Category Archives: Cycling UK
Now that I have your attention…..what does he mean ‘cycling and gaining weight’? Surely, the aerobic exercise of turning pedals is all about losing weight…….. Well, that depends. Let me explain.
Jenny and I used to organise charity cycle rides, sending up to 200 cyclists on any of 6 routes, the longest 100 miles, the shortest just 3 miles for little kiddies. We put on feeding stations at regular intervals that served up a variety of sweet snacks, including cakes, flapjack, chocolate……you know, all those things you shouldn’t eat, but justify them because you are cycling a few miles. I used to brag that we put on the only sportive-like event where riders were guaranteed to put on weight……even the 100 milers!
Well, I headed off this morning looking to gain a few kilos. And sure enough, I gained 4 kilos after about 35 miles. How? Well, the autumnal foraging season had begun, and I set off in earnest down into Bedfordshire, carrying my musette (normally a cyclist’s feedbag used in racing events) aiming to fill it with the fruits of the earth.
My first stop was a walnut tree that I had spied last month. After consulting a few websites, I calculated they would be ripening early September……but not quite yet. The cool August might have delayed them. So they will spend some time on the conservatory windowsill to see if they will burst open.
Then onto a favoured apple picking site, where there are two trees planted on the site where there had been an American War Memorial…..not sure what happened to the memorial
….but a few metres away, in the hedge, I noticed a plum-like fruit…..and decided they were greengages. We did a bit of checking at home, then I braved the tasting and……well, I’m still here :)
The nett result was that I returned home 4 kilos heavier than when I set off, with the stuffed musette slung behind me. I have to admit, I noticed the extra weight as I climbed the hills….
Back at home, off I went to our local blackberry offerings, and picked about 1.5 kilos. I know I’m a very sad person, but I do take great delight in foraging and, in the words of Richard Mabey, getting my ‘food for free’.
Some of you may enjoy studying the route maps of the rides on my recent trip to Cumbria and the Yorkshire Dales. They make fascinating reading. The relief contours tell you a lot about the terrain. We don’t have any high mountains in this country, but we have hills and gradients that compete with anywhere on the continent.
Continental road engineers mastered the art of levelling out the climbs, by creating the switchback. British road engineers, on the other hand, looked for the shortest route over a hill and built the road accordingly……ie. straight over the top. Hence, we have roads of 20%, 25% and, yes, even 30%. Thank goodness this one over Wrynose and Hardknott Passes was off our route!
We cyclists like to boast and brag about the murderous climbs we’ve conquered, and complain bitterly about the climbs that have conquered us. But we never give in……..
Returning from Cumbria on a psychological (ie. mental) high, with nearly 500 miles covered and 30,000 feet climbed in a week, the body protested vociferously and rapidly succumbed to a chest infection…….what many women mistakenly(?) refer to as ‘man-flu’. Oh dear…..we men are grossly misunderstood……..sometimes.
It took me the best part of a week to shake it off and, when I woke this morning, I said to myself: “This is the day to try those legs, to see if they still function”. So I climbed on my road bike and headed off to a village hall in deepest Northamptonshire, where the local community puts on a simple lunch, and met up with a small bunch of other cycling cronies.
Not only did the legs still work, but they worked surprisingly well, and the chest didn’t heave too much with unpredictable coughing. The pace was a relatively lively 24.2 kph (15 mph), with a north-westerly headwind going out, and plenty of assistance on the homeward.
Moral: if you’re worried about losing fitness through inactivity, a week off the bike doesn’t make such a huge difference. It won’t help you to win races, or improve your PB in time trials, but you’ll still be able to breeze along with the best of them.
Today’s climb over the Pennines would bring my total climbing for the week to 30,000 feet….more than the height of Everest….if ever you could climb Everest on a bike. But would I have the legs to haul myself once more over the backbone of England, to catch my train from Darlington?
In the event, I had little to worry about. The 1400 foot climb from Brough was gradual, perfect for consistent cadence and, the cream on the coffee, I had the wind at my back! So the descent into Bowes was very fast, especially on the 5 mile section of closed road, where I had no trucks to contend with, and had the whole carriageway to myself.
