Tuesday, 6 December 2022

Freewheeling - The senseless killing of a cycling champion: Davide Rebellin

Italian ex-professional cycle racer Davide Rebellin was knocked down and killed by a heavy goods vehicle while on a bike ride last Wednesday morning (30th November). 

The accident occurred on a roundabout on a road he had cycled on literally millions of times, for it was just four miles from his home in Lonigo, near Vicenza. 51-year old Davide was born and bred in this area, and had ridden around these roads since the time his father Gedeon, who owned the local grocers shop and was cycling fanatic, got him and his brothers into cycling when he was 10 years old.

Carlo, Stefano and Simone liked cycling, but it was Davide who had a real gift for spinning the pedals fast, winning world junior titles and national races. At the age of 20 he got the call-up to represent  his country at the Barcelona Olympics, where he was instrumental in securing a gold medal for team-mate Fabio Casartelli (who died three years later in a horrific crash during the Tour de France).

A young Davide (right) with his brothers
[Credit: Rebellin family] 
Davide turned professional immediately after the 1992 Olympic Games and raced for different teams throughout his 30-year career including Gerolsteiner, Polti and Francais des Jeux. A specialist of the Spring Classics, races that take place in March and April on testing, undulating  sometimes cobbled  windswept roads in Northern France, Belgium and the Netherlands, Davide made his mark in 2004 by becoming the first rider to win Amstel Gold Race, La Flèche-Wallone, and Liège-Bastogne-Liege - the Ardennes Classics Week series. 

Over his 30-year career, he took 62 victories, including a victoria at the Giro d'Italia and a silver medal at the Beijing Olympics. The medal was revoked following a positive drug test, but he was then absolved of the charges following a 7-year legal battle.

Davide finally ended his professional cycling career on October 16th this year, where he took part in a race in Verona, in his home region. 

The quiet-mannered man who lived for cycling, was looking forward to spending more time with his friends and family between Monaco and Veneto, in this next phase of his life. 

But barely six weeks into this new era, on a morning in which Carlo was originally going to join him on a training ride (but was unable to go when something coming up at work) Davide cycled out, never to be seen alive again.

An articulated freight truck registered to Rieke Transport, a family company based in Recke, in the Rhine-Westphalia region of Germany, sped round a roundabout near the Montebello interchange between the Venice-Verona A4 motorway and the regional Stradale 11 road near Vicentino. In the process Davide was hit in the blindspot of the vehicle, trapped and dragged for around 25 metres along the road. Davide died instantly. 

These tragic events bear echoes of another shock to the world of cycling, in 2017 when Michele Scarponi, a racer, preparing to contest the win at the Giro d'Italia (Tour of Italy) was killed in a road traffic accident near his home. 

Where Scarponi was hit by a transit van whose driver stopped at the scene and was charged (though later died of cancer) the Rebellin incident had a shocking twist. 

The driver of the articulated lorry, a 62-year old Wolfgang Riecke, fled the scene. The man stopped, briefly looked at the scene of the accident, then jumped back in the cabin and fled back to Germany. Unsurprisingly, the social media pages for the freight company has been flooded with angry comments and insults.

Aftermath of the fatal accident [Credit: ANSA]

Although Italian police are due to charge the German national with road traffic homicide, at present they can't arrest him because this charge is not classed as a crime in Germany, and so no extradition can take place. 

The sight of Davide's road bike all crumpled up and in pieces, gives chilling thoughts about what happened to the cyclist in those final fatal moments. Coupling that with the notion that the perpetrator could practically get away with murder is sickening. Note that the driver has antecedents, having pleaded guilty in 2001 of leaving the scene of a road traffic accident he caused while driving, and having his driving licence temporarily revoked in 2014 for drunk driving. I hope that justice is done for the Rebellin family.

In the mean-time an autopsy is due to take place on 13th December, and the funeral will take place soon after that, in the cathedral of Davide's home town in Lonigo. 

May Davide rest in peace.   

Monday, 14 November 2022

The Struggle is real - especially in the Lake District!

It has been announced that next year's National Hill Climb Championship will take place on The Struggle in the Lake District. Even the name of this climb brings fear, unlike this year's event which took place on The Old Shoe, in mid-Wales. That name sounds like that there's something particular about the hill, but not necessarily something to be afraid. Mind you, for in my case as a non-climber, once there I would probably freak out anyway!

I didn't get to ride that particular climb, and I didn't feel I could prepare myself for that one due to time constraints. The year before that the climb was held on Winnats Pass, in the Peak District. That is a climb I know well, but I still didn't do as my previous attempts had been pitiful and I knew I'd be an embarrassment on the day. Watching the riders battle up it on the big day in biblical conditions confirmed that I had made the right decision in not doing it. I would most certainly have got wheelspin and keeled over within 10 metres of the start line.

Funnily enough, despite the scary name of the climb for next year's National Hill Climb Championship I am tempted to give it go. I cycled up The Struggle earlier this year, and although I wasn't particularly quick, I got through it without feeling the need to stop or put my foot to the ground. That's already a result in this part of the world.

Before I sign my legs away and launch myself into the preparation I must take the time to reflect on what it was like riding up this challenging alternative route to the more gradual and gentler Kirkstone Pass. Here is my recollection from earlier this year.

In the centre of Ambleside I took North Road, next to the Post Office. It's a small turning on the left that can easily be missed as you are swept along in the tourist traffic going around the one-way system en route from Grasmere. 

Immediately, I was on a short narrow uphill road. Gosh, is this it already? I thought. We were officially still in the town so surely it can't have been. The Struggle goes through countryside doesn't it? At this point I was actually on Kirkstone Road away from the hustle and bustle of the high street, but still very much in the town.

As the road reached a T-junction it became clear that the infamous road was still a little way off. However, the general trend locally was for all roads to be going upwards. It wasn't always really steep - it might have only been a false flat,  but whatever, it was important to have low gears on your bike.

From the T-junction I turned right, going behind the stone buildings that housed various shops, cafés and hotels. The road climbed gently and the area became more residential as the village centre had been properly left behind. 

Wansfell viewed from The Struggle with Kirkstone Pass in the distance
I met with a few cars coming down the hill, and they gave way to me on the slightly narrow road. They seemed to give that knowing smile, that said, "I know what you're here for....and boy are you in for a treat"!

The mountain passes of the Lake District are very well known. The local pass, Kirkstone Pass is known for its spectacular vistas across the open valley as you go up to the summit, pub by the same name.

Among club cyclists, real bragging rights are earned by taking this back route to the Kirkstone Inn - The Struggle. So any self-respecting cyclist on a visit to the Lake District has got to try, if only once, the Hardknott-Wrynose duo, maybe Honister Pass too, but definitely The Struggle given its proximity to the most popular zone right in the heart of the national park, Ambleside. 

Thus, local residents are accustomed to seeing streams of fit-looking cyclists on lean mean machines on their quest to conquer The Struggle. These Lycra louts form part of the wallpaper in this locality.

Eventually I found the start of the climb, indicated by a signboard with its name and a clear warning.

I felt slightly nervous at this point, and felt this was the time to stop, make sure everything on my bike was properly adjusted, including being in a more than suitably low gear, making sure my front water bottle was replenished, and stripping off excess clothing.

I also calmed my nerves, telling myself, "It will only be a mile or so of uphill riding, I do have the legs - but if I didn't, it will be less than a mile of walking!"

So I started the climb, with a certain amount of trepidation. The opening metres of the climb increased in steepness abruptly as I cycled passed some cottages. Given that the windows were close to the road and gave occupants a clear view of riders on the hill, I made an effort to try and look elegant - which meant going along at a slow but steady pace. 

False summit on The Struggle
As the road curved around to the left it ramped up again, probably to around 20%. I could feel the real work was beginning now. Furthermore, this was a blind corner so I needed to have a bit of reserve to in case I met a van when rounding the corner. So I had to drop my pace again, but still keep enough cadence going so that I wouldn't keel over. This became a real grind as I had to just focus and tell myself - "this will pass". Not knowing what would be around the corner, I mentally prepared myself for another ramp. And sure enough, there was - this time going to the right. By this time there were no houses, so I no longer needed to worry about spectators! As the road snaked left and right, the number of trees as well as the houses thinned out and the valley came into view. 

