If you’re interested in off road cycling you may well have ‘gravel bikes’ being marketed at you. They can supposedly ‘do it all,’ because all it takes to tame the UK’s off road terrain is some wide knobbly tyres, flared bars and some hydraulic disc brakes. I was persuaded by this and persevered with trying to make a Surly Midnight Special a ‘do it all’ bike for more than a year, and learned the hard way that life is too short to try hammering square pegs through round holes. This is a short article about how I ended up trading it in for a cheap 2nd hand hardtail and why I think you’d likely be best served by opting for the same.
Firstly we should establish some facts: most people don’t have much room for many bikes. Some of my dearest friends have a great many bikes (at one point one of them slept in a bunk bed with the bottom bunk removed so they could house their stable in their bedroom). But I just don’t have the room for an expansive fleet. I live in a north London flatshare, with the enormous fortune to have a single space in an on-street cycle hangar, which anyone who lives in this town can tell you are rarer than rocking horse doo-doo, with years long waiting lists. Getting bikes up to my 2nd floor room is impossible, and since Grenfell bicycles (and anything else) have been banned from being stored in the shared hallway. And a bike wash area? Forget it. I have a ‘town bike’ which lives under a plastic tarp chained to a railing and can only own one ‘nice bike’ of my own where I can be fairly confident it won’t be nicked.
I think this is a pretty normal situation for most people my age in London. The reality, for us, is that ‘a bike for every occasion’ isn’t attainable. You won’t get to survey trail conditions and pick between a gravel bike, a hardtail or a full sus enduro bike. You just have to lump it with what you have, at the most being able to change tyres for the seasons.
And that’s the nub of it. For a lot of off road cycling a gravel bike in the UK *can* suffice; but with the darkening of the skies and intensifying of the rain, they just become less and less viable to the point where you’d be limited to all but the most well drained paths. For instance when trying to do a mixed terrain ride with my dad on our cross/gravel bikes in 2021, we found that ‘bridleways’ in our holiday neighbourhood were completely impassable on our machines. It wasn’t just that the tyres were too skinny, the way that our weight was much more front-loaded than on an MTB resulted in spinning wheels, and the narrow bars meant we couldn’t get effective leverage to get through the muck. Maybe if your surname is Van Der Poel this is passable but there was no doubt that our ‘do it all’ bikes were in fact more like ‘do some of it but you have to push the rest.’
Even when the going is dry, there’s some specific points where gravel bikes really struggle: technical climbs and descents. While gravel bikes tend to have flared bars for more control, they can only go so far, and when you’re trying to haul yourself up a steep, narrow, rooty incline are just no substitute for a 780mm riser bar. Further, on the climb you want to be able to keep weight well distributed over both wheels, which a mountain bike’s geometry excels at. A gravel bike? Not nearly so much. While a gravel bike can doubtless be used to get up steep climbs, it isn’t nearly so optimised for steering around techy obstacles while so doing. The wide handlebars on mountain bikes aren’t there just because they look cool, they serve a really vital function that makes the hardest parts of your ride vastly more enjoyable and under control.
It was after rides like these that I began thinking harder about whether I was really enjoying riding the Surly. It had cost me a bruising £1,600 on the cycle to work scheme but I was just finding that far from ‘doing it all,’ it was just always like riding a bike that wasn’t up to the specific task I was doing. It was heavy on the road, the SRAM 1x gearing was really too limited for big tours laden with bags (I was pushed to my limits at points on the Caledonian Way), and I could never shake the feeling that I was hamstringing myself for anything but the most mild and dry off-road cycling.
This is where the Voodoo Bizango 29er came in. I found it on Facebook Marketplace (from a genuine seller, who could prove the purchase history) for £500 including a Brand X dropper post. I hadn’t actually ridden a mountain bike for going on several years, and the most up to date one I’d ever tried was my dad’s 2010s Cannondale 26er hardtail. It’s a complete night and day difference. The dropper post and very sloped top tube make technical descending hugely enjoyable, with the top tube and saddle well out of the way of my groin allowing me to really bring my legs in to the equation as shock absorbers.
Are there specific parts of some off road rides where I’m now a little slower? Yes, especially when it’s dry. But aided by the suspension (which can be locked out) and the dropper, I’ve got more energy to give on these sections because I’m not bruising from having white-knuckled a descent where I’ve felt like an over-the-bars could be in the offing. Maybe this stuff would matter to me if I were doing UCI certified gravel racing. But I’m not, and neither are most people.
I sold the Surly and have been having a terrific time with the MTB ever since. Obviously there will still be impassable trails at some times of year even on an MTB, but it’s opened so many more doors to relaxing car-free cycling than the Surly did. I would highly highly recommend looking at a hardtail instead of a ‘gravel bike’ for your off roading needs in the UK, I don’t think you’ll regret it in the sightest. Your money can go so far with even the most entry level modern MTB when it’s got a dropper on.
When I first started audaxing in 2018, and I got my first brevet card at the registration line, I saw that there were four special categories of riders: Fixed Wheel, Tandem, Recumbent and Tricycle. More on the other three for some other time, but for a lot of people, and certainly, to begin with, me, it will seem like an act of pure masochism to ride big distances fixed. Two years later, I just finished my first fixed wheel 200 audax. What made me change my mind? Well, this is my go at trying to set out why I think fixed riding might be the next big thing for you.
Quick clarification – what is fixed?
‘Fixed’, ‘fixed gear’ or ‘fixed wheel’ cycling is cycling without a freewheel. Basically when the rear wheel moves, so do your cranks – and vice versa. In short, if you start rolling down a hill, your cranks will continue to spin, connected to the sprocket on the rear hub, held in place with a lockring. Fixed gear wheels are always held in place with sturdy axles, 99.9% of the time fastened down with 15mm nuts using a spanner.
