Saturday, 4 December 2010

Travel Notes: Riding the Alps the easy way round!

Thursday 19th August

Embrun - Savines-le-Lac - Lac de Serre Poncon - Le Sauze-du-Lac - Lauzet-Ubaye - Barcelonnette - Jausiers - La Condamine-Chatelard
45 miles

Who says you always have to take the tough cols to get around the Alps? There are plenty of easier roads that undulate gently through the valley as you pass dramatic and beautiful scenery.
Such was my ride as I rode from Embrun to La Condamine-Chatelard. The plan had been to get to this place from Briancon via the col d'Izoard and the col du Vars. However, owing to the problems I was having with my back I had to take the soft option, so travelled to Embrun and started my ride from there.

Embrun is famous for having an Ironman triathlon race - the EmbrunMan. When I passed through it there were lots of hoardings still up for the race had taken place just a few days before. In fact, a guy local to where I live, Steve Bayliss had competed in this epic race and finished in the top 5.
Soon after this town I was riding alongside the beautiful Lac de Serre Poncon. The place had lots going on as there were various people out sun bathing, while others were cycling, doing watersports or handgliding. There are a few caravan and camping sites around and it seemed like a place where you could spend a week holidaying. There were lots of activities as well as a proper sandy beach.

Although I wasn't going over any significant cols, the road went uphill steadily for around 3 miles and I started cursing. At one point my phone rang and it was Fred checking to see if I'd finished my day's riding. I was only just getting going, and I felt so annoyed at the climb out of Embrun that I felt ready to stop and set up camp on the beach right there! "What goes up will eventually come down," assured Fred. "You can't have that much more climbing to do if you've done 3 miles by the side of the lake. Just keep going." Those reassuring words kept me going and very soon I turned a corner and plunged down through the village of Le Sauze-du-Lac on a very twisty road.
It was quite an amazing road as it seemed to twist right back on myself, rather like the famous Sa Calobra road in Mallorca.

Then I was back at sea level riding right next to the sun bathers.
From here onwards there was no more climbing for the rest of the ride - just flat and false flat. Soon my route left the lake and for most of the ride, followed the River Ubaye along the side of the mountains. This area seemed to be popular for white water rafting. There were lots of vans arriving or leaving with punters ready to plunge along with the currents. Rather them than me. I was happy to admire the fast flowing torrents from the vantage point of my saddle!

After a couple of hours of skirting around the Chambeyron peaks I arrived in a place where there were more signs of life - the quaint town of Barcelonnette, where there was a buzz from the circus that was taking place. Then it was on to Jausiers, where I began to leave the valley behind to head back towards the higher Alps. In fact, I didn't have to travel very far, for I soon reached my destination, La Condamine- Chatelard, which was not particularly high up any hill.

All in all, this had been a very easy and pleasant ride, and one I would recommend for those not looking for a big challenge.
Still, I was glad to get into my hotel and rest up before my last big day in the mountains.

Sunday, 28 November 2010

Vuelta a Menorca

I had heard of this event when the organiser, Arturo Sintes Lluch told me about it last year at the Quebrantahuesos cyclosportive in Spain.

This year, as they were celebrating 10 years of the running of the event and giving it a bit of fanfare with the presence of Spanish Tour de France winners I decided to go.
With my club mates, Charlotte and Dyanne we made the trip over to Mahon for a weekend of racing around this Balearic island. It was a really fun weekend and we got to meet the guests of honour - Carlos Sastre (2008 Tour de France winner), Pedro Delgado (1998 Tour de France winner) and Jose Luis "Chechu" Rubiera (from Lance Armstrong's Team RadioShack).

We didn't actually do as much hard core racing as I might have anticipated, but in fact the ride was done at a fairly manageable pace that was set by the lead car, and the peloton was kept together. If riders were dropped off the back the car stopped for people to regroup, though that didn't happen much.

Stage 1 was a 113km ride from Mahon to Ciutadella and back, taking in towns of Es Mercadal and Alaior. Stage 2 was shorter, but was the main race where we raced up the highest peak on the Island, Monte Toro. Although it's not that high, 358m the height gain over the 3.5km is pretty significant so there are a number of 16% gradient ramps along the way - pretty tough work!
What really made this weekend for me was the whole social element. People were very friendly, with or without the language barrier. The pros were very amiable and approachable and were willing to chat about their racing days quite readily. I went to a mini Q&A session with all of the riders and they had a few funny stories to tell.
We made a few more friends - notably Gema from Madrid, and Patrick from Cycling Weekly magazine. Also, it was great to be somewhere in late October where the weather was warm and you didn't have to worry about taking your coat!

The final day consisted of a prize giving, where Dyanne, Charlotte and myself were presented with a prize for the "most friendly team"! I'm not sure what made us more friendly than anyone else, but it was very flattering all the same. I definitely recommend this for a pleasant end of season cycling weekend away.


Photos by Elena Gomila Pons

Friday, 26 November 2010

Planning for the Big Day - 29th April

So Wills has popped the question and Kate said yes. They've done the interviews, shown off the rock and announced their hitching date. And guess what, we get an extra public holiday next year. And since it's happening at the end of Easter week and right before May Day bank holiday that means for those who are employed you could have a 10-day holiday and only need to get 3 days of authorized leave from your employer. Thanks chaps - jolly decent of you!

All the best on your big day and all that, but it might be that I'll have other stuff on that day so won't be able to attend the wedding.

Who knows, I might be at:
Tour of Sardinia cyclosportive from 23rd - 30th April
or
in Mallorca for Cyclosportive Mallorca 312, 30th April
or
I might go up to Scotland for the Drumlanrig Tearfund Challenge.

But then again I don't have to leave London. While everyone is getting stuck into watching the Royal wedding the roads will be so quiet. It'd be criminal to not make the most of this rare occasion and get out for long spin!

I don't know where exactly I'll be riding, but whatever it is, I'm sure it'll be a great day, especially in London!

Tuesday, 16 November 2010

Sunny Days in the North East

Normally when I go up north with my bike I go to Yorkshire - the Dales, the Moors or the Wolds.

For the first time I ventured into the North East. It was to do a photo shoot for an article I was writing for Cycling Active magazine on the Pack Horse Trails.

I had a good two days of riding around various trails in the County Durham and Northumberland area with photographer Andy Jones, and our guide, Shane Harris of North Pennines AONB. We went through Baldersdale, Hamsterley Forest and Blanchland. The trails were great fun - a mixture of single track through heather, challenging stony descents, grass tracks and the odd bit of smooth paths and lanes for a rest.
Shane hadn't been sure that my bike would be up to the job, but I'm happy to say that the Uncle John cyclo cross bike handled the trails royally, and the rider survived too - even managing a smile! Thanks to Shane who took the snap. The full write-up on the ride is in the current issue of Cycling Active.

Sunday, 14 November 2010

Travel Notes - A Day in the Briançonnais

Wednesday 18th August

For those of you who have descended from the col du Galibier and turned right at the bottom to go down the col du Lautaret towards Le Bourg d'Oisans, I'd recommend trying something different. Try turning left!

This road, which leads towards Serre Chevalier and Briançon is equally exhilarating - possibly even more so than the road towards La Grave and Le Bourg d'Oisans.
You are in a wide open valley and can see the panorama with the various ski resorts of the Serre Chevalier and Meije region quite clearly. The descent is not so techical as the curves sweep gently round and the gradient isn't particularly steep. Some parts of the road don't curve at all, and your bicycle picks up great speed on the straight drop down. Just don't dare look down at the speedometer! Above 40 miles an hour on a bike I'd rather not know my travelling speed until afterwards!

I very quickly reached La Salle les Alpes and then went up the short steep climb to the old part of the ski resort, known as Le Bez.
This hamlet had a very authentic homely feel to it. All the folks hanging out in the street knew each other, and it seemed the sort of place that people live in, rather than visit, unlike the neighbouring villages that make up the Serre Chevalier network.

