 2 seconds behind the winner, Italy's Filippo Broncini, and a shade ahead of Olav Kooij of the Netherlands. 
This is the first time that a black African cycle racer is making it onto the podium in any race of a World Championships. He only signed up with Intermarché-Wanty Gobert Materiaux this summer, but he has already made his mark, doing well in races that have punchy climbs - as was the course between Antwerp and Leuven today. 

There have been a growing number of African riders doing well in professional races, and a big moment was in 2015 when Daniel Teklehaimanot, also of Eritrea wore the polka dot jersey of King of the Mountains at the Tour de France. Since then there have been fleeting results here and there, but nothing as resounding as a podium place in a world championships. Hopefully, we can look forward to more great results from this young man, and it can inspire other great performances from black African riders.

Thursday, 23 September 2021

Photo of the day - 23: World Cycling is going to Africa

 

Riders tackling the Mur de Kigali during this year's Tour of Rwanda

It isn't just in Belgium where you get a massive enthusiastic crowd on a cobbled climb. This is the "Mur de Kigali" one of the famous climbs ridden during this year's Tour de Rwanda. Africans definitely take their cycling seriously. The event has been run as a UCI event since 2009, with Africans making the top 10, though in recent times and notably this year more European teams have taken the start line and contested the top spots. Also, the Tour du Faso, in Burkina Faso is due to take place in October. This is another big cycle race on the African cycle racing calendar and that has been a UCI event since 2005, with ASO, organisers of the Tour de France, having assisted in the running of the event.

The great news for African cycling, though is that today the UCI announced that Rwanda will be the host of the 2025 World Road Cycling Championships. This will be the first time that such a prestigious event is taking place on the African continent. A delighted Aurore Mimosa Munyangu, Minister for Sport, said that "Rwanda will commit to delivering a memorable Road World Championships".

I think this is great news, and it can only be a positive thing for cycling in Africa. I look forward to seeing more cycling events taking place there, and who knows - I may even do a few myself.  

Wednesday, 22 September 2021

Photo of the day - 22: Trying to master barefoot running so I can do SwimRun

 

I went out for a run today - just my standard 5km trot around my local parks in Crystal Palace. I enjoy running; it's something I've always done since as far back as I can remember. In fact, I consider myself to be more of a runner than a cyclist because it is the sport I did first, and it is the one sport I have done competitively since I was a child. 

I have done all sorts of running races in my time - from sprinting in my teens, through middle and long distance races including marathons, as an adult. It was a bumper 12 months in 2018-2019 when I did Beachy Head, Paris and New York marathons all within that time. 

I haven't done a marathon since, or even a half marathon this year. That is a turn-up for the books for me. The main reason has been because I took up a new kind of race called SwimRun, this year. Basically, it's like an aquathlon, but where an aquathlon is swim once change into running shoes and then run once, SwimRun is run swim, run swim, run swim, run swim and you keep repeating that however many times required depending on the race. It's about trying to get from one point to another across a body, or bodies of water. Apparently the sport began in Sweden when a group of guys, after a night out, had a bet to see who would be first to get across a group of islands surrounding Stockholm.

The novelty of SwimRun is that you keep the same gear on throughout the activity. So you run in your wetsuit, and you swim with your shoes on. Yes, you heard correctly. Regular competitors have a specific SwimRun wetsuit that gives the flexibility to run in it, and they wear lightweight trail shoes or minimalist running shoes that don't weigh your legs down when swimming, and drain the water off when running. 

I invested in a pair of Vivobarefoot ESC Tempest shoes, specially for SwimRun and they're great. However, my problem is that I normally wear orthotic soles in my shoes when running. I need them in order to have the correct gait, and avoid running injuries. The problem is that if I wore them in the water they would be ruined. I did check with podiatrists to see if there is such a thing as waterproof orthotics but apparently that doesn't exist. 

So the only thing for it is for me to learn to run again without orthotics. So I am trying to do barefoot running. I don't actually run in bare feet. but I wear the Vivobarefoot minimalist running shoes. To master this new way of running though, I need to keep my usual running to a minimum so that my muscles don't get confused about which way they should be used. 

At the moment I have got up to running 2km in this new way style. So I am very much a beginner. That means for now, I can't run very far - which is a bit of a pain. Well, actually it's not - but it would be if I did run far! 

