Category Archives: Exercise

Exercise

A Sunday in Hell? Not quite, but rule 5 definitely applied (#RideLondon #Ride100)

East London, 6.30am, and I’ve somehow managed to miss a great big sign saying “to the start” as I make my way to the Ride London-Surrey 100. Luckily, there were enough other cyclists around for me to realise the error of my ways and get back on track. A few minutes later I was taking dodgy “start-line selfies” whilst checking the weather forecast and chatting to fellow riders queuing up next to the Lea Valley Velopark, waiting for our wave to start the slow procession towards the start line.

I’d been looking forward to this sportive for a while – I realised how lucky I’d been to get a ballot place – and, with my London-Paris and Holme Moss challenges under my belt, I’d pushed my training up to 100 miles. This was supposed to be special: ride out from the Olympic Park, tackle the Surrey Hills, and finish up on the Mall.  Sadly, I learned on the start line that the route had been cut to 86 miles through the removal of Leith and Box Hills because to safety concerns with ex-hurricane “Bertha” coming through. I wasn’t very happy: my second journey to East London in three days (first time to “register” for the event, in what seems to be an elaborate ruse to guarantee that at least 24,000 people visit the Prudential Ride London Cycle Show) and after a 04:15 start to get myself to the start and this was not what I wanted to hear. In the end though, I have to admit that 86 miles in the wind and the rain was plenty.  Last Sunday was one of those days when rule 5 definitely applied.

As a predicted slow rider (I think I originally said about 7.5 hours, before revising to 6.5 later), I started at 08:10 and with only 20 minutes to the back of the race I was conscious that the broom wagon could be upon me at any time.  I had 26 miles to cover to the first hub before 10:30 – which should have been a doddle – but I decided to crack on anyway.  The first couple of miles were lined with people waiting for their friends with different start times and a surprisingly high number of punctures (thankfully I didn’t suffer any) but I was enjoying my ride as I flew down the East Cross Route towards Docklands. A former motorway (now the A12), closed to all traffic except cyclists and I was averaging just shy of 30kph (not bad for me). Along Aspen Way, into the Limehouse Link, onto The Highway. I was buzzing. Past the Tower of London (poppies look amazing) and towards the Embankment. Running red lights (legally) through central London (with a spectator using a traffic cone as a megaphone) and on out to the west, watching lines of no-doubt extremely annoyed motorists on the eastbound A4 as we had the whole of the westbound carriageway to ourselves as far as Hammersmith.

By now the weather was deteriorating and the ride was marginally less fun but I was making good progress as I stopped to take on (and release) fluids at a drinks station near Chiswick.  As we hit Richmond Park I was making a steady pace up the hills but then came the rains. Not just a shower, but monsoon rains, the likes of which are rarely seen in England.  After taking shelter for a while I decided there was nothing for it but to get back on, only to be reduced to a standstill, and then walking pace, whilst an ambulance crew dealt with an accident.  Hopefully the poor soul involved was OK – as it was around 40 minutes before I was on the move again – and we crept into into a flash-flood-hit Kingston after which I suspect my bottom bracket may now be full of smelly water.

At this point the lead riders were coming back through on their final stretch back to London. I was sorely tempted to join them but stuck with it, under flooded railway bridges and out over the Thames to the first hub.  The time? 10:30! The broom wagon was due now but there were still thousands of riders coming through.

Setting off again, I witnessed another accident between Weybridge and Brooklands as the rider a short distance ahead lost traction and hit the road.  I stopped and called an ambulance whilst his fellow riders kept him safe and, after the St John Ambulance guys arrived I set off again. On into deepest Surrey, the next section was a real slog into the prevailing wind and I was wondering just how far out of London we would keep on heading before the course turned north east again.  At one point a chap said “follow me – you’ve been making good pace and I’ve been on your wheel for a couple of miles” but I couldn’t manage his speed and I had to let him drop me. Eventually, the sun started to appear as we climbed to Newlands Corner and, hard as the climb felt, I was glad to hear one of the spectators call out “it’s a long way to the finish mate, but you’re nearly at the top of this hill and it’s downhill from there”. What a star!

