Saturday, 25 April 2020

Navigational aids known only to cyclists

Between the ages of two and 23 I went on holiday each year to mid Wales. Always travel sick, I measured the familiar route by farm gateways, lay-bys and country lanes where our Morris Minor would come to a rapid halt for me to be violently ill.

I was reminded of that, as I cycled in the sunshine yesterday. The quiet roads provided more thinking time and I realised that I’ve created similar remembering points as navigational aids on my rides.

They are, variously:

The cow in the coat that isn’t there
The post box that wasn’t Angie
Woofy Dog House (RIP)
Angina Hill in Ashley
Lonely pony field 
The place where I landed in the nettles
The garage that’s always shut (open, fleetingly this week and turns out to sell guns)
The puncture where Lisa bled
The cafe with gingerbread men on the saucer
The road where Sophie’s dad got a wasp in his helmet
Clare’s bench
Bad Fall Place
Magic Road (this is a rotten fib)
Scary Woods
Where the road really was shut and we had to carry our bikes
The field with the swan
Lost Dog Lane
Gnosall Mountain
Bare Man House (once seen, never forgotten)
The really bad Offley
Where the man was shaving (a new addition)

Except in those terms, I have absolutely no idea where I am. Yesterday, on a virtual cafe stop during my lockdown ride, I was asked whether the A53 had been busy. “I don’t know. Have I been on it? Which bit is that?”

Wednesday, 26 June 2019

It's a Breeze - why HSBCUK Breeze is the best thing on two wheels

"We were given lots of knowledge about how to ride and stay safe. I've never ridden 11 miles before and I enjoyed every minute."

That was a review from a participant on one of our recent Breeze rides and perhaps says everything about why becoming a Breeze Champion is one of the best things I've done as a cyclist. 

It's four years since a group of us sat nervously in a village hall, waiting to begin our Breeze training. That 'classroom' feeling at the start of the day transported me straight back to double maths on a Tuesday afternoon, wondering if I'd ever understand quadratic equations. At the root of it was the same uncertainty: What am I doing here? Am I good enough? Will anyone ever explain what those numbers mean?

Fortunately, in this instance at least, I WAS good enough. And nobody asked me to do difficult sums. 

Since that day, our merry band of riders has covered countless miles (OK, probably somebody could count them. Not me, obviously) and consumed our own weight in cake. 

We've welcomed women who haven't been on a bike for years and those who want to work towards ambitious cycling goals. I've watched nervous novices become confident cyclists, happy to encourage others following in their tyre tracks. I've been proud to see our participants go on to ride coast-to-coast, Lands End to John O'Groats and more. Indeed, some of our riders have become ride leaders themselves.

It's another kind of rider that makes it most worthwhile for me, though. I'm there for the women who, without the companionship of Breeze, would be completely excluded from cycling. I'm there for the women who worry that they're going to be last, or lost, or left behind. I'm there for the women who think they're not good enough. 

Because we are. 

We're all good enough. We are all worth a place on the roads - they're our roads too. We can have our adventures; our flying, swooping, descents. We can laugh, sing and sometimes swear on our bicycles. We can slog up hills and have our breath taken away by the views at the top. We can feel our bodies growing stronger while we pedal ourselves happy. 

I'm the Breeze Champion at the back. I won't worry about being last, lost or left behind. This Girl Can (and so can you).

For information about Breeze rides in your area visit Let's ride

Our Breeze rides take place in and around Newport, Shropshire. To see if we are coming to a cake shop near you, find us on Facebook by searching for Breeze Newport Shropshire. 

All the colours of a rainbow on a rainy day
A spooky Halloween Breeze ride

Breezing through lavender fields on a sunny afternoon

Cafes, cakes and companionship

Tuesday, 23 April 2019

Road cycling and yoga in the Elan Valley

My dad loved geography. He would read maps in bed, spread out across the covers, like other people read books. At Christmas and birthday time I’d wander into town with a list of OS maps he wanted.

I’ve inherited his collection of maps but not his love of geography.

Hands up then. I confess, I didn’t know where the Elan Valley was when I booked this cycling and yoga trip. It’s road cycling - I love that! And yoga - I love that too! And it’s in a valley somewhere, which will be lovely and flat.

The Welsh mountains, then, came as a bit of a shock.

Welsh miles are different, too. On the day of our arrival we were scheduled to ride a route of around 30 miles. I took half a bottle of water and two snack bites for what I thought would be a quick spin. I’d underestimated the terrain, the heat and my fellow cyclists, some of whom had legs which appeared to start at my shoulder height. Seventeen miles in (and up), I felt sick and was seeing double. The last ten miles were teeth-grindingly hard.

When I got up for cake, back at the Lodge, I couldn’t feel myself walking.

Fortunately, things got a whole lot better after that.

