Imagine, if you will, a huge Roman sports arena, the crowd booming loud and large and gladiators charging around in chariots. Or being chased by chariots. A frenetic and violent scene, full of colour and guts and bloody-mindedness. That, dear reader, is what the Reading CC 25 time trial felt like…
Well, actually, we were west of Reading on a section of the A4 called Bath Road not far from Aldermaston, where warheads for Trident missiles get assembled. And, like a missile, +RichardM and myself intended to launch ourselves on the green Calfee tandem around the course at top speed. And why not? The H25/1 course is one of the faster non-dual carriageway time trial courses in the south, so it has the dual appeal of being both rapid and relatively easy on the eye.
Our very first 25-mile race was on this course and yielded a sub hour time, 58:43, in spite of overshooting one roundabout (“You see that nice marshal in hi-viz?” “Er, no. Oops”). So, going off-course aside, we were hopeful of a decent time. There was a slight alteration the original course. A cycle lane had been put in at the west end and so the turnaround was a little earlier. Really minor change and the course is now known as the H25/1A.
So, to the start line. Some bothersome Velotoze shoe covers had precluded our structured turbo warm up, but no bother, we felt good and ready. Ready enough to decline the offer of being held up on the start line. Not such a great decision, as we struggled to clip in after we pushed off and lost a few seconds in that moment.
OK, let’s rewind a little. Tandem time trialling is a very niche activity. Often we are the only entrants, but the £20 prize had attracted a second machine. This machine was a stunning-looking steel tandem trike. Yes, trike. We’d looked at the results of the team riding it on the CTT website and they were good.
Back in the race we set off with Richard joking that he felt we were going to be chased down by what felt like a chariot from the movie Gladiator.
Whilst I was deeply grateful that our rivals were not equipped with bows, arrows, swords and other brutal weapons, I did get the sense that they were breathing down our necks. At the six-mile point there is a turnaround at a roundabout and as we came back we saw the chariot, I mean trike, approaching it. They were definitely getting closer. At the next turnaround, there was no sign. Could we have gained ground? I knew that they were closing because they must have been on the roundabout when we exited it. Darn, overtaken at halfway was not a good look. We were now going back into a slight headwind, which was miserable, but we held on. 13, 14, 15, 16, 17 miles. It wasn’t until the 18th mile that we succumbed to the three-wheeler.
Cool and calm lawyer by day, Richard is an emotional racer and he reacted with a passion. The trike moved ahead of us, but I could feel in the pedals his desire to bring them back. And I looked to raise my game, too. Try as we did, we could only slow down the growth in the gap between us. This was partly down to their strength and good aero positions, but also we had no less than five hold ups for traffic. At one point a van more or less parked in front of us causing a near dead stop. This was suboptimal, to say the least, but part and parcel of racing on the open roads. It can happen, but this was an unusual number of interruptions. Even without them, our competitors would have beaten us, probably by 15 seconds or so. Hats – or should I say helmets – off to them.
Our time was 59:21, them 58:02. Disappointing in a sense, but looking at all the results that day, only about half went under the hour. So, not bad really. That’s it. Exit, pursued by a tandem trike.
Like Mr Johnson's recent resignation, being caught by that infernal machine was less a question of "if" and more one of "when".
Great fun (and superb post-ride millionaire's shortbread at HQ).
There is another universe out there. You can access it more or less wherever you are in the world. It is quite different from this one. No, you are not entering a scene from the movie Everything, Everywhere, All at Once nor another timeline from Doctor Who. This is off road riding. Mountain bikers know how to get there, audax riders dip into it and the recent gravel phenomenon has opened up this zone to more of us cyclists. But how to get there? I’m going to demonstrate my method, which does not include spells, time machines, selling your soul to the devil or doing something unusual, a la Everything, Everywhere All at Once.
Let me explain first how I ended up hanging out in this other plane. The first lockdown hit us and I got absolutely sick to the back teeth of cyclists drafting me or riding near when we were doing our allowed daily exercise, unvaccinated and living under strict restrictions. I cracked and got myself a second-hand gravel bike, in my case from a club mate, and got off the grid. I wasn’t a complete newbie to riding off road, I had a mountain bike in the Eighties and have done and enjoyed Rapha’s A Day in Hell/Hell of the North events with its long gravé sectors, but at no stage developed any rad, as they say, skills.
