Wednesday, 30 September 2009

A Slow Coast Around Britain

I stumbled across a fantastic cycling blog today - Nick Hand's Slow Coast.

Nick's Bike with Antony Gormley's statues on Crosby Beach, Lancashire (Photo: Nick Hand)

Nick has been cycling the 5,000 miles around the coast of Britain tracking down artisans (from a lobster-pot maker in Cornwall to fashion designer Paul Smith in London) since June. The site features Nick's gorgeous pictures (he's a professional photographer, and boy does it show!) and he's also made mini 'soundslide' documentaries with some of the people he's met.

The site is a thing of real beauty, both in terms of the images and layout, but also in terms of the love that Nick has obviously put into the whole project.

Nick Hand - Slow Coast ride around Britain (Photo: Nick Hand)

He's now on the final stretch of the ride, almost back to where he started in Bristol. I don't know whether to feel upset that I wasn't there to follow the journey, or glad that I've discovered a treasure-trove to devour over the coming weeks.

Either way, a definite 'chapeau!' to Nick - who has, incidentally, already raised nearly £4,000 for Parkinson's research en route. You can sponsor him here...

Tuesday, 29 September 2009

I've Seen The Future And It Cycles

Back from a weekend in Paris and, aside from missing my own bike, I was very impressed by the city's Vélib - a contraction of Vélo (bicycle) and Liberté (freedom) - cycle scheme, which provides 20,000 bikes in over a thousand locations.

Paris - Velib in Use
A Vélib bike in use - Note bikes completely separated from traffic

I have to confess to a little pre-trip scepticism - my last cycling experience in Paris was not a great one, despite the French approach to bikes usually being a very tolerant one. I'd also read some negative stories about the problems the city has had with vandalism and theft, meaning that they have had to replace the entire stock of bikes in the last couple of years (although I quite fancy watching some of the 'Vélib extreme' videos!).

However, judging by my own sense of the number of cyclists on the road, the system appears to be a real success. It was particularly good to see normal people using their bikes for everyday activities.

One of 1,000 Vélib cycle ranks in Paris

I can't wait to see the Vélib system rolled out in London, although judging by early reports it looks like it will be hitting the usual British stumbling blocks and planning niggles...

Friday, 25 September 2009

Cycling Paris-style

I'm taking a weekend off from cycling to travel to Paris for our wedding anniversary. Hoping to spot some French cycle-chic like this:

Paris Velib Cycling (Photo: Evening Standard)

Actually, having cycled in the city a few years and found it pretty hairy, I'm intrigued to see if things have improved - I hear reports that things are becoming Copenhagen-ized, especially since the introduction of the Vélib system of bikes to rent.

Let's see what the reality's like...

Thursday, 24 September 2009

France 2006 - The Director's Cut

To celebrate our trip to Paris this weekend, I've updated the France 2006 tour diary - my 1,000-mile cycle tour from Birmingham to the Mediterranean.

Re-live the joy and the tears in the daily diary here!

The trusty Cannondale Lefty in Paris back in 2006

It's the equivalent of a 2-disc special collector's edition, with larger images (including many that have been gathering dust since I took them), new route maps and more details than before.

With my impending 40th I thought it best to write it all down before dementia strikes...

Tuesday, 22 September 2009

You've Been Tour de France Flashmobbed!

I really want someone to do this for me when I get to the end of a day's cycle - I'd know what it feels like to be Lance Armstrong, just for a minute!

It's the work of Rémi Gaillard, a French TV prankster in the mould of Dom Jolly. The cyclists look absolutely bemused, as you would do if mobbed by a deranged crowd of fans out of nowhere...

Monday, 21 September 2009

From Our Swiss Correspondent (Pt. 1)

My brother, Swiss James, has been living in Zurich for the last 9 years, where he does a fair bit of cycling. Feeling left out, he's decided to contribute to the blog...

Since Matthew and I had been planning to ride the Ventoux stage of the Tour de France this autumn (now postponed until spring 2010) - 100 miles with a climb of 4,000+ metres - it seemed a sensible idea to tackle a 70 mile ride with 2,000 metres of climbing last weekend.

But it just went to prove that I (we) would never have got up Ventoux - maybe to Bedoin, but not further.

Rapperswil on Lake Zurich

The aim was to ride from home, north east of Zurich, over the Klausenpass as far as Linthal. The mountain is the same height as Ventoux, but - at an average gradient of 6% - less steep. If I can't do this comfortably, then Ventoux is a non-starter.

