Gear Review – Strava

As anyone who knows me will tell you, I’m a bit of a geek. I love my gadgets.

In the past, I’ve posted an entry about Runkeeper and as I’ve recently changed back to an Android phone after a year with WP7, I thought it was as good a chance as any to try out the new “big thing” in GPS logging apps, Strava.

As well as being available in the respective app stores for Apple iOS and Android smartphones, Strava also supports standalone GPS devices such as Garmin’s range of Edge cycle computers and Forerunner running watches. This is handy if you plan on doing long rides, as running the in-built GPS of most smartphones can have a dramatic effect on battery life. This is obviously A Bad Thing if you then get stranded with a mechanical and can’t call for help! Unfortunately these devices don’t come cheap: the entry level Edge 200 starts at about £115, and the top-of-the-range Edge 800 is a whopping £400.

(Santa, if you’re reading this – I’ve been a good boy this year, and I’d really like an Edge 200. Pretty please?)

The app itself, on Android at least, is fantastically easy to use. Upon loading, you’re presented with a big red “record” button. Press it, put your phone in your pocket, and start pedalling. When you get home, press the button again and Strava will upload your route to the web interface. Here, as well as the phone apps, you can also find a bunch of stats on your riding such as total distance, altitude climbed, and that kind of stuff.

Strava’s key social feature, however, is its concept of “segments”. It’s definitely one for the more competitive among you! It picks out selected parts of common routes and maintains a leader-board of quickest times. These are commonly climbs up hilly routes, and the current leaders get virtual “King Of The Mountain” badges. It’s immature willy-waving, sure, but a little competition can also be a good training motivator for aspiring racers.

Unfortunately the Strava KOM badge for Hackpen Hill is currently held by a UK Youth pro rider, so fat chance of me getting anywhere close!

Strava is a free app (premium also available, it seems) for Android, Apple iOS and at www.strava.com.

Ride Report – FNRttC Brighton, September 2012

I honestly do think that the Friday Night Ride to the Coast is, for me, one of the best things in British cycling. The quiet roads, fantastic routes, camaraderie between riders and the indescribable joy of watching the sun rise over the English countryside is just… fantastic.

And this is the classic, the original, and arguably the best – from London to Brighton. After the obligatory assembling under The Big Ugly Arch and some comedy signalling rehearsals, nearly a hundred of us set off from Hyde Park Corner through Sloane Square towards Clapham Common.

A few of the best bits:

South Londoners – both the Friday night piss-heads and the moronic minicabbers around Clapham – seemed to be utterly confused by a bunch of ninety-odd cyclists on the roads. So much so, in fact, that one of the drunks decided to throw a beer can into the bunch (no harm done, thankfully) and the Clapham minicabbers decided that driving through the bunch, turning right from a left filter lane through a red light. Cue much Criticalmass-esque standing in front of bumpers. Thankfully once we got past Clapham the traffic got both lighter and noticeably more full of clue.

South Londoners, part two – plenty of shouts of “Go Wiggo, Go!”… and a few “Victoria Pendleton” cries too. Which was weird, as the group it was aimed at was all blokes. D’oh!

We got really lucky with the weather – clear skies and the biggest, brightest full moon I’ve seen in a long time. It wasn’t too cold, either – mild enough that I was sometimes feeling a little overdressed on the steeper climbs.

The half-way snack stop was absolutely fantastic. A big thanks to the Burstow Scouts, who opened up their scout hall at stupid o’clock in the morning in order to feed sandwiches, cake and coffee to a horde of noisy cyclists at bargain prices.

