I’m off the bike this week, due to being brutally wounded (tattooed) at the weekend. I’m almost healed and ready to get back on the road, but in the meantime I’m letting myself recover and reflect.
I’m really conscious that when I first started this blog, it was about learning how to fix bikes, and my time volunteering with The Bristol Bike Project.
While I do still volunteer with the BBP, and I am still learning how to fix bikes, the actual cycling aspect seems to have taken over my posts as I’m sure you’ve noticed.
Cycling as a sport or hobby is probably the first thing I’ve tried out, not been very good at, but stuck at and continued to progress. I’ve got a long way to go, but I’m proud of what I’ve achieved so far, and know that I can go further if I keep at it.
Anyway, I know that what I initially promised with this blog has organically evolved into something else. I’d like to know what you think – are you happy with the way it’s evolved, or do you wish I’d stuck to my original purpose? Do you like how it is now or do you want to see something different?
I really appreciate every single person who reads my blog, whether you comment or not, and I want to make sure that you’re getting what you want from it. Please could you take 30 seconds to give me some feedback? I was going to insert a poll but apparently the internet doesn’t want me to, so please leave answers in the comments:
What are your thoughts on my content?
I’d like more about bike maintenance
I’d like more about cycling
It’s fine as it is
I’d like something different (please leave more details in your comment)
Riding around Bristol now, you can’t help but notice the flashes of yellow. Casually dressed cyclists pass by, sitting upright, Dutch-style, on these distinctive cruiser bikes with 26” solid rubber wheels, high handlebars and ‘join a Cycling Revolution’ printed on their frame signs.
Naturally I had to have a go, so last weekend while we were in town, we decided to hire a couple to ride home. This was partly because my feet had been torn to shreds by evil flip-flops, and partly so we could be naughty and pick up a Chinese takeaway on the way home. Ssh.
How YoBike works
Unlike its London counterpart, YoBike doesn’t require bikes to be docked in terminals. You’ll find them spread throughout the city, propped on their kickstands in pre-approved public parking areas.
All you need to do is download their app, create an account and enter your card details. Your first ride is free, and after that it’s £1 for every hour you have the bike.
Simply find an available YoBike, select ‘Unlock bike’ on the app and scan the QR code on its rear lock. You’ll need to have your location settings and Bluetooth switched on. The bike will automatically unlock, and now it’s available to ride. Quick release skewers allow for a swift saddle height adjustment, and then you’re good to go!
Once you’re done, you need to leave the bike at one of the approved public parking spaces, highlighted on the map. If there’s nothing near you, you can park them in a public bike parking area (where there are racks), and send a couple of photos, along with the location details to the YoBike team, so they can add the area to their map. Select ‘End journey’ on the app, and the bike will automatically lock. It’s pretty nifty.
Within the app you’ll find an interactive map of the city, which points out the locations of all available YoBikes, and the areas where you can leave them. Their zone coverage seems to be pretty good as well. We saw bikes left outside the UWE campus near Filton, and we were able to cycle them home to Kingswood, which is about 5 miles from the city centre.
Square one wobbles
I have to say, I’m not very experienced when it comes to riding many varieties of bikes. Now that I’m so used to being in the racier position that Regina puts me in, returning to an upright position threw me a bit! The handlebars are very wide, and raised really high above the stem, so it has that feel of a Dutch bike (which personally I’m not a fan of, but it will appeal to many).
It’s always like riding a bike for the first time, and I started off quite wobbly! It took me most of the journey to adjust to the upright position and the sensitivity of the steering. I’ve gotten so used to steering with my body, so it was strange to go back to steering with the handlebars. However I can see that this will work really well for people who don’t normally cycle, and will be familiar to those who are used to hiring town bikes in large cities.
The only misgiving I’d raise really, is that they’re not ideal bikes for the hills of Bristol, having just three gears. Riding up the Bristol-Bath Railway Path towards home, it’s only a gentle incline but I found myself working up quite a sweat in the middle gear. I can imagine a lot of people who live in uphill areas, such as Clifton and Redland, may hire these bikes to cycle down into town, but will be unlikely to ride them back up again towards home! This could result in some uneven distribution of bikes, though perhaps the YB team are aware of this and will re-disperse them. I know they’re very quick to respond to misplaced and abandoned bikes, thanks to their in-built GPS trackers, so they’re definitely out on the roads.