At the youth hostel in Le Bez the receptionist introduced me to the only other woman who would be in my dormitory, Ivana a Czech girl who'd been living in France for 15 years.

As we'd both arrived within a few minutes of each other, tired and having had our own challenges getting through the Alps, and it was just the two of us, we went out for dinner in the neighbouring Le Cavaillou restaurant.

It was a good night out. Like me, she was on her way to Nice except that she'd set off from her home near Strasbourg that morning on her motorbike. She'd been slightly anxious as she'd not travelled this far on her own on a bike before and she'd had some dicey moments riding over mountain passes in the rain. Tomorrow she'd be continuing her route to Nice via the Route des Grandes Alpes. If only I could have had assisted power to get over the cols around here! So what possessed her to ride all the way from Strasbourg to Nice on her motorbike all alone? Ivana said it was the challenge of pushing herself out of her comfort zone and striving for the desired result. She'd gotten used to going on motorbike trips around Europe with other biker friends and for once she wanted to try something different. I could fully understand that. We got through a fair bit of wine and chatted to the locals as well as the bar owner. It ended up getting quite late, and although the effects of the wine put paid to me getting an early start the following morning I didn't feel bad about that at all! It had been a good night.


Thursday 19th August

With a seriously achy back I didn't feel that brilliant when I woke up. I considered enquiring about seeing a physio. It was a shame I felt so bad as the sun was definitely out and it was a glorious day for being out on the bike. I made a decision not to ride over the col d'Izoard which would have been too much for me.
In fact, it felt like any hill would be too much for me so I decided I would get the public transport to Embrun, and then ride to my next stopover point from there, thus avoiding any high mountain passes.

I have ridden over the col d'Izoard and through the Casse Deserte on a previous occasion and I would thoroughly recommend it. My back was not ready to go over the 2360m summit today though. A local guy mentioned an alternative lower road, the N94 through Queyrières to reach Mont Dauphin. Apparently that is a popular scenic road too. I didn't take this. Instead I went to do some sightseeing in Briancon before getting my train to Embrun.

The roads leading up from modern Briançon to its old town are very steep. If I couldn't put my back into getting up those roads I certainly didn't want those roads to put my back out! So I did as much as I could in the upper Old Town before leaving to get to the train station in the lower town.
Briançon Old Town with its Vauban battlements is delightful. The main road, known as La Grande Gargouille is steep, quite narrow, cobbled and fully of arty boutique style shops. The other main feature, as per its name is a drain that runs down the middle of the whole street. For me it was work enough just walking down this street with my bike and trying to avoid tourists and this gap in the road. This road is sometimes used as the home straight during the Dauphiné Libéré professional cycle race. Rather them than me!
Briançon is definitely a sunny town. At an altitude of 1300m it boasts of not only being the highest altitude city in France, but also the city which receives the most days of sunshine per year.

Sitting on the Citadel admiring the views of the town and the nearby mountains became a moment not for taking photos as planned, but for talking to folks. The locals all seemed to have something to say - whether it was to ask where I was from and where I was going, recommending where I should go, asking about cyclo cross in England (Some recognised the type of bike I had.) etc the people had something to say.

One lady got into a long discussion with me about cycle touring. She'd been wanting to do it, but didn't know what type of bike to use or how to plan it. So I ended up giving her a mini talk about my journey so far. She seemed glad of what I had to say and seemed fired up to have a go. I should have set up a stand in one of the square and given a formal presentation. By the looks of things I would have had an audience!
By lunchtime I'd seen most of Briançon old town (Cité Vauban), and alot of its townsfolk too! So I made my way down the steep hill to get my train and start my ride from Embrun.

Wednesday, 10 November 2010

Travel Notes - Onwards and Upwards - Part Two

Wednesday 18th August

Grenoble (Echirolles) - Le Pont-de-Claix - Vizille - Sechilienne - Livet-et-Gavet - Rochetaille - Le Bourg-d'Oisans - Le Freney d'Oisans - La Grave - Le Monetier-les-Bains - La Salle-les-Alpes = 65 miles

This was a tough day in more ways than one. The ride was simply a 65-mile grind along the same road, the D1091 between Grenoble and Briancon. It was difficult to keep motivated, just looking at the road in front of me.

The ride was also very tiring - more tiring than I'd imagined it would be. The col du Lautaret was the main climb of the route, and I'd naively thought that it would be just a little bit harder than a false flat!

Well, to be fair it was like that just outside Grenoble, but once past Le Bourg d'Oisans I began to get a full appreciation of just how tough this is. I have ridden this section of the route in reverse a few times in the past - usually during La Marmotte cyclosportive, and it's a lovely descent. Practically no pedalling from the summit of col de Galibier to the foot of Alpe d'Huez! So the difficulty of riding from Grenoble in the direction of the Galibier should have given me a clue really!

So the day consisted of me riding uphill for most of the route, with the worst section being the 11km climb from La Grave to the summit of col du Lautaret.
The whole day's ride was done under a grey threatening sky! The sun was not in a mood to come out and smile!

Despite all of the above I still found the landscape to be truly awesome. Where the previous day I had been surrounded by the green peaks of the Chartreuse, today was about towering majestic jagged peaks of the Parc National des Ecrins, many of them covered in snow even at this time of year.

It felt strange passing through a deserted Bourg d'Oisans, a place which I associate with being full to the brim with cyclists taking part in La Marmotte.
Actually, there were a few cyclists around on this day, but nothing like the numbers you see during that first week of July. I even spotted the AG2R-La Mondiale professional cycling team, all kitted out, speeding round the corner and up towards Allemont, their team car in hot pursuit behind them.

So after my feed stop at Le Bourg d'Oisans I ground my way up the remaining 40 miles to reach my destination - La Salle-les-Alpes, just outside Briancon.

As I said, the ride was basically a gradual climb, with some notable steep bits near the Barrage du Chambon and La Grave. As I heaved my way up the col du Lautaret I could feel my load getting heavier and heavier and my breathing was more laboured as I was gaining significant altitude. A few times I had to stop to get my breath back, or just to rest my back which was aching alot. I was hungry but I was getting sick of eating the same biscuits and jelly babies. It was after tea time and I wondered if I would ever get there. The ride seemed interminable! I began to curse the fact that I'd planned such a long ride. Why couldn't I have just ended my day's riding at Le Bourg d'Oisans, or even La Grave? What a silly idea doing a whole 65 miles + 10kg of uphill!

I had to forget about the above and remember that the last 12.5 miles would be downhill. Even at this hour of the day lots of motorists were still coming up and down this very zigzaggy climb. Maybe I was just getting tired and everything just seemed to roll into one, but I could have sworn I was just seeing the same old camper van, Renault Megane or motorbiker driving up and down to the summit!

Eventually after alot of battling internally with my mind, and externally with my bike I saw the characteristic dark blue sign that told me I was at the summit of the col du Lautaret, at 2058m.
I was beaming from ear to ear. It was a combination of the relief that I'd made it, the joy of beholding the most spectacular views, and the prospect of riding an amazing descent that put me on such a high - well that and the 1800m altitude gain! It had been a long day but I was happy to know I would make it. Some people may have thought I was a bit weird walking around with a permanent smile on my face, but I didn't care. I knew what I'd been through to get there and I was looking forward to zooming down the slide that would get me to the warmth of my lodgings at La Salle-les-Alpes below.

Sunday, 7 November 2010

Travel Notes - Onwards and Upwards - Part One

Tuesday 17th August

Aix-les-Bains - Le Bourget-du Lac - Chambery - Entremont-le-Vieux - St-Pierre-d'Entremont - St Pierre-de-Chartreuse - Le Sappey-en-Chartreuse - La Tronche - Grenoble
= 60miles

After a day of getting soaked in between watching the rain I was glad to see the sun come out in the morning. The youth hostel staff seemed more relieved for me, knowing what I was about to do!
One of the members of staff was born and bred in this area and hoped that I'd be able to see the best of the area as it really is beautiful. "You'll not be disappointed." She said.
As I left she asked me to say hello to the manager at the Grenoble youth hostel for them, as that was where I was headed.

