Cycling in the Lake District – Leave the big ring at home

Cycling and Hill Climbing in the Lake DistrictLeave the big ring at home and pack your EPO spare legs. Oh, and bring your walking shoes too, just in case. Cycling in the Lake District will leave you breathless, be it the view or the steep hills you climb to reach such dizzying heights. Wainwright and Wordsworth were fans of the scenery although they might have changed their tune had they cycled.

Riding in the Lake District you will discover much. England’s true beauty. New max heart rates. New muscles. Places you didn’t think it was possible to sweat from. You will not discover an extra gear. No matter how many times you try. The next day you will have the Bambi walk, a new-born foal, legs as stable as long drinking straws, all a wibble and a wobble.

Yet the pain is worth enduring. The reward? Views you thought were exclusive to National Geographic magazine and a sense of achievement you last experienced indexing your gears. Legs quivering, body shivering, you are the king of these majestic roads. Or are you? Did the hill, a hill for christ sake, get the better of you and force your foot to the floor? Maybe but don’t be ashamed, for these hills are no ordinary hills. With 30 percent gradients they leave even the strongest of cyclists quaking with doubt. Will I make it?

A guide to cycling the passes and hills of the Lake District

Hardknott. 30 %. 2 mph. 10 rpm. 193 bpm.

Hardknott. 30 %. 2 mph. 10 rpm. 193 bpm.

Below is a selection of my favourite hills in the Lake District, starting with the easier climbs and finishing with the ultimate leg breaker whose name you may have heard some cyclists scream out in their night terrors.

Whinlatter Pass
A gentle speed bump by the lofty standards of the Lake District. Whinlatter is a good leg turner and warm up for the steeper climbs ahead in Buttermere.

Kirkstone Pass (from Ullswater)
An inviting climb, few can resist the lure of the road upward. Not the most challenging of climbs but certainly rewarding with great views across the lakes at its summit. Be careful if descending back down the pass along the twisting, uneven road between the stone walls to Ullswater.

Newlands Pass
Somebody carved this road into the side of Robinson Fell, the tarmac offering a safe but fraught passage between the thick green ferns that cover the hillside, giving you the impression of cycling through Jurassic Park. This monster of a climb has teeth as sharp as 25 percent, its final bite all but consuming your last ounce of energy.

Blea Tarn
A lesser known climb hidden away slightly to the north of the more famous Wrynose and Hardknott passes, this curvy little number might be one hairpin too many if attempted before or after the big two. A great climb taken alone, use the hairpins to your advantage and let your legs breathe if only for a moment

Now's the time for a handlebar mirror

Now’s the time for a handlebar mirror

The Struggle
The greatest named climb in the world? Possibly. Tough enough to warrant such a moniker? Undoubtedly. A weaving, wandering climb that never seems to end, this is not one for tired legs with 15-20 percent gradients testing you at the top, middle and bottom.

Honister Pass (either way)
The iconic climb of Honister is from Buttermere, through the valley into what looks like a dead-end. And then you see the road. My god. The Tour of Britain recently wheezed over this pass, the rain turning the road into a fast flowing stream. This classic climb is fairly gradual with a sharp sting in its tail. Climbing the other side of the pass from Borrowdale is less scenic but arguably harder with several early punishing 25 percent gradients early on and a changing incline that never quite allows you to find a rhythm.

Wrynose Pass
Wrynose is said to be the queen of climbs when compared to its neighbour King Hardknott. Climbing from Ambleside you may well wonder how anything can be worse than the leg breaker before you. Right from the off you’re hit with a 25 percent hairpin or two. Take my advice and make the most of the flat run up. The remainder is a slow 15-20 percent slog to what appears to be a wall leading to the summit. Only there’s no ladder to help you climb this mind bending straight stretch of 25 percent tarmac that will leave you cycling sideways like a terrified crab.

Hardknott Pass
The steepest hill climb in England for road cyclists. It is evil. A menace. A serpent snaking up over the mini mountains ahead, the wet slither of road shines and twinkles, easily mistaken for a river but for the fact it rises high into the clouds. Hardknott begins with a 30 percent wall before a long toil over 10 to 20 percent gradients. Drained, you are afraid to look up and face the final 30 percent ramp, your lungs burning, heart pounding, arms shaking, legs crying. Don’t give up, you can do it. Take a flag, overjoyed, you’ll want to claim the summit.

Map of Lake District cycling climbs

Inspired? The map below will help you plan your route through the Lake District. The arrows represent the classic climb of each pass. You are free to climb the reverse too of course, just not all in the same day!

Got the fear yet?

Got the fear yet?

Which is the toughest climb in the Lake District?

There’s much debate as to which of Wrynose and Hardknott is the hardest hill to cycle when riding them both the hardest way i.e. heading into the Duddon Valley that separates the two. The answer? The hill you climb second. Whenever I’ve tackled these infamous climbs, I view them as a pair, for you cannot see either and resist the temptation to conquer these twin peaks, so beautiful and challenging is the road.

Wrynose Pass (easy way) with Hardknott (easy way!) in background

Wrynose Pass (easy way) with Hardknott (easy way!) in the background

Tips for cycling in the Lake District

England’s lakeland humbles the dear cyclist, be it the sublime vistas, the terrifying descents or the punishing climbs. Riding the passes is not for the light-hearted or weak-minded. Just seeing these climbs can make you question your sanity. How on earth will I climb that, you wonder? There is however much reward for the brave and anything can be climbed with the right gearing.

