This will probably be the last instalment of this series, as I have other things I want to write about, now I’m back from my recent adventures. However if you want to see more, or if you want to contribute to the series, let me know and we’ll figure something out 🙂
For my final instalment, we turn to Lucy Greaves, the writer of one of my current favourite blogs, Brain Cranks.
I met Lucy out on a ride to Dundry Hill with some Bike Project volunteers, and I could tell straightaway that she was a confident and experienced rider. Back then I was riding Ripley, my stepthrough Ridgeback hybrid, with flat bars and flat pedals, and I was in awe of her as she sped up hills clipped in, on her Croix de Fer.
We didn’t actually talk that much on that particular day, but somehow following that we became friends, and I’ve found her to be an extraordinarily motivating and inspirational person to ride with. She’s the reason I rode 200km. She pushed me to my limits and helped me realise that I was capable of more than I thought.
Which brings me very neatly to her contribution. I’ll let her speak for herself.
“Over the last year, the Adventure Syndicate mantra ‘we are all capable of so much more than we think’ has lodged itself firmly in my brain and, as someone who enjoys a challenge, I’ve been enthusiastically testing that hypothesis.
Back in May I dared myself to ride 100 miles. Having ridden almost that distance last summer I had a strong suspicion I was capable of riding it, so the barrier felt psychological much more than physical. 100 is a big number. Telling myself I could do it helped get me round.
Cycle touring through Wales in June I took myself up some enormous hills, carrying a fairly hefty load of kit. As I plodded slowly upwards the mantra I repeated to myself became ‘I just can‘. As in: ‘what makes you think you can get all the way up there?’ ‘Ah, y’know, I just can‘. (That voice in my head is much cockier than I am in real life, which seems to help somehow.) There were chunks when my gears just weren’t low enough and I had to get off and push, but I never doubted that I’d get up the hills.
Last month I dared myself to ride 200km (and took an unsuspecting Mildred with me, adding to our 100-mile route). Hard though it was, I knew we just could.
Now I’ve ridden 200km, longer distances don’t seem like such enormous psychological milestones. I feel confident that I can keep riding when things get hard, and I’m keen to push myself further. I’ve been getting ill a lot recently, however, so my challenge is now to know when to stop rather than go, something I find really difficult. I need a mantra for that.”
Thank you Lucy! And on that final note, she recently wrote an interesting piece about allowing yourself to stop when you need to, which is definitely worth a read. You’ll find it here.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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!
My brain is constantly switched on, analysing, fretting, questioning. When there’s a lot going on in there, I can’t finish speaking a sentence without starting a new one. I can be manic, jittery, and completely incoherent.
I used to manage this with meditation. Every night I dedicated 15 minutes to slowing down, silencing my thoughts and clearing my mind before going to bed. It used to really help, but these days I just can’t do it anymore. Meditation is a real skill that you need to master, and my mental state just isn’t compatible with it anymore.
But cycling helps to tame the chaos.
A friend recently commented that I’ve become obsessed with cycling – it’s all I talk about, all I do. It’s true. I spend every spare moment looking at bikes, riding them, fixing them, and talking about them…
Heck, not that long ago Adam and I were discussing bottom brackets in bed, and realised we really need to reassess our pillow talk.
My response to this friend was simple: cycling is the only thing that’s keeping me sane right now.
My professional life is in flux. I’ve just resigned from a permanent position and am looking to go freelance while working part-time in a bike shop. I’m getting myself involved in lots of different projects, I’m going to have very little money to live on, and I’m taking a huge leap into the darkness.
On top of this, I’ve had some mental health issues to deal with, and have been struggling to overcome some emotional barriers that can sometimes be crippling.
I’m constantly telling myself I’m not good enough, setting myself impossibly high standards and then branding myself a failure for not meeting them. Dwelling on choices I’ve made in the past, forgetting the right ones and punishing myself for the wrong ones. Constantly telling myself that I’m worthless, that I’m going nowhere. Feeling completely and totally lost. It’s a never-ending stream of abuse, directed inward.
But when I ride my bike, everything goes quiet.
Suddenly, the only thing I need to think about is where I’m going. I just need to keep my wheels turning, keep my centre of gravity balanced, and keep my cadence consistent.
