This is going to be a longish blog post of sorts. I’ve been meaning to write various parts of this blog for over two years now so this is a sort of get-up-to-date post on how I got into cycling. Feel free to skip it if it bores you or is TL;DR.
I was on my bike every day as a kid. I used to cycle everywhere. Growing up in Germany, I saw that everybody cycled. Adults would commute to work and kids to school using the multitude of criss-crossing dedicated cycle paths throughout the city. I had a little silver mountain bike with three gears (omg: GEARS!) that my parents bought me. We would ride together every weekend on Sunday after church, get an ice cream or lunch and cycle home. It was bliss and I loved it and I loved my bike.
Ten years later and I stopped cycling on the day I that passed my driving test and I never touched a bike again. Cycling was not fun in England. It was something to be endured; a mixture of small roads and angry drivers all competing for space is enough to put anyone sane off enjoying a cycle ride. When my bike was stolen that really was the last nail in the coffin as the only replacement I could afford was the cheapest bike from Halfords which I think was made of lead pipe and bricks.
My first car, a faded-red Ford Fiesta Popular Plus with a 1.1 litre engine. It was comfortable and dry and had a stereo and tape deck. No bike could ever be this good, so I let my bike go to rust. (Even so, it probably didn’t lose any value!).
I have a serious problem in that a lot of my hobbies and all of my work involves sitting down on my ass all day and sitting kills.
In 2012, we took an active family holiday in Rutland Water. It was during the London Olympics, co-incidentally. It’s the same time and place that I filmed the middle portion of this Scottevest review. We kayaked, we cycled, we played swing ball. I fell into a lake, couldn’t get back in my kayak and had to swim back to shore. Sitting on a bike again properly for the first time in 13 years and riding for fun really reminded me of how much I missed cycling. Dylan was too young to ride, so we hired two adult bikes and a trailer bike and took it in turns to pull him along. It was sunny, and it rained, and it was brilliant fun. I had to get back on a bike.
The UK Government runs a cycle to work scheme which sets a limit of £1,000 for a bike to cycle to work. That seems like a sensible limit to ‘aim’ for to get started. My main interest was in going places. I wasn’t interested in a stationary exercise bike or a bike trainer or even a slow-moving mountain bike. I also didn’t want to get an uncomfortable roadie, and bearing in mind that I was (still am, but improving every day!) overweight – I had to get a bike that could support me on my mission to get fitter and still stay fun.
I looked at a lot of local bike shops and ended up choosing the Specialized Tricross Sport Disc (2012 model) shown above. It’s in my favourite colour too and felt just right.
As soon as it arrived, I was so excited to put it together and go for a ride. I rode around the houses (maybe 1/2 mile) and ran completely out of puff – the bike ran beautifully but I was physically exhausted and surprised at my lack of cardio ability. How bad had I allowed myself to get? Also, putting it mildly, my arse hurt from my five minute ride. Not wanting to get put off, I began searching the internet for advice. I found several cycling forums (where I lurk to this day) and some excellent cycling blogs (links below) which seemed to indicate that my comfort level could be improved by putting some padded shorts over my padded bum.
I ordered myself some padded underpants and went for another ride. This time I did better, about two miles and made it back with numb hands and a numb gentleman’s area. How the hell do I have numb hands when the handlebar is covered in comfortable tape? I thought the seat that came with the bike was supposed to be high quality – perhaps it is for lightweight riders but I just couldn’t shift the numbness from my achy-breaky-balls.
More research and more items bought; this time a comfortable seat and a pair of cycling gloves. I highly recommend both; the seat is a Selle Italia Gel Flow seat and it’s excellent. It’s still a relatively hard seat and it seems quite popular amongst experienced cyclists and even pro riders who value being able to ride without smashing their posteriors into a hard saddle. The secret with this seat is in the cut out section in the middle. This stops the soft tissue area from getting squashed and although I still get a sore bum sometimes I don’t get any numbness with this seat so it gets 5 stars from me! My only concern is that after riding through water, sometimes it will spray up through the seat which can make it look like you’ve wet yourself. I suppose this could be stopped by installing fenders/mudguards.
My gloves are Specialized BG; the BG stands for Body Geometry. My last seat was a Body Geometry seat too and I don’t know whose bum that seat was geometrically compatible with. These gloves however are fantastic – they protect the ulnar nerve which runs between the ring and little fingers. If that nerve gets squashed, your little finger and ring finger will start to tingle and your palm begin to slowly go numb.
So, bum and hands sorted. Out I go on another ride pushing five miles this time and I try cycling along a wide gravel pathway and the cheap plastic Robinsons squash bottle that I was using as my water bottle goes flying after I go over a bump. I solved this problem with a Camelbak Podium Big Chill bottle which fits perfectly in the water bottle holder and holds 750ml of water (and keeps it cold if I put ice cubes in). It doesn’t leak – it’s the perfect drinks bottle.
