The small pleasures of a few choice words while riding in unpleasant conditions

I went out for a ride on Saturday in foul weather. Snow is forecast and you can feel it coming with the temperature hovering around zero degrees in the daytime. I set off in the persistent drizzle with no plan other than to climb up the Mendip hills a couple of times mostly just to keep warm. The first climb went ok and I surprised myself at one point by getting out of the saddle to accelerate a little. For the last few months I have only really stood up while climbing in order to transfer the pain to a different part of my legs so it felt good to be riding uphill with just the smallest amount of control over my effort.

On top of the Mendips I was blown all over the roads by the strong gusts and when combined with the drizzle from above and muddy spray from below I was soon ready for another climb to warm me up. On the way down towards Cheddar Gorge a delivery van pulled out in front of me forcing me to hit the brakes. Normally I would have shouted out in frustration (possibly combined with a hand gesture) but on this occasion I was using up all my mental energy to fight the weather so I just let it go.

However, half a mile later I was gifted a golden opportunity for some rare revenge: I saw the van up ahead with the driver getting out and going around the back to fetch a parcel. He then closed the back doors and went to cross the road without looking. Maybe he was listening out for traffic or maybe he walked like he drove. Just as he went to step in front of my line I shouted out “WOAH, WOAH! LOOK WHERE YOU’RE GOING, PAL!” The size of his jump back towards the van combined with the look of terror on his face was priceless. I approached the climb of Cheddar Gorge with a smile on my face.

Due to the recent bad weather the gorge is now closed to traffic making what is normally a busy tourist attraction quite a peaceful and solitary experience. It was almost enjoyable until the headwind hit and my lungs and legs exploded.

At the top I saw a fellow cyclist and we rode together for a few minutes. Communication was limited to shouting to be heard over the wind, both slurring our words due to frozen, rubbery faces. I think we both garbled the same sort of thing about struggling up the gorge and hoping it would all be worth it come the summer. I noticed he had a big, dried smear of saliva down the side of his face and I realised I was probably displaying a frozen bogey or two. Not the most attractive of scenes but I think we both offered some encouragement to each other before sinking back into our private worlds and heading our separate ways home.



A perfect afternoon to cycle

This week was a full week of commuting to work by car. It has been difficult breaking the habit of cycling every day and I’ve felt some frustrations in not being able to do the most enjoyable part of my day. On Tuesday night I did my first ever session on a turbo trainer. Ms BikeVCar bought the contraption a few months ago to do some training while recovering from a knee injury. I was sceptical about using it, but it was surprisingly enjoyable working up a sweat in the freezing cold garage. Not wanting to drip sweat over my nice bike I decided to use the commuter bike which seemed a bit odd using a bike with mudguards and rack on an indoor trainer.

This weekend we were back in London for a friend’s birthday. Sunday turned out to be a beautiful day, and definitely not a day to be stuck inside a car on the motorway. Fortunately we made it home in time to get outside and enjoy the last few hours of the weekend sunshine. Ms BikeVCar donned her welly boots and set off on a hike; I quickly geared up for a ride on the bike.

A few photos taken by Ms BikeVCar looking across the Chew Valley – at the time this photo was taken I was cycling up and down the Mendips Hills which can be seen in the background. A perfect day for hiking & cycling

I set off on a 40km route taking in both Burrington Coombe and Cheddar Gorge – the two most popular local climbs. Having recently noticed that my climbing times were increasing despite giving it 100%, I decided to try and pace myself on both climbs. This isn’t really my natural instinct but it paid dividends today and I achieved personal bests up both climbs. This is no mean feat on a Sunday afternoon when the foot of Cheddar Gorge is awash with cars full of tourists out to sample its tacky delights.

I’m not sure of my winter cycling plan, other than to keep fit on the turbo, keep sane by getting out on the road at the weekends and keep myself injury free by not trying to commute in total darkness. I had been in a bit of a funk this week but this afternoon’s hard ride has completely cheered me up.

A new climbing challenge

On Wednesday, the superhuman athletes in this year’s Tour de France will tackle the infamous ‘Circle of Death‘ climbing a total of 7000 metres in one hard day. With this is mind, Strava & Rapha have challenged people to attempt to climb this altitude. However, as mere mortals we have been granted a week, this being the length of time the Tour passes through the Pyrenees.

