Despite being a generally cold country, and despite having a winter every single year, the UK just never seems to be prepared for the ‘adverse weather conditions’ when they arrive.
Yes, it’s that time of year. Snow has fallen, winter is looking beautiful, and the public transport system is in chaos.
I was supposed to be getting a coach to London today, but since they decided to close part of the M4, I would have spent around 4 hours getting there, only to be late to the CycleFox Christmas Market, and then spend another 4 hours to get back at stupid o’clock in the morning.
So, I made the difficult decision to not go, and instead went to play in the woods with Adam, Lucy, and her friend Nikki.
I’ve discovered that mountain biking in the snow may just be my new favourite thing to do.
We met in Ashton Court at the start of the Nova trail, and took each section at our own pace. I started off slower than the others (though I was stopping to take photos at first), but later on I was able to keep up with Nikki, which was reassuring.
We then progressed over to Leigh Woods, which I’m less familiar with, and did a bit of Yer Tiz. By that point though, it had already been well over an hour, and none of us could feel our fingers and toes, so we decided to quit while we were still having fun.
I actually found my confidence really grew today. I focused on my cornering technique, and found I was really able to power through some of the bends. I also found it easier with the big, deep puddles, which sounds counter-intuitive, but it helped me stop worrying about picking out a line, and just put some trust in my bike. It worked every time, though I don’t know if I’d have this same trust on an unfamiliar trail.
And… and! I even attempted part of the red trail. Whilst practically blind. I consider myself suitably challenged today. I couldn’t do the whole lot, but I did about half of what the others did. Once I saw Adam and Lucy slipping and sliding over a steep, rocky part, I backed out and cycled to the top of the hill to wait for them. Perhaps I could try that part another day when it’s dry, and when I can actually see where I’m going.
Yeah, I was practically blind due to my glasses steaming up. I think I’m going to try and wear contact lenses, because it was quite terrifying when I couldn’t see properly.
Also I definitely learned that I need to invest in some decent waterproof socks. My poor toes were not very happy afterwards. In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever been so cold in my life, and when we got back and changed I thought I’d never warm up again.
Not much else to say, other than it was super fun, and absolutely beautiful. So here are some pictures of the snowy trails.
Sorry it’s been a while. Multiple things have resulted in me only really riding to commute for the past month or so, and therefore not really having a lot to say. I don’t just want to spew out some garbled train of thoughts here, I want to talk about things that I think are worth talking about.
So I’m back, because I have something to tell you!
Those of you who have been reading this blog for a while, will already be aware of the fact that I’ve been wanting to ease myself back into mountain biking, despite my confidence issues relating to a previous crash.
Now the time has come. Meet Phoebe, my new Cotic BFe.
Before you gasp that I’ve acquired yet another bike, I have had to make a rather difficult decision. I can only justify it to myself by operating on a one-in-one-out system, and so I said an emotional farewell to Regina.
Regina is a super fun bike to ride, and she is very distinctive to look at. She’s become an iconic part of my blogging identity within Bristol’s cycling community. People have recognised me from the bike I’m riding.
But the fact is this: she’s a CX bike. She deserves to be racing through the mud.
When I got her, I was upgrading from the same Ridgeback hybrid (RIP Ripley) I’d been commuting on for three years. I wanted something affordable, with a racier riding position, drop bars, and disc brakes. She was one of the few options available in my size, and she came with Crosstop levers, which helped me transition to the hoods comfortably. She was exactly what I needed.
But now I have Dori as my go-to bike. A touring bike is perfect for year-round all-weather commuting. When I got her, I told myself that Regina would still be a weekend fun ride. She ended up living in the shed instead.
Back when I was musing about the need to fit in when it comes to various cycling categories, I toyed with the idea of trying out cyclocross at some stage, without fully understanding what it was. I know what it is now, and while I know it looks incredibly fun, to me it really is just a race. Unfortunately I’m not motivated by racing. I like mucking about, and being able to take my time when I encounter something technical.
