31 December 2012

Looking forward to an even fuller 2013

Almost a year ago I wrote my first ever resolution list. Not that I am a big fan of such silly things, but looking back at it now, it feels that it has been a productive one.

In the Chiltern Hills, in a cold January day
In January we did our first audax of the season, and it went quite well. In further months, we clocked up a 200 km ride, then my first 300 (the Dean, with its superb route), and visited the Peak District. Came April, and we went on tour of Belgium and France, where we also watched the infamous Paris Roubaix. I also managed to ride a 200 km in under 9 hours, which it was a big surprise at the time!

In May we headed down South, to Bordeaux, for our Camino. It really was a great trip, and I highly recommend it to everyone. In June, we embarked on our first 400 km ride, which went ok, although Lucy found it a bit much and decided not to do more (ridiculously) long rides.

Riding the Dean 300 audax, in March, on shorts and t-shirt. With Ulfson, my companion for the day
I carried on with the silly aim of become a Super Randonneur, and kept clocking up the km to keep fit. We visited Shropshire, and enjoyed the English countryside at its best, in August.

September was fun. Not only I had a fantastic time touring in the West of Scotland, but also, I managed to ride 600 km all in one go. My thoughts about long rides were mixed by the time I finish though...possibly helped by the fact that I had a very sore butt for nearly the whole ride, and my rear hub was playing up since the very beginning.

Flooded roads in Dartmoor in late October. These days, Lucy and I are very rarely put off by rain, wind or cold. Not too long ago Lucy promised not to ride if the thermometers dropped below 10C!
Dartmoor, in October
October and November were also fairly pleasant, with a couple of long rides thrown in (here and here). I had by then decided to ride at least one 200 km audax per month.

December is a weird month, with the Xmas celebrations and all the stuff, so I did my monthly audax on the first weekend and try and enjoy other things the rest of the month.

Also, I became a Doctor (a PhD doctor!) after nearly four years of continuous efforts and struggle.

So, what about 2013:

- Keep doing my Randonneur Round the Year
- Visit Scotland in Easter, Outer Hebrides this time
- Go to Wales for a few audaxes, which will imply hills. Being Spanish, I have to love hills don't I?
- Ride the infamous Bryan Chapman Memorial audax with its 600 km and 8000 m climb, in May, in Wales
- A tour of Iceland. A long-standing dream of mine. It will possibly be wet, windy and miserable at times, but I am sure we will have a blast
- Fit in a bit more mtb rides, including the South Down Way
- Try and fit in as many tours as possible!!!

Route planning while en route
I still have mixed thoughts about the longer audax rides. This year is LEL (London-Edimburgh-London year), MGM (Madrid-Gijón-Madrid), and a few other long randonnées. None of them are cheap, and all require taking a week of annual leave. I think I would enjoy a week of touring a bit more than those rides.

Wish you all a good 2013 with plenty of scenic miles

Frosty bike computer. Bring on the kms in 2013! 

30 December 2012

2012 in pictures

Inspired by one of the blogs we follow, we thought it would be nice to have a look at our 2012 year in a series of pictures, one per calendar month. Here we go!

January 2012: Lucy taking a break on a 100 km ride in the Chiltern Hills
February 2012: on my way to the London fish market, 4:30 am in an empty Holborn (Central London)
March 2012: our first 200 audax of the season (Up the Uts, picture by a ploddingpedro from YACF)
April 2012: Lucy blends in with the locals on the Paris Roubaix pavé

May 2012: climbing in the Peak District as a part of the Transpeninne Trail
June 2012: Lucy, Miguel and myself followed the Camino de Santiago, and made it to Santiago de Compostela after 1200 km from Bordeaux
July 2012: having a snooze at Dulwich beach, after 200 km ride from Central London on the 20th edition of the Dunwich Dynamo. This was the second time for us on this very fine ride
August 2012: the Shropshire countryside on the Kidderminster Killer 200 Audax
September 2012: Locharron, on my tour of the Western Isles of Scotland
October 2012: riding out of a thunderstorm on the Poor Student 200 DIY audax
November 2012: quick snack stop on the New Forest 200 audax
December 2012: route checking on a 50 km loop around Sevenoaks

Lucy's 2012 Year in Review

2012 has been a great year for my cycling. It's still hard to believe it was only my first full year  as an audaxer and that this time last year I had never been on a bike "tour" longer than two days. Looking back at my goals for the year, I have accomplished them all, though some to a greater degree than others. The one that will be remaining on my 2013 list of goals will be to improve my MTB skills - despite 1200km of Camino I'm still pretty skittish on the MTB.

