29 April 2012

Ride report: The Cheese Toastie 200 Audax

On the weekend after our France and Belgium cycle tour I had another early alarm...5:30 am and I found myself trying to get out of bed and catch a 6:40 am train out to Crawley, near Gatwick airport.

I had entered the Cheese Toastie a few days earlier, kind of unexpectedly. No more entries were available for the Elenydd ride in Wales. Lucy was away on holidays, so I thought I would sign up for another 200 km event to keep my fitness levels up . This event was also organised by "El Supremo", so plenty of food and support were to be expected. And not a particularly hilly ride this was, in theory.

Got to the start just after 7:45 am, where a few other machacas were getting ready for the off. 11 of us had registered for this ride, although only 10 started it. The route Dave had planned for us was as follows, split in four different stages of 75, 55, 50 and 25 km each approximately.

With fresh legs, the first leg went by very quickly. I joined a couple of Bromley-based riders shortly after the start, and rode with them for the remaining of the ride. Incidentally, I had ridden with one of them in our Veteran Car run to Brighton, back in November. This was good, as I always enjoy riding in company especially on long rides. Also, I was not quite sure that I had plotted the route correctly on the gps from the routesheet, as it sometimes it is not obvious to follow it on the screen (although, it really is once on the road!)

With Mike and Steve, the London riders, we made good progress on our way to Pyecombe, where we would finish stage 1. Earlier on we had one Info control, which are strategically located points to make sure that you do not cheat and shortcut the route. After that, we sped up towards Pyemcobe, where, on top of serving as a control, Dave was turning out cheese toasties (thus the name of the ride!) on his portable gas-oven. Other British delicacies were on offer, such as cheese and onion fritters, pork pies, and saussages. Knowing that I have a sensitive stomach, I opted for the cheese toastie and other sweet stuff. It still surprises me how good value this rides are, for £7.5 you get plenty of drink/food at three feeds. And Dave gets up at 3 am to get all this food ready for us. Hats off to him. Having discovered audaxes, I doubt I will ever enter another type of organised ride unless it is not for profit.The atmosphere was great, with plenty of riders doing the 100 km also on the day.

Cheese toasties feed stop, 75 km into the ride
Audaxes are also good to spot some good bike-porn. This time I saw a very interesting bike that at first thought it was a Moulton, but which then, with the help of other rider, decided that it was home-made.

Is it a Moulton or is it not?
Fed and hydrated, we set off along the bottom of the South Downs. Here the roads were beautiful but rather bumpy. We went past two of the famous climbs in the area: Ditchling Deacon and Devil's Dyke, which for the first time ever, I did not climb on the day. After this, some bits of busy roads followed. This is one of the disadvantages of riding someone else's routes.

We made good progress here as well, and I completed another 100 km in well under 4 hours, keeping up a moving average of >27 km/h. Everything was going great and I had good feelings. Midhurst was the next control, where we did the Audax thing and went for some garage food to obtain a receipt as proof of passage.

Forested areas in the vicinity of Midhurst
After Midhurst, we had another bit of main road, and then off again to the lanes. Towards the end of this leg I started to feel pretty knackered, and could not really keep up with the other guys. Although I suggested they go ahead, they decided to stick together, which I really appreciated. I am not sure what went wrong here. I had a sore knee pretty much all the way, which I believe it was due to the seatpost being higher than normal. After I adjusted it, it seemed to get a bit better, but the pain continued for the rest of the ride, although it was not too bad. Also, we kept an average that was a little above of what I am used to, which may have also had an impact after 150 km into the ride. And lastly, the food. I normally stuff my face with a hearty breakfast in the morning, and keep eating every 30-45 min. But today I had rushed it and did not get much food in. Also, I was feeling very hungry and the bananas and chocolates did not seem to calm that down. Despite the feed in Pyecombe (at 10:30 am!) I had not had any proper food in a while, and I was feeling it. Lesson learnt.

Luckily for me, the guys were in the front pretty much all the time, which made it easier to keep pedalling at a reasonable speed. Despite my bad feelings and hanger, I was still averaging over 25 km/h. But I truly needed some food.

One of the things I like about cycling in Britain is the cake eating culture. Cycling gives you "cake points". If you ride with Brits, they will always stop for cake and coffe somewhere during the ride. And so we did this time. Two cakes and a sugary coffee and we were off for the last, easiest stage.