I liked the idea of getting into CX, but was massively put off by the fact that in order to do so, I pretty much had to just turn up to a race and jump straight into the deep end.
The main thing that appeals to me about CX is the mud. I like being off-road and getting dirty. So it just makes plain sense for me to spend some time on the trails and do them in my own time, gradually building my confidence. And not only this, I want to do it with a bit of front suspension.
So I’ve exchanged Regina for Phoebe, and I honestly don’t regret it.
I’ve been out for a couple of rides now – one with companions, and one alone. I feel so incredibly proud of myself, to have moved on from the trauma of my crash and get back out on the trails. I’ve been craving a chance to get back out into the woods, and I’m planning to do this as often as possible.
(She says, sitting in her pyjamas at her laptop when the sun is shining outside).
I just fucking love being in the woods.
I love being surrounded by trees. I love the splash of mud against my shins.
Since I’ve talked to my colleagues about it (most of them being MTB enthusiasts), I’ve been inundated with recommendations of awesome places to go riding in the local area and also in South Wales. I have every intention of branching out as soon as I can, but for now I’m trying to be sensible.
I’ve learned from my past experiences, and I know where my limits are. For now, I’m planning to make a (hopefully) weekly trip to Ashton Court to do a lap or two of the blue Nova trail. I’ve ridden this a few times before, and I like the idea of getting to know a trail and building my confidence first, before branching off.
When I went riding with companions, I was led through Leigh Woods and the 50 Acre Wood, and I’ve had a taste of what’s to come. It’s exciting, but I’m taking my sweet time. I don’t want to end up in the middle of the 50 Acre Wood alone, lost, and suddenly encountering something I’m not ready for.
So here’s to more mud, more confidence, and more MTB.
I decided to take myself to Ashton Court to practise riding on gravel. I sometimes do Parkrun there, and I know the route it takes goes up a gravelly climb. I figured this would be a good place to start.
Originally I’d planned to take Regina, my lovely Orange CX bike, but alas, I stupidly cross-threaded one of her pedals in my eagerness to get out on a ride. Silly me. So I took Dori instead. She’s more than capable of these things, and knows gravel well already, despite our relationship still being in its early months.
I’m pleased to say the gravel climbing went well straightaway, so I attempted some gravel descending. It was okay at first, being a nice, gradual decline. However I must admit when it dropped steeper I lost my nerve a little.
To my left I saw an opening that led into the woods, and what looked like a bridleway, so I decided to explore that instead. It was nice: a bit muddy and riddled with tree roots, which made for an interesting challenge.
In the end I grew so much in confidence that I did something I didn’t think I was capable of. I took Dori – my steel touring bike, with her 32c tyres – onto the mountain bike trails.
Despite not being the right bike for the job, she certainly held up well.
Not only did I go on the trails, I spent about an hour flying through them, occasionally picking up a good pace and taking on some technical parts that would normally freak me out if I had time to think about them first. It was the fact that everything was moving so quickly that helped me keep my nerve. I didn’t have time to chicken out, I just tackled what came and reacted on instinct.
I had an absolute blast, and didn’t fall once. I felt in control of the bike, and on the few occasions where I felt I was losing control, I was able to stop on a flat part and regain my composure.
I’ve been a bit quiet lately for various reasons, but namely because I’ve allowed the run-up to the General Election to completely take over my thoughts.
I’ve spent so many hours scouring information online, campaigning on behalf of my chosen political party, and occasionally wallowing in a pit of despair when things seemed hopeless.
This morning we woke up to a hung parliament, and I’m sure I’m not the only one who breathed a sigh of relief. Don’t worry, I’m not going to get political on you (that’s why I’ve stayed quiet), but this moment of limbo has allowed me some headspace to think about other things.
