25 March 2013

Planning our Outer Hebrides Tour

Easter seems to have snuck up on us (might have something to do with the fact that the weather is still behaving as if it's January!) and with it our first tour of the year, to the Outer Hebrides of Scotland. We always knew it would be less than ideal weatherwise so early in the year, but the current circumstances go beyond anything we had planned.

Yes it is late March! (source)
London received a dusting of snow yesterday, but further north there were blizzard conditions and pretty much the entirety of the UK has been going below freezing every night this week, with no sign of it letting up any time soon. The entire Isle of Arran in the Inner Hebrides--which we are fortunately not going to visit--has been without power for about 24 hours. Fortunately temperatures in the Outer Hebrides are always slightly warmer due to the gulf stream, but at the moment it doesn't look like we'll get highs above 8C (46F) at any point during our trip.

The tour must go on, however, so we will be packing several layers and hoping for the best--and of course writing down the locations of hostels in case it truly does go pear-shaped!

We've planned a rough route and given some thought to likely stopping points. The main questions remaining are whether we'll make it from Glasgow (where our train will leave us) to Oban in one and a half days to make the Friday ferry or catch the Saturday one instead, and whether we'll leave the Outer Hebrides via the Tarbert-Uig ferry and take in a bit of Skye, or continue a bit further north and catch the ferry from Stornoway to Ullapoo. Either way we'll be headed to Inverness, from where we'll have a direct train back to London (taking virtually the whole day!).

Our packing list is complete (though not packed!) and we are making last minute adjustments to my new Long Haul Trucker.  I've also bought some new Neoprene overshoes in hopes of solving the cold feet conundrum.

Callanish standing stones (source)
We are really looking forward to seeing the stunning scenery that the Outer Hebrides have to offer, and some of the cultural sites like the standing stones at Callanish. We're unforunately likely to miss the Stornoway Piping Competition by one day but we're hoping we'll catch some Easter festivities--we'll mostly likely still be in the Catholic part of the islands on Easter sunday.

Assuming we don't blow away and/or freeze to death we'll be back on Sunday 7 April. Hopefully with both character and leg muscles built!

23 March 2013

N plus 2

The British weather continues to disappoint, and we are still experiencing temperatures in the single digits (C) and snow in many parts of the country--including many areas that we would wish to ride in. This time last year we were experiencing an early spring heat wave, but this year we really haven't had any nice weather rides in quite some time. This has resulted in a string of DNFs and DNSs, although we've still managed to have some nice rides on the bike, if not as registered audaxes.

However you have to keep things interesting with cycling, and if the rides won't do it then perhaps new acquisitions will. In the space of a few days we've suddenly found ourselves with two new bikes to add to the stable.

The first and most predictable is my Long Haul Trucker, parts of which we have been acquiring for months now in anticipation. We finally got the frame itself (in actuality it was a Christmas gift from my parents) and Alberto has been diligently buidling it up over the last few days. It is now fully rideable, though lacking a few accessories like mudguards, bottle cages, and handlebar tape.

Bare frame

Good to go!
The less expected new addition also fortuately takes up less space--it's Alberto's new Brompton! A new job meant that he finally had an excuse to buy one (as he'll be able to take his bike on the train) and when he saw a secondhand one available for quite a good price he had to jump on the offer. We met the seller (a student who decided he valued cold hard cash over the joy of cycling) at King's Cross and soon we were strapping the folded bike onto the rack of Alberto's LHT. An unorthodox commute home, but a successful one.

That's Alberto looking pretty miserable in the sleet

The folder, in its folded state
Next week we'll be headed to Scotland for what is shaping up to be a very cold tour of the Western Isles and Outer Hebrides. We can only hope that April brings better weather and more chances to put the new bikes through their paces!

14 March 2013

How to fix a flat tyre

Sure you know hot to fix a flat tyre...IF you had some patches, glue and perhaps even some sandpaper. One of my friends, rightly knowing I would enjoy the video, sent me a link to an imaginative way of mending a flat when you do NOT have the right kit. I guess it may even work when you get a big crack on your inner tube, wouldn't it?

In any case, do let me know if you have tried or will try this technique - I will very be very keen to hear how it all went or if it actually works?!

10 March 2013

Murphy's Law on the Shaftesbury Spring 200

We hadn't registered for the Shaftesbury Spring 200, but it had been in our heads as a good possible first 200 for me this year. We thoroughly enjoyed our experience on Up the Uts last year, and this ride was another one of those that starts from the cycling club bungalows in Saffron Walden and visits laney Essex at its best.

Come Friday night, I was still uncertain as to whether or not I wanted to ride it. The forecast was for rain and temperatures below 7C, I had had a long and somewhat stressful week at work, and we had lots of chores to do at home. I wasn't sure I was quite up for 200km in these circumstances, but since the ride loops back to the HQ after 100km Alberto tried to convince me that we could always pack after 100km. I remained unconvinced, I was exhausted, and I went to bed before Alberto had even finished prepping the bikes.

At 5:50am Alberto nudged me and asked me if I wanted to ride. I said no, but somehow a minute later I was out of bed and layering up in lycra ready for the ride.

It turned out that we had only ten minutes to get dressed and leave the house if were to make our train. We did the best we could, and were making good time until we took a wrong turn on the way to the station and ended up adding about five minutes onto our journey which we did not have to spare.

