Clipping in off-road

I promised you progress, and I’m happy to deliver. Sort of.

Last Sunday I met up with Lucy, Grainne and her partner Livi, and the four of us rode around Ashton Court and had lots of fun.

I used the day to test out my newly purchased Pearl Izumi X-Alp Launch II shoes, and Time ATAC MX4 pedals.

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Baptism of fire

I’d had every intention of giving myself plenty of time to adapt to the new set up. Having only ever clipped into my Shimano pedals before, I had no idea what the tension would be like on the Time ATACs, especially as they’re non-adjustable.

However, the best intentions rarely go to plan, and I found myself flailing about my flat 10 minutes before I needed to leave, in desperate search of a pedal spanner*.

*a pedal spanner that, it turns out, we actually don’t have.

With a train looming, I hurriedly stuffed my new pedals in my backpack and cycled over to Lucy’s with an awkward cleat + flat pedal combo.

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Photo: Lucy Greaves

In her mechanical prowess, Lucy had my new pedals installed in record time, and was ushering me back out the door before I knew it. Suddenly I was on the street, with these strange new pedals, and we had a train to catch.

I’m happy to report that there was nothing to worry about at all. The tension is perfect.

We rode up to Ashton Court from Clifton Down station, and I immediately became aware of how much more efficient my power output was when going uphill.

I’ve struggled endlessly with the actual ride to the trails. My bike’s lockout doesn’t work, so when I’m riding on tarmac I’m contending with a fair amount of suspension, and a 2×11 groupset which I’m struggling to use efficiently.

So, let’s just say that the journey this time was a bit more energy efficient, and I adapted to my new setup almost instantly.

The Setup

Lucy was riding a Cannondale owned by Lee Craigie herself (no I’m not jealous AT ALL), which she’s had on loan for a little while and was looking to get some more use out of before giving it back.

Grainne, on the other hand, was on a single-speed, which would prove not only that she must have legs of steel, but also that SS mountain bikes suck when it comes to steep, rocky climbs. Sorry Grainne. Get some gears 😉

Livi was on a Kona of some description that I didn’t get much of a look at, but she seemed happy enough.

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Excuse the blur. L-R: Livi, Grainne, and Lucy

Sunday Funday

It was a glorious start to the day. The sun was shining, the temperature was chilly but not debilitating, and we were all super excited to get rolling around the trails.

Lucy made a comment about how it’s traditional for it to be snowing at Ashton Court when we go riding there. I felt the need to point out that we’d in fact only ridden there once, so that doesn’t quite make it a tradition, but I soon ate my words.

As we ascended to the start of the trail, the sky became more of a gloomy grey, the windchill became more biting, and the clouds opened. Only this time, it wasn’t lovely snow. It was hail.

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My phone camera is too terrible to do it justice, so you’ll just have to believe me that it was way bigger and cooler than this in real life.

So Lucy got her way, and we proceeded into the woods under a sky containing a very mixed bag of elements for us.

A knock and a boost

Despite the big boost in confidence I gained from riding in the Forest of Dean, I felt my confidence waver pretty early on in this ride.

Maybe I was too conscious of the fact that my feet were fixed to the pedals, and I was concerned about not being able to put a foot down when I needed to stop suddenly.

Maybe it was also because I was proving to feel extremely unfit that day. I’d not been very well the week before, and perhaps still doing my usual commuting by bike, daily yoga and running a 10k the Wednesday before had proven to be too much for me.

Despite the better power output, I was starting to struggle up the part of the Nova trail that leads to the quarry, and I pulled over a couple of times to let other riders past. I reverted back to feeling like I should be at the back of the group, and this feeling started to show in my handling of the bike.

I misjudged a couple of corners, almost hitting a tree on one occasion, and coming to a very abrupt stop. Admittedly, this taught me that even in an emergency, at least I can unclip.

But it shouldn’t have happened in the first place. It’s like, even though I had the theory memorised (“look at the exit, steer with your belly button, use your hips!”), I was overthinking it almost, and by the time I followed my own instructions, I was too deep into the berm to do anything about it, so I just carried straight on over the side and off the track completely.