The ride from Aix-les-Bains to Chambery is very pleasant indeed. It's a purpose built sign-posted cycle track that goes along the side of the Lac du Bourget and through the woods. You are distanced from the main road and there are just lots of other cyclists and runners around.
The Lac du Bourget is worth a stay in itself. It's pretty big - the largest and deepest lake situated entirely in France. There's a marina and a beach area. Various cycling challenges take place where you can ride the whole circumference of the lake. One for next time.

So it was on through Chambery, another old pleasant town and up through the mountains proper for the first time on my trip. What a pleasant introduction it was - all the way into the Massif de la Chartreuse.
With these things it's those first few kms where you rise out of the town that feel the hardest. It was quite hot on this day as well. Sweat poured down my face as I went over the first climb, the 15km col du Granier. Once over the initial shock of no longer being gravity assisted it was just a steady ride up the gradient that averaged 5.6%, with sections through the trees to keep me cool.

A nice descent though Entremont and then I was up again going up the col du Cucheron, an average of 6.3% over 8km. I didn't take any cafe stops along the way - just kept riding. Seeing lots of leisure cyclists stopped at the little mountain cafes taking lunch or afternoon tea made it tempting to stop, but I soldiered on.

The final climb was col de Porte, which was around 13km. This one went on forever, but I really enjoyed looking at the views around me - the green peaks that watched over me in the afternoon sun were very welcoming. I was getting a little tired though. There hadn't been any long section of valley road between each of these cols. It was just a case of going up, then down, then straight back up again. I was overtaken by a couple of club cyclists along the way. One of them wasn't going much faster than me! I almost caught him at the summit - with my 8kg of panniers racing someone had not entered my mind!

The summit formed a crossroads point with people arriving from all directions. This area seems to be a hub for cross country ski-ing, off-road driving and paintballing. Not feeling in the mood to any of these activities, I rolled down the 18km long descent straight into Grenoble. Lovely, I didn't need to pedal at all. The views of the Grenoble conurbation looked very impressive, nestled in the valley between the two sets of mountain ridges.
Once in Grenoble I crossed the Isere river and then picked my way through the town centre to reach my youth hostel in Echirolles, to the south of the City.

Thursday, 4 November 2010

Centrefold


Ha ha! Well, not exactly the centre pages of a mag, and there's no hint of a sultry looking semi clad playmate model either!

But for me, it was just as much a shock when I featured in the "Big Picture" double page spread photo in the current issue of Cycling Active!

Nice photo taken by Andy Jones when we were doing a shoot for our London ride story around Hampstead Heath, Primrose Hill and Regents Park. Some of you may recognise the bridge as the one leading from Primrose Hill to Chalk Farm. It was actually a busy Friday afternoon, so credit to Andy for catching the right moment when there was no one coming through.

I also note that quite a few of our shots featured in Mark Ronson's Transport for London/"Ride My Bike" video. Copy cat!

Saturday, 30 October 2010

Off-Roading Again!

Cyclo cross season in London has been going since mid-August, but I've only just got round to commenting on it.

I've done a couple of races and other cyclo cross events. It's been fairly slow for me, but happy to say I haven't had any rear mech snapping so far and the weather has been largely ok. We were especially blessed at the race in early October at Hog Hill, where the sun came out and the rain stopped for one hour between the torrents while we raced. Needless to say we were all covered in mud and my bike was unrecogniseable afterwards! But it was fun!

Anyway, my first cyclo cross event was the Tour of the Cornfields. It took place near Royston on the Essex/Hertfordshire border. I'd describe it as a mild answer to Paris Roubaix - riding along largely flat windy roads which were interspersed with off-road sections round farmfields. The 60-mile ride did what it said on the tin. It was well organised and I'd recommend it, especially as it set me up nicely for the cyclo cross season.
Conditions were pretty dry, which meant was hard on the bones (and on the bike), but on a muddy rainy day this could be a real challenge! Thanks to Mark and Stevie Wyer for putting on a great event.

Patrick at Cycling Weekly magazine asked me for a few words about the event and I gladly obliged!

Hope to do it again next year.

Wednesday, 27 October 2010

Painful Moments on Yorks Hill


It was actually a painful 3 minutes and 45 seconds that I spent on Yorks Hill for the Catford Hill Climb. It wasn't that quick (the winning lady was about a minute quicker than me) and it hurt alot!!

When they pushed me off from the start line I gave it a lot of welly and momentum for all of 20 metres - that was easy! But then the false flat changed very quickly to hill and then stupidly steep hill. About half way up I felt sick and had that awful "how will I get to the top now??" feeling, just when the crowds were getting thick. I could vaguely hear the commentator shouting out my name as I was approaching. Oh God, I had no escape as I heard the cheers (and the jeers) while I hauled my heavy body with my light bike up the 25% slope. I was in pain but had to shut down my brain and switch to machine mode. With mouth hung open, eyes with a vacant stare, sweat and snot trickling down my face I ground up the hill. The path was really narrow, as people crowded the tight lane. Somehow they shifted out of the way just as my wheel reached them - good job, as I wasn't going to change my line! After what seemed like an eternity I saw the chequered flag and the finish line.

I rolled over, all hypoxic, gasping for breath. My legs were like jelly and I could barely hold myself up.

A few people came up and said well done, but I barely had the breath to reply to them. So I'll thank you people now!
Anyway, I managed it - through all the anxiety, nerves and humiliation I got to the top, and I was relieved!

Maybe one of these days I will be able to hill climb gracefully and quickly like those Tour de France guys - Maybe not!

Thursday, 21 October 2010

Travel Notes - Burgundy to the Alps: A Washout!

Monday 16th August

Bourg en Bresse - Les Rippes - Certines - La Trancliere - Priay - Chateau-Gaillard - Amberieu-en-Bugey = 20 miles
Train from Amberieu-en-Bugey to Aix-les-Bains

My arrival in Bourg en Bresse initially was a celebration that I had made it after what had looked like it would be a big wet one.

The historic town centre is very picturesque and lent itself very well to being photographed. So that's what I did for the first half an hour after I arrived there.

Being under the warm sunshine among 15th century buildings in the narrow walkways was a rewarding way to end the day's bike ride.

Sadly, all this was very shortlived. Within the space of 10 minutes the sky turned black, and worst of all the sky looked even blacker in the area where I was headed!

Like a fox trying to evade the hounds, I pedalled as fast I could to try to beat the rain, but I was very quickly caught. The raindrops were heavy and beat down on me hard as I tried to find anywhere that I could shelter.

If I'd known where I was going I would have continued to the hotel, however no one around here seemed to know where the Formule 1 hotel was. After a couple of hours sheltering in a dustbin area and also a supermarket petrol station I made my way to the hotel, which, I was reliably informed was about 3 miles out of the town.

Luckily I did't have to travel far for my dinner on this rainy night - just next door actually to La Courte Paille.

Despite the weathermen's best efforts to reassure us that there would be sunshine, I was determined to keep an attitude of "I'll believe it when I see it." I was right to have followed that line, for the following day the sun stayed firmly locked up and rain was once more on the menu. Not nice.

The rain lashed down around us, and I knew that the planned itinerary of going over the cols, including Grand Colombier had to be shelved. The only problem was that by staying in the valley I would be on the main road, which was not the place to be with reduced visibility on a fast road and with lots of trucks around.

In the end, I followed a convoluted route which took me around various little hamlets - still in the valley but away from the main road. It was all a bit testing as I was following an unfamiliar route and had to check the map quite frequently, which was made all the more challenging in the pouring rain. By the time I reached Amberieu en Buguey I was quite drenched. I'd also run out of quiet valley roads so I had to either go uphill and pray to that they bike would handle the fast descents in the rain - panniers, cantilever brakes and all, or stay in the valley and pray that no one wouldn't be broadsided by a truck or other vehicle at 50miles an hour.

Strangely enough, neither option appealed to me. So after a quick drying off session in a local hypermarket I made my way to the train station and luckily found a train that was going to Aix-les-Bains.

