The joy of winter cycling

The winter crossroads

In the deep midwinter, it’s too easy to hibernate. The sofa and screen exert a pull that even the most active cyclists can find hard to resist.

Yet it needn’t be like this. As a wise person once said, weather always looks worse through a window. When you’re out on the road, the rain may not feel so cold, so intense. (At least if you have the right clothes and mudguards.)

Zwift: no raingear needed. You don’t see redwoods on my local rides

When the cold, rain and darkness makes ‘real’ cycling intimidating, Indoor cycling is the answer. It is a far more attractive option than when I did my first indoor ride in 1995. On a cold January day that year, I struggled to carry an indoor roller back to the office from a bike shop in Cheltenham. I used it occasionally. Seven years later, I did training for my first Land’s End to John O’Groats bike ride on an indoor trainer, but they were empty hours: I wasn’t tested enough for the training to count.

Winter riding, 1994: Easter Saturday in Wales

The photo above shows me smiling as I descended the famous seven mile bank on path of the old Brecon & Merthyr Railway towards Talybont on Usk after an Easter Saturday ride from Cardiff with my friend Richard. It may have been spring, but we arrived in a blizzard! My Dawes Super Galaxy was the perfect ride, as I blogged recently.

By contrast, today’s inside cycling can be as testing as any real life hill. When I got my Wattbike Atom in 2018, I found I preferred TrainerRoad to Zwift. I quickly got bored with Zwift, yet I found TrainerRoad’s workouts oddly compelling. There was no hiding place from the effort it demanded. (Apart from dialling down the effort needed.) But this week, I discovered Zwift’s many attractions. Watopia, which I dismissed as a gimmick three years ago, now strikes me as a stunning backdrop for indoor cycling.

A true winter ride: Mumfords Lane, near Chalfont St Peter, Bucks, 24 January 2021

Yet the great outdoors still inspires and rewards like no indoor ride. Two weeks ago, I set off on my mountain bike in the snow. It was a pleasure to see families revelling in a winter wonderland – a brief escape from the tedium of England’s third pandemic lockdown. This ride was all about the satisfaction of being in the elements with no thought of Strava achievements. It was all the better for it.

As a result, I am miles ahead of my usual cycling goals. I cycled 508 miles indoors and out in January – over 150 miles more than my previous winter month’s total. I hope to pass 1,000 miles in 2021 before February is over. That will be over six weeks earlier than my previous fastest 1,00 miles, in 2019, when I was training for my second Land’s End to John O’Groats ride. It’s all about habit, and putting in the miles indoors when venturing out is unappealing.

I’ll close this post with an image of an earlier magical winter bike ride. One crisp winter’s day in 2012, I took my original 1994 mountain bike through Hodgemoor Wood above our village. I found joy in exploring the wintry trails, capturing the moment with my digital SLR, which I carried in my CamelBak. I blogged about those pleasures here.

We’re expecting snow again tomorrow. My bike is ready. Here’s to winter riding.

Farewell to the Dawes Galaxy – the classic British touring bike

My Dawes Super Galaxy on my first century, 1995

The news that Dawes has axed its famous Galaxy touring bike made me sad and nostalgic. My first cycling adventures featured the Dawes Super Galaxy seen in the photo above: my first weekend tour, my first week long cycling holiday and my debut century, all in a two year period in the 1990s.

I described my affection for the bike in a blogpost about my favourite bikes 12 years ago. Over 30 years ago Richard Ballantine dubbed the Galaxy a classic touring bike – a tribute to its longevity. I found it outstandingly reliable: in the five years I owned it, I didn’t get a single puncture or mechanical failure. It carried four laden panniers with ease – and the low gears meant I was able to climb all but the toughest west country hill on a nine day tour in 1995.

The Galaxy on a Sunday afternoon loop of Richmond Park, 1992
Nearing the end of a day’s ride from Cardiff to the Brecon Beacons – before a blizzard!

