Breaking her in, not so gently

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I’ve introduced you to Dori, now I’m going to tell you about the awesome ride we went on at the weekend. You may have noticed it’s been a while since I wrote up a long ride, and it’s because it’s been a while since I’ve been on one!

Despite insisting that I was going to start riding every Saturday, life simply got in the way.

So on Sunday I decided it was high time I got back out on a long ride, preferably something not too hilly. I find the best way to plan a route is to seek out a point of interest and then find a way to get there and back. I set my sights on the Caen Hill Flight: a set of 16 locks in succession on the Kennet and Avon Canal, which rise 237 feet in 2 miles.

It’s a really lovely, mostly off-road route, which takes you along the Bristol-Bath Railway Path, and then along the towpath, following the canal into Devizes. It turns out towpaths really take their toll on you when you spend the whole day on them! We rode about 55 miles in total, and while it’s not a ridiculous distance, I was pretty knackered afterwards. The last 12 miles from Bradford on Avon into Devizes is particularly narrow and bumpy.

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We really should have left early in the morning, but decided to have a lazy start to the day instead, making a huge breakfast to fuel us: scrambled tofu with spinach and red pepper, spicy fava beans, mashed avocado and veggie sausages with toast and fresh tomatoes. The late return was worth it.

Setting off at around 1pm, we cycled to Bath along the Railway path, and then continued on the familiar route through Bath city centre. It’s a good one to start off with, while getting used to a new bike.

From there, we joined the towpath and followed the Kennet and Avon canal through to Bradford on Avon, and then onto Devizes.

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It was such a beautiful route to take. It was busy with pedestrians on a sunny Sunday afternoon, but nothing we couldn’t handle. We made some stops for refreshments and allowed ourselves to just take our time and enjoy it.

After Bradford on Avon, the last 12 miles towards Caen Hill Marina were a little harder on the wrists. The towpath became very narrow and bumpy, with quite a few points where you could easily end up in the canal if you’re not careful! It also involves a few steep trips up and over bridges where the surface is very loose and rocky. I didn’t like that part…

It’s all worth it though. Once you pass Caen Hill Marina, you cross a bridge and follow the canal up, through the ‘passage to Caen Hill Flight’ and round a corner to be met with the most astounding view. 16 locks, ascending one after the other, and a lovely gravelly path to follow alongside them. It’s quite a unique sight.

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I can’t imagine passing through that on a boat. You’d have to dedicate a whole day to just getting out of the marina!

Originally we’d planned to turn back and cycle down the hill, then come back the way we came. Instead we prioritised our rumbling tummies (it was 7pm by this point) and treated ourselves to some awesome pizzas in Devizes.

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From there, we re-joined a different part of the canal and cycled into Chippenham to get the train. We went along the Wiltshire Cycleway and route 403, which was a fantastic ride: lots of lovely wooded areas, fine gravel paths and beautiful scenery.

I won’t lie; there was one section that spooked me, involving a long and gradual descent over very loose rock. I don’t do that well on a good day, let alone clipped in and on a brand new bike, with slightly thinner tyres than I’m used to. I don’t think Adam enjoyed my company at that point!

He was good to me though, he taught me to come out of my saddle, hold the handlebars loosely, let go of the brakes and allow the bike to just take me where it wanted to go. After a while I gained a little bit of confidence.

We climbed quite a huge hill, which allowed me to test out my new gearing ratio (thank goodness for the triple chain set). I sat in my granny gear and spun my way up the hill, admittedly huffing and puffing, but I got up there nonetheless!

We were rewarded with quite a breathtaking descent (on tarmac, thankfully), clocking around 60km an hour. I have to admit I was quite flustered by the bottom, but I kept up with Adam and only feathered the brakes occasionally when approaching a bend. I’m definitely getting much better at tarmac descents.

Unfortunately we were in a hurry to catch a train (which we subsequently missed), so there wasn’t time to take photos of this part of the ride. I definitely want to return to that route and do it in the daytime. We eventually caught a train at 10:15pm, and gratefully collapsed into the soft chairs as we were ferried back to Bristol.

All in all it was a lovely day out. It was nice to have some parts that were familiar, and then to go off adventuring in a new place. I love riding alongside the canal, because it’s just so picturesque.