The most interesting part of that journey was realising that I felt a bit like an outsider.
It’s not like I felt as though I was the butt of any jokes, but I was very aware that the bikes drew a lot of attention from the more ‘serious’ cyclists, and a few knowing smiles. Lacking a helmet, wearing flip-flops, and being ever so slightly wobbly as I adjusted to the unfamiliar riding position, I can only imagine what I must have looked like.
It’s certainly made me more aware of the judgements we’re very quick to make about other cyclists. After all, while YoBikes certainly will appeal to those wanting to get into cycling without yet investing in their own bike, it also makes for a really convenient way to get somewhere when your other transport plans haven’t panned out.
If the buses aren’t running properly (do they ever run a good service in Bristol?), it’s much cheaper and quicker to jump on a YoBike. You won’t be prepared with a helmet, and you may not have the most practical shoes, but you’re as much a cyclist as the guy in lycra next to you at the lights, smiling with an air of ‘aww, bless’.
It’s a great scheme, and has been a glaring omission from Bristol until now. It’s exactly what’s needed to get would-be cyclists out of their cars and onto two wheels. Long may it continue.
About a month ago, a meeting was called. El gathered a bunch of women cyclists together in the upstairs area of Roll for the Soul, to discuss the lack of community among the women cyclists of Bristol.
We agreed that there are plenty of women cycling in Bristol now, and it was time to create a feeling of cohesion among us. We all brought forth ideas, from putting together women-only day rides, to weekend camping adventures, and drinks socials.
We held our first social on 11th May, and I’m really pleased to say that it was a big success! There was a great turn-out, taking over the downstairs area of RftS, where women mingled, drank beer, ate awesome veggie food and got to know their fellow lady riders.
We paused the chatter to have a group-wide discussion, which gave people the platform to promote their own events and groups, and show everyone what’s already available to get involved in. I’ll list these here.
They’re not all women-only, so lads, you’re allowed to join in too (unless we say otherwise):
Food Cycle collect waste food from local businesses by bike, and distribute it to various charities and local ‘skipchens’ for use.
They also cook and serve their own community meals across the UK.
If you have time during the week (or on a Saturday morning), they’re always looking for volunteers to cycle around the city with a trailer and collect food that’s been pre-agreed with the businesses involved.
It’s a lovely way to cycle around the city and give something back to the community.
Women Cyclists of Bristol – Closed group for women cyclists, to discuss anything we wouldn’t talk about in a mixed group (from street harassment to periods). They also have their own Twitter account and email address, where you can get in touch if you need advice or want to share something with other women cyclists in the city.
Bristol Biking Bitches – This group is full of women who love to get out on their bikes as much as possible, and frequently post in the group to invite others along for the ride. Full of roadies and MTBers, they’re a great group to be part of if you want to go riding with some company.
I wasn’t taking notes on the night, so naturally I’ve probably forgotten a few things. If there’s anything I should add to this, please let me know.
The next social will be at Roll for the Soul at 7pm, on Thursday 8th June. Hope to see you there!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
This might be a bit of a downer, so I’ll keep it brief. I just need to break the silence, as I’m conscious that I’ve not written anything for a while, and sometimes it helps to process my feelings through the medium of writing.
I’d love it if all I ever wrote about was epic bike rides through the countryside and fiddling around with bottom brackets, but that’s just not the way I roll.
I’ve spoken extensively before about the fears that govern the way I ride, and I’ve been having to deal with some pretty heavy mental barriers this past week. The 200k ride around the Yorkshire Dales is one week away, and suddenly I feel sick to my stomach.
I’ve been trying to get out as much as I can at the weekends, to get some miles in and do some so-called ‘training’ for this ridiculously steep learning curve I’m about to embark upon. But the fact is, life gets in the way. Last weekend was all about looking at bikes rather than riding them (hello, Bespoked), and now we’re at a lovely 4 day weekend, I should in theory have racked up some miles already, right?
Wrong. I literally spent the whole of yesterday lying on the sofa drinking endless cups of tea and eating pastry after pastry while watching Rick and Morty. Today I rode a mile up the road and left my bike at a friend’s house. Later I’ll grab it so I can ride into town.
I guess what I’m getting at here, is my motivation is starting to sag a little. Adam and I have talked about going for a long ride tomorrow, but have yet to settle on a route.
What’s holding me back is that every route option I’ve come up with, contains something that terrifies me. Think sharp inclines, followed by sharp descents. You know what I’m like.