It's got to be said, the landscape was spectacular. It was amazing to see a bowl to my right with lots of valleys and Wainwrights around Wansfell, and then the main road, the official Kirkstone Pass just behind it. Eventually I reached what I believed to be the summit and quietly celebrated the fact that I had conquered this beast.

Finally arrived at the Kirkstone Inn
In the area were a few people who had parked up to contemplate the viewpoint, as well as walkers. I got chatting to some local people who were impressed that I had managed to get up the hill. Reassuringly one of the woman, who herself is a cyclist told me that if I could get up The Struggle I would be fine to get around the Fred Whitton route. "Nothing on the Fred Whitton course is harder than The Struggle", she affirmed. I'm not sure if I should have believed her, but it sounded good.   

Onwards, I pressed, looking forward to the descent that immediately followed. the road twisted and turned a little as it wound around more hills and over little streams. This place is well worth a visit even without a bike. You just need to be comfortable driving up the steep narrow lanes!

Well, there I was thinking that the steep hills were behind me as I the Kirkstone Inn came into view. In fact they weren't. About one kilometre before the end of the road, my legs had a rude awakening as the road ramped up again. It was a real strain to get my legs back into gear to push myself over the last mound, and the final bend before reaching the main road provided a very harsh sting in the tail to the point that I almost got off to walk. This section must have been more than 20%. I'm glad I didn't because at the same time I heard the sound of cars close by, denoting that I was practically at the junction with the main road, and the car park for the inn was next to me. The challenge was finally over. What a relief. And what better way to end the climb with a pub right at the finish line.

So that is The Struggle in a nutshell. I know I can ride it, meaning that prepare for the National Hill Climb Championships all I need to do is to just work on going a bit quicker - piece of cake. Err, now that may well be a struggle!

Related posts

Thursday, 3 November 2022

Tackling Fred Whitton light (aka Lion and Lamb Challenge)

I have received an email reminding me that entries for the 2023 Fred Whitton Challenge through the Lake District will open on 1st December 2022. So in the next few weeks I must decide if  I want to put myself through the 175km cyclosportive over the lakeland hills next May. It's a beautiful part of the world, where I had the pleasure of doing two cycling trips this year, one of them to do the sportive.

Route map for Fred Whitton Challenge

In fact, I ended up not doing the full Monty and opted for the more clement, but nevertheless challenging Lion and Lamb route (yellow line on the route map). Here's what I remember of it. 

When the time came for me to do the event the event I was full of doubt and not really feeling confident that I could go the distance. I had done a fair bit of mileage - around 600km per month, but I hadn't done any practice events or pushed myself in any way. Time had not been on my side.

I had come very close to pulling out of the event. However, when I saw on the cyclosportive race pack that there was a shorter option I immediately decided I would go. The shorter route is known as the Lion and Lamb. Basically you ride the route of Fred Whitton, taking in Kirkstone Pass, Honister Pass and Newlands. Then when you reach the village of Braithwaite, instead of turning left to go up Whinlatter Pass you turn right and head back to Keswick. Then from there you take the direct A591 road back to Grasmere. 

The route is so called because the rocks along the side of the road, known as Helm Crag resemble a Lion and Lamb, though I must say I fail to see the resemblance! 

When I arrived in Grasmere on the eve of the ride to pick up my race pack, it was only then that I became aware of the magnitude of the event. The field around the race HQ had been turned into a massive car park as folks arrived from all over the UK to take part. There were stands selling bike equipment, clothing and nutrition, as well as a MacMillan Cancer stand, to which funds from the event would go. [Note, Fred Whitton was a member of the Lakes Road Club, who died in 1998 aged 50.]

Overall, there was a buzzing atmosphere and it was all-go in Grasmere. I managed to get in a little ride around the roads near where I was staying in Bowness-on-Windermere, though not on the actual roads of the route. But the fact that I had ridden on the main climbs a month earlier gave me the confidence to take on the challenge, even if I wasn't going to be quick.

Come the following morning, I was feeling fairly languid about the ride. Although I woke up very early - around 5.30am - I didn't want to rush myself. The importance for me, was about going out and enjoying a ride around the Lake District without getting stressed about making the cut-off. If I reached Bu by the cut-off at midday, then I would continue on to the long course. But knowing that I had the Lion and Lamb ride to fall back on (which was doable), I felt quite relaxed about things.

Summit of Kirkstone Pass

On the drive from my lodgings to the event HQ lots of riders passed in the opposite direction, ready to square up to the first difficulty of the day - Kirkstone Pass. All the riders looked lean and mean, riding in various small groups. This was quite the different from the figure I would be cutting. Yes, I was feeling fit, but far from being the finely tuned racer. I had no plan to ride in any group, and I would be carrying my trusty rucksack - hardly kitted out for a race-pace ride. As a result of my leisurely attitude it was almost 7.45am when I took the start line, and only minutes before the deadline for starting the ride. [Riders are allowed to start the Fred Whitton Sportive at any time of their choice between 6am and 8am.]

It was a largely solitary ride as I wound my way along the A591 back towards Windermere. Apart from a couple of groups of riders I hardly saw anyone else. Well, at least I could ride at a pace that was comfortable for me, and I wouldn't feel under pressure to force my pace.

On this early crisp and sunny Sunday morning I wasn't in a mood to remove my jacket and kept on all my layers. Once in the Windermere area I hit Kirkstone Pass via Holbeck. My experience of this climb had been via The Struggle - a 25% beast from the centre of Ambleside. As Holbeck was not such an infamous climb as the ramp from Ambleside, I hadn't expected it to be too difficult. However, I was wrong. Perhaps it was the time of morning, and maybe not being fully warmed up, it was deceptively testing. The bumpy rutted road surface didn't help matters either, as I had to expend extra energy to roll my bike up this heavy narrow road, closed in by woodland and farmhouses. At that moment I began to wonder not just if I could make the midday cut-off at Buttermere, but if I would finish the short ride before they closed the event at 6.30pm!

Just when I was wondering why the hell I'd let myself into this undertaking, my view opened up and I got sight of the familiar countryside that I had seen a few weeks earlier during my Easter weekend in the Lakes. Then the Kirkstone Inn came into view and that was reassuring too.

At the summit, knowing that a long descent lay ahead, I stopped to put on my jacket and grab a quick snack. What was also reassuring was the sight of other riders at the summit. As I moved off, they stayed where they were to sort out a mechanical, while another guy appeared to be just having a morning coffee. So at least I knew I wouldn't be last.

Whizzing down Kirkstone was a real joy, though it wasn't the time to become too complacent as the descent still required skill on a few technical bends. 

A left-hand turn took me into Matterdale where the scenery was stunning. That would be a recurring theme throughout my day. It was desolate but in a peverse way, still an inviting place. Given that I was in a cyclosportive this was not the time to stop for picnics or take photographs, though.

On reaching the junction with the A66, I met some volunteers who checked I was okay and warned me to be careful on the road. This is one section of the Fred Whitton Challenge route, that I am not a fan of, as it runs along a fast trunk road. Thankfully, a side section of the road was coned off, so I was sheltered from the worst of the traffic. Furthermore, it was still only mid-morning and on a Sunday the traffic wasn't heavy. Seeing the sign for Keswick was a welcome indication that I would be back on quiet roads for the rest of the ride. In this gateway town to Borrowdale, I knew exactly how to reach the road to Honister Pass without the help of the signboards or marshals, having reccied it just three weeks earlier. 

Given the time, and the fact that one of the toughest climbs would be appearing before long, I took the opportunity to stock up on fuel and take a toilet break near Derwentwater. By this time, I was all alone, having been overtaken by the other riders who'd had the mechanical at Kirkstone Pass. Maybe I should have felt concerned that there was no one else around, but in fact I felt free - free to just ride around at a pace I was comfortable with, and free to stop when I felt like it. I had food, drink, extra clothing if needed. Granted, I didn't have tent or bivouac, but if I did end up staying out so late I had money to stay in some lodgings!

