Isle of Man TT circuit by e-bike

Last week we went to the Isle of Man with friends and while we were there I hired an e-bike to ride round the TT motorcycle race course, the Mountain circuit. I hired the bike for a day from The Green Wheelers Electric Bike Company at the Sea Terminal at Douglas who I can thoroughly recommend. When I picked up the bike it took about 5 minutes to have everything explained to me. Basically, you ride it like a normal bike. You use the gears as normal – lower gears on hills and at low speed, higher gears on the flat or downhill at higher speeds. The bike I hired had 9 gears I think (I forgot to count them!) and I only had levers on the right handlebar as the bike had a single chain wheel. The electric motor (250 watts) was controlled by a small unit with a display operated by my left hand. There were two big easy to use buttons marked + and – which cycled through the various ‘assistance’ modes. Smaller buttons were to turn the motor on and off and to vary the information displayed – time on the move, current speed, average speed and so on. The display also showed how much of your battery charge you had left and which of the assistance modes you are in.

Most e-bikes in the UK are described as ‘pedelecs’. This means that they don’t go anywhere under motor alone. This would make it a electric motorbike. Apart from freewheeling (when the motor turns off anyway) the bike won’t go anywhere if you’re not pedaling. The motor will assist your pedaling, not replace it. It does this by increasing the power you are producing through the pedals by a percentage. In ‘eco’ mode (in which the battery will last longest) the power you produce is increased by 40%. I can pedal along quite comfortably on a bike producing about 120 watts of power. In eco mode this would be increased to nearly 170 watts without any further effort by me. The other assistance modes are ‘tour’ (100% increase), ‘sport’ (170%) and ‘turbo’ (250%). So using the turbo assist my 120 watts would be increased to 420 watts, the sort of power a top professional cyclist would use climbing an alpine climb!

Obviously the battery life varies with how much assistance you use. When I rode round the Isle of Man TT circuit I used mainly the ‘eco’ assist mode and only used the ‘tour’ mode on the 12 kilometre climb. For this section I averaged about 9 mph and probably pushed myself up to 150 watts or so. Without the assistance I would have worked much harder and probably would have to have stopped a couple of times on the way up. I tried the sport and turbo modes briefly to see what they were like and it reminded me of how I used to ride at the height of my racing career in my 20s! However, I stayed in eco mode most of the time as I wanted a good workout. I rode 45 miles altogether as I took a detour off the circuit at Tynwald to meet friends in Peel for lunch. At the end of the ride I had used about 80% of the battery. It would probably last about 70 miles on eco.

Another thing that helps battery life is that the motor turns off at 15.5 mph (25 kph). On the flat or wind assisted I was bowling along at 17 or so mph. On the long descent of the mountain I was over 30 mph most of the time, touching 40. With a little practice on normal undulating roads you can keep the speed just under the 15.5 mph and ‘surf’ the motor. This makes riding very easy indeed. This has been described as feeling like your dad is riding beside you with his hand on the back of your saddle. Others have said it’s like the hills have been flattened out. For me it was like I was 45 years younger!

The bike I hired was a heavy mountain bike and the technology, motor and battery, have already been superseded. None-the-less it was impressive. There are many excellent off road routes on the Isle of Man for which it would have been ideal. When the day comes for me to buy an e-bike I will probably buy a lighter more road orientated version that would be easier to ride as a conventional bike. If the battery had run out on my hired mountain bike it would have been very hard work to get it home under my own power.

Tacx Neo – 5 weeks later

In the 5 weeks I’ve had the Neo I’ve ridden it 27 times. long enough for a detailed reflection on the experience. It’s an expensive bit of kit and, if you pay the full price, can cost you £1300. I did rather better than that but it was still a considerable investment. I bought it for various reasons but on the technical side it is the quietest on the market, it has all the necessary connectivity for use with laptops, smart phones, TVs and, importantly, Zwift (of which more later – it is the deal maker as far as I am concerned) and even has a ‘road feel’ feature so that you feel the cobbles, paving, boardwalks and gravel as you ride over them. This can be disabled if you wish. It is also very accurate in its measurements of cadence, watts, speed and miles as well as how it reacts to gradients – It will measure power at far higher levels than I will ever achieve and accurately simulates gradients up to 25%. How all this adds up to an enthralling experience when riding on Zwift, either alone or in a social or race group, I’ll leave ’til another post.

When I got it home and unpacked it, I found the setting up was very easy with the exception of fitting the sprockets to the freewheel body. It is designed to take either Shimano or Campagnola sprockets, 10 or 11 speed but this complicates the way the sprockets line up with the appropriate spines. I took me nearly 4 hours to get the sprockets on and my Giant Defy Advanced up and running on the trainer. The first problem was getting the sprockets on in the first place. I couldn’t see how they should slide on so I just tried everything until, one at a time, I succeeded in getting them to slip over the splines. But then the sprockets were loose. On reading the instruction again I deduced (it wasn’t very clear) that as I had only 10 sprockets I needed an additional spacer behind the innermost sprocket to make up for the missing twelfth. So it all had to come off and be put back on again. Hence the four hours.

