25 September 2013

A pootle along the Schuylkill River

In late August, Alberto and I visited my family in Philadelphia. Despite spending the first 18 years of my life there I have basically no experience of cycling in Philly, so I was keen to give it a try. When I first got into cycling (already in London), my brother had trash-picked a women's bike which had been sitting in my parents' basement ever since. That, along with another utility bike that once belonged to my brother, was good enough for us on this short trip.

We spent an afternoon getting the bikes road-worthy, changing inner tubes and greasing chains. I say 'we'--I napped through most of it but Alberto had a good time!

Test ride
We took the bikes on a short test ride in Philly, from my parents' house in Powelton Village, into center city and back. Satisfied that all was in working order, we made plans the next morning to take a ride on the Schuylkill River Trail.

The Schuylkill River Trail is a path along the (surprise, surprise) Schuylkill River which starts in center city Philadelphia and heads out into the suburbs, to Valley Forge National Park and beyond. There have been some real improvements to the trail since I've been away from Philly, adding sections and improving the landscaping. I was looking forward to trying it out.

We got a late start after a detour to my brother's house to pick up a spare pump, just in case. Then we were off, heading past the Art Museum and up Kelly Drive, up past Falls Bridge, without ever riding in traffic.

Taking a break past Manayunk
There was a brief section in Manayunk where the trail directs you onto the road - actually we took the sidewalk anyway as there weren't many people around. Then along the Manayunk Canal Towpath and eventually past the Philadelphia city line.

By the time we reached Conshohocken we were ready for a cold drink, which was convenient as the Outbound Station cafe was literally just off the trail. We had dinner plans, so decided to turn around and head back the way we came, even though we were curious to see what the trail was like as it headed out towards Valley Forge.

We crossed the Schuylkill River at Falls Bridge for a different flavor on the way home, taking West River Drive, but still not having to contend with any on-road sections. Soon we were back in West Philly and heading back home after a satisfying 30 miles on the bikes.

The route is pretty much completely flat and I don't think you could call it interesting - but in a built-up area like Philadelphia I think it's a great luxury to have a traffic-free route to ride on. It was nice to be able to ride completely relaxed, at whatever pace we felt like. And for longer rides, it's probably the best route out of Philly and into the countryside that there is. Cetainly if I lived in Philly I think I'd be making regular use of it.

15 September 2013

An off-road ride into Autumn

Having been on holiday and otherwise busy for the last couple of weeks we needed a good ride to get us back into the swing of things. We decided to check out a GPS route that Albero had found online, a cross-country MTB route which was described as 'the best of the best'. We were still slightly jetlagged and caught a late-ish train to Dorking, but still managed to be on the trails by 11am.

The first part of our route followed the same path as a charity run that was occurring that morning as we headed towards Westcott. Luckily we seemed to be ahead of the main pack, and only had a few runners to negotiate around. Soon our routes diverged and we were on some great tracks.

It is always hard to know what to expect from an off-road route found on the internet, but these trails were in great condition. Some were wide, while others were more single-track, but they were all relatively smooth which was excellent for a newbie like me.

It was chillier than it has been in a long time, although not outright cold. We had a few short showers, which meant putting on our waterproof jackets, but we found it was cool enough that we were still comfortable even with these on. A real sign of the approach of Autumn, even if the trees were still pretty green.

We had a good time making our way towards Peaslake, and decided to cut our route slightly short to get there, as I hadn't had any tea that morning, and was really craving the village shop's famous cheese straw as well!

After a nice break with pleny of other cyclists around,  we headed back up into the hills. We did a slighlty more difficult section (still easy for anyone with any degree of MTB skill) where we really got to see the difference that switching to flat pedals has made for me.

Alberto put me straight onto clipless pedals when I bought my mountain bike (as I had been using them on the road bike already), but they weren't working for me. I felt nervous going over obstacles and wanted the ability to put my foot down quickly. I found myself unclipping when going through tricky sections -- which, on the small and unstable platform of a Shimano SPD pedal is far from ideal. So, we switched my pedals back to flat ones a few months ago -- but I hadn't had the chance to test it out on the trails since. It turned out to be exactly what I needed. I felt a lot more confident, made it through a higher proportion of the trails without walking, and although I had several close calls, I didn't actually fall off my bike!

