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.

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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.

Wye Valley Loop

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.

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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!

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Tintern Abbey

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.

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The river Wye, as seen from Redbrook

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.

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Another shot of the Wye

Epilogue: The other reason I did this

So there was another reason I chose to do this ride today.

In a joint effort with The Adventure Syndicate and Cycling UK, I’ve organised a 100-mile ride as part of the Women’s Festival of Cycling. I’m still ironing out the route, but this was an opportunity for me to decide between two potential roads. I think I know which one I’m choosing.

Route details to come, but there’s a Facebook event for the ride. If you’re in Bristol, come join!

Full disclosure: I do not feel physically capable of doing a 100-miler next week, but hey ho. I made my bed. Now I better lie in it.

When it’s too hot to ride

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Picture: tampabay.com

It might seem blasphemous to some, but with the weather we’re having at the moment, I’m struggling to motivate myself to get out onto long rides.

I’m still commuting by bike, and I’m taking myself off for the odd pootle, but I think it’s important to know your limits and understand where you need to make some allowances, for the sake of your health and your sanity.

When it’s melting weather, I’ve found the best thing to do to keep myself pedalling is to plan an activity that I can handle in this heat, and then make the bike a means of getting there, rather than the centre of attention.

You may disagree with me, and that’s okay. I take my hat off to you if you can still throw yourself up hills while the sun is high in the sky.

However if like me, you want an excuse to pedal without melting, here are some ideas to get you doing just that.

Ride in the woods

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Picture: redwoods.co.nz

If you’re lucky enough to live near a wooded area, take yourself there with some thick tyres and a packed lunch. You’ll get a lot of shelter from the trees so the sun won’t be beating down on you, and you’ll get to ride around some beautiful bridleways.

Best bit: the sound of snapping twigs.

Take a dip in some water

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Picture: wildswim.com

Working up a sweat is fine when you’re going to reward yourself with a dip in some cold water very soon. Whether it’s a river, a lake, the sea, or your local swimming pool if that’s all that’s available… wear your swimsuit under your clothes, de-layer, and jump right in. You don’t even need to worry about getting changed afterwards, because you’ll dry off in no time.

Best bit: floating on your back with the sun on your face.

Find a beer garden

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Picture: thevictoriawestbury.co.uk

I’m not really a drinker, but I’m not averse to sitting in a beer garden with a pint of soda water. I like the atmosphere that comes with it, and there are plenty of country pubs that put a lot of effort into creating a serene outdoor space. And of course if beer or cider are your thing, go for it.

Best bit: there are usually dogs!

Ride to a museum or art gallery

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Picture: alifecurated.com

This one comes with two advantages: the acquiring of knowledge, and air conditioning. If you’re open to learning something new about the history of the local area, or see some works of art that move you, you can generally enjoy a free day out. Plus there’s always a café, and usually ample space for locking up your bike.

Best bit: if you’ve got company, you’ll have plenty to talk about on the way home.

Volunteer at your local community project

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Picture: facebook.com/thebristolbikeproject (spot me in the photo!)

I had to slip this in here. If you want to be surrounded by bikes, but not particularly riding them, why not pop down to your local community bike project and see if you can help out? They may have some workshops where you can tinker with old bikes, or work with members of the public and show them how to fix a puncture.

Best bit: giving something back to your community, while perfecting your tinkering skills.

Go for a spin class

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Picture: dashofwellness.com

I know. I hate myself for even saying it. But the fact is, if you really want to burn some calories while you pedal, but are averse to the heat outside, sign up for a spin class and do it in a room with air conditioning.

Best bit: you’ll have earned your ice cream.

Finally, some important tips on staying safe in the heat:

  • Drink plenty of water. Carry as many bottles as your bike can hold, and if you’re out for the day, fill them up at every opportunity. Generally staff in cafes and pubs are more than happy to help.
  • Add a pinch of salt to your water. You won’t taste it, and it will help replenish your body when you’re sweating a lot. I like to add a slice of lemon as well.
  • Pick your time of day wisely. If you’re only out for a short time, leave extra early in the morning, or go riding in the late evening, when the temperature’s at its coolest. Avoid riding in the middle of the day when the sun is high in the sky.
  • Wear sunscreen. Baz Luhrmann got it right. Keep topping it up.
  • Wear a cap. I won’t take part in the helmet war, but cover your head if you’re going to be out for a long time under the sun.
  • Eat ice-lollies. Yep. I don’t care how healthy you want to be. If you’re sweating buckets and you pass an ice cream van, just do it. You deserve it.