Our new home is situated at the foot of the Mendip Hills which are designated as an area of outstanding national beauty, and are also an area of outstanding bike-suffering opportunities. This morning the challenge began, and I had arranged to meet Andy for a ride. I was ready a little early, so decided to ‘warm up’ with a climb up onto the Mendips. Within a minute I was warm and within two I was suffering. At an 11% average gradient for 1.5km this particular hill had been a poor choice of hill to get started on. Looking down I took inspiration by my new customised stem cap, ordered after a recommendation by the ‘all seasons cyclist‘.

How can you ever take your foot off the gas with this question in your face

With Andy we went for a 80km ride that included a total of 1500 metres of climbing. We took on Burrington Coombe, Cheddar Gorge and Old Bristol Hill. In total I climbed the Mendip Hills five times.

A hard day’s climbing, but only 20% of the “Circle of Death” climbing

We rode together up Burrington Coombe but Andy completely left me for dead on Cheddar Gorge. He overtook me like I was standing still and disappeared into the distance. My heart rate was hitting 185bpm but I didn’t see him again until the top. On getting back home I saw that I had set a personal best up this climb which made his electrifying pace even more terrifying. I did manage to beat him up Old Bristol Hill, however this was purely down to the fact that his gear cable snapped and he was forced to ride up the last kilometre at a 15% gradient single-speed!

Not sure what happened to my camera but this is a fairly accurate portrayal of my perspective as my heart hit 185bpm

Back up on the Mendips for the 5th and final time

Single speed up Old Bristol Hill

Coincidentally I received a parcel in the post this week. It was the commemorative water bottle for completing the last Strava climbing challenge. It looks good on the bike.

Not the toughest

A couple of weeks ago Ms BikeVCar said we should go for a cycle around Chew Lake. From our house it’s an enjoyable 25 km loop and she wanted to learn  the route. When it’s raining hard, it’s obviously not as enjoyable and at that time it was raining hard. When Mr BikeVCar pointed this out, she said that he might get a bit wet so best to wear a rain jacket. At this point he was beginning to wonder whether he had become the second hardest cyclist in the household.

Last week he got home from work on a wet and blustery evening to find a note from Ms BikeVCar.

Man, she is tough

This weekend she wanted to go for a longer ride so Mr BikeVCar decided to set a tougher test than Chew Lake. From our house we headed West to Blagdon on the morale-sapping undulating road which then leads straight into Burrington Coombe, a 250 metre climb to the highest point of the Mendip Hills.

“Did you say this was a hard climb, or is the hard bit still to come?”

From the top of Burrington Coombe we headed around Beacon Batch and across the top of the Mendips. The sun was shining, the air was clear and a forthcoming climb of Cheddar Gorge was being plotted by Mr BikeVCar.

On top of the Mendips

Mr BikeVCar contemplates the next test of toughness

It was such a clear day you could see all the way to Wales

Cycling uphill is one thing, but going downhill through steep, shadowy, potholed, gravelly country lanes can also be tough.

“Are you doing this on purpose?”

From the top of the Mendips we raced down to the foot of Cheddar Gorge. The option of coffee and cake was presented but Ms BikeVCar said it would only delay the inevitable hardship. Cake should be saved for the end.

Beginning the climb of Cheddar Gorge

The goats knew not to mess with Ms BikeVCar on a mission

Ms BikeVCar climbs the steepest hill in the world

From the top of Cheddar Gorge we had a 6 km ride back across the top of the Mendips followed by the type of descent that hurts the hands and elbows and emits a smell of burning rubber brake pads. In total we covered 40 very hilly kilometres at a respectable pace. And as we tucked into our well-earned chocolate brownies Ms BikeVCar was already talking about going for a longer ride next weekend. “Something a bit tougher than today!”


Tour of Wessex – Day 1: Somerset & Wiltshire

Along with three other crazed cycling friends, 9 months ago we signed up to the 2012 Tour of Wessex: a three-day event covering a total of 545km (340 miles). And after 9 months of not knowing whether it’s actually possible to train for such an event, the day had suddenly arrived. The event took place over a bank holiday long weekend giving us three days to cycle and a fourth day to then complain to sympathetic wives and girlfriends about hurting from head to toe.

