With a long weekend in Helsinki waiting for me in the second half of the week, I was looking to get ahead of myself by getting in some considerable Monday miles.
I shouldn’t have bothered.
As Gorrod and I moved slowly towards Regents Park, winding our way through the rush hour traffic along Tottenham Court Road and onto Regent Street, the cars, lorries and motorbikes parted momentarily to create a clear run up towards Portland Place.
Out of the saddle, I started to accelerate towards the park, with Gorrod sticking closely to my back wheel. As we climbed past 30kph, my eyes strayed from the road directly in front of me and concentrated on the traffic sitting further on.
I therefore did not see the enormous pothole that brought my bike to an abrupt and aggressive stop. As I flew over the front of my handlebars and slid along the smooth tarmac of Regent Street, I had no idea what had put me there.
Lying on the ground, trying desperately to catch my breath whilst Gorrod flew over the top of me, his bike having sailed directly into my hip, I was still none-the-wiser.
It wasn’t until we‘d dragged ourselves (and our bikes) to the side of the road that we were bewilderedly able to identify the cause and culprit of the two-man pile-up.
Assuring concerned bystanders that we were okay, we patted ourselves down and dusted ourselves off before assessing the inevitable damage.
First, the people. Gorrod was able to escape with a few extra grazes to add to his growing collection. My elbow was bleeding from a deep graze and was starting to swell, but it was manageable.
Next, the bikes. Gorrod’s was fine (thankfully, as I felt like this crash was my fault). Mine had seen better days. The brakes had bent on impact and the front wheel may well have been slightly buckled from the force at which it had hit the pothole. The slide along the road had also wrong through my bar tape and scratched the actual handlebars underneath as well.
If there was a silver-lining to be found in this shambles, it was that we’d managed to crash directly outside a Boots chemist (where I was able to buy antiseptic wipes for our wounds) and a 2-minute walk from an Evans Cycles where I left my bike for a once over before heading home on the tube.
No matter the reason, there’s something that feels fundamentally wrong with catching public transport whilst dressed in full lycra, cleats and a helmet. That uneasiness is infinitely enhanced when you do so whilst nursing a wound.
The ride doesn’t always have to be long and it doesn’t always have to be challenging.
It just has to be fun.
I’ve been meaning to try out a newly opened bakery in nearby East Dulwich, Brickhouse, since it first opened. Mildly hungover and feeling somewhat lethargic, today felt like a good day to meander round with my fiancee, Ashley, and her sister Lauren.
The space is well worth a visit in itself – a vast, open space that is filled tastefully and simply with long wooden tables and chairs and well-placed wild flowers. With the cavernous space comes the potential for it to feel cold or sterile, but any such risk is immediately removed by the friendly staff, the constant whirring of the espresso machine and the buzz of the bakery itself. All of their sourdough bread and other cakes and pastries are made in their on-sote bakery and difficult to choose between.
I can, however, highly recommend the chocolate sourdough and the rhubarb and almond tart.
As I say, it wasn’t far, but it helped to clear away the cobwebs.
On rides like this, I tend to like taking down a few kilometres before I stop for a proper meal. So, with a packet of nuts in my jersey pocket (just in case) I was on my way towards Royal Tunbridge Wells on another glorious day.
It was a fairly flat, and therefore pleasant, start to the day. With a little more distance to cover than the previous day, I held back a little and stayed in a relatively light gear to warm the legs back up whilst ticking off the towns and villages I’d never heard of and would likely never pass through again: Horne, Newchapel, Lingfield, Dormansland.
I was fairly quickly off the main roads and into back roads and green lanes. This made for a great and relaxing ride, not having to worry about hugging the side of the road to accommodate overtaking cars, being able to sit up in the saddle and take my hands off the handlebars for brief periods knowing I wouldn’t have to immediately and unexpectedly reach for my breaks.