A couple of times a week I do indulge though, and allow myself to put on my usual Mizuno Ghost running shoes with my orthotics and break out to do 5 or even 6km. Realistically, it could be another six months before I am able to run that distance with minimalist running shoes. So for now, I will have to make the most of my local jaunts around the park.

Tuesday, 21 September 2021

Photo of the day - 21: Un Posto Al Sole to improve my Italian

 


Forget about all these new fangled apps like Duolingo for improving your language skills. With so many different resources available on-line now, there is so much to choose from and so many things that can be done in stimulating ways. 

My method of choice is the soap opera. As the language in question here is Italian, it has to be Italy's most watched and longest-running soap opera, the 25-year old Un Posto Al Sole (A Place in the Sun). The production company and the opening credits give it a feel like Neighbours or Home and Away. But given that the setting is in an apartment building (Palazzo Palladini) in a fictional neighbourhood in Naples with a bit of grittiness, murder and mafia thrown in between various social issues, it's probably more like Eastenders

I started watching the daily soap during the major coronavirus lockdown we had in the Spring of last year. At the time I was about 18 months behind, but with regular viewing and the odd bit of binge watching, I am now pleased to say I have caught up and am watching the show contemporaneously with viewers in Italy. 

So when I speak to Italians we can now speculate about who did attack Susanna and leave her for dead? Who will win out in the Marina, Fabrizio and Roberto triangle? Will Silvia leave Michele for Giancarlo? When will Filippo get his memory back and recognise his wife? Will Renato wrongfully end up behind bars? And what is the point of Vittorio on the show? Well, actually I probably won't have those conversations with the Italians I know. The woman I regularly have a conversation exchange with laughed when I told her I watch Un Posto Al Sole. She never watches it, but her grandparents watch it. One guy suggested I try and watch something a bit more cultured. (I do have a load of episodes of Inspector Montalbano to watch. I wonder if that's cultured enough.)

But hey, these types of soap operas do have their uses, and I think there are probably more Italians that watch the show than want to admit, given the high viewing figures. After more than 300 episodes of the show I can now understand what practically all of the characters are saying (I haven't fully mastered Guido and Vittorio's accents), and it has helped me with my own spoken Italian no end. In fact, I was quite comfortable speaking to people recently on the phone when I did interviews for the Tour of Lombardy feature I wrote for Pro Cycling magazine.

I heard that former Manchester City legendary manager Roberto Mancini apparently improved his English by regularly watching Coronation Street. Bonus points to him for choosing to watch the soap opera based in his town, and persevering with Manchester accent!

Anyway, my point is, don't poo poo the basic soap opera when getting to grips with a new language. If it's good enough for Signor Mancini, it's good enough for us.

Monday, 20 September 2021

Photo of the day - 20: As featured in Rouleur magazine

 

Since the start of this year Rouleur magazine has been producing issues that are based around themes. For example, they had one about women, one on mountains, another on innovators. The current issue is themed Empower, and features different types of people in society - particularly those who are different from the traditional image of a cyclist that people have had in the past.

Editors Andy McGrath and Ian Cleverly were interested in including a piece on my views and experience in cycling, so I was happy to put down my thoughts.

I think that when looking at society or groups of people in society it is important to include the whole spectrum of views and experiences. My feeling is that in recent times there has been far too much talk of black people in cycling "being made to feel unwelcome", or saying black people don't cycle because they don't see "anyone who looks like them" doing it. (I must admit that is a term that still baffles me.)

The thing is, I can't concur with that sort of talk. I first rode a bike when I was under 10, and I got into cycle racing more than 20 years ago. It is true that I didn't see many black people cycling when I was growing up in Yorkshire, though in London I do see quite a lot of black people on bikes nowadays. 

When I got into cycling it had nothing to do with how many other black people there were on bikes. I just began bike riding because I enjoyed it. In fact, the people that inspired me where the white European guys toiling up mountain passes during the Tour de France when I first watched it on Channel 4 in the 1980s.  

As for being made to feel unwelcome, that sounds alien to me. I have never experienced that. If anything, it is probably white, middle class, middle-aged males that helped me get more into cycling. I have no idea whether or not they were privileged. In any case I didn't feel any less privileged than them! I just saw them as kind, encouraging people who were willing to give up their time to coach us in club cycling and bike racing.