Day 1 Route – Somerset and Wiltshire

Base camp for the event was the village of Somerton where by Friday evening we had all arrived, pitched tents and set up the barbecue. Excited anticipation was mixed with the obligatory downplaying of recent training.

Breakfast the next morning consisted of coffee, porridge, jam, bananas, oranges, figs, brioche and just about any other carb-dense foodstuff known to man. By the time we rolled on to the start line 20 minutes early it was difficult to tell whether we were all overcome by nervous energy or just a massive sugar-rush.

The first course of breakfast being prepared

The start line on Day 1. “Where’s everyone else?”

We set off in the first group of 50 and despite an agreement the previous evening to ride even tempo we were quickly caught up in a exciting group of a dozen or so riders thrashing it across the country lanes of Somerset. We took our turns pulling the group before dropping back to recover in the slipstream. A conversation during one of these moments revealed that many of these riders were just there for the one day and could afford to go hell-for-leather. Approaching Cheddar Gorge we realised that our average speed was too fast, and regardless of the fact that it had been assisted by drafting it was clearly not going to be sustainable for over 20 hours so we let the group go.

We were fortunately blessed with some unforecasted fine weather

Cheddar Gorge was the major climb of Day 1 and also happens to be in my back yard. Knowing the climb gave me the ability to pace myself appropriately. It isn’t a particularly difficult climb once you get through the first two steep bends, but past experience has proven that attacking it too hard can lead to some serious suffering further up. I took the two corners at a steady pace and then worked up a good rhythm for the following 3km of gradual ascent. The first feed station of the day was situated at the top of the Gorge and we stopped briefly to top up bidons and grab a few handfuls of jelly babies and flapjack.

A quick feed at the top of Cheddar Gorge

The route then took us down an exhilarating descent of Old Bristol Hill where I hit a top speed of 76km/h and was just beginning to question my sanity when I was overtaken by someone else. I feel that descending shows me up as a novice, but is also probably result of having entered cycling at an older age. Had I started at the fearless age of 18 then I’m sure I’d fly down hills without constantly touching my breaks and saying “woah, woah … woooooooaaaaaaaahhhh …” to myself. Maybe once you get past the age of 30 there’s unfortunately no escaping this fear-factor.

The rest of the route went to plan and we were either riding in our own small group, or within a larger group of adopted riders of similar ability. Taking turns to pull the pace line before dropping back to draft your way back up the line was great fun and made a huge difference in maintaining speed and conserving energy. And after 170km of riding with nearly 2000 metres of climbing, we crossed the finish line in an overall time of 6 hours and 1 minute which included 12 minutes of stopping to refuel.

Finished! Well, for today at least …

Back at Basecamp we ate a first dinner of takeaway Chinese before tragically attempting to erect a tarpaulin to shelter us from the threatening clouds. We spent over an hour unsuccessfully trying to secure the sheet between two trees and two cars and when one of these cars was then edged forward causing an opposite corner to rip we noticed that we had been providing great entertainment to the rest of the campsite. Fortunately we were then assisted by our neighbour’s eleven year son who pointed out how to erect a simple and robust shelter. We consoled ourselves by agreeing that he was almost certainly a cub-scout.

If you plan to camp in England in the summer you need to know how to erect a simple shelter. If you lack these basic skills then ask a small child for help

Following a second dinner cooked on the barbecue we spent some time stretching, groaning and surveying the next day’s route before heading back to our tents for an early night’s rest.

When it comes to carb-loading it’s important not to ignore any potential energy source

“Is it weird going to bed at 9:30pm on a Saturday night?” “Yes – but not as weird as cycling 6 hours a day for three days in a row, so get some sleep!”

The snot gauge

The clocks went forward last weekend. For the small sacrifice of losing an hour’s sleep on one Sunday each year, we gain the benefit of being able to pursue outdoor activities such as bike-suffering for an additional hour every day.

Alternatively you could just hoe away to your hearts-content

My job in Nailsea is back underway again which means I am able to cycle-commute to work each day. And with the weather currently hotter than an English summer (it appears that our seasons have been modified to run Winter – Summer – Autumn – Winter … where Summer lasts for 2 weeks from the end of March each year) I decided to head out on the bike after work for a spot of bike-suffering.