Actually, that was the wonder of it all. Despite the wind and the rain (and the reputation that Surrey has for hating cyclists who clog up the roads on a weekend), loads of people had turned out to watch 20,709 cyclists ride past their front door and were cheering us on in our “two-wheeled version of the London Marathon”.  “Come on Olney Multisport” I heard (the team name on my kit that day), “Sunshine ->” I read on one placard, whilst the next one said “the weather may be crap but you’re doing great!”. Clearly not making great time, I didn’t stay long at Newlands Corner because the broom wagon was due again and I set of down the hill, only to stop to retrieve my rain jacket which had come out of my pocket and was wrapped around my rear hub. Maybe if I paid less attention to rules 29 and 31 I might have room in my pockets for layers of clothing removed due to changes in weather conditions!

Now heading east, and riding in sunshine, things were looking up.  We passed the Leith Hill diversion and then a couple of Police motorbikes came past me.  Unfortunately I didn’t realise why they were there and, part way down the next  hill, under trees, on a wet slippery road I heard shouts of “slow down, accident ahead”, as I skidded, caught the bike, skidded again, crossed double solid white lines and hit the road, sliding along on my left side thinking “please don’t scratch my bike” whilst I tested the “tarmac resistance factor” of my kit.  Luckily for me, I only suffered superficial damage (so did the bike, with scratched brake lever, pedal, and rear skewer – all easily fixed) and was quickly back on my feet. I wish I’d had the manners to properly thank the lady rider behind who’d checked I was OK but, in the heat of the moment I’d said a quick “I’m fine thanks” and jumped back on, with the biggest damage being to my pride.  And I’d like to think my “luck” in not being badly hurt coming off at what appears to have been about 42kph was karma for stopping to help someone else earlier…

On through Dorking and up the A24 to Leatherhead, bypassing Box Hill, it was actually getting quite warm.  For the first time all day I was down to my normal summer kit (removing the arm warmers and tights that had probably saved my arms/legs from gravel rash earlier) and I was keen to get through the miles. At Oxshott, I spotted a pub with an all day BBQ to celebrate the ride coming past (one of many joining in the celebrations) and contemplated a beer but pushed on.  Shortly afterwards, I pulled over for a snack and another one of the wonderful spectators called out “have you got a puncture mate?” I didn’t, but I thanked him for his kindness, as he offered a mobile puncture repair service (including a track pump in his rucksack)!  Once again, the generosity and support from people on the roadside had really amazed me – clearly not everyone views this annual event the way some journalists do.

I’ve mentioned the spectators but the volunteers who worked as marshalls and other roles to run the event were superb.  I’ve done something similar myself, as a volunteer marshall (a Tourmaker) for the 2014 Tour de France Grand Départ and it was amazing but we had sunshine and professional riders – these guys had torrential rain, howling winds, and thousands of amateur cyclists to look after.  That didn’t stop them from encouraging us, being a smiling face at the roadside, and otherwise helping out.  Sure, the professional stewards (orange jackets) looked bored but the volunteers were fantastic and really helped to build the atmosphere of the event.

After a blitz back through Kingston, the rest of the ride was pretty uneventful, except for the downpour that led to me sheltering in a bus stop somewhere near the last drinks station (alongside three spectators, including a little girl who had counted 600 riders with two water bottles!). After grinding up the last big hill in Wimbledon I was counting down the miles to the finish (although thankfully all downhill) and as I hit Chelsea Embankment, I could feel the pressure lift as the finish line drew nearer.  The last push past the Houses of Parliament and along Whitehall flew by, before turning left under Admiralty Arch and onto the Mall.  There was the finish – a few hundred metres away – could my legs manage a final flourish?  It may not have been the fastest sprint finish in history but I approached the line with arms aloft (before quickly grabbing the bars to avoid falling off whilst crossing the timing strips!) and cruised along the Mall with a massive smile on my face. I’d done it!

My official time was 7 hours, 5 minutes and 10 seconds and that means my average speed was pretty shocking.  Take out the stops for accidents though, and my Garmin recorded 5 hours and 46 minutes at a slightly more respectable 24.6kph (I didn’t remember to stop it until a little way further down the Mall, where I collected my medal, so the seconds don’t count!).