Social media has proven to be both damaging and enlightening, these past few weeks. I’ve become increasingly aware that the more time I spend on Facebook, the more angry and disillusioned with the world I become. The same can go for Twitter, though there are still a lot of things that keep me going back there.
Instagram is proving to be my favourite channel these days. It fills my time with photographs of beautiful bikes, cycling kit, and incredible views that make me want to burst out of my front door, clip in, and go.
So in these uncertain times, let me leave you with some suggestions of accounts to follow, so you can feel as inspired as I do.
Amelie is working her way around the world, sometimes on the bike, and sometimes off. She picks up work as a freelance yoga teacher, photographer and graphic designer, as well as taking part in various work exchanges (where you work a certain amount of hours a day in exchange for accommodation and/or food). Her Instagram account is full of gorgeous photos from her travels, and provides me with so much inspiration for my own round-the-world tour one day.
I simply had to include The Adventure Syndicate. I’ve talked about them many times before, and you should know who they are. If not, go check out their Instagram account. It gives a fascinating insight into their many adventures, following all the Syndicaters in their own individual journeys as well as the group as a whole.
Remember that mountain biking weekend I don’t stop banging on about? This is who I went with. Despite coming away a little bit broken, I regret nothing, and I’m itching to go back and try again. Polly posts lots of photos from her rural Wales adventures, sometimes with her family, sometimes solo, and sometimes with the groups she leads. The scenery is always stunning, and it’s really lovely to see her children getting started on their MTB adventures already.
I’m so glad Adam told me about this account. Jasmine Reese is travelling around the world on a bike, with her violin and her dog in tow. Expect inspirational quotes, violin recitals, stories of the kindness of strangers who have offered their hospitality, and of course, photos of her adorable doggo.
Marijn de Vries, now retired from professional racing, is cycling around the world and sharing the most stunning photographs through her Instagram account. The scenery, the selfies… the cycling kit! Just gorgeous photos that will make you want to follow in her footsteps and experience the breathtaking views for yourself.
The SheWolves are a San Diego women’s cycling crew, and they look like they have a lot of fun. As someone who is currently part of an effort to create a badass girl gang within Bristol’s cycling community, I love seeing photos of their antics and feeling inspired to create a similar vibe in my own city. If ever there were a girl gang I’d go to great lengths to be part of, this would be it.
Speaking of girl gangs…
We held another Women and Bikes social at Roll for the Soul last night. It was a much smaller group this time, which afforded us the opportunity to get a conversation going about what we should do next.
I will be organising the first outing in the near future, and posting a poll in the Women Cyclists of Bristol Facebook group, to gauge what people want in terms of distance, pace, scenery and type of adventure. I’m totally up for camping. Just saying.
Keep your eyes peeled in the group, join it if you’re not in there already, and come ride with us soon.
I promised a big weekend of riding, and though not everything went to plan, it’s been a pretty fab one indeed, and I even managed to surprise myself.
Full disclosure, we didn’t do the entire distance that we planned. Trying to figure out the new Garmin kept us up pretty late on Thursday night, and then delayed us by a further hour or two on Friday morning when it somehow lost the route we’d loaded. Setting out much later than we should have, and getting stuck on a horrible, busy A road halfway through, we arrived in Oxford around 6pm with 36 miles still to go. We decided to cut our losses and get a train to Beaconsfield, then cycled the final 10 miles in the dark, arriving at 9:30pm.
The ride itself was amazing, though! From Bristol to Swindon, the Garmin kept us on quiet country roads, cycle paths through parks, dirt tracks and bridleways. At one point we stumbled onto a dirt road that was actually in the process of being compacted. I was so grateful for Regina and her lovely thick tyres. Parts of it verged on mountain biking, even. It was brilliant fun, and the first proper adventure that I’ve taken her on.
