28 February 2012

Dipping our toes into cycle touring

We may have fantasies about grand cycle tours, but the truth is we don't have much experience with touring! All that is set to change this year though, with a series of different trips that should ease us into cycle touring.

Our first ever mini-tour: Isle of Wight April 2010
First of all, the equipment. Alberto asked for a lightweight tent for Christmas, which was the main expensive item that we were lacking in getting started. We've also just ordered new sleeping bags that should be warm enough for three seasons in the UK. And we're slowly collecting all the other little things we'll need as well. But it's not enough just to have the gear -- we need the experience!

We'll be testing the tent out for the first time in mid-March when we will head up to the Peak District for a weekend of camping. We'll ride a 100km audax on Saturday and our own shorter route on Sunday, staying in the same campsite for both Friday and Saturday night. This should allow us to get a feel for the tent and the sleeping bags without too much stress. Last time we camped in the Peak District (late October--without the bikes) we were very cold, but we're hoping the new gear will help with that!

Frosty tent in the Peaks in October
Then over the long weekend of  Easter in early April we will take the tent with us on a four day cycle tour of Northern France and Belgium. This will be the first time we have done a proper cycle tour (by which I mean we will be camping in a different place every night), but it's still quite short and we'll be staying in towns so we will always have the bailout option of finding a room!

We'll spend around two weeks cycling the Camino de Santiago in May and June. We won't bring the tent as there are pilgrim's hostels all along the route, but we will be carrying all our other gear including sleeping bags, and it will be the first time we've done more than a few days consecutively of proper riding. It will really be a test to see if we truly enjoy extended bike trips (I think we will!).

The Camino trip will use up a big chunk of our annual leave allowance this year so it looks like we'll still have to wait for our chance to go on a longer tour... but it will be good to get our feet wet!

26 February 2012

A foodies ride in London (Billinsgate + Borough Market)

I love fish. Unfortunately, it is not easy to get good quality fish in the UK. Supermarkets tend to stock thawed fish that they sell for ridiculous prices, and there's only a handful of fish mongers with an OK reputation near us. But again, quite pricey.

Fortunately though, a few years ago I came to know that London is home to the 3rd biggest fish market in the world!!! The place is called Billinsgate Market. Tokyo and Madrid are first and second on the list, obviously! Sometimes I want (good) fish so badly that I am happy to get up at 5 am on a Saturday morning and ride the 8 miles from home to Billinsgate, in East London. I've done this ride many times already, and it is a very enjoyable experience if you can get past the painful start at stupid o'clock. The roads are super quiet, usually dark, and the sleep deprivation is normally gone by the time you warm up a bit.

Kentish Town High St, 5:45 am

Somewhere in the city, 6 am
The route I took looked like this there and back:

After 20-ish min you get to Tower Bridge and on to the Cycle Superhighway 3, all the way into Billinsgate. The contrast of the market with the skyscrapers of Canary Wharf is quite remarkable.
Fish and suits merge here
Billinsgate operates from the early hours and closes by 8 am. If you get there by 6 am, you are already late, and that's what happened to me this time. Most of the good stuff is gone by then, and you have to be very selective with what you get. However, if you know how to pick fresh stuff, you can get away with good deals. There's plenty to choose from, lots of tropical fish from Asia (not even sure about their names!) and even more shellfish. All the pics were taken with permission of the sellers, as it is in theory not allowed otherwise...

Rush hour at multicultural Billinsgate
Pass on their names...
Good for summer bbqs, a bit too much for just me (you buy the whole box!)
Huge salmon (check my foot at the bottom left, for comparison!)
After spending far too much money, I headed to one of the cafes in the market for a well deserved bacon and egg roll with a milky coffee. As I was heading out, I noticed that I was not the only mental cyclist in the market, which is good for reassurance, isn't it?

Salty breakfast!
The inside of the cafe
On my way back, still way too early, I decided to turn left to the South of the Thames, and headed for Borough Market. After a diversion due to the unusual opening of the Tower Bridge, I reached the market.
It does not happen that often, but I got stuck for 15 min there
Yet another foodie destination, although they're not whole-sellers anymore, but only retail. That means prices are much more steep, although the food is still quite nice. The first thing I came across was some British/Scottish/Welsh chorizos. The market was quiet at this time in the morning, so had an interesting talk with the stall guy, who also visits Billingsgate on a regular basis. I sampled all the chorizos, and truth be told, some of them were actually quite nice. Ended up getting one, made of red Scottish deer, something different from the ones we have in Spain, but still very tasty. After some interesting talks with other foodies, and the mandatory free samples, I headed back home.

Chorizos made in the UK
Nice, yet expensive (>£3.5!!!) bread
All in all, I clocked up about 30 km, ate too much good food, cycled with a backpack full of fish, and had an amazing time. Now time to concentrate on the thesis...

