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.


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

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!”

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.

Tour of Britain 2011 – Stage 6: Taunton to Wells

I took this Friday off work to join my cycling-enthusiast neighbours and their friend on a mission to Cheddar and Wells to watch Stage 6 of the Tour of Britain. We set off from Bristol at 10am and headed along the country lanes where we were joined by several other cyclists en route, so that by the time we arrived into Cheddar we had amassed our own peloton of riders. We stopped at a busy cafe in Cheddar for coffee and cake before making our way up Cheddar Gorge in preparation for the race.

The limestone gorge in the Mendip Hills provided a stunning backdrop to the race as we stood at the side of the road to cheer on the riders.

Once the riders and their entourage of cameramen, police motorcycles, race stewards, support cars, repair vehicles and a ‘broom wagon’ had all eventually passed we joined the thousands of other cycling spectators making our way from Cheddar to Old Bristol Hill for the next viewing point.

This stage of the Tour had been cleverly laid out to allow for three potential viewing locations which trebled the enjoyment for spectators and trebled the supportive cheers for the riders as they attempted to conquer the steep hills of Somerset. But if there’s one thing to make a day better for everybody it’s the sight of a middle aged man sprinting in a mankini.

We shouted and cheered the riders up Old Bristol Hill and shortly after seeing Mankini-Man jogging back down the hill with bright red slap marks on his bum we set off for Wells and the finishing line.

In Wells we joined the party by scrambling up any available wall (or tree) to get a good view of the finishing line. The atmosphere was great as we watched Lars Boom sprint across the line for a relatively simple win (later that evening I saw tv highlights and the terrible crash on the last corner which basically presented him the victory).

From Wells we headed back to Bristol taking on the King of the Mountains climb of Old Bristol Hill and several long flat stretches with killer cross-winds before struggling up Belmont Hill for the final climb back to Clifton. In total we covered 60 miles on a day of great Tour spectating and enjoyable and challenging cycling. I will be back again next year …