Sunday, 8 October 2017

Riding full circle with an Olympian

If you have glanced at the biography on my blog, you'll know that my life changed during London 2012.

When they said that they wanted to 'inspire a generation', I doubt that the Olympic organising committee had me in mind. But from the moment Danny Boyle's opening ceremony held a nation open-mouthed, I was hooked.

I listened to the wrestling while walking the dogs. I sat in the car outside my house, waiting for the Tae Kwando podium positions to be decided. I jumped off the sofa on Super Saturday and I cried at every medal ceremony. The revelation for me, though were the cyclists.

As a middle aged woman, I was unlikely to turn my new interest in wrestling into a hobby. But when the amazing women of the Great British Cycling team stormed onto our screens, I was inspired.

I was a woman. I'd got a bike. I could do what these women did. Just slower.

I took my first ride the day after the team pursuit women won gold. I dug my bike out of the shed and set off on an eight mile circuit from the house. I was sick when I got home.

But I kept pedalling.

For weeks, I fell off every time I turned right. The same group of women helped me to my feet twice. The second time, one of them shook her head sympathetically and suggest I leave my bike and come with them to the pub instead.

But I kept pedalling.

The following year I rode London to Brighton. The year after that, Ride London 100. In 2015 I ran away from a big birthday by setting off on my own to pedal across India.

Since that team pursuit medal ceremony I've pedalled thousands of miles. I've listened to skylarks, watched buzzards gliding above my head and ridden past wild leopard and desert dwelling peacocks. I've cycled myself happy, forged friendships and enjoyed a LOT of cake. Along the way I've met some wonderful people who helped me get my head round my gears, fixed roadside punctures and encouraged me up hills.

When I got the opportunity to become a Breeze Champion, I found a way to pay forward some of the support I'd received from the cycling community.

I've been a Breeze Champion since 2015. It's one of the best parts of my life. I've loved helping women set out on their own cycling journey. I enjoy the camaraderie, the friendship, the laughter and of course, the cake.

This weekend my pedalling came full circle. Unbelievably, I got to ride alongside a member of that gold medal winning pursuit team.

British Cycling asked Breeze groups to set out why Joanna Rowsell Shand should join their ride. I told them about some of the women whose lives had been transformed by Breeze. I let them into a secret about the ice cream farm we visit and promised them a Patterdale Terrier with the footballing skills of Pele.

Yesterday I kept pedalling but this time I wasn't riding solo. I was part of a very special cycling team including my fellow Breeze Champions, our fabulous riders and for one morning only, Joanna Rowsell Shand. Reigning Olympic, World and Commonwealth champion and part of that legendary team of women who set my pedals turning.




Friday, 1 September 2017

Everyday sexism in cycling



Cycling Weekly sorry for 'token attractive woman' caption

The editor of Cycling Weekly has apologised for a caption in the magazine this week.

The photograph illustrated a feature on a Leicestershire cycling club.

Cycling clubs are doing fantastic work encouraging women to join. My own club has given huge support to Breeze and recently launched a C-ride aimed at making it easier for Breeze riders to step-up to club membership.

Women are still in the minority on two wheels, though.

Can you blame us?

I've experienced far more sexism on the bicycle than anywhere else in my life. Shouted insults from passing motorists are commonplace and I've even had my arse slapped from a passing van. Twice. These people wouldn't behave that way if they met me in the supermarket or the pub but the rules are different when they're in a car and I'm on a bike. 

We've got cycling kit marketed by half-dressed women in high heels. And how are podium girls still even a thing in the 21st century?

So when the editor of Cycling Weekly claims that this caption "In no way reflects the culture of the CW office", he's either disingenuous or blinkered. Because someone in that office thought that was funny. And I'm betting that wasn't a woman.

When I started work on a newspaper, sub-editors in the noisy print room would mark-up pages with a chinagraph pencil. The blue lettering was invisible in an era of black and white publishing.

Routinely, someone would take-up a pencil to draw penises on some of the pictures. The week we changed to colour print, a costumed 'super hero' advertising used cars appeared to be visibly excited by the deals on offer.

The editor was predictably furious, the advertiser more so. But it was no good saying that the schoolboy scrawl didn't reflect the culture of the paper. Of course it did. This time, the culture had made it into the paper.