The surface takes its toll on you, but as long as your tyres are up for the job, you’ll be fine. We did bump into a guy on a very racy road bike with skinny tyres, who’d gotten himself pretty lost. He passed us along a really bumpy part of the route, and soon turned back and passed us again. His was not the bike for the job.

Dori did pretty bloody well.

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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.

Upping the ante

Tomorrow I’m doing my longest ride to date.

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!

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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. 

Remaining positive

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.

I can do this.

Bring it on!

#WednesdayWisdom – Long-distance riding advice from Emily Chappell, Lee Craigie and Rickie Cotter

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Image courtesy of BBC

I was really fortunate to get a ticket to a talk at Roll For The Soul last night, with three incredible women. Emily Chappell and Lee Craigie are the co-founders of The Adventure Syndicate, and Rickie Cotter was one of their seven-woman team to race around the North Coast 500 in 36 hours as part of their launch.

These aren’t their only accomplishments by a long way, but you don’t need me to tell you who they are. If you’re reading my blog then you either already know of them, or you’re going to click on their names to find out. And if neither of those is true, no one will know and no one will judge.

The talk was aimed at women who want to start riding long-distance, whether it’s for racing, touring, off-roading or anything in between. They came armed with shed-loads of advice, and I’m going to share some of it here, because all women who want to ride should, and as Emily reiterated last night – you are capable of so much more than you think you are.

Preparing the mind

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Image via Instagram

The first subject we got into was mentally preparing yourself for the ride. It’s true that while there will be a great stress on your body, half of it is in your head. One of the things mentioned during Sunday’s panel discussion was that when you go into a long ride with a particular distance in mind, you know where your end point will be, and you’ll make it to that point if it kills you. And even if at mile 500 you feel like you’re literally going to fall off your bike and die, if you’d set out to do 510 miles instead, you’d still make that extra 10 miles, because it was all part of the plan. The key is to know how far you’re going and be prepared to make it to the end. Because you will make it.

Finding your time of day

Training your body will help with the mental preparation. If you’re planning a week-long race, you’ll be riding all day and all night with a few hours of sleep in between. Emily made an excellent point that most (if not all) people have certain times of the day that work better for them, and certain times that are worse. As part of her training, she did several rides from London to Manchester, starting at different times of day (and night). She found that no matter which point the night section fell, whether it was right at the beginning or end, she always flagged at around the same time.

Once you get to know which times of day are your strongest, and which are your weakest, you can prepare for them. If you’re a morning person, like Rickie, you can put measures in place to get you through the night – like snacking on your favourite treats every few miles – and get yourself up a hill to be rewarded with glorious views at dawn. If you’re like Emily and peak in the middle of the night, you’ll need more motivation to get you through the hardest parts of the day. Plan to stop at a café and have coffee and cake when you’re really struggling. 15 minutes of rest and some caffeine and sugar in your system, and you can plough through the next stage until you feel your strength returning. It’s all about breaking it down into manageable segments, knowing when you’ll struggle, and pre-empting it.

Fighting the fear

Lee made a fantastic point about the difference between fear and anxiety. A woman in the audience asked about how to prepare for the fear she might experience when cycling alone through a strange place at night – perhaps a country where there are packs of street dogs roaming, or if there are shady characters about. Lee pointed out that ‘fear’ is what you feel when something happens to you, and by that point you’re in fight-or-flight mode and you can’t pre-empt that. It’s anxiety that can stop you from setting out in the first place, and that’s what you need to address. If you know the sorts of things you’re afraid of, you can prepare yourself for them, and be ready. You can buy dog dazers which create a kind of forcefield around you and keep street dogs at a distance. And as Rickie pointed out, the likelihood of encountering a dangerous character is actually very low. If anything, by being in a field alone with a bike and a bivvy bag, you’re the strange character who probably shouldn’t be there, and you’re probably more intimidating just by being in an unexpected place at an unexpected hour.

Feeding the body

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Image via Twitter

It seems that Emily cannot stress it enough: EAT.

Eat, eat, eat, and eat.

Throw your recommended daily calories out the window and eat whenever you’re hungry, because your body will be burning ridiculous amounts of calories all the time, and you need to keep your energy up.