My attention turns to my body: my breathing, my hand positioning, and the speed at which I’m turning the pedals. Going up a hill, all I need to think about is the burning in my legs, the dull ache in my lower back, and the drops of sweat forming on my brow. When I’m descending, I’m concentrating on how I’m positioned on the bike. I feel the rush of the wind past my ears and through my hair, the tears forming as I reach eye-watering speed, and the pounding of my heart.
In traffic, the chaos is external. All I need to do is stay alert, predict others’ actions, and position myself in the safest place on the road.
In quiet country lanes, I can afford myself the time to take in the views, feel the sunshine on my face, breathe in the cleaner air, and notice the wildlife around me.
Cycling gives me the space I need to slow down, internally. Everything becomes a circular motion: my feet on the pedals, the spinning of the wheels, and the loop I carve onto the map as I leave the city and return again later.
So as my life takes a turn in the coming weeks – leaping out of the safety net of permanent full-time employment, into the unknown – cycling will be my therapy. I cannot wait to have more time to spend on my bike, and explore the beauty that our countryside has to offer.
I will have much less money, that’s for sure, but cycling is free, and it’s the kind of happiness you don’t need to buy.
This weekend I set out to ride my first 100 miles, and ended up doing my first 200k.
How did this happen? I guess I have peer pressure to thank. And Lucy (of Brain Cranks), who added an extra 25-mile loop onto my route and convinced me to ride it.
It was partly down to wanting to achieve something even greater, partly not wanting to ride home alone with a dead Garmin, and partly wanting to beat Adam’s record. All three goals were achieved.
Saturday morning was grey, gloomy and wet. I overslept. I couldn’t eat my porridge because I was nervous. I had to take a detour on the way, to get snacks. The morning got off to a stressful start, and I spent a lot of it worrying that no one would turn up for the ride, and that it would be a complete and total failure.
In all honesty I was torn, in terms of what I actually wanted to happen. Half of me wanted a huge group of women to turn up, so I could boast that my first time leading a ride was a huge success, and really impress the badass women of The Adventure Syndicate. The other half of me wanted it to be a small group of familiar faces, so there was less pressure on me as a ride leader.
To my relief, the latter happened, and it was still a huge success.
I think, had a large group of strangers turned up, particularly confident roadies expecting to bomb through the Welsh hills at lightning speed, I might have crumbled under the pressure and turned back. As it happens I was joined by Lucy and Ania, and the three of us embarked upon our drizzly adventure together.
We started outside Roll for the Soul at 8am, and took an indirect route to the bridge via Westbury-on-Trym and through Hallen and Awkley. I used to commute part of this route, back when I was very new to riding, and had to get off and walk up most of the hills. It was my first time returning to the area as a more seasoned cyclist, and a small victory to climb the hills without even considering the need to walk.
As we made our way through quiet country roads, we settled into a comfortable but decent pace, and chatted about our various achievements on the bikes.
We neared the bridge, and made our first windy journey across the River Severn, into South Wales. This was my first experience of cycling across the Severn Bridge, and I was relieved to see that the cycle paths were completely segregated from the road traffic. It was quite a surreal experience, feeling the rush of wind and the vibrations of the other vehicles reverberating through the bike. It was also awesomely atmospheric, with the low hanging cloud caressing the surface of the water.
Once across the bridge, we made our way through Bulwark and into Chepstow, where we found ourselves on the same route I’d ridden last weekend through the Wye Valley. We climbed the first part of the A466 and descended into Tintern, catching another glimpse of the stunning abbey as we flew by. At this point we were more than ready for our first coffee stop, and promptly pulled into The Filling Station for some well-needed coffee and biscuits.
Topped up with caffeine and sugar, we continued up the Wye Valley, which remained familiar as far as Redbrook, before turning off towards Monmouth.
Weirdly, both times I’d ridden this section between Tintern and Redbrook, I found myself struggling to maintain a decent cadence. The road appears to be pretty flat, and in some parts there even seems to be a slight downhill, and yet my legs burn and my pedalling is slow. I wasn’t the only one to experience this, either. I wonder if there’s an explanation; it shouldn’t be that hard to ride along a flat road!