And then there was the proverbial elephant in the room: Ditchling Beacon. The Beacon is a huge hill with about 500 ft of vertical ascent, and is definitely a big deal (to me, at least). From the approach, it looks like a solid wall blocking the way and by the time I got to the foot of the climb itself, my knees were starting to ache. I wasn’t even sure whether I should attempt it at all. But I figured I wouldn’t have another opportunity at the Beacon this year, so I stuck it in the comedy-low bottom gear of the Tricross and started spinning at walking pace. I needed a few stops to catch my breath and let my heart settle down, but I was determined not to crack under the pressure and start walking. So I kept slowly turning the pedals until eventually I made it to the summit… at which point my legs decided enough was enough and I collapsed, still clipped into the bike, onto the grassy bank at the top!

(Thankfully there’s no photographic evidence of that bit… I hope!)

After some recuperation in the summit sunshine, all that was left was a gentle roll down the hill to the seafront, a cafe breakfast, and some overpriced public transport shenanigans to get home.

All in all, it was just fantastic. For most of the ride my legs felt strong – my fitness has really improved since my first FNRttC back in May, and I didn’t find myself at the back of the ride once. It really was just Ditchling Beacon which broke me, and apparently it breaks just about everyone. I’m really chuffed with that level of progress, so we’ll see what next year brings.

Unfortunately that’s almost certainly it for me and FNRttCs in 2012. The only other ride I could possibly do is another Brighton run at the end of November, but to be honest, last night was as cold as I’m willing to tolerate. But I’m now looking at the provisional 2013 calendar, and there’s lots I can do… yay!

Staying Motivated When It’s Cold And Wet

I’m sure it’ll surprise almost no-one when I say that I hate riding in bad weather. Rule #9 be damned, it’s just not fun.

So now, as the dark evenings are setting in and it’s almost never shorts weather, I’m finding it harder and harder to motivate myself to go and ride my bike. But I really don’t want to stop riding just because it’s not super warm outside, so I need to do something to keep my spirits up and make it a little more bearable.

“There is no such thing as bad weather, only inappropriate clothing.” — Sir Rannulph Fiennes

The first thing, of course, is dressing for the occasion. It’s time to begrudgingly admit that the summer-weight shorts and jerseys might have to wait in the cupboard until spring, and the long-sleeve baselayers and extra-thick bib longs are more suited to the current British weather.

There’s also a lot to be said for the benefits of something so simple as the humble Buff. Especially for slap-heads like me, they’re invaluable as a perfect helmet liner to keep the warmth in, or to fill the gap between your neck and the collar of your jacket.

The second trick is to… well. Just get out there and do it. Realistically I know that unless I commit myself to something, I’ll probably look up at the overcast sky and think, “nah… maybe tomorrow”. So train tickets have been booked and places confirmed for a few season-ending rides in September and October, including the classic Brighton FNRttC and a couple of yacf forum rides. That’ll keep me busy for a few weekends!

And finally, of course, there is always an alternative – cheat. I might have to start scouring that well-known action site for a cheap second-hand turbo trainer…

Fitter and faster – Losing weight

I’ve been thinking about writing this blog post for a while, but wasn’t quite sure how to start it. I suppose there’s no real way other than to acknowledge the blindingly obvious:

I’m fat. I’ve been fat for a while. And I refuse to be fat when I’m thirty.

This was, partly, my reason for returning to cycling as an adult in the first place. I had been challenged by a couple of co-workers to enter a triathlon, and so I bought a pair of running shoes, some swimming goggles and a bike. Running, as it turns out, wreaks havoc on my legs and I found swimming incredibly boring but something about cycling just clicked with me. It’s the only thing that has survived, although I’m beginning to give the running another chance.

And it’s really working. I’ve got a long way to go, but in a month and a half or so I’ve managed to lose 17 lbs and get myself from “obese” to merely “overweight”.

I have a lot of thanks for my bike for this. I don’t remember any kind of exercise I’ve ever been able to maintain at a reasonable level of intensity for as long as I can sit on a bike and tap out a steady rhythm, and two- to three-hour rides are becoming easier and easier on my legs. Today’s ride back from Westbury was 35 miles in about 2h 20, which apparently burned over two thousand calories and now I’ve done a few rides of that length or longer, they’re really starting to feel quite comfortable. I’m definitely a distance rather than a speed guy, although I’m not going to complain at a 15mph average!

