Category Archives: Road biking

Strava Striven

I have a problem. I think I’m addicted to Strava*. Every time I go out for a ride, whether on my road or mountain bike I can’t resist the urge to tap that little orange icon on my phone and hit go. But only just before I set off, of course. Any additional seconds could skew results. If I forget something and have to go back, which is not an infrequent occurrence, the activity has to be deleted and reset. strava-logoSee, I told you… And that’s just the beginning. I’ve come to resent anyone or anything that slows me down, be that traffic, traffic lights, slow cyclists, wind… even children and dogs. Not that I would ever ride recklessly. I do manage to suppress the impatience and intolerance that burns inside, although I did take out a pigeon recently, which I still feel awful about. It’s also got to the point where I feel loathe to stop at any point during my ride, just in case it ruins my chances of getting a personal best. This is fine if I’m on my own, but when riding with other people I find myself getting frustrated if they want to stop or slow down. Recently I was mountain biking with my other half and he stopped to sort something on his bike. Knowing that it was nothing IMG_8427serious I decided to carry on to the top of the climb and wait at a point where we usually have a break. When he caught me up he accused me of never looking back. Defensively I protested that I did and had seen him stop, before sheepishly adding that I’d just wanted to push on to the top in order to clock my time. I’ve also become obsessed with getting a best time on the Spooky Wood descent at Glentress. Gone are the days when I can just blast down enjoying its awesome berms, jumps and drop offs, maybe stopping to do a bit of filming here and there. Now each descent is executed as quickly as possible in a desperate attempt to shave seconds off my time and secure a new personal best. I’ve always been competitive when it comes to sport – apparently when I was little I’d challenge my siblings and friends to a race and then run with my elbows sticking out incase anyone got close. I would never employ such dirty tactics now but I still enjoy a bit of healthy competition. That’s what sport’s all about, isn’t it? IMG_8554 I do, however, draw the line at competing with virtual strangers on the app, although that’s not to say that I don’t find it interesting to see how I compare to other women who ride the same routes. As I mainly seem to ride with men and often trail at the back, it’s quite reassuring to know that I’m actually not doing too badly. I don’t ‘follow’ anyone on Strava and I don’t set out to beat anyone else’s records (except on Spooky Wood!) although it is always quite satisfying to get a ‘Queen of the Mountain’, even if it is on a completely random section of road or trail. These days my competitive urges are generally satisfied by competing with myself, and I really only use Strava as a tool to measure and improve my own performance. There’s no doubt that being able to compare my performance with that of others makes it more interesting though. However, fitness tracking apps do have their limitations and are nowhere near as accurate as using a computer. There are times when I know I’ve ridden a section fast and it doesn’t even register in my feed, and others where it hasn’t felt so good, yet I’ve apparently earned a PB. It doesn’t happen often but the odd glitch is enough for disillusionment to set in. Interested to know just how accurate the data collected by Strava is, I got Dan to time my descent of Spooky Wood by stop watch and compared it to the time awarded by Strava. The stop watch time was 3.40 minutes whereas Strava clocked it as 3.18 minutes – quite a difference. IMG_8626Perhaps the best example of its unreliability was when I forgot to stop the clock after a mountain biking session at Glentress and only realised half way through the drive back to Edinburgh, by which time my average speed had increased from 16 to 60 km/h, and I’d supposedly burned off thousands of calories. Needless to say I got lots of ‘Queen of the Mountains’ that day! Don’t worry though, fellow Stravaholics, I surrendered them. I think a much better outlet for my competitive streak might be to enter more events. Despite having plans to enter an Enduro this summer and at least one other sportive, I’ve only managed the Bealach Beag sportive in May. I really enjoy organised events and definitely get spurred on by riding with other people. And, unlike my five-year-old self, I keep my elbows firmly tucked in, unless, of course, I’m on a mountain bike where elbow sticking out is acceptable. Fitness tracking apps are a great way to log your rides and analyze your performance, but should never be taken too seriously. As with anything in today’s increasingly web-based society, competing against actual people is much more fun and rewarding than striving to beat a virtual stranger, especially when there’s every chance they’ve done it in a car anyway!

*Other fitness tracking apps are available!

What do you think of fitness tracking apps? Do you use them? 

Blood, sweat and low gears

As is often the case with these things, I agreed to sign up for the Bealach Beag cycle sportive in the pub after a few drinks. The fact that I’d only acquired a road bike a couple of months earlier and hadn’t ventured much further than the cycle paths of Edinburgh did make me a little apprehensive about the prospect of taking part in a 43 mile event in the Scottish Highlands alongside a load of serious cyclists, but Dutch courage and reassurances that “it’s only a short one” eventually twisted my arm.

