Monday, 23 February 2015

Cycling in Kerala - the poo expert

One of my fellow riders in Kerala was a poo expert. No mere amateur enthusiast: Johnny is a respected authority on the subject. 

Perhaps inevitably, his interest originated in public school. A preoccupation with bowel movements is generally found among the very elderly or the well educated. 

Every morning Johnny would quiz the assembled group on the results of their bathroom endeavours. Every morning I would refuse to answer on the grounds that I didn't know him well enough. 

All that changed one day when the two of us were, appropriately, bringing up the rear. The stomach cramps which I'd been experiencing for the previous 40 mins could be ignored no longer. 

"Quick! Hold my bike - I've got 30 seconds left!" I gasped, plunging down the hillside to be explosively, dramatically, ill.

Eventually, I got to my feet and climbed shakily, to the roadside. 

"What a wonderful spot to choose, there was an eagle overhead," he happily exclaimed, before gathering together his toilet roll stash and proffering half to me, "Just in case."

"Johnny, tomorrow morning when you do your round-up...I think you know me well enough now," I conceded. 

Cycling in Kerala - bicycles welcome

In the UK we talk a lot about The Cycling Problem. We agonise over infrastructure and consider whether, if only riders were a little more visible, they might be a bit less dead.

In Kerala, the roads are a hot, noisy, dusty stage for a fast moving ballet of vehicles, pedestrians and animals. Horns sound, endlessly. Lorries, cars and motorcycles weave between lanes, certain collision averted in a heartbeat. 

Into this mechanical soup, throw five English cyclists. Stand back, check insurance policies. Close eyes and pray to any number of local Gods.

Except, after the initial shock and no little awe, it wasn't like that. 

Soon, we were doing a spot of weaving ourselves. We grew confident that the buses thundering past, inches away, wouldn't skin our elbows, or worse. We even acquired our own horns, calling "Beep beep," as unwary pedestrians drifted into our path. I came to feel safer cycling on the chaotic Indian roads than on some of the A-roads near to my home. 
Kate and Sanjeev 

In Kerala we grew to trust our fellow road users. They were neither malign nor maladroit. We saw countless near misses but no disasters. At the root of the road craft was an absence of rancour. Instead of blindly observing rules and lambasting any real or perceived transgression, Keralan motorists share a fluid, harmonious desire to reach their destination while doing no harm. 

It's not a cacophany. When you look more closely, it's beautifully orchestrated jazz. 

There are no traffic tribes, here. No assumption that mode of transport maketh man. Best of all, no antipathy towards cyclists. When passengers hang out of car windows they don't hurl epithets, they call greetings, take photographs or shout the frequent enquiry: "Where are you going?"
Young motorists rush to be pictured with the cyclists

Children ran out of their homes to wave as we pedalled past. Their parents waved. People hung out of cars to wave. 

Once, as we rested in a layby, a jeep screeched to a halt beside us. A group of young men tumbled out and came running towards us. They spoke no English but were carrying camera phones. Eventually it became clear that what they wanted wasn't our purses or even our peanut brittle. The boisterous group simply wanted to  have their photographs taken alongside the funny-looking cyclists. 

Throughout our trip I saw the guides concerned for our safety just once. That wasn't because of a rumbling lorry or speeding motorcycle. It was because we were in elephant country and they had just spotted fresh dung at the side of the track.

Sharing the road
















Use of the horn between sunrise and sunset (compulsory)
Beep.........Hello
Beep.........I am rapidly approaching to your right
Beep.........I am overtaking
Beep.........Hey, look, we made it!
Beep.........Thank you. 
Beep.........I met your cousin in Allepey this morning. He says hello
Beep.........I know you are there. I am just behaving as though I can't see you because it amuses me
Beep.........OK, knock yourself out. Go for that gap if you don't care if you never see your children again
Beep........I am rounding a blind bend. I am not adjusting my speed in any way
Beep, Beep, Beeeeeeep...........You were overtaking too. What bold fellows we are!
Beep........Can someone move that buffalo?
Beep........A cyclist. Oh look, more of them. What a joyful day this is!
Beep........Where are you going?

