A birthday surprise – perfect weather on Exmoor in September

For my birthday I gave myself the gift of zero responsibilities. This was mostly a gift from my wife who took care of business for the day while I skived off and went cycling. It wasn’t very “bikevcar”, but I decided to drive down to Exmoor for a long afternoon of cycling.

Glorious Exmoor

Glorious Exmoor

My previous cycling trips to Exmoor have been ‘sportives’, i.e. organised, mass-participation events. Today’s ride was the antithesis of a sportive – no early start because I do not like waking up early at the weekend, no other people because how can you enjoy the peaceful beauty of a national park when you’re surrounded by other cyclists, and no restrictions on my distance or route which was ideal as I hate being told what to do. It was perfect.

I parked the car at a place called Watchet, mostly because the name made me laugh but also because I’d had enough of driving. And then got on my bike and climbed straight up into the moors. The roads around Exmoor can be bonkers-steep – a 20% gradient seems fairly standard for these parts. At one point I almost fell off when the road ramped up so suddenly that I was caught with my hands relaxed on the tops of the bars and didn’t have time to switch to the hoods so that I could stand up. Clearly my concentration and bike handling skills still need some work.

Up up and away

Up up and … then round the corner and up some more

There were a few notable climbs that I’d wanted to find (Dunkery Beacon and the Porlock Toll Road) but other than that I had no aim. Just a photocopy of a road map to avoid getting lost and jersey pockets stuffed full of food to keep me going.

IMG_8532

The moors

The moors

In the end I managed 70 miles and around 6,500 feet of climbing. But it was just one of those days that I’ll remember for a long time. Exmoor in September in crisp, beautiful sun. A glorious 5 hours on the bike followed by a pint of ale in a classic English pub garden beside a river. For a man who loves to moan,  it’s fairly epic when I have a day with nothing to moan about!

A

The White Horse Inn, Washford – post ride beer in a pub garden beside the river

a

Frothy pint of ale – perfect day

Two hours plus

I went out for my longest ride of the year today. Which isn’t really saying much, I think it was only my third ride of 2015. I’d put in a full shift looking after our toddler daughter all of last weekend, so in return I was given exclusive rights to my own Saturday today. It’s sometimes hard to imagine that less than 2 years ago I owned exclusive rights to all of every weekend. No wonder I took up cycling as a hobby – I needed something to fill those long, responsibility-free hours. Unfortunately, these days I’m even less imaginative when given total freedom – the world was my oyster and I chose to go for a long cycle and then do some DIY on the house. Rock n roll!

Following my last post, my rest week turned into a rest fortnight. In my normal non-cycling life I split my time between looking after our daughter and working as a part time builder / carpenter. So a break from cycling doesn’t mean I’m being restful. But one of main goals for 2015 is to try and stay injury-free. It’s not good for childcare, it’s bad for work, it puts a stop to cycling and according to Mrs BikeVCar it turns me into “a right grumplestiltskin”. So if I feel like I need another rest week I’ll take another rest week and hopefully enjoy the long-term benefits.

I was intending to ride 50 miles today. It was a plan I’d made after a couple of Friday night beers. For the last few months my longest rides have been around the 30 mile mark. In the winter this takes me a couple of hours. I find 2 hours to be a personal threshold in cycling – riding over 2 hours requires me to take food, in the summer it means an extra water bottle, and in the winter it’s a level of masochism that I’m not normally interested in. But today I went for it.

After a hearty breakfast I layered up and set off. Within the first hour I’d already reduced my goal to 40 miles. And after an hour and a half, on my way up Cheddar Gorge at a painfully slow speed I seriously considered just heading back home and calling it a day at around 30 miles. Enough with this unnecessary torture.

There were a few big groups of teenage lads on the Gorge with these peculiar downhill trikes that I’d never seen before. The trikes looked pretty cool and were essentially bikes so I considered putting a temporary stop to my suffering and having a chat with my cycling brethren. But then I remembered I’m not young anymore and it would have been plainly embarrassing for everyone if I’d tried to start a conversation. Some old guy in dorktastic head-to-toe lycra trying to mix it with the kids. Just leave it and suffer on, I sensibly decided.