  • You will get wet. Be prepared to cycle in the rain and cling to your brake levers when descending. Dry days are as a rare flat roads. They say if you can see the peak of a fell in the Lake District then it is about to rain. If you can’t see the peak, then it is already raining.
  • You will experience every kind of weather. Usually in one climb. The weather changes fast both in the valleys and high up on the passes so be prepared to bake and shiver within a matter of minutes.
  • Don’t forget the descents. If you think climbing mini mountains is tough, take lightly a wet and twisty descent at your peril. Scary. I suggest working on that frail cyclist’s upper body of yours that usually struggles to open bananas!
  • Focus on the road. There’s some dramatic lumps in them there steep roads. Hardknott and Wrynose in particular take a perverse delight in giving you as bumpy, lumpy a surface as possible. Belgians would be forgiven for thinking they’re back on the cobbles.
  • Take a phone. Not for emergencies, for phone signals are about as reliable as the winter bus service. The camera however will help you believe the outstanding sights you see are real.
  • Take a chain tool. The chances of your chain snapping are high. Don’t get caught out in the middle of nowhere. My chain snapped on Wrynose recently. Cue rain. Whilst I was disappointed not to complete the climb, I was relieved to be able to complete the ride.
  • Be reasonable. Fifty miles in the Lake District is the equivalent of at least 100 miles elsewhere. The climbs will soon have you begging for a short-cut.
  • Practice unclipping whilst pedalling at 10 rpm. If you leave the lakes without putting your foot down on a climb then you are to be congratulated. If only by your own ego!
  • Consider a bigger cog on the back. Nobody looks cool falling over in slow motion whilst still clipped in on a 30 percent climb.
  • Tackle the hardest climbs first. Your legs will thank you for it. Don’t be embarrassed to take a rest day. I once attempted five consecutive days hill climbing in the lakes. Keyword there being ‘attempted’.
  • Get up early or avoid the summer tourists. With your eyeballs popping out of your head and your heart pounding against your ribcage you probably don’t want to hit a traffic jam on Hardknott. That said, I didn’t find the summer traffic too bad. Few tourists venture west in the lakes, odd given this is the lakes at their most stunning.
  • Tourists drive slowly on 30 percent inclines and twisty roads. Give them space as they can be a little unpredictable navigating these torrid turns. Taking a car up these hills is frightening! On the plus side, drivers in the lakes give cyclists plenty of space and are very courteous.

Where to stay in the Lake District

There’s many a cycle friendly B&B in the Lake District. Avoid the tourist trap of Windermere and the relatively featureless south lakes and head north. Keswick is a big town and a good base if you are car less (although the cycle ride from Penrith station down the A66 is scary despite the patchy attempt to install bike paths). Ambleside puts you in the heart of things and is good for Hardknott, Wrynose, The Struggle and Kirkstone Pass (see map below).

Best cycling route in the Lake District?

Among the many stunning rides, my personal favourite is an anticlockwise loop of Borrowdale that goes the easy way up Newlands, passing beside beautiful Buttermere before climbing up through the valley up and over Honister Pass. Breathtaking at every turn.

The ambitious amongst you may like to try the Fred Whitton sportive, a 112 mile slog over the majority of the above climbs. Not for the faint hearted. Nor I would suggest, anybody who wants to enjoy these climbs (if such a thing was possible!). There’s certainly a difference between climbing a hill fresh or with many a hard mile in the legs. My hill climbing times when doing silly miles in the Lakes were twice as slow as my usual times. The beauty of the Lake District is that any route you cycle will be one of the best (and hardest!) you are ever likely to encounter.

Live and breath the climb – Hardknott Pass in the Fred Whitton

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Fixed gear bikes – How, why, when, what, which

Fixed gear track racing smallFixed gear. You and the bike are one, brain gives way to cog, crank arms are mere extensions of your legs and vice-versa. You are a cycling cyborg, part human, part machine, unsure where the steel ends and the flesh begins. Only the smile on your face reveals the human. Riding a fixed gear bike is special. This much you’ll discover the first time you ride fixed and stop pedalling.

The best things in life are the simplest. Extravagance is an absurdity best left to those vainly searching for happiness at the bottom of their wallet. Silence. Starlight. Sunrise. The sea. The touch of a loved one. The smile of a stranger. A Bob Dylan lyric. A cup of coffee. Bubble wrap. A shed. Single speed bikes. One cog, one gear, many cadences.

Riding a fixed gear bike is cycling in its purest, simplest form. Reducing life to its essential elements reminds you what it is to be human. Cooking with fire. Being naked. Although not necessarily at the same time. The less we have, the less we stand to lose and the less we can be distracted. Riding fixed, dérailleurs cannot break and gears cannot slip.

“The greatest wealth is to live content with little.”
Plato

That’s not to say Luddites should rule the earth. I welcome change and progress yet it is easy to forget the origin of why we began to evolve in the first place. Rarely do we look upon fire, the wheel, and the bicycle with the awe of when they were first discovered or invented.

Progress isn’t always essential despite the claims of the marketing men and women who strive to make anything seem necessary. Electronic gears. Cycling specific socks. Energy gels with added Oompa Loompa testosterone. To ride fixed is to strip all of this back and ride a bicycle as it was intended. Pure simplicity in itself.

What’s the difference between a single speed, a fixed gear and a track bike?

The track stand haunch a.k.a pointless perching

The track stand. Supposedly cool, definitely inefficient

First, let’s avoid any confusion. Not all single speed bikes are fixed gear bikes. A single speed bike can either have a fixed gear or a freewheel i.e. you can roll without pedalling. A fixed gear bike is a single speed on which you must always pedal. Why should you care? You shouldn’t, unless you’re about to ride 100 miles and have a choice between the two!

What about a track bike, what’s that all about then? A track bike is a fixed gear bike. Simple. Or is it? Track bikes must meet stringent regulations to actually be ridden on a track. This includes a high bottom bracket clearance and a short crank arm length enabling you to negotiate the banked curves of the track without striking the pedal.

More importantly, a track bike cannot have brakes if used for its intended purpose. Brakes on a track are considered dangerous when everybody else is riding brakeless. If you want brakes on a track bike you better come equipped with a drill. Finally the geometry of the frame is engineered for the pure speed of the track so a track bike will ride a little harsher on the road and a shorter wheelbase means potential toe overlap on the front wheel.

Benefits of riding fixed gear

Clean lines. Repaint required after every wet ride.

Clean lines. Repaint required after every wet ride.

