25 October 2012

Film Review: Endurance at the Adventure Film Festival

On the Camino de Santiago, our own adventure!
A few weeks ago we heard that the Adventure Film Festival would be taking place across the UK and knew we had to check out some of the films. There was a choice of three evenings of film -- High Altitude, Adrenaline, and Endurance. Given our soft spot for long distance cycling we thought we'd give Endurance a try.

There were four films featured in Endurance, three shorter ones and the hour-long Crossing the Ice. We loved Crossing the Ice but were disappointed by the rest of the films, and unfortunately the last film was the worst, leaving us less than thrilled about the evening. But let's start at the beginning.

The evening begain with A Story for Tomorrow, a quick piece that was more about capturing the spirit of a journey than telling any kind of story. I quite liked it, but as it was only five minutes long it didn't leave much of an impression on the night as a whole. Still, it was a nice introduction. It made me look forward to our upcoming adventures, big and small.

Crossing the Ice was next, a great story of two friends attempting to be the first to journey from the coast of Antarctica to the South Pole, and back, completely unsupported. This film had it all--humor, pain, suspense, desperation, and kindness. We loved it. Even though their adventures are so much more extreme than the ones we find ourselves on, I could relate to the emotions they experienced. It also convinced me that there is definitely a limit to my own adventurous spirit. My first words to Alberto when the movie ended were, "I am never, ever, doing that."

Next up, and with a tough  act to follow, was Chasing Water, about a man's search for the final destination of the Colorado River. This was an excellent environmental documentary, and it is an abomination that, after millions of years, since 1998 the Colorado River has not drained to the sea due to humans interfering with its flow across the southwestern US. Unfortunately it had virtually nothing to do with endurance, or even adventure for that matter! It just didn't belong.

Finally, there was 5 Races, 5 Continents. Here's where the evening really fell down and left us questioning why we had even come. Instead of being an interesting documentary about trail running, it turned out to essentially be a twenty minute Salomon advertisement. There was no arc to the story, just a series of interviews with sponsored trail runners, interspersed with admittedly impressive shots of the scenery through which trail runners get to travel every day. It did serve the purpose, however, of reminding us why we stick to Audax UK and our own touring events rather than sportives or even charity rides. The commercialisation that is a big part of lots of sports these days is just not appealing to us. We prefer the non-profit mutualism of the audax/touring community.

With the final film making us question even whether the film festival was too commercially oriented for our tastes, we were less than wowed with our evening. Still, it gave us lots to think about as the 2012 season comes to a close, as we start planning our own adventures for 2013!

22 October 2012

Autumn in the North Downs

Autumn is probably my favourite season to cycle. It's still not too cold, there's significantly less traffic on the roads, and the falling leaves make for some nice scenery if you choose your routes through forested areas.
This is exactly what we did on Saturday. A short-ish 95 km loop from Dorking and around the North Downs. Some 1500 m of climb added some hilly miles to an otherwise easy ride.

Freshly arrived in Dorking, we headed straight away to the infamous Box Hill, where the machaca cyclists of the Olympics 2012 looped around 9 times on their race. Despite its name, it's barely a noticeable hill, and certainly more than doable at an easy pace. It makes for a nice warm up, and I always find it amusing to see some folk on their £5000 bikes who try hard to look like pros, to only stop at the top of the hill for a coffee and cake after their first climb! The views are always rewarding though, especially when the fog is caught down at the valley.

Heavy traffic with cyclists on the smooth tarmac of Box Hill
Hairpin-like turn at Box Hill
Interesting fog formation at the bottom of Box Hill
Probably because of the fool weather, but this time we saw very few cyclists atop the hill. We pressed on through some thick fog and on to Ranmore Common.

The autumnal leaves made the scenery look pretty, yet the tarmac very slippery, and we had to take it very easy on more than one occasion, with some rear wheel skids.

Dense forests through the North Downs
Once we cleared the hills for the first time, with looped through Crangleigh, which had some traffic. Ewhurst was the next town up, just before our tea stop at mtb-dominated Peaslake. We love coming to this small town in the Downs, seeing all the cycling folk, while having some food and chat with other fellows, before carrying on.

This is what I call drinking in style

From Peaslake to Dorking we had another 30 km of rolling hills that took us through Shere and back to Ranmore Common for a final descent into Dorking. 

I really was not going that fast...
Amongst those forested areas of the Surrey Hills, we spotted a massive field full of pine trees ready to be cut for the upcoming Christmas season! What a waste of resources isn't it?