Trike Drifting

Trike Drifting is for cool kids and not people who have to come home and do a Google search for “downhill trike” to find out what it’s called

Once on the top of the Mendips for a second and final time, I surprised myself by turning away from home and committing to an extra hour in the saddle. I rode for nearly 3 hours, covering over 40 miles and returned home frozen and completely worn out. For that final hour my stomach gnawed away at me and my fingers froze through my thick gloves – to the point where the gloves felt like they were soaking and had shrunk. I was wearing my winter cycling boots and the thickest socks so at least my feet survived – but in hindsight these additional nerdly items of clothing were another good reason I didn’t stop on the Gorge.

It feels good to get a decent ride under my belt for the year. But it was also reassuring confirmation that winter rides over 2 hours require a level of dedication that I’m currently not feeling. I’ll be waiting for the temperatures to rise significantly before I increase my ride lengths.

Taking it steady

I am thankfully now healed from my troublesome injury and have been getting out on the bike a couple of times a week. It’s looking a bit like Winter and feeling like it too. But it was only officially confirmed as Winter today when the average speed for my ride ended up below 14mph – the true threshold of Autumn / Winter. I was slow going uphill due to the weight of winter bike, mudguards and many layers of clothing. And slow going downhill due to a cautious approach on the treacherous roads and from trying to lessen the numbing effects of cold winds blasting my bare face. For me this time of year isn’t about speed, it’s about getting out when I have an opportunity to ride. Especially on those cold, crisp, sunny days like today.

a

Casting long winter shadows 

When the sun’s hanging this low in the sky, visibility can be quite difficult at times. I make sure to wear colourful clothing, have a decent set of lights and take a good look before making any manoeuvres. It’s also another reason to take it steady in the winter. I rode a 25 mile loop today, mostly along quiet back lanes. This is probably somewhere near the limit of what I want to ride at this time of year. The back lanes were filthy and despite the mudguards my bike seems to be growing a thick, brown, winter coat to keep it warm over the coming months. The signs of good winter use.

a

On the quiet roads of the Mendip Hills today

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

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.

IMG_1082

 

Weekly do-stuffering

This week was a straight flush for the bike with five consecutive days of cycle commuting and no driving. The morning temperature is now getting noticeably colder and the sun is only beginning to rise as I leave for work. This has resulted in the need for pansy clothing like full gloves, long sleeves and overshoes but has also provided some beautiful sunrises out on the quiet country lanes.

The sun rising over a misty Chew Valley this week

On Friday evening we went to the Chew Valley Beer Festival with a few friends. We enjoyed a variety of decent local ales, although there was one memorable thick, black stout which would probably have been more suitable as a lubricant for my lawnmower engine.

Rock & Roll & Beer. Fest.

Following some hungedover festering on Saturday morning I rode to the local bike shop to see if someone could take a look at my skipping chain and also cut down my ugly steering tube. Unfortunately the mechanics were too busy (or they took one look at my mud-encrusted machine and just pretended to be busy) so I bought a new chain and headed home to try and do it myself. The chain was a pain (although at least there was no rain on a plane in Spain to add to my woes). I got the old one off and fitted the new one but this made the problem infinitely worse than before. It would seem that the stretched chain has worn the rear cassette cogs (or something like that according to some quick searching on the internet) so I was forced to take it off and refit the old chain, which I firstly managed to do back-to-front from it’s previous setup resulting in me quickly transforming from Mr BikeVCar to a greasy-handed Grumpelstiltskin. After some effing and jeffing I eventually managed to restore my bike to it’s original shonky condition.

Next on the agenda for my incompetent bike mechanical skills was cutting down the steering tube. This is a completely vain requirement and serves no purpose other than making my crappy bike look slightly less crappy. During my five minutes of internet research I found out that lots of other cycling idiots had cut their steering tubes too short resulting in useless bikes with redundant front forks. Determined not to make this mistake I decided to cut the tube just 10mm initially, this being the length of one large spacer. I also used the spacer as my guide for cutting, rather than trying to achieve a specific measurement from the underside of the stem cap (this seemed a likely cause of other people’s mis-cutting).

