Monday, 31 October 2016

Bike Review: Raleigh Mustang Sport Gravel Bike

As we head into the winter months it is comforting to be out on a sturdy bike that can withstand adverse conditions such as early morning frost, extra debris on the roads, and something you can ride off piste if you decide to take short cuts through off-road sections; or even just something on which you can enjoy a leisurely winter off-road bike ride. This is where a gravel bike could be an option.

Since April I have been testing out the Raleigh Mustang Sport gravel bike. These are a relatively new breed of bike to the ever increasing range of bicycles that one can stock their garage with - and hopefully ride!

The gravel bike (also known as an adventure bike) is a cross between a cyclocross bike and a road bike. Some might it describe it in other ways, but basically it looks like a cross bike, but without the zippiness that you would want in a race, however it is very comfortable to be on for long rides.

That means that its sturdiness makes it a good bike to use when riding off-road or going cycle touring on trails. It is handy that the bike also has areas where you can mount a rack and mudguards - which is what I have taken to using on the bike lately.

I used the bike when I rode a series of routes along rail trails around the country, and also on longer rides such as on a route to Brighton from Guildford along the Down's Link and the South Downs Way. I also used the Mustang Sport to ride across the Transpennine Trail. The Mustang Sport even did a foray abroad, when I used it for a cycle tour to get to Paris, where part of the route went along the disused railway line from Dieppe to Forge-Les-Eaux known as Avenue Verte.

Anyway, here are my thoughts on the Raleigh Mustang Sport:

Although the Mustang Sport is happier off-road it performs perfectly well on tarmac. If you want to do extensive riding on-road it may be better to use something like Land Cruisers which are tough and can deal with some less rugged off-road sections. Some of my rides were on tarmac and I rode with the Schwalbe CX Comp tyres that came with the bike.  On these tarmacked sections the Mustang Sport was fairly unchallenged and rolled along smoothly along. Carbon forks as well as the tyres provided good dampening when I went over some cobbled sections such as areas of Hull Old Town, or down the Champs Elysees in Paris. 

When on trails such as the Hudson Way between Beverley and Market Weighton, or the Tissington Trail in the Peak District the Mustang Sport was really in its element on these gravelly trails which had a few sections of single track. the bike held the paths well and steering was smooth and responsive when maneuvering through narrow sections. 

On the muddier, boggier sections such as when I rode on the trail between Scarborough and Whitby  the Mustang knew how to get through it, and having disc brakes meant that there was very good clearance between the frame and the tyres. So I didn't have to worry about the bike getting clogged up. I just had to worry about the big clean-up when I got home!

You have the option to buy the bike set up with tubeless tyres  on the Mustang Sport, though I didn't choose this option. I must admit I  am not so familiar with these and don't trust myself to fitting them properly. I think in future I would put these on as you will have one less thing to think about when it comes to tyre pressures and punctures. In any case the clincher tyres I had worked well and they held their pressures well. 

On my ride to Brighton via the Downs Link with the Mustang Sport I decided to leave this trail in search for a bit more of a challenge - so in my wisdom I took the South Downs Way. Now this is probably the thin end of the wedge in terms of what the Mustang Sport will take. There are long sections of grass on the downs, which is completely fine for the bike. However, there is a fair share of steep rugged single track. The great thing was the gears were low enough for me to get up these 18-20% hills, but the bike was definitely challenged on the descent. It was very much a bone-shaker and the disc brakes squeaked quite a lot. The Mustang Sport endured the 10 mile-section that I rode, but I think it would be you, rather than the bike that would give up the ghost first if you intended doing the full 100 miles of the South Downs Way! I am sure the bike would be fine for a short section - in the same way that people do the Three Peaks of the Yorkshire Dales on their cyclocross bikes. Just make sure to use bomb-proof tyres, and keep your body in tip-top condition!

In my opinion the Raleigh Mustang Sport is a good option for multi-terrain rides particularly if you are not a speed merchant. It is heavier than some cyclocross bikes, but that makes it a sturdy option on all surfaces.

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Thursday, 27 October 2016

Can-do girls - Delia conquers Three Peaks Cyclocross

It's that time of year when cyclists indulge in wacky racing over muddy fields, through woodland, in sandpits, jumping over hurdles, and sometimes climbing up flights of steps with their bikes slung over their shoulders. You've guessed it - cyclocross is back on again.

