Cycling in the Yorkshire Dales: a physical and emotional rollercoaster

18056726_1880865088848545_1133365133379879898_nI’m not quite sure where to start!

This weekend I joined a group of very inspiring women to cycle around the Yorkshire Dales, in a ride organised by The Adventure Syndicate. There were about 20 of us in total, and while everyone’s experience varied (from those like myself, just starting out with long-distance riding, to Transcontinental riders and an actual Guinness World Record holder), the one thing we immediately had in common was our love for riding and our determination to get as much out of the weekend as possible.

There’s so much I could say about the amazing women (and singular male) I met this weekend, but I partly want (well, need) to use this space to process my feelings about how it went. So all I’ll say for now is that the group were incredibly lovely, supportive, and hugely motivating. Some of them got me through some tough times (detailed below), and made me feel so proud of what I did manage to achieve. Thank you all for being you, and don’t ever stop.

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I’m near the back, in light blue. Photo credit: Laura Moss

A physical and emotional rollercoaster

The physical aspect of this is quite obvious, really. If you’ve been to the Yorkshire Dales, you already know what it’s like to crane your neck and look up from the middle of the valleys. I did this several times, thinking ‘Christ, are we really going to climb that?’. The answer was yes, we really were.

If you read my last couple of posts, you know that I’ve been struggling to mentally prepare for this weekend. My problem is that I’m an over-thinker and over-analyser, and this extends to absolutely everything that may or may not affect me. When we were sent the routes, I studied them meticulously, scouring the climbs and descents, to get a feel for how scary they might be, and how I might fare whilst trying to navigate them on two wheels.

Despite promising to ride 200k, I hadn’t really taken the full extent of the hills into account, and I knew where my limits were. I’d had a couple of months of being ill, and was nowhere near ready for that ride, so I took the 92k option instead, which featured two significant climbs and descents:

Screen Shot 2017-04-24 at 13.49.34Seasoned Yorkshire Dale riders will already be familiar with Park Rash, a notorious climb out of Kettlewell towards Coverdale, climbing 230m in 2.3k, with a max gradient of 25%. We were actually going to do this in reverse, descending into Kettlewell at the end of our ride, having first climbed Fleet Moss, further west.

Being a terrified descender, I became obsessed with the descent into Kettlewell. I looked at the varying gradients, I followed the route on Google street view, I studied photos people had taken, and I eventually became aware of a really hairy hairpin bend with a 25% gradient that made all my internal organs sink to the bottom of my torso.

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Photo: mudinmyhair.co.uk

So I spent the three days prior to going, torturing myself over this one part of the ride. ‘Obsessed’ just doesn’t cover it, I was beside myself with worry, and trying to find photos of every possible angle, to get a better idea of just what this bend was going to be like. I’m terrible at tight turns on the flat, let alone on a 25% gradient. I was so new to riding in the drops, I just didn’t feel capable of pulling it off.

My fear of this minute part of a huge descent was going to govern the entire ride. I’ll take you through the day in stages, organised into the many times I cried…

Cry #1: Climbing Fleet Moss

17952771_1880865805515140_1566166623348734826_nI only slept for a few hours the night before, and immediately when we started out riding, I could feel myself struggling. My legs ached early in the ride, my bike felt heavy and stiff (though that was probably me) and the distance between myself and the other riders quickly increased.

That morning at breakfast, Emily Chappell had told us all that “60% of you think you’re the slowest rider” … it turned out I was the one who was right! In hindsight I don’t mind this, but at the time when the climb up Fleet Moss was looming, I was extremely hard on myself. I kept checking my front brake because I was convinced it was rubbing and slowing me down, but it wasn’t. I was just tired.

As we climbed Fleet Moss (236m over 3.4km), I lost sight of the group completely. My legs screamed at me, inside my head I screamed at me, and eventually I broke down. Laura’s husband, Tim, who had been following behind, stopped at the same point that I began to weep in frustration and disappointment. At the time, I wanted him to ride on, because I felt ridiculous. But he got me up that hill. I will admit, I had to get off and walk the final part, because I’d done all that I could and had nothing left to give, and the gradient was very unforgiving.

I think the hardest part of this was giving myself permission to get off the bike. It was only the first third of the ride, and I’d already failed. But as soon as I allowed myself that break, I felt a sense of relief, and was able to get back on the bike when we finally reached the summit.

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Photo credit: Laura Moss

Cry #2: The descent into Hawes

You know what I’m like with descents. Imagine the fear and panic that started to set in as I finally reached that summit, only to really accept that I now had to get down.

I was still a bit of an emotional mess, my nerves were fraught, and I was trying to keep a brave face for the rest of the group. I was terrified of what was coming next. It wasn’t the descent I’d been obsessing over, but it was still a huge one.

Remember how afraid I was of descending into Wookey Hole? That was an average 6% gradient, 230m over 3.8km. From Fleet Moss to Hawes, it’s an average of 20%, plummeting 320m over 5.5km. I had never faced a descent of this kind before, and my next mental challenge was about to begin.

I am happy to say though, that this segment took a bizarre turn. As we set off, Hannah Reynolds talked me through the proper technique, and I got comfortably into my drops. Taking the first section steadily, the road opened out into a vast landscape which was breathtakingly beautiful. The road was straight, open, and traffic-free, and to my shock, I allowed myself to gain some speed and really enjoyed the ride down. It threw me, just how much fun I was having. It was the first time I felt that rush of wind through my hair, and the elation I was so convinced I’d never experience. It was also at this point that I cried for the second time that day, but it was tears of joy.

I was rewarded with a visit to the gorgeous and picturesque Hawes:

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Cry #3: Panic attack at the pub

With the adrenalin still pumping through my veins, we took a relatively flatter, but still undulating route towards Middleham. The scenery was just beautiful, I’ve never seen so many lambs frolicking in my life, and this was the first chance I got to chat to some of my fellow riders. It was nice to finally relax and really start enjoying the ride.

We stopped at a pub for a well-deserved break, and that was when I decided to ask the dreaded question. I knew how much I’d suffered up Fleet Moss, and now that I’d enjoyed a hefty descent and the beautiful, rolling roads to Middleham, I was ready to quit while I was ahead. I asked if there was a bail-out option before the next climb, which I knew was on its way.

Unfortunately, I was too late. I hadn’t realised where we were on the map, but the only way back to the barn was over that final hill, with its terrifying hairpin bend on the descent. I nodded, and accepted this, and then took myself to the toilets to privately process my feelings, and really let myself feel them. It resulted in a full-blown panic attack, as it sank in that I could actually get very hurt attempting that bend. Hell, I could even die. That’s all I was thinking.

I really regret letting this get to me so much, because I missed out on the fun and banter that was going on outside in the beer garden. I really isolated myself from the group at this point, when I should have been listening to their stories and learning from their experience and insights. At the same time I just couldn’t hold back my emotions.

Before I knew it, it was time to set off on the final big climb of the day, towards Kettlewell.

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Looking back over some of the climbing I’d just done.

Cry #4: The unexpected ending

I would love to say that I faced my fear head on, that I took it steady, used my body weight and line of sight to guide my bike slowly round the tight bend, and once again felt elated as I dropped away with that part behind me.