Now, to prove the perverse mentality of some cyclists, I was asked why I hadn’t caught a train to Penrith (instead of to Darlington). The latter, after all, is 70 miles away, and on the other side of the Pennines….lost for a meaningful answer, I simply said that I had thought Penrith station might have been axed under the Beeching cuts of the 1960s…….
It was a superb day to cross the country, with stunning views from the tops of the hills, this remarkable ‘kodak moment’ with the ancient castle at Barnard Castle, an encounter with the earthworks of a Bragantian fortification, said to be the base for Catherine of Bragantia,
and the fascinating story behind this toll suspension bridge built in 1830 over the Tees.
A perfect conclusion to a week and 475 miles of cycling…..in what might be argued to be the most beautiful corner of the British Isles.
The pounding of hills and the ‘storming’ of passes draw heavily on the physical energy bank. After five successive days of serious climbing, bagging over 23,000 feet of climbing, a shorter, more gentle ride was called for…..so I headed off NE following the upper flanks of the Eden Valley, and discovered that these parts will be ‘en fete’ when the Tour of Britain comes through Cumbria in September
….and as I turned off the route to check out an ancient druid stone circle (Long Meg and her daughters), I met up with a group of Hertfordshire riders who were following the same route
41 miles of gentle climbing and fast descending, with views of the northern Dales on my right, made a perfect antidote to the severe stuff of previous days.
So tomorrow is pack-up and move-on time, and make my way back over the Pennines to Darlington for my train back home. And despite what the weather is doing in the south, we are promised sunshine all day……in this the wettest region of England…..can you believe it?
How can you climb a pass ‘the wrong way’? Good question….but we did….so let me explain.
All the routes at the Birthday Rides have been mapped out by local club riders, who know the roads and, more importantly, know the cafes. We can use written route notes, paper maps, or gpx files on cycling satnavs. I used the latter, and I set off with Alex (from Shropshire) on the 40 mile approach to the pass, via Buttermere, only to see before us the enormity of the whole climb (here you can see Alex in the early stages)
…..but added to that, (and we knew this was going to happen) we had a fierce headwind, with gusts of up to 50-60mph. It blew us both completely off the bikes on the ascent, Alex to re-mount twice and complete the climb, I couldn’t re-mount, so had to walk the final quarter of the ascent (damn it!).
Look carefully and you will make out the sign announcing its incline of 25% (1 in 4).
We could, of course, have done the route in reverse and ‘enjoyed’ a wind-assisted climb, still horrendously tough, but with nature’s support. Why didn’t we?
I wish I knew……the perversity of free will, perhaps? The greater simplicity of following a route as laid out by the route designer? Whatever the reason, we paid the price……..
….but we enjoyed the views of Crummock Water
….and Derwent Water.
Some prices are worth paying….. :)
Distance: 73 miles. Climbing: over 6000 feet.
After 6000 feet of climbing yesterday, and with the promise of heavy rain from 1pm today, I decided a swift morning ride down to the Solway Firth, with a lot of flat riding, would be the order of the day.
So along with two new riding companions, Tony and Deryk from Cheltenham, we zoomed down to the coast, to the western end of Hadrian’s Wall
where variously, walkers and cyclists, were heading off to follow the length of the Wall….to Wallsend, of course, but probably not the 1050 miles to Rome.
Serendipitously, we had chosen the route that turned out to be rain-free…..when we got back to base (after 70 miles and 3500 feet of climbing) we heard the horror stories of rides elsewhere. Such is the weather round these parts.
But as I pen these words, the campsite outside is under a deluge, and I fear the worse for my little lightweight tent…..and my prospects for the night. Watch this space for the next episode…..
….which took us into the heart of the Lake District, along the length of Thirlmere
up the 25% climb of Red Bank outside Grasmere
winding our way over Little Langdale
another 25% monster, and the ‘dessert’ was the iconic haul up the Struggle
which deposited us outside the Kirkstone Pass Inn, shrouded in mist, and the beginning of the scarily fast descent to Patterdale.
The mileage today, some 70 miles, is largely immaterial compared to the 6000 feet of climbing. And my Garmin tells me I expended over 4000 calories in the process……some serious eating now needs to be done!
