Sunday, 10 August 2014

Ride London 2014

"Four hours riding around in the rain - fun in a sick kind of way" - this is how Chris Boardman described the Ride London today, and I'd have to agree, albeit with a slightly more than 6 hours proviso!

It started well enough - it was pretty clear this morning when I got dropped off at the O2, so I did wonder whether it was all a bit of a storm in a teacup...Off we went through the Blackwall Tunnel then up some side streets to the start - unlike last year, as they were using both sides of the A12. In a taste of what we were to see repeated throughout the day, there were already people fixing punctures by the side of the road- the first one I saw was on the way to the start, the last one was at Waterloo!

I had timed it a bit better this year, and once I had dropped the bag with some dry clothes off (I forgot the dry shoes though!), I made my way to the load zone, with about half an hour to wait around. We were right by the Orbit & Olympic Park, and I soon got chatting to some of the other folk around me. There were a lot more women this year, and I got talking to Christine who had never done an event without her husband, and was quite nervous about it, so I offered to ride with her for a while.

The rumour that Leith Hill & Box Hill were cancelled went around, and was quickly confirmed - to be honest, I wasn't that bothered - the descents are bad enough when it's dry, let alone in the remnants of a hurricane - but it would have been disappointing for those folk who had trained hard to ride 100 miles and now would "only" be going 86, so I did feel for them. Before too long it had started to drizzle - not enough for me to put my windproof jacket back on, but as we got going, appropriately to the sound of Dizzee Rascal telling us we were bonkers, it started to get heavier.

Christine and I rode along at a good pace, chatting away about nothing and everything, past the chap in the cheerleader's costume riding with musical breasts, and before we knew it we were in Richmond Park, where we saw our first casualty - someone had come off and smashed his face into the road. Despite the weather, there were still plenty of idiots belting along and not paying enough attention to the conditions or the people around them.

Into Kingston, and we met our first JDRF rider of the day, while we saw the front of the race going back in the other direction, with one of the elite JDRF riders in the pack - he went on to win on the Mall, which was great, and should raise awareness of the charity. More on that victory here.

As we went along past Hampton Court, the sky got a lot darker very quickly, and the rain started to get heavier as well. By the time I decided to stop and put my jacket on, sheltering under someone's golf umbrella, I was already soaked to the skin - and the real rain hadn't even started yet! This is what it was like a bit later in Walton:

Around Weybridge the rain got laughably heavy - it was like hail at some points it was throwing it down so hard - thank goodness it was warm rain - so apart from the inconvenience & potential danger of it all, it wasn't particularly unpleasant to ride in - dare I say it was actually quite fun? Drains were overflowing, streams were running down hills, huge puddles were forming - I didn't have overshoes on (they remind me of old ladies' galoshes) so the water was bubbling out of my shoes whenever I flexed my feet. Will I get some now? No, as they still remind me of old ladies' galoshes...

As we came into one village, I heard what sounded to be an inspired choice from the live band playing - Credence Clearwater Revival, Have you ever seen the rain. Impressed with this stroke of genius, this song then stuck in my head for the rest of the ride - not I can't stand the rain (Eruption), It's Raining (Darts), Rain (The Cult), Weather with you (Crowded House), or even It's Raining Men. Nope, just Credence. The fact that the band was actually playing Pretty Woman is neither here nor there.

The next thing which suddenly occurred to me was that the people waiting in the bus stops were actually spectators! I'd been wondering where they'd wanted to go on such a day, and then remembered that there wouldn't be any buses any time soon, as the roads were closed. The proper fans were getting wet, cheering us on, and leaving the bus shelters for those people fixing punctures - and there were loads of them!

By now, after 2 months of very little bike riding, due to injury & a bit of torpor, my back was starting to act up, and I knew it was only a matter of time before the knee went. I suggested to Christine that she go on, but we were still going at a reasonable pace, so she stayed with me. As we got into the lanes, the flooding got worse, and the pace slowed, and the inevitable happened - about 30 miles sooner than it had last year, and in the other knee, just for variety! However, it was just as painful and just as hard going, and I insisted that my new friend left me to it.

Newlands Corner, now the longest hill on the route, was just not possible, so I had to walk up it. At the top I headed for the first aid tent, where they gave me paracetamol and ibuprofen, and the family phoned me to find out how it was going. There was a moment of dust when the kids came on, but I recovered my composure, took my pills and ventured outside again. There was a woman from Durham in the tent under a load of blankets but still looking absolutely frozen and possibly hypothermic - it surprised me a bit, as the rain wasn't cold, and it hadn't been that windy, but she was really suffering.

I grabbed a quick snack and some bags of sweets then set off down the descent towards Dorking - people were taking it quite easy luckily, and there were no accidents that I saw. The route to Dorking rolled a bit but was otherwise ok, and once we were through the town centre it was off to Leatherhead. I was a bit disappointed that the JDRF cheer squad weren't there, but I later found out that they'd been on Box Hill and were trying to get back to the course somewhere else! I briefly considered hopping on a train, but the thought of my daughter and all other type 1 diabetics having to plough on with finger prick tests & insulin injections all the time, regardless of how they feel about it, made me push on - even though I had now been overtaken by a bloke on a Brompton! I later found out that the track was flooded anyway, so I really had no choice but to push on!