Me and fixed bikes
I’ve actually had fixed gear bikes for a while. When I first began recreational cycling I rode a 2017 Boardman Sport (at the time this was a pretty swish bike for me), which I decided I wouldn’t be comfortable leaving locked outside of anywhere in case of theft or vandalism. I bought a cheapo ‘gas pipe’ steel singlespeed to be the ‘town bike’, but I hadn’t realised it would come with a fixed sprocket at the back, as well as a freewheel. I tried it – and liked it. It probably helped that the cheapo bike came with pretty mediocre brakes, so the reassurance of the fixed drivetrain helping me stay in control was a big boost. This was the bike I’d ride into town and lock up, knowing the chances were good it would still be there when I came back, or at least, it wouldn’t be my ‘pride and joy’ that was missing.
A lot happened after that. I ended up quitting my job and reading a Master’s degree, when the fixed gear became the main bike in my life, both getting to uni, doing my food delivery job, and anything else that would involve leaving a bike outdoors. I won’t kid you I was ‘in love’ with the bike – the plain gauge steel was heavy, and hills were always some work, but it was a robust machine that rarely needed any more care than oil on the chain and a fresh brake block on the front (I eventually removed the rear caliper – it was doing no good).
I eventually sold the steel bike, and upgraded to an Aventon alloy-framed, carbon forked cordoba track bike off of LFGSS.com with some Halo aerorage wheels. The plan was to get involved with some fixed gear crit racing in 2020. Then, 2020 happened, and I realised I was left with an aggressive track bike with no races to ride it at. I sold the Aventon frame and got the Specialized Langster. I’ve had it for about a month now, and it’s been exactly what I’m looking for – racier than the steel beater I had, but not super-aggressive track geo either. Just right to start thinking about using it for some silly distances!
Big distances fixed – not the masochism it’s maligned as
I’d been doing long rides (200 km or longer, up to 600 km so far) for about two years, and there had always been that subculture of ‘fixed wheel’ (as it’s termed in Audax UK) riding, which I’d attributed to people just wanting some extra challenge. But I’d met a few people, both in-person and remotely, who would swear to me that fixed wheel audaxing has more to recommend to it than just ‘steeze points.’ Especially in Western England, there’s been a set of fixed wheel audaxers – particularly Eleanor Jaskowska and Will Pomeroy – who would make the case that fixed wheel riders would often finish faster than were they using gears. The reasoning for this is that with a derailleur gear system, you’re always going to tend towards taking it easy and spinning in a sensible cadence. With fixed wheel riding, you have to go fast so that you have momentum to get you up smaller hills, and you’ll approach longer climbs much more aggressively instead of resigning yourself to a low-geared spin.
Combine this with the inherent simplicity and resilience of the fixed drivetrain (you can’t prang a derailleur hanger when you’re not riding with a derailleur, after all) and this was a pretty compelling case. So, I entered the Thames Valley Audax South Bucks Winter Warmer on the fixed gear and decided to have at it.
Ratio selection is important. When I was using my steel bike on the relative flat lands of London, I would use a 44/16 ratio. The Langster came with a 42 chainset, which I decided to leave on. I think this 42/16 ratio was good for the ride. I got up the vast majority of the hills and only pushed twice in the whole ride (given that one of them was straight after lunch, I plead extenuating circumstances, m’lud), and didn’t feel unduly limited on the flatter bits. And this is bearing in mind I was carrying a full panoply of spare clothes and tools, too.
The overall ride was 207 km, with 1600 metres of climbing. I think this is about as lumpy in terms of net climbing as I’d dare brave, at least for now. I could potentially put on a 17t cog, or even an 18t, for hillier rides. Yes, it was hard work on the hills than it would have been with a derailleur, but the effect was that I was fast. Looking at my historical speeds on 200s, for this one I averaged 23.7 km/h (moving speed). By my standards, this is pretty good going, bearing in mind it was 100% solo.
Where I think fixed gear can start to be less fun is when the sun goes down. I pushed on two hills in the ride. The first one was because my cheese toastie hadn’t gone down, but the second one was later into the evening, when I couldn’t see too far ahead of me and had to slow down. This meant I couldn’t confidently attack hills, or use a downhill to build momentum, in case a big pothole or other hazard was in the ‘run up.’ I have blown out both tyres in such a trap before and really didn’t fancy repeating it.
There’s no denying that committing to a single gearing ratio for a ride so long has big potential to turn into a chore. I was lucky that 42/16 turned out so well. It is theoretically possible to lower gearing ratios while on a ride, but it involves either having a fixed/fixed hub (i.e. a hub in which you can remove the wheel and flip it over, to employ a lower gearing ratio), or the tools to swap cogs on the ride. You could make this easier for yourself by using the Miche cog carrier system, meaning all you’d need was the lockring tool, but still, no one’s idea of fun is spending time on the roadside flipping wheels around.
Is it for you?
Well… Maybe! There are some very good calendar events which are well suited to riding fixed, especially in wintertime. I’ve already booked in for two 2021 audaxes, the Poor Student, and the Willy Warmer, and I think I’m going to do #2 fixed again. It’s not pancake flat, but looking at the route profile, all the hillier bits are ‘up font’ so hopefully the problem of more cautious riding limiting my momentum won’t be so impactful.
I think you might surprise yourself with how fun riding fixed might be. You don’t necessarily need a new bike to try it – White Industries make an ‘eccentric hub’ that lets you turn any bike with quick-release dropouts into a fixed wheel.
