Tuesday, 19 November 2013

Lessons from a born-again Cyclist

Just over a year ago, buoyed my Olympic enthusiasm and environmental energy (as well as the chance to put more pennies in the ongoing Arsenal season-ticket fund) I decided to try cycling to work for a week. I even wrote a blog on this esteemed website about my 'Get-to-work-on-time-trial', and as you can see from my final paragraph that day, seemed fairly confident of continuing:

‘So in conclusion, it seems that if I'm happy to get up five minutes earlier and get home five minutes later, I can get fit, save the environment, have a more comfortable commute and save a fair amount of cash. I've felt wide awake and full of energy at work, and my suits should last longer too. I'll need some car-lift favours from my wife occasionally, when I need to be in early or home late, but in return she'll get a fitter and slightly sweatier husband. The big unknown is the weather - it was fine for the whole week, with barely any wind or rain, but I'll keep going until either my colleagues subtly move their desks away, or I have to be rescued by the Buckinghamshire Ambulance service, peeling me off the bike that I'm frozen to, covered in oil and muttering about improving my cadence.'

Well, 12 months on and I'm still loving cycling to work. The weather has been tamed, and my fears of co-workers finding my cyclists' smell repugnant has proved entirely unfounded - they even gave me a new desk in the corner! However, the year hasn't gone by without a few hard-learnt lessons...

1. You’ve got to get the right gear

I started out planning to use my existing array of unused football shirts, running shorts, and ancient Red trainers (which I’ve been trying to throw away for years, but their sad holely appearance always persuaded me to keep them for gardening or the like). However, after just a week of cycling to work I decided to treat myself to a new backpack - a beautiful sleek red racing bag, complete with tuck-away rain cover and pockets. Lots of pockets. Now, this may sound weird but I’m pretty convinced it made me cycle faster, which I wasn’t previously aware a bag could do. Sadly, that can’t be said for the waterproof shorts I bought at the same time. Whilst they did a sterling job at keeping the water away from my shivering legs, they also doubled-up as a full orchestra, making a tremendous noise which saved me having lights on my bike, as anyone could hear my approach from 100 yards away. On advice from my 30km-a-day Cousin, I also bought some bright reflective winter gloves. At first I thought it was a cruel cyclist initiation joke as I pulled on the over-sized bright yellow monstrosities, but soon found they were incredibly effective at getting across your message to those drivers who enjoy squeezing me into the gutter.

2. You’ve got to avoid the wrong gear

The first day I cycled in real rain, I was strangely excited. Ready to brave the elements in my noisy shorts and showerproof jacket, I strode out ready to give up my wet-weather virginity and become a cycling man. However, it turns out that ‘showerproof’ and ‘waterproof’ are two different things. Within a minute of cycling head-first into a beautifully created low-pressure weather system, I was desperately trying to turn the sleeves of my already-soaked jacket around to give my arms another minute’s protection, to no avail. Still, I did get a seat on the train that day. The Red trainers finally gave up the ghost a few weeks in to rainy season, their persuasive holes having their flaws brutally exposed and leaving my socks to fend for themselves. I also learnt that it gets warm, quickly. The jacket-and-long-top approach, so snug when stepping out of the back door, quickly becomes a self-contained sauna with no hope of escape until your destination is reached. 

3. Time is of the essence

I’ve always been someone who likes to be on time and, being a professional commuter, adept at saving time wherever possible to give a precious few minutes more in bed. However, this reached new, almost obsessive heights once I got into my cycling rhythm. It started sensibly, planning my clothing the night before and laying them out (in put-on order) on the spare bed ready for the morning. It started to get more worrying when I began trying the recycling boxes in different places, to get them out of the way of my bike and allow me the quickest route from the garage to the back gate. But then I realised I wasn’t alone, when I accidentally entered the ‘changing room wars’, a seamlessly ongoing battle with fellow respectable colleagues to get your kit on the best hook, close to the door, near the showers, and with a covered shoe-holder rack, but not in the area where the changing rooms narrow and, well, you essentially become part of someone’s drying-off routine. I like to think I’m winning at that, having finally got my stuff on to the prime corner hook, allowing me walled protection from others and being equidistant between the entrance and the wash area. 

Having re-read that paragraph, God help me.

