The over-enthusiastic cyclist

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

Category Archives: General

Over-coummuting

Who could argue with the benefits of commuting by bike? It’s a no-brainer when you consider the health and environmental benefits, the cost saving and the fact that it’s usually quicker than driving anyway. Obviously, there’s the problem of our crap UK roads with inadequate cycle infrastructure, and the small but dangerous minority of drivers who shouldn’t really be allowed behind the wheel, but hey, it’s better than sitting in a traffic jam!

I pack in a lot of commuting miles over the winter, riding up to 15 miles each way to do cycle training and other work whenever possible. Admittedly, much of my commuting is urban and fighting for road position to stay safe isn’t quite as relaxing as my local leisure rides, but it’s still good exercise.

I like to think that the addition of panniers makes for an even tougher workout. I recently weighed my panniers with all my cycle training gear in and the scales told me that I’d been lugging an additional 7.5kg around with me. I’ve been hoping that I’ll feel the benefit when summer comes and I get on the light bike.

So you’d think that over 100 miles of loaded commuting every week would put me in peak condition and ready for the spring. So how come I ended up spending weekends on the couch instead of enjoying super fit country leisure rides? Well…

There’s a trap that pro cyclists and other athletes sometimes fall into called ‘over-training’. Basically, the body isn’t recovering properly and it just keeps getting more and more fatigued. Symptom’s include irritability, low mood, poor sleep and a lack of motivation to exercise that’s ironically coupled with an anxiety that you should be exercising more. It’s not a great situation to be in.

Apparently, another symptom of over-training is a lack of appetite. Annoyingly, I seem to have experienced the complete opposite, so therefore I must have had a slightly different strain of over-training. I’ve come to the conclusion that I’d been suffering from ‘over-commuting’ which i reckon is the non-professional version. Fortunately, having a week with no work and plenty of rest seems to have got me back on track.

So now, against all my ethics and personal preferences, I’ve been using a car to get to work some days, or sometimes I’ll ride to a job and then get the train home. And even though I’d rather be on the bike all the time, I’m feeling better for the reduced workload and fatigue. I’m back to loving my weekend Peak District excursions again and I’m feeling twice as fit for the rest. All that commuting did make me fit and strong, my body just needed the chance to catch up and adapt.

So the moral of the story? If you’re tired, you probably need to rest. Pretty obvious really.

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Making the most of the commute with a scenic detour

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Winter…

I can’t be the only cyclist who audibly groaned (and swore) at the weather forecast for next week. They’re claiming that the UK is about to suffer its coldest February week for five years. It felt like spring was on its way, but just like the taxi driver who claims to be “just round your corner now mate” it’s not happening any time soon.

It’s not that I’m one of those cyclists who hibernates away all winter and then only gets back on the bike in spring. Oh no, I’ve endured my fair share of dodgy weather. Sub zero temperatures, wind, rain, hail, snow, ice – I’ve pedalled my way through them all this winter. It’s become standard practice to dress for a ride with the minimum amount of flesh exposed. How I long for the days when I can leave the house without looking like some kind of cycling terrorist.

I often admit to people that I rather like mountain biking in the winter though. Hot dusty trails are fine (and occasionally even exist here) but there’s nothing like a thick layer of mud to slip and slide around in to keep things interesting. And if you endure one of these rides with a mate, the camaraderie of shared survival at the end makes for some of the most memorable riding you’ll ever do. How many riders sit in a pub and proudly recount the tale of “that day when the sun was lovely and there was no mud or dangerous weather”?

But I’ve had enough now. Crashing out on the commuter bike one icy morning a few weeks ago cost me a day’s work and left me battered and bruised. Repeating the process on the same corner two weeks later just about exhausted my tolerance for winter. Bruises on my bruises. I’m properly bored of this now.

The rational side of me appreciates that the seasons won’t change any earlier just because I get in a mood with them, but come on, is it not time for spring now?

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Do not approach this man.

