26 December 2013

My top five magic moments on a bike in 2013

2013 has been a great year for me and cycling. I audaxed less, but deepened my involvement in the audax community. I couldn't travel abroad, but cycled in the UK more than ever before. I did less intentional 'training' than I had hoped, but found myself stronger than I ever have been. As has become my tradition, here are the most magical moments I've spent on a bike in 2013.

#1. Winding my way through the mountains on the west coast of Harris: Our tour of the Outer Hebrides in April was basically magical every moment. Harris' west coast was so beautiful, we rode it twice (in order to circumnavigate that island).

#2. Pedalling against the patriarchy on the hottest day of the year: As part of Rapha's Women's 100, some friends and I planned a Feminist 100km ride in East Anglia. I had so much fun cycling with only women, and being solely responsible for navigating was a great challenge that increased my confidence.

#3. Volunteering at the Loughton control of LEL: Ok, so I wasn't technically on a bike when we helped out at the start and end of LEL, but we did use our bikes to get there. Audax is a truly inspiring community, and LEL epitomises everything that is great about it. It was an absolute pleasure to be a part of it.

#4. Rolling into Oxford after completing the Poor Student Perm: I haven't audaxed much this year, and in fact approached the last month of the Audax season without a single completed ride. It felt good to complete an audax, but even better to finish feeling like I had ridden just at the limit of my ability, but not outside of it.

#5. Rolling along the A93 through Cairngorms National Park: On our second tour in Scotland this year, we crossed the Cairngorms one on of the best stretches of road we've ever been on -- the A93, a day and a half of pure cycling bliss. We enjoyed gorgeous weather, quiet roads, and the company of our good friend Mateo. 

2013 was our last year of cycling in the UK for quite some time. Although I am so excited for our next adventure, I'll really cherish these moments, and many others, of our time there.

24 December 2013

My 2013 in pictures

As it has been the tradition for the past couple of years, here are some of my favourite pictures in 2013. 

January. Snowstorm in Epping Forest. This could well be a regular day in most of Scandinavia right now. But on a very cold and snowy Saturday morning, Dan and I set off to ride the fresh snow of the Epping Forest, still within the M25 of London. Even though we did not have any winter tyres, the snow was soft enough to allow some pleasant miles. 

February. Lucy (in pink at the front) leads a team of machacas including two serious ironmen triathletes down to Brighton. It was a typically English February morning, temperatures not much above 0 degrees celsius, damp roads and leafless trees. I rode this following a tough 200 km audax the day before, and could barely keep up with the guys (and girl!)
March. Pico Gallinero in the Spanish Pyrinees. Spain has some really good mountains, and lots of snow in the winter, despite what lots of people in the UK might think. It does get cold up there at 2600 m! I managed to pack a weekend full of off-piste skiing following a snowstorm the day before. 

April. The road to Tregaron on the Yr Elenith audax. This has to be one of the finest rides one can do in the UK. A 300 km audax, held in April, and superbly oganised by John Hamilton. It traverses Shropshire and goes into Mid Wales and back. The weather was typically Welsh (i.e. wet, windy, and cold) but I had a blast and wish I could return to these roads every now and then. Hugh, on the picture, kept me company most of the way.
April (II). Setting up camp in sunny  Hushinish. One of our most favourite cycling trips, if not the most, was to the Outer Hebrides in Scotland. We had sun 80% of the time. This picture was taken in the idyllic Hushinish beach, where we camped with a view of South Harris
May. Somewhere in Wales, with already 300 km under our legs, on the Bryan Chapman. This was my second ever 600 km ride, and the highlight of my audax season. The aim was to cross Wales South to North and back down within 40 hours and 8000 m of climbing in between. We had great weather, not a single drop of rain, and lots of sun on the second day. The company couldn´t have been better: Javier, a super-fit Spaniard also living in London, led the group on numerous occasions and put up with me for 38 hours.
June. Wearing a headnet on the A838 near Tongue. Scotland is known for its stunning landscapes, fjords and friendly people. But also for its midges. On a warm and calm summer day in Scotland, you get lots of flying tiny biting insects called midges. They can easily ruin your evening, as was the case. We ate on the go (literally!) and with headnets on. So yes, the photo was not taken on a Cambodian floating market, despite all looks!
July. The start of the London-Edinburgh-London. Having decided against riding this 1400 km audax, we did not hesitate to volunteer and give something back to the community that had worked hard for us in may of our audaxes. We registered riders from all over the globe, made baguettes and teas, cleaned, fixed bikes, and ultimately had a great time and met lots of interesting people. If you don´t ride next time, make sure you volunteer!
August. 5:30 am. The start of the Old 240 (miles) audax. A very wet, cold and windy hilly 400 km ride through the Yorkshire Dales. It took us almost 25 hours of real tough riding, where I very nearly bailed out had it been a bit easier to get back to the start. I completed my second ever super randonneur series, this time with lots of climbing points