Of course, a lot of it is down to diet as well as exercise. I’m a simple bloke and I really can’t be bothered with all of these fancy diets – when you distil it down to the bare bones, they all equate to a very simple principle. Fewer calories in, more calories out. The rest, in my opinion, is just fluff and willpower. I’ve been using the rather excellent MyFitnessPal app to track both my food and my exercise, working with a target of 1,000 kcal a day deficit. This should – in theory, at least – result in an average 2lb per week weight loss, as a pound of fat takes about 3,500 kcal to burn off. It’s a big deficit but leaves me about 1,450 kcal a day for food, and if I want any treats like chocolate or takeaway food I have to get off my arse and earn them first.

So a stone and a bit down, and just another three stone to lose… eeek. Wish me luck!

July and August Mileage Summary

Due to both cycling and blogging laziness, I completely failed to do mileage summaries for May and June. Indeed, apart from the Friday Night Ride to the Coast I only managed less than 30 miles in May, and I didn’t touch the bike at all in June. Obviously this makes me a bad, bad person.

But on to July, and I got back on it with a vengeance. Fuelled by a new-found desire to not still be fat when I’m thirty (more on my weight loss journey in another post) I started pushing myself more to get back on the bike, and being able to “earn” my calories in order to silence the cake cravings has been incredibly helpful. I did no “special” riding in July, just after-work and weekend rides on my own, but started upping both the pace and distance on my rides really started to pay dividends. All in all, it totalled up to 142 miles and a little over ten hours of riding in the last fortnight or so of July.

August was really when it started to fall back into place for me cycling-wise, and led to my highest ever monthly mileage on the bike. It was also when I began to have the confidence in my legs to get out of Swindon and do something other than just riding my bike for the sake of riding and getting fit. I cycled to Westbury and back over a couple of days to see a friend and of course there was the colossal sixty-odd mile Friday Night Ride to the Smoke. In total I spent a whopping 26 hours on the bike in August, and I can’t imagine my monthly mileage beating August’s total of 337 miles!

Looking forward into September, well… who knows. It’ll largely be dictated by the weather, I guess, as we roll relentlessly into autumn. Fingers crossed…

Ride Report – The Friday Night Ride to the Smoke

The following sentence may be the definitive proof that I am, actually, insane:

Riding my bike in the middle of the night may be the best form of cycling, ever.

But seriously, it’s true. After my first ever “big night ride” on the FNRttC to Southend, I hadn’t done that much riding in the dark and no group riding at all. But I had been upping my mileage through July and August and so when the opportunity arose a few weeks ago to join a similar ride with some YACF forumites, I decided it would be a great test of my legs.

The concept was simple. We were to leave Oxford on Friday night at midnight under a new moon, admire the stars as we got into the countryside, pedal through til dawn, and arrive in London just in time for breakfast. The only problem I could foresee was my perennial nemesis – hills – because the route looked like this:

 

Look at those bloody lumps! Including my first ever “category 4” climb according to MapMyRide, which scared me a bit. But still, I didn’t want to back away from a challenge, so off I went.

The climbs almost killed me. I was, in all honesty, terrible and after winching myself up the first climb and most of the second using the lowest gear on my triple chainset, my knees had given up and I had to resort to cheating walking up the rest of the climbs. With the exception of the climbs, the ride was fantastic – fantastic company, warm and dry weather, under an sometimes cloudless sky, and often on smooth, fast tarmac. The local entertainment was also excellent, the highlight being a 5am drunk near Uxbridge who, with a considerable number of expletives, struggled to get his booze-pickled head around the concept of a recumbent bike and proclaimed it to be “fucking amazing, man” while we had a rest in a bus shelter.