It was great to be in the Alps, especially to be there earlier than planned. But this was not quite the entry I'd been hoping for! Once in my youth hostel I used the rainy afternoon to get my laundry done and relax at the youth hostel. By evening, the rain was drying off a little so I explored the nearby Lake and the town centre of this somewhat regal spa town. That was the most I could salvage of this day, which had effectively been a washout!

Tuesday, 19 October 2010

Travel Notes - Burgundy Wine and Chicken

Sunday 15th August

Train from Dijon to Chalon sur Saone
Chalon-sur-Saone - Ouroux-sur-Saone - Cuisery - St Trivier-de-Courtes - Montrevel-en-Bresse - Bourg-en-Bresse(Peronnas) = 53miles

My trip to Dijon was abit of a non-event. Not that Dijon is an unpleasant town at all. On the contrary, with its Palais des Duques, and Centre Historique there's quite alot to see. The shame of it was that this was a pretty grim day and the forecast suggested the rain over this part of France was here to stay a while. Thing is people couldn't complain too much. This département was among the ones which had experienced drought for a large part of this year. Typically, the heavens opened when I arrived there!

So I made a decision not to hang around much in Dijon. Instead I took a train a few miles south to a place where I believed there would be less rain, Chalon sur Sâone. Sorry to say that I did not see the wine producing areas around Nuit St Georges or Beaune. The memorable moments of my trip to Dijon were firstly, having a very nice glass of Burgundy and secondly, falling off my bike when my wheel got caught on some tram lines. These instances are not connected - honest!

From Chalon sur Sâone I took the road direct to Bourg en Bresse. I could have ridden via Macon, but as the weather wasn't too brilliant I was more keen to get the riding over and done with. Chalon was pretty but didn't have much else going on, except for a suspension bridge. It looked quite impressive, though a little overstated compared with the unassuming sleepy town this was!

The terrain for this ride was quite easy. No real hills to speak of. It was definitely easier than the previous day's cycling. Thankfully as I progressed further south the weather improved, and after a couple of hours the sun even came out. As I passed more and more villages there were more and more signs of life in these country villages in the heart of the French countryside. It was Assumption Day and also a Bank Holiday in France, so some places had put up bunting and banderolles for a village fête. I wasn't sure if the festivals were for Assumption or for chickens. There seemed to be loads of monuments, posters and pictures of chicken everywhere. This place gave a whole new meaning to Henmania!

In one village - Saint-Trivier-de-Courtes - a local man got chatting to me. Intrigued by my panniers and my cycle touring get-up he asked where I was headed. When I told him Bourg en Bresse, he was very impressed and told me how I was in the best place in France because I could get the best chicken. It's the only place where I would find Appellation d'Origine Contrôlée chicken. I should therefore have a good plate of Poulet de Bresse with cream, and a glass of vin jaune,the local sweet wine, which would see me right for the rest of my trip. It's very important to eat well for long rides like this one to Bourg en Bresse. Take care now, he said as he waved me good day - you've got 30km so you'll be riding for at least 3 more hours!

Sunday, 17 October 2010

Travel Notes - Paris to Burgundy - Part Two

Saturday 14th August

Train from Paris to Montbard
Montbard - Venarey-les-Laumes - Saint-Seine-l'Abbaye - Dijon
45miles

So I finally left Paris on the 1.24pm train for Montbard. As it was really just a glorified local train, my travel time would be abit more than 2 hours. Significantly slower than the TGV option, but then I didn't want to pay 50 euros when I could have paid 25!

The journey was pretty straight forward, and at nearly 4pm, somewhat later than scheduled, I began my ride to Dijon. This area is quite scenic with lots of old dukes' palaces to visit and hill-top villages.

On this Saturday afternoon in August there was hardly anyone around. It was brilliant just having these quiet roads to myself. My ride on Friday through Normandy had been flat with hardly any hill to deal with. I had ridden almost 70 miles without thinking about it.

Today's 45 mile ride was actually quite challenging. It would be the pre-cursor to what I'd be riding in the Alps I guess. There were a number of mini hills and climbs with switchbacks. It looked as though this might be an area where they hold cyclo sportives or time trials as there were lots of markings and people's names written on the road, and "Allez Allez" slogans. So it's not just on the Tour de France climbs where they write stuff.

If I had more time I'd quite happily come back to this area between Auxerre and Dijon, known as the Côte d'Or, and make a long weekend of it. There are lots of cycle lanes around, some of which climb quite high. So no worries about getting in a good work-out. Then finish your day with a glass of locally produced wine - maybe even from the nearby village of Chablis.

Sadly, on this particular day I was riding against the clock so didn't have time to stop and visit sites. My target was Dijon and I needed to get there before dark. After meandering around lost and lonely burgundy villages I was then dumped on to the main road to Dijon and gradually counted down the remaining kilometres to reach my destination.

Although it was the main National 71 road, this was pretty quiet. It just constantly twisted, turned, dropped down rapidly and then climbed up steeply all the way to Dijon. Along the way, I got a great view on the approach to a village called Saint- Seine-l'Abbaye, a very old settlement at the bottom of a twisty steep drop. That part reminded me of the villages you see in certain mountainous parts of Italy, where you approach the down via a steep twisty switchback.

I'm not sure if it was a good idea to stop here, but I couldn't resist it, and wanted to rest a little. Seeing the sky turning intermittently grey and black at the end of what had been a sunny day was a sign that I shouldn't hang around too long so I pushed on reached Dijon around 7.30pm that evening.

My stop-over was the Formule 1 hotel on the other edge of the town, out near a big retail park known as La Toison d'Or. It was handy having shops and a cinema nearby, but it was hardly the most touristic part of the city.
By the time I'd checked in it had started raining heavily so I decided that sight seeing around the city would have to wait until tomorrow.

Saturday, 16 October 2010

Travel Notes - Paris to Burgundy - Part One

Saturday 14th August

Paris

Once I'd found my way to my youth hostel in the East of Paris I dumped down my stuff, got showered and was out again to see the sites of this town which I never tire of visiting.

I could have got on a vélib and zoomed in. There were a couple of stations near Porte de Pantin. I'd had enough of two wheels for one day so used some old RATP metro tickets which I'd been hoarding since last year. Luckily enough they worked, so managed to use my carnet for the day without forking out for any new ones.

Since I'd arrived in Paris a little later than planned I didn't really have the chance to do too much. I did get to see an innovative sculpture based on a kiddies' playground outside the Pompidou Centre. Although it was quite simple there was something quite delightful about looking at the various colours over the fountain. There were more adults interested in it than children. I guess we are all big kids at heart!

Les Halles/Beaubourg area was as crowded as ever. People say that Paris is empty in August as most folks have decamped to the South of France. I think that phrase applies less and less - especially at these times of measures of austerity where people don't really want to go away anywhere. From what I could see Paris was swelling, even positively inflating itself during the month of August - almost to the point of bursting!

I didn't stay out too long as I wanted to be up for my early start to get down to Dijon the following day. So I had an early night and was up early to get the 10am train out of Paris-Bercy train station. I had to get from the edge of the 19th arrondissement over to the 12th. The most logical way to do this would have been to take the Boulevard Extérieur. That was pretty straightforward. It was just a case of following the road which circumvents Paris. You pass all the various Portes or gateways into Paris.

I started out at Porte de Pantin and went through Porte de Bagnolet, Porte de Montreuil, Porte Vincennes, and finally Porte d'Orée, close to where I used to live. It was just a case of turning up the big Avenue Daumesnil and then over through Boulevard de Reuilly to reach the train station.

I must say, everyone talks about how hilly it is around the 18th arrondissement and the Montmatre/Sacré Coeur area, but the area of the 19th should not be forgotten either. Having to work my legs so hard to get over the Buttes de Chaumont at 8.30am was a rather rude awakening!