Unfortunately, my Garmin Edge 810‘s altitude sensor was severely affected by the wet weather (seems to be a common issue), and I lost my pedal magnet from the crank in my crash (so no more cadence measurement) but all the important info is there - although obviously the Limehouse Link Tunnel doesn’t mix well with GPS!

And what about the bikes? Predictably, most riders were on road bikes – with some on hybrids and MTBs. But, just as when I took part in a charity ride from Wakefield to Manchester over Holme Moss a few weeks ago, someone did it on a Brompton (chapeau!).  I saw a few tandems too – but no Boris Bikes… until I spotted this tweet!

Possibly inspired by the guys who rode up Mont Ventoux on a Boris Bike (and returned it with seconds to spare before the 24 hour limit), that’s seriously impressive – those things weight 23kg!

All in all, Ride London-Surrey 100 (OK, 86), was a blast.  I hated the weather at times and I was in quite a bit of pain at the end (dodgy knee position affecting my IT band, I think – time for another bike fit…) but got a wonderful sense of achievement. One slight disappointment is that I didn’t get a picture (even a selfie) in front of Buckingham Palace as my iPhone ran out of juice immediately after crossing the finish line (at least it held out that long).  Unfortunately that also meant I had to rely on my sense of direction (with a little help from the Garmin) to get back to the car park (another 8 miles).

Hopefully, next year I’ll get through the ballot again and do the full century in under 6 hours…

Exercise Technology

Finally gave in and bought a Garmin

Many of my cycling buddies tell me how great their Garmins are and I just didn’t “get it” but, after having to neuter my iPhone to get through a day’s riding, I decided that it was time to take the plunge.  Actually, there were a few reasons…

Increasingly, I live by the stats.  If it’s not on Strava, it didn’t happen. And I want to work on my cadence and on training in particular heart rate zones.  I can use a dongle to get ANT+ connectivity on an iPhone, but I decided to buy a dedicated cycle computer instead.

Secondly, my wife worries when I’m out and about on my bike.  Some of the recent Garmin cycle computers have a connected features like live tracking, using a Bluetooth-connected phone with the Garmin Connect app (iOS or Android, not Windows) and, after watching this video (yes, I’m a sucker for marketing), I thought that it might be just the thing to give her the peace of mind from knowing where I am (Find my iPhone was just a little too much of a pain with a complex password set on my Apple account):

There are some good deals around on the Garmin Edge 800 at the moment but that doesn’t have the connected features found in the 510, 810, and the new 1000.

Finally, I decided that, as my distances increase, riding in unfamiliar places means a map can be useful.  Whereas in the car I have a £9.99 map-book and a good sense of direction, the time had come to get myself a sat-nav for the bike.

Exercise Technology

Improving iPhone battery life for use as a cycle computer

One of the uses for my iPhone is as a cycle computer.  I don’t have a Garmin (many people who do tell me that the Garmin Connect website is a pain) and I prefer to log my rides on Strava, with the iPhone in a Topeak Ride Case.  The downside of this is that the iPhone will sometimes run out of juice on a long ride.

For that reason, on my recent London to Paris cycle ride, I needed to do everything possible to boost the battery life.  Here’s a few of the things I did – and they seemed to get me through the day:

  1. Turn (almost) everything off. 3G. Wi-Fi. Bluetooth. Roaming data (especially on the continent).  Some people say to use flight mode and, whilst that may work on some operating systems, on iOS it will also turn off the GPS, which would make the iPhone a pretty useless cycle computer!
  2. Buy a battery booster. £4.95 on eBay got me a little battery booster that will give something between a third and half a charge to my phone.  Using that at lunch, or on the afternoon break, gave a little extra power to keep the phone alive for a few hours.
  3. Try to avoid the temptation to constantly look at the screen and mionitor your stats.  The screen is the big power drain and I even wore a watch on this trip so I wasn’t tempted to look at the phone for the time!
Exercise

Three cycling challenges for this summer

Remember “Fit at 40” – my quest to lose three stone and run three races of 10km or above before my 40th birthday?  I got there, although a succession of running-related injuries put pay to some of my good intentions for 2013 but there’s plenty of two-wheeled exercise still taking place (I even broke Rule 42 and completed a sprint triathlon last year).

