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

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. 

Saturday, 10 May 2014

The scarcely serious guide to cycling accessories

Lots of more knowledgable folk are writing about the Women's Tour and the Italian race that starts in Ireland - what's that all about? They'll be starting the channel tunnel in Swindon next. 

Anyways, I'm willing to bet that not one of the thousands of people who have read this blog (thank you very much by the way. I never imagined anyone would actually read it) have ever stroked their chin in a preoccupied fashion and mused: " important professional cycling race is happening. I'd better get the low down from There She  Rides".

I'm not going to start pretending I understand the first thing about these races now. Instead, I'm going to share some of my favourite cycling accessories and inventions. My gift to you. Colour it pink and imagine it speaks Italian. 

1. The combined sports bra and water holder. Marketed to hold alcohol - or according to the comments from Amazon reviewers, soup - it's the water carrier you've been seeking. Though possibly not if you are a bloke. Take two bottles onto my bike? Not me!

*Picture posed by model

2. The 'nana pouch. It holds the ultimate cycling fuel in an easy to reach, on-the-go position. And until you eat them, the bananas provide a little added hi viz yellowness. What's not to love?

3. The wine carrier. So suave (or Soave come to that. Which is not a pun I thought I'd be making), so girl-about-town. Take a trundle out with this and just wait for those cool cats to come calling. 

4. The Hallowe'en bike. Because I'm a stepmother and it is part of the job description. 

5. The cycle hearse. We've all got to go some time. And when I go, I want it to be in one of these. With all the mourners pedalling behind. And in a final note of respect, everyone must keep just under the  11.7mph required for the Ride London. 

*deceased cyclist posed by model

Tuesday, 6 May 2014

Training for the Ride London 100 and a real pain in the a***

I took a big step-up in my training towards the Ride London 100 this weekend. And having taken that step-up, it will be a while before I sit down.

Hitherto, I have been aware of saddle sores as something of an abstract construct. if I thought about them at all, I guess I thought it meant a vague soreness in the saddle area, similar to the soreness I feel in my arms after wrestling my way up to the top of a hill by pulling hard on the handlebars. 

Good grief! Why did nobody warn me? I have actual sores on my seat bones. And that is despite wearing TWO pairs of padded cycling shorts AND a folded tea towel. What more is a girl supposed to do and why do manufacturers not offer a rubber ring option to clip on top of saddles?

Ok. I know. Too much information. Back to the ride.

The trip in question was the 'maxi' option in the annual cycle challenge held by our local hospice. This one in fact: 

Before Sunday's challenge, the furthest I had cycled was 54 miles, notched-up in last year's London to Brighton ride. Although I have been covering a lot of  miles cumulatively this year, the longest individual trip was 41 miles. But 65 miles isn't that big an increase. Should be fine, right? Wrong. 

I prepared for the big day in true athletic style with a curry and  a glass of wine. Not for breakfast, I hasten to add - this was the night before. Sunday dawned fairly bright and dry. So no excuse there. Plus my cycle buddy, Angie, was coming to the house for a lift and I couldn't just pretend to be out when she called. Time to work out how to remove the front wheels off our bicycles ('quick release' isn't quite such a good description in our somewhat limited experience), pile them in the back of the car and head for the hospice. 

Having listened to sage advice about 'refuelling' I had packed a picnic including egg sandwiches, two bananas, a chunk of fruit cake and a banana muffin along with the 'emergency jelly tots' which always have a place in my rack bag. In fairness, there is nearly always an emergency warranting jelly tots. 

For the first 20 miles or so, I almost kidded myself that I was part of a peloton. Surrounded by lots of other riders, moving in a large, good-humoured group, I felt invincible. Everyone was friendly and encouraging and I learned some new cycling vocabulary. Some of it quite colourful. The first time, for instance, that a young man beside me shouted a warning "Car up!" I had to ask him which direction that was: "Car up means that a car is approaching from behind and car down means that it is oncoming. You can remember it because a car from the front goes down your throat and a car from behind goes up your rear," he helpfully explained. Although he didn't say 'rear'. 

Later on, Angie and I had fun warning each other of approaching traffic: "Car up! No, down! Which way do they go towards our bottoms?"

It was crucial I stayed the distance but just as crucial to reach the pace required for the Ride London 100. Somehow, I've got to finish that inside 8.5 hours. It's the pace that is keeping me awake at night. So this was an important test. But boy, was the mental arithmetic hard. Trying to work out 65% of 8.5 hours, while huffing away on the bike proved impossible. At one point I fell behind on a hill. I heard an overtaking cyclist greet Angie in front: "Are you any good at maths? Help me with this sum," she responded. For the next half mile, Angie and the surprised gentleman did the totting-up before she called over her shoulder: "About five hours!"

