Thursday, 27 February 2014

Cycle commuting

I love the idea of getting my training done before I get to work. And, having counted the weeks to the Tour of Flanders, I have realised that I need to be disciplined and regular in my riding. I've even got a plan.

So today I set off in the pre-7am half light, spirits dampened by a light drizzle but hoping that the optimistic weather forecast - drying out - would prove correct. I took a straw poll and decided to ignore the pessimistic, shower-laden BBC. I also decided to ignore the knobbly tyres on my cyclocross bike - after all a bit of cushioning on the road surfaces can't go amiss, can it?

My route starts and ends in beautiful countryside but the most direct route skims Greater Manchester, taking me through its satellite towns; Royton, Oldham, Ashton and Stalybridge. The roads are lined with the red brick terraces I remember as a child growing up in the Manchester suburb of Audenshaw. The dark, wet gleam of the tarmac; puddled and potholed is particularly familiar.

I head out through Littleborough and Milnrow first. Turning my back on the Pennines and towards the towns. Urban cycling, weaving through traffic, lifting the front wheel over the chunks missing from the road surface. Checking that the blink blink blind of my rear light is still visible to the streaming traffic.

The weather turns grim. Rain sheeting down as I climb towards Oldham. There's a headwind. It's kind of comforting in a 'now it can't get any worse' way. I curse my optimism. This is, to use the technical term, minging. A grey, wet whipping with occasional gusts that shove me across the road. I wonder about the etymology of 'minging' and decide it must have been coined in honour of Ming the Merciless. The lashing I am getting shows no mercy. Slowly but surely it is finding every weak spot in my gear and seeping in. Little fingers of cold prod at my ankles and even my legs are not immune.

8am and three duffel-coated shuffling school children catch my eye. They have JD Sports carrier bags slung over their shoulders, maybe they're off to some pre-school sports session. Maybe it's just what's in at the moment. They're bleary and slightly crumpled looking.

The world is waking up, going to school, going to work. As I hit Ashton I realise that the light has shifted. It's brighter and the rain is more heavy drizzle than drops. Unusually my feet are cold. I swear by my winter boots with thick mohair socks, but water has seeped down my legs into them and is refusing to warm up. I make myself eat a bar, it tastes cold and far too healthy.

From Ashton it's easy to Stalybridge, the gateway, in my youth, from city to countryside. But before I can head out for the hills, there's the climb to Mottram. This is a deceptive road. It's lined with houses and trees so how can it be so soul sapping? I turn my legs slowly until it tops out. It's the first of the three climbs I tick off on my way to Buxton.

From there I head into the hills and a different kind of riding. The second hill takes me from Charlestown to New Mills up tiny hedged lanes which were probably originally just tracks to join the farms to the valleys. The weather, if not fine, has definitely let up. It doesn't quite disappear, shoving me with the odd gust of wind now and then, but there's no longer water running down my nose.

I regroup at the start of the canal section from New Mills to Whalley Bridge. A waffle before I set off cheers me up. Just Long Hill to go then, taking me out of Whalley Bridge up into Buxton.

Long Hill is an accurate description. It does not let up for forty minutes of climbing. I curse the pack on my back (laptop, clothes, sandwiches). I curse my knobbly tyres. I curse the whole idiotic idea as I winch, painfully slowly, up and up. This is, of course, what training is about. About getting fitter. Stupid pack and knobbly tyres have added a bit of resistance to this session. The mantra for these winter rides is 'my summer self will thank me for this'. It had better.

At the top of Long Hill the sky brightens. There's even a small patch of blue between the ragged clouds. I sail down a gorgeous roller coaster of a descent into the town. I'm always amazed at how far you can ride on a bike. The app on my phone says 64km today. 983m of climb. That'll do for a start.

I unlock my shop and peel off my wet kit. In a matter of minutes I'm dressed in my knitted best, ready to open the doors to my Buxton clientele. I love this transformation!

When I get my new Granfondo it'll be fun do to this on an actual road bike with skinny wheels and long haul attitude! I can't wait to introduce it to the joys of commuting over the hills and a great way off.

Wednesday, 26 February 2014

Ups and downs (and not all of them on a bike)

You know, some weeks are crazy. Like at one and the same time the most amazing and exciting and the most awful and depressing.

Just had one. On the one hand, we've had to come to terms with the fact that our first, much-loved, Makepiece shop just isn't working in the premises it moved to at the end of last year and we have to close it down, with everything that entails.

On the other, I was told that I've won a trip to do the Tour of Flanders sportive and the perfect bike for it: a BMC Granfondo, on which to do it. It's a massive challenge which will be an an amazing experience.

I can't really describe the inside of my head. Like the constant pulsing of a lighthouse beam, slowly rotating between a million lumens of excitement and a rather deep, dark sadness. Then back again. Round and round. Happy anticipation keeping me going through the worry and the stress.

