26 February 2013

North Downs in the (winter) dry

It's not new that I love mountain biking. I have actually only taken up road cycling proper while in the UK, despite having owned a road bike for quite some time. Things were a little different back in Spain, where good to very good trails abound in the vicinity of where I used to live, in North West Madrid. The Sierras were never too far and hundreds of km of dry off-road trails were the norm. Here in the UK the conditions are a little different, and I do not think I have ever been on a mountain bike ride that did not involve a deep cleaning and re-greasing of the bike afterwards.

First few km in Ranmore Common
But today was going to be a special day: because it had been so cold in the last few days, below freezing, all the mud and water usually found in the North Downs were to be completely frozen. Also, we would be taking our friend Mateo on his first ever mountain bike ride, which made it even more special for us. Because we like cycling so much, we are always trying to encourage our friends to come along on one of our rides. This is usually unsuccessful as they all fear they are not fit nor capable enough to ride with us, which isn't really true, but still, it is always nice to be able to introduce someone to "our" sport.

After a slow train ride from London to Dorking, we headed straight away to Ranmore Common to pick up the route for the day, a 30-ish km loop taking in Leith Hill and a few other famous sights. Very soon we noticed that Mateo would be able to keep up with us, despite having no experience on a mountain bike and the fact that his rig was an ultra-heavy thing weighting in more than 15 kg, with sleek tyres, which cost him less than £100 brand new.

He really has potential as a mountain biker
The trails were in a nearly perfect condition, with no sign of soft mud or water. We took it easy on the descents though, as there was some patches of light snow scattered around. The uphills were taken their tall on us, and so we stopped quickly to re-fuel. No silly cereal bars, cake or dry fruits as always. This time we went big and did the Spanish thing: bocadillo de lomo (with an English muffin!)

Re-fuelling before the hills
Leith Hills appeared somewhat unexpectedly. We seemed to be doing the loop (which we got from the internet) the opposite way as the guy that recorded it, and were confronted with the last 200 m of steep hill up Leith Hill, the highest point in the North Downs. I promised Mateo a beer if he made it up his this hill on his crappy mountain bike, and, to my surprise, he did it. You are a machaca mate.

Lucy tackling the last few meters of Leith Hill (on the hilly side!)

Once on top of the Hill, we took the obligatory picture, got some light snow on our faces, and made some conversation with fellow riders. Apparently this area is also popular with night riders - something to try out in the warmer months! The downhill from here was not as exciting as I had predicted, possibly due to our lack of knowledge of good trails, and so we stuck to the wider paths and followed the GPS track.

Leith Hill
At some point Lucy pointed out that the trail diverted off-road unnecessarily, but we, the boys, did not fancy more tarmac. As it happens most of the time, Lucy made the right decision as we found ourselves going up a ridiculous hill that we could barely walk on. I do not recall walking such a steep wall in the last few years, definitely not with a bike and with plenty of slippery soft mud. We were heading to the Holmbury Hill without knowing.

Could be fun on the way down, certainly not doable up hill
We got reunited with Lucy soon afterwards, on the road, and made our way to Peaslake to our beloved Village Stores. The trails were still dry-ish, but we could notice the mud getting a bit softer, and some sections got quite slippery again.

Rushing to Peaslake
Once in Peaslake we introduced Mateo to the "British" thing of tea and cake while out riding, which he seemed to enjoy quite a bit. After a calorie refill we hit the roads to cut short of the original route, and pick the trails back up near Shere.

There is an off-road path that goes pretty much all the way to Dorking, via Westcott, and so we took it. It was still rather cold, but we were in good spirits and Mateo seemed to be having a good time. More than 30 km on the clock meant his furthest ever bike ride to date, and he still had a lot more in the tank!


Heading back to Dorking
The very last hill was not really necessary to tackle as we could have continued along the bike path, but after consultation with our newbie, we went for it, just for fun (and maybe to warm up a bit!). Some light snow started to fall again but by the time we got to the top it was only a few more km back to the station.

The North Downs in the background
We were back at the station by 3:30 pm, with significantly less mud than normal, which surely will be appreciated by the Southern trains staff. Although it was not a very demanding day, we had plenty of fun and enjoyed some unusually good trail conditions. Mateo wants to be head back, which means job done for us.

24 February 2013

Film Review: Janapar

Last week, we heard that a bike touring film we had been hearing about, Janapar, would be screening in London. It's not every day we get to see our favourite pasttime represented at the cinema, so we decided to head along and see what has to be one of the most slickly-marketed films about a bike tour that we have seen recently.

