Wednesday, 30 November 2011

Off-Road Spin - 2

Here's another route which goes through the Surrey hills. This time it's going up to Leith Hill Tower, the highest point in Surrey.

I have ridden there from my home before, using the network of trails from West Croydon and the trails mentioned in Off-Road Spin-1. That ends up being quite an epic day.
It's probably quicker to jump on one of the frequent trains to Dorking and then start from there, as shown on the map. You then have the chance to try out other places along the way, such as Box Hill - or go further afield towards Gomshall and Peaslake, another big mountain biking meeting point in the Surrey Hills.
Anyway, enough waffle - here is the route from Dorking to Leith Hill Tower - a full write-up can be found on the Sportsister magazine website, where I originally wrote this piece.

(photos by Higg)

Thursday, 24 November 2011


We don't do Thanksgiving in the UK as such, though since many people know someone from North America people usually acknowledge this feast day - rather like how many non-Irish people celebrate St Patrick's Day.

So I usually pick this day to say thanks.

I have had a reasonably good 2011 so far. Finding myself out of work, and a small problem in the family have stopped 2011 from being a great year. However, there have been lots of good things that have happened to me and I still feel that I have been lucky.

I haven't had any serious illness, or any family tragedy. I haven't been hit by any of the terrible natural disasters there have been this year.

A few people I know have had the misfortune of breaking bones while cycle racing, or being knocked off their bikes while commuting. None of that has happened to me.

I feel very thankful to have stayed healthy, to have been just about able to make ends meet, and to have had healthy food - as well as good wine and some enjoyable bike rides.

Touch wood that the trend continues. And if it does, I will be even more thankful!

Tuesday, 22 November 2011

Off-Road Spin - 1

I like to get out on a little off-road spin around London. It doesn't need to be anything hardcore or onerous. It's surprising how many little cycle paths and trails there can be not far from your doorstep.

I'm always impressed at how easy it is to find nice country lanes even within the London conurbation. Fair enough, this isn't Wales or the Lake District, but the areas still make for very pretty views on an autumn day and they are fairly easy to get to. Overall the trails are a good starter for 10 before you get into more involved stuff, and they are also a handy half-way house if you can't be out cycling for too long.

Surrey Trails - Wallington to Reigate
Today's route goes from Wallington to Reigate via Banstead, Epsom Downs and Walton on the Hill, fringing the North Downs. From Reigate the route then goes over a of couple of ridges near Kingswood and through Chipstead to reach the start point. We don't quite get to the famous Box Hill, but we go quite near to it. You do get comparable vistas when you reach Reigate Hill though, and you can even say hello to the cows up there!

This route is 98% within the M25 motorway boundary so you are very much in the London area. That means there are lots of roads that you can take if you need a fast run in home on the tarmac, and there are lots of suburban train stations if you completely run out of gas!

(photos by Higg)

Wednesday, 9 November 2011

Tour de France : Fun on the Last Day

When the Tour de France route is announced, as well as keenly looking to see which mountain passes are going to be included, I also like to see what the last stage will be. This year the route into the Champs Elysées was from Créteil, in Eastern Paris and I went along there with Higg.
This route, though short was a spectator's dream. Créteil is at the end of Line 8 of the Paris Métro (Balard-Creteil Préfecture), so for us it was an easy direct half-hour tube journey from where we were staying in Bastille. The route up to the Champs Elysées was equally straightforward. Actually, there was a slight hitch on the day as Line 8 had engineering works taking place at Charenton and the replacement bus was not running due to the Tour de France. No problem at all though. The engineering works were only taking place on a short section between Charenton and Maisons Alfort and there were RATP (Paris Transport) members of staff on hand to give directions for the 10-minute walk to pick up the Métro to reach Créteil. Even better, was the fact that this walk took us right through the Tour de France route. On our way to Maisons Alfort we saw the locals setting up picnics and laying out banners in anticipation of the arrival of the publicity caravan and the peloton.
On we went to Créteil, where we arrived in time to see the publicity caravan leaving. The local council had laid on a mini outdoor cycling exhibition and activity area with freebies for spectators. Many people spent only a limited period of time in this area and instead, headed past the cordoned off VIP area to the car park where all the team buses were.

