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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
It’s difficult not to get angry when someone drives their car into the side of you as they unexpectedly enter your lane without checking their mirrors, or indicating.
It’s difficult not to lose control when someone absent-mindedly steps out into your path, barely missing you, and then has the audacity to tell you to ‘fuck off’ when you ask them to look where they’re going.
It’s difficult not to become exasperated when a teenager who is cycling while on his phone, suddenly pulls out of a side road at high speed without even glancing right, and then shoots you a look that could kill when you advise him to be more careful in future.
Why does it have to be so hard all the time? Why does it have to feel like I’m entering a war zone every time I get out on two wheels? Why does every commute home have to feel like a never-ending struggle, trying to reason with motorists, pedestrians and even other cyclists, who couldn’t care less if you end up in a crumpled heap on the ground, because of their thoughtless actions? Why does it have to feel like everyone is out to get me, all the damn time?
I love riding my bike, but for all the frustration, the fear, the anger and the tears, it leaves me wondering if it’s really worth the mental hardship. It’s hard enough to cope in a world where politics are sending public services down the drain, the media are scaremongering and people become more hostile towards each other every day.
Sometimes I want to ride my bike to escape from it all, but then I find myself wishing I’d not bothered, and that is the most upsetting thing of all.
I’ve been a bit quiet lately for various reasons, but namely because I’ve allowed the run-up to the General Election to completely take over my thoughts.
I’ve spent so many hours scouring information online, campaigning on behalf of my chosen political party, and occasionally wallowing in a pit of despair when things seemed hopeless.
This morning we woke up to a hung parliament, and I’m sure I’m not the only one who breathed a sigh of relief. Don’t worry, I’m not going to get political on you (that’s why I’ve stayed quiet), but this moment of limbo has allowed me some headspace to think about other things.
Social media has proven to be both damaging and enlightening, these past few weeks. I’ve become increasingly aware that the more time I spend on Facebook, the more angry and disillusioned with the world I become. The same can go for Twitter, though there are still a lot of things that keep me going back there.
Instagram is proving to be my favourite channel these days. It fills my time with photographs of beautiful bikes, cycling kit, and incredible views that make me want to burst out of my front door, clip in, and go.
So in these uncertain times, let me leave you with some suggestions of accounts to follow, so you can feel as inspired as I do.
Amelie is working her way around the world, sometimes on the bike, and sometimes off. She picks up work as a freelance yoga teacher, photographer and graphic designer, as well as taking part in various work exchanges (where you work a certain amount of hours a day in exchange for accommodation and/or food). Her Instagram account is full of gorgeous photos from her travels, and provides me with so much inspiration for my own round-the-world tour one day.
I simply had to include The Adventure Syndicate. I’ve talked about them many times before, and you should know who they are. If not, go check out their Instagram account. It gives a fascinating insight into their many adventures, following all the Syndicaters in their own individual journeys as well as the group as a whole.
Remember that mountain biking weekend I don’t stop banging on about? This is who I went with. Despite coming away a little bit broken, I regret nothing, and I’m itching to go back and try again. Polly posts lots of photos from her rural Wales adventures, sometimes with her family, sometimes solo, and sometimes with the groups she leads. The scenery is always stunning, and it’s really lovely to see her children getting started on their MTB adventures already.
I’m so glad Adam told me about this account. Jasmine Reese is travelling around the world on a bike, with her violin and her dog in tow. Expect inspirational quotes, violin recitals, stories of the kindness of strangers who have offered their hospitality, and of course, photos of her adorable doggo.
Marijn de Vries, now retired from professional racing, is cycling around the world and sharing the most stunning photographs through her Instagram account. The scenery, the selfies… the cycling kit! Just gorgeous photos that will make you want to follow in her footsteps and experience the breathtaking views for yourself.
The SheWolves are a San Diego women’s cycling crew, and they look like they have a lot of fun. As someone who is currently part of an effort to create a badass girl gang within Bristol’s cycling community, I love seeing photos of their antics and feeling inspired to create a similar vibe in my own city. If ever there were a girl gang I’d go to great lengths to be part of, this would be it.
Speaking of girl gangs…
We held another Women and Bikes social at Roll for the Soul last night. It was a much smaller group this time, which afforded us the opportunity to get a conversation going about what we should do next.
