Tuesday 30 April 2024

Operation Etape du Tour: April update

This month was about getting in bigger miles and bigger hills, notably when I returned to Barcelona and rode a few of the long climbs in Catalunya. I am feeling happier to have done some Alpine style climbs. I must also say that having a lighter bike with lower gears makes a difference to my bike riding experience, but sadly the UK weather doesn't want to play ball. The weather has been all over the place this year. It's still cold even in April, and days have been very wet and windy. So it was useful to spend some time somewhere warm.

I have two months to prepare for the Etape du Tour, which will be on July 7th. In the week before the big day I expect to be doing light rides just to keep things ticking over, rather than building on more miles. So for me, my end date is June 30th.

The road to Montserrat
I must say I am feeling more comfortable than I did at the same period a couple of years ago, when I was hoping to ride the Etape du Tour between Briançon and Alpe d'Huez. For a start I haven't had any injuries, which is always a bonus at my age. The fact that I have done a few rides in excess of 100km, and I've ridden alpine-style climbs abroad makes me feel like I'm on track with me training, and gives me more of a can-do attitude. I have also continued to go to Herne Hill Velodrome and to Regents Park to help with my speed work.

In mid-April I took myself to Barcelona for a mini training camp. It was easily done - flight from Gatwick to Barcelona, local bus from El Prat Llobregat airport into Plaza España and bus or metro to Gràcia, where my youth hostel was based.

Then it was less than a mile walk to Terra BikeTours, where I hired my road bike for the week. The place where I stayed, Casa Jam, had a terrace where I could leave the bike, and was in a secure area.

My first bike ride was around the city, which was just a pleasant early evening spin along the numerous cycle lanes. The following day, Friday, saw a late start to my cycling after I had spent the morning doing a walking tour around the city - I couldn't miss out on that given how sunny it was and how beautiful the architecture around the city is.

My afternoon train took me to Terrassa, from where I began my ride up into hills around Montserrat.  I hadn't expected to be out for a long time, but the ride was cut short due to a puncture and defective rim tape.

For Saturday the original plan had been to do a ride to Montseny and Turo de L'Home, one of the highest peaks in Catalunya outside of the Pyrenean area. But given the previous day's fail, I decided I had to return to Montserrat. 

That was a much more productive day, with a two long climbs - one from Terrassa to Coll d'Estenalles, a popular route with the locals. In fact there was a very popular café at the top. It reminded me of the National Trust café at Box Hill.

After a long descent to Manresa, I was then faced with a long demoralising climb up to Montserrat. Never have I been so happy to see a pile of rocks! They are the famous Montserrat rocks characteristic of the area. It was a tough old ride, and I stopped a couple of times for a breather and a snack. But I guess this is what I need. The boredom, the feeling of wondering when will I get there, the fatigue...these are all sentiments that I can say I know how to manage and more importantly, that I can keep in my mind that I will get there.

Glad to have made it to Montserrat

While in Barcelona I found out about a cycling group, the Barcelona Road Cycling Group that organises rides a few times a week - mid-week chain gangs of different levels and longer rides at weekends. They ride out to places that I have become familiar with, so that has been one discovery, and something which I plan to do next time I'm in Barcelona - that and to ride up Turo de L'Home.

My next mini test of where I am will be the Fred Whitton Challenge, a cyclosportive in the Lake District in early May. I like to hope that will show me too, that things are moving in the right direction fitnesswise. 

Related posts

Operation Etape du Tour: March update

Operation Etape du Tour: February update

Operation Etape du Tour: January update

Operation Etape du Tour: December update

Back to Barcelona for more cycling

Sunday 21 April 2024

Cycling my own mini Surrey Hills classic

In the spirit of the Liège Bastogne Liège race I thought I would do my own mini Surrey classic and find my climbing legs by riding up a few of the Surrey Hills. 

My route through the Surrey Hills

At this time of year when there are various classic professional cycle races in France, Belgium, Spain, and currently in Italy - races that feature iconic climbs - I wanted to do my own version of a classic ride in my local area.

With my new Liv Avail Advanced 2 and its low gears I decided to put them, and my legs of course, to the test. So where else would I find a route befitting a classic than in the Surrey Hills. After all, I needed to get in a fair bit of climbing ahead of my little cycle challenge in July.