The film is a story of one man's round the world cycle tour, which is interrupted when he meets the love of his life midway through the tour. It addresses very well the mental elements of cycle touring, but it's really just about growing up.

The fact that it's not your typical bike tour film had its plusses and minuses. On the one hand, it was nice to see a well-constructed storyline and the fact that it was a love story of course gives it sentimental value. You definitely find yourself emotionally invested in the people you're watching.

However, we've grown accustomed to the typical format of a cycling film and it was a bit jarring to see all the trappings of one, yet with such a different storyline. Although I enjoyed the creative way the film was edited, Alberto missed the linear nature of a typical film in this subject area. I think we both would have liked to see a bit more of daily life on the road, which sometimes fell by the wayside as Tom (the cyclist) does pensive pieces to camera about his thoughts and feelings.

Despite these little niggles, I would thoroughly recommend seeing this film if you get the chance (there are screenings in the UK over the next few months -- although I don't know that I'd pay £16 for the DVD!). There is also a book available, which I am quite curious about, but again it is slightly more than I'm ready to pay at this stage.

Ultimately, the story is aimed at a wider audience than just cyclists, which means it's a bit different from the cycling films you're likely to have seen before, but on the other hand it means you can watch it with your non-cycling partners and  friends, and they'll probably enjoy it just as much as you will!

21 February 2013

Gear review: SKS Long Blade mudguards

Mudguards (or fenders, for our American/Canadian readers!) are a common thing in the UK. When I first moved here I was shocked at how many people had them on their bikes. But it wasn't only commuters that had them, also roadies, tourers and of course, mountain-bikers.

It has taken me a while to admit that perhaps they are a good thing. We all know what happens to your back and butt when it rains if you don't have mudguards. But most importantly, perhaps, is that if you ride in a pack you will be spraying all the road grit to the rider immediately following you behind. Although this could be ok if that was your best mate or partner, it really isn't pleasant when riding in a group.

However, being used to more fair weather countries, none of my bikes were fitted with the eyelets that you normally attach your mudguards to. A few companies have already thought about that and have designed mudguards that do not need such eyelets to be installed. The ones I know of are listed below:

- Crudracers
- SKS Race Blade mudguards (clip-on)
- SKS Race Blade long mudguards (clip-on)

I decided against the first two because 1) the crudracers had almost no clearance and looked too flimsy and delicate, and 2) the Race Blade mudguards clip-on system with rubber bands did not convince me, plus they do not reach below the hub axle meaning riders behind will get all the spray anyway.

I went for the third option, which had just been released into the UK market. The fact that they were long (below the axle) and easily removable appealed to me. I went and ordered them online for just under £30 and a short review of these is the aim of this blogpost:


If you fancy installing this yourself, this should be pretty straightforward. Basically, you put the metal clips on both the hub axles (removing the springs first) and in between the frame and brake bolt.

Rear mudguard attachment to the rear axle

Front clip for front mudguard, attached to the brake bolt to the frame

Detail of rear mudguard attachment to the brake bolt to the frame
Following that, you attach the mudguards and adjust them to give enough tyre clearance by loosening-tightening of a very small allen key bolt on either side of them.

Allen bolt to adjust mudguard to the tyre
Performance review

I have had these mudguards for over a year now, and have put in more than 10.000 km on them. SKS initially released a very raw product into the market, which was not only badly designed (especially the metal bits that attach to the hub axle) but also of debatable quality. My rear mudguard simply snapped in two whilst I was removing it from the bike. Not a good sign! Also, the mudguards keep coming off at the slightest of bumps, not a good thing on the UK bumpy roads...This was, again, due to a poorly designed attachement system (as shown on the picture above) and too much plastic. The long-flap attachment was also faulty, coming off while just riding.

After a quick email correspondence with the dealer, they agreed to send a new set of the same mudguards, so I hold on to them before throwing them out.

The problems with the spontaneous detachments continued, and I now got in touch with the dealer again, who was very sceptical of what I was saying. They suggested various things, such as bending the metal attachments and so on, which never worked. Just I was about the ask for a full refund on this very crap product, they got in touch with me saying SKS had re-designed them and were sending a brand new batch to me, free of charge.

When I got the new mudguards I was pleased to see that all my points had been looked at and re-designed. Surely, I was not the only unhappy customer who provided feedback?!

