Random riding

I’m not commuting or training at the moment. Previously my cycling has always fallen into one of these two categories; commuting to work, or training for some kind of climbing or time-trialling. I’m still getting out a coupe of times a week, but now for a mix between pleasure and keeping fit. It’s difficult to ride exclusively for pleasure – as with most forms of exercise there needs to be a certain amount of discomfort to make it worthwhile. Fortunately I’m starting to feel fitness levels improving which brings a level of satisfaction and pleasure to cycling.

This morning I headed out to ride a random route along unfamiliar roads. Using the GPS as a digital compass it’s possible to create a new route on the hoof without getting completely lost. I never pre-programme routes on the Garmin – the less interaction I have with complex computer software the better for everyone. I did try once and spent an evening frustratingly asking my “stupid computer” why-wont-it-do-this and why-wont-it-do-that until my wife finally pointed out that maybe it was the operator who was stupid. Using a £350 GPS for a compass and using an expensive laptop purely to write inane blog posts and watch ‘epic fail videos’ on youtube she might have a point.

I was up and out the house early. Despite the weather forecast showing a warm day ahead I felt a nasty bite in the air when I went to fetch the bike from the shed. So I added an extra layer and set off. East.

a

First decision – none of these place names took my fancy so I carried straight on

The sky was blue and it seemed to be warming up, just as predicted by the weather forecast. But then I saw a field full of cows laying down. And I thought: who do I trust, the clever computers or the dumb old cows?

Rain coming ...

Rain coming …

The cows were right. It started to rain and I got wet. Then I made a bad decision and ended up riding up a flooded and mucky road.

I got wetter

I got wetter

At some point or other I popped out in the City of Wells. It was still early so I decided to go via the cathedral.

Familiar ground ahead

Familiar ground ahead

A bad picture of Wells Cathedral

Not the brightest street light in the world – just a bad photo

I headed back home over the hills via a little road above Westbury-sub-Mendip. It was no hidden treasure unfortunately – 2 miles of evil steepness with a fair dose of gravel and potholes. But it felt good to reach the top. Typically, the fine weather seemed to break through the clouds just as I neared home.

Home in sight

Home in sight

Despite a few dodgy moments it was a nice to add some spontaneity to the ride and experience some new roads. And to get back home after an hour and a half in the saddle for a well-earned breakfast. Fortunately my wife had completed breakfast duty with the little one and she was patiently reading the paper and waiting.

Little Miss contemplates the tricky Wiggins / Tour de France issue

Little Miss contemplates Team Sky’s tricky Wiggins / Tour de France issue

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.

Wooden storage chest (providing a home for cycling stuff)

Back when I decided to get a bike and use the car less, I thought it would make life simpler. In some ways it has – ditching the gym membership and exercising while commuting has given more free time and also turned the worst part of the day into the most enjoyable part. However I never really comprehended the added complication of all the stuff needed to ride a bike.

The other day a friend emailed me with a link to a new road bike he’s considering buying. Like many other people he wants to get into cycling but hasn’t actually owned a bike since he was a teenager and has never owned a road bike. I said the bike looked good and made some well-intentioned comments about the frame, groupset and gear ratio which were almost certainly confusing and completely unhelpful. I also said that he should consider the cost of buying pedals, helmet, shoes, shorts, jersey, waterproofs, leggings, lights, bottle & bottle cage, spare inner tube, pump, multitool, saddlebag, tyre levers and a speedometer. It wasn’t my intention to scare him off but I never heard back!

As well as recently confusing and scaring friends I’ve also been irritating my wife. Every evening I leave little cycling nests around the house in preparation for the next day: helmet, gloves and glasses by the back door; jacket, shorts and jersey at the top of the stairs; water bottle, hat and Garmin at the bottom of the stairs; pannier bag in the corner of the kitchen. To me it all makes perfect sense and my morning routine involves visiting each nest in succession as I turn from zombie into cyclist. But to my wife it’s just a bunch of annoying, ugly clutter that needs a home. So in order to maintain marital harmony (and mostly just to keep myself busy) I decided to build myself a large, permanent nest in the form of a wooden storage chest from old scaffolding boards.

Restoring old scaffolding boards required a lot of sanding

The first step was to cut the boards to the approximate length. This also allowed me to cut out any excessively damaged parts. I then joined boards in pairs using dowelled, butt joints. Any gaps between the boards were filled using a wood-coloured filler before sanding smooth.

I decided to join the corners of the chest with mitres as cut ends of scaffolding boards would have been too rough. I don’t (yet) own a table saw so this required some careful cutting. Fortunately, however, I am now the proud new owner of a router which I used to cut grooves for the base board of the box. I decided to use plywood for the base to keep the overall weight of the box to a minimum.

Mitred corners and a groove for the base board. Note the newly purchased router (my cycling equipment is still inferior to my tool arsenal)

Box glued and strapped

For added strength I then decided to dowel the mitred corners.