Coldharbour climb near Walden woods

Well, actually there is a choice of places to get in climbs when you're based in South London. Contrary to popular belief, London has hills. Getting to my home from central London involves going over one of a few steep hills at Crystal Palace - Sydenham Hill, College Road, Dulwich Wood, Gipsy Hill, Central Hill - take your pick. Then you enjoy a big drop down the other side, past Crystal Palace Park. By the same token, when riding towards central London from home I have to take these hills in the opposite direction. That's just my neighbourhood - there are other hilly areas too. London-based cyclists can certainly get their share of hills if they wish. Don't underestimate the climbing powers of a London rider - myself not included!

Farthing Down overlooking Croydon and South London

Feeling in the mood to go further afield, I headed south of Croydon and over Farthing Downs to enter the Surrey Hills. Technically, the range of downland terrain  begins at this expanse of ancient grassland and woodland owned by the Corporation of London, that gives views of the City skyline in the distance. But commonly folks think more about venues in the heart of these chalky downs - Box Hill, Leith Hill and Peaslake. That's where I was headed.

 After passing through the suburban town of Reigate I crested my first named climb of the day, Pebble Hill [2.2km; average gradient 4.5%]. These statistics are misleading as parts of the climb are considerably steeper with a short stretch at almost 20%. I had to keep calm on this road and not waste any energy grimacing or getting stressed. It was a real quad-buster and I just had to focus and not allow myself to wobble as the cars chugged on behind me. I saw many groups of cyclists on the road - all of them were going downhill. I wonder why?

Pebble Hill, near Betchworth, Surrey was a quad-buster 
This was definitely a climb where I needed to rest. While recuperating, I spotted a guy pushing his hybrid bike up the hill, then he flaked out in the grass verge while trying to get his breath back. “Are you okay?” I asked him. “Yeah,” he replied, still heaving. “I just hadn't realised how hard the climb was.” I was glad to know he wasn't having a heart attack. “Yeah, it's certainly a toughie,” I replied. Well I'd gotten the hardest climb out of the way first, so from here on in everything would be a piece of cake. Er, kind of!

A loop through Headley and down Lodgebottom Lane, on what was the former Ballbuster Duathlon course took me to the foot of Box Hill. It wasn't quite time to ride up my favourite hil, as it was a case of saving the best till last.

Next up was Ranmore Common [1.8km; average gradient 4%], what I call a Cinderella climb. It is set in very pleasant woodland on a country lane that has few cars on it, though hardly anyone talks about it. Near the top comes a small sting in the tail on a 15% left-hand bend. The first time I rode up this I had to walk. Nowadays I am used to it, and these days the gears on my bike are low enough to crest it in the saddle.

Ranmore Common, where you can go to church or even a vineyard - take your pick

Depending on your preference you are rewarded at the top with either a trip to  Denbies Vineyard or a stopover at the church.

I then dropped down to Dorking and enjoyed lovely views over the North Downs before taking on the longest climb of the ride, Coldharbour [4.5km; average gradient 4.5%]. This climb is the other side of its steeper counterpart, Leith Hill. Where Leith Hill has you honking out of the saddle, Coldharbour takes you gradually up to the eponymous hamlet where road bikers can meet mountain bikers, hikers, and horse riders at the Plough Inn, or at the picnic site below Leith Hill Tower. Nevertheless it's not entirely plain sailing as mid-way up the climb are a couple of 10% ramps, notably at Boar Hill. However, I couldn't ignore the sight of beautiful coniferous woodland near the top.

The Plough Inn, Coldharbour - bolthole for hikers and bikers 

Coldharbour: Snack point and gateway to Leith Hill Tower

An undulating ride over rough roads meant I needed to pay attention as my bike handling skills were put to the test. Having decent tyres was definitely helpful at this time. Back to Westcott, and then Dorking where I could look forward to my final climb of the ride, Box Hill. A classic bike ride can't end without an iconic climb. At 2km and an average 4.5% gradient with no steep ramp, Box Hill is probably one of the easiest of the Surrey Hills. It is the alpine-style switchbacks winding their way to the top of the chalky escarpment and among the box trees that make it famous. For many it's a big-ring climb that can be done after the other significant challenges along the way, often at attacking pace. Then it does become difficult, and at that point you can justify having an extra slice of cake at the National Trust café.