I’ve been getting to grips with tubeless riding for approximately a year now. I have come to like it but the learning process hasn’t been without frustrations and pains in setting up and operating a tubeless system for randonneuring/audaxing and gravel riding. After about a year of coming across problems with the approach, and adapting my system, I am finally satisfied that I am getting a real payoff from using tubeless tyres for road cycling.
I hope this blog goes some way to giving you more information to structure your choices, and maybe some other points of interest to make your cycling more enjoyable, so you spend more time turning pedals and less time stood on roadsides doing annoyed cycle fettling.
Why you hate tubeless reason 1: I can’t seat the bloody tyres
The actual setting up of tubeless, when googled for, yields all kinds of ‘secret tips’ youtube videos. Compressors, weird high-pressure charging tanks, and soapy water galore. Even putting a tyre on with a tube, leaving it to stand in the airing cupboard for a day, has been suggested.
All kinds of tricks can be employed to persuade a reluctant tyre to seat on a rim, from extra rim tape to special tubeless inflater pumps. In my experience, the strongest option is to skip all this and take the time to research a tyre and rim combination that needs no special tricks.
For instance, when I got my new bike, supplied with Halo GXC Vapour wheels and Schwalbe G-One Speed tyres, they would not mount no matter what I did. But a set of Clements (now branded as Donnelly) went up with just a track pump.
In another wheelset, using 700c DT Swiss 411 DB rims, Panaracer Gravel King 32mms would refuse to mount no matter what I did. But swapping these for 28mm Hutchinson Fusion 5s, they went on without any fuss.
Take the time to get a good tyre and rim combo, and you’ll never need to touch an air compressor as long as you live.
Reason why you hate tubeless 2: The sealant doesn’t work
One of my frustrations with tubeless when using 28-32mm tyres was that sealant didn’t seem to reliably plug punctures. Certainly it did slow their deflation, but the ‘reliable self sealing’ promises of the marketing men would always elude me.
The self-sealing dream can come true for you, but here’s the rub – especially if you’re a heavy rider with cargo, in my experience, the system will not work optimally with conventional ‘sports cyclist’ road tyres. If you’re a willowy 65kg or even less you may find 28mm or even 25mm tubeless works satisfactorily, but it was certainly not my experience. The internet is awash with videos of 25mm tyres self-sealing from attacks with pins, screws, samurai swords or whatever else, but this doesn’t account for what happens to the tyre when 100 kg of rider, bike and cargo starts banging down the road on the thing.
The secret to resolving this is taking a leaf out of the cyclists of yesteryear, and moving to wider tyres. I use the same sealant (OKO magic milk hi-fiber, an artificial latex-based sealant with microgubbins to plug up holes) as I had with my 700c 28mm and 32mm tyres, but now with 650bx42mm tyres, and the performance difference is night and day.
Many people’s tyre clearances will top out at around 30-32mm. It doesn’t necessarily mean that tubeless isn’t worth doing, but certainly, if you have the space and your aspirations are purely recreational cycling, I really urge you to go big. The marketing men might call them ‘gravel’ or ‘allroad’ tyres but whatever name they go by, wide tyres tame scrapy, nasty roads like nothing else. Would you enter a crit race on them? Probably not, but I can tell you for free that I have zero interest in riding on tyres narrower than 40mm ever again.
Reason why you hate tubeless 3: The sealant *still* doesn’t work and putting a tube in is a nightmare
Sometimes even with wide tyres, sealant won’t quite do the job. My mistake, for a long time, was too-easily accepting defeat and putting in an inner tube, trying to not cover myself in too much muck in the process.
I later started using tubeless plug kits (variously called ‘worms’, ‘anchovies’ or ‘bacon strips’), but they performed inconsistently. I would find that I could insert the plug OK, but the seal was often unreliable. I would either be riding on an uncomfortably-squirmy tyre, or worse, put in a tube, then clean and patch the tyre with a tubeless repair patch when at home (for more on tyre repair, read this).
My riding has been transformed by using dynaplugs. The cost may seem high, but the convenience is on another level. Without having to use your surgical skills in pushing worms through holes, using bradawls/reamers, super glue, or whatever else, one just stabs the tool in, pull it out, and trim off the outstanding plug. Job done. The dynaplug, in my experience, provides a far better quality of repair than the conventional anchovies, because it’s a single strand of worm which is pinned firmly in place on the other side of the tyre carcass by the brass tip of the plug. Yes, I still carry inner tubes in case of a catastrophic sidewall tear, but dynaplugs have eliminated the faff factor from my on-road repairs. It really is just stab, trim, and go.
The up-front cost of the dynaplug kit may seem a little eye watering. All I can say is if you see it in action, you’ll think it’s money well spent.
After a learning process I have learned to love the tech. I certainly don’t think tubeless tyres should be seen as an ‘upgrade’ necessarilly – inner tubed tyres have some commendable advantages in that they are substantially, substantially cheaper (you can get an excellent set of clincher tyres for well under the cost of a single tubeless one), and hold their air much better (do you want to be pumping up the tyres on your ‘town bike’ every morning before you head off?). But for the foreseeable, I plan on having my ‘good bike’ in this configuration. Hopefully some of the lessons in the blog can make it easier to live with for you, too.
This is a quick one – when I’ve written stuff up previously, it’s been off the back of either a specific event or a topic. This one’s a bit more general – it’s about how I’m hoping my 2020 on bikes will shape up. In short I want to sharpen up how I push myself. I’m going to do this with audaxing and racing, but non-UCI accredited racing, such as the grassroots ‘ultra distance’ events and the unaffiliated fixed crit series which I’ll come onto a little later.