I will always have a soft spot for the traditional touring bike. My decision to buy one (a Peugeot Camargue) in 1989 was the start of my passion for cycling. I’d never had a good bike as a child and so my first ‘proper’ bike was a revelation. I started commuting from Teddington to Holborn on it. I found cycling up hills needn’t be purgatory. A couple of years later, I upgraded to the Super Galaxy.

I will never forget the pleasure of riding the Galaxy down the seven mile swoop to Talybont on Usk on Easter Saturday 1994. My friend Richard and I had found the Taff Trail from Cardiff to Merthyr Tydfil surprisingly easy (thanks to the easy inclines of the old railways it followed). The climb over the Brecon Beacons was another story and we were relieved to freewheel towards our destination at Talybont. (Although we arrived in a blizzard!) My father was kind enough to bring us and our bikes back to Cardiff the next day.

Reaching the south coast at Sidmouth, Devon, June 1995

My greatest adventure on the Galaxy was that nine day tour of the west country. I’d plotted the route one January night, dreaming of warmer times, with OS maps spread out across my living room floor. The first day was a summer deluge, but it was the exception and as the tour unfolded a heatwave arrived. On the last day, we watched the Red Arrows against a perfect blue sky over the M4 near Chippenham.

I sold the bike a year later, but still kept faith with touring bikes, notably the Raleigh Randonneur, on which I completed my first Land’s End to John O’Groats ride in 2002 and my final pannier-laden tour, from Cardiff to Bucks, in 2013.

Since then, my touring has been on light road bikes, with companies like Peak Tours carrying my overnight luggage. It has meant faster riding. Many cyclists have made the same switch from the traditional touring bike, while others have gone straight to gravel bikes and bikepacking – carrying their stuff in bags that fix straight to the frame rather than panniers fixed to racks. Our individual decisions have played a big part in the demise of the classic touring bike represented by the Dawes Galaxy. I don’t regret my switch, but I will always look back with affection to the bikes that started my love of cycling.

Who knows, maybe one day I will take the Randonneur back on the road for a nostalgic tribute to the glory days of the classic British tourer.

Goodbye 2020: a cycling resolution

Cycling to Cardiff Castle, July 2020

So that was 2020. A year like no other in the past century. We now know the havoc a pandemic can cause – much as my grandparents did a century ago with the so-called Spanish flu. (Sadly, my grandfather’s twin brother died in that pandemic, having survived the Great War trenches.)

Our lives have been utterly changed. We can’t meet our friends. We have to wear a mask when buying a loaf of bread. Christmas may not have been cancelled, but it wasn’t the sociable highlight of the year we’ve known all our lives.

My lifeline, apart from family and the ability to work from home, has been my bike. Or trike. Getting into the saddle has been a joy in this joyless year. In those early lockdown weeks, in the most wondrous spring in living memory, I celebrated the empty roads and vibrant nature – whether the April blossom or the magnificent red kites overhead. I blogged about those magical spring days here.

Today, New Year’s Eve, I passed 3,000 cycling miles in 2020. It was a modest ride of under eight miles, with the temperature barely about freezing. I experienced cycling feast and famine this year, with a very slow start followed by four successive months of over 500 miles in the saddle. But as summer became autumn, I lost my enthusiasm for pedalling the same old local routes. I recorded just 65 miles in October. Yet that milestone of 3,000 miles was a powerful motivator as Christmas approached, and I recorded my highest ever December mileage of 313 miles – with many of these indoors on my Wattbike Atom with TrainerRoad.

In years gone by, I often blogged on New Year’s Eve about my cycling memories of the old year, and my cycling adventures planned for the year ahead. (This example from 2013 is typical.) Tonight’s post may not be as noteworthy. But I do have dreams for 2021. Only time will tell whether those dreams will come true.

Another coast to coast?

Completing my coast to coast ride, Tynemouth, May 2017

Back in 2017, I cycled across England from the Irish Sea at Whitehaven to the North Sea at Tynemouth on the famous Coast to Coast (C2C) route. It was a wonderful experience, despite unseasonal cold weather on the first day, and the struggle of the climb to Hartside on a bike without a low enough gear. As I contemplated possible challenges for 2021, a similar coast to coast adventure seemed perfect. Better still, Peak Tours, which proved magnificent as my Land’s End to John O’Groats tour company in 2019, offered just such a trip in May 2021 along the Way of the Roses, slightly further south, from Morecambe to Bridlington via York.

