Thursday, 26 December 2013

In which Mrs Santa travels by bike

The afternoon of Christmas Day. Dogs walked, presents opened, alcohol avoided. With the big feast not scheduled until the evening and everyone preparing for some serious sofa slumbering, I seize my chance.

Like a philanderer trying to find time for his mistress, I've been waiting for an opportunity to go out on the bike.  It's Christmas and that's what I want to do. On the other hand, it's Christmas and "You're not seriously going out on the bike, are you?"

So at 3pm I saddled-up, got the pedals spinning and blew away the festive cobwebs. I didn't entirely overlook the Christmas season. In a single bah humbug concession, I topped-off my normal cycle clothing with a natty Santa suit.

I didn't go far. Just a twelve mile ride along empty lanes. I sailed over a bridge across the M6 motorway. Even there it was peaceful. I cycled through the town centre and wheeled round one of the biggest roundabouts - not something I'd normally risk. 

All was quiet, all was still. 

As light fell, everyone else was tucked away indoors, heavy on a diet of turkey and telly. I felt as though I was on the run. And in the words of a musician friend who has spent much of the last month touring stadiums and television studios, I wish it could be Christmas every day. 

To be honest, I can highly recommend the suit. Admittedly felt isn't exactly a technical fabric but I was nicely toasty. Best of all, the very few motorists who did venture out, gave me an absurd amount of space on the road. After all, who wants to be the one who kills Santa on Christmas Day? 

Nobody seemed surprised to see Mrs Christmas hunched over the handlebars, pedaling like crazy in an attempt to beat her personal best. Let's face it, December 25 is bound to be a busy day in the Santa household and he's gone off with the reindeer. Again. I heard only one comment, from a pedestrian clearly full of the 'spirit' of Christmas and shouting on his mobile phone while weaving across the pavement: "Bloody hell it's Santa. On a bike!" 

My circuit complete, I headed home for nut roast, crackers and Christmas pudding. Just a shame I have to wait a whole year before pulling on my costume and having the roads to myself again.

Happy Christmas! 

Tuesday, 17 December 2013

Good, bad and downright ugly memories of my first 2000 miles

I passed a milestone this week. Nothing unusual about that. There are lots of the things on the roads round here, most of them useful only if you intend making an ambitious trip along the A-roads to Chester or London.
This one was different, though. This milestone was a numerical one, on my bike computer. Having watched the odometer like a hawk in recent days, I finally reached 2,000 miles.
Now I know that for 'real' cyclists, 2,000 miles is nothing. Heck, you probably do that in a month. For me, though, it's a mountain climbed. It's 2,000 miles of falling off the bike; of feeling so tired after my first 20 mile trip that I was in bed by lunchtime. It's new lanes explored, new friends made, new places to ache.
It's 80,000 calories. That's almost 750 (two-finger) kit-kat bars. Even I haven't eaten that many.
Having celebrated my 2,000 miles with a hot chocolate, I was in reflective mood.
Hot chocolate can do that to a person.
Looking back on the highs and lows of my post-Olympic pedalling, I recalled the euphoria of completing the London to Brighton ride this summer. I remembered taking part in a surreal tortoise-versus-actual-hare race along an otherwise empty country lane. The hare had me beat on the climb but my weight advantage took me into the lead downhill. 
I remembered all the times I have cycled myself happy. Science geeks tell me it is endorphins. I prefer to believe it is the feeling of sunshine on my back, the scent of wild flowers in the hedgerows and those euphoric moments when the music in my head matches the spinning of my feet.
A lot of the highs AND lows were provided by other road users. This is something that is occasionally overlooked in reports about 'bicycles and cars'. I'm not a bicycle, any more than the person forcing me to take evasive action as they reverse out of their drive and into my path, is a car. Describing us thus, depersonalises us and suggests that our humanity is defined by the wheels beneath our feet.

Just because I ride a bike doesn't make me think or behave exactly like every other cyclist. Equally, it is absurd to assume that people are all the same simply because they drive a car. One of those people is me, too.
I've come across some wonderful, considerate motorists on my travels. There are those who pause at the top of a hill even when theirs is the right of way, to let me huff my way to the top of the climb instead of forcing me to attempt a hill-start that will end in disaster.  There are others who stop, mid-way round a roundabout, to let me enter the traffic. Some HGV drivers will even 'block' other vehicles and ensure me safe passage.
By far the majority of road users go out of their way, quite literally, to give me space. Remarkably one lady motorist, stopping like me to use town centre loos last week, even volunteered to wait outside and guard my bike when she found me hopping up and down on one leg attempting to fasten a too-short lock around stubby railings. 

During one of my all too frequent puncture episodes, the driver of a 4x4 stopped, reversed and asked if he could give me and the bike a lift home.
I always but always, thank motorists. I usually get a smile in return and it's not unknown to have a kiss blown through the windscreen. Remember the wind is probably flattening my wrinkles.
But by golly, there have been some prats.
My personal lows include a pair of boy racers who accelerated and swung into floodwater, laughing like hyenas to see me coated in the resulting spray. More numerous and directly dangerous though are the elderly motorists, to whom I am all too evidently invisible.
In cities, heavy goods vehicles present a terrifying hazard. Here in the countryside, even the heaviest are outweighed by the threat posed by an army of pensioners on their way to the post office. 
I'm attuned, now, to a certain kind of small car. It will be neat, clean and slow-moving. It will glide serenely  onto roundabouts, its pilot looking neither right nor left. It will pull out of side roads without a glance at the screaming cyclist and on the busier main roads its nervous driver, white knuckles gripping the steering wheel, would rather press me into the hedge than risk moving out towards the central white line.
Just a glimpse of a Nissan Micra is enough to have me twitching for the brakes.
I support the call for cycle space in cities and the efforts to reduce the times that lorries and cyclists are forced to share the busy roads. To that I would add, though, a requirement for mandatory tests of eyesight, reaction times and driving skills for every motorist over 70. Testing should be free. For those over 80, it should take place annually.