On Saturday we split into two groups. The superwomen went off on an 80-mile ride with Emily Chappell, who would lead them up the Devil’s Staircase. The rest of us set off on a 50-mile ride at a gentler pace.

There were still plenty of murderous climbs and when we weren’t climbing, we were ‘undulating’. There was time, though, to watch the red kites and buzzards soaring at eye-level. There was time to take in the blossom, strewn over hedgerows like icing sugar. There was time for a leisurely lunch and even a blissful cooling paddle in the River Wye. There was time to trudge up hills too steep for me to pedal and to enjoy swooping, whooping, flying descents.

The perfect day included a sneaky break at a busy pub, second helpings of supper, rounded off with a glass of wine and a walk in the Dark Sky Park.

Memories are made of this.

Sunday got off to a slightly later start. After breakfast the two groups set off again for our final rides in the sunshine.

This was a cycling and yoga weekend, with yoga sessions specific to cyclists. I’ve done quite a bit of yoga and classes aimed at cyclists but I learned some amazing stretches I’d never encountered before.  Judging by the groans in the room, they hit the spot with the other riders, too.

I didn’t only learn new stretches. I learned to tighten my stomach and use an imaginary corset to help me get up hills. I learned that the clip on my Camelback was actually a lock. Fortunately I learned that before emailing a complaint to the manufacturer. I learned to carry more food and less tension. Most of all, I learned that I really can climb every mountain - even if sometimes, I have to jump off the bike and push.

You can find more info about this break here:
Road Cycling and Yoga weekend

Wednesday, 16 January 2019

I've finally found the perfect kit!

I should say straight away, I'm not in the pay of Stolen Goat. Although God knows, I'd like to be.

Since I started cycling seriously, I've been on something of a quest for the right kit. An enormous basket full of mistakes, hidden at the bottom of the wardrobe, is testimony to how often I've been unsuccessful.

Leggings are the worst. Seriously, have any of these manufacturers ever even MET a woman? How hard can it really be, to design a pair of leggings that stay up, front and back?

I've bought  and cast aside leggings that expose inches of skin at the back, making me look like a teenager in a thong. I've tutted at leggings that don't pull up high enough at the front because someone, somewhere, got the idea that women can't ride with waistbands. Instead, they think we'd prefer something hovering at hip-level, creating a muffin top out of nothing.

I've had chamois pads that are too wide, too narrow or that melt away to nothing on anything over 50 miles.

I've tried waterproofs with similar results, ringing out the tissues in my sleeves and taking a towel to protect the car seat at the end of a ride: "Take two towels this morning, it's pouring. on second thoughts, take three and a couple of bin liners." 

But now, it seems, those days are over.

I have discovered Stolen Goat and found the perfect kit.

I experimented with a pair of leggings and a jacket from the Orkaan weatherproof range.

First, to the waistband. OK, it could be improved by being cut a tad higher in the front but it is comfortable. And it stays put. The leggings have stirrups and are thicker, warmer than others I've tried. Paired with a great pair of socks and overshoes, I'm toasty and pretty much waterproof.

NB: learn from my mistakes, the fabric at the top of the leggings pulls really easily. I now remove my rings before wearing them as the first time I tried them on, I pulled a thread. I've also pulled threads on the sleeve of the jacket, where I wear my mirror.

The Orkaan jacket is sleek, brightly visible and in the same weatherproof fabric. It's well cut, especially on the sleeves where longer than average cuffs fit low on your gloves. The zip feels strangely high at the neck and I was sure it would dig in on a ride but I only ever notice it off the bike. The rear pockets take everything I want to carry including the all-essential banana sandwiches that keep me pedalling.

The best thing?

Everyone who sees me in the kit - and I mean EVERYONE tells me I've lost weight. I have - quite a lot. But this is the first time anyone has really noticed. Flushed with success, I went on to buy a second pair of leggings and another jacket - this time from the Climb & Conquer range. 

This is really heavy duty, for the coldest, wettest rides. Paired with a full face balaclava I'm ready for a ninja ride below zero. The Climb & Conquer jacket has the same great cut as the Orkaan one but in a thicker, coated fabric off which rainwater simply rolls away. It is more hardwearing than the Orkaan material but definitely only for the coldest days.

You can check out the kit for yourself here: HERE

Sunday, 15 April 2018

What IS it about Lycra?

That tweet appeared in my timeline this week. It's badly written, by someone who seems to have confused bicycles with boats. Presumably they're both B-words on the chart in his bedroom.

The problem is, he's not the only one with a 'thing' about Lycra.

No clothing associated with any other sport or pastime attracts the same opprobrium. When did you last hear anyone express disgust about the trainers worn by a runner or the tutu chosen by a ballerina?

It's not just people like our Twitter friend, or the eccentrics ringing into radio programmes who love to loathe Lycra. It's would-be cyclists, too. As a Breeze Champion I come across women who are nervous about joining our friendly, sociable rides because "You all wear Lycra."