I hope that Cycling Weekly are sincere in their apology. I hope they run a feature on that cyclist and shower her with expensive cycling goodies. If they read this, I hope they get in touch to learn about the amazing, inspiring women who have joined our Breeze rides in Shropshire, overcoming fear and discovering the joy of life on two wheels in their thirties, forties and even sixties. I hope that we see the end of podium kisses and pink-for-girls kit.

But I'm not holding my breath.







Wednesday, 18 May 2016

Ride London 100 isn't the new London Marathon

The Prudential Ride London 100 is often described as "the cycling equivalent of the London Marathon". So why isn't it?

If you have secured a charity place in the Prudential Ride London 100 this year, you will probably be trying to drum-up donations of up to £750. And you will almost certainly have met with the bemused enquiry: "Ride London 100? What's that?"

London taxi drivers have heard of it, as I learned to my cost last year: "I'm really excited. We're here for Ride London 100". Cue long rant about road closures and bloody cyclists. People in the London and Surrey communities through which the route passes, have heard of it. Cyclists have heard of it - some of them, at least.

Beyond that?

Nothing. Zilch. Nada.

If I worked for Prudential, I'd be asking serious questions about the bang we're getting for our buck.

Compare the media coverage for the London Marathon: normal programmes cancelled on Five Live to carry fabulous radio reports, hours of live streaming to television and extensive highlights. Acres of newsprint.

Ride London 100? You'll probably catch highlights of the pro race and a few seconds showing that "thousands of amateur cyclists also tackled the Olympic course."

So why hasn't Ride London 100 established itself in the public consciousness? Is it a function of the complex sentiment towards cycling and cyclists or is it something else? Is it, perhaps, due to the sport's continued vision of itself as advocate for professional cycling? We might celebrate record levels of public participation in cycling but...really...they aren't proper riders.

Here are some dead easy steps that the organisers could take to help ensure that Ride London 100 really does become "the cycling equivalent of the London Marathon."

1. Welcome the 'triers'. These are the people in your street or office. These are the riders pitting themselves against an extraordinary challenge, the people who will engage huge numbers of friends and colleagues in their journey.

You don't welcome triers by putting us at the back of the field and then telling us we've got to clear a series of checkpoints by a certain time or be taken off the course. That means that the slower riders actually have LESS time to complete the route.

Me? One of the final riders to set off in 2015 I had the checkpoint times sellotaped to the crossbar of my bike and stressed the whole way round. I got removed from the route at 91 miles "Because we have to clear it for the professional riders." I was heartbroken and friends who knew how hard I had trained, just felt that this was definitely not an event for them.

So send the professionals off first, as they do in a certain marathon. Then, because you want to get the roads open for traffic,  give slower riders an earlier start in the main field and tell them to keep left. It's not rocket science. You've got closed roads, with plenty of room to overtake and you can still open the route to traffic on schedule.

2. Tell the story. Forget Bradley. The country knows and loves him but most of them haven't bothered to watch him ride since 2012. Seek out the fundraisers, the fatties, the fancy-dressed and the frightened. Make the event come to life by putting these cyclists at the heart of your media work. Put their faces on the banners, chalk their names on the roads, start an I Ride platform online and share...share...share and retweet.

3. Talking of media work...for heaven's sake! This event should be a gift for any PR team worth its retainer. There are stories to tell. Help the media find a reason to love cycling and marvel at what ordinary people are capable of doing. Challenge some of those celebrity shape-shifters and DVD-dieters to Get On Your Bike. Give them a place and watch the national coverage follow. Think regionally - if you can push out profiles to regional news programmes and newspapers you'll create engagement far beyond the capital.

4.Remember - the only people interested in the professional riders are other cyclists. If the only footage streamed shows the pro race then you are never going to reach the people on the sofa.

How many couch potatoes start running the day after the London Marathon? Ride London 100 could inspire just as many newcomers to cycling. It just needs to look beyond the professionals and find all those people riding because they want to change lives and make the world a slightly better place. People like you?

2014. When Hurricane Bertha battered Ride London and it STILL didn't hit the front pages. (I made it to the finish line that year!)








