The over-enthusiastic cyclist

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

Tag Archives: cycling

New Pennine Bridleway tour!

Long time readers will know that I’m a big fan of the Pennine Bridleway. A long distance mountain bike route along the lumpy spine of England is one of the best ideas ever and such is my love of the PBW that I’ve launched my own tour of the route! It’s the first tour under the Peak Pedalling banner, which is the professional arm to these ramblings… Even though it’s the first Peak Pedalling tour, I’m drawing on five years of MTB and road tour guiding experience to make sure everyone has a good time.

So here’s your chance to conquer the Pennines! We’ll look after all the logistics so all you have to do is to enjoy pedalling your favourite mountain bike for four days. The first tour’s happening in September 2017, with numbers are limited to a cosy eight. There’s more dates planned for 2018, including a five day option.

More details at the Peak Pedalling website

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Dover to Cape Where?

Everyone’s heard of Lands End to John O Groat’s and it’s on the bucket list for most UK amateur cyclists. Over the last few years of guiding with Peak Tours we’ve had people from all over the world come to ride the length of our fine land and we’re suitably proud to have them here. However, there’s an alternative ‘end to end’ route of Britain and even in the depths of this dark UK winter, I still have fond memories of guiding on it last August.

Despite guiding ten LEJOG tours, I was a rookie on the Dover to Cape Wrath route, though my partners in crime knew the tour well. It’s fair to say that I’d been looking forward to it, not just for the change of scenery, but because of its reputation as being an even better route than LEJOG.

Here’s the basics: starting at Dover in the south east of England, the tour moves North West through Kent and Essex, past Cambridge, through the Peak District and the Yorkshire Dales and up into Scotland. Then the fun really begins as the route makes use of ferries to take you across the Isle of Aaron, back to the mainland, onto the Isle of Skye and then off over the iconic Skye bridge back to the mainland. There’s then still several days of the most staggering scenery you never realized the UK even had, as you follow the West coast through Torridon and Ullapool and up to Durness. The Tour finishes with a passenger ferry over the river to finish the last 15 miles off-road to Cape Wrath, the most North Westerly point of mainland Britain.

At least half the group was made up of previous Peak Tours customers who were back for more. Some of the newbies to Peak Tours had booked the D2CW specifically because of the Scottish section of the route. They had a definite sense of smug anticipation about the second week: an English Munro bagger was pretty excited about the mountains we’d be passing, whilst a Scotsman assured me that West was definitely best. I suspected that it would be spectacular, though to be honest I’d underestimated just how beautiful the West coast of Scotland would be. Yes the riding can be tough, but cresting every hill brought fresh views of giant lochs and mountains. Everything is bigger up there. Imagine the Lake District on steroids and you’re halfway there. White sandy beaches, sightings of seals and dolphins and some incredibly quiet roads. Cycling heaven.

I confess that in my excitement for Scotland, I’d almost discounted the English part of the tour, which was a mistake. The Peak District section was well known to me and the Yorkshire Dales picked some great roads I hadn’t ridden before, but even as a die hard Northerner I had to admit that the route through Kent and Cambridge was picturesque. Honestly, it’s all good!

Unfortunately, due to circumstances beyond our control the last 15 miles to Cape Wrath itself proved inaccessible to us on the crucial day. But even with Dover to Cape Wrath rechristened as ‘Dover to Durness’ it was still an amazing two-week tour. Obviously perfect weather helped, as did a great group of riders and not forgetting Nigel and Johnny with whom it was a genuine pleasure to work with.

I came home and immediately put my name down to lead the two 2017 tours – hopefully see you there!

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Quiet roads and big views

 

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Friendly locals

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Every cyclists favourite van

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Classic Dover to Cape Wrath scenery

Switch it off and on again?

If I’m honest with myself, I’ve been struggling with my motivation recently. That’s not to say that I haven’t enjoyed getting out in the hills when I have got on the bike (that never happens), but it’s taken a lot of mental arse-kicking to get me out of the door. Compared to the average couch dweller I’m still in good shape, but by my own standards I feel worn out. It’s been a big year though, with plenty of bike related work and fun and then my wedding in October, so it’s not surprising that I’m knackered really.

Things got worse last week when I came off the bike riding home down an unlit cycle path covered in leaves. I hurt my thumb badly enough to get it x-rayed and even though there’s nothing broken, subsequent attempts at riding have failed miserably.