What it also meant, though, was that I was 60km in and still hadn’t eaten as I’d not passed anywhere that looked remotely open. I was getting hungry (something I don’t cope well with off the bike, let alone on it) and there was no feasible rest stop/purveyor of sustenance in sight.
The nuts were broken into and very quickly decimated.
Thankfully, not long after said decimation I spied what looked like an open cafe. Lou Lou Jane of Lingfield sorted me out with a restorative ham sandwich and hot cross bun. That did the job.
One of my main concerns about this 2-day ride was doing this distance solo. I’d been out on rides on my own before, but they tended to be around 50km or 60km, which only equates to a few hours in the saddle. Even the ride from London to Virginia Water was only just over 4 and a half hours of moving time. Today, though, was circa 150km to get back home, so a solid 6 or so hours on the bike. Accounting for rest stops and I was looking at a full day. Whilst I don’t mind my own company, having nobody to bounce off or drive you forward at those more difficult times was a worry.
But with the weather on my side, I free-wheeled into Royal Turnbridge Wells feeling great and pulled up for a spot of launch at what was my favourite stop of the weekend.
The Vélo House is a large, open space of a cafe and a visual ode I to the sport of cycling. The walls are adorned with signed jerseys and prints, the TV was showing historic races and the shelves were stocked with an exceptionally covetable range of helmets, kit and bikes. It was also pretty popular with mums and buggies, which was the first sign that, despite the focused theme of The Vélo House, it had mass appeal.
One of the key reasons for that may well have been their macaroni cheese with sausage. That was phenomenal.
Whilst I’d planned and checked my routes for both days, I’d only done so to ensure I was sticking to tarmac roads (whilst I don’t mind attending to a puncture, I don’t actively seek them out either). I hadn’t laboriously tracked elevation and route stats and, upon leaving Royal Tunbridge Wells, I was glad I hadn’t. It may have been my legs tiring, but it felt like all 1,800m on climbing for the day had been back-loaded onto the final 60km home — ignorance had certainly been bliss up to this point.
Each and every time I took another hill down, another would rear its sheer, steep and ugly head. This happened what felt to be continuously all the way to Orpington. I’d find myself over the handlebars and allowing my wheels to spin unaided as I descended a hill, but was almost entirely unable to enjoy it.
Instead, I gritted my teeth and winced expectantly at what was round the next bend. Sure enough, there it would be; another incline to suck the momentum from below my tyres, bring me from my saddle and force me to snake my way towards its top as I desperately attempted to take any level of gradient out of the climb. I’m not sure how many time this happened, but I do know there were 7 categorised climbs across the course of the day.
I’m not sure how many times this has ever been said, but with my lunch well and truly evaporated and my body running on vapours, I was irrationally happy to find myself in Croydon.
It meant London.
It meant flat.
It meant less than 20km from home.
I’d been hoping to break the 100 mile (160km) barrier, but as I drew closer to my road, I didn’t have it in me to push on past my house to finish off the extra 10km lap. I instead chose to settle for the 150km.
Still, that was two Strava Challenges complete in as many days. It also saw me more than meet the weekly average (207km) I need to be hitting to stay on-track for 10,000km this year.
And I now know where to take myself if I want to do a bit more hill training…
As the end of my working year comes to an end, I’ve found myself with a few holidays left and little to do with them. Ashley, my fiancée, has long-used all of hers and my friends aren’t far from doing the same. Any form of long-distance travel was therefore off the cards unless I wanted to take it on solo (and I didn’t).
There was another option, though.
Ashley often finds herself working a little outside of London for weeks at a time and we’ve long talked about the possibility of me heading out mid-week to visit. Unfortunately, dates and times have never quite aligned — until now.
With her based in Wentworth for a fortnight, I got to planning a 2-day route that would take me out of London and back and allow me to spend a bit more time with her.