Step 1 – remove heavily rusted steel forks / steering bar thingy and mark the cut line with some tape

Cut tube with a little girl’s little hacksaw (men’s hacksaws are available but you have to prove your manliness to the bloke in the local hardware shop to be allowed to buy one)

Stand back and admire the handiwork – all those nasty, burred edges of metal look great. Go and hunt around in your handbag for your nail file to clean it up 

Voila! Finished job (p.s. before ‘Step 1’ don’t forget to knock down the little star-shaped nut inside the tube before you start cutting. I hope nobody is ever stupid enough to try and follow these terrible instructions

I didn’t take any photos of the finished job because it was dark by the time I’d eventually lashed it all back together. But it all worked fine with no injuries, swearing or questionable workmanship which is very unusual for my normal bike butchering.

The naked stem

I’ve been riding my bike almost every day recently. But I’ve been doing so without my Garmin strapped to the stem. Initially this was because I was riding the same route to work and I knew the distance. But also it was because I was getting bored of strava and the need to electronically document every ride. I think in future I will use it purely as a training tool and not every ride. This week I decided to mix things up a little and altered my route via a hill which takes me about 15 minutes to climb. The weather’s been warm and I found satisfaction in watching the sweat dripping off my nose and chin and splattering my bare stem. It feels good to be concentrating on the road, the rotation of the pedals and the gradients of the hills rather than a distracting bunch of numbers.

the chew valley

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 3: Somerset & Exmoor

Knowing that the organisers of the Tour of Wessex had saved the toughest day for last, we awoke on Day 3 slightly apprehensive about how our bodies would react to another long day in the saddle. The 180 kilometres ahead of us would contain 2500 metres of climbing.

At least we would have 35 km to warm up our knees before the hills began

With most of the hills confined to Exmoor National Park we were looking forward to some great views over towards Wales

On top of the usual breakfast feast I also ate a few eggs and an extra cup of coffee. It wasn’t until I reached the start line with a slight stomach ache that I realised I’d hardly drunk any water since waking up. I consumed both bottles on my bike within the first 40 km thankfully easing my stomach pains before refilling at the first feed zone.

I wasn’t the only cyclist with a full tank of water. Probably the most spectacular pee Gatesy’s ever enjoyed

We blasted our way across Somerset and into Exmoor National Park in North Devon. The hills became very regular but we were rewarded with some amazing views.

On the top of the moors

“That looks a bit like Barry” “Who’s Barry?” 

We cycled up. We cycled down. The sun was shining. The views were spectacular. The hills were long but gentle. We were in a big group and everyone was enjoying themselves. Somebody was laughing. Then something in me switched – I was at the back of the group as we pulled our way up a long hill and I just started working up a rhythm. Before I knew what was happening I was past everyone and off the front of the group. I’m not sure it was a conscious decision to escape but it felt exhilarating and I just kept on pushing. Part of me imagined I was in a race breaking away from the peloton. Part of me just enjoyed the hard work. I rode on my limit overtaking a few other riders further up the road and told myself I would slow down when I was caught. In the end I was on my own for about 10 miles and was completely shattered when the group finally reached me.

“And an unknown rider in blue has broken away from the peloton….”

Gatesy celebrates reeling me in

I knew I’d never actually escape Gatesy, but I also knew he’d be extremely pissed off by my antics which obviously spurred me on! Fortunately I was caught at the start of the descent off the moors giving me ample time to recover.

I had no idea what this sign was supposed to mean but I knew it was good news

This was soon followed by a feed zone where I refuelled and accepted my mocking for embarking on such a fruitless and selfish waste of energy.

A much needed feed zone in a local village hall

Back in the pack and sucking wheels to recover

From the foot of the moors it had looked like an easy last 40 km to the finish line. However the organisers had one last trick up their sleeves with an unadvised additional 15 km. We pressed on and thankfully saw the signs to Somerton just as Gatesy leapt into his early sprint finish. Not wanting to be outdone we followed suit for one final hurrah and crossed the finish line together with much hand shaking and congratulations.

