Friday, 11 January 2013

Crossing the finish line

And so on the last day of 2012, on the way back to London to celebrate the New Year, we pulled into the Lincoln to ride the last of the 100 Climbs: Michaelgate.

A cobbled climb, and famed for its inclusion of the UK's hardest 1-day race the Lincoln GP (where the race climbs the hill 13 leg-breaking times), I had semi-engineered the plan so that I could finish on a hill climb somewhere near civilisation - as opposed to a rugged hilltop in the middle of nowhere...

As we rolled into a carpark by the castle at 3pm on 31st December, there was a palpable air of weariness as shoppers milled around looking for bargains in the leftovers of the Boxing Day sales. It hardly felt like the build-up to a big NYE party, so it's probably just as well that this was a fly-by visit.

After a quick slalom descent through the shoppers, I turned the bike round and rode back up again. One thing that's for certain over this past year is that riding over cobbles has not gotten any easier, although at least on my CX bike there was a bit more traction and shock absorption along the way.
Climbing Michaelgate

Weaving through the shoppers
The Finish Line! Appropriately on 'Steep Hill' Road...
With that, the challenge was completed. 100 Climbs for 2012 was over, and definitely time to crack open the champers.

*Time for the 'little black dress' Oscar ceremony speech*

A quick check of the stats shows that it took just over 3,500km of riding, and 200,000 feet of climbing to get to this point. And more importantly, the fundraising totaliser shows nearly £1,200 raised for Sue Ryder care and specifically the Manorlands Hopice - so a huge thank you to everyone who has supported this cause on my behalf. Thanks, also to Selene, my parents, grandparents and everyone who put me up over the course of the year: couldn't have done it without you! Finally a big thank you to all who've ridden with me over the year, and put up with unnecessarily undulating courses, some of the 'suspect' road surfaces and route choices, the miserable British weather (especially this summer), and my tendency to sprint for signposts/the top of hills without warning!

Right, now where's that second 100 Climbs book got to?

Wednesday, 9 January 2013

'Snow joke: Finishing the Festive 500

Over Christmas I became rather enamoured with the idea of finally completing a Rapha Festive 500 - an annual challenge to ride over 500kmin the 8 days between 24-31st December. Being a time of year when the weatheris traditionally atrocious (a white Christmas doesn't hold the same level ofnostalgia for the roadie with a broken collarbone), I had brought my cyclocross bike home for the knobbly, wide tyres, more stable handling and general ability to handle the mucky stuff. Breaking the challenge down, I needed to ride 6 rides of at least 50 miles which doesn't sound too arduous, but adds up on a bike not necessarily designed for long miles, when doing mostly solo rides, and when it is so wet that it appears an ark might be a better mode of transport. Still, with 250 miles under the belt, I had arranged to meet a friend who featured earlier on this blog (riding the Fred Whitton) so we could do some riding around his home patch of Penrith and bag two of the last three remaining climbs in Lamps Moss and Hartside.

After a typically early start, Selene and I were sat in the car outside a pub in the deserted village of Nateby (great name) wondering what on earth I was doing here. It was blowing a gale, and the cold was bad enough getting the bike off the rack, so by the time I was layered up and back in with the heaters at full blast, it was a good thing that I had someone else showing up to make sure I had the gumption to save face and get out and ride.
All paths lead to London...eventually
Luke arrived (having already ridden an hour to get to the start) and we headed out: straight up Lamps Moss. A small rise in altitude andthe temperature plummeted. No big deal at first, but then as the climb progressed the road iced over, which in turn progressed into a good inch or so of slush on top of some hard-packed slippery stuff. Riding my cross bike was a little hairy, so quite how Luke was managing to stay upright and find traction to go uphill on his Paris-Roubaix 24c clinchers I really don’t know. Still, going uphill on ice is less than half the battle – it’s the descents and corners that really get you…
Climbing on ice