Although I wasn't riding in any group, the number on my handlebars showed that I was still part of this event which is well known among all the locals. Many people who saw me ride by, applauded and cheered me on, even though I hardly looked like I was in any race. That was jolly nice of them.

Just after the village of Seatoller came one of the hardest climbs of the day - Honister Pass. It was important to remind myself that on my previous attempt I had managed to get up this 25% ramp without walking, even if I had almost pulled a wheelie in the process. If I kept that in mind, and stayed calm, I would be okay. The next half-mile became all about straining every sinew to keep the momentum moving forward especially on the hairpins, and hope that no vehicle would approach in the opposite direction along this narrow road.  

Once past the worst section of the gradient, I felt enormously relieved, though I was panting too much to have any real appreciation of this mini success. A car did emerge in the opposite direction, on the merciful 10% section. The driver kindly stopped to let me pass by as she gave me a big thumbs up while I trudged passed barely conscious.

Soon the road took me past a slate mine and then the Honister car park and tea room which marked the end of my climb and the start of the big drop down to Buttermere. By this time I'd got my breath back and was ready to celebrate my achievement, but this was no time to be complacent. I still had some way to go. 

However, it was at this point that I realised I would miss the cut off to do the full Fred Whitton Challenge, so my ride would now just be a mere 73 miles instead of 112. Furthermore, I would be deprived of the chance to ride up Hardknott and Wrynose Passes. Should I have felt disappointed? Maybe, but I wasn't! Having experienced these two beasts a few weeks earlier, and spent most of the time on foot rather than on my bike I knew that I wouldn't stand a chance of riding it during the cyclosportive, particularly as those climbs don't appear until around 95 miles into the ride! So in effect, the hardest climb of my ride was behind me, and everything from here on in would be straight forward....sort of.

The road to hell - aka Hardknott Pass - which I skipped in FW Challenge (thankfully)

Rolling down the Honister Pass is not the easiest of descents. Just as 25% uphill is tough, the same percentage downhill is no breeze. Control and good bike handling are required. I remember a woman crashing on this descent a few years ago and fracturing her skull. Er, I'd rather that didn't happen to me. So for those first couple of kilometres there was a lot of focus, as I made use of my descending skills learned (thankfully) from a few years of cyclocross. 

Nevertheless it has to be said that the area was breathtaking in more ways than one. The descent had me panting as the road snaked and sank between the stunning Buttermere and Borrowdale valleys. 

Eventually the gradient levelled off and my ride became more manageable, and this allowed me to appreciate the landscape, which was dotted with little streams, as well as sheep that looked on at me curiously. They probably wondered what this odd person was doing on their patch with a number on her bike and no peloton!

As expected, I missed the cut-off to continue on the main route, which was evidenced by the sight of organisers closing feed-station and the first-aid ambulance driving away. Good job I had my own supplies, as I tucked into another energy bar.

A couple of miles earlier a guy on a road bike had passed me and said hello. I assumed he was a participant in the cyclosportive, given the speed he passed me, and he must have had a mechanical that was now resolved. 

However, about 200m down the road I realised he was slowing down as I began to catch up with him. These moments are always a bit tricky for me. I think to myself, "If you ride so much quicker than I do, why overtake and then slow down? Then I'm going to catch you and you'll chase me down again...What's the point in that?" I'm never keen on this silly cat and mouse game. 

Initially, I began to slow myself down, in a hope that he would pick up pace again. It didn't work though, because it would be ridiculous to ride even slower than my already snail pace. Eventually I caught up with him, as he was stood admiring the beautiful Buttermere Lake.

Soon he caught me again, but rather than pass, he rode alongside me and struck up a conversation. "It's beautiful around here isn't it?" He said. It turned out that he had come across to the area from Newcastle with a friend who was taking part in the cyclosportive. He had failed to get a place during the lottery draw for the event, but came to the Lake District anyway to provide support for his team-mate. Knowing the route, he was happy enough to ride around the areas on the day and soak in the atmosphere. I'm not sure if my pootling along the course on my own provided much atmosphere!

We rode further on together, and began the climb up Newlands Pass. That was where I hoped he would leave me to my own devices, as the road became decidedly steep. Of all the climbs of the Fred Whitton, Newlands is the one I know the least. Despite having previously done the Fred on a couple of occasions I still couldn't remember much about this pass across that crosses the valley to reach Keswick. My assumption is that if it didn't stand out in my memory of the event it can't have been that tough. However, I was wrong. When inspecting it on an Ordnance Survey map this yellow road shows double arrows, denoting it being >20%. I wasn't looking forward to that. My new found pal eventually bid me good bye as he said he was going to explore other roads. Before leaving he described the rest of the route beyond Newlands Pass and gave me tips. Nice of him, but I did already know the route. I guess, judging by the way I waddled along he thought I was a newbie. And I must say, I felt too embarrassed to say I was a little bit more experienced than that!

Climbing up Newlands Pass didn't fail to disappoint, when it came to gradients. The narrow road wound around, up and up past the Moss Force waterfalls. At one point I really felt like I was in some kind of middle Earth as the place was desolate and looked a little grey. Funnily enough, I still think it looked beautiful. 

Only a couple of cars passed by, and like other motorists - as had been the trend on this day - they tooted their horns and either gave a thumbs up or shouted "well done" at my efforts. I certainly appreciated the encouragement as this road had a very sharp hairpin with a ramp that must have been in excess of 20% - not as steep as Honister, but tough enough. It caught me quite by surprise. With my remaining energy I squeezed every muscle to propel myself forwards. Thankfully, the road levelled off and then very shortly afterwards my bike wheels began to turn faster and faster as the road gently descended, and then I was rolling at full velocity, enjoying a lovely downhill towards Braithwaite. 

Apparently this quaint village is where your morale is made or broken a marshal determines whether you have a long or a short day on the roads of the Fred Whitton Cyclosportive. A left-hand turn takes you up Whinlatter Pass, out towards Cockermouth and then down to Eskdale Green where the dreaded Hardknott-Wrynose duo await. Alternatively, you can turn right towards Keswick and then take main road straight back to Grasmere. Depending on your persuasion your moral could be up because you're doing the long challenge, but also because you are doing the short challenge and can look forward to a relaxing afternoon. 

This right-hand turn could be a source of despair and disappointment at the hands of the marshal who has the interesting job of telling you you've missed the cut-off. Otherwise, it could be a moment of relief that it's official - you are on your way to an early finish that, with any luck gives you the time to enjoy a leisurely Sunday lunch and an afternoon walk. This was definitely my attitude. In fact, I was so late that the marshal doing this job had already packed up and gone! For a fellow rider Sonia from Bolsover, who I met on the day, she definitely had a sense of  the former. The right hand turn left her and her friend very disappointed and frustrated. Unfortunately for her, she was the woman I had passed at the summit of Kirktone Pass earlier and had had to deal with a problem with her gears. She and her friend had ridden like the clappers to make it to Braithwaite, only to arrive 15 minutes too late.

Fortunately for me though, it meant that doing the short course meant that I was able to have a very pleasant lunch with her back at the HQ.

Very happy to reached the finish line - even if I "only" did 73 miles

So after the right-hand turn at Braithwaite and a very pleasant descent in the shadow of Skiddaw mountain, I was back into Keswick, which had begun to feel like a second home, given that it was the second time I was passing through there on this day, and I had also been spent time in the village just a couple of weeks earlier. The roads and buildings were very familiar and I knew exactly which way I needed to go to reach Grasmere - handy given that there were no more signs or marshals. Sadly, I had forgotten about the steep exit to reach the homeward road, and I must admit that at this point I was beginning to feel the effects of the rugged Lakeland roads. It was a tour de force to winch myself over the 12% ramp, and even after that the main A591 was an unrelenting sequence of ups and downs, not to mention a slight head wind.