I know that these motorists value their independence but I value mine, too. And to be blunt, I want to be independent on a bicycle, not a wheelchair.

My first 2,000 miles on a bike have left me stronger, mentally as well as physically. I've gained confidence both on and off the road and I've got bags more energy. The determination to go further, climb higher and keep pedalling have helped me believe I can overcome other obstacles in my life, too. I might not be a better cyclist but as a cyclist, I'm a much better person.   

Tuesday, 12 November 2013

Singing in the rain

At the moment my cycling is confined to the weekend as well as Mondays, when I don't work. I've had to stop riding to the office because I bought my bike lights before I understood the difference between 'commuting lights' which ensure you are seen in traffic and proper illumination to enable you to navigate safely along unlit country lanes.

I discovered this, as with most of the knowledge acquired on a bicycle, the hard way. The first time I cycled home after the clocks went back I was lit-up like a Christmas tree with flare tubes, hi-viz jacket and flashing rear light. Even my helmet glows in the dark. Unfortunately, I was dependent on a neat little Knog silicone light to see where I was going. I held my breath for most of the six-mile journey, trying to spot potholes and bends in the road seconds before it was too late. I was sick when I got home. Staring fixedly at the strip of tarmac a few feet in front of my wheel had brought on my motion sickness.

Am I first person to get travel-sick on a bike?

So, until I can afford decent lights (any advice on gloom-proof lights much appreciated) I am a weekend cyclist. Which means that, whatever the weather, I've got to hit the road. Hopefully, not literally.

Thus far, that's meant riding-out the St Jude storm, having to pedal furiously, in a ridiculously low gear to get DOWN hill in a head-wind. That said, the journey back was seriously quick! 

Yesterday, it meant looking out of the window at the pouring rain and trying to convince myself that it wouldn't last. I've developed a futile routine of checking several weather apps on my phone, looking for the one that tells me what I want to read. I don't know why I don't just have one that says it is going to be sunny every day. I'd believe that.  Yesterday all the apps had bad news. Like Marty Pellow, I was going to be Wet, Wet, Wet.
Still, there was nothing for it. If I'm going to finish the Ride London 100 in under the magic nine-hour mark, I'm just going to have to get as many miles into my sturdy little legs as possible. So I pulled-on my layers, plugged in my music and pedalled through the raindrops.
The weird thing is, once I'm actually cycling, I don't mind the rain. It's a horrible thought beforehand and a bit soggy when I'm peeling off my wet clothes at the end of the ride but during the ride itself, it's not that bad. A big plus point I've noticed is that motorists generally feel sorry for me. They give me a lot more room than usual on the road, often pulling right out into the opposite carriageway to overtake. That's not just because the extra layers make me look wider, most of them are going to great lengths not to drench me in spray. For which I thank them.
That extra space was useful yesterday, allowing me to ride out into the road a little and avoid puddles which quite frequently turned out to be potholes. Remember that Vicar of Dibley scene when Dawn French skips into a puddle and disappears up to her shoulders?
Once I'd got about as wet as I could possibly get, I started to really enjoy my ride. I pedalled through Ken Bruce (getting a not very impressive nine points on PopMaster), singing along at the top of my voice to tracks by Fleetwood Mac and Coldplay. As the phrase so nearly goes: in the rain, no one can hear you sing.
When Ken went home for a nap, I pedalled along to Jeremy Vine, getting cross, as I generally do, with so many of the people who take advantage of the platform provided by a radio phone-in.
I did hit one problem.

Water wings to be added to the saddle bag?
Last week, this was a pretty country lane in a village called Church Eaton. Currently it is a stream of unknown depth. I did briefly consider taking a run-up to it in the hope that the momentum would carry me through, legs sticking out either side of the crossbar. It's a technique that has carried me through quite a few high water marks. In the end good sense prevailed. I'm not very familiar with the lane and don't have any idea how deep it floods. I was carrying a puncture repair kit but not a snorkel.

Around three hours after I began my ride I returned home tired, happy and very, very wet. That was something else I had in common with Marty Pellow - I could feel it in my fingers and despite the overshoes, I could definitely feel it in my toes.

Perhaps the most important thing I have learned as a born-again biker is that whatever the weather, I'm always glad I've gone out for a ride.

