Tuesday, January 15

The Obligatory New Year's Resolutions Post

So, it's January (for a few more hours, anyway) which surely means that new year's resolutions, goals, whatever you want to call them, need to be made and shared and then fall by the wayside. Except that this year, I'm pretty determined that this last won't happen - or at least, for no more than a few days at a time. I am 37 years old, fending for myself in the big, bad world for the first time in a decade and I need to get a whole lot better at it.

Ride harder, eat well, take care.

The bike: In a little under three years I turn 40, and that seems as good an excuse as any to set myself some big challenges. Three summers to get out and enjoy the road, three really big rides that will probably hurt like hell, but equally reward me with tales to tell and thighs of steel, and hopefully raise some money for some good causes along the way. So over the next three years I intend to take on Dunwich Dynamo, the Ronde van Vlaanderen and Mont Ventoux. DD is really just for fun - yep, I now consider 120 miles of night riding fun! Yes, I know I said I'd never do de Ronde again but, well, things change, people change, and I have unfinished business with those cobbles. And of course Mont Ventoux ("the windy mountain" in the simplest translation) doesn't seem like the most appealing place for a girl who hates climbing & hates riding in the wind, but the romance, the legends, the sparse, bleak beauty of the place transcend all. I

If I'm to have a hope of surviving those three I'll need to train - not just pootle about looking at the scenery, but actually ride harder and further and faster than ever before, and seek out longer and steeper hills to test myself against. So far the weather has conspired against me (I'm far from a fair-weather cyclist but even I'm not silly enough to go out on the roads in snow, ice & gale-force winds!) but hell, it IS January still!

The food: I've always loved good food, loved to shop, loved to cook, loved to eat. And by "good" I don't necessarily mean super-healthy (after all, what would life be without cake, or fish & chips at the seaside?) but with the turning upside-down of my life over the last couple of years I've lost my way a bit. The good shopping habits have gone - I can't justify a veg box that I can't use up by myself, and apart from a butcher and a cheese shop my new home town has little in the way of local produce, so I'm pretty much limited to the supermarket (I've yet to find a farmshop within riding-with-full-panniers distance.) Given how unexciting supermarket food is, it's surely no surprise that I lost my cooking mojo too, so my diet has become far too reliant on toast and pasta.

A couple of new cookbooks have given my motivation a bit of a boost (can't beat Nigel Slater & Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall for inspiration for quick, easy, wholesome food. I'd also like to treat myself to some of Yotam Ottolenghi's books) and I'm getting back into the habit of planning my meals, and using my days off to prepare food so I don't have to do a lot to get a proper meal inside me after a long day at work.

The self-care: By which I mean doing what I can to minimise the stresses of life. Keeping my flat tidy enough that I don't have to tear the place apart to find my keys on a morning; looking after my bike better to try and avoid mechanical disaster on my way to work (or worse, on the way home, in the dark & cold!); washing the dishes every evening so my favourite coffee cup is always ready & waiting at breakfast time; shaving my legs regularly enough so that IF it's warm enough for shorts one day I can just put 'em on; get my head straight and my bank account organised so I can stop having money-related panic attacks (I've never been good with money, & far too often find myself struggling to afford everything I need to. I'm hoping this will help: http://amazon.co.uk/dp/B0052MD8VO )

Wish me luck!

Wednesday, April 4

Beer & Cobbles, part two: the Beer (oh, & a little bike race...)

Saturday's ride duly celebrated with beer & pizza, we had a nice lazy start on Sunday - we'd picked out Oude Kwaremont as a good place to watch the race as it gave us the drama of steep cobbles, three passes of the men's race and one of the women's, and the carnival atmosphere of the village - but the race wasn't due to pass through there until lunchtime. We were treated to the inspiring sight of a junior race on the drive over from Kortrijk, dozens of tiny kids riding their hearts out on the Ronde route in their best club lycra. We ditched the car in a field somewhere near the the bottom of the ridge and by 11.30 we'd bagged ourselves a spot right on the steepest part of the climb.