  • Low maintenance. This was the primary motivation for my fixed purchase. Nobody enjoys cleaning chains with a toothbrush or digging out grime from a rear cog. When the fear of getting your bike dirty prevents you from riding you know you’ve got issues. Muck aside, single speed bikes have fewer parts ergo less to break or adjust. Commuting you no longer need worry about potholes damaging the wheels of your best bike either.
  • It’s fun. This is why I would recommend a fixed gear bike. Prior to becoming a fixed convert I read so much about the supposed fun of riding a fixed gear bike and was very much what you would call my usual cynical self. How on earth could being chained to the revolutions of my cogs be so much fun? The only answer to this question is to ride fixed. There is no other explanation. Forget all of the mystical stuff, the being at one stuff, the pure cycling stuff. Just go for a ride and note the smile on your face and then you try to explain the fun. And no, fun should never need explaining.
  • Simplicity. Not having to think about changing gear frees the mind to enjoy the ride. One less distraction. It’s you, the bike and the open (hopefully flat) road. No more crunching of gears as you accelerate away from the traffic lights. Free of gears, you’ve also shed some serious weight from your rear wheel. Light and sprightly you are.
  • Fitness. There are many spurious claims as to the fitness benefits of riding a fixed gear bike (see fixed gear myths below) yet one thing is undeniable: you must pedal at all times. No coasting means extra effort, assuming that is you have chosen the correct gearing.
  • Aesthetics. Only a philistine can shrug with indifference at the beautiful clean lines of a fixed gear bike. This is perhaps why the so-called hipster has jumped on a single-speed and turned the bike into something of a fashion statement. Shame the irony of the multi-coloured deep rims and tyres is seemingly lost on their aesthetic sensibilities.

Will riding a fixed gear bike improve my pedalling technique and strength?

Massive cyclist thighs

Before and after you started riding fixed

Yes and no. It will not teach you some mystical pedalling technique because let’s face it, pedalling is pretty easy. You pedal in a circle, job done. Will it teach you to pull up on the pedals? No more than cleats and being fixed to your pedals would. Some say riding fixed actually makes you a lazier rider when pedalling as the motion of the chainring does the work for you.

I’ll get stronger though won’t I? Maybe, depending on which gear you choose, which is the same as riding a road bike in a gear that’s a little harder than you might normally manage. So no, a fixed gear bike per se will not improve your strength or power outputs.

So what will riding fixed do for my cadence? Well it will teach you to pedal all of the time. No coasting. Freewheeling quickly becomes a thing of the past. Since riding fixed for my commute, on long weekend rides on my road bike I find myself consciously forcing myself to stop pedalling when going downhill in a bid to save energy. Never coasting is a benefit and a curse depending on the type of ride you are on. Not convinced? Ask a seasoned road bike century rider to complete a hilly 100 miles on a fixed gear and take one look at their post-ride face!

Tips for riding a fixed gear bike for the first time

Fixie fan Jesus learns a new trick to add excitement to his tired water becomes wine routine

Fixie fan Jesus learns a new trick to add excitement to his tired water becomes wine routine

If you’re used to riding a bike with a freewheel i.e. the bike rolls without you pedalling, then you’re in for a surprise the first time you ride a fixed gear bike. Without being overly dramatic, you pretty much have to learn how to ride a bike again. OK, so that was a little melodramatic yet it is not far from the truth. Here’s some tips on how to ride a fixed gear bike:

  • Pedal. At all times. You are the cycling equivalent of a shark, a prehistoric beast that must always keep moving to stay alive. Stop pedalling at your peril.
  • Cornering. Many a new fixed rider fears tight corners and pedal strike, that moment when pedalling around a corner your pedal hits the curb or floor at the low point of the pedal stroke. In over 1,000 fixed gear rides I’m yet to encounter pedal strike. Have I found a mystical Roman road with no corners? Not exactly. My fixed bike is a track bike (hey, I liked the colour!) and thus the bottom bracket is a little higher from the floor. Added to that are my shorter than normal crank arms at 165 mm instead of the 172.5 or 175 found on most road bikes.
  • Fit a front brake. I cannot stress the importance of this enough. Hence I go on about it quite a bit further down. You are not a better rider if you ride brakeless. You’re just slower, more tired and more of a danger to yourself and others around you.
  • Don’t worry about a rear brake. That’s called your legs.
  • Don’t learn how to skid. You’ve a front brake, you’ll never need to skid. OK, maybe for fun. Once.
  • Learn to track stand. The art of track standing will improve your balance and give you more control over the bike at very slow speeds.
  • Learn when not to track stand. Which is most of the time. You may think you’re cool track standing at the traffic lights for three minutes but you look ridiculous. Besides, it’s a complete waste of energy. But you’ll get away from the lights quicker right? Maybe. Or maybe you have an overgeared bike and so gaining momentum is oh so slow and you’ve been passed by everyone who pushed off the floor with their feet and clipped in quickly with their double-sided cleats. Track standing at busy ASLs in close proximity to other cyclists is also dangerous as you edge to and fro into the line of other riders.
  • Strap yourself in. When your pedals move regardless of whether your legs are moving, you don’t want to find your feet slipping or being thrown from the pedals. Ever tried to reconnect your feet to a pair of pedals spinning at 100 rpm? Good luck!
  • Learn how to start from a stop position. Assuming you’ve realised track stands are well, for the track, you’ll need to either i) come to a stop with the pedals in a position that allows you to accelerate (so leading foot positioned between 1-3 pm on a clock face) or ii) use your front brake to lift the rear wheel the 1 mm off the ground required to quickly spin your leading foot into position – a trick that you will soon master in the blink of an eye.
  • Learn how to spin downhill. I’m not going to lie. I look and feel ridiculous spinning away at 140 rpm down a steep hill. Control over the bike is also more difficult. Embrace the spin or alternatively learn how to control the bike and roll gently down a hill. Again, here’s where brakes help.
  • Increase your vigilance. Even though I ride fixed with brakes, I have found I have a better awareness of everything happening around me. As mentioned above, riding fixed is like learning how to ride all over again and so you begin to appreciate the flow of the roads much more, slowing down by leg power rather than caliper power. There’s something about riding fixed that makes you never want to stop and so you’ll pace yourself towards traffic lights so that you’ll never lose your momentum (without becoming a red light jumper).
  • Choose gears and routes carefully. You don’t want to be undergeared and spinning away any more than you want to be overgeared and mashing your way up hills. More on gears further down the blog.
  • Get the right chain tension and a straight chainline. This simply means getting the chain tension nice and tight. Not too tight otherwise you’ll find turning the cogs a little stiff. Too loose and you risk serious injury should your chain jump off. The chain should be as tight as possible whilst still allowing free movement of the drive chain. A straight chainline will ensure 100 percent connection with the chain and cogs, hence they’ll be less likely to slip off.
  • Bunny hop whilst pedalling. A difficult but must-have trick for fixed gear bike riding. Forget track stands and skidding, the bunny hop is the trick you need to beat those pesky potholes. Start small and move slowly before working your way up.
  • Beware of flares and laces. You don’t want anything getting caught in a fixed gear chain. Oh no.
  • Look cool. You’re riding a single speed bike, you must be a hipster, right?
  • Don’t ride like a moron. Excuse my language, but there does seem to be a strong correlation between the number of singlespeed (not necessarily fixed gear) riders and those with a blatant disregard for every other road user. Sure, cyclists riding all sorts of bikes can be idiots yet my experience here in London tends to lean heavily towards those riding a single speed.

