Friday, 31 August 2012

Crossing Eurasia by Bike

Leaving March 2014

They say that if you tell people your goals, you're more likely to achieve them. This is something I've had in the pipeline for a while. Finish with uni, earn enough money and hit the road. If you want to join me for part of the journey just get in touch.

Starting in London, ending in Mumbai. Roughly 9000 miles. Averaging 50 miles a day, it would take 6 months. CouchSurfing in cities and towns and camping everywhere else. The trip will take lots of preparation - physical conditioning, planning the route and organising accomodation, making sure I have the right paperwork for border crossings and enough funds at the end of it to fly home, but it's doable. Yes, 9000 miles of cycling sounds crazy, but the freedom of travelling the globe on two wheels is a boyhood dream that's worth chasing. And I'll probably come back with a great-looking beard. So, I've started a countdown to Monday 3rd March 2014, when I roll out of London. Game on.

View Larger Map

*The route would actually continue through Kyrgyzstan into China, South through China to Nepal, Tibet and the Himalaya, then coasting down the spine of India, South to Mumbai. (Google Maps won't calculate routes to go through China)*

Phoenix - Love Like A Sunset Part II by audeline

Friday, 24 August 2012

Letters After My Name

Sun sets over Anglesey

I’ve got a familiar feeling, sitting on a train with heavy luggage at an unsociable hour, travelling the breadth of the country. As a student, I’m used to it; multiple changes and delays. But this time it’s different, because I just passed my Summer ML assessment after a week in North Wales. Satisfaction, pride and wonderment fill my head… Completing my Mountain Leader award ends a chapter for me that lasted two and a half years – logging ‘Quality Mountain Days’ and developing 'skills' – but it raises more questions than it does answers. What to do next? When you’re two-thirds of the way through a broad yet uninspiring environmental degree, with no concrete plan post university except for travelling (more about that soon), such questions inevitably rear their head.

The Summer Mountain Leader award is a national qualification for outdoor instructors and youth leaders, which requires a training course, consolidation period of about 12 months and five day assessment. Although the main test is navigation and leadership in the hills, it also challenges your scrambling, ropework, management of mountain hazards and environmental knowledge, among other things. Successful candidates become qualified to lead groups in the UK mountains during summer conditions.

The view from PYB; Snowdon in the distance

Thankfully with a bursary from JBMF, I booked onto the five day assessment at Plas Y Brenin in the heart of Snowdonia National Park. As the National Mountain Centre, it's a hub for outdoor training, expertise and gear development. In my assessment group for the week was an unlikely mix of candidates - climbers and walkers, different backgrounds [teacher, student, scout leader, hillwalker], different strengths and weaknesses, very different personalities - but all of us wanted the same badge. And all of us kept up the same friendly banter. Only three out of four in my group passed. Although, a deferral is no bad thing. It's like failing your driving test for the first time, you come back for the second test as a more experienced and all round better driver, or hillwalker.

We were lucky in that it stayed dry for the week, leading new routes up Moel Siabod, Glyder Fawr and around the base of Snowdon. The night navigation exercise was testing but not overly difficult, searching for boulders and streams around Cwm Clogwyn in the dark. The ropework practical (to climb or abseil down rock steps using just a rope and no gear) required some improvised anchor selection and lots of rope faff, but I got a thumbs up from our assessor. I can't forget the insane friction of my South African abseil and the rope burn I endured in the process. The point is that I completed the job safely, so who cares about style.

Glyder Fach on the skyline
Wild camp at Llyn Du'r Arddu

Interestingly, the ML assessment was not as rigorous as we’d expected. What they’re really looking for is that you operate safely in the hills with the head and confidence of a mountain leader across the five days. Individual errors in navigation or route finding on steep ground for example, can be discounted against the overall picture. So the ML syllabus retains depth and breadth, while the assessment itself is more about quality testing the finished product. Never have I witnessed such competition to name the well-trodden bog-living moss plant aside the path, or to be the first to explain the 'symbiotic relationship' of lichen organisms. If you don't know what I'm talking about, get a copy of Mike Raine! And for any budding ML candidates out there, good luck, and get logging your mountain days!

Saturday, 18 August 2012

Great Shakespeare Century

I'm not talking about literature, although there is some drama here. The Great Shakespeare Ride involves more than 100 miles of grinning and grimacing along steep, Cotswold lanes. Starting in Stratford Upon Avon, the cycle sportive runs South to Stow and returns via the Cotswold towns of Winchcombe, Broadway and Chipping Campden. 800 riders turned out for the 100km and 100 mile event on Sunday, raising money for The Shakespeare Hospice. Now into it's third year, the GSR is becoming a Midlands favourite - well-organised and challenging even for veterans of the lycra brigade.