Thursday, 31 October 2013

The RearViz rear view mirror for cyclists: a review

Checking out traffic behind my bicycle is a big issue for me, particularly in the moments before I need to pull into the road to ride round an obstacle or to make a right turn. Sure I can turn my head but when I do, I'm losing sight of the road in front and getting only a fleeting impression of the view over my shoulder. Plus, no matter how hard I try, every shoulder check is accompanied by an alarming wobble.
A while back I tried the CyFy WristView mirror for size. If you're interested, you can read my review of that product here:
The big issue with that mirror is that it is flush to your wrist. To get a view of the road behind, you have to raise your arm until your wrist is in line with your face and twist your hand slightly. At that point you've got only one hand  on the bike and your unusual hand signal is confusing the heck out of oncoming traffic. It also got bashed about when stowed in a bag at work because I kept forgetting to cocoon the mirror in an old sock.
So when I got wind of the RearViz armband mirror, I was really excited. I've been waiting for their website to go live since the summer and got my order in as soon as possible in September. This week my new armband mirror finally arrived from sunny Australia, via its manufacturing base in China. It's already travelled further than I'll probably cycle in a lifetime.
First things first, the packaging: the RearViz mirror comes in a sturdy, stylish box that is well able to withstand knocks in transit. Inside, you'll find the mirror housing unit along with your chosen armband.
My RearViz unit arrived safely in its sturdy box
There are two versions of the RearViz at launch: the Classic and the Standard. I chose the Classic, which comes with a higher-spec build quality and an armband that is designed to be comfortable against the skin for long periods. It also incorporates an ID tag insert to provide emergency contact details in the event that I am found weak through lack of cake.
Having identified your preferred version of the RearViz, you then need to choose from a range of funky colours and finally, take your pick from three lengths of armband, depending on where you want to wear your mirror as well as your size. The short band, which adjusts between 190mm - 250mm is intended to be worn anywhere from wrist to elbow on the forearm, while the long one is worn on the upper arm and adjusts between 230mm - 360mm. For those with particularly bulky clothing or especially beefy arms, there is an extra-long band measuring 330 - 450mm.
I chose the long armband and to make up for shipping delays on my order, RearViz also included a short band which has allowed me to try both wearing options.
In my first couple of rides using the RearViz, I used short band, worn at just below elbow height. As well as rotating around the coloured disc, the hinge on the flip-up mirror is stiff enough to hold adjustment on the vertical plane, too. Because I've worn the mirror in the same place on my arm, I found that I haven't needed to alter the rotational position of the mirror again. So once I have positioned the strap where it feels comfortable and firm, it's just a matter of flipping the catch to lift the mirror and moving it up or down a little to get the best possible view.
The RearViz worn on the small band, just below my elbow.
The problem with wearing the mirror on your lower arm is that it isn't on the widest bit of your body as you ride, so you have to twist your arm a bit to get a decent view past your own elbow. I also found that I knocked the mirror out of line each time I reached down for my water bottle. 

I've had a lot more success using the long armband and wearing it tight enough not to slip, on my upper arm. That way I get a brilliant view of the road behind, without moving my arm and the unit hasn't needed adjusting during the ride. 

I have felt a lot safer in traffic wearing the mirror. I can see in front and behind pretty much simultaneously and I get an early heads-up when something is coming up on my outside. As I approach a junction or need to change lanes I can check the traffic behind and having signalled, get a good idea whether the car behind me is slowing to allow me to pull out. Because I'm not turning my head and wobbling into the kerb, I can take a longer look at the road via the mirror, rather than relying on a quick glimpse. I also find I'm doing more checks as I ride, instead of waiting until I'm about to manoeuvre. When all that is needed is a quick glance to the right, it's easy to keep myself informed about what is behind my bike.

I still do the shoulder check before I pull out but it's a final movement to make sure I haven't missed anything. I also find that drivers notice a head turn and are better prepared for me to move. Because I don't really need to move my head to check the mirror, I'm just giving that extra advisory indication that they need to give me space.
The RearViz is less useful at night but in fairness, since the clocks went back, the dark evenings of my evening commute mean that I get a very good idea about oncoming traffic as their headlights illuminate the dark country lanes in front of me. In fact, this is one time of year when I welcome a hesitant motorist sitting on my tail for half a mile!
1. The RearViz works! Because you choose where to wear the band and can then rotate the mirror to suit, you make sure that you get a really good view of the road behind your bike.
2. You don't have to take your hand off the bars.
3. You can glance into the mirror as you ride, rather than just making a special effort prior to a manoeuvre and your eye tends to be caught by movement as you ride. That means that there are fewer surprises from vehicles approaching from the rear.
4. The mirror snaps shut when not in use, protecting it from scratches in your bag. That's not a factor on a recreational ride when you can simply leave it in place until you get home but for commuters who need to pack everything away during the day, it's a big deal.
5. It boasts Velcro unlike any I've previously encountered. Remember that advert where a stuntman was so confident in the stickability of a particular brand of glue that he pasted his clothes to a big board and hung, suspended below a helicopter? I wouldn't be surprised if you could do the same thing with this powerful Velcro. It is certainly unlikely to drop off as you bounce over a pothole.
6. The wristband is washable (by hand - I wouldn't risk a machine. Apart from anything else, that Velcro would wreak all kinds of mischief on the rest of your kit) after a long and sweaty ride.
7. It's got in-build durability. If you come off your bike and damage the mirror, you can get a mirror replacement unit from RearViz. If you tire of the colour you can snap in an alternative insert to match your new kit. It's UV resistant and waterproof - although not recommended "for constant use underwater." So it should be OK unless you are planning a cross-channel cycle.
1. At the time of writing, there isn't a distributor in the UK so you need to order direct from the RearViz website I ordered on 26 September and it took just over a month to receive my mirror.
2. Cost. The order price of my RearViz Classic was 47.99 Australian dollars - about £28.40 at today's exchange rate. Shipping added a further 15 dollars and when it finally arrived in the UK, Royal Mail wouldn't allow me to get my hands on it until I had made a trip to the sorting office and parted with another £13.62 comprising the VAT owed to Customs and a frankly irritating 'handling fee' for the Royal Mail of £8. So for a cyclist in the UK, that totals a hefty £50.90 by the time the mirror gets anywhere near your arm.
3. The RearViz is a little bulky for someone who has twig-like arms and it doesn't offer the simplicity and flexible fit of a slap-band. In theory, you could wear the unit on your wrist but my wrists are tiny and the unit is verging on too wide to sit comfortably there. If you are similarly puny the small band will still be OK, just wear it higher up on your forearm. 
**** I'm giving the RearViz four stars. It misses out on the full five due to the cost and delays involved in obtaining it from Australia and because I do like the high visibility, one-size-fits-all slap-band on the Cyfy.