This year I have three personal challenges planned on the bike that will all stretch me in different ways:

  1. In June, I’m joining a group of friends who are cycling from London to Paris and raising money for Prostate Cancer UK, Cancer Research UK and the British Heart foundation.  That’s about 270km in 3 days.
  2. If that wasn’t challenging enough, in July, I’m joining a team of riders from Fujitsu, cycling from Wakefield to Manchester, including part of the Tour de France route and including the fearsome Holme Moss climb. We call it the Tour de Fujitsu and we’re raising money for Streetbikes CIC.  Frankly, I’m a bit worried about that one. I’ve driven over Holme Moss and remember it being pretty steep and long.
  3. Then, in August, I’m taking part in the Prudential Ride London-Surrey 100, retracing the steps of the 2012 Olympic road race.

Oh yes, and I’m going to be a Tour de France Tourmaker too… but that’s not on my bike!

If anyone would like to support me by sponsoring either the London-Paris or Tour de Fujitsu rides, it would be very much appreciated. You can also follow my training progress on Strava.

Exercise Technology

Short takes: special cyclists’ edition

As this post goes out, my beloved Bianchi C2c Via Nirone 7 should have just emerged from the workshop after its first service.  Strava says I’ve ridden it for around 1200km and, as I rack up some miles in my training for several events this year (London-Paris in June, Wakefield to Manchester over Holme Moss in July, and the Ride London-Surrey 100 in August), it seems a good to point to take it back to Epic Cycles to give it a once over…

I’ve also got a few open tabs in my browser with cycling-related bits and pieces I mean to blog about… so here’s a special cycling-themed “short takes” blog post…

Editing GPX files

Every now and again, it’s bound to happen… you forget to stop the cycle computer/app on the smartphone and the resulting GPS eXchaneg format (GPX) file has a block in the middle where you were waiting for your mates to arrive/sitting in a coffee shop/whatever.  Then there are times when the GPS goes haywire and thinks you did 87.8kph down a hill, or when it just straightlines a corner. In those instances, you might want to edit the file.

Thankfully, GPX files are not binary – they are just another XML schema – and the OpenStreetMaps Wiki has advice for editing GPX files in a text editor.  Hack around to your hearts content, then upload to your social sharing site of choice.

Searching for bike serial numbers

We’re off to Centre Parcs later this year, and I needed to provide details of our bikes (useful for insurance purposes too).  Once again, I was searching for the serial number for my mountain bike and, once again, it was eluding me so, whilst it’s unlikely to apply to everyone who reads this blog, here’s the link to Trek’s advice on where to find your bike’s serial number.

 

Exercise Technology

Short takes: “detagging” oneself on Facebook; and the universal cleaning power of baby wipes

In the absence of a “proper” blog post, a few short takes based on things I’ve discovered these last few weeks…

“Detagging”

Over the last few months, I’ve been notified that someone has tagged me in a photo on Facebook. Great, I think, another picture from 20 years ago that I need to check to see I’m not doing anything naughty in… or “how on earth does that person have a picture of me?!”.

As it happens, some of the pictures weren’t of me – just someone who looked a bit like me, viewed from a particular angle.

It turns out that Farcebook has a help page for “how do I remove a tag from a photo or post I’m tagged in”, which is kind of handy as, however careful you are about sharing your information online, you can’t do anything about your friends.

Baby wipes and handlebar tape

Almost nine years of fatherhood have taught me lots, including that baby wipes are great for cleaning many things – goodness knows why we let them near the skin of our precious little people.

A few weeks ago, I bought myself a road bike. I was a little concerned about the white bar tape though… not likely to stay white for long, I thought. And I was right. Velominati rule #8 discusses matching the colour of saddles and bars – in the full text of the book it also talks about  keeping white bar tape clean in order to Look Fantastic at All Times. After the application of a little elbow grease and a baby wipe though, my bar tape is gleaming like (almost) new…

Exercise Waffle and randomness

Great service, great bike, great experience!