As the afternoon wore on the rain picked up again, more steadily this time. We decided to cut off the route to head back to Dorking, still enjoying the trails as we went (though they were a little bit messier than in the morning) but seeing no need to add even more kms in the rain. We got back to Dorking with about 35km under our belts, not feeling that we had worked particularly hard, but we had enjoyed our day. The trails had lived up to their billing as 'the best of the best' and we were back in cycling mode after a few weeks off the bike. All in all, a great, relaxing day in the Surrey Hills.

11 September 2013

The Old 240 audax report

7:30 am on an overcast Sunday in August, at Sowerby Bridge. All I want to do is grab some food and get in to my little tent to instantly fall asleep. I had been riding for almost 26 hours, shivered like never before, ate way too many sausages and bacon, drunk more then 10 cups of tea, and departed from this very same place at 5:30 am the day before. I had finally, after two years wanting to do it, finished the Old 240 audax.

This event is one of those which comes with the must-do tag in Audax UK circles. It features super quiet roads, nice scenery, a challenging distance, and is organised by Chris Crossland, whose reputation amongst AUKs is second to none. A cheap ticket on a late Friday evening would place me in Halifax, and then Sowerby Bridge at 11 pm. Chris was waiting for me, and kindly offered to sleep indoors, but being a warm night and after having carried tent and sleeping bag with me, I declined and pitched in the dark. Alarm set for 4:45 am.

5 am, my tent is the little one at the very bottom. Sowerby Bridge, and Halifax in the background.
 I woke up to a warm morning, and was surprisingly fresh after only just about 5 hours sleep. I ate a couple of muffins, and crawled out of my tent to meet a few of the other riders who had also camped in Chris' garden. Being the usual faffer I am, I managed to get 5 min late to the start...so quickly grabbed my brevet card and joined a few of the other late starters on the High St. The little group I was in did not last long - most of them continued on straight whereas my GPS indicated a left turn up a hill. I was in for the hilly ride, the others were out on a 400 that headed out past Hull and back.

The ride promised plenty of climbing, somewhere between 5000 and 6500 m depending on what program you use to plot your route, and leaving Sowerby Bridge was just the very first hill of the day. I soon spotted a couple of riders ahead of me, and soon afterwards, the familiar faces of Justin and Joel from London. Together, we climbed up to around 450 m where we got to enjoy a beautiful sunrise. I love the good spirits and excitement of the start of a long ride!

Leaving Sowerby Bridge for the hills of the North
63 km into the ride we hit the first control, at Settle, where we decided to stop for some food. It was before 9 am, and we worried there wouldn't be much opened offering hot food. Even though my initial plans were not to stop at least until Dent (the second control, at 120 km) or even Alston, the welcome sight of a massive full English breakfast for £4.50 beckoned.

We left Settle with a full belly and pressed on to Dent, in the Yorkshire Dales National Park. The weather had behaved so far, and I was still hopeful that the forecasted heavy rain and wind moved East quicker than predicted. We rode the next section along relatively flat roads through scenic valleys. Once in Dent we had another tea and a slice of cake, and then the rain started. As we were retracing Dent, we passed Lars and Peter. Another rider, Nigel, sporting a Beverly jersey, was a little ahead of us, and we caught up to him.

Every time I come up North I always encounter some difficulties with the accents. But Nigel's was to be one of the hardest. Nigel's strategy was to stop little and not at cafés, certainly a wise idea when the (crap) weather approaches you and you want to save time. He also managed the whole route (or at least until he dropped us!) in short sleeve, despite torrential rain, high winds and low temperatures that we were yet to encounter.

From Dent we had a little climb up a pass called Hartside. I'd never heard of it before this ride, but Chris assured me it was very gentle and featured a few hairpins typical of Alpine climbs...so was quite keen to see it. When we hit that road, I realised we were in for a long and steady climb, where we averaged about 15 km/h. It was so gentle and pleasant, that I even managed to speak to Lucy on the phone (yes, I know, bad on me!) who was leaving for the US in the next half an hour. The weather was still warm and dry.