Christmas deforestation approaching soon!
The last hill was a bit of an struggle, yet we were glad to make it back to Dorking in time for our early return to the Smoke. It's certainly a loop that we highly recommend, especially if you avoid the Crangleigh bit, as it is very laney, scenic and with hills to keep you entertained. Nothing too steep though, so you should manage ok on a 12-25 at the back. Even taking it easy, we got a moving average of  ~20 km/h!

10% incline 
The stats for the day were as below

- Trip odometer: 95 km
- Max speed: 53.2 km/h
- Moving time: 4h 54 m
- Stopped time: 44 min
- Moving average speed: 19.4 km/h
- Overall average speed: 16.9 km/h

16 October 2012

Ride report: The Poor Student 200 (permanent version)

It's well known within the cycling and sports community that if you stop working out for longer than a month, you loose your fitness pretty dramatically. What it was meant to be an easy 200 km ride around the Cotswolds in October, proved to be an slow drag in chilly autumnal conditions.

I have set myself a goal of keeping active throughout the London winter this year. By active, I mean, riding at least one 200 km event every month. I could not find any suitable calendar events (i.e. events organised by AUK with a decent amount of audax riders), and so I decided to sign up for our first permanent event. These are events that you can ride any time of the year, provided you let the organiser know in advance. Similarly to the regular calendar events, proof of passage must be obtained along the way.

Below is the route (courtesy of Mike) we ended up doing, with only three controls: Oxford, Malmesbury, and Chipping Campden. Easy navigation and just over 200 km, with rolling terrain.

Given Lucy had been off the bike for a while, I anticipated an slow ride which will go on through some of the dark evening hours. With that in mind, we set up the bikes for night riding and set the alarm at 5 am. After an hour ride on the train to Oxford, I collected my receipt (Lucy won't be registering her ride) just past 7:50 am and off we went.

Deciding on what clothes to bring out for this ride was a bit difficult. At this time of the year it can be chilly at the start, but then it usually warms up in the central hours, to then plummet back to below 10C. As that was to be the case, we each had at least 4 layers of synthetic materials, plus leg warmers and long finger gloves with liners, just in case. Also, a couple of buffs.

8:30 am, leaving Oxford
The first 10 km or so were an easy pootle out of Oxford. Soon after that we started passing pretty villages and were out in the farmlands. The temperature was surely below 10C, but we warmed up quickly and I was comfortable. We had about 75 km to Malmesbury, another popular town within Audax UK as it is used on rides such as the Dean 300. So far, the route had been very quiet and pancake-flat, yet I noticed that our average speed was not particularly high.

Somewhere near West Swindon we hit a closed road sign. As it usually happens on these rides, we went through it and eventually hit a barrier with a no cyclist no walkers writing on it. Despite the best of our efforts to go through it, we got turned away, having to retrace some 8 km and do a bit of navigation to get back to original route. The GPS came in very handy, with all the roads shown up on the screen, it did not take us more than 30 min to loop back to the planned route. We had lost some valuable minutes here that would mean less time to get back to Oxford later. The only high of this diversion was a very old-looking bike chained on to a fence, showing a 1930s date, and a very old leather saddle.

Malmesbury had its Saturday market on by the time we got there, and with that, plenty of traffic. I find it amusing how people happily get stuck in traffic jams on a Saturday morning, in a random Cotswolds town. Wiggling through traffic I got my receipt and headed off for a quick bite before we carried on. At an English pattiserie we had a difficult time trying to choose between the usual staples: flapjackes, scones, rice cakes, and sandwiches. We wished we were in France/Belgium/Spain and their traditional bakeries here!

Malmesbury Saturday market
After a half an hour rest, we set out North towards Chipping Campden. The second section of the ride promised some Cotswolds hills and nice views. When we hit the 100 km mark we were still in good spirits, but after another 15 km we started to hit the first steep hills. Lucy had to walk a couple of them, and I soon noticed that this wasn't being the best of her days on the bike. After so long off two wheels, she was having a hard time and we still had 80 km to go. The hills came one after another, and despite their relatively short length, they proved challenging at times.

Lucy escaping the threatening clouds in the background

Steep downhill as we crossed the Cotswolds
Our speed had dropped to less than 20 km/h moving average, and I started to worry about making it back to Oxford on time. Also, we needed to eat something proper, so many hours after our early morning breakfast. The scenery was good and the roads still very quiet, most of them following national routes.