The helicopters are always the first sign that something's happening at a big bike race, though with a vast VIP area just outside the village there were choppers coming and going all day. Then there are the whistles of the stewards, the sirens of the first police outriders, the Rodania car leading the publicity caravan and a handful of team vehicles, then... nothing, for what feels like an age. And all of a sudden, a rush of bright lycra, the clatter of bikes on cobbles, the riders' heavy breathing somehow audible over the cheering & applause of the thousands-strong crowd. The speed is incredible. I've seen enough road racing to expect fast - but having ridden these roads just the day before I simply cannot comprehend how they can be ridden at race pace. It's clear from the riders' faces that it hurts them just the way it hurt me, yet still they attack the climb at twice the speed I managed on the smoothest, flattest tarmac.

After the first lap of the men's race we investigated the village square at the top of the climb. What I'm sure would normally be a peaceful little retreat with just a couple of old guys enjoying the sunshine was party central - big screens showing Sporza's live coverage (the mass intake of breath as Fabian went down in the feedzone, ending his race), half a dozen stalls selling beer and burgers and hundreds and hundreds of people. A beer (well, a few), a hotdog, a new spot on the barriers and two more laps, seeing the race shift and take shape, the first signs of the winning break beginning to form - then the rush back to the square to find a spot with a view of the screen. Not easy when you're only 5ft1, unless there's an accommodating landlord who invites you to climb up on his bar, & a big strong friend to help you up there!

The atmosphere in that square was unforgettable. Three riders had escaped off the front of the dwindling bunch - Alessandro Ballan, Pippo Pozzato and local hero Tom Boonen, and were, somehow, extending their lead by the minute. People were cheering, chanting, even praying, yet as the three riders approached the line there was quiet. And then -

and the crowd, as they always say, went wild.

Some random observations from the race:
  • Those clouds of dust you see the riders charging through on tv? Actually just as likely to be barbecue smoke ;-)
  • Race spectators are fuelled by copious quantities of beer, burgers & sausages. It may well have been possible to buy soft drinks and healthy food in Kwaremont on Sunday, but no-one was doing so.
  • These people love bike racing. And they really love Tom Boonen.
  • It's every man, woman & child for himself when it comes to finding a good spectating spot - but if it looks like you're about to spill beer people will instantly come to your aid.
  • That evening Tommeke Boonen's win was the top story on all the local news channels (with Fabian's broken collarbone taking second spot) and pages and pages of Monday's paper were given over to the race - the kind of  coverage British cycling could only dream of.
  • When you're only 5ft1 it's really useful to have a couple of stupidly tall guys with you!

Tuesday, April 3

Beer & Cobbles, part one: the Cobbles

(With thanks & apologies to beerandcobbles.blogspot.co.uk for the great weekend & the blatant title-theft!)

This last weekend saw both my first big cycling challenge of 2012, and my first live road-race of the season - the Ronde van Vlaanderen.

About this time last year, my best friend Rich was so excited on his return from his second RvV sportive that he managed to talk me into signing up for this year's. I may well have been drunk - I can think of no other reasonable explanation. So over the past twelve months I bought a better bike - and then another, even better one - upped my mileage, stopped going out of my way to avoid hills, tried lots of new & exciting energy products (some of which had exciting - of the wrong sort - effects on my digestive system, as I'm sure many seasoned cyclists will understand) & bought lots of frighteningly expensive but incredibly comfortable kit, until on Thursday afternoon Rich, his old friend Kev & I loaded our bikes into the car & set of for Belgium.

Having collected our registration packs on Friday afternoon, we just needed to get to the start  & get moving on Saturday. Random road closures notwithstanding, we made it to Oudenaarde & the three of us rolled over the start line together a little before 10am, before stopping for a group hug at the point where my 87km route peeled off from the boys' 138km one. The first 15km were very easy - beautifully smooth, wide bike paths and quiet roads running alongside the Schelde river, but then we turned onto the first set of cobbles, and the first climb, the (frankly, terrifying) Koppenberg. I stuck to the plan I'd made when I first saw the route (unfortunately some time after I'd committed to riding) - ride as far up it as I could, but not be ashamed to get off and walk; after all, I've watched many pros walk that hill over the years. The descent on the other side was much more fun, curvy without being too scarily twisty or steep.