Will it happen? Will Britain – and especially England – have found, belatedly, a way of controlling the pandemic and rolling out vaccinations, allowing tourism to resume? We will find out. In the meantime, I will get training. I’ve found a combination of TrainerRoad sweet spot workouts on my indoor Wattbike and rides outside on wintry roads is a good way of gaining fitness out of season.

Near Lancaster: the River Lune floodwaters, August 2019

Meanwhile, I will reflect on previous adventures, especially in the region that I will be crossing (with luck) in May. Back in 2019, we cycled through Lancaster on LEJOG, seeing the effects of days of heavy rain, as seen above. I also remember with affection cycling through the northern fell country on my earlier LEJOG in 2002. Perhaps I will get the chance to stay in my favourite hotel of the 2019 LEJOG, The Mill at Conder Green.

Dining at The Mill, Conder Green

Here’s to 2021’s adventures.

David Walsh and Lance Armstrong: truth to tell

It was all about the cheating

Almost 20 years ago, I was enthralled by the Lance Armstrong story. His best selling book, It’s Not About the Bike, told the extraordinary tale of the cancer survivor who returned to win the world’s toughest cycle race, the Tour de France.

Back then, I was a modest cyclist (I still am) with dreams of cycling the length of Great Britain, Land’s End to John O’Groats. I was inspired by Armstrong’s story, especially his dedication to training. Yes, I knew all about cycling’s sordid relationship with drugs, notably the 1998 Tour de France’s Festina affair. (Paul Kimmage lifted the lid on this culture in Rough Ride.) But I believed the Armstrong line: he was the most tested cyclist in history. And every one had shown him to be clean. Karen and I followed Armstrong’s annual progress in Le Tour. I wore the US Postal team kit on several cycling holidays.

Continue reading

Triking to Maidenhead: summer joy

I loved my childhood go-kart. It was such fun racing down the hill near my Cardiff home in the 1970s.

I’ve had an echo of that childhood excitement today, riding my ICE Adventure trike to Maidenhead. This is one of my favourite rides, crossing the Thames at Cookham and following the river to the riverside town.

I admit I had a craving for speed today. Not overall – I’ll never be as fast on the trike as on my road bike. But I was pining for speed on the swoop downhill to Wooburn Green, and knew it would be safer on three wheels than two. So it proved: 37mph!

Over the Thames at Cookham

It’s always fun crossing the Thames at Cookham, and it was no exception today on the trike. The trike was faster than I expected on the exposed road over Widbrook Common. Two years ago, I saw a herd of cows here cooling in the water from the heatwave!

Cooling off: July 2018

I always think of my late in-laws Aline and Terry as I pass Boulters Lock. This was one of their favourite places. We celebrated their golden wedding here in 2011, and had a happy breakfast at Boulters just two months before Aline died in 2015. The famous broadcaster Richard Dimbleby lived on the island, and there’s a blue plaque on the bridge to commemorate him.

Happy days. March 2015

I pressed on to the park overlooking Maidenhead’s historic bridge. Usually I’m looking out for a bench, but that wasn’t necessary today – I’d brought my own, on the trike!

I loved the 18mph swoop round the roundabout on the Buckinghamshire side of the bridge. The ICE Adventure was geared to cope with the climb through Taplow towards Cliveden. A cyclist on a mountain bike overtook me but I caught up with him at Cliveden. I’m looking forward to my first visit to the National Trust gardens at Cliveden on Tuesday – my first since the COVID-19 lockdown.

You notice more on a trike. I’ve never noticed how striking the Beaconsfield church of St Michael and All Saints (see above) is before.

I am starting to think of my next cycling challenge. Last year’s Land’s End to John O’Groats ride was unforgettable. I’m dreaming of even crazier adventures, such as London-Edinburgh-London and London-Wales-London. A trike would be so much more comfortable, but would it be too slow? Decisions, decisions…. 