In fact, I wish I knew what I would have done, had things gone differently. I’ll actually never know whether I would have completed the ride, or whether I would have dismounted and walked that part.

After some hesitation, I began the descent at the back of the group, with Hannah by my side. It came in waves, so that every time the surface flattened out momentarily, I felt like an idiot for being scared of nothing.

Sure enough though, that sign warning of a 25% gradient came, and as we slowly approached what seemed to be a sharp bend with a chevron sign, we noticed two riders standing on the road, with their bikes propped on the grass. Hannah said she’d go ahead to see if they were okay, and told me to take as much time as I needed. As I approached them myself, I unclipped in anticipation, and Hannah told me to go and sit on the grass and chill out for a minute. After she disappeared round the corner, my companions informed me that one of our number – Susan – had come off her bike on the exact bend I’d been obsessing over.

I had to remove my shoes in order to gain some sort of traction on the tarmac, the road was so steep, and I went down to help when the paramedics arrived. She’d suffered a head injury and lost a fair amount of blood, though she was conscious and responding.

I had cry #4 when they started cutting off her brand new cycling kit. That was when she became the most responsive, trying to stop them. It was heartbreaking. We covered her in blankets to protect her modesty, since a queue of drivers was forming further up the road, waiting to be able to pass.

After some time, we all lifted her onto a stretcher and as a group, had to help move her to the back of the ambulance, fighting against gravity’s pull. They drove her up the hill to an air ambulance, and she was taken to Leeds Hospital.

We now know that she’ll be okay. She’s being monitored for a few days, because of the head injury, but despite her double vision she seems to be in good spirits. The rest of us had a whip round to buy her some new kit.

The ride ended there. No one really wanted to attempt that descent now, and a man with a large van had very kindly offered to transport Susan’s bike (with its snapped front wheel) back to the barn where we were staying, along with a rider and their bike. I was volunteered by the others to go back, probably because I’d been so nervous. I felt so guilty getting into the van, knowing that my companions would still have to negotiate the rest of the descent (albeit on foot if needed). But I was reassured that it would help them, to have Susan’s bike transported, so I accepted the ride and was driven back. The man, whose name was Jess, was incredibly kind, and helped me to unload everything when we got there. I’m very grateful to him.

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Susan is on the far left, in purple. Photo by Laura Moss.

Final thoughts

Now that I know Susan’s going to be okay, I’m allowing myself permission to contemplate that bend, and ask myself what might have happened, had things gone differently.

I’d like to think that I would have very slowly attempted it, but I honestly don’t think that would have happened. The first time I walked around that corner and saw it (minus the fact that Susan was lying in the middle of the road), my reaction to the bend itself was gut-wrenching, and that wouldn’t have changed if the road had been clear.

I’ve forgiven myself for being so afraid, because I know that fear was well-founded. I just wish someone else hadn’t been hurt in order to prove that.

What I’ve learned is that I need to stop being so inquisitive. I like the fact that I’m an inquisitive person, and a critical thinker, and that I analyse things rather than taking them at face value. It’s a skill I worked hard to develop. However I ruined this weekend for myself, and that’s the truth.

In hindsight I know that I did have fun, and I came away from it wanting to do it again, but in real-time I wasn’t enjoying myself as often as I should have been. Perhaps on some level I felt like I was in competition with other riders, and felt the need to keep up with them, and becoming frustrated when I couldn’t. Perhaps I just felt fat and stupid, and completely out of my depth. Perhaps I did bite off more than I could chew. As Katherine so profoundly told me, I need to allow myself to be a beginner.

Had I gone into this weekend with less knowledge of what to be afraid of, I would have still struggled, but I would have struggled in blissful ignorance. At the same time, had I gone in without even looking at the routes, I may have come away even more annoyed with myself.

I need to find the right balance, between knowing what I’m getting myself into, and knowing when to stop investigating. I’m sure that’s something that will come in time.

In the meantime I’ve come away from this weekend with the following goals:

  • Get out on more long rides, to build strength and stamina
  • Ride alone more often, to develop a sense of independence
  • Ride with groups more often, to learn from others and gain confidence
  • Climb more hills, get out of the saddle more, and seek out challenges to practice over and over again
  • Same for descents: start small and push myself more each time.

This was a long one. If you made it this far, thank you.

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Obligatory selfie with Regina, my trusty steed

A wrong turn on the Mendips is no trifling matter

I’m really proud of myself.

There, I said it. I spent last week despairing at my inadequacy, and beating myself up for being afraid. Then yesterday, I clipped in and pedalled to the Mendips, and I faced my fears head on.

I’m not going to tell you that I’ve conquered everything I was afraid of, seen the light and now am a seasoned descender (or climber, for that matter). The opposite is true. I felt the fear deeply, and still feel it now. But I survived, and that’s what I’m taking from the experience.

It will be a long, long time until you’ll find me plummeting down hills without braking, feeling the rush of the wind in my hair and the exhilaration of being alive. I don’t know if that will ever happen. My fear is not irrational, it’s my subconscious telling me to stay alive, and that plummeting down steep summits on two wheels with nothing but a couple of cables and metal discs to stop, is a direct danger to me staying alive.

That aside, I’m proud. Once again I learned a lot about myself: I found new limits, pushed through some harder mental (and physical) barriers and I only got off the bike once (more on this later). I also learned a few lessons, and gained some new musings to ponder. I’ll share these now.

The route

Screen Shot 2017-04-18 at 11.38.36We set out at 8:30am, joining the Bristol-Bath Railway Path. Turning off at Saltford, we joined route 410 and retraced my steps from my first solo ride, climbing and descending some undulating country roads, through Pensford Viaduct and along to Chew Valley Lake. From there we continued over the Mendips, down into Wells and Glastonbury, where we stopped for some well earned pizza. We returned to Bristol via Cheddar, riding the Strawberry Line to Yatton and then getting the train back.

Challenge #1: Climbing Harptree Hill

If you read about my solo ride, you may remember how this hill defeated me. I know now, looking back, that the reason I stumbled so badly was because I hadn’t fuelled myself properly. I hadn’t really eaten enough, hadn’t stopped for lunch, and definitely didn’t drink enough water. By the time I reached this monster of a hill (which I also wasn’t aware was coming up because I hadn’t studied the route properly), there was nothing left in my legs.

This time, I was more prepared. I kept making short stops to snack, and ate a salad-laden falafel and hummus wrap about half an hour before we were due to reach the foot of the hill. When we got there, I was nervous, but fuelled. I’d told myself there was no shame in walking. I said I’d try and do as much as I could, but that I’d unclip and walk when I needed to.

Honestly, I probably would have still done this, had I been alone. The fact is, riding with Adam motivates me more, because I watch him get out the saddle and bomb up a hill like that, and I feel like I should be trying harder. I certainly didn’t do it out of the saddle, and I certainly didn’t climb at the same kind of speed, but I did it. Admittedly, by the time I reached the top I was wheezing and swearing and screaming at myself to keep going, and I hope no one heard me. At least the deed was done.

Challenge #2: Into the abyss (Wookey Hole)

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That big bump in the middle… that be the Mendips

I knew there’d be a big descent into Wookey Hole waiting for me at the other end, but I don’t think anything could have quite prepared me for the full scale of it.