I took the climb at a steady pace, without trying to get a personal best. That was the most appropriate speed given the energy I had left. After all, I still needed to save a bit in the tank to comfortably get me back to London.

Box Hill Zigzag

As ever there were lots of others pedalling up Box Hill at a variety speeds, with many of them overtaking me. Whatever our ability we all met at the top and enjoyed a snack at this hub in the heart of the Surrey Hills.

Box Hill, National Trust Centre café
After a short break I headed home, feeling satisfied with my mini classic in Surrey, and glad to have gone some way towards finding my climbing legs for the Etape du Tour - and the bike fared well too!

Related posts

Liv Avail: My new wheels for the Etape du Tour

Operation Etape du Tour: Cycling around Parc Serralada Litoral, Barcelona

Operation Etape du Tour: Understanding the challenge

Box Hill Zigzag is my best fitness test

Tuesday 16 April 2024

Back to Barcelona for more cycling

My previous trip to Barcelona in February had been fun, but quite rushed. I barely skimmed the top in terms of bike rides. So I thought I would return there and do the place justice. My cycling holiday had a slightly frustrating start though.

My cycle route on Strava

Passeig de St Joan, Barcelona

On my arrival in the Catalonian capital the first thing that struck me was the weather. Just like on my previous trip in February, the sun was shining. The difference was the radiant heat accompanying it. The temperature was around 25°C - quite a contrast from the cool atmosphere in London where my journey had started. Furthermore, the temperatures were set to rise even more over the coming days.

After settling into my hostel in the Gràcia neighbourhood and completing some work for one of my clients, I walked down Passeig de St Joan to my new regular place, Terra Bike Tours to pick up my steed for the trip, a Canyon Endurace bike.

Then I did a customary pootle around the city, mainly taking in Avinguda Diagonal. I needed to return to the shop to make a couple of adjustments to the bike in terms of the saddle height and to change the saddle for a more comfortable one, though the staff were able to oblige. I enjoyed my ride around the city at this time as it was rush hour, and like in many cities around the world it is at this time of day that you see the cycling community in all its glory as the locals make their way home from work on two wheels.

Barcelona cycle commuters

The following day was saw me cycling in some lovely areas in the Parc Natural de Sant Llorenç del Munt i l'Obac just North of Barcelona, but it was a slightly frustrating ride that was abruptly truncated. 

As I had spent the morning walking around the neighbourhood among the tourists taking photos of the beautiful architecture and notably La Pedrera, I didn't start riding until the afternoon,  

La Pedrera

Close to where I was staying was Gràcia FGC suburban train station, from where I caught a train out to Terrassa. The plan would be to ride to Montserrat. 

Once out of Terrassa Estacio del Nord station and in the blazing heat on the high street, I followed the cycle path to the end of the town and continued on the road uphill.

Initially the road was busy, but once I had passed the roundabout for the motorway the road became practically devoid of vehicles and I was left to my own devices to tackle the 10km climb. It wasn't particularly hard, and was more of a undulating road than a full-on climb.

It was a nice Friday feeling to be among the oak and pine trees with all the aroma associated with this part of the world, as well as the peaks of the Montserrat mountain range to my left in the distance. I saw a few cyclists along the way, though I guess there would be far fewer folks who would take a Friday afternoon off from work to cycle, compared with the numbers who would be out on a weekend. This route I was probably more frequented by locals than by visitors, too.

On the road to Castellbell from Terrassa

After around 10km the road levelled off and I enjoyed a lovely be descent. It wasn't my first switchback descent of the year - I had done a few in February - but being the first one of this trip I wanted to take things easy.

Then just as I was really enjoying everything and thinking "nothing beats this" I heard a pop like a bursting balloon. 

I looked down and saw that I had a front wheel puncture. How did that happen? What the hell's going on?? The road was beautifully smooth with no débris on it at all. Yet the tyre had suddenly punctured. I'm just glad I'd been able to  hold my line as I was on a bendy descent at the time. This was a massive heartsink moment, but I had to keep my cool and just get on with remedying the problem.

Luckily, the place where the puncture happened was near a small settlement of houses and farms. So I was able to wheel the bike to a little driveway and sit on a sandstone rock, a characteristic feature of the area, to sort out the technical hitch.