I don't see myself as any sort of trailblazer or breaking down barriers as I never actually perceived any barrier in the first place. Whatever barriers I might have encountered were more down to my bouts of lethargy, or getting the heebie-jeebies before a bike race - and that's not a racial thing.

I have noted that a few events have taken place where panels of people talk about diversity in cycling (in this case read race/people of colour), and I have tended not to be invited to speak on these panels because I get the feeling folks don't perceive me as being "on message". It just won't do for me to say, "I've had a great time in cycling - everyone has been really friendly and welcoming!" I'm supposed to talk about the struggles of being a black woman in cycling, the mistreatment, the microaggressions, the privileged white male that made a bigoted comment, how I didn't see anyone who looked like me and I felt unwelcomed when I joined a club....

The fact is, I can't say these things because it's just not been my experience. In fact, I think it would be quite wrong to portray cycling in this way knowing that many people have been good to me in the sport. I must say, I was glad to be able to write the column, and give mention to some of those people in my article.

Marco Faimali and Andrew "Monty" Montgomery from my first club, Addiscombe Cycling Club, were mentioned as were Dulwich Paragon. Also mentioned were John Leitch, Glyn Durrant and Keith Butler (RIP) who got me into road racing. Then there was also Mark and and Stephanie Wyer who helped me in cyclocross, plus Dave Creasy (RIP) at Herne Hill Velodrome. Maurice Burton of De Ver cycles also got mentioned as I got my first "serious" bikes from him and he invited me on their charity bike rides. The final edit of the article doesn't have all these people mentioned, but the fact is there have been loads of people who have shown good will towards me in the cycling world over the years - and from this short list of names, a significant proportion of them are white males. 

So for that reason, speaking as a woman of colour, my experience is that cycling is a welcoming activity for different kinds of people, and I am happy to spread that message.


Sunday, 19 September 2021

Photo of the day - 19: Cyclocross season opener at Ardingly

Photo: Dave Hayward

After yesterday's fun-packed day of a hill climb race in the morning and Swim Serpentine in the afternoon, I was feeling a bit tired and not really in the zone to be doing a competitive bike ride. But today was the day of my first cyclocross race of the year, the London and SE League race, organised by Dougie Fox of Crawley Wheelers.

Cyclocross racers wait impatiently and avidly all through the spring and summer for the season to begin. While other folks begin to bemoan the rapidly disappearing summer (or the UK version of summer) cyclocross racers get more excited as the weather turns greyer, colder, and damper!

I had paid up for this event, and had had it marked in the diary for a few weeks, so I really wanted to go. Also, we barely had a cyclocross season last year due to the pandemic. So I wanted to make up for that this year. The only problem was that I was feeling quite sluggish and felt more in the mood to admire the nature as I tootle around, rather than eyeball my rivals through eyes of fierce competition as I pedal in anger.

In any case I went through the motions and got in the car to drive to the South of England Showground, Ardingly, where the event was taking place.

At moments like this when you aren't rearing to go your brain picks up on it and you end up getting things wrong. Firstly, I got the venue too late to be able to do a recon of the course. In fact I got to sign-on 10 minutes after it officially closed. 
Secondly, I failed to put my helmet on. I think the fact that I was wearing a hat led me to falsely believe I was wearing my helmet. When I realised the error, we had less than 5 minutes to go before the 12.30 start. I pedalled like mad back to the car and put on the correct head gear. Looking at my watch as I rode back to the start line I thought I was doing okay for time as it was 12.27 I would be able to reach the start line within three minutes. However, at 12.28 I heard the whistle go and the pack sprinted off in the distance, while I was still 50 metres from the start line! Whoops!

I think that was the adrenaline kick that I needed to get into the race, given that I was well behind the field. I didn't panic, but just rode at a steady high pace, and focused on not getting my racing lines wrong. Thankfully my summer gravel rides had helped improve my bike handling, and I was able to get over the various mounds and drops on this fast flowing course without too much problem. 