Cycling up Bealach na Bà

The gruelling but stunning climb up Bealach na Bà

I do remember some mutterings about there being a steep climb but my other half assured me that it’d be no worse than anything I’d done on a mountain bike. Given that he took me round the black route at Glentress on my first ever mountain biking excursion though, I probably should have been highly suspicious.

The next day a sobering email appeared in my inbox confirming my entry. I had two months. Time to get training.

Initial preparation involved relentlessly hitting the streets, not so much clocking up the miles on the bike, but rather searching for the perfect pair of cycling shorts and all the other paraphernalia that I’d need to at least look the part.

I did of course get out on the bike too, although by the time the race came around the furthest I’d cycled was 35 miles, with hill training amounting to little more than a few laps of Arthur’s Seat.

Top of Bealach na Bà

Team photo at the top of Bealach na Bà

At no time in weeks preceding the event did I think to check out just exactly what I’d signed up for, which was probably just as well, or I may well have pulled out! Had I Googled it, I’d have seen headlines such as “nightmare ride on Bealach na Bà too much to handle…” or images reminiscent of the type of road your car would struggle up en route to an alpine ski resort. At 43 miles Bealach Beag may be a relatively short cycle sportive but what it lacks in length, it more than makes up for in vertical climb. The route encompasses the infamous Bealach na Bà, which climbs 2053ft in 6 miles and is the toughest road climb in the UK.

Fortunately I was still oblivious to this fact before we set off although alarm bells did start to ring when, on chatting to a fellow road biking newbie, she confessed that a recce by car the previous evening to sus out the climb had reduced her to tears. Her admission nearly did the same to me, particularly as we’d spent the previous evening “carb loading” in the local pub.

Cycling round Applecross peninsula

Beautiful Applecross

The first ten miles of the course were pleasantly easy and in no time at all we were “dibbing in” to start the climb up Bealach na Bà, which was timed separately to the overall route. The first couple of miles of the climb also felt reassuringly, or as it turned out, misleadingly easy, and for a while I was starting to wonder what all the fuss was about. Needless to say, I soon found out. The gradient started to increase gradually and before long I was on my lowest gear, wishing that I had more than an 8 speed set up, particularly as I could now see what lay ahead. I tried to focus on the road in front of me but couldn’t help but notice the road ahead that snaked right up as far as I could see. And when I say snaked, I actually mean zig zagged, as these were proper alpine style switchbacks. If I looked right up to the highest point I could see the tiny silhouettes of the leaders on the horizon, so I looked down and tried to pretend I was nearly there.

Bealach Beag cycle sportive

Event info!

I’m not one to shy away from physical exertions but I can honestly say that climb was the hardest I’ve ever pushed my body. I was off the saddle for most of it and had to push down with all my might on every single stroke of the pedal. My only comfort was the fact that I was by no means alone and there were many around me who were faring a lot worse. I managed to push past several blokes on fancy bikes, which was quite satisfying and probably even spurred me on. Towards the top a man in front’s legs appeared to buckle and he suddenly swerved all over the place, hitting the rim of my tyre in the process and knocking me off. Fortunately, other than a couple of scrapes, I was unscathed and got back on even more determined to get to the top than before. After what felt like an eternity, but was actually only around 45 minutes (only!), the gradient decreased and I was able to crank the gears back up and power on to the very welcome sight of the water station at the summit.

After a brief pause to catch our breath, take a team photo (amateurs) and reflect on what we’d just done, we set off down the other side. I don’t think I’ve ever gone from being so hot to so cold in such a short space of time, but it felt so good to be flying downhill that I didn’t care. As we came down into Applecross bay I was finally able to appreciate just how stunning the scenery was, particularly now that the sun had made an appearance.

Chilling in Shieldaig

Recovering in Shieldaig

We’d thought that now the mega-climb was out of the way, the rest of the route would be plain sailing, but we were wrong. Although there was nothing anywhere near as relentless as the Bealach na Bà climb, the undulating coastal road around the Applecross peninsula proved to be almost as challenging, with its seemingly endless series of climbs and all-too-brief descents gradually sucking the life out of our increasingly tired legs.

When the town of Sheildaig eventually came back into view I could not have been happier, and when we got to a signpost indicating that there was only one mile to go I actually shouted for joy.