Adam keeps saying (rightly so), ‘there are hills in the Yorkshire Dales, you can’t avoid the hills’. I know I can’t avoid them, but I’m scared. That’s all it really comes down to. I’m scared of being out in the middle of nowhere, exhausted, with no energy left in my legs, facing a huge climb that I physically can’t do, and feeling like a big fat failure as I get left behind.
I’ve got my SPDs now, and I know how to ride clipped in. I also understand the concept behind how they give you much more efficient power usage, by using an up-pull as well as a down-push motion. That’s all very well, but I haven’t spent much time riding like that. Those muscles haven’t had time to develop. I had a go at climbing Park Street – a climb I do with ease every day on my commute – and I exhausted myself before I was even halfway up. What chance do I stand in the Yorkshire Dales?!
I signed up for the 200k ride because when I first heard about it, I’d just ridden 130k to Oxford, and it was nearly two months away. I wasn’t to know that I’d spend the following two months dealing with a cycle of illnesses which led to bouts of exhaustion. I thought I’d just keep riding for longer and longer.
The opposite has happened, and I feel less fit than I was before simply because I’m using my legs in a way that I never have. That, and my body hasn’t been very good to me for a while. Now it’s a week away, and I am freaking out.
At the risk of descending into a rant, I want to reflect on a recent experience that left me exasperated, because it highlights the importance of finding the right people to ride with, so you get the most out of your group riding experience.
I want to go on more group rides. So far I’ve been on a couple of Breeze rides, a couple of social rides with my fellow Bristol Bike Project volunteers, and of course, the monthly Critical Mass, which is always huge fun.
I decided to go along to a 40-mile group ride on Sunday – I won’t name the group I rode with – and can certainly say I learned a lot from the experience. I’m sure there will be plenty of people who read the following and nod their heads, thinking ‘this is absolutely the right way to ride as a group’. Others will shake their heads and feel as perplexed as I do.
This isn’t a post about the right or wrong way to ride in a group. I don’t know the right way to ride in a group, because I’m not part of any cycling clubs. I just know how I feel about what happened on Sunday, and want to reflect.
Riding as one
This isn’t specific to the group, and in fact it also relates to some previous rides I’ve been on. In my opinion, a group should ride at the pace of their slowest rider. Otherwise, they become disjointed and the riders at the back can be left feeling excluded and alienated. Furthermore, it’s the job of the ride leader to make sure that everyone in the group reaches each checkpoint before moving on. To me, this seems basic.
On Sunday, our group was extremely disjointed. Before setting out, our ride leader asked for someone to volunteer as a back marker, and a lady immediately offered herself up, stating that she should because she was the slowest. Red flag. She spent the whole day miles behind us, riding alone for a lot of it.
If a group rides together, there should be no need to stop at certain checkpoints to re-group, but this isn’t always the case. Our ride leader would advise us of the next point where we would regroup, and then set off at his own pace.
That was, until he stopped waiting for us at the checkpoints. We reached a point where, upon arriving in Bath, our ride leader was nowhere to be found. A couple of other riders were waiting for us there, and told us where the next checkpoint was, passed down from him before he’d moved on without them.
It was at this point that I remembered at the start, he gave out his phone number and stated “we have lost people before”, and suddenly it all made sense how. To me, this is not how you lead a ‘group’ ride.
As we were riding along the Bristol-Bath Railway Path, I started to notice a pattern in the way one of the riders used her bell. At first, she was the only one, and I assumed it was just her way of riding. Whenever we approached pedestrians, or were about to overtake some cyclists, she rang her bell twice.
This didn’t bother me at first. I understand it’s helpful to alert people to your presence. However after a while, a lot of the other riders started doing it. I put this down to the group splitting up; at first she rang on behalf of the whole group, but once we separated into smaller units, each unit gained at least one self-certified bell-ringer.
While bells are there for a reason, they can come across as aggressive if overused. Eventually the group took me to my wit’s end with their incessant ringing. They didn’t just ring politely ahead of time to alert pedestrians to their presence. They waited until they were practically on their heels, and then rang several times to move them out the way. Groups of two or three riders together would ring at the same time.
There were multiple occasions on the towpath (which is extremely narrow and was heaving with people enjoying the sunshine), where I encountered very ratty and hostile people who didn’t want to let me past, because they’d just been harassed by a hoard of bell-happy cyclists ahead of me.