Wednesday, 16 March 2016

Cycling in Rajasthan


Having loved my trip to Kerala last year, it was but a hop, skip and a jump to turn my ‘once in a lifetime’ cycling adventure into a return trip. This time, though, I would go cycling in Rajasthan.
Now I should admit straight away, that I did very little research. I blithely assumed that it would probably be like cycling in Kerala but with added palaces.

On reflection, I wonder whether I am a little too old for such a devil may care approach to travel. But then again, perhaps, I’m too old to change.
 
Cycling in Rajasthan is nothing like pedalling through Kerala.

Kerala is lush, green and misty. As I rode last year, I caught beguiling scents of herbs and tea. Starkly different,  Rajasthan was arid, dusty, a sandy backdrop brightened with sharp splashes of colour from a jewel-coloured sari or extravagant turban. 

The scents I caught on the breeze in Rajasthan were not always as enticing: open sewers in remote villages, pollution in the towns and everywhere the smell of death; a pile of dead puppies by the roadside, a long-dead cow, decay that leaves a scent memory impossible to erase.  

Again, this year, I was the lone cyclist, joining a quartet of friends. Again, I was the slowest. I’ve stopped worrying about it. Short of putting an engine on my bike, I’m not going to get any quicker.  

Five of us pedalled along sandy tracks, past leopard-lurking rocky outcrops and through small, slumbering villages which sprang to life at our approach.

Clearly, we were a curiosity. 

Children tumbled out of schools to watch us pass. Villagers crushed around us when we stopped to refill our water bottles, open stares, shy giggles and the ubiquitous selfie. Many of those we met lived in homes without running water. Subsistence farmers, they lived off inhospitable land using farming techniques unchanged for centuries. 

Yet, still they had mobile phones, extended for photos.

Our trip started in Pichola and ended in Jodhpur. Between those towns we were very far from shops and restaurants, deep into rural Rajasthan. At the end of a day’s cycling we slept in desert tents, in a historic hunting lodge and even a Raja’s glamorous fort.

We had supper on a rooftop, high above the dark, star-reflecting waters of lake Pichola. We enjoyed dinner on the ramparts of Fort Bhadajun, where we were unexpectedly joined by the Raja and Rani. We were, somewhat to our embarrassment, enfolded into a village wedding; guests of honour at the head of the procession, ushered into the family home of the groom. Big, clumsy, consumed with a very British longing for invisibility.

Somewhere there is a wedding video showing a hundred wedding guests in brightly-coloured saris and five bemused Western cyclists, swept up in a traditional dance.


We were awoken by peacocks. Wild peacocks. I thought peacocks had been bred to look decorative around stately homes. It had never occurred to me that they lived rough. Those extravagant tails looked incongruous on the rocks – never more so than within leaping distance of a slyly-hunting leopard.

"Um, are the leopards dangerous?” I asked our guide. Apparently the week before, they had taken someone off a moped. Villagers are compensated for leopard losses. The community nearest the leopards we spotted, had electricity and street lighting. Make of that what you will…

Hardest to bear, for me, were the street dogs. Everywhere we went the dogs roamed, sad stray scavengers. Injured dogs healed, deformed, or died. One was run over and killed in front of us, an inattentive motorist having his attention drawn by the crowd of onlookers surrounding our refreshment break. He didn’t stop. Nobody mourned. A long way from my adored spaniels, I took myself to a hidden corner and sobbed hot, salty tears.

One afternoon, miles from the nearest habitation, we found a howling puppy in the middle of the road. Too young to leave its mother it was alone, hungry and blind. I couldn’t carry it home. Couldn’t help.

In other low points I was attacked by a monkey, spending a sleepless night regretting my decision not to go for the rabies jab. And I narrowly avoided being pushed, sideways, off my bike as a young girl made a mad dash into the road to touch me.

More seriously, it seemed, at one point, that we wouldn’t make it home. Our departure from Delhi coincided with violent civil unrest in the region. Twenty-two protesters were killed. The water supply to Delhi was cut off, railway stations closed, roads blocked. We made an anxious overnight journey by bus and arrived at the airport courtesy of our guide talking his way through a roadside checkpoint.

 “Are you alright?” the texts asked. “Are you coming home?” “Will you go to Wales next year?”

Perhaps they are right. Maybe it was an adventure too far? I've promised, next year, I'll go cycling in Wales. What could possibly go wrong?





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