Can I ride fixed gear without brakes?

Who needs brakes when you've got walls?

Who needs brakes when you’ve got walls?

Sure. You can also jump out of aeroplanes without a parachute or ride a motorbike naked. I just wouldn’t recommend it. Yes, your legs can act as brakes. So too your head when you hit the back of a bus that stops suddenly. But, but, my legs are really strong. Sure, rely on your legs to stop you, just make sure you quadruple your breaking distances and don’t travel over 10 miles per hour.

Ah yes, but I know how to perform skids on my fixed gear. That may be, but if you’re skidding then you’re not riding a big enough gear to get a decent speed (at least not for me!) and you had better have a good supplier of tyres and more money than sense. Finally, remember that riding a fixed gear bike without brakes is illegal here in the UK unless you’re on a track.

A front brake is a must for me. My fixed is my commuting bike here in London, a city where a brake is as essential as sharp elbows and the ability to avoid eye contact during rush hour on the Tube. Brakes save me energy as I no longer need to pedal backwards to slow myself down and I can also cycle much faster safe in the knowledge that I can stop as quickly as any other bike on the road.

Does a front brake really upset the true beauty of your bike and the ride? No, you only use it when you need to and from an aesthetic point of view, most people who chat to me about riding fixed at traffic lights ask if my bike has brakes, so discreet is my set-up.

Are fixed gear bikes dangerous?

Baggy pants and a fixed gear bike. Good luck.

Baggy pants and a fixed gear bike. Good luck.

Bikes of any form are not dangerous, riders are. Follow the tips above, use your front brake and you’ll be fine. Are fixed bikes safer than road bikes? No safer, no more dangerous. You could argue the chain is less likely to fall off, but when it does you will certainly know about it.

You’ll need to relearn how to ride a bike without coasting otherwise it’s buckaroo time and a chance to test your rodeo skills, which you will almost certainly experience when first climbing on a fixed gear bike. After that, the greatest danger comes in behaving like an idiot, but it was ever thus.

Is riding fixed bad for my knees?

Only if you ride the wrong gear, pretty much like selecting the wrong gears on a road bike. You don’t want to be mashing away on a huge gear and neither do you want to be spinning a tiny gear. Much depends on where you ride. If you’re in a hilly part of the world then a fixed gear bike may not be for you (although judging by the number of fixed gear bikes I saw in San Francisco , much also depends on your fitness).

Should I buy a fixed gear bike?

This very much depends on the riding you want to do. Flat commute? Go for it. Hilly, long distance Audax rides? Probably not unless you like suffering. Horses for courses, as any amateur gambler knows. Want to look cool? Sure, go for it but you can achieve the same riding a single speed with a free wheel (see obligatory fixie hipster slurs below). Either way, some will label you for riding a bike with one gear but then such things are not a worry to anybody wearing a moustache or Lycra, or anybody who rides what the hell they want to ride!

I spent months debating whether to go fixed or freewheel, mostly because riding fixed seemed very daunting, plus I knew I would have to go clipless too, something I swore never to do commuting in London. My worries quickly dissipated once I began riding. Sure, there’s an initial learning curve but once overcome you will wonder how you cycled for so long without enjoying the purest form of cycling pleasure there is; riding fixed.

I thought fixies were for hipsters?

Travelling through a red light near you soon

Travelling through a red light near you soon

I cannot write a blog on single speed bikes without mentioning the H word. Sure, the bearded men and moustachioed women of downtown Dalston here in Londinium may prefer to ride a bike with one gear, but observe closely and you’ll notice that 47 times out of 48, the bike has a freewheel and is a single speed rather than a fixed gear bike. Boat shoes and fixed wheel bikes don’t tend to get along too well.

Anyhow, who cares? Cycling is meant to be fun. Ride what makes you smile. You’re a cyclist, since when has style or fashion come into your decision-making process? You live for the days when snot runs down your face, the interval sessions that turn your head beetroot, or when the rain soaks you thoroughly and you look like a drowned rat. So don’t worry about being labelled a hipster, it might actually make a change to being labelled a cyclist.

OK, I’m sold, but what it’s called again? Fixie or fixed?

The word fixie has become synonymous with the hipster craze for riding, er single speed bikes even though most do not actually ride fixed gear bikes. Walk into your local bike shop and ask for a fixie and you’ll be ushered towards the bright multi-coloured bikes with cheap components parked in front of the skinny fit three-quarter length jeans (and any other stereotype I can muster).

Ask for a fixed gear bike in a gruff voice and depending on the size of your thighs, you’ll either be taken towards the black track bikes with no brakes or over towards some nice looking fixed gear bikes with front brakes ready for road riding. Alternatively you could build your own fixed gear, which is definitely on my cycling bucket list one cold winter day.

What gears should I ride and what the heck is a flip-flop hub?

Steepest hill climb

Not a day for the fixed gear

A flip-flop hub is essentially a back wheel with two gears, one on either side of the wheel, allowing you to flip the wheel around and choose another gear. Handy eh? Now, don’t think of this as a mid-ride gear change, because flipping your wheel every time you hit a hill is inconvenient to say the least, especially for the bunch waiting for you at the top.