At over 60 miles (almost exactly 100km) it was also my longest ride to date, and although I was mostly able to hang on to the bunch on the flat bits I was beginning to get dropped as we were getting into West London. I was incredibly glad to arrive in Acton at about 6:30am and get off the bike! While everyone else fuelled their hunger with greasy fried breakfasts, my appetite had vanished so I just emptied out the cafe’s supply of Diet Coke and bottled water. After that it was simply a case of the quick (and indeed, quicker than I would have liked!) blast up to Paddington, scalping a Boris Biking, RLJ’ing twat on the way, and a long train back to Swindon.

Ride report: On hills, and getting a soaking

My ride this morning, although shorter than intended, needed a hefty dose of HTFU.

Firstly, I suck at hills. I’m too fat and too slow to haul myself up anything. But after doing the yacf Friday Night Ride to the Smoke (more on that another time) from Oxford to London, one thing was painfully clear: I need to stop sucking at them. Having a bike with a bottom gear of just 32″ means I have absolutely no excuses. So I’ve been trying to throw a climb up and over Old Town into the start of as many of my rides as I possibly can. At the moment it’s still really tough work, but it’s definitely getting a little easier each time. Where I’m really struggling, though, is with subsequent hills – I can probably manage a couple of hundred metres of climbing before my legs lose all their power and I’m relegated to the flat stuff.

And secondly, if there’s one thing I hate more than hills, it’s rain. I can’t stand getting a soaking, and it doesn’t help that my only SPD shoes have vented mesh uppers and so are the least water-resistant footwear in existence. But let’s face it, living in England – even down here in the south – is going to mean getting wet on a fairly regular basis. The obvious solution, of course, is to harden up and get out there. And with the promise of a Toffee Crisp in the fridge for when I get home, that’s exactly what I did:

Riding out into a light drizzle, my original intention after getting over the motorway was to head west at Burderop and into Wroughton before climbing over the downs and into Marlborough for some coffee and a slice of cake for a total ride of about 35 miles. However after the first couple of climbs the rain was starting to get heavier rather than lighter, and my legs just weren’t really in it for the long haul so I bailed out towards Chiseldon and back over the M4 for the flat ride through town to home.

I don’t like bailing out on rides, but after falling off the diet wagon in a big way this weekend I can’t say I’m surprised. Need to stick to the diet, shed a few pounds, tell my legs to shut up, and keep turning the pedals next time.

The Project Bike

I did something stupid today. I cycled into town, credit card in wallet, with absolutely no real aims whatsoever.

I ended up in Recycles, a social enterprise bike shop here in Swindon ran by the Salvation Army, who refurbish and sell second hand bikes. And one in particular caught my eye. As you can guess, as the photo just below is taken in my living room and not a bike shop in Swindon, yes I did buy it:

Turns out, it’s a near completely original 1987 Raleigh Criterium – lugged Reynolds 501 steel frame, and a mixture of Sachs Rival and Shimano 105 components. From the somewhat delicate sidewalls it even seems to have the original tires (although they’re going in the bin). I was actually surprised at how light it was for a steel frame – memories of the ludicrously oversized tubing on the full suspension BSO I had as a teenager had ingrained an entirely opposite reaction to steel bikes in my mind.

And so now I need to find something to do with it. After a little mental deliberation I’ve decided that the late eighties weren’t really cool enough to justify trying to find replacement parts and decals to give it a full perfect restoration so instead, it’s going to be a fixed gear hipster town bike. My current plan is to strip it down, take all the ugly graphics off the frame and give it a really good cut and polish, convert it to a fixed gear, and replace the mismatched saddle and bar tape with something a little more modern and colour co-ordinated. Oh, and lots of chrome too.

I’m writing a shopping list as we speak, and thankfully I got the bike at a fairly reasonable price because otherwise my bank balance is going to kill me…

 

Inspirations – Post-FNRttC Ponderings…

So now I’ve popped my long-distance-cycling cherry (no giggling at the back, 50-odd miles is far for me!) and it’s left me wondering… what’s next?

