I’ve been a bit quiet lately for various reasons, but namely because I’ve allowed the run-up to the General Election to completely take over my thoughts.
I’ve spent so many hours scouring information online, campaigning on behalf of my chosen political party, and occasionally wallowing in a pit of despair when things seemed hopeless.
This morning we woke up to a hung parliament, and I’m sure I’m not the only one who breathed a sigh of relief. Don’t worry, I’m not going to get political on you (that’s why I’ve stayed quiet), but this moment of limbo has allowed me some headspace to think about other things.
Social media has proven to be both damaging and enlightening, these past few weeks. I’ve become increasingly aware that the more time I spend on Facebook, the more angry and disillusioned with the world I become. The same can go for Twitter, though there are still a lot of things that keep me going back there.
Instagram is proving to be my favourite channel these days. It fills my time with photographs of beautiful bikes, cycling kit, and incredible views that make me want to burst out of my front door, clip in, and go.
So in these uncertain times, let me leave you with some suggestions of accounts to follow, so you can feel as inspired as I do.
Amelie is working her way around the world, sometimes on the bike, and sometimes off. She picks up work as a freelance yoga teacher, photographer and graphic designer, as well as taking part in various work exchanges (where you work a certain amount of hours a day in exchange for accommodation and/or food). Her Instagram account is full of gorgeous photos from her travels, and provides me with so much inspiration for my own round-the-world tour one day.
I simply had to include The Adventure Syndicate. I’ve talked about them many times before, and you should know who they are. If not, go check out their Instagram account. It gives a fascinating insight into their many adventures, following all the Syndicaters in their own individual journeys as well as the group as a whole.
Remember that mountain biking weekend I don’t stop banging on about? This is who I went with. Despite coming away a little bit broken, I regret nothing, and I’m itching to go back and try again. Polly posts lots of photos from her rural Wales adventures, sometimes with her family, sometimes solo, and sometimes with the groups she leads. The scenery is always stunning, and it’s really lovely to see her children getting started on their MTB adventures already.
I’m so glad Adam told me about this account. Jasmine Reese is travelling around the world on a bike, with her violin and her dog in tow. Expect inspirational quotes, violin recitals, stories of the kindness of strangers who have offered their hospitality, and of course, photos of her adorable doggo.
Marijn de Vries, now retired from professional racing, is cycling around the world and sharing the most stunning photographs through her Instagram account. The scenery, the selfies… the cycling kit! Just gorgeous photos that will make you want to follow in her footsteps and experience the breathtaking views for yourself.
The SheWolves are a San Diego women’s cycling crew, and they look like they have a lot of fun. As someone who is currently part of an effort to create a badass girl gang within Bristol’s cycling community, I love seeing photos of their antics and feeling inspired to create a similar vibe in my own city. If ever there were a girl gang I’d go to great lengths to be part of, this would be it.
Speaking of girl gangs…
We held another Women and Bikes social at Roll for the Soul last night. It was a much smaller group this time, which afforded us the opportunity to get a conversation going about what we should do next.
I will be organising the first outing in the near future, and posting a poll in the Women Cyclists of Bristol Facebook group, to gauge what people want in terms of distance, pace, scenery and type of adventure. I’m totally up for camping. Just saying.
Keep your eyes peeled in the group, join it if you’re not in there already, and come ride with us soon.
This weekend I joined a group of very inspiring women to cycle around the Yorkshire Dales, in a ride organised by The Adventure Syndicate. There were about 20 of us in total, and while everyone’s experience varied (from those like myself, just starting out with long-distance riding, to Transcontinental riders and an actual Guinness World Record holder), the one thing we immediately had in common was our love for riding and our determination to get as much out of the weekend as possible.
There’s so much I could say about the amazing women (and singular male) I met this weekend, but I partly want (well, need) to use this space to process my feelings about how it went. So all I’ll say for now is that the group were incredibly lovely, supportive, and hugely motivating. Some of them got me through some tough times (detailed below), and made me feel so proud of what I did manage to achieve. Thank you all for being you, and don’t ever stop.
A physical and emotional rollercoaster
The physical aspect of this is quite obvious, really. If you’ve been to the Yorkshire Dales, you already know what it’s like to crane your neck and look up from the middle of the valleys. I did this several times, thinking ‘Christ, are we really going to climb that?’. The answer was yes, we really were.
If you read my last couple of posts, you know that I’ve been struggling to mentally prepare for this weekend. My problem is that I’m an over-thinker and over-analyser, and this extends to absolutely everything that may or may not affect me. When we were sent the routes, I studied them meticulously, scouring the climbs and descents, to get a feel for how scary they might be, and how I might fare whilst trying to navigate them on two wheels.