Cresting Lamps Moss

The route I had plotted took a loop up Lamps Moss, crossing the Dales to the Tan Hill Inn (the highest pub in the UK), before heading back down to the relative safety of the valley between the Dales and the Lake District. Unsurprisingly, perhaps given the conditions, it was absolutely deserted at the top with the pub shut and barely a car in sight. Strangely the only cars we saw all had kayaks on top, so there must have beensome wild water somewhere, but the looks on the drivers’ faces as they passed us by was priceless. It really hits home that the road is slippy when you have cars skidding down the hill towards you…
Tan Hill Inn

Sheltering in a bus stop and eating Haribo -
how some cyclists choose to spend their Festive holidays...
After a quick photo stop, we steeled ourselves for the descent. This was the point where the horizontal hail started – blown so hard by the head/cross-wind that it felt like you were getting a facial tattoo just trying to make progress. At one point both Luke and I were riding one-handed struggling to hold the bike upright, with the other hand shielding our faces from the icy blast. Sadly, this wasn’t a camera-phone appropriate moment, but I’m sure we looked particularly ‘special’ to the few passers-by.

Down in the valley things became more bearable, although we were both soaked through from the slushy spray and driving hail/snow/rain.Waterproof socks are magic from protecting your feet from below, but when water runs down your legs and then collects on the inside of the waterproof casing it is a recipe for numb toes… However, pinging along at a decent rate of knots, chat turned from the madness of the conditions to cycling plans for 2013, andwhere to take the ‘100 Climbs’ enthusiasm and grow it – notably with the intention to give racing a proper crack, get under 7 hours for the Fred Whitton, and possibly an adaption of Rapha’s Cent Cols challenge. I had asked for a book called ‘Mountain High: Europe’s 50 greatest cycle climbs’ for Christmas, but I should probably get the hint given that it wasn’t in my stocking on December 25th

After a Christmas spent mainly cycling in the pan-flat Vale of York (where you can easily ride 50 miles and only climb 600 feet), the ‘flat’ valley roads around Penrith were starting to take their toll on my legs – especially keeping pace with Luke on his road bike. We had discussed diverting from the route to climb the ‘golf ball’ climb ( but I don’t think either of us was in the mood, and the weather was looking pretty hairy up there. So we pledged to save it for another day, preferably with fresher legs and with slightly more clement weather.

Reaching the base of Hartside, we turned away from the wind and immediately felt the effects – gloves off, jackets unzipped, and buzzing along like we were being pushed by a helping hand. The road up is as Alpine as it gets outside of the Alps: snaking up through pine forests before emerging onto the sparse hillside road with stunning views back down the valley. Despite the helping wind, I was struggling, but being a complete gentleman, Luke rode with me up the climb, documenting the views and suffering on his camera.

Although Luke had been a complete gentleman, there was still a signpost at the top of the hill, with associated bragging rights. I played the “Tommy V” card, Hollywood-ing it up and sitting in the wheel until the last minute and making a sneaky attack. Using the word “attack” is probably disingenuous, as I’m not sure Luke was aware at first that we were even in a race, so this was very much Dick Dastardly on wheels.  “Nice guys finish last” goes the song – not if they have the legs, says the road and Luke easily came back around me to win the sprint. Feeling very much broken by the last surge to the top, it was a minor disaster that the cafĂ© at the top was closed and I couldn’t sample the paving-slab sized caramel shortbreads my Dad had told me about from his C2C ride.
Minor disaster: a firmly closed cafe
Making do with a gel and the dregs from my nearly empty bidon, we didn’t hang around at the summit as the wind was fierce enough to extract every iota of warmth and instead pedalled straight downhill into what would no-doubt be a storming descent in anything but the conditions that day. When you’re turning the cranks to keep momentum going down 10-15% gradients, you know there is more than a stiff breeze in your face. Sadly, the ‘flat’ roadhome was anything but, and was also steadfastly into the wind. Finally the seemingly endless road reached Penrith and with a quick handshake Luke was backon the road to his house, leaving me to peel off layers of wet lycra, massage some feeling into my feet, and visit the local drive-through to claw back some of that calorie deficit
Demolished in less than 30 seconds

Saturday, 5 January 2013

Arriving at an 18th...

They say that you should try to arrive in style. Some make a notably late entrance, others tell loud and outrageous stories. Cyclists simply show their face in public without a bike but still in their brightly coloured lycra.