A number of cyclists passed by, and a few of them asked if I was okay, to which I replied in the affirmative. Well, I thought I was fine. There were two problems to deal with. One of the spare inner tubes I had had a loose valve which snapped off when I was trying to pump up the tyre. That left me with only one spare inner tube, which would leave me feeling vulnerable as I would no longer have a spare. Furthermore, I discovered that the puncture had been from the inside of the wheel rim because a part of it was not fully covered by the rim tape. That would therefore leave me prone to another puncture. So I didn't feel confident about riding much more.

An old local guy, Pedro, who lived in the nearby village of Castellbell i el Vilar stopped to help me, as I realised I would need to call on extra strength to pump up the tyres to a good pressure! 

Monterrat peaks along the route where I was hoping to go

Pedro's old sinewy arms did just the trick in putting in enough air to give me the confidence to ride any further. He had lived in the area for over 40 years and knew the roads like the back of his hand. Riding up the local hills was probably just a little tootle for him, where for me it was a real outing which required a bit of effort. By the time we'd sorted everything it was almost 4pm, though I had begun to feel a bit more positive about continuing my ride. When I told him I was hoping to get to Montserrat he looked a little shocked and said, "Do you know what it's like to climb? It's much harder than what you've just ridden up. How strong are you?" I told him I was hoping to test myself out on the hill. "Well, try it but you won't get to the top before 6pm. And then if you are hoping to return to Barcelona you could be out all evening! Don't worry, it gets dark late around here!"

I realised that he had a point and there was no point in continuing. He reckoned that my tyre would be okay and the chance of getting a puncture would be low, though the issue was more to do with how long I was prepared to stay out riding. He said he could give me his phone number and if I got into difficulty he would drive up and collect me and take me to one of the nearby train stations. That was kind of him, but I decided it would be best to go straight to the train station and get back to Terra Bike Tours before they closed. I bid Pedro good bye and rolled down the hill to the train station at Castellbell i el Vilar where very handily the Barcelona-bound train was due 15 minutes later.

Back at Terra Bike Tours the mechanic sorted out the problem and was extremely apologetic, saying this had never happened before. He assured me that the bike would be fine. 

So, it was slightly annoying to have had to cut short my bike ride, but I felt confident that there's a lot of good will in these parts, and that made me feel positive about my ride for the following day.

Related posts

Operation Etape du Tour: February update - trip to Serralada Littoral

Barcelona Cycle ride - Montjuic and Port Vell

Venturing out to Mortirolo

Tuesday 2 April 2024

When in Geneva get on a bicycle

On my way to Chamonix I decided to stop off in Geneva city centre to do a little bike ride. The reasonably-priced bike hire shop was nearby so it would have been rude not to do a mini tour while over there.  

My route around Geneva on Strava

I enjoy going skiing in Chamonix and have been there quite a few times over the years. Like many people, as soon as I have touched down at Geneva airport and gone through the rather long queue at passport control I get whisked down the motorway to this town situated in the shadow of Mont Blanc, the home of mountain sports, and the place where the winter Olympics began.  

When a Geneva, hire a bike and ride around the lake

Well, in recent times I had considered the idea of not just passing through Geneva Airport,  but of actually going into the city itself. A pretty-looking city that sits on the edge of the eponymous lake (though officially known as Lac Léman) surely must be a lovely place to hang out. Many years ago I spent a couple of days there at the start of the Route des Grands Alps cycle ride. That was by default than by design as I had a mechanical with my bike, so needed to stop off and get it fixed.

A couple of years ago I did a very swift spin on the cycle path along the lake when I had an hour to kill while waiting for my flight back to London. 

But on this occasion I thought to myself that it would be nice to spend quality leisure time in Geneva. Okay, so it would cut into valuable skiing time, but given the grim weather on the slopes I didn't feel I'd be missing out on anything.

So on my arrival at Geneva Airport, instead of catching a transfer straight to Chamonix, I took the 10-minute train ride to the city centre, and hired a bicycle in a little place right behind the train station. 

What better way to explore a city than by getting on a bicycle. Very handily, there's a shop right behind the station that hires them out. It's called Genèveroule - a little cooperative that hires out various types of bicycle - city bikes, hybrids, a few low end road bikes, e-bikes, and now cargo bikes - which seem to have taken off everywhere. 

I had hired a city bike from this place the last time I was in Geneva, and enjoyed the experience. Given that I'd only be spending the day there I hired the same type of bike.