Saturday, September 12th
9.00am - Must be a record early start for me. It was supposed to be 8.00, but that’s asking too much at the weekend. The first 20 miles are mostly flat, heading south through the canton of Zurich. Legs feel terribly heavy. Not sure if this was such a good idea.

9.30am - Warmed up a bit now and settled at an easy 15mph. Trying not to make my usual mistake of setting off too fast.

10.30am - Reached Rapperswil at the southern end of Lake of Zurich. It’s a pretty town, worth a visit. If the weather’s nice, try a lake cruise from Zurich. Consumed first Mars bar of the day, for an extra boost up the impending hills. Feeling quite confident at the moment.

10.45am - Crossed over the causeway, through Pfäffikon in Canton Schwyz and started my first climb of the day. The cycle path is fantastic - even though it’s a busy road, cycles are allocated a 2m wide strip at the side, so I feel quite secure. I prefer this to a dedicated cycle path which is shared with pedestrians/prams/dogs/children, as I am generally going quite a bit faster than them. At one point, they’ve even built a separate tunnel for pedestrians. Neat.

11:00am - Reached the top of the hills and now crossing the moorland which separates Lake Zurich from central Switzerland. The road here is pretty narrow, but Swiss drivers are mostly very courteous towards cyclists. And most cyclists also behave sensibly too, so it’s give and take.

11.45am - It’s a long descent down to Schwyz, which is a nice reward for the earlier climb. I'm making good progress, but the weather’s not brightening up – the mountains are wreathed in cloud and mist. I should have brought my long-sleeved jersey, as I’m starting to feel chilly. So it’s on with the rain jacket for now.

12.30pm - Passed through Schwyz and really in central Switzerland now. 45 miles on the clock, so I stop for an early lunch at a local restaurant in Brunnen, close to Lake Lucerne. Take the daily special – broccoli soup followed by chicken with risotto and curry sauce. It’s nothing special, but I’m surprised how hungry I am. Drink half a litre of Rivella, Switzerland’s favourite sports drink, which is actually made of milk serum (whey), a by-product of cheese-making! It’s one of those products -like Marmite - that people either love or hate.

1.00pm - On my way again, arriving at the Lake Lucerne which is surrounded by mountains, none of which are visible in the mist.

A misty Lake Lucerne

1.15pm - I’m on the busy road which threads it’s way alongside the lake at the base of steep cliffs. This is one of the main North-South axes towards the Gotthard Pass and is always busy. There are a few stretches without a cycle path which aren’t very funny, and at some points there are tunnels several hundred metres long, where cyclists follow the dimly-lit pavement alongside the road. This is quite an experience and only for more confident cyclists. Wind is in my face and I’ve not really got back into the rhythm after lunch.

2.00pm - Reached Altdorf, the home town of William Tell - of crossbow and apple fame (interestingly, it wasn't a fairground stunt, he actually shot the apple of his son's head to save their lives). A proper Swiss folk hero, there is a large monument in his honour. Now heading east where the road immediately starts climbing towards my goal – the Klausen Pass.

Altdorf's monument to William Tell

2.30pm - This is harder work than I thought. The road winds through villages, climbing steadily alongside a river. There are a few flatter stretches which gives me a chance to recover, but I’m finding I have to stop briefly every few minutes.

2.45pm - I’ve reached the small village of Spiringen and sit down to eat my last Mars Bar. I was hoping to find a shop where I could stock up on energy-rich food, but there’s no sign of anything. The only cyclists I’ve seen are coming down the hill, and they all look very fit. The first doubts are starting to creep in to my mind.

3.15pm - Find myself descending into the village of Unterschächen, nestled in a small pasture and surrounded by steep mountains. The Klausen Pass itself is completely obscured by cloud. Whilst I’ve covered half the distance from Altdorf to the top of the pass, I discover that I’ve only reached 1000m, so I’ve climbed 600m but still have another 900m still to go. It must be terribly steep from here on. There’s still no shop in sight, so I stop at a restaurant for a Coke, to give me some more energy.

Unterschächen - Nestled in the mountains

3.30pm - Still at the restaurant. Legs have gone completely. I’ve reached my limit - it’s simply too much to get to the top of the pass today. I decide to turn round and head back to Altdorf whilst I still have enough energy to stay upright on the bike.