By the time we got to Leatherhead, there were only about 25 miles left, lots of support on the streets shouting encouragement, and another lump in my throat. I thought it was better to keep going while the painkillers were weaving their magic, rather than risk a stop. There was nearly a high-fiving incident when I went along a line of people then nearly flattened the woman handing out Garmin water bottles just past them, but she jumped out of the way in time, leaving us to dodge the discarded bottles further up the road - I tell you, some of these cyclists are a bloody menace - THROW IT TO THE SIDE OF THE ROAD!

The route to Kingston was easier than last year, and the sun had come out as well, so things were definitely looking up! A tunnel under the road in Thames Ditton was flooded, so some went on the dry pavement, but I just went through the middle. I caught the guy on the Brompton and we rode through Kingston together (past one lonely JDRF supporter) before he slipped away from me going up past Norbiton. It was warm enough now to take off the jacket, though I typically injured myself trying to shove it into my back pocket!

Onwards & Upwards to the final climb of the day, the Cote de Wimbledon, up to the village. There were some JDRF supporters halfway up, shouting encouragement and telling us how far it was to the top, and then I saw a JDRF rider I'd been chatting to earlier on, Danny, and we fell into an easy distracting conversation and the last 10 miles flew by at a decent lick, in much less of a blur than last year. The kids hadn't come out this year, so there was no Parliament Square action (they were at home baking cakes for my triumphant return, which was clearly far more important).

Once we got down to the Mall, I couldn't resist giving it a bit of the old sprint finish, more successfully this year as everything was wedged in my pocket by the jacket, so nothing flew out, and last vestiges of painkiller were just about still there, and then, suddenly, that was it!

We went past the couple who had got married at Pembroke Lodge on their way around being showered in glitter, collected our medals, Danny took a picture of me, I collected the bag of crap (coconut water instead of chocolate milk, no salad cream (imagine my despair), gels, sweets, and, random item of the day, a pot of multivitamins for the over 50s!!), my dry gear (I had already dried off, so it was redundant now), and went up the the JDRF zone to meet JDRF Elizabeth and some other riders. Elizabeth had been there since 9am and must have got as wet standing under those trees than the rest of us had out on the road, so it was a sterling effort from her. We chatted for a while and I met Mossy, the oldest friend of one of my best friends, having last seen him at Ian's wedding 9 years ago! The rain came again and broke everything up - this shower was colder than the ones on the road - and I headed off with him to Waterloo and the train home.

What a day - I was faster than last year, albeit with the worst 14 miles missing. The painkillers definitely helped me get through the knee pain of the second half, as did the sense that we were all in this together with the weather, and the excellent & encouraging support from the side of the road in atrocious conditions. Christine, Danny & Brompton Man all played a part as well in getting me to the end, just by giving me the chance to chat, rather than listen to Credence in my head and think about my knee. Danny reckoned it sounded like sciatica, so I shall explore this avenue with the osteopath! The sun came out for the last 20 miles, so we had the chance to dry off just in time to get soaked again by the shower, and I must say I did enjoy the bloke who had liderally just changed in Green Park getting soaked by the shower 30 seconds later - the price you pay for flashing your meat and two veg in a public park, if you ask me.

Despite the lack of the 2 biggest hills (which I wouldn't have got over anyway with my knee problem), it was still 86 miles! I was more relaxed going into it than I was last year, and had a less traumatic time, but I was annoyed that my core fitness, which had been fine in the early part of the season, had got to me again. Maybe I really will work on this for next year!

But first, CAKE!

Monday, 9 June 2014

London Nightrider 2014

I'd been really looking forward to the Nightrider. It was my main charity fundraising ride of the year (cheeky plug - you can still sponsor me here!), which I was doing for JDRF again, and there had been a lot of banter on the JDRF cycling page in the build up. I didn't really know what to expect. The last time I'd ridden (sober) at night I was 16 and I went with a few mates into the Kentish countryside to look for the house where his sister was having a sleepover!

What I wasn't expecting was to get bitten by a mosquito, and for the mechanic checking my bike to snap my front mech gear cable, and take 20 mins in ever worsening light to fix it (only cost £3 though) before I'd even started. But once I had got through this trauma, I met up with JDRF Elizabeth, and we went to meet the other JDRF riders - several of whom recognised me from my sweaty selfies on the facebook page. It was a really lovely atmosphere as we prepared ourselves to go, took some pictures, cracked jokes, and all very relaxed considering what lay ahead.

Thanks to John for the photo of the team below:

We were due to start at 2235 in the second wave, but it was slightly chaotic at the start, so we all set off with the first wave. As we waited to go, the lights of all the riders ahead of us disappearing up the road was all very romantic, but the romance passed soon enough as we rolled forwards to find that we were delayed because someone hadn't spoken to the park wardens and got them to leave the gates out of the car park unlocked! We wiggled out one at a time through a gap and were away.

The first bit was a nice downhill around the park, with the lights twinkling ahead, and then across to Sydenham after which we headed for Greenwich. I was chatting to some people as we went, but it was all a bit stop start with the lights and the traffic, and as you quickly lost people, I just decided to get on with it. Each time I caught the next group, I asked them if we were the front - but we never seemed to be!