I’ve written before about the interest in cycling I developed last year but I wasn’t able to buy a road bike at the time. A few weeks ago, that all changed as I found myself attracted to a beautiful piece of Italian machinery at just about the same time my bonus was paid…

Mrs W. may think it’s a toy but I’m currently building up to my first (sprint) Triathlon and hope to be riding from London to Paris with friends next year.  That means that my Bianchi Via Nirone 7 Veloce Limited Edition is ridden several times a week as we enjoy the summer here in the UK and I try to build up my fitness (and knock off a few more kilos) – indeed I’ll be heading out tomorrow morning (and anything that gets me up early on a weekend must be fun).

The reason for this blog post is not so much to rave about my first road bike though (lovely though it is) but to commend the dealer where I bought it.

You see, I spent weeks looking at various bikes from Giant, Scott, Trek, Cannondale, etc. and I found many helpful dealers along the way. Unfortunately, I also found some who were less so – Pedalworks in Dunstable wanted to charge me so that they could spend twenty minutes working out which frame size would be right for me with the Scott Speedster 20 I was considering at the time. I managed to ride a machine from lower down the range at Phil Corley Cycles in Milton Keynes (they didn’t have a 20 in my size) but it just didn’t feel as comfortable as the Trek Domane 2.0 I rode next. The Trek was a lovely bike but this years colours are just so… dull (the 2.3 is OK, but outside my budget). I was tempted by the Giant Defy 1 (but struggled to find one in red/white) and I even gave Boardman Road Team Carbon Limited a try as it’s a stonking deal but a bit too racey for me (a*se up head down – as someone referred to it) and, despite their best efforts letting me ride one around the loading bay, Halfords’ staff just didn’t seem to know much about their bikes and how they compared with the competition (apart from on price).  Then, when two people independently suggested I took a look at the Bianchi Via Nirone, I liked what I saw.

I called Epic Cycles who were a) incredibly helpful b) really friendly and c) willing to let me come and spend some time with them to work out what size bike I need.  And when I say “some time” – I mean an hour and a half fitting session working out how best to set up the bike. I said “but I just need to work out my size” and they said they understood – this is a sizing evaluation – apparently a full performance bike fit is 3 hours!

So I set off to Ludlow, and Epic’s Ben Williams put me onto the turbo trainer, before setting about measuring various angles to get me in just the right position, each time explaining why it was so important and how it will make a difference on long rides (I have the measurements, but I wish I’d taken notes!). The thing is, it works – who would have thought that taking 1cm off the stem would make such a difference in comfort but it does – as does the position of my saddle (height and fore-aft), bar height, stem angle, etc.  Not only that but it made a huge difference in my purchasing confidence and the order was placed very soon afterwards.

The Via Nirone 7 is available in various spec levels but Epic buy so many they’re able to have their own limited edition bikes built up.  Mine has a Campagnolo Veloce groupset (roughly equivalent to Shimano 105) and K-Vid Kevlar/Carbon seat stays which really make it a smooth ride.

A few days later, and the bike was ready for collection - Epic would have delivered the bike to me, free of charge, but I elected to collect it – I didn’t want to entrust my pride an joy to a TNT courier. Even better, when I bought some pedals to go with the bike, Epic fitted the cleats to my shoes for me (even though I’d bought the shoes elsewhere) and helped me to get set up*. Great service, great bike, great experience – and hopefully the start of a great new hobby for me.

Unfortunately, Mrs W wants me to ride around in neon colours now so that I can be seen… ah well, at least that’s an excuse to buy some more gear…

 

* That still didn’t stop me from falling off after failing to unclip at the first junction on my first ride – but that’s something of a rite of passage, I believe.

Exercise Waffle and randomness

London cyclist (for a few days)

As I’m staying in London for my training course this week, I thought I’d try and offset the hotel breakfasts and pizzas/corner-shop evening meals (I struggle to get a hotel restaurant meal on my expenses budget) with some healthy exercise.

We’re having a mini heat-wave in the UK right now (and very welcome it is too!) so, even at 21:15 my jog on Monday evening was a bit slow and sticky (and I gave up on tonight’s – it was just too hot!).

Boris Bikes

Consequently, I decided to take advantage of the (Barclays) London Cycle Hire (Boris Bike) scheme to cycle from the hotel to the training centre and back each day and hopefully burn a few calories on the way.