Now the mudguards have been performing ok for the last 8 months. Here are their good points:

- Quick attachment/detachment to the bike
- No need for eyelets
- They are long, good for riding in a group
- They seem sturdy so far

Clearance is minimal at some points, even using 23 mm tyres

Long mudflap, not much clearance
Now the bad points:

- The clearance even with 23 mm tyres is pretty minimal, meaning that if the roads are muddy you will get mud stuck on to the brake bride. This will cause rubbing and you need to clean it frequently, involving removal of the wheels. If your tyres are already tight without mudguards, you will struggle putting these on!
- Not the best system if you need to mend a puncture, as you need to remove them from the bike first.
- The extra mudguard sections that compliment the long sections are just too short and don't do much, plus, they rattle a lot. I removed them.
- They are way too pricey in my opinion (£40 nowadays!)

Useless section of mudguard: it rattles and doesn't do much anyway
Another useless section of rear mudguard - your frame will get sprayed anyway!

Full rear mudguard - good length, not so good clearance

Even though I had a very bad experience with the first set of mudguards I was sent, I believe most issues have now been solved and I have had these on for a while, without any problems. 

However, be aware that their clearance is pretty low. It's ok on wet roads, just not so good on wet AND muddy roads (typical of the UK lanes in winter!) as they get stuck with mud. I like the fact that they can be easily removed if you expect a dry day ahead of you, and that it's just about one of the very few options you have if your bike does not feature eyelets on the frame stays and fork. 

If I were to give them a score, it would be a 6/10, which is ok but just not great. I realise it's not that easy to give enough clearance to these type of mudguards as bikes like mine were just not designed to be ridden with them. But some of the things I discussed above could be improved in future versions.

Disclaimer: we do not receive any incentives nor discounts on any products unless otherwise stated, so these reviews are our own and completely unbiased.

10 February 2013

A wintry MTB in the Surrey Hills

The forecast called for pretty crummy weather most of the weekend, with Sunday expected to be the worst day, so any riding we would do would have to be on Saturday. Even so, there was a risk of ice on the roads so we opted for the mountain bikes. Hard to believe, but it  would be the first time I'd ridden off road since finishing the Camino de Santiago back in June.

We had planned a 33 km loop, but after a late start and slow-going for me (as always seems to be the case on the paths) this turned out not to be feasible. We ended up with maybe about 25km off-road, but still clocked up a 54km day with all the riding to and from train stations.

Leafy trails in the Surrey Hills
After a quick train to Dorking and a cycle on the road up to Ranmore Common, we turned off to the trails. The first section was very muddy and full of big puddles which was not encouraging for me, but soon we were on to better-quality terrain and we had a quite enjoyable, if slow, ride. It snowed and drizzled on and off, but the trail remained good for the most part as we looped through Gomshall.

I found it slow going, and it was clear that I still have a long way to go in developing my MTB skills, but the trails were relatively easy and I enjoyed the vast majority of the route we did, only dismounting for a few sections.

View of Alberto's cockpit and nice, wide trails
Eventually, after Gomshall, we came to a trail that is probably a joy in dry weather but had essentially turned into a stream. It was alright for a while, but eventually the stones at the bottom of the water became too loose and I had to push the bike a bit, trying (with limited success) to keep my feet out of the water as I went. Thank goodness for Sealskins waterproof socks!

Riding through a stream -- I was caught in the act of unclipping hence the weird angle to my foot!
Further up that trail we came to a steep uphill with steps built into it which was impossible for us to get up. With both pushed our bikes as the mud got thicker and thicker we no longer had to hold on to our bikes, as the mud held them upright. We scrambled up the bank of the trail onto a dry forest area where we were able to connect back to the road after only a few minutes.

Eventually we reached Peaslake, that hub of MTBers in the Surrey Hills, where we normally feel a bit out-of-place in our roadie gear. Today we fit right in, and after a hot tea and snack we made the decision to head back the way we came, rather than carry on with the rest of the route. We only had a set of emergency lights and it was clear we weren't making very good progress.

Alberto's selfie - I was too focussed on not falling over to take the camera!
We took the roads back to Shere to cut off the mud and river section we'd just come through, and then headed back to the trails where what had been a fun downhill became a grueling slog back up - but we made it thanks to the MTB granny gear.

After my first and only fall of the day heading through the muddy section that had been so dispiriting at the start of the ride, we were back on pavement to Ranmore Common. Alberto opted to take a trail downhill while I kept to the roads, and we met up for the final descent into Dorking, where Southern Railways had conveniently organised for a train to whisk us back to London just moments after we arrived at the station.

We didn't complete what we had set out to do, but it was a good day out nonetheless. I'm definitely looking forward to another MTB in the Surrey Hills when the days are a bit longer.