I was pretty surprised at how busy the route was - I'm not sure I would have chosen to go along the South Circular - I thought initially that as we were starting early there was still plenty of traffic about, but I was later disabused of that notion. Over Blackheath, belted down Maze Hill into Greenwich, losing & retrieving a backlight in the process, and then a bit of a wiggly route along through Rotherhithe towards Tower Bridge. Somewhere along here we got ourselves a bit lost, and missed a rest stop (DISASTER!), but ended up in the right place, Tower Bridge!

Even though it was now Sunday, it was busy! Lots of traffic, lots of people out and about - less drunk and more touristy at the tower than they were Up West later. While waiting at some lights, we struck up a conversation with a chap in a taxi who was interested in what we were up to - this happened several times. There was some wiggling around through the city, and after a while we were heading back out again towards Wapping and the Isle of Dogs. By this time I had made friends with a couple of chaps who were riding together and were going at a similar pace, so we tried to stick together. (Larry & David. yes, really.)

Although we were going at a reasonably fast pace, the lights and weight of traffic were slowing us down. Plus the signage was a bit erratic - often only seeing the sign as you were right on top of it, and if a bus was in the way then you were in trouble. We largely got around most of the course without too many alarms though - the basic rule of thumb seemed to be stick to the busiest available road!

Wapping High Street with its cobbles came and went mercifully quickly, and after a couple of laps of Canary Wharf it was off towards Olympic Park for our first stop outside the Velodrome. It was about 25 miles in, and after a quick sugar intake, we cracked on.

As we left the Velodrome, we went past a lady who was doing 60km on a handbike accompanied by her dog - very inspiring. In fact, there was room on the ride for all sorts of bikes,and it made a welcome change from the usual chiselled whippets on carbon bling - as did being able to keep up and even do a bit of overtaking...!

From there it was on into the mysterious lands of North London - Hackney, Stoke Newington (both packed & achingly hip, natch), past a bloke who'd just got out of his cab to throw up, Wood Green (where my Dad grew up) and on towards Ally Pally. By this time it had become clear that Larry's mate Dave was struggling on each and every incline, and Larry had already tried to send me on. By the top of Ally Pally, which was stiff but not unmanageable, he was walking, and he kindly sent us on without him. So, without stopping for cake in case he changed his mind, on we went!

I liked the road up to Ally Pally - there were loads of kids parking up and gathering to chat, or smoke or drink,or just be teenagers. It reminded me of going up to the hills behind Folkestone to look at the view, have a cheeky beer & smoke, listen to Transformer & plan how to persuade to get a girl to go along...

Back in the real world, it was just 2am, and we had done the first 35 miles in 3.5 hours. There was a nice fast run down the hill, then we went up a residential street which turned out to be a long old climb up through Highgate to Hampstead Heath. It wasn't enormously steep, and it wasn't KGB hour either, but they do say the darkest hour is before Dawn, and even though it was only just post 2am, first light was only about an hour away. Larry was chatting away oblivious as I had a bit of a wobble, which quickly passed, but I felt rough for a bit. Once we started going down the other side, and I'd had a banana, and I knew there were no other hills of note until the end, I was a lot happier.

Unfortunately, my back trouble from last week proved to be an omen, and the same knee pain I'd had last year came back somewhere between Olympic park & Ally Pally. Time for a visit to the osteopath, and to do some bloody core work :-( On the night,it seemed the best plan was to keep going, and once we were over the penultimate hill, we seemed to get faster - I think we both secretly wanted to get back before it got light!

The pace was now really rapid, and a little group formed as we swept down towards Swiss Cottage, Abbey Road - probably the only time of day to "do" the zebra crossing without incurring the wrath of the taxi drivers, then Lord's and back round to Baker Street via Regent's Park - the first red light we jumped - if you can't jump a light at 0230 with nothing about and no street lights, then when can you?! There were still people about, but it was nothing compared to the hordes around Piccadilly! Big queues of people waiting to get in to places I've read about in the gossip columns, traffic jams, lots of revelry, very busy - and it was now past 0230, and there was no sign of it dying down. Somewhere in Covent Garden we went past a tired and emotional chap who just wanted to know what all the bikes were doing as he'd seen them all night. We went back across the river for more wiggling before coming back over Westminster Bridge, past Parliament, off up Whitehall, through the "as busy as daytime" Trafalgar Square, then down the Mall.

Suddenly it was dark & deserted again, as we rode down the big wide road, around the corner and back up Birdcage Walk into Parliament Square again - meaning we had missed a turning somewhere as we were supposed to be in Victoria, rather than about to set off for a second lap of Whitehall. We found our way eventually and got to Lambeth Bridge in time to see the dawn start to appear - by now it was a bit after 3am but it was still very early / late...

