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.

Monday, 9 September 2013

Way of the Roses Day 1: Morecambe to Earby

"That Hill Can F*$k Off"
Not my words but as the "all the gear no idea" lycra clad cyclist spouted his venom as he reached the brow of the hill I couldn't help but agree with the sentiment. We'd just climbed the steepest part of, what we would later find out to be a category three climb. Using the same classification that they use in the tour that makes it the fourth toughest type of climb in the world ever! "Is that all" was our response as we'd just climbed what felt like a sheer cliff face.

Earlier that day it had been a now customary send off by putting our back tyres in the sea at beautiful Morecambe. An easy, traffic free ride led us out of Morecambe and in to Lancaster and to an historic waterfront where, and I have this on high authority, Spanners once went jogging. It's true I tell you, of the two times in his life he's taken to pounding the streets, one was along the same path we were now powering along.

Team Pannier had come a long way since our first C2C venture in 2009 and so has cycling. On our first trip we came across a couple of organised charity groups and a few true bike nutters but that was about it. Now bikes were everywhere and you could tell, the locals seemed bored welcoming us."Oh here's another group who think they're the first in the world to do this trip" - they didn't say it but you could see it in their eyes. We'd meet other cyclists and say we're on the Way of the Roses, they'd look at us gone out and say "we are too" as in, why the hell do you think I'm up this big hill in the middle of nowhere.

Coming in to Clapham (Clapham, Lancashire, not the Clapham district in London) we soon realised the true popularity of the route. We pulled up to New Inn, a pub overlooking the river. Spying a perfect spot we parked the bike as Spanners went to recon the food situation. Coming back he declared the landlord was a grumpy bugger (or some other similar rave review of his hospitality) and we decided to try the cafe yards down the road. Seeing cyclists waiting outside for food we were informed they were overrun and so we tried the next place along, cycling really has taken off and taken over the cafes!

Clapham's a picturesque place and the cafe was perfect. Pie and peas for the northern lads, plus real ale on tap for those who wanted it - for the record I stuck to a Gay-2-O. We were ready and loaded and hoping our food had settled by the time we hit, erm Settle.

So out of Settle we hit the aforementioned hill and we had a new leader striking out in front. All morning I had been chasing Spanners and proving that despite all his training I was able to keep up but now as the moment of truth hit me I realised I was no match. Chef, with his bulldog style just dug in behind Spanners and the two of them left myself and Jukebox trailing in their wake.

We've decided that Team Panniers motto is Never Too Proud To Push but it certainly hurt as my pedals would turn no more and I had to dismount as the two front runners headed off and me and Jukebox put in nearly the same amount of effort to push. As me all met up at the middle point of the hill and we were bored by some guy telling us he'd cycled from Blackpool, the bloke did at least make us smile. His mate pulled up who was training for an Iron Man. Carrying a large bag on his bike the Blackpool bore said "alright Arnie? - We call him Arnie 'cause he's brought Danny DeVito on his back". Sadly smiling at his comment meant he stayed around for another 5 minutes to tell us how good he was.

As was the pattern for the first two days we kept passing the same people, and they kept passing us - including "Mr I Cycled From Blackpool". Fat or thin, male or female, fast or slow it always seemed you were catching each other up as one team waited for another or one faded as the other pushed on.

On our first C2C we finished the hard days (47 miles and 63 miles) late at night, ending up at our accommodation around 21.30. So it was looking positive as in the late afternoon sun (we had awesome weather on day one) we turned off the main Way of the Roses route and headed for our accommodation. Jukebox the man with the least amount of training in him* soon declared he didn't have a mile left in him. We knew we had a bit of a detour to the accommodation but there was a debate as to how much and from where the detour started.

The great thing about national cycle routes is that they are designed to be generally flat or at least they seem to dodge the roller-coaster effect that a more direct route can take. As soon as you leave these routes you realise how they protect you from busy traffic and more importantly unnecessary gradients. Having had the wind behind us for the majority of the day we were now facing a steady climb in to the wind.