However, once we reached the big, rocky climb (if you know, you know), I came back to life. Part of me was terrified of a repeat of what happened when we took a wrong turn in the Mendips, but another part knew that being able to pull up as well as push down, was going to make all the difference. It was touch-and-go at one point, but when I got to the top I felt a sense of relief, and started to believe in myself again.

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On the way back up. Photo: Lucy Greaves

Round Two

After the first lap, we got a coffee from the cafe, which gave me a chance to ease my nerves and get my head back in the game. At the time I wasn’t sure if I felt capable of doing a second round, both mentally and physically, but I’m glad we did. It went a lot more smoothly than the first.

Grainne commented on how much faster I was going, and although I did slow down a bit on the climb up to the quarry, I was being a lot more forgiving to myself, and that made all the difference. Sometimes you have to make allowances for yourself and not expect to be perfect all the time.

As Katherine said: “you need to let yourself be a beginner”. Still the best advice I’ve ever been given.

So this time around, I knew what to expect. I knew where the muddiest parts were, I anticipated the parts where I’d messed up beforehand and made sure not to do it again.

On round two I didn’t make any unprecedented stops at all.

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Always room for improvement

One thing that I didn’t quite achieve that I’d set out to do, was a particular rock garden that you encounter on the way back from the quarry. The path splits into two: one with a rock garden and one without. This is the rock garden I’d mentioned avoiding at all costs beforehand. This time I really wanted to give it a go.

My main problem was that I couldn’t keep my momentum on the lead-up to it, meaning by the time I got there, I was going too slowly to just roll over it.

In the lead-up to it there are a few rollers, and ideally you need to pump (or jump) your way through them to keep that speed up. That’s something I’ve not yet mastered, and so that’s the next thing I need to work on.

I’ve already made a start on this, but for the sake of not making this a novel, I’ll tell you about it soon.

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Forest of Dean: Mud, roots… and more mud

Last Friday was another first for me, and the day marked both the end of an era and the beginning of a new chapter.

We said goodbye to Rosie, one of the BBP Women’s Night coordinators, who has departed with a one-way ticket to New Zealand and a huge adventure ahead of her. Although the goodbye itself was sad, we did it in the best possible way: we headed out to the Forest of Dean for a day in the mud. And there was a lot of mud.

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The photo doesn’t do the mud justice.

The planning was a little haphazard, and up until about midnight the night before, I wasn’t even sure that I was going to be able to make it. With my bike in tow, it was a question of someone being able to fit me into their own travel plans.

Thankfully we sorted out some logistics at the last minute, and I ended up meeting Rosie and Sam early on to hand over my beloved Phoebe, who hitched a ride with them and their full-sus bikes across the River Severn.

I then waited around, got a coffee, and eventually met up with the others. There was Joey, who I’ve met many times before, plus two women I didn’t know: Karen and Maddy. Driving us was Rachel, another of the Women’s Night coordinators, who rocked up with her breakfast in some tupperware and a pulled muscle, but eager to still give it a try.

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Joey and Maddy

Since I hadn’t met Karen and Maddy before, the drive up was a nice opportunity to get to know them a little, and get a feel for everyone’s experience and expectations for the day. It turned out that Karen and Joey had never been mountain biking before, Rachel had mucked about with it as a teenager, and Maddy hilariously had tried it once before and hated it. It was looking to be an interesting day.

We turned up at Pedal a Bike Away, and the others picked up their hire bikes. They were all riding Cube hardtails, which intrigued me. I’ve heard good things about Cube road bikes but hadn’t really given much thought to their mountain bikes. The girls all seemed to have a great time on them.

Once we were joined by Rosie, Sam, and (most crucially) my bike, it was time to set off for the trails. Sam went and did his own thing, despite being Honorary Boy.

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Rosie and Rachel

We only had time for one lap of the Verderer’s Trail: an 11km blue trail consisting of some challenging climbs, fast descents, undulating rollovers and as many berms as you could get your teeth into. But one lap was enough. At this time of year the trails were extremely muddy, so taking into account all the climbing, the re-grouping after each section, and of course the fact that some of us were beginners taking their time, by the time we got back to the centre it wasn’t long before we were due to get the train.

In my last post where I talked about going to Bike Park Wales for the first time, I highlighted a couple of things I wanted to work on: loosening up and braking with one finger instead of two.