This contrast is rarely so stark but it's a heightened example of what cycling does for me. When things are good, it makes them better. When things are difficult and life is a challenge, it helps me rise to it.

I get onto my bike and it takes me over the hills, one pedal stroke after another. Almost literally it takes me outside of myself. I get to look at new things and peep beyond the valley's rim. And when the rain is coming down sideways and filling my shoes, I look down at my still pedalling legs and it makes me giggle at the nonsense of the endeavour. Fighting my way up the gradients, sweeping down the hills. Cycling makes everything in me work together - head, heart, lungs and legs.

It's particularly noticeable on my mountain bike, where the trail takes over my mind. Everything is concentrated on picking the line, keeping poised, holding, pushing, pumping the bike maintaining momentum over rocks and drops, taking the turns, looking looking looking forward.

The trail winds ahead of me and that's the challenge I have to accept. Get it wrong and it may hurt. Or worse. It teases my brain like a puzzle of roots and rocks. I look at the jumble in front of me and something inside, something unconscious and brave takes over and orders it, and orders me forward. Push my wheel over here, roll down the sliver of smoothness I can just about discern. Hit that ledge and keep moving, lift over that step without pause and onwards. Look round the bend, turn my head and drag my body into that look and the bike will go. There are no worries here, no niggles, no concerns. Everything extraneous to keeping this bike on this line is excluded. And as the spell works, it unlocks elation. The exhilaration of speeding downwards combined with enormous satisfaction of a job well done.

And even back in the real world, that satisfaction lingers. So even in this crazy week, when things are really pretty grim, there's a bike, a reason to get on it and the prospect of long roads, cobbled climbs (a different technical challenge) and a view quite outside the valley. What more does a girl need to get through?

On the Koppenberg in 2012

Tuesday, 25 February 2014

Oi, Cinders, you shall go to the ball...

I like the Belgian Spring Classics. They have the air of bike carnivals blended with the whiff of cyclocross style grit. Fiesta meets sideways rain. We've spent happy evenings huddled round the laptop watching the pros slogging it out over narrow lanes and brutal cobbles lined with enthusiastic fans allowing them just enough room to weave their way through.

For me though, the absolute best thing is that mere mortals can ride the route - in their thousands - the day before. A group of us rode the Tour of Flanders in a slightly abbreviated version (140km) in 2012. It was absolutely ace. The route took in rural lanes joining farms and villages, threaded through with sections of cobbles, small towns with cheering bystanders on the steeper climbs and huge feed stations dishing out handfuls of waffles, honey cake and bananas to thousands of smiling cyclists. We finished far more quickly and easily than I expected and I was already looking forward to trying the full 240km version, which begins much earlier in the morning and takes in 100km of Belgian plains before hitting the fabled cobble climbs.

A year passed and the logistics evaded us. But we swore we'd plan better for 2014. Chipps prevaricated as we debated the length. He's not a fan of the early start and petitioned to do the 140km version 'but faster'. I wavered, 100km of dual carriageway might not be quite as fun on a bike as I envisaged. Then came the news from the diary department. Chipps would be travelling for work on 5 April. And indeed also a week later when our alternate plan - the Paris Roubaix sportive - was taking place. I may have pouted, ever so slightly.

I started trying to work out whether there was a reasonable way of getting there on my own. The ferry from Hull as a bike passenger? Driving is tiring and the car ferry expensive for just one. It seemed to need quite a lot of planning and my life is busy.

One evening I was cooking and Chipps was on the internet. "Look, you could win a trip to do the Tour of Flanders with BMC". It was a long shot. I thought he was teasing me. And I scrolled through the pages and pages of entries. Yes, a very long shot.

Then it occurred to me that there were no women applying. Surely no bike company would make a competition for men only? I was horrified at the thought and started scrolling again. Look, there's one (after a few clicks). Oh, no, she wants it for her husband. Why were there no women applying to go on this fantastic ride? More scrolling before I found a single, solitary female. OK one, maybe more but my scrolling finger had run out of steam. The sample I'd taken just wasn't good enough. I thought I'd better apply just to make sure that BMC knew that there were girls out there who'd love to do the ride.

So we spent the evening digging out photos and crafting 'pick me, pick me' into 150 well-chosen words sprinkled liberally with enthusiasm for all things bike and Belgian. And I went to bed happy. I didn't think for a second that I'd win, but it was a nice thought. So I dreamt of cobbles.

In the morning it was apparent that the computer had hung and the application hadn't gone through. Life got busy and I finally remembered to resubmit the (now forgotten and must be rewritten) paragraph on the 14 February. What a fine Valentine's evening we had! You can see it here.