Unfortunately things took a turn on the way out of Swindon. I’m not entirely sure what happened, but our Garmin reset its own settings, and locked us onto main roads. We found ourselves on a really ugly part of the A420 and stuck in a lay-by for about half an hour waiting for it to find its satellites and recalculate the route. In the end we turned it off and relied on Google Maps to get us the rest of the way to Oxford. Once we found our way back onto country roads, it became fun again.
One thing I love about cycling to Oxford is the descent down Cumnor Hill. While I’m not usually one to get excited about going downhill, it’s a brilliant way to end a long ride and get that last part finished very quickly! The other thing I love is finishing the ride with a chilli dog at the Gardener’s Arms on Plantation Road. Best food in Oxford.
We left the bikes in the shed on Saturday to give our bottoms a rest, but got back out on the road on Sunday to visit various relatives of Adam’s, and also to ride the lovely Pednor Loop, which is pretty much traffic-free and comes with some stunning views. Yesterday we decided to be kind to ourselves. We left at 7am, rode to Oxford and got the train back to Bristol. I’m glad we rode to Oxford again, as we got to do the part that we missed on Friday. I couldn’t have left this weekend without riding in the Chilterns.
The ride from Chesham to Oxford was really nice. The Chilterns are of course very hilly, and I knew there was a great big descent waiting for me down Kop Hill.
But now I’m going to shock you (and myself). All weekend I had to deal with big descents. Huge descents. Steep descents. Some in the dark. One had a red traffic light at the bottom while still on a steep gradient. After the first few I found my rhythm and I really started to enjoy them. On one hill we clocked a maximum of 65km/h. I’m really freaking proud of myself.
In total over the whole weekend I’d estimate that we rode around 130+ miles. It’s still the furthest I’ve ridden in that amount of time, and I’m really happy with how it went.
Coming soon… Riding like a S.I.R.
I’ve decided that, providing I can get the Garmin working in my favour, Saturdays are going to become my day for riding solo. I’m dubbing these my Saturday Independence Rides (SIR) and this Saturday I’m planning a 40+mile ride to Westonbirt Arboretum and back. Stay tuned!
If you’re a woman cyclist in Bristol…
Final plug before I sign off. A bunch of us have organised a social this Thursday at Roll For The Soul, aimed at women cyclists of Bristol who want to meet other likeminded women, find riding buddies, learn about the various group rides and events coming up in Bristol, and just generally build a community (girl gang).
If you’re around, come join in the fun! Click here for details.
While on the surface I know it’s not necessary to pigeon-hole myself, we do have a basic human need to feel like we belong somewhere, be surrounded by people who are likeminded, and ultimately, who get us.
I’ve been getting out and pushing myself lately, trying out some group riding in various guises, and I’m struggling to figure out where I fit in. It seems like whatever I try, there are always aspects I like, some I don’t like, and nothing that strikes me with a moment of ‘this is where I belong’.
In my mind there are around five different categories of cycling:
I would also argue that all these types of cycling come with various motivations behind them. My problem at the moment is that by not really fitting in anywhere, I’m struggling to motivate myself.
On Wednesday this week I decided to get out in a group road ride, with Audax Club Bristol. First things first, they all seemed like a great bunch and I totally get the appeal of their rides. However what was promised as a ‘flat 60k social ride’ was so incredibly fast that after about 20k it was just me with a purple face, and two other riders who very kindly held back to make sure I didn’t get left behind and lost forever.
In terms of motivation, these kinds of rides or races are for people who like going fast, and who like competing. Maybe they’re driven by a need to improve their speed, beat their previous time records, and ultimately win races. Or maybe it’s just about riding as quickly as they can.
I like riding fast, but I’m not fast enough for this kind of ride. I’m not sure I want to be, either. I do enjoy getting into a high gear and zooming along an open tarmac road through the middle of the countryside, but I also have a limit. When I reach the point of my bike going so fast that I can’t keep up with it (as Boomer put it so eloquently), that’s when the fear sets in and I stop enjoying the ride.