Think long, sharp, gravelly, blind corners, narrow, oncoming vehicles… It’s basically the stuff my nightmares are made of. It was just never-ending, whenever I rounded a sharp bend, there was another ‘horizon’ ahead with unknown territory beyond. It’s no exaggeration when I say that when I finally reached the bottom, my fingers had cramped into the shape they make when braking, and took a few minutes to go back to normal. That’s how much I was braking!

Lesson Learned #1: Get the right fit

I think I need new handlebars. I have mine tilted back ever so slightly, because my small hands struggle to reach the brake levers from the hoods. However, in this position, I can’t brake while in the drops without curving my wrists upwards, which will only result in injury. With my current set up I can only use the hoods or the drops – not both. I think it’s time to find a more suitable option.

Challenge #3: A missed opportunity

While in Glastonbury, we plotted our route home via the Strawberry Line. We found a beautiful route through Godney and Wedmore, which took us through empty roads surrounded by open fields. We’d decided to take a flatter route via Theale, which meant turning off towards Panborough:

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This looks nice and relatively flat. I’m sure it would have been.

Unfortunately due to lack of signage and forgetting to check Google Maps more regularly, we missed our turning. At this point it was getting quite late, and we were determined to get home before we lost the light, so rather than turn back on ourselves, we decided to take the next turning and rejoin the main route we’d planned:

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This… not so much.

As you can see, this involved going straight over a hill, that we’d originally meant to skirt around. At this point, I wasn’t feeling well. I’d been drinking water all day but still managed to develop a bit of dehydration, I had a headache coming along, I felt a bit sick from the food we’d just eaten (which I couldn’t even finish), and I’d already settled into a ‘the worst is over with’ mindset. To suddenly be faced with a short but practically vertical climb, I was extremely flustered.

Lesson Learned #2: A blessing and a curse

A few metres from the top of that climb, I was done. I genuinely had nothing left in my legs – it was the first encounter with Harptree Hill all over again, but this time I was practically climbing vertically when I came to this conclusion.

I needed to stop pedalling and put a foot down, but I was clipped in. Instantly the panic set in, because I knew that I was stuck. I needed to keep pedalling to stay upright, and I needed time to unclip to stop pedalling. Neither seemed to be an option.

I don’t think I’ve ever panicked so much while on the bike. I was literally screaming at Adam that I needed to stop, and he didn’t know how to help me. I was vaguely aware of him trying to reach out, perhaps to hold my saddle and somehow help me that way, but I was too panicked and screamed at him to stop.

While my SPDs posed a major problem with this climb, I relied on them to get to safety. The only way I made it through those last couple of metres was to pull-up instead of push-down. I somehow found my final energy reserves in my hip flexors, and I hauled myself to a spot which was flat enough for me to quickly unclip. I then proceeded to conclude my panic attack with some tears, before walking up the rest of the hill and feeling defeated.

Challenge #4: What goes up must come down

Yes… We’d incorporated an unexpected climb, which meant the inevitable descent, and my nerves were beyond frayed at this point. I have to give credit to Adam here, he was so patient with me while I was a blubbering mess on the bike. Admittedly, he told a white lie when he approached the blind corner and told me the descent looked ‘okay’. It was horrendous. But he rode the brakes all the way down and stayed with me until we reached the bottom.

Final lessons learned

I am capable of a lot more than I let myself believe. I can climb huge hills, and when I feel like my life is hanging in the balance, I can rely on my body to muster up a few more ounces of energy to get me to safety.

I need to practise descending. I may never enjoy it, but I have to learn to trust my bike. Rather than ride my brakes all the way down, I need to brake at strategic points. I also need to learn to ride in the drops to get more braking power and less finger crampage.

Check Google Maps. For the love of all that is holy… check Google Maps before you make a wrong turn in the Mendips.

A reflection on fear, or, is there really such a thing as ‘ready’?

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Photo: http://www.velocate.co.uk/best-places-to-cycle-in-yorkshire/

This might be a bit of a downer, so I’ll keep it brief. I just need to break the silence, as I’m conscious that I’ve not written anything for a while, and sometimes it helps to process my feelings through the medium of writing.

I’d love it if all I ever wrote about was epic bike rides through the countryside and fiddling around with bottom brackets, but that’s just not the way I roll.

I’ve spoken extensively before about the fears that govern the way I ride, and I’ve been having to deal with some pretty heavy mental barriers this past week. The 200k ride around the Yorkshire Dales is one week away, and suddenly I feel sick to my stomach.

I’ve been trying to get out as much as I can at the weekends, to get some miles in and do some so-called ‘training’ for this ridiculously steep learning curve I’m about to embark upon. But the fact is, life gets in the way. Last weekend was all about looking at bikes rather than riding them (hello, Bespoked), and now we’re at a lovely 4 day weekend, I should in theory have racked up some miles already, right?

Wrong. I literally spent the whole of yesterday lying on the sofa drinking endless cups of tea and eating pastry after pastry while watching Rick and Morty. Today I rode a mile up the road and left my bike at a friend’s house. Later I’ll grab it so I can ride into town.

I guess what I’m getting at here, is my motivation is starting to sag a little. Adam and I have talked about going for a long ride tomorrow, but have yet to settle on a route.

What’s holding me back is that every route option I’ve come up with, contains something that terrifies me. Think sharp inclines, followed by sharp descents. You know what I’m like.

Adam keeps saying (rightly so), ‘there are hills in the Yorkshire Dales, you can’t avoid the hills’. I know I can’t avoid them, but I’m scared. That’s all it really comes down to. I’m scared of being out in the middle of nowhere, exhausted, with no energy left in my legs, facing a huge climb that I physically can’t do, and feeling like a big fat failure as I get left behind.

I’ve got my SPDs now, and I know how to ride clipped in. I also understand the concept behind how they give you much more efficient power usage, by using an up-pull as well as a down-push motion. That’s all very well, but I haven’t spent much time riding like that. Those muscles haven’t had time to develop. I had a go at climbing Park Street – a climb I do with ease every day on my commute – and I exhausted myself before I was even halfway up. What chance do I stand in the Yorkshire Dales?!

I signed up for the 200k ride because when I first heard about it, I’d just ridden 130k to Oxford, and it was nearly two months away. I wasn’t to know that I’d spend the following two months dealing with a cycle of illnesses which led to bouts of exhaustion. I thought I’d just keep riding for longer and longer.

The opposite has happened, and I feel less fit than I was before simply because I’m using my legs in a way that I never have. That, and my body hasn’t been very good to me for a while. Now it’s a week away, and I am freaking out.

Advice encouraged. Please.

 

#WednesdayWisdom: Find your people

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Photo: trilondon.com/group-cycling-etiquette

At the risk of descending into a rant, I want to reflect on a recent experience that left me exasperated, because it highlights the importance of finding the right people to ride with, so you get the most out of your group riding experience.

I want to go on more group rides. So far I’ve been on a couple of Breeze rides, a couple of social rides with my fellow Bristol Bike Project volunteers, and of course, the monthly Critical Mass, which is always huge fun.

I decided to go along to a 40-mile group ride on Sunday – I won’t name the group I rode with – and can certainly say I learned a lot from the experience. I’m sure there will be plenty of people who read the following and nod their heads, thinking ‘this is absolutely the right way to ride as a group’. Others will shake their heads and feel as perplexed as I do.