4. Lance Armstrong isn’t all bad

Ok, I’ll admit that it does seem the remarkably successful Lance may have had some kind of help in his multi-million dollar career, and that in some people’s eyes, he’s not really someone to be seen as a role model. But when I was hopelessly failing to conquer the steep hill on the way to the station, who was there to help me but Lance! Or at least, his website, which for some reason unbeknownst to me has been cleared of all cycling-related content and replaced with a single picture of him running (as well as contact details if you want to book him for speaking engagements…). I watched a two minute video on his site which talked about the importance of a high cadence, lowering gear before hitting the hill, and avoiding gear-shifts when standing up, all of which worked beautifully and turned me from a guy being overtaken by a 75-year-old on a vintage Raleigh (that genuinely happened) to a guy who can now make it home without having to spend the next hour in close proximity to the bathroom and unable to eat…

5. Never, ever go to Halfords

I did. I wish I hadn’t…


So there we have it, a year down the line and I’m certainly fitter, have grown to become weirdly fond of rain, and have no plans on giving it up. I also get quite a kick out of telling other people - the other day, a Sustrans rep approached our ‘huddle’ waiting for the train, surveying who cycled to work and trying to persuade people to try it. Despite that being a non-cycling day due to evening drinking commitments, I felt a huge sense of pride and righteousness when I loudly proclaimed that most days, I jump on my bike and battle against nature to reach my destination. If anything, I felt even prouder when I heard the gentlemen in front giving their reasons for not cycling- the word ‘lunatics’ was used at least twice…

And if nothing else I can say that in the last year, at least I’ve managed to persuade the girls next door that Arsenal isn’t all I care about:

John (@johnJsills) +John J Sills 

Sunday, 20 October 2013

Discovery Road - Book Review

I have just finished Discovery Road and thoroughly enjoyed it. It is very much in the same vein as Why Don't You Fly and the excellent Thunder & Sunshine / Moods of future joys. The difference being that this is written by two guys (three of them started the trip) and the real joy is that they seemed to enjoy it and really took the adventurous nature of it in.

The challenge was to cycle across three continents unaided and therefore cycle around the world. They may not have ridden unaided but they didn't camp out in the open quite as often as Alistair in Thunder and Sunshine but that's just sensible isn't it. I guess I could relate to these guys a lot more (if you can relate to someone who gives up work and cycles around the world). Even when there was a lot of conflict during the the first stretch as they cycled across Australia with one of their ex-girlfriends (when did they ever think that was a good idea) they still portrayed a sense of adventure and enjoyment to the reader. There was humour throughout the book and they found joy in so many different situations. It's a big book (it took them each 6 months to write it) yet I still didn't want it to end. It was like a Team Pannier coast to coast to trip amplified by one million times.

I recommend you read this if you like travel and cycling, it's a corking read to dream to...

Wednesday, 25 September 2013

Blast From The TDF Past

I write a music blog so I shouldn't be surprised how music can transport you to another world or in this case another time. Hearing this music from the Channel Four days of the Tour de France instantly took me back to the time when, for three weeks, Roseanne, Blossom and Mork and Mindy were displaced from our screens (much to my sister's annoyance) and instead we got a glimpse into the greatest bike ride on earth/ At the time it was dominated by the mainland European's but my favourite was a plucky American by the name of Greg Lemond. As I rooted for him some Spanish guy had the cheek to come in and dominate the Tour. Miguel Indurain I will never forgive you for ruining my childhood. See, it's all come flooding back. You can download the track at televisiontunes.com.

Wednesday, 18 September 2013

Way of the Roses Day 3: York to Bridlington

"No Dad I can't talk I'm going around a roundabout... well we're meeting you at the end, wherever that is"

Day 3 started like all the other days, stuffing our faces with as much food as possible and then watch Neil pump up his rear tyre as the slow puncture took effect overnight. The weather was still holding and we were hoping we could race ahead of it all the way to Bridlington. We knew we had a pretty flat day ahead of us with only a small bump in the middle of the day.

We pushed on, wanting to get the miles done as quickly as possible but sadly it wasn't quite the easy ride of the previous afternoon. Every so many miles we'd turn in to a head wind and suddenly we found it sapping our legs. While Spanners pushed on as he had done the whole trip my legs were having none of it and groaned every time I tried to raise the tempo. Taking my turn at the front of the Pannier Train in to another wonderful patch of headwind I pushed through through the pain, leaving myself empty as the others had no problem holding my wheel.