So this month's Can-do girl features none other than local hard nut racer, Delia Beddis of Vicious Velo, champion of the Three Peaks Cyclocross challenge. Hailing from Otley, the same town as that other women's cycling champion, Lizzie Deignan (née Armitstead) Delia isn't satisfied with the traditional cyclocross races that are completed in barely forty-five minutes. What really gets her out of bed is flying up and over the big peaks of the Yorkshire Dales - Ingleborough, Whernside and Pen y Ghent, one after the other with her bike in "the hardest cyclocross race in the world."  

That means a distance of 61km (33km being on mountain trails), 1500m of climbing, and about 4 hours of racing for Delia, though probably more like 6 hours for us lesser mortals including myself, if I even try it at all! The Three Peaks cyclocross race is definitely one for the bucket list, but I must say that I find it one of the scariest races on the sporting calendar. Running a marathon or doing an Ironman triathlon are things I would tackle first as my preparation for this monument of cycling athleticism! I therefore have massive admiration for Delia who has done this race no fewer than four times, and been the winning woman on two of those occasions. Chapeau! (or maybe even Flat cap as they might say oop North!) 

So here's a bit about this challenge in Delia's own words.  

I've done the Three Peaks four times now. The first one wasn't too great and the second was the infamous year of torrential rain when unfortunately I crashed out. Things got better after that.

I won the race for the first time in 2013. It was the third time I was doing it. Most importantly, my Dad and I won the 'Parent / Child' competition that year and we got a bike rack for our efforts! 

I'm not made for top-end speed so I like a long gruelling race. Also, if you're half decent at running you can get a good result. It's such a great atmosphere and it's near my proper home in Otley so I'm fairly used to the terrain. That's why I keep coming back!

The terrain on the Yorkshire Dales is totally different from a normal cross race. That can be a shock to the system for most people when they race it for the first time. It varies between each peak. Ingleborough is like moorland and can be a bit boggy on the tops; Whernside is more rocky with steps - the limestone slabs on the descent make for good riding especially with disc brakes. Pen Y Ghent is more like a trail but still tough to get up especially near the summit.  

I try to dovetail my Three Peaks training with road racing in the summer. I use the road to build up some endurance but start to layer in some walking and running from May/June to remind my legs how to do it. Slow and steady build up is the best way to avoid injuries. I generally stop road racing around July to focus on Peaks endurance. I then do mountain biking and running uphill with the bike as much as possible. 

I don't get to do as much training as I would like in the Dales. This year I only managed one training weekend at home so the rest of my training is done down in Kent. There's no substitute for riding up in the Dales and getting used to the terrain and the conditions though. Even things like knowing how to shoulder the bike into a strong wind really helps. I did get some harsh weather practice in the west of Ireland this summer, which was good prep!

The course is bumpy but different to the cobbled classics. The longest parts with bumpy descents are Whernside and Pen Y Ghent. Whernside is okay once you relax into it. If you're too tense then it can hurt a lot and you're more likely to crash. I usually find that Pen Y Ghent is a great, fast descent but I was in pieces by that point this year so it felt very bumpy. I hadn't eaten enough so blew big time on the final climb. 

How to reduce shocks to the body? I've been working with my coach Jo McRae on core conditioning and weights this year, which has been a big help for taking the bumps and being able to recover afterwards. Other than that, I try not to get too tense on the bike.  

I rode a Giant TCX Advanced Pro this year and I love it! It was fitted with Land Cruiser tyres because they're like tractor tyres, so low risk of punctures. 

I don't make any significant changes to my bike for the race. Disc brakes help but I did a better time in 2013 on cantilever brakes! Some people put tubing on their bike for when shouldering [carrying the bike] but I don't think there's any need. I just don't use a bottle cage so that it can sit correctly. 

The time I did it in this year wasn't my best and was well down on what I was hoping for. It started well and I was happy after the first two peaks until I realised I was running on empty. I knew that riders like Verity Appleyard were strong, and in a panic to try to save time I didn't eat as planned at the top of each climb. I totally blew apart on Pen Y Ghent and everything from there on was a bit of a blur! I am still really happy to have got the win though, and there was a great atmosphere in the pub at the end. Mark Richmond, who has taken on the mantle of managing the Three Peaks from John Rawnsley is doing a great job. 

