28 April 2013

A Monday morning in the Sierra de Madrid

The first proper bike I got as a teenager was a mountain bike. I do not think road cycling was (or still is, for that matter) as popular as mountain biking in Spain. We don't have a vast network of tiny lanes like the UK, France or Germany, and so the roads always seemed intimidating to me.

That bike was made of cromoly steel, had no suspension, no v-brakes and no fancy accessories like today's rigs. We did not have GPS and only one of us had a cycling computer. Back then, when I first took on the the Madrid trails we did not have personal computers, and our only access to good routes was cycling magazines and other cyclists that we encountered on the Sierra.

One of our favourite routes used to start from Cercedilla train station, where we would cycle up to the Puerto de la Fuenfría (Fuenfría Pass) along the Camino de la República, and back down the valley on pretty technical singletrack full of roots and boulders. I still remember how sore my wrists were going down on those trails without suspension, but it was of course all great fun.

The start of the ride
It has been a while since I last cycled on those trails, and so a quick ride up and down the area was on my agenda. After I secured a borrowed bike for a few days, I set out to adjust a few things on it before hitting the trails. My mtb skills are definitely not up to scratch, and so I had to choose an easy route to get me back safely on a bike that I am not used to.

At 9:30 am, with the thermometer indicating 12 degrees C or so, I commenced going up the first few hills on the road of the Camino de la República. The first thing I noticed was that those massive hills that I had imprinted on my memory, were no longer that big. In fact, they felt fairly easy to cycle up. While on the road, I learnt that not only this is the official Camino de Santiago path from Madrid, but also that this road was built  as the only pass from Cercedilla on to the other side of the Sierra. It was also intended to be passable all year round, even in quite adverse conditions, and was almost completely sheltered from the high winds of the area by the high pine forests. Equally, they protect you from the heat in the summer.

Leaving Cercedilla for the Fuenfría Valley
May be nice to do the Camino from home, sometime
The road climbs steadily from about 1100 to 1900 meters for 12 km. The first 6 km or so are steeper than the rest, but nothing compared to the 25% hills that are so common in the UK. Sure, they do not go on for 12 km, but they do tire you out more quickly.

Climbing on the middle ring felt easy, and so I made good progress until the first mirador Vicente Aleixandre (view point) two thirds into the climb. I was still quite warm, so spent a bit of time taking in the views of the whole Northwest corridor of Madrid.

Pine forests to shelter you from the wind
View point Vicente Aleixandre (~ 1600 m)
After the miradores the climb eases out considerably. I rolled at almost 20 km/h all the way till the top, where another lone cyclist was taking in the great views. After a couple of minutes I started shivering - the temperatures were surely in single digits, and you could feel a breeze coming from the valley. Luckily I had brought a rain jacket and some long finger gloves.

Interesting cloud formation
Overlooking to the West on to the "El Escorial" area
Mirador de la Reina (Queen's view point)
I had made such good progress on the climb that I had lots of time in hand for my train back home. It was pretty much all downhill from here on, but I was going to take a different route that I hadn't done in the past, so wasn't sure what to expect. There even was some snow leftover from recent snow storms from a couple of weeks ago!

Probably the last snow I will see until the 2014 winter
Most of the route is on easy trails like this one
The downhill was a bit trickier than expected. Although the terrain wasn't particularly challenging, it was full of boulders and the front suspension of my borrowed bike did not seem to work well. Also, the disc brakes squeaked and vibrate quite significantly, making for some unpleasant braking and some rest stops were needed. It was also freezing cold now, as I was now on the Northern side of the Sierra, in the province of Segovia, and I wasn't able to warm up much in the shade. 

At some point the wide path became a singletrack, which was a nice change. My handling wasn't at its best after so many miles on roads, so had to take it fairly easy and dismount and push on a number of occasions. 

Heading into Segovia
Not sure what bird this was, but was fun to see it thermal flying
Shade and Northern face made for very cold conditions
The last 15 km or so included some gentle climbing if it not were for the very rough terrain, with lots of roots and big boulders that made for some sections that I had to walk. As I was still feeling quite cold, I ran up the hills and managed to warm up a bit.