Having just arrived home for Christmas, we were invited out as a family to celebrate an 18th birthday party open house. It's been some time since I've been to an 18th, and this was the first event I’d ever attended directly after climbing two of the 100 Climbs. As we pulled up to Skipton early on a windy Sunday morning, my parents watched bemusedly as I struggled into my cycling gear and shivered in the freezing temperatures and settling drizzle. They had rather sensibly taken the indoor option while the worst of the weather passed – no such luck for muggins here. Still, the devil makes work for idle hands, so I jumped on my bike and desperately pedalled into somewhere more remote than the centre of Skipton (the cold was having a severe effect on my bladder).

With the rain coming down ever harder, water was spraying up from my knobbly cyclocross tyres giving me a proper soaking (that'll teach me to winter ride without mudguards). And that was the level of wetness before I came across the floods. Water deep enough to cover your bottom bracket is never going to leave you with dry feet - thank goodness, then, for waterproof socks:
It's a brave rider who tempts fate not only with whiteovershoes
but also using a cameraphone riding through a flood!
It wasn't long before I hit the first climb on the route: the 7/10 Malham Cove. A tough climb, it was made slightly more stressful by a tractor tailgating me most of the way, and eventually squeezing me off the road on one of the steeper sections. I'm sure he had some important fields to watch flood, or something.
The Cove road in the distance

This way for hills <---
Having crested the peak, I was stopped in my tracks by a ferocious headwind that put paid to any intentions to speed up to make it back on time for the party. Still, there was the promise of a tailwind on the way home as this was an out-and-back ride. It always surprises me quite how bleak the top of the moorlands is, and with so little to shelter you from the elements you really do feel the full force of Mother Nature when she's in the mood.

Finally dropping down into the relative civilisation of Langcliffe, I got a good taste for the climb back up after being fully on the brakes to stay on the road coming through the hairpins. And with that, it was a case of whipping the bike round and riding back the way I had just come - hardly imaginative route planning, but these things are necessary sometimes.

As it turns out, the descent presented more of a technical challenge than the climb did for the legs, and after the first few steep turns the road steadied off allowing climbing at a reasonable rate - I even managed a few horrific self-portraits with the cameraphone (one thing this year really hasn't improved is my camera face or ability to take nice photos)

The ride back was much more fun, as promised by the weather, and in fact was quick enough that Mum and Dad were still in the midst of their walk by the time I got back to the car. Predictably, I didn't have a spare key, so after loitering in lycra for a bit, I got cold/bored and ended up doing laps down the hill into town and back again - good training I suppose. By the time we had all congregated, the 18th was in full swing, and the sight of parents and son traipsing through a packed-out house (including a large number of 18 year old girls) in muddy wet outdoor gear definitely brought out a titter or two. They'd probably have laughed harder if they knew the weather on the tops...

Thursday, 27 December 2012

A Few Oddities

There have been a couple of climbs in the book so far that have really stood out for their incongreguity among magnificent beasts such as Hardknott and the Rosedale Chimney - small affairs that must have had personal attachment to the author. The following two climbs tick that particular box and aren't going to get a huge write-up here...

Perhaps notable for the delay in the report to this ride, waaaaay back in early November Andy and I headed up to the Chilterns to check out the riding in Jeremy Clarkson-land. The UK had had a week of filthy weather in the run up to the weekend, so although the sun was shining the roads were covered in all of the wash from the fields and not exactly the ideal territory for two road bikes without mudguards. Even so, there was time to get in a good 50-odd mile loop in, including Dover's Hill, before chowing down a healthy quantity of pub grub.

The hill itself is nothing to write home about (hence the blog and not a letter). Steep-ish in places, and not particularly long I'd say that the 5/10 is overstepping the mark - but each to their own...

There was something of a delay in bagging climbs after that - Christmas parties, work and various things got in the way. So in the process of driving home for Christmas ("all together now...") we took a slight detour from the A1 to ride the easiest climb in the book: the 1/10 Terrace Hill. Sadly we arrived after dark, and didn't fancy hanging around in the rain so the pictures aren't that great. On the plus side, we did get three Melton Mowbray pork pies to go home with so it's swings and roundabouts.