I will be organising the first outing in the near future, and posting a poll in the Women Cyclists of Bristol Facebook group, to gauge what people want in terms of distance, pace, scenery and type of adventure. I’m totally up for camping. Just saying.
Keep your eyes peeled in the group, join it if you’re not in there already, and come ride with us soon.
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!
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.
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.
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.
Admittedly I’m nervous, but for once I don’t feel the surge of fear that usually accompanies a new challenge on the bike. If anything I’m actually quite excited!
We’re riding approximately 106 miles to visit Adam’s family for the weekend, and then we’re going to attempt the ride back on Monday. We’re giving ourselves an optional bail-out in Swindon if we really struggle on the return, to get the train back to Bristol.
I write a lot about my fear and failings, so let’s keep this post positive. Here are some of the things I’m looking forward to:
Two days of full-on cycling, where all I have to think about is pedalling and eating all the foods.
A couple of days away from the onslaught of social media, election campaigning, Tory propaganda, Corbyn-slandering, Trump warmongering and everything else that’s shitty about the world at the moment.
Trying out the new Garmin! I never thought I’d invest in the tech, but I think this will open up new avenues for adventuring further afield without having to continuously stop and check Google Maps (and potentially miss a turning, resulting in disaster).
Using the Fitbit again – more tech, I know. I gave up on using the Fitbit Surge because its GPS tracker is a real battery drainer, and it just didn’t have the juice for long distance riding. With the Garmin tracking our mileage, I can use the Fitbit to track my heart rate and calorie expenditure, and get back on track with my much needed weight loss (yay me).
My first ever bike jumble! We always seem to be busy when these are happening in Bristol, so I’m looking forward to finally getting to one. Should be fun!
And to remind myself why I shouldn’t be scared:
I rode 80 miles to Oxford without clipping in, not refuelling brilliantly, with two huge panniers and a very heavy bike.
This time I’ll be clipped in, loaded with food (and a top tube bag for constant access to nibbles), no panniers and a much lighter bike.
While on the surface I know it’s not necessary to pigeon-hole myself, we do have a basic human need to feel like we belong somewhere, be surrounded by people who are likeminded, and ultimately, who get us.
I’ve been getting out and pushing myself lately, trying out some group riding in various guises, and I’m struggling to figure out where I fit in. It seems like whatever I try, there are always aspects I like, some I don’t like, and nothing that strikes me with a moment of ‘this is where I belong’.
In my mind there are around five different categories of cycling:
I would also argue that all these types of cycling come with various motivations behind them. My problem at the moment is that by not really fitting in anywhere, I’m struggling to motivate myself.
On Wednesday this week I decided to get out in a group road ride, with Audax Club Bristol. First things first, they all seemed like a great bunch and I totally get the appeal of their rides. However what was promised as a ‘flat 60k social ride’ was so incredibly fast that after about 20k it was just me with a purple face, and two other riders who very kindly held back to make sure I didn’t get left behind and lost forever.
In terms of motivation, these kinds of rides or races are for people who like going fast, and who like competing. Maybe they’re driven by a need to improve their speed, beat their previous time records, and ultimately win races. Or maybe it’s just about riding as quickly as they can.
I like riding fast, but I’m not fast enough for this kind of ride. I’m not sure I want to be, either. I do enjoy getting into a high gear and zooming along an open tarmac road through the middle of the countryside, but I also have a limit. When I reach the point of my bike going so fast that I can’t keep up with it (as Boomer put it so eloquently), that’s when the fear sets in and I stop enjoying the ride.
I like riding on roads, but I don’t own a road bike (and I’m not planning to). So while I’m proud of myself for giving this a go, and completing the ride, I won’t be returning in a hurry. I didn’t belong here.
Full disclosure though, I am tempted to try again. I’d like to think that when it comes to controlling the bike, and getting out the saddle, I do have quite good intuition. I know how to move my body around to best tackle a mixed terrain, and I enjoy trundling along on a big mountain bike with front suspension.
However I also find it terrifying, for obvious reasons. Perhaps I could belong here one day, if I keep practising and building up my confidence. But again, I don’t own a mountain bike, and I’m not planning to. I have the option of hiring one, so there’s potential here.