 

 

The cycling come down

There’s nothing quite like a big ride. Whether it’s a long slog on the mountain bike or a road cycling epic, you just can’t beat the feeling of a full day out on the bike. My mate Jay recently mentioned having less positive feelings in the days after the ride. You could call it a hangover, whilst drug users might call it a come down. Whatever you call it, there is some logic that after having created loads of adrenaline and endorphins, there’s going to be an equal and opposite affect.

And after Saturday’s big day out on the mountain bike, which went on so long that I finished in the dark, I think I’ve still got the come down. I’ve felt lethargic, irritable, I’ve had aches and pains – a real bad case of the cycling come down.

But as anyone with a hangover knows, after three drinks you feel ok again. Well, it seems to be the same with cycling. The first three miles is the ‘hair of the dog’ and then you’re back in the game.

And if that’s a sign of dependence then I’m a hopeless addict, but I’m way too far gone to quit now… When can I get my next fix?

Ten years and counting

I’ve realized that I now have ten years worth of cycling activity stored as GPS data. Every ride recorded and stored for me to revisit. I can ponder the route and time taken, the average speed and even the temperature and heart rate in more recent years.

There’s plenty to reflect on (and not just that I’m a sad obsessive hoarder of data). When I got my first Garmin 205 GPS computer back in 2008, I was a single man in the grip of the exciting new hobby of mountain biking. I’d yet to rediscover the joys of road cycling, but it was just around the corner. Fast forward ten years and I’m a married man with five bikes. My wife’s got two, so it’s just as well that we’ve bought a house with a garage.

I didn’t anticipate any of that ten years ago, but it’s fair to say that bikes are now an even bigger part of my life than they were back then. Ten years ago I was a disgruntled teacher and manager at a college, living for the buzz of the weekend ride to stock up on good vibes to carry me through another week of work. Along the way I’ve ditched the drudgery of the college and now make most of my living from bikes, as a cycle tour leader, guide, instructor and bike mechanic – who’d have thought it?

But of course the great thing about having all this data is to be able to chart the journey. I can marvel at how much further I now ride each year compared to 2008. Thanks to the joys of Strava I can also see whether I’m getting any faster up the hills. I sometimes ride a route from years ago ‘full-gas’ to prove that age isn’t slowing me down. How many years this pathetic practice will work for I have no idea, as eventually I’ll have to acknowledge the effects of aging and ‘just enjoy the ride’. Will that be a bad thing? Probably not.

Who knows what kind of riding I’ll be doing in 2028. Hopefully I’ll still be riding bikes, but will I have succumbed to an eBike? I’m hoping not, but it’s nice to know the option’s there should health circumstances dictate. Maybe we’ll all be riding hover bikes by then? Of course, all that’s assuming that the motivation’s still there, but what if I lost interest in riding bikes? Years of teaching music eventually put me off ever working in the music industry again, so what if all this bike related work will ultimately have a similar effect? At this point I just can’t see it happening as riding a bike has proved to be the answer to all life’s problems, if at least temporarily. But who knows, maybe I’ll have retrained as an accountant and taken up badminton by 2028. We’ll just have to wait and see.

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New trousers

You might think that having not posted on here for eight months would mean that I’ve not been up to anything interesting. Yet in a year with more ups and downs than a good bike ride, nothing could be further from the truth. So what am I doing breaking my silence on here by banging on about a pair of pants? Well, they’re good trousers and they’ve resolved an awkward cycling problem for me. So there.

If you need some trousers that you can look smart and professional in, whilst still clocking up some serious commuter miles, you may have found yourself on the hunt for ‘The ultimate commuter trousers’. I’ve been riding in and out of Manchester for the last three winters in some Endura Humvee trousers, which whilst looking great, just aren’t actually comfy to ride in. Which is a bit rubbish considering that they’re made by a cycling brand for, er, cycling in. I know some people who get on fine with them but they just weren’t working for me, down below, if you know what I mean…

Far comfier to ride in are my Rab walking trousers. The material’s light and stretchy with good waterproofing. But being designed for walking and not cycling, the fit round the lower leg is way too flappy. The hunt continued.