As it was a first race I just hoped to get around cleanly and not really focus on the result. I did manage to catch a few women - Monica Zamojska from Brixton Cycles, helped by the fact that she crashed on the hurdles; then Elaine Owen from De Laune CC. There was another De Laune CC woman who I caught right in the finish straight, but she was better at getting over the hurdles than I. In any case, I was pleased with how my race went, considering my rubbish start. 

For me, the main thing was how good it was to see the old faces again - Liz Orr from Kent Velo Girls, Emma Porter from Penge CC along with Wendy, a new Penge CC rider who I also saw yesterday at the hill climb. I did manage to say a few words to Caroline Reuter of Dulwich Paragon, who is still queen of the London and SE league. I had hoped to chat a bit to my old sparring partner, Suzie Wise of C&N Cycles, but she has made so much progress since the last time I saw her that she was way off in the distance. And after the race, we both got caught up talking to different people. Hopefully I will catch her (in the race and after the race!) next time. 
All in all, it wasn't a bad afternoon out, and I am actually looking forward to the next race.

Saturday, 18 September 2021

Photo of the day - 18: Swim Serpentine done, and a lovely London Classics medal!


The day finally came and I swam 2 miles in the Serpentine. It wasn't pretty but I did it. Not only did I receive a medal for my efforts, but I got an extra big one too for achieving the London Classics challenge.

London Classics is a medal you get for completing the London Marathon, Ride London 100-mile cyclosportive, and Swim Serpentine 2 miles. If you have done all of these events, regardless of the year, you are eligible for a medal. I am glad they say regardless of the year, because I ran the London Marathon twice - in 2002 and 2005. I have applied quite a few times since and have been rejected. I think the times when I was accepted I hadn't realised how lucky I was. In fact in those days you would apply any time up to late September and you would get a response in mid-late November. You had around a 1:2 chance of getting a place. Now it is totally different story, with applications open just for one week a year before the event, and probably a 1:10 chance of getting a place when you factor in all the places allocated to charities. 

I have done Ride London 100 three times. That is probably my sweet-spot event, as I generally get a place given the work I do in cycling, and I can get around the route in a reasonable time without loads of training as I know the roads, and my fitness from all the other types of cycle rides and races I have done carries me through.

Swim Serpentine for me, was the sticking point. Getting a place isn't difficult as there's no ballot. However, swimming two miles was a stretch target for me. In a previous life when I did triathlons regularly I got used to doing half-mile and one-mile swims. Once I even did a half-ironman and swam a mile and a quarter. But that was a long time ago, so getting back to a point where I would feel comfortable swimming almost double the distance was going to take a bit of effort. 

This year I have probably done more swimming than I've done at any other time in my life - including thee period when I was in a triathlon club. Everywhere I went I swam: my local pools at Crystal Palace, Streatham Ice, South Norwood, then outdoors at Beckenham Place Park Lake, Brockwell Lido. Moving further out of my neighbourhood I swam in Lidos at Charlton and in London Fields. I also did more open water swimming at Royal Victoria Docks, West Reservoir in Stoke Newington, Divers Cove in Godstone, and The Haven at Feltham. On my trips up to Manchester I swam at Salford Quays and Sale Water Park. Then there were also the swim-run events at Chorlton Water Park and Box End Water Park. So yes, there's been a fair bit of swimming done this year. 

For the race I made sure to stay warm, wearing full neoprene including gloves and booties. I also had on a pull buoy to keep my legs up, and I used hand paddles. I thought I had all bases covered, but in fact I forgot to tighten my pull buoy before getting in the water and it kept swinging around my leg while I was swimming. There was no way I could have put up with that for the two miles, so I swam to the shore where the water was shallow and started to amend things. The lifeguard thought I'd gone off course, but when I explained to her what I was doing, she was okay with it. It was not a bad thing having this pause as it was also the chance to chat to the spectators and curious passers-by in Hyde Park. You don't usually get to do that while in a swimming race!

After that, everything went swimmingly (pun intended), apart from the odd moment I had to tip water out of my goggles. Sighting was not a problem (for once) as there were so many people to follow. For me, it was just a case of keeping a steady rhythm between moving my arms, rolling my body and breathing. Admittedly my pectoral muscles began to ache in the last half-mile, but it was a case of mind over matter, and staying confident.