Dowelled corners

After more sanding I applied a clear varnish to the top. However once dried I wasn’t happy with the colour. I think the scaffolding boards are pine which can sometimes turn a bit yellowish under a clear varnish. So I decided to go for an ‘antique oak’ stain with a clear varnish to give a more rugged look. Unfortunately this meant more sanding of the top to take it back to the natural wood.

The top with clear varnish – the box with ‘antique oak’ stain and clear varnish

I recently found a local reclamation yard which sells a few pieces of new, hand-made, forged ironmongery. I headed over there and found some great looking handles and hinges for the box.

Hand made hinge

Handle

It’s difficult to tell from the photos, but the box measures approximately 1 metre x 45 cm (3ft x 1 & 1/2 ft). This should be ample space for my current cycling equipment plus a few inevitable future purchases.

The permanent nest at the bottom of the stairs

et voila!

My only concern is that it actually looks a bit prettier than intended and may subsequently be commandeered by my wife to become a much needed table / footstool in the lounge. I suppose at least then I can return to my systematic and completely logical nesting routine guilt-free!

Bike v Car – the unofficial time trial

This week someone asked me how long my 16 mile commute would take if I went by car. I didn’t know, but I guessed it would take about half an hour. By bike it normally takes me 50 minutes, with a best time of 45 minutes-something. It got me thinking: surely a self-proclaimed “Bike v Car” should know this type of thing.

On Saturday I drove Ms BikeVCar’s car to work. Mr BikeVCar has 2 bikes and no car; Ms BikeVCar has one of each and sometimes lets Mr borrow the car when he needs to transport stuff. On previous occasions, Mr was usually loaned the car on the basis that he feeds it a little fuel and looks after it. Not no more – last week a bollard “sneaked up on” Ms BikeVCar resulting in a nasty prang. Today he sought out a quote for the repair.

As it turns out, this prang equates to multi cycle-purchasings for Mr BikeVCar

After finishing work I drove the car home along the exact route that I cycle. I wouldn’t normally drive this way as it consists of narrow lanes and the likely encountering of horses, cyclists and the inevitable ‘tractor-factor’. But in order to make this a fair comparison of transport modes, I followed the exact route.

A rare clear stretch of country lane

Driving my commute turned out to be completely boring and felt like a waste of potentially productive time. I guess this is why we dangerously speed in our cars – it’s totally boring otherwise. With these thoughts I realised that cyclists aren’t in fact a hated, subjugated road species – they’re just an unfortunate inconvenience to bored people in a hurry.

At one point along my route / race against the bike I came across some temporary traffic lights. I’m a reasonably well-behaved cyclist and will generally wait for traffic lights. But at least on the bike you can fly straight to the front of the queue. Today I sat in ‘la confiture des voitures’ and felt extra bored.

The traffic jam, of traffic of jam

Halfway home I realised that I’d never make it in anything like half an hour. This was pleasantly satisfying. But as I neared home it became conceivable that it would take longer than 45 minutes and thusly slower than the bicycle: an absurd outcome. Surely a push-bike could not beat the all-powerful motorvehicle over a 16 mile journey?

I ended up arriving home in 43 minutes – at an average speed of 22 mph. For the same journey my best effort on the bike has been 21 mph. This is very close and surprised me no end.

“Come on, Sunshine. You could three bloody bikes through that gap!”

After this eventful / stressful journey I headed to the bike shop to pick up my trusted commuter stead. It had been enjoying a week long spa treatment, and after 7000 kilometres of my bodged maintenance had finally received a professional makeover.

Brand new old bike

Hopefully without sounding frivolous I had previously become frustrated with my commuter bike to the point of considering a replacement. But a few new components and a professional service has made it feel like a new bike.

Shiny old components

For a minute I thought that maybe they’d accidentally swapped my bike for a brand new one. Then I noticed a few tell-tale marks of wear and tear.

How many left turns did it take to do this?

In summary – bike fast, car faster. But not by much. Old bike good, but shiny old bike better. Keep cycling!

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!”

 

(with Meg)

Despite a series of inconvenient and consecutive ‘real life’ events like a stag-do, a wedding, a family birthday celebration, a Champions League Final and packing up our lives to move house, I have also managed to fit in some cycling.

Firstly I completed three long rides back-to-back after work last week. These extended commutes were as much mental as they were physical preparation for the imminent Tour of Wessex three day cycle event. April’s insane Strava climbing challenge now seems a long time ago, and regardless of the fact that my cycling ability has vastly improved, there was still a nagging sense that an easy month of May could have been softening both my legs and my spirit. In total, last week I rode 253 km (157 miles).

On Sunday I had planned to take the new bike for its second ride. Unfortunately for the bike (but fortunately for the writer) a certain team in blue only went and won the biggest trophy in club football causing the rider to consume vast quantities of alcohol including a rather unnecessarily extravagant bottle of champagne at midnight. Needless to say the new bike stayed indoors on Sunday.