Then it was an increasingly fast ride back to Crystal Palace under the ever lightening sky, through Brixton, past Herne Hill Velodrome, lapping a few late starters from Ally Pally along the way. Larry described it as the beasts heading for the water hole, such was the sense of urgency. We crossed the by now very quiet South Circular and the fast group we were in split up a bit on the long drag up College Road, but we got to the top with no great drama. My knee was really protesting now, so it was slow going, but then it was an easy roll down to the finish. Here's my road buddy Larry with me at the finish:

The finish was a bit disappointing really - there was no obvious end - just a banner in the car park but people weren't riding under it and they were handing out the medals before you got there anyway - all a bit low key. We then had what I'd have to rank as the worst bacon sandwich of all time (which didn't stop me from eating it), and we rode around the park looking for an exit near to where Larry had parked. We had done the bit from Ally Pally to Crystal Palace, about 30 miles, with all the traffic jams & carnage of the West End, in bang on 2 hours, which was very pleasing! After bidding him farewell, and thanking him for sticking with me as I got slower on the hills, I took a picture of the sunrise and went home, waving at the poor buggers setting off from Crystal Palace with halfway to go as I did.

It was a great ride, not too hard so that it turned miserable, a really wide range of ability & bikes, people riding to raise money for a host of worthy charities, all chosen for their own reasons - in my case my 8 year old daughter who has type 1. Another JDRF team rider was doing it to raise money as her nephew has it, for example. The atmosphere was great all the way around.

I wouldn't hesitate to recommend it to anyone - the faster folk can have fun whizzing around the quieter streets in the dead of night, the steadier riders can build themselves up to the challenge of 100km - none of the hills are TOO bad, and if they are then you can just walk anyway!

Things that surprised me? That really wide range of people & bikes, the all pervading smell of ganja in many of the built up areas, the lovely curry smells coming from some one's house in the East End, the number of people who were still out and about at 3am. I must be getting old.

I imagine it would have been quieter and calmer later on, and I've seen some great photos of London as it got light, but I was pleased to be done and dusted and home in bed by 0530 - the joys of living 3 miles from the start!

I'll leave the last word to William Wordsworth - I didn't know this poem before today, I saw the first line in another post about views of London, and looked it up. It perfectly describes what I thought the ride would be like, but in fact,the mixture of chaos & calm made it a lot of fun. Take it away Billy:

Upon Westminster Bridge, Wordsworth

EARTH has not anything to show more fair;
Dull would he be of soul who could pass by
A sight so touching in its majesty.
This city now doth like a garment wear
The beauty of the morning: silent, bare,
Ships, towers, domes, theatres, and temples lie
Open unto the fields, and to the sky,—
All bright and glittering in the smokeless air.
Never did sun more beautifully steep
In his first splendour valley, rock, or hill;
Ne'er saw I, never felt, a calm so deep!
The river glideth at his own sweet will:
Dear God! the very houses seem asleep;
And all that mighty heart is lying still!

Sunday, 18 May 2014

Tour de Penge 2014

Sunday 18th May was a glorious sunny day, so perfect for the 8th edition of the Tour de Penge. Families and riders gathered in the park from about 10, and by the time I turned up with my peloton of 16 people, the place was heaving. We signed on and joined the 300 or so others for Le Grand Depart!

Unlike last year, the local police hadn't turned out to close the roads for us, but with marshalling help from Bromley Cyclists & the adult section Penge Cycle Club, we managed fine. The ride rolled off down Maple Road, then along the high street, with passers by taking pictures of the enormous Peloton, and gathered again in Cator Park to form into smaller groups, with a marshall leading the way, and another bringing up the rear.

From there it was 8 miles along the Waterlink way via Catford, Ladywell, Lewisham and Deptford to Greenwich. The pace was languid, targetted at letting the kids keep up, or set the pace, so there was none of the usual misery today. The only slight concerns were making sure that the tan-lines were straight, and having enough money for ice cream.

Groups formed, splintered, reformed again, and there was a great atmosphere as we made our way gradually along the quiet paths to Greenwich for our picnic. Just as some of the little ones (and a few of the grown ups) were beginning to grumble, we came around the corner & the masts of the Cutty Sark hoved into view! Phew!

On arriving in the park in front of the Greenwich Mean Time brewery, there were loads of other riders having their picnics in the shade, and, given we were picnicking in front of the brewery, it would have been rude not to sample a bit of the product...

The kids all seemed to be re-energised by some food, and were really happy running around in the sun until it was time to go back. This time we went in one big group, and the children were all looking forward to ice-cream in Ladywell Fields, and a splash in the river. It was such a warm afternoon that I was also tempted to join them...but I resisted. It was lovely to see new friendships being formed, old ones being rekindled (my daughter was really happy to see a girl she'd met on last year's ride,and they played together in the creek), as well having some time to chat to people you usually see ahead of you on rides!

After an hour or so lazing in the sunshine, we headed off, over the curly wurly bridge,and back along the waterlink way to Cator Park, where Conrad, John & Helen, Liam, John & Jane were waiting to welcome us back, then it was back to ours for some refreshing beers.

It was a great day out - brilliantly organised by Penge CC, well marshalled by Penge CC & Bromley cyclists, and most importantly wonderfully supported by the community. There were bikes being ridden by people who may not be out on those bikes until the same time next year, loads of kids - and hopefully all those casual cyclists will have enjoyed it enough to do another one - be it Breeze, sky ride, or just doing the same route again in the holidays.

Thanks to all the organisers, the marshalls, all the riders, and roll on next year. I imagine there'll be a lot of kids sleeping the sleep of the righteous tonight!

PS - you'll be pleased to hear the lycra top did its job, and the sunburn is nicely symmetrical!