25 February 2012

London Critical Mass is losing its appeal

It's been a while since I last joined the London Critical Mass. I reckon it was back in November. I rode my first one 3.5 years ago, and I am afraid things seem to have changed...

Let's start with the upsides:
  • It was a relaxed (maybe too relaxed) ride in central London, nearly traffic free
  • Met interesting people with interesting bikes. Good reassurance, once again, that I am not the only obsessed cyclist in London
  • Saw cool bikes, including at least three Long Haul Truckers (more on this soon!) that had probably been used quite extensively
  • Weather was great for February
Now, things that truly annoy me and may prevent me from joining this ride in the future:
  • Folk drink way too much, and smoke way too many joints on this ride. What's the point? 
  • Very young skate-boarders seem to be tagging along recently. Not that I mind them that much, but they seemed to cause a few small incidents with other cyclists, one of who was a very old man. 
  • It used to be a very mixed crowd, with plenty of families, young kids, teens, grown-ups etc. Nowadays it's way too many drunk youngsters and hipsters doing tricks on the pavement. This annoys everyone, but mostly pedestrians
  • The mass seems to be going through impossible places that you're not even allowed to ride on. Also, they block streets and roundabouts. Again, what's the point? To annoy other users and create more anger? Or to share the roads?
  • Drivers get annoyed and saw plenty of angry and aggressive ones, getting out of their cars and threatening cyclists. When those cyclists are drunk/high, the situation is far from pleasant.
I gathered a few shots of the event, before I got into chatting with other cyclists.

Before the start
View from Waterloo Bridge
Nice sound system!
Using pedestrianised roads?! At least it was a nice shot!

24 February 2012

A ride in the February sun

Weather seems to be improving quite significantly in the last few weeks, so much that on February 23rd we nearly reached 20 degrees centigrade (68 degrees F). I could not resist the temptation, and given that I had the day off, I went for a ride.

I chose a route that we did a few months ago, a 100 km loop starting and finishing in Potters Bar.

It took me a little while to decide what clothes to wear. I eventually went for knee warmers, sleeveless shirt, long jersey and full gloves. It turned out to be on the warm side of things, but I was late for the train, so went with that.

Quiet lanes
 I did the loop anticlockwise, and the first 40 km flew by, with averages of almost 28 km/h. I guess it being downhill and the tailwind helped quite a bit. The roads were relatively quiet, with only some cars on the first half, mostly retirees. Saw a few machacas and what it looked like cycle tourers, all sharing smiles. Being out on a weekday, with warm temperatures and in February cannot get any better than this!

The second bit proved much tougher. It was here that I realised that it was the tailwind, and not my fitness, that pushed me to averaging >28 km/h on the first part of the loop. Looking at the profile I cannot see any more "hills" in the second 50 km that in the first ones, but it really got me knackered towards the end. Also, the km seem a lot longer when you are on your own, something that I had completely forgotten about. It is probably the first road ride in many years that I was completely solo, and it is kind of weird. I guess you can get used to it, and probably I should, given the upcoming audaxes that I have signed up for and could not get Lucy along.

Sun was hitting hard here!
In the last 25 km I entered a closed road section, and soon was asked to stop by some of the workers. Even though I was already preparing an apology for being riding on a closed road, they were actually quite nice and interested in all my gadgets! They warned me of the lorries ahead and the gravel on the road, and wish me a good ride!

These thatched cottages abound in Hertfordshire
Roads were getting busy at this point, not sure why as it was still 3 pm and most people should be at work? But it was people (in the fancy SUVs!) picking their kids up after school. Hit the A1000 towards Potters Bar and even got stuck in a small traffic jam. 100 km on the computer by the time I got back to the station.

Overall, I rode for 100 km, at an average of 24.8 km/h, for 4 hours and 5 min, with a maximum speed of 50 km/h. The profile says about 3000 feet climb, but I can hardly believe it was that much! I really enjoyed this mid week ride, although I have to admit that doing this in company is a looot better.

18 February 2012

The first rule of flat tires is, don't talk about flat tires


A while back I wrote about how great my Continental Gatorskins have been great so far with very few punctures. And this is true. It has been great. At the time I wrote that post I hadn't ever had a puncture with the Gatorskins in around 2,500 km. We always inspect our tires before organized rides, and I'd often found pieces of glass embedded in the tire, but they'd just never gone through. I was starting to feel they were invincible!

Then, about two weeks after that post, we were prepping our bikes for the Tea and Biscuits 100 audax and I found a piece of glass. Deflated the tire, pulled it out with tweezers, and started to pump it up again. It wouldn't pump; there was a massive hole in the inner tube and air was rushing out of it. My first flat tire on the Gatorskins! Well, I was lucky it happened at home rather than out in the freezing temperatures the next day.