Despite promising to ride 200k, I hadn’t really taken the full extent of the hills into account, and I knew where my limits were. I’d had a couple of months of being ill, and was nowhere near ready for that ride, so I took the 92k option instead, which featured two significant climbs and descents:
Seasoned Yorkshire Dale riders will already be familiar with Park Rash, a notorious climb out of Kettlewell towards Coverdale, climbing 230m in 2.3k, with a max gradient of 25%. We were actually going to do this in reverse, descending into Kettlewell at the end of our ride, having first climbed Fleet Moss, further west.
Being a terrified descender, I became obsessed with the descent into Kettlewell. I looked at the varying gradients, I followed the route on Google street view, I studied photos people had taken, and I eventually became aware of a really hairy hairpin bend with a 25% gradient that made all my internal organs sink to the bottom of my torso.
So I spent the three days prior to going, torturing myself over this one part of the ride. ‘Obsessed’ just doesn’t cover it, I was beside myself with worry, and trying to find photos of every possible angle, to get a better idea of just what this bend was going to be like. I’m terrible at tight turns on the flat, let alone on a 25% gradient. I was so new to riding in the drops, I just didn’t feel capable of pulling it off.
My fear of this minute part of a huge descent was going to govern the entire ride. I’ll take you through the day in stages, organised into the many times I cried…
Cry #1: Climbing Fleet Moss
I only slept for a few hours the night before, and immediately when we started out riding, I could feel myself struggling. My legs ached early in the ride, my bike felt heavy and stiff (though that was probably me) and the distance between myself and the other riders quickly increased.
That morning at breakfast, Emily Chappell had told us all that “60% of you think you’re the slowest rider” … it turned out I was the one who was right! In hindsight I don’t mind this, but at the time when the climb up Fleet Moss was looming, I was extremely hard on myself. I kept checking my front brake because I was convinced it was rubbing and slowing me down, but it wasn’t. I was just tired.
As we climbed Fleet Moss (236m over 3.4km), I lost sight of the group completely. My legs screamed at me, inside my head I screamed at me, and eventually I broke down. Laura’s husband, Tim, who had been following behind, stopped at the same point that I began to weep in frustration and disappointment. At the time, I wanted him to ride on, because I felt ridiculous. But he got me up that hill. I will admit, I had to get off and walk the final part, because I’d done all that I could and had nothing left to give, and the gradient was very unforgiving.
I think the hardest part of this was giving myself permission to get off the bike. It was only the first third of the ride, and I’d already failed. But as soon as I allowed myself that break, I felt a sense of relief, and was able to get back on the bike when we finally reached the summit.
Cry #2: The descent into Hawes
You know what I’m like with descents. Imagine the fear and panic that started to set in as I finally reached that summit, only to really accept that I now had to get down.
I was still a bit of an emotional mess, my nerves were fraught, and I was trying to keep a brave face for the rest of the group. I was terrified of what was coming next. It wasn’t the descent I’d been obsessing over, but it was still a huge one.
Remember how afraid I was of descending into Wookey Hole? That was an average 6% gradient, 230m over 3.8km. From Fleet Moss to Hawes, it’s an average of 20%, plummeting 320m over 5.5km. I had never faced a descent of this kind before, and my next mental challenge was about to begin.
I am happy to say though, that this segment took a bizarre turn. As we set off, Hannah Reynolds talked me through the proper technique, and I got comfortably into my drops. Taking the first section steadily, the road opened out into a vast landscape which was breathtakingly beautiful. The road was straight, open, and traffic-free, and to my shock, I allowed myself to gain some speed and really enjoyed the ride down. It threw me, just how much fun I was having. It was the first time I felt that rush of wind through my hair, and the elation I was so convinced I’d never experience. It was also at this point that I cried for the second time that day, but it was tears of joy.
I was rewarded with a visit to the gorgeous and picturesque Hawes:
Cry #3: Panic attack at the pub
With the adrenalin still pumping through my veins, we took a relatively flatter, but still undulating route towards Middleham. The scenery was just beautiful, I’ve never seen so many lambs frolicking in my life, and this was the first chance I got to chat to some of my fellow riders. It was nice to finally relax and really start enjoying the ride.
We stopped at a pub for a well-deserved break, and that was when I decided to ask the dreaded question. I knew how much I’d suffered up Fleet Moss, and now that I’d enjoyed a hefty descent and the beautiful, rolling roads to Middleham, I was ready to quit while I was ahead. I asked if there was a bail-out option before the next climb, which I knew was on its way.