That mile Jukebox had in him was used over and over again as our moral was dampened knowing we had to retrace any miles we were now riding. It felt worse than it probably was and soon we were riding toward and hopefully in to Earby waiting for a tell-tale establishment that named itself after the area to know we'd arrived. We wanted a Earby Engineering or an Earby Hairdressers, Anything that told us we were in the right place. I think it was Earby Car Sales that confirmed our location but we were soon seeing the layout I'd sussed out on streetview months before. We ticked off the Co-op hopefully the place to purchase our breakfast, Chilli Pepper, the Indian where we would be having tea and of course the local pub - not to mention the newsagent excellently named Have I Got News 4 You.

Within minutes we were at our destination, Earby YHA. Ditching our gear we hit the pub and the curry house. Myself and Jukebox turning in early as Spanners and Chef took in the Champions League final and a few beers as well I'm sure. Day one done and some good miles ticked off.

* Read least amount as none, his bike hadn't been touched and in fact the back tyre was flat as he dug it out days before we left.

Saturday, 7 September 2013

Way of the Roses - The New C2C

Back in May we set off for our next coast to coast challenge, the Way of the Roses. A new route taking us from Morecambe, Lancashire (wrong side of the Pennines, I am a Yorkshireman after all) to Bridlington in wonderful Yorkshire. Along the way we would pass from area of outstanding natural beauty in to national park in to area of outstanding beauty and through the true capital of England, York - I'm not sure even I believe that as I type it. Over the next few posts I will breakdown day by day our expedition but here is a basic outline of what we planned to do:

  • Drive from Sheffield to Morecambe (with a quick stop over in Holmfirth to pick up the driver* and Spanners).
  • Cycle from Morecambe to Earby (Earby slightly off route but all the accommodation was full in Grassington, and Pately Bridge we decided was too far on day one). Staying in the YHA there.
  • Cycle from Earby to York. Staying in a Premier Inn right next to the route and then having a night out in York.
  • Cycle from York to Bridlington where our driver* would be waiting for us to take us home.

*By driver, we mean our Dad's who kindly volunteered / were roped in to helping us.

Thursday, 16 May 2013

Book Review: The Secret Race - Tyler Hamilton and Daniel Coyle

Just Let Them All Take Drugs And Leave Them To It

Wow, there a books that can really shake your understanding and beliefs in life. Some are very profound, the excellent Bounce book by Matthew Syed for example has changed how I raise my children and has made me assess my (lack of) limitations in life. The Secret Race has been so quite life changing but it has brought a whole new understanding to the soap opera that is cycling.

Tyler Hamilton was Lance's right hand man, for a period of time he roomed with him, he shared his aspirations and worries with him and he even doped with him. In this book Hamilton gives a first hand account of what it was like within the US Postal team and their organised doping. He also gives a full account of Armstrong and his personality, I never thought I would like him be I can't quite believe what a bullying nutcase he comes across as in the book.

My very wise wife has said to me in the past that they should 'just let them all take drugs and leave them to it'. Well it seems that they pretty much did. Hamilton says in his book that Armstrong was even caught for EPO in the Tour of Switzerland and the UCI swept it under the carpet - all for a $125,000 'donation' from Lance. Wow! It seems the authorities were so far behind the cyclists that they might have not bothered. Simple techniques like chugging down loads of water and simply pretending to not be in worked getting around drugs tests. Also they knew what time the testers were allowed to turn up so they would just try to take the drugs outside of those hours. One tester even phoned before he came to make sure they'd be in!

However, many keen cycling fans will have heard about the Festina affair in 1998 where a member of the team was caught carrying a load of drugs across the border during the tour. This meant a massive clamp down and all the cyclists and teams were running scared of the testers and being caught. Armstrong thought everyone else would still be getting their EPO one way or another and so organised his to be delivered. However they were wrong and in recent times (since Lance's retirement) the samples taken from riders at the time were tested with the new tests able to catch the cheats. Only 8% tested positive. 8%! That means only 8% of the field had a chance against Armstrong in his first tour win.

This really changed my perspective on the whole thing. I've always felt it was a fairly even playing field but it obviously wasn't that year. As time went on everyone else was doping, in fact most of them were using the same doctor! In fact I can remember one year when everyone was attacking Armstrong and it was a real close race - that must have been the year everyone was wired up to the eyeballs!