Luckily we cleared those clouds in time
Chipping Camden was about 135 km into the ride. After an steep descent into the village, we went past some very posh-looking houses, and soon were looking for a café to have a warm meal. Doing this proved difficult, not only because of the ridiculously steep prices (even worse than we experience in London!) but because most of them were not even serving hot food. It was 4:30 pm or so, certainly not a good time for lunch nor dinner in the UK. £5.75 for a cake was also ruled out as an option.

Eventually we had a sit down meal at one of the only two pubs of the village. Lucy got saussage and mash, while I got a simple tomato soup. It was getting cold and rain started to drop over our bikes, but we had the luxury of a fire and some warm food.

Riding into the last 60 km
Shortly after 5:30 pm we set off for the last 70 km of the ride. Lucy felt a bit better, yet her legs were not responding as well as they had been earlier in the year. We made slow progress and had to stop a few times to eat some snacks. The temperatures were still reasonable for this time of the year, yet she felt cold and did not seem to be enjoying the ride very much.

Cannot get any better than this! 6:30 pm, sunset and corn fields
The route got a lot flatter here on, and we even had a bit of a tailwind. Sunset was also fast approaching - my favourite time of the day to ride. Lights were turned on and within half an hour we were back to night riding mode. It was 7:30 pm and we had another 20 km or so to go. Lucy was feeling a bit better, so we pressed on, making it to Peartree services, on the outskirts of Oxford, by 8:30 pm. Still within time, I got my receipt while Lucy pressed on to the station. I rode quickly after Peartree into central Oxford, caught up with Lucy and continued on to the station to obtain my final proof of passage.

At 8:50 pm we had officially completed the ride, nearly 13 hours after we set off in the morning. Shortly afterwards we were heading back to London, after what it had been an enjoyable ride in reasonable autumnal weather.

This completes my October ride, and am now looking into the November options. Lucy had a harder than expected time after all the time she spent off the bike in September. The route was quite flat overall, and fairly quiet. I intend to be back to do this same ride in January, when the actual calendar event takes place. It will surely be a much colder day, but the company will hopefully help me ride a bit faster.

The overall stats were as below:

- Overall km: 210 km
- Overall average: 16.5 km/h
- Moving average: 20.4 km/h
- Max speed: 51.2 km/h
- Time on the bike: 10:32
- Time stopped: 02h 15 min

11 October 2012

Camino de Santiago day 14: Santiago - Finisterre

We woke up in our hostel in Santiago, earlier than any other day of the trip, to attempt the ride to Finisterre (Fisterra in Galician). We had been waffling about this decision for the entirety of the previous day. It was 90km and we had heard it was one of the hardest stages of the camino. But Alberto had always wanted to get there, so in the end, we headed off.

We stopped at a panadería in Santiago for a few breakfast pastries and we headed out the other side of Santiago by 8:30am. Right away, we were on the Camino proper (rather than a road) with plenty of rocky, root-y, muddy slopes. Alberto enjoyed it, but I found it really challenging. We let a pack of MTB's pass - there seemed to be several connecting MTB trails in this area - and passed a few walkers as well who were obviously heading out for their three day trek to Finisterre. It was very slow going for me, and I dismounted several times. Of course, I'd been doing this throughout the whole trip whenever the terrain got too technical, but having to do it so early, and on this day, made us both nervous. Throughout the rest of the trip we never truly had to be somewhere by nightfall. We had plans, but we could alter them. But now, we had to reach Finisterre today in order to be back in Santiago the following evening to catch our night bus to Madrid. Faced with a definite destination, the stress of making such slow progress was powerful.

We actually stopped on the side of the trail for a long while and considered our options. It's hard to describe, but I felt so low in those moments that I just truly didn't believe it was possible that I could make it to Finisterre that day. I didn't want Alberto to lose his opportunity to reach Finisterre, and begged him to continue on without me. We were still close enough to Santiago that I could have reached it easily even if I walked the whole way. Alberto didn't want to go on without me and turned  his bike around to start heading back, giving up on his dream. But eventually, he came up with a simple suggestion. If we really weren't making good progress, we could stay overnight tonight in one of the towns before Finisterre, and cycle the rest of the way in the morning. Even if it meant we missed our night bus to Madrid, we still had a spare day before our flight from Madrid to London. We didn't have to make it to Finisterre that day at all. With that psychological barrier removed, we were able to continue on.