My tactic was to go as fast as I could uphill and keep going faster downhill, then time trial the road sections. 

Some people switch to racing on a road bike on the tarmac sections and then get back on their cross bike on the off-road trails but I think it's a bit of a faff to be honest. It takes a lot of time to plan where helpers will be and I don't like the idea of something going wrong. There are limits on the tyre width that you can use so there's minimal advantage in switching bikes. So I just try to keep it simple! 

You've probably guessed that the toughest part for me was Pen Y Ghent! I just had to dig in really hard even though I was seeing stars! I got through by drinking Coca Cola and Lucozade offered by some friendly supporters and racers, just so that I could get some much-needed sugar. 

Starting up at the front makes a really big difference as you don't get stuck in the bottlenecks. If I do get stuck, my general tactic is to get my elbows out and shout as loud as I can. I'm not a very nice person when I'm in race mode! 

I didn't crash or have any mechanicals this year. My boyfriend Mark and my Dad were my support crew and everything was seamless as ever!

My most memorable moment from any edition of the Three Peaks was in 2013 when I won, and seeing my Dad at the car park in the end. I think that achievement paled in comparison to anything else I've done in his eyes. Sorry is that a bit soppy?

I have had an extended break since doing the Three Peaks because I'm doing an assessment for work. I need to get my head back into it now and start training for the National Trophies, so will probably target the latter part of the season. I'll see how things go. 
Photo by John Mullineaux

I'd love to go further up on the podium at the National Championships. [Delia came third behind Nikki Harris and Helen Wyman at the 2016 Championships.] However, it's such a competitive field these days!

I'll race in Belgium though, with my ViCiOUS VELO team mates this winter. There's a block of races around Christmas and New Year that are great fun. I'm nowhere compared to the pros but racing at that level really brings me on. 

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Sunday, 23 October 2016

One day one photo - 10: Parkrun rules!

Cycling is a big activity in my life, but I have also been a runner since the age of 10 (whereas I started serious cycling when I was 28). Running is something that I don't just do competitively, but something I do to clear my mind and also to keep my weight down. One thing I enjoy doing is the Parkrun, which I have been doing since 2011. I find Parkruns one of the best ways to keep fit and get involved socially, if you are looking to meet new people.

I am always in awe and feel lucky that we have this facility in towns around the UK and beyond where you can do a timed 5-km (3-mile) run or walk in a park for free every Saturday morning with lots of other people, and have marshals giving you much needed encouragement.

If you go to the same park every week you can end up getting to know people through marshalling or running. It can also be a springboard for getting into other social or sporting activities too.

My local Parkrun is in Crystal Palace Park, but I am a bit of a tourist so end up going to runs in different parks given that there is a Parkrun in the various nearby parks around London.

Yesterday I went to Brockwell Park in Herne Hill. I have also run in Dulwich Park, Lloyd Park in Croydon, Roundshaw Downs near Wallington. When I was in Macclesfield I ran at the ones in Congleton and Lyme Park.

The great thing about Parkrun is that they are all quite different, so you can test yourself in different ways. Crystal Palace Park and Brockwell Park are great for running up hills; Hull (which I do when visiting family), Congleton, and Dulwich are flat; Lloyd Park and Roundshaw Downs, plus one I did in Marple, Cheshire, are completely off-road and become cross-country running courses during the winter months given how muddy the get! 

The toughest course I've done is in Lyme Park, in the North-west, which I would describe as a somewhat challenging course, though some have called it a fell run! The venue is also really beautiful so attracts lots of folks for that reason alone. But you definitely need your climbing legs because from the gun you have a steep climb up through the woods, causing half the field to walk this 500m-section. Once it levels off  you can appreciate beautiful views as you run past livestock in the fields and then up to a landmark known as The Cage. You do need to pay attention on the descent as it is steep and the ground is completely uneven, so you don't get that much respite. Finally the run to the finish line is a 1-km steady climb that seems to go on forever. You definitely earn your Eccles cakes!

But regardless of how tough the races are I always come away feeling refreshed, glad to have mixed with other people, and ready to enjoy the rest of my weekend. I have done 46 races now, so look forward to getting my "50 races" milestone free T-shirt in the next few weeks.

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Tuesday, 18 October 2016

London's Cycle Superhighways - Commuting friend or foe?