4.15pm - Back at Altdorf railway station, waiting for a train to take me home. I’ve realised I’ll need to get a lot fitter to have any chance to finish the Etape. It’s not about the distance, but rather being able to do such a big climb like Ventoux without the benefit of fresh legs. At least I’ve covered 70 miles today and done 2200m of climbing, which is still a pretty good effort.

Bike route 312239 - powered by Bikemap 

Sunday, 20 September 2009

Around The World in 175 Days!

Congratulations to James Bowthorpe, who finished his round-the-world cycle ride on Saturday at London's Hyde Park in a new World Record time. He completed the 18,000-mile journey in 175 days - 19 less than Mark Beaumont last year.

En route to a World Record - James Bowthorpe in Australia

The 31-year-old cabinet maker from London averaged over 100 miles a day (wow!), and had to face an attempted kidnapping in Iran, a bruising encounter with a wombat in Australia, and a sever case of 'Delhi Belly' in India, which saw him lose 20% of his bodyweight.

"I'm a bit tired," an under-stated Bowthorpe, told the Independent. "It's been a long six months and I'm just finally relieved to be here – and glad that the world isn't any bigger because I couldn't have done it."

I've been following James's progress on Twitter, and a nicer man you couldn't wish to find. Well done James - now have a well-earned rest!

James is raising money for Parkinson's research - you can still sponsor him here

Saturday, 19 September 2009

Season of Mists and Mellow Fruitfulness...

Another week into autumn and the weather continues to be kind - very much Keats's 'season of mists and mellow fruitfulness', but so far minus the mists...

With the wind set not to feature today, I decided to cycle my favourite route - to the South East from Birmingham, through Warwick and Leamington to my parents' house in Warwickshire, but pushing on to Daventry in Northamptonshire. It's be a chance to see if the recent longer and hillier routes have helped.

To start with there's the usual dreary miles of suburbs, high streets and dual carriageways to get over the motorway which strangles Birmingham and into the countryside.

The M42 in all it's majesty...

The route follows the old Warwick Road, undulating through small, affluent commuter villages and past ancient churches. It doesn't feel any easier than usual, but I'm already starting to feel warm in the unexpected autumn sun.

After an hour or so I'm in Warwick, a beautiful old town, with the Castle dominating:

Warwick Castle in the sun

A few miles later is Leamington, a pretty stuccoed, Georgian spa town:

Georgian Terrace in Leamington

On a delightful autumn day the area seems rather more salubrious than I remember it when I was growing up around here - either the weather or the effects of money. Continue to Southam, where I went to high school. Stopping to get a drink the accents sounded far more rural than I remembered - probably the result of living in cities for the past two decades. And the town (well it's more of a large village) is a lot more pretty than I remember, helped by a bypass which has reduced the traffic.

One lovely centrepiece is the pharmacy, which I remember as a pretty nondescript building, but which turned out - after some plaster fell off - to be the town's manor house, dating back to the 16th Century. They've since stripped off the Victorian render and restored the building - it looks amazing. There's even a 14th Century pub up the road...

Southam Pharmacy restored to its 16th Century self

On towards Daventry, past Napton and through Lower Shuckburgh, which is a delightful little village, next to a sharp hill. As well as farming buildings, there are some lovely gothic Victorian houses and a church which the architectural historian Pevsner apparently called 'sheer ugliness', but which seems rather more quaint to my eyes. The hills up to Staverton feel a challenge more than a problem and have the advantage that I can turn back soon enough to zoom back down to my parents' house for lunch in the sun.

Despite clouds - and an unexpected headwind - appearing, the 30 miles home fairly zoomed past - thanks to a lovely lunch, and the careful application of sports drinks and gels. All in all, one of the nicest rides of the year.

Apologies if this seems like an architectural history essay, but there were some rather pretty place along the way...

Thursday, 17 September 2009

Some People Just Don't Like Their Greens...

As James Martin's comments summed up, a lot of people think that cyclists (and by association, eco-activists) are 'holier than thou'.

So what do a bunch of campaigners calling themselves 'Climate Rush' do today? Prove him right, of course, by dumping a load of horse manure at TV presenter and gas-guzzling car-fanatic Jeremy Clarkson's house.

Eco-protestors make their point at Clarkson's house

For the benefit of anyone who lives outside the UK, or in a cave, Jeremy Clarkson delights in extolling the virtues of fast cars, poo-pooing the effects of climate change and generally winding up greens, caravan users, cyclists and anyone else who passes in front of his metaphorical gun sights.