I’m happy to say I worked on both these things while at the Forest of Dean, and I felt a huge improvement. Though I don’t have any photos with which to analyse my posture, I felt that my handling of the bike was a lot more fluid, and I definitely didn’t come away with any bruises from pinching the saddle.

I forced myself to try braking with one finger while on a flatter part of the route, and I found that it was a lot less scary than I’d anticipated. In fact, it reaffirmed just how good my brakes are. One finger was enough to keep my speed in check on the fast descents, and my grip on the handlebars was so much better.

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I’m a hippy at heart and get a real kick out of being surrounded by trees.

One more tip I picked up on the day, courtesy of Rosie, was a piece of advice that sounds so silly at first, but makes so much sense when you put it into practice: Steer with your belly button.

I’ve been firmly relying on my gaze to help me get to where I want to be, but this was the missing part of the puzzle. As soon as I consciously thought about moving my belly button (and therefore my core) in my desired direction, I felt my hips move to the right place, and I began to drive round the berms with my whole body. For the first time, I rounded some big corners and actually felt like I was properly leaning into them. It did wonders for my confidence.

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Mud, leaves, trees and mud.

Speaking of which, I should mention that this was the first time I’ve ridden with a group where I wasn’t the least experienced person. In fact, after Rosie, I was the second most experienced one there! This was completely new ground for me. For once, I wasn’t feeling like the slow one at the back, worried that everyone else was waiting ages for me to roll up.

This time around, I was giving the others tips, in some parts of the trail I led the way, and I came away feeling not just more confident, but more competent as well. It’s amazing what a day like that can do for your self-esteem.

So, I’ll leave you with this final thing. With my newfound confidence and continuing self-analysis, I’ve pinpointed an area that I continue to struggle with, and have made a brave decision in order to rectify it.

I’m not great at getting my footing right from the get-go. Generally I have a bit of time to re-position my foot on the pedal before picking up speed, but there have been times where I’ve stopped right at the top of a big drop, and ended up descending with one foot out of place.

Also, my Giro Jacket shoes unfortunately are just a tiny bit too small, and leave my toes feeling bruised after a lot of downhill stuff. So, I’ve ordered some new shoes. And I’m clipping in.

I may regret this. I may not. It will certainly help me get my footing issues sorted, and will get me up the hills more efficiently. We’ll have to see how it goes. I’m sure you’ll hear all about it soon enough.

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Definitely sticking to the blues for now.

#WednesdayWisdom: Pass it on (Part 1)

I recently devoured the Spring issue of Casquette, and I strongly recommend you do the same, if you haven’t already. It’s so refreshing to have a cycling magazine devoted to women, which isn’t afraid to cover subjects that we wouldn’t normally be comfortable talking about. Think snot rockets, saddlesore and the best bib shorts for taking a quick pee in the bushes. There’s also a lot of discussion around the gender politics of professional cycling: a recommended read, for sure.

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I won’t go into as much detail as I did last time, but one thing I did want to highlight was that this issue’s theme is ‘Pass it On’. It includes a gorgeously illustrated feature, where cycling badasses such as Marijn de Vries, Helen Wyman and Juliet Elliott share some words of advice that have helped them in their careers.

In keeping with this theme, I thought it would be nice to continue along the same lines, providing the best piece of advice I’ve ever received, and some golden nuggets from other badass women riders I know.

So here’s part 1.

The best piece of advice I’ve ever received

I’m actually breaking the rules already, because I want to share two pieces of advice. And funnily enough, they come from the next two women who will be featured as part of this series, so this gives you a taste of who’s to come.

#1

The first came from Katherine Moore. It was back in April, when I was getting ridiculously nervous about riding in the Yorkshire Dales. I was freaking out about not being able to keep up with the other riders, about struggling to climb hills, and how scared I was of the huge descents. I thought it was a huge mistake, and that I’d fail miserably.

In her cool and calm way, she said to me:

You need to let yourself be a beginner.

Her words resounded in me so deeply, because I knew she was right. I set myself impossibly high standards all the time, and I’m so awful to myself if I don’t reach them. But the fact is, I expect to be good at everything straightaway, without letting myself progress gradually.

She was absolutely right, and ever since she said that, I’ve tried to be more lenient on myself. When I’ve taken on a new endeavour, or when I’ve tackled something bigger than I’m accustomed to, I’ve taken a step back and acknowledged the fact that this is a big deal for me. I’m letting myself feel the fear, and reminding myself that it’s normal to fear something when it’s new. In order to not fear it, I need to just do it. And that’s exactly what I took from her advice.

