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

26 October 2013

Review: Gore Bike Wear Xenon 2.0 Shorts

Gore Bike Wear Xenon 2.0 Lady shorts
Everyone has a go-to pair of padded lycra shorts. For me, they're the Gore Bike Wear Xenon 2.0 women's shorts, which I've owned for about a year and a half now. They're so much better than any other shorts I own that when I saw Wiggle suggesting they were being discontinued, I panicked. I'm buying another pair and trying to decide if two is enough! In fact, I'm not sure why I'm writing this review, since if they are being discontinued it would be in my self interest to hoard all remaining pairs!

(The Gore website doesn't suggest they're being discontinued so it may be a false alarm... or maybe that's wishful thinking).

I've always found it really difficult to buy padded lycra shorts, since you can't really know how they'll work for you until you've worn them on a 100 mile ride, by which time they've been rendered un-returnable. So I thought I would review my favorite pair of shorts in the hopes it makes someone else's search a bit easier. Scored out of ten:
The shorts on the Camino de Santiago - when they were new.

Padding: 9
These are far and away the most comfortable shorts I've ever ridden in. The padding is made of a nice smooth material that doesn't chafe, and is nice and thick for good shock absorption. I have ridden a 400km audax with these shorts with minimal amounts of discomfort. I have noticed that they work better when riding in a more upright position, such as on a tourer or mountain bike, than on my road bike (even though I use the same saddle on all three). On our most recent tour of Scotland I ran into trouble because even though I had a perfectly good clean pair of shorts in my panniers, I only wanted to wear the dirty Xenons over and over again. That's how good they are.

Overall comfort: 8
In addition to the padding the shorts are overall very comfortable. The elastic around the legs is very wide which minimises pressure on any given part of the thigh. There is a small amount of silicon to grip the legs, but not a solid band like in some shorts. This is better for me because I find the silicon irritates my skin when I sweat. I nearly always wear these shorts with knee warmers (trying to protect my legs from the sun unless it is so hot as to be unbearable) and almost never have issues with the knee warmers slipping down. The shorts are high waisted, which can occasionally be uncomfortable (normally after I've just wolfed down a massive meal!).

Durability: 6 
I initially bought these shorts ahead of our first ever two week bike ride, on the Camino de Santiago. During the space of that trip (when they were only ever washed in sinks) the cloth that covers the elastic at the legs became somewhat separated from the elastic itself. This doesn't affect the fit at all but it was concerning that it happened so quickly. The reflective diamonds on the side of the shorts also began to come up at the edges fairly quickly into the life of these shorts. However, a year and a half later and nothing much has changed since the initial issues. Neither the padding nor the lycra itself isn't thinning out, which would be the only durability issue that would affect my wearing of the shorts.

Appearance: 6
I'm not really a fan of all the reflective diamonds. They make the shorts too flashy in my opinion. Although they do come in handy for night riding. The above-mentioned elastic issue also makes them look sloppy, especially when worn with knee warmers. But really, you can't have too high expectations of lycra shorts in the aesthetics department.

A view of the reflective diamonds in all their glory. You can also see the strip of white elastic where the black fabric has detached and ridden up slightly.
Overall: 8
If you just take the average of the above scores you would come out at 7.25. However, we're talking about padded shorts here -- comfort is really the only thing that matters. So I decided that the first two categories in this list should count double. That takes the total up to 7.66, happily rounded up to an 8.

PS: In case it isn't already obvious, we don't get paid for our reviews and we buy all our gear with our own money unless otherwise stated!

20 October 2013

Off-road in the Sierra de Madrid

A few weeks ago, we took a trip to Madrid to visit Alberto's family -- and brought our Mountain bikes along. Sunday dawned as a beautiful and warm autumn day, and we made our way to Cercedilla, to the  north of Madrid, to start our ride. We were joined by our good friend Mateo who has relocated from London to Madrid. The plan was a 50km off-road ride through the Sierra de Madrid, to Segovia, famous for its Roman aqueduct.

From Cercedilla we immediately started climbing into the mountains. On-road for a short section and then onto the wide trails that lead to the Puerto de la Fuenfria. There were plenty of walkers and cyclists about on such a lovely day, but the trail was wide enough that it never felt too crowded.