It felt amazing to finish, even if I did feel pretty wobbly when I got off my bike. I’d managed to achieve my goal of keeping up with the boys all the way round and in doing so managed to get a pretty decent time for a noob. I now can’t wait to do another, although I probably won’t be joining the boys in the epic Bealach Mor sportive in September, which follows the same route but is twice as long. Unless, of course, I get talked into it at the pub!

Labour of Lycra

I’m doing my first ever cycle sportive this weekend and preparations have been full on. It’s not so much that I’ve been clocking up hundreds of miles on the bike, although I have done some of that too, it’s the time I’ve spent getting properly clued up and kitted out for it that’s proven to be by far the most challenging part so far. In fact, by comparison, the actual training has been a breeze, although the reason for that may well become apparent this weekend!


Training has been the easy bit

It wasn’t until I got my first road bike back in December that I started to realise just how different road biking is to mountain biking. Sure, the basics are the same and the two disciplines complement each other nicely, but beyond that, everything from technique to equipment, clothing and etiquette are different. I’d naively assumed that now I had the bike, I could just get out and ride it, which to a certain extent was true, but to be taken seriously as a road biker requires a lot more dedication.

To start with I was adamant that I wasn’t going to pander to what I’d assumed was pretension, and continued to leave the peak on my helmet, and stuck with my SPD mountain biking shoes and shorts which I felt much more comfortable in. However, the more seriously I started to train, the more I realised that there’s actually more to road bike etiquette than mere snobbery. I’ve learned through experience why road bikers don’t have a peak on their helmet, why they carry things in back pockets as opposed to a backpack, and why they wear Lycra.


Possibly the most unflattering item of clothing known to woman

After finally conceding that my mountain biking shorts actually weren’t all that comfortable for riding long distances bent over in a race position, I realised that I’d have to succumb to the Lycra, blissfully unaware of the undertaking that lay ahead.

I spent weeks trying to find the perfect pair of cycling shorts and in the process must have tried on every single pair on sale in my hometown of Edinburgh. It’s not that I’m averse to wearing tightly fitting clothing. I am perfectly comfortable with my body and wear skinny jeans practically every day. I even have lycra running tights. However, there’s much more than just some figure hugging Lycra to contend with when choosing a pair of cycling shorts.

Most of them have tight elastic, grip strips, or both round the end to prevent them riding up when you’re cycling, which is great, but unfortunately these can also make even the slimmest of legs look like sausages. Unflattering seams can also have the same effect, so finding a pair that minimised the sausage look was of paramount importance.



Then there’s the lovely padded crotch area – or chamois to use the correct terminology – that makes you feel like you’re wearing Tena Lady pants, I’d imagine. This is fine if you can wear them under mountain bike shorts, but in tight fitting Lycra, there’s nowhere for your ass padding to hide. The difference in comfort and subtlety of these padded bits is huge so finding a pair that felt comfortable – or at least as comfortable as it’s possible for an oversized sanitary towel to feel – was crucial.

And if that’s not enough, you’ve then got to decide whether to go for bib shorts or not. I have it on good authority that bib shorts, the cycling equivalent of a onesie, are much more comfortable for cycling in and that they are the preferred choice for pros. I did try on a few pairs and could see how this could be the case with the right pair. However, I just couldn’t see beyond the potential hassle factor of trying to struggle out of them in order to go to the loo. When you’re trying to discretely squat at the side of the road, the last thing you need to worry about is flashing your boobs to passers by as well as your bum! There are some brands that have appreciated this and incorporated clever easy access zips or panels, but it still all seems like a bit of a faff to me and I’d prefer to keep things simple.


My new lycra loves

Having exhausted what I thought were all my options in the cycle shops of Edinburgh, I was resigned to just having to wear my mountain biking liner shorts for the sportive and hope that no one noticed. It sounds like a cliché, but on one final scour of the Lycra rail in my local bike shop I found a pair that I hadn’t tried before, and lo and behold they actually felt comfortable and didn’t make me wince when I looked in the mirror. There is an ever so slight sausage effect going on in the thigh area but I think the only way to avoid that will be to get legs of steel, which I fully intend to do. I also tried on a matching top and am not exaggerating when I say that it’s the nicest thing I’ve ever worn. It feels lovely on, fits perfectly, and according to the label, will keep me cool and dry when I sweat. Bonus.

I never thought I’d see the day but I am now a total Lycra convert. I’ll also be surrendering the peak of my helmet for Saturday’s sportive, so if nothing else, I will at least look the part! I am however sticking with my mountain bike shoes that I can actually walk in… for now anyway.