#2

The second came from Eleanor Jaskowska.

Again, this was in one of my moments of freaking out. This time, it was in anticipation of riding 100 miles for the first time.

Of course, I was allowing myself to be a beginner. The main issue here was just the sheer length of the ride, and I wasn’t sure how I could manage it. I had visions of turning back and giving up.

But El came through for me, the day before the ride. She told me:

Break it down. Don’t think about it as one long ride, but lots of shorter ones.

Again, as soon as she said this, everything made sense. Find some stopping points along the route, and treat each section as its own ride.

That’s exactly what I did, and funnily enough when I talk to people about the ride, and they express their amazement that I could ride 125 miles, I talk about it as a series of shorter rides. I even wrote about it in that way.

So from these women, I’ve learned two very valuable lessons:

  1. If you choose to run before you can walk, expect a few struggles. It doesn’t mean you can’t do it, and it doesn’t mean there’s any shame in struggling with it. Just accept that you’re new to it, and that you’ll get better with time.
  2. Break everything down into something that’s manageable. If the prospect of a long distance is boggling your brain, focus on your checkpoints, or your rest stops, and just get from one to the next.

Next Wednesday I’ll be sharing Katherine’s Wednesday Wisdom. In the meantime, I’d love to hear yours!

Popping the carbon cherry

With my first Century ride fast approaching, I toyed with the idea of borrowing a carbon road bike for the day, as a way of cutting some time. My thinking was: lighter bike, faster climbs, faster descents, and home before you know it.

So, I borrowed a Giant TCR Composite 2 (2012) – a serious endurance road bike, which probably weighs less than me. That was one of things I felt quite wary of. I had visions of the bike just crumpling beneath my heavy body.

Giant TCR Comp 2 2012 – at a glance

This is quite an old model now, but it’s still a thing of beauty.

  • Lightweight T600 carbon frame
  • Advanced-Grade Composite fork with alloy steerer
  • PowerCore bottom bracket
  • Shimano Ultegra shifters and rear mech matched up to a 105 front mech
  • 2012 Shimano brakes and chainset
  • Giant PR-2 wheels with Giant PR-3 tyres

The ride

Starting from the centre of town, we headed out through Long Ashton and onto some country roads, away from the angry drivers and out where the air is a bit cleaner.

As always with a new bike, we had our fair share of teething problems. Adjusting saddle heights, tilting handlebars backwards, tweaking the SPD tension, re-angling the saddle, and various other things. Eventually we got going, out into the summer heat.

Admittedly, despite planning a 20-mile loop, we only strayed out for about 10 miles before we decided to turn back. It might have been the heat to a certain degree, but mainly it was the fact that neither of us were enjoying our bikes very much.

The verdict

Carbon is fast, I know. I felt it as I shifted into my higher gears and threw myself down various hills. It’s light, too, as I learned when I climbed a pretty short but sharp one.

I’m sure that if I rode it for the full 100 miles, I’d probably make faster progress, and take the climbs and descents in my stride.

The truth is, though, I hated it. I hate carbon. There, I said it.

I totally see the appeal for others, but in my opinion you’re sacrificing all that is nice about riding a bike, to gain some extra speed.

To summarise:

  • My wrists, my bum, my poor aching body. You literally feel every bump in the road.
  • Oh dear god the noise. Thanks to a hollow plastic frame, you hear every click and grind echoing as you freewheel. On busy roads this isn’t that bad, but in quieter areas I found it quite embarrassing and irritating.
  • Skinny tyres scare me. Every time I experienced a bit of gravel or general debris on the road I tensed, with visions of toppling over.
  • I felt a bit unstable. I think I’m just more at ease knowing that the bike carrying me weighs more, and is up for the job of carting my heavy load around.

Sticking with steel

I’m definitely a steel convert, and I’ll be riding Dori on Saturday. She may be heavy, but she’s got a great gear ratio for climbing hills, and the 32c tyres mean that I gain speed while keeping traction. After riding the TCR, getting back on Dori was like reclining on a sofa.

As I said, I see the appeal for others. If you’re one for speed, then it makes sense. I’m definitely one for comfort!

