Century Riding: The Extended Cut

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Photo credit: Lucy Greaves

Miles 1-25

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

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

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

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There’s another bridge in the background, somewhere

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

Miles 25-50

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

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

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

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

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Photo credit: Lucy Greaves

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

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

Miles 50-75

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

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

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

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Photo credit: Lucy Greaves

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

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Miles 75-125

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

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

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

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

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Photo credit: Lucy Greaves

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

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

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

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Epilogue: a reflection on The Adventure Syndicate’s tagline

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

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

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

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

The Adventure Syndicate’s mission is:

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

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

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

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

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Wye Valley Loop

I’m getting back on the Saturday Independence Rides, and today I had my first experience of cycling in Wales.

If you’ve only joined the blog recently, basically, I’m using the Saturdays when my boyfriend is working, to get out and ride solo, in order to build my confidence and gain a sense of independence that I’m currently lacking.

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It’s not a super long one, because I wanted to have some time this afternoon to get other things done (guess who just made burger patties, ready for a BBQ? Hello summer).

I decided to take the train to Chepstow so I could get stuck straight in, rather than risk being a bit butchered before I’d even gotten started.

However, this was my first mistake, since I spent about 45 minutes waiting around on a platform, which is more time than I actually spent travelling.

When I arrived, I must admit that I didn’t get off to a brilliant start, misreading the Garmin and taking the wrong turn immediately out of the station. I quickly realised though, and turned around. After that it was pretty smooth sailing in terms of directions – I thankfully didn’t have any huge mishaps.

A couple of times throughout the route I missed some turnings where the Garmin was trying to take me down a hidden bridleway to cut out some of the main road. However with the tarmac being so smooth, and there being little traffic, it just didn’t make sense to leave the road, so I ignored those detours.

I quickly joined the A466 and followed it all the way up the Wye Valley, alongside the river. I knew the first milestone would be Tintern, as I’d spent an afternoon a few months back, planning a route to visit Tintern Abbey, but was put off by what looked like an immense climb and descent.

Turns out I really didn’t need to worry. The elevation profile on Google Maps looked a lot worse than it actually was, and I was oblivious that I’d reached the summit already, until it was time to go back down again. And what a descent that was!

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Tintern Abbey

From Tintern it was a really lovely ride along the river, through some quaint towns. I saw some beautiful countryside, rolling hills, cows, sheep, and plenty of uphill climbs.

I found my energy levels wavered a bit. Some hills I felt able to push myself in a higher gear, whereas others saw me spinning in my granny gear.

I eventually stopped in Redbrook, and took the opportunity to sit in a park overlooking the river Wye while I had a peanut butter and banana sandwich (really, is there anything better?). I was soon joined by another cyclist who’d thought to do the same.

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The river Wye, as seen from Redbrook

I didn’t actually realise while I was in Redbrook that I was already at the top of the loop on the map. I think I’d anticipated a much longer-feeling ride. 30 miles isn’t a great feat for me anymore but with the added hills I expected it to feel a lot more arduous.

Don’t get me wrong, I was nowhere near the end of my climbing at this point! There was still a heck of a lot more to do, and the biggest hill was still to come.

I’ll admit, I’m a little out of practice and have been dealing with ill-health for a little while, so I did find myself occasionally needing to stop and have a short breather. I’m much fitter than I’ve ever been, but I’ve got such a long way to go still.

At the same time though, I have no shame in stopping if I need to. The fact is, if I’m going up a long hill and my body parts are screaming at me, I’m soon going to stop enjoying the ride. A quick breather and a swig of water later, I can get going again, feeling refreshed and happier, and the next part doesn’t seem so bad. It works for me. I’m not in it for pain.

I couldn’t believe it when I saw the sign for Chepstow, 10 miles away. I was amazed at how quickly I’d made my way round the route. A good part of those remaining miles were undulating hills, which are pretty good climbing practice if you make sure to keep your speed from the descent to bolster you up the first part of the next hill.

I feel my confidence coming in leaps and bounds, from getting into the drops and not braking the whole way down a long, fast descent, to taking the occasional gravel in my stride. I did take one detour with the Garmin which cut out a busy roundabout, and took me along a little gravelly path. I didn’t let it phase me.

The final few miles into Chepstow were pretty much all downhill, and I found myself speeding down some winding roads, feeling a rush that I don’t experience very often. I need more of those.

It was an awesome ride, and one that I’ll definitely be doing again. Only next time I’m going to give myself the whole day, and I’m not going to bother with the train.

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Another shot of the Wye

Epilogue: The other reason I did this

So there was another reason I chose to do this ride today.

In a joint effort with The Adventure Syndicate and Cycling UK, I’ve organised a 100-mile ride as part of the Women’s Festival of Cycling. I’m still ironing out the route, but this was an opportunity for me to decide between two potential roads. I think I know which one I’m choosing.

Route details to come, but there’s a Facebook event for the ride. If you’re in Bristol, come join!

Full disclosure: I do not feel physically capable of doing a 100-miler next week, but hey ho. I made my bed. Now I better lie in it.

#TBT #ThrowbackThursday – The elusive MTB accident

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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