Sunday, 4 May 2014

Beckenham to Brighton, May 4th 2014

So today I finally broke the Brighton duck - I've been trying to cycle there for a few years,and today was the day! I went on an organised run with Bigfoot Bikes, based nearby in Hayes. Here's the route., and here's the profile:

The main club set off slightly earlier, many planning to ride back afterwards, and I was waiting with the families - where kids from 8 years old were going to ride down! They were split into groups and the faster kids were nipping at our heels all day - usually arriving at the feed stops as we were leaving, with exhausted parents in their wake.

I was joined by Martin from the club, and an old floor-mate since University, Jon "Bunny" Bunn, and we joined a group of 16 others, supposedly in the 12mph group, thinking it would a nice sedate ride down...I was going to change the name to "FAT LADS ON BIKES", but Bunny has lost so much weight his lycra was baggy, so that wouldn't be fair.

The route took us along some familiar lanes before we started following some roads I hadn't seen before, and some of the scenery was beautiful - bluebells everywhere, the sun trying to warm us up, then whizzing down the Haliloo Valley (no, me neither), before we went along what felt like a secret road which took us through the middle of Woldingham School (or Wolditz as it used to be known when Bunny's lovely wife went here a few years back), then out the other side and down to Godstone.

We were on the busy A25 for a bit but soon got back onto the quiet roads around Bletchingley, as we headed to our first feed stop at the Bell Inn in Outwood. The aforementioned Kate was there with emergency supplies - bacon sandwiches, cereal bars & support - it being their local boozer! Also saw Andy who was waiting with his youngest for his wife and 2 boys to come through on the family ride.

I'll be honest, at this point of the ride I'd decided this was going to be a pretty short post - pretty much "rode to Brighton, it was a sunny day, no alarms". Needless to say, hubris was to get the better of me eventually, but not just yet! It almost did as we swept down a fast downhill just after the first feedstop: as the road went around to the right, the corner was a bit sharper than I'd thought, I was going a bit too fast, and I had a brief vision of catapulting over the hedge Jonny Hoogerland style...

The pace was fine, and I was particularly enjoying not being overtaken on all the hills, which is my usual MO...Having gone past Mrs Bunn's fomer alma mater, we later went past another of the Bunn family schools at Worth, with amazing views across the Sussex countryside- not really done justice by this photo:

Our next stop couldn't have been more quintessentially English - country pub on a village green, cricket match taking place, vintage transport aficionados standing by the side of the road waiting for the vintage commercial vehicle rally to pass by on their way to Brighton from London.

Quick pitstop to top up on water / flapjacks / sausage rolls, followed by the now obligatory pic of the boys outside another pub, and then we set off again before we completely seized up. The one problem with riding in such a big group was we inevitably needed to have longer stops at the feed stations than you would otherwise, but it was fun to be in a big group and have people to talk to, target on the hills, support etc.

We knew that the last bit of the ride would be the toughest, and it took a while to warm up again after the stop. Bunny cramped up at the top of a hill, but there were a couple of salt tablets to hand and, with some electrolyte drink, this seemed to do the trick. There wasn't quite as much sprinting up the hills as there had been earlier in the day! Then we saw the South Downs looming ahead of us, and the ominous Devil's Dyke in the distance. Suddenly, the banter died down (apart from Martin who was quoting the miserable bits from last week's blog back at me), and people started concentrating on getting over what was ahead. Here I am looking up at it - it's off camera, because you obviously can't look directly at it.

Mr Hubris, I've been expecting you.

We got to a roundabout and started the climb. It wasn't that steep to start with, but you knew it was going to get worse, so it was a case of grinding up. We annoyingly lost some height before it ramped up, and we had to stagger into the middle of the road and turn right for a further ramp and on to the top. There were some strugglers and a few people got off to push - someone on front of me dismounted with a loud "No, that's enough" - but I carried on, and it flattened out towards the top. We went over the summit and collapsed onto a grass bank next to the golf club to bask in the achievement and the sunshine, and look at the sea!

Here's Martin, King of the Mountains, surveying his domain from his grassy throne!

Conquering Devil's Dyke had a reinvigorating effect - all the stress of the last hour was gone, the jokes were back, it was time for another selfie, and then to drag ourselves off our sunny grass bank and set off for the last 5 miles down the other side to Brighton.

By this time we were seeing groups of riders riding back to London - odd, given there was a perfectly good train service - and Martin, who had been talking about riding back all day, made a snap decision and went for it. So he missed the interesting route we took down to the beach,and the cheer that went up as we rounded the final corner!

It was over surprisingly quickly - we thanked the lead rider, who then went off to be with some friends, others were met by families, and that was that! A quick brew and an ice-cream was our recovery food, then a smaller group of us headed for the station to catch a train back.

It had been an excellent ride - thanks to Bigfoot for organising it, and throwing their doors open to everyone - it was a really good route, well organised feed stops, well led, a perfect pace (for me, at least), great weather, no misery - apart from a teeny bit on Devil's Dyke. Well done to the youngsters too - the first group of whom made it to the coast not long after us,and looked like they could go straight back again!