An accurate map of England and Wales with the principal roads from the best authorities

I’m not particularly competitive, so going faster is only really important to me in so much as allowing me to do things I couldn’t do otherwise, and it’s more about the journey and the achievement than getting a medal or a prize. Well so far, here are a few ideas I’ve had:

  • The classic, long-way-off, Lands End to John O’Groats. A fortnight of 60-mile days, and realistically a whole lot of planning and organisation (not to mention cost).
  • Driving/train-catching somewhere then going cycle camping. Probably leaving the car at my mother’s house in Worcestershire and heading into Mid Wales. Picturesque, but probably a bit lonely.
  • Taking part in more organised rides such as Audax UK.
  • … Or just doing stupid stuff like getting up on Saturday morning and cycling the 90-ish miles to London, having a well-earnt pint and catching a train home.

Got any other ideas?

Ride Report – FNRttC Southend

A little over a month ago, I wrote an inspiration blog post that I wanted to do one of the Friday Night Ride to the Coast rides, but that I thought it might be a little beyond my abilities and that I’d need better legs for it. But still I decided that I wanted to do one before the end of the summer.

And then the very helpful Jurek commented that the Southend-on-Sea ride was the easy one, and so that was decided. Unfortunately, after looking* at the FNRttC website the Southend ride was not very far away at all – Friday 4th May. Conveniently my birthday fell over that weekend too so it felt like a good way to celebrate – I even had a few days off work booked beforehand and the bank holiday afterwards for preparations and recuperations! A cheque was despatched for insurance and the like, I gave my bike a thorough look over (i.e. I kicked the tyres and nothing fell off), I packed some essentials in a pannier such as extra layers and some spare batteries for lights, and on Friday afternoon I departed for That London.

I’m not very good at packing, I have to admit. In a rush, I totally forgot to put any drinks bottles, even empty ones, on the bike as I left. Fortunately I had a few hours to kill in London before midnight so I met up with a friend in town and headed over to Look Mum No Hands! for coffee and to purchase a couple of drinks bottles. The lady behind the counter was even kind enough to wash them out and fill them with tap water, so I was sorted.

As for the ride itself, well I have to be honest: I don’t remember a great deal of it. I’m terrible at guessing numbers but I’d imagine maybe 50 bikes or so, including a few tandems and folders, and a very pleasant 55-ish mile route through east London and the Essex suburbs out to the seaside. From my hazy memory of place signs this is vaguely where I think we went:

(Edit: the above is now a proper, gps-magicked route courtesy of Tim. Cheers!)

At various points we saw wildlife (a few foxes in the suburbs), wild life (maybe a dozen or so police, a couple of vans and a helicopter dealing with a fight in Romford), plenty of water including a rather swollen ford (thankfully with a foot bridge) and a beautiful red sunrise as we left the food stop in Stock. I must mention the excellence of the family who manned the food stop at stupid o’clock, supplying delicious cakes to hungry cyclists. Nom!

The second leg, from Stock down to the coast, started with a bakewell-fuelled burst of energy. Which was well-needed because this was where the real work began. The climb into Rayleigh was tough and needed all but the last two of the emergency jelly babies to  get me up, but then it seemed to be mostly downhills and flat riding pretty much all the way into Southend. We were incredibly lucky that despite an ominous weather forecast, the rain held off until we had reached the cafe for breakfast. I did, however get a soaking trying to find my way around Southend to a train station, eeek.

And from there, it was pretty easy – train, dry out, tube (with a bike! Cue disapproving looks from people with massive trolley cases..), another train, nearly fall asleep and miss my stop, lucky escape at Swindon and then home.

* It seems I didn’t look at the website very well, based on my worries about my legs and it being so soon. Writing this, I’ve realised that there is a “Genteel” ride to Southend-on-Sea – flatter and slightly shorter – on June 29th. I may or may not be there, depending on life, but if you’re interested then read the website and email Simon on the email address you’ll find there. I’d wholeheartedly recommend you do – they’re bloody good fun.