At least now I’ve tried it, and I can make an informed decision on the right bike for me. Another notch on the belt, so to speak.

Cycling in the Yorkshire Dales: a physical and emotional rollercoaster

18056726_1880865088848545_1133365133379879898_nI’m not quite sure where to start!

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.

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I’m near the back, in light blue. Photo credit: Laura Moss

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:

Screen Shot 2017-04-24 at 13.49.34Seasoned 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.

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Photo: mudinmyhair.co.uk

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

17952771_1880865805515140_1566166623348734826_nI 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.

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Photo credit: Laura Moss

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:

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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.

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Looking back over some of the climbing I’d just done.

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.

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Susan is on the far left, in purple. Photo by Laura Moss.

Final thoughts

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.

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Obligatory selfie with Regina, my trusty steed

A wrong turn on the Mendips is no trifling matter

I’m really proud of myself.

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

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

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

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

The route

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

Challenge #1: Climbing Harptree Hill

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

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

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

Challenge #2: Into the abyss (Wookey Hole)

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That big bump in the middle… that be the Mendips

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

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

Lesson Learned #1: Get the right fit

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

Challenge #3: A missed opportunity

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

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

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

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This… not so much.

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

Lesson Learned #2: A blessing and a curse

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

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

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

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

Challenge #4: What goes up must come down

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

Final lessons learned

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

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

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

A reflection on fear, or, is there really such a thing as ‘ready’?

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Photo: http://www.velocate.co.uk/best-places-to-cycle-in-yorkshire/

This might be a bit of a downer, so I’ll keep it brief. I just need to break the silence, as I’m conscious that I’ve not written anything for a while, and sometimes it helps to process my feelings through the medium of writing.

I’d love it if all I ever wrote about was epic bike rides through the countryside and fiddling around with bottom brackets, but that’s just not the way I roll.

I’ve spoken extensively before about the fears that govern the way I ride, and I’ve been having to deal with some pretty heavy mental barriers this past week. The 200k ride around the Yorkshire Dales is one week away, and suddenly I feel sick to my stomach.

I’ve been trying to get out as much as I can at the weekends, to get some miles in and do some so-called ‘training’ for this ridiculously steep learning curve I’m about to embark upon. But the fact is, life gets in the way. Last weekend was all about looking at bikes rather than riding them (hello, Bespoked), and now we’re at a lovely 4 day weekend, I should in theory have racked up some miles already, right?

Wrong. I literally spent the whole of yesterday lying on the sofa drinking endless cups of tea and eating pastry after pastry while watching Rick and Morty. Today I rode a mile up the road and left my bike at a friend’s house. Later I’ll grab it so I can ride into town.

I guess what I’m getting at here, is my motivation is starting to sag a little. Adam and I have talked about going for a long ride tomorrow, but have yet to settle on a route.

What’s holding me back is that every route option I’ve come up with, contains something that terrifies me. Think sharp inclines, followed by sharp descents. You know what I’m like.

Adam keeps saying (rightly so), ‘there are hills in the Yorkshire Dales, you can’t avoid the hills’. I know I can’t avoid them, but I’m scared. That’s all it really comes down to. I’m scared of being out in the middle of nowhere, exhausted, with no energy left in my legs, facing a huge climb that I physically can’t do, and feeling like a big fat failure as I get left behind.

I’ve got my SPDs now, and I know how to ride clipped in. I also understand the concept behind how they give you much more efficient power usage, by using an up-pull as well as a down-push motion. That’s all very well, but I haven’t spent much time riding like that. Those muscles haven’t had time to develop. I had a go at climbing Park Street – a climb I do with ease every day on my commute – and I exhausted myself before I was even halfway up. What chance do I stand in the Yorkshire Dales?!

I signed up for the 200k ride because when I first heard about it, I’d just ridden 130k to Oxford, and it was nearly two months away. I wasn’t to know that I’d spend the following two months dealing with a cycle of illnesses which led to bouts of exhaustion. I thought I’d just keep riding for longer and longer.

The opposite has happened, and I feel less fit than I was before simply because I’m using my legs in a way that I never have. That, and my body hasn’t been very good to me for a while. Now it’s a week away, and I am freaking out.

Advice encouraged. Please.