A flip-flop hub allows you to choose between two gears or alternatively between a freewheel and fixed gear. You can have a small cog for those fast flat rides when you’re focussing on strength and a big cog on the other side for when you just want to spin away like a hamster on a wheel. I tend to avoid extremes when choosing my gears although my flip-flop combination does have a broadish range (14 and 17 tooth) to ensure my ride is comfortable but very different whichever gear I choose.

Most people use a flip-flop hub to alternate between riding fixed and coasting along on a freewheel. Having a road bike with all of the free-wheeling gears I need, I don’t really need such freedom but can understand why the thought of riding fixed on tired legs might have me reaching for the spanner set.

What is the best gear ratio for fixed gear bikes

Massive bike gear

Pray for a tailwind

There is no universal optimum gear for riding fixed just like there’s no one best anything for anybody. Much will depend on four things: terrain, fitness, cadence and your desired average speed. You can search as many forums as you like to find the best gear ratio but the only way to find that magic formula is to experiment.

Use a gear calculator to begin with, which will help you understand what gears are required for certain speeds when riding different cadences. Finding the right gear is like finding the right woman or man. Many will seem attractive but it’s not until you’ve spent some time with them and er, ridden ‘em until you’ll really know. Once the magic happens you will never flirt with another gearing ever again.

Me? Well, I’m in denial. I ride gears either side of what I think my special gear will be. I ride a 42 on the front simply because it came with the bike (in truth I’d prefer something a little bigger from a purely aesthetic view, along with a minor uplift in efficiency too – big front cogs transfer more power than small cogs).

On the back I ride either 14 or 17 depending on how I feel. The 14 is a little tough going when accelerating from a standing stop but I like to mash out some quick revolutions on this gear when feeling strong. The 17 is almost perfect for commuting but is a little too spinny, which helps ensure I stick to low tempo recovery rides, something I am incapable of doing on a geared bike. Some day I’ll splash out on that special something, which is probably a 16. In the meantime I’ll continue to enjoy the tease.

So off you go, deep into that murky world of gear ratios and gear inches and 44×16, 48×16 and 52×19 debates that will drive you crazy and leave others looking bemused. Before you know it you’ll begin researching skid patches, alienating even your closest of riding friends.

Ride fixed, ride free. Whatever you ride, smile.

RideLondon 100 (86!) – training, the remains of a hurricane and a shortcut

RideLondon Big BenLondon. City of 8 million, all of who seem to be on the same Tube carriage as you or walking in the opposite direction on Oxford Street. Crowded. Choked. Clogged. Roads heaving with impatient drivers eager to shave seconds off their journey. London. City of the cycling revolution, the blood of the revolt ignored, each day anew fresh skirmishes, daily clashes, one and all fighting for respect, for safety, for sanity.

RideLondon. Closed roads. Space, silence, support. The city transformed for a day when the bike is the king of the roads, a day you wish would never end. Unless that is, the remnants of a hurricane are heading your way. This is the tale of when my love affair with RideLondon turned sour.

Training for RideLondon 100

A photograph. The closest I'll come to Box Hill this year

A photograph. The closest I’ll come to Box Hill this year

Whisper it quietly, this was actually my second RideLondon. As such I was no stranger to the demands of the 100 mile course. Cycling is often reduced to numbers so let’s begin with some random digits. 96, 160, 106, 112, 70. This was my mileage each weekend prior to the event. Big numbers that impress nobody. Why? I was cycling too much.

The week before the big day I eked out a 70 mile ride. Exhausted, I pretty much crawled home with the words of my own blogs on over training and learning when to rest bashing me over the head. My numbers should have been smaller and more structured, such as 60, 70, 80, 90, 80. Train for what you will ride, no more, no less.

What to do then but ban myself from cycling? During the next seven days the only things I rode were escalators and my luck when trying to get a seat on the morning commute. Add to that lots of sitting around with my legs up high, relaxing baths, vitamin supplements and healthy food, anything to aid my recovery. If you’d have told me to rub my legs in the urine of baby tarantulas before setting them alight with paraffin I would have, so desperate were my internet searches for tangential evidence of miraculous recovery cures.

Anticipation

Closed roads. No more gutter riding.

Closed roads. No more gutter riding.

Unable to cycle, I was left to fret about the condition of my legs, my hypochondriac levels surpassing those of Woody Allen trapped in a nursery lift surrounded by snotty spotty infants.

Excitement too began to build. And nerves. Three numbers weighed heavy around my neck. 443. This was my time in the inaugural RideLondon, four hours and 43 minutes, equating to a whopping 21 mph average speed for 100 miles. Whoop!

Even I was impressed, especially considering I’d broken my elbow four weeks before the big event. Praise be the fast men I rode with that day, not to mention the healthy tailwind on the return leg. Could such a time be conquered? When I first entered RideLondon I cared not for my time but this didn’t last long once training begun. With tired legs and meteorologists talking of hurricane weather, my ambition shrivelled to blind hope.

Bertha ruins the big day

Biblical. RideLondon, pedal boats welcome.

Biblical. RideLondon, pedal boats welcome.

RideLondon is a sportive. I hate sportives. Paying to ride cluttered roads I can ride for free without worrying about the rash moves of weekend warriors is not for me. Yet RideLondon is different. It is in my home city for one. A place where closed roads really do make a difference. Closed roads on country lanes, pah, ride early enough and the roads are all yours anyway.

Riding according to a schedule is also not my thing. If it rains it’s much harder to roll over in bed if you’ve signed up to an event. My gate opening time for RideLondon was a ridiculous 5.10 am. Now, I like early morning rides as much as the next cyclist but this meant waking up at 4 am aka the middle of the night.

The day before the big event I was checking the weather forecast more than your average sailor. Despite all of the rule 5 shouts and calls to HTFU, should common-sense prevail, you will admit cycling in the rain is not fun. Despite my prayers, I knew I would be riding in biblical rain. Quite the difference to the sunshine and pleasant tailwind of 2013.

Four am. I awoke in the dark and listened but could hear no rain. Maybe my luck would be in! Fat chance. The very minute I leave my house the heavens show me who will be boss for the day. Heavy rain. Eyes barely open, I arrived at the Olympic Park somewhat damp, the skies still black, cereal still settling in my stomach. The park was peppered with cyclists, mostly male of a certain creed and age. The nervous anticipation was palpable, somewhat akin to a military camp preparing for war. Nervous footmen queued for toilets or were busy fuelling themselves for the battle of attrition ahead, expensive shiny equipment lying everywhere.