My coronavirus first: driving to another country

On Saturday, I clocked up a series of firsts. My first drive over 10 miles since March. My first motorway journey and trip to another country – Wales – since lockdown.

I was on my way to see my father, Bob Skinner, for the first time since his care home closed to visitors in March. (I have blogged about that unforgettable visit here.)

I loved the drive – I treasured the time listening to music and Jack Thurston’s Bike Show podcasts. All things I used to enjoy on my daily commute. Working from home has been enjoyable but I have missed these audio moments.

Crossing the Severn Bridge into Wales, the motorway signs proclaimed: WELSH COVID RULES APPLY. It was a graphic reminder that Wales has, sensibly, taken a more careful approach to relaxing lockdown rules. The only reason I was able to make the journey to Cardiff was the scrapping of the Welsh ban on travelling more than five miles, allowing Dad’s Sunrise of Cardiff care home to allow visiting. It was nice seeing the familiar Welsh road signs: gwasanaethau (services), Caerdydd (Cardiff) and canol y ddinas (city centre).

I was very happy to drive the 300 mile round trip to see Dad for an hour (the maximum visit) but thought it would be nice to see something of my hometown after saying goodbye to Bob. So I hopped on my Brompton folding bike, and headed along Cyncoed Road and down Pen-y-lan hill towards the centre of town – canol y ddinas…

The roads were quiet, and I made up my route as I went along, threading through the streets of Cathays and emerging by the National Museum in Cathays Park. Cardiff has closed the roads around the castle to cars, and it was a pleasure to arrive at the imposing gates of the castle.

Entry to the grounds is currently free, so I wheeled my bike in, and enjoyed a few tranquil moments, reflecting on my visit to Dad.

I made my way back to Cyncoed via childhood spots such as Roath Park Lake, and past my childhood home in Winnipeg Drive, Lakeside. My Brompton is the electric version, so it made the climb back towards Cyncoed Road very easy.

I’m looking forward to a longer Welsh bike ride when we’re in Tenby in August.

Roath Park Lake and the Captain Scott memorial

I popped the Brompton back in the car, and enjoyed another easy drive (no queueing past the Brynglas tunnels at Newport). A memorable and enjoyable day.

Coronavirus: explaining and balancing risks

Screenshot 2020-06-27 at 21.45.30

The risk question: helmet or no helmet?

The coronavirus pandemic has raised an age old question. How do we assess risk? More difficult still, how do we balance competing risks?

The COVID-19 crisis has thrown up a stack of such balancing acts. The most prominent one is where to strike the balance between health and economics. But other trade offs are apparent. Should we shut society down in the hope of killing the virus? How do we help the young, who are by all accounts much less at risk?

Yet our view of risk changes over time. My 16 year old aunt took 13 year old Dad to the cinema in London in the middle of the blitz in 1940, retreating home hours late after an air raid. Less dramatically, as a nine year old I’d venture alone across 1970s Cardiff on my bike to my aunt and uncle’s house in Rhiwbina. No one had ever heard of a bike helmet back then. Perhaps some children tragically ended up under the wheel of an Austin Maxi – but it didn’t stop us exploring on two wheels.

Screenshot 2020-06-27 at 22.25.46

Don’t get me wrong. We were right to make work and life safer. Too many people died unnecessarily. The Great Western Railway introduced ‘automatic train control’ in 1906 to warn drivers when they were passing a ‘distant’ caution signal. Later, the GWR system applied the brakes if the driver didn’t slow down. It saved countless lives. It took half a century and the catastrophic Harrow & Wealdstone and Lewisham disasters before nationalised British Railways introduced the same safeguards on the rest of the network.

Similarly, once controversial measures to tackle drink driving and smoking now seem like common sense.

Yet human beings are not good at understanding and assessing risk. Take cycling. I have had a cycling helmet for almost 30 years. I usually wear one. (Though I didn’t in the photo opening this post – climbing a very steep hill to Todi in Umbria in 2004.) Most parents today would be horrified by the idea of not putting a helmet on their children as they pedal up a deserted road.