Stunning view at the top of Terrace Hill
Equally stunning self-portait

Monday, 22 October 2012

Scotland - Day 4: Two Countries, One Day

Having stayed the night in Fort William, this was to be a proper driving day to cover off the rest of the Scottish climbs. With a little bit more time, I’m sure there would have been some lovely riding here, but as it was I had sadly reached a part of Scotland with mobile signal and 3G, meaning I was already fielding calls from work so the priority was getting the things done before reality came back to bite any harder…

First up after a few hours in the car (and some very slow driving around Loch Lomond), I arrived at the foot of a very rainy ‘Rest and be Thankful’. Surprisingly, I wasn’t too happy to be getting out of the warm enclave of the Audi
Not a happy bunny
The climb? Well, it was long, and not particularly hard. A bit like someone cranking up the gradient every 500m or so, and a surprisingly disappointing summit with views back down onto the highway road through the valley. Going down was interesting, given that the road had essentially turned into a river. That said, I’d love to go back to the Trossachs and do some proper riding – there looked to be lots of lovely tiny forested roads through the hills that I could happily spend all day wiling away on.
Cloudy, wet, unpleasant - Rest and be Thankful
Rivers of water on the descent

Next up on the list was Mennock’s Pass – another couple of hours away by car, and requiring a trip through the centre of Glasgow. Joy.

Putting your cold, wet kit on while parked up in a layby and busting for a pee should hopefully show to you all that I’m dedicated to getting this challenge done and dusted. Is there a worse feeling that dank wet socks? Fortunately things started to look up as soon as I got onto the Pass – a glorious vista opened up on a silky smooth road snaking its way through a valley. Not so much a climb as an experience, I would wholeheartedly encourage everyone to do this climb once in their lives. Perhaps it was the sunshine that had come out. Maybe the picture perfect U-shaped valley. The lack of traffic may have been a significant factor. Or maybe just the friendly cows grazing by the size of the road – I like cows. Annoyingly, there was a headwind. Something about this trip meant that wind seemed to be attracted to me. I can only hope that doesn’t extend to social situations and everyday life, otherwise that could be annoying/smelly.
Mennocks Pass - what a road!

The last bit out of the valley steepens up and finishes just past the highest village in Scotland,
Wanlockhead - just in case you didn't believe me
Descending was a joy – steadily getting faster and faster and taking the bends on the inside (risky, but no traffic and a certain sense of giddiness got the better of me) and left me on the last hill in Scotland only wanting more. I will definitely be back to explore the area.

With a bit of time before I had to be at my next stop, I decided to take a risk and try to ‘pop’ down to Northumberland to ride Winter’s Gibbet – a hill I’d neglected to ride the last time I was there, and one which is annoyingly far from anywhere convenient. Satnav said over two hours to destination, but then I laugh in the face of Satnav predicted times. Or at least I hope so, otherwise I’d be climbing in the dark…

Overtaking at a magnificent rate, the Audi was a joy to drive, aided by a drum ‘n’ bass soundtrack (usually reserved for hardcore sessions in the gym) and a lunch of chocolate raisins. I arrived in the tiny village of Elsdon just as the calm of the evening was settling in, and the light was fading – time to get riding. After a bit of high level orienteering, I promptly spied the road uphill and sped out the catch the last hill of the trip:
Blissful ignorance
Winter’s Gibbet is so-named due to the rather morbid gallows that marks the peak – complete with noose. What you may notice from those pictures is a lack of noose. Which is because my rather basic orienteering wasn’t great – in fact I had managed to ride in completely the wrong direction and up the wrong hill. Which is great because I’d spent a while at the top looking for the Gibbet, and taking pictures of the clouds, as the light faded away…
"Oh Look! A Bee!"
So as it turned out, I was to climb the spookiest climb of the book in the fading dusk – on my own. Not being one for horror movies, I’d be lying if I said that the hairs weren’t standing on end as I approached the completely silent and abandoned hilltop in view of the noose. So the only thing for it was to pull some stupid faces:
What an idiot
The hill itself was challenging without being leg-breaking. Perhaps I’ve been spoiled with great hills, but it wasn’t up there in the pantheon of the best.
Winter's Gibbet
 After that, it was time to pay penance for all that desparate light-chasing driving: I’d been so intent on overtaking and getting to Elsdon on time that I didn’t want to pull over and fill the petrol tank (why gain 5 minutes getting ahead of a slow moving tractor only to stop and end up back in the queue again). But now it was a game of “how far can you drive with the petrol warning indication flashing” vs “how far away is the nearest petrol station”. I didn’t fancy being stuck on the Northumberland tops in the pitch black and worsening weather. Fortunately, I’m here to tell the tale, which is another way of saying I didn’t spend the night in the car hiding from axe-wielding nutters (Rather, I was holed up at Grandma’s house, throwing a ball for a rather nutty highland terrier – quite the contrast)