My immediate priority is preparation for some audaxes I have lined up in the weeks leading up to mid-May. The itinerary starts with some 200s and my first trip to the ‘Dirty Reiver’ (130 km) but the most fierce step-up is the famous London-Wales-London 400, which is in the first weekend of May. This is all a warm-up act for All Points North, which’s in the last May bank holiday starting at 8pm the Friday. I am also informed that Emily Chappell and other luminaries will be lining up.
Once that’s out the way and the sun’s out, the first order of summertime cycling is the ‘Steele Roads and Woolly Hills 400‘, in June starting in Darlington. Deano, the organiser, advises that approximately 15% of it is gravel/bridleway, which he ominously promises is “the bit you will remember.”
I am weighing up entering the French audax ‘Les Douze Cents 1200‘. This is a pretty ferocious looking 1200 which is almost a constant climb for the first 700, and after that it’s all downhill. The time allowance is 94 hours. This would amount to being a seriously hard ride, by far the gnarliest thing I’ve ever tried my hand at. On the other hand it does give me something really big to train for and work up towards. What I think I’m more likely to enter is the ‘Milles Pennines 1000‘ which is no slouch but approximately half the elevation and a little shorter. It also means I don’t incur any faff in getting to France and back.
Racing in 2020
As a now ex-British Cycling member (I resigned my membership in January), I am unable to participate in most races, but there is a growing unaffiliated racing scene which I am interested in being involved with.
New age fun with a vintage feel
Firstly is the fixed gear criterium racing league, such as the Thundercrit series and the Fixed Beers series. These won’t get going until the summertime but I’m looking forward to getting stuck in. I own a pretty decent fixed gear bike and I can put drops on it no problems. It can be a bit of a mission to get to some racing venues such as Hillingdon and Redbridge Cycling Centre but I do intend to give it a decent go. These events do cost, but it isn’t unreasonable and there is no yearly licence fee as with ‘affiliated’ racing.
The Racing Collective: Free-of-charge, technology-based racing
What I’m really interested in checking out are the ‘Racing Collective‘; these are a series of long-distance races, often on mixed terrain, which are managed using GPS alone. This means there is no need to pay for marshals, hire courses etc, so the races are 100% free to enter. I will write up a post about how they go once I get stuck in. It would be really great to see cycle racing being more inclusive and affordable using increasingly affordable technologies like how these guys are doing.
Thanks for reading
I’ve not written up much in the past few weeks; plans have often been written-off owing to weather and my new job. I hope to be publishing more regularly as I get back into my cycling mojo.
I was equal parts teeth-chatteringly cold and blinking in and out of sleep. It was 0500. Water was rationed, and food was dwindling. I’m in real trouble now… But there’s nothing else to do save grind on and count what’s going right.Courage!
This post is about my (so far) hardest ride, my first 400 km brevet in Belgium and France. I hope it will give you a laugh but also function as a cautionary tale lest you approach a low-countries audax as somehow an ‘easy option!’
I’ve done some big bike rides but there’s (thankfully) only one in which I thought I was in a genuinely nasty spot – and it was entirely of my own making. It wasn’t in tora bora, or the arctic circle, or the Atlas mountains; it was in rural France. But 101 years to the day, the place I was shivering, tired, and increasingly a little bit scared was one of the most dangerous places in history; the frontline between Australian, Canadian and German forces in late-stages, but no less deadly, First World War front line.
I had roped myself into the 400 km Great War Remembrance Brevet after seeing it advertised in an English-language cycling forum. I’d been warned that the 400 km distance is a very fearsome step up from 300, and thought this would be an ideal opportunity to get my ‘upgrade.’ 7 euros to enter and shortly after my last exam and deadline in my Master’s programme, just a short ferry away, nice flat profile, back in time for tea and medals. What could go wrong?
I jumped on the train to Dover on Friday May 10th, and arrived in Dunkirk in the small hours of Saturday 11th at 0200. But I had my new secret weapon with me; a gore tex British Army bivvy bag, which an English seagull had pooed on for good luck. I am quite a shy sleeper, and rode outside of any towns before finding somewhere I felt out-of-sight in which I snuggled down for 4 hours of quality snooze. Some audaxers will audaciously bed down in a bus shelter or just on the roadside; I’m one of the shy sorts that likes a modicum of secrecy. The next morning went fantastically to plan. If you’ve been to rural France you’ll know that by contrast to the rest of the country, bakeries open very early, and the local spot did not disappoint, with a fine spread of des pain-au-chocolats and hot strong coffee. The French were wandering in and out with baguettes tucked under their arms. Some grinned at me and gave the thumbs up, knowing what my game was from the clothes (and perhaps the smell).
The crossing point from northern France into Belgium is always a great experience, and this time the sun was out, the wind was still, and I congratulated myself on my excellent taste in holidaymaking. So far, so bon.
The brevet’s start point was a Flemish pub/café in Oudenberg. I turned up far too early; where most audaxes start bright and early, this 400 km started at 1800. 400 km ride organisers are often torn as to whether to start their rides at 0400 or in the evening. On one hand, an 0400 start means people can have a fairly sensible day before the ride, and not disrupt their personal lives so much. On the other, a 1800 start means riders can get the night riding ‘out of the way.’ You can argue either which way which is best. I am hugely grateful to the locals for strongly advising me to stock up on food from the supermarket for reasons that will become clear later in the read! The pub generously let me dump some belongings in the garage for safekeeping – one of the Belgians remarked that he recognised my bivvy bag from his national service.