Cycling in London

I’ve heard a lot on cycling podcasts and TV shows about cycling in London and whilst six rush-hour journeys on a Boris Bike don’t exactly qualify me as an expert (even if I did cross some of the cycle black spots like Elephant and Castle and Blackfriars) I have to say that my impression of a lot of what’s written/spoken is a touch dramatic and maybe verging on the unrealistic.

Sure, cycling in London traffic is not always easy – there are problems where cycle lanes just stop; buses block roundabouts; and getting into traffic can be difficult – but much of that is about people being selfish (or hesitant) and it’s just the same with motorised traffic.

As for the danger – well, speeds are lower (if I get out on my bike back at home I’m straight into 60mph traffic on the main roads) and, yes, lorries and buses present their own challenges – but some common sense is needed there too.  I’m not suggesting that all of the tragic incidents that have led to loss of life are down to the cyclists – but take a look on YouTube and there are some nutters on bikes too…

Buses weigh about 12 tonnes; lorries up to 44 tons. A cyclist weighs perhaps 100kg so there’s no contest really – watch out for what others are doing and don’t put yourself in a risky situation.  I guess, as a former motorcyclist, I learned to watch out for people doing things that they shouldn’t – and on a pedal cycle you’re just that little bit more exposed.

A couple of things struck me though.  As a pedestrian in London, I’m always annoyed when cyclists nearly take me out on a zebra crossing but London cycling is very stop-start and I can see why people jump lights and don’t give way at crossings (I’m not condoning that behaviour, by the way – just empathising). I was also surprised at just how many cyclists there are these days – certainly a lot more than I remember a few years ago – and enough to make motorists a little more aware of their presence.

Cycling Policy

As for “Cycle Superhighways” – I do have to agree with the bloggers and podcasters there – some blue paint splattered on the road is not enough! I honestly can’t see the difference between one of the cycle superhighways (I used a couple of them) and the normal cycle lanes/bus lanes.  Even so, the idea of segregated cycle ways in an overcrowded city seems a little unrealistic. It would be lovely to create a dedicated cycle network but the costs are potentially astronomical.

Just as I watched BBC Newsnight examining the case for high speed rail last night (it’s something we need as a piece of national infrastructure but should we really expect a positive ROI – the Jubilee Line extension didn’t get one – and, in any case, can we afford it right now?), if I were mayor of London I’d be asking similar questions about segregated cycle lanes. That’s why TfL’s current “Vision for cycling in London” is a start but it will take time to build out. What we really need (nationally) is a programme to build cycling into regeneration and new build projects – not just in London but for all of our villages, towns and cities.

Boris Bikes

The London Cycle Hire Scheme is not perfect but it’s not bad either.  Only once did I find there were no bikes for me to use but I did have problems with broken docks (presumably preventing the scheme’s operators, Serco, from realising that a docking station is full – they certainly didn’t move any bikes away) and local residents resorting to adding notices to stop people from trying to use them (thank you!).  It is annoying to have to cycle a few streets to the next dock (and then walk back to where you wanted to be) but at least there’s a free BarclaysBikes iPhone app that I can use to direct me to some spaces.

The bikes themselves are heavy (23kg) and slow (three gears – all of them low) so cycling on a Boris Bike can be hard work. Also, releasing a bike from a dock seemed to require quite a physical effort – maybe OK for a stocky guy like me but not so for those with a more petite frame.

I was kicking myself when, after failing to change gear for the first mile or so of using a Boris Bike and thinking the lever must be broken, I realised that the gear change is a twist grip mechanism (doh!). Once I’d worked out how to move up to third gear, I rarely dropped lower (and was wishing there was a 4th, or a 5th). The step-through frame is surprisingly easy but the rubber grips are sticky in hot weather and leave you with dirty hands. One change I really would like to make – replace the tiny bell with a great big air horn so motorists can hear you (pedestrians too!)

My biggest issues were with payment.  The process of buying access and then being retrospectively charged for usage is a bit clunky and I could find no way of generating a receipt (I want to claim the cost of my cycling back on expenses). I’ve contacted TfL but there is a 5 day response on emails so am still waiting for a reply.