Whether you like him and his opinions or not, Clarkson is very popular and acting well within the law. Annoying people is what he enjoys doing.

And, let's be honest, we're not talking about Holocaust-denial here.

While no reputable expert claims to know exactly what will happen and when with global warming, you have to willfully ignore the facts to deny the weight of scientific opinion about where things are headed.

But we live in a democracy where people are allowed to say what they think, even when we disagree - that's how it works, and OK as long as they don't incite violence. Anyway, it would be less interesting if everyone agreed.

I don't dispute that people have the right to protest like this, although I suppose they may have committed trespass or criminal damage. I just disagree with their strategy.

Jeremy Clarkson - "I'm not listening!" (Photo: BBC)

The problem with a protest like this is that it effectively proves Clarkson et al right - it's just the sort of pious and, let's be honest, rather humourless stunt that he thinks eco-activists spend their time planning.

Surely the best thing to do is to encourage, set an example, dispute deniers' facts and win others over. All that stunts like this will achieve is to line average people up behind the Clarksons of this world against the Green lobby. And that includes cyclists too...

James Martin - Cock Au Van?

Chef, sometime car reviewer and - it turns out - bike hater, James Martin was forced into an humiliating climb-down yesterday after claiming he had intentionally forced a group of cyclists off the road in "sheer terror" during the test drive of a car - ironically the eco-friendly electric Tesla sports car.

In the Mail on Sunday article he described his loathing of 'holier than thou' cyclists who 'dress like Spiderman' and detailed how he had used the car's almost silent engine to creep up on, and then scare, a group of riders. Cue cycling lobby uproar!

James Martin - a 'cock' according to Bradley Wiggins (Photo: Neale Haynes)

After a barrage of complaints, including Olympic medalist Bradley Wiggins describing him as a 'cock' on Twitter, Martin apologised for 'the offence caused' (not the offence meant, of course) by his comments and the article has also been edited online. Tesla weren't happy to be associated with his comments either.

Reminiscent of when Times columnist Matthew Parris suggested it would be a good idea to start "stringing piano wire across country lanes to decapitate cyclists" - bizarrely for the heinous crime of dropping drink bottles in hedgerows. He also ended up apologised to the cycling community , suggesting that his comments were meant to be 'humourous'. Ho ho...

Rather a storm in a teacup - and thankfully no-one was killed or injured - but I'm always amazed that people feel they can say outrageous things and then simply apologise when there are enough complaints, as if they didn't know any better...

Wednesday, 16 September 2009

The Usual, Please

I did say that last weekend was going to be the last long ride this year, but the weather's been so nice this week - sunny and crisp - that I can't resist carrying on with another 80-mile ride this Saturday or Sunday. Should feel lovely after 110 miles last weekend!

Not much wind forecast, so will do my usual route (well it was my usual, but I haven't done it for weeks) south east through Warwick, Southam in Warwickshire to Daventry in Northamptonshire. Can then turn back for lunch at my parents and home.

Looking at the uppy-downy, there are a couple of thousand feet of climbing, but nothing too steep or too long. And if the weather continues OK, can't see why I can't keep some longer rides going...

Here's the map:

Bike route 316057 - powered by Bikemap 

Tuesday, 15 September 2009

Eddie Izzard: Running Man

I know it's not cycling-related, but hats off to comedian Eddie Izzard who has just completed 43 marathons around Britain in 51 days. That's more than 1,110 miles!

Let's be honest, Izzard is better known for wearing high heels than running shoes. It would have been less surprising if Jonathan Ross had declared he was going to the moon next week...

Running Man - Eddie Izzard

But after only 5 weeks of training Eddie did it, arriving in Trafalgar Square in London this afternoon to a hero's welcome. Admittedly his feet are covered in blisters, and he has injured tendons and lost toenails...

...and dressed for the 'day job'

Having completed a few longer cycling tours of 1,000 miles, with 100 miles a day, I know it can be hard - but not for 50+ days, and the impact from running is so much greater on the body. I loved the fact that people he met didn't believe how many marathons Izzard was doing: "I might as well say I've just eaten a car".

So well done Eddie and everyone please sponsor him for Comic Relief! There's an interesting BBC article about whether anyone could run so far.

Monday, 14 September 2009

Kraftwerk Cycling Treats

I've been meaning to post this for a while, but here's a little collection of Kraftwerk/Cycling treats.