It was great to that the marshals at the finish line were people I knew. There was a guy I had met at Royal Victoria who was there, as well as Audrey from Crystal Palace Triathletes, and Donna from South London Harriers. Thanks so much to them and all the other volunteers and the organisers for making this a fun day.

As I walked through the area to retrieve my gear from the bag drop, and get changed many people congratulated me. I hadn't realised why they kept saying it to me more than anyone else. In fact it was the effect of wearing my London Classics medal. It is an impressive looking medal, and peoeple are genuinely happy to see that folks have achieved these three big endurance events in London. And I must say I do feel slightly proud that, as per the saying on the medal (et ego Londinium vici), I have conquered London!

   

Friday, 17 September 2021

Photo of the day - 17: Enjoying classical clarinet

In recent times the clarinet playing has revolved a lot around the pieces I play with my local concert band. Those tunes tend to be a mixture of theme music from films and TV (ET, Raiders of the Lost Arc, Pirates of the Caribbean, Star Trek etc.), medleys from musicals and pop stars (Jesus Christ Superstar, Abba, Michael Jackson) and then a few bits of classical and folk songs. 

But what I enjoy playing, and what is on the syllabus for my grades tends to be a mixture of classical and jazz music. I must say I do enjoy the classical side of things as it makes me feel like I am getting the proper building blocks for clarinet and music in general. Also, all the renowned method books for clarinet are by classical composers, it seems. So for me, it's important to have that base even when doing all the modern, stuff. One musician I admire is Miles Davis. Although his music is very much synonymous with jazz, the great trumpeter was actually classically trained. He cut his teeth at the Julliard School, a conservatory in New York and played classical music. The jazz stuff was more of a side hustle for a while.

So I guess, if that's what he did, I should do the same! Aside from all that, I like classical music anyway, so am always happy to play it. One of my go-to books have been the Lefevre sonatas for clarinet. Then today, I finally got the Demnitz book, which is much needed as I am getting to the dizzy heights of doing turns, trills, mordants and grace notes and I realise I am rubbish at them. So hopefully, Demnitz will give me a helping hand while I get to grips with the dominant 7th in G major! 

Thursday, 16 September 2021

Photo of the day - 16: Swim Serpentine is go!

After my post from a couple of days ago I found out that The Serpentine had been opened that very morning - which is good news as it meant that the Swim Serpentine would go ahead. This was also confirmed by the fact that I received my race pack.

I had already been looking to see what my plan B event was going to be for this coming weekend, but now I can look forward to swimming in Hyde Park in front of the thousands of people who go there for roller skating, jogging, cycling, horse riding, or just milling around - plus the spectators who will have gone there specifically to watch their friends and family. 

Due to Covid there won't be a grandstand or a jacuzzi like they have had in previous years, but I don't mind too much about that. I am looking forward to doing my first swim-only event of the year. Normally, I would have done more. I entered the Great North Swim, in the Lake District in June, and the Club to Pub Swim at Henley-on-Thames, but in both cases other commitments meant I couldn't go. I had hoped to do Dock-to-Dock at Royal Victoria, but that filled up very quickly. 

So the Swim Serpentine two miles will be my first event. I have not swum this distance before, so it's going to be a whole new world for me. The furthest I have swum is 1.5 miles. Folks say that you don't have to swim the whole two miles in training, as long as you are swimming regularly. Normally, I would have liked to do the full distance though, just to give me that extra confidence going into the water. But I know I have spent many sessions in the water - both in the pool doing drills, and in different open water venues, so I like to think I will be okay. 

For me, the main thing is to not allow myself to get cold. I could be in the water for almost two hours, so I must do what I can to not lose use too much energy trying to stay warm. I will need that energy to move my arms and legs through the water! Since the start of the pandemic, I have had my temperature checked countless times and it consistently comes out in the low 36 degrees Celsius - 36.2, occasionally even slightly below 36. Considering that hyperthermia begins to set in at 35.5, it's not surprising that I frequently feel cold - even on a warm day.

So as long as I have on my neoprene Heatseeker vest under my wetsuit, my neoprene hat under the official swimming cap, booties, and maybe even gloves I should hopefully be okay. People may laugh given that it is still summer, but hey needs must when you have this sort of challenge and I!  