Weight shed, I collected my card, got lined up and headed off with the big mob. Within an hour or two I’d located the one other Brit (easily spotted due to his Carradice luggage). I’d come to be hugely grateful for his being there within a few hours. I tried to head off with the ‘hares’ as long as I could, thinking that with flat terrain I could ‘hang in’ and get pulled along, but upon encountering the first rolling hills, decided to quit while ahead and ride my own pace. Later, I found that two riders had completed the brevet in an incredible 16 hours, averaging 25 kmh throughout. An effort to keep up these guys would have not gone well!
Around four hours in, I began to get my first inkling that this may be a difficult ride. Firstly, there were not seemingly many supermarkets, cafés, or, really, anything. Petrol stations were universally just a self-service machine. Not even a 7-days croissant to be had. I crept into front gardens to top up bottles from taps, hoping that my London-hardened stomach would be up for a scrap with whatever might be lurking in the Flandrien pipes.
It was while topping up that I was caught by Englishman John and a small group of Belgians going at a civilised randonneur pace. I was shouted an invitation to jump on, which I duly did. I rode with the group, and while I was having a grand old time, realised that actually, my 4 hours sleep in a hedge was probably not doing my ride any favours. We’d crossed into France, and John bought me an espresso (which I still owe…) – this was a practice for the summer’s Paris Brest Paris for him. This is where the ride started to get tricky for me. We got to the midway point, the Australian war memorial, and as it was dark, I started to get cold. I’d not brought enough insulation. I had on a short sleeve base layer, summer jersey, arm and leg warmers and bibs, plus a white rain cape and a black Decathlon rain jersey, and I was slowly, but surely, chilling. I had researched what the weather would be, of course, but I hadn’t realised how cold I would get while moving on the bike. I spotted a vending machine’s beguiling white glow, and made tracks, and then said some rude words when I realised it was a machine for those walking tour audio doohickies. The organiser, Luc, had driven down in his van, and topped us up with bottled water. This was beginning to transition from type 2 to type 3 fun.
Continuing on, I got to 0430 and realised that I wasn’t comfortable with John and the gang’s pace. I said that I was going to leave the group to ride my own pace for a bit but that I would be fine. Fundamentally as much as I was feeling pretty poor, this ride was called the Great War Remembrance Brevet and I should count myself fortunate that I wasn’t dodging shrapnel, contracting trench foot, or living under occupation by pillaging soldiers, and I could cope with being a bit chilly for a few hours. Thankfully I had listened to the locals and filled my saddle bag with riz tarts, a kind of custard tart combined with a rice pudding, which is true cyclists’ ambrosia. But I was very cold and while I’m used to riding big distances, I was having to focus hard to control my panic at having to ration my food and water consumption for the first time. Even worse, I was beginning to really feel the ‘dozies’ – I’m sure that I microslept on the bike, my eyes were heavy. It was not nice. I pulled in to a train station waiting room and tried to nap, but it was little more than a bus shelter. I was soon cold and so had no choice but to ride on.
I began looking at things on the roadside wondering if I could burn them, or stick them inside my clothes, for extra warmth. The route took me past nothing that was open or hospitable. There was nothing for it except to keep the pedals turning, and count what was going right. I had enough battery for my lights and the GPS. I was not completely out of food. I was in a safe country and there were no hostile drivers. It was mostly flat. And, most importantly, my bike was performing sterlingly. All I had to do was grind for a few hours more, and the bakeries would fling their doors open before me.
Hours passed, and the sun began to rise. Thank god! However, what I didn’t reckon on was the instant cold snap. The sunrise is actually the coldest time of the day – it’s the longest time since the sun was setting, after all, and the cold was suddenly worse than it had ever been. I was shivering like a leaf in the wind and my teeth were hammering out a satanic rhythm. I wouldn’t wish that time on an enemy.
I would roll past a bakery seeing the chaps getting ready for the day, but knew better than to demand early service from the French. At long last, I ground my way up the incline to Notre-Dame-de-Lorette, the world’s largest French military cemetery. The sun had finally come out, and with its rays warming my back, I rolled into the café atop the hill. I bought four pastries and two hot drinks, locked my bike to my right leg, scoffed the lot, set an alarm and crashed out on a picnic table within seconds.
I woke up about 90 minutes later. Everything had changed. It was warm. Birds were singing. Tourists were wandering around with cameras. I realised that I had broken the back of the ride, and had just 103 km remaining. I jumped back on the saddle and rolled down the hill, cheerily waving at people walking up it. It was surreal.
The remainder of the ride was just like any well-organised audax. Great weather. Plentiful food and drink, interesting historical landmarks. Luc’s route passed through many places which warned that leaving the road could put you among land full of unexploded ordnance. When going through Vimy Ridge, the ground is lumped up-and-down from the savage fighting from the last century as if by huge moles. It has to be seen to be believed. I rolled into the arrivée, ordered a big dark Belgian beer, and reflected. It had been a really, really hard ride for me. I’d done much hiller routes, routes in much worse weather, and over cobbles, but it had pushed me right to the edge. I had underrestimated the night time conditions for sure, but had ground my way through anyway and learned a lot. Firstly, I would from this point, beware of the cold. In rides where I suspect there might be chill, I now pack an excellent synthetic down jaket that I got off Facebook for £25, which is super snug. I rarely actually wear it for longer than 15 minutes at once, nearly exclusively at stops, but my 400 experience taught me the hard way that I cannot be cold. Secondly, to beware of assuming everywhere has the English availability of food and drink 24 hours a day – this was nearly a dangerous assumption.