For those of you familiar with the path, you’ll know that there are several bridges with single-file only pathways and restricted views of the other side. At one point as we approached a bridge, three riders in front of me gained on a pedestrian couple who were about to walk under the bridge. Instead of slowing and waiting, they all rang their bells multiple times, forcing the couple to step aside and let them through. As you’d imagine, one of them became very hostile towards the group, swearing at us and claiming right of way. This was met with dismissive comments among the riders: “oh dear, was there an altercation with an angry pedestrian?”
I use my bell sparingly. If I’m approaching a large group of people and there’s limited passing space, I ring my bell ahead of time, to alert them of my presence and give them time to shift over a bit and let me pass. I ring my bell if approaching a narrow underpass with only room for one person at a time, in case someone is approaching from the other side. Or, I occasionally ring my bell if approaching a person with misbehaving children or multiple dogs, in case they’re too preoccupied to know I’m there. Again, I leave plenty of time for them to become aware of me, and choose what to do with that information.
If I’m approaching a couple walking side by side and need to overtake, I don’t ring my bell. Instead, I call out to them: “Just to your right”, or the timeless classic: “Excuse me, please”. It’s not difficult to do. It establishes a rapport. It’s personal. To them, you become a fellow human being on a bike, rather than a silent bell-ringing wheel-mounted lunatic.
What annoyed me the most on that towpath was that I was riding ahead of one of these bell-happy groups, who were very close behind. If ever I approached some pedestrians, before I got the chance to call out to them, my companions rang their bells on my behalf. As I noted earlier, some of these people had already been hassled by hoards of bell-ringers. Needless to say, these people then thought it was me ringing at them, and diverted their hostility towards me. Thanks, guys.
Name that thing
As I said before, I’m not an experienced group rider, but it’s my understanding that there are times when it’s appropriate to call out to your group to warn them of a hazard. For example, if you’re riding along a country road and a car approaches in the opposite direction, you’d call out “car down” to alert riders behind you so they can get into single file. The same goes for a car approaching from behind, and “car up”.
I can get on board with that. That makes sense. It keeps the group safe.
What doesn’t make sense, and has no bearing on the group’s safety whatsoever, is to call out “bike down” and “bike up” for literally every other cyclist ON A TWO-WAY CYCLE PATH.
I mean, really? Seriously? Don’t you have anything better to do?
What purpose can it possibly serve, to let the riders know behind you that other cyclists are approaching in a separate lane? If you’re riding two abreast in a group, then fair enough. You need to tell the others to move over. But this wasn’t the case.
This was when we were riding through the Two Tunnels Greenway, which you ride in single-file because they are in total darkness. You expect other riders to come in the opposite direction, many without lights, and you ride in single file. If you’re riding two abreast in those tunnels and feel the need to call out approaching cyclists, you must be an idiot with a death wish.
What’s more, they not only called out every single cyclist in an enclosed, echoey tunnel with acoustics that carry, so everyone else can hear… they also called out things like “cyclist down, no lights”. To me, all this does is call another person out on a mistake they’ve made, and make them feel bad about it. It’s just not necessary. Play nice.
On a lighter note, once we caught on that this was happening, Adam made me laugh hysterically by calling out “dog up” for a dog that was miles away. We continued to play ‘name that thing’ for the rest of our time with the group.
If there’s any purpose to this post other than venting my frustrations, it’s to say that if you decide to get out on some group rides, take the time to find a group of people you can ride happily with. Everyone is different, and groups vary in their etiquette and habits. Make sure the group is for you, and if it’s not, find a way to excuse yourself and try a different one.
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’ve mentioned a few times now that I had a mountain biking accident a couple of years back. Woe is me, cue the violins.
I promised to explain what happened, because it’s wholeheartedly at the root of all my fears around descending, and those fears tend to govern everything I do when I’m on the bike.
Basically a couple of years ago I saw a Facebook ad for Mountain Yoga Breaks, and I thought it sounded amazing. Spoiler alert: it was. It was a weekend of mountain biking around the gorgeous Elan Valley in Powys, Wales, with two daily yoga sessions to start the day and wind down. Polly, who teaches the yoga and co-leads the rides, is well versed in the poses best suited for stretching out all the right muscles post-ride. If this sounds like your bag, I highly recommend it. I actually bumped into her in Oxford a couple of weeks ago, where she taught a Yoga for Cyclists class at the Broken Spoke Women and Cycling Festival.