September. Riding along the Schuylkill river in Philadelphia. Not all has to be long distances, rocky trails or touring. On a visit to Lucy´s family in Philly, we took on the trails alongside the river and simply had a good time.
October. 8 pm at sunset. A short overnight solo trip to Dunwich, on the Suffolk coast. Other than a very stiff headwind on the following day, and some heavy rain overnight, it was great

November. After the gales and rain, the sun finally shone. As a good-bye England weekend trip, Lucy and I visited the Peak District National Park, where we endured some heavy rain but still had a great time. In the off-season is a great destination to go cycle-camping from London

December. A crisp start to our climb to Puerto de la Fuenfría in Madrid. Back to my beloved Sierra de Madrid. Even though it was sunny and mildly warm initially, we encountered so much snow on the way up that we had to abandon our plans to climb to the Bola del Mundo at 2200 m. It will have to wait to warmer times, or spiky tyres.

18 December 2013

MTBing near Madrid

After a few days in Madrid spent mainly unpacking the surprising amount of stuff we had managed to accumulate in five years in London--and trying to cope with the psychological consequences of making a choice to be unemployed and homeless for a year--we were ready for a break.

Alberto suggested we take a route that was a favourite of his as a teenager, on trails through parkland that roughly follows the tracks of the commuter train into Madrid from his parents' home in Las Matas. We grabbed the bikes that were most close to being fully assembled -- Alberto's mountain bike and my Long Haul Trucker and set off into the late afternoon sun.

Alberto looking out over Madrid - the smog is startling though!
Despite it being December, Madrid was enjoying a warm spell. After dull, cold London it was thrilling to be in long sleeves without a jacket. A couple times we dipped into shady spots which were quite a bit colder, and even had some snow leftover from the previous week. We enjoyed some great views of the Madrid skyline and the trails were in great condition -- something I'm just not used to with most of my MTB experience limited to the Surrey Hills.

Crossing the railroad tracks to head home along the other side
It was a quick ride, only about 15km or so, but it felt great to be out on the bikes again and enjoy the time we have in Spain.

The following day we took an absolutely outstanding ride up Mount Abantos, above the town of El Escorial, but as we forgot to put the memory card into the camera, we have no photographic evidence of that ride! It certainly whetted the apetite for more off-road riding in sunny Spain though. Which is good, as we need to try and keep our climbing legs for Ecuador in less than a month's time!

01 December 2013

It's official!

We've told our families, our friends, and our jobs, and all that's left is to say it on the blog - we're leaving London to cycle around South America!

We've been talking about taking a long trip for quite some time, but of course it never seemed like the right time. It still doesn't, but we've decided to do it anyway. We've decided to leave London for good, and it just made sense to take a trip before we settle down again somewhere new.

We leave London on Tuesday, although you wouldn't know it by looking at the state of our packing. We'll be spending December with our families in Madrid and Philly before flying to Quito, Ecuador in January 2014.

