London to Cambridge bike ride. Twice.

Did a big old bike ride last week. Cambridge to London via some nice sweeping country lanes and then back to Cambridge again along the official London to Cambridge route. Apart from a few short rides for an hour or two here and there, it was the first ‘proper’ ride I’ve done on a road bike.

Surprisingly, legs were fine pretty much all the way, although I was starting to run out of steam for the last few miles. What I struggled with most was the pain in my arms and hands; I’m pretty sure my bars could do with being closer and a touch higher, although for the first few hours they felt absolutely fine.

Covered 104 miles in total, here’s a little map of the route.

Electric bicycle

If I’m honest, I’ve never really seen the point in electric bicycles until now. They’re not really quick enough to mix it up with other traffic, like you can on a scooter, and if you’re going to pootle along at 10-15mph on cycle paths then you may as well just pedal a normal bike and get some exercise in the process. Still, I was offered one for the weekend so I thought I’d give it a go.

Essentially it’s a regular town bike with a motor inside the front hub. The battery for the motor is where your bottle would usually sit (it’s about the same size) and the right hand handlebar grip doubles up as a throttle. There’s also a small control box sitting on the rear pannier rack and a bunch of wires connecting it all up. It still has front and rear mechs and shifters so can be pedaled like a regular bike without any assistance if you so wish.

Once on the go, it makes surprisingly rapid progress. The motor is limited to a maximum speed of 15mph which sounds slow but is actually plenty quick enough for buzzing about on cycle lanes and you can always use a bit of pedal power to boost that if you wish. I passed four other cyclists puffing away uphill on regular bikes on my 15 minute commute, like they were standing still. On the flat it’s up to speed in a few seconds, although there is a second of so of lag between twisting the throttle and the motor kicking in. On the uphills it struggles a little but will still get you up slowly without pedaling. However, it really only takes the lightest of effort on the pedals (imagine an exercise bike on low resistance) to assist the motor up hills without losing any speed at all.

I’ve now ridden the bike both to and from work and in both directions it took pretty much exactly the same amount of time to do the door to door journey of around 3 or 4 miles as it does in the car. Milton Keynes has an excellent network of cycle and foot paths that mean I can do the journey without touching any roads, however I’d feel fine riding this on the road through town in 30mph zones. Anything more than that and a scooter becomes more appropriate. Range is supposedly around 25 miles, but the battery unclips easily and can be recharged at your desk in a few hours. I believe this model had a 250W motor although there are bikes available with over double that power which would be better suited to hilly locations.

The two barriers for me that make riding to work difficult are secure storage and shower/changing facilities at work. The electric bike doesn’t solve the secure storage issue but does mean you can ride into work in a shirt and smart trousers without needing to shower or change when you get in, which is a big plus point over a regular bike. I don’t really have a need for one at the moment but if I had a commute of up to about 10 miles each way then I would seriously consider one of these as my daily transport. Bought through one of the employee tax free cycle schemes, it would work out pretty cheap. No road tax or insurance to pay and a daily charge only costs a few pence of electricity (I’m led to believe that it’s less than 10p).

Trail centre – Cwmcarn

My new year resolution of visiting some of the mountain bike trail centres around the UK is progressing nicely, last Sunday I took a drive over to South Wales to ride the Twrch trail at CwmCarn. It’s only a 30 minute drive past the Severn Bridge, so dead easy to get to for those living in the south and close enough for me to drive there and back in a day. Bar a few hundred metres of wider fire road, the Twrch trail is 18km of excellent windy singletrack. It starts with a pretty hefty climb that took about an hour with a few stops to take photos and catch breath. It’s an interesting climb though, winding alongside a river then zig zagging up the hill with plenty of roots and rock steps to keep you occupied. At the top is a freeride area with tabletops and berms aplenty, followed by about 45 minutes of mostly downhill or flat singletrack back to the carpark. The last couple of minutes of descent in particular is very smooth, very swoopy and very fast, which puts you on a nice adrenalin high when you come to a halt back at the car. Just time to grab sandwich and a drink before heading out for a second lap…
Definitely worth the effort for a visit, although next time I have a spare Sunday I might try Afan which is another half an hour or so along the M4 and has a wider selection of trails.

Bike skills coaching session

I attended a mountain bike coaching session last Friday with Tony Doyle of UK Bike Skills. The day was bought for me as a Christmas present last month and I’d been waiting for the date to come around with some anticipation. I’d heard good things about Tony’s courses but was also a tiny bit sceptical about what there was left to learn having been mountain biking for 20+ years.