A quick aside on route planning. Whereas once it was an involved and time-consuming process involving physical maps, pencils and, potentially, some form of measuring device, it’s now a sinch. A few minutes with Google Maps, some choice destinations and a quick reccy via street view and all that’s left to do is attach my iPhone to my handlebars and I’m set.
In the past, defaulting to laps of Richmond or Regents Park took any major thought or and this kind of involved, time-consuming planning out of a ride – better the devil you know than the devil that leaves you stranded at the side of the road with a puncture with the day closing in and struggling with a hard-copy map in a headwind. Now, it’s easier than ever to just head out and see new places and explore new routes, safe in the knowledge you’ll make it where you’re going or back to where you started.
Setting out mid-morning on day one, my first rest stop was Reigate via the iconic Box Hill.
Despite its legendary status amongst cyclists, I’ve only ever had two experiences with the eponymous climb. The first was part of a 110-mile sportive that 2 friends and I naively signed-up to 2 and a half years ago. Over-excited amateurs that we were, we opted for the epic route.
In for a penny, in for a pound.
What we failed to do was prepare in any way. Turning up on the day, one of us was on a hybrid commuter bike that was some good 4 inches too small for him and none of us had an inner tube or bike tool between us. Unsurprisingly, only one of us (yours truly) managed to make it through to the end — whether that’s incredibly lucky or woefully unfortunate depends on how well you’re able to drag yourself up a lot of testing hills solo.
I thought it woefully unfortunate and that was without completing the full course. Box Hill eventually alluded me (or I it) as daylight disappeared and, from the train journey back to London onwards, I subsequently began thinking of it as an Everest-like summit that would likely destroy me were I ever likely to encounter it.
And for the record, we’re still over-excited amateurs, but these days we’re ones that turn up somewhat prepared.
My second visit involved descending it on the way to Eastleigh — definitely the easier direction to take on Box Hill if you’re planning a visit.
On this basis, the climb was either going to be a one of gargantuan proportions or it was going to be a walk in the park.
The reality turned out to be somewhere in between.
Box Hill does not demand that you bring yourself immediately out of the saddle and, red-faced and breathing out of your arse, hunch yourself over your handlebars. Instead, its the kind of climb that allows you to plant yourself firmly into your saddle, hands on the straight of your handlebars and methodically inch your way up each segment. It may have been the effects of the one of the warmest days of the year so far, but it it was actually incredibly enjoyable. The smooth roads give way to depths of trees. Hairpin bends break the climb into chunks that make you feel you’re completing a level at each turn. The words of encouragement sprayed onto the tarmac — “Go Froome Go!”, “Allez!” and, my favourite,“Where’s Cav?” — make you feel like a little bit like a pro. That is until you remind yourself you’re in your lowest possible gear.
The views from the top aren’t half bad, either.
Down into Reigate, my first stop was at 1 of 2 well-known cycling cafes I’d decided to design my route around: Maison du Velo. As much as I hate to admit it, my reliance on my iPhone to get me to my final destination of the day meant I had become that person. Whilst I placed my order, I fumbled around in my jersey pocket for my iPhone charger and, before I’d even handed over my credit card to pay, was asking to be pointed towards the nearest power outlet. Yup — that guy. No one likes that guy.
Hopefully the copious amounts of coffee, eggs and cake I consumed went some way to forming an implicit apology.
My device and I adequately recharged, it was back the way I’d come until veering off at Leatherhead and into an area I found myself to recognise: Esher. It was only a few months back I’d ridden out to Esher and back as part of a Strava challenge that involved a free mug (it doesn’t take much). A 60-70km round-trip from central London is G!RO Cafe, which makes for a well-located halfway point and serves what must be the best cup of coffee for a fair few miles around. I’d not planned to visit again, and it had only been about 30km since my last stop, but it would’ve been rude not to stop in briefly and enjoy their wares.