This isn’t a post about the right or wrong way to ride in a group. I don’t know the right way to ride in a group, because I’m not part of any cycling clubs. I just know how I feel about what happened on Sunday, and want to reflect.

Riding as one

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Photo: roadcyclinguk.com

This isn’t specific to the group, and in fact it also relates to some previous rides I’ve been on. In my opinion, a group should ride at the pace of their slowest rider. Otherwise, they become disjointed and the riders at the back can be left feeling excluded and alienated. Furthermore, it’s the job of the ride leader to make sure that everyone in the group reaches each checkpoint before moving on. To me, this seems basic.

On Sunday, our group was extremely disjointed. Before setting out, our ride leader asked for someone to volunteer as a back marker, and a lady immediately offered herself up, stating that she should because she was the slowest. Red flag. She spent the whole day miles behind us, riding alone for a lot of it.

If a group rides together, there should be no need to stop at certain checkpoints to re-group, but this isn’t always the case. Our ride leader would advise us of the next point where we would regroup, and then set off at his own pace.

That was, until he stopped waiting for us at the checkpoints. We reached a point where, upon arriving in Bath, our ride leader was nowhere to be found. A couple of other riders were waiting for us there, and told us where the next checkpoint was, passed down from him before he’d moved on without them.

It was at this point that I remembered at the start, he gave out his phone number and stated “we have lost people before”, and suddenly it all made sense how. To me, this is not how you lead a ‘group’ ride.

Bell-ringers united

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Photo: camulos.com

As we were riding along the Bristol-Bath Railway Path, I started to notice a pattern in the way one of the riders used her bell. At first, she was the only one, and I assumed it was just her way of riding. Whenever we approached pedestrians, or were about to overtake some cyclists, she rang her bell twice.

This didn’t bother me at first. I understand it’s helpful to alert people to your presence. However after a while, a lot of the other riders started doing it. I put this down to the group splitting up; at first she rang on behalf of the whole group, but once we separated into smaller units, each unit gained at least one self-certified bell-ringer.

While bells are there for a reason, they can come across as aggressive if overused. Eventually the group took me to my wit’s end with their incessant ringing. They didn’t just ring politely ahead of time to alert pedestrians to their presence. They waited until they were practically on their heels, and then rang several times to move them out the way. Groups of two or three riders together would ring at the same time.

There were multiple occasions on the towpath (which is extremely narrow and was heaving with people enjoying the sunshine), where I encountered very ratty and hostile people who didn’t want to let me past, because they’d just been harassed by a hoard of bell-happy cyclists ahead of me.

For those of you familiar with the path, you’ll know that there are several bridges with single-file only pathways and restricted views of the other side. At one point as we approached a bridge, three riders in front of me gained on a pedestrian couple who were about to walk under the bridge. Instead of slowing and waiting, they all rang their bells multiple times, forcing the couple to step aside and let them through. As you’d imagine, one of them became very hostile towards the group, swearing at us and claiming right of way. This was met with dismissive comments among the riders: “oh dear, was there an altercation with an angry pedestrian?”

Sigh.

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Photo: thebogtrotter.co.uk

I use my bell sparingly. If I’m approaching a large group of people and there’s limited passing space, I ring my bell ahead of time, to alert them of my presence and give them time to shift over a bit and let me pass. I ring my bell if approaching a narrow underpass with only room for one person at a time, in case someone is approaching from the other side. Or, I occasionally ring my bell if approaching a person with misbehaving children or multiple dogs, in case they’re too preoccupied to know I’m there. Again, I leave plenty of time for them to become aware of me, and choose what to do with that information.

If I’m approaching a couple walking side by side and need to overtake, I don’t ring my bell. Instead, I call out to them: “Just to your right”, or the timeless classic: “Excuse me, please”. It’s not difficult to do. It establishes a rapport. It’s personal. To them, you become a fellow human being on a bike, rather than a silent bell-ringing wheel-mounted lunatic.

What annoyed me the most on that towpath was that I was riding ahead of one of these bell-happy groups, who were very close behind. If ever I approached some pedestrians, before I got the chance to call out to them, my companions rang their bells on my behalf. As I noted earlier, some of these people had already been hassled by hoards of bell-ringers. Needless to say, these people then thought it was me ringing at them, and diverted their hostility towards me. Thanks, guys.

Name that thing

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Photo: slate.com

As I said before, I’m not an experienced group rider, but it’s my understanding that there are times when it’s appropriate to call out to your group to warn them of a hazard. For example, if you’re riding along a country road and a car approaches in the opposite direction, you’d call out “car down” to alert riders behind you so they can get into single file. The same goes for a car approaching from behind, and “car up”.

I can get on board with that. That makes sense. It keeps the group safe.

What doesn’t make sense, and has no bearing on the group’s safety whatsoever, is to call out “bike down” and “bike up” for literally every other cyclist ON A TWO-WAY CYCLE PATH.

I mean, really? Seriously? Don’t you have anything better to do?

What purpose can it possibly serve, to let the riders know behind you that other cyclists are approaching in a separate lane? If you’re riding two abreast in a group, then fair enough. You need to tell the others to move over. But this wasn’t the case.

This was when we were riding through the Two Tunnels Greenway, which you ride in single-file because they are in total darkness. You expect other riders to come in the opposite direction, many without lights, and you ride in single file. If you’re riding two abreast in those tunnels and feel the need to call out approaching cyclists, you must be an idiot with a death wish.

What’s more, they not only called out every single cyclist in an enclosed, echoey tunnel with acoustics that carry, so everyone else can hear… they also called out things like “cyclist down, no lights”. To me, all this does is call another person out on a mistake they’ve made, and make them feel bad about it. It’s just not necessary. Play nice.

On a lighter note, once we caught on that this was happening, Adam made me laugh hysterically by calling out “dog up” for a dog that was miles away. We continued to play ‘name that thing’ for the rest of our time with the group.

Conclusion

If there’s any purpose to this post other than venting my frustrations, it’s to say that if you decide to get out on some group rides, take the time to find a group of people you can ride happily with. Everyone is different, and groups vary in their etiquette and habits. Make sure the group is for you, and if it’s not, find a way to excuse yourself and try a different one.

/end rant

 

Flying solo for the first time

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For me, cycling alone usually means commuting to work, or just getting from A to B in Bristol. Whenever I get out on a leisurely ride at the weekends, I’m with Adam, or another group of people. It’s a lovely and social way to spend my time on the bike, but I am aware that I’ve become rather dependent on other people to show me the way. I naturally fall behind the group, or my companion, and allow myself to be led.

It means that when I do finally set out somewhere my own (and it could be a really simple in-town journey like Kingswood to Bedminster), I find myself worrying about getting lost, because even though I’ve done it countless times before, I’ve allowed myself to ride blindly behind someone else, trusting them to get me to where I need to be, and not really learning the routes for myself.

Yesterday was a day of firsts for me. My first time attempting a new and challenging route, my first time clipping in, and my first solo adventure. I was so nervous in the lead up to it, because I knew I’d get lost. I knew I’d get stuck. I had no faith in myself, really. I was too dependent on others. But I also knew that I needed to do it. I needed to get out and discover things for myself, to let myself explore, and let myself be pushed to the limits, in order to really learn how I deal with those situations.