This section of the Fred Whitton Challenge is not the official course, and it's not publicised on the website. It was only when I received the pre-race pack that I became aware of its existence, and as such there were hardly any other participants on this road. In any case, it didn't make much difference to me as that had been the pattern throughout my ride even on the official route!

I was confident that the final 13 miles back to the HQ would be doable and my energy levels were high enough to get me home. I was far from hitting the wall, but I must admit I was getting a little bit bored, and the constant ups, downs and twists in the road were demoralising. Some sections had slight cross winds, and it has to be said that the there were some dual carriageway sections with fast-moving traffic so it wasn't a totally relaxing ride.

And where was the famous Lion and Lamb to keep me going? Apparently, you are meant to see these shapes in the nearby hills but I couldn't see anything of that description. I can only conclude it must have been something dreamed up by someone while they were on some fun pills. Of course, I am happy to stand corrected if someone sends me the photos.

About half-way along the road a guy passed me, going at a fast pace. That was reassuring to see that it's not just the slow coaches like myself who do this route. Soon after, a woman caught up with me. "It's not very easy here is it?" She said. I agreed. At first, I thought of hanging onto her wheel so that we could do a triumphant return to the HQ together - a sisters in solidarity moment. But she was actually stronger than I was, and as the wind subsided she gained a second wind herself and dropped me. No bother. I was just happy to have seen a couple of souls along the road, albeit briefly. That was enough to reassure me that I wasn't the only cop-out cyclosportive rider in the village.

Finally, the signboard for Grasmere came into view and the crowds along the roadside thickened as locals, friends and family cheered on every rider who crossed the finish line. I had a big smile on my face and a sense of achievement that I had got through the 73 Lakeland miles without wrecking myself - denoting that I probably had been strong enough to do the full thing had I set off early.

One guy who crossed the finish line at the same time as myself did say that I looked suspiciously fresh. So I felt obliged to make my admission, to which he replied - as long as you were in pain on Honister then you did it well. Well, it was painful, so I felt I must have done a good job.

Enjoying a post-ride walk around Grasmere and Rydal Water

Regardless of the fact that I had done the short Fred Whitton ride, it had been a satisfying day out,  I had done an honest day's work in the saddle, and I think I deserved my post-ride pie and chips. Then the day was rounded off with a beautiful walk along the trails surrounding Grasmere, Rydal Water, and Rydal Caves. I know I must go back to the Lake District and do the full Fred Whitton route at some point; though not for now. Hardknott and Wrynose may have to wait a little bit longer.

Related posts

Tackling the Lake District climbs

Crystal Palace hills

Saturday, 3 September 2022

The Monkey Motorbike Diaries - Episode 2

On Farthing Downs
Having this new type of two-wheeler has been great for getting out and about around London. I feel good about going out to other places. It's true that I can cycle to places, and that's something that I still do. But it's good to have that extra option of being able to ride to somewhere relatively quickly. For example, I can go into central London in half an hour, totally bypassing traffic jams that hold me up when in the car. Also, there's no congestion charge to worry about, and parking is generally free (apart from Westminster where you pay £1 for the day).  

Another use I have found with the motorbike is to get me to other parts of London in order to go running. I have aimed to get to different places each week to do runs. As well as it involving the fun of riding my motorbike, it also gives variety to my runs and keeps them interesting. I have been to Brockwell Park, Tooting Bec Common, Docklands, Peckham Rye, and on this day Farthing Down in South Croydon. It was an early morning start to get over to Coulsdon, and then I did a long run through the woods and was home by 9am in time to start my working day.

I have also used the bike to go to different outdoor swimming venues - to Canary Wharf, Royal Victoria Docks, London Fields, and then to Divers Cove in Surrey as well. 

I really enjoy the combination of getting in the practice on my motorbike, riding on different types of roads, as well as keeping fit.

I am not sure if I am a proper biker type though because it seems that real motorbikers get on their bikes and ride out to a cafe - maybe have a fry-up and then ride on to somewhere else and do another cafe stop. It has to be said that there are quite a lot of riders who are of a larger size. I wonder if all these rides to cafes are a contributory factor. Whether or not that is the case for them, I know for sure that I would definitely be twice the size that I am now if I used my bike to ride out to cafes every weekend. With that in mind it makes me wonder if I should join a motorcycle club if I am reluctant to do these types of cafe ride. Surely a motorbike rideout can be mixed in with say swimming, running or hiking and then the sausages and bacon afterwards, right? I would gladly welcome any suggestions of clubs that focus a little on other outdoor activities aside from motorbike riding. Or maybe that's an unreasonable expectation to think that these sets of lifestyles are not mutually exclusive. I hope that's not the case.

Related posts 

The Monkey Motorbike Diaries - Episode 1

Thursday, 1 September 2022

Freewheeling - Keeping away from cycling activists

As someone who is into cycling I have found that my love for the activity has slightly waned of late. It's not that I have gone off cycling. It's more to do with all that swirls around it. 

I have always had a fairly simple relationship with bike riding. I get on my bike, I ride. Sometimes it is for a leisure pootle, sometimes for training, or for racing. Other times it's just to get from A to B. I could be riding in London streets, on country roads, or along off-road trails. 

Normally, whichever sort of bike riding I do, I always enjoy it and find it a pleasant space away from the more humdrum activities of everyday life.

However, in recent times I have noticed that cycling has come very ...politicised. Whether it's folks going on about the safety/lack of safety on Britain's roads, sexism, racism, all other sorts of -isms, sustainability, clothing sizes for women, colours, sponsors of cycle races and teams, even bike brands. Whatever is happening in cycling it just seems to attract some sort of shouty reaction from certain quarters, all aired on Twitter - of course. It's all a bit much for me. 

I just want to ride my bike and not give it too much thought. Apparently, even that puts you at loggerheads with folks. Folks have been known to throw at me the accusatory phrase - "If you don't see a problem then you are part of the problem." I am supposedly meant to feel guilty about this.

Let me elaborate on a couple of things:

Race and cycling

Last year, I was asked by a cycling magazine to write an advertorial for a clothing brand. This would have involved interviewing two black women - one of whom has a large following on social media - and who has been vocal on racial matters in cycling. She set up a group known for women of colour who cycle. I don't particularly agree with such groups forming based purely on race. It is a view I am entitled to, though as a professional journalist my personal views do not influence the way I work. However, I was later informed by the editor of the cycling magazine that I was being removed from the job because the two black women asked not to be interviewed by me. Apparently they didn't approve of my views. 

The advertorial was going to be related to training to cycle 100km - nothing to do with a person's race, but yet I was removed from the job! So suddenly I became the subject of "cancel culture". Ironically, these are the same women who campaign saying "representation matters" and want visibility of black people in various roles, including journalism! Absolute hypocrisy. I must also add that in the 12 years I have been involved in journalism this is the only time an interviewee has asked to not be interviewed by me.

I first became involved in club cycling in 2000. At that time there were hardly any black people who took part in club cycling. There were a few; just not many. Nevertheless I found the cycling community to be very welcoming. Sure it was dominated by white males - maybe even middle-aged, middle class males. I didn't ask them their ages or their class, and even if I could have taken an educated guess, I couldn't really have cared one way or another. I was just interested in being in a friendly environment, and that's how I found the cycling milieu to be. 

Fast forward twenty years and everyone is talking about cycling being racist and that the lack of black people involved in cycling is because we were being excluded. No one ever stopped me from riding a bicycle or taking part in events. 

I am not saying that I don't believe other people who say that they had a negative experience, but I think it's important to realise that people have different experiences in the same situation. When I say that I have had a positive experience I don't see why folks should look at me negatively. It's almost as though I have committed some sort of sacrilege because I am not going out and mouthing off about breaking down barriers. 

In my time I have known many black people (including members of my own family) who are just not interested in cycling, and who even wonder why I do it! That's been my experience, and for me to believe that the lack of black people cycling was down to personal preference rather than racial bias was not an unreasonable conclusion to draw. Because of that, some see me as a pariah for not joining them in their crusade. One black guy who has made his name by hosting an exhibition about Black Cycling Champions and claiming that cycling is a racist sport even blocked me from his Twitter account!

