Where is there an end of it? | Alex Brown's weblog

Cycling from Cambridge to Rome

So I completed a self-supported cycle tour from Cambridge to Rome with some friends: 2,100 kilometres with 19,000 metres of climbing, over 18 days.

Val d'Orcia

I wrote it up on the CTC Cambridge blog: start here.

What's in my Carradice?

Carradice Junior

Partly as an aide memoire, here's a list of the things I always carry in my Carradice saddle bag. Some of this stuff may not be necessary for shorter rides, but I wouldn't want to get used to riding light, now would I?

Extra stuff is added for very long rides (e.g. an extra inner tube and electrical items) and this list does not cover clothing.

Most of the content is organized into Alpkit bags to keep things neat.

Loose in the bag

  • Pump – a Lezyne mid-sized one with a length of insulating tape around the barrel
  • Spare spokes (2 × rear NDS, 2 × rear DS, 2 × front) and some nipples
  • Waterproof (Gore shakedry)
  • Assorted cable ties
  • Pen
  • Exposure Joystick light/torch

 Tyres / Drivetrain bag

  • Spare tyre (Continental 4Seasons 25mm)
  • Inner tube
  • Genuine Innovations tubeless tyre repair kit
  • Plastic tyre levers × 2
  • Tyre bead jack
  • Di2 cable
  • Di2 cable tool
  • 2 × ball bungees
  • piece of plastic toothpaste tube
  • Park tools tyre boot
  • Lezyne adhesive patch kit
  • Stans valve core tool
  • Digital tyre pressure gauge
  • Tube of flexible superglue

Medical / toilet bag

  • Sun lotion
  • Ear plugs
  • Plastic ziplock bag
  • Sanitizing wipes
  • Tick removal tool
  • Ibuprofen
  • Antihistamine
  • Assorted sticking plasters
  • Toothbrush & toothpaste

Misc. tools bag

  • Nitrile gloves
  • Fitment to attach Exposure Joystick as backup front light
  • Replacement freewheel star ratchets
  • Fibrefix emergency kevlar spoke
  • Victorinox SwissCard Classic
  • Multitool with chain-splitter
  • Quick links for chain
  • Derailleur hanger

For longer (≥ 400 km) rides, add some of ...

  • Additional inner tube
  • Spare CR 2032 batteries
  • USB cables
  • USB power bank(s)
  • USB/mains adaptor
  • Di2 charger
  • Backup rear light
  • Chain lube
  • Indigestion tablets
  • Baby wipes
  • Emergency gel(s)
  • Electrolyte tabs

"Cambridge Markets" 200km audax

I had to ride an audax in November to keep my RRtY attempt alive. With the month drawing to an end and reasonable weather in prospect and I chose the "Cambridge Markets", one of Nick Wilkinson's excellent series of permanent Audax routes from Cambridge.

Another audax starts
The Départ: Co-op in Girton

And so at 07:13 I found myself setting off from Girton through the Cambridge traffic, which was more than usually clogged because of the sinkhole in the centre of town. However, this did not impede my progress and before long I was at Quy ready to join the busy A1303 towards Newmarket. Because of the heavy rush hour traffic I turned on a large red rear flashing light, which felt – on an audax – mildly transgressive.

By the time I reached Newmarket day had broken. I left town along the familiar road beside the gallops and continued east through Moulton and Gazeley. Although some watery sunshine was struggling to break through the overall picture was a cloudy one, and would remain so for the rest of the day.

Muted near Moulton (re-crop)
Muted near Moulton

As I got deeper into the countryside the temperature dropped, at one point (according to my Garmin) touching zero. I became conscious I has committed a clothing error: open-toed sandals were not appropriate footwear today, even with thick wool socks.

Too cool
Just too cool

Otherwise I was mostly happy with my equipment choices today. This was the first outing of my winter bike since January: it's a steel frame (a 2015 Genesis Equilibrium) with disc brakes (TRP Hy/Rd) and sturdy-ish tyres (Hutchinson Sector 28). Since the forecast was dry I hadn't made the effort to re-fit mudguards – more feelings of audax transgression.

Before long I reached Bury St Edmunds and wheeled my bike through the crowded market in search of a cashpoint that was working. As part of my training for LEL I am wanting to get used to riding longish (100km) stages without a proper food stop, so after getting a cashpoint slip, I swiftly re-mounted my bike and pressed on eastward.