The cycling tour of Kerala was arranged through Pedal Nation, flying to Cochi with Emirates




Cycling in Kerala - Fifty Shades of Green

I had heard that Kerala was beautiful. Together with the amazing vegetarian food, that was one of the reasons I wanted to visit. 

Nothing, though, prepared me for the totally breathtaking scenery, nor the astonishing variety of landscape. Turning a corner, waking on a new dawn, brought a new country within a state. 

So much of Kerala is green. The lush landscapes are partly the result of the forty-two rivers which slake the sun baked earth, partly due to careful management of the land which ensures that Kerala feeds the rest of India.
Tea plantations in the mountains near Munnar

Cycling is a wonderful way to experience Kerala in all its shades of green.  We rode through rubber plantations, by banana groves and in the shade of coconut palms. We wound our way up hillsides on which clung neat rows of tea plants a century old. We rode through cardamon forests by rice fields and high above tapestries of small holdings. Some crops, like beans, onions and even cabbages, were unexpectedly familiar.  Others, like the ubiquitous jack-fruit, more exotic. 

Rice fields at sunset
Kerala doesn't only bewitch with its beauty, it beguiles with intoxicating aromas stirred by the cooling breeze. Sweet vanilla, spices and coffee grounds drying on sheets outside people's homes, fish tangled in sun-bleached nets, cocoa beans crushed beneath our bicycle tyres.  

Curry leaves grew in abundance: a Vesta vista. 

'God's own country' supplies nuts and spices to the rest of the world. Large scale production is achieved through surprisingly small scale farming; cottage industries sustaining families and village communities. We saw ginger being harvested, passed by trees hung with clove flowers, pepper seeds and cashews. 


Coconut water, straight from the tree
Of all crops, it is the coconut which is most thoroughly exploited.  Visiting the lagoon-side home of a local guide, we watched a wiry worker shimmy into coconut palms high above our heads using a set of hydraulic calipers strapped to his legs. Having cut down some fruit he hacked off the tops to offer delicious, cooling coconut water fresh from the tree.

Coconut made an appearance in almost every dish we ate: from the squares of sweet coconut bread at breakfast to the steamed dumplings and fragrant curries. For snacks when energy flagged there were crispy fried banana fritters, studded with chunks of moist coconut flesh. Coconut oil and milk leant richness to fragrant dishes, we even pedalled off the track one stiflingly hot afternoon to explore a 'toddy parlour' serving a local spirit distilled from the fruit.


Home produced: lunch, served on a banana leaf

We asked how the pokey liquor was produced and were told that the coconut flower is sealed in clay and hit with a buffalo bone. The truth of that account may be in doubt but certainly, sipping the yeasty liquid did make me feel as though I'd been beaten around the brow with a buffalo bone. 

We saw coconut fibres being spun, then woven into mats. Even the husks are not wasted, providing hanging baskets for orchid plants outside the home. 

Self sufficient, sustainable and varied, Kerala made me green with envy.  

My cycling trip in Kerala was arranged through Pedal Nation, flying to Cochin with Emirates Airline

Cycling in Kerala - Johnson, so good they named him twice

Easily the most important member of our group to me - a weaker cyclist than my companions - was the only person not on a bike.

When we rode along roads suitable for vehicles, our support vehicle came too. The minibus contained a spare bike, copious quantities of bottled water, a coffee table and an ever changing array of tasty treats. 

Our first full day of cycling began at the end of a long and painful night for me. A migraine had kept me awake and sick, unable even to swallow water. I knew that I would be incapable of riding a full day in the saddle, particularly in the Indian heat. My introduction to the recovery vehicle then, was when I climbed aboard at the end of the early, off-road section of the route. 

I asked the driver his name: "Johnson," he replied. Days later, when other riders had planted a seed of doubt, I asked again "Is your name really Johnson?" He confirmed that it was. "Is that your first name, or your family name?"

"Both."

Johnson Johnson. So good they named him twice. 

We soon grew to eagerly anticipate the Johnson Snacks we would find neatly set out on his coffee table as we rounded a bend in the road. Oranges, bananas, cashew nuts, mango juice and best of all, peanut brittle kept us going when the going got tough and the saddle sore. 
Johnson Snacks, ready and waiting

On long, seemingly endless climbs, the bus would be there, a hand extended out of the window, a thumbs-up. When I could pedal no more, a blissfully soft seat and the cooling balm of air conditioning restored my spirits. 

