I decided to take myself to Ashton Court to practise riding on gravel. I sometimes do Parkrun there, and I know the route it takes goes up a gravelly climb. I figured this would be a good place to start.
Originally I’d planned to take Regina, my lovely Orange CX bike, but alas, I stupidly cross-threaded one of her pedals in my eagerness to get out on a ride. Silly me. So I took Dori instead. She’s more than capable of these things, and knows gravel well already, despite our relationship still being in its early months.
I’m pleased to say the gravel climbing went well straightaway, so I attempted some gravel descending. It was okay at first, being a nice, gradual decline. However I must admit when it dropped steeper I lost my nerve a little.
To my left I saw an opening that led into the woods, and what looked like a bridleway, so I decided to explore that instead. It was nice: a bit muddy and riddled with tree roots, which made for an interesting challenge.
In the end I grew so much in confidence that I did something I didn’t think I was capable of. I took Dori – my steel touring bike, with her 32c tyres – onto the mountain bike trails.
Despite not being the right bike for the job, she certainly held up well.
Not only did I go on the trails, I spent about an hour flying through them, occasionally picking up a good pace and taking on some technical parts that would normally freak me out if I had time to think about them first. It was the fact that everything was moving so quickly that helped me keep my nerve. I didn’t have time to chicken out, I just tackled what came and reacted on instinct.
I had an absolute blast, and didn’t fall once. I felt in control of the bike, and on the few occasions where I felt I was losing control, I was able to stop on a flat part and regain my composure.
I recently left my full-time job to go part-time, meaning I have more days free to do the things I enjoy. I’ve been taking advantage of this, and riding my bike for fun a lot more often.
I came to a realisation that I not only want to ride faster and further, I want to ride better. What I mean by this, is that I want to ride with more confidence, balance, and skill. You may remember from my 10 Confessions of a Clumsy Cyclist, that I’m not the most nimble person and I’ve got a lot to learn still.
I didn’t really ride much as a child, so I missed that stage where you play: learning tricks, mucking about in the woods, and generally taking risks that build your confidence. So with my newfound leisure time, I’m setting myself a series of challenges, or goals. I’ve listed the skills and techniques that I want to learn, practise and perfect, in order to make myself a better cyclist.
Riding slowly, in a straight line
When I haven’t got to be anywhere quickly, I’m taking opportunities to shift into a low gear and slow right down. This is to help improve my balance and stability, which will be useful for commuting in traffic. On top of this, I’m aiming to be able to ride slowly in a straight line. This means tracing painted lines on quiet roads as slowly as possible, without jerking left and right too much. I’ve got a long way to go here, but my confidence is building.
Building from here, I want to be able to come to a complete stop and hold my position for as long as possible. Again, it’s all about improving my balance and stability, but it would also be nice to avoid having to unclip and re-clip as often as I do right now.
Technically I can already do this, but I’m much less confident taking my left hand off the bars than I am with my right. I don’t know why, but I struggle with it. So, every chance I get, I’m forcing myself to take my left hand fully away from the bars, placing it on my hip. I’m then riding like this for as long as possible, to show myself that I can very quickly re-gain my stability. This is going really well.
I’ve always wanted to be able to do this. It would be really useful to be able to sit up and remove a layer without having to stop, or unwrap a snack bar while riding. As my one-handed riding has already improved drastically, I’m making good progress with this too. I’m making a point of straightening up and just gently resting my finger tips on the top of the bars, until I gain a good amount of balance. I then lift my hands an inch or so. Gradually I’m able to do this for longer, and even had a recent breakthrough where I held it for so long that I confidently put both hands in my lap! I’m not there yet though, and still need a lot of practice.
Climbing out of the saddle
I’ve been getting much better at this and feel like my legs are so much stronger now. I’ve been experimenting with where to put my hands, and swinging the bike from side to side. The latter felt very strange the first time, but I’m improving slowly. I want to do this more because I find shifting into the granny gear and spinning up a hill isn’t very efficient when I’m trying to keep up with other riders who are on much lighter bikes than me. I want to be able to get up a hill quickly.
Scooting and mounting
I want to be able to mount efficiently. I see so many people placing their left foot on the pedal, kicking off into a scoot and swinging their right foot over the frame, planting themselves on the saddle and pedalling off. I’m nowhere near achieving this yet, but I’ve been working on simply scooting to find my balance. For some reason I naturally veer to the left, and I’m struggling to overcome this. No matter how much I concentrate, the moment my right foot leaves the ground, my hands pull the handlebars towards me.
Update: Since originally penning this post, I’ve now picked this up! Woohoo!
The same thing as before, but reverse. I’ve now mastered this one, but I still need a bit of practice. I’m able to slow, swing my right leg back and plant it on the ground, but I want to have such good balance that I can swing it into a scoot, and stay on the bike still. When Adam demonstrated these skills to me, he was slowly scooting along, swinging the right leg over, then back, then over, and then back again. I want to be able to do that.
