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.

Thursday, 8 August 2013

Cycling myself happy

I tried 'space cake' once. I was going to say that I didn't like it. That's not strictly true. It was a big, gooey, chocolate cake and I liked it as much as I always like chocolate cake. The bigger and gooier the better.

I liked it very much.

I did not like what it did to me. 

Curiosity made me try the cake. Greed made me finish it. And having polished off the lot, there was no crumb of comfort when I first imagined icy waterfalls coursing down my back, then became consumed with irrational fears and then, finally, passed out. A lone, foolish, slumbering adult among young people too wise and too cool to make the same mistake.  Just say no, grandma.

Recently, though, I have experienced feelings of profound euphoria. On my bike, having wound my way slowly, up long, winding country lanes, I will reach the top. Laid out before me, as far as I can see, is a patchwork quilt of fields and hedges. The sun blazes on poppies, rising boldly out of fields of corn, making their petals shimmer like tiny firecrackers. Somewhere, high above me, is a skylark, its tiny lungs bursting with the joy of being alive. 

I feel glad to be alive, too. Perfectly in the moment, scarcely believing my good fortune to be outdoors, pedalling skywards. 

As a cyclist you can take so much more pleasure in a journey. Your senses are more fully engaged. As well as drinking in the scenery, I am listening to birdsong and catching big draughts of honeysuckle and wild garlic as I pass. 

There is satisfaction in being self-propelled, too. I'm getting around not by turning a key but by spinning my pedals, a brisk, rhythmic percussion measuring the miles. I love the feeling of tiredness that settles slowly, lazily on my body. There's even pleasure in the dull aches of muscles worked, the creaks of protesting joints. 

I didn't get 'high' when I tried that cake. I got miserable. And full. But cycling? Yes I get high. Not just in terms of the ascent my Cyclemeter records for each trip but in the happiness I feel as I ride. 

On top of the world: this picture was taken at the top of a very steep climb last week, while I paused to admire the view (and get my breath back!)