Challenge complete

Last week I completed the climbing challenge which turned out to be a lot more difficult than I had anticipated. This was mostly because I’d completed a similar challenge last year while on a cycling holiday in the French Alps. Not to say that climbing mountains is easy, but having a weeks holiday to climb 4 or 5 mountains with your mates is a bit different to climbing the local hill 40 times while trying to lead a normal life.

To put the challenge in context, this year I have averaged about 70 miles a week with 3,000 ft of climbing. I went for 5 rides in the space of 8 days, riding 260 miles and climbing 29,000 ft.

All so that I’d have a little badge to stitch on my bag.

New badge on its way

A badge

A reader of this blog showed interest in my cycling badges (a blatant fabrication) and asked to see them (not true) and so here they are in all their glory:

Badgeman's bag

Badgeman’s bag


Saumur-Amboise-Saumur was a 200km ride. Alpe d’Huez & Mont Ventoux were holidays in the mountains


Previous Rapha Rising badges and more mountains 

It was only while taking these photos that I noticed this year’s Rapha Rising challenge was a lot more climbing than previous years. This gave me some comfort in finding it so difficult. I’m not sure why I have two Mont Ventoux badges, maybe one of them belongs to Winnie, the naughty bear?

I closed out the challenge by taking the little one up our local hill for a picnic. It was nice to be back to quiet and slow cycles with no purpose other than to just enjoy the ride.


“Let’s not ride any hills this week”


Picnic in the sun

New climbing challenge

Now in its third year, Rapha and Strava have once again teamed up to challenge cyclists to climb a dizzying height on their bikes. This year the challenge is 8,800m (28,870 ft) in nine days. This equates to three stages of this year’s Tour de France and is roughly the same height as Mount Everest. The prize for completing the challenge is a commemorative woven badge which has been quite rightly mocked by a club-mate for being a bit Boy Scouts, but sometimes you’ve just got to geek-out and stitch your badge on your cycling bag with pride.


Today’s ride was a full tour of the steep Mendip hills

Knowing that time-constraints later in the week will probably lead me to the evil but efficient practice of hill-repeats, I started off with a ride I’d been contemplating for some time. A complete circuit of the Mendip Hills going up or down every road I know. It turned out to be a 62 miler, but the horizontal distance was inconsequential. The real result was over 6000 ft of climbing. This took me four hours and provided some spectacular views of Somerset and the Chew Valley. It also left me battling the mental challenge of the oncoming ‘bonk’ for the last hour as my energy reserves depleted.

Somerset Levels

Heading down towards the Somerset Levels 


I may need to replace my brake blocks after this challenge


Another narrow, windy descent

Towards Blagdon

Towards Blagdon Lake in the Chew Valley

Cake consumption was the immediate priority on my return home

Cake consumption was the immediate priority upon my return home

After today’s 62 miler returned 6000 ft of climbing, and yesterday’s 35 miler gave me 4500 ft I’m about a third of the way into the challenge. Tomorrow I will be giving the legs some much-needed rest, knowing that there’s still some way to go before I can reach for the victorious needle and thread.

Fixing things with a varying degree of success

The great thing about the bicycle is its simplicity. If something stops working it is usually straightforward to identify the source of the problem and fix it. Babies are not simple. If something stops working you are quickly exhausted trying to fix it. Sometimes you can’t fix it.

After several weeks (possibly months) of zero bike maintenance I decided to clean off the thick layers of ingrained grime and attend to a few glitches. Maybe I am just comparing bike maintenance to the impossibility of making a screaming baby go to sleep, but tightening gear cables and adjusting derailleurs to achieve smooth gear changes is a fairly straightforward process. Repairing things does however take time, but the sense of satisfaction upon completion makes it worthwhile.

While cleaning the bike I found a few chips and scuffs to the paintwork. Despite the bike being relatively new I wasn’t bothered by these scars. They are an inevitability to a machine in regular use and add to its character. My favourite wear and tear marks to my old bike were the rubbed-away paintwork on the cranks and head tube.