Oh well I thought, I’ll head out for a run instead – anything to slow the progress of my expanding waistline. The run felt good but the cold winter air aggravated my chest and brought back the annoying cough* that I’d nearly got rid of. It was during a coughing fit that I then pulled a muscle somewhere in my chest and I now feel like I’ve been literally stabbed in the back.

So here I am, running as badly as a cheap Windows PC and grinding to a frustrating halt. With my hardware and software malfunctioning, there’s only one thing to do: I’m going to hit shut-down and then reboot myself in a couple of weeks. I’ll get out for some hill walking instead (safe mode?) but nothing that’s going to get me out of breath or cause me any more injuries. There’s another purpose to the walking, which I’ll reveal at a later date.

Even the pro cyclists have an off-season when they let themselves go and leave the bike alone for a while. I think it should do me some good as well. Some time off the bike will give my body a rest and then I’ll miss the cycling and be gagging to get back on the bike again. Hopefully I’ll still be able to fit into my cycling kit when I do get back on the bike…

 

* My wife has made particular reference to my cough being annoying.

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…

Fred Whitton Challenge number five

The emotive sound of clanging cowbells and cheering crowds. It was almost loud enough to drown out the screaming coming from my legs as I crested yet another Lakeland pass. Yep, I was riding the Fred Whitton Challenge again. Friends and long term readers will know of my ongoing goal to get round in under seven hours. Would this be the year when everything fell into place?

My training had been substantial. A huge amount of riding and running during the spring had got my weight down to an all time low, with a recent visit to Tenerife to finish off the preparation. The truth was though, I just wasn’t feeling super-motivated leading up to the event. I wasn’t sure whether it was general fatigue or a touch of over-training, or maybe I just wasn’t up for these kinds of events anymore. Touring commitments had prevented me entering any events last year and it was all feeling unfamiliar.

The weather can play a huge role in the Fred. After several years of dangerously cold, wet and windy conditions, everyone had been praying for fine spring weather and it looked like our prayers had been answered. I set off feeling good and my Garmin was telling me that I was saving time on every section of the course. The weather was also presenting the Lake District in all it’s stunning glory, with Ullswater still and misty like a giant water colour painting to my right. No time to stop for photos though.

Some cycling snobs turn their noses up at paying to ride an event on open roads, pointing out that you can turn up and ride the route any time you want. That’s true, but you can’t put a price on the crowds who turn out to cheer everyone on, regardless of whether they know you or not. It really is part of the local calendar now and unlike many modern sportives, all the profits go to charity. Everyone’s a winner.

By 85 miles, I was way in front of my previous best and totally on pace to achieve the sub-seven. And that’s exactly when it all started to unravel. Despite filling both water bottles at the feed stop five miles ago, I’d been playing catch up with my hydration, and now I’d nearly emptied both bottles again. Worse, my right leg started cramping – a worrying sensation as you make your way towards Hard Knott pass. That warm weather I’d been praying for was taking it’s toll on me, and to make matters worse, a hot headwind was blowing hard as the route headed inland from the coast. I’m not great in the heat (thats’ growing up in Northern England for you) and as we approached ‘the big one’ the temperature was up to 25ºc and I really wasn’t feeling great.

Hard Knott pass is never easy, even when you’re fresh. I definitely wasn’t feeling fresh, but having done it ten times before I knew I just had to dig in, ignore the pain and get it done. The first half of the climb was probably the worst 10 minutes I’ve ever spent on a bike. Both quads were now cramping every time I got out of the saddle, but with gradients over 25% there wasn’t really any alternative. I was pleased to survive the first ramps and get to the middle section where the gradients ease off to just plain ‘steep’. I was in trouble though, with diminishing control of my legs and the road about to rear up to 30% again.

I’ve never pushed up Hard Knott pass before (or any other road climb) but on the next hairpin my legs defiantly let me know that they weren’t up for any more of this abuse. With a spasm so violent that I only just managed to unclip and get off the bike, I frantically tried to stretch them out to get them under control at the side of the road. I’d always been a rider who’d battle through the pushers, proudly riding up the steep ramps whilst taking the cheers of the crowd. Now I was on the side of the road, barely even able to push the bike. I felt sick, dizzy, frustrated, but most of all exhausted. I could feel my sub-seven hour ride disappearing as I pushed my bike to the top with wobbly legs. Despite having kept the calories coming in all day, I felt as weak as a kitten and I was in a mess. There was still Wrynose pass to tackle but it was the same miserable scenario. I could definitely kiss goodbye to my goal.