Only 24 km separated us from the finish. I had recovered a bit, but Mike and Steve were still impossing a brisk pace which I sometimes struggled to follow. The roads were undulating all the way, but every single bump looked like a proper hill now. I used the granny ring a lot today, also because of the pain in the knee. In less than 1 hour we were back in Pease Pottage, where Dave and his helpers were waiting with yet more food and drink.

I had a great day out. The route was pretty good, although it would have been even better with less of the busy roads in Stage 2 and 3. Some other memories of the day:

  • Weather held up, not a single drop of rain, and reasonable temperatures. I much rather have 10C and clouds than 30C and sun like we had in some of the summer rides.
  • Plenty of dead animals on the road: rabbits, foxes, squirrels, badgers, even one owl. 
  • Great companions, Mike and Steve. Really like the camaraderie and friendlyness of these rides.
  • Interesting chats with the organiser and helpers upon arrival. They were all pretty experienced riders themselves and were only too happy to share their knowledge of the long-distance cycling culture. Adivice such as "if you go for a kip while riding, make sure you point your bike to the direction you need to keep going after you wake up". It seems that many riders go for a nap, then carry on riding in the opposite direction for miles. 
  • No stomach problems today, although knee was unhappy
  • My fastest ever 200 ride, in just over 9 hours including stops. 7h and 53 min moving average, despite my tiredness and funny knee. 
  • Forested areas in the South, really nice roads and feeling of remotness.
All in all, a very good ride with the usual super catering from "El Supremo". Other audax organisers charged you nearly the same amount and do not provide anything other than the brevet card, so I wonder how this happens?

Now looking forward to our Green & Yellow Fields this coming Friday, a ride with a midnight start and 300 km.

The stats were as shown below

27 April 2012

30 Days of Biking, days 11 - 20

With days 5-10 of my 30 Days of Biking taken care of with our tour (day 10 because we got back to London at 12:30am and had to cycle home from the train station), it was time to pick up the normal routine with day 11.

On Day 11, I cycled to work. But, I had forgotten that I had plans to meet some friends for dinner and was a little apprehensive about cycling to it because I didn't know the route. No problem, I left my bike locked up at the office and cycled it home on Day 12 after work!

On Day 13, I would be leaving work early to get on a flight to Spain. So before work, I hopped on the bike for a quick spin around the neigborhood.

On Day 14, I was in Sevilla visiting friends, and they were kind enough to let me use their card to try out Sevilla's bike sharing program, Sevici. We were in a rush to catch a train so I could only cycle about 200 meters. Hey, every pedal stroke counts, right?

On Day 15, we were in Granada, and it was rainy and cold. Just before we left to get the train back to Sevilla, I remembered my commtiment to 30 Days of Biking. Luckily, we had been staying with a friend of my friends, who had a bike. I'm ashamed to say I only rode it up and down her hallway!

On Day 16, back in Sevilla, I again rode a Sevici bike - again only for a short ride but I always knew that getting the rides in while in Spain would be a challenge!

Sevici-ing in the park

On Days 17, 18, and 19 I cycled to work and back each day. Nothing special to report about that, except that I probably wouldn't have cycled if not for my commitment because it was rainy and windy the whole time!

On Day 20, Friday, I had the day off from work. We were getting ready for our 300km audax to start at 12:01 on Saturday, and it was predicted to be a rainy night, so I cycled to the bike shop to pick up some Sealskinz waterproof socks, and then to pick up some groceries. Of course there was also the ride from home to Liverpool Street Station in order to get to Manningtree for the Audax.

There were a few days that only barely count as cycling in there, but I think they are balanced out by a few days that I properly cycle to work when I otherwise would have opted for the bus. Home stretch now, 10 days to go!

26 April 2012

France and Belgium Tour, day 4

The fourth, and last, day of our tour was meant to take us from Lens back to Dunkirk, where we would catch the ferry back to the island. It looked like a boring day on the map, going through pretty grim areas of northern France. But quite a few things happened.