I want to be able to hop a curb. I frequently come up against this when riding home from the Bike Project, and I hate having to stop and lift my bike up onto the curb before getting going again. I also realise it’s a good skill to have for avoiding unexpected hazards in the road, like potholes. I’ve started off by practising lifting the front wheel only. I push all my weight down onto the bars, and then use the upward momentum to pull them up as I return to position. It’s really tiring, but I’ve been seeing progress and I just need to build my strength so I can get a bit more height. I’m not quite able to make the curb just yet.
That’s all of them! I’ll keep you updated on my progress. It’s nice to have some things to aim for, and work at. It’s not always just about how far I can go on the bike, after all.
Needless to say, we were pretty exhausted when we got up in the morning, and we still had a fair way to go on our journey. It was lovely to spend the sleepy morning under the trees though, cooking some hearty porridge on our stove and sipping a hot cup of tea.
As it was a Monday morning, we decided to wait until after 9am to get going, so we could avoid the rush hour traffic.
We headed for Hythe, where we got our first ferry of the day. I made the great mistake of buying us coffees before we boarded, which made for a very stressful journey to the end of the pier. Pushing an extremely heavy and imbalanced bike with one hand, and holding a very hot cup of coffee in the other, proved to be more hassle than it was worth, particularly when we had to negotiate two sets of chicanes at each end. I dropped my bike more than once. On two occasions, a complete stranger held my coffee for me. #damselindistress.
Learning from that mistake, we kept the rest of our ferry trips coffee-free.
We arrived in Southampton and set off on the next part of our journey, though we weren’t there long before we crossed a bridge into Woolston, where we joined a nice coastal shared use path. The day would be filled with these paths which, while pleasant, don’t allow you to pick up much speed because of the sheer amount of people milling about, walking their dogs and their offspring.
Once again we had problems with the Garmin. It seems taking it on a ferry confuses it, and for the next few hours we were without turn-by-turn directions because it thought we were following a ‘trail’. We had to rely solely on Adam’s map-reading skills, and the teeny-tiny screen which occasionally decided to zoom out completely on its own. Bloody thing.
The second ferry took us from Hamble le-Rice to Warsash. It was a dinky little pink boat. The captain insisted it was fine for us and our bikes to board, though it wasn’t the easiest feat!
More flat roads and coastal paths. It was pleasant, but after a while I found it a little boring. I never thought I’d crave some hills, but they do break it up a bit and make it more interesting.
I was also conscious of how slowly we were progressing, due to negotiating shared-use paths. At this point I was starting to worry about how long it would take us to reach Steyning, as it was getting later all the time and it felt like we were moving so slowly.
All we could do was keep going. We went through Lee-on-the-Solent towards Gosport. One of the nice things about this route was going past the Titchfield Haven Nature Reserve.
In Gosport we got our final ferry, which took us into Portsmouth. Having finally finished the aquatic section of the route, we turned the Garmin off and on again, as it still hadn’t moved on from that ‘trail’. Unfortunately, while this was a success in terms of getting it working again, it also lost us some more time, because when it switched back on, we had to re-load the route. For some reason it takes forever and a day to calculate routes, particularly one as long as this. We found ourselves waiting around a lot.
By this time it was the evening rush hour, which we hadn’t considered as much as the morning. We left the coast and rode inland towards Chichester, where we stopped at a pub for the usual chips and soda.
By the time we left, it was around 8pm, and the sky was beginning to darken. We still had 30 miles to go, and our Garmin had mysteriously switched itself off.
It had been plugged into a cache battery and was at 100%, but despite this, we just couldn’t get it going again. After waiting about 10-15 minutes for it to calculate the route, it would reach around 85% and then switch off again. We went through this a few times, growing more and more frustrated, tired, and cold.
It was fast approaching 9pm, we still hadn’t left Chichester, and we couldn’t use Google Maps because my phone’s battery was low from the previous day, and Adam’s GPS is broken. We weren’t having fun anymore, so we reluctantly pedalled to the train station.
We got the train to East Worthing and managed to find our way from there. We arrived at the house at around 10:30pm, with an Indian takeaway in tow, and quietly stuffed our faces in silence.
If anyone else has experienced these kinds of issues with a Garmin, I’d like to hear about it. I can’t work out if ours is defective, or if it’s just an unreliable piece of tech. I hear mixed reviews all the time.
Despite the troubles, it was a really good experience. It taught me to ride in lower gears, for one thing, and it was my first time doing two long-distance rides consecutively. I’m definitely up for another!
We’re not going on holiday abroad this year. Instead, we’ve been looking forward to a week away in West Sussex. Long story short, we landed ourselves an opportunity to house-sit for a friend while he was away, and he lives in the quaint town of Steyning.