Okay, here’s where the bike stops being the excuse. I own a cyclocross bike, and I freaking love it. I love that it’s lighter than my previous hybrid, I love that it has a racier positioning, I love that it has disc brakes and I love that it takes fatter, knobbly tyres.
I’ve never tried cyclocross, but I’ve been looking into it recently and it does sound like a lot of fun. What unnerves me is that it requires a lot of techniques that I feel incapable of learning, like the fast mounting and dismounting.
Also, I’m not sure I have the right motivations to get into cyclocross. Again, it’s a type of racing and that need to win just doesn’t drive me that much. But perhaps there’s potential here. I need to find out if there’s a group in Bristol who do introductory sessions.
Now, I’ve included this as a category because it comes with different motivations that match my own. Covering long distances (check) at a comfortable pace (check), exploring, discovering, adventuring. Check, check, check.
So perhaps this is my bag, but this isn’t really something I can do on a regular basis. Perhaps one day I’ll head off on a round-the-world adventure and then I will officially be a ‘tourer’ but in terms of getting out on the bike weekly, this isn’t helping me to find a sense of belonging.
So, yes. I do kind of belong here. I commute by bike, and I occasionally pootle around town or along the bike path. But this can’t be it. I can’t stop here.
I guess I included this category to force a sense of belonging on myself, but this isn’t where I want to be. I just need to figure out where it is I do want to go.
I’m sure with time I’ll discover where my true drive lies. At the moment if I dig deep, I can identify my main motivations for cycling as follows:
This weekend I joined a group of very inspiring women to cycle around the Yorkshire Dales, in a ride organised by The Adventure Syndicate. There were about 20 of us in total, and while everyone’s experience varied (from those like myself, just starting out with long-distance riding, to Transcontinental riders and an actual Guinness World Record holder), the one thing we immediately had in common was our love for riding and our determination to get as much out of the weekend as possible.
There’s so much I could say about the amazing women (and singular male) I met this weekend, but I partly want (well, need) to use this space to process my feelings about how it went. So all I’ll say for now is that the group were incredibly lovely, supportive, and hugely motivating. Some of them got me through some tough times (detailed below), and made me feel so proud of what I did manage to achieve. Thank you all for being you, and don’t ever stop.
A physical and emotional rollercoaster
The physical aspect of this is quite obvious, really. If you’ve been to the Yorkshire Dales, you already know what it’s like to crane your neck and look up from the middle of the valleys. I did this several times, thinking ‘Christ, are we really going to climb that?’. The answer was yes, we really were.
If you read my last couple of posts, you know that I’ve been struggling to mentally prepare for this weekend. My problem is that I’m an over-thinker and over-analyser, and this extends to absolutely everything that may or may not affect me. When we were sent the routes, I studied them meticulously, scouring the climbs and descents, to get a feel for how scary they might be, and how I might fare whilst trying to navigate them on two wheels.
Despite promising to ride 200k, I hadn’t really taken the full extent of the hills into account, and I knew where my limits were. I’d had a couple of months of being ill, and was nowhere near ready for that ride, so I took the 92k option instead, which featured two significant climbs and descents:
Seasoned Yorkshire Dale riders will already be familiar with Park Rash, a notorious climb out of Kettlewell towards Coverdale, climbing 230m in 2.3k, with a max gradient of 25%. We were actually going to do this in reverse, descending into Kettlewell at the end of our ride, having first climbed Fleet Moss, further west.
Being a terrified descender, I became obsessed with the descent into Kettlewell. I looked at the varying gradients, I followed the route on Google street view, I studied photos people had taken, and I eventually became aware of a really hairy hairpin bend with a 25% gradient that made all my internal organs sink to the bottom of my torso.
So I spent the three days prior to going, torturing myself over this one part of the ride. ‘Obsessed’ just doesn’t cover it, I was beside myself with worry, and trying to find photos of every possible angle, to get a better idea of just what this bend was going to be like. I’m terrible at tight turns on the flat, let alone on a 25% gradient. I was so new to riding in the drops, I just didn’t feel capable of pulling it off.