It is interesting how some of these people campaign for inclusivity, but yet their behaviour, by its very nature, is to exclude those who don't share their opinions.  

Militant Cyclists 

I have ridden bicycles around since the 1970s. My time as a commuter cyclist in London began in 2001. Back then, there were make-shift cycle lanes - mainly a line painted along the edge of the road but you weren't separated from traffic at all. I remember the first time I cycled from my home in Crystal Palace all the way to my office at the time, which was in Marylebone, I rode ever so cautiously and was quite nervous. But in fact, it wasn't bad at all. I quite enjoyed the experience and I was happy to continue riding my bike through the London. I have commuted by bicycle ever since. 

Nowadays we have the luxury of segregated cycle superhighways and special cyclist traffic lights to get you across busy junctions. I think these are great additions and have been instrumental in encouraging more people to cycle in London. I think that London is now an even better place to cycle, and its facilities are now comparable to (if not better than) some other major cities around the world. I can confidently say this as I always make sure to ride a bicycle (either my own or a hire bike) whenever I travel abroad. So I have ridden bicycles in cities around Europe, North America, South America, and the Caribbean, in my time.

The thing is, whenever I look at Twitter I see angry messages from various people about how terrible it is to cycle around London. I just don't share that experience with others. Sadly, if you respond on this platform saying that you have had an enjoyable experience people lambast you saying you don't know what you're talking about and asking you to produce statistics.

Campaigning organisations also want to suggest that every other city in Europe has better cycling infrastructure than London. I would take them seriously if the protagonists actually regularly commuted in those countries. Many of them have never cycled abroad - or at least when they cycled abroad it was in a holiday resort within that country as opposed to a city where people get on with daily life. These are not even like for like comparisons, so folks then draw their conclusions based on photographs of cycle lanes in these cities! 

A recently constructed segregated cycle lane in central Paris, running along rue Saint Antoine from Bastille to Chatelet, and on to Rivoli and Concorde has received much praise on social media. Granted it is a very useful cycle lane. But is this segregated lane better than an equivalent one in London? And does it mean that every cycle lane in Paris is in the same style as the one on Rivoli? 

I get astounded by how people take this cycle lane and extrapolate saying the whole of Paris has cycle lanes like this, and life as a cyclist in Paris is much better than in London! Have these people never ridden the Cycle Superhighway from Elephant and Castle to Clerkenwell? Or the path from Tower Bridge through Westminster all the way to the Royal Albert Hall? What is the difference? In fact I would argue that the London segregated paths are better than those in Paris because they are completely closed to motorised traffic. Cycle lanes in Paris still allow space for delivery vans - and the van drivers make the most of that permission! You certainly have to be on your guard when riding in a bike lane.

Then of course there's the "we hate cars" brigade. Activists have even taken to deflating the tyres of SUVs under cover of darkness and leaving notes reprimanding them for owning one. Interestingly, these will be the same people protesting against the regimes of Vladimir Putin of Russia, Kim Jong-un of North Korea or Xi Jinping of China. But yet, these urban rebels feel that it's okay to disrupt the lives of people who don't embrace their beliefs and behaviours.

And let's not forget the countless cyclists who jump the red traffic lights - some with fatal consequences. Campaigners continue to lambast terrible drivers of motorised vehicles. If you dared to question cyclists who flout road traffic laws they give a response along the lines of cyclists don't kill people when they don't jump lights. Some even refuse to acknowledge that this law-breaking occurs.  

I don't understand how they can't see that this brand of self-righteousness, and thinking they are above all other road users just doesn't endear them to the general population. It's not surprising that folks make negative comments about these militants on pushbikes, and display negative behaviour towards them on the roads. Travelling around a town should be about sharing the thoroughfares, not occupying them to the exclusion of others.

And so, in the climate of what I have mentioned above, I find it quite difficult to call myself a cyclist. I get concerned that people may automatically picture me as one of those scary angry folks who jumps red lights and refuses to give way to any other road user. 

These days I prefer to consider myself as a person who likes to travel by bicycle, among other forms of transport. In addition, I like to do club cycling and cycle races, as well as other sporting activities. I think it's better to not let myself get too immersed in the chatter of activists and militants.

It's nice to see that more and more people are taking to push bikes. London has definitely become more of a cycling city, than ever before. Though I must say that I personally don't feel any push to say that everyone should ride bikes, though I wouldn't dissuade it either. And I certainly don't believe that anything in society is discouraging others from getting into bike riding if that's what they want to do.  

Above all, bike riding is always about choice. You make your choice and respect the choices of others. Sadly, I think that what I have said here sounds much too reasonable, and is likely to once again attract the ire of others.

Friday, 5 August 2022

The Monkey Motorbike Diaries - Episode 1

I have become a motor biker - well, kind of. I am still just a learner at the moment. But it is a start. I'm on two-wheels and with a machine. It's not quite in the all leather or hell's angel or even a mod type, but more in the practical sensible bike rider type. 

I guess my motives for motorbike riding are more dowdy and less rock'n'roll. I just wanted a way of getting around London without being heavily reliant on public transport and having the car stresses of getting stuck in traffic, parking, expensive parking and congestion charge. 

Of course, I like to travel around by pushbike, and that is something I will still continue to do. But it's good to have another option for when you don't want to have to go by pushbike all the way to North London, or when travelling late in the evening. Or sometimes I just feel tired and want a sedentary way of getting around on two wheels. I'm getting older!

So, after a number of lessons I got through my compulsory basic training (CBT) with one school I finally achieved the level with a different school and now I have the prized D196, which now let's me onto public roads, albeit with L-plates and limited to a 125cc motorbike. 

That's handy, as that's what I've got - 125cc Honda Monkey with L-plates on it. 

I picked up my new 2wheeled horse the very next day after doing my CBT. I had had most of my lessons on a Honda MXS 125cc (also known as the Grom), so the Monkey, which has the same construction as the Grom was a good bike to start with in my motorcycle riding journey. However, that still doesn't stop you from being nervous.

The worst moment for me, was after I paid for and picked up the bike from the showroom in Coulsdon, South Croydon, shook hands with the salesman and sat on the bike. which was parked right outside the shop on the main road. I really felt like everyone in the shop was watching me and I felt all the pressure to set off smoothly like I knew what I was doing. Of course I knew what I was doing - I had spent the previous afternoon riding around South London and had shown my instructor what I was capable of riding on public roads. So I really had to remind myself that I would be fine.

Riding through the Croydon traffic at rush hour was fun and games. I stalled the bike a couple of times when pulling away from lights. At least I had the presence of mind to pull into the side of the road to restart the machine and carry on. The busy Wellesley Road which includes many buses pulling out from the bus terminal and traffic coming in from the underpass proved a bit of a challenge. Likewise for Selhurst Road which involved stop-start traffic on an uphill stretch. 

In fact, it wasn't as terrible as I thought it would be. Motorists seemed quite patient, and in any case the traffic was quite slow-moving given that it was rush hour. What I can look forward to is filtering through the traffic and leaving behind the four-wheeled vehicles.

Once I reached home at Crystal Palace, I felt like letting out a cheer that I had survived my first unaccompanied bike ride through the London area. When I took my jacket off I realised that I was drenched in sweat - not just because it had been a hot day, but also because it was reflective of how nervous I had been.

Well, I had made it home in one piece - I knew that no other bike ride would be as nerve-wracking and clumsy as this one. So things can only get better. I just need to make sure I get out on the bike frequently, so that everything becomes a natural reflex. Given how much I like my little cute Monkey I don't think it will be difficult to will myself to get on the bike.

Sunday, 31 July 2022

The Tour de France Femmes est arrivee!

The day finally came for the women's Tour de France, known as the Tour de France Femmes with Zwift. 

After years of campaigning Amaury Sports Organisation finally put on a women's stage race around France, that can become the race of reference for pro women. Also, given that it was happening at the time of the men's Tour de France the women's race had a high profile, media coverage, and hopefully a lot of public interest.