On top of that, we had a lot of climbing to do, and I found myself really starting to question my physical capabilities. Would I make it through the rest of the ride? We weren’t even halfway through yet, and I was faltering.
It definitely felt like a longer 25 miles than the previous section. But for every climb there must be a descent, and despite my previous distaste for the downhill, I relished every opportunity stop pedalling and plummet down into the valleys.
We followed some really pretty country roads and eventually rolled into Usk, where we stopped at Sprokwobbles for a hearty lunch of jacket potatoes, well-needed coffee, and some light yoga stretching in the garden.
While we rested, I decided to check the elevation profile on the Garmin to see how we were doing in terms of the big climbs. I saw that the biggest was about to present itself, and started to feel a bit nervous. There was much self-deprecation and talk of walking up and meeting Lucy and Ania at the top.
Nevertheless we rolled on, and the climb turned out to be a really good one! Following the B4235 towards Shirenewton, it was a very long but gradual climb. One thing that upset me a little, is that when you look at the road on Google Streetview, it used to be flanked by woodland on both sides. When we rode there last weekend, there has been a lot of tree felling, and the left side of the road is more open. It always saddens me to see trees being cut down, and it’s a great shame for that to be happening, however if I look on the bright side, it did afford us the most spectacular view of Wales’ rolling hills.
Another rewarded for reaching the top, was the presence of an Alpaca farm! We enjoyed a quick rest, some water, and looking at their cute, fuzzy heads. We then climbed a tiny bit more and descended back into Chepstow for the second round of the Severn Bridge.
By this time of day (around 3:30pm) it was even windier than before, and we experienced some pretty scary side winds. I remember at one point my whole bike shifted to the left, like some enormous force was effortlessly moving me aside.
From there we took an indirect route to Thornbury, via Elberton and Littleton-upon-Severn, and stopped for coffee and cake (or in Lucy’s case, an entire cucumber).
It was at this point that Lucy had intended to leave us, to go and do an extra long loop and make her ride a 200k.
I was in a lot of pain with my back, super tired, and feeling good about the fact that there were only 25 miles left to go. The thought of my bed was beckoning me, and I told myself this last leg would be gentle, easy, and relatively quick.
Then Ania decided she wanted to join Lucy on the extra long loop, and my Garmin signalled to me that it was on its last legs. The thought of cycling home alone without directions was a little frightening, and throughout the day I’d kept myself open to the idea of extending the ride, just in case I felt capable. I didn’t feel all that capable, but with the ibuprofen clearing the pain in my lower back, and Lucy and Ania grinning encouragingly at me across the table, I couldn’t help but agree!
So I put the Garmin away, Lucy took over as the navigator, and we set off on our final 50 miles.
Departing Thornbury the way we came, we continued north through Oldbury-on-Severn, Shepperdine and into Berkeley, where I remember visiting the castle a couple of years ago. It’s a really cute and quaint town, and its castle is noted as the place where King Edward II was imprisoned and murdered. A good day out that I recommend!
At around 7pm, the sun finally decided to grace us with its presence. In the golden light we looped round, returning south through North Nibley, Wotton-under-Edge, and Kingswood. This was a bit of a tease, as I live in a part of Bristol called Kingswood, but alas, not this one. Next was a fairly sharp climb into Hawkesbury Upton, before descending through Petty France, Little Badminton and Acton Turville. At this point the roads became familiar, as I had ridden them out on my last trip to Oxford.
On the final strait to Bristol, we descended through Hinton and Pucklechurch. It was coming up to 9pm, the sun had once again departed and been replaced with low hanging grey clouds. The air around us became heavy and wet, and in the gloom we joined the Bristol-Bath railway path and rolled into Fishponds where we rewarded ourselves with junk food and alcohol. The perfect end to the perfect day.
Epilogue: a reflection on The Adventure Syndicate’s tagline
I mentioned before that I planned this ride as part of a collaboration between The Adventure Syndicate and Cycling UK, to celebrate the Women’s Festival of Cycling. I agreed to it when I saw Emily Chappell tweeting about their plans, and in a moment of fandom, decided I wanted to join in.