A 2 hour train ride dropped me and the bike in Darlington, with the prospect of a 70 mile crossing of the Pennines, the range of hills running the length of northern England, linking north with south, but separating east from west. It was a homecoming to the county of my birth…..and as I had always suspected, there was blue blood running through my veins…..
…..land of the prince bishops.
Barnard Castle is a jewel in the crown, with its stunning Bowes Museum, a huge attraction both because of its location, as well as its content
Then as I laboured along the unavoidable A66, the long-awaited summit was announced by the border crossing into Cumbria
…..running close to the highest pub in England, at Tan Hill, and no mistake about what the terrain holds in store….
…..but to my relief, the next ten miles were a glorious descent into Brough. I had caught good weather crossing the backbone of England….in bad weather, it can be a bitter experience.
But then I have to re-cross it in a few days time to catch my homeward train……..
There is something I consistently fail to understand about human psychology, and that is the intimate relationship between pain and pleasure. Now I am not referring to any perverse elements of human nature, the sort that you might seek in dodgy bookshops or on dubious websites. No, I’m referring to the transparent tendency amongst homo sapiens to seek out opportunities to subject themselves to crushing pain and discomfort, swear and complain about it, find someone else to blame for it, say that they’ll never do that again as long as they live…….and actually mean the opposite.
I remember once taking part in a 24 hour cycle ride in the Scottish Highlands, something known as a 400km Audax, and it rained solidly for 22 hours. At about 3am in the middle of the night, after a short rest and refreshment stop, somewhere desolate and remote in the western highlands, we climbed back on our bikes feeling totally miserable, wet, unloved and misunderstood, and I said to my Mancunian travelling companion: “Never again…..never will I do this again…..in my life!!” And he said: “Ay, never again……until the next time, that is”.
D’you know……..he was absolutely right. Like goldfish swimming around in their little bowl, what happened just a few seconds ago is quickly erased from the memory, and before long, we repeat what we vowed we’d never do again as long as we live. That just about sums the psychology of endurance riders like myself. The more dire and hellish a ride has been, the more intense is the pleasure, for simply having survived it, and lived long enough to……..well, do it again.
So it is with this in mind that in 24 hours time, I will take myself off to Penrith in Cumbria, join about 500 other bike riders for the annual CTC Birthday Rides, and spend the whole week sleeping in a tent in the coldest and wettest part of the country, and going for daily 80 mile rides amongst some of the most vertical climbs you can imagine (Honister and Kirkstone passes, Tan Hill, ‘Cote de Buttertubs’…and much more), with the likelihood of hitting a total of 40,000 feet of climbing by the end of the week.
It will give me a huge amount of pain to complain and swear about, but like a goldfish, it will be forgotten in a trice and I’ll be off somewhere else looking for more. Now try explaining that to a ‘sofa bear’.
A cycling friend would sometimes try to wind me up by waxing lyrical about the supreme aesthetics of the modern turbine, making specific reference to the 10 erected just outside Burton Latimer. Built as the first wind farm in Northamptonshire, its fame competes with the vast Weetabix factory, both fairly ugly constructions, but the one offending more by its visual impact, and the other by its olfactory presence, bearing no resemblance to the aroma of what lies in the bottom of your cereal bowl in the morning.
Then through Brixworth, the setting of one of the most stunning Saxon Churches in the country. Though it has undergone many additions and alterations over the ages, a lot of the original structure from the 7th century still remain to this day.
If you are in the area, it is well worth a visit.
The last day of July.….how to celebrate the 212th day of the year? Why (you might ask) does one need to celebrate such a non-event?
Well, did you know that on this day in…….
1703 Daniel Defoe was placed in the pillory for seditious libel…….he dared to satirise High Church Tories!
1990 It was pronounced National Flag day in Hawaii……which, presumably, is a national holiday for all the islands.
1991 The START 1 treaty, controlling the proliferation of nuclear arms, was signed between the US and Russia
And it happens to be the day the Spanish Armada was spotted off the English coast, that K2 was first conquered by an Italian climber, that the British Navy discontinued its daily rum ration, that Fidel Castro handed over power to his brother Raúl, and when JK Rowling celebrates her birthday.
I mean, what better reason for climbing on the bike and going for a 65 mile venture to the northern reaches of the county of Northamptonshire, and gaze over into the delightful county of Rutland?
