Century Riding: The Extended Cut

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This weekend I set out to ride my first 100 miles, and ended up doing my first 200k.

How did this happen? I guess I have peer pressure to thank. And Lucy (of Brain Cranks), who added an extra 25-mile loop onto my route and convinced me to ride it.

It was partly down to wanting to achieve something even greater, partly not wanting to ride home alone with a dead Garmin, and partly wanting to beat Adam’s record. All three goals were achieved.

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Saturday morning was grey, gloomy and wet. I overslept. I couldn’t eat my porridge because I was nervous. I had to take a detour on the way, to get snacks. The morning got off to a stressful start, and I spent a lot of it worrying that no one would turn up for the ride, and that it would be a complete and total failure.

In all honesty I was torn, in terms of what I actually wanted to happen. Half of me wanted a huge group of women to turn up, so I could boast that my first time leading a ride was a huge success, and really impress the badass women of The Adventure Syndicate. The other half of me wanted it to be a small group of familiar faces, so there was less pressure on me as a ride leader.

To my relief, the latter happened, and it was still a huge success.

I think, had a large group of strangers turned up, particularly confident roadies expecting to bomb through the Welsh hills at lightning speed, I might have crumbled under the pressure and turned back. As it happens I was joined by Lucy and Ania, and the three of us embarked upon our drizzly adventure together.

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Photo credit: Lucy Greaves

Miles 1-25

We started outside Roll for the Soul at 8am, and took an indirect route to the bridge via Westbury-on-Trym and through Hallen and Awkley. I used to commute part of this route, back when I was very new to riding, and had to get off and walk up most of the hills. It was my first time returning to the area as a more seasoned cyclist, and a small victory to climb the hills without even considering the need to walk.

As we made our way through quiet country roads, we settled into a comfortable but decent pace, and chatted about our various achievements on the bikes.

We neared the bridge, and made our first windy journey across the River Severn, into South Wales. This was my first experience of cycling across the Severn Bridge, and I was relieved to see that the cycle paths were completely segregated from the road traffic. It was quite a surreal experience, feeling the rush of wind and the vibrations of the other vehicles reverberating through the bike. It was also awesomely atmospheric, with the low hanging cloud caressing the surface of the water.

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There’s another bridge in the background, somewhere

Once across the bridge, we made our way through Bulwark and into Chepstow, where we found ourselves on the same route I’d ridden last weekend through the Wye Valley. We climbed the first part of the A466 and descended into Tintern, catching another glimpse of the stunning abbey as we flew by. At this point we were more than ready for our first coffee stop, and promptly pulled into The Filling Station for some well-needed coffee and biscuits.

Miles 25-50

Topped up with caffeine and sugar, we continued up the Wye Valley, which remained familiar as far as Redbrook, before turning off towards Monmouth.

Weirdly, both times I’d ridden this section between Tintern and Redbrook, I found myself struggling to maintain a decent cadence. The road appears to be pretty flat, and in some parts there even seems to be a slight downhill, and yet my legs burn and my pedalling is slow. I wasn’t the only one to experience this, either. I wonder if there’s an explanation; it shouldn’t be that hard to ride along a flat road!

On top of that, we had a lot of climbing to do, and I found myself really starting to question my physical capabilities. Would I make it through the rest of the ride? We weren’t even halfway through yet, and I was faltering.

It definitely felt like a longer 25 miles than the previous section. But for every climb there must be a descent, and despite my previous distaste for the downhill, I relished every opportunity stop pedalling and plummet down into the valleys.

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Photo credit: Lucy Greaves

We followed some really pretty country roads and eventually rolled into Usk, where we stopped at Sprokwobbles for a hearty lunch of jacket potatoes, well-needed coffee, and some light yoga stretching in the garden.

While we rested, I decided to check the elevation profile on the Garmin to see how we were doing in terms of the big climbs. I saw that the biggest was about to present itself, and started to feel a bit nervous. There was much self-deprecation and talk of walking up and meeting Lucy and Ania at the top.

Miles 50-75

Nevertheless we rolled on, and the climb turned out to be a really good one! Following the B4235 towards Shirenewton, it was a very long but gradual climb. One thing that upset me a little, is that when you look at the road on Google Streetview, it used to be flanked by woodland on both sides. When we rode there last weekend, there has been a lot of tree felling, and the left side of the road is more open. It always saddens me to see trees being cut down, and it’s a great shame for that to be happening, however if I look on the bright side, it did afford us the most spectacular view of Wales’ rolling hills.

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IMG_20170717_142011_063Another rewarded for reaching the top, was the presence of an Alpaca farm! We enjoyed a quick rest, some water, and looking at their cute, fuzzy heads. We then climbed a tiny bit more and descended back into Chepstow for the second round of the Severn Bridge.

By this time of day (around 3:30pm) it was even windier than before, and we experienced some pretty scary side winds. I remember at one point my whole bike shifted to the left, like some enormous force was effortlessly moving me aside.

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Photo credit: Lucy Greaves

From there we took an indirect route to Thornbury, via Elberton and Littleton-upon-Severn, and stopped for coffee and cake (or in Lucy’s case, an entire cucumber).

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Miles 75-125

It was at this point that Lucy had intended to leave us, to go and do an extra long loop and make her ride a 200k.

I was in a lot of pain with my back, super tired, and feeling good about the fact that there were only 25 miles left to go. The thought of my bed was beckoning me, and I told myself this last leg would be gentle, easy, and relatively quick.

Then Ania decided she wanted to join Lucy on the extra long loop, and my Garmin signalled to me that it was on its last legs. The thought of cycling home alone without directions was a little frightening, and throughout the day I’d kept myself open to the idea of extending the ride, just in case I felt capable. I didn’t feel all that capable, but with the ibuprofen clearing the pain in my lower back, and Lucy and Ania grinning encouragingly at me across the table, I couldn’t help but agree!