The moment I saw that it was a 100-mile ride within the space of 2 weeks, my stomach turned, but I was determined to make it happen. I’d said yes to someone I idolise, and I had to deliver the goods.
As I put the route together and registered the ride, I was partly sure that I’d end up backing out of it somehow. I’d plan the route and hand it over to someone more capable of riding it, because I certainly didn’t feel able to.
But when it came down to it, I wanted to do it. I wanted to be part of something big, and I felt that with a group of amazing women around me, I would be carried along by their support. That is exactly what happened. It was a small group, but it was an amazing group nonetheless.
The Adventure Syndicate’s mission is:
“to increase levels of self-belief and confidence in others […] and we passionately believe we are all capable of so much more than we think we are.”
I have never felt this to be as true as I did on Saturday night, shoving a battered sausage into my face and telling myself over and over again, “I just rode 200k. I just rode 200k.”
If you’re a woman; if you love riding your bike; if you compare yourself to the elites and constantly feel like an impostor; if you want to achieve more but feel unable to; go and read all about The Adventure Syndicate. Attend one of their talks. Sign up to a ride with them. Follow them on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.
I cannot believe that this time last year I was just commuting on my bike, with the occasional 15-mile pootle to Bath that wore me out. If I am capable of this, then so are you. We all are.
About a month ago, a meeting was called. El gathered a bunch of women cyclists together in the upstairs area of Roll for the Soul, to discuss the lack of community among the women cyclists of Bristol.
We agreed that there are plenty of women cycling in Bristol now, and it was time to create a feeling of cohesion among us. We all brought forth ideas, from putting together women-only day rides, to weekend camping adventures, and drinks socials.
We held our first social on 11th May, and I’m really pleased to say that it was a big success! There was a great turn-out, taking over the downstairs area of RftS, where women mingled, drank beer, ate awesome veggie food and got to know their fellow lady riders.
We paused the chatter to have a group-wide discussion, which gave people the platform to promote their own events and groups, and show everyone what’s already available to get involved in. I’ll list these here.
They’re not all women-only, so lads, you’re allowed to join in too (unless we say otherwise):
Food Cycle collect waste food from local businesses by bike, and distribute it to various charities and local ‘skipchens’ for use.
They also cook and serve their own community meals across the UK.
If you have time during the week (or on a Saturday morning), they’re always looking for volunteers to cycle around the city with a trailer and collect food that’s been pre-agreed with the businesses involved.
It’s a lovely way to cycle around the city and give something back to the community.
Women Cyclists of Bristol – Closed group for women cyclists, to discuss anything we wouldn’t talk about in a mixed group (from street harassment to periods). They also have their own Twitter account and email address, where you can get in touch if you need advice or want to share something with other women cyclists in the city.
Bristol Biking Bitches – This group is full of women who love to get out on their bikes as much as possible, and frequently post in the group to invite others along for the ride. Full of roadies and MTBers, they’re a great group to be part of if you want to go riding with some company.
I wasn’t taking notes on the night, so naturally I’ve probably forgotten a few things. If there’s anything I should add to this, please let me know.
The next social will be at Roll for the Soul at 7pm, on Thursday 8th June. Hope to see you there!
At the risk of descending into a rant, I want to reflect on a recent experience that left me exasperated, because it highlights the importance of finding the right people to ride with, so you get the most out of your group riding experience.
I want to go on more group rides. So far I’ve been on a couple of Breeze rides, a couple of social rides with my fellow Bristol Bike Project volunteers, and of course, the monthly Critical Mass, which is always huge fun.
I decided to go along to a 40-mile group ride on Sunday – I won’t name the group I rode with – and can certainly say I learned a lot from the experience. I’m sure there will be plenty of people who read the following and nod their heads, thinking ‘this is absolutely the right way to ride as a group’. Others will shake their heads and feel as perplexed as I do.
This isn’t a post about the right or wrong way to ride in a group. I don’t know the right way to ride in a group, because I’m not part of any cycling clubs. I just know how I feel about what happened on Sunday, and want to reflect.
Riding as one
This isn’t specific to the group, and in fact it also relates to some previous rides I’ve been on. In my opinion, a group should ride at the pace of their slowest rider. Otherwise, they become disjointed and the riders at the back can be left feeling excluded and alienated. Furthermore, it’s the job of the ride leader to make sure that everyone in the group reaches each checkpoint before moving on. To me, this seems basic.