I limited my losses on the rolling section to the finish, crossing the line with a time of 7h 21m. Though initially gutted, as the evening (and beers) went on I knew I’d still done ok and that I am capable of the sub-seven. My time put me 242nd out of 2100 finishers, which is in the top 12%. Better than last time, though if I’d been able to ride the last two passes like I usually do then I would have been nicely under seven hours.

I’d been telling people that whatever my result, I wasn’t entering again and that I needed to leave this Fred Whitton obsession behind. Who am I kidding?

Trying to hold it together on hard Knott

Trying to hold it together on Hard Knott…

The weighting game

For a middle aged man, I’ve spent an suspicious amount of 2015 on the scales. Unlike normal people though, us cyclists aren’t obsessed with losing weight in order to look slimmer, although there’s no denying that lycra and beer bellies aren’t a good match. No, for us cyclists losing weight really is about just weighing less. The theory isn’t exactly rocket science: in order to cycle up hills faster you either need to generate more power or gain an advantage on gravity by weighing less. Ideally, both.

Whilst I’m not actually overweight, I’m certainly not lean enough to be mistaken for a pro cyclist. Looking back, it seems ridiculous that I’ve spent large sums of money on making my bikes lighter, yet never really had the discipline to make myself lighter. It seemed that my love of food and drink was becoming my limiting factor, so when I started 2015 overweight and out of shape I knew it was time to sort it out.

This wasn’t rocket science either: cut out the take-aways, reduce the alcohol intake and generally try and eat better/less food. One notable change though, was the addition of juicing. My fiancé had embarked on a strict juice diet and I (mostly) went along for the ride. With the exception of emergency sandwiches, I embraced a juicing plan by the over-enthusiastic Jason Vale aka ‘The Juice Master’. I’m as cynical about fad diets as the next man, but you can’t argue with the idea of swapping burgers for large quantities of natural fruit and vegetable juice.

By April, 4kg had been lost and my third trip to Tenerife was set to be the test of the science. Thanks to the the ingenious http://gniza.org/segments site, my Garmin Edge 810 was going to let me race against my previous all-out efforts on the slopes of Mount Teidi to see whether the upgraded waist line had been worth the effort. The results were almost unbelievable. The steeper the road got, the more improvement I saw. I slashed over 8 minutes off the final category 1 climb from Vilafor to the top. I was now a mere 15 minutes behind Chris Froome’s right hand man Davide Lopez (and another 500 riders) on the Strava leader board. Riding that strongly felt incredible though, more than a marginal gain that Team Sky would look for and more like the advantage that a blood bag would have given the previous generation of pro riders.

Unfortunately, more typical holiday behaviour then took hold, followed by weeks on the road supporting cyclists and eating as much as them regardless of whether I was riding or driving. So whilst I’m not back to January’s podginess, I’m not quite the lean, mean, hill climbing machine that I was last month. But having experienced how dramatic the improvements are, I’m not going to stray too far up the scales again.

So next time you’re about to splash out on the latest weight saving carbon component for your bike, save yourself some money and take a look at your diet.

The path less ridden

No matter where you live, you can get bored with the local trails and roads – even in the cycling paradise of Macclesfield. In order to get to anywhere fresh and interesting you have to pedal the same old routes that you use every time, with the return leg of your loop covering equally familiar ground.

Obviously one solution would be to relocate every year or two, but even if you hate moving house less than me you’d have to agree that it’s a little drastic. You might have the option of driving somewhere new to ride a loop, but there’s still a lengthy drive home when all you want to do is make use of your shower and kettle, and if you’re riding off-road then you’ve also got the messy business of getting a muddy rider and bike into your lovely clean car. Much as I like a good loop, I’ve recently had a yearning for a decent point-to-point ride. They somehow have the feel of a proper journey and if you plan it so the destination is home, then what better motivation to keep slogging on than getting to your own home comforts?

So this morning I took advantage of a lift into Manchester with my mountain bike, from where I could spend £5 and 25 minutes on a train journey to Littleborough. This unassuming town just north of Rochdale might have many amazing attractions, but for me it’s proximity to the Pennine Bridleway and the potential for a 50 mile slog down the Pennines back to Mac made it the perfect destination.