Alberto used his GPS to divert us to the road where possible, which helped us make good time to Negreira, the first stop at 23km into the ride. We were there by 11am. The sense of progress we felt on arrival really cheered us up and I began to believe again that we could make it to Finisterre. We stopped at a supermarket to pick up food for later, and Alberto admired the old-fashioned pharmacy, which had wooden drawers for all their goods and the computer hidden out of customer view.

The approach to Negreira
After Negreira we mixed in a bit more Camino with our roads -- and it helped that sometimes the Camino was on roads. It was very rolling terrain, as we had come to expect from Galicia, but fortunately the day was cloudy which meant it wasn't too hot, so the hills didn't slow us down too much. I actually remember telling Alberto that I was enjoying them!

We stopped in Olveiroa, the last stopping point for pilgrims before Finisterre, at about 3pm for lunch. We called a pensión (like a B&B) in Finisterre to reserve a place to sleep, now confident that we'd make it. We asked the woman at the bar about the rest of the route. She said it was uphill from Olveiroa, then flat to Cee, and then mixed to Finisterre. Of course by this time we were so skeptical about such descriptions from locals, I'm not sure why we asked.

She wasn't lying about the hill, anyway. It was steep, but the roads were very quiet so we didn't actually find it too challenging. I reflected on how much fitter I'd become since starting the ride, knowing that a hill like this early on would have seen me struggle.

We knew that the sights along the camino would get better as we approached Cee, and so stuck to the proper path for the last part of the trip. We saw our first bit of ocean and got really excited, and then we even saw Finisterre in the distance. Alberto kept looking at his GPS, which registered us at 350m above sea level. Finisterre was at zero. When were we going to lose all that height?

First glimpses of the sea
We soon found out. The camino heads into Cee on a 1km ridiculously steep and rocky descent. Alberto was thrilled at the chance to ride such terrain while I dismounted and walked virtually the whole kilometer -- which was honestly tricky enough! I kept thinking I'd turn a corner and see Alberto lying in the path having been thrown from his bike, but he actually made it down fine and turned around after a while to come look for me!

Beginning the descent
Once in Cee, we joined the coastal road to Finisterre. At one point the camino turned right up one of the steepest paths I have ever seen in my life. It was a paved pedestrian walkway, but was as close to vertical as physically possible for people to walk on. Alberto struggled up in his lowest gear, but I dismounted without even attempting it. We went along a few more trails and then rejoined the coastal road, which wasn't too busy, although busier than many of the roads we had been on on the rest of the trip. We started to see Finisterre come into view, and the sun began to come out just in time for our arrival. We passed the beach on the edge of town and decided to change into our swimsuits and enjoy the beach while it was still light (it was about 6pm). The water was pretty cold but we had to say we'd been in the Atlantic ocean!

Fisterra in the background
Alberto took a walk along the beach and found the most beautifully formed scallop shell. After resisting  the urge to join pilgrims carrying mass-produced white shells for the entire journey, it felt fitting to have a genuine one to take home as a souvenir.

We then headed to our pensión, which gave us a pilgrim's price of 25 euros for the room - when you divide it by two, cheaper than some of the hostels we paid to stay in and share a room with several others!

After a shower we headed to the lighthouse, km 0 on the Santiago - Finisterre trail. This is where people normally burn articles of clothing or leave their boots when they complete their journey. There was a small fire going, and after much consideration we decided we shouldn't burn our clothes as they were all synthetics, and it wouldn't have been environmentally friendly. So we burned the printed-out elevation profile of the route - not that it had done us much good!

Large collection of boots left by other pilgrims
We watched the sunset on the tip of the peninsula, chatting to other pilgrims and watching some particularly zealous ones burn their hair in the fire (on purpose). Then we headed to the harbor to have a delicious meal, and back to bed for our early morning bus back to Santiago, to start our journey home.

Stats for the day:

Odometer: 95 km
Moving average: 11.8kph
Overally average: 7.8kph
Moving time: 8h 37m
Stopped time: 4h21 (including our time at the beach!)
Max speed: 59.8 kph

10 October 2012

It's not all about the bike

If you are into cycling, you will know that there are bikes suited for all kinds of different riding: recumbents, audax, cross, 29ers, full-suspension, bike packing, touring, bmx, freeride, downhill, trial, dutch, singlespeed, fixied wheel, bike polo...you name the discipline, there will be a bike well-suited for it.

But as this dude shows, you can do pretty cool stuff on any kind of bike. I am not sure how much of it is actually real, but it does look impressive to say the least!