On Sunday, our group was extremely disjointed. Before setting out, our ride leader asked for someone to volunteer as a back marker, and a lady immediately offered herself up, stating that she should because she was the slowest. Red flag. She spent the whole day miles behind us, riding alone for a lot of it.
If a group rides together, there should be no need to stop at certain checkpoints to re-group, but this isn’t always the case. Our ride leader would advise us of the next point where we would regroup, and then set off at his own pace.
That was, until he stopped waiting for us at the checkpoints. We reached a point where, upon arriving in Bath, our ride leader was nowhere to be found. A couple of other riders were waiting for us there, and told us where the next checkpoint was, passed down from him before he’d moved on without them.
It was at this point that I remembered at the start, he gave out his phone number and stated “we have lost people before”, and suddenly it all made sense how. To me, this is not how you lead a ‘group’ ride.
As we were riding along the Bristol-Bath Railway Path, I started to notice a pattern in the way one of the riders used her bell. At first, she was the only one, and I assumed it was just her way of riding. Whenever we approached pedestrians, or were about to overtake some cyclists, she rang her bell twice.
This didn’t bother me at first. I understand it’s helpful to alert people to your presence. However after a while, a lot of the other riders started doing it. I put this down to the group splitting up; at first she rang on behalf of the whole group, but once we separated into smaller units, each unit gained at least one self-certified bell-ringer.
While bells are there for a reason, they can come across as aggressive if overused. Eventually the group took me to my wit’s end with their incessant ringing. They didn’t just ring politely ahead of time to alert pedestrians to their presence. They waited until they were practically on their heels, and then rang several times to move them out the way. Groups of two or three riders together would ring at the same time.
There were multiple occasions on the towpath (which is extremely narrow and was heaving with people enjoying the sunshine), where I encountered very ratty and hostile people who didn’t want to let me past, because they’d just been harassed by a hoard of bell-happy cyclists ahead of me.
For those of you familiar with the path, you’ll know that there are several bridges with single-file only pathways and restricted views of the other side. At one point as we approached a bridge, three riders in front of me gained on a pedestrian couple who were about to walk under the bridge. Instead of slowing and waiting, they all rang their bells multiple times, forcing the couple to step aside and let them through. As you’d imagine, one of them became very hostile towards the group, swearing at us and claiming right of way. This was met with dismissive comments among the riders: “oh dear, was there an altercation with an angry pedestrian?”
I use my bell sparingly. If I’m approaching a large group of people and there’s limited passing space, I ring my bell ahead of time, to alert them of my presence and give them time to shift over a bit and let me pass. I ring my bell if approaching a narrow underpass with only room for one person at a time, in case someone is approaching from the other side. Or, I occasionally ring my bell if approaching a person with misbehaving children or multiple dogs, in case they’re too preoccupied to know I’m there. Again, I leave plenty of time for them to become aware of me, and choose what to do with that information.
If I’m approaching a couple walking side by side and need to overtake, I don’t ring my bell. Instead, I call out to them: “Just to your right”, or the timeless classic: “Excuse me, please”. It’s not difficult to do. It establishes a rapport. It’s personal. To them, you become a fellow human being on a bike, rather than a silent bell-ringing wheel-mounted lunatic.
What annoyed me the most on that towpath was that I was riding ahead of one of these bell-happy groups, who were very close behind. If ever I approached some pedestrians, before I got the chance to call out to them, my companions rang their bells on my behalf. As I noted earlier, some of these people had already been hassled by hoards of bell-ringers. Needless to say, these people then thought it was me ringing at them, and diverted their hostility towards me. Thanks, guys.
Name that thing
As I said before, I’m not an experienced group rider, but it’s my understanding that there are times when it’s appropriate to call out to your group to warn them of a hazard. For example, if you’re riding along a country road and a car approaches in the opposite direction, you’d call out “car down” to alert riders behind you so they can get into single file. The same goes for a car approaching from behind, and “car up”.
I can get on board with that. That makes sense. It keeps the group safe.