Wednesday, 23 October 2013

2014 Ride London 100 - I'm in!

I entered the ballot for next year's Ride London 100. You don't find out whether you have been successful in the ballot until next February but as I will need accommodation in London anyway, I've been keeping an eye on the Sports Tours International website: They offer packages of guaranteed ride entries plus bed and breakfast accommodation. It's aimed at overseas cyclists but I spoke to them a couple of months ago to check that I'd be eligible to apply. Having been reassured that this was OK, I signed up for their newsletter to find out when their places became available.

Yesterday, just as I arrived home, the email arrived. Booking was live and there was an early bird discount of £100 for anyone grabbing a place now.

I had planned to book one of their two night packages, judging by what they had available last year. This time, though, only the full three-night ones were offered, so that's what I've gone for. All confirmed. Three nights in London with my husband and a guaranteed place in the ride for me.


The advantage of organising it this way is that I have as much training time as possible. To date, the furthest I've ridden is 53 miles. I've got to nearly double that. But then, a year ago, the furthest I'd ridden was 8 miles and I covered nearly seven times that distance without too much difficulty in June. It's actually not the distance that frightens me. Sheer bloody-mindedness, combined with plenty of training will take me to the century.

The pace is another matter. I have to finish inside nine hours. It's not like the London Marathon, where you can take as long as you need to stagger to the Finish. If I'm not keeping up the pace I'll be taken off the route. Last year some people were taken off at sixty miles. Imagine that! I can't let that happen.

I'm looking around online for training plans. Most of them seem to be eight week schedules but they are probably for people who are starting with a better average speed than mine. So I'm starting today. I've got just under ten months to shape up, pick up the pace and master hill climbs. If anyone can recommend a good training schedule, I'd love to hear about it. 

I'll also be collecting sponsorship. I didn't want to take one of the official charity bond places because the requirement to raise so much money would add to the fear of failure. Instead, I'm going to invite friends and colleagues to help me support a very worthwhile cause: the Rhino Protection Unit in Pilanesberg, South Africa.

Over a number of years we've spent a lot of time watching the rhino in Pilanesberg. Their survival chances are improved considerably by the wonderful members of the Rhino Protection Unit who go to extraordinary lengths to keep them safe. An indication of the impact they are having came during our last visit in December 2012. At that point, 40 rhino had been poached in the Kruger. Pilanesberg had lost none. We were leaving Pilanesberg as night fell, on Christmas Day. A storm was raging, with lightning as bright as day and rain hammering down on our car. As we exited we encountered members of the Rhino Protection Unit, about to spend Christmas night safeguarding the rhino.

If I can do anything to help the RPU stay one step ahead of the poachers then it will be worth every turn of the pedals. You can ready more about the battle to protect the Pilanesberg rhino here:

And after all...if Boris can do it, surely I can too!

Tuesday, 8 October 2013

Brompton to the rescue

I haven't been well for the last week or so and until the antibiotics work their magic, I'm not up to the lovely long cycle rides that the glorious weather deserves. I've had to use the car. I even had to put diesel in it - breaking the spider's web which had rather satisfyingly spread across the fuel cap.

The dogs still need exercising though and when I took them out for their usual walk I was so exhausted I had to sit down along the way and slept for a couple of hours on my return. I'm miserable off the bike, too.

So yesterday I hit on the perfect solution. When the going gets tough, the tough...fold. I turned to my trusty Brompton folding bike.

The advantage of the Brompton is that I can fit the bike, a dog crate and two excited spaniels into the back of the car. So that's what I did. It's a ten minute drive to a disused railway line near my home. An early victim of Dr Beeching, it is now popular with walkers, runners and cyclists.

The spaniels, having fun with the Brompton
I go there a lot with the dogs but not normally on my bike because it's an uncomfortable ride  on road tyres. My Brompton, though, has chunky, go-anywhere tyres. I realised that by using this bike, I could give them a really good run in the comparatively short time that my current energy levels allow.

And it worked. We were out for about 40 minutes. I had a very easy-paced ride on the flat, the dogs had a hurtle and this time when we got home, the spaniels were the ones in need of a snooze!

Wednesday, 25 September 2013

There She Rides discovers the secret of cycling at 50mph

A boyfriend once took me to see a rally for owners of Honda Goldwing motorcycles. We went our separate ways soon afterwards, it having become readily apparent that there was a yawning chasm between our respective notions of what constituted a good time.
As I looked around that gathering of vast, plush, sofas on wheels, I remember wondering what would possess someone to buy one of these machines when they so clearly would have preferred a saloon car. There was even - I kid you not - a Goldwing pulling a caravan.
I've always felt a bit like that about electric bikes. Why would you buy a bicycle, if what you really want is a taxi? I'm terrible on hill climbs. Really dreadful. I can be overtaken by pedestrians. But when I reach the top, I know that it was my stubby little legs that powered me and when I fly down the other side, I've earned the free ride.
An electric bike seems to take all the challenge out of cycling. The whole point of bicycling is to be self-propelling. It's the ultimate in sustainable transport, as long as you carry sufficient inner tubes and energy bars.
But then I saw this video.
And now I really...really...want an electric bike. But it has to do 50mph. And the engine has to be cunningly concealed.
Isn't that brilliant?
Throughout my childhood we had a Morris Minor Traveller (the ones with the wooden frame). At that stage they hadn't attained the status of cherished icon of motor engineering. They were just old. Ours produced its own crop of mushrooms along the rear windowsill and was covered in so much moss that it was effectively camouflaged.  My dad nursed a secret ambition to remove the engine in our Moggie and replace it with something with a fuel injection. His plan was to don the obligatory tweed hat and pootle along a stretch of dual carriageway towards a hill. Then, just as the boy racer behind him prepared to speed past in his hot hatchback, the aged motorist would press Hush Puppy to the floor and leave the lad standing.  
My father never got to pimp his Morris Minor but if I added an engine like that to my bicycle, I think I'd make him smile.