So let's get a few things straight.

We don't wear Lycra because we think it makes us look good. On the contrary, we know we resemble badly-stuffed sausages. Unfortunately, jogging bottoms get tangled in the chain in a way that leggings simply don't. The seams on your jeans will chafe so badly they'll make you bleed when you ride long distances and if you get wet in that jumper, you'll freeze for the rest of the day.

We wear Lycra because it is the most practical fabric available. It's lightweight, stretchy, warm and comfortable.

Those neon colours? We don't choose them to exalt in our Lycra, we are wearing them in the hope you will see us before you run us over.

Nobody cycles because we think we'll look good on a bike. We cycle despite the fact that our lumps and bumps will be painfully exposed. Our helmets make us look like Mekons and with all that padding we are perfectly well aware of the disadvantages of cycling shorts, we don't need you to sing a chorus of Fat Bottomed Girls as we pass by.

We choose cycling for the way that it make us feel, not how it makes us look. We ride because of the downhill swoops, the smell of wild garlic in the hedgerows and the sound of skylarks above our heads. We ride for friendship, fitness and to get from A to B.

So please, lay off our Lycra and we won't mention that your baseball cap makes you look like an American president - which is a lot less cool than it used to be.

Sunday, 8 October 2017

Riding full circle with an Olympian

If you have glanced at the biography on my blog, you'll know that my life changed during London 2012.

When they said that they wanted to 'inspire a generation', I doubt that the Olympic organising committee had me in mind. But from the moment Danny Boyle's opening ceremony held a nation open-mouthed, I was hooked.

I listened to the wrestling while walking the dogs. I sat in the car outside my house, waiting for the Tae Kwando podium positions to be decided. I jumped off the sofa on Super Saturday and I cried at every medal ceremony. The revelation for me, though were the cyclists.

As a middle aged woman, I was unlikely to turn my new interest in wrestling into a hobby. But when the amazing women of the Great British Cycling team stormed onto our screens, I was inspired.

I was a woman. I'd got a bike. I could do what these women did. Just slower.

I took my first ride the day after the team pursuit women won gold. I dug my bike out of the shed and set off on an eight mile circuit from the house. I was sick when I got home.

But I kept pedalling.

For weeks, I fell off every time I turned right. The same group of women helped me to my feet twice. The second time, one of them shook her head sympathetically and suggest I leave my bike and come with them to the pub instead.

But I kept pedalling.

The following year I rode London to Brighton. The year after that, Ride London 100. In 2015 I ran away from a big birthday by setting off on my own to pedal across India.

Since that team pursuit medal ceremony I've pedalled thousands of miles. I've listened to skylarks, watched buzzards gliding above my head and ridden past wild leopard and desert dwelling peacocks. I've cycled myself happy, forged friendships and enjoyed a LOT of cake. Along the way I've met some wonderful people who helped me get my head round my gears, fixed roadside punctures and encouraged me up hills.

When I got the opportunity to become a Breeze Champion, I found a way to pay forward some of the support I'd received from the cycling community.

I've been a Breeze Champion since 2015. It's one of the best parts of my life. I've loved helping women set out on their own cycling journey. I enjoy the camaraderie, the friendship, the laughter and of course, the cake.

This weekend my pedalling came full circle. Unbelievably, I got to ride alongside a member of that gold medal winning pursuit team.

British Cycling asked Breeze groups to set out why Joanna Rowsell Shand should join their ride. I told them about some of the women whose lives had been transformed by Breeze. I let them into a secret about the ice cream farm we visit and promised them a Patterdale Terrier with the footballing skills of Pele.

Yesterday I kept pedalling but this time I wasn't riding solo. I was part of a very special cycling team including my fellow Breeze Champions, our fabulous riders and for one morning only, Joanna Rowsell Shand. Reigning Olympic, World and Commonwealth champion and part of that legendary team of women who set my pedals turning.

Friday, 1 September 2017

Everyday sexism in cycling

Cycling Weekly sorry for 'token attractive woman' caption

The editor of Cycling Weekly has apologised for a caption in the magazine this week.

The photograph illustrated a feature on a Leicestershire cycling club.

Cycling clubs are doing fantastic work encouraging women to join. My own club has given huge support to Breeze and recently launched a C-ride aimed at making it easier for Breeze riders to step-up to club membership.

Women are still in the minority on two wheels, though.

Can you blame us?

I've experienced far more sexism on the bicycle than anywhere else in my life. Shouted insults from passing motorists are commonplace and I've even had my arse slapped from a passing van. Twice. These people wouldn't behave that way if they met me in the supermarket or the pub but the rules are different when they're in a car and I'm on a bike. 

We've got cycling kit marketed by half-dressed women in high heels. And how are podium girls still even a thing in the 21st century?