I described this existence as off the grid because it’s somewhat quieter there. The traffic consists of occasional horses or dog walkers and there are no shops, close passes or crowds. It’s a land of chuck, chunder, babyheads and peanut butter mud and it can get gnarly. I dipped in the Stateside vernacular a bit there in how Americans describe their “trails.” Blighty puts its best foot – or pedal – forward on a land that consists of Byways, Bridleways and Unrestricted Byways. Farm tracks and livestock abound and it’s all very agricultural.
OK, let’s go to this brave new world. In many ways, it’s actually an old world, ancient even. Some of the best off-road riding you can find is on bygone roadways such as the Icknield Way (110 miles), which claims to be the oldest road in Britain, a 47-mile part of the Pilgrim’s Way, or the Ridgeway (85 miles). In fact, the Ridgeway forms a large part of one of Cycling UK’s series of multi-day off-road routes, The King Alfred’s Way, which loops from Winchester. This sits alongside the mighty 800-mile Great North Trail, the West Kernow Way in Cornwall, Cantii Way in Kent and their latest one in Norfolk, The Rebellion Way.
There are number of organisations that run gravel event rides, too. One of them, Hidden Tracks, are getting in on the longer distance off-road act with a forthcoming London Orbital route. Glorious Gravel and Trail Break are two more gravel event organisers.
Another approach is to search for others riders routes on RideWithGPS (RWGPS), for example, or you could make your own route. YouTuber Simon Willis has a great explanation of how he uses Komoot to create gravel routes on his Always Another Adventure channel:
Or you could use any of the other myriad mapping platforms out there. My way of planning off-road rides is a fairly old school one, in a digital kind of way. I find most online mapping tools are somewhat inadequate and I can struggle with hard copy Ordinance Survey maps, not because of inaccuracy, but because the way things are marked is not distinct enough for me.
I aim to avoid using footpaths where cyclists are legally not permitted. If you do use them, they can be really hit and miss. Many are overgrown and you will hit gates and other anti-cyclist defences. Byways and bridleways for me and the Footpathmap website (FPM) I use is really clear at identifying them. Bright pink for bridleways, blue for byways and green for unrestricted byways. Footpaths are red. This works for me on a psychological level, too, knowing I should avoid the red ones.
I like to draw my routes on RWGPS and have another tab open with FPM for reference. The colours of FPM really pop and it becomes a simple question of joining the blues, greens and pinks to make a loop. Some area have multiple options and this is a good enough reason for me not to simple click two points and ask Komoot or some such app to work it out. The reason I like using RWGPS to buid routes is the Draw Lines function. Most mapping apps have an automatic drawing function to follow the roads between the points you click, but none recognise every navicable byway or brideway. Some you simply don’t get used on auto, so the solution is to switch from follow roads to draw line mode and manually draw that section. Then switch back to follow roads.
Here’s a couple of routes I created using this method.
An alternative, and I’m not joking, is to just get lost. If you don’t slow down enough to explore and enjoy the scenery andwonder “where does that other path go?” then you are missing a lot of the joy universe offers.
How do you go about creating your routes?
This summer I spent a few weeks in America. The main purpose was to have a well-earned holiday and catch up with friends and family in Oregon and San Francisco, who we hadn’t seen for three years. While Stateside I also set myself the challenge of trying to defy the laws of physics. I aimed to do this in two ways.
First, I wanted to lose weight while on holiday. I know, crazy. This is never an easy thing and all the more testing when you’re spending time in the US of A, where sugar seems to be added to everything, portions are larger by default and just breathing the air feels calorific. I’d been dieting in the weeks running up to departure and had lost 10lbs. This loss was hard won and I was super keen to avoid supersizing myself.
My second challenge was to ride up Mount Diablo, which is near San Francisco where we’d spend the last three days of our break. Climbing is far from my strong suit and, according to Strava, this would be my biggest climb, eclipsing my ascent of the Puig Major back in 2015. Yeah, I know my limits, so I don’t take on mountains often (or at all) and I considered hauling my ageing, overweight ass up Diablo would be the second way I could break the laws of physics.
The first three weeks of my trip were to be spend with my in-laws in and around Salem in the Willamette Valley. The valley is mainly farmland and pretty darn flat, so little climbing practice was available to me. But I had a plan. I had a series of intensive workouts from my coach, Tim Ramsden, and I had earmarked a couple of reasonable climbs to cut my teeth on – one near Detroit Lake in the Cascades where we were going to camp and another near Waldport on the coast, where we’d spend much of our first week. Alas, on that week it felt like all bets were off as I went down with my second dose of Covid. I did manage four rides before surcumbing, including one up to Orchard Heights, west of Salem, where there are actually some hills and some vineyards. At one view point, I watched the mists rise from the valley.