However, Ms BikeVCar was itching to get out on her bike on Sunday and I decided to scrape myself off the sofa and join her … but only on my old bike. I had a feeling that the unmerciful Merckx would have made me sick, again! We rode 34 km in 1 hour 51 and climbed a total of 460 metres. This was some good climbing for Ms BikeVCar and included the infamous Belmont Hill.

“Really? Why on earth did you climb that 17 times in row?”

At the top of the climb, a fortunate fist-full of my jersey prevented her first clipless pedal capsize, before she then demanded to know why I had climbed the hill 17 times in a row. Apparently, “Strava said to do it” was not a valid excuse and only further proved my stupidity.

I generally try to avoid stereotyping the sexes, but there seems to be a bit of a difference between ladies and gents when it comes to the pure enjoyment of combining statistical data with an obsessive competitiveness. The fairer sex do not seem to share this completely irrational pleasure.  So while Ms BikeVCar was later back at home feeling pleased with her enjoyable Sunday ride, somebody else was uploading his data from the ride along with the carefully caveated title “Sunday ride with Meg”. This rather innocuous title was later laughingly pointed out, along the lines of: “is that last bit just in case somebody thinks you rode slow on your own?” Clearly there is some sad truth in this, but I hope that at least half of my readers might have some understanding …

This evening I finally unleashed the beast and took the red Merckx out for its second spin. I rode just over 30 km in exactly an hour which included 350 metres of climbing. And I completely smashed most of my Strava records. It mostly hurt but I could feel I was flying and just kept on pushing. There was no need to add any shallow caveats after that ride, but also no need to bore Ms BikeVCar with every single statistic. She’d only think I was more weird than I am.

A new arrival in the family

I am pleased to announce that I bought my new bike. The Merckx EMX-3.

Following my blog post on the demo ride of the EMX-3 and the two difficult choices faced, I received lots of helpful advice through comments and emails which was really appreciated. People were generally divided into two camps: White Bike v Red Bike.

To recap – the white version of the EMX-3 had Campag Athena groupset, Fulcrum Racing 5 wheels, various other blingy bits of seat post and stem plus “free” shoes and pedals. The red bike had Campag Centaur groupset (one below Athena), Fulcrum Racing 7 wheels (slightly inferior) and slightly less blingy bits of seat post and stem, and no freebies. But it was £400 less.

Red Bike V White Bike

In the end, I opted for the red bike for the following reasons:

  • My original intention was to spend £X and focus on getting the best possible frame to last me for years, where the red bike was £X + £400 and the white bike was £X + £800. I would be happy to settle for lower spec’d wheels and groupset as I could upgrade later when my cycling ability warranted it. A top frame was the number 1 priority.
  • I preferred the look of the red bike
  • The difference between Campag Athena & Racing 5 wheels to Campag Centaur & Racing 7 wheels did not add up to £400 – therefore the shoes and pedals were clearly not “free”
  • Red bikes apparently go faster (according to several people!)

It was not an easy decision, and advice from several people about the short and long-term benefits of Athena over Centaur were noted, but I couldn’t justify the extra spend. Plus I will probably move the Centaur groupset and Fulcrum 7 wheels onto my commuter bike next year when its components wear out and then upgrade to Athena and some decent wheels on the Merckx without raising suspicion from Ms BikeVCar that further big bicycle spending is going on. “Yes, the bike was expensive, but it will now last me for years so it’s an investment”.

A beautiful bike in some beautiful sunshine

A great paint job and internally routed cables

With the new bike bought and some rare sunshine blazing down there was only one thing to do – christen the baby! I intended to cycle from Bedminster to Compton Martin, a relatively easy 20km if you can find your way around hilly Dundry. Unfortunately I don’t know Bedminster very well and got into a complete bugger’s muddle trying to find my way out which ended up leaving me with two options:

  1. Take the long route around Broadoak Hill as intended, but arrive late
  2. Climb the beast of Broadoak Hill and make it on time

Although this appears to be two options, when riding on a flashy bike with the name “Merckx” emblazoned across it in at least 7 places there was actually only one option. You cannot arrive late on a bike like this! At an average gradient of over 10% for 1.2km, Broadoak Hill is a bit of a bastard, but I got over it at an average speed of 14km/h and spending a good amount of that time out of the saddle. The bike felt light and stiff and it was just  about as pleasurable as a killer hill can get.

A road that traverses like this is rarely easy going

I enjoyed my first ride on my new bike. The Campag gearing is very different to Shimano that I am used to, but I like the solid feel of it. My ride was fast, but also comfortable. This was an important consideration in choosing this bike.

It is now living inside our flat and making friends with Ms BikeVCar’s Orbea. This was supposedly due to the security concerns of leaving the bikes outside. Personally I just wanted to be able to look at it and smile. I feel I’ve made the right choice.

Shiny bikes make a great focal point of any front room (note the celebratory bubbly in a pot of ice!)