I like riding on roads, but I don’t own a road bike (and I’m not planning to). So while I’m proud of myself for giving this a go, and completing the ride, I won’t be returning in a hurry. I didn’t belong here.
Full disclosure though, I am tempted to try again. I’d like to think that when it comes to controlling the bike, and getting out the saddle, I do have quite good intuition. I know how to move my body around to best tackle a mixed terrain, and I enjoy trundling along on a big mountain bike with front suspension.
However I also find it terrifying, for obvious reasons. Perhaps I could belong here one day, if I keep practising and building up my confidence. But again, I don’t own a mountain bike, and I’m not planning to. I have the option of hiring one, so there’s potential here.
Okay, here’s where the bike stops being the excuse. I own a cyclocross bike, and I freaking love it. I love that it’s lighter than my previous hybrid, I love that it has a racier positioning, I love that it has disc brakes and I love that it takes fatter, knobbly tyres.
I’ve never tried cyclocross, but I’ve been looking into it recently and it does sound like a lot of fun. What unnerves me is that it requires a lot of techniques that I feel incapable of learning, like the fast mounting and dismounting.
Also, I’m not sure I have the right motivations to get into cyclocross. Again, it’s a type of racing and that need to win just doesn’t drive me that much. But perhaps there’s potential here. I need to find out if there’s a group in Bristol who do introductory sessions.
Now, I’ve included this as a category because it comes with different motivations that match my own. Covering long distances (check) at a comfortable pace (check), exploring, discovering, adventuring. Check, check, check.
So perhaps this is my bag, but this isn’t really something I can do on a regular basis. Perhaps one day I’ll head off on a round-the-world adventure and then I will officially be a ‘tourer’ but in terms of getting out on the bike weekly, this isn’t helping me to find a sense of belonging.
So, yes. I do kind of belong here. I commute by bike, and I occasionally pootle around town or along the bike path. But this can’t be it. I can’t stop here.
I guess I included this category to force a sense of belonging on myself, but this isn’t where I want to be. I just need to figure out where it is I do want to go.
I’m sure with time I’ll discover where my true drive lies. At the moment if I dig deep, I can identify my main motivations for cycling as follows:
First of all I wanted to share my experience at an event at the Specialized Concept Store this week, which was aimed predominantly at women who wanted to get out riding more. After this, I’ll share the real reason I went there.
Trying something new
On Tuesday this week, the Specialized Concept Store in Bristol held a women’s night, where they greeted us with goody bags, provided a sushi buffet and prosecco, and introduced us to a variety of things through workshops and stalls:
Breeze Network: There was a stall in place to introduce women to the Breeze Network and promote upcoming rides. I saw Heidi again for the first time since she taught me the basic techniques of mountain biking a couple of years ago.
Fixing a flat: I didn’t spend much time here as I already know how to, but they had a workshop demonstrating how to fix a puncture – a very valuable skill to have!
Try clipping in: There was a turbo trainer and an array of different sized shoes, to allow women to try clipping in for the first time. This is what I came for.
Facing my fears
I’ve already shared many fears with my readers. If anything you must think I’m a total coward, which to some extent I probably am! One of the things that scares me, which I haven’t talked about before, is clipping in.
The stationary bike was set up with road cleats, whereas I was more interested in mountain bike ones (they’re much better for walking around in because the cleat is recessed), but I decided to give it a go anyway.
I instantly saw the difference and knew that I needed them in my life. It’s easy to say that from the safety of a stationary bike, of course. What I liked was how they force your feet and legs into the correct riding position, which is something I can struggle with.
However I wasn’t sure about the amount of force I needed to unclip, and how unnatural the angle felt. It felt like a lot of effort, even when the tension was completely lowered. I’ve been reassured that it’s different with SPDs, which I’ll find out soon enough, because I bought some!
I’m both excited and terrified to take them for a test ride, but I will face my fears nonetheless.