Up towards Cercedilla on the Segovian side

Some walking was needed
The downhill into Cercedilla was a welcome sight, especially since the pine forests disappeared and let some sunshine warm me up. Eventually I made it back with just under an hour to spare, so had no option but to head into town and have a couple of cañas.

It had been a great day out and a reminder of how good mountain biking can be in Madrid.

Last few km back into Cercedilla

The infamous caña y tapa

21 April 2013

Brompton meets the Madrid trails and cycle lanes

I've come down to a warmer-than-usual Madrid, and given I am due to ride the infamous Bryan Chapman Memorial in a few weeks time, I could not face two weeks without pedalling. The Brompton came in handy, as I could (just) fit it in a large suitcase and take it along with me as checked baggage.

Indeed, I thought its folded size was quite tiny at first, but when it came to putting it in the suitcase, I found that everything ended up poking out one way or another. Front bag block, seatpost, pedals and some of the folding mechanisms had to be taken apart, but in the end, I managed ok and made it in one piece to Spain.

Anillo ciclista map (taken from en bici por Madrid blog)
The anillo ciclista (or cycling ring) is a relatively new cycle route that takes you pretty much all the time on cycle lanes around Madrid. Its total length is about 62 km, most of which is pancake flat. It's been on my to-do list of things for quite some time. There's loads of information on the internet, so I will just post a few pictures of the most scenic bits, which is from Principe Pío (or further south, along the Río Manzanares following the Madrid Río corridor) up to Montecarmelo.

Dedicated bridge over the A6 
A6 highway, the Sierra de Madrid (Madrid's mountain range) in the background
Most of it uses this type of cycle lanes, shared with pedestrians
We started off at 6:30 pm and ended up at 10 pm, having taken a short-cut on the way back cutting across along the river Manzaneres along the Madrid Río corridor. Overall it is a rather pleasant, but not too scenic, ride. Clockwise from Montecarmelo to Entrevías is all much the same: new developments which look exactly the same, with young families and kids playing around. Good for commuting I reckon, but way too packed at the weekend and perhaps a bit bland for the keen cyclist. However, it's the perfect option to take family and/or friends that aren't used to cycling or traffic, as it is well-paved, has plenty of feeding options if need be, and it's also relatively easy to navigate. Also good for those of you who come visit Madrid and fancy of bit of pedalling (there's plenty of rental places along Madrid Río).

But I was also curious to take the Bromtpon on the trails I used to cycle on when I lived in Madrid. Or put it in a different way, I wanted to do a bit of off-road and the Brompton was my only option! Obviously I did not go for the singletrack and technical bits, but in the end I rode for almost 20 km of wide paths with occasional short hills that the Brommie tackled without much trouble, despite its limited internal gearing.

Green and yellow fields, and the Sierra in the background, with plenty of snow in mid-April (yes, it does snow in Madrid!)
Madrid skyscrapers in the background
Railway through El Pardo, Madrid in the background
Railway crossing on the way back
I had a great time riding along well-known paths and enjoying the scenery. The temperature was just perfect, with about 20 degrees and plenty of sun. The Brompton is not ideal for trail riding, but I was surprised how well it handled the bumps (well, it has a bit of a rear suspension!). However, with the low bottom bracket typical of a bike not intended for the trails, and the very short wheel-base, it felt a bit nervous at times, so you've got to be careful with your handling!

12 April 2013

Touring the Outer Hebrides part I: Glasgow - Inveraray - Oban

The big day had arrived. We are still in the process of polishing up our packing skills, but this time we managed to get everything ready before midnight for our 5:30 am train up to Glasgow.

Fully loaded, we happily made our way to a deserted Euston station on a cold Thursday morning. Latest forecast for the West of Scotland showed pretty chilly days, with below freezing nights, but no rain. That part of the world being the wettest of the whole of Europe, was encouraging news indeed!

Bikes ready in Glasgow Central
Virgin trains dropped us in Glasgow by 10:30 am, and shortly afterwards we headed West on our first leg of the journey, a 160 km ride to Oban. Initial feelings were good, the weather was reasonable and I had no choice but to take some layers off. It actually was the first day of spring that we had come to enjoy in 2013, so we pedalled on in very good spirits.