Once the bike was on the trainer things went better. It was very easy to install Zwift on my laptop and the mobile app on my tablet. I didn’t take advantage of the 1 week’s free trial and started to pay the subscription straight away. Right from the start I was hooked by Zwift. I set up the laptop immediately in front of the bike so I can read the screen easily and reach the keyboard for changing the camera view and sending text messages to anyone I’m riding with. I have an open window beside me and a water bottle on the window sill alongside a Bluetooth speaker on which I’m playing a Spotify playlist. I have a heavy duty rubberised mat under the bike to make the trainer even more quiet and collect all the sweat I leak and I hang a towel over the handlebars for frequent mopping downs. I can easily spend an hour riding on this set up whereas on my old turbo rollers I was bored out of my skull withing 15 minutes. And riding with others up hill and down dale,through London and the Surrey hills, or on The Richmond, Virginia, 2015 world championship course, or on the fictional roads and the volcano of Watopia, or undertaking any of the structure training programmes and workouts, brings out a lot more effort than if you’re just pedalling along to a bit of music on a standard set of rollers or a non-networked static bike.

Having said all that, I have had other problems. The most irritating is that the gear changes do not move the chain smoothly through the gears and the 4th sprocket from bottom is unusable as the chain just slips over it. I’ve spoken to the dealer I bought the Neo from and it seem I am by no means the first to have this problem. It sounds like I have put the slipping sprocket on the wrong way round and may have not got the others lined up properly. Having got a couple of tips I will reassemble the block in the next few days and see if I can fix it. In the meantime I will carry on as it is and as I have been for the last 5 weeks.

The other problem was after I upgraded the firmware on the trainer using the Tacx utility app on my Android tablet, Zwift stopped registering my cadence. My on screen avatar just freewheeled everywhere even though my real-life legs were whirling around! I repeated the upgrade process again and immediately all was well. In fact the road feel feature started working too, for the first time.

I’ve ridden with a number of training and social groups on Zwift and loved it all. My FTP (functional threshold power) is currently 167 watts and, given my weight is 89 kilogrammes, my power/weight ration is approximately 1.9 w/kg. This is important as it places me in one of the 4 categories for the purposes of entering appropriate races, training and social rides. The fourth group is D for riders with a w/kg of 1.5 to 2.5. So as you can see, I’m near the bottom of the bottom just about! I have survived a couple of events where the pace was held at between 1.5 and 2.0 w/kg and have just about got to the end of the hour.

So this is where I’m at so far. Another post will report when I get my gear changes sorted out – the shop has offered to do this for me if I can’t manage it – and report on how I’m getting on with Zwift, what the features I love are, and what I’ve learnt about the Zwift platform and virtual riding.

Early season sportives

Last Spring, 2015, I was due to embark on my programme of Sportives and with that in mind I entered the Lincoln Arrow, a suitable short and relatively flat event to get me going. As I reported in May however(Not according to plan) I had to pull out after my mountain bike accident. This year I’ll have another go. I’ve entered the Tadcaster sportive on the 10th April. I’ll be doing the short version, 60 km, and it should be pretty flat. All being well I will also enter the Lincoln Arrow again on May 22nd, probably also the shorter route of 48 miles. This has a few modest hills but is none-the-less pretty flat. Another trip I had to cancel last year was to Islay with my friend Mike to do a bit of cycling and go to the beach rugby at Port Helen. I wrote about this in June 2014 – Cycling on Islay.

Cycling on Islay

raw spiritsSome time last winter my very good friend Mike rang me and suggested we had a few days on Islay to do a bit of cycling and visit some of the malt whisky distilleries on the island. I had bought him some time before the book “Raw Spirit: in search of the perfect dram” a sort of alcoholically enhanced road trip round the distilleries of Scotland written by the author Iain Banks. Mike suggested we undertake a mini version of his quest by exploring the single malts of Islay. Last April, shortly after Mike and I had made our plan,  Iain Banks announced he was suffering from cancer of the gall bladder and had only a few months to live. Sadly he died in the early hours of Sunday 9th June at the age of 59 while we were on the island following in his footsteps. (Added 15th June: Iain Bank’s last interview in the Guardian).

This would be my first cycle tour for over 20 years so I approached it with some trepidation. Since starting cycling more regularly again last July I had only done one ride over 20 miles and had not ridden for more than two consecutive days. However, the island is fairly flat and quite a few of the distilleries would be within 12 miles or so of our B&B so all should be well. So on Thursday 6th June we drove to Kennacraig where we parked up Mike’s car and caught the 1.00 pm ferry that got us to Port Askaig about 3.00 pm. In the bar we met a young couple doing a cycle tour of the islands who told us about the beach rugby tournament at Port Ellen on Saturday and recommended the Bruichladdich distillery tour, information we would find very useful.