I have two special Johnson moments. The first came as I approached an insanely busy junction a short distance behind the rest of the group. Four lanes of road producing at least eight lanes of traffic.  Thundering lorries, blaring horns. 

Into the noise I muttered "F**k, what do I do here?" Then the answer appeared: Johnson was standing at the crossroads, a solid, immovable presence. Grinning, he stopped the traffic while I cycled across. 

"If there was a fire, you'd want Johnson to be there to put it out," said Kate. 

My second Johnson moment came on the evening of my birthday. It was the second of three nights on a houseboat and we were enjoying a few beers alongside our bikes on the upper deck of the boat.  Suddenly, Johnson appeared. He was carrying a beautiful garland of flowers, a stunning cake ordered by my wonderful fellow cyclists and a mystery object the cause of much mirth among Johnson and our guides Sanjeev and Ancel. 

The nature of the mystery object was revealed after dinner when all three men, helped by the kitchen team and ultimately by the crew of a neighbouring boat attempted to open it. Finally, a fountain of sparkly paper fired into the air and settled on the table. 

Johnson hadn't been working with us that day and had spent his free time obtaining the cake and driving out to the boat to deliver it in person.  
Johnson (left), with Sanjeev and Ancel

I travelled to Kerala with Pedal Nation and flew with Emirates Airline 








Monday, 22 September 2014

RIP Kate.

A few weeks have passed now, since a friend sent me a link to this story: http://m.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-isle-of-man-28675162

Another cyclist lost. Another senseless waste. More visions fear, of helplessness, of the awful, inevitable outcome of the impact of metal upon cyclist. This time though, it was different. It was Kate. 

Indomitable, strong, funny, sweet Kate. There was a time when our lives were so closely paralleled that there existed a simple, comfortable assumption that whatever we were doing the next day or the following weekend, we would be doing it together. 

We met at an ultra high-impact aerobics
class and bonded over a shared obsession. Even now, more than two decades later, a certain song will play on the radio and I'll be transported back to that class, the two of us flying high into the air, singing at the tops of our voices. 

Younger than me, Kate had maturity beyond her years. Rolling her eyes, she'd be the one to extricate me from another disastrous date or awkward social setting. 

Quick to laugh, warm, impulsive and fiercely loyal; Kate was the most dedicated sports person I have met. Blessed with natural talent and power, she fulfilled her potential thanks to a single-minded determination to push her limits. 

We joined a triathlon club together. Before long, Kate was competing at elite level while I cheered from the sidelines. 

Kate never appeared vulnerable on a bike. Competent and confident, she made cycling look effortless. The bike seemed to be part of her, a compact, bustling figure spinning to another training session. 

In time, our lives moved on. Relationships, responsibilities and employment turned us from firm friends to fond acquaintances. Then, three years ago she left the area. And that was that. Until the sudden, shocking news late one evening. 

Modest and self-effacing, Kate would have been astonished to realise how well loved she remained in her home town. The stories in the local paper were compiled by a reporter who had run far behind Kate in the town's half marathon and experienced her warm encouragement. One local business even produced its own very personal tribute, printed as a poster in the shop window. 

I don't want to remember Kate's brutal end. I will think of her as a huge lover of life, a special friend, a generous competitor, a beautiful woman entirely without vanity. 

Rest in peace sweet Kate. From now on, I'll be wearing this when I ride. Because if all your ability and confidence couldn't keep you safe, then surely I need divine intervention. 




Monday, 11 August 2014

Prudential Ride London 100 : Battling with Hurricane Bertha

The face that says NOTHING will stop me! 
"How was it?" everyone asks. Even the guard removing my cycle from the train, enquired when he saw the Prudential Ride London 100 ride number still fixed to the handlebars. 

"Wet", I reply. 

"Oh yes, we saw the pictures!"

Shots of brave (or foolish, depending on your viewpoint) cyclists riding through floods yesterday, probably brought this new event to public consciousness in a way that might otherwise have taken years. 