Entering the Sierra de Madrid from Cercedilla
We continued to climb steadily, although thankfully not too steeply, for at least an hour. Along the way we fell into conversation with an older man who seemed to be a regular on these hills. We chatted about various things, including where to find wild raspberries in July, and stayed together all the way to Fuenfria. We said our goodbyes to him as our routes diverged, and then began a bone-shaking descent deeper into the Sierra.

Lookout point halfway up to Fuenfria
After the initial rocky trail, things smoothed out and it was glorious undulating riding through the trees. We stopped for lunch of bocadillos de jamon and soon found ourselves climbing once again, this time on a more remote section.

We reached the top of this second climb and Alberto announced that it was all downhill from here to Segovia. Mateo and I immeadiately prepared ourselves for an even tougher climb ahead, as we have learned that whenever Alberto says there is a descent, a challenging climb is sure to follow.

Descending from Fuenfria
Sure enough, soon we were huffing and puffing our way up an even steeper hill. I was climbing a bit behind the boys, and heard them groan when they turned the corner up ahead. This was lucky as it meant I knew to get in a really low gear before the turn!

Climbing again
By now we were pretty much the only people on the trail, and eventually we did reach the last hill before the descent into Segovia. We took a route that went via Palacio Real de La Granja -- we toured around town briefly but decided to make our way to Segovia to ensure we had enough time to make our train.

This sign on the descent is teling cyclists to slow down and remember they aren't alone on the trails!
From La Granja to Segovia we followed a main road via a path along the side. It was here that Mateo started daydreaming and went off the path into quite a steep ditch! Fortunately he managed to save himself from any serious harm and we got a good laugh out of it.

Leaving the mountains for Segovia
We arrived in Segovia to the impressive sight of the Aqueduct and searched out a bar for a quick bite to eat. We had a train to catch in a just under an hour so it was a very speedy lunch followed by a mad dash uphill to the train station -- only to find that this train didn't run on Sundays! We had to wait another two hours before eventually catching a train back to Cercedilla.

But it was a great day out in the Sierra, showing off some great off-road routes near Madrid. We stuck to wide paths, but there is apparently lots of great single track as well. Now that our mountain bikes are in Madrid, we're looking forward to many future rides in those hills.

15 October 2013

Berries, beaches, and bikes: A ride around Kent

It's that time of year when good-weather riding days demand to be taken advantage of, as you never know which one could be your last for a long while.

A couple of weeks ago the forecast called for sunny skies and nice temperatures so we decided to head out and try another of the routes from the Lost Lanes book. After spending the previous few weeks looking longingly at the wild blackberries that seem to grow all over England's country lanes, we brought some tupperwares along this time. It turned out to be a great decision and a great ride.

Hyde Park in the early morning
We took the train to Canterbury where we set out to do the Crab and Winkle route from the book. We decided to ride it in reverse so as to be in Whitstable for lunch time, as we have a good friend there who we could visit with.

Cycling through a quiet Canterbury on a Sunday morning
We were barely 500m from the station when Alberto noticed a problem with his chain. He had changed the chain recently but had routed it wrongly through the derailleur. We hadn't brought all the proper tools given that it was only a 50km ride but we had enough to make it work, so after about 15 minutes we were on our way again.

Densely leaved lanes
The route took us out of Canterbury on bike paths and then onto country lanes. The sun was shining, the roads were quiet -- it was one of those days where you want to give the inventors of the bicycle a big hug.

Kentish sunshine
There weren't as many berries around as on previous trips, perhaps because we were in a different area or because it is later in the season. But we soon found enough to fill two large tupperwares. As we smugly picked berries on the side of the road I could see people passing cars filled with jealousy.

Roadside picking
The route was truly lovely and we soon reached the beach at Reculver. From there we cycled along the coastal path to Whitstable. The first section was truly excellent a lovely grassy hill above the sea. As we hit Herne Bay things got a bit more built up and the final section into Whitstable was along a promenade of sorts - nice views but with a lot of people to dodge and plenty of bumps in the pavement. Still it was lovely to feel like we were squeezing the last bits of summer out of the year by going to the beach.

