Monday, 22 September 2014

RIP Kate.

A few weeks have passed now, since a friend sent me a link to this story:

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.

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

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.