I eventually stumbled across a Scottish brand called Keela. They make several items of cycle clothing, including the Roadrunner trousers that they designed for cycling emergency services staff. These are the trousers that have changed my life, or at least the hours I spend commuting. Smart, comfortable and without a hint of testicular constriction, with these pants on I can enjoy the commute again. And I got them cheaper than both the Endura cycling trousers and the Rab walking trousers. Result.

So now the Rab’s have gone back to being walking trousers, whilst the Endura’s have found a new role as the workshop pants. Order is once again restored in the wardrobe of the over-enthusiastic cyclist. As you were.

Over enthusiastic walking

People who know me or follow me on Strava may have noticed some pretty big walks going on recently. Whilst I’ve always enjoyed a good hike round the hills, there’s been a specific motive behind all this recent leg work. As well as developing my own cycling company Peak Pedalling and freelancing for other cycling companies, I’ve recently been working towards my Mountain Leader Award. This is the industry standard qualification that covers you to take individuals and groups out in mountainous terrain in the UK – whilst keeping them safe and hopefully giving them an enjoyable day out!

And so here I am reflecting on what has been the most intense course I’ve ever been on: six days of training by Jules Barrett and his colleagues at Adventure Unlimited. I’ve always been pretty handy with an OS map, but learning the skills to locate any specific point in a wild and often featureless environment to the nearest few meters has taken the subject to a whole new level. Add in driving rain, low visibility and a 10 kilo rucksack and things get trickier still. And that’s even before we ascended the 902 meter peak of Bow Fell at night, standing on the rocky summit in total darkness (and more rain) before correctly finding the safe route down. Wild camping, multiple river crossing techniques, emergency procedures – it’s been a busy week but with a fantastic group of people.

It wasn’t all about the practical skills though, because a mountain leader needs an exhaustive supply of information about the local environment to inform, educate and entertain clients with. In addition to being somewhat of an outdoor ninja, Jules revealed himself to be a comprehensive authority on many subjects including geology, meteorology and different species of moss. All part of the mountain leader job!

So it seems that I’ve got a huge amount of practicing to do before my 5 day assessment in spring 2018. New subjects such as emergency rope use need to become second nature and my navigation needs to be so slick that I can chat merrily to a group about volcanic rock formations without them even realising that I’m counting my paces in order to cover a specific distance within +/- 10%. Yep, there’s a lot going on.

The other major learning point for me was that mid-range cycling jackets and budget waterproof trousers are not up to the job of trekking round the hills in the rain for days on end…

Thanks to Charlie for being the only one of us organised enough to take photos!

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Safe river crossing (though rather cold)

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Wild camping. No shower block or bar….

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Emergency stretcher using walking poles and a jacket

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Ropey emergency work

Some days it just ain’t happening

Every man suffers from a lack of performance at some point in his life. Maybe it’s brought on by tiredness or stress, or maybe it’s to do with the head? And so it was for me yesterday when I set out on a ride, only to find that my legs could barely turn the pedals (what else did you think I was on about?)

I just wasn’t expecting it though: I’d cleared the day of commitments, spent ages planning the ultimate route, even the weather gods had granted me a dry sunny day. I’d eaten well the night before, got a decent night’s sleep and had the bike and kit prepped and ready to roll. So why was I struggling to even get to the end of my road?

You get to know your body well after years of cycling, with every local road and trail becoming a benchmark to gauge your fitness and well-being. I didn’t need Strava or a heart rate monitor to tell me that something wasn’t right today though. My legs felt heavy and every bone in my body just ached. It’s happened before over the years and I’ve found that there are three options available at this point:

  1. Turn around and go home in a sulk
  2. Finish the planned route at any cost
  3. Cut it short and try not to get too annoyed

The first option is the emotional response and your body will thank you for turning round, but the feeling of wasting the day whilst sulking on the couch is a real morale crusher. I’ve tried the second option before but it took ages to recover from and probably kept me off the bike for longer afterwards. It’s also best not to be hurtling down hills if you’re not on top form…

I opted for the third choice this time. My planned 40 mile off-road epic quickly got cut down to just over 10 miles of the lamest mountain biking I’ve ever done. I struggled up the hills, pushing up an easy local trail for the first time ever. But the weather and fresh air were great and I’d still got some kind of riding in, certainly enough to justify getting changed and heading out of the door in the first place. If anything, it made me realize just how fit I am when I am on form.