I did learn a lot about myself on this ride, like where my limits are, where I get my thrills, and what terrifies me. I also learned what I’d do if I was lost and stuck on a treacherous, flooded, muddy dirt path in the middle of nowhere. Spoiler alert, I completely froze up. I remember at the Women and Bicycles festival, either Lee Craigie or Emily Chappell (I can’t remember which now) kept saying that when you find yourself in these dire situations, you’re not going to just lie down and die on the side of the road, you’re going to keep pushing. I found myself questioning my own ability to push through, yesterday.

But I’ll come back to that. Let’s talk about the ride!

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I set out at about 8:30am and made my way to the Bristol-Bath Railway Path, where I changed into my SPD shoes and had a go at clipping in. I spent the first 10 minutes or so clipping in, riding, slowing, unclipping, stopping, and repeating. I actually took to it very quickly, and thankfully the day was incident-free! Also, how satisfying is that sound? Every time my cleat engaged with the pedal I felt a tiny bit more smug.

And so my journey began. I rode out towards Bath, turning off at Saltford to join the 410 Avon Cycleway. At this point, everything became unfamiliar, and my challenge to survive on my own began. One thing I can say is, thank goodness for the National Cycle Network! I found it so easy to get to where I needed to be, just by following the signs for route 410. It took me through some beautiful countryside, and I didn’t feel the need to keep stopping and checking my map. I trusted in the signs and they delivered me to where I needed to be. It was great to feel that sense of independence.

The 410 took me through Compton Dando, Pensford (where I saw the most amazing viaduct), Stanton Drew and Chew Magna. Reaching Chew Valley Lake was a highlight for me, because I’ve been talking for the last 6 months about how much I want to ride there, but waiting for someone to say, “okay, let’s go today.” I went by myself, and I felt really proud. Unfortunately the glory-basking was short-lived, due to the plague of locusts (or lake-dwelling, flying insects) that greeted me. I’ve honestly never experienced anything like it – any description I give will sound like a huge exaggeration, and I didn’t stop to take photos because I was literally covered in them as soon as I stopped my bike. In the end I just had to get out of there.

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From this point, I’d planned to get creative, following route 3 down to Priddy, turning off towards Cheddar, and then having lunch in Axbridge before joining the Strawberry Line. This didn’t happen, so maybe it’s one for another time. Instead, I hit a wall going up Harptree Hill, which is super steep, and 1/4 mile long. I had nothing left in me, so I stopped by the side of the road, ate, and checked the map for a shorter route back to the Strawberry Line.

There was a very surreal moment where a cycling club flew past me down the hill in waves, and I stepped out to see how many of them were coming. At that point I heard a voice shout ‘HI MILDRED!’ and I was left feeling utterly perplexed at who could have recognised me in all my cycling gear, in such a split-second. It turned out to be Katherine!

I have to admit that I walked up the rest of Harptree Hill. I was deeply ashamed and felt like a total failure, but that hill just defeated me. I’d already been out riding for about 3-4 hours at that point and hadn’t really eaten or rested. I didn’t expect to come up against such a climb at that point. But anyway, once at the top, I gathered myself and cycled in the direction of Charterhouse. This was where I left route 3 and decided to go it alone. This is also where I got very, very lost.

I came out onto a junction where the only option was to turn left or right. The road sign pointed to Cheddar on the left, and had been broken off on the right. My map was telling me to continue straight ahead. Across the road I could see a small opening that could have been a bike path, or could have been a path to someone’s driveway. I wasn’t sure. In the end I decided to find out. Once across the road I found myself on the most beautiful path:

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Don’t be fooled by the beauty… treachery lies ahead.

I bumped into three women looking at a map, and decided to check if I was going in the right direction, to Charterhouse. They were also lost and on their way to Cheddar, but confirmed that I was indeed on the right path, so I continued.

The path became increasingly rocky, and then muddy, and then at last, completely flooded. I found myself staring at a huge, boggy and deep puddle, for about 5-10 minutes. I just froze up. I didn’t want to ride through it clipped in, because I had visions of slipping and ending up lying in the middle of it. I also didn’t want to ride through it on the flat side of the pedal, because if I slipped and put a foot down, that was me ankle deep in mud. For that same reason I didn’t want to walk through it. I just kept looking back at the way I’d come, and then squinting up past the puddle to see if it got any better. It didn’t.

So my reaction to this situation wasn’t great. On reflection, had I been on the right path and left with no other choice, I should have just cycled through it. My bike was made for these types of things, and I need to learn to trust it. There were many other parts of the ride where I forced myself to trust in the bike, because I didn’t trust my own abilities as a cyclist.

As luck would have it though, I got off lightly this time. The three women reappeared, heading back in the direction they’d come, and told me that they’d read the map wrong. They’d actually taken a wrong turn 40 minutes beforehand, and I needed to go back to the main road and take that right that wasn’t signposted. I used a stick to pick all the mud out of my cleats, and gratefully rejoined the tarmac road.

From there, it was a straightforward ride through Shipham to Sandford, where I joined the Strawberry Line and rode to Yatton to get the train back to Bristol. Once I was on that path, I felt reinvigorated. The weather was glorious, it was really quiet, and I was feeling really accomplished. Clipping in was becoming second nature, and I started to feel like I’d at last levelled up to ‘Proper Cyclist’.

I just need to work on my courage, somehow.

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Where it begins

 

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Image from specializedconceptstore.co.uk

This post comes in two parts.

First of all I wanted to share my experience at an event at the Specialized Concept Store this week, which was aimed predominantly at women who wanted to get out riding more. After this, I’ll share the real reason I went there.

Trying something new

On Tuesday this week, the Specialized Concept Store in Bristol held a women’s night, where they greeted us with goody bags, provided a sushi buffet and prosecco, and introduced us to a variety of things through workshops and stalls:

  • Breeze Network: There was a stall in place to introduce women to the Breeze Network and promote upcoming rides. I saw Heidi again for the first time since she taught me the basic techniques of mountain biking a couple of years ago.
  • Fixing a flat: I didn’t spend much time here as I already know how to, but they had a workshop demonstrating how to fix a puncture – a very valuable skill to have!
  • Try clipping in: There was a turbo trainer and an array of different sized shoes, to allow women to try clipping in for the first time. This is what I came for.
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Photo credit: Aoife Glass

Facing my fears

I’ve already shared many fears with my readers. If anything you must think I’m a total coward, which to some extent I probably am! One of the things that scares me, which I haven’t talked about before, is clipping in.

The stationary bike was set up with road cleats, whereas I was more interested in mountain bike ones (they’re much better for walking around in because the cleat is recessed), but I decided to give it a go anyway.

I instantly saw the difference and knew that I needed them in my life. It’s easy to say that from the safety of a stationary bike, of course. What I liked was how they force your feet and legs into the correct riding position, which is something I can struggle with.

However I wasn’t sure about the amount of force I needed to unclip, and how unnatural the angle felt. It felt like a lot of effort, even when the tension was completely lowered. I’ve been reassured that it’s different with SPDs, which I’ll find out soon enough, because I bought some!

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Shiny shiny!

I’m both excited and terrified to take them for a test ride, but I will face my fears nonetheless.