The last 3-4 km to the top of a pass were a whole different story. We had had a tailwind all the way from the start, but we were now turning into a very stiff headwind and torrential rain. It was here when I started to realise we were in for a tough ride. Atop the pass we were totally drenched, starting to shiver and the prospects of a quick descent into Alston did not look too appealing. My glasses were completely covered in water, so I could not see much either. Justin and Joel stopped at the top of the pass, where there was a conveniently located café, to warm up and eat something. They had been feeling a bit weak, surely due to the lack of food intake earlier on in the ride, so we had a quick break before heading out into wild.

Hartside pass, taken from drivingroads.co.uk (my camera was safely store in a dry bag!)
I really did not want to stop, cool off, and then go down the hill. On the other hand, I could not see much with my glasses all fogged up, so took the opportunity to dry them and somewhat warm up a bit. When we opened to cafés door it wasn't pleasant: strong winds, and horizontal rain to accompany us. I just wanted to get down to the valley, where I hoped for warmer temperatures and less rain, so started to pedal down the hill.

Luckily, the descent was very gradual and did not pick up much speed. The brakes did not work well, so that was another advantage. The tarmac was good also, which prevented unnecessary scary moments avoiding potholes. Alston was only a few km down...I was also starting to get very hungry, so was really desperate to get there.

Chris had suggested another café in Alston, but were a bit late for it - it was close to 5 pm. Fortunately, the owner must have felt sorry about us, and let us in. We made a big mess, spreading tons of rain water all over the place, but he was only too happy to serve us - he had been a suggested control of the Old 240 for many years and was keen to show us previous years signs. Even though I fancied pizza--the quirks of long distance riding--the café only offered cumbrian sausage, eggs and chips, which we were quick to order. I attempted to communicate my missery to Lucy, but there was no signal at the café, and was pouring with rain outside.

Cumbrian sausage (from foodonabudget.com)
The prospect of another 220 km in the rain and wind started not to appeal that much. We started to consider packing, and look at maps and asked for nearby stations - it did not seem particulary easy to pack at this place, so there wasn't many options left but to carry on. My shivering started to kick in as soon as I went out to get the bike ready, and was so bad that I had difficulties standing up. Justin and Joel felt the same, so I suggested we got going quickly to warm up, which seemed to work. No packing for now, and the forecast said thunderstoms were to clear in a couple of hours, so we risked it.

Alston had some cobbles up a hill, which did the trick and got me warmed. The next big climb of the day was the infamous Yad Moss, rising up to 600 m. The rain eased a bit, but never stopped. Before we even noticed, we were once again climbing steadily up Yad Moss, in some sort of light rain that gets you completely wet without much bother.

Getting up to the top was good, but again were faced with shivers, fogged up glasses, and a scary descent ahead. It was so bad that I asked Joel to go in front of me to signal potholes. My visibility was reduced to maybe 25%, it was just guess work and try to follow the Joel's bike in front of me. Joel's rain jacket had not been up for the torrential rain we were enduring, and he was feeling it. On the way down the hill, we saw a cozy pub that advertised rooms, food, and beer.

Top of Yad moss, in the winter that is. Only sky lift in England apparently...
I couldn't take any photos as it pouring with rain
In no time we three got in, ordered hot drinks, and cuddled up to a fire. This was mid August, and all I could think now was the ridiculousness of the situation. People stared at us with confused faces, which did not help when we mentioned our departure time, distance covered, and distance yet to be covered. Fortunately though, the landlord was a keen cyclist himself, only just getting to know audaxing, and had seen the LEL riders come through this very same place a few weeks ago. He checked the forecast for us, distances to nearby train stations, and offered some conversation.

Half an hour later, still wet, but much warmer, Justin and I headed back out into the first spells of sunshine. Joel had decided to stay at the pub, get a room, and set off in the early morning for a nearby train station to catch a train back to the start. I was very tempted to do the same, but then thought of the difficulties of getting back, the extra expense, and complications. We were still doing ok with time, so put our heads down and carried on with the descent.

The following section was very pleasant, in perfect temperatures, no rain, and beautiful roads. Barnard Castle was the next (and possibly last) place where we could stock up with food for the overnight section, and so we stopped at the local Co-Op. Rain had returned though, but it was light and because of the low altitude, it was not too bad.

Barnard Castle as we saw it (from manorhousecottage.com)
We left Barnard Castle at around 8-9 pm, with our saddle bags full of food, and into the dark. I was feeling a bit tired and thoughts of getting some sleep started to appeal. Having Justin company helped keep me more awake, so we made good progress. We went through and info control near Darlington, and then headed back into the Dales. We caught up with Lars, who, along with us, was the lantern rouge of the event.