The announcement of a shortened route was received with a mixture of disappointment and relief. The course had officially been shortened to 86 miles, skipping both Leith Hill and Box Hill. Shame, but totally understandable given the weather that would later punish us.

A surreal serenity

24 hrs earlier. Blue skies and fun. Lots of fun.

24 hrs earlier. Blue skies and fun. Lots of fun.

No starting gun sounded, instead we set off to a clunk-click salute of cleats clipping into pedals. Off we go! First up an empty dual carriageway, a tempting invitation for overexcited cyclists to set off at the pace of Mark Cavendish on the Champs-Élysées. Adrenalin pumping, I followed, my heartrate audible so hard was my muscle working. A course highlight arrived early, riding silently through the Limehouse Tunnel, the dim light making you feel as if you have entered another world devoid of noise, of air.

The peloton rode on, the closed roads theirs. Yet a strange thing happens. Everybody habitually clings to the left of the road, pre-conditioned, afraid perhaps to truly believe that finally, we do own the roads! I took a sneaky moment to enjoy cycling the wrong way down the road before slipping back onto the wheel of stronger men than I.

Central London is but a blur. You glide down the north embankment of the Thames and past Parliament (hello Winston!), the roads and streets empty, only the sound of rubber licking the tarmac and the occasional heavy panting from those overdoing things at mile 5 of 100. You are an extra in the film 28 days later, surrounded by a Lycra clad zombie army silently marching on in search of pain rather than brain.

Knightsbridge soon passes, the shoppers still tucked up in bed dreaming of Fabergé eggs. Central London behind us, we race into my favourite training ground, Richmond Park, before being spat out and beyond into Surrey, an almost silent peloton, still so quiet, awestruck, a library on wheels.

I cling to wheels as much as the peloton clings to the left of the road. A quick start means I am struggling. The rain begins and I’m soaked within minutes. I find myself alone, no wheels to follow just as the wind begins to pick up. Pain ensues.

Oh heck, here cometh the hills

RideLondon, water skiiing on wheels

RideLondon, water skiiing on wheels

The first 50 miles were over before we realised it and so we turned back towards the big smoke, relieved to escape the wind. Not long now, you think, almost sure you can hear the roars of the crowds on The Mall. That’s when the road goes up. And up and up. Newlands Corner. Bish. Leith Hill. Bash. Box Hill. Bosh.

My legs begin thanking the organisers for shortening the course as I struggle up Leith Hill. I’m cooked. The peloton frays at the edges as the road goes up and is soon reduced to a thin line, a needle piercing the pack either side of them, loose cyclists weaving and heaving in their wake. The cyclists slow, but not the rain.

I love climbs. There is a certain pleasure in dropping other cyclists on the incline. Sometimes I wonder if all sportive riders, even a large number of club riders, are from East Anglia and are encountering these strange lumps in the road as if for the first time. That said, I was panting harder than a dog in a hot car by the time I conquered the summit.

Hill done, the road is now downhill and you edge around the corners on the wet roads, the racing line welcome on the closed roads, wary now only of the kamikaze descenders shooting by either side of you, so close you’re sure they’re aiming for you. Never will you take fright on fairground dodgems again.

Back on the flat, handlebar grip loosening, legs tightening, just 20 miles remain. Almost done you think, you hope, the pace picking up as you cling on to your average speed, your heart rate rising as you chase groups slightly quicker than you, hoping to be dragged to the line. The rain, not content with soaking you, decides to unleash torrents onto the roads which quickly turn into canals rendering our spirit and brakes useless.

The small clusters of people lining the route become swarms become crowds become a blur. Yes, they are cheering for you, you a cyclist, people are openly cheering you, in London nonetheless! Incredible support considering the weather.

The grand arrivée

Rain drops so big it looks like bird poop

Rain drops so big it looks like bird poop

After flying down the embankment parallel to Chelsea and Fulham, the sight of Westminster Abbey almost comes as a surprise. ‘What, back in London, already?’ you wonder, exhausted, legs cramping but somehow still spinning. You ride besides the Thames but the roads are so wet you might as well be in it. Big Ben, Whitehall, time to slow down and take it all in before the big left turn at Trafalgar Square (hello Nelson!), beneath Admiralty Arch you go, awestruck, you’re on The Mall and flying down the home straight before you know it, oh my flipping god, I’m cycling down The Mall and people are cheering me on! In this bloody weather!

Turning onto the Mall is what it must be like for Tour de France riders turning onto the Champs-Élysées on the final day of the Tour. Well, it’s the closest us amateurs will get. Even your heavy legs and the heavy rain cannot suppress your smile. Pride swells within, the roar of the crowd encouraging you to sprint to the line. You duly oblige.

Finished, 86 hard miles done, you cannot but help raise your arms as if yes, I have just won the Tour de France. You are a hero, bedraggled and cramping and dripping wet, tired fingers attempting to stop the Garmin to check your final time. Head bowed, a medal is soon hanging around your neck and a flash of photography welcomes the star of the day.

You beam and turn behind you to face Buckingham Palace, deliriously waving at the imaginary royals you’re quite sure are chanting your name from their balcony. Medal admired, you root through your goodie bag for the real rewards, recovery drinks and food which you soon devour, the remaining tat soon binned.

Thank you RideLondon, it wasn’t quite the pleasure of 2013, in fact it was a war of attrition rather than a grand day out. Thank you volunteers, thank you to the crowds for braving the weather, thank you to the chiselled calves that helped me to the line, thank you too to the rain, which stopped the minute I got home. Ha, good one!

And thank you too tired legs. You may not have completed 100 miles but you did manage an impressive 21.66 mph average speed. Would I have beaten last year’s time? Hard to say, the extra mileage wouldn’t have been a problem but I was noticeably slower on the hills this year. Plus, there was that damn Bertha making things pretty much incomparable. Still, 21.66 mph average speed for 86 miles. I’ll take that. Whoop whoop… Zzzz.