Glad to get off - at the end of 65 miles
At 32 miles we reached a pub in the Shropshire village of Tibberton. Dozens of bikes were propped up against the railings and we followed that example, pausing for an emergency dash into the loos, a top-up for our water bottles and a sandwich. It was when I climbed back on the bike that I realised I was in trouble - it felt as if I was sitting on a hundred needles. The second half of the ride was not going to be pleasant. 

I covered the 65 miles with a ride time of 5:23 plus a stopped time of 30 mins. My average speed was 12.03mph, which is a tad faster than the average I'll need for the Ride London but that average is measured only when the wheels are turning and doesn't take into account the stopped time. So I was shattered, hurting and worst of all, had failed the time target. That really was a pain in the backside. 

Closer investigation suggests that I needed to finish the 65 miles in five hours 32 minutes. So if Id been able to cycle without stopping, my actual ride time would have been OK. It's 'just' a matter of figuring out how to last the whole distance without stopping and how to do so without saddle sores. 

Next weekend it is the Newport Route 66. I've got an entry in that and will take part in the event as long as the sores have healed. In the meantime, I've bought some new Assos bib shorts, a pot of this chamois cream and two packs of 7mm chiropody felt. I am going for a triple-action attack on saddle sores and I'm also going to swap my packed lunch for things I can grab and eat while still moving - dried fruit, nuts and energy bars.

Wish me luck! 

Wednesday, 16 April 2014

Why we're not ready to go Dutch

Like many others with an interest in cycling, I've been to see life on two wheels in Amsterdam. I wasn't there in any official capacity of course. Unlike those who journey there to stroke their chins and muse how such a cycling culture could be exported to Blighty, my role was to admire and envy.

There is much to admire in the life of the Dutch cyclist, not only in Amsterdam but right across Holland. For a start, it's flat - blissfully, endlessly, pancake flat. Then, cyclists are king. Trains include plenty of provision for bikes. Should you prefer to leave your bike at the station you will find a multi-storey parking space not for cars but for the thousands of bicycles left by commuters.
Bicycles await their owners outside a Dutch train station

Cycle racks exist outside shops, restaurants and pubs. Many areas of busy town centres are accessible only to bicycles and pedestrians. You can even ride serenely straight through the middle of the Rijksmuseum. Imagine doing that in the National Portrait Gallery.

The bicycle is as much an emblem of Holland as windmills, canals and raucous English stag parties. Unfortunately, its cycling culture is about as likely to make a successful translation to English roads as its coffee shops are to a Sussex seaside town. As George V put it, that really would bugger Bognor.

Why? Because the differences run so much deeper than improved cycling lanes.

Let's look first at the Dutch cyclist and their bike. With few exceptions you won't see helmets, Lycra and high-viz on the streets of Hoevelaken. Cyclists have an entirely pragmatic approach to bicycles not as a way to exercise but as a means of getting from A to B or in this case, Amersfoort to Bloemendaal.

Cyclists are wearing everyday clothes and in so doing, sending a clear message that riding is an everyday activity and not a risky business. Those lovely flat roads mean they don't have to choose lightweight racing machines over which to crouch. They choose instead lofty, sturdy bicycles whose high, backward-sweeping handlebars put the rider in an upright position. Perched tall, well above eye level for other motorists they can see and be seen. It's a confident, assertive position from which to take the lane.

From their high, elegant vantage point cyclists move slowly, purposefully and smoothly, seemingly without effort. The elderly and the juvenile ride at a shared, leisurely pace giving all but the occasional unwary pedestrian ample time to react.

If cyclists are more laid back then so, certainly, are other road users. I took a ride in a taxi. Waiting at a red light dozens of cyclists streamed in front to halt ahead of the car. And the driver? His chatter didn't miss a beat. Contrast that with my last cab ride in London when I innocently enquired whether a taxi might be able to collect me and my bike when I return to the city for the Ride London 100. This was the response I received:

"I hate cyclists. You won't find a cab driver in London with a good word to say for cyclists. I wouldn't have a bike in my vehicle."


In England, our roads are a battleground. The term road rage certainly didn't originate in Holland. We come to blows over supermarket parking spaces. We hog, hoot, curse and chase. It's not just cyclists who get in the way. Other motorists are too slow, too fast, inconsiderate or "Blind as a bloody bat!"

Are there too many of us, squeezed into bottleneck spaces? Are we just less able to share?

Turn to any report about cycling in local or national media. Scroll down to read the comments. Two tribes, gone to war. A point is all that you can score. Cyclists aren't people on bikes we are 'bikes' accused of riding red lights, racing on pavements, wishing our own deaths. Motorists aren't people in cars we're 'cars', guzzling gas, destroying the planet, out to murder. We've dehumanised our enemy, the first step in any battle.

Mention 'road tax'. Light the touch paper and retire.

When did we get so angry?