By the time I got home, cycling back with a few others from East Croydon, I'd ridden 110km at an average speed of 22kmh, with a max of 56kmh - probably going around Hoogerland Corner! It was great to ride with my old mate Bunny, and it seemed apposite in Skidrow-on-Sea to have a couple of tinnies on the station forecourt before we headed for home. It was also his longest ride, so he did really well, especially conquering the cramp.

We're riding again next week, with more hills, as we're building up the the ridiculous Chiltern 100 at the end of the month - something I'm NOT looking forward to! I'm sure there'll be a miserable story to tell though!

Monday, 28 April 2014

The Inaugural Penge Continental

Sunday 27th April, 22:49

Just got back from France, where I've been with 11 other from the Penge Cycling Club for the first edition of what I hope will be many Penge Continentals. This was the 3rd ride of my summer of 8 organised rides (not including the Sunday club runs), several of which I'm doing to raise money for JDRF (Read more here)

This one was a 100km around the Pas de Calais, organised by John, taking in 60 miles of bucolic French scenery, including several stiff climbs, apparently linked by flattish roads...this is the route!

And here's the profile - flat bits at the start & mercifully the finish, not so much in the middle:

The 12 of us assembled at the travel centre in Dover at 8ish then followed the red cyclists line round to the ferry. As cyclists we were allowed to embark first, and because many had just bought coffee, water bottles were temporarily replaced with costa cups, which fitted really well, and we took on the first climb of the day to get onboard. Bike racks were provided, and we all piled up to the cafe and watched on with interest as some tugs shifted a container ship which had run aground in the inner harbour. Once we got going the chat & banter increased as the continent got closer and we could see our first proper climb looming into view. I had clearly overdone it on the food front and even had some dry clothes in my bag, which was already heavy and quickly became a burden once we started riding - already investigating saddle bags for next time!

We rode out of the port and along towards Sangatte on the coast road, straight past the refugee camp, and continued to make our way through the outskirts, already noticing that drivers were giving us a respectfully wide berth, and there were even some encouraging toots of the horn. There were some envious glances from me at the people queuing up for €6.50 roast chicken from a van by the side of the road, but there was no time for such fripperies as lunch, so on we went!

There was a decent tailwind, so we made good progress to the base of the climb up to Cap Blanc Nez, then pedalled up that at our own pace, under the watchful lens of Martin who had his camera out at the top for those all important “this climb isn’t bothering me at all” shots as we approached the top!

We waited for everyone to arrive, took some pics, looked back at the impressive height we’d gained, then set off down the fast sweeping road on the other side of the cap and turned inland onto the tiny, largely traffic-free roads which were to characterise most of the ride. It was here we got the first "Courage" from a random old lady, but there was banter with other cyclists, as well as the occasional hilarious "pedal" joke from a car when we were going up hill...

It was lovely to ride up these empty roads in between rolling hills, then get to the top and see the magnificent views across the channel or back to Calais, or on to the next set of rolling hills on our route...

After a long descent into another hamlet on good surfaces apart from the slippery gravelly bit in the middle of the lane, we went up another valley and came across our first car - apparently being driven by a child sitting on its mother's lap! The road surfaces were generally very good, and we were going through some very bucolic looking & smelling scenery - big piles of natural fertiliser on the edges of many of the fields, some enormous looking farmhouses, a few of which had been converted to gites, and may have been a good option for a holiday - if it wasn't so close to home with the same weather! Eventually we got to a village called La Slack, and the photo opportunity was too good to miss!

Not long after this I started to struggle - I had been fine all day, but with the dark clouds looming, the weight of my rucksack starting to give me gip and the rain starting to spit I started to feel rough and needed to stop for some food. I ate some bread & salami from my bag while John & Sophie waited, then we shared a very bizarre tasting energy bar, and the three of us carried on until we met up with the others at the cafe stop about 10 miles on.

The next 45 mins or so were miserable - as miserable as I'd been on a bike for a long time. All of those black thoughts start going through your head - I started remembering my last bike ride in France, the epic fail of the Etape in 2011 (described here), I decided I would throw my bike off the first available cliff and give up all the riding I have lined up for the rest of the summer, why was I doing this, the weight I had lost didn't seem to be making me any faster, what was the point etc etc. John stopped to take a call, and I confided in Sophie that knowing that the only way out of it was to keep going as there was no chance of bottling out and calling for rescue was a bit demoralising. While she agreed, she also said it would be good discipline to crack on, and not that we had any choice in the matter, that's what we did, if not a massively cracking pace!

There was a long drag up to Boursin, which didn't seem to the one of Cheese fame, and then a stiff climb out of town on one of the last 3 hills of the day - we went up to a crucifix appropriately, praying for deliverance from these hills, then branched left, and the road ramped up around the corner to the top. By this time it was hosing it down, which paradoxically made me feel much better and I started enjoying myself again! I was wondering why I had been struggling quite so much up the hill - could it have been the phantom mechanical?! - so I got off at the top and found both the mudguard & rear brake blocks were rubbing against the back wheel rim. A twiddle from John sorted the brakes and a kick from me sorted the mudguard and on we went.

Here's a picture from the bottom of the hill - we have to get to the top. It may not look steep, but why don't you try riding up it?!