 

Flying solo for the first time

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I just need to work on my courage, somehow.

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#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

The Long Road to Oxford, or, #WAB2017 Part 1

 

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I did it! I’m so freaking proud of myself.

On Saturday we got up at the crack of dawn and set off on our (what turned out to be) 80-mile journey from Bristol to Oxford. Regina was loaded with ridiculously large Vaude panniers, which I grew to hate with a passion by the end of the weekend, but at this point I was feeling positive about it all.

Thus began the climb out of Bristol! I definitely noticed the difference, climbing with all the added weight on the back. Regina is lovely and light, which is so refreshing after riding my clunky Ridgeback hybrid for three years, however with the added 15kg or so on the back, climbing became quite a chore after a while. Lesson learned #1.

Having said that, something huge happened for me. The first 40-50 miles were undulating hills, which meant I had to get used to descending pretty quickly. If you’ve read my blog for a while you’ll know that I’m terrified of picking up speed whilst going downhill. It all stems from a mountain biking accident I had a couple of years ago, that I’m yet to write about.

(Side note: I actually bumped into that ride leader this weekend, and am going to slowly get back into it. More of this to come.)

So, when we hit the first descent, I had a minor freak out. I rode the brakes all the way down, which felt a bit arduous with the Tiagra shifters, particularly because my winter gloves are too tight across my palms. Lesson learned #2.

However, after I was warned that there would be a lot of descending, I told myself to get a grip. Gradually I held off the braking, just feathering them lightly to keep my speed in check. Eventually I let go altogether, and was rewarded with a thrilling descent through a tree-covered section of road that opened out to a gorgeous, misty area with a farm on the left and a great hill to the right. My description won’t do it justice, it just looked beautiful, and for the first time ever, I felt a real sense of elation from descending. Regina is a lot of fun. Lesson learned #3.

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The route we took went through lots of countryside and beautiful little villages. We stopped in Malmesbury for a coffee and snackage, and had a little wander into the Abbey to visit the tomb of King Æthelstan (a big nerdy moment for me). Malmesbury is beautiful, and we agreed we’d head back there at some point to explore it further.

We also stopped in Fairford for lunch, and had a really lovely meal at The Railway Inn. We were immediately greeted with a warm welcome, and it was such a nice surprise to find they had a vegan option on their menu, so we loaded up on vegetable tagine with cous cous (and an extra helping of chips, because carbs) before heading off on the final leg of the journey.

One thing that was really nice about cycling through the countryside was encountering a huge number of other cyclists who smiled and greeted us as we passed. I’m just not used to that, cycling around Bristol, and it made me feel like I was part of some special club.

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We eventually made it into Oxford, arriving around 5pm. There was one final climb that I honestly struggled with so much, to the point where I stopped halfway up because I had nothing left to give. Thankfully after that it was all downhill into the city.

Not everything was perfect though. We were blessed with gorgeous weather and beautiful views, but still encountered a few atrocious drivers. They were merely drops in the ocean, however. The only really bad thing was how I felt when we arrived. I honestly think I hadn’t drunk enough water and my blood sugar was terribly low. I actually experienced some distorted vision, and making my way through the city was quite scary.

It was like looking through a fish-eye lens – on the bike I felt like I was really high up, and the ground was really far away, but when I looked down it suddenly gained on me very quickly and appeared closer than it should have done. I saw cars with double vision, and signs were a blur. I was in a terrible state for a while and really scared of endangering myself on the city roads. Thankfully Adam got us there in one piece, and then brought me cinnamon knots from the Papa Johns across the road, which completely sorted me out! Sugar to the rescue, would you believe.

Otherwise I felt fine. I was ridiculously tired, had developed some weird hard lumps on my little toes and a blood blister on one of my palms, but my legs and bum didn’t complain too much. On that last note, I took bgddyjim’s advice and invested in better padded shorts. Solid advice, I’m so glad I did. I’m now considering getting bibbed shorts, now I’ve caught the long ride bug. I may have foolishly agreed to sign up for a 200km audax in April… Watch this space.

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In part 2: Of course, the reason we made this ride to Oxford was to attend the Women and Bicycles festival, hosted by The Broken Spoke Co-op. In part 2 I’ll tell you all about that. Spoiler alert: I met a hero of mine, and she was freaking awesome.