Rather than consulting the heart-rate monitor of the Garmin on my handlebars, the best method for judging my effort at riding uphill is currently to go hard until the display becomes obscured by fallen dribble and/or snot and then keep going for a bit longer. To date this hasn’t resulted in any serious damage to my health or the Garmin.

This evening I rode up Brockley Coombe, Burrington Coombe, Cheddar Gorge and Belmont Hill on a 45 mile route. The highlight was passing two guys halfway up Cheddar Gorge with shaven pins and expensive bikes. Applying correct bike-suffering etiquette I slowed down as I passed … not out of politeness, but in order to sound less exhausted as I exchanged a little idle chit-chat. I then put the hammer down and flew past, imagining them thinking “that was one impressive, hairy, hill-climber on the crappy Halfords bike”. A minute later the first one flew back past me, making a jovial, friendly comment which was unfortunately inaudible over my puffing and panting. A couple of minutes later I realised the second guy was on my wheel so I kept the best pace I could manage. Ultimately this wasn’t enough and he eventually passed at a pace I couldn’t match. An essential and cruel lesson in bike-suffering – focus on your own Garmin snot-gauge and not other riders’ ability / inability!

I stopped at the top for a drink / eat / rest and to take a couple of photos of my new cycle jersey. I had been internet window-shopping for quite some time for a new jersey but hadn’t found one that I liked. Then I went to the Bespoked Bristol Bike Show last weekend and picked up a pseudo-BikeVCar jersey produced by mill tag which is basically perfect. A simple design of just two colours but with blingy rear pockets in Tour de France colours. These photos don’t really do it justice but they were the best I could do with an outstretched arm.

BikeVCar The Jersey - cyclists and 2CVs

The rear pockets - just need to earn the colours

From Cheddar I headed back home across the Mendips and had to stop and take this photos when I turned a corner and was presented with an awesome panorama of the Chew Valley and its shimmering lakes.

The Chew Valley

I arrived home after three hours of riding just as it was getting dark. I was still wearing my mirrored sunglasses in the dark and thought for a minute that I must have looked like a 1990s movie assassin. But then I remembered I was wearing stripy lycra and smelled pretty bad which isn’t exactly conventionally-cool so made a quick retreat to the confines of a nice, hot shower.

A 97 mile commute

I needed to get from Bristol to Somerton to check out a new site. It’s over 30 miles away so I would have normally driven, but work is quiet and I fancied a long ride so I went for it. My with jersey pockets stuffed with bananas, energy gels, flapjacks, a raincoat, bunches of keys and a phone I was about to set off when my supplies started vibrating. Fortunately it was the phone and not the banana. The call concerned the project in Nailsea and meant adding a 15 mile detour to the start of the ride.

Hunting for hills in Somerset

From Nailsea I headed in the wrong direction back towards Bristol purely to climb the ridge onto the Clevedon Road before finally heading South towards my distant destination. It was an eerie ride with thick fog reducing visibility to about 20 metres.

Fog at high elevation - possibly cycling inside a cloud?

En route to Somerton I took a few further diversions to climb Brockley Coombe, Burrington Coombe and Cheddar Gorge so that by the time I eventually arrived I was completely shattered having covered 60 hilly miles. Fortunately I had been able to dismiss thoughts of abandoning by thinking logically about the lack of alternative transport options. In Somerton I found a shop and stocked up on supplies to replace my depleted jersey pockets.

I took a more direct route home and fortunately felt reenergised by the feed in Somerton. It was 37 miles home and took about 2 & 1/2 hours including a couple of stops to check my map and to eat.

At home I showered, changed and then collapsed on the sofa. 97.4 miles / 6 hours of cycling / 16.6mph average speed / 6546 feet of climbing. When Ms BikeVCar arrived home to find a vegetable for a husband, her first comment was “why didn’t you just cycle 3 miles more and make it 100?” Not the reaction I was expecting, but a good point no less.

The outcome of yesterday’s ‘research’ is that unless you do a job that takes only 2 hours work per day, and you can do that work horizontally from the sofa with your eyes closed and quietly groaning, then commuting 97 miles probably isn’t practical.