And it was wet. In fact 'wet' doesn't begin to describe the soaking awfulness of parts of the course. At one point I was riding through rain so torrential that when I gasped for air, I inhaled rain. I could only open part of one eye against the pressure of the water and facing a sharp turn at the bottom of a downwards incline I screamed, "I've got no brakes!" Nobody heard me above the sound of the rain. All I could do was hang on and hope.

Hanging on and hoping got me through quite a few of the event's challenges. Floods through which I waded, carrying my bike on my shoulders and worse, a knee-high pool through which the marshals advised us to "keep peddling!". All well and if not good, certainly doable until I got rocked by the bow wave from the riders in front. Hang on. Hang on and hope. 

Standing by the side of our bikes in a storm-rocked street somewhere between London and Surrey, we waited for our turn to walk through another flooded storm drain. Thunder rumbled ever closer and lightning flashed overhead. Suddenly there was the sound of bicycle bells and shouts. On the other side of the road raced the front-runners in the event, already on their way home. "Don't go there, it's horrible. Come back with us", they called. I was sorely tempted.

Fortunately, the treacherous conditions meant that the organisers had removed the two killer hills from the route. I tried to look disappointed when I was told that Box Hill and Leith Hill were out of bounds. Perhaps the dance I did around my breakfast may have given me away. 

If I imagined that the removal of the big name hills meant an easy ride, the Welcome to The Surrey Hills sign soon enlightened me. I did stay on the bike for all of them except one - beaten by Newlands quite early on I pushed my bike to the summit of that one. 

If Surrey brought the hills, it also heralded the most amazing support. In every rain-lashed village they stood, cheering us on. By the time I went past, they had probably been there for hours in their waterproof ponchos. 

"Smile, you're in Surrey!" a plummy voice called as we passed the county border. They never stopped calling, cheering, encouraging, until we left their undulating County. One family invited me in to share a bottle of wine. Another man, seeing I was clearly flagging, left behind his friends in the pub beer garden and jogged alongside me the whole way up a daunting hill: "Come on, we can do this!", he kept saying. The lovely, unexpected thing was that it really did feel as if the soggy bystanders were doing it with me, willing me to finish. 

The finish on The Mall is a blur. I did find the energy for a sprint, taking a deep breath under Admiralty Arch, putting my head down and going for it. When they put the medal around my neck I cried. Tears of relief, exhaustion and delight that we'd booked a hotel within walking distance. 

Things that I did right:
* Book the right hotels. I had a bed a few paces away from the Start line in Olympic Park for the Friday and Saturday night. Then while I rode, my husband transported our luggage to a second hotel, right by the Finish where I collapsed on Sunday. Book your hotels before the ballot results are published. That way, you can secure a room at a good price - you can always cancel if you don't get a place. 

* Book the bike onto a train the day that the journeys become available (about three months beforehand). There is a limit of four per train. Cycles go free but they need a ticket.

* Use the Cyclemeter app so that people know where you are. My friends at home were able to follow my progress and my husband and oldest friend who were waiting to meet me on The Mall, knew roughly when I would arrive. This would have been an altogether perfect system except that I failed to charge my phone properly the previous night, meaning that it ran out of power a little after 60 miles, sparking fears that I might have been hurt or got lost.

Things that I did wrong:
* I was too nervous to eat properly. I took lots of food and there are, apparently, plenty of things provided at the Hubs along the route but I was worried about my pace and by the time I tried to take a gel pack, it just made me sick. 

* I didn't drink enough, either. Again that came down to worries about my pace. I saw the big queues for the toilets and didn't fancy standing around for that long. To be frank, the thought of peeling-off soaking wet clothes wasn't too appealing, either. So I didn't drink enough, which was stupid and probably explained why I was dizzy with exhaustion from around 70 miles onwards.

* I had my head turned. My faithful Lidl raincoat was in my suitcase. But at Expo, where you register before the event, I saw a lovely new rain jacket making all sorts of claims about technical fabric. I bought it. I may as well have been wearing a coat made of mashed potato for all the good that it did. I had tissues in my sleeves. When the sniffing got too annoying, I reached for a tissue. I had to wring it out before attempting to use it. 

Ride London 100 was definitely the hardest thing I've ever done. It is also my proudest accomplishment. The conditions turned it from a challenge into an adventure I'll never forget. Most importantly, I exceeded the fundraising target I'd set myself to support the Rhino Protection Unit in Pilanesberg.