All morning it went on like that. A quick stop at Judson's Wine Bar in Pocklington didn't make me feel any better as Rich tucked in to a pint of his favourite bitter - it wasn't even lunch time yet, even Chef questioned him so it must have been early! I was hoping a cranberry juice would free my radicals or whatever it is that it's supposed to do.

Sadly setting off I discovered that it hadn't rejuvenated me and the pint certainly hadn't slowed Rich down. There's nothing worse than being at the back on a bike ride, everyone is pulling away from you while waiting for you at the same time. They're wanting to make progress and you're just struggling to turn the pedals. Jukebox kept me company but as soon as the road started to rise I just went backwards. We've been doing this long enough to know that everyone has a bad day now and again but it doesn't help when you're at the back and everyone is being so polite about it.

As we hit the hill to Huggate I just wanted to get off and walk but the road was barely rising, it would have been painfully slow and embarrassing. Jukebox kept dropping back to keep me going and as the pint hit Rich's bladder and they took a comfort break I pushed on up the hill with Jukebox. Reaching the top of the hill I actually dropped Jukebox which is not the polite thing to do when he's been waiting for you all morning but once you're in a rhythm you can't stop. Thankfully it was then downhill to Hutton Cranswick, where we stopped for lunch.

When I read Aron Ralston describe cutting his hand off in Between a Rock and A Hard Place, he said about the first pool of water he came across as being the best tasting water. He later went back to look at the water and it was the murkiest, dank water he'd seen - I think it even had a dead bird in it. Well Hutton Cranswick was like that for me. To stop for one hour and have a picnic by a pond was the best relief for me.

We basically raided the local Spar shop and had some baguettes, crisps and fizzy drinks but seemingly that was all I needed. We set off again and I was a changed man or more accurately my legs were like new. Suddenly I could keep the other guys wheels. I felt like a bit of a fraud, suddenly I could go up what little hills there were in a flash. I could have kept riding all the day. We hit the last few bumps and I raced up them past Rich who laughed and told me to piss off, I wasn't sure if that was because he'd been waiting for me all day or that his legs were now feeling three days effort but it certainly felt better being within earshot of the other guys. I'd been so preoccupied with my own woes I never thought any of the others could have been suffering. Yet Jon had mentioned aches and pains from carrying his luggage in a rucksack rather than panniers and Neil had certainly had a hard first day. Maybe I wasn't the only one.

As we headed in to Bridlington, Neil regaled us about his childhood holidays in Bridlington. I asked him if it had changed much and he said he didn't know as he was mainly by the seafront and it was a long time ago (one of the reasons Neil gave for his difficult first day was that he was the oldest in the group - I have 8 years on him) and then going around another roundabout someone in the team asked "are we going the right way". All of a sudden the penny had dropped, were we just following cycle route signs and no longer heading for the end of the Way of the Roses? Luckily we were fine and within seconds were heading to the seafront. Just as my Dad rings wanting to know where to meet us. As I explained we'd meet him at the end of the route, he pointed out there wasn't anything telling him where the end was.

Well we found it and eventually so did my Dad, the sign may say 170 miles but with a detour to Earby ours clocked in at 200, dead on. I can say that it was my favourite and the best C2C yet. The weather, the route, everything was perfect. What next? Well we could have ridden this one on a road bike so maybe next time we'll all have drop-handle bikes - or will we be dusting off the same two wheelers having not ridden them for a year? Probably the later but you never know.

Friday, 13 September 2013

Way of the Roses Day 2: Earby to York

And at that moment Spanners knew our Coast To Coast ride was over

We've been fairly lucky on our expeditions so far - expeditions is probably making us sound more intrepid than we are but still over all the miles we've covered we've not had many mechanical failures. Chef got a flat as we dipped our back wheels in at the end of our first C2C and his panniers fell apart early on that same trip but they were easily overcome and we've not really had any big problems. Not until Day 2 of the Coast to Coast, a beast of a day. Hilly in the morning and miles and miles to cover in the afternoon. In fact this was due to be our longest ever day in the saddle with 80 miles to cover.

