Wildwood CX sportive

As the new year dawned something in my riding roots reared its ugly head. A long-dormant offroad past. Maybe it was collecting the mountain bike of my youth from the garage where it had sat for the past decade. Whatever it was, it made me think that signing up to a cyclocross sportive was a good idea. On my fixie commuter. 80kms of road, firetrack and singletrack. On 25mm slicks. (Let’s see what these Gatorskins are made of!)

As an aside, I’m sure that you, like me, can get a little obsessive with the BBC weather app. (I’m not the first to notice the differences between BBC forecasts and their supposed source, the Met Office.) At this time of year its cheery little weather icons can make or break a day. Hours training in the dark are best kept dry if possible. Hours training indoors best kept to a minimum. But my friend the BBC weather app sometimes has other ideas.

So this week let’s just say I was a little more obsessive. From its first appearance on Monday, this morning’s forecast did not look good. Cold. Heavy rain from 9 am – exactly half an hour after I was due to start. Still, what faith can you have in a forecast? I told myself. Well, come Saturday night, I could have sworn those little icons were a darker shade of grey with larger, more menacing rain drops hanging beneath them. The only time I’ve ever known the five-day forecast to be accurate.

And, come this morning, for the first time ever, the forecast was exactly right. A 6:30 alarm got me to the start line for 8:30 am. Kitted, booted, bike prepped (yes it has a working brake), cup of tea warming my belly from the kind lady behind the teapot. I’m ready. It’s on. And there are quite a few of us on the start line.

But not as many as expected. Those who didn’t turn up missed out on a whole lot of fun. The route wound its way around the Chilterns, mixing up smooth surface with, well, the very bumpy. At least it felt like it to me. When you’re used to riding on the road it takes a little time to get used to the bike sliding around underneath you again. Throw in the torrential rain that begun after 10 minutes of riding and it got pretty tricky in places. After a few minutes I decided the best tactic was to ride through puddles in the hope of finding hard-packed ground in their depths. Better wet legs than a muddy face plant.

And after a while I settled into things. But this was a hard ride. Today my strava suffer score does not tell the whole story. Those chiltern climbs can be pretty steep, making a fixed gear a quad-wrenching choice. This takes early-season work on force (see upcoming posts on my training plans) to a whole new level.

But today every section of the ride was hard. The joy of cresting each climb tempered by knowing that without the option of free-wheeling, each descent was a battle against spinning legs and building up too much speed to control (good for leg speed though!). And the off-road sections demanded total concentration at all times, to thread a line through the mud, puddles and stones.

And so eventually after 40kms the inevitable happened – I punctured. A thorn, it turned out. Through the middle of my Gatorskin. Well, it was a big ask for a road tyre. But fixing it killed me off. I sheltered under a tree in the hope of finding a dry spot. Instead I found myself feeling wetter under the shower of larger drops falling from it. Drenched. And by the time I’d fixed my puncture, very cold. Fingers so numb that I had to pull out the thorn with my teeth. Time to head home, despite my ambition to complete the longer 80km route.

So I finished after 50kms, cold, but feeling OK. Sometimes it’s only later that you realise how cold you were. It took a long time to warm me up. Three cups of tea, an hour driving home with the heater on full blast and half an hour in a hot bath. Only after all of that did I begin to feel warm again. Maybe it was the right decision to call it a day early!

And it’s all left me wanting more! I definitely earned my dinner tonight. And I absolutely loved the riding. Even at my coldest, once I’d turned for home I enjoyed those last 10kms. Earlier on I’d had one of those moments, peering out from underneath my cap, rain blinding me, a gale blowing against me, cadence probably 30. Despite all that, I just thought, I love riding my bike. And sometimes, that’s all there is to it.

CX sportive bike

Fixed

What is it about riding fixed that gets on everyone’s nerves? Maybe we have Shoreditch hipsters to blame. But thankfully they moved on to other more trendy things some time ago. No more deep v rims weighing more than the rest of the bike put together, painted in a neon rainbow of colours. Not now that neon is so very mainstream (one tone only please).