We knew nothing about the place, only that it was about 10 miles away from Brighton, so we planned a two-day cycling trip to get there, taking a scenic route via the New Forest for a spot of camping, before pootling along the south coast.
This was the whole route in its entirety:
We set out at 6:30am on the Sunday morning for the first 80 miles of our journey. It was a nice and easy start on a familiar route, riding along the Bristol-Bath Railway Path. I’ve ridden this way so many times, but this time my bike was fully loaded and heavy, and I felt the difference very quickly. Luckily we’d given ourselves plenty of time, so we sat in a low gear and pedalled gently, starting as we meant to go on.
We stopped in Bath for a coffee, and then joined the Two Tunnels Greenway. This made me super happy, as it’s one of my favourite local rides. If you’re not local to here but visit at some point, ride the Two Tunnels. It’s an incredibly therapeutic experience.
Once we reached Midford, the Garmin did what it does best. It took us on a route that was completely unsuitable for cycling. Apparently you can ride all the way to Frome on bike paths, but we ended up on the A36 instead. After a while we got sick and tired of being passed by cars driven at a ridiculously high speed and close proximity, so I used Google Maps to re-direct us. We rejoined some nice and quiet country lanes and made our way towards Market Lavington, and then south towards Salisbury.
Still using Google Maps rather than the Garmin, we somehow took a wrong turn and found ourselves on the A303, which is a rather horrible dual carriageway. One of the good things that came out of it was the remarkable view of Stonehenge that we hadn’t been expecting, but the road became more and more perilous as we went on, and it stopped being fun.
We pulled into a lay-by to buy some locally-grown strawberries, and the man at the stall very helpfully pointed us in the right direction.
There was a small, gated road on the other side of the dual carriageway that we could take, but that meant crossing, with our ridiculously heavy bikes.
We found ourselves running across two lanes when there was a gap in the traffic, hauling the bikes over the metal partition, before running again across another two lanes. It was scary. Also all the lifting credit goes to Adam. I physically couldn’t do it.
Once we were back on a nicer route, we made our way to Salisbury, passing through a town with a name that made us giggle, and stop, and take a photo.
I’d never been to Salisbury before, and definitely intend to go back when I’ve got more time to explore it. It’s a very pretty place, with an astounding cathedral, that we sadly didn’t have time to stop at. Next time.
We did, however, find time to stop at a pub for chips and a pint of lime and soda. This has become our staple snack on all long rides. The Salisbury 5-4-3-2-1 marathon was still in progress so we felt it better to get out of the runners’ way and give our bottoms something else to sit on for a little while.
Once fully revived, we left the city centre and headed south towards the New Forest.
It was such a beautiful place to be riding in, with fields of purple flowers surrounding us, and deciduous woodland everywhere we looked.
Eventually we arrived at a campsite in Ashurst, where we were finally able to shower and rest.
We got to try out our new Solo Stove for the first time, which was a pretty cool experience. It runs on twigs, so we had free fuel everywhere we looked. It also meant I got to learn how to build a fire (with the help of matchsticks) and keep it going. It also served as a nice way to keep ourselves warm as it got darker.
We were tired, but feeling good. We’d gotten all the climbing out of the way that day, and knew that the next day would be mostly flat coastal paths, with some ferries thrown in for good measure.
Just as well, really, because neither of us got much sleep. I don’t sleep well at all when camping, which is such a shame, because I love the experience. Despite having an eye mask and ear plugs, and keeping myself dead to the world, I just couldn’t switch off. Adam slept some of the night, but was plagued with the sounds of planes, trains and automobiles.
It meant we weren’t on top form the following morning, which I’ll tell you about next time.
I recently devoured the Spring issue of Casquette, and I strongly recommend you do the same, if you haven’t already. It’s so refreshing to have a cycling magazine devoted to women, which isn’t afraid to cover subjects that we wouldn’t normally be comfortable talking about. Think snot rockets, saddlesore and the best bib shorts for taking a quick pee in the bushes. There’s also a lot of discussion around the gender politics of professional cycling: a recommended read, for sure.
I won’t go into as much detail as I did last time, but one thing I did want to highlight was that this issue’s theme is ‘Pass it On’. It includes a gorgeously illustrated feature, where cycling badasses such as Marijn de Vries, Helen Wyman and Juliet Elliott share some words of advice that have helped them in their careers.
In keeping with this theme, I thought it would be nice to continue along the same lines, providing the best piece of advice I’ve ever received, and some golden nuggets from other badass women riders I know.
So here’s part 1.
The best piece of advice I’ve ever received
I’m actually breaking the rules already, because I want to share two pieces of advice. And funnily enough, they come from the next two women who will be featured as part of this series, so this gives you a taste of who’s to come.
The first came from Katherine Moore. It was back in April, when I was getting ridiculously nervous about riding in the Yorkshire Dales. I was freaking out about not being able to keep up with the other riders, about struggling to climb hills, and how scared I was of the huge descents. I thought it was a huge mistake, and that I’d fail miserably.