Aiming high

This brings me nicely onto part two of this post: my reason for doing all this in the first place.

You may recall after my ride to Oxford, I allowed myself to be talked into signing up for a 200km audax. It turns out that said audax is fully booked, and while I’m on the waiting list, I didn’t hold out much hope of getting in.

In my impatience, I signed up for a 200km ride in the Yorkshire Dales with the Adventure Syndicate instead, which is happening towards the end of April. Ridiculously exciting!

This is why I felt like SPDs were the way forward – it’s a huge distance for me to attempt when I’m not very experienced at long rides, and I definitely think clipping in will help me ride more efficiently. It will also help with the hills, of which there will be many!

Buttertubs Pass, copyright Peter Moore
Buttertubs Pass, copyright Peter Moore

Teething problems

Unfortunately my body hasn’t really been on my side for a while, so my training for the event has been less than perfect. I’ve actually been ill for quite some time now, and while I’ve managed to get out on a couple of long-ish rides, generally I’ve not gotten to where I need to be to feel super confident about this. It’s difficult to find the balance between training and giving my body the rest it needs.

I’m planning to get out on a long ride this weekend, after spending a bit of time in the park getting used to clipping in (cue the spectacular falls).

Familiar faces

As a final note, I wanted to acknowledge that the Specialized event was a great opportunity for networking, and I bumped into several familiar faces while meeting a few new ones as well.

In addition to Heidi, I also bumped into two other fellow Bristol bloggers: David (Wheels of Karma) and Katherine (Katherinebikes). I love how much of a community there is for cyclists in Bristol, and how I’m finally starting to feel that I have a place within it. I also bumped into a woman named Sara who I met through Facebook, but hadn’t met in person before. She’s a Deliveroo rider, and someone who has offered to help me get back into mountain biking. I’ll be taking her up on that offer soon, no doubt.

Finally I met Aoife Glass, Women’s Cycling Editor for Bike Radar. Having previously worked for Total Women’s Cycling, she really encouraged me to submit some articles and get my writing out there, which I think I may just do.

It was a really inspiring evening, and I feel so ready to get out there, start riding for longer, and push myself harder. It all begins this weekend. I’m ready. Let’s do this.

#TBT #ThrowbackThursday – The elusive MTB accident

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So I’ve mentioned a few times now that I had a mountain biking accident a couple of years back. Woe is me, cue the violins.

I promised to explain what happened, because it’s wholeheartedly at the root of all my fears around descending, and those fears tend to govern everything I do when I’m on the bike.

Basically a couple of years ago I saw a Facebook ad for Mountain Yoga Breaks, and I thought it sounded amazing. Spoiler alert: it was. It was a weekend of mountain biking around the gorgeous Elan Valley in Powys, Wales, with two daily yoga sessions to start the day and wind down. Polly, who teaches the yoga and co-leads the rides, is well versed in the poses best suited for stretching out all the right muscles post-ride. If this sounds like your bag, I highly recommend it. I actually bumped into her in Oxford a couple of weeks ago, where she taught a Yoga for Cyclists class at the Broken Spoke Women and Cycling Festival.

The one detail I neglected to consider was that I’d never been mountain biking before, nor had I ever considered how technical and dangerous it could be. Nonetheless, I contacted Heidi Blunden, who I’d met on a Breeze ride previously, and she took me through the basics for a couple of hours at Ashton Court, which was a lot of fun. I was nervous as hell but I felt well equipped to give it a try, and a couple of weeks later I was on a train to Llandrindod Wells.

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Honestly, it’s a gorgeous weekend away. The Elan Valley is stunning, they hire out the Elan Valley Lodge so the group has the whole grounds to themselves. Food is provided, including a packed lunch and snacks to take out on the ride, yoga is upstairs in the morning and evenings and everyone has their own en suite room.

The people I met were lovely. There was a mixture of experience among the group, including many really experienced mountain bikers, and other newbies like myself. On the first day we all set out together as a group and were tested very quickly on our abilities. Over the course of the 7-hour ride, it became clear who amongst the group needed more tuition and easier routes than others (myself included). We split up into two groups towards the end to allow the more experienced (or just braver) riders the opportunity to do a really technical and fun descent. I was not part of this group.

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I found the first day really fun and challenging, and in some places really scary. Particularly at the beginning, when everything felt unfamiliar and I forgot everything Heidi had taught me because I could concentrate on nothing but my fear. But I did start to get over it, and towards the end of day one I was gaining some confidence and really enjoying myself.

On day two Polly and Phill (the other ride leader) decided to split us into two groups for the whole day. Phill took the more experienced riders on a more challenging route while Polly took those of us with less experience on an easier route which included some on-road as well as off-road riding. By that afternoon I was feeling really confident. I was having a lot of fun, my technique was starting to come along and it was starting to feel quite natural. I felt in control of my bike and my speed, and I was absolutely loving the views.

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Unfortunately I came down from my high pretty quickly. Right towards the end of the ride, we were descending quite a significant downhill, with loose gravelly terrain. It was one of those downhills which levelled out every now and then, giving you an opportunity to brake and rein in your speed before the next part of the descent. It was also the type of downhill that had a narrow path, and was flanked with bushes, so the path ahead wasn’t always that visible.

So, for the most part, I did well to keep my speed in check. I used the flat parts to brake, and I remained in control of the descents. I was feeling confident and I was enjoying myself. Eventually I saw the path open out into a longer, flat surface. It was still surrounded by bushes but it looked like we’d reached the bottom. In my elation at having completed a scary descent, I forgot to brake when I reached the bottom, only to find that it then opened out onto another downhill. I wasn’t ready. I was hurtling down at an uncontrollable speed and gaining more as I went. I tried to feather my brakes as we’d been taught but by this point it was too late and completely ineffective.

In the end I panicked. I pulled hard on the brake levers, and I accepted that I was going to come off the bike. It slid out from underneath me, and I proceeded to roll down the rocky hill. All I really remember from that sensation was that I felt a rock hit me hard in the chest, which winded me. I just rolled and felt like I was going to die.

Eventually I stopped, and I just lay still for a moment before the awful pain in my chest suddenly hit me. All I could do was start wailing; partly to get help from Polly, who was behind me somewhere, and partly because it was literally all I could do. The pain and the panic took over. She found me soon after, administered some first aid, and checked me over. ‘Oh you poor thing,’ she said, ‘you’ve landed in the nettles’. I looked around and realised she was right. I was lying in the middle of a bush of stinging nettles, and hadn’t even noticed because of the adrenalin. Needless to say, not long after that, my skin was on fire.

It could have been much worse, I know. Nothing was broken, and I got away with some scrapes, bruises and stinging nettle rashes. But that moment when I knew I’d lost control of the bike, the sudden momentum as I gained unwanted speed, the acceptance that it was over… it was traumatic for me.

It turned out where I’d fallen was also pretty much at the bottom of the hill, and all that was left was a flat ride on a cycle path back to the lodge. I wiped away my tears and reluctantly got back on the bike, and pedalled very slowly back to the comfort of my bed. The yoga session that evening was a challenge for me, as I had open wounds on my knees and elbows, making some of the poses difficult.