Our landscape is different. Our roads and road users are different and despite the advances of recent years, cyclists remain a minority on English roads. Until more people ride, our highways won't be safe for cycling. And more people won't cycle because of fear - real or imagined - that our roads aren't safe for cycling.

We won't go Dutch merely through the introduction of better cycle lanes, though that would be nice. We won't go Dutch until we become a little nicer to each other and a lot more tolerant. Maybe those coffee shops hold the key to safer cycling?
The sign of things to come?

Tuesday, 18 March 2014

Training for the Ride London 100: pasty-powered cycling

The weather has been gorgeous recently. By 'gorgeous', I mean 'not actually raining'. We've come to have fairly low expectations after this wettest, most miserable winter. On the first Saturday without rain I saw three shoppers in shorts. It was February and their legs were blue but they had a point. That day could have been the summer they nearly missed. 

So in these tropical temperatures it was time to step-up the training for the Ride London 100. 

Last week I notched-up 82 miles. This was helped by a return to bicycle commuting. I never did pluck up the courage to try cycling in the dark again, after being sick the first time. The lighter evenings have come as a welcome cue to dust-off the Arkel rack bag and start digging-out the crease-proof work clothes that can survive a trip in the bag.  (Read my review of the excellent Arkel bag here).

I cycled to work on three days last week and counting the accidental mileage that happened when I got a third of the way home before remembering I'd failed to press 'Send' on an email containing deadline-sensitive copy, that put 40 relatively painless miles in my legs. I record my trips on the Cyclemeter app and my rides to work last week included both my slowest and fastest ever recorded time. 

On Saturday it was time for a longer trip. I was aiming for about 30 miles. It turned out that both my cycling buddy and I had hidden agendas. Angie was planning 40 miles. Very sensibly she knew that if she mentioned this at the outset, I would protest that it was too far. I was planning a detour to the brilliant local pasty shop. Equally sensibly I knew that if I mentioned this at the outset, Angie would mention diets and Lent. 

My agenda was first to be fulfilled, at the 25-mile mark. I started mentioning sausage rolls (know your market. She can't resist) at about 15 miles. By the time we pulled-up outside the shop Angie was ravenous and I was so ready for the vegetarian wholemeal pasty which I  knew the store had been saving for me that I could have started chewing on the fingers of the nice man as he handed over my pie. That really would have been biting the hand that feeds me...

My husband says I am the only woman he has ever met who has a loyalty card for a pie shop. 

I'm not the only fan of the local shop. Check out these reviews

If you are ever cycling in Shropshire, call in - they have even started opening on Sundays especially for cyclists. 

But I digress. A pasty will do that to a person.

It was towards the end of our lunch that Angie's agenda became clear.

Angie: "How many calories have we used?"

Me: "1100. Isn't that great?"

Angie: "Yes, and we'll probably do at least half as much again on the way home."

Me: "Nah, we'll be home in 20 mins."

Reader, she befuddled me with a map. I've always been confused by contours. I can't work out whether the straight lines are Roman roads or canals. My Geography teacher said I was too highly-strung to take his subject at O-level. Too highly-strung for Geography FFS? How laid-back do you have to be to learn about oxbow lakes?

The upshot was that we covered 41.35 miles by the time we made it home. 1,700 calories and an average speed of 11.51 mph. That's still not fast enough for the Ride London. I need to be reaching 11.7 mph on that ride to escape the possibility of being taken off the route by the sweepers. Even more worryingly, I need to be able to do the whole 100 miles without a pasty. 

It is going to take a lot more training.

If you have faith in my potential to transform from pasty-muncher to svelte cyclist, please feel free to sponsor me here:  I am trying to raise £250 to go directly to the members of the Rhino Protection Unit in Pilanesberg, South Africa. They are doing an amazing job safeguarding the rhino in the area, at considerable risk to themselves. To the best of my knowledge, they do not even have access to a decent pie shop. 

Sunday, 9 March 2014

Cycling with dogs and why pride comes before a fall

Flu has had me in its grasp this week and the dogs have been going stir crazy. So finally I pile my Brompton and two excited spaniels into the back of the car. We head for the disused railway line a couple of miles away.

Once our journey proper begins, Meg never moves more than three feet away from my pedals, watching me all the time. She trots a few paces ahead then turns her head, scanning my eyes.

Flossie is hurtling through undergrowth and woods. Occasionally her head pops through a hedge, checking we are still there.

Meg and I slow to pass a couple of smartly-dressed walkers. New boots, pressed cord trousers, practical fleeces, hers as pink and clean as her cheeks.
They look admiringly at Meg and we come, politely, to a halt. Meg sits motionless alongside my front wheel, watching my face, waiting for a signal we're on the move. "Isn't she good? Gosh, remarkably well trained. You must have worked so hard, she's a real credit to you." I smile, knowing the truth to be that it was Meg who worked hard teaching me to obey her every whim.

Over his shoulder I can see a dot. It is small, fast-moving and heading our way. My heart sinks.

They smell Flossie before they see her.
All too evidently, she has been running through slurry. She skids past us, comes to a halt some distance away and lollops back, wild-eyed.

She is green-brown to stomach height and her face is partially obscured by the very large rabbit she is holding triumphantly in her mouth.

At that moment, Meg sees the rabbit. She lunges forward to grab the prize. The pair of bunny-spoilers engage in a gruesome tug of war with Peter Rabbit.

The walkers say nothing. They simply turn and trudge sadly, slowly, away from the flying fur.

Flossie (left) and Meg

Thursday, 20 February 2014

Help! How do I choose a new bike?

Almost 25 years ago I took out an endowment mortgage to buy my first flat. It was in the days when it was still possible, straight out of university, to purchase your own home. Before younger readers get too jealous, I should point out that this was shortly before the time when interest rates rocketed to 15 per cent. Meeting those repayments on income from freelance writing required a diet based almost exclusively on porridge.

When I took out my endowment policy the nice, shiny-shoed man promised a rosy future. A quarter of a century later my mortgage would be paid off with enough left over to buy a boat. I don't know why either he or I thought that a boat was a good idea in the landlocked Midlands but I admit that I was so much of a sucker that I went along to the local sailing club and took lessons.

So now I've reached the age that seemed unimaginable when I bought my flat. I've moved home several times and long-since lost the mortgage but I kept the endowment policy out of some kind of misguided nostalgia. At the beginning of June, my endowment policy matures. It will come as no surprise that it wouldn't have paid-off my mortgage. The yacht will have to wait a while.

It will, though, allow me to buy a new bike. But which one? How on earth are you supposed to choose? I've narrowed it down to three models. I've been into bike shops and asked online. In every case, the answer  seems to be that the perfect bike for me is the one they happen to sell.

Can anyone, please, help me?

These are the three bikes in my shortlist:

The Felt ZW5
This has the biggest gear range as far as I can judge. Perhaps better for getting me up the two big hills on the Ride London 100 course?

The Colnago CLD Ultegra Women's 
This includes the word 'Ultegra'. I know that this is a good thing.

Finally, The Bianchi Intenso Dama Bianca 105 Compact
This is beautiful and described as a very comfortable bike for my kind of riding.

By the time I buy my new bike I will, in effect, have been saving-up for it for 25 years. That knowledge makes it even harder to decide. I've got a responsibility to my younger, naïve self, to get some benefit from a bad investment.
So, I am short. Only 5ft 4 ins. I struggle a lot on hills. I am desperately trying to find anything that might help me get up to the 11.7mph average speed required for the Ride London 100. Also, I seem to have a weirdly short handspan. Not being a pianist, this isn't something that I'd ever noticed but on my current bike, I can't use the brakes on the hoods. I had to have a pull-up pair added to enable me to stop.
Which is another thing. The shop I quizzed said that it would be impossible to add these kind of brakes to any of the above bikes. Is that really true?

I was lost. Now I am found.

I have got to learn to read a map. Failing that, work out how to use the apps on a 'phone that's smarter than me. I keep getting lost and as I venture further afield training for the Ride London 100, I'm losing myself in uncharted territory. 

It happened again on Monday. Two hours into a ride, with the rain coming down again (I swear I can see the first signs of webbing between my toes) I reached a quiet junction with all roads pointing to places I'd never heard of.

OK, that's not entirely true. I know where Newport is. I'd just come from there. What I was looking for was the Staffordshire town of Eccleshall, destination of choice for anyone looking for a hot chocolate. Which I very much was. 

I stood looking at the road sign for a while. I viewed it from different angles, hoping something would ring a bell. Which reminds me, I've got to get a bell. Anyway, nothing did. Maybe I could ask someone? Not a soul. I'd chosen the Marie Celeste of cycle routes. There was a dog barking in an otherwise empty farmyard but border collies are notoriously bad at giving directions to anyone except sheep.

Then I had a brainwave. I took a picture of the sign and sent it to an online forum with the post heading 'Where Am I?'. I asked if anyone could work out where I was and suggest the fastest route to a hot chocolate. Within minutes I had received clear, step-by-step directions from a variety of helpful forumites. Someone even uploaded a map of my route in a joke sat-nav frame. 

Before long I had reached Eccleshall and found the Star Cafe. They offer a warm welcome for cyclists and bikes and have earned awards from various cycling clubs in the area. On Monday they sat me down by a radiator and brought me a hot chocolate. Before long, feeling began to return to my fingers. Everything looks better after a hot chocolate. It had stopped raining and I knew where I was. To be honest, both of those have been quite unusual events in recent months. 

Twenty minutes later I was ready to climb back on the bike again. Warm, dry and ready to roll, I remembered why life really is better on two wheels.