The easternmost point of this course is Framlingham, but rather than take a direct route there, Nick routes via a control at Needham Market. I had been here once before on the Green & Yellow Fields audax, but forgot the layout of the town and managed to ride past the shops, necessitating some annoying backtracking. I'm not normally an impatient person, but it seems the further one gets into the country, the longer shop transactions take. The gentleman in front of me at the post office was keen to make a contactless purchase for the first time, then to get some cashback, then – on impulse – buy a scratch card and then buy some stamps that had been forgotten in the former contactless excitement. Argh.

There's some slightly rough lane work after Needham Market – otherwise this route is mostly on fine roads making it suitable for a winter audax. Around here my Garmin decided to switch itself off (it did this again later too). The current firmware for the Edge 1000 seems particularly flaky. At one point the mystery of Garmin/phone integration led it to announce to me simply "Message from 0" ! It's shocking how a supposedly market-leading product is still so poor.

I arrived in Framlingham at around 12:15 and headed into Paddy & Scott’s café for lunch: a sausage roll, cup of tea and carrot cake.

Framlingham: They still believe in magicke here it seems

Apart from a flapjack bar I munched on the bike through the ride, this would be all the food I was to eat, which, as it turned out, was plenty.

Lunch, Framlingham
Half of lunch

After lunch I started back west towards Cambridge. The return route didn't go via Needham Market but took a more direct route via Debenham and Elmswell. This was perhaps my favourite section of the ride, on gently rolling smooth roads through green open country. 

Back at Bury I got a cashpoint slip and looked up to see Starbucks. Perhaps I deserved a cake and coffee? (or at least the hot milky stuff one typically gets from Starbucks). But no, I stiffened my resolve and rode off west in the gathering gloom.

As darkness fell I reflected on the fact I'd been on the ride for nearly 10 hours with my only human contact a few brief businesslike exchanges with shop assistants. I seem to be able to tolerate my own company and happily while away solo hours a'wheel – something I suspect I will be doing in the longer brevets next year …

To my pleasure the route back from Bury was not a simple out-and-back, but took a southerly detour via Dalham and Ashley, which gave a long gentle descent into Newmarket and a good excuse to rest the legs. Then, it was time to re-light the rear flasher and brave the (again busy) A1303 back to Cambridge. On the way I worked out I had a chance to get my best ever time for a 200km, which gave me an incentive to up the pace for the final kilometres. When I arrived back at the Co-op my receipt was timed at 17:40, 10 hours and 27 minutes after departure.

Overall this had been a very satisfying ride. The winter rides in a RRtY can make you feel you're on a treadmill, needing to get an audax "in" and having to face unpleasant cold and dark conditions – so this makes a really suitable course with good roads and well-spaced controls with ample refreshment opportunities. And, at 204km the ride isn't much over distance!

Next up: the Santa Special.

Cycling up to Exmoor

North Devon coast
The North Devon coast around Lynmouth

“Yeah a lot of people bring bicycles here” said the guy we were renting our holiday cottage from “they usually put them back on the car after the first day.”

As a newbie cyclist with a relatively shiny and new bike, I began to wonder if I had made a big mistake, and that enduring the anxiety of transporting my steed on the car roof had not been worth it (carbon frames and roof carriers – a subject in itself). At sea level beneath the cliffs of North Devon, Lynmouth is surrounded by steep slopes overlain with precipitous roads. Even driving here is hairy enough, as is testified by the frequent acrid wafts from overheated clutches.

There must be some kind of way out of here

Lynmouth at dusk
Lynmouth at dusk

There are three principal ways to cycle out of Lynmouth. Two are insane:

  • Lynmouth Hill (featuring a two extremely steep sections in the first kilometres where the gradient exceeds 30% at times), and
  • Countisbury Hill (not quite as steep but more relentless).

This is the sort of steepness where you can find your front wheel lifts off the tarmac when making a pedal stroke. As has been wisely written, any gradient > 16% is “very challenging for riders of all abilities. Maintaining this sort of incline for any length of time is very painful”.

The third way however, looked doable. It is a climb featured as Number 6 in Simon Warren’s excellent book 100 Greatest Cycling Climbs. It has just one steepish (~10%) section, but overall a gentle average. At 11km it is however lengthy. On a scale of 1 to 11 this – the “Exmoor Forest” climb – is one of the easiest in Mr Warren’s book with a rating of 3/10. Challenge enough for me. The best cyclists do it in around 30 minutes; as a rule of thumb I try to beat twice their time.