We have been fortunate to take a few different cycling trips this year. Without a doubt cycling the Camino de Santiago is the highlight of the year, but our four-day tour of France and Belgium was lovely as well.

In the audax world, I didn't have any explicit goals apart from at least managing a 300. I accomplished that, and a 400, although I've since decided to concentrate on 200s and very special 300s for the time being. I did also acheive a Randonneur 1,000 award which felt good!

I'd have to say my favorite audax of the year was actually From Clee to Heaven, despite it not earning any points at 100km. I felt really strong on the hills and can still remember the feeling of not wanting the ride to end as we were approaching the last control. 

In April I participated in #30daysofbiking which turned out to be pretty miserable given that it literally rained every day in the month of April this year -- but it really helped me get into the habit of daily commuting and I have been commuting much more frequently ever since.

After a wet April ride!

I've also enjoyed more solo rides this year. I still have a long way to go, as I'm pretty wary of riding outside of London on my own, but it's been great sometimes to head to Regents Park for some laps on my own. 

I'll leave my goals for next year to a future blog post - suffice to say 2012 has been so enjoyable that it will be hard to beat!

26 December 2012

A loop in the December Sunshine

The start of December was pretty miserable but last weekend the forecast suddently turned. A positively tropical 9 C (48 F) and supposedly sunny skies drew us out on the bikes on Saturday. I hadn't been on a long ride in several weeks, and we wanted to sleep in a bit, so we needed a shorter route than usual.

Fortunately, Alberto had just been sent some rides to test as part of a forthcoming book of cycle routes, so we were able to select a 48km loop out of Sevenoaks which seemed to fit the bill.

We got a late start but  after a train from Charing Cross, we were on the road in Sevenoaks by 11am. We regretted our lie-in when we saw how busy the road out of Sevenoaks was, but soon we were on quiet country lanes and all was well.

Wintry lanes out of Sevenoak
We had to stop at every junction to note the instruction for the book - which slowed us down a bit but was fun in that it provided us with a sense of mission. Until it started raining at about km 15 -- that did take some of the fun out of it.

Infamous Yorks Hill (going downhill, the easy way!)

Weather turned a bit nasty...yet still warm
Surprisely though, with the warm temperatures, we were not too miserable. It felt like a Spring shower rather than a winter storm. It helped to know that we were on a relatively short ride, so there was no chance that we'd have to cope with several more hours of rain, which is usually the case.

Another advantage of a short ride is that we didn't really need to stop for food - some chocolate on the bikes was all we needed to hold us over.

The route was fantastic - mainly quiet country lanes but passing through some interesting small towns as well. Had we not been worried about daylight we could have had a really lovely day out sampling the various cafes on the road. There were enough hills to keep it interesting, but none that gave any real trouble, despite the fact that I was out of shape.

Quick stop to shelter from the rain 
Rain sheltering
I don't think there are too many more days like that in our immediate future so it was great to enjoy it while we could!

Deserted lanes
Taking notes on the route 

24 December 2012

Western Scotland and Isles day 4: Fionnphort - Calgary Bay (Mull)

As I had predicted, I had a very rough night in the tent. The wind changed direction overnight, hitting the tent fabric directly. With all the noise that that carries, I only got some good sleep past 5 am, when it seemed to have calmed down.

If it weren't so far North it would be packed with tourists! View from the campsite onto the beach
 At 8 am I exited the tent and was gifted with a beautiful day, sun and no winds. I even saw a couple of other tents pitched on the campsite, at least one belonging to another cyclist. My right eye seemed to be ok now, but there was no way I could be wearing contact lenses today. After stocking up at the local Spar with some Isle of Mull cheese, I took advantage of the Westerly winds and set out to enjoy the roads I had barely seen the day before, retracing my steps. By 10:30 am I was already on my way back to the bus shelter intersection with the road leading up to Loch Na Keal.