I had a media pass to attend stage 1, which started from the Eiffel Tower and consisted of 8 laps around central Paris, going along the same route that the men use during their customary finish in Paris at the end of the Tour de France each year.

The last time the women's pro peloton raced around the streets of Paris was during the first edition of La Course, 10 years ago. This race was the predecessor event to what ASO are now organising for the women's pro peloton. At the time the event took place first thing on the Sunday morning, with not much of an audience. Granted, the event was televised but then at that time of the morning there would have been a limited audience to see Marianne Vos cross the finish line and do her victory salute.

However, this event was a very different matter. This was the culmination of a lot of campaigning, negotiations and behind the scenes preparation. There had been a lot of publicity in the months running up to the event, and it had been the talk of the town among all cycling fans.

So the day had finally come, and this would be the first day of  a week-long Tour de France Femmes. Although described as a tour of France, the stages were going to be largely in the Alsace and Vosges, just in Eastern France.

On this hot sunny day in July I got on my bicycle and made my way from my lodgings in Vincennes to the press centre, just behind the Champs Elysees. It was my first time going to the press centre for the final day of the Tour de France (and the first day of the Tour de France Femmes) and the thing that struck me most was the number of road closures, even for bicycles.

It is understandable to have heavy security at such a grand scale event in central Paris, but recent unfortunate events such as terrorist attacks and the "gilets jaunes" rioters meant that police presence was omnipresent, complete with machine guns and even CRS (like the UK equivalent of the SAS). All this made it difficult, once I arrived at Concorde to get to the area just across the road from me. My trip involved a real tour of Paris. Then as if that wasn't enough there was a lot of haggling with the ASO staff to get through to the Media Centre. A few other journalists with me also encountered the same difficulties - an officious guy refusing pass down the small avenue to reach the media centre and folks angrily remonstrating. All that added about an hour to my journey and by the time I reached the media centre I was ready for a rest. There was no way I was going to venture across to the start line of the women's race at the Eiffel Tower, and preferred to stay where I was and watch them on the Champs Elysees, as well as on the TV in the media centre.

This was definitely a historic moment, with plenty of spectators watching the first stage in the afternoon sunshine in central Paris. There had been so much build-up to this day - with the various column inches having been written about the history of women's Tour de France races in the past, analysis of the route, pundits views on how will win, and that's before counting all the various initiatives by Zwift, Santini and other sponsors.

In the end, for me, when the big day came, the significance of this moment was forgotten - perhaps because of all the logistical hassle, perhaps not - and it was all about reporting on a women's cycle race and then dashing off to the media centre for the post-race press conference.

I know there were probably people who really were smitten by the occasion, and were quite emotional about it. I can't say why I didn't feel that way. I think that for me, the big moment came when there was the announcement of the race last year and the grand reveal of the route in Autumn in Paris. Thereafter, I wanted to just focus on the job in hand and the racing itself. There's a limit to how much you can say about a historical moment, and when it comes to sport, the engagement comes through exciting racing.

It was a fast-paced race with a couple of crashes during the 82km circuit race around the Champs Elysees, Concorde and Rivoli. Different women went off the front for a spot of limelight under the lenses of the world's media, but the main bunch with the protagonists largely stayed together. In the end the result was decided by a showdown between the most experienced racer, Marianne Vos, and her young compatriot Lorena Wiebes. The youthful pre-race favourite, Wiebes crossed the finish line on the most iconic of avenues and ended up on the podium in the yellow jersey. It would have been good to see Marianne Vos up there, but Wiebes was a very worthy winner. Marianne Vos (possibly the greatest racer of all time) did get to wear the Green Jersey at the end of the 8-stage race. Sadly, Lorena Wiebes, who went on to win a second stage, withdrew from the race on Stage 7 as a result of a crash the previous day. 

The other overall winner, Annemiek Van Vleuten did it in combattive style after having had setbacks during the early stages, including racing with an upset stomach and having stop on the roadside for a poo during the hilly stage to Epernay. On the final stage, with a commanding lead over her second-placed rival, Demi Vollering, Van Vleuten encountered mechanical problems and had to change bike twice. Yet she still found it in her to stay head of everyone on the legendary climb up the Superplanche des Belles Filles.

For me, that is sort of thing that excited me about the Tour de France Femmes. Women now have a stage race of reference. Rather than repeating the "wow women have a Tour de France", I want to move things on and say "Wow, wasn't that an exciting race." And I am glad to have been able to say that about this inaugural Tour de France Femmes.

Thursday, 7 July 2022

Rides on the Cote d'Azur: Col de Braus

When I visited Nice earlier this year I made a deal with myself to ride the col de Turini, one of the most famous climbs in the Alpes-Maritimes region. On many previous occasions I had visited the Côte d'Azur I was supposed to ride up this giant of the Mercantour National Park, but a lack of time and/or fitness prevented me from tackling the ~25km climb that literally takes you into the clouds. 

So on this occasion in mid-June, with my legs primed with a few thousand miles of climbing I felt ready to give it a go.

Very helpfully, a bike hire shop in the centre of Nice had decent road bikes available, so I bagged one for the long weekend. After settling into my lodgings I hit the road, starting with a warm-up loop over the col d'Eze, dropping down to Menton and scooting across the border to Ventimiglia, then returning to Nice along the coast. 

Le Calendre

Being on the coast it would have been rude not to stop off for at a beach. So I broke up my ride with a stopover at the secluded Le Calandre beach, in Ventimiglia - a highly recommended place for a swim and drink.  

The next morning, I set off from central Nice, breezed through places like Saint-Roch, La Trinité and Drap in the suburbs and followed the route to L'Escarène. 

While the Côte d'Azur - is associated with beautiful crystal blue sea, as its name suggest, don't forget about the abundance of gorges in this part of the world. 

These natural features cut into the rocks beside the local rivers are as spectacular as they are ubiquitous. 

Near L'Escarène was a gorge along the River Paillon, which wound in and out of the rock as the road twisted and turned. Considering it was the height of summer there was hardly any traffic. Perhaps unsurprisingly, folks had opted for the coastal areas given the oppressive heat. However, this was really the place to be. Given how many rocks and archways there were to ride through, this gave an automatic cooling effect. It was bliss to have these roads practically to myself. 

Gorge de Paillon

After around four miles my route took me to the village of L'Escarène, set on hill. Although there weren't many motorists, there were still a fair few club cyclists. Many of them seemed local, but a few were not. One guy, and Italian, actually stopped and asked me in Italian directions to the col de Braus. I replied in Italian and pointed him in the right direction - as if I were a local, and speaking in Italian was the most natural thing to do!

Later, while riding through L'Escarène, a woman overtook me and waved as she passed. She was in CAMS-Basso kit. I hadn't seen any of their riders back home at all this year. So the South of France is where I needed to be to find the UK-based team!

After a brief toilet stop and refilling of water at the fountain in the L'Escarene the business end of my ride began. By that, I didn't mean Turini, but the appetiser - col de Braus.


Col de Braus has different memories for me. The first time I cycled up it, was towards the end of a longish day after I had spent the time in the col de Vence area. 

At L'Escarene I stopped at a local shop and bought a few snacks and chatted to the folks in shop who gave the usual "I'm so impressed you're riding out here on your own". One woman was very fearful for me and said, "Are you really sure you want to go up the col de Braus? It's a very tough climb." Being young and cocky I replied, "Of course - I've got the right gearing and the legs - I'll be fine" Famous last words. 

This road that wiggled around interminably with 8-10% ramps was not the ideal climb to be doing at 6pm on a Saturday evening. After around three miles I stopped to look back down the road and see how far I'd come. That was one of the most impressive views I'd ever seen of a road. The wiggles were distinctly of Sa Calobra proportions [for those familiar with roads in Mallorca] and then some. Feeling impressed, but tired, I decided that it would be prudent to return to Nice via the way I had come up as the sun was still out, and I didn't feel confident in taking the descent potentially in the shade and arriving in Sospel, miles out from my base in Nice. Needless to say, the descent was a beautiful merry-go-round all the way back to sea level.