It was as I rolled into the second set of cobbles, at the bottom of Steenbeekdries that I came to the conclusion that I really don't want to do this ride again - the distance doesn't bother me, I can get fitter and lighter to be able to manage the climbs, but riding on the cobbles made every part of my body hurt, and I just don't have the power or weight to maintain a decent speed over them. Rich had told me time & time again over the last year that they were rough, but they were worse than I had ever imagined - and if the climbing on them was hard (though I did get to the top of this one on the bike - go me!) the descent was frightening - I felt like I had so little control of the bike, and the vibration meant I couldn't see clearly either. For the first time in a lot of years, I was envious of the guys on mountain bikes.

The rest of the ride brought much of the same - cobbles (pain), climbs (more pain, much walking, though I did manage to ride a couple more of the bergs, Kapelleberg & Varent I think, though by the end of the day they all ran into one), glorious, sweeping descents (and a top speed of nearly 58kph - not bad for a nervous descender!) and beautiful views - yes, beautiful, not a word many people associate with Belgium. I wouldn't call it pretty or dramatic, but it's lovely in its own way, and reminds me a lot of the Howardian Hills where I grew up - all green fields, small mixed farms and little patches of woodland scattered over rolling hills. 

Somewhere around the 60km mark I had a chance encounter with a couple of my GS Gazzetta club-mates & twitter-friends, @TBag & @Wiggys - and what perfect timing. I was tired, the road had headed upwards yet again and my emotions were beginning to get the better of me, and a few encouraging words and a couple of wheels to follow (not that I managed to hang on for long) were just the thing I needed to keep me moving. That little pick-me-up didn't last long unfortunately, and on the other side of that climb the tears started. I managed a grin for Fast Phil Corner (and for the lovely sweeping descent it was at the bottom of) but otherwise was a snotty, tear-stained mess, who spent 10k or so telling myself to get it together & just. bloody. get. it. done. It wasn't until I'd hiked up the Oude Kwaremont & the Paterberg - and saw the magical "12k to go" sign - that I managed to get my emotions under control, muster some enthusiasm for the bike and press on for the finish. Seven hours after leaving Oudenaarde I rolled back over the line, followed about fifteen minutes later by Rich & Kev. It was done. I was done. 

Some random observations from the ride
  • Belgian bike paths are not all perfect - they mostly are, yes, but there were still stretches that were full of potholes, debris & manhole covers. Still ten times better than the average British bike path though, and they get priority over other traffic!
  • White shorts. Just NO. No-one wants or needs to see your sweaty crack, thank you very much.
  • 15, 000 riders and yet the start, finish & feed-zone were well-stocked, organised & efficient - a big "proficiat" to the event organisers, staff & volunteers.
  • Sportive photographers are always on the steepest part of the hardest climbs. Therefore, there are lots of photographs of me walking.
  • There was a refreshing lack of macho bullshit, despite the fact that 99% of the participants were male. More a feeling of "we're all suffering together."
  • I think this may be the first time I've been at such a huge event and not had to queue for the ladies'!
  • The words may be different, but swearing sounds pretty much the same in any language.
  • Flemish cobbles hurt. A lot. More than you would ever think possible if you've only ever ridden over nice, tame English cobbles before. And unless you're a big powerhouse, they also make it really hard to go fast.
  • I suspect that this event is at least partly a money-making scam by Belgium's bike mechanics & inner-tube manufacturers! Though I was lucky/ well-advised enough not to have any punctures or mechanicals.
  • Riding amongst that many people means you have to concentrate all of the time - in fact, I found the day more mentally exhausting than physically.
  • Yes, Rich & Kev rode almost 50km further than me in only a few minutes longer. The following day the pros rode another 100km again in more or less the same time.
Some big, heartfelt thank yous to the people who helped me train, get kitted out and get through the day:
 Rich, Kev, Lucy, Carol, Chris, Marcelle, Nadya, Louise, Bee, John H, Paul G, both Paul H's, Kat, Jen, Jenny, Gordon & Bee, Dave & AJ, Colin, Mark, Renee, Gareth, Theresa, Paul S, Mr Lamb, Dave W, Graham, Jan, Craig, Woolley, Hannah &, in absentia, Dave, Rich L, Josh, Jenny W, Matt F, Matt & Bex, Amy & Katie, Neil, Garry, Hannah & Norna, Cheryl, Simon M, Danny, Dan, GS Gazzetta, the guys at Condor Cycles, York Cycleworks & Big Bear Bikes, my family, friends & colleagues and everybody who's had an encouraging word (or more usually a "you're nuts!") for me over the last year - love you guys! x

And finally, for those of you who want to see how painfully slowly I did it: my Garmin file

Sunday, October 23


Last week I lost a friend.