 

Saturday Independence Ride #1: Pill, Failand, Long Ashton loop

I said last time that I would start riding solo on Saturdays, as a way of building some independence and confidence on the roads. That’s exactly what I did at the weekend, though admittedly the ride wasn’t quite what I’d initially planned. A late night on Friday and afternoon plans for the Saturday meant that I was tired and on a time limit, so I decided to take it easy on myself. I definitely will ride to Westonbirt Arboretum, but perhaps on a day when I have no other commitments so I can actually get my money’s worth when I arrive.

This was my first time using the Garmin myself (Adam was in control last time) and I spent some time in the morning creating an almost-figure-of-8 loop on Ride with GPS which took me along some new paths but wasn’t too rigorous for my fragile state.

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It was about 20 miles, finishing in town so I could decide later on what I wanted to do. The idea was to go along the towpath along the Avon Gorge to Pill, which I was aware of but had never actually ventured down. I also wanted to cut through Ashton Court and cycle across the Clifton Suspension Bridge. After spending about an hour trying to figure out how to get my rides to show up on the damn thing (turns out if you rename the file without .gpx at the end, it changes the file type completely, making it unrecognisable to the device), I got moving.

To get to the towpath I had to cut through a cemetery towards Feeder Road, which gave me the creeps. I’ve noticed a lot of bike routes take me through there – is it acceptable to cycle through a cemetery? I always feel like it’s quite inappropriate. There were people visiting graves, and what not. I felt very intrusive.

I had to compete with some pretty fast moving traffic on the main roads after that, so it was a relief to turn off into Greville Smyth Park and onto the towpath towards Pill. It is absolutely stunning, I can’t believe I’ve never been down that way before! I was too busy enjoying it to take photos, unfortunately. That’s one lesson I still haven’t learned yet. Stop and enjoy the views (and then document them for the blog).

It’s an undulating shared path with a gravelly surface: perfect for confidence-building with Regina. It takes you along the River Avon, underneath the Suspension Bridge and all the way along the Avon Gorge.

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The towpath takes you along the bank of the River Avon, through the woodland on the right. Photo stolen from zzzone.co.uk

I had a couple of slightly surreal experiences along the way. The first was when I was taking a narrow part of the path quite slowly*, and became aware of a man running directly on my heels. When I turned to look at him, he reassured me that I didn’t need to let him pass, and that he was just going to run a little further before turning back. We exchanged pleasantries. He asked where I was riding to, and we talked about the towpath and how lovely it is. Then all of a sudden he wished me a good day and turned on his heels.

The second was when I descended a short, sharp decline and rounded a corner at speed, to suddenly be faced with a large group of hikers with matching bright orange hiking poles. They’d gathered together to consult a map, and upon seeing me, called “bike!” and parted to form a path down the middle. As I rode through them, they all smiled and cheered me along, in one of the weirdest accolades I’ve ever experienced (not that I’ve experienced many).

Once I arrived in Pill, the towpath ended and I joined a quiet road next to a fishing lake, climbing a hill that took me through some quiet residential streets. I cut through some local parks, keeping to cycle paths, and found myself faced with a couple of ridiculously steep and narrow uphill paths with chicane barriers at the bottom. This was the first awkward part of the ride where I had to dismount and walk.

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…No thanks. Google Maps doesn’t do the gradient justice. Also the path actually led to steps anyway!

At the top, I joined the Avon Cycleway and kept to the main roads from there, cycling to Failand and then through to Long Ashton. There was a mighty climb (466ft over 4.5 miles), which took me up to the most beautiful road, surrounded by woodland and bluebells. I wish I could have stopped to take a photo, because it was gorgeous. Unfortunately it was spoiled by the endless tirade of drivers who were in such a hurry to pass me, they squeezed through ridiculous gaps at high speed, putting me, themselves and oncoming drivers in danger. Impatient people in cars can really spoil a chilled out Saturday morning ride.

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Just an idea of what it was like… Stolen from Google Maps.

Moving on though, the mighty climb was followed by an even mightier descent (-433ft in 1.9 miles), and would you believe, I loved every second of it! I swear, when it’s smooth tarmac, I’m absolutely fine. It was awesome.

From there I’d planned to cycle through Ashton Court and over the Suspension Bridge, into Clifton and then into town. Unfortunately the Garmin sent me on a route that went through the deer park, which doesn’t have access to bikes. Second awkward moment dismounting the bike. In the end I decided to go it alone, and switched it off, only to find it froze, so I just rode on with a ‘save or discard’ screen staring back up at me the entire time.

Going the only way I was familiar with, I came out the other side of Ashton Court, along Festival Way, back through Greville Smyth Park and went into the town centre to get a mountainous box of falafel salad to take home. All in all it was a good ride.