Friday, 19 October 2012

Scotland - Day 3: The big 'un

After two days of fairly sedate weather (for Scotland, in October), this was the really crucial one in terms of avoiding the wildest - nearly 2,000ft of climbing on a single remote road to an isolated coastal village. Heading out early to the West Coast, passing Inverness and then the length of Loch Ness (no sign of the monster sadly) the roads became smaller and smaller past the stunning Loch Maree before finally becoming a one-lane track heading South to Shieldaig. By the time I had finally arrived, the drizzle was just starting to set in, and I was busting for a toilet and cup of coffee in a town made up of a tiny shop, (closed) pub, B&B and a few houses. The shop proved negative for hot drinks or conveniences, but on recommendation I popped into the hotel and was motioned to a roaring fire and presented with a cafetiere of delicious fresh coffee- who says the West coast is remote and wild?! I was even given a local magazine to catch up all of the local news, where I learned about a minor scuffle in a pub on a Friday night, a spot of cattle rustling, and a potted history of Scotland’s innovative and "well-exported food" industry.

Thirst quenched, I prised myself away from the fire and back into the rain to go out and ride. Sluggish at first, the ride hugely picked up as I got a facefull of the incredible scenery en route – although anyone with a vague sense of direction could work out that mountains covered in clouds in the direction you’re about to start travelling isn’t great news
There's a road in them there hills
10 miles into the ride and I was greeted by these signs at the bottom of the Bealach-Na-Ba. Nothing like a warm Scottish welcome...

As I stopped to put my rain jacket back on, I could barely stand up in the wind blowing onshore, but fortunately appeared to be the only person to be foolish enough to try this road in this weather so I wasn’t too worried about falling over. On almost all of the climbs I’ve done so far, I’ve made myself ride them without stopping to get the full experience of the thing, before stopping to ponder what exactly it was or to take pictures. However for the Bealach I had been so primed by what I had been told or read that there was little chance of me doing it in one go and giving up the opportunity to get the camera out. So with the number of stops, I wasn’t exactly setting a world record time, but even in pretty atrocious weather it is an absolute blast of a climb which has to be ridden to be experienced, but which you can get a feel for with these pictures:

Even better, once you’ve descended off the tops and down to the tiny village, you will find the Applecross Inn – rated Scotland’s pub of the year in 2012. Not bad for a place that’s tucked well out of the way and with a population of only 238.
Who says taxidermy has to be anatomically correct?
Local pub dog - Irish wolfhounds aren't
the best for confined spaces
As I had arrived 20 minutes before service, the only decent thing to do was to sink a couple of swift halves of the local ale, and chat to the barkeep (who had to keep rushing off to answer the phone to make bookings for 3 months time – talk about popular). This did mean, however, that I wasn’t the best prepared for the ride back up the coast to the car. As it turns out, the coastal road is a brutal brutal one, with non-stop lumps and bumps to soften-up already soft legs, and a good dousing of wind and rain for measure. When you look at the profile of the ride, these barely register next to the 1,200 ft of the Bealach, but I can definitely tell you that I felt them in my legs. At least there was a rainbow with a pot of gold just around the next bend…although pity I didn’t bring the scuba gear

Oh so close to the pot of gold