In her cool and calm way, she said to me:
You need to let yourself be a beginner.
Her words resounded in me so deeply, because I knew she was right. I set myself impossibly high standards all the time, and I’m so awful to myself if I don’t reach them. But the fact is, I expect to be good at everything straightaway, without letting myself progress gradually.
She was absolutely right, and ever since she said that, I’ve tried to be more lenient on myself. When I’ve taken on a new endeavour, or when I’ve tackled something bigger than I’m accustomed to, I’ve taken a step back and acknowledged the fact that this is a big deal for me. I’m letting myself feel the fear, and reminding myself that it’s normal to fear something when it’s new. In order to not fear it, I need to just do it. And that’s exactly what I took from her advice.
Of course, I was allowing myself to be a beginner. The main issue here was just the sheer length of the ride, and I wasn’t sure how I could manage it. I had visions of turning back and giving up.
But El came through for me, the day before the ride. She told me:
Break it down. Don’t think about it as one long ride, but lots of shorter ones.
Again, as soon as she said this, everything made sense. Find some stopping points along the route, and treat each section as its own ride.
That’s exactly what I did, and funnily enough when I talk to people about the ride, and they express their amazement that I could ride 125 miles, I talk about it as a series of shorter rides. I even wrote about it in that way.
So from these women, I’ve learned two very valuable lessons:
If you choose to run before you can walk, expect a few struggles. It doesn’t mean you can’t do it, and it doesn’t mean there’s any shame in struggling with it. Just accept that you’re new to it, and that you’ll get better with time.
Break everything down into something that’s manageable. If the prospect of a long distance is boggling your brain, focus on your checkpoints, or your rest stops, and just get from one to the next.
Next Wednesday I’ll be sharing Katherine’s Wednesday Wisdom. In the meantime, I’d love to hear yours!
My brain is constantly switched on, analysing, fretting, questioning. When there’s a lot going on in there, I can’t finish speaking a sentence without starting a new one. I can be manic, jittery, and completely incoherent.
I used to manage this with meditation. Every night I dedicated 15 minutes to slowing down, silencing my thoughts and clearing my mind before going to bed. It used to really help, but these days I just can’t do it anymore. Meditation is a real skill that you need to master, and my mental state just isn’t compatible with it anymore.
But cycling helps to tame the chaos.
A friend recently commented that I’ve become obsessed with cycling – it’s all I talk about, all I do. It’s true. I spend every spare moment looking at bikes, riding them, fixing them, and talking about them…
Heck, not that long ago Adam and I were discussing bottom brackets in bed, and realised we really need to reassess our pillow talk.
My response to this friend was simple: cycling is the only thing that’s keeping me sane right now.
My professional life is in flux. I’ve just resigned from a permanent position and am looking to go freelance while working part-time in a bike shop. I’m getting myself involved in lots of different projects, I’m going to have very little money to live on, and I’m taking a huge leap into the darkness.
On top of this, I’ve had some mental health issues to deal with, and have been struggling to overcome some emotional barriers that can sometimes be crippling.
I’m constantly telling myself I’m not good enough, setting myself impossibly high standards and then branding myself a failure for not meeting them. Dwelling on choices I’ve made in the past, forgetting the right ones and punishing myself for the wrong ones. Constantly telling myself that I’m worthless, that I’m going nowhere. Feeling completely and totally lost. It’s a never-ending stream of abuse, directed inward.
But when I ride my bike, everything goes quiet.
Suddenly, the only thing I need to think about is where I’m going. I just need to keep my wheels turning, keep my centre of gravity balanced, and keep my cadence consistent.
My attention turns to my body: my breathing, my hand positioning, and the speed at which I’m turning the pedals. Going up a hill, all I need to think about is the burning in my legs, the dull ache in my lower back, and the drops of sweat forming on my brow. When I’m descending, I’m concentrating on how I’m positioned on the bike. I feel the rush of the wind past my ears and through my hair, the tears forming as I reach eye-watering speed, and the pounding of my heart.
In traffic, the chaos is external. All I need to do is stay alert, predict others’ actions, and position myself in the safest place on the road.
In quiet country lanes, I can afford myself the time to take in the views, feel the sunshine on my face, breathe in the cleaner air, and notice the wildlife around me.
Cycling gives me the space I need to slow down, internally. Everything becomes a circular motion: my feet on the pedals, the spinning of the wheels, and the loop I carve onto the map as I leave the city and return again later.
So as my life takes a turn in the coming weeks – leaping out of the safety net of permanent full-time employment, into the unknown – cycling will be my therapy. I cannot wait to have more time to spend on my bike, and explore the beauty that our countryside has to offer.
I will have much less money, that’s for sure, but cycling is free, and it’s the kind of happiness you don’t need to buy.
This weekend I set out to ride my first 100 miles, and ended up doing my first 200k.