Rapha'd up & grinning like a loon at the prospect of riding with his friends - this is how I'll remember Dave

Dave was 36 years old, just a few months my senior, rode more miles every week than anyone I know outside of professional cycling, and yet on Monday evening as he rode home from work his heart gave out.

It was a big heart, full of love.  Love for his beautiful wife Hannah and their three sons.  Love for riding bikes, whether it be the easy roll to the seaside with his boys or epic trips the length or breadth of the country.  Love for good food to fuel his rides.  Love for his friends, real-world and virtual.  Love for taking photographs, both snapshots to share on twitter and as an occasional wedding photographer.

I was first introduced to Dave (on Twitter, where else...) by Rich a little over a year ago. Dave and some friends were planning a fundraising ride from their hometown of Sunderland to London, and were looking for places to stop for meals along the way.  Rich suggested breakfast in York, and asked me to recommend a suitable venue.  A couple of weeks later they turned up at my work, where Dave greeted me like an old friend and enveloped me in a big, fabulous, sweaty, lycra-clad hug.

Over the months that followed we tweeted each other regularly, and became firm friends. It was Dave's habit to take conversations off the public feed and onto direct messaging, so even the most mundane chat felt intimate and special, and we'd have many a conversation while we were both preparing to go to work so horribly early on Saturday mornings that no-one else was up & online yet. Our chats encompassed everything from what we were having for breakfast to serious putting the world (and our respective lives) to rights, though often, of course, turned to bikes and riding. I got the following message in response to asking what on earth he was doing getting up to ride at 4 am, and it goes a long way to summing up what Dave was all about:
Well a) I love mornings & b) I really love people so getting the riding out the way means I get to train sans traffic and still see people

I was fortunate enough to get to ride with Dave on two occasions, the Great Up-North Twitter Ride and the York 100. For both I was by far the weakest rider in the group, and yet I almost always had company - and often that was Dave. Hanging back and chatting while we buzzed through the prettiest lanes in the Yorkshire Dales; offering to carry my jacket so I wouldn't overheat; taking photos to record our day; and the two moments that most stand out: as Rich and I ride up out of Kirkham Abbey, we catch up to the rest of the group, who are waiting close to the top of the climb. Suddenly, Dave drops his bike into the hedge and runs, cheering, alongside us and hands me a lollipop. And a little further on: Dave and I have been riding a little way behind the rest of the group, having a bit of a heart-to-heart. We turn a corner and are faced with a long, steep climb which has me dismounting almost immediately. I suggest that he goes on without me and I'll meet him, and everyone else, at the top, but he won't hear of it, instead riding slowly, slowly up alongside me, talking to me all the way, never showing any sign that he's frustrated or disappointed that I'm walking (though I am both!)  His support on that hill meant so much to me that when I found myself riding that way again a couple of weeks ago, and I managed to stay on the bike for all but the very steepest hundred meters or so I had to stop at the top to tweet him:
@roadbikedave thanks for staying with me while I walked up that hill on the york100. Just rode up it, had you there in spirit, kept me going. Couldn't have done it without you!
His reply was immediate - even in a café 100 miles away he was cheering for me:
@MrsBYork woah! Serious. You're welcome and that is a good achievement mrs B. Excellent riding!! I'm having a flat white for you
 One day I'm going to tame that hill, and I'll do it in remembrance of Dave, "cycling, strength training, coffee-drinking food-loving husband & dad of 3. striving to be a better me."

Tuesday, July 19

Heading for the hills...

 Could there be a nicer breakfast spot?

The sun is shining, there is good coffee and even better baked goods, and all you can hear is birdsong, lambs, bees buzzing among the herbs and the gentle snoring of an elderly cat.