On another occasion when riding up to the col de Braus, I misread the IGN (French Ordnance Survey) map, thinking I could get there on a road directly from Gorbio and Saint Agnes. This is true, however what wasn't factored in was the fact that col des Banquettes was mainly a gravelly unmade road, and we we were on road bikes. 

So it was a two-hour slog to the summit of col de Braus. I was so relieved to finally reach tarmac and to have not had a puncture.

Hopefully, today's ride would be just a straightforward formality before arriving at the main event - the col de Turini.

Maybe because I am almost 20 years older than the time when I rode up the col de Braus for the first time, I felt like this climb was actually fairly challenging. Since the last time I rode along these roads I noted that the local authority had taken to giving information every km on the gradient, and the distance from the summit.

The long desolate road up in the midday sun

Although the average gradient is advertised at 6%, the overall difficulty is a little misleading. The initial section was quite shallow, with sections of around 3 or 4%. But this would be immediately followed by sections of 8%, 10, even 12%. It was quite an irregular climb, which made it hard work. 

The saving grace was that there a few (though not many) sections under tree cover, so I was protected from the worst of the midday sun in the 30 degC heat. 

I saw many riders coming down the hill, and they gave me a wave though gave a knowing look that I was not from those parts, since no local in their right mind would go up this climb at this time of the day. Mad dog and Englishmen......!

I didn't care. I was looking forward to getting my share of these hills - even in this heat. It was too beautiful to miss out. I was overawed by this landscape that I had not seen for many years. As well as the rocky landscape there were hillside vineyards in the distance, and down below there were even some walkers who seemed to have stopped to bathe in the waterfall and pool. 

Every few hairpins I would stop and marvel at the convoluted roads that wound their way along the 10km, average slope of 6% and dozens of hairpins. It was definitely a day to take your time and take lots of photos. Given the hot weather, most folks were down at the beach so the roads were almost empty - even better for me.

View of the Redebraus Waterfall down below

On reaching the summit was the welcoming sight of a mountain-top restaurant with a view. Maybe I should have stopped for a meal but I didn't. I did take more photos though. Some al fresco diners at the restaurant offered to take a photo of me. "Would you like me to take your picture, Monsieur?" The woman asked. I obliged, and as soon as I spoke the woman realised her error in thinking that I was a guy, and apologised profusely. I didn't mind. It's something that often happens when out riding on my own. She said she was mighty impressed - that I had come all the way from London where there aren't roads like this, that I was riding on a blazing hot day, and that I was a woman riding alone. 

These are things that I don't really think about, but I guess it's not surprising that people assume I am a man. I rarely see foreign women riding alone when I'm abroad either, and get surprised when I feel them!

Onwards, and I was faced with a 10km descent towards Sospel. Just as there were various steep ramps on the way up to the summit, my ride took in the same on the descent. So there were a few tight steep bends to negotiate. The other side of the mountain was less leafy than on my upward route, and had areas that were quite deserted. It wasn't the place to get into difficulty as there really wasn't a soul around - not even a cyclist or a car driving up or down. Near the bottom, signs of life did come into view as there were more houses as I passed the village of Saint Philippe. This road had also now become the Col Saint Jean, which threw me down brought the ride to an abrupt stop at a T-junction onto the main road to Sospel. Rather than turn right into this Alpine town I chose to continue with my plan to ride up Col de Turini, so I took the left-hand turn ready to face 24km up to a summit of 1607m. It's a good job I had acquired a taste for hairpins, for there would be a lot more to come!

Related posts

Gorgeous gorges du Verdon

Primavera travels: Menton to Ventimiglia

Travel notes: Sea at last

Wednesday, 29 June 2022

Back doing cycle races and cyclosportives - kind of!

After years of no cyclosportives, this year I have decided to make a comeback to organised bike events. Interestingly, the coronavirus pandemic has played a part in that. After a couple of years of limited opportunities to do races and other mass participation events I now want to make the most of the chance to take part, at least while I've got my strength and faculties. 

Finish line at the Fred Whitton Challenge
When the pandemic hit us in March 2020 and sports events were cancelled, many of we sporty types felt a massive hole in our sporting programme of activities. 

Sure we still had the freedom (unlike some other European countries) to go outdoors and train, but not having a challenge to aim for meant that something was missing. It's not as though I was a prolific racer like I had been about 15 years ago, but pre-pandemic bike racing was something I had had in the back of my mind as something I was going to restart at some point in the future. 

However, as the old adage goes "you only appreciate something when you no longer have it", and this situation spoke exactly to that scenario when all racing was put on hold. All I could do at that point was to look whimsically at the list of races that I could have done here or there, and if only I could get up to the Lake District, Wales or Surrey Hills to do a cyclosportive here, a fell race there, or even a triathlon. 

So when the big, high-profile events opened entries I decided to apply - for (in order of difficulty) Ride London, Fred Whitton, and the Etape du Tour. However, the one snag about doing cyclosportives is that you have to do them - you have to put in the miles, do the training, feel confident in your ability and get yourself to the start line. So far, I have had a better year than most in recent times in terms of getting out on my bike and doing rides. I've got up to the Lake District a couple of times, the Peak District, and of course my local hills in Surrey and Kent. Plus, 

I have also been abroad for cycling, with trips to Italy and France. What I have found though now, in my veteran years is that it's quite difficult to get out and ride when I have to juggle that with life. When trying to run a house and keep the cheques coming in, that has to take priority over going out on your bike for six hours - even at the weekend. It's quite different from when I was in my 20s and 30s and felt relatively care-free. Also, back then you could turn up at a race and "wing it". 

These days one has to pre-enter races and I generally end up racing against young'uns who are 20 or 25 years my junior, who work on their power/FTP on all kinds of new-fangled gadgets and Zwift. They get themselves coaches, and quite a few race for a semi-professional team. 

So to turn up for a race now for me, has to be a properly considered decision with various questions to ask myself. Will I be competitive? How does this balance against the pile of admin, gardening, and DIY that I have to do at home - particularly if I have to allow four or five hours to do the event, and in these economic times can I justify paying this entry fee, particularly if there's a real possibility that I will finish in last place in the race! So despite all the best intentions these are the questions that run through my mind when it comes to bike events. 

Note, that I also like doing other events - running races, swimming events, triathlons and SwimRun, which I started doing last year. So that complicates the mix further. Consequently, my bike racing hasn't gotten into a full flow. I did the Fred Whitton Cyclosportive in May this year. Not feeling fully confident in my ability, I chose their cop-out option of doing the Lamb and Lion route - after Newlands Pass you can divert back to Keswick and take the main A591 road back to the HQ at Grasmere. Easy option, my a*se! I still did 73 miles and around 2,000m of climbing, including Honister Pass at the end of the day! 

I did another cyclosportive, Ride London-Essex cyclosportive. It was considered easier than the Surrey Hills version of the event. In fact, I would say it was different but equally challenging, as the course undulated constantly instead of the previous editions which had three distinct climbs through the Surrey Hills - Newlands Corner, Leith Hill and Box Hill - interspersed on a mainly flat route. The Etape du Tour (Briançon to Alpe d'Huez) is still to come, and we'll see how that goes.

In terms of more competitive events, I did a criterium race last Friday evening at Herne Hill Velodrome. As expected I was dropped from the group of women who turned out. To be fair, it was a fairly technical course with a number of tight corners. I was happy to ride slightly slower and get around the corners in one piece, albeit in last place, rather than to stack it in front of a large captive audience! There will be some summer cyclocross events taking place on Friday nights at Herne Hill too. Hopefully, I will get across to do one of those. The journey continues, even through my advancing years!

Sunday, 24 April 2022

Tackling the Lake District climbs

It had been a long time since I had done the Fred Whitton Challenge - more than 10 years. Back in those days it was a case of entering the event as soon as entries open, and getting your place. Nowadays, with the popularity of the race, that is no longer the case and entries are granted on a ballot basis. I thought I would have a punt and sent in my entry in January, half thinking that I would receive the consolatory, "sorry you haven't been successful email" as I usually get with other ballot events like the London Marathon and the Great North Run.