After picking up my bits from the pub’s garage, I was kindly offered a room by a local for the night, which I took gladly. After taking a wash I don’t remember getting into bed. After a refreshing breakfast of eggs, bread, and lots of fine coffee, I rode to Dunkirk along the coast, en style touriste, got on the ferry, and the train from Dover to King’s Cross. For a lot of people they don’t think of France or Belgium as terribly adventurous places to go, but I had been taught a lesson that you can find yourself pushing at new limits in the most innocuous of places. I’d done my first 400, and after validating it with Audax UK, it was the 400 I needed to complete my 2018 Super Randonneur award. People look at me a bit funny when I say that I love holidaying in Belgium and France – really you have to go there and experience riding there yourself to see where the equal parts charm and hardship are.
I was probably a third into the Upper Thames Audax when I bumped into audaxer Jane Dennyson (‘as in, Tarzan’, she said to me, to make sure the name stuck). Since the weather was a bit poor and neither of us were in a hurry it was nice to be with someone for a while. We got talking about bikes and life while cranking along the rainy lanes, and she mentioned that I’d likely be interested in someone called Emily Chappell, owing to our shared occupation in cycle couriering (though Emily is a far more hardcore delivery rider than I’d dream to be).
After getting home and sticking my minging wet gubbins in the laundry, showering, and then mopping up the grimey trail I’d laid through the house, I sat down with a big mug of tea and flicked through my Insta. By a shock coincidence, cycling hangout Look Mum No Hands was promoting a panel about storytelling in cycling, led by the woman herself, alongside three other figures in cycling literature, each selling their books, including Emily’s new hardback, which focuses on her experiences in transcontinental racing. I am a big LMNH fan and dutifully got my Eventbrite ticket booked. To cut a long story short, it was a really good panel (which you can watch in full), and I bought Emily’s book, which she graciously signed.
This article isn’t a ‘is this book good or not?’ review, because; it is. Rather it summarises what I’ve taken from the book and I hope it might give some insights into how it might interest you also.
If you’re looking for a technical ‘how to crack the Transcontinental’ book, then I should let you know right away that this book isn’t about that, though there are definitely pearls of wisdom to take away from it – such as ‘don’t accidentally add a full day’s extra distance to your route by accidentally going through flipping Albania.’ Rather it was, to me, principally concerned with the funny things that start happening inside your head when you’re plonked on a bike with just yourself for company for days at a time.
Cycling, particularly low-intensity cycling, means you’ve got no shortage of personal time, which really amplifies whatever else is going on your life – for better or worse. During my MSc this year, some of my best ideas have sprung on me while on the bike, either crunching around Regent’s or wobbling through an audax. But this is a knife that cuts both ways. As Emily shares in her book, it can be very hard to be alone with doubt, heartbreak, personal grief and disappointment on the road for days at a time. Emily shares what it’s like to juggle the demon ‘dozies,’ hunger, thirst, muscle fatigue, heat and cold, mechanical gremlins, knee pain and saddle sores, for nearly two weeks in one go. Her account of her racing is like riding through mountains; from the lows of frustration, anger and despair one minute, balanced by the thrill of her finding a warm shower and a clean bed, or a double serving of takeaway pizza.
Much of the book’s content is about the pre and post of big riding – as Transcontinental race founder Mike Hall shared in one conversation with Emily, recounted in the book, recovery from a big race can take as long as six full weeks, and the sense of ‘not being the person you were during the race’ takes some dealing with. Emily also shares that during the transcontinental, she used prescription medication to delay her period, which when races last as long as several weeks is no small consideration.
Time to stop the review – I’m hoping to swap my copy for a friend’s one of her earlier publication, What Goes Around: A London Cycle Courier’s Story. To cap it off, I recommend the book and feel that bit more equipped to do silly bike things going forward, and maybe it can do that for you too.
Cycling, particularly cycle touring and bikepacking, requires learning how to use a diverse skill set, from navigation and bike maintenance to communications skills and financial planning. One skill I’ve found to have paid particularly big dividends that may not seem like an obvious top pick has been using a humble sewing kit. It’s pretty crazy to think that humans have been sewing stuff for millions of years, and the technique is really very little changed from when our ancestors were making their rudimentary mammoth cardigans. I’ve written this short article not as a technical ‘how to’ – not least because I’m absolutely no expert! Rather, an insight into how sewing has helped me out and why I think it’s worth learning to do.
I’m definitely not a super-sewer by any means – but I am confident in taking something in disrepair, from a bikepacking bag to a tyre to a pair of socks, and putting it back in order. You might be surprised how effective a few minutes of sewing can be!
To start with the most novice-friendly things to sew up, holes in clothes are normally very straightforward to repair. Holes can come up for all kinds of reasons – from small thorn stratches to more problematic damage, as happened with a set of gloves that once protected me in a crash (imagine what the state of my skin would have been if I hadn’t had them on – yikes!). These are obvious candidates to start perfecting your sewing with. You can nearly always get a sewing kit from a newsagent’s/corner shop with some spare change, which will be more than enough to do some light repair work to start with.
The best way to make your sewing as easy as possible is to spot a problem and repair it sooner rather than later. ‘A stitch in time saves nine’ is absolutely true – the longer you leave a sewing job on the to-do list, the more work it will be to put right, so get the kit out, turn the radio on and get it sussed.
Beyond repairing soft fabrics, you may need to invest in some slightly more heavy duty gear. Waterproof bikepacking bags are ideally very strong products but you may find that some straps and stitching become worn out. However because they’re made from robust fabrics such as PVC, the itty bitty kit from the newsagent’s is not going to make much inroads, nor the line be up to the job of doing the repair.