I rode up here yesterday, 41 miles that steadily progressed from flat to rolling to hilly.  On the basis of a dreadful weather forecast I set out in 3/4 knicks and rainjacket, but it seems the gods were smiling on me for I had sunshine nearly all the way - and even more of a blessing, a tailwind on nearly every significant hill.

The view back towards York

I was less lucky on the way back to York - a torrential storm straight after breakfast delayed my departure, a second as I rolled into Kirkbymoorside necessitated a much longer cafe stop than I'd intended and a third as I approached York saw me soaked to the skin in minutes flat.
However, despite the hills and the weather, I had two days of great riding - and three things summed up all that is great about cycling for me:
  1. The moment when you crest a hill and click back though the gears just far enough to turn the pedals as you swoop down the other side
  2. The fact that I have all this glorious countryside waiting on my doorstep
  3. Whizzing by a two-mile traffic jam on my way back into town (though why there was a jam coming into town at 4.20 on a weekday is beyond me...more people should be on bikes!)
Things I learned on my ride:
  • That the highest point I reached before turning off Blakey moor is 319 feet higher than York.
  • That while I don't suppose I'll ever love hills, and they still hurt and sometimes make me want to cry, I am getting better at them!  It was only a nasty little 10%-er at mile 40 (into a headwind too) that had me off the bike - and that only for a hundred yards or so - on the outward journey.
  • That music is a great motivator.  Knowing that I was going to find parts of the ride tough I decided, unusually for me, to stick in my headphones (well, one anyway so I could still hear the traffic!) and hit shuffle... Weirdly, I have lots of music I didn't really recognise, and some I really don't like (can anyone tell me why Belle & bloody Sebastian are on my mp3 player??)
  •  Daft Punk make particularly good cycling music - that steady metronomic beat kept me going for the last few rainy miles!
  • Energy gels, while pretty rank, don't seem to have the catastrophic effect on my digestive system that a lot of people have mentioned to me.
  • When a caffeinated gel and the Akira soundtrack kick in at exactly the same time, the result is some very aggressive riding!
  • Nowhere feels like home like the North York Moors does.
  • A weasel is weasily wecognised, but a stoat's stotally different (stoats are a bit bigger than weasels and have a black-tipped tail, if you were wondering.
  • There's a whole lot more climbing on the way home...
  • I will not be voluntarily riding through Bulmer again - the descent is terrifying, the climb back up the other side painful and soul-destroying
  • Once you're wet, you're wet and there really isn't any point stopping to put on a jacket!

 The view from the top of my dad's drive... not the best way to start a ride!

The route: 
View Larger Map

Tuesday, July 5

Ah, Yorkshire on a summer's day...

It's been a glorious few days, weather-wise - in fact, almost too good, certainly too warm to do anything strenuous during the day.  I've had a few nice evening rides recently, and there's something utterly blissful about being out on quiet country lanes as dusk begins to fall, but today I woke in an up & at 'em frame of mind, and was breakfasted, dressed and ready to go by 10am. 

I decided to head west out of the city, helped along by a warm easterly wind (about 15kph, if Accuweather is to be believed) and sticking to the Sustrans bike path to get me out of town quickly and well away from traffic.  I don't know how much was down to the new bike and how much down to my improved fitness, but I found this loop so much easier than when I rode it with Rich last year, which is a nice feeling.  Three and a half hours of quality pottering, 57km - all in all, a Good Day on the bike!

Some of the things I saw today:
  • Planes taking off from RAF Linton-on-Ouse (which may not actually be the windiest place of earth, but it sure feels like it sometimes!)
  • A beautiful meadow of Yorkshire fog
  • At least three cyclists wearing jackets - in 20-odd degrees sunshine!
  • A kestrel hunting over the verge
  • A selection of truly awful cycling shorts in one of York's many local bike shops
  • The site of the battle of Marston Moor, with four beautiful classic cars parked up next to it

Monday, June 27

The Countdown to The Tour

Bradley Wiggins, our new national champion!

Next weekend, the Tour de France begins... and traditionally the weekend before the Tour is National Championship weekend, all around the world.  This year's British National Championships was held in Northumbria, with the start & finish in the pretty village of Stamfordham, just outside Newcastle - a bit of a trek from York, especially by public transport, but well worth the early start.