And the summer countryside was at its best…………
……or be beaten by the weather?
The accuracy of weather forecasting these days can create dilemmas. In the days when forecasting was more of an art than a science, we cyclists relied heavily on the potential inaccuracies of forecasts, and took our chances anyway. Today, however, its a different scenario. Three weather apps were telling me this morning that rain would set in shortly after 10am. Dilemma: do I go out with the club (and get seriously wet) or head out for a pre-breakfast solo ride, cover the same distance and stay dry?
I’m not usually a fair-weather cyclist, but today I fancied my chances of staying dry, then settling comfortably to watch La Course, the ladies’ elite race around the closed circuit of Paris, followed by the final stage of the Tour de France, where we might witness Froome’s overall victory followed by Cav’s winning sprint finish on the Champs Elysée. It’s hard to believe that three years ago we had never had a British winner of the Tour, and now, in the last four successive Tours, we have already clocked up three wins, had our first dual winner, and boast a sprinter who may (one day) overhaul Eddie Merckx’s record 34 stage wins.
So I gave myself just three hours to get an 80 km/50 mile ride in before the rain, and I had timed it (almost) to perfection. I felt the first spots five miles from home, and caught the first shower with just 2 miles to go. With well-disguised delight, I pitied the dozens of sportive riders whom I passed en route. They were going to have a seriously wet ride, and most looked ill-prepared both for the cycling and the weather.
In the tradition of elite riders in Grands Tours, I stayed in the saddle for three hours and snacked on an energy bar from a back pocket. In imitation of the elite riders? No. For the much more prosaic reason of beating the rain……..
Originally built as an Archbishop’s Palace, it eventually fell into the hands of the Sackville Family, a dynasty of enormous wealth and influence, who have occupied the property for over 400 years. Like all powerful families, the narratives of the individual members go to make up a complex but fascinating kaleidoscope of life, and the stories of their connections with the Bloomsbury group have filled volumes.
Then out came the tandem, to labour the five hilly miles to Ightham Mote, one of the oldest medieval moated properties in the country, and only exists today because of the many rescue plans of successive owners. Then, 30 years ago, it was ‘gifted’ to the National Trust by its American owner, Charles Henry Robinson…….and after many years of labour and £10 million of expenditure, this stunning property is now secured for the foreseeable future.
The route to and from Ightham Mote took us through challenging but delightful wooded landscapes.
As members of the National Trust, what better way to visit a number of properties in a carefully chosen area than to ‘park up’ up for a couple of nights in conveniently situated accommodation, and use the tandem to cruise between properties? Well, I say ‘cruise’, but the reality is somewhat different.
North Kent is certainly not cruising country……..every other place name has the word ‘hill’ embedded in its identity……but delightful countryside it certainly is, and no accident that over the course of history many wealthy and influential people have had their country ‘piles’ conveniently located to the capital, the very place where they exercised their power and influence and, in many cases, made their wealth.
The primary objective of this visit was Chartwell, the family home of the Churchills. The place that Winston retreated to so as to escape the turmoil of political life and running a war; the place where he overcame his ‘black dog’ depressions by painting and building brick walls;
the place where he played with Jock, his marmalade cat, and sat by one of the ponds looking out for his golden orfe; and the place where he produced a prolific output as a writer and historian.
Then on to Emmetts Garden, just a few miles away, to be dazzled by the colours and landscapes of a late 19th century garden, influenced strongly by William Robinson.
A 21 mile circular ride that combined the best of the north Kent countryside with some fascinating insights into the local history.
When Jenny told me she was taking a friend out to lunch, it got me thinking……….what would I fancy for lunch….and where? The idea of a breakfast bap implanted itself firmly in my head, and after a little prompting from Jenny, I was eventually able to remember where I had last had a ‘bacon butty’…..and so the food became the destination. I mean, what better reason for going in one direction as another? Or for going one distance as another? However, the price to pay for this breakfast sandwich (apart from the £5 it actually cost) was 103kms/64 miles. Now, let me ask you……….when did you last cycle that distance for so little reward? Well, to the average roadie, that is a reward indeed, one to be prized, one to be chased down…..at whatever cost.