The one detail I neglected to consider was that I’d never been mountain biking before, nor had I ever considered how technical and dangerous it could be. Nonetheless, I contacted Heidi Blunden, who I’d met on a Breeze ride previously, and she took me through the basics for a couple of hours at Ashton Court, which was a lot of fun. I was nervous as hell but I felt well equipped to give it a try, and a couple of weeks later I was on a train to Llandrindod Wells.
Honestly, it’s a gorgeous weekend away. The Elan Valley is stunning, they hire out the Elan Valley Lodge so the group has the whole grounds to themselves. Food is provided, including a packed lunch and snacks to take out on the ride, yoga is upstairs in the morning and evenings and everyone has their own en suite room.
The people I met were lovely. There was a mixture of experience among the group, including many really experienced mountain bikers, and other newbies like myself. On the first day we all set out together as a group and were tested very quickly on our abilities. Over the course of the 7-hour ride, it became clear who amongst the group needed more tuition and easier routes than others (myself included). We split up into two groups towards the end to allow the more experienced (or just braver) riders the opportunity to do a really technical and fun descent. I was not part of this group.
I found the first day really fun and challenging, and in some places really scary. Particularly at the beginning, when everything felt unfamiliar and I forgot everything Heidi had taught me because I could concentrate on nothing but my fear. But I did start to get over it, and towards the end of day one I was gaining some confidence and really enjoying myself.
On day two Polly and Phill (the other ride leader) decided to split us into two groups for the whole day. Phill took the more experienced riders on a more challenging route while Polly took those of us with less experience on an easier route which included some on-road as well as off-road riding. By that afternoon I was feeling really confident. I was having a lot of fun, my technique was starting to come along and it was starting to feel quite natural. I felt in control of my bike and my speed, and I was absolutely loving the views.
Unfortunately I came down from my high pretty quickly. Right towards the end of the ride, we were descending quite a significant downhill, with loose gravelly terrain. It was one of those downhills which levelled out every now and then, giving you an opportunity to brake and rein in your speed before the next part of the descent. It was also the type of downhill that had a narrow path, and was flanked with bushes, so the path ahead wasn’t always that visible.
So, for the most part, I did well to keep my speed in check. I used the flat parts to brake, and I remained in control of the descents. I was feeling confident and I was enjoying myself. Eventually I saw the path open out into a longer, flat surface. It was still surrounded by bushes but it looked like we’d reached the bottom. In my elation at having completed a scary descent, I forgot to brake when I reached the bottom, only to find that it then opened out onto another downhill. I wasn’t ready. I was hurtling down at an uncontrollable speed and gaining more as I went. I tried to feather my brakes as we’d been taught but by this point it was too late and completely ineffective.
In the end I panicked. I pulled hard on the brake levers, and I accepted that I was going to come off the bike. It slid out from underneath me, and I proceeded to roll down the rocky hill. All I really remember from that sensation was that I felt a rock hit me hard in the chest, which winded me. I just rolled and felt like I was going to die.
Eventually I stopped, and I just lay still for a moment before the awful pain in my chest suddenly hit me. All I could do was start wailing; partly to get help from Polly, who was behind me somewhere, and partly because it was literally all I could do. The pain and the panic took over. She found me soon after, administered some first aid, and checked me over. ‘Oh you poor thing,’ she said, ‘you’ve landed in the nettles’. I looked around and realised she was right. I was lying in the middle of a bush of stinging nettles, and hadn’t even noticed because of the adrenalin. Needless to say, not long after that, my skin was on fire.
It could have been much worse, I know. Nothing was broken, and I got away with some scrapes, bruises and stinging nettle rashes. But that moment when I knew I’d lost control of the bike, the sudden momentum as I gained unwanted speed, the acceptance that it was over… it was traumatic for me.
It turned out where I’d fallen was also pretty much at the bottom of the hill, and all that was left was a flat ride on a cycle path back to the lodge. I wiped away my tears and reluctantly got back on the bike, and pedalled very slowly back to the comfort of my bed. The yoga session that evening was a challenge for me, as I had open wounds on my knees and elbows, making some of the poses difficult.