How many turns of the pedals does it take to rub away paint with a shoe

How many turns of the pedals does it take to rub away paint with a shoe?

How many turns of the handlebars causes a cable to rub away paint and eat into the metal?

How many turns of the handlebars causes a cable to rub away paint and eat through metal?

This weekend we headed out to Brean Down for a wintry walk. Brean Down is a sprawling sea-side resort on the windswept coast of the Somerset Levels. At this time of the year the beach is deserted and the cliff-top walks offer spectacular views. And if there’s one sure-fire way to make our grumpy baby sleep, it’s by strapping her to my chest and going hiking. This made our walk even more enjoyable.


A winter beach is solace for dog-walkers and baby-whisperers

From the tops of

Looking down on the beach from the tops of the cliffs

A warped sense of distance

I’ve been out running quite a bit recently. A few recurring cycling injuries and some advice from a physiotherapist have lead me to establishing a more balanced approach to exercise. I went out for a ‘little’ 6 mile run yesterday: 3 miles out-and-back to the other side of Chew Lake. But it was only when I got home and looked out of the window to the lake in the distant horizon that I realised 3 miles is still quite a long way. Cycling is clearly to blame for warping my sense of distances.

As well as thinking 3 miles is hardly worth getting out of bed for, cycling has also deceived me into thinking I work close to home. Due to injuries I drove the car to work for most of December and the exhausting tedium of the journey also brought a sense of perspective to 18 miles. It’s far. As cyclists we are nuts for considering it a short distance.

To cap off 2013 I went out for a 30-something mile ride today. The horizontal distance wasn’t really important, it was all about taking on a few challenging climbs. I made three separate climbs of the Mendip hills interspersed by a few descents to catch my breath, the highlight being a recently discovered 4 mile gradual descent along a quiet back lane. This gives an opportunity to savour the exhilaration of descending rather than most of the steeper and busier roads which can be a bit sketchy in these slippery, winter conditions.


The roads were wet but conditions were great for Winter riding

I was dressed up for the cold and riding the weighty steel frame complete with mudguards and rack, all of which provided some additional ballast to drag up the hills and raised the spirits when I overtook a couple of cyclists climbing Burrington Combe on their carbon fibre bikes without mudguards. The roads were soaked from the morning rain so maybe their slowness was a result of having pants full of puddle but I showed no sympathy as I mashed my way past. The second climb was Cheddar Gorge where I was overtaken near the top. This gently humbling experience paled into insignificance compared to the final climb where I looked down at my speedo on the steepest section of East Harptree Hill and read 4mph. 4mph! I dug deep and pushed on, trying to ignore my mischievous inner voice trash-talking me by saying this was definitely the slowest I had ever ridden. Shut up brain.

Once home - if you don't have mudguards this is what your arse looks like

If you don’t have mudguards this is what your arse looks like for half of the year

You can’t really post on 31 December without some sort of year in summary / outlook to the new year. This year I rode over 5500 miles which is a great achievement but still a few miles short of 2012. While the recent injuries are par-for-the-course for cycling a whole year, I think I can claim some extenuating circumstances for the new baby in the house. However my plan for next year is to cycle less. This might sound surprising but I intend to quit my current job and do something closer to home, hence less cycle-commuting which makes up the bulk of my riding. Working long hours and commuting long distances leaves very little time for family life and I think the arrival of our baby has been the catalyst for making a positive change in my life. I’m not exactly sure where this journey will take me, but hopefully will also involve significantly less driving in the Bike v Car Challenge. I’m excited about the future. Roll on 2014 …

Calvin and Hobbes - Let's go exploring

Calvin and Hobbes – Let’s go exploring

From compact to standard cranks

Both my bikes were originally set up with compact 50×34 cranks. For my commuter bike which is normally loaded up with panniers this is ok, but on the fast bike I decided to change to standard 52×39 cranks as I was mostly riding in the big ring and smallest couple of cogs. When I ride uphill I find my rhythm at a slow cadence and despite reading that a higher cadence is more efficient, I still felt this change would suit my style of cycling better.

