The Unexpected Randonneur

The Unexpected Randonneur

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I quite often like to jump on my bike after work and pootle about town. Working in a bike shop, there’s not much time to actually ride the damn things. So on a nice day I’ll take my road bike into work, make sure she’s good to go and head straight out after locking up the shop. Head east, maybe do a few laps of Regent’s Park, an unspecified number of ascents up Swain’s Lane (aka the Alp d’Highgate), a ride south into Soho for a coffee and cake.
It’s the times when I think to myself that ‘I should head north’ that the world becomes more interesting and infinity more painful.

Cycling is an odd hobby. Some rides will be utterly unmemorable, others will burn themselves into ones neurons for life. The sights, the smells! See the magnificent Ikea, the glorious Tottenham substation, the enormous Matalan at Brimsdown! Experience the heady aromas of Hackney municipal dump!
Sometimes, this is all I see: London in all its disgusting, but very beautifully human, glory.

But there are times, the odd time, when a small alley or lane catches ones eye and I am pulled towards it, intrigued by the promise of the unknown. Without warning, I find myself tumbling down the rabbit hole and being sucked into the magnificent world of *le rouleur*.

I took one such turn earlier, and as the busy main road fell away, the landscape melted almost instantly into the kind of scene that would make Nigel Farage shed a single tear and salute a pint of warm bitter.
The willows formed an arch across the road, a single track that wound it’s way west from Enfield. The few houses are collecting moss and fallen twigs on their roofs. the owner carrying in firewood for the evening.

I push on, finding my legs in this novel summer evening sun. Short hedges enclose the road, half concealing the miles of rolling fields on either side. A line of electricity pylons snakes across the landscape, disappearing far into the distance on my right.

That such sights can be found within the m25 astounds me, it leads me to explore and discover more and more. It draws me in, pushes me to ride further and further.

Before I know it, it’s 9pm, the sun is setting and, most disturbingly, my ipod is showing signs that it’s not been charged in a while. My front light cuts a path in the badly potholed near-dirt tracks, the rising full moon, almost orange in the sky, casts a warm glow over the rollings fields either side of the road.
The thrill of discovery is beginning to be offset by a cold wind.

I roll into Potters Bar with numb fingers. I should eat something, I’ve not had anything since lunch. A BLT and a packet of fruit pastilles from the Co-Op, and a lucozade to refill my energy bottle – having consulted the gps, I’m ready to go again.

Now this is a race. The cold is setting in, I’m in short bibs and  short sleeve jersey. My feet are numbing from the wind. I need to move fast, to build heat and to get home before the worst of the night takes hold. Cadence must be high, speed must be high, effort must be high. I smack up a few gears and start working my quads. Knees out, sweeping through arcing turns, illuminated by the light of the moon my legs pump in time with the symphony in my ears (Elgar’s Planets, for the interested). A fork in the road. Stop, check Google maps. Go.
Cut through little hamlets, houses solitary with wood fires burning, visible through the front windows as I power past, a red and white streak in the night.

It’s hard to explain why or when I started to panic. I knew where I was going, but the cold and the tiredness and the fact that I’m 20 miles minimum from home took its toll. While I was skirting the m25, this village world around me felt like I was riding hundreds of miles from home with nowhere to stay and no way to get back. Stop, check gps. No, I took a wrong turn a while back there. Turn around or find another route?

When I finally find myself in Radlett, which while far from home, is at least on an old training route of mine, and therefore familiar, it’s the boost I needed. Turning south, I know I’m on the home straight. I can ride to Stanmore and jump the tube back to Kilburn from there.
Hills that used to have me panting in the granny ring are now stomped at 21mph. I have conquered, and everything will be ok. Then, without warning, my front light turns off. The cold has shorted the switch and it’s now flicking through the settings, cycling between 100 and 500 lumens. I power onwards into the night.

The transformation from gentle rise to powerful sprint is not something I resent (especially now I’ve had a chance to warm up!). There are many sides to cycling. Relaxing in the warm evening sun and belting through the freezing night air are two completely different angles on an activity that seems to have as many faces as it does riders.

Riding fixed, single speed, town riding, commuting, randonneuring, audax, touring, sportive, racing, polo, 4 cross, downhill, bmx – hundreds of ways of enjoying the simple sensations of riding a bike.

Needless to say I got home. My light switching off on the final descent into Stanmore was interesting. I was travelling at 40mph with no helmet, no goggles and now, no light. But it switched on at the bottom. The stop start all the way home (do you really think I’d have caught the tube?) was offset by the warm London air (heated by 7 million people’s bodily emissions). My iPod held on to the bitter end, finally running out as I rolled into my estate. Front light was on and off, but I survived with my 10 lumen backup. All in, 59 miles or 95 kilometres in 3 and a half hours. Not too shabby for a quick ride after work.