One of the (very few) disadvantages of a good set of tires is that I have very little experience with changing inner tubes. The first time I flatted on my road bike, I did most of it myself under Alberto's tutelage. The second time, we were in a rush so Alberto did it. And that's it. I've seen lots of people change tires and understand all the theory, I just haven't had much opportunity to do it myself. So I actually was very excited to change the inner tube. So excited, in fact, that at first I tried to get to work without taking the wheel off the bike! That didn't go to well. 

Alberto snapped this picture and then left the room. I think he probably couldn't stand to see me struggling! I imagined I was alone on a ride in the middle of nowhere (which I never have been) and got to work taking the tire off, replacing the inner tube, and putting the tire back on. It took me the better part of an hour but I managed to do it! On my own without any help! The only thing I would have struggled with would have been using the hand pump -- I used our floor pump and still found it a bit difficult to get it up to a high enough PSI. But in a real life situation, I know I could pump it up enough to ride home on. 

It has actually been a good confidence boost for me. I still wouldn't want to have to spend an hour in the cold or rain dealing with a flat tire alone, but it is a big step towards feeling comfortable going on longer rides on my own. So it turns out, my first puncture on the Gatorskins was a blessing in disguise!

14 February 2012

A Very Machaca Valentine's Day

Just read about this lovely cycling-based Valentine's Day present -- a boy rode a heart-shaped route on the streets of San Francisco and then loaded his GPS data to create a very special Valentine:

 Another cyclist has expressed his love for his partner (two wheeled partner!) in a beautiful photo poem; here's an excerpt with an English translation:

Y a ti, mi amor y mi fiel compañera, que aunque mas de una vez me has dejado tirado, hoy en San Valentín te digo que contigo al fin del mundo...

To you, my love and my faithful companion, even if you let me down few times, now on St. Valentine's day I tell you. With you to the end of the world! 

Happy Valentine's Day to you all!

A quick off-road spin in Richmond Park

We've been hibernating for a few days in London. The snow has finally made its arrival, and temperatures have dropped below freezing, causing patches of ice on some roads.

On top of that, time is very limited for me due to work commitments. So a quick unplanned mtb ride it was. With Epping being supper muddy, and the North Downs being an unexplored territory for us, Richmond seemed like a sensible idea.

We head to Richmond when all the other plans don't work out. It is easy to get there, nice-ish, and full of other machacas to cheer you up. But this time we took the mtbs rather then the skinny tyres. And what a great decision! Just minutes after we entered the park, we saw a fellow rider badly falling over in a roundabout. His front wheel hit some ice and within milliseconds he was on the floor. Luckily the cars had seen him, so he was fine.

The park was packed with other roadies though. Mtb's were all over the place also, and so we decided to join the trail going anticlockwise. It is about 12 km long, flatter than the road, and with plenty of pedestrians. There is no complicated parts, except that this time there was slush in some sections. When I tried to go find the singletracks (yes, there are some!) I was soon told off by a local...Apparently, bikes destroy the paths, so cyclists are not allowed to go off the trail.
Paths that you're not supposed to cycle on...
Only minutes before we were told off, Lucy had her first and only fall in the park. It was a downhill-ish section, with wet and slippery surfaces. A great combination for some good fun I thought. But I forgot that she's still learning what not to do in those circumstances: pulling the front brake when turning while going downhill. I did not realise, but she fell. Fortunately, a fellow mtber was there and gave her some intructions: put your weight behind the saddle and do not pull the front brake! She made it down the rest of the hill safely. Oh well, we will try again next time?! She seems to have assimilated the rule number 5 because, to my surprise, she did not complain nor shout at me that much...!

Post-fall muddy effects
Apart from those exciting minutes of singletrack, the ride finished smoothly two laps later. At least we managed to put in some kms and spin the legs. We got sooo muddy, which in a way feels good. But not so much when we got home and found out that the hose was completely frozen, so no running water to get rid of the mud!
Lucy's got new freckles!

11 February 2012

London is a Cycling Town

Most of what Alberto and I love about cycling is getting out into the countryside, riding past farms, forests, thatched-roof cottages, thank kind of thing. But we live in London, a global city of 8 million inhabitants. For Alberto, cycling is pretty much his only form of transport. I tend to take a more mixed-methods approach. But we both do spend an awful lot of time cycling in the urban conditions of London.

Autumn 2009, sightseeing by bike.
As one would imagine,  London's got a lot of traffic. It has lots of big roads and scary junctions, lots of impatient drivers doing crazy things, lots of large lorries and busses. Bike theft is a cottage industry and the thieves never seem to get caught. It doesn't sound like a city that cyclists would love.