We brought along our GoPro camera, a Christmas gift from Alberto's parents. It's only our first attempt, so there is lots of room for improvement, but here is one minute in the Surrey Hills.

07 February 2013

Back in the Saddle: A winter's ride to Brighton

Astute readers (hi, Mom!) may have noticed that the blogging has been a bit one-sided lately, mainly focusing on Alberto's activities. I've been having a very quiet winter, cycling-wise. Riding a cold 200 in October taught me that I start to get miserable after about 5 or 6 hours of cold feet and hands, so I resolved to keep riding shorter distances in the winter, working on my speed instead.

However, after a 100km day in the North Downs a few weeks later, I had not ridden any rides of 100km or later until this past weekend. In fact, the Christmas holidays, combined with some weekends of illness, snow, and other obligations meant that I had not ridden at all (apart from my 8km round-trip commute to work, and a few laps of Regent's park) in 2013!

I tell myself that it is probably good I had an 'off season', that everyone needs a rest and that I've enjoyed my weekends off the bike. This is all true. But with spring audaxes looming on the horizon, and with me starting to crave the feel of rubber on road, it was time to get back out there.

Alberto and I planned a new route to Brighton from our house (98km) and invited Dan along, who in turn invited a friend, who invited another friend. Soon it turned out that there would be 6 of us headed to Brighton -- five guys ranging from very fit (audaxers) to extremely fit (ironmen) would be my company on my first ride of any length in three months. What could go wrong?!

Machacas in black
We departed from home at 7am and picked up the rest of the guys at King's Cross. Despite my intimidation they were all very nice and seemed up for a relaxed day out. Alberto and I had the only GPSs, so they couldn't go too much faster than us anyway!

We spent the first two hours or so getting out of London. Traffic was light at that time of the morning, but it still reminded me why it's better to take the train out of London. Riding through city streets just isn't the point!

We exited London via Farthing Downs, always a treat, and then out through the North Downs. I didn't feel my at strongest on the uphills, and of course wasn't as fast as the guys, but I felt ok and actually felt stronger as the day went on. At about 11am, after 50km or so, we started craving the warmth of a cafe and some hot food, but all we seemed to pass were pubs which of course were not open yet!

In the North Downs

We all had snacks so pressed on through nice lanes, coming out onto a B road for the ride up Turner's Hill, which was the pretty much the only unpleasant road of the route. Still, any road feels better when you're in a group of six.

Dan asked some passersby about a cafe so we decided to divert to Lindfield, where we heard there was a nice one. We were not disappointed, and everyone was much happier after a bit of a rest and a bacon sandwich. By that time we only had 25km to go, and the prospect of Ditchling Beacon was looming large. I hadn't been sure I would make it, being in such bad shape, but I think the cafe stop did me worlds of good and I felt pretty okay during the final run up.

We passed through Haywards Heath and again on a B road into the town of Ditchling, and then to the Beacon. We had spread out quite a bit by that point, meaning that the fastest guys had a long wait at the top, but I was pleased to take about 12 minutes for my own climb, and Alberto reported that I only finished about a minute behind the guy in front of me -- so my fears of being the weakest link (by far) were unfounded.

Warren summiting Ditchling Beacon
Across the top of the Beacon we got some of what we have started referring to as 'Iceland training' -- stiff winds -- which made the heavier traffic that always appears at that portion of the ride a bit too stressful. After one last little hill it was all downhill to Brighton, where we took some photos by the pier and then headed to the train station to make the quick journey home.

It was all in all a pretty good day out on the bike. I was not as out of shape as I thought I'd be, which proves that my running has been helping! It's always nice to spend a day out with fellow-minded cyclists, and all in all it was a great start to my 2013 season. I'm looking forward to getting back in the saddle again.

Brighton Pier

05 February 2013

Ride report: The Man of Kent 200 km audax (permanent version)

We are still enjoying a reasonable window of warm weather (for February, that is!) and so I took advantage of it to get my February 200 km  ride in. The Man of Kent sounded like a good one to do: not hilly and most of it on quiet lanes, in Kent (duh!), an area we don't often travel to.

A short train ride dropped me in Tobridge, the start of the ride. Without delay, I got my ATM receipt and started the first leg of the audax: a 53 km flat pootle to an small town called Charing.

An scenic place to take the train from: Shard tower
The lanes were completely deserted and almost totally dry, which made for a nice few hours of quiet riding. I always find the first two hours of any audax somehow difficult, as the prospect of a long (winter) day on the bike does not sound too appealing. As I was on my own this time (Lucy's still opposed to riding long distances when is cold out and I did not fancy any of the calender events) I had to try and put all the bad thoughts off and get going with it.