How did this happen? I guess I have peer pressure to thank. And Lucy (of Brain Cranks), who added an extra 25-mile loop onto my route and convinced me to ride it.
It was partly down to wanting to achieve something even greater, partly not wanting to ride home alone with a dead Garmin, and partly wanting to beat Adam’s record. All three goals were achieved.
Saturday morning was grey, gloomy and wet. I overslept. I couldn’t eat my porridge because I was nervous. I had to take a detour on the way, to get snacks. The morning got off to a stressful start, and I spent a lot of it worrying that no one would turn up for the ride, and that it would be a complete and total failure.
In all honesty I was torn, in terms of what I actually wanted to happen. Half of me wanted a huge group of women to turn up, so I could boast that my first time leading a ride was a huge success, and really impress the badass women of The Adventure Syndicate. The other half of me wanted it to be a small group of familiar faces, so there was less pressure on me as a ride leader.
To my relief, the latter happened, and it was still a huge success.
I think, had a large group of strangers turned up, particularly confident roadies expecting to bomb through the Welsh hills at lightning speed, I might have crumbled under the pressure and turned back. As it happens I was joined by Lucy and Ania, and the three of us embarked upon our drizzly adventure together.
We started outside Roll for the Soul at 8am, and took an indirect route to the bridge via Westbury-on-Trym and through Hallen and Awkley. I used to commute part of this route, back when I was very new to riding, and had to get off and walk up most of the hills. It was my first time returning to the area as a more seasoned cyclist, and a small victory to climb the hills without even considering the need to walk.
As we made our way through quiet country roads, we settled into a comfortable but decent pace, and chatted about our various achievements on the bikes.
We neared the bridge, and made our first windy journey across the River Severn, into South Wales. This was my first experience of cycling across the Severn Bridge, and I was relieved to see that the cycle paths were completely segregated from the road traffic. It was quite a surreal experience, feeling the rush of wind and the vibrations of the other vehicles reverberating through the bike. It was also awesomely atmospheric, with the low hanging cloud caressing the surface of the water.
Once across the bridge, we made our way through Bulwark and into Chepstow, where we found ourselves on the same route I’d ridden last weekend through the Wye Valley. We climbed the first part of the A466 and descended into Tintern, catching another glimpse of the stunning abbey as we flew by. At this point we were more than ready for our first coffee stop, and promptly pulled into The Filling Station for some well-needed coffee and biscuits.
Topped up with caffeine and sugar, we continued up the Wye Valley, which remained familiar as far as Redbrook, before turning off towards Monmouth.
Weirdly, both times I’d ridden this section between Tintern and Redbrook, I found myself struggling to maintain a decent cadence. The road appears to be pretty flat, and in some parts there even seems to be a slight downhill, and yet my legs burn and my pedalling is slow. I wasn’t the only one to experience this, either. I wonder if there’s an explanation; it shouldn’t be that hard to ride along a flat road!
On top of that, we had a lot of climbing to do, and I found myself really starting to question my physical capabilities. Would I make it through the rest of the ride? We weren’t even halfway through yet, and I was faltering.
It definitely felt like a longer 25 miles than the previous section. But for every climb there must be a descent, and despite my previous distaste for the downhill, I relished every opportunity stop pedalling and plummet down into the valleys.
We followed some really pretty country roads and eventually rolled into Usk, where we stopped at Sprokwobbles for a hearty lunch of jacket potatoes, well-needed coffee, and some light yoga stretching in the garden.
While we rested, I decided to check the elevation profile on the Garmin to see how we were doing in terms of the big climbs. I saw that the biggest was about to present itself, and started to feel a bit nervous. There was much self-deprecation and talk of walking up and meeting Lucy and Ania at the top.
Nevertheless we rolled on, and the climb turned out to be a really good one! Following the B4235 towards Shirenewton, it was a very long but gradual climb. One thing that upset me a little, is that when you look at the road on Google Streetview, it used to be flanked by woodland on both sides. When we rode there last weekend, there has been a lot of tree felling, and the left side of the road is more open. It always saddens me to see trees being cut down, and it’s a great shame for that to be happening, however if I look on the bright side, it did afford us the most spectacular view of Wales’ rolling hills.
Another rewarded for reaching the top, was the presence of an Alpaca farm! We enjoyed a quick rest, some water, and looking at their cute, fuzzy heads. We then climbed a tiny bit more and descended back into Chepstow for the second round of the Severn Bridge.
By this time of day (around 3:30pm) it was even windier than before, and we experienced some pretty scary side winds. I remember at one point my whole bike shifted to the left, like some enormous force was effortlessly moving me aside.
From there we took an indirect route to Thornbury, via Elberton and Littleton-upon-Severn, and stopped for coffee and cake (or in Lucy’s case, an entire cucumber).
It was at this point that Lucy had intended to leave us, to go and do an extra long loop and make her ride a 200k.