But the truth is, London is experiencing a surge in cycling (and I've formed part of that surge). When we first moved here in 2008, cycling wasn't an outrageous way to get around town but it wasn't particularly common either. Then, for a few years there would be a visible increase in cyclists on the first few warm days of spring/summer. In the summer months it would feel like half of London was on bikes! But this winter there has been no decrease in cyclists to accompany the frigid temperatures. People just keep on riding! There have also been a number of cyclist's cafes opening up around London, such as Look Mum No Hands which we love to go to to watch coverage of cycling races or talks by interesting cyclists.

Look Mum No Hands! (source)
We are lucky to have the numbers of cyclists on our streets; it makes it safer for all of us as drivers (and pedestrians) are less often surprised by the presence of a cyclist in their path. At big junctions at rush hour, there will often be seven or eight cyclists taking up the whole width of the road in the advanced stop box, forcing drivers to take it slow and give way to cyclists until they can get up to speed. And of course if something goes terribly wrong with your bike, you're never too far away from a bike shop (and even less further away from a fellow cyclist who may stop to help you out -- yes it does happen!)

Unfortunately, London infrastructure and transport policy has not caught up with the increase in cyclists. We have an upsetting number of cycling deaths each year, mainly involving lorries or other large vehicles. And of course there are lots more people who would love to commute via bike, but are intimidated by the busy roads. There are too few cycle parking options across most of London and too many bike thieves who don't get caught.

Publicity from LCC's Love London Go Dutch campaign (source)

The past week or so has seen the launch of two new and exciting campaigns in London focussed around improving the lot of us London cyclists. The London Cycling Campaign (of which we are both members) has launched it's "Love London, Go Dutch" campaign ahead of the mayoral election in May, which calls for London to create the kind of cycling infrastructure that exists in Holland.

Then there is the Times' "Cities fit for cycling" campaign which was launched after one of their reporters was seriously injured while cycling to work. This is perhaps even more exciting than the LCC as it's a mainstream paper with lots of readers who probably aren't particularly attuned to the difficulties that cyclists face. You may notice a new addition on the right hand side of the blog indicating our support for the campaign.

The Times' campaign (source)

London needs to be safer and more accommodating for cyclists. But in the meantime it's great to live in a city with such a strong and vibrant cycling community.

08 February 2012

A bizarre bike race

Not that I am too interested in bike racing, but I've just stumbled upon this video from Damon Peacock while faffing on the internet. A once every 10 years occasion to race amongst other penny farthers!

Knutsford Great Race from Damon Peacock on Vimeo.

06 February 2012

We didn't cycle this weekend

No cycling for us this weekend, meaning our first proper cycle ride of February will have to wait. On Saturday we were busy running errands, and Saturday night it started to snow! Our first snowfall of the season, and snow is a Pretty Big Deal in London.

We went to check it out on Sunday morning...

The roads were passable but we thought it would be prudent not to ride in such uncertain conditions. We walked up to Hampstead Heath instead.

Sledding (or sledging as the brits call it) was in full swing on Parliament Hill. There were even a few snowboarders and skiers out! We did see one intrepid machaca on a mountain bike, which made us wish we hadn't left ours at home!

The snow is already starting to melt so we're hopeful we can get in a long ride next weekend. In the meantime we're working on an exciting project at home that you'll be hearing about in the next week or so!

04 February 2012

My Giant Bowery singlespeed commuter

She's three years old now. I bought her after so much research into what would be best for a flat (well, mostly!) city like London. A singlespeed it was. It can be converted to a fixie by flipping its rear wheel, but I do not want to screw my knees up and to be honest (as of today!) I really do not see the point.

So, three years down the line, pretty much 7 days per week of usage, and more than 10.000 kms...I have only replaced brake pads, bar tape, cables, tyres, chain, and pedals (bmx ones, with spikes, for wet days). The rest remains original and going strong! Even the bottom bracket (something other users complain about) is the same, despite some creaky noises that could be fixed by removing and re-greasing it. No re-trueing has been necessary in three years. The rims show signs of wear now, so will be looking into new ones soon. And it has been used throughout the year, be it rain, sun or even snow!

Having a rest (see the double locks, a must have in London!)
I normally carry a backpack when I commute, and have fitted a clip-on rear mudguard for the rain. But due to some recent problems in my back, I fitted a Carradice SQR on to it and this is how it looks from up close. Again, a very high quality product that we've used in short "credit card" touring.

Carradice SQR saddlebag used to commute 
Although not as cool as the singlespeed/fixies that we see nowadays on the streets of London/NYC/Barcelona and the like, I can highly recommend this model. As an off-the-peg singlespeed for under £300 it really is good value.

This year should see her going to Brighton as a one-off experience without the help of the gears...let's see if I manage!