Thinking back, there were tell tale signs before I’d even set off. I didn’t exactly jump out of bed in the morning. I then had that extra cup of tea whilst slumped back on the couch, dressed and ready to go but stalling the start. It seems that my body and subconscious mind knew what was going on way before I did.

I don’t know the science and I’m certainly no doctor, but I’m probably just knackered. Simple as that. It’s been a busy year, busier than most considering I got married four weeks ago so I probably just need to take it easy for a few days. Them hills aren’t going anywhere I suppose…

Moving targets

With my off-season (or ‘gluttony period’) coming to an end, it’s time to think about what I want to achieve on the bike next year. I know I’m not a racing cyclist, but I’ve always set myself targets as a way to ensure that I drag myself off the couch and put the miles in. The amount of times over the last few years that I could easily have got home from work on a cold winters evening and festered in front of the TV, but have instead headed out to the hills to prepare for another attempt at getting under seven hours at the Fred Whitton (or whatever painful target I’d set myself…)

There’s been a lot of these targets over the years: the Etape du Tour, Mary Towneley Loop, Polkadot Challenge – they’ve all given me a motive to train hard and eat (reasonably) properly. Success has been sparse and relative, but the overall achievement has been a level of fitness that’s way above most blokes in their forties. So what’s the goal for 2015 then? Well, here’s where my plans have had to change…

A recent career change has seen me give up the day job of teaching teenagers in order to take on more cycling related work. This is definitely a good thing. However, the touring work I’ve gratefully committed to with the marvellous Peak Tours all clashes with my regular sportives and any other decent event up this end of the country. So I’ve been redefining what a ‘challenge’ could be. I’ve realised that it doesn’t necessarily have to be an organised event, but it still needs to be something that I can commit to achieving (and will get my arse off the couch).

So here’s my ideas so far:

  1. Segment based challenges. I’ve been chipping away at my times on some local Peak District road climbs like the Cat and Fiddle. I could set myself goal times for some of my favourites and try to achieve them by the end of the year. It would work for mountain bike sections as well and though it’s not massively exciting, I’d be measurably fitter at the end of it.
  2. Self devised loop challenges. Even if I’m not entering an event like the Fred Whitton, I would have no problem devising a route of similar severity right from my doorstep. I could map out a few set loops of different distances and (hopefully) chart my progression.
  3. Trans Pennine Trail in a day. This has been brewing for two years but has always been scuppered by various circumstances each time the optimum spot on the calendar comes around. I still reckon I could get somewhere around 18 hours over the 211 miles on the cross bike. It’s not a popular challenge at home though…
  4. Ride a sportive when it suits me. What’s to stop me heading up to the Lakes on a nice day when I’m not working and trying to get that elusive 7 hour time at the Fred? I know I wouldn’t get the same sense of occasion and crowd support of the event, but at least I could do it whenever it suited me and the weather.

So there’s a few ideas to keep me going. There’s also the bucket list of hike-a-bike mountain bike routes in the Lakes that I keep trying to get round to, such as the Black Sail Pass etc. And then there’s my annual claim (and failure) to do regular core exercises and stretching that would help me achieve such goals. If there was a competition for reading and ignoring good advice then I’d be on the podium every year.

Plenty to think about and I’m excited about 2015 whatever I decide to do, but the first target is to cut down on the food and drink…

Christmas indulgences

Christmas can be a mixed blessing for us over-enthusiastic cyclists. On the one hand, it’s usually time off work which means time to get plenty of riding in, but there’s also a world of temptation and social obligation to distract you. Even before I got as far as the big day I’d already over indulged at a variety of work do’s, leaving do’s, weddings, but generally just using any excuse to continue eating and drinking like a medieval king. If I carry on like this I’ll end up with the figure and life expectancy of a medieval king, but I’ll deal with that in the new year.