I was in a lot of pain with my back, super tired, and feeling good about the fact that there were only 25 miles left to go. The thought of my bed was beckoning me, and I told myself this last leg would be gentle, easy, and relatively quick.
Then Ania decided she wanted to join Lucy on the extra long loop, and my Garmin signalled to me that it was on its last legs. The thought of cycling home alone without directions was a little frightening, and throughout the day I’d kept myself open to the idea of extending the ride, just in case I felt capable. I didn’t feel all that capable, but with the ibuprofen clearing the pain in my lower back, and Lucy and Ania grinning encouragingly at me across the table, I couldn’t help but agree!
So I put the Garmin away, Lucy took over as the navigator, and we set off on our final 50 miles.
Departing Thornbury the way we came, we continued north through Oldbury-on-Severn, Shepperdine and into Berkeley, where I remember visiting the castle a couple of years ago. It’s a really cute and quaint town, and its castle is noted as the place where King Edward II was imprisoned and murdered. A good day out that I recommend!
At around 7pm, the sun finally decided to grace us with its presence. In the golden light we looped round, returning south through North Nibley, Wotton-under-Edge, and Kingswood. This was a bit of a tease, as I live in a part of Bristol called Kingswood, but alas, not this one. Next was a fairly sharp climb into Hawkesbury Upton, before descending through Petty France, Little Badminton and Acton Turville. At this point the roads became familiar, as I had ridden them out on my last trip to Oxford.
On the final strait to Bristol, we descended through Hinton and Pucklechurch. It was coming up to 9pm, the sun had once again departed and been replaced with low hanging grey clouds. The air around us became heavy and wet, and in the gloom we joined the Bristol-Bath railway path and rolled into Fishponds where we rewarded ourselves with junk food and alcohol. The perfect end to the perfect day.
Epilogue: a reflection on The Adventure Syndicate’s tagline
I mentioned before that I planned this ride as part of a collaboration between The Adventure Syndicate and Cycling UK, to celebrate the Women’s Festival of Cycling. I agreed to it when I saw Emily Chappell tweeting about their plans, and in a moment of fandom, decided I wanted to join in.
The moment I saw that it was a 100-mile ride within the space of 2 weeks, my stomach turned, but I was determined to make it happen. I’d said yes to someone I idolise, and I had to deliver the goods.
As I put the route together and registered the ride, I was partly sure that I’d end up backing out of it somehow. I’d plan the route and hand it over to someone more capable of riding it, because I certainly didn’t feel able to.
But when it came down to it, I wanted to do it. I wanted to be part of something big, and I felt that with a group of amazing women around me, I would be carried along by their support. That is exactly what happened. It was a small group, but it was an amazing group nonetheless.
The Adventure Syndicate’s mission is:
“to increase levels of self-belief and confidence in others […] and we passionately believe we are all capable of so much more than we think we are.”
I have never felt this to be as true as I did on Saturday night, shoving a battered sausage into my face and telling myself over and over again, “I just rode 200k. I just rode 200k.”
If you’re a woman; if you love riding your bike; if you compare yourself to the elites and constantly feel like an impostor; if you want to achieve more but feel unable to; go and read all about The Adventure Syndicate. Attend one of their talks. Sign up to a ride with them. Follow them on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.
I cannot believe that this time last year I was just commuting on my bike, with the occasional 15-mile pootle to Bath that wore me out. If I am capable of this, then so are you. We all are.
With my first Century ride fast approaching, I toyed with the idea of borrowing a carbon road bike for the day, as a way of cutting some time. My thinking was: lighter bike, faster climbs, faster descents, and home before you know it.
So, I borrowed a Giant TCR Composite 2 (2012) – a serious endurance road bike, which probably weighs less than me. That was one of things I felt quite wary of. I had visions of the bike just crumpling beneath my heavy body.
Giant TCR Comp 2 2012 – at a glance
This is quite an old model now, but it’s still a thing of beauty.
Lightweight T600 carbon frame
Advanced-Grade Composite fork with alloy steerer
PowerCore bottom bracket
Shimano Ultegra shifters and rear mech matched up to a 105 front mech
2012 Shimano brakes and chainset
Giant PR-2 wheels with Giant PR-3 tyres
Starting from the centre of town, we headed out through Long Ashton and onto some country roads, away from the angry drivers and out where the air is a bit cleaner.
As always with a new bike, we had our fair share of teething problems. Adjusting saddle heights, tilting handlebars backwards, tweaking the SPD tension, re-angling the saddle, and various other things. Eventually we got going, out into the summer heat.
Admittedly, despite planning a 20-mile loop, we only strayed out for about 10 miles before we decided to turn back. It might have been the heat to a certain degree, but mainly it was the fact that neither of us were enjoying our bikes very much.
Carbon is fast, I know. I felt it as I shifted into my higher gears and threw myself down various hills. It’s light, too, as I learned when I climbed a pretty short but sharp one.