The weather having been so good, the sun was setting fairly spectacularly as I passed through Hersham and Chertsey and weaved my through the lanes and roads of Wentworth Club. I’d envisaged a grand entrance and perhaps a long, manor-style drive, but did not think I would be navigating an entire estate of mansions and well-kept gardens. It was only now that I understood why Ashley had insisted she pack a shirt and jacket for me to wear to dinner — this place was unlikely to be lycra friendly.
I soon found the right road and the hotel itself, where I knew a comfortable bed, a warm shower, a 3-course meal and Ashley were waiting for me — along with a glass of delicious dessert wine.
As I mentioned, the Festive 500 took its toll on my legs a little.
Prolonged cycling over 6 days, coupled with riding a bike that wasn’t set-up for me, highlighted and compounded 26 years of neglecting to stretch beyond the odd tokenistic toe-touch.
The result was a a severe limp coupled with a sharp, constant pain across my knee and the remedy was (and continues to be) weekly physio sessions. Surprisingly, the problem area is not the knee itself, but an enormous build-up of tension and knots in my thighs.
I subsequently doubled-down on stretching for the whole of January, focusing primarily on the problem areas. In doing so, I quickly gained my greatest ally and worst enemy in the recovery process: a rock-solid hockey ball that I spend upwards of 30 minutes a day rolling my thighs back and forth on, sadistically seeking pressure points and knots that I consciously (although not pleasurably) choose to anger.
It brought fourth pain, excessive swearing and the odd tear, but it also quickly brought permission to get back on the bike and see how it felt. My 17km round-commute was a prefect distance for stress testing over the course of a week and the results were positive overall.
I was nowhere near 100% — there would certainly be no sprint finishes or hill attacks — but I could certainly start to comfortably take down some kilometres.
With 184km absorbed, I arranged for my first decent-distance ride. Accompanied for part of it by a friend, Luke, we started by venturing out to Richmond Park for a couple of laps. That meant mostly flat roads (albeit with a bit of traffic for the first 15-20km) and a couple of manageable hills.
It felt good to be outside again.
We rolled along, we caught up with one another. We talked about plans for the year(s) ahead. We absorbed the countryside oasis of the park that made us feel as though we were somewhere in middle-England, rather than a couple of minutes from the A3. We also questioned the effectiveness of the parks annual deer cull — there were droves and droves of them, but we weren’t complaining.
By the second lap, I was beginning to salivate at the sight of the deer, which suggested I was probably starting to get hungry. Parting ways with Luke in Streatham, I made a b-line for Browns of Brockley, a fantastic cafe that’s painfully close to home.
However, I’d forgotten my keys, my fiancee wasn’t home and, even after stringing out two cappuccinos and a bagel for the best part of an hour, there looked to be no immediate way of gaining access.
With no one else with me, I was less worried about being direct in my route and I meandered up to Honor Oak, into Forrest Hill and around Crystal Palace. They’re all great locations for some short, sharp hill climbs that don’t require a visit out to Kent or Surrey.
It was whilst tackling one of these hills on my way up towards Crystal Palace that I spotted a sign towards Bromley. I have a couple of friends that live out that way, so on a whim I decided I’d see if I could find my way to their house from where I was to say hello (and probably pilfer a cup of tea).
One of the many beauties of cycling is that you can make snap decisions like this, but can just as easily do an about-turn the moment you realise your original idea was ridiculous.
I found it and was suitably smug and my face emitted the fact as I knocked on the door once. Twice. Thrice.
It was time to head home, though, and I tried to do that in the most direct and efficient way possible. However, my sense of direction can be somewhat unreliable and there was definitely something about the roads around Forest Hill that was toying with it. That meant I kept heading back towards Crystal Palace (and the hills that come with it) rather than New Cross. Caught in a one-way-system-style loop, I probably did a few kilometres more than I needed or wanted to before finally making it home.
But I’d broken the 100km mark for the first time in 2015 and it felt great. Add to that a little less than 1,000m of climbing and I was ready for the next milestone.