Distance: 105 miles (113 for us)
Ascent: 1400m of climbing
Final time: 8 hours 4 mins
Click here for the route

Adam and Sam came to visit for the weekend, choking down lasagne and pasta on Saturday night and making pre-race bike adjustments in the garage. Adam hydrated with milk and Sam drank chilled beer to give him the edge.

Ad, Ben and Sam

We got to the start line at 9am the next morning having already cycled several miles from the house, warming our muscle fibres. It was humid already. After nine the mass start sprang forward and we rolled past wheel after wheel, snaking in between riders to push forward with the faster guys. A river of aluminium and lycra flowed down Warwickshire lanes. The presence of a Citroen pushing its way through the pack in the opposite direction caused a pile up around us as riders pulled their brakes, with nasty results.

The first 20 miles were fast, racing through my local patch. Tyres hummed and there was a regular 'click' of gears shifting. Adam and I would sit with a group of four or five riders for a few minutes before pacing in front and pushing onto the next. Sam was not far behind. There was a cheery atmosphere; people were happy to be out riding in warm August air. Passers by gave us a friendly wave and we signalled back.

At the first feed stop by Hook Norton we re-grouped, as the three of us had separated - Adam had pushed forward with eager legs while I eased off the pace, the dorsiflexor muscles in my legs were tight and painful. We had a few minutes at the feed station for bike chat, tea and fruit cake before hitting the road. The 100km and 100 mile routes then split, separating the boys from the men ! Immediately thrust into Oxfordshire backcountry, the roads seemed longer and there were fewer riders to overtake since we were pedalling alongside committed roadies now.

On the approach to the first major climb, signposted 'Col du Broadwell', I could feel myself being overstretched, struggling to maintain pace with Ad and Sam. I had to stop and stretch off, the two of them pedalling out of sight. Once you lose the slipstream and 'pull' of your riding buddies, it's a hard slog trying to catch up again, left behind in a wasteland of slow spinning.

After the 50 mile mark I settled into a rhythm and I enjoyed rolling through Cotswold hamlets, my mind wandering beyond the grassy, stone-wall landscapes. Later on I could feel a fight returning in my legs and I began pushing past my contemporaries towards Winchcombe. I took the downhills with blinding speed and left other riders behind. The tight, twisting descent through a wood-shaded road into Winchcombe kept me alert, finger-tips poised on the brakes.

I saw Adam and Sam again at the second feed stop in Winchcombe. My legs were feeling fresh after the earlier pain and I wanted to keep up the momentum, so I left them both there to chase down the next 'Col', rising above the market town on a steep gradient, arse-out-of-saddle. The roads had flooded due to a thrashing of rain, spraying dirt and grit onto my face. There was no time to relax. Going fast on a narrow bend, a metallic stripe flashed in my eye and I swerved in tight to avoid the car rumbling towards me head on. These sort of near misses make your heart jump.

The sunshine re-emerged outside Stanway House. The gatehouse there is made from a golden Cotswold stone, known as Guiting Yellow, giving the place a warm and grand look. Ad caught up with me and we span on towards Broadway along peaceful, quiet lanes.

At the Ebrington food stop, 25 miles from the finish, the volunteer women had put on an awesome display of homemade cake: chocolate cream cake, banana muffins, victoria-sponge, fruit cake and more. It was like a WI baking competition, except I couldn't distinguish between the best cake because every one was sublime. Morale was running high at this point so we had a photo with the baking heroes.

Next in our sights was the Ilmington climb (3km in length with a 5% gradient; Cat 4). After this it would be straightforward rolling home for the last 10 miles. On the approach to Ilmington the three of us were spinning close together, sweeping around corners at speed. Signs by the edge of the road read, 'The final climb' and 'This is going to hurt!' I thought, just watch me... Roadies dotted the hillside and the climb snaked off into the distance. I put some fire in the engines and was bursting past other riders, riders whom I'd been leapfrogging all day. Halfway along the lane one guy between breaths said 'well done' as I rolled past. The three of us were separated again after Ilmington but it was no issue, bombing along roads I knew well with a sniff of victory in the air, hunting down the finish line.

The disappointment comes as the last 10 miles of undulating road can be slow, having to fight the smallest uphill gradient. My bike was feeling it also, making clanging and creaking sounds under the strain; our chains chewing grit, in need of some oil. I waited for half a minute on Loxley hill and Sam popped into view. We agreed to get our heads down and ravage our legs for the last 20 minutes. Taking it in turns, we gave a short blast at the front for several minutes before recovering on each other's wheel. My legs were hollow on the last set of bends and you can be happy if you've given it everything.