I’m glad it happened at the end of the weekend, because had that happened earlier on, I probably wouldn’t have gotten back on the bike. I probably would have gotten an early train home. Instead, I got to have a really fun and scary weekend, before the fun was over. Admittedly I didn’t really get back on the bike after that, and haven’t really given mountain biking a second chance since then. But I’ve reached a point where I think I’m ready to try again. Regina has helped me to become braver, and I’ve started pushing myself more, particularly on the downhills and off-road paths.
A few of my friends – Hattie and Lucy to name two – have offered to accompany me on some downhill practice and trail riding up at Ashton Court. Now that the days are getting longer and warmer, I’m going to take them up on it. Hopefully a bit of time, courage and adrenalin will make a mountain biker of me yet.
Slightly different theme today, but I’m going to be out of the saddle for a few days due to letting someone carve some things into my leg.
Currently I have one finished tattoo (a Polynesian-inspired geometric pattern on the back of my neck) and one unfinished half-sleeve which I’m getting topped up in April. They say tattoos are addictive, and whoever they are, they’re right. So come tomorrow I’ll be back under the needle for my third piece of art, which will be animal-themed and on my left thigh.
In all honesty, as much as I’m going to sorely miss riding Regina for a little while, I’m also still very sore from the ride to Oxford, so I welcome a bit of a break from the saddle. I’ll be back riding next week, once it’s started healing.
In the meantime I’m already thinking about what else I’d like done, and I’ve seen some amazing cycling-related tattoos around, so I think I’d like to pay homage through the medium of my skin.
Here are a few awesome cyclist tattoos and ideas that I’ve seen on the web:
Because who can resist a dinosaur on a penny farthing? http-//ahoyhoyyy.tumblr.com/post/13113842741/would-make-for-a-quirky-tattoo
About three years ago I used the Cycle to Work Scheme to buy a Ridgeback Speed: a clunky hybrid with a grey step-through frame, triple chain set, 18 gears and a lovely cushioned seat. I wasn’t a very confident cyclist, but I couldn’t afford to keep getting the bus from Henbury to Clifton, and decided it would be a great way to inject a bit of exercise into my daily routine.
Along came Ripley. I had three free lessons from Life Cycle UK to help me learn to ride confidently on the roads, indicating and checking over my shoulder, and then I was off! A great uphill battle ensued, quite literally, as I took on the hilly terrain of Bristol.
In the beginning I got off and walked up the hills, and rode the brakes all the way down. Gradually I learned to let go of the brakes a little (this was pre-MTB accident) and learned to sit and spin for a little while before continuing to ascend on foot. I do regret that I never did master cycling up Falcondale Road before we moved to Kingswood.
But the new route brought its own new challenge in the form of Park Street. Again I spent a long time walking up the hill and feeling very impressed at the number of cyclists who overtook me. Eventually I decided I’d tackle it one step at a time, with each day bringing new progression. What actually happened was on day one I made it all the way to the top, and I’ve never had a problem since. Turned out I was fitter than I thought.
For around three years I rode Ripley almost every day. My confidence on the roads improved, as did my fitness. I started taking her on longer journeys, along the B2B to Bath, down by the canal, through the Two Tunnels, on a loop to Cleveland, from Exeter to Plymouth via Dartmoor… We had some great rides together.
We also had some terrible ones, which resulted in bruised egos and bruised skin. The first time I fell off her was right at the beginning, when I got a bit cocky descending Henbury Road and allowed myself to pick up enough speed to just make the light before it went red. Unfortunately I hadn’t at this point learned that the bike follows the eyes, and I didn’t quite make the angle when turning right at the bottom, resulting in me hitting the curb at high speed and flying over my handlebars in quite a spectacular fashion. Remarkably not one person stopped their car to ask if I was okay.
The next few falls were also entirely my own fault, slipping over in ice or approaching a curb at a silly angle. I was definitely turning out to be a clumsy cyclist and was almost relieved when I had my first altercation that involved another vehicle, because finally it wasn’t my fault. Thankfully no broken bones just yet, just silly drivers not checking their wing mirrors before deciding to suddenly take a detour into another lane. The saddest occasion was when I had my birthday cake strapped to my rear rack, and a man with no sense decided to drive into the back of me, resulting in a slight squash.
Generally though she served me very well for three years, and helped me to fall in love with cycling. Obviously I’ve since fallen head over heels in love with Regina, but taking Ripley on that last ride this morning really helped me to appreciate how easy and pleasant she is to ride. I hope wherever she ends up, she offers someone else the opportunity to build their confidence and fall in love with cycling.