The over-enthusiastic cyclist

If it involves pedalling then I'm probably into it…

A toast to Yorkshire!

It’s not every year that the Tour de France begins in your own country. When it last did in 2007 I was only just rekindling my love of professional cycling, though I’d have had no appetite to visit our capital anyway. But as a proud northerner, the short journey over to Yorkshire was inevitable and highly anticipated. And what a weekend it was.

Yes we all know that Cav crashed out in tragic style at the end of stage one, but viewing those last few kilometres in front of a big outdoor screen in Holmefirth was amazing. The audible gasp at the crash was a moment of collective dismay on a scale I’d not experienced before. (Football fans must go through this every Saturday, which might explain their frustration and outbursts of verbal abuse.) It wasn’t an elitist crowd either; lycra-clad cycling geeks mingled with novices who were probably destined ask how Marcel Kittel wouldn’t win the Tour despite winning the first stage. It really didn’t matter though, it was just brilliant to see that level of interest.

The main event for my party though, was being up on the ‘Cote de Holme Moss’ to see the race pass by on the Sunday. Pedalling up in the morning was rather different from any previous visit and certainly not a day for Strava ambitions due to the amount of people heading up on bike and foot. The atmosphere was great though, reminiscent of my years at Glastonbury, but with a lot more bikes. The range of people tackling this category 2 climb was impressive: kids as young as five, pensioners on tandems, a suit wearing man on a Brompton and a surprising amount of mountain bikers.

You could have a hard time justifying watching a bike race to a non-cycling fan. The idea of waiting five hours to watch the fastest cyclists on the planet pass by at high speed doesn’t sound great on paper, but the atmosphere and sense of anticipation creates enough excitement until the riders do eventually arrive. From the first police motorbikes through to the wackiness of the publicity caravan, you’ll be so delirious with excitement that you’ll be cheering and clapping anything on wheels. After that’s all passed, the entertainment comes from latecomers pedalling up the road, who unexpectedly find themselves in a mock Tour de France scenario complete with cheering crowds and crazed fans running alongside them. If the embarrassment gets too much and they decide to dismount then the good natured boo’s from the crowd are equally embarrassing. The young children pedalling up got a genuine and deafening roar from the crowd that they’ll never forget.

Eventually the helicopters arrived and we knew that that riders were approaching. The drama of seeing the first three riders making massive efforts up the steep road whilst all anxiously looking behind them was impressive, but nothing compared to the peloton that was right behind them. I thought I was well out of the way, then in a moment they were upon us and despite a hurried step back they flew past only inches from me. Strangely, they all seemed bigger than expected, though I’m not sure why. I recognised a few riders such as Geraint Thomas and the yellow jersey of Marcel Kittel, who was already slipping off the back but they were so fast it was a blur of lycra and wheels. I honestly didn’t expect it to be as exciting as it was, but the atmosphere, anticipation and crowds made for a kind of temporary sensory overload, leaving a surge of adrenaline in the crowd.

Once back down at the big screen, even a downpour whilst watching the last 12k couldn’t dislodge the field of fans. Unlike a football match, there ware no overall favourites, more that we were just enjoying an exciting race. Niballi got a huge cheer as he crossed the line first, but so would any of them. Just like the rain, it really didn’t  matter.

Riding back on the Monday through some other towns that had hosted the race reinforced the scale of the weekend. The Northern weather will soon wash the names from the roads and all the yellow painted bikes will eventually find their way to the rubbish dump, but the memories will live on. Will the British public treat cyclists any differently on the roads? Will more people ride their bikes or follow the sport? I don’t know. I’m not even sure that the new fans will follow the race’s progress to Paris but chapeau to Yorkshire, you did the race proud.

This actually happened in England

This actually happened in England

Braving the elements

With a day of rain forecast, a less enthusiastic cyclist might have resigned themselves to a day on the couch. But for me it was an opportunity to get back on the mountain bike, which had become sidelined by all the recent dropped handlebar fun. I don’t mind getting wet on a mountain bike ride, maybe due to the amount of wetness coming up at you from the trail and with the lower speeds it often seems less of an issue.

But getting wet whilst already out riding is one thing, actually starting your ride in the pouring rain is another. I admit that I spent some time sulking at the window, fully dressed to ride but reluctant to actually begin. But once I started, I never looked back.