My fear of this minute part of a huge descent was going to govern the entire ride. I’ll take you through the day in stages, organised into the many times I cried…
Cry #1: Climbing Fleet Moss
I only slept for a few hours the night before, and immediately when we started out riding, I could feel myself struggling. My legs ached early in the ride, my bike felt heavy and stiff (though that was probably me) and the distance between myself and the other riders quickly increased.
That morning at breakfast, Emily Chappell had told us all that “60% of you think you’re the slowest rider” … it turned out I was the one who was right! In hindsight I don’t mind this, but at the time when the climb up Fleet Moss was looming, I was extremely hard on myself. I kept checking my front brake because I was convinced it was rubbing and slowing me down, but it wasn’t. I was just tired.
As we climbed Fleet Moss (236m over 3.4km), I lost sight of the group completely. My legs screamed at me, inside my head I screamed at me, and eventually I broke down. Laura’s husband, Tim, who had been following behind, stopped at the same point that I began to weep in frustration and disappointment. At the time, I wanted him to ride on, because I felt ridiculous. But he got me up that hill. I will admit, I had to get off and walk the final part, because I’d done all that I could and had nothing left to give, and the gradient was very unforgiving.
I think the hardest part of this was giving myself permission to get off the bike. It was only the first third of the ride, and I’d already failed. But as soon as I allowed myself that break, I felt a sense of relief, and was able to get back on the bike when we finally reached the summit.
Cry #2: The descent into Hawes
You know what I’m like with descents. Imagine the fear and panic that started to set in as I finally reached that summit, only to really accept that I now had to get down.
I was still a bit of an emotional mess, my nerves were fraught, and I was trying to keep a brave face for the rest of the group. I was terrified of what was coming next. It wasn’t the descent I’d been obsessing over, but it was still a huge one.
Remember how afraid I was of descending into Wookey Hole? That was an average 6% gradient, 230m over 3.8km. From Fleet Moss to Hawes, it’s an average of 20%, plummeting 320m over 5.5km. I had never faced a descent of this kind before, and my next mental challenge was about to begin.
I am happy to say though, that this segment took a bizarre turn. As we set off, Hannah Reynolds talked me through the proper technique, and I got comfortably into my drops. Taking the first section steadily, the road opened out into a vast landscape which was breathtakingly beautiful. The road was straight, open, and traffic-free, and to my shock, I allowed myself to gain some speed and really enjoyed the ride down. It threw me, just how much fun I was having. It was the first time I felt that rush of wind through my hair, and the elation I was so convinced I’d never experience. It was also at this point that I cried for the second time that day, but it was tears of joy.
I was rewarded with a visit to the gorgeous and picturesque Hawes:
Cry #3: Panic attack at the pub
With the adrenalin still pumping through my veins, we took a relatively flatter, but still undulating route towards Middleham. The scenery was just beautiful, I’ve never seen so many lambs frolicking in my life, and this was the first chance I got to chat to some of my fellow riders. It was nice to finally relax and really start enjoying the ride.
We stopped at a pub for a well-deserved break, and that was when I decided to ask the dreaded question. I knew how much I’d suffered up Fleet Moss, and now that I’d enjoyed a hefty descent and the beautiful, rolling roads to Middleham, I was ready to quit while I was ahead. I asked if there was a bail-out option before the next climb, which I knew was on its way.
Unfortunately, I was too late. I hadn’t realised where we were on the map, but the only way back to the barn was over that final hill, with its terrifying hairpin bend on the descent. I nodded, and accepted this, and then took myself to the toilets to privately process my feelings, and really let myself feel them. It resulted in a full-blown panic attack, as it sank in that I could actually get very hurt attempting that bend. Hell, I could even die. That’s all I was thinking.
I really regret letting this get to me so much, because I missed out on the fun and banter that was going on outside in the beer garden. I really isolated myself from the group at this point, when I should have been listening to their stories and learning from their experience and insights. At the same time I just couldn’t hold back my emotions.
Before I knew it, it was time to set off on the final big climb of the day, towards Kettlewell.
Cry #4: The unexpected ending
I would love to say that I faced my fear head on, that I took it steady, used my body weight and line of sight to guide my bike slowly round the tight bend, and once again felt elated as I dropped away with that part behind me.