I’m sure that if I rode it for the full 100 miles, I’d probably make faster progress, and take the climbs and descents in my stride.
The truth is, though, I hated it. I hate carbon. There, I said it.
I totally see the appeal for others, but in my opinion you’re sacrificing all that is nice about riding a bike, to gain some extra speed.
My wrists, my bum, my poor aching body. You literally feel every bump in the road.
Oh dear god the noise. Thanks to a hollow plastic frame, you hear every click and grind echoing as you freewheel. On busy roads this isn’t that bad, but in quieter areas I found it quite embarrassing and irritating.
Skinny tyres scare me. Every time I experienced a bit of gravel or general debris on the road I tensed, with visions of toppling over.
I felt a bit unstable. I think I’m just more at ease knowing that the bike carrying me weighs more, and is up for the job of carting my heavy load around.
Sticking with steel
I’m definitely a steel convert, and I’ll be riding Dori on Saturday. She may be heavy, but she’s got a great gear ratio for climbing hills, and the 32c tyres mean that I gain speed while keeping traction. After riding the TCR, getting back on Dori was like reclining on a sofa.
As I said, I see the appeal for others. If you’re one for speed, then it makes sense. I’m definitely one for comfort!
At least now I’ve tried it, and I can make an informed decision on the right bike for me. Another notch on the belt, so to speak.
I’m getting back on the Saturday Independence Rides, and today I had my first experience of cycling in Wales.
If you’ve only joined the blog recently, basically, I’m using the Saturdays when my boyfriend is working, to get out and ride solo, in order to build my confidence and gain a sense of independence that I’m currently lacking.
It’s not a super long one, because I wanted to have some time this afternoon to get other things done (guess who just made burger patties, ready for a BBQ? Hello summer).
I decided to take the train to Chepstow so I could get stuck straight in, rather than risk being a bit butchered before I’d even gotten started.
However, this was my first mistake, since I spent about 45 minutes waiting around on a platform, which is more time than I actually spent travelling.
When I arrived, I must admit that I didn’t get off to a brilliant start, misreading the Garmin and taking the wrong turn immediately out of the station. I quickly realised though, and turned around. After that it was pretty smooth sailing in terms of directions – I thankfully didn’t have any huge mishaps.
A couple of times throughout the route I missed some turnings where the Garmin was trying to take me down a hidden bridleway to cut out some of the main road. However with the tarmac being so smooth, and there being little traffic, it just didn’t make sense to leave the road, so I ignored those detours.
I quickly joined the A466 and followed it all the way up the Wye Valley, alongside the river. I knew the first milestone would be Tintern, as I’d spent an afternoon a few months back, planning a route to visit Tintern Abbey, but was put off by what looked like an immense climb and descent.
Turns out I really didn’t need to worry. The elevation profile on Google Maps looked a lot worse than it actually was, and I was oblivious that I’d reached the summit already, until it was time to go back down again. And what a descent that was!
From Tintern it was a really lovely ride along the river, through some quaint towns. I saw some beautiful countryside, rolling hills, cows, sheep, and plenty of uphill climbs.
I found my energy levels wavered a bit. Some hills I felt able to push myself in a higher gear, whereas others saw me spinning in my granny gear.
I eventually stopped in Redbrook, and took the opportunity to sit in a park overlooking the river Wye while I had a peanut butter and banana sandwich (really, is there anything better?). I was soon joined by another cyclist who’d thought to do the same.
I didn’t actually realise while I was in Redbrook that I was already at the top of the loop on the map. I think I’d anticipated a much longer-feeling ride. 30 miles isn’t a great feat for me anymore but with the added hills I expected it to feel a lot more arduous.
Don’t get me wrong, I was nowhere near the end of my climbing at this point! There was still a heck of a lot more to do, and the biggest hill was still to come.
I’ll admit, I’m a little out of practice and have been dealing with ill-health for a little while, so I did find myself occasionally needing to stop and have a short breather. I’m much fitter than I’ve ever been, but I’ve got such a long way to go still.
At the same time though, I have no shame in stopping if I need to. The fact is, if I’m going up a long hill and my body parts are screaming at me, I’m soon going to stop enjoying the ride. A quick breather and a swig of water later, I can get going again, feeling refreshed and happier, and the next part doesn’t seem so bad. It works for me. I’m not in it for pain.
I couldn’t believe it when I saw the sign for Chepstow, 10 miles away. I was amazed at how quickly I’d made my way round the route. A good part of those remaining miles were undulating hills, which are pretty good climbing practice if you make sure to keep your speed from the descent to bolster you up the first part of the next hill.
I feel my confidence coming in leaps and bounds, from getting into the drops and not braking the whole way down a long, fast descent, to taking the occasional gravel in my stride. I did take one detour with the Garmin which cut out a busy roundabout, and took me along a little gravelly path. I didn’t let it phase me.