The thought of mountain biking whilst wearing the lycra of a road cyclist would have offended me in previous years, as surely it’s not the style of the mountain biker? But experience has taught me that the last thing you need when you’re soaking wet is some cold wet baggy shorts flapping around your legs. Better to go with the sleek cross-country racer look and just wear a waterproof over the top half. In this mild wet weather that we grudgingly call ‘the British summer’ if you keep your top half warm and reasonably dry then it doesn’t matter too much about your bottom half.

And so I emerged from the safety of the garage and pedalled off into the rain towards the first trail. The transition from “Argh, I’m getting wet” to ” Sod it, I’m wet now” is a quick one, as the cold and damp spreads through your lycra clad legs and backside. The next milestone moment is sometime within the next hour when you discover how ineffective your ‘waterproof’ boots are, so it’s worth getting a decent distance from home to avoid the temptation wimp out with damp feet. If you make it this far then you’re committed to a big ride: you know that once you get home again it’s going to take at least half an hour to restore your bike and belongings to a state where they can be used again, so there’s no point just going for a quick spin.

There are other angles to consider when heading out for a wet ride like this. Rocky trails are as rideable as ever, just a lot wetter, but anything involving mud or grass is worth avoiding. All you’ll do is get frustrated, clog your gears up and ruin the trail for when/if it does eventually dry out. If you’re embarking on a wet ride with others, be careful with the personnel. Every mountain biker knows that with each additional rider, the amount of time spent stopping and faffing increases exponentially, until you reach a critical mass where any progress at all is impossible. This isn’t the weather for big group rides. Either head out solo or choose a riding partner of well matched pace – you’ll not be wanting to stop and chat.

My local route round Macclesfield Forest and the Goyt valley was ideal and I was so engrossed in the ride that I didn’t really notice the gradual change from the heavy rain I started in to the bright sunshine that I finished in. This might have annoyed some riders, but I didn’t care and I wore my coating of mud with pride. Whilst I’d passed many like minded mountain bikers in the worst of the weather, it was only now the rain had stopped that the road cyclists emerged, which further validated my choice of ride for the day.

With bike and rider hosed down and the washing machine busy on a ‘sports intensive’ wash cycle, a well earned beverage was enjoyed. The only remaining evidence of the adventure was the dull ache of well used muscles and a smug feeling that I hadn’t let the weather beat me into a day inside. People as annoying as me will often remind you that skin is actually waterproof, but it’s true. Hard as it sometimes is to start, you know you’ll feel better for it by the end and if nothing else it will make you appreciate the good weather riding. Get out and ride!

A busy month

After a relatively successful assault on the Fred Whitton two weeks ago, I took on the Manchester 10K run a week later, followed by the Spud Riley Polkadot challenge to complete a trilogy of painful Sundays. These events are usually much more spread out, which would have been appreciated this year as my legs were only just recovering from the Fred as I set off to try and beat my previous best 10K time of 49m 02s.

I’ve been trying to do a run every week and was finally getting to the point where I was actually enjoying doing a few miles at a moderate pace. It turns out that this is quite a bit less demanding than running 10k flat out. As soon as I set off I knew I didn’t have my running legs on and once I’d passed my family supporters clubs at 200m it all started to get a bit painful… It was actually hot weather for once and and I spent the remainder of the event summoning up all my will power to not stop, much like when cycling up Hardknott Pass – just for much longer. After an overly fast start, I watched my pace tumble and eventually finished in 51m 18s.

I wasn’t too unhappy about the result, but it was the start of a very frustrating week. My legs felt stiff on Monday morning but I still managed a recovery ride to keep them moving. By Tuesday morning, my walking was laboured, painful and somewhat comical. Even riding down the road to the train station was agony, with my left leg struggling to get the pedal round and getting out of the saddle physically impossible.
By the end of the week I could just about walk without raising attention from concerned passers by, so was beginning to feel that I could attempt the Polkadot Challenge. I was hoping to put my dalliance into the world of running behind me and get back to my preferred discipline of pedalling up and down hills for a hundred miles.

If the wet weather forecast hadn’t raised suspicions, a bad nights sleep and a lack of butter for my morning toast should have been recognised as a bad omen for the day. I pedalled the seven miles from home to the start line in hope of getting a useful warm up and set off in suspiciously fine weather. Within an hour the rain was battering the roads and riders and the waterproofs were on. More worrying though, were my legs: I was getting up the climbs ok, but it just felt harder than it should have done. I tried to keep with other riders to pace me up , but there were more passing me than I was passing – a bad sign indeed.