The A684 was a pleasant road to do at this time of the night, despite the light rain. It was well past midnight, and there was no traffic, so we had it all to ourselves. We then took Ellers Lane, where apparently we would face another steep hill past Kidstones. The sound of the river running along it made for a unique experience. Once we cycled past the last information control, we hit the hill, which we were only able to feel and barely see at night. It was a long stretch of straight road, that only increased in steepness as we made progress on it. Justin (on fixed wheel) had to walk some parts of it, so I just disappeared into the night using my lowest gear of 30-27. Even then, it was quite hard work.

Half way through the last bit of hill I stopped to eat a banana. It was approaching 3:30 am when a random car went the opposite direction. My bright lights surely made him stop, as I am sure he wasn't expecting such thing at that time of the light, but the driver stopped by me and asked if everything was ok. I assured him I was good, and he carried on. Justin caught up to me shortly after that.

The descent was interesting, very steep and narrow, but luckily the rain had finally stopped, so I could get decent braking power. Even though I was feeling quite energetic and my sleepiness moments were a thing of the (recent) past, Justin needed a nap just as we finished our descent. Lucy and I have been joking about the well known "audax hotel" term by which audaxers define the bus shelters that are scattered around the UK. They do provide a decent shelter apparently, most important when it is raining, but also, sometimes, provide even a bench. In almost two years of audaxing, I had yet to try one of these and right now seemed the appropriate time. I could do with a nap also, so we quickly pulled into a luxury bus shelter, with a toilet block attached to it, in Threshfield We set the alarm for 5 am if I recall correctly, so a bit over 30 min.

Stopping at a pub in the middle of the night to check the routesheet
I carefully laid all my items around me, and quickly fell asleep to be woken up by my mobile phone's alarm. Pressed the snooze, and got another 15 min, after which we felt ready to go. Still dark, but spirits were high again, and we had a bit over an hour buffer time. Lars, the other rider behind us, went past us at some point, but we all got reunited at the next info control and then shortly after that at the garage control in Gargrave.

A very expensive coffee did the trick, and so we set off for the last stage of the event, in daylight, while Lars stayed indoors for a little longer to rest. The remaining km of the route promised to be relatively easy, some on major roads which, at this time of the morning, were totally empty, so we made good progress. Once back on the same bits of road we started some 22 hours earlier, I felt I was going to finally achieve my first and only 400 km ride of the year. We were still on time, with about 1.5 h to spare, so we took it easy and made sure we ate our provisions every now and then. With less than 15 km to go I relaxed and assumed we would be back in the comforts of Chris' house and my tent very shortly...but I was wrong.

Getting back to Halifax involved some ridiculously hilly sections over the ridge to the North of the town. One of them looked seriously unpassable after so many km, but I put all my efforts into it and succeeded. As of today I haven't walked any hills on the road bike in the UK - not sure if something to be proud of or not, as on many occasions people have walked them faster!

The steep hill at the end, a sting in the tail as they call it...
The downhill into Halifax was terrifying to say the least. My rims were covered in grit from the pouring conditions we had endured during the last 12 hours, and I could feel the brake pads being reduced significantly from the start. I was glad it wasn't raining though, as otherwise I would have had some difficulties slowing myself down on some of the sections...disc brakes are called for in wet weather and steep downhills!

Seeing the cobbles leading up to Chris' house was a welcome sight. We had completed the Old 240, and some warm food was awaiting us, along with tales from other riders on our and the Hull event. Apparently we had the rain, but they had the headwinds. I am not sure if I would have preferred the wind or not, but this had surely been a tough ride, with a handful of times where I would have packed had the getting back to Halifax in the morning had been easy.

After a couple of hours of siesta in the tent, with more warm rain, I set off for the station and back to London. The weather had been rubbish, and I had been colder than I even remember in the UK, and this was in August. The route was fantastic though, and I really would like to make a return to the Dales sometime in the future. Chris' organisation had been great even though this was a basic event, with nearly no facilities other than his house at the start and end. The company made this ride a lot easier, no doubt, so thanks Justin, Joel, Lars and all the others that we met on the ride for that.

The stats were as below:

Not that bad, considering we stopped for more than 5 hours!