Aside from the aches and pains of the virus, it was a mega pain to lose a week of training and, once I tested negative, I nursed myself up to speed. I had suffered six weeks of highly disruptive post-viral fatigue when I had my first Covid in Jan 2021, so I was very cautious indeed. On Tim's advice, I was working on heart rate. I started with a couple of Zone 1 rides, then a couple of Zone 2 rides before upping things another notch. I knew from my first encounter with the virus that I should look out for an unusually elevated heart rate, so I worked on HR rather than power to monitor things made a lot of sense. Looking ahead, I still strongly doubted I’d be in any shape to take on my biggest climb when we got to California in a couple of weeks. Darn.
I recovered enough to be riding in our second week while we were camping next to Detroit Lake. The climb I’d found there began three miles away at Idanha and rose 2,100ft over 7 miles. Decent enough for hill repeats? I set out super early, and was greeted by moody looking lake.
However, as WC Fields would say, when I got there, it was closed.
The area around Detroit Lake was subject to one of the worst burns in the autumn 2020 series wild fires that raged up and down the West Coast. A sign proclaimed that there was fire damage on the road – fallen trees and/or “widow makers” to remove. The latter being unsafe trees that might fall – and the road was closed. I managed an out and back towards Breitenbush instead. This was a long and really gentle climb - really a rise - but the ride was limited by another road closed sign 10 miles in. You can see Mt Jefferson and the burn stretching for miles.
This is a clean up job on a vast scale to make the roads and trails safe again. There is an off-road route, the Cascading Rivers Scenic Byway, that runs from Detroit Lake to Estacada, that I was hoping to try. As you’ve guess, this was closed, too.
So, our time in Oregon came to and end. It was great to reconnect with family. Sad, though, to say goodbye and have seen many of our favourite beauty spots badly burnt and to add insult to injury, I’d been badly burnt by Covid. I’d done what I could with my diet, but with no access to scales, all I could do is hope I was still on track.
We still had three days in Berkeley, San Francisco, with our friends the Zapiens. Three years ago I'd tempted Richard to climb Mt Tamalpais with me. The route featured a 10-mile gravel section and some the most beautiful views of the Bay. That ride saw Richard really struggle, but he was so utterly committed that he drove himself to complete it. I “coached him through” by sarcastically (and repeatedly) offering to call him an Uber.
In spite of all that, Richard is still talking to me and has become something of road cyclist in the last three years, riding with the Grizzly Peaks Cyclists and completing a series of century rides. He was up for Mt Diablo and given my Covid and all the climbs he has around Berkeley to practice on, I anticipated having my ass handed to me on a plate.
I hired a decent-looking carbon bike from Sports Basement and we set out early doors towards Mt Diablo so that we could avoid as much of the heat of the day as we could.
We went out through the lush and lovely forests of Tilden Regional State Park and gained 1,000ft, which was nice little warm up. When we got to the far side of the well-to-do towns of Lafayette and Walnut Creek, we entered the Mt Diablo State Park and got down to business. There are two ways to approach the summit, the North Gate and the South Gate. The former is harder and is what we’re doing.
Richard’s wife, Nicolle, had hiked this mountain and warned us repeatedly about rattle snakes. As such, my eyes darted left and right whenever we stopped. I’d seen some benign yellow racers out hiking that week, but really didn’t fancy coming face to face with their venomous relatives.
It was hot now, 90F. I paced myself, I had a 32T cog. I had water. I had more water. I had gels, I had bars, I had more water. I don’t know how long we’d been climbing when we got to a ranger station – much more than an hour. We made use of the restrooms and there was a sobering sign – another 4.5 miles to the summit.
We ploughed on. We got to a campsite with some shade and took another moment. We’d climbed 3,500ft so far and I was working on the basis that this was a 5,000ft climb. Richard said we’re just a few hundred yards from the summit. I’d been working off the wrong figure, in fact Mt Diablo is 3,849ft (and the climb is over 12 miles). Despite knowing the finish was a 17% section, I somewhat excitedly attacked, which I totally regretted as my hamstrings felt like they were going to explode.
Mt Diablo is a lone giant, like Mt Ventoux, so you get long distance views in all directions.
We had some PB&J sandwiches Richard had packed. I bought some choc ices at the visitor center and we chatted to the blissed out people wandering around the summit. One was a young triathlete who ridden up on a time trial bike. That seemed so wrong, but kudos to him.