It was pretty easy to see the different cycle racers and in fact spectators had just as much chance of seeing their cycling heroes as those with media passes. Whether you were in the private area or on the other side of the fence you had just as much of a scrum to see the stars if you had not made a special arrangement to meet the riders. There was also the dilemma as to which team bus to crowd around.
It was hard to predict which racer would emerge from their team bus when, and the buses were arranged in such a way that it was a good 150m walk to get from the first bus to the last bus in the line. There was a distinct order in the way the buses were arranged and a definite hierarchy could be seen. Teams like HTC-Columbia High Road, Garmin-Cervelo, Sky, Cadel Evans' BMC team, Leopard-Trek of the Schlek brothers and Thomas Voeckler's Europcar team had barriers around them and some security staff in the vicinity.
There was a long wait to see any of their riders come out of the bus, and whenever anyone emerged there was a big cheer followed by a surge of microphones and cameras from professionals and amateurs alike. The lower ranked teams like Vacansoleil and Movistar were way down at the rear of the line of buses and didn't even have barriers. There were no journalists around, and barely any fans pandering to see them. The racers got on with their business completely unhindered, practically unnoticed. Team RadioShack were also in this category. What a difference a year makes!

It was easy to spend a couple of hours watching the pre-race activity. As this was the last day of the tour most of the riders were quite relaxed and there was a last day of school atmosphere. Riders were amenable and happy to greet fans, even if it was just to say a quick hello or pose for a photo.
Also, there was a sense that the townsfolk of Créteil were thrilled to have Le Tour in their neighbourhood. Créteil is a suburb of Paris - not quite in the same league as Versailles, but more like Croydon, South London. Creteil forms part of "la banlieue", but thankfully not as bad as other eastern Parisian suburbs that endured riots in 2005 and there's no furniture store that got burnt down either. Having Le Tour would have been a real boost to the morale of the folks and this must have been very inspirational for the young people - even more so, as a plaque was unveiled there in memory of the late great Laurent Fignon.

There was a very friendly atmosphere among spectators, and even when it got a little crowded when taking photos people were happy to take their photo and politely stand back to let others have a turn to take a few snaps.
After the presentations of the various cycling stars on the stage, everyone ran across the large green to watch the riders set off. To accompany the 170 odd riders there were countless vehicles in tow - team cars for each of the 22 teams, cars for commissaires, first aid, neutral service, ambulances, media, VIPs, TV crew, motorbike outriders, motorbike photographers, time keepers on motorbikes and of course the team buses. There must have been around 80-100 vehicles plus a a couple of helicopters. Cycling is dubbed a carbon neutral sustainable form of transport, but when it comes to the Tour de France all that goes out of the window!
To the cheers of all the crowds the riders set off on their final stage into Paris. We had only been at the departure town for a couple of hours but it already felt like we'd been there all day, with everything we had seen.
I managed to see Jens Voigt, Cadel Evans, Philippe Gilbert, Thomas Voeckler, Frank Schlek, Alberto Contador, Mark Renshaw, Juan Antonio Flecha and George Hincapie. Ironically I didn't see any of the British riders. It was good to have seen a few high profile riders in the flesh anyway.

Next stop was Maisons Alfort. We had to walk between there and Charenton during our tube journey back into Paris, so we stopped at the side of the road where by now the crowds had thickened, and we waited for the peloton to come by. We waited, and waited and waited. The race had started at 2.30pm and they were due to hit Maisons Alfort at 3.10pm according to the schedule sheet. But there was no sign of the riders at all. The peloton eventually came through at around 3.50pm, riding along slower than me on a bad day!
They were chatting and in no mood to make any effort. I guess everyone has the right to an easy Sunday club run every now and again!
The real action would begin when they reached Paris proper. It was great that the riders travelled along so slowly as this lent itself to taking half decent pictures - at least for Higg, that was. My photos still came out blurred!
After this rather pleasant interlude during our return trip to Paris we picked up the Métro to Concorde station, where we literally arrived there as the riders were doing their first lap of Central Paris. Concorde was so packed and there was no chance of us getting a decent view so we walked down the back road, rue St Honoré to get us out near Tuileries station, then found a great spot on the rue de Rivoli as the peloton blasted right past us.

I was really enjoying the atmosphere in the July sunshine and it was really uplifting everytime the pack of riders steamed along at a phenomenal pace all to the cheers and claps of the crowds, as well as to the excitement of the commentators.