What doesn’t make sense, and has no bearing on the group’s safety whatsoever, is to call out “bike down” and “bike up” for literally every other cyclist ON A TWO-WAY CYCLE PATH.
I mean, really? Seriously? Don’t you have anything better to do?
What purpose can it possibly serve, to let the riders know behind you that other cyclists are approaching in a separate lane? If you’re riding two abreast in a group, then fair enough. You need to tell the others to move over. But this wasn’t the case.
This was when we were riding through the Two Tunnels Greenway, which you ride in single-file because they are in total darkness. You expect other riders to come in the opposite direction, many without lights, and you ride in single file. If you’re riding two abreast in those tunnels and feel the need to call out approaching cyclists, you must be an idiot with a death wish.
What’s more, they not only called out every single cyclist in an enclosed, echoey tunnel with acoustics that carry, so everyone else can hear… they also called out things like “cyclist down, no lights”. To me, all this does is call another person out on a mistake they’ve made, and make them feel bad about it. It’s just not necessary. Play nice.
On a lighter note, once we caught on that this was happening, Adam made me laugh hysterically by calling out “dog up” for a dog that was miles away. We continued to play ‘name that thing’ for the rest of our time with the group.
If there’s any purpose to this post other than venting my frustrations, it’s to say that if you decide to get out on some group rides, take the time to find a group of people you can ride happily with. Everyone is different, and groups vary in their etiquette and habits. Make sure the group is for you, and if it’s not, find a way to excuse yourself and try a different one.
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.
These past couple of days have felt a bit like being in limbo. I finished at my job on Thursday – a job that I’d loved doing, for a company I’d loved working for, but was pretty much driven out of by an appalling manager. Tomorrow I begin a new job, for a new company, which I’m excited about and have high hopes for.
But the transition from one to the other has been a strange one, emotionally. While I was applying for jobs and attending interviews, I was absolutely adamant that I needed to get out of my situation, but as my notice period came to its end I felt a deep sadness at leaving behind something that I wasn’t quite ready to give up.
Friday was my one and only day of official unemployment, so I spent a good part of it riding my bike. It was the best thing I could have done for my state of mind. My boyfriend and I rode into town in the morning, indulged in soya lattes and banana bread from Small Street Espresso, and then off he went to work. I popped into Roll for the Soul briefly and bumped into a couple of familiar faces, then slowly made my way up to Clifton with an hour to kill before I needed to be anywhere.
Always in a hurry
One of the things I struggle with when riding, is riding slowly. While I consider myself to be a ‘cyclist’ I’m for the most part a ‘commuter cyclist’. I’m also terrible at time-keeping, which means that generally when I’m commuting, I’m also rushing around like a maniac. I very rarely take the time to slow down and actually experience the ride.
Another reason for my maniacal riding is the fact that when I first took up cycling to work, it was purely driven by a need to somehow squeeze exercise into my daily routine. Therefore when I was cycling I had to be sweating, and any pootling or freewheeling downhill was a no-no.
Now I go to the gym, I take spinning classes, Body Pump, I’m training for a half marathon and just generally am very active. I have no problem burning an average of >2,000 calories a day, and yet when I mount my bicycle I automatically go into manic exercise mode.
Riding it out
Friday was different. For once, I had time on my hands. Plus I’ve been battling with the ill, so I’m allowing myself some time off from obsessive calorie counting and burning. For what felt like the first time (in a very long time), I simply pootled around Clifton’s side streets and took in the views.
I learned some road names and got my bearings, found myself cycling past a house where my friend used to live, noticed a lot of old church buildings now converted into flats, and also some of the strangest modern architecture I’ve seen in Bristol. I took nearly every turning that I came upon, shifted down to my granny gear so I could slowly climb the hills, and then allowed myself to freewheel back down them. For once I was actually just joy-riding my bike, with nowhere in particular to go.
That continued into yesterday, when I found myself with errands to run but again no real rush to get them done. I took a slow ride into Kingswood to pick up a parcel (my wondrous Vaude panniers which I’ll be writing about soon), and then wandered over to Easton to buy some food for the week. With my panniers loaded with more vegetables than I could physically carry, I had the perfect excuse to take an even slower ride back.