I arrived just in time to see Lizzie Armitstead (Most Beautiful Woman in Cycling, TM, according to every male cycling fan I know) take the women's title, with Nicole Cooke, Sharon Laws and Emma Pooley close on her tail.  The afternoon was spent basking in the sunshine with a bunch of my dear Twitter friends, drinking coffee from the mobile Rapha Cycle Club and taking a gentle stroll to the roadside every so often to watch the race come through.  It was clear from the start that Team Sky wanted the win, especially when it seemed like all of their riders went in the first break.  By lap three the field was in bits and the leading break was down to three men - Bradley Wiggins, Geraint Thomas and Peter Kennaugh - with such a huge advantage that, barring disaster, the only question was what order they would appear on the podium.  There were some mutterings about the dominance of Sky over the domestic riders who race these roads day in, day out (Rob over at Reclaiming the Abandoned Bicycle sums it up pretty well) and while I would have loved to have seen Kristian House's super-strong ride result in a win, I also find it incredibly exciting that Britain now has riders who can compete at that next level - and to be able to see them in action on British roads is fantastic.  Velouk.net has a brief race report and lots of photos of the day.

Where there is cycling there also must be cake, of course, and as is my habit I did a big batch of baking to share with the lovely Rapha Condor Sharp boys... and at Jimmy McCallum's request here are the recipes:

Fudgy Chocolate Brownies (adapted from Martha Stewart Living)

3 eggs
1 1/2 cups sugar
1 cup plain flour
1/4 cup cocoa
1/2 tsp sea salt
2 oz butter
8oz dark chocolate
1/4 cup creme fraiche

and (optional) 1/4 cup coffee-flavoured chocolate beans or 1/2 cup bottled cherries or 1/2 cup fresh raspberries

Preheat oven to 180 degrees.

In a large ovenproof frying pan or hob-proof baking tin melt the butter and chocolate over a very low heat.  Meanwhile, whisk the eggs and sugar together, and in a separate bowl mix the flour, cocoa and salt.

Take the melted chocolate off the heat and stir the creme fraiche into it, then combine with the flour mixture and the egg mixture.  Stir in the chocolate or fruit, if using, pour the mixture back into the pan and bake for 35 to 40 minutes - it should still be ever so slightly damp & fudgy in the centre.

Cool, cut into squares & enjoy with a very good cup of coffee (or a bidon of REGO!)

Chocolate & Peanut-butter Flapjacks

8oz porridge oats
3oz chocolate chunks
3oz demerara sugar
4fl oz golden syrup
4oz crunchy peanut butter
1oz butter
1 tsp vanilla extract

Preheat oven to 180 degrees & line a 9inch square (or similar) baking tin.

Melt the butter, golden syrup & sugar together over a low heat.  Once bubbling, remove from the heat and stir in the peanut butter and vanilla.

In a separate large bowl combine the oats and chocolate chips, then thoroughly mix in the peanut butter mixture.  Press into the lined tin with the back of a spoon & bake for 20 - 25 minutes, until golden brown on top.

Cut into slices while still warm.

One last thing to keep you occupied until the Tour starts on Saturday... The fabulous Rich Mitchelson has just released this year's Yorkshireman at the Tour de France colouring sheet - pop over to richmitch.co.uk to print your own picture of Ben Swift to colour in as you see fit!  I managed to grab Swifty for a quick chat after yesterday's race, he seemed absolutely thrilled to be riding his first Tour - I shall be cheering loudly for him, I hope you will too!

Tuesday, April 26

You're Better Off By Bike!

You know traffic is becoming a problem when you sail past a huge queue of traffic, turn off to go to the shop in the next street, lock up the bike, spend a few leisurely minutes deciding what you want, have a chat with the assistant, unlock the bike, ride a couple of hundred yards up to the next junction & rejoin the original road - only to find the last car you passed before you turned off still sitting there!

Sunday, April 17

Down by the River

Today's ride was long and slow, with much deep thinking and also much beautiful sunshine.  I took a few minutes to stand by the river and soak up the warmth.