Suddenly we realised we were cutting it fine to get our train back to London. Sadly, we had to abruptly leave behind all this excitement to hotfoot it through Place Vendôme and pick up the Métro to Gare du Nord. So it wasn't until I reached London and turned on the TV that I was able to see Mark Cavendish clinch victory on the Champs Elysées! How ironic!

Not seeing the heartstopping finish of the race was a bit of an anticlimax, but it had still been a really fun day out. I would definitely recommend going to the departure town for the last stage of the Tour de France. Some departure towns are easier to reach than others. This year was an extremely good vintage in that regard and I am glad to have been there for almost all of the Tour de France proceedings of the day!

The final stage of the 2012 Tour will start from Rambouillet, a western suburb of Paris. When I lived in France's capital city I remember Rambouillet being this deep in the forest, out in the styx place. Who needed to go all the way over there when we had Versailles?! I therefore don't really know the area, but what I do know is that it will be in a leafy suburb that has a big forest and a castle; I will need to catch a suburban train rather than the Métro; and I should book a late Eurostar when returning to London!

bottom 3 photos by Higg

Tuesday, 8 November 2011

Don't be Afraid of the Dark!

Once again, the annual Rollapaluza Muddy Hell cyclo cross took place at Herne Hill. I had deliberated somewhat because I wasn't sure I'd be fit enough to race, given my acute lack of cycling fitness. In the end the prospect of doing a women-only race in fancy dress in the dark was all too tempting. Something about dressing up in a daft costume for a bike race always makes it more fun. It also diverts attention away from how bad you may be cycling!

So at 7pm I lined up in the dark with the other fancily dressed ladies to do my first cyclo cross race of the season. Even though the obstacles were largely similar to last year's course I felt a certain level of apprehension. The ramp up to the bridge seemed higher, or maybe the ramp was on a steeper gradient. One thing was for sure, we were not going to have the full momentum from a downhill slope to carry us up the ramp like we did last year. No, we we're going to have to work to reach the summit. A sharp right hand turn after running over the planks meant that we would have to remount our bikes and give it some almighty welly to develop the speed to ride up the 25% gradient. Many people just didn't get the pace and ran out of momentum two thirds of the way up and either fell sideways or just put a foot a ground to walk. So for me, not only did I have to think about how I would get up the ramp but how I would ride around people who couldn't quite climb it in the saddle (which was about 20% of the field). Once up the ramp and on the bridge a down ramp threw me at full speed towards a table-top jump which made my bike leap for a split second! Not something to be doing on a full stomach! I would be in for some fun.

This year I was riding a Boardman CX Team cyclocross bike, kindly lent to me by Halfords and my path was being lit by USE-Exposure, who had provided me with a Diablo helmet light and a Toro handlebar light. With this combination I knew I would have no problem seeing the path ahead. Also with my new bike that had disc brakes that would help me on those short sharp descents. With all this new gear I felt motivated to give the best performance I could. It's funny how new kit raises your motivation!
So, on the whistle I set off in my Halloween dress and facepaint ready to blast around for 40 minutes. It was great. The course was a real fairground ride. From the sandpit to the bridge with table-top jump, via the BMX berm, the steep "Galibier" run-up, the single track, the muddy strip, the whoop bumps and the plank barriers. All this to the beat of the pumping sound system made it a real fairground ride. Small wonder I didn't get dizzy!
Anyone who thinks 40 minutes is easy, think again - the pace is almost twice as fast as what we do at the usual London Cyclo Cross League 60-minute races, but as this paricular course had so many obstacles in it, there was extra energy needed to hold it together and not completely "stack it" in front of everyone. It goes without saying that spectators were gathered around the trickiest parts of the course! I was happy with my race considering it was the first one of the season. I felt surprisingly more fluid in my movements, though I was lapped by a clown, a witch, and Batwoman!

The women's race has definitely become more competitive, as the top 3 women were regular National Trophy riders, and there were a number of strong women who had travelled down to South London from other parts of the country who raised the level of the race that bit higher. (The generous prize money may have had something to do with it!) Even with really fast women racing, there was room for all levels and I had fun on the course. I was glad to have signed up for it and I executed my best race possible.
Once across the finish line all that was left to do was to get on with enjoying the evening over a beer and catching up with folks I hadn't seen for a while. Another great night from Rollapaluza!

Photos by Higg