Crossing the line, I was grinning as someone handed me a medal. It had been a team effort. It hadn't been a perfect ride for me, but the earlier frustration about my burning leg pain I left out on the roads. We caught up with Ad who'd come in a few minutes before, having ridden well all day. There was enough time to chill outside, get a chicken burger from the BBQ and let satisfaction sink in. Inside Stratford Manor I was keen to get a post-ride massage from one of the volunteer masseurs, and she did a great job easing up my achey muscles. It's the most relaxed you'll ever be - a deep, soothing warmth in your legs, revitalised, after cycling a century.

Post ride salad face

Olympic Mo-Bot

With endurance cycling, you feel the highs and lows like the undulations of the road. But the road is always worth riding! I would sit down to watch the Olympic closing ceremony later, with a beer, content at the fact that they weren't the only ones to finish with a medal.

Saturday, 4 August 2012

Training for Life?

One of the secrets of happier living is to have a goal.

Superman plank; Phil and Adam

With the Olympics in full swing at the moment, there’s plenty of talk about goals, drive and ambition. How do rowing athletes at Eton Dorney or the pedal pushers in the velodrome keep smashing records? As the lactic acid builds and their bodies enter oxygen debt, they power on. BBC pundits keep reminding us - it’s because they set themselves a goal, and then committed hours to their sport in training over the last four years (admittedly with some natural talent and high-tech sciency stuff thrown in to give them an edge).

In the last year at Leeds, we’ve built a community of people in the Hiking Club, who are willing to commit at least one night a week for the sake of training, and for the sake of the team. Just remember, the whole can be greater than the sum of its parts.

Spearheaded by Matt Fuller, our training group started as a core group of ‘keen beans’, circuit training over Woodhouse Moor on a Tuesday night (some would just call it rolling in the mud). But it mushroomed. The word spread, and although people trained for different reasons, with different goals, we were united in training. For me personally, the training involved mud, sweat, pain, injury, disappointment, annoyance, determination and finally elation. So it paid off.

There have only been one or two other times in my life when I’ve been as proud as I was this year. My goal was never to be the best at anything, but to try damn hard in many things. I will let Matt explain.

From Matt Fuller

Welcome to Leeds Uni Hiking Club’s offshoot fitness group. This is for anyone who wants to get fit and is willing to put in some effort. It started as Training for Winter, then it became Training for Summer, and soon it will be Training for Winter again. In reality, it’s training for whatever you want it to be, whether that be mountain fitness, a beach body, to pull in clubs, or to fend off the advancing fat. Last year was this group’s first year and we trained for about 9 months. In that time members of this group completed...

  • The Yorkshire 3 Peaks - some people ran, some people walked, one loony cycled. One nutter completed it more than once
  • The Welsh 3000s challenge
  • The Leeds Half Marathon
  • The Leeds Park Run - with more PB’s than you can shake a stick at
  • Trail running round and over Ilkley Moor
  • A total darkness ascent of Ilkley Moor
  • Competing in Orienteering at national level
  • Cycling across France
  • Cycling around the North of England
  • Climbing a shed load of mountains across the UK (Brecon Beacons, Snowdonia, Lake District, Peak District, Yorkshire Dales, Fort William, Cairngorms, Torridon)
  • Bagging a ton of Alpine summits
  • Ice climbing in Alpine winter
  • Rock climbing all over the North
  • Backpacking around the UK
  • A lot of games of football

Now for the stats:
  • Indoor climbing and bouldering 250 times (based on 5 people going average once a week all year round)
  • Climbing 70,000 stairs (based on 15 training sessions, 9 people average per session, 500 reps per session
  • 10,800 press-ups (based on 30 training session, 9 people per session, 40 reps per session)
  • 10,800 sit-ups (based on 30 training sessions, 9 people per session, 40 reps per session)
  • 20,000 burpees (based on 30 training sessions, 9 people per session, and too many reps per session)
  • 1000 miles of muddy sprinting (based on 30 training sessions, 9 people per session, and 3 miles per session)
...And a shed load more stuff.

The real point was that we set out unsure whether we could complete some of these objectives. It didn’t matter; we gave them 100% and you can do no more. If you complete them then that is a bonus, but the objective is to try.

If you want to get involved, get in contact with Matt via the LUUHC Committee.

In the meantime, get your teeth into this

Daft Punk - Derezzed (The Glitch Mob Remix) by The Glitch Mob