We had ended up in a random hotel (appropriately named Lens-otel) on the outskirts of Lens. Bad planning the day before, together with some nasty weather and a late start, had found us going round in loops with nowhere to sleep. Although I would have fancied some more adventure, maybe even some wild camping, Lucy treated us to a comfy bed for the night. At 9 am we were back on our bikes, heading straight off out of town in search for the first boulangerie. The route we initially planned looked as below, although we diverted many times due to unpaved roads which were unsuitable for Lucy's skinny tyres.

Being a bank holiday Monday, we feared that not much would be open. But this was France with its fantastic boulangeries. We found the first one along the D937 road, a somewhat busy stretch of road, but with French drivers (that makes a huge difference compared to their British and/or Spanish counterparts!!!). Stocked up on food and carried on for a little while. Shortly afterwards we found an open-air market, where we took advantage of some of the free samples.

Monday market
We then carried on West, again along the D937, where we past various British cemeteries from WWI. Lucy informed me that they're not only Brits buried there, but soldiers from the commonwealth countries. Soon enough we were back in country lanes, where rain started and did not stop until pretty much back in London. With the cold and the rain we tried to keep up the speed a little so that we can get to the ferry port in good time. On one of the bends I nearly fell down due to a patch of grease or something very very slippery on the road. I was so glad I had thick tyres and a load of weight on my rear wheel. I timidly shouted "wooowww" to kind of let Lucy know that I almost fell over. But when I turned my head back I saw her falling in a split second. Her skinny 23 mm tyres did not have any grip on that, and so she had her first crash of the tour.

One of many British cemeteries

Somewhat reminded me of Arlington, in the US
Luckily we were travelling at low speed on this bend, and it was not too bad except some bruises. Not too far after this, a second incident struck. A French dog started chasing me. Not really knowing what to do I accelerated, but he kept up and threatened to bite. As I was about to kick him in the nose, he stopped. But then it was Lucy. She stopped when the doggy came up to her and got bitten. Again, luck was with us on the day, and the stupid dog could not bite past her three or four layers of lycra. That was a relief. We need to learn what to do when being chased by a dog, most definitely. After all this stress, we deserved a break in true audax style. Or even better, as we found shelter in a little chapel in the countryside.

Sheltering away from the rain and cold
The ride from here on followed quiet roads all the way into Dunkirk. Despite the rain and wind, I seemed to enjoy this section quite a lot. Lucy had to provide some help being in the front of our peloton, as with all the weight and the heavy bike, I could not travel very fast. Still, I felt that I was working quite hard, while she was just pedalling completely effortlessly. On this trip, the roles had been swapped around completely. I was being the slow one.

Our bikies in tour mode
The very last 20 km of our tour involved some strong winds and yet more heavy rain. We got soaked and cold, and had to stop once again for food. Another boulangerie did an ok job at providing more calories and some rest. From then on we worked hard against the wind to try and keep ourselves warm. As we headed to Dunkirk, the last bit we had the pleasure of a tailwind, which pushed us along all the way to the port. We made it back at 4:45 pm, although our ferry crossing was not due until 8 pm.

Although we did try to exchange our tickets for an earlier ferry, the staff were not especially friendly and informed us that it was not possible. Two Scots on a very fancy Honda Goldwing and a trailer had the same problem, so spent some time chatting to them. I also made a decision: when I am old and unable to cycle, I will get one of these Hondas. All those hours past relatively quickly with some French sausage that we had carried as "emergency fuel", together with some french baguette.

Drying out at Dunkirk port
Our ride was almost finished, but due to the rough conditions in the English channel, we also missed our fast train connection to London, and ended up on a very slow train which got us home at almost 2 am. More than 10 hours after we had arrived in Dunrkirk. It was not an ideal day on the bike, but looking back at it now, I think we did very well and am now looking forward to our next trip. Hopefully in the Scottish Highlands sometime soon. Also, my brand new Brooks saddle seems to be getting more comfortable day after day. Not sure if this is psychological or not, but after the first two days of painful saddle sores, I found it quite comfy past the 4-5 h mark!

On the ferry back to the UK
The stats for the trip:

- Overall km: 426 split into 111, 137, 70 and 109 km days
- We did not count the hours nor the other usual data, but at an average of 18 km/h we spent about 7 hours each day pedalling. 