Sunday, 22 September 2013

Gone fishing - a Sky Ride following the Izaak Walton Route

Today was one of those idyllic Indian summer days, so perfect and precious for cycling. Warm sunshine, a hint of autumn in the air and one of the last Sky Rides of the year to enjoy.
This was a 17-mile ride named after Izaak Walton. My hometown hasn't produced very many famous people. Poet laureate Carol Ann Duffy grew up here. Fran Healy, the lead singer of Travis was born in Stafford. I wonder if he thinks of us when he sings Why Does It Always Rain On Me? It's something that I ask myself often enough.
David Cameron fought and lost an election here (possibly our proudest moment) and Mary Queen of Scots was imprisoned nearby. Go back as far as the restoration and you'll find playwright Richard Brinsley Sheridan living in grand style in the town centre. When he turned to politics he paid the voters of Stafford five guineas each in 'thanks' for their support. If David Cameron had read his history books he might have been more successful in Stafford. 
"But this is a cycling blog, why are you befuddling us with Stafford's tenuous association with celebrity?"
Ah, well, that's because Izaak Walton is a bona fide, locally-grown success story. Born in 1594, Walton spent his childhood in the Swan Inn, in Stafford and spent some years living at Halfhead Farm, in the village of Shallowford. Like my dad, he devoted much of his life to fishing. In 1653, Walton published the first edition of the famous The Compleat Angler. More than four centuries later, a well-thumbed copy of this book would be at my father's bedside.
Today, with the sun on our backs and a breeze in our faces we set off to explore ountry lanes and villages that would have been familiar to the angler-author on the Sky Ride Izaak Walton Route. Admittedly, the start of the route would probably have come as a surprise to him. But you can certainly find trout in Sainsbury's.
Our route today took us through the postcard-pretty villages of Chebsey and Ellenhall, their country churchyards unchanged for centuries. We pedalled through traffic-free lanes bounded by high hedges heavy with sloes and cobnuts and passed a field full of sunflowers, their heads nodding towards the warmth. It came as a surprise to see that we were at the halfway point in our ride - time to stop at a garden centre for tea and cake.
I thought a lot about my dad as I rode, today. He was a cyclist and would have loved this adventure. We even went to the ford, at Seighford. He used to take me walking there as a child. We'd park by the ford and go to pick mushrooms for breakfast. Once we were lucky enough to meet a family of fox cubs in a nearby wood, fearless and full of curiosity.
Someone else was pretty fearless at Seighford today. One of our ride leaders sought to encourage us to try riding through the ford. With everyone else looking dubiously at the depth indicator he pedalled at full speed and to our surprise, made it to the other side. We used the bridge and then followed a trail of drips from his soaking feet.
A view from the bridge 
Too soon the Sky Ride was back in Stafford, leaving the country lanes and turning back towards the town centre.
A good-sized bunch of Sky Riders took part in this ride, perhaps fifteen of us snaked along the lanes in our high-viz bibs. As ever, there was a companionable atmosphere with plenty of laughter and conversation.
This was the first year that Sky Rides were offered in this area and until confirmation comes from the local council, we won't know for sure whether they will resume in the spring. I certainly hope that we take to the trails again next year. The Sky Rides have encouraged people to get bikes out of the shed and onto the road. New rides, new friends and a new confidence in traffic have been just a few of the benefits of taking part.
The end of the road today - let's hope the Sky Rides pedal back onto the local calendar next year.

Monday, 16 September 2013

Scaling the heights on another Sky Ride

Last weekend I tackled my second Sky Ride. The forecast was for torrential rain and 50mph winds. What could possibly go wrong?
Not for a second did I consider that those 50mph winds might be behind me. In my experience a strong breeze will always be in the face of the peddler - whichever direction you ride.
Communication is very good from the Sky Ride team, with a number of emails in the days and weeks before each ride reminding the cyclist of where she is supposed to be. Frankly, I wish that the Sky Ride people could organise the rest of my life with equal efficiency. With forecasts verging on the apocalyptic the night before the ride, I kept checking my phone for news that the event had been cancelled. None came and I decided that if the ride leaders were prepared to ride, then I was too.
I will admit that it took some effort to haul my sorry ass out of bed on Sunday morning. The predicted rain had arrived, the sky was slate grey and the duvet really was very cosy. Fortunately I had packed my bag and laid out my clothes the night before. A final encouraging kick from my husband was all it took to get me up and ready to ride.
The Sky Ride was called Sights Around Stone. It was categorised as Steady and would take in a 16-mile route around Stone, Barlaston, Moddershall and the National Trust-owned woodland of Downs Banks. When I arrived at the meeting-point I recognised one of the ride leaders from the Cannock Chase Criss-Cross Challenge ( A few changes had taken place since he'd seen me last and I was hoping we'd both notice a difference.
In my previous Sky Ride I spent about as much time pushing my bike as I did riding it. Try as I might, I couldn't pedal the blessed thing up the succession of vertiginous hills included in the ride. I returned home shattered and a little crestfallen. In the following days I asked brilliant bike mechanic Ben Platt if there was anything he could do to help.
Ben changed my rear cartridge to give me a bigger ratio. I moved from an 11-26t to an 11-32 and added a long cage derailleur to cope with the extra slack in the chain. Vitally (as far as I was concerned, at least) Ben had also removed the mudguards. My ride had been pimped.   
Our hardy band of cyclists set off and in what I now realise is traditional for Sky Rides, we began with a climb. And I was OK. In fact, I was more than OK. I was at the front!
The route soon left the highway for a network of country lanes. Almost all of them included hefty climbs but I found that I could keep spinning fairly easily, enjoying testing my limits and enjoying the fabulous views at the top. Alastair, the ride leader who had watched me trudge around Cannock Chase, was encouraging: "It's partly your fitness and partly the different gears," he said. I knew it wasn't. It was the mudguards that had been holding me back.
The great thing about Sky Rides is that you meet other people who are also loving life on two wheels. Everyone is incredibly friendly, perfectly illustrated on this ride, when we made an unscheduled stop at the home of one of the ride participants. His unflappable wife provided refreshments for us all, while their energetic dogs pointed out that if we really wanted exercise, we should be chasing a tennis ball.