The most scenic dental clinic I've seen to date. Fionnphort.

Caribbean beach in Mull, at the campsite
I could see the cyclist I had met in the campsite ahead of me, so quickly tried to catch up with him. As it turns out, Matthew was also on the YACF forum, and more surprisingly, was a regular of the Friday Night Rides to the Coast. The world is a napkin, as we say in Spanish. While talking to him, we both realised we had probably cycled together already, in some of the rides organised by the Fnrttc people. Funny.

The bus shelter I used to take a break the day before. The cyclist is Matthew
Matthew and I rode together for quite some time, exchanging experiences and ideas for future tours. He was on a 3-week tour of Scotland, carrying a large load of four panniers, a rack bag and a big Carradice saddle bag. We shared the headwind once we turned West, towards Loch Na Keal. This section of road promised to be really scenic, or so I had read...

Somewhere along the B8035 in Mull
Today was a completely different day. The wind was not as strong, it was dry, and most importantly, sunny. The scenery along the B8035 really spoke for itself. The road was undulating, relatively flat while going parallel to the Lochs, but quickly gained elevation when going inland. Some of those inland sections were heavy wooded areas - which Matthew quickly explained were pine trees planted between WWI and WWII to promote the timber bussiness in the UK, especially in areas that are useless for other types of farming.

Going inland. The mountains on either side topped 800 m or so, according to the GPS
The downhill sections were always fantastic. No traffic and amazing views of the Loch Na Keal. Once we got to Gruline, Matthew and I parted separate ways. I continued West towards Calgary Bay along the B8073, while he would carry on on the B8035 towards Salen for some hot food.

About the get down to sea (Loch) level

Can it get any better than this?
In Killiechronan I stopped for lunch, which consisted of local cheese with tomatoes and bread. The Mull cheese was amongst the best I've ever had, up there with our very own manchegos. The views from my lunch spot were, again, amazing.

Very nice Mull cheese

Lunch spot at Killiechronan
As it usually happens in Scotland, it soon started raining, so I rushed my lunch and got back on the bike. It is funny though, in Scotland it rains even if you don't have a clould formation on top of you!

The road got a bit steeper along the Loch, quickly gained altitude and remained at 100 m for quite a while. I cycled past some road workers, who I asked about distance to Calgary beach (apparently one of the 10 top beaches in the whole of the UK!). They confirmed it was about 20 km or so, meaning a bit more than 1 hour at my pace. 

The downhill to Calgary from 200 m down to sea level followed a very steep climb that had me on my lowest gear for the first time on this trip. Although my initial plans were to head to Tobermory and spend the night there, I soon decided to spend the night at the beach. To my surprise, there even was some basic facilities to use, free of charge, for campers. They were really gross though, but still, nice to know they are there.

Almost 200 m above sea level

Calgary beach on the left
As I was descending towards the bay, I noticed I had phone reception for the first time in Mull. I quickly texted Lucy and the parents saying something like "it was rough yesterday, but I think today it's been one of the best days on the bike". There was already a tent in Calgary beach, and with the sun out, I did not hesitate much to pitch mine up.

I had met the other campers on the ferry crossing from Oban, the day before. They were a couple on their first tour, combining B&Bs and camping, and seemed quite friendly. Apparently, they told me there was also a café up the hill as you leave Calgary. It turned out to be a not-so-friendly bunch of people in there, but they had local beer which I could not resist to get... I also filled the water bottles and returned to the beach.

This is the life
It was about 5 pm when I set up camp. The water was not too cold, but I was not in the mood for a swim this time, so went around the bay on foot instead, while the sun set.

Calgary beach

Sunset at Calgary Bay
I retraced to my tent, cooked some local sausage I bought at the café, and planned the following's day route with the help of the maps: Tobermory, then ferry over to the mainland and then...will see.

It had been a superb day on the bike. Mull had not disappointed, and as other cyclists say, it certainly is amongst the best places one could ever ride in. If the weather cooperates, it cannot get much better, surely.