Tips for cycling RideLondon

Celebrate at your own risk

Celebrate at your own risk

  • Don’t forget your water bottles. One gent I met at the start had. Lay your kit out the night before – you’ll be up in the middle of the night to make the start line
  • Remember the road closures. They apply to you too when making your way to the Olympic Park
  • Empty your bladder before you depart. The queues for the chemical toilets are pretty full on. Imagine a music festival queue and then consider all those ahead of you are wearing bib shorts.
  • Training. Take it easy, be sensible. The more training you do, the more you will enjoy the event, unless of course you over do it. Can you ride 100 miles? Yes, anybody can.
  • Try some hills before the big day. Don’t indulge me in my hobby of dropping cyclists on hills. Climb a few, you might even grow to love them!
  • Water bottles part ii. Make sure they fit your water bottle cage. The number of bottles I saw lying in the road was quite something. Unless of course these folk thought they could do the pro thing and ditch their bottles!
  • You will get cold waiting at the start line. Tricky one this. Take clothing you don’t need for the ride or freeze for a little bit? As a marathon runner I used to wear a bin bag at the start. Sexy.
  • Be patient with your re-fuelling strategy. The first stop is packed and chaotic. So too those at the top of hills. Wait for the next stop, they’re not too far apart.
  • Food strategy. You should be able to carry enough calories with you for 100 miles, which of course you have practised with in training. Me? Three bananas, two energy gels and the obligatory pack of Soreen. Everyone is different though, so experiment. And don’t forget to carb load the day before and force feed yourself a good breakfast on the morning.
  • Group riding. Practise or read up about it. It’s not difficult but it is dangerous if you ignore the rules of the road. The same goes for club riders showing off, undertaking and coming by far too close when there’s plenty of room on the road.
  • Don’t leave your bike unattended. You’re not safe just because you’re at a sportive. Professional thieves specifically target these events.
  • Learn how to ride in the rain. And take your rain jacket should the skies look grey.
  • Enjoy it. Make the most of the closed roads. It is quite the spectacle. Indulge yourself when you ride down The Mall.

Ride London Garmin route GPX

Here’s my RideLondon GPX on Strava for 2014, little use to you unless you plan on catching the tailend of a hurricane too! So here’s 2013 too and the full 100 miles. Don’t get attempting this ride with open roads as there were some pretty big dual carriageways on the route.

Praise (mostly) for the organisers

My two medals. Bronze and silver!

My two medals. Bronze and silver!

Finally a thank you to the organisers. In 2013 you blew me away with your organisation. You almost did it again in 2014 but for a few small peeves. Shortening the route was without doubt the right thing to do and my legs salute you. My only niggles were the the lack of signage throughout the Olympic Park and the starting pens which had very confusing labels.

The water stop I attended was in the middle of a large patch of grass, badly signed and pretty much impossible to get to easily. Not ideal, especially in the wet. Other than that, well done, processing 20,000 plus cyclists and making it all feel so easy was fantastic. Just don’t talk to me about those middle of the night start times!

Images courtesy of 1-3) 4) @StuartAmoryPT 5) unknown 6) @bex_gardner 7) @MarkAHirst 8) Adapted from The Times newspaper images 9) Yours truly

Early morning cycling – The beauty, the benefits

Cycling and skinny dipping. Beats triathlons. I am not a morning person. I awake with a snarl not a smile. Talk to me if you wish but like letters to Santa, do not expect a reply. Each day I feel born anew, struggling to comprehend the world I find myself in.

Sometimes a whole day, nay week, can pass me by for I am in a state of limbo, paralysed by sleep, living a foggy dream where people talk at me, my brain unable to comprehend. I am sunk, underwater everything is slower, all noise merges into one and I float at the mercy of the current.

Strange it is, that dawn marks the start time for so many of my rides. The beauty of early morning cycling is that anybody can do it, even an early morning zombie like myself, bursting at the seams with the oats I have force-fed myself. Do it once and you’ll either fall for the beauty of the early morn and become a sunrise rider or you’ll hate waking up early so much that you’ll never do it again.

“It is well to be up before daybreak, for such habits contribute to health, wealth, and wisdom.”
Aristotle. Fan of the Kellogg’s cereal fun pack first thing in the morning.

A random number of reasons to cycle at dawn

The road is yours. Once you've overtaken the git in front.

The road is yours. Once you’ve overtaken the git in front.

1) Beauty
The sun peaking above the horizon, the sky black, purple, pink, red, orange, yellow, brilliant blue. A cycling rainbow just for you. An early morning mist clings to the lowlands, the fields still wrapped in their morning blanket. You are the first person on earth to ride this road. You feel amazing.

2) Animals
Damn those furry critters, the four-legged pedestrians of dawn, making our morning rides dangerous beautiful. Who needs safari parks when you’ve got morning rides. No screaming children sat in the back seats, just gasps, your own. Did I just see that? Yes, yes you did, you lucky thing.

3) Isolation
Alone, there’s nothing but the rubber of your tyres rolling across the road to disturb you. Shhh. It’s so early even the birds are yet to wake. You are a zombie, marching on, pedals a’ turning, eyes a’ opening.

4) No traffic
The roads are yours and yours alone. Nobody can cut you up or beep at you for no apparent reason. You can swerve potholes to your heart’s content and ride the lines down the middle of the road should you so wish. You don’t pay road tax and yet the road is all yours. Amazing, this is what it is to be a car driver.

5) Satisfied achievement
We humans are easily pleased. Getting up before the sun is one of those moments. Such feats are rare in our lives thus a dawn rise makes us feel special, proud, so much so that we wouldn’t say no to a sunrise badge if somebody offered to sew one onto our jersey sleeves (don’t get any ideas Rapha).

6) Live two lives
I know this may seem odd, but yes, whisper it quietly, there is life beyond cycling, a normal world void of cranks and bottom brackets. Friends, bed partners, children, pets, you know the sort of thing. Life I believe they call it. Riding early is for time crunched cyclists who can return home without the wife and children even noticing they have been on a magical voyage of sunrises and lung busting hills.

7) Beat the heat
Up and out early in the summer, the morning is your own personal air con unit, hours of refrigeration before the sun rises high to scorch the earth.