I’m glad it happened at the end of the weekend, because had that happened earlier on, I probably wouldn’t have gotten back on the bike. I probably would have gotten an early train home. Instead, I got to have a really fun and scary weekend, before the fun was over. Admittedly I didn’t really get back on the bike after that, and haven’t really given mountain biking a second chance since then. But I’ve reached a point where I think I’m ready to try again. Regina has helped me to become braver, and I’ve started pushing myself more, particularly on the downhills and off-road paths.

A few of my friends – Hattie and Lucy to name two – have offered to accompany me on some downhill practice and trail riding up at Ashton Court. Now that the days are getting longer and warmer, I’m going to take them up on it. Hopefully a bit of time, courage and adrenalin will make a mountain biker of me yet.

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Lust List: Tattoo Inspiration

Slightly different theme today, but I’m going to be out of the saddle for a few days due to letting someone carve some things into my leg.

Currently I have one finished tattoo (a Polynesian-inspired geometric pattern on the back of my neck) and one unfinished half-sleeve which I’m getting topped up in April. They say tattoos are addictive, and whoever they are, they’re right. So come tomorrow I’ll be back under the needle for my third piece of art, which will be animal-themed and on my left thigh.

In all honesty, as much as I’m going to sorely miss riding Regina for a little while, I’m also still very sore from the ride to Oxford, so I welcome a bit of a break from the saddle. I’ll be back riding next week, once it’s started healing.

In the meantime I’m already thinking about what else I’d like done, and I’ve seen some amazing cycling-related tattoos around, so I think I’d like to pay homage through the medium of my skin.

Here are a few awesome cyclist tattoos and ideas that I’ve seen on the web:

 

If you’ve got awesome ink, feel free to share it!

The End of an Era

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Today I said goodbye to Ripley.

About three years ago I used the Cycle to Work Scheme to buy a Ridgeback Speed: a clunky hybrid with a grey step-through frame, triple chain set, 18 gears and a lovely cushioned seat. I wasn’t a very confident cyclist, but I couldn’t afford to keep getting the bus from Henbury to Clifton, and decided it would be a great way to inject a bit of exercise into my daily routine.

Along came Ripley. I had three free lessons from Life Cycle UK to help me learn to ride confidently on the roads, indicating and checking over my shoulder, and then I was off! A great uphill battle ensued, quite literally, as I took on the hilly terrain of Bristol.

In the beginning I got off and walked up the hills, and rode the brakes all the way down. Gradually I learned to let go of the brakes a little (this was pre-MTB accident) and learned to sit and spin for a little while before continuing to ascend on foot. I do regret that I never did master cycling up Falcondale Road before we moved to Kingswood.

But the new route brought its own new challenge in the form of Park Street. Again I spent a long time walking up the hill and feeling very impressed at the number of cyclists who overtook me. Eventually I decided I’d tackle it one step at a time, with each day bringing new progression. What actually happened was on day one I made it all the way to the top, and I’ve never had a problem since. Turned out I was fitter than I thought.

For around three years I rode Ripley almost every day. My confidence on the roads improved, as did my fitness. I started taking her on longer journeys, along the B2B to Bath, down by the canal, through the Two Tunnels, on a loop to Cleveland, from Exeter to Plymouth via Dartmoor… We had some great rides together.

We also had some terrible ones, which resulted in bruised egos and bruised skin. The first time I fell off her was right at the beginning, when I got a bit cocky descending Henbury Road and allowed myself to pick up enough speed to just make the light before it went red. Unfortunately I hadn’t at this point learned that the bike follows the eyes, and I didn’t quite make the angle when turning right at the bottom, resulting in me hitting the curb at high speed and flying over my handlebars in quite a spectacular fashion. Remarkably not one person stopped their car to ask if I was okay.

The next few falls were also entirely my own fault, slipping over in ice or approaching a curb at a silly angle. I was definitely turning out to be a clumsy cyclist and was almost relieved when I had my first altercation that involved another vehicle, because finally it wasn’t my fault. Thankfully no broken bones just yet, just silly drivers not checking their wing mirrors before deciding to suddenly take a detour into another lane. The saddest occasion was when I had my birthday cake strapped to my rear rack, and a man with no sense decided to drive into the back of me, resulting in a slight squash.

Generally though she served me very well for three years, and helped me to fall in love with cycling. Obviously I’ve since fallen head over heels in love with Regina, but taking Ripley on that last ride this morning really helped me to appreciate how easy and pleasant she is to ride. I hope wherever she ends up, she offers someone else the opportunity to build their confidence and fall in love with cycling.

Goodbye, Ripley.

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Dressed to impress, for the Christmas Critical Mass in Bristol

#WednesdayWisdom – Long-distance riding advice from Emily Chappell, Lee Craigie and Rickie Cotter

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Image courtesy of BBC

I was really fortunate to get a ticket to a talk at Roll For The Soul last night, with three incredible women. Emily Chappell and Lee Craigie are the co-founders of The Adventure Syndicate, and Rickie Cotter was one of their seven-woman team to race around the North Coast 500 in 36 hours as part of their launch.

These aren’t their only accomplishments by a long way, but you don’t need me to tell you who they are. If you’re reading my blog then you either already know of them, or you’re going to click on their names to find out. And if neither of those is true, no one will know and no one will judge.

The talk was aimed at women who want to start riding long-distance, whether it’s for racing, touring, off-roading or anything in between. They came armed with shed-loads of advice, and I’m going to share some of it here, because all women who want to ride should, and as Emily reiterated last night – you are capable of so much more than you think you are.

Preparing the mind

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Image via Instagram

The first subject we got into was mentally preparing yourself for the ride. It’s true that while there will be a great stress on your body, half of it is in your head. One of the things mentioned during Sunday’s panel discussion was that when you go into a long ride with a particular distance in mind, you know where your end point will be, and you’ll make it to that point if it kills you. And even if at mile 500 you feel like you’re literally going to fall off your bike and die, if you’d set out to do 510 miles instead, you’d still make that extra 10 miles, because it was all part of the plan. The key is to know how far you’re going and be prepared to make it to the end. Because you will make it.

Finding your time of day

Training your body will help with the mental preparation. If you’re planning a week-long race, you’ll be riding all day and all night with a few hours of sleep in between. Emily made an excellent point that most (if not all) people have certain times of the day that work better for them, and certain times that are worse. As part of her training, she did several rides from London to Manchester, starting at different times of day (and night). She found that no matter which point the night section fell, whether it was right at the beginning or end, she always flagged at around the same time.

Once you get to know which times of day are your strongest, and which are your weakest, you can prepare for them. If you’re a morning person, like Rickie, you can put measures in place to get you through the night – like snacking on your favourite treats every few miles – and get yourself up a hill to be rewarded with glorious views at dawn. If you’re like Emily and peak in the middle of the night, you’ll need more motivation to get you through the hardest parts of the day. Plan to stop at a café and have coffee and cake when you’re really struggling. 15 minutes of rest and some caffeine and sugar in your system, and you can plough through the next stage until you feel your strength returning. It’s all about breaking it down into manageable segments, knowing when you’ll struggle, and pre-empting it.