Having recently read Sen Kelly’s autobiography, I tried to summon his famous resilience to foul weather, but all I got was the sound of his mumbling irish commentary in my head, describing how I’d “blown big time”. Here’s how I downgraded my ambitions throughout the first half of the event:

  1. Get under 6h 30m
  2. Get under 7 hours
  3. Beat last years time of 7h 10m
  4. Get under 8 hours and just try and enjoy it
  5. Ring my fiance and persuade her to come and pick me up

I progressed from steps 3 to 5 at an alarmingly rate. I’ve been slogging out these eight hour events in the rain for years and I usually rise to the challenge in a manner that Sean Kelly might at least acknowledge, if not actually be proud of. Today, I realised that it wasn’t just my legs that were tired: my head was too. All my previous performances in such events rely on my mind pushing my body way past the point when it would rather stop. As my head and legs got themselves in a vicious circle of defeat, my average speed started dwindling towards mountain bike efforts. Without any proper effort going on, my body gave up the fight against the cold and rain and I knew it was game over.

A long hot shower went a long way to restoring my morale and also gave me time to reflect. I reckon my weekly runs have improved my fitness this year, but pretending to be Mo Farrah doesn’t seem to suit my legs at all. There’s probably a lot to be said for sticking to what you’re good at and I’m sure that if Mo attempted the Fred Whitton then he’d wholeheartedly agree.

I now have even more respect for pro cyclists, especially the stage racers whose powers of recovery are every bit as impressive as their performance on the bike. I shouldn’t be too hard on myself though – that’s their job and the top teams have experts and carers to manage every detail of their riders lives to ensure that they perform well in every race. And that’s a world away from the rest of us, who manage our own training programs whilst still existing in the real world of stressful jobs and family issues.

Anyway, time to get back to the important business of just enjoying riding my bike. At least I’m good at that.

Running: a lot to answer for

Running: a lot to answer for

Fred Whitton time again

After last years efforts to break the 7 hour hour barrier went astray, I had high hopes for 2014. I’d put in more miles and climbing than any other year and I was knocking decent chunks of time off my regular climbs. I felt that with good weather and a little bit of luck, I could finally get under 7 hours and get on with the rest of my life without having to suffer on the Lake District’s hardest roads every May.

But the problem with luck and weather is that they’re both out of your control and whilst I didn’t suffer any bad luck this year, the weather was up to it’s usual tricks: wet, windy and cold. It wasn’t quite as bad as forecast, but with the roads wet for most of the day descending was never going to be as carefree and fast as I’d have liked.

So how did it all turn out? Well I didn’t break the 7 hour mark so I’ll have to be happy with 7h 30m. But with hindsight I think I am actually happy with my time for once. I felt good round the first half of the course, setting a new personal record over Whinlatter Pass and generally getting stuck in. I didn’t seem to have as much cooperation from other groups as I have in the past and so rode the majority of the day on my own, which maybe makes the result fairer and more of an achievement.

The Hardknott/Wrynose Pass combo was as torturous as ever, but it’s also something that really epitomises the nature of the event. After 95 miles/6 hours of hard effort in adverse weather, you’re confronted with a ridiculous road that rises up at gradients of over 30%. If you haven’t put yourself through this ordeal then it’s hard to describe the severity of the situation. You’re battling against gravity to carry on turning the pedals when your body and mind is screaming at you to get off and stop the pain. It’s sometimes only made possible by the support of the crowds who’ve turned out to shout encouragement at the bedraggled riders. The Lake District loves the Fred Whitton Challenge, with Hardknott just one of the favourite spots for supporters. There’s really nothing like it in the UK. For example, the Etape du Dales route is every bit as challenging as the Fred, but local support amounts to nothing more than a few quizzical looks from bemused Yorkshire folk.

The Fred Whitton supporters really are appreciated. You can hear the cowbells and the cheers coming from high above as you grind the pedals round, whilst trying to ignore the pain in your legs, arms and lower back. I suspect that without that encouragement I might have got off this year, I really was hurting that bad. I knew that I couldn’t forgive myself if I gave up though, and with the summit finally crested there was just Wrynose Pass to conquer before the flat-ish run in to the new finish at Grassmere. By this point I knew that even beating my previous best of 7h 15m was unachievable so my target shifted to getting under 7h 30m and my second ever best time, which I finally managed by a matter of seconds.