I got an email from Steven Jonckheere at BMC the following Wednesday asking me to call him. It was Chipps' birthday. I think I emitted several small inadvertent squeals whilst trying to articulate how delighted and honoured I was to be chosen to do this ride and act as an ambassador for BMC.

Then I spent another hour staring at the internet looking at the BMC Granfondo, the bike I seem to have won to ride the Tour of Flanders. An amazing carbon dream of a road bike developed by mountain bikers to take the rough with the smooth. Feather light and undoubtedly lightening fast. Shiny electronic gears I'd never even dreamt of. And disc brakes like all the best bikes.

That evening we went for a birthday meal with friends. I may have mentioned it once. Or, more likely, several times. Oops. Excitement is difficult to contain! It's a good job that Chipps is a kind, tolerant and supportive man (and only a tiny weeny bit envious).

BMC has put together a group of six riders to ride this event. A diverse bunch. Some of us look extremely hardcore (and fast) whilst others look like they enjoy the lighter side of cycling. Hailing from six different countries and three continents. Oh, and whilst I am the only Brit, I'm not the only girl. Credit to BMC for choosing such a varied group, I hope we'll be show off your bikes well.

So, I'm off to the ball after all. Better get some training in or my glass slipper will come off and my bike might turn into a pumpkin.

Friday, 21 February 2014

Time on a bike

Whenever I see a group of mountain bikers consulting a map, I can't contain myself. It's as if they exist to unbridle my enthusiasm. And once unleashed, it sets off a verbal roller coaster ride round the Calder Valley.

We found a few lost souls trying to follow a guide book at the weekend. They'd managed to loop back to their starting point and were engaging in rereading the instructions and twisting the map in figures of eight to see whether it would better match the landscape upside down, or on its side, or in any way at all.  To release them from their game of map twister, we offered to set them on their way. And take in one of our doorstep trails.

It's a Tarmac winch which had their full sussers grinding - whilst our cx bikes seemed like a better choice. Briefly. The packhorse slabs start at the end of the road and continue on up, brooking no obstacle. Designed for rugged Galloway ponies with low gears and plenty of suspension.  I couldn't match their agility on my ' cross bike, not quite able to lift it up kerbs when the track was particularly steep and uneven. On the way down, my two wheels picked their way delicately, tracing the line of least granularity. Slivers of turf, sandy run outs between the steppier sections. We were way behind our new companions and their bouncy two wheeled steeds. Until one broke her chain. And another foundered on the lip of a newly appeared drainage ditch, so new we'd not known to warn him of it.

When the third confessed to an absence of rear brake they took a group decision to call it a day. It seems my enthusiasm may have been a little over the top.

Having broken the visitors we commenced Stanny's Road Loop of Doom ( taking in the sheep first). That's the nice thing about the CX bikes. They are entertainingly sketchy in place of mountain bikes and nicely unassuming on the road but they segue between the two without a murmur.  We put over fifty miles into our legs and it was fun but equally we could have dicked around the valley playing at mincing our favourite descents in the name of hospitality. Yes, next time we'll do that.

Saturday, 8 February 2014

Re Cycle

So, it's a been a while.

Last year I kept pedalling but there was something about the car crash circumstances of my business Makepiece that stopped me writing. The short version is that we planned to open a second store, found out the day after our lease was signed that we had to relocate our first store within Hebden Bridge. Cue trying to launch one and move another shop simultaneously. More work and worry than I could describe, conceive of, or even do.

My Three Peaks preparation was hampered. I did what I could (a 40 mile commute whenever possible) but the lack of depth in training showed. A couple of minor mechanicals  led to me missing my food drop at Ingleborough, bonking on Whernside and then, brain mashed and panicking, desperate to get down to food as quickly as I could, being blown off the bike at the summit. A ruptured AC joint and a whole lot of woe ensued.

I did manage to take a break from the prescribed three months off the bike for my holiday in the Pyranees with Chipps with the amazing Altitude Adventure. Naughty, and I did feel like making a pact with the devil not to come off on the damaged shoulder. As long as I didn't fall on it, the physio said, riding wouldn't make it worse.  I reckoned it hurt anyway so I might as well take in the views and ahem, the technical trails.

Amazing how the brain teasing trails captured my mind completely - blanking out the pain and also the mind-melting worries about the fate of my business.

The unsigned pact was that I would go home and behave myself, staying out of trouble until my shoulder got the all clear in December. Which I (more or less) managed.

The year has turned and I've been slipping between having fun and a little casually interjected training. It's got to the point where I'm going to have to admit to the training. Working out training zones hardly counts as casual (much as I am pretending to myself and to the world that it's all done in a breeze). But I have read many times that always going at full pelt doesn't build endurance - and this is what I normally do. The tendency is my chief suspect for not having the endurance depth to deal with eventualities at the Three Peaks. So, I've been working on skills and pedalling slowly. But with purpose.