Some of the Sky Riders on our impromptu stop. The dogs are out of this picture, chasing tennis balls but if you look closely, another pet is welcoming the unexpected visitors.

As well as a very pleasant half an hour in a fellow cyclists's garden, the ride provided me with my first chance to cycle across a level crossing and through a ford. We rode past through the beautiful village of Moddershall, almost at eye-level with the village pond, where ducks laughed noisily as we passed. In this birthplace of the pottery industry, we went past the stunning home once occupied by Josiah Wedgewood before riding past the factory on which his wealth was built.

The house formerly occupied by Josiah Wedgewood - one of the Sights of Stone.

And do you know what?
It didn't rain until the moment I put the bike in the back of the car and set off for home.  

Saturday, 7 September 2013

CyFy WristView mirror review **

I got my hands on the CyFy WristView mirror for cyclists via Amazon's US site.
The wrist-mounted, rear-view mirror for cyclists is a crowd-funded project. The designers used Kickstarter to get their business off the ground and took on board some of the suggestions they received from backers. For instance there is space on the wrist band on which you can use a marker pen to add emergency contact details, allowing the product to double as an ID bracelet. 
The triangular pack, ready to unfold
The CyFy WristView mirror arrives in a clever, origami-style box. Open it up and nestling in there is a little round mirror, sitting snugly on a tightly-coiled 'snap band'. Nothing else. The mirror is durable enough to survive the journey without additional packaging material and it's so simple that an instruction leaflet would be very brief indeed: Wear on wrist. Look in mirror.  
The snap-band bracelet means that it's a fit-all product. It also makes it quick and fuss-free to wear. You just snap and ride. The only adjustment needed is to twist it round a bit so that the mirror is pretty much in line with your thumb, to provide best rear view. I have tried it on my right wrist and on my left, as shown on the packaging illustration. Both seem to work equally well but for me, it is more comfortable to wear on the right simply because my watch is on the left. 

To view the mirror, you need to lift your hand and bend your elbow until your thumb is at head-level.  The time I most need to see what is behind is when I want to pull out to the right. It seems to make more sense to wear the mirror on that side so that the extended arm movement needed to check the mirror, doesn't suggest to following traffic that I am about to turn left.  
Getting maximum safety out of the product, the snap-band is made out of high-visibility, super-reflective material. The makers claim that it makes me 200 times more visible as I wobble along the road in low-light conditions, adding ominously, that I will be visible at 400 feet. Great for life expectancy but in all honesty, I'm not sure I want to be that easy to pick out in a crowd. The band wipes clean after a muddy ride and springs straight back into that neat little coil which fits handily into my rack bag. 
The mirror is circular, about two inches in diameter (radius? circumference? Gosh those maths lessons seem so long ago...the crossways measurement. Nothing to do with p. Come to think of it, my whole life has been nothing to do with p, despite what those despairing teachers would have had me believe).  
I digress.
The mirror is set in a plastic casing and it's the casing that is fixed to the band by dint of what looks like a pretty sturdy rivet. I've not had it long enough to give it an extended test and I was initially a bit worried because the natural - though incorrect - motion is to detach the snap-band by pulling the mirror. So far, my mirror is not budging.
This picture gives an idea of the product size
When riding with the mirror, it's been comfortable and hasn't got in the way when I've needed to change gear or brake. As it is so light, I pretty much forget I am wearing it.
This isn't a mirror into which you glance while riding naturally. To get a good view you have got to make that salute movement. 

In fairness, following traffic will almost certainly have their attention grabbed by your peculiar arm motion. While they think back to their cycling proficiency days in an attempt to recall what on earth that hand signal means, you have a little more time to pull round the pothole.
The makers emphasise that the mirror isn't a replacement for turning your head to see for yourself exactly what is bearing down on you. It certainly isn't. No mirror is going to remove the need for that shoulder check. It is, though, a valuable aid. It's a bit like having a passenger in the car, giving you a heads-up when it is clear to pull out. You still look before you leap but you've had help avoiding the obviously unsafe times to manoeuvre.

Advantages of the CyFy WristView Mirror
* It is easy to put on and remove. No tools required.
* It is small and easy to carry.
* The snap-band doubles as a high-viz reflector.
* You can use it to apply make-up on arrival if you are so inclined.

Disadvantages of the CyFy WristView Mirror
* It is currently quite difficult to get hold of one in the UK
* You need to take your hand off the handlebar whenever you want to check the mirror.
* It doesn't come with a draw-string bag of the kind you sometimes get with sunglasses. That would be really useful to prevent the mirror getting scratched when it is in your bag. I'm currently carrying the box in my rack bag but it is taking-up more space than it needs.

The CyFy WristView Mirror 

Saturday, 31 August 2013

One Day Like This

Yesterday it was the annual Open Day at the college where I work. All day, families poured onto the campus to take a look around, talk to lecturers and to try to find their way through the complex new funding arrangements being introduced by the government.  