In an effort to soften the blow of not getting under 7 hours (again) I looked back through the results sheets of previous years. My golden year of 2010 positioned me just outside the top 20% of finishers. This percentage had gotten steadily worse until this year, where I found myself ranked within the top 14%. The new route is now actually 112 miles – which it has always claimed to be, but was previously always a few miles short. Usually there’s a few fine specimens who get  well under 6 hours, but this years best was 6h 02m, which further made me realise that I’d trained hard and ridden well.

So will I be doing it again? Is the quest for sub the 7 hour ride still on?
At various points of the ride I decided that I’d never do it again and I get the sense that family support may be waning (“Do you have to do it again next year?”) but I’m reluctant to leave it alone. If nothing else, gaining entry gets me off the couch and into the hills several times a week, even through the depths of winter. And I reckon I’m in better shape because of it. I was getting worried that my  age was starting to impact on my performance but I’m fitter now than I ever have been. There were even two guy’s in their seventies who got round the course this year, so I should be good for a few more years yet.

Maybe one more year?

Hardknott Pass: not getting any easier. (Photo: Steve Flemming)

Hardknott Pass: not getting any easier… (Photo by Steve Flemming)

The Way of the Roses

It recently occurred to me that despite a having healthy obsession for cycling and doing an increasing amount of work as a cycle tour guide, I hadn’t really done that much touring myself. Of course I do a lot of long solo rides and I cycle with the clients, but I’d not actually done much touring for leisure purposes. I’m working as a guide with the brilliant Peak Tours on the ‘Way Of The Roses’ coast-to-coast route next month, so to get familiar with the route (and justify some more time away from home) I planned my own mini-tour.

The Way Of The Roses is another UK national way-marked route from Sustrans, the same organisation that devised other routes such as the original C2C and the Trans Pennine Trail. I already  knew both of those crossings well so was looking forward to seeing how ‘The Roses’ compared. Admittedly, Morecambe to Bridlington doesn’t sound too appealing on paper, though it’s nice to see Sustrans continuing their theme of linking English coastal towns that are past their best, either from a tourism or industrial perspective. No offence meant to any of these towns, as maybe it’s just growing up near Blackpool that’s clouded my judgement. But rejuvenating as the route is to these towns, the main event for us cyclo-tourists is the stunning countryside that lies between. Red Rose fans may be disappointed that the route leaves Lancashire after only 20 miles, but that’s what you get for starting at the thin end of the county, with the remaining 150 miles taking you through some beautiful and diverse Yorkshire landscapes. I was blessed with clear blue spring skies, and if it’s as fine in July then the world is in for a visual treat when Le Tour passes through.

Most people, including our clients, ride it over four days though you could do it in any number of days you wanted. You could do it in a day if you were so minded, but it all depends on how you want to balance having enjoyable holiday with a gruelling physical challenge. With limited time and my usual over-enthusiasm, I did the route in a day and a half. There’s a train station at Morecambe, but the route start is only 4 miles away from the main line station at Lancaster so I got off there and pedalled to the start as a warm up. There’s also a station in Bridlington but I chose to pedal another 50 miles down the coast to Hull so I could catch a direct (and cheaper) train back to Manchester.

Bike and tyre choice is often a dilemma for these routes due to the use of quiet lanes and the occasional off-road cycle path. I took my Planet X Uncle John ‘cross bike, looking very grown up with mudguards and panniers, though it still had 23mm winter road tyres on. The tyres survived ok, but I’ll be getting myself some decent touring tyres for when I do it again next month. I reckon some decent 28 or 30mm Marathons from Schwalbe should provide a little more comfort and security when cruising down a tatty lane.

Cycling with loaded panniers took some getting used to. My brief test last week of riding to the shops and returning with panniers loaded with bottles of wine hadn’t really prepared me for long rides with the extra weight. The bike had a massive inertia; getting out of the saddle felt more like being on a turbo trainer and some hills had me reaching for lower gears than the 34/28 I had. It’ll be good training though and getting back on my Boardman should make me feel as spritely as Alberto Contador, if not actually as fast.

