Bike Park Wales

Sorry it’s late, but Happy New Year!

I’ve not gotten around to writing anything yet because I’ve made it my mission to get out and do a lot more things this year. That means running, meeting up with friends, doing daily yoga and, of course, riding my bike(s).

So, when you last left me, I was playing in the snow at Ashton Court. Now it’s 2018, I’m setting my sights higher.

That’s why at the weekend I went to… *drum roll*

BIKE PARK WALES.

Photo: Phil Hall

Holy crap. I’ve never had so much fun in my life.

I was taken, nay, escorted there by the lovely Aoife Glass and her partner, Phil Hall (who also doubled up as our personal paparazzi). They’re both much more experienced than me but they didn’t ditch me for the black trails! We allowed Phil some freedom to go and do some red trails, but Aoife stayed with me on the blue trails and was a great riding companion.

I was able to follow her line when I was unsure, and having her up ahead allowed me to assess her reactions to things that I couldn’t see yet. Plus, she gave me some great tips to help me improve my technique (more on that later).

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Photo: Phil Hall

I have to say, it was so much more challenging than I’d anticipated.

I wasn’t really aware of the fact that the grading of trails (blue, red, black) isn’t uniform across the board, but is dependent on what’s there already. I.e. what’s blue in one place can be red in another, if the first place is much more challenging. Blue demarcates the easiest trails there, but not all blues are created equal.

So for me, having only really acclimatised to the Nova trail at Ashton Court, I was in for a big surprise when experiencing the blues of Bike Park Wales. It was much more down-hilling; steeper and more undulating. At Ashton Court I can easily avoid rock gardens (which I have been doing to date), but at BPW there was no way around them.

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Photo: Phil Hall

Learning to trust

As I said in my last post, I have trouble riding off-road with my glasses. What with the downhills and the rush of air, I frequently experienced watery eyes and my vision became really blurry. Usually I can handle this, but I was in unfamiliar territory, and going at an alarming rate down the side of a very steep hill. With rock gardens. Big rock gardens.

So where I’d started to learn to trust my bike by going through the puddles on the Nova trail at Ashton Court, here I was forced to put my life in its hands, so to speak. There were moments where I felt I was losing control, but the surface just wasn’t meant for braking on, and I had to force myself to let the bike take me.

It was terrifying at times, but also thrilling once I came up for air and realised I was still upright. My bike was definitely put through her paces that day, and she handled it well.

 

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Finding a tribe

I’ve talked before about feeling the need to fit in, and categorise myself as a cyclist. Am I roadie? A tourer? A mountain biker?

One of the reasons I’ve reflected on this many times is that I often get asked, ‘what kind of cyclist are you?’ and I never know what to say. I’m a bit of everything, I guess.

But then a couple of days after BPW I went into work, excitedly told one of the mechanics (a mountain man through and through) all about my experience. I told him how much I was craving another go on the trails, and how cycling into work on my Dawes seemed so dire and dull in comparison. He laughed, looked at me, and said: “you’re a mountain biker”.

I have to admit, it felt good for someone to acknowledge me as part of their tribe.

Of course, I do still enjoy road riding, and riding long distances is something that really drives me to keep cycling. I’ll absolutely still do these things, but I know that it’s the trails where I’ll really feel the rush.

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Photo: Phil Hall

Paying attention

I mentioned earlier that I’m practising daily yoga now. This is partly to help myself become stronger, more grounded, and of course, more flexible. The other benefit I’m experiencing is that I’m becoming a lot more self-aware.

This really showed when I was plummeting down the trails. Unlike road cycling, where I very easily zone out and just keep pedalling, mountain biking forces me to concentrate, not only on what’s ahead, but what my body is doing at all times.

I found myself constantly checking my posture, technique, and analysing what I was doing well and what needed work.

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Photo: Phil Hall

This, plus Aoife’s advice, has helped me identify some key areas to practise:

  • I need to loosen up a bit. It’s clear from the photos that my arms are too straight, and my knees aren’t turned out enough.
  • Saddle height hasn’t really been something I’ve thought much about until yesterday. I now understand why people like a dropper seat post. I failed to lower my saddle before a big descent, and realised that I wasn’t able to lean back enough. It also taught me that my legs were too rigid, as I kept pinching the saddle between my thighs (to the point where I’m bruised there!).
  • I also need to practise braking with one finger instead of two (which is a terrifying thought). I noticed on the big descents that with only two fingers gripping the handlebars, I didn’t feel like I had enough control over the bike, and towards the end as I became more tired, I started to lose my grip altogether.
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Photo: Phil Hall

I have a long way to go but this early on, I’m really bloody proud of where I am.