But to my surprise, I was notified that I had received a place - well, how about that! As it was early February I knew I had time to prepare - after all, I was preparing for the Etape du Tour anyway and I had resolved to get in more cycling events this year. For the Fred, I would just need to make sure that my rides included excruciatingly steep climbs in order to be able to tackle all those infamous passes - Kirkstone, Honister, Newlands, Whinlatter and the terrible duo of Hardknott followed by Wrynose. 

So I fed myself a regular diet of hills around Crystal Palace, and at weekends trips to the Kent Hills - Ricketts Hill, Hosey Hill, Toys Hill/Puddledock, the mighty Yorks Hill, and the last sting in the tail on Hogtrough Hill. Surrey Hills also provided good testers on Cold Harbour, Ranmore, Leith Hill, Whitedown, and of course the old favourite at Box Hill.

Along the way, I also did a trip to the Peak District where I cycled around the hills near Matlock, then went up to the Lake District. 

The Lake District definitely felt like a step from what I'd been used to. There's that moment when you go up the first climb, which over there would just be a little warm-up for a local rider, and wouldn't even make any impact on them. For me, it was a significant effort!

That climb for me, was Lickbarrow Road, near my lodgings at Bowness-on-Windermere. Crikey, would I survive the day??! 

I just tried to keep believing that I would be okay, and anyway at the limit I could just turn round and go home along a valley road to Bowness. Giving myself that get-out clause made me feel more relaxed and willing to carry on with my ride.

Eventually I got around some interesting places - Strawberry Bank, Fell Foot Brow, Windermere, a ferry across the lake, Sawrey and the biggest climb of the day, The Struggle to the Kirkstone Pub. That was a tough old challenge, but being able to ride the whole thing gave me a confidence boost.

My following day of riding involved the dreaded Hardknott and Wrynose Passes, but not without going over Hawkshead Hill, down to Coniston and then over the Old Rake, Broughton Mills and Birker Fell. Some of the climbs were in areas that don't get much publicity among the cycling community. Sure everyone knows about Hardknott, Wrynose, Kirkstone, etc. But the climbs that go out towards the villages of Ulpha, Torver and Broughton-in-Furness are less talked about. 

Lake Windermere

The Old Rake was a real quad buster. I actually hit it in too high a gear, and though I managed to just about get up it, it was a screamer of a climb and very stressful as the road was narrow. I felt ready to just shout at an oncoming car to get out of the way to let me just finish my struggle on a slightly clear bit of road. Someone was watching over me as no vehicle came by and a car only appeared, once I'd pulled into the side of the road to get my breath back. 

Having regained a bit of energy and composure I restarted my ride along this lonely backroad that still climbed, though with a much more manageable gradient than the initial scary section. Riding along, I took the time to admire the local landscape - which was beautifully desolate. It was all just heather and sheep, with a few rocky outcrops. I wondered why there is such a dearth of cyclists around this area. Sure the gradient will put people off, but there's no shortage of folks on Honister and Hardknott passes, which are even steeper.

I can only imagine that the Old Rake and Broughton Fells are not big tourist areas, and I guess that the many cyclists who are bagging climbs on the various lists of bucket list climbs don't feel the same bragging rights when they say "I conquered the Old Rake" - [the Old what?] compared to saying "I conquered Wrynose Pass".

My route took me through some bijou farm villages near Broughton Mills, then I was hit with another stinker of a climb - Birker Fell, a brutal 25% ramp that hit me as soon as I turned right from the main road. This time there were vehicles travelling in both directions on this challenging ramp, though they all mercifully gave way to me, probably with a mixture of pity and admiration.

I must say, this area is pretty spectacular. You are high up above everything else around, and there are incredible views across the various valleys. After the initial 25% climb you are still climbing, though it is a combination of false flat and gentle climbing, and the route just continues up and up. It wasn't totally desolate, as there were various people who had found little nooks and crannies among the bushes and rocks to stop and have a picnic. Also, as it was quite a twisty road, there were quite a number of motorbikers who had also taken this route. 

The road from Hawkshead to Coniston

Eventually, the road plunged towards Eskdale, and that was an extended stretch of downhill, with technical bends at times, but still sweeping enough to get a good flow and really enjoy the drop. I must admit I wouldn't have wanted to ride up that - particularly judging by the faces of the handful of cyclists I saw coming up it! 

Once at Eskdale Green, I took the chance to have a bit of lunch before tackling the big one - Hardknott Pass. 

While I had been able to cycle up the other steep climbs of the day, I sensed that Hardknott would be a bridge too far for me. At least for now, I should try and enjoy the calm before the storm at Eskdale Green. It was very tempting to pop into the nearby pub - which is what many walkers and cyclists in the vicinity were doing, but a beer was not really going to help my cause.

The view of the road in the distance already gave me a sense of foreboding as I could see the trail of vehicles snaking up it in stop-start fashion as cars had to give way to others that were negotiating the incredibly steep hairpins. Even though there was a signboard clearly stating that the road was only suitable for light vehicles it didn't stop a camper van from attempting the pass. They got to the first hairpin, struggled and then realised the error of their ways and tried to turn back - er, not really possible. So they were caught in a no man's land of not being able to advance, but not being able to reverse either as there was a trail of vehicles behind them.

So an almighty traffic jam resulted and folks all had to reverse down hill to the nearby car park and let the silly (and probably embarrassed) driver get off the pass and find a sensible route. I'm surprised there wasn't much tooting of horns or road rage. I can only imagine that folks are used to these shenanigans from tourists.

Indeed, Hardknott Pass, approximately one-mile long has hairpins with gradients of 30%, with the "easier" sections dropping to 25%. There is no way I would have been able to ride that. I cycled up the initial 25% section, but once the slope got steeper I climbed off my bike and walked. At one point the road momentarily levelled off to something around 12%, so I made the most of riding that, but I am not ashamed to say I walked up the majority of the pass. It wasn't a wasted journey though, as the views made the effort worthwhile. These were definitely the best vistas of the day. 

Wrynose Pass, with it's "merciful" 25% hairpins was still a challenge for me, mainly because there were quite a lot of cars on this Easter Sunday and I couldn't guarantee that I would be able to control the bike on such a steep gradient if a car in front of me suddenly had to stop. It was therefore easier for me to walk that section too. 

Don't even imagine that the descents were a chance to relax. With the slopes feeling almost like riding down a wall, it required a lot of care and attention, and sometimes I even felt out of breath going downhill, such was the drop!

Hardknott Pass

Eventually, the descent became more sweeping and I was able to enjoy the Langdale area with it's various little rivers among the moorland. 

Once again I felt glad to be on a bike and not in a car as there was another hold-up along the road which was too narrow for cars to pass each other easily. Motorists using this road need to be quite confident about negotiating passing places and it only takes one timid driver to hesitate when passing through the gaps and that leads to a log jam for everyone - which is what happened in this instant. 

Luckily I, and the following motorbikers were able to squeeze around the cars and continue the homeward descent unhindered.

Time was marching on - it was around 6pm by this point so I was keen to get onto the main road back to Windermere. Eventually that moment came, though not without a few more cheeky rises in the road. At last I was not far from Bowness on Windermere, and a huge feeling of relief swept through me, knowing that it wouldn't be long before dinner time. Although I had been out all day, and done 50 or so miles with 1800m of climbing, I felt quite energised and motivated to have scaled all the different climbs (apart from the Hardknott-Wrynose deathly duo). So I took the A593 with gusto breezing through Ambleside and Troutbeck before finally reaching the familiar roundabout at the entrance to Windermere Town.

It had been a long and varied day, but I felt happy with where I'd been and what I'd done.


Fellfoot and The Struggle loop on Strava

Coniston - Broughton - Hardknott loop on Strava

Related posts

Mountain bike ride in the Lake District

My Tour of Lombardy

Lakeland adventures