Fighting the fear

Lee made a fantastic point about the difference between fear and anxiety. A woman in the audience asked about how to prepare for the fear she might experience when cycling alone through a strange place at night – perhaps a country where there are packs of street dogs roaming, or if there are shady characters about. Lee pointed out that ‘fear’ is what you feel when something happens to you, and by that point you’re in fight-or-flight mode and you can’t pre-empt that. It’s anxiety that can stop you from setting out in the first place, and that’s what you need to address. If you know the sorts of things you’re afraid of, you can prepare yourself for them, and be ready. You can buy dog dazers which create a kind of forcefield around you and keep street dogs at a distance. And as Rickie pointed out, the likelihood of encountering a dangerous character is actually very low. If anything, by being in a field alone with a bike and a bivvy bag, you’re the strange character who probably shouldn’t be there, and you’re probably more intimidating just by being in an unexpected place at an unexpected hour.

Feeding the body

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Image via Twitter

It seems that Emily cannot stress it enough: EAT.

Eat, eat, eat, and eat.

Throw your recommended daily calories out the window and eat whenever you’re hungry, because your body will be burning ridiculous amounts of calories all the time, and you need to keep your energy up.

When you’re not hungry

I asked about forcing yourself to eat when you’re not hungry, because I struggle with this. On Saturday I cycled a very long way between eating, and despite telling myself I was going to eat the shit out of everything, when I arrived my stomach didn’t want to cooperate. Rickie explained that when you’re cycling for a long duration, you’re placing so much stress on your body, and it’s concentrating so much on keeping your legs spinning, that it has less energy to digest, and so when you try to eat a big meal at the end, it can’t cope. It’s better keep snacking little and often as you go, to keep your digestive system active.

Keep the food up front

Emily recommends having a handlebar bag, which makes snacking whilst riding a lot easier. She has several compartments where she stores a variety of things (I believe at one point she was living on peanuts, chorizo, emmentale and Haribo). The point is they’re accessible, and you can keep munching little and often.

Think about your food groups

Lee finds that eating high amounts of fat and protein works best for her, as they provide slow releasing energy and it can encourage your body to burn energy from your fat stores rather than from carbohydrates. But she still eats carbohydrates as well; she just increases her intake of the other two groups. This followed a question about ketosis. It works for some, and not for others.

Stay hydrated

You cannot drink enough water. Emily tries to down two litres at a time to keep herself hydrated for the next couple of hours. Lee does the same the day before a race – drink, drink and drink. Rickie recommends carrying no more than 2 litres of water on the bike to save weight (1l = 1kg), but you can store anywhere up to 9 litres if you wanted to.

Another important note from Rickie – use your urine to track your hydration levels. It doesn’t sound glamorous, but you can tell by the colour if you’re dehydrated. If it’s dark and pungent, you need to drink more. Aim for the colour of champagne.

water
Image courtesy of The Adventure Syndicate

Other tidbits

  • If you’re drinking citrus juices like orange, add a pinch of salt to them. Citrus alone can cause cramping, and the salt counteracts this.
  • Order two of everything – whatever you think you want to eat, order or buy double the amount. Even if you can’t physically eat it all straightaway, 30 minutes down the road you’ll be hungry again.
  • Look for Lidl (or Aldi) – they’re all over Europe and they always have the same stock and layout. Especially if you’re racing, you can run in and very quickly find all the things you need without wasting much time.
  • Carry a polyester backpack that folds down to miniature size. If at the end of a long day you need to go and stock up on food, you can just pull it out, fill it, and ride to your camp with full supplies.

Packing the bike

bikepacking
Image courtesy of bikepacking.com

If you’re racing

Pack light. That’s a given, but if you’ve got the budget you can invest in some really handy equipment that packs down ridiculously small.

The best thing to do is to prioritise and pack only what you need. Lee makes a point of only packing items that can serve a dual purpose (which led to a hilarious discussion of doubling up a chamois as a sponge).

Here’s a great list of what Josh Ibbett took on his transcontinental race.

If you’re touring

When you’re touring you can add panniers to your bike and afford to take a bit more with you. If you choose to, that is. After my experience of cycling with an overloaded rear rack at the weekend, I never want to look at another pannier again.

Bikepacking.com has some great advice on touring equipment.

Think about where you put things

One of the things all three of them stressed was to really plan how you’re going to pack, and always keep certain things in the same place so you always know where they are. Don’t pack your waterproofs in the bottom of your saddle pack, because everything will get wet as you trawl through it trying to find it in a downpour.

Keep anything you’ll want regular access to at the front or on the top tube. Food should be at your handlebars so you can eat while you go. You may choose to keep a water bottle here as well, instead of in a bottle cage on your frame. That’s a personal choice.

Consider taking a small stove, which can cook enough food for one. Lee always keeps an emergency pack of cous cous and a vegetable bouillon cube in her bag for a quick, easy and last minute meal.

Try to get a bag with an external drawstring at your rear, so that you can wash your padded shorts as you go and ride with them fluttering and drying in the wind behind you. Pro tip for this: don’t turn them inside out, otherwise the chamois can get coated in dust, which makes for an uncomfortable ride later down the line.

Also consider carrying some hand sanitizer with you. Rickie made a fantastically gross point of how important personal hygiene is when being out on the road for long periods of time. She once left her bike in a shed for a few days following a long-distance ride, and came back to find mould had grown on the handlebars from the sweat and germs that had accumulated there. Think about how much time you spend with your hands on your bars, and how often you use them to touch your face, your eyes, your mouth, your lady bits, your food, and everything else. Keep them clean and prevent illness and infection.

On a similar note, if you’re riding through countries with questionable water sources and particularly if you’re off-road, carry some iodine tablets or miniature filters. Even when you’re out in the beautiful countryside and the river water runs clear, you don’t know what’s upstream – a cattle farm, a factory… don’t risk it. Illness can set you back for days.

Finding your way

Emily demonstrated brilliantly how she’s the last person to listen to on this subject, seeing as when she completed the Transcontinental in 2016 she was the only rider to visit Albania.

albania
Emily was rider #7

Gadgets

As far as technology is concerned, Garmin comes highly recommended. There was a discussion about the many complaints people make about them, and Rickie acknowledged that they’re by no means perfect just yet, but she stressed that right now in this market, they’re the best tech available for cyclists. One day that may change, but right now at this moment if you’re investing in something, invest in a Garmin. They use different satellites to other devices and are the most advanced gadget available right now.

In terms of powering them, there was a debate over dynamos and batteries. Batteries are a simpler method, but more wasteful. If you’re travelling for 5 days or less, then they’re not a terrible option, but anymore than that and you’re better off looking into a dynamo or a cache battery.

Maps

I agreed with Lee when she said there’s just nothing better than a paper map. Especially on a long ride, going through multiple countries, she said it’s so nice to finish one map and move onto the next. What a perfect excuse to stop off at a café, have a coffee and cake, spread the map out over the table and get the next part of your route planned.

Route planning

While we’re on this subject, a question came up about whether it was better to plan the whole route or make it up as you go.

When you’re racing – plan everything. Plan it twice. Double and triple check each part of it, and cross-reference it against other maps to make sure you know of every single hill you’ll encounter.

If you’re touring, you don’t need to plan everything. If you know of a particular road/route that you’d like to take then by all means, figure out how to reach it, but allow for some deviation. Let yourself get lost, and enjoy the experience of exploration and adventure. That’s what it’s all about, after all.

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Image courtesy of leecraigie.com