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Oh, the weather outside is… delightful!

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Photo: Nikki Pugh

Despite being a generally cold country, and despite having a winter every single year, the UK just never seems to be prepared for the ‘adverse weather conditions’ when they arrive.

Yes, it’s that time of year. Snow has fallen, winter is looking beautiful, and the public transport system is in chaos.

I was supposed to be getting a coach to London today, but since they decided to close part of the M4, I would have spent around 4 hours getting there, only to be late to the CycleFox Christmas Market, and then spend another 4 hours to get back at stupid o’clock in the morning.

So, I made the difficult decision to not go, and instead went to play in the woods with Adam, Lucy, and her friend Nikki.

Because, snow.

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Smiles all round! Lucy, Nikki and Adam.
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Proof that I was there too. Photo: Nikki Pugh

I’ve discovered that mountain biking in the snow may just be my new favourite thing to do.

We met in Ashton Court at the start of the Nova trail, and took each section at our own pace. I started off slower than the others (though I was stopping to take photos at first), but later on I was able to keep up with Nikki, which was reassuring.

We then progressed over to Leigh Woods, which I’m less familiar with, and did a bit of Yer Tiz. By that point though, it had already been well over an hour, and none of us could feel our fingers and toes, so we decided to quit while we were still having fun.

I actually found my confidence really grew today. I focused on my cornering technique, and found I was really able to power through some of the bends. I also found it easier with the big, deep puddles, which sounds counter-intuitive, but it helped me stop worrying about picking out a line, and just put some trust in my bike. It worked every time, though I don’t know if I’d have this same trust on an unfamiliar trail.

And… and! I even attempted part of the red trail. Whilst practically blind. I consider myself suitably challenged today. I couldn’t do the whole lot, but I did about half of what the others did. Once I saw Adam and Lucy slipping and sliding over a steep, rocky part, I backed out and cycled to the top of the hill to wait for them. Perhaps I could try that part another day when it’s dry, and when I can actually see where I’m going.

Yeah, I was practically blind due to my glasses steaming up. I think I’m going to try and wear contact lenses, because it was quite terrifying when I couldn’t see properly.

Also I definitely learned that I need to invest in some decent waterproof socks. My poor toes were not very happy afterwards. In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever been so cold in my life, and when we got back and changed I thought I’d never warm up again.

Not much else to say, other than it was super fun, and absolutely beautiful. So here are some pictures of the snowy trails.

 

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Now, go ride.

Back in the saddle, back in the mud

Sorry it’s been a while. Multiple things have resulted in me only really riding to commute for the past month or so, and therefore not really having a lot to say. I don’t just want to spew out some garbled train of thoughts here, I want to talk about things that I think are worth talking about.

So I’m back, because I have something to tell you!

Those of you who have been reading this blog for a while, will already be aware of the fact that I’ve been wanting to ease myself back into mountain biking, despite my confidence issues relating to a previous crash.

Now the time has come. Meet Phoebe, my new Cotic BFe.

Before you gasp that I’ve acquired yet another bike, I have had to make a rather difficult decision. I can only justify it to myself by operating on a one-in-one-out system, and so I said an emotional farewell to Regina.

This has been tough, because I have a real sentimental attachment to my Orange RX9. We’ve had some awesome adventures together, including riding to Oxford, around the Yorkshire Dales, and the Mendips.

Regina is a super fun bike to ride, and she is very distinctive to look at. She’s become an iconic part of my blogging identity within Bristol’s cycling community. People have recognised me from the bike I’m riding.

But the fact is this: she’s a CX bike. She deserves to be racing through the mud.

When I got her, I was upgrading from the same Ridgeback hybrid (RIP Ripley) I’d been commuting on for three years. I wanted something affordable, with a racier riding position, drop bars, and disc brakes. She was one of the few options available in my size, and she came with Crosstop levers, which helped me transition to the hoods comfortably. She was exactly what I needed.