Old compact chain rings

Old compact chain rings (50×34)

Ironically, after going to such effort to change something on my bike I was actually glad not to notice a significant change with the new rings. I had been a little concerned that I might regret ditching the 34 little ring as soon as I hit a steep climb. But the first few hills I’ve climbed have not defeated me and I was also pleased that shifting from the big to the little ring has been a less drastic difference than before.

New standard cranks

New standard cranks (52×39)

Disappointingly I don’t seem to have magically gained an extra few mph on the flat as a result of the change. But with a trip to the Alps coming up in a few weeks I may still be tempted to pack the 34 little ring in case I need it for proper climbing  …

Laughing (through tears) in the face of gruesome headwinds

There’s a fine line between bravery and stupidity and choosing to go out cycling for a couple of hours in the foulest of weather would not conventionally be considered to be brave. However, with the UK suffering from a frustratingly prolonged Winter there isn’t really much of an option at the moment.

My work situation has recently changed so I no longer have my daily commute to rely on for cycling mileage. However my time is now more flexible which can present opportune windows for mid-week cycle rides. I had earmarked Friday morning as time for a three hour hilly ride and wasn’t about to change my mind just because howling winds and driving rain woke me before dawn.

After a long and cold Winter we are unfortunately again suffering from heavy rains and flooding. The roads are absolutely foul – mud, puddles, gravel and potholes everywhere and completely unsuitable for a decent bike. Thick socks, waterproof cycling shoes, leggings and mudguards are still the order of the day.

Sporting the wooly sock look with pride

Sporting the wooly-sock look with pride

Flooded roads

Flooded roads

After a few miles at flooded lower levels I climbed my way to the top of the Mendip Hills. The wind was vicious and hardly ever favourable. I was leaning heavily into crosswinds (momentarily losing balance whenever a hedge cut out the wind) and then had to laugh when a full-on headwind limited my speed on a descent to 9 mph. I seriously contemplated turning back but realised I’d never escape the dastardly wind so ploughed on, letting out irregular gasps of despair through gritted-teeth.

A grizzly morning

A grizzly morning

Mucky roads

Mucky roads

Even muckier roads

Even muckier roads

Mucky bike

Mucky bike

I was hoping to ride for 3 hours, but when conditions are this unfavourable (and you’ve long-lost the feeling in fingers and toes) then sometimes you have to know when to call it a day. After covering just 27 miles in two long hours, I headed home, showered, ate a hearty breakfast of poached eggs (3), muffins (2) and chocolate brownies (4), and then headed out for a long day of meetings. At least the good thing about cycling is being that skinny bloke scoffing all the biscuits in every meeting.

In search of lost fitness

January ended up being a very quiet month on the cycling front. I tried commuting a couple of times but the total darkness made it very unpleasant on the narrow country lanes. Bone-jarring potholes appeared out of nowhere, and the temporary blindness caused by the headlights of oncoming cars was unpleasant. Then a couple of punctures in quick succession all combined to lead me back to the relative comfort and safety of the indoor trainer. We had our annual week of snow and I caught a cold. So January wasn’t a great month for the bike.

Bicycle bling - new blue tyres to match the frame

Bicycle bling – I bought some new coloured tyres to match the frame

But February has started well. I’ve been out twice for rides of an hour a piece. Today I had hoped to go for a longer ride but a combination of persistent drizzle and my inability to fully recover after a steep climb made me call time a little early. We live in the middle of a valley which gives a great opportunity for a variety of challenging climbs. But it doesn’t offer much flat, easy riding. I opted for a long, drawn-out climb which ends with a 1:5 slog to the top. There was no hiding place for my loss of fitness as I gasped and groaned my way up the road. But the most noticeable thing was my inability to fully recover from the exertion. 20 minutes later I was still feeling the effects of the effort so I decided to head home for a cup of tea and a hot shower. Knowing when to call it day is all part of the journey.