Although Glasgow is quite a large town, the traffic isn't nearly as bad as that of London. The roads seemed deserted to us, and with the advantage of having the Sustrans cycle route 7 to take us out of town on off-road lanes, we had a pretty relaxing urban ride.

Off-road route out of Glasgow
Once past Dumbarton, we started to see some elevations and soon after that the shores of Loch Lomond. Given the previous snowstorms, the scenery was stunning, with snow-caped mountains to brighten up our ride. Despite the A82 being a dreadful and dodgy road for cyclists, we did see a few intrepid roadies cycling on it, while we took the cycle path that runs along it, on the West of the Loch. Although it wasn't pleasant at times, with the noise of the fast going traffic and all that, it was scenic if you looked to the right. We saw some families with the kids and the odd cyclist on a day ride, but other than that it was pretty quiet.

Quiet cycle lane running along the A82 on Loch Lomond
Can't beat that Scottish scenery. Loch Lomond.
A local of a certain age seemed intrigued about what we were doing on a cold Thursday morning carrying four panniers with a heavy load. As it happens when I come to Glasgow, or much of Scotland, I have a hard time understanding the accents. On this occasion though, I had Lucy to help me translate what he was saying: 'Where youse headed, John O'Groats?'

Soon after 1 pm we decided to have a quick bite at Luss, a pretty small town near Loch Lomond, where we had some much needed warm food. The "bistro" at the entrance of the town did the job, without being exceptional.

Lunch stop at Luss
We were making good progress, but we still wanted to get as many km in to have a relaxed following day on our way to catching the ferry from Oban. We put our audax mode on and pressed on to Inveraray.
Alberto aka the loading mule

Leaving the A82 for the A83 gave us a bit of respite in terms of traffic, which was noticeably lighter now. But as soon as we left the shores of Loch Lomond, we were confronted with the "Rest and be thankful" pass. What a weird name for a pass that was... The climb, as it usually happens up in Scotland, was very gradual and comfortable to climb without much efforts, on the middle ring. The scenery was superb though, and reminded me of the Pyrinees in winter.

The A83 could well be in the Pyrinees
In Inveraray we hit the 100 km mark, which wasn't too bad considering we had got up at 4 am that morning and were still riding in daylight. Also, I was carrying around 20 kg of load on top of an already heavy bike, so not the lightest set-up! After a quick incursion into the village public toilets to load up our water bottles, we turned northwards along the A819 and found a place to camp for the night.

As soon as it got dark the temperatures plummeted well below freezing. It was handy to have a fully free-standing tent, as we happened to be pitching on a disused road, completely covered in vegetation, where it was impossible to peg the guy lines. The forecast called for a still and cold night, but just in case, I pegged the tent to the bikes. We ate some cous cous, boiled some water for the following morning, and got comfy in our sleeping bags. By 9 pm I was already asleep. We set the alarm for 5:45 am.

It must have been rather cold overnight as our water bottles got completely frozen. We ate some biscuits and drank some tea which we had made the night before - our thermos had kept it warm overnight despite the cold temperatures. We hit the road by 7:20 am. The A819 was quiet at this time of the day, had good tarmac and allowed us to make good progress until we joined up the A85. It was really cold, but luckily, the sun was out.
A819 in the morning
Cold start

The A85 was a bit busier. We followed it for about 20 km until we reached Taynuilt, where we turned on to NCN route 78, passing through a lovely glen. We took it easy until we reached Oban, as we had plenty of time for our ferry to Barra, and that little road was so nice that it invited to just relax. We only saw one other car for the 20 km or so that remained of the route, until we got to Oban.

Somewhere along the A85

Route 78 to Oban
We made it to the ferry terminal at just after 11am, with more than 2 hours to spare, so ended up having some seafood (salmon sandwich and fresh garlic scallops) and doing some pricey grocery shopping. While waiting to catch our ferry, we chatted with the only two other cyclist who were on the same service as us...which was quite a contrast with the several I saw back in September.