Unfortunately, I was too late. I hadn’t realised where we were on the map, but the only way back to the barn was over that final hill, with its terrifying hairpin bend on the descent. I nodded, and accepted this, and then took myself to the toilets to privately process my feelings, and really let myself feel them. It resulted in a full-blown panic attack, as it sank in that I could actually get very hurt attempting that bend. Hell, I could even die. That’s all I was thinking.
I really regret letting this get to me so much, because I missed out on the fun and banter that was going on outside in the beer garden. I really isolated myself from the group at this point, when I should have been listening to their stories and learning from their experience and insights. At the same time I just couldn’t hold back my emotions.
Before I knew it, it was time to set off on the final big climb of the day, towards Kettlewell.
Cry #4: The unexpected ending
I would love to say that I faced my fear head on, that I took it steady, used my body weight and line of sight to guide my bike slowly round the tight bend, and once again felt elated as I dropped away with that part behind me.
In fact, I wish I knew what I would have done, had things gone differently. I’ll actually never know whether I would have completed the ride, or whether I would have dismounted and walked that part.
After some hesitation, I began the descent at the back of the group, with Hannah by my side. It came in waves, so that every time the surface flattened out momentarily, I felt like an idiot for being scared of nothing.
Sure enough though, that sign warning of a 25% gradient came, and as we slowly approached what seemed to be a sharp bend with a chevron sign, we noticed two riders standing on the road, with their bikes propped on the grass. Hannah said she’d go ahead to see if they were okay, and told me to take as much time as I needed. As I approached them myself, I unclipped in anticipation, and Hannah told me to go and sit on the grass and chill out for a minute. After she disappeared round the corner, my companions informed me that one of our number – Susan – had come off her bike on the exact bend I’d been obsessing over.
I had to remove my shoes in order to gain some sort of traction on the tarmac, the road was so steep, and I went down to help when the paramedics arrived. She’d suffered a head injury and lost a fair amount of blood, though she was conscious and responding.
I had cry #4 when they started cutting off her brand new cycling kit. That was when she became the most responsive, trying to stop them. It was heartbreaking. We covered her in blankets to protect her modesty, since a queue of drivers was forming further up the road, waiting to be able to pass.
After some time, we all lifted her onto a stretcher and as a group, had to help move her to the back of the ambulance, fighting against gravity’s pull. They drove her up the hill to an air ambulance, and she was taken to Leeds Hospital.
We now know that she’ll be okay. She’s being monitored for a few days, because of the head injury, but despite her double vision she seems to be in good spirits. The rest of us had a whip round to buy her some new kit.
The ride ended there. No one really wanted to attempt that descent now, and a man with a large van had very kindly offered to transport Susan’s bike (with its snapped front wheel) back to the barn where we were staying, along with a rider and their bike. I was volunteered by the others to go back, probably because I’d been so nervous. I felt so guilty getting into the van, knowing that my companions would still have to negotiate the rest of the descent (albeit on foot if needed). But I was reassured that it would help them, to have Susan’s bike transported, so I accepted the ride and was driven back. The man, whose name was Jess, was incredibly kind, and helped me to unload everything when we got there. I’m very grateful to him.
Now that I know Susan’s going to be okay, I’m allowing myself permission to contemplate that bend, and ask myself what might have happened, had things gone differently.
I’d like to think that I would have very slowly attempted it, but I honestly don’t think that would have happened. The first time I walked around that corner and saw it (minus the fact that Susan was lying in the middle of the road), my reaction to the bend itself was gut-wrenching, and that wouldn’t have changed if the road had been clear.
I’ve forgiven myself for being so afraid, because I know that fear was well-founded. I just wish someone else hadn’t been hurt in order to prove that.
What I’ve learned is that I need to stop being so inquisitive. I like the fact that I’m an inquisitive person, and a critical thinker, and that I analyse things rather than taking them at face value. It’s a skill I worked hard to develop. However I ruined this weekend for myself, and that’s the truth.
In hindsight I know that I did have fun, and I came away from it wanting to do it again, but in real-time I wasn’t enjoying myself as often as I should have been. Perhaps on some level I felt like I was in competition with other riders, and felt the need to keep up with them, and becoming frustrated when I couldn’t. Perhaps I just felt fat and stupid, and completely out of my depth. Perhaps I did bite off more than I could chew. As Katherine so profoundly told me, I need to allow myself to be a beginner.
Had I gone into this weekend with less knowledge of what to be afraid of, I would have still struggled, but I would have struggled in blissful ignorance. At the same time, had I gone in without even looking at the routes, I may have come away even more annoyed with myself.
