Thursday, 20 February 2014

Help! How do I choose a new bike?

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

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

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

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

Can anyone, please, help me?

These are the three bikes in my shortlist:

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

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

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

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

I was lost. Now I am found.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, 10 February 2014

Cycling makes you more attractive. So what?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, 6 February 2014

Ride London 100 2014 - on the trail of Boris

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