I’m happy to say that any negative thoughts instantly evaporated once we got underway. Turns out there is plenty to learn and I picked up more in 5 hours on Friday than I have done in years. Particular focuses for me were cornering, smoothness through complex series of sections and a fear of my wheels leaving the ground. By the end of the day I was clearing tabletops, handling small drops with ease and flying through berms at what previously would have felt like impossible speeds. Swoopy singletrack is now more fun than it’s ever been.
Big thumbs up to Tony and UK Bike Skills.

Thetford Forest

Seeing as I was over Cambridge way at the weekend I thought I’d drive the extra 40 minutes or so to Thetford Forest to check out some of the marked out mountain bike trails over there. As well as some basic routes for all the family there are a couple of purpose built MTB trails, they’re marked up as ‘black’ and ‘red’ routes according to their difficulty although it turns out this was a bit of a red herring. I set off firstly on the black route, expecting some difficult and technical trails but sadly that wasn’t the case. The route is currently quite badly eroded (from the rain?) and is basically about 12 miles of flat and very bumpy singletrack. With a bit of speed you can stand up and pump through the pot holes, bumps and roots but this soon becomes tiring. Sitting down isn’t much better and was pretty uncomfortable and tedious even with 120mm of rear suspension. The route almost redeemed itself towards the end with a short technical descent labelled ‘The Beast’ which had a few reasonably steep drops and a few nice swoopy bends.

After returning to the car park and with a little bit of time on my hands I decided to give the red route a try. This was instantly more interesting and enjoyable than the black route. It’s maintained by a bunch of guys called TIMBER and flows much smoother, with plenty of nice little banked turns, raised sections and small jumps. There is always a limit though to what can be done with a totally flat environment. Thetford Forest is completely flat so there are pretty much no descents or ascents, although it goes some way to making up for this with literally miles and miles of nice singletrack (on the red route, at least). Time only allowed for the short version of the red trail unfortunately, so I was back at the car within about 45 minutes. I’d like to have tried the longer version of the red route but I’m not sure it’s worth the 1:40 drive out there again from Milton Keynes. If I’m ever over that way again…
Overall an enjoyable couple of hours and it made a nice change from my usual local trails but not the most interesting mountain biking I’ve ever done. The trail difficulty ratings are also a tad ambitious to say the least.

Coast 2 Coast – update

Slightly delayed post, but the C2C bike ride was a success. We were amazing lucky with the weather (torrential rain stopped the minute we got on the bikes and then started again three days later as soon as we’d finished) and didn’t really suffer any mechanical problems other than a single puncture on the first day. Day one was long, leaving Milton Keynes at 3am. Due to some irritating public transport problems we didn’t actually start riding until 1 o’clock and finally arrived at our camp site, 65 miles later at about 8. Day two was across the Pennines and included three or four huge climbs, although we only had about 40 miles to cover so were done riding by the afternoon. Day three was a piece of cake, one short climb first thing in the morning for a few miles and then it’s a gradual descent for about 20 miles all the way into Newcastle and then onto Tynemouth. I didn’t take the GPS this time round so didn’t measure exactly how far we rode but I’m guessing it was somewhere in the region of 140 miles.
It wasn’t easy by any stretch of the imagination, but some lessons learnt from the last attempt made life a lot easier. Firstly, a decent saddle! There’s no avoiding a certain amount of discomfort but a well fitting saddle is a godsend. Note, well fitting doesn’t necessarily mean well padded – my current saddle is pretty hard but much more comfortable than some super spongy seats I’ve had in the past. I also went for semi slick tyres this time round as opposed to off road knobblies. There are enough sections of light off road terrain on the route to make proper road slicks a bad idea, but semis are perfectly adequate and roll much more efficiently on the road sections. Finally, I used some proper panniers this time instead of carrying everything in my rucksack. After three days a rucksack starts to give you backache, neck pains and makes the saddle more uncomfortable due to the increased upper bodyweight. Despite the bike weighing a ton with the panniers attached, handling isn’t massively affected if you stay seated and sensible.
That’s pretty much it for 2009 as far as major sportiness is concerned. I ran the Milton Keynes half marathon a couple of weeks ago (new PB, 1:56!), so now I can just relax and settle back into gentle weekend runs and rides over the autumn/winter. I didn’t manage as many adventure races as I’d have liked, but with the wedding coming up in 6 weeks money and time are a little short.