London is fast becoming a cycling city. Gone are the days when cycling through the city was the preserve of daredevil commuters and aggressive couriers! Now, we have “normal” people commuting by bicycle. By that I mean the everyday man or woman in the street dressed in civvies, not the slightest snip of Lycra in sight, on a hybrid bike or one of the Transport for London (TfL) bike share cycles.

It is great to now have proper traffic-free cycle lanes where you are separated from the traffic. I love being able to ride from the City to Victoria, via Embankment and Westminster on a traffic-free path, also known as the East-West Cycle Superhighway.

And so do tens of thousands of other people! Shortly after this Superhighway (and the first section of the North - South Cycle Superhighway) were officially opened at the end of April this year TfL counted an average number of 1200 cyclists per hour using the East - West cycle route between Tower Hill and Westminster Bridge. As more people have heard about the Cycle Superhighway, and particularly as the weather has been very pleasant it seems like every cyclist in London is taking to the streets! So that 1200 figure is probably significantly higher!

When riding to work I feel like I am part of an unofficial Ride London event, or a Critical Mass ride. In fact sometimes there are so many riders that at places like Blackfriars Bridge or Westminster Bridge you have to queue to get through a couple of phases of traffic lights. You are basically in a cyclists' traffic jam!

So yes, cyclists on London's roads are now a feature, almost as ubiquitous as black cabs. Unfortunately cyclists may not always have the same world-renown reputation. People's opinions on cyclists are somewhat chequered - rather like the Uber cars!

The perennial criticism of cyclists jumping the red lights and not respecting the Highway Code remains. From what I see the majority of cyclists do respect the traffic lights, and the proportion of bike riders who break the rules is no greater than the number of motorists who do so.

However, the thing that is of concern is bike riding discipline among groups of riders. Last week a couple of cyclists were involved in a head-on collision along the East-West Cycle Superhighway near Blackfriars Bridge. The video has been shared widely, and it is clear when you watch it who is to blame. Luckily, no one was seriously hurt - not even the guy who ended up rolling off the segregated cycle lane and onto the main road, which thankfully had no traffic passing at that time.

I must admit that this has been an accident waiting to happen. When riding the North-South Cycle Superhighway up through Blackfriars and Farringdon the two-way cycle lane means that sometimes you get some idiot trying to overtake slower riders and then veers into the path of oncoming riders. Sometimes people don't hold their riding line and suddenly swerve left or right and almost knock into riders next to them. I have also seen riders crash into the kerb when going round a corner! Thankfully I have not crashed or been involved in a collision with other cyclists, though I have had to take evasive action when I had a couple of near misses!

It is great having these lanes, but is it time for riders to learn a bit about bike handling and riding in groups? Or maybe it is just part of the process when folks get excited about having their own cycle lane, and in time things will settle down. Let's wait and see, and hope there are no serious incidents that will prove the naysayers right.

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Sunday, 9 October 2016

5 Favourites - Seen at the Cycle Show

I popped up to the Cycle Show at the NEC in Birmingham a couple of weeks ago. It's always good to see what the latest novelties are as well as catching up with cycling trade and media bods. As ever, this event comes up at a time that is sandwiched between other important things I need to get done, so my trip ends up being a real whistle-stop tour that leaves me out of breath and with a head so crammed full of things that I can't really piece together what I actually did and who I saw!

Anyway, here are a few things that managed to stick in my mind - in no particular order:

1. I really like the Primal jerseys with their eye-catching designs and zany colours. They always manage to get the balance right between pushing the boundaries in colour and design while still keeping everything tasteful.

Hotness Helix jersey
I also feel confident that the flashy styles of the Primal tops make me less likely to become victim of a SMIDSY (Sorry mate I didn't see you) incident with a motorist while out on the road!

At the Cycle Show Primal had on display a number of their upcoming designs for next year. I particularly liked this one. I must admit I can't remember the name of the design, but hopefully Beth the marketing manager will remind me! [Edit: it's the Hotness Helix jersey!]

I look forward to it brightening up my wardrobe or at least a spinning studio when it comes out in January. (I guess at that time of the year it'll be a bit cold to show it off outdoors, short-sleeves and all!)

