Spectator’s view of the Tour de France: England vs France

Compressed by the huge crowd, with a child in each hand, I can see people’s chests, armpits, and the top of my children’s heads; but very little of stage 3 of the Tour De France I have come to watch.  My children are moaning –  understandably – that they are hot, but they can’t escape the heat of the crowd; they want to sit down, but there’s no space on the pavement and they can’t see a thing except for people’s groins! In stark contrast, two years before in the Midi-Pyrénées, we positioned ourselves wherever we liked on the sparsely-populated street.  Picnic in hand, residents offered us their chairs to sit in and we had an enviable view of the publicity caravan, the pick of the flying gizmos, as well as an up close and personal view of the peloton; with amazing photographs to boot!

2012 TDF, Midi-Pyrénées

2012 TDF, Midi-Pyrénées

Same event, different country!  My experiences of watching the Tour de France, cycling’s biggest and most prestigious stage race in the world,  in Britain and in France are vastly different! In 2012, we watched the Tour de France in the Midi-Pyrénées. Strategically-positioned towards the top of a hilly road so that we would get a longer view of the peloton, we were there early enough to soak in the sights: witnessing local French residents gradually appearing from their houses; coffee mugs, wine glasses and deckchairs in tow, this was clearly an annual and leisurely event!  With relatively few spectators lining the road, when the publicity caravan arrived, my children were inundated with gizmos flying through the air: mini packs of sweets, mini pens, mini baguettes, mini sausages; our picnic quickly lost its allure (for the children) to more exciting treats!  And such was the relaxed vibe that many gizmos falling near local residents’ feet, were brought over to our children with a welcoming smile.

Fast-forward two years and we were delighted that the Tour De France was coming to Britain.  We saw on television how the UK embraced the Tour’s Grand Départ in Yorkshire, with two million people turning up to watch the most-northerly stage in history!   Eagerly, we took the children along to Cambridge for stage 3 and fighting our way through the crowds, it immediately became apparent that we could not expect the same carefree French experience.    The crowd, in its thousands, was heaving, noisy and vibrant.  The unprecedented excitement was palpable in the air, but with constant jostling from the crowd, shouting reverberating through my ears and having my nose pressed into armpits (a drawback to being short!) whichever direction I turned, it was a completely different experience to France.  Impossible to not get caught up in the frantic excitement, yet with such a poor view of the actual event!OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA Whipping the crowd into even more of a frenzy, the publicity caravan made its debut; with its blaring music and many elaborately-crafted vehicles and dancing occupiers throwing gizmos into the crowd.   Watching  people – mostly adults – scrambling for the sparingly-issued (for a crowd of this size) freebies flying through the air, you would think the small packets contained French Champagne, or some exquisite French chocolate samples, rather than Bic biros or Haribo sweets!

Two weeks later, whilst holidaying in France, we decided we couldn’t miss the opportunity to watch stage 15 which was passing nearby.  Although not as quiet as our experience in the Midi-Pyrénées in 2012, this was still a more dignified, less frantic experience than in Cambridge.  Residents and holiday-makers watched the peloton, coffee in hand, from their café chairs or street-side, but pretty much everyone got a front row view if they wanted to!  The only erratic behaviour I witnessed in this laid-back environment was a man irresponsibly leaning into the peloton with his camera.   Seriously what was he thinking…!

Stage 15 TDF, 2014

Stage 15 TDF, 2014

The cyclist’s The Birds!

Try to picture Tippi Hedren, in this image from Hitchcock’s, The Birds, on her bicycle and you’ll get a flavour of the momentary terror I felt on todays bike ride!220px-The_Birds_original_poster

Turning a corner on my bike, I encountered what seemed like hundreds of swooping and soaring birds ahead of me.  Flocking around a huge dome of freshly-dug potatoes, the birds were highly-vocal and erratic in their flying and I silently praised the protection of my helmet.

Gathering my thoughts quickly,  I wondered whether to ring my bell to attempt to clear my path, or try to pass unnoticed. Cowardly, or sensibly, I am undecided; I opted for the latter and although many scattered in different directions at my sudden appearance, I managed to miss any bird collisions and resumed normal breathing after a few metres!