Down the other side and past the bemused farmer in his tractor, then through another village and out the other side to see a wall ahead of us, our penultimate climb, and the one with the hairpins. As we approached it and could see where we had to go it was quite daunting, but once you got into the hairpinny bit, it wasn't too bad - though by this time I was utterly soaked and could hardly see a thing. I got to the top, parked my bike against a house, chatted to the locals about the weather and waited for John & Sophie to arrive, which they duly did, and we carried on down to the next village and the long awaited cafe stop!

When we arrived triumphant at the hilariously named cafe, a big cheer went up from inside, and we went in to warm up a bit, dry off a little, and shed some of the weight in my bag by eating a few rolls and some cashew nuts. The rest of the rolls stayed behind and only the malt loaf and the remaining cashew nuts continued the journey. We would have liked to have had some frites, but some other cyclists had been in earlier and apparently polished them off!

After watching the end of the LBL race on telly with the owner, who turned out to be Monsieur Boulanger, who claimed to be two-time French National Cyclo-Cross champion, with the pictures on the wall to prove it, we carried on.

The final hill, le Cote du Mat, was straight up the side of the escarpment, but wasn't that long, and after a break at the top for more photos, we struck out for home. This is the view back down it.

The first section was a long downhill, which was great and very fast, then quite a long tiring stretch into the wind, which kind of mitigated against it being flat, then a stretch along the canal into Calais - some of which was the worst surface we'd been on all day. The sun had come out, and the mood lifted even more when the roadsigns started showing Calais again. We had an enforced pitstop because Liam had cramp, but then we finished the last few miles to the port, and after a false start trying to go in via the lorry entrance and a quick escape back down the one way entrance ramp the wrong way, we found our way to the right part of the port and, after passing through the border controls, made our way to the front of the line and relaxed. Out came the malt loaf, down went the malt loaf with a hefty thump, and eventually we were allowed to embark, after the lorries but before the cars, and trying to break the strava segment time for sprinting up the ramp.

Bikes stowed, we headed for the bar and a well deserved drink. Really well deserved! So well deserved that we had another one, then one more just to make sure.

Once we'd disembarked, we were pleased to be able to follow the red line again out of the port, and not encounter any more lorries (until the bit when the red line bizarrely went straight across the main exit route, but luckily the lorries stopped to let us go), and we headed for the car-park, loaded the bikes, said our farewells and headed home. Thanks to Martin for stepping in at the eleventh hour and giving me a lift there and back, and for his excellent company.

It was a fantastique day out, brilliantly organised by John Haile, who rode along at the back all day, and helped those of us who were there, for however long we were there, get through the rough patches and over the hills. Without that kind of encouragement and support when you're out, riding can be very lonely, so I want to thank John & everyone else who made the ride such a great experience.

Can't wait for the next one! A tout a l'heure!

PS - thanks to Martin & John for some of the photos.

Monday, 17 February 2014

My Hell!

The Hell of the Ashdown is a local cyclosportive, run every year by the Catford Cycle Club. It starts in Biggin Hill and heads out up and down 104km of lanes in Kent & East Sussex to the Ashdown Forest & back. It's pretty popular too - always sells out, 1500 riders. They use the same route each year, only altering it for road closures or ice. The only real variable is the weather - this year it was bright & warm & sunny. Last year it was below zero & very cold.

I tried to go to Hell about 4 years ago, but had an elbow injury which didn't lend itself to riding up & down bumpy roads. I decided to give it another go this year, and signed up along with about 15 others from Penge Cycle Club.

Here's the "before" shot...

Last week we went out on a training run which was to cover some of the route, including the last 2 hills, and I struggled - it was very windy and I didn't eat enough. Halfway up Ide Hill I bonked / cracked / lost it, got off the bike, sat on the verge and called home for a rescue. I then pushed the bike up the hill until Andy came back to look for me & helped me get over the top. So I spent most of the build up fretting about the hills - which, as you can see from the profile below, come thick & fast all day long! Click on the pic to see it better!

The Biblical weather of Friday had faded away by Sunday, which was beautifully calm and sunny. Unfortunately ideal conditions! I got a lift to the start, picked the all important timing chip, route card & the mysterious yellow band (apparently it was so you could get food, not that it was ever checked), and met up with some of the others from the club before our scheduled start time of 9.15.

As we were waiting, phone calls were coming in from the marshalls on the course about treacherous conditions with black ice on the first couple of hills - we were allowed to go but advised to proceed with caution.

I had done some parts of the route before, so was prepared for the first shock,  about 2 miles in, of Cudham Test Hill - still, no matter how well prepared you are, a short climb which is 25% at the top (1 in 4 in old money) is still hard, and this was the first time in 3 attempts I'd got to the top and stayed on the bike! My heartrate was through the roof, so it took me a while to recover. I caught up with Winston, who owns the bike shop & unofficial clubhouse, who was on the verge of pulling out as he'd been up all night with sick kids. A bit later he belted past me going down Hogstrough Hill, so I guess he'd recovered!

Hogstrough was the first downhill - it's a narrow lane & is usually very fast, but because of the aforementioned black ice, everyone was going down it full on the brakes. Then there was another patch of black ice as we came into Brasted at the bottom, where we just got off and walked through. I met up with some others from the club, and we paired off with people of a similar level.