So I put the Garmin away, Lucy took over as the navigator, and we set off on our final 50 miles.

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Photo credit: Lucy Greaves

Departing Thornbury the way we came, we continued north through Oldbury-on-Severn, Shepperdine and into Berkeley, where I remember visiting the castle a couple of years ago. It’s a really cute and quaint town, and its castle is noted as the place where King Edward II was imprisoned and murdered. A good day out that I recommend!

At around 7pm, the sun finally decided to grace us with its presence. In the golden light we looped round, returning south through North Nibley, Wotton-under-Edge, and Kingswood. This was a bit of a tease, as I live in a part of Bristol called Kingswood, but alas, not this one. Next was a fairly sharp climb into Hawkesbury Upton, before descending through Petty France, Little Badminton and Acton Turville. At this point the roads became familiar, as I had ridden them out on my last trip to Oxford.

On the final strait to Bristol, we descended through Hinton and Pucklechurch. It was coming up to 9pm, the sun had once again departed and been replaced with low hanging grey clouds. The air around us became heavy and wet, and in the gloom we joined the Bristol-Bath railway path and rolled into Fishponds where we rewarded ourselves with junk food and alcohol. The perfect end to the perfect day.

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Epilogue: a reflection on The Adventure Syndicate’s tagline

I mentioned before that I planned this ride as part of a collaboration between The Adventure Syndicate and Cycling UK, to celebrate the Women’s Festival of Cycling. I agreed to it when I saw Emily Chappell tweeting about their plans, and in a moment of fandom, decided I wanted to join in.

The moment I saw that it was a 100-mile ride within the space of 2 weeks, my stomach turned, but I was determined to make it happen. I’d said yes to someone I idolise, and I had to deliver the goods.

As I put the route together and registered the ride, I was partly sure that I’d end up backing out of it somehow. I’d plan the route and hand it over to someone more capable of riding it, because I certainly didn’t feel able to.

But when it came down to it, I wanted to do it. I wanted to be part of something big, and I felt that with a group of amazing women around me, I would be carried along by their support. That is exactly what happened. It was a small group, but it was an amazing group nonetheless.

The Adventure Syndicate’s mission is:

“to increase levels of self-belief and confidence in others […] and we passionately believe we are all capable of so much more than we think we are.”

I have never felt this to be as true as I did on Saturday night, shoving a battered sausage into my face and telling myself over and over again, “I just rode 200k. I just rode 200k.”

If you’re a woman; if you love riding your bike; if you compare yourself to the elites and constantly feel like an impostor; if you want to achieve more but feel unable to; go and read all about The Adventure Syndicate. Attend one of their talks. Sign up to a ride with them. Follow them on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.

I cannot believe that this time last year I was just commuting on my bike, with the occasional 15-mile pootle to Bath that wore me out. If I am capable of this, then so are you. We all are.

Women cyclists of Bristol, united

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.

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Holly McGowan talks about the history of women in Bristol

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

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Photo: foodcyclebristol.wordpress.com
  • Open to all.
  • 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.

Family Cycling Centre

Family Cycle Centre
Photo: betterbybike.info
  • Open to all.
  • Based on the site of the former Whitchurch athletics track.
  • They give people of all ages and abilities the chance to ride in a safe, traffic-free environment.
  • They have Bikeability-trained cycle trainers on hand to help, and a large range of bikes to try.
  • They also offer family cycling activities and fun days – perfect if you’re looking for a way to get young children confident on their bikes.
  • They also have plenty of volunteering opportunities.

Group Riding for Women

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Photo: eventbrite.co.uk
  • Women only.
  • Training provided by Heidi Blunden.
  • Hosted at the Family Cycling Centre.
  • This event has now passed, but there’s scope for more in future, so keep your eyes peeled.
  • Heidi provides cycling coaching in Bristol, and this event is aimed at women who want to learn or improve group-riding skills.

Cycle the City Tours

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Photo: cyclethecity.org
  • Open to all.
  • There are a variety of tours on offer, to get you cycling around Bristol and learning more about the city.
  • Around once a month, Holly McGowan does a tour which tells the history of women in Bristol.
  • She gave us a taste of this during this social, and I know for sure that I want to join this tour next time it runs.

Breeze Network

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Photo: news.calderdale.gov.uk
  • Women only.
  • This is actually how I met Heidi, who is also a Breeze Champion.
  • These rides usually run at the weekends, and the distance and pace varies greatly, depending on the ride leader and the type of ride.
  • You can find upcoming rides here.
  • Also, if you’re a confident cyclist and able to ride a minimum of 20 miles, you can find details out how to become a Breeze Champion and encourage more women to ride.

Women’s Night at the Bristol Bike Project

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Photo: thebristolbikeproject.org
  • Women (and trans) only.
  • Monday evenings, 6-9pm.
  • This is a safe space for women and trans people to use the workshop and the tools available to work on their own bikes.
  • Volunteers are on hand to help.
  • We welcome all women to either use the space or come and volunteer, to empower other women to learn how to maintain their own bikes.

Cycling Clubs

Facebook Groups

  • Women only.
  • Two Facebook groups you should be aware of:
  • 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!

#WednesdayWisdom: Find your people

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Photo: trilondon.com/group-cycling-etiquette

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

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Photo: roadcyclinguk.com

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.

Bell-ringers united

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Photo: camulos.com

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?”

Sigh.

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Photo: thebogtrotter.co.uk

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

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Photo: slate.com

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.

Conclusion

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.

/end rant