The other thing which I noticed riding around Paris is how haphazard the roads are. The numerous road works did not help much, but the layout of traffic lights is a maze itself. They seem to be placed so you can't see them very well unless you are standing right up close next to them. Also the lack of an amber light for you to get ready for the green makes you feel like you are about to start a sprint race. You stand there in a state of being "on your marks" ready to burst forth ahead of the eager vehicles behind you.

Junctions are not of a regular shape. They are mini versions of the Charles de Gaulle Etoile roundabout, so you are never sure which way you are meant to go until you have gone right up close to the arrow to know which way it is approximately pointing. You also need to be ready to suddenly change direction when you realise that's not where you want to go. And guess what, the motorists are no more enlightened than you are when it comes to knowing where to go! They chop and change too, so cycling definitely involves constantly factoring contingencies as well as the obligatory risk assessment at each junction! Thankfully, there wasn't that much traffic, and I reached Bercy unscathed!

I was all set to get on the 10.24 to Montbard in Burgundy when I noticed from the long queues at the information desk, and people wandering around that there was a problem. How could it not happen while I'm in France - a transport strike! A trip to France just isn't complete without some sort of disruption due to industrial action! And this was my day for it. Thankfully this was not a full on general strike with demonstrations. It was so discreet that no one really new - apart from the people who needed to use SNCF-TER Bourgogne services to get to Dijon and Burgundy, right where I was going! I didn't have any particular contingency, apart from to book a later train, which I was assured would be running. So I had to suffer the inconvenience of being held up in Paris for an extra 3 hours - what a shame!

As I was in the 12th arrondissement I decided to hang around mainly in that area, with one of my first ports of call being Gare de Lyon and the Bastille area. The clock tower at the station, and the coloumn in the middle of the busy junction are sights which I've taken so much for granted. On this sunny day, however I thought I would look around them a little more, and then visit other less touristy areas which are just as interesting - the Promenade Plantée, The Viaduc des Arts and the bohemian Marché d'Aligre with the Baron Rouge bar. These areas have a warmth and a character that is quite appealing, and it's not surprising that I really enjoyed living in the 12th arrondissement even all those years ago.

Friday, 13 August 2010

Travel Notes - Normandy to Paris

Friday 13th August

Dieppe - St Saens - Buchy - Vascoeuil - Lyons-la-Foret - Gisors = 65miles
Gisors-Paris by train

I'm working my way through France and seeing how far I get on my bike.
I crossed the channel early this morning and started my French adventure from Dieppe.

This part of the ride is familiar to me now, having done it a few times. But a combination of being half asleep at 4.30am and being shrouded in a mist over Normandy meant I did a couple of circuits of the town centre before I found the road I was looking for - the D154. Once I was on the right route it was a case of following my nose in the dark through various sleepy villages (literally).

Arques La Bataille, Bellencombre, St Saens were pretty run of the mill places, give or take the odd war memorial or commonwealth war veterans cemetery.

Terrain was pretty flat and unchallenging, which was fine with me!

The barrista in the Cafe at Buchy gave me strange looks at 8am when I walked in wearing full cycling gear complete with helmet light. I think he thought I was a walking lighthouse!

The prettiest towns of the day were Vascoeuil, which has a medieval castle. It's the gateway to the Andelle region of Normandy. The other high point (literally as well as metaphorically) was Lyons La Forêt - an medieval town that's really quaint and well preserved. A bit touristic, but not hugely. Well healed Parisians have weekend homes here it seems.

Stopped and enjoyed a coffee in the main square before deciding if I should head towards Gisors or Les Andelys. I chose the former, but in hindsight should have chosen the latter - a) because I already know Gisors, and b) because Les Andelys is much more picturesque.
Got on the train for the last section of the ride - saved time and hassle, and I've already ridden around Eiffel Tower and Arc de Triomphe. I had the joy of riding from St Lazare station through the centre, to get to my lodgings near Porte de Pantin. Riding through Paris is always fun and games. Enjoying my evening and looking forward to the next instalment tomorrow.

Tuesday, 27 July 2010

London Cycle Revolution? I Hope So!


As I sit here watching a full evening's worth of cycling themed programmes on BBC4, having returned from a bicycle maintenance class in one of the London bike shops, and ridden on a "cycling superhighway" to get home, I realise that things could be picking up for cycling in London.

Is cycling really growing in popularity and in the conscience of the everyday Londoner, or is it just something us cycling folks would like to believe? Some type of optical illusion?
Who knows.

London now has a cycling specific cafe, Look Mum No Hands. Good old Bojo, our Mayor has launched two cycling Superhighways that are meant to make cycling from the suburbs into central London safer for cyclists. We've even got a cycle hire scheme (like what you get in Paris or Barcelona), which will be launched this Friday. Apparently over 3,000 people have already registered to use the scheme.

This all sounds very good, and a great advert to the rest of the world that London is making inroads to becoming a bicycle friendly city.
I suppose the fact that people from all sections of society have been paying a little attention to the world's most famous bike race, the Tour de France, makes July an apt time to launch all things cycling related, and uptake is always going to be better during the summer months.

I hope that the people marketing these schemes have properly thought the whole process through. The music will eventually stop and suddenly there won't be enough chairs (or bicycles) for everyone.

The cycling superhighways will no longer be sporting the lovely luminous blue that makes the motorists give cyclists more room - there may be a few vehicles too many parked in the cycle lane - people out on a Barclays Hire Bike may get lost, have nowhere to redeposit their bike after use and get overcharged. Such are the potential hazards and teething problems when significant changes are made in cycling.
I'm not against these changes at all. I am very pleased to see that Boris Johnson and Transport for London are doing their bit to improve cycling facilities in London. I just hope that they will follow their plans through thick and thin. No one ever said the road to success would be smooth.

Friday, 23 July 2010

The Hurting


Isn't it a mad world when crowds of people gather along a steep hill to watch us suffer on a slopy bit of road with a horrendous gradient. We are probably madder for signing up to these challenges.

Entering the start gantry arms a-quaking, legs a-wobbling, adrenaline rising, I realise that in a few moments I should explode out of the blocks and tackle The Beast (aka Swains Lane). The time is now! I can't get out of it. OK, I'll put my hands up and say I did the crime. I had the strange moment of excitement and I signed a form to do the race, and took myself off to Highgate yesterday evening. So, I'm on the start line doing the time. Yes, I am the prisoner - I'm held in place, unable to move. I'm trapped in a wobbly body on an overweight bike about to try and defeat gravity and get up the hill! If only I could get out of this "contraption" - I can't walk away, as I'm all set with my number on. I can't get going either - must wait for the countdown. I so just want to release the tension in my body and stop the shaking. Shout, shout let it all out!

The countdown begins - 30 seconds and my breathing's getting shorter - 15 seconds, body's getting more tense - 5,4,3,2,1 and I'm released - I break out ready to tear on up the road. Trying to find the right gear - or at least the gear I'd run through in my pre-race strategy. Oh well, I press on, using my energy but not feeling like I'm going anywhere. Is this the start of the breakdown?

A few metres in, I remember what I'm supposed to do and begin to focus. The first 100m seem long, and drawn out. A few people shout words of encouragement. Then, just as I'm getting used to the gradient, another "step up" appears in the road and the high wall of the cemetery becomes visible at the side of the road - the net is closing in on me! There's no way out of this! The road is getting steeper, the crowds are getting thicker. People cheer, but I can't make out what they're saying. I'm just hurting, I think I will burst, or faint or both. Have the people come to watch me bleed? Oh God, how do I get out of this? Pedalling is the only answer - and hard, if I don't want to fall head over heels! I focus as much as my body will allow me, and pump the pedals with what limited energy I have left.

The finish line comes into view, but it's still so far away. Someone shouts "sprint for the line." I feel sick, I try, but I just crawl to the chequered flag and turn right into the side street. All flaked out, I throw myself off the bike and sit at the side of the road. My legs have buckled and I can't walk anywhere for several minutes. I see other riders finish in a similar state. We are broken!

So that was my hill climb - 2mins 40s up Swains Lane, and alot of pain! But hey, I did it. Memories fade, and I will probably do something like this again!