By the end of the event I had been on my feet all day. My head ached, my knees hurt and frankly, cycling home was the last thing I wanted to do.  I briefly toyed with the idea of letting the air out of one of my tyres and telephoning my husband to explain that I'd had a puncture and needed collecting. In the end I felt that would be tempting fate and grumpily changed into my cycling gear and climbed aboard. I would slog slowly home, aiming simply to keep the pedals turning. 

Then something rather wonderful happened. As I popped in the single-ear headphone allowing me to simultaneousl listen to the radio and oncoming traffic, I heard the first chords of my all-time favourite song: One Day Like This by Elbow.  

As I set off, matching my pace to the swelling rhythm of Guy Garvey's anthemic love song, my mood lifted and my feet hardly seemed to touch the pedals. I floated out of town, heading for the familiar country lanes. Before I had finished bellowing the final chorus of "Throw those curtains wide" I'd swept past two other riders and passed across the bridge over the M6. Notoriously busy on Friday afternoons, I could see lines of slow-moving traffic north and south, their commute a hundred times more unpleasant than my own.  

By now I was off the busy roads and spinning easily. Rabbits darted into hedgerows as I passed and overhead, a buzzard drifted lazily on the breeze, mewing like a soaring kitten. The lowering sun cast a red glow on the fields. “And only now I see the light”. I didn’t want my ride to end and so I diverted through a couple of surrounding villages, watching the residents begin their homecoming routines.

My headache had eased, my mood had improved and Elbow had fixed my knees. That’s why I ride and why I nag my friends to rescue their unloved bikes from the back of their shed and get pedalling. Because when a ride feels right,  “One day like this a year would see me fine.”

A view from my bike: sunflowers and sunshine.





Tuesday, 27 August 2013

A Sky Ride rolling in the tyre-tracks of Bradley

This week I took part in my first Sky Ride.
Sky Rides are run jointly by British Cycling and Sky, as part of a drive to get a million more people cycling regularly in the UK.  As well as launching women only rides and social groups, they have been staging big, mass-participation events in cities (Sky Ride City) and hundreds of community-based rides up and down the country (Sky Ride Local).
The Sky Ride Local rides are led by experts familiar with bikes, cyclists and the route. They are offered in three categories: Easy Going, Steady and Challenging. I chose the Cannock Chase Criss Cross Challenge which was one of the challenging rides.
Now in my defence, I thought that, at 29 miles, it was probably not going to be the sort of challenge that I needed to worry about.
That was foolish.
Also, I think I stopped reading after discovering that I would be following in the tyre tracks of  my hero. The moment I learned that I would be pedalling a section of the 2012 Tour of Britain as ridden by Sir Bradley himself, my mind was made up.
That was probably foolish, too.
Riders met at a public car park on Cannock Chase at 10am. It was quite exciting to see the bikes arriving, some being ridden to the start, others fixed to racks on cars. I don't have a rack but by dint of removing the front wheels, we had fitted my own bike and the much more impressive bike of a friend into the back of my car. We had, initially, planned to ride there and back.
That would have been folly.
There were three leaders on our ride. They were wonderful. Encouraging, enthusiastic, good-humoured and friendly. Everything you could want in a ride leader. They also knew how to mend a puncture, which was particularly valuable in my case.
The route turned left out of the car park and climbed. And then it kept on climbing, for most of the next 29 miles. Good grief, I had no idea that Staffordshire went up that far.
The BT Tower at Pye Green is one of the most familiar, if unlovely landmarks of the Midlands. Constructed out of reinforced concrete, it can be seen across much of the county. It stands 388 feet tall and was built on the highest available  ground. Wikipedia says that its "...combination of height and elevation gives it line of sight to Birmingham".  
Line of sight to Birmingham? I looked to my right and I had line of sight with the top of the tower. All my life I've seen that ugly tower on the skyline. I confess that I have never had any desire to scale the summit.
Cyclometer reveals that I climbed a total of 2195 feet. I also reached my fastest ever speed of 31.5 miles per hour. At that point, I had my eyes tightly closed and my hands clamped firmly on the brakes. The rapid downhill motion was accompanied by a sinking feeling that this probably meant another climb at the bottom. I was right.
My fellow riders could not have been nicer. Nobody minded waiting for me at the top of hills or if they did, they kept it to themselves. The leaders were brilliant, ensuring that there was always one at the front, one in the middle of the group and another one seeking to make me believe that "It's flat just round the next bend." It never was.
The frustrating thing was I worked really, really hard. I stood on the pedals until they could turn no more. I gasped on the climbs so that now, two days later, it still hurts to take a deep breath. Bright red in the face, my heart was pumping so fast I could hear the pulse in my ears. Still, I was bringing up the rear. I would have been completely last were it not for a wonderful man who was trying to do the entire journey in one gear. I don't know why he was doing this but I was very glad he was there.
So what's wrong with me? Is it my age or my fitness? Is it my bike or my ability?
Dogged determination and a supply of banana muffins will always see me to the end of a ride but how I wish I could cycle just a little bit better. I don't want to win anything, I just want to finish at roughly the same time as everyone else.
You can find out more about Sky Rides at . If you read this before the end of September, you can have even a go at the Cannock Chase Criss Cross Challenge when the route is reprised on Sunday 29 September. Information on that ride is here:
Participation in any of the Sky Ride Local rides is free and we received a hi-viz tabard to take home.
                                         Our little group of family and friends after the ride.

Wednesday, 21 August 2013

Ta-dah! The perfect overtake inspired by Lucy from Peanuts

As combinations go, it's doomed to disappointment: a fervently competitive spirit, matched with almost no natural ability and very little technical understanding of the bicycle.