Conclusions

So – London cycling – hit or miss?  Actually, I liked it – and if I lived in London I would definitely be considering buying a cheap(ish) fixie for the commute (or an old road bike). My own bikes are too expensive to be left chained up outside an office but the cycle hire scheme is really quite convenient – unless you live in the suburbs (where there are no Boris Bikes) I guess.

As for infrastructure – yes, the roads are a mess – but that’s the same everywhere and whatever your transport methods.  I was surprised at how many drivers did seem to notice me  (pedestrians on their smartphones whilst crossing the road less so), with only a couple of frantic bell-ringing incidents and two “ois!” shouted at drivers who pulled across my path (although I saw an unmarked police car do the same to someone else this evening, before shooting off on “blues and twos”).

London cyclists should try somewhere else before complaining – meanwhile everyone should be encouraged to get out of their car and onto a bike for a day or two to see how it looks from the other side.

Tomorrow I’ll be off the bikes, lugging my luggage through the tube, then back home to Milton Keynes where we have lots of segregated cycle ways despite constant complaints that the town was designed for cars…

Exercise

Choosing a new mid-range hardtail mountain bike for single-track trails

Last week I went mountain biking with some of the guys in the running club that I belong to (quite a few of the runners are duo- or tri-athletes… not me though!). I had a fantastic evening blasting around the woods and even managed to get both wheels off the ground on one of the jumps – not bad considering I was on my fourteen year old Trek 830 and very out of practice.

My bike has served me well but it has no suspension and is fitted with road tyres – these days it’s better suited to a quick trip to the shops, or towing my son around a country park on a connector bar so I decided to buy something with a little more… va va voom… for summer evenings on cross country trails.

The trouble is, I don’t know a huge amount about mountain bikes, so I needed to learn – and learn fast. This post is sharing some of what I discovered.

  1. First up, was to determine my budget – it’s no good comparing bikes that are completely different.  I also decided that I wanted a 26″ bike – I’m told 29ers are great for going fast – and if you’re tall – but I’m not! Also, hardtail (front suspension only) seemed appropriate for my type of riding – full suss (full suspension) bikes are really for more hardcore guys taking on board some serious downhill runs.
  2. Nothing beats testing bikes before committing and I found that most of the shops near me were really helpful and happy for me to have a short ride – either in the car park/up and down the street or even further, leaving behind my driving license and car keys as security.  I’m not sure they would have been so happy if I took the bike up to the woods for a real test, but it’s enough to get some idea.
  3. With one exception (Evans Cycles in Milton Keynes), where the sales guy spoke so quickly I struggled to keep up (and talked at me, rather than listening), I was able to pick up some good tips – Trek’s Milton Keynes store were particularly helpful, as were Roy Pink in Newport Pagnell and Leisure Lakes in Daventry – and I got some good advice to help me through the minefield of component names.
  4. For Shimano (I’m told that) Deore is the starting point for mid-range gear, with SLX, XT, and XTR rising up the spec sheet. Similarly, for components with a number, higher is better (e.g. a Shimano M525 hub is better than an M475). I was also told that there’s a argument to get higher-spec shifters because dérailleurs get smashed and replaced… shifters tend not to. None of the bikes I seriously considered had SRAM components (although I did have a quick look at bikes from Boardman, Whyte and Cube that do) so I’m not sure how they compare, but I did have to weigh up the Avid Elixir brakes against the Shimanos – all I could do there was take advice – and any of them will stop me a lot more quickly than the calliper brakes on my current bike!
  5. As for gears, 30-speed seems to be the norm these days, with most of the bikes I considered running a Shimano HG62-10 11-36 cassette (11 is the number of teeth on the smallest cog, 36 on the largest) with a 42/32/24 crank seeming to be fairly standard up front).
  6. I’m sure I should have learned about handlebars, stems, headsets and grips – but I didn’t. I stuck with the essentials – and what was comfortable/looked good (although I’ll probably look to replace the pedals pretty quickly).