The small pleasures of a few choice words while riding in unpleasant conditions

I went out for a ride on Saturday in foul weather. Snow is forecast and you can feel it coming with the temperature hovering around zero degrees in the daytime. I set off in the persistent drizzle with no plan other than to climb up the Mendip hills a couple of times mostly just to keep warm. The first climb went ok and I surprised myself at one point by getting out of the saddle to accelerate a little. For the last few months I have only really stood up while climbing in order to transfer the pain to a different part of my legs so it felt good to be riding uphill with just the smallest amount of control over my effort.

On top of the Mendips I was blown all over the roads by the strong gusts and when combined with the drizzle from above and muddy spray from below I was soon ready for another climb to warm me up. On the way down towards Cheddar Gorge a delivery van pulled out in front of me forcing me to hit the brakes. Normally I would have shouted out in frustration (possibly combined with a hand gesture) but on this occasion I was using up all my mental energy to fight the weather so I just let it go.

However, half a mile later I was gifted a golden opportunity for some rare revenge: I saw the van up ahead with the driver getting out and going around the back to fetch a parcel. He then closed the back doors and went to cross the road without looking. Maybe he was listening out for traffic or maybe he walked like he drove. Just as he went to step in front of my line I shouted out “WOAH, WOAH! LOOK WHERE YOU’RE GOING, PAL!” The size of his jump back towards the van combined with the look of terror on his face was priceless. I approached the climb of Cheddar Gorge with a smile on my face.

Due to the recent bad weather the gorge is now closed to traffic making what is normally a busy tourist attraction quite a peaceful and solitary experience. It was almost enjoyable until the headwind hit and my lungs and legs exploded.

At the top I saw a fellow cyclist and we rode together for a few minutes. Communication was limited to shouting to be heard over the wind, both slurring our words due to frozen, rubbery faces. I think we both garbled the same sort of thing about struggling up the gorge and hoping it would all be worth it come the summer. I noticed he had a big, dried smear of saliva down the side of his face and I realised I was probably displaying a frozen bogey or two. Not the most attractive of scenes but I think we both offered some encouragement to each other before sinking back into our private worlds and heading our separate ways home.



The ‘P’ Word

It had to happen sooner or later, that inevitable part of cycling that strikes when you least expect it.

The puncture.

Sorting it out is never really that bad. But it did delay me putting the last of my commute into complete darkness. In my haste to get going again I didn’t really take enough time on the roadside to inflate the new tube which made me slower afterwards. Or maybe I was just paranoid about getting another flat.

Commuting by bike in the winter, in the dark and getting a puncture. Proper character-building stuff!

Emergency pit stop at dusk

Emergency pit stop at dusk

Getting back out there

The last few weekends I haven’t been able to get out on the bike due to an annoying lower back injury. This week I was starting to feel much better and not even the forecast rain and thunder was going to stop me cycling. So when I woke this morning to see the sun shining and no niggling pain in my back it didn’t take long to get ready for a ride.

View of Chew Lake from halfway up the Mendips

View of the Chew Valley from halfway up the Mendips

I decided to head up onto the Mendip hills for some steady riding on the quiet and peaceful lanes. The only problem is getting up there. Every route I’ve tried from the Chew Lakes involves sustained steep climbing. Wanting to protect my back I went looking for an easier climb. On this occasion I tried a new route – a tiny, unassuming-looking little lane from West Harptree. I immediately regretted this decision as it ramped up to something vicious with mud, leaves, potholes, stones and running water on the road. After a couple of little switchbacks the road started going downhill very steeply. Knowing that any distance descended would have to be climbed again, this wasn’t great news. At the foot of the descent the road was flooded from the recent rain which had also washed the contents of someone’s stone driveway into the road. Skinny tyres on a rocky riverbed isn’t ideal but I made it across with just a few ungainly wiggles.

A river in a road. A road-river

A river in a road. A road-river

After more climbing I reached the top of the Mendips and was rewarded with some spectacular views, and chilly winds. I took it easy and covered about 45km in total including a quick loop of the Chew Lake on the way home. My back thankfully feels fine, in fact strong enough to cut and chop a couple of wheelbarrow loads of logs to take to my Mum’s for Christmas next weekend. I haven’t decided whether I will be taking the bike …

A nice day for riding

A nice day for riding