As the route skirted Grassington we headed up and down the rolling hills. At our level of cycling (truly amateur) your ability to get up hills is often dependent on you hitting the right gear at the right time. Myself and Spanners came down a short decline and both tried to hit the hill at the same time. I smugly went pass Rich as he shouted "balls" as his gears and chain clunked and clicked as he tried to find any gear he could. The clunk and click turned to a crunch as Rich ground to halt and shouted a lot worse than balls.

I assumed his chain had come off and kept pedaling for 200 yards. Then it became clear that it was more than just a slipped chain. His chain had snapped, a brake in the chain that Rich knew he couldn't fix. Despite his Spanners nickname, he'd trimmed down on the amount of tools, nuts, bolts and general weight he'd carried with this time. Yet this didn't matter as he'd never carried anything to fix a broken chain with him in the past and certainly hadn't got anything now.

At this point he knew there was nothing he could do. Even if he could push to Grassington or we could ride there, get supplies and get back it would still put us back hours that we didn't have to spare. Neil and Jon were not long behind and soon took in the grave situation. "I've got the tool to fix the chain" said Spanners "but I don't have a spare link". "Oh I've got one of those" said Jon. Well we thought Spanners was going to make love to him there and then, from desperation to elation in five minutes Spanners was happy as anything as he set to work on fixing his stead.

Happy as a pig in mud or a biker with chain muck on his hands Spanners set off with his bike back in full working order. The pace had been steady all morning, knowing that we had a fairly bumpy morning, a big climb before Pately Bridge and then lunch after medium climb out of Pately Bridge it was going to be flat all the way to York.

The climb before Pately Bridge certainly didn't disappoint and this time the whole team were up to the challenge. It's amazing what a days cycling in your legs can do for you. While the legs felt yesterdays work they also had more to give and we all pushed on, keen to get a photo at the highest point of the route.

We stopped at each point that seemed the summit, ready for that much sought after photo. We remembered from our early plans that Nidderdale was a point of reference so we had our picture there. Was that it? Nope.

Surely Highpoint View, a farm, was the highest point?

Each corner we came around there was another short incline, nothing testing, just frustrating as we tried to have that photo to celebrate the metres we'd climbed since we left Morecambe and sea level. In the end we never got that photo, as we crested what turned out to be the top of the hill there wasn't anywhere to stop and we were already thinking of lunch - or I was, as I became known as "Stomach".

Heading down in to Pately Bridge is some ride, I certainly wouldn't want to do it in wet conditions. I seem to remember in a blur Neil and Jon missing a corner and having to adjust as they came down. It is unbelievably steep and I couple only tip my hat/helmet as I saw riders at the bottom setting off to climb it.

Arriving at Pately Bridge we hunted down the local chippy and tucked in to protein and carbs washed down with energy water. Well that's what we told our bodies as we enjoyed a deep fried feast. I later found out that my Grandad used to go cycling with the owner of the chippy years and years ago. There are only hills out of the place as far as I can work out so they must have had some good cycling miles in their legs.

After the short climb out of Pately Bridge we were on to the promised flat heading to East Yorkshire. Having had constant climbing since we left the seaside we were enjoying the flat for a change and soon were in Team Pannier train mode. Slip streaming each other in a long line, getting the miles in the bag while the weather was on our side.

The weather had been fantastic so far and watching forecasts we could see there was a bad weather front chasing us, we needed to keep moving. For now though even the wind was behind us and we sat comfortably at higher speeds than we ever used to travel at. With less weight on our bikes and an understanding of what's involved we were able to tick off those miles comfortably. You wouldn't have thought it was going to be our furthest day in the saddle.

There wasn't much else to tell from that point onward, we simply churned through the miles and in really good time we arrived at York. Well that's how it seems now looking back on it but as the picture above shows we were a bit tired when we hit Ripon for a quick ice cream / banana stop. Getting in to York was easy. We even found the Purple Palace easily after brief directions from a bus driver. The Premier Inn was just next to the route and that felt really comforting after the detour of the day before. After depositing our bikes in the rooms and a quick change we were out in the neighbouring pub with a taxi ordered to take us in to town.

Quite why Neil was kissing Jon's head I have no idea, maybe it was in celebration of completing 80 miles, maybe it was finding a great spot in the sun to have a beer or maybe it was for convincing me and my stomach to put off food for one more beer. It was a late night by the time we'd finished our Chinese banquet and got our taxi home but the hardest two days were done and it was due to be pretty flat in to Bridlington the next day.