Maps and ferry times

The stats for the day:

- Odometer: 92.7 km
- Max speed: 55.8 km/h
- Moving average: 17.1 km/h
- Moving time: 5h 24min

19 December 2012

Western Scotland and Isles tour day 3: Crinan-Oban-Fionnphort (Mull)

I was awake and eating some breakfast by 6:30 am, after yet another wet and cold-ish night. I got around the packing relatively quickly, although I was still unsure what goes into each pannier...I should get better at this I thought!

Eventually set off minutes past 8 am. The roads were damp and it was completely overcast, yet it was not too cold. Actually, it was perfect for riding, with temperatures around 12-15C. I soon got back on to the A816 that goes all the way up to Oban. As I was approaching it, I saw a loaded cycle tourist coming from the South. When I caught up with him I realised it was Phil, who I've travelled with on our way to Arran.

A816 towards Oban
Phil had been taking it easy as his ferry bound for Barra, in the Outer Hebrides (and our next destination!) was not running on the day he thought it would be...He stayed overnight in Lochgilphead, at the dreadful campsite I'd seen the day before. Together we made good progress, although because he was carrying even more weight than I was, he got dropped out on all the hills. I did not mind this, and waited for him at the top.

The A816 was surprisingly quiet, and very very pleasant. The tarmac was superb! The Scots really know how to keep their (few) roads in good condition! The scenery was superb, but I was feeling a bit hungry. In a tiny village called Kilmelford we pulled over. The café was nice, but it was still too early and they were not serving food or drinks yet, so the only other option was the Cuilfail Hotel. 

The landlady accommodated us (she even made me porridge!), and for a fiver (i.e. 5 pounds) we got a continental breakfast that was much appreciated. With energy levels repleted, we carried on on the undulating A816. As the km past, I learnt that Phil was quite an interesting character. Not only he had and still works with helicopters (aviation and all things that fly are one of my other passions, but I will leave that out, for now!), but he was also an experienced mountaineer! Amongst his numerous trips, those that seemed to stand out included Bolivia and Nepal, which are both top on my to-do list. 

Nice scenery along the A816 (courtesy of Phil Parker)
It was good to have Phil to cycle with to Oban. Although I do enjoy solo cycling, I always try and make conversation with other cyclists - and sometimes it pays off! I got good advice from Phil, and promised to keep in touch, given our future plans of cycling in South América. Without really noticing, and after a quick descent down to sea level, we made it to Oban. It was 11:30 am.

Lucy's camera batteries had been playing up, and so I thought that Oban would probably be my last resource to find a suitable charger. We cycled past an electronic shop, which looked quite messy from the outside, but which, to my surprise, stocked a Chinese-made universal charge. Even more surprisingly was to find the owner speaking in fluent Spanish on the phone! Funnily enough, as it has happened already more than 10 times since I moved to the UK, she thought I was Scottish!!!

Well, I am convinced this is due to people not understanding a word of what I am saying, specially if tired. But it gave me a boost! Perhaps, after all, I have got ride of that Spanish accent that we all have at some point?

The Isle of Mull in the background, from Oban
Once at the ferry terminal, Phil and I got our respective tickets. I would go to the Isle of Mull, while he was taking the long ferry crossing to Barra. I really was tempted to change my plans and go with him, as the Outer Hebrides beckoned, but eventually decided to stick to my original plans and return with Lucy soon. My ferry was not due until 2:00 pm, and so I had plenty of time to have a spin around town.


Oban port
I followed the road 78 to the North of Oban, until it run out. There, with the sun out, I made a quick brew and dried all my kit for 30 min. It was such nice weather in Oban that I even thought of delaying my crossing to  Mull a bit more...specially since I knew the weather was not as nice on the island.

Drying the kit in the sun, near Oban
Just before I got on the ferry, I could not resist and bought an smoked salmon sandwich. Really, the best one I've had. If you happened to be in Oban, and like salmon, you have to have one of those!

That was quite a lot of smoked salmon!
In Mull things were a little different. Rain was hammering down upon arrival, and it was windy, thus the lack of more pictures. With all my wet gear on, I spent some time trying to decide which route to take. On the one hand it was the A849 towards Tobermory. On the other, if I made a left turn, I could reach as far as Fionnphort and perhaps the Isle of Iona?