Photo by John Mullineaux, London Cyclesport

[I couldn't help make references to that 80s band, Tears for Fears - it seemed apt at the time!]

Monday, 19 July 2010

A Sucker for Punishment!


I don't know what's gotten into me this year. I keep complicating matters for myself by signing up for different cycle challenges. It's true that I like to do cyclosportives or challenge rides of 200km. Those type of events are as much about discovering new scenic places to cycle and meeting new folks as they are about the mission of the ride itself. In any case, I have got to the stage where I know what to do in order to get through a 100mile hilly bike, and I have confidence in my ability to complete such events. (Of course the time I take is a different matter!)

This year I have hardly done any of the usual cyclosportives. Instead I have found myself signing up for tough challenges - the Fred Whitton, the Paris-Roubaix. These are the sort of challenges where you really don't know if you'll make it through.

Signing up to ride the Paris-Roubaix had made me quite nervous. I felt very anxious in the days leading up to the race, and was quite worried about what effect the cobbles would have on me and my bike. At times the feeling of going out of my comfort zone was overwhelming, to the point that the mere thought of battling through the event had my heart skipping a beat.

I'd had very similar feelings in the run-up to riding a cyclosportive event abroad for the first time about 8 years ago. The fact that I eventually made it through the race should have given me the confidence to know that I would be able to make it through this new challenge. But my mind was up to its old tricks and I didn't feel as if I'd be up to the job at all.
The smile on my face when I finally crossed the finish line at the Velodrome de Roubaix said it all, and I was elated to have accomplished this feat.

So, as if all that was not enough for me for one year, I now find myself once again faced with a challenge - two in fact.

Firstly, I've got a hill climb to do this Thursday. A hill climb taking place within striking distance of central London is completely unprecendented and sounds too cool an event to miss out on. So I signed up to do it - the Rollapaluza Urban Hill Climb. Slight snag is that I must winch me and my bike up a 13% gradient for about 950m and endure stretches that reach 20%! I am not the best racer, and with a hill thrown in that complicates things even more!
Five minutes of pain and humiliation ?? Of course I'll survive it, but it will be very uncomfortable!

Secondly, I'm down to do The Three Peaks Cyclo Cross challenge. Now this goes off the scale in the cycling self harm stakes! Thirty eight miles of off road riding is not too bad. It's a different story when it involves riding up and down the 3 highest peaks in the Yorkshire Dales. Actually, riding will not be the verb! The story goes that no one rides up them. The first climb involves scaling up the side of a mountain, bike slung over shoulder, gripping tufts of grass for leverage. It's impossible to wheel the bike along, especially when considering that riders go up the peak in a procession and to know who's in the line you look above your head or between your feet! The descents are rocky and treacherous, and have people and their bikes reduced to bits.

So, you've guessed it I've signed up for this challenge. While I do take part in cyclo cross events, this event is a completely different kettle of fish. Rather than the usual hour-long frenzy over grass and muddy trails usually with a small hillock, this will be around 5 hours of all types of terrain that can be thrown at the rider in mountains! The stakes are high in this one. I may not finish. I may finish but with a broken bike, or with broken bones, teeth and skin. I may be lucky and get round, having had a thoroughly miserable time carrying my bike up and down the "ultimate assault course"!
I don't know what possessed me to sign the dotted line and send in my cheque to commit to this event. Now that I am over the initial shock of seeing my name on the start list, I am ready to take on the challenge and punish myself in order to get through it.
I have yet to know the real answer as to why I keep on putting myself forward for these crazy challenges. Maybe I just like pain!

Monday, 12 July 2010

Another Pleasurable Sunday

As the anti-dote to thrashing around on my road bike I went for a leisurely off-road ride with the guys from my second claim cycling club.
It wasn't exactly that leisurely as there were a few stiff climbs on the trails around Banstead and Epsom, but what I like about the off road rides is that because I'm no good at the rough stuff I do it with no expectation in mind. That in itself is a nice place to be when riding.


This was also a nice place to be - the lavender fields just outside Banstead. Loads of people were out picking them for their therapeutic and homeopathic needs. We were quite content to stop and marvel at the beauty of it all.

We pressed on with our loop to Epsom, Ashstead and then Reigate where a well deserved flap jack was waiting for me at the top of Colleys Hill.

So, a leisure bike ride on two Sundays on the trot. People will start to think I'm slacker!

I actually raced on both weekends but have no results to show for it as technical hitches gave me a dnf and a big fat zero on the score sheet. I look forward to doing more leisure bike rides. I hope that one of these days I can also finish a race!

Sunday, 4 July 2010

Taking it Easy

Today was a leisure day in the saddle. I enjoy days like these. There's no pressure to ride to a particular pace or ride in a chain gang. You just ride along and enjoy your surroundings. A sunny summer's day on a Sunday is one of the best times to do this.
So a group of us from the cycling club did a social ride out to Knole House, Sevenoaks from Crystal Palace. The route went along a few of our regular lanes to Keston and Cudham, down Brasted Hill, and across to Sevenoaks via Ide Hill and Stubbs Wood.

By the time we reached Knole House we'd done almost 30 miles so were ready for scones and tea in the pleasant tea room gardens. The deer with their baby "Bambis" were happy to see us too! They are much friendlier than the ones in Richmond Park, as they are quite happy for people to go up to them and say hello!

After our little stop we made our way back to London - some, keen to get in their miles rode back, while the rest of us took the train. This was the first of our women's social rides and we wanted to make it do-able by all. Overall, people were glad to have tried out a few new parts of Kent, and also to have challenged themselves a little on the hills.
I was glad to have found another place to do a pleasant cafe stop!

Tuesday, 29 June 2010

Crash!!

I'm not sure what's going on, but there seem to be alot of crashes happening in the road races these days.
It's a given that road racing carries an inherent risk of crashing . In fact there are certain races like the 4th cat races at Hillingdon or Goodwood where no crash occurring is quite newsworthy!
What is of great concern is the number of crashes that have been happening at places which had been hitherto considered as relatively "crash-free" zones.

Tuesday nights people could choose between Hillingdon or Crystal Palace. Apparently Crystal Palace was favoured by the experienced racers because the technical nature of the course meant there were hardly any crashes, since the standard of bunch riding and cornering was very good. This year that hasn't been the case though. Practically every week the first aid man and marshalls have been kept busy picking people off the ground after crashes. A couple of weeks ago there were so many "offs". I stopped counting after the fourth one! Generally, people end up with a bad case of road rash and a slightly dented bike.
But this year we've seen a few broken bones - and we've still got half the series to go. For the first time ever we had a nasty crash in the women's race too. Sadly the casualty ended up with a triple fractured collar bone.

Even the women's national championships last week were halted for an hour after a pile-up involving 12 riders. Yes, a few of the local girls have had prolonged absences from racing due to significant injuries from bike racing. That's been the downside to the growth in local women's cycling this year.

Furthermore, crashes have not been just confined to road racing. A couple of pile-ups at the track league in Herne Hill Velodrome this season have resulted in riders being left with nasty injuries and no functioning bike. This business is getting very risky and for some, quite costly. Accidents don't just lead to expensive bicycle repair bills, but in some cases, lost earnings from sick notes.

It looks like the growing popularity of cycling racing is resulting in all and sundry taking part. Some folks don't having the required bike handling skills but think they are Lance Armstrong anyway!
Maybe British Cycling also has a part to play in setting up bicycle training programmes - not just training cyclists to commute on the roads safely, but also for those who want to bunch race safely. The drive to get everyone racing is an accident waiting to happen - hell, the accidents are already happening! So how many more accidents are there to be before more is done to upskill would-be road racers? This is definitely an aspect of cycling that needs reviewing.