This brings me nicely onto part two of this post: my reason for doing all this in the first place.
You may recall after my ride to Oxford, I allowed myself to be talked into signing up for a 200km audax. It turns out that said audax is fully booked, and while I’m on the waiting list, I didn’t hold out much hope of getting in.
In my impatience, I signed up for a 200km ride in the Yorkshire Dales with the Adventure Syndicate instead, which is happening towards the end of April. Ridiculously exciting!
This is why I felt like SPDs were the way forward – it’s a huge distance for me to attempt when I’m not very experienced at long rides, and I definitely think clipping in will help me ride more efficiently. It will also help with the hills, of which there will be many!
Unfortunately my body hasn’t really been on my side for a while, so my training for the event has been less than perfect. I’ve actually been ill for quite some time now, and while I’ve managed to get out on a couple of long-ish rides, generally I’ve not gotten to where I need to be to feel super confident about this. It’s difficult to find the balance between training and giving my body the rest it needs.
I’m planning to get out on a long ride this weekend, after spending a bit of time in the park getting used to clipping in (cue the spectacular falls).
As a final note, I wanted to acknowledge that the Specialized event was a great opportunity for networking, and I bumped into several familiar faces while meeting a few new ones as well.
In addition to Heidi, I also bumped into two other fellow Bristol bloggers: David (Wheels of Karma) and Katherine (Katherinebikes). I love how much of a community there is for cyclists in Bristol, and how I’m finally starting to feel that I have a place within it. I also bumped into a woman named Sara who I met through Facebook, but hadn’t met in person before. She’s a Deliveroo rider, and someone who has offered to help me get back into mountain biking. I’ll be taking her up on that offer soon, no doubt.
Finally I met Aoife Glass, Women’s Cycling Editor for Bike Radar. Having previously worked for Total Women’s Cycling, she really encouraged me to submit some articles and get my writing out there, which I think I may just do.
It was a really inspiring evening, and I feel so ready to get out there, start riding for longer, and push myself harder. It all begins this weekend. I’m ready. Let’s do this.
So I’ve mentioned a few times now that I had a mountain biking accident a couple of years back. Woe is me, cue the violins.
I promised to explain what happened, because it’s wholeheartedly at the root of all my fears around descending, and those fears tend to govern everything I do when I’m on the bike.
Basically a couple of years ago I saw a Facebook ad for Mountain Yoga Breaks, and I thought it sounded amazing. Spoiler alert: it was. It was a weekend of mountain biking around the gorgeous Elan Valley in Powys, Wales, with two daily yoga sessions to start the day and wind down. Polly, who teaches the yoga and co-leads the rides, is well versed in the poses best suited for stretching out all the right muscles post-ride. If this sounds like your bag, I highly recommend it. I actually bumped into her in Oxford a couple of weeks ago, where she taught a Yoga for Cyclists class at the Broken Spoke Women and Cycling Festival.
The one detail I neglected to consider was that I’d never been mountain biking before, nor had I ever considered how technical and dangerous it could be. Nonetheless, I contacted Heidi Blunden, who I’d met on a Breeze ride previously, and she took me through the basics for a couple of hours at Ashton Court, which was a lot of fun. I was nervous as hell but I felt well equipped to give it a try, and a couple of weeks later I was on a train to Llandrindod Wells.
Honestly, it’s a gorgeous weekend away. The Elan Valley is stunning, they hire out the Elan Valley Lodge so the group has the whole grounds to themselves. Food is provided, including a packed lunch and snacks to take out on the ride, yoga is upstairs in the morning and evenings and everyone has their own en suite room.
The people I met were lovely. There was a mixture of experience among the group, including many really experienced mountain bikers, and other newbies like myself. On the first day we all set out together as a group and were tested very quickly on our abilities. Over the course of the 7-hour ride, it became clear who amongst the group needed more tuition and easier routes than others (myself included). We split up into two groups towards the end to allow the more experienced (or just braver) riders the opportunity to do a really technical and fun descent. I was not part of this group.