After eulogising about motorways (Autobahn) and train travel (Trans Europe Express), Dusseldorf electronic music pioneers Kraftwerk turned their attentions in 1983 to arguably their first love - cycling - with the single Tour de France.

Here's a clip from the fantastic alternative video for the single, featuring the band on bikes. If you like watching humourless Germans cycling in black lycra, then this is for you:

Apparently they have been keen on cycling for years - an interest that has bordered on obsession and contributed to delayed album releases and musicians leaving the band. Remaining founder member Ralf Hütter, has pointed out the parallels between their interests in cycling and music: “Speed, balance, a certain freedom of spirit, keeping in shape, technological and technical perfection, aerodynamics.”

There was a terrific interview with Hütter in the Guardian by John Harris a few weeks ago, pegged to the band's appearance at the Manchester International, fittingly in the city's velodrome.

In the further reaches of the web, I also found fantastic Kraftwerk Tour de France cycle jerseys for sale, plus this terrible BBC Radio London interview, which appears to be conducted by a fan of Alan Partridge.

I've even put some Kraftwerk tracks on the music player (bottom right), alongside other cycling favourites...

Sunday, 13 September 2009

The Long and Winding Road

I think this is going to be the last of my long rides this year. I was running out of daylight by the end and, with a baby on the way, I can't afford to be off gallivanting for the whole day. I'll just have to fit rides in as I can...

That said, it was a beaut of a ride today. It's always surprising that you can start in a city and 5 miles later be gliding down country lanes, and this was a new route to me, even though it's on my doorstep. The main reason being that it's to the East and, like most cyclists I would imagine, I want the wind in my face on the outward journey and it rarely comes from the East.

Got the paper and breakfast at 7.30 so that I could be ready to start early - lovely sunny morning, but with dew on the ground and a slight chill in the air - a glorious blue sky criss-crossed with aircraft contrails, like something from the Battle of Britain.

Aeroplane trails in the sky

After riding on the busy road to Solihull I turn off through Catherine De Barnes (a place, not a person!) and Hampton in Arden. I'm sure there are people around here who aren't minted, but I didn't see them. Very pretty lanes, there seem to be lots of oaks around here, and surrounded by fields. All of this amidst a variety of motorways that are barely noticeable.

Next is Meriden, which -as it's name suggests - claims to be the centre of England (apparently the actual centre is a few miles to the North East at Fenny Drayton, although I have no idea how one would work this out and does it change with coastal erosion?). Meriden's other claim to fame is as the original site of the Triumph motorbike factory, now moved to Hinkley.

Up a wooded hill and down under the M6 to Filongley, then on to Nuneaton and Hinkley, whose centres make an unpleasant change to the countryside. But soon enough I'm out the other side and onto a fantastic section of road, first a bypass around Earl Shilton - which has the best cycle route I've ever been on - followed by more cycle paths all the way to Leicester.

How cycle routes should be...

As it's still early I decide to carry on to Melton Mowbray, first along busy dual carriageways and then another country road. It's a pretty market town and I find Ye Olde Pork Pie Shoppe, the point of my visit. To be honest, I may as well have gone into Greggs next door.

Sadly I have to attest that a pork pie is not the ideal cycling lunch and it sits in my stomach like a cannon ball for most of the afternoon. Setting back, the promised wind appears to be in my face and my legs feel absolutely dead. But soon enough I pick up and it's enjoyable to re-trace my route, counting down the miles and finding the hills less taxing than expected.

Coast through Hampton in Arden in the 'golden hour' with the evening sun coming through the oak leaves - beautiful, a perfect cycling day to end the summer!

Friday, 11 September 2009

Cycle Lanes - Cure or Curse?

Research was released today questioning the safety of cycle lanes.

Typical British cycle lane (Photo: Cycling In Croydon)

CTC (Cyclists' Touring Club) researchers found that when cyclists ride in designated lanes, drivers give them less room - and therefore put them at more risk. It's similar to findings by Dr Ian Walker that motorists drive closer to cyclists wearing helmets (incidentally, he also experimented wearing a blond wig and found that car drivers gave him more room - a sign that chivalry may not be dead, perhaps?).

Personally I've always found British cycle lanes to be almost always an utter waste of time, creating a false sense of security for cyclists and drivers alike. Which regular cyclist hasn't experienced drivers, particularly bus drivers, ignoring cycle lanes - and the cyclists in them - to undertake, turn left, pull over or do whatever they like?