We plan to head towards Ushuaia but don't have much of a fixed route at the moment. We'll see when we get there. We have no return flights either but we're planning to be away for roughly a year.

This is of course equal parts terrifying and exhilarating, and now that we can talk about it on the internet we'll be sure to share more with you as we get ready to step off this cliff!

13 November 2013

Six things we learned about our gear from our weekend in the Peak District

Autumn in the Peaks
We recently spent a long weekend in the Peak District, as part of our apparently annual practice of going camping when the weather probably doesn't warrant it. It was a wonderful, relaxing weekend ahead of a few intense weeks coming up for both of us. We're currently planning a more serious trip (more on that very soon) which made for lots of reflection over the course of the weekend about our gear choices in particular. I found it to be a very informative trip in that sense. In particular we learned:

1. GPSes are great, but not to be relied upon: Our GPSes have been a bit funny lately, so we decided to leave one at home. Upon arrival to Sheffield, we discovered that the route we'd plotted from Sheffield to Hathersage was no longer on the unit! Fortunately, we had a map as well. It may not have been as quiet a route, but we managed to get out of Sheffield without a problem. This is why we'll always cycle with maps in addition to our GPS unit. (Note to my mother: We've recently updated the software on them, so the problem should be fixed!)

2. Dynamo lights are great, but not to be relied upon: Alberto recently invested in a dynamo hub and was excited to use his bright light on the dark lanes in the Peaks--we had plans to ride in the evening to a nearby town for the fireworks display (it being Guy Fawkes Night). However, on the way to the station for our 6am train the light suddenly stopped working. We're not sure what the problem was, but it was definitely with the light rather than the hub itself. Since we hadn't brought another light (besides our head torches) we were confined to Hathersage for the evenings.

Our trusty Hilleberg Staika
2. Hilleberg tents... hell yeah: We've had our Hilleberg Staika for close to a year now but had never used it in bad conditions until our weekend in the Peaks. We've had a night or two with rain and one night of slightly obnoxious wind, but nothing major. On Saturday night, the had wind and rain so bad that we actually decided not to try and cook dinner - we just ate food that didn't need to be cooked. It wasn't the quietest night's sleep, but the tent felt totally secure and we had no leakage issues. All to be expected with a legendary brand like Hilleberg but it was good to have our expectations confirmed.

3. Wool really does keep its insulation when wet: Sunday dawned with some serious rain and we spent the morning reading and napping, hoping the day would improve. When it didn't we decided to hike up to Stanage Edge, as there is a footpath from the campsite. We put on full waterproofs - trousers and jacket - but my cycling waterproof doesn't have a hood, so I was left to use my merino wool Buff as a hat. It of course got totally soaked over the course of our 1.5h walk, but still kept my head remarkably warm.

Wet but warm headwear
4. I should get a waterproof jacket with a hood: I mean really, there was no need for that.

5. Sealskinz waterproof socks... seriously, hell yeah: As per normal for a short camping trip, our only non-cycling shoes were Crocs. We went on the hike anyway, with waterproof socks overtop of a normal pair. Not only did we have rain coming in from the holes in the Crocs, but there were some parts of the trail that were literally rivers of water. It was impossible not to step in some puddles. Our feet sometimes felt the cold from the water but when we got back to camp and took our socks off, the inner socks were still dry. Awesome!

09 November 2013

Peak District in November

Autumn is my favourite cycling season. You can´t beat the colours and the roads are much more quiet than on your average summer day. Here in the UK, the temperatures are still very reasonable...so what's not to like?

With that in mind, we got some cheap tickets to Sheffield and cycled over to the Peak District National Park for a three day relaxing camping trip. It was rather wet and windy half of the time, but we also got some sun on our third and last day. Rather than boring you with more text...I will just leave you with some pictures.

Leaving Sheffield on the Ringinglow Road - up to 400 m in the fog, luckily there's an off-road path most of the way

After we set up camp, we rode up to Stanage Edge. Can't beat those autumnal colours!