I unfortunately won’t be doing much riding aside from commuting for the next couple of weeks, due to getting tattooed next weekend, and attending a wedding the weekend after. But they will be back, and I promise they’ll be longer and more challenging.

*A quick note. Not too long ago I became aware that I was struggling with uneven terrain namely because my eyesight is quite poor, and I can’t always see very far ahead to plan my route. I recently had my eyes tested and it turns out I have astigmatism in both eyes, with my right eye being particularly shoddy. I’ve been prescribed glasses, which I’m collecting on Friday this week. Hopefully after then, this won’t be an issue, and I can pick up the pace, and increase my confidence!

Weekend Round-up

I promised a big weekend of riding, and though not everything went to plan, it’s been a pretty fab one indeed, and I even managed to surprise myself.

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Full disclosure, we didn’t do the entire distance that we planned. Trying to figure out the new Garmin kept us up pretty late on Thursday night, and then delayed us by a further hour or two on Friday morning when it somehow lost the route we’d loaded. Setting out much later than we should have, and getting stuck on a horrible, busy A road halfway through, we arrived in Oxford around 6pm with 36 miles still to go. We decided to cut our losses and get a train to Beaconsfield, then cycled the final 10 miles in the dark, arriving at 9:30pm.

The ride itself was amazing, though! From Bristol to Swindon, the Garmin kept us on quiet country roads, cycle paths through parks, dirt tracks and bridleways. At one point we stumbled onto a dirt road that was actually in the process of being compacted. I was so grateful for Regina and her lovely thick tyres. Parts of it verged on mountain biking, even. It was brilliant fun, and the first proper adventure that I’ve taken her on.

Unfortunately things took a turn on the way out of Swindon. I’m not entirely sure what happened, but our Garmin reset its own settings, and locked us onto main roads. We found ourselves on a really ugly part of the A420 and stuck in a lay-by for about half an hour waiting for it to find its satellites and recalculate the route. In the end we turned it off and relied on Google Maps to get us the rest of the way to Oxford. Once we found our way back onto country roads, it became fun again.

One thing I love about cycling to Oxford is the descent down Cumnor Hill. While I’m not usually one to get excited about going downhill, it’s a brilliant way to end a long ride and get that last part finished very quickly! The other thing I love is finishing the ride with a chilli dog at the Gardener’s Arms on Plantation Road. Best food in Oxford.

We left the bikes in the shed on Saturday to give our bottoms a rest, but got back out on the road on Sunday to visit various relatives of Adam’s, and also to ride the lovely Pednor Loop, which is pretty much traffic-free and comes with some stunning views. Yesterday we decided to be kind to ourselves. We left at 7am, rode to Oxford and got the train back to Bristol. I’m glad we rode to Oxford again, as we got to do the part that we missed on Friday. I couldn’t have left this weekend without riding in the Chilterns.

The ride from Chesham to Oxford was really nice. The Chilterns are of course very hilly, and I knew there was a great big descent waiting for me down Kop Hill.

But now I’m going to shock you (and myself). All weekend I had to deal with big descents. Huge descents. Steep descents. Some in the dark. One had a red traffic light at the bottom while still on a steep gradient. After the first few I found my rhythm and I really started to enjoy them. On one hill we clocked a maximum of 65km/h. I’m really freaking proud of myself.

In total over the whole weekend I’d estimate that we rode around 130+ miles. It’s still the furthest I’ve ridden in that amount of time, and I’m really happy with how it went.

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Coming soon… Riding like a S.I.R.

I’ve decided that, providing I can get the Garmin working in my favour, Saturdays are going to become my day for riding solo. I’m dubbing these my Saturday Independence Rides (SIR) and this Saturday I’m planning a 40+mile ride to Westonbirt Arboretum and back. Stay tuned!

If you’re a woman cyclist in Bristol…

Final plug before I sign off. A bunch of us have organised a social this Thursday at Roll For The Soul, aimed at women cyclists of Bristol who want to meet other likeminded women, find riding buddies, learn about the various group rides and events coming up in Bristol, and just generally build a community (girl gang).

If you’re around, come join in the fun! Click here for details.

A wrong turn on the Mendips is no trifling matter

I’m really proud of myself.

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

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

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

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

The route

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

Challenge #1: Climbing Harptree Hill

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

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

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

Challenge #2: Into the abyss (Wookey Hole)

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That big bump in the middle… that be the Mendips

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

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

Lesson Learned #1: Get the right fit

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

Challenge #3: A missed opportunity

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

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

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

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This… not so much.

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

Lesson Learned #2: A blessing and a curse

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

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

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

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

Challenge #4: What goes up must come down

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

Final lessons learned

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

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

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

Flying solo for the first time

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I just need to work on my courage, somehow.

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