I found the first day really fun and challenging, and in some places really scary. Particularly at the beginning, when everything felt unfamiliar and I forgot everything Heidi had taught me because I could concentrate on nothing but my fear. But I did start to get over it, and towards the end of day one I was gaining some confidence and really enjoying myself.
On day two Polly and Phill (the other ride leader) decided to split us into two groups for the whole day. Phill took the more experienced riders on a more challenging route while Polly took those of us with less experience on an easier route which included some on-road as well as off-road riding. By that afternoon I was feeling really confident. I was having a lot of fun, my technique was starting to come along and it was starting to feel quite natural. I felt in control of my bike and my speed, and I was absolutely loving the views.
Unfortunately I came down from my high pretty quickly. Right towards the end of the ride, we were descending quite a significant downhill, with loose gravelly terrain. It was one of those downhills which levelled out every now and then, giving you an opportunity to brake and rein in your speed before the next part of the descent. It was also the type of downhill that had a narrow path, and was flanked with bushes, so the path ahead wasn’t always that visible.
So, for the most part, I did well to keep my speed in check. I used the flat parts to brake, and I remained in control of the descents. I was feeling confident and I was enjoying myself. Eventually I saw the path open out into a longer, flat surface. It was still surrounded by bushes but it looked like we’d reached the bottom. In my elation at having completed a scary descent, I forgot to brake when I reached the bottom, only to find that it then opened out onto another downhill. I wasn’t ready. I was hurtling down at an uncontrollable speed and gaining more as I went. I tried to feather my brakes as we’d been taught but by this point it was too late and completely ineffective.
In the end I panicked. I pulled hard on the brake levers, and I accepted that I was going to come off the bike. It slid out from underneath me, and I proceeded to roll down the rocky hill. All I really remember from that sensation was that I felt a rock hit me hard in the chest, which winded me. I just rolled and felt like I was going to die.
Eventually I stopped, and I just lay still for a moment before the awful pain in my chest suddenly hit me. All I could do was start wailing; partly to get help from Polly, who was behind me somewhere, and partly because it was literally all I could do. The pain and the panic took over. She found me soon after, administered some first aid, and checked me over. ‘Oh you poor thing,’ she said, ‘you’ve landed in the nettles’. I looked around and realised she was right. I was lying in the middle of a bush of stinging nettles, and hadn’t even noticed because of the adrenalin. Needless to say, not long after that, my skin was on fire.
It could have been much worse, I know. Nothing was broken, and I got away with some scrapes, bruises and stinging nettle rashes. But that moment when I knew I’d lost control of the bike, the sudden momentum as I gained unwanted speed, the acceptance that it was over… it was traumatic for me.
It turned out where I’d fallen was also pretty much at the bottom of the hill, and all that was left was a flat ride on a cycle path back to the lodge. I wiped away my tears and reluctantly got back on the bike, and pedalled very slowly back to the comfort of my bed. The yoga session that evening was a challenge for me, as I had open wounds on my knees and elbows, making some of the poses difficult.
I’m glad it happened at the end of the weekend, because had that happened earlier on, I probably wouldn’t have gotten back on the bike. I probably would have gotten an early train home. Instead, I got to have a really fun and scary weekend, before the fun was over. Admittedly I didn’t really get back on the bike after that, and haven’t really given mountain biking a second chance since then. But I’ve reached a point where I think I’m ready to try again. Regina has helped me to become braver, and I’ve started pushing myself more, particularly on the downhills and off-road paths.
A few of my friends – Hattie and Lucy to name two – have offered to accompany me on some downhill practice and trail riding up at Ashton Court. Now that the days are getting longer and warmer, I’m going to take them up on it. Hopefully a bit of time, courage and adrenalin will make a mountain biker of me yet.
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
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
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.
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.
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
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.