I kept riding a little further each time and I was getting steadily annoyed by my cycle helmet. It was a cheap one that I bought from Halfords many years ago and to be honest it didn’t really fit me because I have a big head (no comments please!). At first I bought a Specialized Propero II Helmet in Large as I tried one in a local bike shop and it fitted perfectly but when mine arrived it had fixed chin straps that I could not comfortably connect under my chin. That was returned and I ordered a LG (not the TV brand, but Louis Garneau) Quartz Helmet in Black. This fitted perfectly; I found that it was incredibly difficult to get a cycling helmet that fitted comfortably. I prefer the style of the Specialized Propero II, but I’m not doing this for style, after all I look like a multi-coloured frog on a matchbox.
Choosing cycling gear for the fat-ass larger rider is quite difficult. It seems all cyclists are leaner than the average population and also I didn’t want to look like a poison dart frog, or like one of those middle-aged men in lycra so I chose some fairly cheap jersey tops and cycling shorts (my first ever purchase of lycra gear) from Sports Direct. They were also kind enough to send me an oversized mug which I grew a tomato plant in.
As it was getting colder, I also took advantage of a cheap online offer on LG products and bought some lycra arm and leg warmers and treated myself to a Dhb merino wool base layer.
On the subject of clothing; I don’t think lycra gear looks particularly good. But once I got over my inhibitions to actually go out in public dressed like this, I was immediately won over. Yes, you might feel a little awkward and down below it feels a bit like you’re wearing a nappy but this is by far the most comfortable and practical outfit to wear while cycling. A wet t-shirt, chafed nipples and sweaty shorts do not look as good as fast-drying flexible cycling gear. Don’t judge me!
I’d found my ideal training route. It was a circuit that started from my house and went around Farnborough in a circuit via the airport. This allowed me to use mixed-use paths for a few miles, then a canal-tow path for a further mile or so before joining the roads for the last leg. I was not yet comfortable with getting back on the road with the sadistic motorists so this mix of road types suited me.
I armed myself with two head-mounted flashing LED lights – these rather fantastic Knog Frog lights (don’t buy the first generation with the weak LEDs), the second generation are bright and powered by two CR2032 batteries. They’re self-contained and activated by pressing the button on the top to change modes (off-steady on-flashing slow-double flash-constant flash). I bought two, one white and one red. At first I had them mounted on the bike (as shown in the pictures here) but I ended up putting them on my head – I found this worked better for keeping sleepy car drivers alert to my position. They aren’t bright enough to light up a path but the flashing can be seen in bright daylight from half a mile away so they’re fantastic for being seen.
I’ll blog separately about lights later; since I’ve got quite a few of them. I’d rather not be a cycling ninja on the road; I’m not a pro athelete in a bid to win a time trial; I want to travel along public roads safely and to be sure that motorists can see me.
After a few near misses by car and van drivers leaving not very much room (and often while holding a mobile phone to the side of their heads), I put a helmet camera on and invested in an air horn. It’s a seriously loud air horn and for less than £20 delivered, it’s a potential life saver. In fact there are many videos of folks out there whose lives have been saved (or at least, saved from serious debilitating injury) by installing one of these on their bikes. The horn itself is handlebar mounted and the pressurised air is stored on a bottle which can sit in a bottle cage or be velcroed to the frame. the horn is actuated with a button on the handlebar. It didn’t fit my handlebars so I had to tie it on with cable ties. I’ll review this particular helmet camera later, it’s a Chinese non-branded camera but the quality is exceptional for the price and the camera itself is lightweight and connects to a control unit that houses a display, microphone and SD card slot which sits in a handlebar bag.
With the above kit, I started cycling – not every day but as often as I could get out I would. Every ride would be at least four miles, but usually more like eight or nine. I discovered so much about Farnborough even though I’d lived here for ten years I never knew about the local woods and trails that were only a couple of miles away, and I had no idea how peaceful some of these places were even though I’d been driving past them several times a day for years!
You really do see more on a bike.
It was about this time when I started posting some of my rides on Facebook and Twitter. A couple of friends got in touch with me and gave me some helpful advice on how to improve my endurance and cycling speed. My style used to be pushing down on each of the pedals in turn; a bit like how a child rides a bike – instead of rolling my foot around the oval. I also measured my cadence (with a Wahoo Blue Speed Cadence Sensor) and was told that needs to come up. I was pedalling around 50-60rpm and my legs were getting really tired (but as it happens, my lungs and heart were not). I learned that cyclists in the Tour De France tended to be more successful with higher cadences and that spinning at faster rates (80-100rpm) generally causes the cardiovascular system to work harder (lungs and heart) while not stressing the legs so much. The best tip I received was to keep my cadence high and manage the gears so that I had only a slight resistance on the pedals – thanks Andy. Just this little bit of knowledge bumped my average speed up by 2-3mph!