When you’re not hungry

I asked about forcing yourself to eat when you’re not hungry, because I struggle with this. On Saturday I cycled a very long way between eating, and despite telling myself I was going to eat the shit out of everything, when I arrived my stomach didn’t want to cooperate. Rickie explained that when you’re cycling for a long duration, you’re placing so much stress on your body, and it’s concentrating so much on keeping your legs spinning, that it has less energy to digest, and so when you try to eat a big meal at the end, it can’t cope. It’s better keep snacking little and often as you go, to keep your digestive system active.

Keep the food up front

Emily recommends having a handlebar bag, which makes snacking whilst riding a lot easier. She has several compartments where she stores a variety of things (I believe at one point she was living on peanuts, chorizo, emmentale and Haribo). The point is they’re accessible, and you can keep munching little and often.

Think about your food groups

Lee finds that eating high amounts of fat and protein works best for her, as they provide slow releasing energy and it can encourage your body to burn energy from your fat stores rather than from carbohydrates. But she still eats carbohydrates as well; she just increases her intake of the other two groups. This followed a question about ketosis. It works for some, and not for others.

Stay hydrated

You cannot drink enough water. Emily tries to down two litres at a time to keep herself hydrated for the next couple of hours. Lee does the same the day before a race – drink, drink and drink. Rickie recommends carrying no more than 2 litres of water on the bike to save weight (1l = 1kg), but you can store anywhere up to 9 litres if you wanted to.

Another important note from Rickie – use your urine to track your hydration levels. It doesn’t sound glamorous, but you can tell by the colour if you’re dehydrated. If it’s dark and pungent, you need to drink more. Aim for the colour of champagne.

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Image courtesy of The Adventure Syndicate

Other tidbits

  • If you’re drinking citrus juices like orange, add a pinch of salt to them. Citrus alone can cause cramping, and the salt counteracts this.
  • Order two of everything – whatever you think you want to eat, order or buy double the amount. Even if you can’t physically eat it all straightaway, 30 minutes down the road you’ll be hungry again.
  • Look for Lidl (or Aldi) – they’re all over Europe and they always have the same stock and layout. Especially if you’re racing, you can run in and very quickly find all the things you need without wasting much time.
  • Carry a polyester backpack that folds down to miniature size. If at the end of a long day you need to go and stock up on food, you can just pull it out, fill it, and ride to your camp with full supplies.

Packing the bike

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Image courtesy of bikepacking.com

If you’re racing

Pack light. That’s a given, but if you’ve got the budget you can invest in some really handy equipment that packs down ridiculously small.

The best thing to do is to prioritise and pack only what you need. Lee makes a point of only packing items that can serve a dual purpose (which led to a hilarious discussion of doubling up a chamois as a sponge).

Here’s a great list of what Josh Ibbett took on his transcontinental race.

If you’re touring

When you’re touring you can add panniers to your bike and afford to take a bit more with you. If you choose to, that is. After my experience of cycling with an overloaded rear rack at the weekend, I never want to look at another pannier again.

Bikepacking.com has some great advice on touring equipment.

Think about where you put things

One of the things all three of them stressed was to really plan how you’re going to pack, and always keep certain things in the same place so you always know where they are. Don’t pack your waterproofs in the bottom of your saddle pack, because everything will get wet as you trawl through it trying to find it in a downpour.

Keep anything you’ll want regular access to at the front or on the top tube. Food should be at your handlebars so you can eat while you go. You may choose to keep a water bottle here as well, instead of in a bottle cage on your frame. That’s a personal choice.

Consider taking a small stove, which can cook enough food for one. Lee always keeps an emergency pack of cous cous and a vegetable bouillon cube in her bag for a quick, easy and last minute meal.

Try to get a bag with an external drawstring at your rear, so that you can wash your padded shorts as you go and ride with them fluttering and drying in the wind behind you. Pro tip for this: don’t turn them inside out, otherwise the chamois can get coated in dust, which makes for an uncomfortable ride later down the line.

Also consider carrying some hand sanitizer with you. Rickie made a fantastically gross point of how important personal hygiene is when being out on the road for long periods of time. She once left her bike in a shed for a few days following a long-distance ride, and came back to find mould had grown on the handlebars from the sweat and germs that had accumulated there. Think about how much time you spend with your hands on your bars, and how often you use them to touch your face, your eyes, your mouth, your lady bits, your food, and everything else. Keep them clean and prevent illness and infection.