Anyway. I digress. Unless I’m adding training miles to my commute, I’m riding fixed to work and back. And while we’re at it, let’s get one thing out of the way. Yes, I have a brake. I have no wish to end up beneath a car or worse.

It took a little getting used to. Inevitably there was the odd time when my legs stopped and my pedals didn’t, leaving me bucking forward and looking like a prize idiot. And yes, I have a flip-flop hub, so could easily switch.

So, you might ask, why do I do it to myself? You won’t find pros riding fixed. What grabs me? Well, you might just gain power from all those low cadence starts from the lights. Without doubt it gives you a smooth pedalling style, especially when descents force your cadence higher than is comfortable. The simplicity of it appeals too, and a fixed steed is a clean contrast to a road bike.

But that doesn’t quite encompass the best reason to ride fixed. Maybe you have to try it, to feel it, and in a city. It teaches you anticipation. Everything slows down. You are connected to the bike, your every movement reflected in where you place the rubber of your tyres.

Every minute of riding fixed seems to help when back on the road bike, when reacting to a change of line in the group, or to a slip of a rear tyre on a greasy winter road. Maybe that’s because it makes you alert. It forces you away from absent minded miles. It’s involving. You’re learning how things move. Cars, cyclists, pedestrians, trucks; each as if on the string of a mobile with a predefined arc but an unpredictable twist. Anticipation is everything. This is cycling efficiency. On London’s roads, this is staying alive.

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Pro score: 3/10

Barcelona

A long weekend in Barcelona. It doesn’t get much better. Perfect winter sun all day for three long days. Daytime temperatures of 15 degrees. Nightfall as late as 6pm. Practically the middle of the night by London standards in December. Ideal conditions for some long winter miles and rediscovering what it is to enjoy riding your bike. What more could you ask for?

This time last year it was Valencia and the fiancé and I did some mind-blowingly good rides beginning only a short drive from the city. Endless kilometers of empty, pancake smooth roads, winding their way up climbs that embarrass even the biggest in the UK. Beginning in orange and olive groves, rising to barren rocky plateaus. Strava segments with fewer than 10 riders! Back and beyond locals’ bars with the best tasting boccadillas you’ve had, all for a couple of Euros. Paella to fuel up for the next day (though locals would never eat it for anything other than lunch).

Except this time, in Barcelona, we don’t have bikes! Sometimes, just sometimes, that’s a good thing. Winter training is hard without these breaks. And anyway, both of us were under the weather leading up to it, so a rest is just what the doctor ordered. Barcelona shone. We explored its every corner on foot (sorry Tyler). We lapped up the sun in its wide, open streets, nosed around dark corners of the memorable Born and Gòtic areas of the old town. A weekend full of Tapas, lots of cañas and lots of fun.

And lots more motivation to climb back on the bike.

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The Only Way is Essex

Let’s face it, Essex doesn’t have a good reputation. But forget that, let’s talk about the cycling.

Well, first, it is flat. There’s no denying that. Anything called a climb here is really nothing more than a rise. The sort of deceptive low gradient that you barely notice, until you start wondering how so much hurt can deliver so little speed. Bad for the ego. Good for the legs.

Living in the capital isn’t an obviously good choice for cycling. But once you’ve made it to Epping Forest, a labyrinth of tiny country lanes lies beyond. For any cyclist living in north east London, Lea Bridge Road is the gateway to a world that most don’t even know is there. It unfolds beneath your wheels and presents more options than you could wish for. The beauty of this county is not just in being hidden, but that every ride can be a new one if you make the most of all the turnings you’ve never taken.

And more than other counties on London’s fringe, it’s quiet out there. What little traffic there is keeps away from the smaller roads, leaving them for everyone else to enjoy. There is never a good spot to puncture. But if that spot is on a quiet lane in deep in the heart of Essex, you might even get it all to yourself. What a contrast to the city. What a way to escape its clutches.

