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Back in the saddle

I’m now allowed to cycle again, having been away from it for the best part of 9 months. I’m only allowed to do 10 miles a week, which really isn’t a lot given I used to do at least 11 each weekday and probably 40 over the course of an average weekend. (more…)

Ice

I’ve not been cycling outside for the last few weeks as my aforementioned front light really isn’t bright enough to convince my wife that it’s safe for me to do so. And of course it’s cold and I’m a wuss. And I’ve had the flu.

Anyway, that’s enough excuses from me for now. One of my colleagues has asked an interesting question on our internal cyclists forum at work: what tyres are best in this weather on a road bike? Or is trying to stay in the saddle while the road is icy an impossible task?

I know what the answer is for car tyres; I just fit all-season tyres to my car rather than the summer tyres which are all you can usually find in the UK. My impression of winter tyres for bikes, based solely on the marketing blurb, is that they’re thicker and more puncture resistant than normal tyres but don’t have any more grip on ice.

Wet Weather Blues

The first 5 minutes are the worst. Warm and dry you emerge from an air conditioned building into the dark, wet and cold of a commute home.

The air is full of flying water, but somehow this isn’t the same as sailing in summer. And you know, you know that big puddle is waiting there in the road, just after the lights, and the traffic will be right on your tail so you’ll have to go through it…

Actually, I quite like that puddle, it commits you to being soaked, and once there, the rest of the journey home is only going to get warmer. As Phil discussed earlier, on a night like this, nothing is going to stop your feet getting wet and in some ways less clothing is more. Less means less to dry out, or, if it’s raining on the way in, fewer wet things to put on at the end of the day. On really wet days I have an old pair of shimano shoes I wear, I purposely leave socks at home and my keeps the wind and most of the wet out.

Southampton Weather reckons we had 214mm of the year’s 747mm of rain on 27 rainy days in November.

Well December started dry – if a little frosty.

The Bristol to Bath Railway Path

Last weekend Mary and I took the opportunity to cycle from Bristol to Bath along the eponymous track.  I had heard much about this, now famous, route from Sustrans publications and had been keen to try it.

We parked at Mary’s sister’s house, and having left Nathan with his cousins for a sleepover, set out on a wild afternoon for Bath. I used the mapping on Sustrans website to help plan our route through the city.

Bristol has been recently designated as the UK’s first cycling city and it’s easy to see why. The city centre traffic is atrocious, so, much investment has been made to make it easy to cycle. Every set of lights has advance stop line for bikes. There are loads of cycle routes down quiet back streets which are no-through routes for cars, or have cycle contra-flow. Signposting is good and with a quick browse of routes we easily found our way to the Trinity Road access point for the long distance route.

View Bristol & Bath Railway Path in a larger map

Once on the railway path the traffic is left behind. Smooth tarmac leads along an ex-railway through the heart of the city, out through the suburbs and down into the Avon valley. At one point the route is shared by some railway enthusiasts who have laid track and, I guess, run a service in summer time. There’s a bunch of graffiti suggesting path users boycott their station and cafe in protest over the shared use, and carbon emissions from the coal! I’d be happy to share a few traffic free routes round here with railway enthusiasts if it meant GETTING routes! I also suspect the carbon footprint of building 14miles of cycle path, dwarfs what the steam train produces and is way less than what the cars in Bristol’s traffic jams produce a day.

On the outskirts of Bath, the railway path ends and we were led via the canal tow path towards the centre of that city. Again good signposting for National Cycle Route 4 guided us into the heart of Bath. We were staying overnight at the Hilton next to Pulteney Bridge – which doesn’t have its own carpark: the couple checking in before us, were told it was about £20 for overnight parking in the public car park under the hotel. We felt very smug when the concierge kindly locked our bikes in his left luggage room for nothing.

A quick change into dry clothes and we hit Jamie’s restaurant for a well deserved dinner.

Next morning, after a great breakfast at the hotel, and with a sunny and now dry sky, we headed back to Bristol. In the sunshine, and on a Sunday morning, the path was a lot more heavily used, folks strolling, riding bikes, pushing toddlers and walking dogs – so not a fast route… The surface is certainly suitable for road bikes with thin tyres, but it would be unsociable to attempt to average more than 10-15mph.

Distance covered: 17 miles each way. Total Ascent: < 50m

Warm and Dry

As well as being dark, you will also have noticed that winter is generally cold and wet.

Staying warm is something I have never really got right, so you may want to factor that in as you read this post: although I am ideally placed to tell you a lot of things which don’t work very well.

The first thing I have to recommend you avoid is cycling with a backpack on. I used to do this when I was a student, and it generally meant that I arrived with a very cold front and a very warm back. At the time I was working part-time in the IT department and I used to go and stand between the windows servers and the aircon unit in the machine room to reverse that effect. It’s probably not practical to have everyone doing that, so avoid it if you can. I don’t carry cargo these days, but if I did I would use a and .

In terms of clothing, designers are starting to acknowledge that you need to be warmer at the front than at the back. I bought some a few weeks ago which are made with WindTex as the front leg panel and normal lycra for the back and sides. The more wintry ones have WindTex round the back and sides and the even-warmer Super Roubaix fabric at the front. I haven’t cycled on a cold enough day to really test whether these work yet.

For the top half, of course, I have a couple of stylish OpenCycleTeam jackets. Comment below if you fancy one :-). I think the WindTex version cost about £60 each.

I’ve been more successful at keeping dry, particularly now there are . The main problem which isn’t solved by mudguards is wet feet; which I’m told can be partly addressed with , although I remain unconvinced of the theory. The last time my feet got soaked, it was the tops of my socks which got soaked first: the water got into my shoes by wicking down the sock. Maybe I should just try overshoes and test the reality.