So what’s the route like then? Absolutely superb! I found it less convoluted than the Trans Pennine Trail and even more picturesque than the C2C. Signage was good throughout, even as it takes you through York city centre. The route’s only a few years old so maybe it’s popularity will grow, but at the moment it’s very much the unsung hero of the Sustrans stable. It starts nice and gently through Lancashire, warming you up for the climbs through the Yorkshire Dales. A few of them are quite tough, but they’re not relentless enough to break your spirit and there are plenty of picture postcard villages to rest at if you need to. After the drama of the hills, emerging onto the Vale of York is a striking contrast. Being obsessed with hills, I’m usually dismissive (and sometimes quite rude) about flat areas, but this made me reconsider. It’s not quite Texas, but it definitely has a ‘big sky’ feel to it on a nice day. They like to grow stuff round there, and you’ll be taken through some tiny little lanes that zig-zag their way through the fields, bringing words like ‘idyllic’ to mind. The final phase is through the Yorkshire Wolds which was a new area to me, but Sustrans guide you through the gently rolling hills on yet more almost deserted roads. The choice of roads for the whole route is so good that after I finished the trail and made my own way down the coast to Hull it just felt ‘wrong’ somehow.

The final run into Bridlington was initially underwhelming – I couldn’t even see the sea, but one last turn and you see it glistening through an old medieval archway. Rolling towards the finish on the promenade, I was flooded with memories of childhood holidays at English seaside resorts. Of course if you’re unlucky enough to arrive in less favourable weather conditions your emotions may be adjusted accordingly…

I’m totally sold on the idea of touring now and I’m already thinking up future routes (and excuses) so I can get the panniers on again. I probably wouldn’t tackle 135 miles in a day with the panniers again, but I reckon 60-80 miles would make pleasant days for me, depending on terrain of course. So if you’re looking for a good few days pedalling then give it a go, wherever you’re from. If you want to avoid carrying your own luggage, dispense with the logistics and generally get thoroughly looked after then get in touch with Peak Tours, otherwise, just get your panniers on and get pedalling!

At the start

At the start

The following afternoon...

The following afternoon…

Why do I do it?

That’s the question I asked myself at one point during today’s 104 mile fixed gear training ride. I’d been going well, but found myself going through that phase where everything just hurts and the end seems like a very long way away. I’ve been doing some big training rides recently. Last week I did 70 miles of mountain biking, intentionally biting off more than I could chew and suffering so badly in the last 20 miles that having a quick sleep under a hedge started to seem like a good plan.

So what the hell am I playing at? Is this rational behaviour for a man now in his 40′s? I’m not deluded enough to think that I can turn professional - I should have thought about that at least 25 years ago - but I’m obsessed with trying to push my body to some higher level of fitness. I’m not the only one either, there’s a lot of us at it.

Sometimes when I get home with wobbly legs and too exhausted to properly explain myself, my wonderfully tolerant partner looks at me more with a mixture of pity and bewilderment than any admiration for my athletic achievement. “Are you insane?” Did you have to do that much?”. Both valid questions, but I’m a man on a mission. I like to set myself a goal, even if it’s just beating my best time at an amateur challenge event like the Fred Whitton. It gives me a sense of focus and something to throw my energies at. Admittedly, devoting myself to charitable causes could be more spiritually rewarding or putting the same energy into my career could be more financially rewarding, but it’s the cycling for me.

But there’s more to it than that, it’s everything that goes with it. The euphoria of powering over the final climb and sprinting back home, the contrasting comfort of the hot shower afterwards, there’s a sense of adventure to it all and it keeps this 41 year old feeling alive and well. Some people go out to night clubs and take pills to get their endorphins going - and it’s not for me to say that my way is better - but the cycling works for me. I have been known to get a cycling come-down mid week though…

Graeme Obree recently said that “there is no better vehicle for obsessional behaviour than a bike” and whilst I’m not quite as afflicted as him, there’s nothing better after a ride than some Strava analysis to see check of your performance improvements. Likewise with the bikes themselves, there’s so much to learn about (and spend your money on…) that I just don’t seem to get bored of it. I’m sure there’s worse things in life to be obsessed with.

So next time I ask myself why I do it, I’ve got my answers ready. I can’t ever remember regretting doing a hard session on the bike and the memories of even the grimmest and toughest of rides soon fade away once you get out of the shower. So keep pedalling, it’ll all be worth it!

Spring: finally…

After a brutally wet and windy UK winter, this weekend’s fine weather seemed to mark the start of spring as far as us amateur road cyclists go. The Peak District’s roads get a decent amount of cycle traffic every weekend anyway, but there were subtle differences this time. Overshoes had been left at home, thermal bib-longs were replaced by standard lycra and there was even the sight of bare arms and legs. But the weather was clearly the signal for everyone to bring their ‘best bike’ out of hibernation. It’s been my first year of having a dedicated ‘winter bike’ with full mudguards, but I’m completely sold on the idea. The Planet X Uncle John’s dealt with everything the winter’s thrown at it and has gone above and beyond the call of duty. As well as letting my beloved Boardman Pro Carbon avoid the worst of the weather, it’s got me out pedalling when I previously wouldn’t have.