One of the cyclist was a Scot on a mountain bike with a BOB trailer attached to it, and had plans to visit St Kilda. It was his third or fourth time on the Hebrides. Not only had he cycled it all the way to Lewis, but he had walked it also. The other was probably our age and had no firm plans other than stopping at certain hostels on the way up to Harris. Both agreed Barra and Harris were the best in terms of scenery, and gave some useful advice as to where to wild camp on the isles.

Best scallops (vieiras, in Spanish) I've had in a while
The ferry crossing was also rather scenic, going past familiar places such as the Isle of Mull, and Ardnamurchan point, both of which I visited in September. However, because we were the last to board, we had no proper seats for the duration of the (rather long, at 5 hours) crossing and had to resort to the cafeteria chairs.

See you soon, mainland Scotland
After five hours on the ferry, slowly the outline of Castlebay, Barra, became visible in the distance...

(to be continued!)

08 April 2013

We went to the Outer Hebrides for 9 days and all we got was this lousy sunburn

We're back from our Easter tour of the Outer Hebrides! Despite all expectations to the contrary, we had no rain on the Islands and had bright sunshine on all but two days.

Beach on the west side of Harris
In an unprecedented and somewhat worrying role-reversal, this led to Alberto (with his Mediterranean complexion) getting badly sunburned on his nose and ears, while I (with the pale skin of a redhead) escaped with a healthy glow.

As soon as we got off the Islands we realised how lucky we had been, as our final 8 miles of the trip (to the Inverness train station on Sunday morning) were done in snow!

Leaving our hosts' house in Kirkhill (near Inverness) for the train back to London
Full reports will follow over the next few weeks, but for now please enjoy a selection of pictures from these beautiful islands:

Exploring the beaches of Vatersay
Dusk falls at the campsite in Borve on Barra

Stunning coastal road on the west side of South Harris
A long stretch of road connecting North Harris with Lewis

Wild camping in Dail Mor, Lewis

01 April 2013

Ride report: The (artic) Man of Kent 200 audax

We are touring the Northwest of Scotland at the moment, but I managed to finish a report on my latest audax, just before setting off for Easter.

RRTY may not mean anything to you, but for the UK audax community those four letters certainly have some significance. When I finished my first Super Randonneur series last year, I thought it would give this other challenge a go. Basically, do a 200 km ride (or more!) every month, throughout the year.

I have somehow managed to keep it going, and so far it has been relatively easy. January was a funny month though, and I almost just about missed my opportunity to do one of these rides with the snow storms we got back then. Eventually I got one such ride in by the end of the month, and followed that by The Man of Kent permanent audax in early February. All good I thought - it should only get easier from now on, more daylight and warmer temperatures as we get into the spring.

For us Spaniards, the UK does not really have more than two seasons. Winter and autumn. Yet I always have hope that spring would come in March. Last year I rode the Dean 300 in just over 15 hours, 20 degrees and sunshine. But that was too much to ask for two years in a row. My plans to ride the Dean this year were made last minute, and got totally ruined came Friday, when almost all of us did not bother going to Oxford with the forecast of heavy snow and artic winds blowing from the East. As I type this, I found out only two intrepid riders finished in what was an epic ride for them.

Somewhere between Hythe and Ashford. There has been some serious snow falling here!
In addition, we also DNFed a 200 km ride in the Uts, again due to crap weather and a late start. With the Dean out of the equation, and the end of March approaching fast, I had not much choice left. With another guy we decided to ride the Man of Kent permanent, as the snow wasn't forecasted as far south as Kent. So with my first DNS of the season, the Dean, I went to bed with the alarm set for 6 am and the tourer ready for a potential day in sleet or even snow.

At 6 am I woke up to heavy snow in London. It was not sticking though, but the prospects of high winds/snow/ice for 11 hours did not appeal much and I had my second DNS of the day. That doesn't happen often...two DNS rides on the same day! My companion did manage to get to the start of the ride, but ended up bailing due to knee problems. However, he reported clear roads, which was gave me some encouragement.

Appropriately named pub
After a productive Saturday morning building Lucy's new tourer, I planned to attempt the Man of Kent again on Monday. The forecast wasn't great, but at least did not show snow. The temperatures wouldn't rise above 3 degrees C in the whole day, and the wind would blow from the East with gusts up 40 mph in the Sandwich area.