If you would like to have a go in next year's event, it is taking place in the first weekend of August. The ballot opens on 18 August but be quick - it will close when 100,000 people have entered. After that, well, it's just a matter of training with a single-minded commitment that borders on obsession. And hill work. Lots and lots of hill work.




Wednesday, 6 August 2014

Ride London 100: skylarks and butterflies

So I got my new bike.


She's called Ruby and my husband suspects that if it came down to a choice between him or the bike, Ruby would win. He's right, of course. There are three of us in this marriage and Ruby is the one getting all the admiring looks. 


Ruby's official title is a Specialized Ruby Comp. She's black, with flashes of blue like a kingfisher. Built for a woman, it's the first bike on which I have been able to reach the brakes. I've previously had pull-up ones fitted and there are still times when I reach for those and panic to find nothing beneath the bars.

The best thing about Ruby is that she's a lot lighter. As a result, I ride faster. Stuck at an average of 11.3 mph, I was struggling to reach the 11.7 mph speed required for Ride London. Now, I'm nudging 14. Last week I did a 25 mile trip and averaged 14.5 mph fairly comfortably.

And the second best thing? I'm no longer at war with my saddle. Having been properly fitted for the bike I'm riding a lot higher and further forward than on my other bike. Scary at first, when I realised I couldn't put my foot to the ground. But my seat loves this one. 

I collected Ruby in good time for the Ride London 100. During the first rides I concentrated on listening to the skylarks and wondering if I could remember how to dismount. Now though, the butterflies are there. Big time. Ride London is just days away and I'm feeling sick with nerves. 

What if I fall off? What if they won't let me finish the course because I'm too slow? What if the residents of Surrey, irritated by all those bicycles, throw things at me? I've never wanted to do anything so badly. But what if I do it....badly? 

The forecast is not encouraging. According to the Express (never one to downplay a meteorological event), a hurricane will 'smash' into us on Sunday.

www.express.co.uk/news/nature/495557/UK-weather-forecast-tropical-storm-bertha-from-bahamas-to-hit-Britain

On the bright side, 50mph winds are promised. If those are behind me, I could be finished by 10am. 

At 8.17am on Sunday, Ruby and I will be putting all that training behind us and heading for the hills. Gulp. 






Thursday, 10 July 2014

Roadside assistance for bikes

A lot of my cycling is done alone and while training for the Ride London event I've been getting ever further away from home. In my neck of the woods, I can also end up quite a long way from civilisation. Great for spotting buzzards and listening to skylarks, not so good if I get into trouble.

I carry a basic puncture repair kit but I do still struggle to get tight-fitting tyres back onto the wheel. Hitherto I have always been fortunate to attract the attention of a good Samaritan. Sometimes on four wheels, usually on two, they have volunteered stronger fingers and faster wheel-changing abilities to get me back on the road.

But what if nobody passes or if I crash off my bike and damage it beyond repair even by the strongest fingers? 

For those times, I have roadside breakdown cover for me and my bicycle.

It surprises me how many cyclists don't know that this kind of peace of mind cover is available to us. They wouldn't go out in their cars without cover from one of the roadside rescue firms but they make themselves vulnerable every time they go out on their bikes. 

Having looked around, the cover that best met my needs was provided by ETA www.eta.co.uk

ETA's cycle breakdown cover operates 24 hours a day in Britain and promises to respond within 39 minutes. Should the worst happen, you and your bike will be safely transported to the nearest cycle shop, railway station, overnight accommodation or home within 25 miles. The policy includes punctures and even covers you for cycling holidays in Europe for up to 90 days. 

I have had my cover for a year and haven't had to call for help in that time. However the helpline number is stored under Cycle Rescue in the contacts of my phone along with my membership number. That's all I'll need if I'm stranded miles from home and the peace of mind is well worth £18 per year. Frankly, it is worth that just to stop my husband fretting if he is working away from home and knows I'm out riding alone. 

Breakdown cover is provided free for people who insure their cycles with ETA. I have just insured my new bike with them for the first time and received a credit for the unused portion of the breakdown premium I had previously paid.