2. The Condor Cycles Fratello steel all-round touring/winter training is the signature bike from the this institution on Grays Inn Road, though I have not got round to riding one yet. I like the vintage design on these Italian-manufactured bikes.

But shock horror, vintage has been splashed with the modern phenomenon of disc brakes and some designs also have internally routed cables - damn (or Porca Miseria might they say in Italy)!

Okay, I take it back - I like harking back to nostalgia provided the components aren't too historic. I've seen those pictures of folks riding the Eroica cyclosportive in Italy, having to drag their 30-year old bikes over those unmade "strade bianche" roads, and the misery of dealing with brakes that wear away in no time when challenged.

So hey, a bit of disc doesn't do any harm particularly if it makes your bike ride comfortable. In any case, the brakes are not the most prominent aspect of the bike. A jolly good job has been made on the paintwork and the colour scheme hits the exact part of my brain that gives me a feelgood factor. So yes, I can live with a bit of modernity on a vintage design bike!

3. I have ridden the Tweed Run a couple of times and whenever I do so, I always come away thinking "I should wear this tweed gear more often when I commute around London." It's so elegant and reminds me of being in the era of "Call the midwife" or "EM Forster". I guess when riding I would turn a blind eye to the traffic jams, cycle couriers and tourists!

I envisage myself riding the Fratello (notwithstanding the disc brakes) wearing corduroy trousers tucked into my socks with a tweed jacket and a Brooks helmet. This formal style helmet is something that I could wear with a variety of outfits - trousers or skirts. In fact I think the readers of The Lady magazine may well approve of this type of attire, though I guess they would just have to not pick up this helmet by mistake when going out for their afternoon horseriding hack after doing lunch!

4. I have never ridden an ebike of any shape or form before, but I couldn't resist the opportunity to try this out this Cube eMountain bike. The rep described the bikes as being for those who are of a certain age or who have dodgy knees/backs but want to keep up with their mates effortlessly while out on the trails. Well yes, I have been taking it easy since I strained my back a couple of weeks ago, and I am no spring chicken. So I ticked all the boxes!

Riding the bike felt quite weird because you didn't have to pedal much before the bike accelerated really quickly. In fact the biggest trick of the bike is to keep the thing under control when it suddenly gains speed that you weren't expecting - particularly on berms or zig zags! I had a few near misses, and really thought I was going to be that person who would stack it on the test track in front of all the visiting spectators! Luckily I held it together.

The eMountain bike is not bad. I just wonder how you cope if the battery runs out, or if you have to lift the thing over obstacles while out on the trails. Then something that was supposed to help your dodgy back could end up breaking your back!

They are a good idea in principle, and a great novelty. But I would probably be happiest riding them on hilly trails that aren't too technical such as those on the South Downs Way.

If riding with mates I would still be happier just riding something conventional that will have fewer moving parts to worry about going wrong. It's one thing to have a puncture and your mates stand politely waiting for you while you sort it out. Some may even step in and help you if you're a bit slow or if your pump is not very efficient, and after all that you would have only lost about 10 minutes of riding time. But would anyone have a spare engine or battery pack on them if you had a mechanical with your ebike in the wilds of the Lake District? And how long would it take to sort that out? Well it would surely mean an abandoned ride, possibly with an emergency call-out to a significant other to get you home. I don't think you'd be too popular!

Maybe I'm over-exaggerating, but that's the overcautious worst case scenario planner in me! It's the same reason why I don't like road bikes with electronic gears. Well, I'm sure these bikes have their place, and who knows? In the future the doubters may well be proved wrong.

5. Seems a bit strange to go all the way to a cycle show to buy biscuits! But yes, I admit it. I fell for the "three things for £3" deal being offered by Nairn's oatcakes. I always like a bit of oatcake in my daily diet. I usually have it with soup or salad at lunch time.

It seems that the good people from Edinburgh have now decided to get into the sports market by extolling the virtues of their biscuits as a source of energy during endurance sport. Certainly muesli/porridge is great as a slow release energy source throughout the day. I do also like the fact that Nairns do individually wrapped savoury snacks that are easy to eat while on the move.

I particularly liked their fruit and seed oatcakes as they taste slightly sweeter than the others. They may not be a replacement for the energy bars and drinks that we swear by during a long-distance cycle ride or a road race. But they fill the gap well when you just want some real food to eat while you are out, and they provide health benefits at the same time.

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