But helmet use should be a choice. We need to get children into active lifestyles, such as cycling, walking and sport, to reduce the risk of obesity. A report in 2017 suggested that 35% of children were overweight or obese at 11. Yet MP Bill Grant demanded that children be forced to wear helmets, so criminalising a child pedalling down a quiet cul-de-sac without a helmet. This shows a complete inability to assess risk. Banning McDonalds and fizzy drinks would be far more effective.

Screenshot 2020-06-27 at 23.19.55

Lesley Whittle

It’s a similar story with child abduction. The tragic story of Madeleine McCann, still front page news 13 years after the three year old disappeared in 2007, heightened fears that children were at much greater danger than during our childhood. Five years earlier, the murders of Holly Wells and Jessica Chapman in Soham, Cambridgeshire shocked the country. Yet child murders are remarkably rare, and are at historically low rates. Most are committed by parents or others known to the child. The difference is that today’s saturation media coverage and social media interest raises the prominence of tragedies. (Although I vividly remember the media frenzy about the awful ordeal of Lesley Whittle, a 17 year old kidnapped and killed by Donald Neilson in 1975.) We need to remember that such appalling cases are vanishingly rare. Be sensible, and teach children how to spot risks. (The age old advice about not taking treats from strangers remains relevant today.)

The communications lessons

Back to 2020, and the coronavirus conundrum. Global companies face a dilemma: do you take the same approach everywhere, or tailor policy and advice by region? Should you keep working from home globally, or allow countries like Australia and New Zealand to return to (close to) normal?

There’s no one answer. But whatever you decide, explain your approach.

Communication is key. It’s striking that the leaders who are natural communicators and educators like Jacinda Ardern have shone in this crisis. Leadership isn’t about bullshit and bluster. The greatest leaders educate the public. This hadn’t struck me until I read Steve Richards’ wonderful study of British prime ministers of the past 40 years. The greatest failures, like Theresa May, don’t even bother. Thatcher famously used her experience as a housewife to explain why the nation needed to spend no more than it earned. (Though the parallel was arguably misconceived.) And Tony Blair – at least before the historic blunder of the Iraq war – was the great communicator, bridging the then gap between traditional Labour and aspiring middle class voters.

Boris Johnson should have all the advantages. He has a vivid turn of phrase, when he remembers to speak English rather than Latin. He’s a larger than life character and people have in the past forgiven him a lot because of that. (Except in Liverpool.)

But the prime minister seems to lack any sensible advice in government. Dominic Cummings may have helped win the Brexit referendum, but so far has proved a disaster as Johnson’s chief adviser. The prime minister has a majority of 80. He should ditch partisan campaigning in favour of statecraft. Ditch the vengeance against people perceived not to be ‘one of us’. Learn a lesson from Roosevelt in the 1930s. Take the public into your confidence. Admit there is no simple answer: that we have to balance health and economics. After all, mass unemployment kills people as well as viruses. Children’s life chances are being damaged by lockdown. Start a conversation.

Cycling my own lost lanes

 

Screenshot 2020-06-13 at 20.57.09

Lost Lanes – an inspiration

I recently discovered the Lost Lanes series of cycling books by Jack Thurston. They’re an inspiration, with evocative 1930s style covers, gorgeous photos and intriguing touring routes. I can’t wait to explore Rye and Romney Marsh, an area that has intrigued me since reading Malcolm Saville’s Lone Pine mysteries set there when I was a child. And those lovely Welsh border roads.

In the meantime, I’m exploring my local lost lanes. Tonight I cycled up to Hodgemoor Wood above Chalfont St Giles on my mountain bike – and promptly got lost. It is uncanny how easily I lose all sense of direction in this small woodland area.

D28C2D1B-7B9A-488B-96F4-43324D463363

Classic Chilterns: the view from Mumfords Lane

The real object of this evening’s ride was Mumfords Lane, a narrow lane that links the A40 between Beaconsfield and Gerrards Cross with Layter’s Green near Chalfont St Peter.  I’d never cycled it before but it was a perfect opportunity to widen my route repertoire. There was climb from the main road but my mountain bike’s low gearing made it easy. The view from the top was gorgeous – one I had never seen before, even though it’s barely three miles from home. I’ll be cycling this lost lane again.