Monday 7:40 am and I found my way (wearing lycra) through the commuters getting into London. The start of the ride was unpleasant as ever, with all the morning traffic in Tonbridge, but I was soon out on the lanes and enjoying being back in audax mode.

The first leg of almost 40 km went to Charing. It was not particularly lumpy, but it had me on my lower ring a few times due to the high winds. I made slowish progress, with averages not above 22 kph, and got to the village shop shortly after 10:30 am. Two clementines were quickly eaten and I was soon on my way to the next control at Bridge. Earlier reports from other riders, who rode the calendar event on the Sunday, reported no signs of ice, and I was happy to confirm that the roads were pretty clear and were drying out nicely.

First control stop, at Charing
The traffic was very light. This is the first time in a long while that I've got the chance of riding on a work day, and you can really feel there's not much on the roads except white delivery vans and postmen. The Charing to Bridge section is lumpier than I would have liked, and with strong headwinds, I had a miserable time going up the hills. My hands and face were freezing cold, despite wearing a full winter kit. I did not remember being that cold ever on a ride - with the wind chill it really felt like -5 degrees if not less.

Progress was rather slow also, struggling up every single hill against the wind. I wish I had someone to share the winds with, but this time I was solo. With the hopes of getting a tailwind once I hit Sandwich, I just put my head down and carried on to Bridge. At the local convenience store, I bought yet more junk food as proof of passage, made some quick chat with the cashier, who suggested I ride fast to compensate for the cold temperatures, and left as quick as possible.

Nice quiet lanes on the way to Sandwich
Bridge to Sandwich is a nice section, a little rolling and with some fine vistas over the Downs. Once I got to Sandwich, which I keep telling to myself I should visit in less of an audax-rush, I got my ATM receipt and eagerly headed back into a gentle tailwind. It really felt the same as in February, with similar temperatures, more wind, and a little quieter being a working day.

I was soon rolling at over 35 kph with the help of the artic wind. The roads to Hythe, the next control, are really nice, wider than the usual, and very fast rolling. In no time I went past Sandling station and headed down to Hythe for yet another ATM receipt. As I did in February, I stopped at the conveniently located Station restaurant. This is a café that has not evolved in the last 30 years, surely. Not very exciting food-wise, but still, beans/egg on toast appealed. The smell of the place reminded me of my grandparents house, for some reason, and although the food is not great, I kinda like the feel of the place.

Staple UK cyclist diet
With a fuller belly, I headed back up the hill and onto Ashford. The views on this section are rather nice if you look backwards, towards the open sea. The roads too were nice, quiet and totally dry, except that this time there were tons of snow on the edges. With the tailwind and sunny spells, I even felt a bit warm at times, which was most welcome.

At Ashford, I quickly obtained my receipt, ate a bit of my sandwich, and pressed on to Headcorn. Again, quiet and fast roads made for a very enjoyable ride. The sun was starting to fade, but I decided not to turn into night mode just yet, as this was only a short 18 km pootle to the last control.

Headcorn was busy with commuters, and so I took it easy while munching on some crisps at the garage. Reported back to Lucy saying I was about the enter the last stage - which felt good. It had been a difficult month audax-wise, and I was happy to see I was about to finish this ride.

Heading back to Headcorn
Setting off from Headcorn I was wind-assisted all the way West to Tonbridge. It then got dark, so I turned all my lights on and put on some reflective clothing. I took it rather easy from here on, just trying to savour the last 30 km or so, through literally empty back roads. As I approached Tonbridge, the traffic got a lot heavier, and being completely dark, it was rather unpleasant as you get hit straight in the eye by powerful car lights.

Shortly after 7:30 pm I pulled into the final control, got my receipt and jumped on a train back to the Smoke. I had completed the ride in just under 11 hours, which given my lack of fitness due to recent crap weather, and the headwinds on the first half of the ride, was not too bad. Also, this permanent has 7 controls, which makes it inevitable to waste more time than I would like, but then again, on a cold day like today it was most welcome to stop and have a little rest.

I only hope the next two months left to complete my first full year of one audax per month are a bit easier...!