19 April 2012

France and Belgium Tour, Day 3

On the morning of Day 3 of our France and Belgium tour we got up at a liesurely 9am--we knew we could have a relaxed morning as we were getting ready to go see Paris-Roubaix only 10 or 15 km away from our campsite. We ate our breakfast, showered, wrote in our journal, and let our tent dry out after it had again rained overnight. Soon it was time to leave to make sure we made it to the race before any of the pros did!

Campsite in St Amand Les Eaux

Alberto writing in the journal in the warmth of the tent

Alberto has already posted about the great fun we had watching Paris-Roubaix. Once it was over, at about 2:30pm, we pressed on as we knew we still had a good amount of ground to cover. We were still in Paris-Roubaix country, which we could tell by the massive tent in a field that was showing the race to maybe 200 people or more.

The first portion of our route continued through the natural park. We happened upon an open restaurant serving the park users and decided to stop, considering that it was Easter Sunday and we weren't sure how many opportunities we'd have to get food!

After some croque monsieurs we were on the road again towards Lens. The route on this day wasn't ideal - the area around Lens is fairly built-up and busy - but we hadn't been able to find any other suitable stopping point for our third night that would leave us with a short enough day on our last day to be able to catch the ferry. After passing through Auby, we decided to follow a D road directly into the center of Lens rather than taking the GPS route we had plotted, which diverted to the south to avoid the built-up area. There was a cycle lane, and we figured we'd get to Lens faster that way.

Well, the cycle lane disappeared a few kms later so we were on the road, back to urban riding. Fortunately the drivers in France are much more respectful than they are in London. One benefit of this route was that it took us past an open boulangerie, so we stopped quickly for some cakes and then headed on to Lens.

This was the only night where we hadn't found a campsite ahead of time - we just figured we'd be able to ask around and find a campsite or a cheap hotel once we got there. Well, long story short, this didn't happen, and as the skies darkened and a heavy cell of rain began to fall, we checked into an three star hotel on the outskirts of Lens for far more than we wanted to pay!

This is where our hotel was

The hotel was in an industrial wasteland which also featured a Flunch, a fast food restaurant that Alberto remembered from his childhood - so we ate dinner there and then enjoyed our night of relative luxury.

The stats for day 3: 76 km, 16.1 kph moving average (this has a lot to do with the urban riding and wandering around Lens looking for a place to sleep!)

17 April 2012

France and Belgium Tour, Day 2

On day two of our cycle tour in France and Belgium started with the now-familiar sound of rain on the roof of our tent. We tried our trick of going back to sleep and lo and behold, the rain had stopped by about 9am! We packed up the tent, at a small snack, and rode back through Bruges, turning along a canal and heading south.

About 10km later, we reached the town of Oostkamp, where we decided to stop for a coffee. As we sat down at the cafe, we realised it was nearly 12, so we decided to have lunch as well. The staff spoke very little English but we managed to have a  really yummy meal before getting started again. With still well over 100km to go, we were anxious to make a real start.

We enjoyed cycling through Belgium's quiet country lanes and even some of it's bigger roads, which, almost universally, had amazing, separated cycle lanes. We seemed to be flying along much faster than on Day 1. We took a wrong turn and had to retrace our steps, and we realised why -- we had a tailwind! That was good news considering we had a relatively long day ahead of us.

Quiet roads south of Oostkamp
Late in the afternoon, we were cycling along a D road in the cycle lane, when we noticed a few cars with bikes on the top fly past us, followed by a police motorcycle. We decided to pull over, and a few minutes later a cycle race came flying past!

Unnanounced machacas
We stood and watched the race go by for a few minutes. There weren't any teams that we recognised but they were clearly at least semi-professional. I guess that's just what happens in Belgium! We carried on to Sint Denijs where we stopped for some cakes at a bakery, and ate them sitting in a bus shelter, in true audax style! We were really enjoying the ride by this time, as we had a few more hills to break up the miles and some cute towns to admire as we passed.

We had been cycling roughly parallel to the French border for much of the day, and we finally crossed the border near Callenelle at around 6pm. We knew we'd be cutting it fine to make sure we got food and reached camp before dark, but we were enjoying riding through a Natural Park area and got our first taste of the pavé (cobblestones) that we had travelled to this region to see.

Crossing into France!

We stopped at a supermarket in Mortagne du Nord where Alberto went in to pick up some dinner items while I watched the bikes. He came back out with a week's worth of shopping! I have no idea how we managed to carry it all, luckily it was only 5km or so.