5CCB5FD6-A8D6-4FE4-A482-6DF6EBC846CB

I was lucky to dodge a heavy June shower. I sheltered under a tree as I pulled on a rain jacket. This was the scene as the sun came out as the rain eased over the A40. This was once the main route from West Wales and Oxford to London before the M4 and M40 were built in the 1960s and 1970s.

11B156D3-841D-4ABF-BA79-16B3B2073C22

I’ve really missed cafe stops on my lockdown bike rides. Especially the longer ones, where a coffee and cake adds to the pleasure. A week ago, I decided to do something about it. I can’t reopen cafes, but I can take my own tea or coffee, thanks to my new Klean Kanteen insulated water bottle. I enjoyed my tea and snack overlooking Maidenhead’s historic road bridge this lunchtime. I even brought my Costa collapsible mug!

Screenshot 2020-06-13 at 20.57.26

I’ll end on a Lost Lanes note. As a proud Welshman, I smiled when I saw Jack’s note on my copy of Lost Lanes Wales. Cymru am byth – Wales for ever! Thank you, Jack. 

How to solve Garmin Edge false heart rate readings

I’ve had various Garmin cycling GPS devices for almost nine years. I’m a fan, as you will gather from my posts about the Edge 800 and Edge 1000. I’m now mainly using an Edge 1030.

In the past few weeks, I’ve found that the heart rate reading showing on the Edge was wildly inaccurate early in a ride. In some cases, by 60 beats a minute compared with the rate on my Apple Watch. Often the Garmin rate would be falling, even though I was climbing a hill. What was going on?

I followed the care instructions, wetting the heart rate strap before every ride and washing it regularly. But to no effect.

Finally, the penny dropped. I wasn’t wetting two small rectangular patches on the band. here’s one on the right of the band:

Screenshot 2020-06-11 at 14.42.46

And here’s the other, on the left of this photo (in the middle of the band):

Screenshot 2020-06-11 at 14.43.06

This should have been obvious looking at the diagram on the band:

AC071E5E-2EC3-4694-A508-7A035AE32291_1_201_a

Once I wetted all four patches, the Edge tracked my heart rate perfectly for every ride. That saved me buying a new strap!

Beware of GoPro handlebar mount

Screenshot 2020-06-11 at 11.53.04

The mount in place as I climb to Glenshee, August 2019

I loved my GoPro handlebar mount. I liked the way I could move the camera to film  ahead or to the side. I made good use of it on last August’s Land’s End to John O’Groats bike ride. In bought it after cycling and gadget blogger DC Rainmaker praised it in a review.

But last week, as I was cycling along a suburban street in Beaconsfield, Buckinghamshire, it broke, catastrophically. I heard the sound of something falling off my bike. A light? No, my GoPro 7 Black camera. The metal joining the two parts of the mount had failed, casting my camera and the top part of the mount onto the road. (The bottom bit remained on the handlebar.) Happily, it wasn’t run over by a car.

Screenshot 2020-06-11 at 12.07.03

The failed mount

You can see here the point of failure – a metal rod connecting the two parts of the mount.

I contacted GoPro customer support to report the problem. I wasn’t necessarily expecting a refund – I had bought the mount in April last year. But I was shocked when the agent essentially accused me of lying when I said there was no impact causing the catastrophic failure. I was simply cycling along a suburban street. I’d never used it off-road. In any case, shouldn’t a GoPro mount be able to cope with something more than a local, tarmac street? Aren’t these meant to be action cameras?

I guess I will have to look for something sturdier, such as a K-Edge’s metal ones. But it’s a shame, as the GoPro mount suited me. Before it broke on a suburban street.

UPDATE, Monday 15 June

I am delighted to say that after I contacted GoPro again (thanks for suggesting that, DC Rainmaker!) Michele Eve contacted me, apologised for my original experience and offered to send me a replacement. Excellent customer service – thank you!