There’s more to Essex than most know. Let’s hope it stays that way.

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My last Essex ride: http://app.strava.com/activities/96602825

Cross training: update

As autumn hits winter you can barely turn the page of a cycling magazine or click a cycling website without reference to some sort of cross training. Every pro interview talks up their core regime. A team mate from last year’s Haute Route Alps ran every day for a month last winter – 17th place is evidence enough that it didn’t hold him back. Andre Greipel is even tweeting about his runs!

You’ll remember my post on run club. Well a few more weeks in, what more have I learnt? Cross training still feels like a dirty word. I’m a cyclist not a runner. Surely time I take out of the day to train should be spent on the bike.

The first few weeks of running felt hard. And left me nursing sore legs, making hard efforts on the bike almost impossible for two or three days afterwards. Not good. So what did I do? Added more cross training! Thanks to a rower friend’s recommendation I’ve thrown in some high rep (& speed) leg weights too. It might not quite be the perfect core-bashing off-bike work out, but it’s some of the way there.

What’s more, I’ve even signed up to run a 10k race, spurred on by some healthy competition with work colleagues (and a burrito riding on the result). How bad can it be? Well it is a Saturday – so it probably means a Saturday without cycling (and I’ll definitely miss the club ride).

But, dare I say it, cross-training is working. For one thing, it’s a change. After 9 months of solid training for the Haute Route, it’s good to have a refreshing new target. It might even make it easier to persuade myself that a couple of weeks off the bike will make me stronger next year. Not something I’ve yet managed, but easier if I can keep running (does that still count as rest)?

And as the weather closes in and a busy new project surfaces at work, it’s difficult to get enough hours on the bike. Running and weights seem a time-efficient way to keep building strength and to maintain that top-end aerobic fitness. We’ll only really see in the spring how it’s gone.

The downside is, the running isn’t getting any easier just yet.

Pro score: 4/10

runningshoes

100kph

You can tell it’s autumn just from looking at my post titles… The first storm of the year has hit us. In the wake St Jude’s 100kph gusts, it seems apt to talk about wind.

Wind provides everything you need for great winter training (at least when you’re not at risk of being flattened by a tree, like I was on this morning’s ride). The illusion of the elusive souplesse on your way out. Relentless low-cadence strength training on the way home. Or if you’re lucky, the other way around!

Still, it’s pretty much my worst nightmare when it’s windy out there. You’ll know I can take rain from my last post, but there’s something demoralising about slogging into a headwind, no matter how much good you know it’s doing you. And somehow it never gives back as much as it takes.

The only silver lining perhaps is the emptiness of windswept roads. Each hour out there is one up on your rivals and one more in next season’s legs.

Training in St Jude’s 100kph gusts. Pro score: 8/10

falling leaves

Rainriding

Habits usually dictate a glance at the forecast before any ride, but today it’s no good. It’s blustery and constantly changing. There’s only one thing for it, just to ride and see what I hit.

Last summer was good. During its long, tinder-dry days I had quickly forgotten the rain. No  more. An hour from home and inky clouds loom over the forest, darkening the woods to a dusk-like gloom. Rain starts with a pitter-patter on leaves, but soon is nothing short of a deluge. For a moment I shelter, in one more there’s nothing for it but to ride on.

There is a point where you cannot get any wetter and it doesn’t take long to reach it. Once that realisation has hit you, the rain no longer matters. And you start noticing everything else. There’s a curious joy to riding through the storm while everyone else hides from it. A feeling of battling everything that’s against you. One that can inspire you to turn around and ride longer, to push harder. And, when you finally do get home there’s joy in finding yourself once again warm and dry, knowing you’ve fought and won.

Epping Rain

See my rainy ride on Strava: http://www.strava.com/activities/90254609/overview