Decisions, right to Tobermory, or left to Fionnphort?
The weather was truly horrendous in Craignure, but I had heard many good things of this island, that I thought it would be a waste not to circumnavigate it, in two days. I asked in the local shop about the road and its lumpiness. The local said it was ok. I had a piece of cake and got ready. So there I was, pedalling towards Fionnphort, in the wind and heavy rain.

The road was really scenic, but it had a little problem I was not aware of before I set off. The isle of Iona is a  tourist magnet, and because it is within reach of Oban as a day trip (by bus, that is!), plenty of tourists get on buses to go visit it. The road is narrow, but has plenty of passing places along it. At some point, after the thirteenth bus headed for Craignure had gone past, I gave up counting them. 

Rain stopped for 30 s, and I shot away. On my way to Fionnphort
If you intend to visit this part of the world, I would encourage to avoid the "tourist bus" rush hour. Surely, the go there in the morning, and return at about 5 pm, which is when I was in the middle of my route to Fionnphort. Apart from that, the road was beautiful, despite the persistent crap weather.

The rain/wind started to get in to one of my eyes. The glasses did not seem enough, and so plenty of water and a combination of sweat and dirt coming from my hair/helmet, seemed to be making their way straight into my right eye. I cannot tell you how unpleasant (not to say painful!) this was, but I really felt miserable. I cycled most of the remaining 30-40 km with only my left eye opened. Until the same happened to my left eye.

Dusk was approaching and the weather did not seem to want to improve. It was time to turn all the lights on, and just keep bloody pedalling to Fionnphort. I was making very slow progress, and had already given up on catching the last ferry to Iona. Not that I really wanted to visit this island, but at some point I thought it could be cool to camp there?

Bus sheltering away from the rain and wind
When I got the intersection with the B3035, the road to Loch Na Keal, I got into a random bus shelter that had been put there just for me. Oh well, it turns out it is also a famous shelter in local Scottish audaxes. So I made use of it. I simply rested. I was so miserable, pretty much blind in the right eye, and soon on the left. I wanted to call Lucy for some moral support, but my mobile had no reception.

Ate a chocolate bar whilst shivering in the shelter overlooking the mountains. Back on the road, I had another 30 or so km to Fionnphort. Mull was proving challenging, and bigger than I had anticipated! I just pressed on, only with one functioning eye, and told myself to apply rule number 5. I really thought it would have been a nice ride on a dry day, but this was getting to my nerves, and it was getting quite dark. 

The glasses were not doing me any good, so took them off eventually. The last few km to the campsite, which of course, was not in Fionnphort itself but in Fidden, were painful, into a very strong southerly wind. 
I was glad I reached the reception by 7 pm, totally shattered, shivering and ready for some hot food and sleep. 

Now, the other problem. The wind. It was surely blowing to at least 80 km/h. I asked the landlady if I could pitch behind some rocky formations near the reception, but she said that it was not allowed as it was someone else's propertiy. So there I was, with a few tents blown away already, in the campsite, at dark, trying to find a pitch that was a bit sheltered. I had no idea if my Wild Country Zephyros 1 tent could cope with the Scottish weather... I could not see any standing tents, either.

Luckily though, there were some caravans, and one of them said it was ok to pitch near them if I needed to. They surely saw me a bit desperate. Quickly pitched my tent and rushed to the toilet block, where I had one of the most pleasant showers I remember... As I was leaving the toilet to the comforts of my tent, the caravan owners I had just spoken to, brought me a massive flask of boiling water! I was so grateful for that, as it meant not faffing with the stove in the wild weather!

The following morning
I made a double pot of cous-cous, tea and went back to the toilet block to check on my eye. It did not look good - it was quite inflammed and perhaps about to get an infection. Unfortunately, I confirmed on the GPS that there were no pharmacies nearby that I could go to in the morning...the nearest one was in Tobermory, and that looked quite far away. To my surprise, also, on this campsite I met up with the couple from Yorkshire, who invited me to their tiny caravan to some tea... I had to refuse. I was in no state to engage in any conversation, so told them I would have it in the morning, and went to sleep, in the crazy winds and rain that Mull had prepared for me.

I just only hoped that my eye allowed me to continue on the following morning, and that wind/rain had calmed down in a few hours.

The stats for the day:

- Odometer: 120.4 km
- Average speed: 17 km/h
- Moving time: about 7 hours
- Max speed: 60 km/h