No matter, we bought tickets for the next train which would still get us there in okay time, just not much time to eat at the 'ut. We loaded our bikes onto the train only to be told that bikes were not allowed on this train. The train was empty and there was plenty of space for the bikes, but we were forced to remove our bikes from it and wait for the next one that would take bikes, which would mean getting to the start about 20 minutes after start time.

Create Maps or search from 80 million at MapMyRide

We managed to set off about 30 minutes behind the rest of the pack, which we thought we had a chance of making up. It was mainly disappointing because we love the atmosphere of these audaxes and it was sad not to be a part of that.

So we set off trying to make up some time, until about 10km into the ride I got a flat tire. My first ever on an audax. The road conditions were not great (we had not heeded the organiser's warnings that skinny tires were not recommended!) but it turned out my flat was not to do with any sharp objects. It's possible there was too much air in the tires or else the tube was just very old, but either way there was a split in the tube.

We changed the tire but realised this was probably the end of our hopes of catching the peloton.

We carried on until the tea rooms at Stisted, where there were still plenty of riders having tea and cakes. We couldn't tell whether they were on the 200 like us or on the rides of shorter distances. We found another guy who had started even later than us and had managed to catch us just as we pulled into Stisted. Chatted with him over cakes and then rode with him a for  bit as we headed back to HQ, before his pace became too much for me (even though he was on fixed!).

Stisted Tea Rooms (photo from last year's Up the Uts when the skies were a bit friendlier!)
I was still feeling quite good at this point and mulled over the idea of doing the full 200, but as we pushed the pace a bit and as the hours added up, I started to question the wisdom of that. My feet had taken longer than normal to get to their frigid state (feet strategy today: thinner (polyester) winter socks, Sealskinz waterproof socks, and thin plasticy overshoes), but they were there now. I wasn't at my limit, but I could feel that I would reach it before another 100km were up. I told Alberto that I planned to head back to London after 100km but that he could carry on if he wanted.

We reached the HQ after 104km and enjoyed some of the yummiest, best value food I've had on an audax. As with last year's Up the Uts, there is something about cyclists cooking for cyclists that transforms the food into exactly what you didn't even know you needed.

We warmed up a bit and Alberto considered his options. Eventually we decided we just had too much to do in London so we headed back toghether to the station. I suppose Murphy's Law might be a bit extreme, but it certainly was not the most successful day we've had on the bike.

Still, it was great to get some kms in the legs as it is really time for me to start ramping up for another season of audaxes and touring. If only the weather would start to cooperate we'd be in business.

07 March 2013

Our own "The Hell of the Ashdown"

 As some of you may already know, Lucy and I are not big fan of sportives, that is, rides that you pay (usually lots!) for in exchange of a pre-determined route and occasionally some feeds.

But, they do have their advantages, granted. The routes they usually take are well thought out, and involve going through scenic bits of this island. The Hell of the Ashdown is one such sportive that I've been wanting to ride for quite a while, just not with hundreds more of other cyclists (and without paying the hefty fee!).

March continues to be a cold month, much more than last year, where we were already cycling in shorts on a number of days. The forecast was not too bad though, just above freezing, but no rain and even some sun towards the end of the day. After a bit of fiddling with the official 2013 route, we took a train that dropped us to the south of Orpington, near the North Downs.

This ride promised to be on the hilly side of things, yet nothing too challenging nor Pyrinean, we hoped. With just over 1900 m of climb it would just be rolling terrain throughout.

Departing from Chelsfield was uneventful and quiet, yet climbing up gently for the first 15 km or so. Not sure why, but I felt super weak here, started to overheat and feared something was wrong. Perhaps too much clothing? not enough breakfast? I never knew, but just kept on drinking a bit of water, taking it easy on the hills (even for Lucy, that is!).

We soon went over the M25 and into the North Downs, with its continuous up and downs to keep things a bit interesting. I began to feel ok again, and carried on towards the Ashdown Forest without delay. 

Kent - The garden of England (not surprisingly!)

Quiet roads
 We had seen plenty of cyclists up until now, a good number of them from London-based clubs. Despite the fact that it seems to be a popular area for cycling, Lucy remained the only woman on two wheels we saw that day. Perhaps there's a reason behind it?

Lucy's feet were feeling too cold, even colder than usual. Her combination of two pair of socks (thick merino plus waterproof sealskins) did not seem to be working that well. One explanation she came up with had to do with her circulation being somewhat restricted by the tightness of wearing two socks and the cycling shoes? Whatever it was, she was not feeling too comfortable, so we looked around for somewhere hot to stop for a few seconds.
In Ashdown Forest

Not many places appear on the road when you most need them, but a quick stop in an off-license seemed to do the trick - for a little while. We then pressed on to the end, enjoying the fine views from the Ashdown and further on back on to the North Downs. Light was fading at this point, which gave us an opportunity to snap a few pictures along the Bough Beach reservoir.

Bough Beach reservoir
The last few hills towards Orpington were the most notorious of the day, having me on my lowest cog and struggling a bit. I need to put in some good (hilly) miles before the big rides I have planned in April (Yr Elenidh and the Dorset Coast 200) and May (Bryan Chapman).

It had been a good route, with most sections with very little traffic, despite this being one of the busiest areas of the UK. We did not record the stats, but from memory, we just did under 20 km/h average, which for this  time of the year, the climb etc was not too bad.

Roll on March.