After we descended, the temperature rose to 95F. Wow. Just in time we reached the Canyon Club Brewery and took in tacos, a chicken sandwich and a couple of their delicious brews. We went from the hell fire of Diablo to being blissed out and chilled out, while being “entertained” by the “country infused vintage rock and roll” of Dave “Ouzo” Land.
I’d been to the mountaintop, but had I lost or gained weight? Back in Blighty I stepped on the bathroom scales and, would you believe, I had actually lost 3lbs. Take that, physics!
Here’s the Diablo route:
Great blog David. I grew up on PB&J sandwiches, perfect combination of fat, carbs, protein and minerals ; )
We all know there’s a cost of living crisis. We are currently getting daily messages about large numbers of the population having to choose between heating and eating. This is very real and very tough. Sports that are expensive to participate in such as cycling, may well see a drop off in numbers or may become increasingly less accessible to people on a low income. Cycle sport can be something of a money pit.
There’s never been a better time to start the recent Hacks for cheap cycling thread.
Kudos to +ChrisGold for getting that that discussion started.
Part 1 - groupset hell
At this precarious moment in economic history Shimano have launched their 105 Di2 groupset. For those not in the know, groupset is collective term for the gear and brake system of your bike. Di2 means it’s electronic. And the new 105 Di2 groupset is also disc brake only and comes in at about £1,700. It’s meant to be really good. But there is no rim brake version and no mechanical version being made.
You could – indeed still can for the time being – pick up a mechanical, rim brake 105 groupset for £500 and a brand new complete bike from a respected manufacturer equipped with 105 for about £1,000. For this reason 105 has been affectionately known as the people’s groupset. Why is (or was) that £1,000 price point important? Well, it’s roughly what a new cyclist looking to get serious about cycling is prepared to pay and what you get for your money is seen as good enough to compete on.
Campag decommissioned their 105-equivelent groupset, Veloce, in 2020. They still make their 11-speed, mechanic set, Centaur, which can be had for about £600. However, Centaur is not being made in large numbers. Maybe bike manufacturers should start offering more complete bikes with Centaur? C'mon, give Campag a call! Then there’s SRAM. Their stable are all electronic and start at a price only a few hundred quid below 105 Di2.
The cost of an entry level racing bike will likely rise to £2,000-2,500, well beyond what most new riders are able or prepared to pay. 105 is longer the people's groupset. Without a race-worthy mechanical groupset you either have to go to Shimano’s next level down from 105 - Tiagra - on a cheaper or put up about £2,000 for a bike with one of the lower tier electronic set ups. Is my concern misplaced? Is Tiagra good enough to race on? Will Tiagra become the new people's groupset? It's 10sp and there are disc brake versions. And are SRAM and Camping missing a trick for not having a lower level groupset that could work well on a £1,000 complete bike?
Part 2 - my list of 10 hacks to save you money and keep you cycling
How on earth does this old chap – me – find himself racing at a national championship? I’m asthmatic and I have a knee deformity. I’ll grant you Ian Botham is asthmatic and (like me) Paul Scholes is both asthmatic and has Osgood-Schlatter disease. But I don’t have their talent, I just don’t have “good DNA.” I train very hard to be by club standards reasonable. And yet here I am at a national championship.
How - in the name of Mike - is this even possible?
Well, by choosing to race a niche (time trials), within a niche (veterans), within a niche (on a tandem). A niche, within a niche, within a niche. Turns out if your category is obscure enough, you don’t have to qualify, you just pay £12 and show up. This why I find myself at the Veterans Time Trials Association (VTTA) National 25-mile Championship with my tandem partner, Richard May alias +RichardM.
Our brilliant plan to arrive 90 mins before the off feels like misguided enthusiasm when the race organiser announces that owing to heavy mists on the course, the start is delayed by 30 minutes. It’s a really heavy mist and we’re informed he can delay the start by an additional 30 minutes maximum, after which we either race or it’s all cancelled. We bide our time and check out the competition. Although there were five pairs entered in the tandem category, one pair did so in error and have requested to race solo. We had plenty of time for a good nosy at the other machines.
So, a gang of four competing for the national title. There are Kirton and Stockley, 81 and 82 respectively and racing on their James Fothergill steel machine. It features a home-rigged water pipe for the captain and it seems the stocker is expecting bad weather with a rain coat lashed to the frame, too.
Then there is Swanley and Churchill (75 and 63), who are riding their Matrix Tank. This is an aluminium and carbon composite frame. The stoker has an interesting hand position on their set up. The top tube is even between the two riders, so the stocker has to have their arms either side of the pilot’s rear end to get in an aero position. We estimate their chain ring at 60T, ie mahoosive!
Lastly there are the Hutchisons (59 and 57) who are also riding a Matrix Tank. It’s unusual to see two tandems of the same mark in one place. Their configuration also has what I’m calling the “cuddle position” and a carbon belt on one side of the drive chain. The cockpit looks flash and they tell us this is a brand new bike for them. Gosh. Earlier in the season we beat them on the F11/10 by just one second. If they’ve made improvements, that second could vanish fast.
Let’s not forget us, Shannon and May. We are the “youngsters” at 58 and 51. We just so happen to have made one or two improvements to the Calfee Dragonfly we race on. The front wheel has been swapped for one with an 85mm depth rim, the tyres are brand new GP5000 TTs, the cockpit has been moved forward 7mm (so the pilot’s head is lower), the bottle with tools in it has been replaced by a small saddle bag, we’ve both got trip socks and aero overshoes on and I am wearing a proper TT helmet. Plus I've lost a whole stone in weight since we last raced. All this must add up, surely.
The clouds seem to have lifted and the organiser announces that we’ll start with the 30 min delay factored in to start times. Right then, onto the turbo to warm up, grab a couple of gels, pop the overshoes on and off to the start. I’d been careful to make a route from the HQ to the start point. It’s 3.5 miles. I don’t want to get lost. However, when we swing out of the car park, Richard’s path is totally at odds with the route on my head unit. He’s following other racers, so no problem. Except time is ticking down towards our start time and my route says we are miles (yes, miles) from the start. I have a total mini melt down and order Mr May to halt. It seems I've loaded the wrong route on my computer and it's guiding us to the E9/25 in Chelmsford. Today we are racing the F2A/25 which is near Cambridge. Oops. Not even the same county. Knowing what has happened I am able to stop freaking out, especially as the start is visible and just 200m down the road.
We haven’t ridden the F2A/25. It’s meant to be PDQ (pretty darn quick). And it’s not a complicated route. Go west to a roundabout, come back to the start, repeat, done. Even with our recent track record of accidentally ending up on a motorway, we’re confident of at least finishing this one. Boom, we’re off and quickly up to an average speed of 27mph. 27.8 at the roundabout. Cripes, this is PB territory. It’s really flat. That’s great, but it means there’s no rest going downhill, just a moment to catch our breath at the turn points. We have to give way at the first roundabout, which sucks our pace a bit, but there no repeat when we do it the second time.
We overtook the senior pair, Kirton and Stockley, at about 6 miles, but don’t see hide nor hair of the other two pairs. It’s not exactly warm, but I’m sweating buckets trying to keep my power up and so relieved when we reach the finish. I guess I was in the “if you’re not sure if you can carry on” zone that Chris Boardman says is about right for time trialling. The other two Boardman zones are “I can’t go on like this” and “I think I could go harder.” I gave it everything and I’ve rarely been happier to snap the stop button and the finish and check the time.
Our official time was 54 minutes and 53 seconds. A PB and a huge improvement on our previous best of 56:13. It's also a club record. Richard was thinking that sub-55 would be a good 2023 target. Think again, buddy. Back at HQ we check the other teams’ times helpfully projected on a big screen. We are the fastest machine by some way. The gap to our nearest rivals, the Hutchisons, is 1:18. A bit more than the single second earlier in the season. But wait. Have we won? Like VAR, we have to wait and check.
The VTTA Championships are handicap events, using VTTA Standards. Standard times that a man or woman is rated against for their age. This means mixed tandem pairs can compete against single sex pairs and all ages get a fair crack at it. It doesn’t feel fair as the adjustment (based on the time difference to your standard time) means that we’ve gone from being the fastest machine to the slowest. And the senior pair, although the slowest, are now the fastest. I’m not one for scripture, but the first shall be last and the last shall be first spins around my head for a while.
Many congratulations to Kirton and Stockley. They actually put in a time of 1:02:53, which is pretty astonishing for octogenarians. I’d be pretty astonished just to be racing in my eighties. Something for us all to aspire to.
Nice blog. And it is, of course, comforting to know that there is at least one form of bike racing where age is performance enhancing.
When the World Championships are done and dusted, comes the realisation that the season is all but over. We’ve raced or done our big events or challenge rides, maybe quite a few of them. The best of the weather and the party is over, but we still have all the strength and fitness we’ve built up through the summer. All revved up and nowhere to go. What to do, what to do?
Well, off-road trip. I decided to take myself and my hard won vigor on Cycling UK’s new off-road route in Kent, the Cantii Way. And, no, I still don’t know how to pronounce Cantii. This route is 150 miles and is mostly traffic-free and mainly on the coast. Pretty, pretty flat. I knew this would not be as technically challenging as the King Alfred’s Way, which I‘d ridden last year, and that suited me down to the ground. I wanted mellow. And mellow is more or less what I got. Well, what we got.
I planned this a few months back. Regular View from Here readers will have worked out by now that I am something of a planner. This was the perfect ride to get to spend some real-life time with my former colleague Benjamin. We’d worked together for 6 months in the lockdowns. When we weren’t working at getting more people cycling, we were talking about cycling. We just had to get on bikes together.
Planning. It’s half the fun for me. What kit will I take with? What size tyres should I use? Fenders or no fenders? Benjamin was happy for me to create a schedule with all the rest stops at 15-20 mile intervals. I'd researched that they were top rated or at least decent looking and checked their opening times. I maybe went a little bit too far by creating a pacing predictor, so that we could see the likely arrival time at each rest stop according to a range of average speeds. Clearly I’m spending too much time on Excel in my day job.
We were riding this in two days from Ashford, clockwise. The train from St Pancras to Ashford International is just 35 minutes or so away and you are straight onto the route. And we were on the route, but going south not north. Oops. An extra mile there. I went with 35mm tyres and mudguards and soon got to have that choice tested with the roughest part of the route. It was only a short section and 35mm proved to be a sound choice joining the Crab and Winkle Way that links Canterbury to Whitstable. From Whistable onwards, we were on the coast almost the whole way to Dover.
It was sunny, blue sky above, blue sea to our left and we were riding the promenades. Traffic-free, but not pedestrian-free, so we couldn’t blast it. We didn’t want to. Stopping at spots like Reculver, you want to take them in and enjoy them fully. And I always want to chat to whoever is about. Why? (A) I just like meeting people and (B) I often learn something about where I am.
Aside from pedestrian and dog dodging, riding along beside the beaches, harbours and seagulls brought another challenge. Wind. And it was always a headwind. I know it wasn’t crazy windy by the standards of how it can be on the Kent coast, but it was constant. Benjamin couldn’t care less. In fact, he liked it. He’d lived on the Isle of Thanet and he attacked the wind at every opportunity. The wheelsucker in me was delighted. Go, Benjamin!
We sped on towards Broadstairs, where we planned to catch up with a mutual colleague, Patrick. He rode out towards us and escorted us to the Bandstand Café on the front. This seemed like a good choice from my internet scouting. There was a clue in bandstand which I hadn’t considered. There was a performer crooning and playing keyboards over backing tracks. A little sign against his keyboards proclaimed “Nostalgia.” And that’s what we got, perfect for the elderly clientele gathered. It all seemed to fit for purpose until he went a bridge too far and took on Desmond Decker’s The Israelites. With this track it was time for these Israelites to make our exodus from Broadstairs.
We landed at our B&B in Dover – yes, B&B, I’m not ready for bike-camping – and chilled out a little before heading to a pub to refuel. I’d picked out The White Horse which served Beaverton beers and good-looking food. The walls and ceilings were covered in graffiti - names, times and dates. It took us about half an hour and half a pint to work out what this odd decor was all about. Channel swimmers. The big clue was E-F ad F-E. England-France and France-England. Some teams, some solo. One solo swimmer had E-F-E next to a 27 hour time. Zoinks. That is a lot of swimming. It was amazing to be surrounded by all that endeavour. I felt pretty done in after more than 80 miles of fully loaded riding, but wow, 27 hours. Benjamin had to Google the longest solo swim – 77 miles unaided. That must be about 50 hours in the water. The Oregon Quacks team tickled me, as my wife is from Oregon and a graduate of the University of Oregon. Their sports teams are all called Oregon Ducks.
Did I mention the 80 miles fully loaded? I slept hard. And getting up was hard. There was some muscle soreness. After a generous cooked breakfast we got going and the soreness melted away. After climbing out of Dover, we are routed on the hills behind Folkstone. It’s only 500ft above sea level, but it affords some good views of the town, such as it is. The route stays scenic until you approach Dungeness. Bleak doesn’t come close to describing it. Marsh to one side and the nuclear power station on the other. Our rest stop was appropriately named End of the Line. It was a good time to stop because it hammered down while we ate.
The rain cleared bang on cue for the end of our scheduled stop and we ploughed on towards Rye, aware that a significant amount of rain had been forecast for the rest of the day. We passed the power station, but the coastal view didn’t open out until we reached Camber Sands. There was a considerable military area and then an industrial area. We escaped this to enter the Romney Marshes, which have an atmosphere all of their own. I was feeling in good shape, stronger as the ride went on. I even, and this is all true, took the wind for a good long stretch to Rye and pushed the pace.
If you don’t know Rye, well, you should. It is a stunning historic town and I’d picked out the Cobbled Café for our afternoon tea. Assam, actually, and I paired it with Victoria sponge. Tea was delightful, but also paired with a downpour. We checked all our weather apps, forecasts and it looked like downpour would continue for at least the next two hours. We called it and took the train from Rye. That made it an even 50-mile day. Decent enough. I did head to the station feeling somewhat interrupted. I had more, I was growing into this ride, but 2 hours in heavy rain would not be fun. That was it, all done.
A few learning points for me:
Thanks +Sir_Shannonball. Great photos.
One for 2023.
Il Lombardia - or the Race of the Falling Leaves, as it is sometimes known - is the final Monument of the cycling season. In other words, it’s a big deal and it brings a full stop to cycling's road racing season.
South London cycling club Dulwich Paragon have run a sportive for several years now in tribute called The Ride of the Falling Leaves. And very nice it is, too. I’d say it is my favourite sportive. Starting in south London at the Herne Hill Velodrome with coffee and pastries, you take a lap of the famous circuit before heading out on a beautiful rural route that includes some eye-watering climbs (Toys Hill and Sundridge Hill both come to mind). As if that wasn’t enough, the ride finishes in the grounds of a cricket club, where pasta and a beer are served as part of your entry fee.
So, when Spoke Cycles in Codicote put forward their own more northerly Ride of the Falling Leaves, I jumped at it. Like the Paragon event, this would be 100km (with a 60km option) and the ticket promised beer and frites at the finish as part of the entry fee, with Il Lombardia on the big screen.
On the day, the weather played ball with crisp, blue autumn skies and, yes, there were autumn leaves rattling around the roads. Parts of the route map looked familiar to me, in fact, I think I’ve ridden nearly all of these roads before. For good reason, they are quite lovely. There are no super large climbs – this is Hertfordshire, not Lombardia, remember – but the Spoke route does undulate (a lot) and there are some tough sections.
Whereas I had previously attacked the Paragon’s RoTFL events, aiming for a gold standard time, this year I wanted to play it differently. I wanted to use the event to signal, not the last race, but rather the beginning to my winter training base miles and so I planned go a bit easier. That thought didn’t last long, as I attacked the route from the off. It just felt right and the first part of the course seemed like it was egging me on to do so. I was going great guns, but starting to feel it by 30 miles. And I did regret my earlier exuberance by the 40-mile point, roughly where the food stop was, as my legs were none too happy with me.
It was great to see Spoke owner, Alex Anderson, there staffing the food stop and encouraging riders. I understood from him that there were only 100 places they could offer this year, as they were being cautious with the café’s public liability insurance. Next time could see a much expanded field and their next event… wait for it… it might well be a gravel event. And Alex also revealed that Spoke are looking to expand their menu. Watch that space.
A guy called Rob left the food stop at the same time and we nursed each other through the next 12 miles or so, until his patience or my limited climbing ability expired. I struggled through the last few miles solo and gleefully queued for my chips and pint and a chillax watching others murder themselves at the legit race.
I’d highly recommend both the route and the event. Given that the route comes south, you could do it any time. If you ride up from north London, you could pick it up at Epping Green.
Or you could take a train from Finsbury Park to Welwyn Garden City, which is only 3 miles from Spoke and do either the long or short route. Here’s the shorter version.
Scary things are on their way. And I don’t mean white walkers, the undead, the Lannisters or sudden wedding massacres. What we fear as cyclists is plummeting temperatures, endless rainy days, high winds, black ice, shorter days and puncture after puncture. Then there is that slick, sticky road grime that gnaws and grinds away on your expensive bicycle components. Perhaps it’s more Apocalypse Now than Game of Thrones. The prospect of taking your pride and joy out in hostile conditions is enough to have you babbling “the horror, the horror…” This year’s unseasonably warm weather deep into November has only served to delay the inevitable and perhaps ramp up the tension, because winter will surely come soon. How will we cope?