Having read David Millar's Racing Through The Dark and now this book, there is a stark contrast. Millar felt he was pushed in to drug taking, that he had no choice, that he felt bad. I feel Hamilton's view point is probably a lot more common. He portrays it as a cool club that he wanted to be in, that it gave him belief he could win or more that he didn't think he could win without it. He saw a marked change in competitors and felt he wanted and needed to follow them.The irony being that one tell-tale sign to him was one person's improvement over another athlete. It turns out that at that point that cyclist wasn't doping, he was just on good form but I guess this is why drug taking gave them the belief.

I think at the moment there is still a lot of drug taking about. The course for the Vuelta was so punishing but some cyclists seemed to compete day after day at the same level, cycling up the steepest of mountains like they were racing on the flat. There was a phrase used by Lance that someone was doping, he said a result or a performance was 'not normal'. The Vuelta this year was 'not normal', let's hope the tour this year is.

Oh and do buy the book, you will find it fascinating.

Friday, 22 March 2013

Guest Post: How Football Led To A Love Of Cycling

Cycling seems to have become so popular in recent years, I've suddenly got friends who appreciate slipstreaming and some even understand the need for Lycra. I sat next to Steve for years while watching Huddersfield Town limp through mediocrity in the 1990s, not once did we discuss cycling. Yet football has bizarrely led him in to cycling. I asked him to write a post about it.

I loved cycling when I was a kid. I remember the chrome Diamond Back BMX I got from Halfords in Huddersfield for my eighth birthday; admittedly this was a bit special (and a serious upgrade from a Raleigh Puffin, stabilisers optional) but it was Yorkshire in the 1980s: everyone had a bike of some description, it was something to do whilst waiting for the games to load on the ZX Spectrum. The further upgrade to a Muddy Fox mountain bike in the 1990s was a natural progression.

And we did some epic rides back then as well, relative to our age and size – all the way up the canal towpath to Tunnel End and back, the climb up to Castle Hill, and so on. My friend insists we also climbed Holme Moss one summer, though how my teenage self on a mountain bike ever managed to achieve this, I am mystified and have therefore lost it from my memory.

Inevitably, and like pretty much everyone I know around my age, hitting 17 changed everything; for me it was the holy triumvirate of College, Cars and Girls. Riding the Muddy Fox was in no way cool enough for a boy on the cusp of manhood, so the bike went further and further to the back of my parents’ storeroom – it literally didn’t turn a wheel until rescued by my nephew a couple of years ago.

Life moved on, and if I’m honest cycling never even entered my head for nearly 15 years (I’d occasionally watch the Tour de France highlights on the TV, but usually that would end with me getting very confused at why the guy winning wasn’t at the front). Instead I kept playing lots of football and very much got into running – culminating in running the 2007 London Marathon and destroying my knees in the process. I kept relatively fit thereafter, but I felt I was lacking something to really get into – another challenge like the marathon that would really engage me and get me motivated.

In 2011, Huddersfield Town came to my rescue. If I’m honest, as much as I love and religiously follow my football team, they’ve not exactly come up with the goods very often in my 28 years of devotion. However, to them I do owe my reintroduction to cycling: the ‘Pedal for Pounds’ charity bike ride was set up to raise money for the academy and the Yorkshire Air Ambulance, and involved us riding from Huddersfield to Brighton over the course of 3 ½ days in late April.

The ride to Brighton was difficult (in no small part due to borrowing my brother-in-laws hybrid, which shared a similar weight and aerodynamics as a Boris Bike) but truly glorious. Over 280 miles, I think it rained for about 2 minutes in total; the rest of the time the weather was fantastic and we had a whale of a time. We even got to ride through Central London on the day of the Royal Wedding – empty roads, street parties everywhere; the coup de grace was going straight over Tower Bridge (something I managed in agony on foot 4 years previously), posing for photos in the middle of the road along the way.

Oh, and Town won a thrilling game 3-2 with a last minute goal, everyone went mental and the week was complete in fine style.

After the Brighton run, I bought my own hybrid and made all the right noises about getting out on it through summer and getting into cycling a little more; I made up plenty of excuses instead and ended up doing very little indeed until the next Pedal for Pounds event was announced for May 2012 – a ride from Yeovil back to Huddersfield.