Wednesday, 23 June 2010

Surviving the Cobbles - Final Part

SPOILING THE FLOW

Pressing on through the countryside we passed through a series of more straight forward sections of cobbles. Fortunately, they were not too wet so there was no inherent hazard of riding the stretches - or at least no more than I'd hitherto experienced. What was becoming more evident though was the pain from riding cobbles. My arms weren't aching so much, as I had definitely found that taking the cobbles at speed was the way to experience the least amount of juddering - that technique had paid off. Also having gel bartape and foam on my handlebars certainly helped.

However, I was finding that because of the number of riders on the stretches and strangely enough, a number of naughty drivers who had chosen to take their support cars onto these roads, there was more congestion and I was unable to ride the cobbles as quickly as I wanted. I had to take things down a gear as I found myself at the back of a group of guys who in turn were caught up behind a car or van. Of course this low speed meant I was shaken around alot more, and I also found it more tricky controlling the bike. A few cyclists vented their frustrations on the drivers and a few angry words were exchanged. Nothing like a cyclist/motorist altercation to remind me of home!


PAIN IN THE PEVELES

As we did more an more cobbled sections my fingers hurt as they were getting the brunt of the shaking, given that they were only loosely hanging on my handlebars. Then, as if that irritation wasn't enough we got caught in another shower. The guys in my group soldiered on in the rain, whereas I stopped under a tree to put on my jacket, while hoping that the rain would stop shortly. It was also a pretext to give my fingers and my bones a bit of respite. Luckily the rain didn't last long, and the sun came out again.

Sadly, the sun was not able to dry off the ground in time for us reaching what I felt to be the worst section of the day - Mons-en-Pevele. This section was not quite as brutal as the Arenberg section, but it was challenging enough on my nerves. The cobbles were again higgledy piggledy with holes at irregular intervals. Of course the holes were full of water so it was anyone's guess how the bike would land when you went over them. The road also irregularly changed camber so there was the added risk of the bike sliding around in the damp conditions. In the dry, riders could have ridden on the dirt track verge. However, because this was riddled with holes it became risky using these so we had no choice but to brave this section that was like a mini obstacle course.

Added to the mix was how to negotiate round slower riders, or stay out of the way of a falling rider - of which there were a few. I attempted to overtake one man, and failed dismally when, to my misfortune, and to others' amusement I careered out of control towards the ditch. Although I'd managed to spare myself from a crash, that was an embarrassing lesson in how not to overtake people. So I spent the remainder of the ride, learning to sit behind people patiently while being bounced to smithereens!

The 3km stretch of Mons-en-Pevele, at this stage of the ride was too long for me to take on in one hit. So half way along the road I dismounted to gain my composure and destress before continuing the rest of the section. Were the guys suffering as much as me, or were they just grinning and bearing it? It felt like I was the only person in pain. Some of the Dutch guys riding this section rode side by side and chatted as though they were on a leisurely afternoon club run! Were they actually human??


LAZY BONES!

Finally, to enormous relief I came out of the other end unscathed! At the Pont Thibaut cobbles I took time out to take a few pictures. An old man who lived at the side of the road came out to watch the riders.

"Oh yes, of course Paris Roubaix." It seemed like he didn't realise it was on. "I rode this about 30 years ago. It was a great ride. Back then, we didn't have the crowds that you have now. The organisers were crying out for entrants. I thought I'd have a go, and it took me 7hours. I was a rare breed from the region because many of my cycling buddies didn't want to do it. They thought I was mad! I bet people think you must be mad doing it. You don't get many women riding this you know!" I guess he made that last statement because he was thinking I'd been so focused, on my drop handlebars, in racing mode that I hadn't noticed the other folks around me! If only he knew about my 2 hours of stoppage time and my extended tea breaks!

As I was taking pics he looked at me anxiously. "Are you sure you should be doing that? The cut off must be in about an hour's time."
"No, they close the finish line checkpoint at around 8.30pm" I replied.
"Gosh, they're very generous nowadays aren't they? In my day we had almost 300km to do and we had to be finished by 5pm. And we hardly had any feed stations. You guys are spoiled. Well, good luck to you young lady!"
Onwards I continued, thinking what a lazy bones I'd been stopping and taking photos and not taking the Paris-Roubaix seriously!


THAT COMING HOME FEELING!

The next significant section was the Carrefour de L'Arbre, which was in fact three sections of cobbles in rapid succession, that made up almost 5km of bumps. The last section was very straight and all the crowds could be seen in the distance during the last kilometre. This was the time to look like you were enjoying it, you were fresh and energetic, and in control of your bike. Not! I was all over the shop, tired and bedraggled. And d'you know what, I was past caring. I was on the edge of my limits, and just focused on holding everything together at the lowest common denominator. Appearances were the last thing on my mind!

Thankfully, for the last set of cobbles in Hem, and the run back in to Roubaix there was a group of guys that I tagged onto. It was just a case of hanging onto their wheel road race style all the way back into Roubaix. Once at the entrance into the Velodrome there were lots of folks cheering us on. It felt quite emotionally finally realising I'd made it through the 173km that I started at 7 o'clock that morning. I felt like Fabian Cancellara, Tom Boonen and Thor Hushovd all at the same time! It was a great feeling. Even one of the officials from Velo Club de Roubaix who I'd met from the previous day recognised me and came up to congratulate me at the finish. What an honour! What a day!

I'm not really one for souvenirs, but I made a point of picking up my commemorative Paris Roubaix stone, which now sits proudly on the shelf at home. I was just so glad to have survived the cobbles, and in proper "classics" conditions. At the end of the ride me and my bike were a muddy mess. I was glad my hotel was only a few minutes away. Will I come back and do the full 255km? Probably, but give me 2 years to prepare first!

Monday, 21 June 2010

Surviving the Cobbles - Part 3

MERRILY ON OUR WAY

From the first check point I made may way along with Jo. Although there were many riders doing this event – around 3000, there were very few women taking part. So the ones we saw, regardless of nationality, instinctively acknowledged each other with a "hi" or a "bonjour". We saw a woman with a group of guys. I’m not sure which club they were from but they were French and looked very stylish in their orange kit. One of the guys kept photographing us, which made me feel like putting on my most stylish pose as I went over the cobbles – not an easy thing to do! The woman in that group had a very lean physique, and looked very fit in her hot-pants and matching jersey. She just glided over the cobbles like it was her regular club run. I couldn’t understand how she was going to embark on a 100-mile bike ride over cobbles when heavy showers were forecast. Surely she’d catch her death! I guess one of the guys in the group was her domestique - lucky thing!

At one point Jo and I caught up with John, Stevie and Mark from Ashwell CC. We rode together, and it felt good to ride with Roubaix savvy folks who had done the event enough times to know the route off by heart.


WATERSHED MOMENT!

Sadly, that happy comfortable feeling soon disappeared when the sky turned black and the rain began to fall. At first I thought it would just be a brief shower, but it didn’t show any signs of going away. Damn, it looked like this would be our lot for the rest of the day! Fortunately we didn’t have any stretches of pavé to negotiate during this time and we soon arrived at the second check point at Arenberg.

As we rolled into the checkpoint at Wallers-Arenberg organisers were hurriedly moving all the refreshment tables from the courtyard into the sports hall. Considering how much food was out there and how many tables and chairs had to be moved they did this pretty efficiently.

I used the opportunity to find the first aid people. When riding over cobbles your aim is just to get to the other end of the stretch any which way, hopefully without falling. You don’t think about anything else. You simply focus on pressing ahead regardless of all the rattling and shaking. You are unaware of any friction on your body, especially in places where you wouldn’t expect it, until later on.

It was after the first six or seven stretches of pavé that I noticed my little finger on both hands were bleeding. What had happened?
When going over the cobbles I was keen not to grip the handlebars too much. I just held the tops of the handlebars lightly. The consequence was that my fingers were shaking all over the place, and my little fingers were knocking against the side of the brake hoods. They’d been knocking and rubbing so much that the friction had begun to take the skin off and they were red raw! It was when I stopped at the Arenberg check-point that I began to feel the pain from them. The first aid group were happy enough to give me plasters for both fingers, though I had doubts about how long they would last, especially given the wet weather.