I've cycled many thousands of miles over many years across the UK - from central London to the Highlands of Scotland - as well as in France, Germany, Switzerland, the Czech Republic and Greece (plus a few hundred yards of Austria). And I would say that the British system is probably the worst, although parts of the US share similar problems.

Let me explain why.

Many European countries - such as Denmark, Holland, Sweden, Switzerland and parts of Germany - see cycling as a natural part of getting about and provide fantastic cycle lanes, separated from traffic. Others - such as France - have an appreciation of cycling and, rely on drivers' courtesy and good sense rather than designated cycle lanes.

Britain provides half-hearted and virtually meaningless cycle lanes (often only a few yards long), ignored by most other road users, many of whom are also discourteous and uncaring about cyclists' safety. The result is that too many cyclists get killed and millions are too afraid to cycle.

What's the solution?

Well, that's the million dollar question. Britain's roads aren't suited to cycle lanes, they are too narrow and drivers - most of whom last cycled when they were children - have little understanding of cycling.

My suggestions would be two-fold:

1. The safety of cyclists should become a greater priority in our transport system - that means more, and better, cycling lanes, plus better provision of safe places to store bikes.
2. A greater emphasis on cyclists' safety in driver training - why not get trainee drivers to cycle on busy city streets to appreciate the dangers of bike riding?

Cycling has a big role to play in the future of British transport, as well as preventing climate change, but it will only be taken up if people feel safe.

Thursday, 10 September 2009

Now That's What I Call Amazing Bike Skill!

I've always thought that BMX's, trials bikes, etc were a total waste of time and designed for idiots. I mean: one tiny gear, no saddle to speak of, probably a baseball cap on backwards and trousers sagging down. Why not just stick to skateboards?

Harrumph, it all makes you feel desperately old (and I remember BMXs the first time round)!

But trials rider Danny MacAskill is so amazing I may have to make an exception. He even sounds like a nice guy...

See what you think:

Tuesday, 8 September 2009

Is This A Pie I See Before Me...?

Successful athletes talk about the importance of visualisation - imagining yourself at the moment of triumph, such as crossing the finishing line or on the winner's podium. Apparently it gets you through the tough stuff.

This is what I will be visualising on next Saturday's training ride....

Picture This - Yum, a Pork Pie!

Just to explain - after the last few weeks' exertions, I thought I'd give myself a lighter ride this weekend. And as the wind this Saturday is, unusually, forecast to come from the East (well ENE) I'm going to head that way, which means Leicester. It's not a direction I regularly head in, so something of a voyage of discovery.

I've scheduled an 80-mile ride, on a route which is bumpy without being too hilly. But if I can get off early and the ride is going well (and that is a big if), I could push on an extra few the home of pork pies (and Stilton cheese), Melton Mowbray!

After all, if you're using a few thousand calories up, a pork pie is hardly going to touch the sides (although it will probably just sit in my stomach, undigested, like a brick).

But you need your targets - I find the idea of a pint of lager works equally well. Is this how Lance does it, I wonder?

Anyhow, here's the route:

Bike route 308416 - powered by Bikemap 

Monday, 7 September 2009

Bike Helps Russell's 'Battle Of The Bulge'

I'm a little torn on this one - and absolutely the last person to be throwing stones at fatties, particularly from the well-upholstered glass house in which I currently reside.

But I did enjoy the mild kerfuffle after Russell Crowe was criticised by an Australian paper for his exercise and diet regime of mid-ride fags and tacos.

Russell Crowe's New Fitness Regime (Photo: Scope)

Anyone who saw Crowe in his recent screen role as a roly-poly, scruffy journalist in State of Play would have to admit that the former hunky Gladiator had let things slide rather. But reportedly, thanks to a new fitness regime including cycling, he's lost much of the bulk.

Good on him, we've all been there - weight up and down like the big dipper at Blackpool pleasure beach. And I recall the odd fag break on my 2003 Land's End to John O'Groats tour (knocked those on the head a few years ago, thankfully).

Anyway he rather bridled at the criticism from the Sydney-based Daily Telegraph and challenged the (non-cycling) writer to a bike race. Judge the results for yourself, but I'm not sure quite what the whole thing proves vis a vis Mr Crowe's fitness. Perhaps he should take on a proper cyclist next time and see what happens.

While we're at it, perhaps someone could also give former hunk Val Kilmer the number of a good personal trainer?

Sunday, 6 September 2009

The Hills Are Alive

This week's ride was an uppy-downy cycle down to Malvern and back to keep my mountain training up.