In fact, I wish I knew what I would have done, had things gone differently. I’ll actually never know whether I would have completed the ride, or whether I would have dismounted and walked that part.
After some hesitation, I began the descent at the back of the group, with Hannah by my side. It came in waves, so that every time the surface flattened out momentarily, I felt like an idiot for being scared of nothing.
Sure enough though, that sign warning of a 25% gradient came, and as we slowly approached what seemed to be a sharp bend with a chevron sign, we noticed two riders standing on the road, with their bikes propped on the grass. Hannah said she’d go ahead to see if they were okay, and told me to take as much time as I needed. As I approached them myself, I unclipped in anticipation, and Hannah told me to go and sit on the grass and chill out for a minute. After she disappeared round the corner, my companions informed me that one of our number – Susan – had come off her bike on the exact bend I’d been obsessing over.
I had to remove my shoes in order to gain some sort of traction on the tarmac, the road was so steep, and I went down to help when the paramedics arrived. She’d suffered a head injury and lost a fair amount of blood, though she was conscious and responding.
I had cry #4 when they started cutting off her brand new cycling kit. That was when she became the most responsive, trying to stop them. It was heartbreaking. We covered her in blankets to protect her modesty, since a queue of drivers was forming further up the road, waiting to be able to pass.
After some time, we all lifted her onto a stretcher and as a group, had to help move her to the back of the ambulance, fighting against gravity’s pull. They drove her up the hill to an air ambulance, and she was taken to Leeds Hospital.
We now know that she’ll be okay. She’s being monitored for a few days, because of the head injury, but despite her double vision she seems to be in good spirits. The rest of us had a whip round to buy her some new kit.
The ride ended there. No one really wanted to attempt that descent now, and a man with a large van had very kindly offered to transport Susan’s bike (with its snapped front wheel) back to the barn where we were staying, along with a rider and their bike. I was volunteered by the others to go back, probably because I’d been so nervous. I felt so guilty getting into the van, knowing that my companions would still have to negotiate the rest of the descent (albeit on foot if needed). But I was reassured that it would help them, to have Susan’s bike transported, so I accepted the ride and was driven back. The man, whose name was Jess, was incredibly kind, and helped me to unload everything when we got there. I’m very grateful to him.
Now that I know Susan’s going to be okay, I’m allowing myself permission to contemplate that bend, and ask myself what might have happened, had things gone differently.
I’d like to think that I would have very slowly attempted it, but I honestly don’t think that would have happened. The first time I walked around that corner and saw it (minus the fact that Susan was lying in the middle of the road), my reaction to the bend itself was gut-wrenching, and that wouldn’t have changed if the road had been clear.
I’ve forgiven myself for being so afraid, because I know that fear was well-founded. I just wish someone else hadn’t been hurt in order to prove that.
What I’ve learned is that I need to stop being so inquisitive. I like the fact that I’m an inquisitive person, and a critical thinker, and that I analyse things rather than taking them at face value. It’s a skill I worked hard to develop. However I ruined this weekend for myself, and that’s the truth.
In hindsight I know that I did have fun, and I came away from it wanting to do it again, but in real-time I wasn’t enjoying myself as often as I should have been. Perhaps on some level I felt like I was in competition with other riders, and felt the need to keep up with them, and becoming frustrated when I couldn’t. Perhaps I just felt fat and stupid, and completely out of my depth. Perhaps I did bite off more than I could chew. As Katherine so profoundly told me, I need to allow myself to be a beginner.
Had I gone into this weekend with less knowledge of what to be afraid of, I would have still struggled, but I would have struggled in blissful ignorance. At the same time, had I gone in without even looking at the routes, I may have come away even more annoyed with myself.
I need to find the right balance, between knowing what I’m getting myself into, and knowing when to stop investigating. I’m sure that’s something that will come in time.
In the meantime I’ve come away from this weekend with the following goals:
Get out on more long rides, to build strength and stamina
Ride alone more often, to develop a sense of independence
Ride with groups more often, to learn from others and gain confidence
Climb more hills, get out of the saddle more, and seek out challenges to practice over and over again
Same for descents: start small and push myself more each time.
This was a long one. If you made it this far, thank you.
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.
We 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)
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:
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:
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.