I’ve got a lot of love for the Pennine Bridleway. A fully signposted, long distance route suitable for mountain bikers is a quiet triumph of English outdoors access in my books. As well as providing some properly rugged and surprisingly remote riding, many stretches of the route are never too far from a train station – plenty of escape options if I’d over-estimated my fitness. My plan for today was to follow it South towards Hayfield, from where I could assess my energy levels and decide on how far to venture into the Peak District.
EDIT: I now run a cycle company that offers the chance to ride the whole Pennine Bridleway as a four day tour. Have a look!

After 32 miles, 5000ft of climbing and 4 hours of leaving Littleborough, I parted company with the Pennine Bridleway. Not that we’d fallen out (far from it) but it was veering too far South East into the Peak and away from home for me to commit to following any further. I still managed to make the remaining miles hard work for myself by tackling the Goyt Valley and a couple of stiff road climbs, but at least I was heading for home. The final damage at the end of the day was 51 miles, 7800ft of climbing and nearly 6.5 hours of pedalling time. A proper ride by anyone’s standards.

But it was only as I got close to home that the punchline hit me: my local trails that I’d gone to such trouble to avoid became welcome sights and rather comforting. The unexciting local paths which routinely take me out and back on my regular loops were now massively appreciated by my aching bones and I’d never been so relieved to be on them.
I’d nearly made it, all the way back home!

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

Curing the creak

I sometimes think I’d be a happier cyclist if I was deaf. Despite some road safety issues, at least I wouldn’t be tortured by creaks, clicks and other unwelcome noises coming from my bikes. Some riders will happily ride a machine that sounds like farm machinery, but like most obsessive cyclists, I can’t enjoy the ride unless everything’s blissfully silent. (see rule #65 for confirmation of this).

It’s hard enough to motivate yourself to ride up and down hills on a dark winter evening, but my beloved Uncle John had been making such an awful noise every time I got out of the saddle that a night of creak catching was the only option. As any experienced bike fettler will tell you, every noise that sounds like it’s coming from the bottom bracket, as any noise gets transmitted through the frame. In reality it rarely actually is the bottom bracket at fault, so here’s the list that I worked through to bring my bike back into favour:

  • Chainring bolts: I’ve had this before on another bike and was initially convinced this would be the problem. I removed them, cleaned them, greased them and refitted. It didn’t help.
  • Rear quick release / dropouts: I once had an Orange Five that sounded like a supermarket clunker unless I lathered grease round the rear dropouts. It didn’t help with this bike though.
  • Derailleur hanger: A new one to me, but the cracking sound as I unscrewed it from the frame had me sure that I’d discovered the cause. I cleaned and greased both surfaces, but it didn’t help. 
  • Pedals: Usually produces more of a click than a creak, but worth taking out to clean and regrease. No joy this time though.
  • Rear wheel: Last summer I was convinced that my Boardman frame was about to snap in half, but a splodge of grease in the rear hub completely eliminated the noise. If you’ve got another rear wheel, swap it out and see if the noise goes. It didn’t cure this creak though. 
  • Seat post: Even when out of the saddle, the frame is still flexing against the post so it’s worth making sure it isn’t totally devoid of grease. Mine was, but it didn’t solve the problem.
  • Headset: Strange but true, but just like the seat post, the head tube and bearings are all part of the frame. I stripped mine, cleaned and greased it all then refitted it. Lightly grease the  stem/bars interface as well whilst you’re at it. It didn’t help me this time though. 
  • Bottom bracket: If it sounds like it’s coming from there you might as well check it! I didn’t and as it turned out, it wasn’t the problem anyway….

After each of these processes I emerged from the garage and rode up and down the road – that’s the only way to determine what the problem is. Each time my hopes were raised and then dashed as the familiar creak presented itself. It might have given my neighbours some entertainment though, especially when riding with no seat post.

Eventually, I put another front wheel in and the noise disappeared. I rushed back and put the original wheel back in. The noise was still gone.

So after all that, it was most likely a little bit of grit in the drop out or quick release. It’s amazing how much racket a minor problem like that can cause, but the difference is incredible. The feel of the bike is now restored, the confidence and inclination to get out of the saddle and put some power down has returned. It would be easy to get annoyed at having spent so long finding such a simple fault, but the blackened grime that was cleaned out of each part of the bike I tackled means that I’ve effectively given my bike a full service that I probably wouldn’t have got round to.

I just need to eliminate the creak from my legs now…