Wednesday, 15 September 2021

Photo of the day - 15: Crystal Palace Hills

It's getting to that time of year again when hill climbs take place. People travel long distances to race all of a couple of minutes up a very steep hill. It's a different kind of race that only seems to exist in the UK. I have heard of similar sorts of races abroad. In Italy they are known as cronoscalata, and they do them in France too. But in those events people are racing up proper mountain passes where good amateur racers could still be riding for an hour. They normally happen on iconic climbs like Alpe d'Huez, France or Madonna del Ghisallo, Italy. But in this country we have a season full of these races, meaning that although some venues are famous such as Cat and Fiddle, Box Hill or Winnats Pass (the venue for this year's national championships), many hills are unknown to all but those local to the area and hill climb aficionados. 

My quirky side got the better of me last year, and I did some hill climb races last year. I got the bug and I am doing some again this year. I am pretty slow compared to the rest of the field, but I do find that these sorts of hills do improve my own riding and hill climbing ability, so that's why I am happy to stick with it. I also enjoy those few minutes where you really push yourself so hard and everyone is there shouting and cheering for you. At the bigger events it's just like what you see on TV when the racers go up a mountain pass and massive crowds are shouting "Allez allez" at the riders.

As part of my preparation I ride the hills near where I live. We are lucky to have a choice of hills in the Crystal Palace area, so I can regularly get in a small hilly loop either at lunchtime, or in the case of today, just after work and before my clarinet class. In the 14.5km ride (9 miles approx) I managed to get in six hills and 280m (850ft approx) of climbing. The loop includes what I call the dreaded trio of Westwood Park, Canonbie Road, and Eliot Bank.  I always get apprehensive about these climbs before I ride them, but in a strange way I also feel that I have to ride them because I live in hope that in time I will learn to like them, and I will get stronger.

This is a typical quick loop that I do. To get more hills in I can also add in the ones that come up from Dulwich, and the ones in the conservation area of Crystal Palace. 

Tuesday, 14 September 2021

Photo of the day - 14: Blue-green algae in the Serpentine - blurgh!


Photo: Roland Turner
This little gem in central London is The Serpentine, the main lake in Hyde Park. My running club is named after this place, as Hyde Park is our home area for running. Also, I regularly come and ride laps of the park now that there is a lovely smooth cycle path all the way round. 

Folks do various other activities there like horseriding and roller skating too. And then there's swimming. There's a lido, which is a cordonned-off part of the lake where there is organised swimming, and then big events are held there where folks can swim the whole of the lake. That was the case at the London 2012 Olympics for the triathlon and the open-water swimming event. Every year there is also Swim Serpentine, which is swimming's answer to the London Marathon or Ride London. It's a mass participation event where thousands of people can swim half a mile, one mile, two miles or even six miles. 

It's meant to be taking place this Saturday, except that I have just learned that the lake has been closed to swimming since the end of August due to blue-green algae. That's quite a surprise. I have certainly heard of it affecting other swimming events I've done. But I have not heard of it in The Serpentine before. I just thought something about it being in a Royal Park meant that the maintenance would be top notch and therefore that wouldn't be allowed to happen.

There's been no official word from the organisers, except to say that they are pumping fresh water into the lake. Hopefully this will work. When I have seen places closed because of blue-green algae they didn't reopen for many months. 

It would be great to be able to swim there this Saturday, especially because if I complete the two mile-swim I will receive a special London Classics medal. These are awarded to those dedicated hard-core souls who have completed the London Marathon, Ride London 100-mile and Swim Serpentine 2-mile events. Fingers crossed that the Royal Parks Authority can resolve it and things go swimmingly on Saturday!

Monday, 13 September 2021

Photo of the day - 13: Gigging with my band at Eastbourne bandstand


Ready to play with my concert band at Eastbourne

As well as sport, I do like a bit of music - making music...or something resembling that, if you ask my neighbour! I have had a clarinet for many years. It all started about 30 years ago when I went to live in France after graduating from university. In those early, cold, nights in Paris I needed to find something to do, given that I didn't know many people, and I would feel too tired to understand everything on television. So I hit upon the idea of filling my evenings by learning the clarinet. My neighbours were incredibly accommodating! I managed to get hold of a clarinet after one of the local music shops referred me to a guy in Montmartre who specialised in refurbishing second hand woodwind instruments.