The final few miles into Chepstow were pretty much all downhill, and I found myself speeding down some winding roads, feeling a rush that I don’t experience very often. I need more of those.
It was an awesome ride, and one that I’ll definitely be doing again. Only next time I’m going to give myself the whole day, and I’m not going to bother with the train.
Epilogue: The other reason I did this
So there was another reason I chose to do this ride today.
I’ve introduced you to Dori, now I’m going to tell you about the awesome ride we went on at the weekend. You may have noticed it’s been a while since I wrote up a long ride, and it’s because it’s been a while since I’ve been on one!
Despite insisting that I was going to start riding every Saturday, life simply got in the way.
So on Sunday I decided it was high time I got back out on a long ride, preferably something not too hilly. I find the best way to plan a route is to seek out a point of interest and then find a way to get there and back. I set my sights on the Caen Hill Flight: a set of 16 locks in succession on the Kennet and Avon Canal, which rise 237 feet in 2 miles.
It’s a really lovely, mostly off-road route, which takes you along the Bristol-Bath Railway Path, and then along the towpath, following the canal into Devizes. It turns out towpaths really take their toll on you when you spend the whole day on them! We rode about 55 miles in total, and while it’s not a ridiculous distance, I was pretty knackered afterwards. The last 12 miles from Bradford on Avon into Devizes is particularly narrow and bumpy.
We really should have left early in the morning, but decided to have a lazy start to the day instead, making a huge breakfast to fuel us: scrambled tofu with spinach and red pepper, spicy fava beans, mashed avocado and veggie sausages with toast and fresh tomatoes. The late return was worth it.
Setting off at around 1pm, we cycled to Bath along the Railway path, and then continued on the familiar route through Bath city centre. It’s a good one to start off with, while getting used to a new bike.
From there, we joined the towpath and followed the Kennet and Avon canal through to Bradford on Avon, and then onto Devizes.
It was such a beautiful route to take. It was busy with pedestrians on a sunny Sunday afternoon, but nothing we couldn’t handle. We made some stops for refreshments and allowed ourselves to just take our time and enjoy it.
After Bradford on Avon, the last 12 miles towards Caen Hill Marina were a little harder on the wrists. The towpath became very narrow and bumpy, with quite a few points where you could easily end up in the canal if you’re not careful! It also involves a few steep trips up and over bridges where the surface is very loose and rocky. I didn’t like that part…
It’s all worth it though. Once you pass Caen Hill Marina, you cross a bridge and follow the canal up, through the ‘passage to Caen Hill Flight’ and round a corner to be met with the most astounding view. 16 locks, ascending one after the other, and a lovely gravelly path to follow alongside them. It’s quite a unique sight.
I can’t imagine passing through that on a boat. You’d have to dedicate a whole day to just getting out of the marina!
Originally we’d planned to turn back and cycle down the hill, then come back the way we came. Instead we prioritised our rumbling tummies (it was 7pm by this point) and treated ourselves to some awesome pizzas in Devizes.
From there, we re-joined a different part of the canal and cycled into Chippenham to get the train. We went along the Wiltshire Cycleway and route 403, which was a fantastic ride: lots of lovely wooded areas, fine gravel paths and beautiful scenery.
I won’t lie; there was one section that spooked me, involving a long and gradual descent over very loose rock. I don’t do that well on a good day, let alone clipped in and on a brand new bike, with slightly thinner tyres than I’m used to. I don’t think Adam enjoyed my company at that point!
He was good to me though, he taught me to come out of my saddle, hold the handlebars loosely, let go of the brakes and allow the bike to just take me where it wanted to go. After a while I gained a little bit of confidence.
We climbed quite a huge hill, which allowed me to test out my new gearing ratio (thank goodness for the triple chain set). I sat in my granny gear and spun my way up the hill, admittedly huffing and puffing, but I got up there nonetheless!
We were rewarded with quite a breathtaking descent (on tarmac, thankfully), clocking around 60km an hour. I have to admit I was quite flustered by the bottom, but I kept up with Adam and only feathered the brakes occasionally when approaching a bend. I’m definitely getting much better at tarmac descents.
Unfortunately we were in a hurry to catch a train (which we subsequently missed), so there wasn’t time to take photos of this part of the ride. I definitely want to return to that route and do it in the daytime. We eventually caught a train at 10:15pm, and gratefully collapsed into the soft chairs as we were ferried back to Bristol.
All in all it was a lovely day out. It was nice to have some parts that were familiar, and then to go off adventuring in a new place. I love riding alongside the canal, because it’s just so picturesque.
The surface takes its toll on you, but as long as your tyres are up for the job, you’ll be fine. We did bump into a guy on a very racy road bike with skinny tyres, who’d gotten himself pretty lost. He passed us along a really bumpy part of the route, and soon turned back and passed us again. His was not the bike for the job.