As well as yourself, you need to concern yourself with how your bike will handle the wet. The main thing you should do is make sure that you use a ‘wet’ rather than a ‘dry’ lubricant on your chain. Bike shops in my area like to recommend dry lubricants to all and sundry, presumably on the assumption that their customers will be fair-weather cyclists. I don’t like dry lubes at the best of times, because if you follow the instructions you need to re-apply them every 50km, although they are very good for short rides in dry and dusty conditions. I’m using at the moment; it seems to do the job.

What are your favourite ways to keep yourself warm and dry in the winter?

Visibility

Riding in the winter means riding in the dark more often than not, particularly if you commute to work and back.  Visibility is therefore a top priority for the winter cyclist.

For road riding you need a couple of rear lights and a front light.  I recommend two rear lights because that means one can fail without you becoming invisible.  Redundant front lights are a bit less important for a two reasons: you are going to see it if your front light goes out and you are less likely to have someone drive into the front of you.  That said, if you have room on your bars a spare is a good idea because even if you ride on well-lit roads your front light is the main thing stopping other road users from moving out into your path from side streets.

The two rear lights I have are quite different to each other.  One is a , which clamps around the seat post, and the other is a , which is mounted on a bracket supplied with it.  I usually set the Gekko to a flashing mode and leave the Mars on solid mode.  I bought the Mars because it has orange lights on the sides as well as the red light to the rear, and I figured more lights would probably be better than fewer.

My front light is a .  It claims to have over 1000 candlepower, but you soon learn that isn’t a lot when you’re trying to illuminate the road ahead of you at night; that said it is plenty for showing other road users where you are.  One difficulty with illuminating roads is that they’re often made of black tarmac, and black isn’t reflective.  A more significant problem is that roads are flat and parallel to you, so the natural reflection angle of light from something mounted to your bike takes the illumination away from your eyes.  When I built-up my XC bike I had a rather brighter light with an external battery pack, the modern equivalent seems to be .  It’s about 8 times more expensive, and about 12 times brighter; so I suppose one can argue that it represents better value :-).

As well as active illumination it pays to fit some reflective material to your bike.  If you have drop-bars, are pretty effective and don’t occupy space you were going to use for anything else: you should also consider fitting white bar tape, or even .

The last, but by no means least important, aspect of visibility I want to talk about is making sure that you can see others.  I habitually cycle in glasses to keep the bugs out of my eyes, and at night I use transparent lenses.  My preferred set of glasses are Rudy Project Ekynox frames for which I have red-tint and clear frames.  Unfortunately these seem to have been discontinued and you can’t get replacement lenses any more.  For a while I couldn’t find my clear Ekynox lenses so I bought some as backup.  I now keep the dhb’s equipped with either the clear or mid-tint lenses (whichever isn’t in my Ekynoxes) so I can switch quickly.

What’s your favourite visibility tip?

Taff Trail in South Wales

Over 3 days in late October we biked down this very scenic trail. We started in the small market town of Brecon, nestling in the Brecon Beacons National Park, and journeyed via mountains and the Welsh valleys to the capital, Cardiff.

Our family’s experience ranges from, Nathan (8) who has just progressed to a 24″ MTB, for whom this was his first long ride, my beloved, Mary, who cycles to work about once a week during daylight saving time, to me, who covers some 3k miles per year commuting. As this was our first taste of a family cycling holiday, we wanted something with lots of ‘traffic free’, not too arduous, yet varied enough to be interesting. This trail certainly fit the bill.

From Brecon, the trail follows the canal as far as Talybont, where it starts to climb into the mountains, first along roads, as far as the reservoir, then on a disused mountain railway which is now a logging track. (This was really the only section you wouldn’t want to try on a road bike.) At first the gradient is not too steep, but once past the point where the railway dived into a tunnel, the last half a mile of hill had Nathan walking, as I just couldn’t push him any more!

Once over the pass, it’s downhill all the way to Cardiff, surely, please. Well, nearly, there were a couple more climbs that morning on forest tracks, and one really interesting technical section involving a slippery wooden bridge at the bottom of steep gravel approaches. However, once past Ponsticill, you hit the real joy of this ride: tar-maced old railways. These lead smoothly and forever downhill towards the sea. The route is well signed, avoids roads so well that we struggled to find a place for lunch in Merthyr and is well maintained.

From Merthyr south, you’re travelling along the backs of what were once mining towns in the industrial heartland of South Wales. The contrast between the heather and bracken at the tops of the hills with overgrown slag heaps is stark, though no less beautiful in autumnal colours. All around are reminders of the industrial past, blast furnace relics in Merthyr, the ubiquitous railways, and, in Aberfan, a memorial garden for the school children killed when a slag heap moved.

Towards Cardiff is the fairy tale Coch Castle. There are two routes here, one up to the castle, which is a steep climb, the other (which we had intended to take) stays beside main roads and is far less scenic.

From here south, the route into Cardiff is full of people out jogging, for family rides, walking, and just enjoying being beside the river. We were lucky enough to see salmon leaping at waterfalls. The route through the city is easy, even with an 8 year old, as the only place you’re in contact with traffic is at controlled crossings. After passing the cricket and rugby stadia, you end up at the redeveloped docklands, with the formal start/end right beside the new National Assembly building.

Our journey: Day 1 10 miles to Brecon to Talybont reservoir, overnight at the Allt B&B in Talybont. Day 2, 30 miles from Talybont reservoir to Cilfynydd, overnight at the Commercial Inn. Day 3, 20 miles into Cardiff. We had a car with us, and at the end of each day, I’d cycle back to pick it up – which gave me a bit of a longer ride and saved us having to carry luggage with us.

A great route, loads of interest, and highly recommended.