I need to find the right balance, between knowing what I’m getting myself into, and knowing when to stop investigating. I’m sure that’s something that will come in time.
In the meantime I’ve come away from this weekend with the following goals:
Get out on more long rides, to build strength and stamina
Ride alone more often, to develop a sense of independence
Ride with groups more often, to learn from others and gain confidence
Climb more hills, get out of the saddle more, and seek out challenges to practice over and over again
Same for descents: start small and push myself more each time.
This was a long one. If you made it this far, thank you.
First of all I wanted to share my experience at an event at the Specialized Concept Store this week, which was aimed predominantly at women who wanted to get out riding more. After this, I’ll share the real reason I went there.
Trying something new
On Tuesday this week, the Specialized Concept Store in Bristol held a women’s night, where they greeted us with goody bags, provided a sushi buffet and prosecco, and introduced us to a variety of things through workshops and stalls:
Breeze Network: There was a stall in place to introduce women to the Breeze Network and promote upcoming rides. I saw Heidi again for the first time since she taught me the basic techniques of mountain biking a couple of years ago.
Fixing a flat: I didn’t spend much time here as I already know how to, but they had a workshop demonstrating how to fix a puncture – a very valuable skill to have!
Try clipping in: There was a turbo trainer and an array of different sized shoes, to allow women to try clipping in for the first time. This is what I came for.
Facing my fears
I’ve already shared many fears with my readers. If anything you must think I’m a total coward, which to some extent I probably am! One of the things that scares me, which I haven’t talked about before, is clipping in.
The stationary bike was set up with road cleats, whereas I was more interested in mountain bike ones (they’re much better for walking around in because the cleat is recessed), but I decided to give it a go anyway.
I instantly saw the difference and knew that I needed them in my life. It’s easy to say that from the safety of a stationary bike, of course. What I liked was how they force your feet and legs into the correct riding position, which is something I can struggle with.
However I wasn’t sure about the amount of force I needed to unclip, and how unnatural the angle felt. It felt like a lot of effort, even when the tension was completely lowered. I’ve been reassured that it’s different with SPDs, which I’ll find out soon enough, because I bought some!
I’m both excited and terrified to take them for a test ride, but I will face my fears nonetheless.
This brings me nicely onto part two of this post: my reason for doing all this in the first place.
You may recall after my ride to Oxford, I allowed myself to be talked into signing up for a 200km audax. It turns out that said audax is fully booked, and while I’m on the waiting list, I didn’t hold out much hope of getting in.
In my impatience, I signed up for a 200km ride in the Yorkshire Dales with the Adventure Syndicate instead, which is happening towards the end of April. Ridiculously exciting!
This is why I felt like SPDs were the way forward – it’s a huge distance for me to attempt when I’m not very experienced at long rides, and I definitely think clipping in will help me ride more efficiently. It will also help with the hills, of which there will be many!
Unfortunately my body hasn’t really been on my side for a while, so my training for the event has been less than perfect. I’ve actually been ill for quite some time now, and while I’ve managed to get out on a couple of long-ish rides, generally I’ve not gotten to where I need to be to feel super confident about this. It’s difficult to find the balance between training and giving my body the rest it needs.
I’m planning to get out on a long ride this weekend, after spending a bit of time in the park getting used to clipping in (cue the spectacular falls).
As a final note, I wanted to acknowledge that the Specialized event was a great opportunity for networking, and I bumped into several familiar faces while meeting a few new ones as well.
In addition to Heidi, I also bumped into two other fellow Bristol bloggers: David (Wheels of Karma) and Katherine (Katherinebikes). I love how much of a community there is for cyclists in Bristol, and how I’m finally starting to feel that I have a place within it. I also bumped into a woman named Sara who I met through Facebook, but hadn’t met in person before. She’s a Deliveroo rider, and someone who has offered to help me get back into mountain biking. I’ll be taking her up on that offer soon, no doubt.
Finally I met Aoife Glass, Women’s Cycling Editor for Bike Radar. Having previously worked for Total Women’s Cycling, she really encouraged me to submit some articles and get my writing out there, which I think I may just do.
It was a really inspiring evening, and I feel so ready to get out there, start riding for longer, and push myself harder. It all begins this weekend. I’m ready. Let’s do this.
So I already told you I cycled from Bristol to Oxford on Saturday. I partly did it for fun but mainly did it because I was attending the Women and Bicycles festival, hosted by The Broken Spoke Bike Co-op. Now I’ve regaled you with my cycling story, it’s time to tell you what the festival was about.