After a few days of Internet trawling and shop visits, my shortlist was:

All of these are good 26″ mountain bikes and all weigh about the same, although the Talon and the Spesh are, arguably, a level down from the other four. My heart fancied the Cannondale, but my head said Trek so I decided to score the bikes against one another using a simple system whereby I assigned points for each component – for example, Rock Shox Recon Silver TK forks got 1 point, Silver with Remote Lockout got 2, and Rock Shox Reba Gold RL got 3. Similarly, Shimano SLX shifters scored more than Deores, etc. Then, add up the totals and see how the bikes compare.

After that assessment the decision was clear – the Trek 6500 is head and shoulders above the rest (especially the Cannondale) when it comes to spec. and I read that the frame/fork combination is the most important selection – other components can be upgraded later. On that front Trek offers a limited lifetime warranty on its frames, so they obviously believe in the quality (and I’ve been really happy with my 830).

I’ve now ordered my Trek 6500 and, hopefully, it should be with me in a few days time.

Now I can’t wait pick up the new bike and get out onto some decent single track…

Exercise

Ride it!

The last time I went mountain biking was in 1998 (I think). Some friends and I had hired a cottage in North Wales and we spent a few days there over the new year period. I seem to recall a trip to Beddgelert (or somewhere like that), to cycle around what felt like almost vertical hillsides with very muddy tracks.  I liked coming down but hated going up and, since then, my riding has been confined to roads, cycle paths, towpaths and bridleways.

More recently though, I’ve felt the need to push a bit harder – to try something a bit less sedate than the family rides out (which I might describe as “leisurely”, if I was being charitable, or “pedestrian” to be more honest…) – and when the latest catalogue from Evans Cycles landed on the mat, their Ride It! events caught my eye.

These organised rides offer all the benefits of a race, without actually racing. In fact, racing is prohibited. Even so, we were timed with chips, the route (in multiple lengths) was clearly waymarked, and there were “pit stops” with refreshments (sports drinks, jelly beans and cake!) and the ability to carry out simple bike repairs (more on that in a moment).  There are two classes of event – mountain bike and “sportive”, with very different courses, run over very different terrain.  Even so, I was intrigued to see where I was going to go “mountain biking” in Milton Keynes!

The answer, it seems, is the Beds/Bucks border in and around Brickhill – I really enjoyed the trail (graded 2/4 for climbing – so not too bad, although almost everyone walked some of the hills of sandy soil that felt pretty much like riding on a beach…) but was let down somewhat by my bike (although they do say that a bad workman blames his tools).  You see, my “best bike” is a Trek 830, which cost me a few hundred pounds in the late ’90s and was recently serviced (by Olney Bikes) but it has no suspension, making it a bit rough for off road use. I also have a cheap full-suspension bike that I bought from a neighbour a few years ago and that’s the one I selected today.  Five miles in and I took a tumble as I turned from tarmac to gravel and my front wheel was badly buckled. Unable to straighten it at the next pit-stop (despite the best efforts of the Ride It! team – thank you!) the consensus was that I should disconnect the front brake and ride on back brakes only… which was “interesting” on some of the downhill forest sections!  Actually, there was some more advice too – buy a cheap wheel, then sell the bike, and buy a new one (something I’ve wanted to do for a while, but have so far failed to gain spousal approval for).  I kept going until the second pit stop but by then I’d decided to switch from the medium (25 mile) course to the short one (advertised as 15 miles, but nearer to 18 according to the GPS on my phone), missing a fairly flat road section around Woburn Sands and another blast up and down through Aspley Woods.  I was probably a bit ambitious going for the medium course on my first ride anyway – just because I can do a quick 6 miler from home on local cyclepaths and bridleways in half an hour, I thought it would take me about two and a half hours to do 25 miles – that may have been a little optimistic with this course!

So, the verdict on Evans’ Ride It! events: great fun; a good workout; friendly (both participants and staff); and well organised (although I was disappointed that the timing chip failed to register my start, and the GPX routes were not posted in advance on the blog as the FAQ suggests – and the link was broken in the confirmation email for my registration).

As for the verdict on my maintain biking abilities: needs more practice – and a new bike! My shopping list is something like: hard-tail; disc brakes; front forks with suspension; good quality; but not too expensive…

Those who are interested in the route can check out my workout from today on Endomondo (although not all paths are generally open to the public – some require a permit, which had been arranged for this event).

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