But now I have Dori as my go-to bike. A touring bike is perfect for year-round all-weather commuting. When I got her, I told myself that Regina would still be a weekend fun ride. She ended up living in the shed instead.

Back when I was musing about the need to fit in when it comes to various cycling categories, I toyed with the idea of trying out cyclocross at some stage, without fully understanding what it was. I know what it is now, and while I know it looks incredibly fun, to me it really is just a race. Unfortunately I’m not motivated by racing. I like mucking about, and being able to take my time when I encounter something technical.

I liked the idea of getting into CX, but was massively put off by the fact that in order to do so, I pretty much had to just turn up to a race and jump straight into the deep end.

The main thing that appeals to me about CX is the mud. I like being off-road and getting dirty. So it just makes plain sense for me to spend some time on the trails and do them in my own time, gradually building my confidence. And not only this, I want to do it with a bit of front suspension.

So I’ve exchanged Regina for Phoebe, and I honestly don’t regret it.

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I’ve been out for a couple of rides now – one with companions, and one alone. I feel so incredibly proud of myself, to have moved on from the trauma of my crash and get back out on the trails. I’ve been craving a chance to get back out into the woods, and I’m planning to do this as often as possible.

(She says, sitting in her pyjamas at her laptop when the sun is shining outside).

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I just fucking love being in the woods.

I love being surrounded by trees. I love the splash of mud against my shins.

Since I’ve talked to my colleagues about it (most of them being MTB enthusiasts), I’ve been inundated with recommendations of awesome places to go riding in the local area and also in South Wales. I have every intention of branching out as soon as I can, but for now I’m trying to be sensible.

I’ve learned from my past experiences, and I know where my limits are. For now, I’m planning to make a (hopefully) weekly trip to Ashton Court to do a lap or two of the blue Nova trail. I’ve ridden this a few times before, and I like the idea of getting to know a trail and building my confidence first, before branching off.

When I went riding with companions, I was led through Leigh Woods and the 50 Acre Wood, and I’ve had a taste of what’s to come. It’s exciting, but I’m taking my sweet time. I don’t want to end up in the middle of the 50 Acre Wood alone, lost, and suddenly encountering something I’m not ready for.

So here’s to more mud, more confidence, and more MTB.

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If you’re not dirty, you’re not doing it right.

Taking Dori off-road

I told you that I’ve been allowing myself some play time on the bike. I also mentioned that my confidence and skill level has really started improving.

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’m so bloody proud of myself.

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Photo: mbswindon.co.uk

Time to Play

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

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Photo: robbholman.com

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.

Track standing

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Photo: bikesafeboston.com

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.

Riding one-handed

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Photo: wikihow.com

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.

Riding no-handed

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Photo: bikelah.com

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

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Photo: cyclingweekly.com

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

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Photo: bikeforest.com

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!

 

 

 

Dismounting

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Photo: downtownexpress.com

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.

 

 

 

 

 

Bunny hops

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Photo: mbr.co.uk

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.

August Adventure, Day 2: New Forest to Steyning

If you missed part one, click here.

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.

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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!

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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.

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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.

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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!

 

August Adventure, Day 1: Bristol to the New Forest

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:

Route

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.

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En route we stopped off in Westbury to take a look at the Westbury White Horse, one of the oldest in Wiltshire.

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.

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We’re just so mature.

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.

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Salisbury Cathedral

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.

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We thought it was lavender. It wasn’t.

Eventually we arrived at a campsite in Ashurst, where we were finally able to shower and rest.

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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.

#WednesdayWisdom: Pass it on (Part 1)

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.

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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.

#1

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.

#2

The second came from Eleanor Jaskowska.

Again, this was in one of my moments of freaking out. This time, it was in anticipation of riding 100 miles for the first time.

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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!

#MondayMotivation – Cycling as Meditation

My head is a rather chaotic place.

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.

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Century Riding: The Extended Cut

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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.

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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.

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Photo credit: Lucy Greaves

Miles 1-25

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.

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There’s another bridge in the background, somewhere

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.

Miles 25-50

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.

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Photo credit: Lucy Greaves

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.

Miles 50-75

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.

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IMG_20170717_142011_063Another 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.

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Photo credit: Lucy Greaves

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).

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Miles 75-125

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.

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Photo credit: Lucy Greaves

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.

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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.