First seen on in the saddle facebook page

07 October 2012

Build us an Ark!: Friday Night Ride to Whitstable

Alberto and I are fond of saying "never cancel a ride because of the forecast." Certainly not in the UK. On Friday, we learned that sometimes weather forecasts can be very accurate.

Last summer, Friday Night Rides to the Coast was one of our favourite ways to spend an evening. This year, we had only managed one FNRttC, way back in March, so when the Whitstable ride came up and we didn't have other plans, we signed up right away.

Earlier in the week, the weather forecast was looking iffy. But this is England, forecasts change by the hour, so we remained optimistic. But the forecast never improved. Still, last summer Alberto backed out of a ride to Whitstable in which heavy rain was forecast, and then later heard that they hadn't seen even a drop. We decided not to back out. On the way home from work on Friday evening, it had already started to rain and we both got soaked. We considered staying home, but pure stubbornness led us to pull on our waterproofs and leave home at 11:20pm, heading for Hyde Park Corner.

We arrived to see a smaller than usual band of cyclists. Everyone had a different take on exactly how many layers, and how much waterproofing, was necessary. We each had on long-sleeved base layers, long-sleeved jerseys, and our waterproof jackets (I had a wool buff as well). On the bottom we just sported cycling tights (longs). We wore non-waterpoof socks, overshoes, and non-waterproof gloves. In Alberto's pannier we carried our Sealskinz waterproof socks, waterproof gloves (which we had deemed to warm to wear at first), and a set of civilian clothes to change into in Whitstable, where we would be visiting a friend. It turned out to be a relatively good choice of clothing, though I regretted not wearing waterproof trousers as well.

Intrepid cyclists gather beneath the arch at Hyde Park Corner
We set off through the streets of London, as usual, and headed out to the southeast, via Surrey Quays and Greenwich. Twice in the suburbs of greater London we encountered some drunk kids who thought it would be fun to run around in the road in front of us, which wasn't very fun. We had to stop multiple times for members of the group who had punctured, not a surprise given the wet conditions. It wasn't a particularly cold night, but since all of us were quickly drenched, each time we stopped the cold started to seep in.

Riding out through southeast London is relatively urban for a long time, giving us the feeling that we were still within striking distance of home. Alberto and I entertained a few thoughts of turning around, but again, we were just too stubborn. So we just kept going.

On the way into Strood my back light became waterlogged and started spontaneously switching between its many flashing modes -- or perhaps it even invented new ones. Apparently this was very annoying to ride behind, as I noticed large gaps in the group forming behind me. Fortunately I had a second back light that I was able to switch to in Strood so as not to annoy my companions for the rest of the journey.

The halfway stop in Strood was like a refugee camp. As we arrived, a queue formed to get into the building as each cyclist stopped to squeeze water out of their gloves and clothing before stepping through the threshold. We took off most of our out items and strew them over every available surface. We ate our sandwiches, cakes, and tea, and Simon, the ride leader, asked for a show of hands as to who would be continuing on. About ten of the group decided to ride to the station in Rochester, a mere 2km away, and catch a train back to London. Part of me wanted to join them, but another part of me knew I wanted to finish this ride. After more than four hours in the rain, to go home then would leave me having wasted a night (and day as I'd be exhausted) on a miserable ride. But if I continued on, I knew I could at least have the satisfaction of finishing to balance out the misery of the experience. So on we went, having changed into our dry gloves after the stop (but saving our dry socks for the finish!).

The ride started to come into its own after Strood, with lovely lanes and, as the sun evenually started to come up, lovely views of the Thames estuary. We trudged on, through puddles several inches deep and up a few welcome hills which got our temperatures up a bit. Soon we were closing in on Whitstable, just as the clouds began to clear. When we reached our destination, a cafe by the waterside, we were greeted with sunshine.

Clouds breaking up as we reach our destination.
After a quick hot drink with the group, we made our way to Alberto's friend Carol's house. As we changed into dry clothes, Carol made breakfast. I don't think I've ever been so well taken care of or so grateful for someone's hospitality. We had always planned to visit Carol when we arrived in Whitstable, we just didn't know how much we'd appreciate it once we got there! A few hours later, and after a quick exploration of the harbor, we caught the train back to sunny London. Had we waited until morning, we could have enjoyed a beautiful sunny day on the bikes. But then we wouldn't have had such a story to tell!

Blue skies a few hours later as we explore Whitstable's harbor

Still smiling after all that rain!
Harbor in the sunshine