I was flying now (at 12mph :P) and wanted to know more!
I learned about “clip less” pedals and how “clipless” actually means “with clips” not without, and I really felt that I needed these in my life. So I went to the local bike stores and didn’t try on any of their shoes as they are all made for either fairies or those Chinese ladies who have their feet wrapped up tightly from birth to keep them small. Wow, cycling shoes are awful – I’ll be honest; I could hardly get three or four toes into most of them. This would not do.
Relief came from these Lake I/O “Sandals”. Yeah, I’ve had quite a few giggles from fellow cyclists who I tell that I wear sandals to cycle. But these are more like highly vented shoes than Sandals – and unlike cycling shoes these look good and can be walked around in without wobbling like a penguin or ice skater off the ice.
When I was a child, it was quite common to see people cycling to work with small baskets on the front of their pedals in which they would place their feet. With a higher cadence there is an increased risk of your foot slipping off, so these baskets help keep your feet where they need to be. These clips are the evolution of that idea in that the rider’s foot is essentially clipped in (like a ski boot) to the bike pedals and the style of pedalling changes from “uppy downy” to “around the circle”. Now with the ability to exert force in a constant motion (I am still struggling to do this correctly!), I could ride more efficiently;
I replaced the stock pedals with these hybrid Shimano SPD A530 pedals
So on one side I can clip in and on the other I can ride the bike as normal even with normal shoes. Win-win!
It took me several rides to get used to this system and I took a lot of time clipping in and clipping out and practicing. I fell over lots and scuffed my bike. The first time at home in the garden while practicing clipping in and out, and the second and third time when I was outside in front of people; fishing by the canal and some old folks in a car park. It was painful and I looked like a plonker.
Tyres. I was sick of getting punctures cycling on gravel paths on the stock Specialized Borough Sport CX 32mm tyres, so I moved to the very popular Continental Gatorskin All-Season tyres in 28mm. They are supposedly puncture proof, being kevlar lined, and were nearly completely slick and rolled very fast but were not as kind to my bottom as the 4mm larger Borough Sport tyres.
The stock Alexrims S480 wheels on my bike by this time had started to develop an annoying buckle – probably due to my weight, so I contacted a wheel maker to supply with me a set of Mavic CXP33’s – these wheels are lighter than the Alexrims and are stronger too. They’ve got a more aero profile (if that makes a difference?!) and look fantastic. The tyres you can see in this picture are Schwalbe Sammy Slicks in 35mm – they’re fantastic tyres. I’ve only had them on for less than 50 miles but I had to fit larger tyres after moving home to the Isle of Man since I have to ride 1km off road before I get to the roads so needed something a little wider. It’s early days, and these are likely to be puncture prone as they are quite thin-walled but they roll very quick (as far as I can tell, they’re as quick as the 28mm Continentals) and they can even cope with our gravel driveway and slippery grass.
I don’t want to bore you, nor do I want to give you the impression that I’ve bought loads of cycling gear for every issue.. I’ve also not cycled in 2012-2013 as much as I’d like to simply because we left the UK and moved to the Isle of Man and I’ve been back to my old habits with double the workload that I’ve had before – something had to give and it was, as it has been in the past – cycling and exercise.
I find myself now working long hours and juggling home and work life. But I’m right in the middle of some of the most amazing and quiet roads; during the day it’s possible to go out on a 10 mile ride and see no cars at all and since cycling on the Isle of Man is something of a national religion, the cars you will see tend to give you a knowingly wide berth.
In fact last weekend I tackled the largest hill in the north; it defeated me and I couldn’t give any more. I got out of the seat and pushed with all my might just as a car came over the hill in front of me; with the driver and passenger cheering me on as they passed. It was almost as if they were saying, “Go on fatty! Well done, yessir! Keep going!”.
I’ve been using Strava lately and I checked my performance up that hill. Apparently I came 417/419. Not bad, sure it puts me in the bottom half-percent but I’m improving every time!
I’ll be blogging a little more on cycling from here on out – but I’m keen to hear about your experiences, particularly if you’ve just started a sport for the first time in your adult life or if you’re a keen sports person but haven’t always been.
* CTC – http://www.ctc.org.uk
* ipayroadtax.com – http://ipayroadtax.com
* Rebecca Ramsey – very helpful pro cyclist with genuine down to earth useful tips! http://www.easycycling.com
* Cycling Weekly – http://www.cyclingweekly.co.uk
* Mountain Bike Review (great for gear reviews) – http://www.mtbr.com