This had me immediately back in training, getting very excited and looking forward to another jolly boys week of sun, cycling and beer. In reality, there was a lot of cycling – the second day of the ride was the first time I managed over 100 miles in a single day; some beer of course but absolutely no sun. It. Was. Miserable. On the aforementioned second day between Bath and Solihull, the heavens opened all afternoon, making for some of the worst cycling conditions you could hope for. I was one of the earlier ones back to the hotel, at half seven (having left before nine that morning); some unfortunate folk just made it back for last orders, others were less lucky still and ended up crashing or giving it up as a bad job.

As I sat in the bath that night (with the shower on too for added hypothermia avoidance), I reflected on the day of hell that had been and realised something truly perverse: I’d loved it. The challenge of just keeping going was harder than anything I’d ever done in my life before, and the prospect of another 90-mile day to follow should have filled me with dread. Instead I woke up aching but good to go again, raring to stare down adversity and, as it turned out, some very soggy clothing.

The rest of the ride was bitterly cold but mercifully dry, and the reception upon returning to the Town ground was worth all the hours of toil and suffering. Though, if I’m honest, by that point if one man and his dog had greeted us I would have been just as proud.

Something clicked on that journey (as well as my knees): I adored the misery required for the achievement. It made me hungry to do more on the bike, to stop making lame excuses and just get out there. Subsequent research and interest has taught me that this is exactly what cycling is about – some of the pictures from the 2013 Milan-San Remo sum my 1000 words up perfectly: why would anyone want to punish themselves in such horrible conditions? Cyclists know.

By coincidence 2012 turned out to be British Cycling’s annus mirabilis – Wiggins, the Olympics and all that. I immersed myself in all of it, and before I know what’s happened I’m addicted – signing up to sportives and more charity rides, spending a small fortune on a road bike and all the gear, diving headlong into the culture I didn’t really know existed twelve months ago.

I imagine that to outsiders I look like I’ve caught the crest of a wave, coming back to cycling when it’s cool to ride a bike again. This may be true to a certain extent, but I know I can hold my head up and say I learned my love the hard way, and no-one can take the feelings of pain, anguish and sheer joy away from me now. I’m a proper cyclist now.

If you'd like to know more about Steve's latest adventure and maybe even sponsor him click here. You can also follow Steve's progress on twitter @stevejcarson

Sunday, 3 March 2013

The New Steed

So the wheels are a bit narrower than the last lot.

The seat doesn't look quite as comfortable.

Although the handles certainly look like they'll help you through those bone shaking miles.

The Specialized Sirrus Sport certainly seems a lot quicker than my last bike.

My New pride and joy ready to rock and roll, new pannier racks fitted and ready. I picked it up today with the intention of giving it a blast today, I can't let the freezing temperatures put me off can I?

I bought it from www.bicyclechain.co.uk and can definitely recommend them. They gave me a good price, set it up for me and testing different bikes out on their test track was perfect for choosing the right bike.

Sunday, 3 February 2013

The Escape Artist - Matt Seaton: Book Review

Reading the back of this book you would believe this book is about the terminal illness of the writer's wife and how that impacted his life. Well that's the impression I got. Yet it's so much more than that and in fact that is merely a side story to the main theme. Cycling. Amateur cycling and Seaton's obsession with it.

I've played football at amateur level since I was 18 and found Matt's account of the cycling equivalent fascinating. He addresses everything from the training schedules to the changing room etiquette - I'm assuming the 'not looking' policy is the same in all male changing rooms throughout the UK despite my wife's insistance to the contrary - not that he mentions this side of it. Seeing the dedication required to achieve at such a low level is quite an eye opener but what this book covers and excels at is that it covers questions you've always wanted to ask about cycling and raises, and answers a whole load more.

What you begin to realise is that his main enjoyment, hobby and reason for living is about to come to an end. While his mouth and brain have come to terms with that his heart hasn't. Forget his wife's illness or their IVF treatment, this is where the book really got me. Having given up football 15 years after starting I could totally relate to what Seaton was now facing. Family life called and it was only right he gave up cycling. While he slowly withdrew from cycling it dawned on him even more slowly how this would affect him.

So if you're suddenly finding age and life catching up on you and you're no longer doing what you want for just you 100% of the time then this book is for you. He doesn't tell you how to deal with it, he doesn't know himself but it does show you that many more men across the country are going through the same thing, whether they're in to tennis, cycling, football or rock climbing. If you want a full, rounded life then it will come to you too.