This turned into my much loved four counties ride, riding into (and out of) Cambridgeshire, Bedfordshire, Northamptonshire and Buckinghamshire……all of them ‘shires’, and ending up (almost exactly at the half way point) in Salcey Forest, where there is an excellent forest café…..which, of course, serves excellent breakfast sandwiches, and has ‘freebie’ newspapers to browse at the same time…..in which I became engrossed in the emerging debate about Chris Froome, and the Sky team, and the possibility that they may be doping. Hey ho…….we are right back to 2013, when Froome was grilled throughout about his exceptional performance and whether he was riding clean. (But it is interesting to note that last year, even when Vincenzo Nibali was more than 7 minutes ahead of his nearest rival, he was never once questioned about possible doping issues. Is there some bias there?).
My Garmin statistics tell me that my highest elevation was 138 metres (in Salcey Forest), that I did 459 metres of elevation gain, but 464 metres of elevation loss…..very interesting. Where did those 5 metres go? My highest speed was a mere 50kph, and I’m told I burned off over 3,600 calories……..the last number is hard to believe. It almost suggests I’m on a programme of serious weight loss……which I’m not, of course. Nor do I want to be…….and nor do I eat extra to make up for the shortfall. Some dietician or nutritionist will be able to explain the details of that.
This kind of riding is completely self-indulgent. On an almost windless day, to be able to speed through beautiful countryside, following rivers, going through forests, hitting high viewpoints followed by fast descents to valleys……and then that breakfast sandwich……does it get any better?
Have you ever wondered how some shops, cafés and pubs in remote village locations manage to survive, even thrive? Well, here’s one answer……… this Garden Centre in Waresley is a very popular watering hole for mile-eating roadies, and we all know that many cyclists only ride their bikes for one thing…….cake and coffee! Our own group, euphemistically called ‘The Slugs’, numbered at least 12 the other day, but there were other groups hailing from Cambridge and its environs.
When I held down a full-time job, I imagined all these places gently slumbered during the week, and waited for the weekends to ‘gather in the harvest’. But not so. I suspect some are even busier on work days than at weekends, when the hordes of the ‘idle and free’ (aka ‘retired’) descend on them to demand their loyalty card discounts, their two-for-one breakfasts or their senior lunches.
The Slugs’ motivation for riding their bikes is clearly visible on the table…….and the many and varied smiles tell their own story.
……or ‘to brook’ no pain
Brooks saddles are not only famous worldwide (and I saw many in Japan), but they are touted as the best saddles in the world. No surprises, perhaps, that the company is British and has a very long prestigious history, and it is unquestionable that their carefully engineered leather saddles are premium products……..at premium prices, of course.
When I had my Dave Yates trekking bike built, I included a Brooks Professional saddle but, knowing that these saddles usually require a long breaking-in process, I never dared to set off on a multi-week trek in case I was going to have serious comfort issues. But now the time had come to make some commitment, and I decided that my recent 6 day venture to York would be the ideal scenario……long enough to get the feel for it, but not too long to have to endure weeks of discomfort, with no escape route.
The leather on the Professional is very hard (not necessarily a bad thing in a saddle) but I realised after a few days that the comfort was compromised by the relatively upright posture I have on the trekking bike. A lower profile on the frame (as on my road bike), where the level of my head and shoulders is much lower over the handlebars (akin to a racing profile) would have rendered it much more comfortable. So I am now attempting to ‘neatsfoot-oil’ the leather into submission…..in other words, seasoning the leather with saddle oil to try to make it more supple and more forgiving.
Talk to others about their experiences of Brooks saddles and you quickly realise that they are the Marmite of the saddle world……..you either love ’em or hate ’em. There’s no in-between. I’ll let you know how our relationship develops in the coming months……..
As it was
On a perfect spring morning, I headed out for my first meeting with the club and, once again, enjoyed the comradeship of miles shared along the road. There is something magical about the momentum created by a group…..compared to riding solo (which makes up the majority of my riding), your average pace can easily increase by 20-30%….but without a concomitant increase in your effort.
Which, of course, all goes to explain how the peloton in an elite road race will almost invariably pull back escapees who make an unrealistic bid to go it alone.
And, after several weeks of carrying 14kgs of luggage, it was good to be back on the road bike which, of course, felt pleasantly light and flighty.