On a similar note, if you’re riding through countries with questionable water sources and particularly if you’re off-road, carry some iodine tablets or miniature filters. Even when you’re out in the beautiful countryside and the river water runs clear, you don’t know what’s upstream – a cattle farm, a factory… don’t risk it. Illness can set you back for days.

Finding your way

Emily demonstrated brilliantly how she’s the last person to listen to on this subject, seeing as when she completed the Transcontinental in 2016 she was the only rider to visit Albania.

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Emily was rider #7

Gadgets

As far as technology is concerned, Garmin comes highly recommended. There was a discussion about the many complaints people make about them, and Rickie acknowledged that they’re by no means perfect just yet, but she stressed that right now in this market, they’re the best tech available for cyclists. One day that may change, but right now at this moment if you’re investing in something, invest in a Garmin. They use different satellites to other devices and are the most advanced gadget available right now.

In terms of powering them, there was a debate over dynamos and batteries. Batteries are a simpler method, but more wasteful. If you’re travelling for 5 days or less, then they’re not a terrible option, but anymore than that and you’re better off looking into a dynamo or a cache battery.

Maps

I agreed with Lee when she said there’s just nothing better than a paper map. Especially on a long ride, going through multiple countries, she said it’s so nice to finish one map and move onto the next. What a perfect excuse to stop off at a café, have a coffee and cake, spread the map out over the table and get the next part of your route planned.

Route planning

While we’re on this subject, a question came up about whether it was better to plan the whole route or make it up as you go.

When you’re racing – plan everything. Plan it twice. Double and triple check each part of it, and cross-reference it against other maps to make sure you know of every single hill you’ll encounter.

If you’re touring, you don’t need to plan everything. If you know of a particular road/route that you’d like to take then by all means, figure out how to reach it, but allow for some deviation. Let yourself get lost, and enjoy the experience of exploration and adventure. That’s what it’s all about, after all.

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Image courtesy of leecraigie.com

What’s this all about?

I have to confess, I’m not your average Bike Blogger. I haven’t been riding a bike since I could walk, I haven’t been tinkering with tools since I could talk, I’ve never ridden a fixie, drop handlebars terrify me, and I get nervous when riding downhill.

Even watching Line of Sight was enough to give me nightmares.

So why am I doing this?

I’m a blogger at heart. I love writing and sharing my thoughts with anyone who wants to read them, but in the last year or so I’ve been short of content. My blogging habits depend heavily on what I’ve got going on in my life, and they tend to thrive when I’m learning something new.

I spent a couple of years blogging about food, because I was learning to cook and discovering ingredients I’d never heard of before. Now I cook on autopilot and I no longer feel the need to share my experiments in the kitchen.

I spent a year or so blogging about online dating because, let’s face it, the whole process can be hilarious and I had some horrific experiences that people could laugh at. My online dating days are over now.

I even had an academic blog for a while, when I was fresh out of my Masters and convinced I was going to be this renowned professor of Art History. That dream died, hard.

So last night, following another rejection from a job that I really wanted, in a moment of hopelessness, I asked myself: “what’s going on?”

What’s the story of my life right now? What am I learning about? What do I want to immerse myself in?

The answer was right there in front of me, leaning against the wall in my kitchen, with my helmet hanging from its handlebars and my hoodie draped half-arsed across its rear rack.

I’ve been commuting by bike for the last three years or so, and while I’ve always enjoyed cycling, it was never really much more than a way of getting to work and back.

That was until this summer, when I started volunteering at The Bristol Bike Project. Over the past 5 or 6 months I’ve been slowly learning about bikes: how they’re put together, how to fix them when they break, and how much more connected you can feel with them when you give them your time and attention.

Since then I started getting out on more rides, I’ve become more involved in Bristol’s cycling community, Critical Mass, and more. And now I feel ready to write about it.

This blog is a space for me to explore and learn. If you’re a seasoned cyclist or bike mechanic, it’s all going to seem pretty basic. But if you’re like me – if you know you like bikes but you’re not able to explain why, if you’d love to learn more about them, if you want to learn to fix them but you’re nervous about getting stuck in – maybe you can learn with me.