Throughout this pootling experiment I realised just how liberating cycling can be. Yes of course, it’s a way of getting around that takes you further than your feet can alone, but it’s also such a great opportunity to completely free your mind. I realised I was mindfully riding my bike, deliberately taking in the view, breathing the air, feeling the bitter cold on my cheeks and blinking the snowflakes from my eyelashes. I felt each turn of the pedals, thought carefully about my posture, and was completely aware of my surroundings. It was blissful.
So tomorrow I start my new job. I’m excited and nervous, and hopeful about the path that lies ahead. Most importantly, I’ve had time to shut down the old, and prepare myself for the new. By learning to slow down and take my time, I also allowed myself a period of much-needed mindfulness and meditation.
Now I feel ready to mount my bike and make the journey down a new path, and I’m going to take my time. Let’s see where it goes.
As I’ve said before, I’m not your average bike blogger. Bikes didn’t play a large role in my formative years.
I have an awful habit of setting myself impossibly high expectations, planning to be better at things than I actually am, which always leads to disappointment and frustration. What’s worse is that I have a tendency to compare myself to others (don’t we all?). As I gradually get more involved with Bristol’s cycling community, I get to know many confident cyclists and I wish I was more like them. I feel like an outsider who doesn’t belong among them.
I look at someone like my boyfriend and I see a fearless rider. I watch him approach a steep, loose terrain descent, and he gets straight into the drops and lets gravity do the rest. I see him jump on a bike that he’s never ridden before without a second thought, and within minutes he’s tested all the gears, done some bunny hops, some track standing, and weaves in and out of oncoming cars. He instantly gets to know the bike.
I have to remind myself that he’s been riding since his feet could reach the ground. He’s ridden all types of bikes over the years: BMX, fixies, MTB, single speeds, you name it. To him, riding is second nature and it doesn’t phase him to mount a new set of wheels.
Me? I didn’t learn to ride a bike until I was at least 9 years old, and even then it wasn’t governed by a deep desire to ride. I most likely wanted a bike just because my cousin had one – we were always in competition with each other when it came to possessions. I think I was on a Dymchurch campervan holiday that summer with her and her parents, and I must have gotten jealous of her bike. My uncle spent some time with me in a field, teaching me to ride. The following September, on my 10th birthday, I received my very first Raleigh.
Was I overcome with a new found sense of freedom? Did I spend every waking hour on my new set of wheels, exploring the area and pushing the boundaries, to see how far away I could get before I was summoned back for dinner? No. I hardly rode the thing. Maybe up and down the garden a couple of times, and there was one occasion where I remember riding to the local park with some of the kids who lived on my street.
The next year we moved to Thanet, and my Raleigh took up its new residence in the garage, where it stayed for years. I dug it out a few times when I was around 13, to ride it down to the seafront. There was a little green area that we called ‘The Dip’ and I sometimes rode up and down the little hills.
I also did a couple of rides to Reculver, where there’s a Roman fort overlooking the sea. The path is completely off-road, along the seafront, and about 4 miles each way. That was probably the longest ride I ever did as a child, and probably the first time I really felt that sense of freedom the bike afforded me.
But even then, it wasn’t enough to keep me riding. The following year, I turned 14. I got into heavy metal, cut off all my hair, painted panda eyes on my face and dubbed myself a goth. Cycling wasn’t goth. Back in the garage it went.
I actually have no idea where it is now, or what happened to it. Maybe we sold it? Maybe it got dumped? I never had any kind of sentimental attachment to it, and honestly couldn’t pinpoint the last time I rode it.
I didn’t get back on a bike again until I moved to Bristol, at the age of 23. Naturally I was a bit shaky, had zero confidence, and relegated myself to the pavements. But with time (and a few free lessons from Life Cycle UK) I learned to indicate, to take the lane and ride with confidence on the road. I’m now a regular commuter and a reasonably confident urban cyclist.
I’ve still got a long way to go though! I know that over the coming years my confidence will grow, and my technique will improve. But I don’t think I’ll ever be what I’d describe as ‘fearless’. The childhood years are the prime time to push through barriers, when you’re scared of nothing. That’s what I unfortunately missed out on. Learning these things as an adult is so much more scary.