The rest of the bike ride shook off the cobwebs from a week’s work, with the promise of spring in the air: a rather pleasant 12˚c, the sun breaking through the clouds and a not-too-bad 15 mph wind!

Approach with caution!

Approach with caution!

Gone with the wind: cycling insanity!

I questioned my cycling sanity today as I found myself having to adopt the tuck position time and time again to brace against forceful 21 mph gusts of wind.   Before I had even met Petra, my cycling partner, I could hear and see the lamp-posts clanging and wobbling in the gales; silently threatening to come crashing down!unnamed

So why would any sane person leave the comfort of their warm home to venture out on their bike in nine degrees celsius, when they can clearly see the trees and bushes swaying vigorously from their window? Because it was a beautiful sunny day with  a – rare for this time of year – blue sky!  It had to be done!  Leaving the Sunday traffic of the town behind us, we fought against the double potency of the drag of large vehicles combining with gutsy wind, through the first village.  But then, turning a corner, the blasts of wind came across and behind us and it was all worthwhile: blue skies as far as the eye could see with sunshine promising spring around the corner, to re-awaken this somewhat barren winter landscape!

Smiling through the gusting 21 mph wind!

Smiling through the gusting 21 mph wind!

Winter landscape

Winter landscape

 

Watch your space! (Some) Drivers dangerously overtaking cyclists

As the lorry thundered past me on a rural road, the resulting drag pushed my cycle to one side and nearly resulted in a fall.  Whether the fall would have been onto the pavement, or the oncoming traffic is speculation as thankfully I quickly brought the bike under control.  Although, as a newbie-cleat-wearer, the momentary terror caused by the wobble was intensified!  Sadly, this example is not a one-off, as most times I venture out on my cycle, either a car, a lorry, or a tractor, will inevitably fail to slow down, or give me much space as they overtake.   Having said that, I must herald the lovely lorry drivers I have also encountered; on a few occasions I have been taken aback when a lorry slows right down and patiently waits until they can pass safely!  I read a great article recently which included pictures of cyclists being overtaken by vehicles and certainly provided food for thought.

One of my pet hates is drivers not giving cyclists enough space, or failing to slow down, when overtaking: whether I am the cyclist, or a driver observing another driver’s lack of consideration.  Few motorists seem to have read, or pay attention to, the rules on overtaking in the highway code which stipulate that drivers should:

give motorcyclists, cyclists and horse riders at least as much room as you would when overtaking a car (see Rules 211-213) and (214-215)

And few seem to consider what it is like for a cyclist as they streak past, inches from a cyclist’s side.  On a couple of occasions I have been bruised by passing wing mirrors and I often wonder why some drivers don’t think about the safety of cyclists when overtaking. Surely it is common sense and consideration to leave plenty of space? Or are some drivers so confident in their own driving ability that they think the space is adequate?   Think of the pleasant cycling experience we would have if part of the driving test included riding a horse and a bicycle to experience how terrifying it can be when drivers fail to show cyclists consideration!

Apparently helmet-wearing, gender and position on the road are all factors associated with how much space a driver tends to give when overtaking a cyclist.  Controversially, research from Bath University showed that cyclists not wearing a helmet were given 8.5cm more clearance by cars and when donning female wigs, the researchers were given even more clearance, (14cm) than apparent males in helmets.   However, the cyclists’ position on the road changed everything; cancelling the difference in space at times.  Dr Walker, the traffic psychologist from the University,  told the BBC that he thought the reason drivers give less room to cyclists wearing helmets is because they see them as “Lycra-clad street warriors” and believe they are more predictable than those without.

Quick to highlight the importance of helmet-wearing, the BBC also quoted a spokesman for the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents who insisted:

We wouldn’t recommend that people stop wearing helmets because of this research. Helmets have been shown to reduce the likelihood of head and brain injuries in a crash.

A friend, who wasn’t wearing a helmet, fell off his bike a few years ago (no car involved) when turning a corner and after being told at the hospital how lucky he was not to have suffered worse injuries,  he vowed he would always wear a helmet from then on.