I hadn’t even ridden the Boardman since the Tenerife trip back in November, but once I’d dusted it off and got going, everything fell right back into place. The slightly racier position, the higher spec shifters with lighter wheels and tyres, it all felt amazing. So did the lighter overall weight and the responsiveness of the carbon frame compared to the Uncle John’s aluminium bulk. The Uncle John’s taken the blows all winter though and there’s been rides so windy that it’s extra weight has allowed me to stay upright when the Boardman would have been blown right off the road. It almost felt unfair that the ‘posh bike’ should emerge victorious to grab all the glory and Strava achievements, but I suppose that’s the point; I’ve been slogging up and down the hills on a heavy bike all winter and still performing well, so once I got back on the light bike it felt like I’d let the handbrake off!

I won’t be forgetting those winter rides though – the time’s I’d be shivering and numb at the bottom of a descent, that time I got caught in snow and fog and feared for my safety – I appreciate now that they were all worthwhile. I’ve paid for my spring and I’ve earned the right to race around in the sunshine on a high spec bike with a big grin on my face. No offence to anyone who’s only now decided that the weather’s good enough to cycle (and it’s not my style to discourage anyone who wants to get out pedalling) but do they truly appreciate what they’ve got?

Character building (or sometimes just “stupid”) is what people might call those winter rides, but despite some tough conditions, I can’t say that I’ve regretted a single ride. I used to just rely on fixed gear riding and mountain biking for winter rides, but thanks to the winter bike I’ve put in more way more distance and climbing than I usually would have by this point in the year. Things are surely looking good for the Fred Whitton in May!

Spring: worth waiting for.

Spring: worth waiting for.

Keeping your costs down

The term ‘financial crisis’ gets over used these days, but anyone putting in a serious amount of riding will be familiar with that sinking feeling you get when you spot yet another impending repair bill. Threadbare tyres? Worn out drivetrain? Seized up bearings? It all makes you realise that the bicycle has more consumable parts than we’d like, and too many of them wearing out at the same time can feel like a mini crisis.

These were my thoughts when a close inspection of my winter road bike revealed that the braking surface on the rear rim was becoming perilously thin, after less than 2000 miles. Having survived an exploding Mavic Open Pro rim before, I know that the need to buy a new rim and rebuild the wheel next month is inevitable. Still, it’s money I wasn’t planning on spending and means that the elusive ‘month without spending any money on bike stuff’ will have to be postponed again.
Some people keep fit by spending a portion of their wages on gym membership, I just keep a bunch of hard-working bikes running.

I’ve learnt some strategies to minimise these costs over the years though. So for the benefit of those just realising the horrors of bicycle repair bills (and to reassure my long-suffering fiancé that I’m not purposely spending all my money on bike parts), here’s what I’ve learnt:

DIY
My first error when I started mountain biking many years ago was not knowing how to carry out even basic repairs. Every time a spoke snapped or my gears didn’t work I took it down to the local shop. Within 2000 miles of riding my £2000 bike, I’d handed over another £2000 to the shop. It’s embarrassing to think about it now, but shortly after that I invested in a tool set and a couple of good books. There’s now very few jobs that require any outside intervention and the cash savings are only matched by my sense of satisfaction. If you were to make a mess of a job yourself then you could always take it to your local shop to put right, though the inept and often dangerously bad work done by some shops I’ve used makes me even more determined to finish the job myself.

Careful shopping
Without wanting to totally condemn your local bike shop to bankruptcy, the other way to keep your costs down is through careful online shopping. Once you get to know your favourite brand/model of chain, tyres cassettes etc you can keep your eyes open for bargains. If you see them on offer, get them before you need them – you’ll be thankful when you do. Some things are worth buying in bulk, so there’s no point buying the smallest size bottle of oil or tyre sealant. I’ll never buy a single inner tube either – buy a pack of ten and halve the price as you know you’re going to need them eventually. You’ll also get to learn which items can be economised on. For example, Superstar disc brake pads are just as good as original Shimano’s but a quarter of the price.