Not amused by my new cargo!
Before we knew it we had arrived at our campsite outside of St Amand Les Eaux, just in time to set up camp in the fading light. We enjoyed our store-bought dinner and drifted off to sleep.

The stats for day two: 137km over 7 hours and 15 minutes of moving time (and 1:45 stopped time); a moving average of 18.9 kph.

12 April 2012

France and Belgium Tour, day 1

On the morning of Good Friday we woke up in our tent in darkness. It was 5am, time to start packing it up and descending into Dover to catch our 8:00 ferry to Dunkirk. We surprised ourselves with our efficiency and even had time to enjoy the view of Dover Castle in the early morning light before making our way to the check-in and boarding the ferry.

Dover castle, 6:30am
As the ferry pulled out of Dover we finally got to see the famous white cliffs - and what a brilliant day for them! Two hours later we had arrived in Dunkirk and were on our way -- our first ever proper cycle tour!

White cliffs of Dover

It was a bit chilly, but the sun was shining, and we enjoyed the flat ride out of Dunkirk (actually the entire  day's ride was literally pancake flat) and along a canal, passing through Bergues and then heading into the countryside, where we crossed the border into Belgium on a quiet country lane, with not even a sign to mark the occassion. We only noticed because we saw a car with a Belgian plate and looked down at our GPS to see the border a few meters behind us. We snapped a photo of the occasion anyway - our third country of the day!

We've just crossed into Belgium!

Our route through Belgium took us on quiet country lanes, many of which seemed to be part of a country cycling route network (comparable to Sustrans one would imagine) as we kept seeing little signs and loads and loads of cyclists. It felt a little strange not to be nodded and waved at by the cyclists we encountered, as is the custom in England. But we figured that in Belgium passing another cyclist on a country lane is probably not such an unusual occurrence! At one point we saw a very large group of young machacas cycling together in a tight group. They even had a car following them which must have been driven by a coach or something. It was really impressive to see all of them in their team colours--there must have been at least 40 of them!

The tail end of the machaca group just faintly visible at the end of the road.
At one point we were cycling along through a small grouping of houses and we noticed a solitary zebra, standing next to a house and eating some grass! I can't believe we didn't take a picture, but it all happened so suddenly. I'm very glad Alberto was there to witness it as otherwise I would question my sanity!

We were making relatively slow progress, for once not due to me! Alberto, with his new Surly Long Haul Trucker (which he'll have to write about soon) had taken the majority of the weight of our baggage, while I had managed to convert my boardman to a light tourer with the addition of my bar bag and a seatpost rack. This meant that, for the first time in the history of our relationship, Alberto's comfortable speed was actually slower than mine! A role reversal which I handled quite gracefully if I do say so myself (let's see if Alberto agrees!).

My light touring setup
In the late afternoon, we rode through the town of Ernegem and stopped at a bakery for some delicious cakes. They provided the fuel for the final kms into the center of Bruges.

The approach to Bruges was lovely as we rode through a forested area seeing many other cyclists coming the other direction, presumably on their evening commute home. Suddenly we were in Bruges, which I had never been to before. It was completely adorable. We stopped to snap a few pictures but didn't stay long, as we wanted to make it to our campsite and pitch the tent before it got dark.

Bikes with bikes
After setting up camp we cycled back into Bruges (only about 2km away) for a nice hearty dinner. We intended to explore Bruges at night but were incredibly tired after our early start and long day of riding, so we headed back to the campsite and fell asleep almost immediately!

Day 1 was complete, with 111km under our belts and a moving average of just 17.4kph - yikes!

11 April 2012

Watching Paris-Roubaix up close

 About this time last year it occurred to me that watching the Paris-Roubaix live could be fun. Not that I am into professional cycling that much, but this spring classic is well known as one of the toughest one-day road races.

It fell on Easter Sunday, and over that period we had a mini-tour of Northern France/Belgium in mind (will be posting on this soon). Train and ferries were booked, route was plotted. All we had to do was ride to one of the cobbled sections.

We camped in Saint-Amand-Les-Eaux, near the Belgium/France border, and got to one of the nearest pavé sections by noon. Some caravans and even more supporters were already waiting for the peloton, scheduled to go through after 2:30 pm.