I left late, as usual - my excuse is that's it's Saturday and I'd like to read the paper in bed for a bit. Of course it means playing catch-up all day...

With a pretty strong wind from the West (well, WSW), I decided as per Tuesday's post to head to Malvern.

Malvern Hills (Photo: BBC)

Not only does this route allow me to cycle into the wind on the way out (ie with the wind behind me on the way home), which is always a psychological boost, but it also means I can add in another decent hill - in the shape of the Lickey hills, next to the old Rover plant at Longbridge.

Despite being sunny when I get up, it's soon overcast and cool, with a stiff breeze.

The first few miles are the usual city streets - residential roads, busy high streets or dual carriageway - until I turn off the main route at the old Rover Longbridge plant to cycle over the Licky Hills. Much of the massive site has been bulldozed - there even used to be a bizarre overhead conveyor above the road through which (I believe) cars passed on the split site. It's mostly gone now, to make way for a massive new development. And with it, the last mass-market British car manufacturer...

Lickey Hill seems much less than I expected. It's only 2 miles later, as I arrive in Barnt Green, that I realise I've gone the wrong way and will need to take a detour. Then it's 30 miles of flat stuff to Malvern. Well it looks flat on the map, but with a decent headwind and a few bumps it doesn't feel that easy.

Take another wrong turning after Drotiwich - sadly I followed the signs for Malvern, rather than trusting my map and it took me on another horrible dual-carriageway detour. Everything seems to be designed for the convenience of car drivers, cyclists are just an afterthought...

Worcester may be a historic city with a beautiful cathedral, but that doesn't save if from having a standard-issue British High Street and - despite some lovely buildings - it's not a nice place to be on a Saturday lunchtime when I take a break.

Worcester Cathedral

It's only another 8 miles further to Malvern. The Malvern hills tower over the countryside to the East and inspired, amongst others, the composer Elgar, who lived there and composed the Enigma Variations in the house next to where my aunt and uncle live.

I'd love to move to Malvern, it's a rather sleepy country town with not particularly good transport links to London and a mix of older and hippyish residents. The countryside is stunning - I'd have hills on my doorstep and wouldn't have to ride 10 miles to get anywhere nice!

I was going to go further today, but the late start and unexpected detours put the kibosh on that if I want to get home in the light.

Once through the town centre, the road runs around the hill, finally crossing it at British Camp, where there are a series of Iron Age earth works, a sort of pre-historic defensive position which probably didn't trouble the Romans for very long. The hill itself becomes pretty steep, so that I've pretty much run out of gears and peaks at 800 feet. It then wraps around the hill, continuing upwards, rather like one of those impossible Escher drawings. Eventually at Wyche, the road drops back steeply to Malvern. This really would be the most amazing place to live for cycling, I'd be as fit as a butcher's dog!

Here's a pic of British Camp when Clare and I went walking there last year.

After scoffing some pasta for lunch, I head back towards Birmingham, now with the wind at my heels making everything seem so much easier, although it also feels very autumnal and cool.

I manage to get the route right this time and it's a far more pleasant experience. I find the right route over the Lickey Hills, which are as high as the Malvern road, and a back route home which is a nice bonus.

Arrive home feeling very satisfied and not feeling as drained as I did last week, which must be a good sign...

Friday, 4 September 2009

'Bicycles Killed More People Than Terrorism'...

Cycling Week has got its knickers in a twist about a piece in the Daily Telegraph today.

The article, by Medical Correspondent Kate Devlin, quotes psychologist Professor Peter Ayton from London's City University. His team found that there were 214 extra casualties (ie injuries, not just deaths) among cyclists on the streets of the UK capital in the six months following the 7/7 bombings as more people took to their bikes.

A bus destroyed in the July 2005 attacks (Photo: EPA)

Prof Ayton is quoted as saying: “People avoided things in which large numbers of people were killed at one time and switched to what looked like more innocent methods of travel like bicycling.

“But if you asked which killed more people in the last 10 years in London, international terrorism, or bicycles, the answer would definitely be bicycles.

“People tend to be over weighting the risks of events which tend to be one offs because they kill lots of people in one go.”

Cycle Commuting - More Dangerous Than Terrorism? (Photo: British Cycling)

The Telegraph has been regarded by many cyclists as anti-bike, and a number of posters to the paper's web site took them to task on the issue, as has Cycling Week.

However common sense would suggest that thousands of inexperienced cyclists pouring onto the streets is bound to end up with increased accidents. But there is an argument that the more cyclists there are, the safer we will all be...