The good news is that you can get very good tools for a good price; a leatherworking or sailmaking kit can be had for not a lot at all, and really turns the tables on a stubborn sewing job. For line, waxed cotton (the sailmaking classic) is very good, but I’ve also used fishing line for repairing tyres with great success. I’ve also read that dental floss is also great sewing line. I suppose that you could even clean your teeth with it to boot.
I’ve repaired a few slashed tyres with sewing. The ‘get home’ fix has been an inner tube combined with a ‘boot’ (usually a bar wrapper) to stop the butyl herniating through the hole, but once home I get the sewing kit out, and combined with a rema tiptop tubeless patch on the inside, the tyre is back to regular service, and so long as the bead is intact, works fine tubelessly. Obviously you’d ideally not set out on your attempt on the Raid Pyrenean on a sewn-up tyre, but you really don’t need to immediately crack out the credit card for the rubber barons upon getting a slashed tyre either.
Lastly, sewing is a really fun way to customise your stuff for not a lot of money. Clubs such as Audax UK and the Rough Stuff Fellowship sell patches to mark your adventuring achievements, and of course if you crack the upcoming Rapha Festive 500, you’ll get a free patch to celebrate your hard work in the post.
I hope this has inspired you to take some interest in sewing – my sewing isn’t neat but it does the job, and I really encourage you to give the art a crack. It can save you lots of money, it’s good for the environment, and look pretty cool too! I would like to take this a bit further in future, and actually fabricate my own creations, that’s a whole new level of skill and experience. But never say never…
As a big ride approaches, there is always a bit of nerves about how to maximise your chances of a rewarding day out. If you’d like to give the currently-in-vogue long distance game a go, then audaxing should definitely be on your list. This time of year’s changeable weather and faster-approaching dark make it easier for type one and two fun to turn into type three. Because of this, I took a bit more care than usual about how to approach my first ride of the new audax season, the 209 km Upper Thames.
The organisers, Thames Valley Audax, operate a website that lets the rider know what they’re in for. While ‘only’ a 200 with around 2000 metres of climbing, the Upper Thames was billed as a challenging ride, owing to short daylight hours and the organiser ominously warning of wet and flinty roads, which make it that bit easier for a greasy nugget of broken glass to get through a tyre. Further, the organisers cheerfully remarked that riders may need mudguards to keep from being chased out of cafés by houseproud proprietors. In all, I aimed to average around 21-23 km/h for this ride, factoring in stops, mechanicals and whatnot, though when I saw the inclement weather forecast, this was downgraded a bit on safety grounds.
Observing the route, it seemed that supplies won’t be difficult to come by on this 200. However to make the best use of my meager income, I hit up my favourite nutritional outlet, Lidl, to hoover up some rations the night before. For long rides in the cold and wet, I find that hot cross buns hit a magic middle ground between carbs, sugars and fat, and are pleasantly squishy. Lidl also do an own-brand version of Haribo (‘moralibo’) which I tipped into my top-tube ‘fuel’ bag. I find these are particularly helpful after summiting a hill, to quickly restore one’s spirits. Not counting the fuel pouch, I opted to use two bags: a cheap ‘giant saddlebag’ and frame bag, both from Planet X. The frame bag is really handy for keeping my phone dry, and you can also snake out an external battery’s cable to charge a GPS unit on the move. In the saddlebag I put the buns, extra layers, and tools plus repair gear.
For this ride, owing to a mechanical with my own green pride and joy, I borrowed my dad’s cyclocross bike which performed sterlingly. You absolutely can do audaxes on a cross bike, so long as you’re happy with your fit and gearing. I kept the 33 mm off-road (tubelessly fitted) tyres on, mostly because of reluctance to fettle around with them; but they gripped and rolled well on the mucky roads, particularly the descents, and I’m glad to’ve had them on.
The weather was not ideal, which probably contributed to the 49 riders actually turning up out of a crowd of 120 who had registered – but then perhaps the rest were all just watching the rugby. However it really wasn’t so bad as one might think. Upper Thames is not pancake flat, but by audax standards it is pretty easy going, which is ideal for a wet and windy day. A cyclist’s central problem is always finding the goldilocks zone between having the energy sapped out of you by the cold, and not baking yourself like a potato by overdressing, and thankfully this was an easy balance to find on this ride. I hope the ride will run again in 2020, and it should absolutely go in your calendar. In all, I averaged a mean 19.7 km/h, which I am happy with. A big thanks to Phil, the volunteers, and all the friendly riders who I came across on the day!
This article was first published on my LinkedIn account with some small edits. Returning to full-time study was hugely rewarding in many senses, but not in the personally financial. When planning my part time employment options, I decided to give the life of a delivery cyclist a crack. My own dad had worked as a cycle courier in London in the 90s for a spell, and app-based platforms would make it possible to have a highly flexible work schedule on my own terms, doing what I love, cycling. Delivering for apps has some amazing upsides, and I hope this short article will let you in on what life is like for the riders and maybe help you make a decision on whether to join the mob!
After an ‘on-boarding’ session, self-employed couriers like me are accredited as suppliers to a platform which you’ve probably seen in the window of the takeaways and restaurants in the high street. After that, you’re invited to install an app which lets you ‘go online’ and take orders assigned by the platform’s algorithm. The platforms typically give you a choice of London zones to ‘go online’ in, such as MMS (Mayfair), DUL (Dulwich) or SKC (South Kensington). Get to the zone, hit the ‘go online’ button, and you’re off to the races. Your phone will alert you to a delivery contract, and should you choose to accept it, directions to the supplier, most commonly a restaurant or takeaway but sometimes a pharmacist or other business, and the end recipient. You pick up the order, deliver it to the client, and are usually paid weekly, though one platform now lets you ‘cash out’ more or less instantly, minus a small processing fee.