By the time I’d eaten abit, had my card stamped and received first aid I had cooled right down and I felt too cold to re-start. Not knowing what else to do, I went to the loos. It wasn’t that I needed them, it was just something to do! Those loos were the best thing for me at that time. They were in a new building and the lack of women in the event meant that they were hardly used, so clean. Most importantly, the room was really warm - exactly what I needed! This was definitely the place to be! So there I stayed – not for really long, but about 20 minutes – enough time to warm up.


ARAINBERG!

Afterwards I faffed around at the check-point looking for pretexts to not go out. Why would I want to go out in that pouring rain?? I wanted to enjoy my experience of Paris-Roubaix. If I could avoid a miserable ride over the cobbles I would do so. The check-points were fairly hospitable places with areas to sit, and there were lots of people around to talk to.
As I sat eating I saw various people arriving, all look pretty bedraggled and sodden. No one complained about the conditions - it was just dubbed as Paris-Roubaix weather! People did talk about how treacherous the cobbles had been and how folks were slipping, sliding and falling all over the place. Did I really want to put myself through that? This isn't a timed event so I could take my time riding the course. As long as I left the check-point some time within the next 3 hours I would be within the cut-off!

The folks manning the refreshment tables were pretty chatty. They commented on how they don't often experience bad weather at this event. People still arrive at the check-points in a bit of a state – but they’re just covered in dust and coughing. On a day like this some people were happy to be getting wet rather than breathing in loads of dust!


INTO THE FOREST

After two hours of torrential rain and a mega long tea break (!) I and a number of other riders were back on the road. By now the rain had stopped, the sky was turning blue again and the sun had even come out.
About 100m after the feed-station I reached a level crossing where there were crowds of people and many riders came to a stop. This was the (in)famous section of pavé in the Arenberg forest. Lots of people stopped for photo opportunities with friends and club mates.

The cobbles here are really something else, compared with the other stretches. They are all of completely irregular sizes - some big, some small, some round, some square.....they are not paved in any regular fashion either. The stones point in all different directions and in some parts are very compacted together, then suddenly there are big gaps between them. It's a real botch job of paving! Riding over them was the ultimate bone shaker ride. I could hear my bones rattling as my body vibrated along! Thankfully, I only rode the perfunctionary 100m or so as far as the photographer and then bailed out onto the wide dirt track that ran alongside the paved stretch. I was happy to use this "cop-out" stretch, and so were most people!

Notwisthstanding the difficulty of these cobbles, I'd say that this was the prettiest section of the whole route. I imagine there'll be tons of people there again in a couple of weeks when the Tour de France passes through this stretch.


LIGHT RELIEF

Once over the Tranchée d'Arenberg I felt relieved to have "done" the most challenging section of the ride - or at least as far as I was aware! It was good to bump into more folks I knew, like the guys from GS Invicta, who were out in force. A few of them are accomplished cyclocross riders so they could adeptly overtake riders on some of the later stretches of cobbles that had become a little congested as well as wet and slippery.

Knowing that I was roughly at the half way mark of the ride was a feelgood milestone and I began to feel confident that I'd be able to get through this, even though I still had around 17 sections of pavé still to do! I felt fine, and my arms weren't aching so I was ready to give this my best shot. By this point there were lots of groups of riders so it was easy to jump in with them and get a tow and save energy for the serious business of conquering the stones!

Monday, 14 June 2010

World Naked Bike Ride

Once again I missed out on the chance to ride my bike nude through the streets of London.

Instead of getting into the spirit of the World Cup in a Crystal Palace pub, I could have been joining the free spirits for World Naked Bike Ride day on Westminster Bridge!

Maybe next year I'll be organised enough to join in with this carry-on. It's not as if I'll need to find myself something where! I'll just make sure I use a very comfortable saddle!

Here's what I missed:









Sunday, 13 June 2010

Surviving the Cobbles - Part 2


Race day, when it arrived was quite a straight forward matter, to the point that I wondered what all the fuss had been about! After we boarded the bus at around 3.30am and our bikes were carefully placed in the trailer we made our way to Bohain-en-Vermandois.

The race HQ was a sports hall in a back street of an unassuming small town. Strangely enough there was no fanfare at all - no banner about the event in the street, no P.A announcements, no music. Just a few volunteers doing the sign-on and handing us route cards, with others serving the teas. It was more like a village scout hut - albeit a rather large one. I had to be shown where the ride actually started. There were no signs!

Jo and I started the ride to minimal ceremony, apart from a couple of photos with a friend of hers. Once on the road, it was a case of just following the painted yellow signs on the ground. In general they were easy to follow, although in some cases the paint had faded and on a couple of occasions we missed the turning. Thankfully other riders around shouted to us if we were going the wrong way.The sight of paintings of people's names on the road showed that we weren't too far off course. It was great to ride the same roads that had been graced by the likes of Thor Hushovd, Tom Boonen, Fabian Cancellara etc. OK so, our exploits were not being televised and there were only a handful of folks cheering us on in the streets, but I still got a sense of doing something historic.

Within 10 miles we were on the first cobbled section at Troisvilles. I immediately concentrated myself on the experience ahead, and reminded myself of what everyone had said. Attack the cobbles in the big ring and ride as hard and as fast as you can. Stay on the apex of the road rather than on the side. Hold the tops of the handlebars lightly. That seemed to work, and my first experience of Roubaix cobbles didn't seem so bad. There were a couple of dicey moments I had to deal with. Firstly, as the bike jolted around all along the cobbles I heard a sharp noise on the bike as something appeared to have hit the frame and dropped on the ground. I shrieked, thinking it was my mobile phone that had dropped out of my pocket! In fact it was the lamp cover on my rear bike light that had fallen off. I wasn't going to bother picking that up, so I just continued.

Suddenly the road went downhill and I had to come to a dead stop to cross a main road before continuing to the next cobbled stretch. Having to brake suddenly led to alot of jarring in my head and neck. There was also a sharp right hand turn that I almost missed and had to swerve round very quickly. I didn't have full control of the bike at that point and almost rode into the ditch! Luckily there weren't many people around. But I survived all of this, and felt that as I hadn't come a cropper over this first 2km stretch I could immediately declare that a success!

The next few stretches were quite similar, except that there was one section at Quievy that was almost 4km long. The terrain was not nominally challenging. It was just gently rolling, but when you have to do that over bumpy roads littered with large erratic stones thrown together with a bit of cement, it aint that easy. I found that I was quite out of breath when riding over these sections. It was partly due to the physically demanding situation, and also a certain nervousness that I hadn't quite overcome. I did my best to stay relaxed by letting my jaw hang open so as to keep my faced relaxed, and also to keep my wrists limp.

Riding over the cobbles definitely jiggles you about. It's not just a jostling bike that you have to deal with, but anything and everything that's slightly loose on your body. I could feel all those loose bits of flab on my dinner lady arms, and my flaccid calf muscles. I was just glad that I had no loose teeth and was wearing a firm bra! It still didn't stop my internal organs shaking. There was something in my chest that was suffering a bit at first, and I was worried I might end up with internal bruising!

In spite of all these thoughts I pressed on and was still intent on enjoying myself, and admiring the views over northern France in the early morning sunshine.

Very soon we were at the first check point/feed station at Solesmes. There wasn't the bun-fight that you sometimes get at popular cyclosportives, so it was very easy to access to the copious amounts of sandwiches, cakes, biscuits, fruits and other refreshments. As we were in the playground of a sports centre there was lots of space to hang around and chat to other people as they arrived. I bumped into John from London Cyclesport at this station, who was in good spirits and really enjoying himself on his bling bike with the electric gears. I didn't have electric gears but I was quite happy with the wheels he'd lent me for the ride. They were bearing up very well!

During that time I began to realise just how many people from Britain were at the event. I saw jerseys from London Phoenix, Kingston Wheelers, Manchester Wheelers and various other cycling clubs. This event is definitely popular with Brits. Given the various languages I heard - German, Dutch, Italian, Spanish it was also popular with people from other countries too!