So I made the trip across Paris and they guy sold me a Noblet for 2,000 Francs, which I paid for in instalments. They were very helpful and referred me to a teacher whose studio was above a sex toys shop. It was a bit seedy getting out of the Metro at Pigalle, passing the risqué looking men and women, and going up the steps to his practice room. But Didier's classes were fun. He said he was a bit nervous when giving lessons, and needed to smoke throughout, if I didn't mind. I kind of did mind, but I put up with it because his lessons were cheap. His main instrument was the bass saxophone and I went to see him play at jazz places in the 6th arrondissement of Paris on a few occasions. I was impressed that he had the breath to get out such long notes.

And that was the beginning of my relationship with the clarinet. I played regularly for about four or five years, including when I returned to London. But then it just tailed off as I got involved in other activities. Fast forward to last year when we had the near total lockdown in the Spring. Wanting to do something different during those incredibly unusual times, the clarinet came to the fore.

I have been enjoying playing - working through my grades, going to lessons, and I also joined my local concert band. I must say, playing the clarinet gives me a great feeling - something different from doing sport. It's quite a nice break from all the other energetic things I do, and there's a real feeling of satisfaction when you can produce a good tune either alone or with the band. I also like the versatility of the clarinet. You can do very low notes and very high notes (well once you get over the horrible squeaking). And it lends itself well to all genres of music - jazz, classical, folk, salsa/afrobeat, and just bog-standard pop songs too.

I did my first gig with the band yesterday. It was their first performance since 2019, and everyone was so pleased to be back playing to an audience after the coronavirus hiatus. We were at the historic Eastbourne bandstand for a traditional afternoon concert. It was really enjoyable, and it seemed that the audience got into it too. I could get used to doing more of these. The good thing for me is that today, at the band AGM I took up the role of Gigs Manager. I really fancy the idea of being involved in organising events - something I have taken great pleasure in in the past. So I look forward to us playing in more bandstands, a few church halls, bars, and who knows maybe - the Royal Albert Hall!

Sunday, 12 September 2021

Photo of the day - 12: First sea swim of the year - at Eastbourne



The concert band I play in were due to do a gig at the Eastbourne Bandstand. Given that it is right on the seafront, I decided to get there early enough to go for a quick dip in the sea. I had been wanting to go for an open water swim all week, and with Swim Serpentine less than a week away I was keen to take whatever opportunities I could. It was quite an easy thing to do. I parked on a side road off the seafront road and walked to the sea front to start my swim. Given that it wasn't very warm, I wore a wetsuit - in this case my swimrun wetsuit with calf sleeves. 

As I have gotten into the sport of swimrun I have found that the kit you use for this sport is really handy for swimming in general. The calf sleeves and pull buoy (which is strapped to my thigh) give extra buoyancy to the point that you don't really need to kick your legs when swimming front crawl. The hand paddles also make your stroke efficient and you go that bit quicker than if you had none of these items. 

The other things I have that really make life easier are a pair of swimrun shoes. They are basically minimalist running shoes that are light and don't weigh your legs down in the water, and then they drain quickly when you get out of the water. The ones I wear are Vivobarefoot Tempest. Other brands exist like Salomon or Inov8. They were great because I could walk down the road with them and then just get straight into and out of the water while wearing them. 

This was my first sea swim of the year. I don't know why I'd left it so long. I had made a previous attempt a few months ago in Brighton, after cycling there from London. But I didn't have my wetsuit with me, and even though it had been a hot day the water just wasn't hot enough for me. So I only succeeded in getting knee deep into the water before I called it a day! 

This time I had the gear and that gave me a lot more confidence to have a go and deal with "the challenge". The water was a bit choppy, and that made sighting a tricky as I kept being wafted off the path I was trying to follow; but thankfully The Wish Tower when swimming one way, and Eastbourne Pier when swimming the other way, made life a lot easier. I had a big tow float with me, which is necessary, particularly for visibility among the various paddleboarders and other swimmers. So all in all I felt safe during my one-mile swim. 

When I got out, quite a few people stopped and asked me how my swim had gone and admired the fact that I had been in, given the temperature. That gave me an even greater sense of achievement. I highly recommend a little dip like this, particularly before something like a concert, as I came out feeling quite relaxed, refreshed and ready to jam.