But why shouldn’t I let myself go a little? It’s standard practice for the professional’s to have an ‘off-season’ in order to kick back and relax. Whether you’re a grand tour contender or just a keen amateur like me we all need to let our bodies and minds recharge before we start doing it all over again for yet another year. With the ongoing globalisation of the sport, the off-season now only lasts a few weeks for most professionals and by December they’ve already had their break and are attending the team’s first training camp. When Bradley Wiggins won the Tour de France in 2012, his training began on November 1st 2011. Compare that to the late 1990’s when Jan Ulrich would still be gorging himself on gateaux well into early spring and then arrive at the first races grossly overweight and you can see how much the sport has changed. I suppose it’s encouraging to see that proper training is now the priority rather than the pharmaceutical preperations that Jan, Lance and co were using back then…

Looking back, maybe I should have taken a break long before Christmas. With the amount of riding I’ve done this year and everything else that’s been going on in my life, I now realise that I’ve been fatigued for months. I’ve still been getting out and enjoying riding a bike (when is this ever not the case?) but at times it’s been a challenge to actually get myself out of the door. Even though recent rides have been more of a leisurely slog than an assault on the Strava leader boards, I dread to think what would have happened to my fitness without these rides.

So I’ve given myself to January 1st to eat and drink whatever I want whilst still getting out and enjoying some winter riding, then it’s down to business again. I’m not too sure what I’m going to be training for yet, but I know that I need to be fit.
Right then, time for more wine and chocolate?

The Jan Ulrich winter training plan

Jan Ulrich and his winter training plan

Back to winter again

Like most outdoor enthusiasts, cyclists tend to be acutely aware of the changing seasons. It doesn’t seem long ago that I was raving about the joys of spring and riding my ‘best bike’ whilst exposing my pale arms and legs to the sun. That’s all drastically changed in the last few weeks. After a transitional period wearing arm and leg warmers, the lycra has now been totally replaced by thermal bib longs and jackets of increasing thickness. Short finger gloves have been replaced for long, with over-shoes, buffs and under-helmet hats all brought back into play after a summer at the bottom of drawers.

And then there’s the lights. I often put a set of little LED blinkers on in case I’m late back on a summer evening, but now it’s back to charging up the big light before evening rides. In an effort to embrace the winter months, I’ve given the Planet X Uncle John some attention – it needed some! After a summer of touring with clients and then some big off-road adventures it deserved new cables, bar tape and 25mm winter tyres at the very least. The last thing you want is to be stopping on top of a dark hill trying to fix your bike in the shivering cold.

Though I’ve been night-riding for a few years now, it still takes some adjusting to. After hammering around on a lightweight carbon racer, hauling the Uncle John up hills with its heavier tyres, full mudguards and a weighty battery felt like hard work. But these rides aren’t intended to trouble the Strava leader boards, they just need to keep me lean and keen till the spring rolls around again. The old-school roadie logic is to just get in a large volume of steady miles over the winter, but I’ll be throwing in some high intensity muddy fun on the mountain bike whenever I get chance.

Despite the heavier bike, freezing temperatures and extra wardrobe faffing about, there’s something quite magical about a night ride once you’re out there. The isolation and views can be beautiful once you get over the spookiness of it, and you quite literally see your local roads in a different light. You’ll see some different wildlife as well. I’ve raced badgers down country lanes (surprisingly fast) and had owls flying right in front of my face (quite frightening).

It was mid-March when I was writing about the joys of spring and I’ve enjoyed seven months of summer cycling wear since then. Whilst not a truly scientific test, it would seem that the winter cycling period is still shorter than summer. I’m going to hang on to that positive thought, as once the novelty wears off it’s going to feel like a long slog through the winter darkness.

It's a bit dark on the hills at night...

It’s a bit dark on the hills at night…