Entering the official route
As expected, the atmosphere was great and everyone seemed in a great mood. People had set up their own stands with food and booze, despite the cold weather, and only seemed too happy to try and talk to us when they saw us riding on the pavé. Some even cheered us on with a "bon courage"!

Great atmosphere

Lucy practising her French with the locals
We rode on the pavé section up and down a couple of times. Can tell you is no easy job on a heavy tourer!!! Lucy seemed to be handling it ok though, although she, as did the pros, rode mostly on the verge of it, where it is flatter. I tried and ride through the middle of it, which was quite fun as the video demonstrates...

We started to see the teams' cars rushing through the cobbles, an indicator of the riders' proximity. One of the things I noticed was that hand-built wheels are used on this event (rather than fancy, lightweight factory wheels). They are probably much more reliable and will provide a more comfy (if at all possible?) ride on the cobbles. Also saw a few riders carrying an extra brake lever similar to that found on cyclo-cross bikes.

Team cars
Without much delay, the first group flew past us. We reckon Boonen was there, although we could not identify any of the riders. They all seemed pretty knackered, but specially the ones at the back of the peloton.

Riding on the side of the road is a lot easier

Not everyone fits on the verge though!

Allez allez!
This guy seems to be chilling
Some of them were completely lonely at the back...vamos Euskatel!
Notice the hand-built wheels with plenty of crossed spokes
It was great to see this event, its atmosphere and observe the faces of the riders. They still had another 100 km to go after this, and lots of them had already DNF as we later saw in the broom bus. Perhaps next year we will try and see the Tour of Flanders? Until then, no more cobbles for us.

05 April 2012

30 Days of Biking, days 1-4

The first four days of my #30daysofbiking have been a success in that I've managed to ride every day! I can already see that this challenge is encouraging me to ride on days that I otherwise would not, which is great--and exactly the point. 

On Day 1, Sunday, I got my bike ride in early. Very early. We were at a friend's house for dinner and cycled home at about 12:30 in the morning. I was glad for this because on Sunday I was pretty busy with other commitments. 

On Day 2, Monday, I had an important meeting at work and normally would have taken the bus because I don't like to cycle in my nice clothes. But this day, I packed my nice clothes into my backpack and joined the lycra warriors on my commute! With my crappy commuting bike I don't think anyone mistook me for a true machaca though.

Work clothes packed in my backpack.
On Day 3, Tuesday, I had to go to Birmingham for the day for work. The combination of having to get to the train station instead of my office, needing to wear nicer clothes again, and not knowing what I would do with my helmet in Birmingham all day led me to decide to take the bus to the train station. When I got back home in the evening, it was pouring rain -- but I went out for a ride anyway. I did some loops in my neighborhood to get me past the 7.5km mark, which is the distance of my round-trip commute to work. 

A little bit wet!
On Day 4, Wednesday, I cycled to work. This was the kind of day that I would have normally cycled to work anyway, even without the challenge. On the way home, I raced the impending raindrops and managed to only get some light drizzle, so I consider it a success.

Days 5-9 won't be a problem -- we're heading to Dover tonight and taking the ferry to Dunkirk first thing in the morning for a long weekend of cycle touring in France and Belgium! 

03 April 2012

A pootle around Oxford

Last weekend, while Alberto was busy completing the Dean 300km audax, I spent a lovely day in Oxford. I had planned to participate in a 5K there, but wasn't feeling my best, so I settled for a day in Oxford, with my bike.

We had forgotten just how much of a cycling town Oxford is. It's very different from London though -- cyclists take it easy, they don't rush around trying to race each other -- and they rarely wear hi-viz or helmets. It was a pleasure to ride around amongst them, especially with the comparatively light traffic!

I had my commuter bike, or Gordita as she is affectionately known, which was great because it meant I could leave her locked up and explore on foot when I wanted to, without worrying.

Gordita and the Bridge of Sighs

Mainly I just pootled around and did some sightseeing. The weather was fabulous and I spent a long time just reading in the park. Before I knew it, it was time to meet Alberto and go out for a well deserved (for him at least!) meal. I'll admit I was a little jealous of his 300, but I'll be doing my own soon enough.

Sometimes it's nice just to take it easy and enjoy a different side of bike riding!