The famous rocky ridge in the background as we climb out of North Lees Campsite

Leaving the ridge
Ladybower reservoir

The promised rain about to hit, but then we got the rainbow

Pissing it down meant some hiking

On top of Stanage Ridge with strong winds and lots of rain

After a bad night storm, we woke up to this

Nightime at the campsite - trying to be creative!

Monday morning was sunny and crisp, allowing us to do a 50 km hilly route

The climb up to Mam Tor, after leaving Castleton. At least 20% inclines!

Mam Tor

Blue skies as we descend Mam Tor

Heading back to Hathersage

Quiet roads all around
About to break out camp - hard to believe we were back in London 3 hour after this!
*Note to all of you that travel by train: 1) trans out of London early Saturday morning can be really cheap, even if booked not so far in advance (three days in our case), 2) sometimes it is cheaper to buy two singles than the whole journey as one combined ticket (e.g. London to Sheffield and then Sheffield to Hathersage was way cheaper than a combined ticket) and 3) if you return on the Monday night, then you can get bargain prices...

06 November 2013

A cyclists' take on Alex Gibney's The Armstrong Lie

A few weeks ago we saw The Armstrong Lie as part of the BFI London Film Festival. My column looking at the film from a cyclists' perspective is now live over at the recently re-launched and truly excellent puremovies.co.uk.

Being a pro cyclist fan is now, and possibly forever more, a case of mixed emotions. Likewise, I enjoyed the film, at the same time that I found it incredibly depressing!

Here's an excerpt:
In responding to innumerable allegations against him, Armstrong has given every conceivable answer to the question, “Are you doping?” As a result, no one can ever give a truthful answer to that question which isn’t basically the same as a lie that Armstrong has told.

As I say in the peice, I'm honestly conflicted as to whether I can carry on enjoying pro cycling. Only time will tell I guess, but at least there's nothing that can take away the joy of actually being on the bike myself!

More at Pure Movies: It's more than a lie

31 October 2013

An overnighter to Dunwich

With Lucy being away for most of the weekend, I spontaneously planned a short solo camping trip to one of our favourite places on the British Isles: Dunwich. The plan was to simply cycle there from Diss, in Suffolk, wild camp, and back to Cambridge the following day to catch a train back to London.

The weather forecast for the weekend was surprisingly warm for being late October, however, a pretty nasty wind and rain storm was approaching the UK from the Southwest. Meteorlogists promised very high winds and torrential rain, but this was only to hit Suffolk by Monday night, so I should be more or less safe.

Although I did not particularly stuck to the route below, it's an idea of what I did, and certainly would be a good one if you indeed fancied a go...

A quick journey on a very old-fashioned Greater Anglia British Rail Class 90 train and I set off East towards Southwold, on the Suffolk coast. I initially followed some bits of a route published on Jack Thurston's excellent Lost Lanes book to then carry on towards the sea. It was the perfect cycling day, with temperatures in the early twenties, sunny spells, and a decent southeasterly wind, which pushed me much of the way. I took it very easy and simply enjoyed the quiet countryside of this part of the UK. Even though it is still close to the crowded Southeast, it certainly does not feel like it in terms of traffic...passing only a few cars per hour.

Southwold Pier - definitely above your average UK pier!
Southwold was a fairly pleasant coastal town, with a decent beach if it not were for the nasty view of Sizewell nuclear power plant in the background... Other than that, it has a very relaxed atmosphere, and lots of fresh fish in the fishing port. Again, a nice change from the average English coastal town.

Southwold beach, and the nuclear power plant in the background
From Southwold I first had to cross a little estuary to carry on South, towards Dunwich. You either take a tiny "ferry", which is paddled by a surely very strong man, or you take the pedestrian crossing a bit further inland. 90 p per person and 90 per bike did not seem too pricey, but I just didn't fancy carrying the heavy bike onto the tiny boat...so went for the second option and save the funds for a beer.