While great training for the long rides I have planned this year, something more profound hit me. The beauty of riding is dulled by working the shop, selling people the idea of what I’ve just done. The freedom, the sunshine, the exploration of nature’s wonder.
Unlike other professions where romanticised ideals are used to sell, in cycling I have a hobby that can take me out of my front door and show me that ideal – and make me fall in love with it all over again. For that, I am truly grateful!

Buying a new bike – an alternative guide for women

I have noticed recently that there have been many articles flying around about women’s bikes, but so far nobody has given a review of a women’s specific design bike for racing.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that you can’t race on one – for the past two years I have been riding a female specific Boardman, which I bought from Halfords for £1,000, but I have always complained about the sub-standard groupset, despite the bike being very light.  I also don’t like racing on clinchers, so I upgraded the wheels that came with the bike and changed the saddle to one I am used to using.

Note the wheels – one of the key upgrades to the Boardman

So what are your options?

If you read the vast majority of articles on women’s bikes, you would think that there are loads to choose from.  That may be the case, but the majority of brochures for women’s bikes talk about comfort on long rides, and the women’s geometry is supposed to be more relaxed to compensate for this.  But if you’re looking for a bike to race on, this might not be what you’re looking for, so do yourself a favour and look at both the men’s and women’s options but bear in mind the main differences between men’s and women’s bikes, namely:

  1. Women’s bikes tend to have worse groupsets than their “male” alternative (although some manufacturers are starting to buck this trend);
  2. Men’s bikes tend to have wider handlebars, making control difficult for women who tend to be more petite in width;
  3. The top end men’s bikes are very light and very stiff – most women don’t benefit from a stiff frame as much as men due to the difference in power output.

It is possible to change components on the bike before you buy, you just have to be prepared to negotiate with the shop before you buy.  Some changes are easy to make, for example by asking for narrower handlebars or women’s specific ones, which tend to have a shallower drop.  Furthermore, many bikes have compact chainsets, with 50/34 chainrings, but you may prefer to change it for a double, with 53/39 chainrings, depending on who you are going to race with and what events you intend to ride.

My Top Tips 

Remember my top tips and get what bike you want:

  1. Research the bike you want before setting foot in the shop – if you have a top price in mind, try not to go above it;
  2. Ask fellow cyclists for their opinion, but remember that its your money and ultimately your decision;
  3. Remember that just because you’re a woman doesn’t mean you can’t ride a men’s bike;
  4. If you’re going for the full bike, ask to take it for a test ride;
  5. Remember that you can change components at a later date, although some are easier (and cheaper) to change than others;
  6. Take advantage of a bike fit;
  7. Don’t pick the bike because of the colour – get one that fits both you and the purpose you want it for (this also means that you have to be honest with yourself in order to get the right bike);
  8. Be prepared to negotiate with the shop to change the components;
  9. Buy what you want not what the shop assistant says you should buy.

Putting my own advice into practice

This year, I decided to buy a new bike.  I didn’t want to spend more than £3,000 (which still seems a lot considering).  The women’s specific bike that I was going to buy seemed to have weird sizing and I knew before I made the final decision that I wouldn’t want to keep the wheels (the majority of wheels that come with full bikes are not as good as the wheels that you would want to race on), or the compact chainset or the saddle.

My Giant TCR in its first race – note the same wheels as in the picture above

I have ridden Giant bikes for quite a while – men’s and women’s – and I like the compact frame (Giant call it “Compact Road Design”).  I had a look at the men’s bikes, as well as the women’s, and for £3,499 RRP I could buy a full bike (the men’s TCR Advanced and the women’s Avail Advanced), both with Ultegra Di2, but the women’s version came under the heading “Endurance” not “Performance”.  Indeed, it is described as a bike for “sportives, centuries, fast group rides and epic solo days” – no mention of a race.  This did put me off, as I was looking to upgrade my race bike.

The Decision

I decided to go with the men’s frameset option instead – the tag line for this bike is “if road bike racing is in your DNA, this is your machine” – well, it mentioned racing so that was a good start!  I was keen to buy a 10 speed double groupset (rather than a compact) before everything changes to 11 speed, and I was lucky enough to buy it for a really good price online.  I shopped around and got some slightly narrower handlebars too.  My local bike shop did a phenomenal job in building it up for me, even managing to get hold of matching bottle cages!

As for the Boardman, well that has been transformed into my new low profile time trial bike – there will be an article on that in the coming weeks.  Until then, enjoy your riding!

 

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