Toys Hill was long but straightforward - with a surprising number of people turning back because of the black ice. By this time it was getting on for 10am, so the worst of it had melted away. I was riding with Conrad, and we got off towards the top with some others, but as there was no ice we got back on again after a few minutes and carried on.

Because of the focus on the big local celebrities,  Ide, Toys, Star & "the wall", you could be forgiven for not realising that other hills are also available - and the route did its (un)level best to take us over all of them! Once you had gone down one it was around a corner and up another. There was little respite and hardly any flat bits,such as the road out of Hever, the long drag up Forest Row to the top but we were all in the same boat & the camaraderie was great.

We had a brief stop after 16 miles in Cowden for a banana and debrief, but then it was on to the first control & feed stop at the top of the Ashdown Forest,  where we scoffed cake, jaffa cakes,  drank tea & girded our loins for the infamous Wall. Before we got to the climb there was a wonderful downhill stretch with amazing views across the downs, but then it was round the corner by the pub (I'd had lunch there the last time I tackled the wall - and unsurprisingly failed), down the hill then up!

This is the view on the approach taken on a sunny autumn day, but it was remarkably similar yesterday.

It's not called The Wall for nothing, but if you sit in the lowest gear you have and focus on landmarks rather than the top, it is do-able. At one point I veered off into the forest but no harm was done & I carried on. Then, out of the blue, disaster struck! I was almost at the top when m chain snapped and fell off. Luckily I wasn't standing at the time, so there were no crushed balls to go with the disappointment of not quite making it - even though, with only yards to go, it was in the bag!

Up ahead I could see another Penge rider with his bike on his shoulder, and when I got to the top it turned out to be Andy whose rear gear mech had snapped off. His race was over, and mine would have been too, had there not been a friendly guy who stopped to help,  who had the right sized link to replace my broken one. Andy had a chain tool and duly replaced my link, so on I went.

The next bit was a long descent to Groombridge - punctuated with a couple of sneaky climbs. Halfway down I looked back to see where my buddy Conrad was, and as I turned back I somehow managed to ride off the road and fall off into the muddy grass. No harm done,  and onwards to Groombridge.

As we came up the Nouvelle Col de Groombridge back into Kent,  Conrad started to struggle with cramp. My front mech also got stuck, so I had to stop at the bottom of the next hill and drop it to the lower cog by hand. I got to the top and found that I was on my own, then a few minutes later someone came past and told me my friend had sent a message that I should leave him and go on. I couldn't do that - do unto others as you hope they would do unto you and all that, especially as we were only 2/3 of the way home, and there was plenty to go. He caught up and on we rode, past the Bough Beech reservoir to Ide Hill.

Last week I'd had a complete meltdown on Ide Hill and given up - a combination of exhaustion, lack of energy,  shame... I just wanted to get past where I'd cracked the previous week, but couldn't remember where it was, so I kept going. There was also a chap in front of me who was in more trouble than me, so I sat on his wheel, yelling at him when he started to veer across into oncoming traffic. We made it to the top unscathed, and went into the village hall for a well deserved cup of tea, some cake, and a quick call home for a progress update.They also fixed my gears.

After a good rest we carried on - now only 13 miles away, with one brutal hill to come. The light was beginning to fade as the evening drew in, but it was still beautifully sunny. There was a fast bumpy downhill section, then a flattish bit alongside the M25 before turning left and heading up Star Hill. It's another long climb, one I've done once before and not managed. Again I focussed on the small targets  - a bus stop, a funny shaped hedge,  a red sign, a "slow" warning painted on the road - not that I could have gone much slower.  By breaking it down into chunks I made it to the top and allowed myself a Henmanesque fist pump. The worst was now over.

Poor Conrad had been struck by cramp again, but he made it too and we made our way through the ever darkening lanes towards Biggin Hill and the finish. We didn't go the most direct route, annoyingly, but with Conrad now calling out how far we had to go every half a mile we made good progress and were suddenly at the finish. They were just packing away the finish line, but we crossed it together to be met by Andy, who had been waiting for us.

What a great feeling that was - I'd been to Hell & back & lived to tell the tale. I hadn't walked up any hills. I'd toughed it out and had a certificate to prove it! Who cares about the time (7.20 since you ask), it's not about the time, it's about finishing,  and somehow,  despite my doubts, my back had held out, my knees hadn't given way and I had made it. WE had made it,  as I couldn't swear I would have been as determined to plough on if I'd been alone and not wanting to desert my comrade in arms, Conrad.

We went inside, collected our certificates with the irrelevant times on them, then had a well deserved hot chocolate & fried eggs on toast. Winston had been rescued on the course following a fall (he's ok), so all of Penge CC were accounted for. The Gabster arrived with the kids and it was home for a long soak in the bath, this lovely picture they'd done for me to welcome me home, followed by the inevitable 4 hour nap on the sofa.

It was a great day out - a long one, but the weather was great, the company was great, the solidarity on the road was fantastic, the marshalling was friendly & efficient,  the route was very challenging but not impossible - even though I had thought it would be beyond me. I decided, once I knew that I was going to make it, that I could cross it off my list now and never do it again, but as I write, with my tired legs and painful left hand, I find myself looking forward to doing it again next year - I always said cycling was a masochistic pursuit!

You can sign up to do it yourself sometime in November at