I always wear a helmet so can not comment on drivers passing space with, or without, helmet; but I have found that if I hug the curb, drivers tend to think it is okay to speed past with very little space, whereas when I venture closer to the middle of the road, cars tend to slow down before overtaking.  Is this a case of you’re damned if you do and you’re damned if you don’t though: hugging the curb you are presumably less likely to be hit by a car, but closer to the centre you are less likely to experience the drag-wobble as vehicles would have to slow down? This is not a position for the faint-hearted though!

Perhaps the way forward is to scrap the lycra and don spike-encrusted cages…maybe after a few scratches, drivers might approach cyclists with more caution…not sure about going uphill dressed like that though!  Maybe instead we could settle for lots more cycle lanes and ones that are more than a few inches across!

 

 

The frozen joys of winter cycling

Pure water!

Pure water!

Red mottled skin around the thighs; ice-cold to touch, icy ears as the biting-wind whistles past, painfully numb fingers and a red patch where my cycling tights end and my over-boots fail to meet: welcome to the joys of winter cycling in the UK!

At the end of last summer, I wrote a post about the cyclist’s tan: the fetching white thighs, white upper arms and white hands, contrasting with tanned skin that has been exposed on many bike rides; making for an interesting look in a swimsuit!  So I found it mildly amusing, after peeling my lycra off, to re-discover that even in the winter, cyclists encounter different patches of skin colour.  Although – unlike the cyclist’s tan – the red and white winter combination fortunately only lasts for a few minutes post-cycle! Wearing a new helmet for the first time, I was also rewarded with a V-sign imprinted to my forehead: V for victorious I mused as I clocked it in the mirror, although V for valiant effort, is probably more appropriate!

Today was a milestone for me as I normally prefer to hang up the helmet in the winter months; preferring the warmth of a spin class instead, but acutely aware of losing confidence with cleats, I knew that I needed to get back on the saddle and brave the elements! Frozen-fingers and ears, barking guard dogs and muddy roads aside, breezing past the long, open fields with only cows, horses and tractors for company, today’s winter cycle ride will hopefully spur on a few more!

The beauty of a balance bike!

Birthday wheels!

Birthday wheels!

I had to suppress a smile as my four-year-old son, adopting that age-old child  belief that bigger, more and older is better, announced that his friend’s bike was way cooler than his as it had four wheels, instead of two.  Thanks to using a balance bike from the age of three, my son was now confidently riding a two-wheeled bike to and from school and, despite many positive comments from strangers, surprised at seeing such a small child cycling without stabilisers, had no idea how remarkable a feat this was.

There have been hairy moments: once he had progressed from sitting on the saddle and jogging with the bike, he learnt the thrill of pushing off, swinging his legs high in the air and coasting; sometimes careering at great speed.  And pulling the brake, whilst an understood concept, was not an easy task for tiny fingers.  But on the whole, from the moment he pulled the birthday wrapping paper off his shiny new balance bike and got his first taste of freedom and speed,  choosing a balance bike, over a bike with stabilisers, has been a decision I would make time and time again.

To the uninitiated, a balance bike is a training bike, without pedals or stabilisers.  I vividly remember thinking they looked a little odd the first time I saw a child sitting on one; his feet running along the ground,  propelling him forward.  But a few years later, having read a cycling magazine’s feature heralding their benefits, I decided to take the plunge and see if the hype was right.   The strong argument for a balance bike is that stabilisers prevent children from developing a sense of balance by giving them a false sense of security: they learn to believe they can cycle as fast as they want and turn the handlebars sharply, as the stabilisers keep them upright!   With a balance bike, they learn the difficult part – the balance and the steering – first and then to pedal later.  And the evidence for this can be seen on many playgrounds and paths as although the fast and thoroughly-enjoyable cruising, with legs in the air, can scare the calmest parent into a swift run, it clearly demonstrates that the child has learnt to confidently balance on two wheels; with little fear!