Prevention better than cure
The best way to stop parts wearing out is to keep your bikes clean. If you leave your bike covered in mud and grime between rides then you shouldn’t be too upset when you find your derailleurs and chain seized solid next time you want to ride it. Ideally you’d do the full wash/dry/lube routine after every dirty ride, but even a quick wipe and lube of the chain at the end of a wet ride will ensure that you’ll be able to ride again when you need to. Suspension always deserves some particular attention to avoid a costly repair bill, even if it’s a quick wipe and spray with some lube, though it’s well worth learning to do a lower leg service yourself.
I also employ the sneaky old road cycling trick of replacing the chain as soon as it stretches. As a chain stretches it wears down the teeth of all your sprockets, and if you leave it too long you’ll find that a new chain won’t be compatible and you have to replace the whole lot. Depending on the spec of your bike, that could be an expensive job. I like my lightweight, good quality and expensive cassettes and chain rings so I use a mid price chain and use a chain checking gauge and change it before it costs me money.
If I’d cleaned the brake pads on my winter road bike between every ride then the rims might not be so worn down (though the brief trial with the cantilever brakes of death probably took their toll on them…)

Maybe it’s just this wet British winter taking its toll, but I still seem to be spending money on worn out parts every month despite these strategies. It could be worse though, I could be paying for a gym membership and exercising indoors.

Cyclist on the run

There’s always been mixed opinion about how much cyclists benefit from doing other disciplines, or cross training as it’s become known. When the great Eddy Merckx* was once asked for some training advice, his three suggestions were: “Ride the bike, ride the bike, ride the bike”. Not all cyclists are such purists though. The winter sport of cyclocross, with all it’s muddy running about with a bike on your shoulder, was originally devised as winter training for the pro’s. Nowadays there’s even more riding options being explored in the ‘off season’ and personally I reckon it’s hard to beat mountain biking as an all round workout. I’ve heard that Norwegian cyclists such as Edvald Boasson Hagen get stuck into some cross-country skiing every winter, but ski’s would be a poor investment for where I live.

But what about running? Triathletes obviously do their share of pavement pounding, but what about those of us who who prefer to class ourselves as cyclists? I did a lot of running in 2010 as part of a conscious effort to train for the Etape du Tour and I still suspect that it was my fittest year as a rider. I’ve done the occasional run since, but I’d let the trainers get dusty for two years until deciding to pull them on again yesterday.

There’s a school of thought that claims that running damages the body and I admit that if I’ve not ran for a while, my legs ache for days afterwards whilst they adapt to the different stresses. Yesterdays run got off to a particularly bad start as I hurt my back bending down to pull my running pants on – maybe it’s true?

I was surprised at how fit I felt though. I wasn’t running hard, but my heart rate was nowhere near as high as even a moderate ride, though I still remember hitting my highest ever heart rate as I wobbled across the line of the Manchester 10k run a few years ago. I’ll be entering it again this year so there’s plenty more running ahead of me.

Right now I’m so sore that I had to cut todays ride short and can barely get up and down the stairs. But will all this running actually make me any fitter? Who knows, I suppose I’ll have to wait and see…

* so dominating was Eddy Merckx during his time as a professional cyclist, that it’s pretty much obligatory to precede his name with the word ‘great’ or at least refer to him by his nickname, ‘The Canibal’

Keswick to Windermere, MTB style!

Having prematurely posted the introduction before even starting the ride, here’s the full post now I’m safely back home!

As soon as I spotted the opportunity to be dropped off in Keswick with my bike on a Monday morning, my head went into overdrive to plot a route across some untried bridleways towards a train station that could return me back to civilisation. Despite it being the depths of winter, I had a craving for some old fashioned hike-a-bike adventure. Maps were spread across tables, the internet was scrutinised and train timetables were studied. By car, the route route between these popular Lakeland towns is a mere 20 miles by the A591, however my plan involved the Stake Pass bridleway, which promised to offer a pretty gruelling day out.

I’m a big fan of using trains with the bike. There’s nothing wrong with doing a loop, but there’s something about a point-to-point ride that makes it a proper journey. I’d booked a train from Windermere at 5pm, with the aim of arriving at dusk and having time to grab a chippy tea to eat at the station. To make the 3 hour return journey (and probable sleep from exhaustion) more comfortable, I’d packed lightweight clothes in a dry bag. There’s a time and place for worrying about carrying too much weight, but these kind of rides are not such occasions. On a winter mid-week day, miles from the nearest road or house I might not see another person should I run into difficulties so maps, compass, food, water, tools, extra layers and survival blanket all took the backpack up to 6KG. It’s all good for the legs though. I’d also cunningly put Stake Pass near the start of the ride, so that if it took more time/energy than planned I could tarmac it back to Windermere and skip the rest of the off-road sections I had lined up. It might all sound a bit dramatic, but I didn’t want to be another mocking incident on the local Mountain Rescue web site.