8) Science claims it is better for you. Perhaps.
Exercising in the morning is said by some to burn more fat because you are riding in a fasted state, assuming you skipped the English breakfast with extra sausage. The science behind this looks a little fragile, but I’ll leave that up to you. As humans we’re all guilty of believing what we want if it helps us to get out of bed in the morning. I do not recommend cycling on an empty stomach for any great length of time.

9) You’re old
You have no idea what everyone is talking about. You’ve been awake for hours, 5 am isn’t early, it’s late!

A random number of reasons why you don’t cycle at dawn

Meet us at 4.30am, they said. B*stards.

Meet us at 6:25 am, they said. We’ll be there, they said. B*stards.

1) Winter
Dark, cold. Why, why would anybody get out of bed before the 10 am sunrise of December? Certainly not me.

2) Bed warmth
You’re not human if you can ignore the wonderful feeling of being cosy and warm in bed. You cannot move, foetal position fixed, the slightest of movements reminds you that the world outside is a cruel and cold place. Might as well stay in bed.

3) Unnatural
Snooze mode time. Circadian rhythms and your body’s natural clock will always fight the evil alarm clock. You wake when you’re ready and damn anybody who tells you any different. Once we were programmed to fall to sleep come dark and awake with the sun. Now we fall asleep when we’ve run out of things to do and rise only to beat the 11 am McDonalds breakfast McMuffin deadline.

4) You have joined a cycling club
Watches are synchronised and a time is set. You all meet at the same time, same place. You’re ready. Everyone that is except Dave. Every club has a Dave. He’s late again, making you stand and shiver whilst you wait for him because he couldn’t find a sock or, quite possibly, his bike. This is why I ride alone.

5) You don’t know what you’re missing
One early morning ride is motivation enough to get up and repeat. Just try not to pack too many early mornings into your schedule. Sleep is an important part of recovery.

Tips for riding first thing in the morning

Well if the GPS says Straight Ahead, then...

Well if the GPS says ‘Straight Ahead’, then…

Even the most committed sunrise rider needs help. I know I do.

  • Get an early night. You are not a hero because you can semi-function on four hours of sleep like some kind of Margaret Thatcher robot. The former UK prime minister was famous for sleeping little but then she was often caught talking gibberish and making ill advised decisions.
  • Take it easy on the caffeine. I love coffee as much as I hate getting out of bed. However I prefer a slow introduction of caffeine into my system for early morning rides, especially if I have a long day ahead of me. There’s nothing worse than coming down from a caffeine high half-way through a long ride. I wake up to a cup of tea and take a caffeinated sports drink on the ride that I begin to sip close to the half way mark, thus measuring my energy boosts for the duration of the ride.
  • Alcohol and cycling don’t mix. Avoid this cocktail of misfortune as you do not want to be cycling with a hangover. Hungover, I can barely function let alone cycle. Sure, have a drink with your meal, just be sure not to binge and wobble your way through the morning ride.
  • Dress accordingly. You don’t need me to tell you it is going to be colder in the dewy frost of dawn than at noon. Do you? That said, come summer here in the UK you can get away with just a jersey and shorts, for you and the scorched earth will both warm up quickly. Autumn and spring make cycle clothing decisions a little more difficult. I prefer to overdress and be too warm when the temperatures rise rather than freeze for the first few hours of the morn. Winter? I wear my duvet and stick to my bed.
  • Eat breakfast. Another obvious one, right? However this tip is easier said than done. At 5 am the last thing my stomach wants is food. Force feeding myself porridge is not a pretty sight. Remember when you was little and your mother would make you eat the cabbage and you would heave, convulse and wretch? That’s me eating breakfast at dawn. Try to find something you can swallow easily but will still provide you with enough energy to fuel your ride. I’m still looking for such a breakfast so do let me know what you manage to eat early in the morning! And remember not to eat too much, you don’t want to be digesting food for half of your ride.
  • Don’t linger. I aim to be out on the road within 30 minutes of getting up, 15 minutes if possible. The longer I faff around or start reading the news, the less likely it is I’ll want to leave my cosy house for the great outdoors.
  • Prepare your kit the night before. This little ritual will save you the hassle of trying to clamber into inside-out Lycra when you are still half asleep or the panic of trying to find your lucky cycling socks. I always get excited when prepping my kit, like a child the night before Christmas. I lay out my clothes in a pile ordered by how I will need to put them on come the morning. Everything is prepped. Kettle filled with water, teabag in cup, bowl and spoon out ready for breakfast. Now is the time to be obsessive compulsive.
  • Squeeze out the number two. Sorry for that image, but this tip is important unless you enjoy searching for large leaves and pooping behind hedgerows. A hot drink will help. If not it’s time to grit your teeth and pray. Just think of all the extra weight you can er, dump.
  • Start slowly. Your body probably still thinks you’re in some kind of cycling nightmare rather than actually preparing for a 100 mile ride. Spin an easy gear gently and work your way into the ride to prevent injury. In the old days, exercise nuts would recommend warming up pre-activity, not any more. Do not stretch a cold body, you’ll only risk injury.
  • Take your shades. Nobody will see you looking cool but at least you’ll see the road when the sun is low in the sky.
  • Wear dark clothes and put your lights on. I hate high viz clothing. Some studies suggest your visibility may actually be reduced when riding into a low sun wearing high viz compared to if you are wearing darker colours. Accidents happen so when a driver is blinded by the sun you want to make sure they see you. I’m not entirely sure about the dark clothes thing but at least make sure your back light is on, bright and blinking.
  • Take your camera. It’s beautiful out there.
  • Don’t brag. Too much. People will not think you’re hero for getting up before them. You know the truth however.
  • Don’t plan an active day post-ride. You’ll be fit for bed perhaps but certainly not for operating heavy machinery.
  • Take a post-ride power nap. Some swear by it but I can never seem to fall asleep following a ride. Back in my running days when I was training for the London marathon I would return home after a long run and literally pass out as my body recovered. Not sure that’s too healthy either.

Early bird or night owl?

I love the taste of sun warmed electrolytes in the morning

I love the taste of sun warmed electrolytes in the morning

So what about you? Are you an early bird or a night owl? And just how do you eat breakfast so early in the morning?

Images courtesy of 1) Unknown 2) Rod Mclean 3) my-bicylce-and-i.co.uk 4) Unknown 5) Unknown