The upsides to the job are considerable. Firstly, the pay, while variable, is in my experience well above the wage I expected. I average around £12/hour in normal conditions, and in foul weather and ‘peak times’, this goes up to around £16/hour, or even higher. Secondly, the flexibility is second to none. I have no manager to negotiate hours with, there is no stress of finding someone to ‘cover’ if I have a sudden change of plans, the algorithms fit around the change in labour supply to make sure everything is taken care of. Lastly, and most importantly for me, it’s a very stress free and enjoyable job. I love cycling and I’m confident riding around town, and it is a lot of fun delivering to people who are (normally) very pleased to see you.
Even in bad weather, so long as you are kitted up right and cycling cautiously, it’s a blast. The worst problem I normally have is keeping myself fed enough to manage a full day’s work. When I can, a dash run to a supermarket on the way into town will get enough snacks to fuel the tank. And if there’s any unwanted food at a supplier, it isn’t unknown for it to be sympathetically given away to delivery cyclists.
It isn’t exclusively food either – in my ‘career’ I’ve delivered medical products to a Harley street clinic, coffee pods to businesses, and on one occasion a same-day-delivery phone charger to a flat of someone who’d clearly lost theirs.
There are downsides as you’d probably expect; firstly, sickness will totally kill your income and I could see this leading to a grave situation for a rider living invoice to invoice. For myself I caught a bug which laid me low in bed for 4 days this year, and left me weak and debilitated for another week. There is no kind of sick pay for a poorly rider in the gig world.
Also, the hours are quite unsociable. The most in-demand time for a delivery cyclist is in the party evening hours on Friday-Sunday and especially on bank holidays. This isn’t a bad thing all the time, as it can help keep your own spending under control! It just means you may find yourself making cost-benefit decisions on whether you can strictly afford to miss a ‘rush session’ to go to and socialise. This would be even harder with a family.
To sum up, the delivery app life has a lot going for it. If you like riding a bike, and want to make your hobby help pay the bills, you could do a lot worse than give the gig a go. Keep it rubber side down!
I found out about Neil Robinson’s new ‘Tramping the Two Loop’ event while researching for my plan to crack Randonneur 1000. A new event, but from the mind of a very experienced routesmith who has furnished the Evesham Wheelers and other riders with great quality courses for many years. My only quandary was how to get to the start – a tidy 130km from my own front door – so I had to get creative.
If you’ve not heard of ‘WarmShowers’, it’s an online community of cycle tourists and sympathisers, who offer support with riders all over the world, from Montana to Islamabad. Thinking this was kind of a tour, I got in touch with tandem globetrotters Kirsty and Marcus via the very easy to use map, who operate a delightful and quiet campsite called the Orchard Getaway, a short ride from the start point, asking if they had free space for a one night stay before I moved on to do this thing called a ‘brevet’ the next morning. What happened next was a bit of a shock.
Not only did they pop me a message back saying yes, they had in fact heard of Audax (and organise the annual Barry’s Jaeger Bomb brevet), and that I would be welcome to have supper with them on arrival. They would also lend me a tent to save me dragging one up on the bike (score!). I was completely new to WarmShowers but with bags packed up with food, clothes, spares and a sleeping bag I jumped on the bike on a Saturday morning and made tracks for Evesham.
During a lunch stop I checked my phone and found two things in my inbox – firstly, a confirmation that I was still welcome, and secondly an invitation to an open air production of Twelfth Night by a cast of three that evening. Arriving at 1800 I left the bike next to a pitched tent complete with air mattress and bed linen, we had a quick (but very tasty) BBQ supper with the family and some friendly dogs, before taking a hamper of cider and cheesecake to a balmy evening of superb Elizabethan comedy by the Second Best Bed theatre company. I don’t even remember getting into my borrowed pneumatic scratcher.
Next morning the alarm goes off – I strip the bed linen, leave Marcus’s borrowed sandals and t shirt with the sheets (even for an outdoor play a jersey and SPDs are a bit gauche) and trundled to the Two Loops start. I still managed to be late for the 0800 kick off and skidded in with my saddlebags groaning with the weight of the camping stuff as everyone else was getting headed.
Dumping the nonessentials in the HQ (manned all day by very helpful volunteers) and wolfing down some breakfast pastries, I jumped back on the Boardman and before long was at the first control in Barnt Green. One of my hosts, Marcus – who was doing the 100 km ride on his fixed with an 0900 start – had already caught me as I was making my exit from the caf which was a nice surprise. He overtook me a little later, spinning away on his spry looking machine.
Rolling back in to the Honeybourne HQ for a delicious lunch, I was informed loop two would be a bit more testing. And it was – Dover’s Hill, a national hill climb championship course, is a classic English ascent that certainly had me hauling up on the handlebars, which creaked in protest with every turn of the cranks. My time of 11:47 doesn’t compare well with the champions, who average under 4 minutes.
The randonneurs rolled into Banbury, which’s receipt control offered a good excuse for an ice cream and some good solid scran. With the sun now starting to go down, and temperatures thankfully cooling off, the rest of the ride was a comparatively gentle spin. Only a handful of easy going undulations were between us and arrivée, to which I pulled in at just gone 1935. After thanking Neil and the helpers, I made my way to Evesham and got the train home.
If you’re interested in WarmShowers, have a look at the website or search #warmshowers on social media to get an idea of the kinds of adventures it’s let cycle tourists go on since 1993. This definitely won’t be my last, but it’ll be a hard act to follow!
For information about the Orchard Getaway, visit http://www.orchardgetaway.co.uk or search @orchardgetaway on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.