So with my bag and packed lunch in the basket, I set off on the short route through the city to reach the lake. Finding the lake was very easy. With a length of 45 miles (72 km) and an average width of 5 miles, you can't really miss it.

Cycle path around Lake Geneva

There are cycle paths through central Geneva, and a signboard indicates the cycle path to the lake, and then to cross the confluence between the lake and the River Rhone to reach the southern lake cycle path. I took the Pont du Mont Blanc, then followed the signs through the park and under the bridge to reach the lakeside, close to the Jet d'Eau. 

This signature fountain that sprouts up water in a boisterous way asserts its presence among the various vistas of colourful lakeside properties and the Alps in the majestic background. This view makes it unmistakeably Geneva.

Working out where to go was easy. I just followed the dedicated cycle path along the lake towards the neighbourhoods of Eaux-Vives and Cologny. This section was flat and you pass day trippers walking around the lake, plus folks hanging out on the various seats. To my right is the main road where all the traffic continues without interaction with cyclists. The cycle path is properly segregated. 

Initially the cycle path is two-way cycle path and is heavily used by tourists and local commuters alike. After about 1.5 miles a sign indicates to cross the road where I am on a path travelling in the same direction as the traffic, though still segregated. Also the road goes uphill and I reach Corsier. By this time I have passed all the tourist sights, the path has taken me away from Lake Geneva, and I am just in an ordinary, non-descript neighbourhood where life goes on in a bog-standard way like it could be any neighbourhood in Europe. 

As it's Friday noon, pupils are tipping out of their schools for their lunch. This means I have to be mindful of errant pedestrians walking on the cycle path, as well as delivery vans. At this point there is a distinct cycle path, but it is not completely segregated from traffic. 

After a couple more neighbourhoods the route takes me onto a trunk road surrounded by fields. Although this is a faster road and the main road to Thonon-les-Bains, in France, it doesn't feel unsafe. Parts of it have a separate cycle path so I felt quite secure. I must say I felt a little silly on a sit-up-and-beg city bike though, as the other cyclists I saw at this point were club riders. I wondered if the bike hire shop had thought that I might be riding this far out of the city.

Just before the border crossing into France, the road became faster, and at that point I took the right-hand turn somewhere I was completely unfamiliar with. I didn't want to be on a fast road, and in any case the sky had turned black and it looked like heavy rain was about to hit.

The road back to Geneva

Luckily, I found a farm outbuilding where I was able to take shelter, and used the break in proceedings to have my lunch while watching the rain tipping down.

A few club cyclists passed me on this stretch of road. Interestingly, none of them were wet, meaning that I should ride in the direction they were coming from.

So after my sandwiches I followed the road to Veigy-Foncenex, which was in dry French territory. Veigy was a quaint though desolate border village which I whizzed thorugh quite quickly. It took me back onto the main Thonon-Geneva road where I was able to pick up a few small lanes (chemins) and ride past more farms, to eventually take me back to the other side of Corsier, where the lake came into view. By now the rain had stopped in Switzerland and the sun had returned. The views over the fields and the lake below looked very pretty.

This was my favourite part of the route, and in this area there were quite a few leisure bike riders and joggers. I noticed signboards for a waymarked route to cycle the circuit of Lake Geneva. That is a reason to come back to Geneva. The circuit is around 170km and not too hilly, so would be a nice little challenge ride to do with my road bike.

Back to Geneva, and I crossed over to the north side of the lake via the pedestrianised Pont des Bergues and followed the cycle path past the botanical gardens and the United Nations complex. This section of cycle path was quite hilly, and would also take me to the hilly neighbourhoods of the city.

View of Lake Geneva from a quiet lane (chemin) near Corsier

 As time was marching on, and my bus to Chamonix would soon be due, I turned back and returned to Cornavin and the bike hire shop. They were surprised, but quite impressed that I managed to take the bike so far all that time!

My impressions of cycling around Geneva are very positive, and I would certainly recommend doing a little trip around the city on two wheels. You don't need to go all the way to France to enjoy the experience though.

Here's a link to Geneveroule, where I hired the bike.

Related posts

Quick spin by Lake Geneva on a hire bike

Barcelona cycle ride - picking up my hire bike

Navigli of Milan and suburban bike ride