First of all, you need to look after your body. What to wear, what to wear? My rule of thumb is that if you feel a little bit cool before you start exercising, by the time you are up to speed, you’ll feel warm enough. I have a winter jacket, but I rarely use it. A merino base, long sleeve jersey and a gilet is enough for me. If I need more than that, it’s usually sub-zero and then I won’t go out for fear of ice. That said, I usually get caught out by black ice where there's some frozen run off once every year.
As I’ve been riding a few years, I have quite a glove collection. Obviously you won’t be wearing mitts, but I think two sets are needed - a lighter, full-fingered glove and a heavier duty thermal glove. You can get an integrated system of light gloves and an overglove. Then there are the lobster-style super heavy duty gloves, also useful at near freezing temperatures or if you feel the cold in your extremities. Some of us do and it’s painful.
By the way, not these lobster gloves.
Those are for Halloween. I mean this kind of lobster-style gloves.
You could also acquire a waterproof set of gloves. Alright, three or four sets. Well, that escalated quickly!
Keeping your legs warm is somewhat obvious, wear 3/4s or full tights. And your feet will need attention, because that’s not even funny when you can’t feel your toes. Thick socks and those toe warmers or full overshoes will also help protect your pretty cycling shoes from an early demise. Or you could get a set of winter cycling shoes. I’m a fan. Get a set that is both thermal and waterproof and you won’t regret it. A cap and a buff for for neck should also be in your armoury.
Then there’s the bike. You can winterise pretty much any bike. Start by changing the tyres for fatter and/or more robust ones and I’d urge you to clean it after every wet ride. You should fit mudguards, that’ll make it so much easier to clean and keep the crud off of you and your components. And your fellow riders, of course. Use lights, even in the daytime, and make sure you can fix a puncture. You will get more punctures in the winter and then some more. Nothing worse than standing at the roadside with numb digits trying to repair a flat. If you can do it with your eyes closed, so to speak, it will feel the much easier in tough conditions.
I like having a dedicated winter trainer bike with full mudguards and cheaper-to-replace components. I thought this was a universal thing, but apparently, it’s peculiar to us Brits. A fixed-gear bike fits the bill perfectly for me. The only thing that will wear out is the chain, brake pads and tyres. A new set of each of these will see me through the season. Riding with one gear means no thinking (about gear changes at least), high cadence/pedal stroke practice and overloaded climbing, which is strength work. When spring comes and you switch back to a geared bike, you get the bonus of it feeling so much easier.
OK, now that we’ve drifted onto training. Most cyclists tend to ride slower in winter for several reasons. Whatever the reason – scientific training reason or whatever – it’s an opportunity to be social and have a chat with other riders. It’s a chance to explore, too. Is there a route you’ve been wanting to try, an extension to existing loop you’d like to build in or have you ever just wondered where that road led to? I like to get some daylight in winter, so if I can get out, I will get, but there are always those days. Two, three of four hours in the rain might build mental strength, but is not so great for your physical health. You could just suit up and do a shorter ride or, if turbo training floats your boat, ride indoors. Every gym has static bikes, so you can always get a session in.
Be smart. Avoid days when there’s a risk of ice or if it's sub-zero stick to main roads that have been salted (that's assuming the council have had the gritters out). You absolutely must clean your bike from top to toe if you do that. It’s great to have a hot drink and take on some fuel at a cafe, but don’t stop for too long. It can get really hard to warm up again. It makes sense to be flexible as to what time you head out. Choose wisely. Cycling makes weather forecasters of us all. Will Saturday be dryer than Sunday? I like using the Rain Today app. This will tell you when it’ll rain in the next hour and how heavily with a high degree of accuracy. You can also look further into the future by bringing up their radar map and zooming out to see if there are rain clouds looming beyond the hour mark.
There’s still some racing to be had in winter. Cyclo-cross makes a virtue of the wet and the mud and velodromes have a lovely warm roof and the air is kept at a cosy 28C. Nice! You can even find the odd time trial, sportive or audax. If all else fails, you can always do something apart from cycling, such as cross training, switch to running, weights, yoga, pilates, core work, badminton (did I just say badminton?). You might come back fresher from the change. Or you might find a new passion.
Unsurprisingly, Canadians know a thing or two about cold weather riding, check out this video from Canadian Cycling Magazine about prepping your bike for winter.
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"You will always be in our hearts and on our roads." - @Giro d'Italia on Michele Scarponi