Thursday, 3 September 2009

Belt and Braces

Bicycles have changed a lot in the last century. Although the basic 'diamond' shape has remained the same, advances in materials, gears and brakes have transformed their weight and performance.

But one thing remains almost exactly the same - the metal chain which transforms pedal power into forward motion. But that could be about to change.

Shimano Dura-Ace 10-speed Bicycle Chain (Photo: Shimano)

Many motorbikes have used belt drives for years, Harley Davidsons since 1984. And something that can tame 150bhp to shift 500lbs of motorbike, should find powering a 25lb bicycle no challenge

Gates (the same people who make the belt drives for Harleys) now make bicycle drive belts from tough polyurethane with carbon strands. They supposedly need no maintenance, are lightweight and virtually silent, and will last twice as long as a normal metal-link chain.

Gates Belt Drive (Photo: Trek)

They've been around on single-speed bikes for a few years and you can now buy a Trek Soho with a belt driven 8 gears for about £800.

Trek Soho with belt drive - yours for £800 (Photo: Trek)

Round-the-world cyclist James Bowthorpe, who is on-track to beat Mark Beaumont's record, has a Gates belt drive on his Santos bike, paired with a Rohloff hub gear. 18,000 miles should be a fair test of the system's reliability, and with only a couple of weeks to go he's had no problems so far.

James Bowthorpe's Santos Travelmaster (Photo: J Bowthorpe)

The downsides? Well, they cost a lot more than standard chains at the moment, although that's bound to come down in time. It's also not something you can retro-fit to a bike - you will need to have a frame with horizontal drop-outs, plus new rear sprocket and front chain ring, and the belt will only work with a fixed gear or certain hub gears.

I'll be sticking with my derailleurs for the moment, but don't be surprised to see these taking off (or over) in the next few years.

Wednesday, 2 September 2009

Putting A Lid On It

After many years, and thousands of miles, of cycling without a helmet I've finally succumbed and bought a new 'lid'.

With a baby on the way, and an anxious wife and mother mithering me, it was about time. I do already own a couple of helmets (I used to wear one when I cycled in central London), but I never wore it on the open road for three main reasons:

1. It was uncomfortable, looked like a bin lid and wouldn't sit on my head properly
2. I got hot wearing it, with sweat pouring down my face, and ended up with a skin rash if I rode any distance
3. I wasn't actually sure that it would offer me any protection in a crash

Giro Atmos helmet (Photo: Giro)

Helmets are an issue that provokes heated opinions on all sides. For the record, the Highway Code recommends that cyclist use helmets, but it is not backed up by law. Personally, I think it's up to people to make up their own minds, after all it's their head.

Having said that, research on the protection offered by cycle helmets appears to be limited and open to interpretation. Some people claim that wearing a helmet causes people to cycle more recklessly and encourages drivers to treat them with less care. Common sense would seem to suggest that it is safer to wear one.

I've had drivers be abusive to me for not wearing a helmet and there have been court cases where it was regarded as 'contributory negligence' to injuries received (in the same way as not wearing a seat belt in a car).

Cyclists do seem to be expected to exhibit a far higher level of self-protection than drivers - I still see loads who don't use seatbelts and I've never met a person who's been prosecuted for that, or being on the phone. And when was the last time you saw a pedestrian wearing reflective clothing when walking at night, even though that's what the Highway Code advises?

Anyway, controversy aside, after a bit of research I came up with the Giro Atmos. As well as being lighter and smaller than most helmets, the Atmos is extremely well ventilated to help keep you cool and less sweaty. And if it's good enough for Lance Armstrong, who can argue?

Lance Armstrong celebrating his 2005 Tour de France win, wearing a Giro Atmos

At £129.99, the helmet is expensive, but Wiggle are currently selling them in last year's colours for £40 less if you want to grab a 'bargain'...

Tuesday, 1 September 2009

More Miles, More Hills

Despite my re-think on the Ventoux stage this year, as well as the distinctly autumnal weather (I've just had to buy a new waterproof), I'm carrying on with the longer rides. I spent last night working out a string of 100 mile+ routes fanning out from Birmingham in all directions.

So Saturday, if the weather's not too miserable, I'm planning to ride to down to Ross-on-Wye in Herefordshire and back, over Malvern. Will be interesting to see how things go after last week's ride.

Here's the route:

Bike route 299245 - powered by Bikemap