But just occasionally, blissfully, it works.

Today was such a day. I was pedalling home from work, cursing the headwind and planning my dinner when suddenly, I spied him. My unsuspecting victim was some distance ahead, riding steadily towards the brow of a hill.

Instantly, I slipped in to what my despairing husband calls 'Lucy mode'. Lucy from the Peanuts cartoon is a bit of a heroine of mine. I love the effort she puts in to plotting and her triumphant pleasure when a plan works.

I put my head down and pedalled. Faster and faster spun my feet. The bloke on the bike got, wait...he's closer up!

As I drew almost within touching distance it was time to regroup. Holding my breath so as not to betray my position, I gave one final hell-for-leather push, then eased off the effort to float past, doing the pedalling equivalent of putting my feet up on the sofa and sipping a glass of wine.

"Evening", I said.

"Evening", he replied.

We both knew what we meant.

As I rode on, my heart bursting with pride (or possibly just bursting), a rather fab thing happened. A car, the occupants of which had obviously watched my manoeuvre, went past. And as it did, the driver sounded her horn and her grinning passengers all gave me the thumbs-up.

There is a little bit of Lucy in a lot of us.

Saturday, 17 August 2013

A review of the Arkel TailRider Trunk Bag *****

For some time now, There She Rides has been on a quest to find the perfect rack-top bag.

Of course, perfection is a quality peculiar to the individual. Let’s face it, someone chose to wake up next to George Osborne every morning.

But I digress.

My perfect rack-top bag needs to be:

1. Easy and quick to fix to the bike and remove in a hurry. What I refer to as ‘easy-on-and-offable’.

2. Sufficiently rugged to survive a few falls and to fix to the bike without discernible wobble or rattle.

3. Durable enough to take a lot of handling in a daily commute

4. Able to take a rear light and blinker

5. Weatherproof

6. Expandable but (this is important) not too bulky. I do not need to look as if I am preparing to ride across the USA when all I want to carry are some work essentials and a change of clothes.

7. Out of the way when a short woman, already at full stretch, attempts to fling her leg across the back of the bike to climb aboard.

After a lot of research and a bit of experimenting, I believe I have found my perfect bag. If your checklist is similar to mine, then I can recommend The Arkel TailRider Trunk Bag. And if you are waking up next to George Osborne every morning then I recommend you take up cycling. And keep pedalling.
The TailRider is made in Quebec and as far as I can tell, built to withstand attacks by bears. So confident are the manufacturers of the durability of the material used in its construction that they provide an extra swatch with the bag and a little challenge to see if you can cut or tear it. Come on…if you think you’re hard enough.
The bag is made out of Cordura. If they could find a way to use this  material in the construction of British roads, we could all stop worrying about potholes. The zips are all covered for weatherproofing and the whole thing is insulated.
In this picture you can see the covered zips, hi-viz flashes and padded carrying handle. The glimpse of red on the top is part of the expansion bellow. 

The TailRider has a massive, cavernous opening. The whole top unzips and lifts backwards, to allow you to cram-in lots of stuff. Cleverly, the top itself also incorporates a sort of gusset allowing it to expand sufficiently to stow a cycle helmet for instance.

There is one internal divider (attached by Velcro and therefore moveable) and five handy internal net pockets, useful for quick access to keys and money. At either side there are roomy external pockets but unlike other bags I have tested, when these are not in use they don't cause a lot of unnecessary bulk on the bag. In other words when I ride the bike, the widest thing on there, is me.

Fixing is via four Velcro straps. I have had problems with these straps on other bags. The Velcro itself is fine but they aren’t stitched to the bag well enough and soon pull loose. Not these. They are made in Quebec, remember and I would be prepared to bet that, should a hungry moose attempt to snatch your TailRider in search of sandwiches, those straps won’t budge.

(* I haven’t actually tested this with a moose but I can confirm that they are spaniel-proof)
The straps will work with Arkel's Randonneur Seat Post Rack but it certainly isn't essential for you to have this rack. I have a perfectly ordinary and considerably less beautiful rack and the TailRider sits on there without a problem.

Arkel have thoughtfully included tabs on the back of the bag to take lights/winkers and have also incorporated reflective strips to aid visibility. There is a brilliant raincover, too, tucked away invisibly, snugly-fitting and accessed in a second. Another bag I tested had a cover rolled in one of the inner pockets but it only fitted if you had both side panniers extended and was a pain to get back into the pocket. Arkel’s cover is like a bright yellow shower cap with super-strong elastic around the edges and it snaps back when not in use.

It’s worth mentioning that although the TailRider includes a chunky, cushioned carry handle running the length of the bag, it does not include a shoulder strap. Rings to take a shoulder strap are provided and a strap is available as an optional accessory. I have cannibalised an old Samonsite camera bag for the perfect strap.

In my TailRider I will typically carry:

A puncture repair kit including spare inner tube and surgical-style gloves

A mini pump (just fits in a side pocket)

A notebook approximately A5 size and some extra paperwork if I am riding to work

Change of clothes (I usually keep spare shoes and toiletries in the office) plus lightweight wind/shower-proof jacket
Purse and phone, plus portable charger if it is a long ride

Sandwiches, two banana muffins, a can of diet coke or bottle of energy drink, a packet of emergency jelly tots and a couple of those little ice-pack things that you can get for lunch boxes

Soluble painkillers

A neat folding rubber cup that I bought from a camping shop. For use with the painkillers


Antihistamine cream and eye drops


The TailRider weighs 660g and expands to about 15L capacity.

The TailRider is not cheap, especially in the UK where it is available only as an import. I got mine from and it ended up costing £95.