For any readers not familiar with the Lake District, it’s one of England’s most famous and popular national parks. The lakes and hills (or fells as they’re known) make it a favourite playground for cyclists, mountain bikers, hikers, fell runners and rock climbers. Fortunately it’s not all overly congested, partly because most of the tourists prefer not to leave the cafe’s and outdoor clothing shops.

Routes like Stake Pass are ancient traveller and trade routes between towns, and I had a feeling that today would make me realise exactly how soft modern conveniences like the A591 had made us. They’re also not the kind of routes that you’ll find in a mountain bike guide book. Oh no, the only way to assess the feasibility of such rides is to scour the internet for forum discussions and ride reports on blogs like these. So, for the benefit of future riders, here’s how it went: (Strava users can check it out and pinch the route file here)

Keswick to Rosthwaite
I could have taken the obvious road directly there, but I used the first half of the well documented ‘Borrowdale Bash’ route. I’d forgotten how technical some of it was though and getting off to push a couple of sections didn’t give me much confidence for the horrors ahead…

Up Langstrath to the top of Stake Pass:
I’d read that the bridleway on the East side of Langstrath Beck could be boggy, but that there was a rocky farm track that gave way to a footpath on the West side that would be drier. I’m usually a stickler for Rights Of Way, but given that the UK had only just stepped down from flood alerts, another pair of wheels/boots would be the last thing a grassy bridleway needed. Ecological justification.

The farm track was great, a few techy bits but very rideable. I could see the bridleway across the big wide valley and it looked grassy, so I imagine it would have been boggy. All goes well till you go through a gate and wonder where the track went. You’re now on the footpath and the next couple of miles will have you in a sequence of ride/push/carry, but if you’re taking this route on then you’re unlikely to get too upset about this. As you progress up the valley, look for a waterfall high up ahead on the left side of the valley – Stake Pass zig zags up the right hand side of this. It’s a strange moment when you realise this, as a) you expect to be continuing down the valley and b) it looks vertical.

Once you cross the river on the narrow wooden bridge the real climbing begins. The path’s been tastefully manicured within the last few years and is mostly fine gravel and very sharp hairpin bends. With good legs and small gears you can ride quite a lot of it though. Once you get half way up and look down you’ll see that it’s like a mini Alpine road pass, but instead of wide tarmac roads, its a gravel track half a meter wide. Annoyingly, the hairpins are too tight to ride round, which breaks your flow on the way up and would really spoil it as a descent. Eventually you hit the top and you just follow the obvious and mostly rideable track until you catch sight of the Great Langdale valley, your next destination.

Down Stake Pass to the Old Dungeon Ghyll pub:
If you thought the ascent was mad, wait till you see the descent. It plummets down quite abruptly, with rocky step-like zig zags. This was just how I remembered it from a hiking trip last year, though my claims of “Yeah, I reckon I could ride most of this” didn’t come to fruition now I had a bike with me. I know there’s riders out there that are brilliant at this kind of riding, but a healthy fear of injury meant that I pushed the first section but rode increasingly towards the bottom. As you cross the bridge, look back up and you can barely even make out the path against the imposing hills that now surround you. The track through the valley floor is brilliant – not massively technical, but certainly grand, and if you’ve not hurt yourself on Stake Pass you’ll be feeling pretty pleased with yourself, so soak it up. As a guide, it took me just over two hours from Rothsthwaite to the Old Dungeon Ghyll including a few photo stops and a quick sandwhich.

Old Dungeon Ghyll to Windermere:
From here to Windermere are a multitude of bridleway options so I’d planned as many that I hadn’t ridden before. I had to miss out the last one as the light was fading, but the last few miles of tarmac delivered me nicely to the fish and chip shop, just as planned.

I’m not sure it’s the kind of ride I’d want to do every weekend, and I appreciate that it’s hard to convey the appeal of such a ride even to most regular cyclists, but there’s just something special about taking on a remote pass that you’ve never done before. Fortunately there’s loads more in the Lakes for me to start planning!

Nearly at the top, just a few more hair pins...

Nearly at the top, just a few more hair pins…

The welcome sight of Great Langdale

The welcome sight of Great Langdale

A well earned chippy tea

A well earned chippy tea

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