Surely the tiniest ferry in the UK!
Once on the other side, I followed the Suffolk coastal path, not because I planned it, but because it appeared on my GPS screen and thought of it as a nice alternative to the roads. I was glad to have thick tyres on the tourer, as recent rain had made the path very muddy and slippery. It was also narrow at places, but somehow managed to cycle through it without falling.

Yep, that's were your bacon and sausages come from!

Suffolk coastal trail - narrow and slippery
It was now approaching 5 pm, and Dunwich was only a few km ahead along the path. I started to seek out places to camp overnight, but first decided to continue on to the Dunwich car park, where there's 24 h toilet facilities where I was to stock up with water.

Dunwich Heath in the background
There were several fishing aficionados set up on the beach, and even a guy swimming. Speaking to one of them, it seems is now the time of the year to get flat fish, and most of them would be spending the night there. After I loaded up with water I considered my options, and staying on the beach seemed the most reasonable one.

The fishermen and I were the only ones on the beach when the sun set

Waiting on the sunset to pitch the tent
I figured if I could walk out along the beach for a while I could find a quiet (and flat) place in which to pitch my tent. I waited until it got dark and pitched by the fences. I would be out in the early morning, and being just me and my tiny tent, I figured I would not bother anyone.

As I had seen warnings of severe weather on all the national newspapers, I confirmed with Lucy that I would be ok for the night. It appeared I was to expect heavy rain showers and winds up to 50 km/h from the Southeast, but nothing worse than that. Being dark at 5:30 pm, I was tucked in my sleeping bag at 8 pm and asleep shortly after that.

The night storms were constant, and at 2:00 am I was abruptly woken up by a partially collapsed tent - the ground wasn't really quite solid and the gusty winds had pulled the pegs out, leaving me with a useless tent in the middle of a downpour. I got out and used the bike to pegged it down more securely, which worked brilliantly until the following morning.

How to peg the tent in soft ground and strong winds
I did not manage to get a very good nights sleep, but when the storms ceased, at about 4 am, I passed out for a couple hours. I hadn't realised that the time changed, so essentially woke up at 7 am to a walker and his dog. It turned out he was one of the maintenance guys working on the beach, but he wasn't bothered by me being there, and just said good morning and joked about the weather.

After a pretty miserable night, the skies opened and I enjoyed a nice sunrise with some porridge cooked on the stove. 

Can't beat the views!

Ready to go 
I noticed the wind was picking up again, and with that, more rainy clouds. What had been a very pleasant morning, had now turned into a horrible autumnal day, with heavy rain, wind a darkness. My GPS had also decided not to show my pre-planned route, so I was left without any idea of where to go. Luckily, I had some maps, and later on I managed to plot a new route with the GPS which seemed fairly reasonable.

The rain stopped a few km out of Dunwich, but then, the promised Southeasterly winds made an appearance. Even though the proper storm was yet not hitting Suffolk, I could certainly feel a very stiff headwind which was to accompany me for literally the entire route to Cambridge. 

The GPS took me on very quiet roads, all very flat and theoretically easy, if it not were for the gusty headwinds. The km did not seem to pass, and I struggled all the way, my speed being brought back down to 8 km/h on several occasions. It felt like a 120 km uphill, and eventually took me 10 hours to reach my destination.

Tons of fresh veg
It got dark by the time I reached Cambridge, and the station certainly was a very welcome sight. I was completely shattered, my face being wind-burnt, but it had been a good way of spending the weekend and seeing the autumnal colors. Of note also, a friendly truck driver congratulated me on my high visibility approach - he had seen me on the road and said my gear was spot-on with a high-vis vest, blinking red lights, and reflectives. Always good to be reassured! 

Back at home I was glad to see I had escaped one of the worst storms that have hit the UK. In a few hours time winds up to 160 km/h were registered in the Isle of Wight and chaos brought to the whole Southeast on Monday morning.

Sunset as I approached Cambridge