“Is it over? Please say it’s over”

Gatesy shortly before his head exploded under the pressure of 17 gallons of drained lactic acid

I don’t think there’s any way to sum up my three most enjoyable days of cycling and really do it all justice. I think I’ll just let the tan lines do the talking:

The road cyclist’s badge of honour

Paul looking incredibly pleased with the sharpness of his tan lines 

Tour of Wessex – Day 2: Somerset & Dorset

Basecamp at the crack of dawn on Day 2

After a good night’s sleep I awoke early on the morning of Day 2 feeling ok, where “ok” is roughly defined as having functional legs but the knees of a 90 year old who also happens to have been hit up the backside with a sledgehammer. Fortunately I had come prepared for this likely eventuality and had brought ample supplies of ibuprofen and “chamois cream”.

The cyclist prepares his seat for the next 7 hours

The obscene quantities of the previous day’s breakfasting were again repeated but without producing the same energetic effect in the camp. The second day’s riding was billed as 10% further than Day 1, and the realisation that pain and suffering were about to be dished out in prolonged, healthy servings was clearly on our minds. We were definitely not the first riders on the start line today.

Welcome to Groundhog Day

We set our own pace at the start of Day 2 on the long haul to the South coast

For the first 40 kilometres we had established a sizeable chaingang of around 8 riders when Gatesy unfortunately punctured. Thinking we had a few minutes of waiting while he carried out the repair, I disappeared behind a bush to answer the call of nature. I was barely halfway through when I turned around and was amazed to see a neutral service motorbike pulled over and a mechanic replacing his rear wheel. Twenty seconds later we were back on the move and laughing; the only thing missing had been a crazy fan to push him back on his way!

They say every cloud has a silver lining, but we never expected a puncture to be so enjoyable

We continued South along great country lanes across rolling hills in the fine morning sunshine. It was all very enjoyable and regardless of the puncture we were still maintaining a good pace overall.

Crossing the Salisbury Plains

An excessive amount of information on the bike computer, but it did help distract me when the end goal seemed so far away

“I can see the sea!” Reaching the South Coast

Beginning the descent down to the coast

On top of the world – celebrating after a long climb

Having seen the Cerne Abbas Giant, Durdle Door, Corfe Castle and thankfully avoiding seeing any tanks or missiles on Lulworth Military Range we finally reached Wareham after 60 miles where we would effectively turn around and head back along a different route.

They don’t call it the Tour of Wessex for nothing

Following Gatesy’s puncture we had taken the decision to skip the first feed station at 30 miles and keep going to the next one located at 70 miles. The problem with this decision was that it’s generally best to eat before you get hungry, because once hunger strikes the pedals just get heavier and heavier. Sweets, fig rolls and energy gels were dug out from the depths of jersey pockets but by the time we reached the feed zone my legs were shaking uncontrollably and I was really suffering. I ate like a man who hadn’t eaten for weeks and barely chewed before swallowing the first few mouthfuls of cheese rolls, flapjacks and bananas.

The food made a huge difference and we were soon back en route at a steady tempo. Things were looking good until my front tyre suffered a blow out. I quickly pulled over and stripped off the tyre looking for the cause. At first I couldn’t find anything but then noticed a long gash in the side wall of the tyre which looked like bad news. I didn’t have any tape to patch up the inside of the tyre wall so I just shoved in a new inner tube and replaced the tyre. However once I started pumping it up, the inner tube started to bulge out of the gash. In hindsight I suppose I might have been able to slip a plastic wrapper inside the tyre to retain the tube, but thankfully on this occasion we were again saved by the neutral service motorbike who produced a replacement tyre and even carried out the repair for me.

Paul offering stringent criticism of my tyre mending technique

Lightning may strike twice so always ensure you are followed by a support crew

Having lost significant time through two punctures and an excessive gorging session at the second feed zone we hit a high pace back to the finish. Once again we picked up a few other riders of similar ability to share the workload. The dark clouds which had been threatening all afternoon eventually exploded a few miles from home which only made us ramp up the pace further. On top of the motorcycle support this was yet another reminder of how fortunate we had been. Rather than huddle beneath our tarpaulin that evening we decided to venture into the town of Somerton for a beer and some local grub. We discussed the events of the day’s 119 miles and prepared ourselves for the final chapter of this epic Tour.

Great pace and great camaraderie to the finishing line