Obviously, as I was cycling on Saturday, I only actually attended on Sunday. I was gutted to miss Saturday’s activities (panel discussions about making space for women in cycling and going places by bike, a key note by Rickie Cotter, and workshops including yoga, the science of saddlesore, fixing a flat and preparing for a long-distance bike journey). However, I don’t regret my decision to ride up on Saturday, because it was the only day when the weather was glorious, and if I’d attempted to ride there on the shitstorm that was Friday, I would have been put off riding long distances for life.
But I’ll tell you all about Sunday – or at least my experience of it.
Café Over Share
Sadly the day didn’t get off to a great start before we arrived, so we were late and grumpy. We were signed up for a yoga class, which we missed, and were late to the first workshop, which was called a Café Over Share. The idea was great – the room was filled with chairs split off into circular groups, and each circle had a selection of signs on the floor with different topics of conversation. They ranged from diarrhoea, to menstruation, to wild animal chases, to wild camping. The idea was you could join a group and have a conversation about topics that not everyone would normally be comfortable talking about.
Unfortunately because we were late, all the groups were fully immersed in their conversations and we found it very difficult to join in. Most of them were full, and only two had space. The first was labelled as ‘cycle training questions’, which wasn’t very relevant for us. The second had a variety of signs in front of it, but it turned out that the three women sitting there were actually conducting an interview and just using the space, and we were completely ignored when we joined them.
So yeah, honestly, the day didn’t start well. We felt a bit excluded, and didn’t really know what to do with ourselves. We wandered off to get a coffee and a slice of cake from a local café, and re-joined the festival after the session had wrapped up. It improved from there.
Panel Discussion: Cycling as a Family
This isn’t a relevant subject for us, but I was curious to hear what the panellists had to say, and Adam is really interested in all cycling developments, particularly when it comes to adjusting bikes to suit a specific need. It turned out to be a really thought-provoking and hilariously entertaining discussion. The panellists consisted of Josie Dew, Maryam Amatullah, Carolyn Roberts and Isla Rowntree.
Josie has cycled all over the world, covering a lot of ground with her children in tow, and has some very interesting approaches, including bungee cording them down, and riding a 4-bike tandem whilst towing a trailer. The school runs sound hugely entertaining. She also told some brilliant stories about how she tackles dangerous drivers, by telling her children to act irrationally and wave branches in order to prompt drivers to give them more space when passing.
Despite not having children or being remotely interested in them, I was surprised at how much I enjoyed listening to Isla Rowntree comparing balance bikes to stabilisers. To paraphrase, with stabilisers the child actually learns to ride a tricycle, and depends on turning the handlebars to steer. When the stabilisers are removed, they have to un-learn everything and learn to balance from scratch. Balance bikes, on the other hand, help young children get used to using their body weight to steer their bike, and when it comes to progressing to a ‘real’ bike, all they need to do is learn to pedal.
Having learned to ride a bike with stabilisers (as most people did), I reflected on this and realised that I had been riding my Ridgeback hybrid for three years, depending mostly on turning the handlebars to steer. Adapting to Regina and the forward-leaning position, I’m re-learning to ride, and learning to lean with my body to steer, in a way I never have before.
The Adventure Syndicate: North Coast 500
The pièce de résistance was the premiere of a film by The Adventure Syndicate, telling the story of their seven-woman team cycling the North Coast 500 in 36 hours. To say it was inspiring would be a huge understatement. I actually cried a few times. It was just so empowering to hear Lee Craigie and Emily Chappell talk about their ultimate goal: to get at least one rider around the full 518 miles in 36 hours, and how they worked together as a team to make that happen. They knew that individually they could all have made it, but that wasn’t the point of the ride. It embodied The Adventure Syndicate’s commitment to encourage and enable women ‘to identify their ambitions, overcome the obstacles that stand in their way, and make the most of their talent and potential.’
Watching the film made me want to ride the NC500 one day, though it’s a long way off. In the meantime I’ve signed up to their Yorkshire Dales Riding Weekend, which I’m super excited about.
The final part of the day I want to mention was also the highlight. I got to chat to Emily Chappell (who I was quietly fangirling over in the corner all afternoon) and got a lovely autograph in my copy of her book, What Goes Around: A London Cycle Courier’s Story.
I’m going to continue fangirling over her tonight in fact, as she and Lee Craigie are going to be at Roll For The Soul in Bristol from 7pm to talk about long-distance rides. You can grab your ticket here.
No doubt you’ll probably be hearing from me again tomorrow. This week has been a great bike-filled one so far!