First sight of the sea
We arrived in Whitstable at about 1pm and met up with our friend Carol for a quick lunch at her place and a coffee and freshly made donut by the beach. Then it was time to head for our train. Here we diverted from the last bit of the book's route (the Crab and Winkle Way, a disused railway line that heads all the way to Canterbury) and took the roads to the train station in Faversham in order to save time.

We got home and got to baking our blackberry cake and drinking our blackberry smoothies. A perfect way to extend our enjoyment of the ride into the week.

05 October 2013

Conquering the Poor Student Perm

Nearly a year ago, on a cold October day, we set out on the Permanent version of the Poor Student 200km audax from Oxford. It started out well, but eventually unravelled due to the cold temperatures -- I had not developed a system for keeping my feet warm. We made it around in time, but the last segment was certainly one of the most miserable times on a bike for me. I really did not want to be out in the cold any longer, and I made the decision at that point not to ride another 200 until the weather improved.

My audax career hasn't been particularly illustrious since then. We DNF'd the Dartmoor Devil in October and then the Shaftesbury Spring 200 in March (as temperatures remained wintry until April). Since then, I've spent time in the audax community helping out on various rides, but haven't actually managed to complete one myself. The prospect of finishing the audax season without a single point to my name seemed unacceptable, so I was happy to register myself along with Alberto to try again to enjoy the Poor Student Perm, this time hopefully in slightly better weather.

Early morning mist heading out of Oxford
We caught a 6:20am train from London to ensure maximum daylight riding time. It hurt to wake up that early, but it was the right decision as it also meant we got to enjoy quiet roads on our way out of Oxford. We rode the route in reverse, meaning that a stop at the Peartree service station, start- and end-point for many an audax in the area, was required. We got a receipt at the cashpoint and were headed out of the station when lo and behold, Justin from AC Hackney was pulling in!

He was coming off of a double header of the Dean 300, having bivvied in a field nearby the night before! Only in the audax world could a random service station be a bustling meeting place!

After a brief chat we were off again on our way to Chipping Norton. It was a lovely, misty morning and I was really enjoying being on the road bike, which I really haven't spent much time on this year. We were making pretty good time, and enjoyed a quick snack from a french bakery in Chipping Norton. The owner warned that rain was coming--he could tell because his bread was very soft--and sure enough just a few minutes after departing we starte getting some light rain. Fortunately it didn't last long; we didn't have to put on our waterproofs.

Cotswolds beauty
The section between Chipping Norton and Malmsebury (through the Cotswolds) has the only hills of the route. They're not outrageous, but Alberto reminded me that I had walked two of them last time around. Personally I have no memories of last year's attempt apart from the fact that my feet were cold. Anyway, this time I didn't have to walk any, although some were definitely tough, but I guess all that fully-loaded touring has made more of an impact on my fitness than I thought.

We made it to Malmesbury at around 2:30 and decided to have a proper rest in a cafe there. We had courgette soup and a hot drink, which really hit the spot. It wasn't cold out, but it was too chilly to stop for very long without adding extra layers - so it was nice to sit inside.

My legs had started to feel tired just as we approached Malmesbury, but after a rest they had pretty much recovered their full strength. We headed off on the final stretch still with a good amount of daylight left and still in good spirits. What a change from last time.

Snack break as the light starts to fade
There was a section after Malmesbury which was very unpleasant with heavy traffic. I'm not sure if it was the time of day, the road itself, or something else, but it was stressful and we were very glad to eventually turn off of it. Although my legs were now feeling fine, my back and neck muscles were not used to the road bike position and had started to bother me quite a bit after so many hours in the saddle. Similarly, for some reason my butt was hurting much more than it normally does.

This had the effect of making me look forward to the finish, but at the same time I was not unhappy. I did not experience  an emotional low at any point during the ride, something which is common for me on rides where I push myself a bit out of my comfort zone. I ended the ride feeling very spent, like I had worked hard, but I hadn't suffered. It's been a long time since I've hit that perfect balance and it felt great.