Moreover, when transition day to the big bike arrived, within half an hour of introducing my not-quite-four-year-old-son to pedals, he was confidently cycling on two wheels, instinctively knowing how to add pedalling to balance and feeling on top of the world.  There was no wobbling, no frustration, no falling and -happily- no tears.  And for us; there was no running behind trying to hold on to his seat and no wincing as bike and cyclist took the expected tumbles!  We were completely taken aback at this fast and positive experience because it was in stark contrast to that of his older sister, who hadn’t used a balance bike and really didn’t enjoy the day, or weeks, or months after the stabilisers were unshackled.  To this day, she is still a less-confident and enthusiastic cyclist than her baby brother and I attribute this completely to the balance bike experience, as we are a cycling family.

If used regularly, I would recommend a balance bike to anyone who wants their child to learn to cycle the easy way – without fear – whilst whole-heartedly enjoying the whole experience: from the day they receive their balance bike, to the day they move to a big bike!

Whether, like me, you are converted to the balance bike, or steeped in the traditional stabiliser route, I hope we can all agree on one thing: getting children off the sofa, away from screens and toasty car seats and into the fresh air for some exercise, is a positive experience for their health and fun!

Can spinning compete with cycling?

Today I swapped my road bike for a spin bike.  I swapped the fresh air, sweeping fields and light-blue sky for four walls and a stuffy hall.  I swapped solitude and reflection, for company.   Spinning versus  cycling: is there any comparison?

 

The ultimate resistance training!

The ultimate resistance training!

At heart, I am a cyclist: I love cycling for miles through the countryside.  I relish the quiet country lanes, the beautiful sweeping views and the speed.  But when I don’t fancy braving the worst of the British weather,  spinning helps to maintain my cycling fitness. In recent years, I have dipped in and out of spinning; mostly opting for the stationary bike when it’s pouring with rain and today I primarily went for my friend Kamila, who has apparently missed my scintillating company over the summer cycling months! I am not sure that I offer much chat during the sweat-enducing class, but it’s still lovely to be missed!

I started cycling long distances on a mountain bike about 25 years ago.  Due to our nomadic lifestyle, I have been privileged to cycle on lots of different terrain: sand, cliffs and dirt tracks, to busy roads and quiet pot-holed country lanes.  My backdrops have varied from the rolling green hills and beautiful stone villages of Rutland and Nottinghamshire; through to the azure-blue sky and sea, and vegetation-barren mountains of Cyprus; the vineyards, lavender and sunflower fields of France, to the flatland and big skies of Cambridgeshire.

I experienced the ultimate in resistance-training when I hitched a trailer to my mountain bike, whilst the children were too small to go to school.  As I clocked-up the miles and slogged up hills, towing a sleeping (if I was lucky!) toddler, I discovered muscles I had never felt before!  And recently I transitioned to a road bike; experiencing the thrill of longer distances and faster speeds, as well as the not-so-thrilling embarrassment of the inevitable falls when trying out cleats for the first time!

Sunflowers of France

Sunflowers of France

And in those years I have hopped in and out of spinning classes, experiencing many different styles of spin; from the downright waste of time to the I can barely walk down the stairs the next day!  Too many classes have been spent regretting that I didn’t hop on my bike instead: usually where the instructor hasn’t compiled a playlist and just plays a CD of tracks mismatched to what we are doing on the bike and with no variety.   In contrast, I have fond memories of my spin instructor from Cyprus, who upgraded the routine in line with our improved fitness levels, used lots of funky tracks and also used a lot of visualisation “You are going up a hill, nearly there, keep pushing”.   Another instructor planned the whole routine to the Tabata discipline of high-intensity, interval training. Whether we were sprinting, working against resistance, hovering or doing arm work, it was a 20-second on, 10-second off pattern, for eight repetitions.  This was seriously hard work: by the end of each class you were dripping with sweat and felt it in your legs for days after!  But it was fun!

For me, a stationary bike in a stuffy studio can never truly compete with the freedom and fresh air of cycling in the countryside.  But with an enthusiastic instructor it can be fun and certainly helps to maintain your cycling fitness when the British weather excels itself!