Biological, mechanical & electronic considerations

Cycling has many dimensions. There are all those great (and perhaps not so great) sensations: the feeling of flying at speed, the views, the pain – but, if you like, there are also many more technical aspects around the bike machinery and biomachinery that is to be used. As a self-confessed geek these are of interest to me, particularly when applied to cycling climbs.

The bike itself has a couple of key elements. First, its weight. This is hard to change much for any given bike, reducing it beyond the ~10kg or so of a typical ridable modern carbon-fibre bike is done with rapidly diminishing returns. Secondly, the gearing – having an appropriate range of easy low gears can make the difference between a climb being even possible or not. I opted to fit a 12–30 tooth cassette to match my 50/34 front chainrings, giving the option of some slightly higher gearing than is typically available from a default bike shop purchase. This gives a lowest gearing of 30 gear inches, or, put another way means that turning the pedals at a (very slow) 40 rpm, one travels at a walking pace of ~5.5 km/h – fast enough to stay upright and make slow progress.

However, as the clever saying has it, getting better is not a matter of buying upgrades, but of cycling up grades. Of far more importance than the bike is the rider. To achieve my goal of completing the climb without stopping the task was simply stated: be able to turn the pedals fast enough to keep the bike moving, for long enough to complete the ride. Assuming a resaonable technique and no drug use, the two main factors affecting this are weight and fitness. If losing weight from a bike is expensive and difficult, losing body weight is comparatively cheap and easy. However, in the short term I was stuck with being a comfortable 72 kg – and this wouldn’t be going down shortly, particularly in view of the local delights on offer. As to fitness: well, we would see: I had been cycling for a few months, and on occasions for some distance, but in the decidely unhilly county of Cambridgeshire. Primarily, cycle climbing is a test of fitness.

On Exmoor
When you reach the moor itself the gradient eases.

The climb

The climb is in three parts, starting in the gorge for around 4 km and emerging onto Exmoor for the final 6 km or so. In between is a transitional section through woodland.

Gorge part – After a short steep ramp past the last houses of the village, the first section is a fairly steady slog. The rushing river below makes you think there’s a car coming from behind all the time, but on the three occasions I rode this route I saw only a handful of cars. Beware however, as the road is narrow and all caravan traffic is directed this way: some of it is driven by drivers freaked-out by the challenging (for Britain) roads.

The woodland part – You leave the A39 and turn onto the B3223, passing over a small bridge: this is the second part of the climb, and its core challenge. The road is well-tarmacced but knobbly and soon the gradient starts steepening.

The moorland part – …and once past the hairpin, the climb is defeated, as the gradient progressively slackens and there even one or two stretches of level road before passing over some cattle grids and reaching ...

The summit

the “summit” itself is a rather unmomentous spot with no distinguishing features other than the road beginning to slope downhill again.

After a failed first attempt in pouring rain, when the second part of the climb defeated me, I tried again in better weather and succeeded in completing the climb in just under 54 minutes. Knowing what was in store at each stage was a great help because if cycling is a test of fitness, it is perhaps almost as much a test of the mind.

Somatics and quackery?

Toilet Duck

“Hanna Somatic Education®” (sometimes called just “somatics”) is the trademarked name of a therapy devised in the 1970s by Thomas Hanna (1928-1990).

Hanna proposed that most people suffered from “sensory-motor amnesia”, a phenomenon by which the body's muscles "forget" how to move freely. This problem can be solved by taking the therapy he devised, which appears to involve "retraining" the body through gentle hands on body maniplulations.

There appears to be quite an industry of material related to this, and a number of Hanna Somatic Educators® who will take your money and give you treatment. The Association for Hanna Somatic Education writes of its “basis in neuroscience” and states: “It works for kids, it works for aging bodies, it works for everyone…”. But is this really a worthwhile therapy? At first sniff things do not seem too promising, as a number of warning signs are present:

  • A medical system with a single founder
  • A insistence on IPR surrounding the therapy
  • Promotion through testimonials

And, most importantly, an apparent lack of any high-quality evidence of effectiveness: a review in a high-quality medical journal for example. So: does somatics offer anything worthwhile, or is this a therapy being promoted in the absence of evidence? Has anybody got any pointers?