Nice deserted roads at the start
My aim for this ride was to finish below the 10 hour mark, so since the beginning I tried not to waste time with unnecessary stops. Also, I intend to ride the notoriously hilly Bryan Chapman Memorial ride, a 600 km route that traverses Wales South-North twice. Any time not spent eating or riding is time wasted on sleep! I have to somehow maximise my time on the bike to then afford some time sleeping.

In Charing I struggle to find an ATM or anywhere to get a receipt from at first, so I retraced my steps to the village shop that was at the entrance of the town. Audaxing does weird things to your body and appetite, and at 9:35 am, I fancied a can of coke, an apple and a banana. 

The next control was only a mere 20 km further East, to a town called Bridge, to the south of Canterbury. The roads were still quiet, but the routesheet recommended taking the A252 towards Bridge, a potentially fast and busy road. There was an alternative, on the Faversham road and then lanes, so took that option instead. Just after Charing, I was confronted with the first hill of the day, which was most welcome given the cold.

Rolling hills ahead on the way to Bridge
As I was pedalling along a nice country lane, I spotted two cyclists that looked like potential audaxers out on a ride. The organiser of this ride had mentioned two other guys will be riding the event on the day as well, and that I might bump into them...I got excited to find some company so was quick to ask if they too were doing the "Man of Kent" ride. They seemed a bit confused for a second, surely, as they were not aware of the other rider (i.e. me!) doing the ride. But yes, those were the guys!

Despite the fact that I was keen to have some company for a while, they had started much later than me and only set off from Charing and somewhere else after that, so were in for a long day. They also seemed to be taking it easier than me, so I pressed on on my own after a short chat with them.

Quiet lanes to Sandwich
Sandwich was my next control in the east coast of Kent, which takes its name not for one of UK's favourite lunch, but from Danish "sand place or camp on a beach" or "near the mouth of the river". It's also a well known town within the Pharma world as it used to be Pfizer UK base and where Viagra was discovered, apparently.  The seafront did not seem that accessible unless I took a detour, plus it was quite windy, so decided against it. An old lady recommended it though, along with the trail that heads down to Hythe, so perhaps I will return here sometime in the future. 

Leaving Sandwich meant heavy cross-winds all the 20 km down to Hythe, my next control. Traffic was still light, so it did not matter that much, but it worried me on the leg back up to Tonbridge. The arrival into Hythe was rather nice, with some good views of the sea and a quick descent down the Hythe Downs to sea level.

People fishing at Hythe seafront
At Hythe I made a quick diversion to have a look at the sea. It always feels nice to sea the water, and actually, the place itself seemed more pleasant than the average English town in the South. I refuelled with a rather salty bacon sandwich and a tea on my way out of town. I was making good progress up until now, but it would all come to a halt soon.

Leaving Hythe implied hills, which were welcomed to warm up at first. Once on the flatter sections, the wind was quite strong, surely around 30 mph or more. Even on the flat, I had to make use of my small ring and it did fell like an uphill, all the way to Ashford, my next control. My average dropped dramatically and I sort of gave up completing the ride under 10 h.

Flooded fields
Approaching Ashford meant some heavier traffic, but I was soon done with the receipts and back on the lanes headed for Headcorn, my last control. The sun was starting to set at 4:30 pm which afforded some amazing colours in the horizon, and as always, this was the highlight of my riding day. By 5:00 pm I turned all my lights on and pressed on back towards Tonbridge.

This does not justice, but it really was one of my best sunsets while on the bike
The wind died down on the last 20 km of the ride, possibly helped by the forested areas I encountered before Tonbridge. The clouds looked threatening for quite a while - it looked like rain was imminent. Legs were still feeling good so kept the speed up to try and avoid the potential shower.

The famous Kent houses
Getting into Tonbridge was uneventful, except for the last bit of road B2017 with its evening traffic. Although it was not too heavy, it really is annoying to be hit by powerful car front lights coming towards you, leaving you partially blind for a few seconds.

I got my final receipt just a few minutes past 6 pm, which meant a ride of over 10 h, but not by a lot. I blame it to the strong winds coming from the north on the penultimate leg, and also, a lot of faffing looking for appropriate controls. I reckon I could easily do an under 10 h ride if on a group or on a calendar event with manned controls.

Big collection of receipts as proof of passage
All in all it had been a very pleasant ride that I highly recommend to do either as a permanent or as calendar event. Luckily, my February ride is now out the way, and do not need to worry about the coming bad weather. The stats were as below: