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 they are 'bikes' accused of riding red lights, racing on pavements, wishing our own deaths. Motorists aren't people in cars they'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.

Monday, 10 February 2014

Cycling makes you more attractive. So what?

"Cycling makes you more attractive!" The status updates last week were inspired by new research into the benefits of cycling. 

Now for a start, that wasn't what the researchers had discovered. What they had found was that faster male cyclists were rated as more attractive by female respondents. In other words, that doing something brilliantly makes you a little bit hotter. Here's what they actually said:

That's nothing new. Expertise, confidence and success in anything is always attractive. Right now, someone who could hang bookshelves competently would look fairly gorgeous in my eyes.

But reducing the benefits of sport down to a promise of good looks as vague as the adverts that keep appearing on the sidebar of my Facebook timeline does us no favours. 

We're living in a society so seriously screwed that an athlete weeps on television because she fears her body will be compared unfavourably to that of the beauty queen sitting next to her. With four Olympic medals, two of them gold, the champion swimmer feels inferior in a swimsuit. Surely we don't need further confirmation that being attractive is a goal worth pursuing? 

Young girls - the ones supposed to have been inspired by London 2012 - don't want to take part in sport because they think that it's a turn-off to look hot-sweaty and generally knackered. 

If only they could discover that the hot, sweaty, knackered path leads to a place of strength, a feeling of power and self-esteem. A place where you value your body for where it can take you, not for whether you can squeeze it into a pair of skinny jeans. 
Here's some alternative research. Every cyclist will have their own.

The exclusive There She Rides report into the benefits of cycling
(One person was surveyed. By the same person)
Me, ready to ride. Possibly attractive only to bank robbers
 * Cycling gives you confidence 
When I first started pedalling I inched along the kerb among the roadkill, trying to stay out of the way. On average, I got one puncture every ten days and very little thanks. I was never in the right position to enter roundabouts and had to get off and push across the pedestrian crossings. 
Now, I take the lane as well as responsibility for my own safety. 

In stationary traffic I even wheeled my bicycle round to the window of a car whose driver had sounded his horn to point out that I was in his way. I asked him where was the "F****** fire?" He apologised. My husband would be appalled if he knew I had said the F-word. Me - a middle-aged cake baker and bell ringer. 

But then, he doesn't know I blog, either. 

* Cycling makes you stronger
Stronger physically but better than that, mentally. Cycle further than you think possible, ride up hills you don't believe you can climb and you become more resilient. Best of all, you'll start to believe in your own potential.

* Cycling makes you happier
My friend and I went out in the gales at the weekend. At first, the wind was in our faces, whipping away words before they had left our mouths. Then, suddenly, it was on our backs. We flew along, fallen leaves swirling around our faces, laughing, giddy as children in a playground. Cycling lifts your mood and believe me,  a happy person is a lot more attractive than a miserable one.
But heck, if it gets people exercising and helps them to share the benefits I've experienced then sure, cycling makes you more attractive. It also makes you better in bed and three inches taller.  What's more, *statistically, if you do the lottery after cycling, you are 3.7 times more likely to become a millionaire.
* Having escaped a lot of maths lessons on discovering I could make my nose bleed at will, statistics mean whatever I want them to mean.

Thursday, 6 February 2014

Ride London 100 2014 - on the trail of Boris

It's official. My 'Congratulations' magazine arrived this week. In six months time I'm going to be riding 100 miles through London and Surrey, doing my best to evade the sweepers scooping-up slower riders.
My husband and I visited London in January and saw some of the places I'll be riding through. It felt impossible, unreal, seeing all the traffic streaming past, to think I could be using those roads. And The Mall!
I'm looking for a tiara that will fit over my cycling helmet, so that I can feel properly dressed when I ride along the driveway to the palace.
So I'm excited, definitely but also...nervous. Really nervous. The kind that gives me butterflies in my stomach and threatens a migraine before nightfall. I'm worried that I'll be last. That I won't make it inside the all-important nine hours. That I'll be the oldest rider. That everyone else will be a 'proper' cyclist who will snort in derision as they pass a small, determined figure muttering "If Boris can do it" like an incantation.
Because at the moment, the only thing calming my fears is a picture of the Mayor of London on my desktop. I should make clear here, that the desktop I am talking about is the one on my PC. I haven't got a framed picture of Boris on my desk, which I dust every morning. That would be weird.
No, what I've got is a picture of him on his bike, tackling the route last year.
Now to be blunt, Boris does not appear to be a natural cyclist. He's no blond Bradley. He looks like someone feeling the burn. And probably, the saddle. And he finished. He was home inside nine hours and only slightly perturbed by the insults hurled in his direction by his fellow riders.
I know that tens of thousands of cyclists didn't get in to the event, all of them probably much better riders than me. I just have to remember the training I've already done, the times I've been out in driving rain and hail. This week I rode through floods so deep that my feet were under water. On Christmas Day I pretended not to notice the appalled look on my husband's face as I came downstairs in Lycra and confessed I was going out on the bike before dinner.
I've done the miles and I'll keep doing the miles. And on that day in August, although I might have more resemblance to Boris than to those riders on the cover of the magazine (look at them - apart from anything else, they've all got suicide pedals!), I hope I'll have earned my place among them.
It was London 2012 that inspired me to start cycling. It's London in 2014 that will present my personal Olympic challenge. So if you are in the capital towards the very end of the event, wait a while. I'll be making for the Mall and last or not, it will be the proudest moment of my life.

Wednesday, 22 January 2014

As easy as falling off a bike?

Patched-up and back on the bike
You know when something is 'as easy as falling off a bike'? To be honest, it probably isn't. In my experience, very little is that easy. As a born again bicyclist I have turned toppling into an art form. I have fallen A-over-T so many times that I scarcely know which way is up.
The first few falls happened, rather embarrassingly, in exactly the same place and at roughly the same time of day. My early rides followed an eight mile circle from the house. I kept doing the same circuit until I no longer needed to have a lie down when I'd finished.
The majority of that route is on country lanes with just one part where the lanes meet an A-road onto which I needed to turn right. The problem was, reaching this road normally meant coming to a standstill, waiting for a gap in the traffic. And because I was turning right, I didn't have a kerb from which to push off when it was time to get going again. The half-pedal, half-scoot technique resulted, predictably, in a wobbly collapse.
On successive occasions the same group of women picked me up, dusted me down and saw me back on my bike. The third time it happened, they explained that they were on their way to the nearby pub: "Why don't you give up, love, and come for a drink with us?"
I was sorely tempted. In fact, I was sore all over.
My cycling partner is the most positive person I've met. She has been known to greet a near vertical climb with a delighted "Oh look, isn't this great? Think how brilliant it will be on the way back."
Angie has a similar approach to falling off a bike. As far as she's concerned, while you still have a pulse, there is a bright side deserving to be surveyed. Last year I took a tumble while out riding with her, having unwisely attempted to brake on a patch of loose gravel. Realising she could no longer hear me panting, she turned back and found me wedged under my bike at the side of the path.
"Oh gosh, weren't you lucky that the nettles were there?", she exclaimed.
Me, mystified and stinging: "In what sense is that lucky?"
"Well, they broke your fall!"
A repair job
Those and many other falls normally happened at low speed and left me shaken but unscathed. I finally came to grief just days before the London to Brighton ride last year.

Riding back from work I was pedalling as fast as my legs would spin, marvelling at the way that the wet road shone in the evening sunshine and singing a Queen song at the top of my voice. Stupidly, I forgot the sharp bend and only remembered that the shiny wet road would afford very little grip when I bounced across it sideways. 
I pushed my poor broken bicycle home, covered in mud and bleeding profusely. Hearing the sobs as I reached the garden gate my lovely husband took the bike, ran a bath and inspected the damage to see whether patching me up was going to be within the scope of our first aid kit. 
The mechanics at my local bike shop knew how hard I'd been training and pledged to get my bike roadworthy in time for the weekend. They worked on it while the shop was shut and true to their word, the bike was ready to ride. When we set off for London though, I still couldn't bend my leg past 45 degrees and was insisting that "It doesn't hurt very much at all."

I fell off at the London end of the ride, too. I'd been stuck, along with hundreds of other riders, at a busy junction. Each time the lights changed a few more cyclists would stream away, the rest of us inching our way forward.  Somehow, I'd ended up in the middle of the throng. No kerb again. So when it was my turn to creep forward once more, I fell sideways. It confused the hell out of the first aid marshal standing a few feet away on the pavement, to find that by the time he reached me, I was already bandaged.

This year I'm training for an even bigger challenge, the Ride London 100. I've chosen a sport to which I am manifestly unsuited and can't stop myself. Why do I do it? I have absolutely no idea. My only certainty is that I'll keep picking myself up, dusting myself down and getting back on the bike.

If found on the ground, please put me back on my bike.