So when the editor of Cycling Weekly claims that this caption "In no way reflects the culture of the CW office", he's either disingenuous or blinkered. Because someone in that office thought that was funny. And I'm betting that wasn't a woman.

When I started work on a newspaper, sub-editors in the noisy print room would mark-up pages with a chinagraph pencil. The blue lettering was invisible in an era of black and white publishing.

Routinely, someone would take-up a pencil to draw penises on some of the pictures. The week we changed to colour print, a costumed 'super hero' advertising used cars appeared to be visibly excited by the deals on offer.

The editor was predictably furious, the advertiser more so. But it was no good saying that the schoolboy scrawl didn't reflect the culture of the paper. Of course it did. This time, the culture had made it into the paper.

I hope that Cycling Weekly are sincere in their apology. I hope they run a feature on that cyclist and shower her with expensive cycling goodies. If they read this, I hope they get in touch to learn about the amazing, inspiring women who have joined our Breeze rides in Shropshire, overcoming fear and discovering the joy of life on two wheels in their thirties, forties and even sixties. I hope that we see the end of podium kisses and pink-for-girls kit.

But I'm not holding my breath.

Wednesday, 18 May 2016

Ride London 100 isn't the new London Marathon

The Prudential Ride London 100 is often described as "the cycling equivalent of the London Marathon". So why isn't it?

If you have secured a charity place in the Prudential Ride London 100 this year, you will probably be trying to drum-up donations of up to £750. And you will almost certainly have met with the bemused enquiry: "Ride London 100? What's that?"

London taxi drivers have heard of it, as I learned to my cost last year: "I'm really excited. We're here for Ride London 100". Cue long rant about road closures and bloody cyclists. People in the London and Surrey communities through which the route passes, have heard of it. Cyclists have heard of it - some of them, at least.

Beyond that?

Nothing. Zilch. Nada.

If I worked for Prudential, I'd be asking serious questions about the bang we're getting for our buck.

Compare the media coverage for the London Marathon: normal programmes cancelled on Five Live to carry fabulous radio reports, hours of live streaming to television and extensive highlights. Acres of newsprint.

Ride London 100? You'll probably catch highlights of the pro race and a few seconds showing that "thousands of amateur cyclists also tackled the Olympic course."

So why hasn't Ride London 100 established itself in the public consciousness? Is it a function of the complex sentiment towards cycling and cyclists or is it something else? Is it, perhaps, due to the sport's continued vision of itself as advocate for professional cycling? We might celebrate record levels of public participation in cycling but...really...they aren't proper riders.

Here are some dead easy steps that the organisers could take to help ensure that Ride London 100 really does become "the cycling equivalent of the London Marathon."

1. Welcome the 'triers'. These are the people in your street or office. These are the riders pitting themselves against an extraordinary challenge, the people who will engage huge numbers of friends and colleagues in their journey.

You don't welcome triers by putting us at the back of the field and then telling us we've got to clear a series of checkpoints by a certain time or be taken off the course. That means that the slower riders actually have LESS time to complete the route.

Me? One of the final riders to set off in 2015 I had the checkpoint times sellotaped to the crossbar of my bike and stressed the whole way round. I got removed from the route at 91 miles "Because we have to clear it for the professional riders." I was heartbroken and friends who knew how hard I had trained, just felt that this was definitely not an event for them.

So send the professionals off first, as they do in a certain marathon. Then, because you want to get the roads open for traffic,  give slower riders an earlier start in the main field and tell them to keep left. It's not rocket science. You've got closed roads, with plenty of room to overtake and you can still open the route to traffic on schedule.

2. Tell the story. Forget Bradley. The country knows and loves him but most of them haven't bothered to watch him ride since 2012. Seek out the fundraisers, the fatties, the fancy-dressed and the frightened. Make the event come to life by putting these cyclists at the heart of your media work. Put their faces on the banners, chalk their names on the roads, start an I Ride platform online and share...share...share and retweet.

3. Talking of media work...for heaven's sake! This event should be a gift for any PR team worth its retainer. There are stories to tell. Help the media find a reason to love cycling and marvel at what ordinary people are capable of doing. Challenge some of those celebrity shape-shifters and DVD-dieters to Get On Your Bike. Give them a place and watch the national coverage follow. Think regionally - if you can push out profiles to regional news programmes and newspapers you'll create engagement far beyond the capital.

4.Remember - the only people interested in the professional riders are other cyclists. If the only footage streamed shows the pro race then you are never going to reach the people on the sofa.

How many couch potatoes start running the day after the London Marathon? Ride London 100 could inspire just as many newcomers to cycling. It just needs to look beyond the professionals and find all those people riding because they want to change lives and make the world a slightly better place. People like you?

2014. When Hurricane Bertha battered Ride London and it STILL didn't hit the front pages. (I made it to the finish line that year!)