We disembarked in bright sun under a cloudless sky with a gentle cooling breeze – ideal weather for cycling. The climb out of Port Askaig turned out to be the most demanding of the whole holiday. It starts up a fairly steep hair-pinned ramp (about 17% or 1 in 7) and then continues at a gentler gradient for a mile or so. I didn’t have to resort to walking but I did stop a couple of times to admire the view! Our bikes were quite heavily laden which didn’t help but we soon got into a plodding rhythm and began to roll along quite comfortably over the top. The main road continues for about 3 miles to Ballygrant where there is a much more picturesque minor road signposted left to Mulindry, the Glen Road. I got this information and much more from the cycling guidance published on a blog called thewashingmachinepost run by Brian Palmer and his article cycling on islay. If you are thinking of cycling on Islay I  would recommend this for route suggestions and some good advice and local knowledge. He also offers a bike repair service in Bowmore should you need it. I had had some contact with Brian via Twitter and hoped to at least say hello to him while we were there but the best I did was to see him ride past on two separate occasions! Next time. This was a lovely traffic free (except for a post office van) single track road and within 4 miles we had seen a group of red deer and, amazingly, a couple of Golden Eagles. Unfortunately a little later we had the only mishap of the holiday. I had strapped my helmet to my carrier (a lesson here perhaps) but the elasticated bungee cord had come adrift and got caught in the gear block bringing me to a shuddering halt by winding itself round and jamming between the sprockets. I had to take the two water bottles out of their cages and remove the pannier bags and handlebar bag before turning the bike upside down to get at and free the block. This was quite a struggle and I had just about finished when Mike came back to find out what had happened to me. My hands where black with grease and muck but he had a packet of alcohol-moistened baby wipes which helped me get the worst off. Fortunately there appeared to be no damage to the rear mechanism and so I reloaded the bike and we continued our journey. It wasn’t till we got to our destination that I realised I had left the two water bottles by the side of the road, in the grass. For all I know they are still there but if anyone finds them, they are very welcome. We eventually dropped down into Bridgend where we turned left along the main road towards Bowmore and our accommodation for the next four nights, the Allandale B&B at Gartnatra, a small hamlet a mile to the north of Bowmore. We recommend this B&B unreservedly. The room we had was excellent as were the facilities. The breakfasts were great and ideal for setting us up for each day’s exertions. Fiona, our hostess, could not have been more helpful and made us feel very much at home. The house is ideally situated for seeing the whole island and it is only a 15 minute walk or 3 minute drive to Bowmore where there is plenty of choice for eating and drinking and a good range of shops. It is also right on the shore of Loch Indaal with expansive views across to Bruichladdich to the west and the Paps of Jura to the north.  Every evening we had spectacular sunsets followed only a few hours later by splendid sunrises! We would particularly like to thank Fiona for introducing us to Stornoway black pudding and The Botanist gin (more of which later). That evening we had a nice meal at the Lochside Hotel overlooking the sea and a stroll back for an early-ish night after a long day.

sunset Islay June 2013 023

Sunset, back of Allendale B&B, 10.20pm 7th June 2013

day 2 routeThe following morning, Friday, we set off on what would turn out to be our longest ride and only distillery tour. Another warm sunny day with a gentle breeze. We set off through Bridgend where we turned left onto the A847 just past the Bridgend Hotel and the car park and Spa. The main road was very pleasant and had great sea views but after about 3 miles we turned right on the B8017 inland towards Loch Gruinart which we followed to the RSPB Visitors’ Centre and Nature Reserve.

As we approached the Centre I nearly ran over a young woman lying hidden in the roadside grass. It turned out she was one of the Centre Wardens and was trying to photograph a Corncrake. When she joined us back at the Centre she explained that the Corncrake is a very shy and elusive bird and hard to photograph. You generally only know there is one about by its distinctive call, a bit like a brake block rubbing on a rusty buckled rim. She was very concerned about this rather boring looking bird as she explained it had RSPB Red Status signifying the highest conservation priority, a species needing urgent action. Overcome with emotion I bought a little Corncrake badge as my contribution to its continued survival. Leaving the Centre we took the narrow unclassified road opposite its entrance and rode the 4 or so miles to the heart of the reserve at the loch at Ardnave Point where we were entertained for a while by some very noisy Oyster-catchers.

Islay June 2013 009 loch gormRiding back down the road to the Centre we turned right to continue on the B road until we emerged at a T junction approaching Loch Gorm. At this point we made the what turned out to be gormless decision to go straight over the junction and onto an unmade track that ran down to and  alongside the loch. We chose to ignore the sign that said there was no way though as the map didn’t indicate this and there were no buildings marked that might mean a privately owned obstacle to our passing. After a few hundred yards we also ignored a sign that said ‘end of public road’ despite the track being flooded at this point. We cycled on into the water and almost immediately ground to a halt in the deep boggy mud. Our shoes filled with muddy water that soon splashed up to our knees and we had no choice other than to dismount and push our bikes. The water was quite deep so we skirted away from the track to find a firmer dryer route but the surrounding land was water logged and deep water became deep mud. In retrospect we should have continued on the track. Even better would have been to take our shoes and socks off and walked along the flooded track. We rounded the back of a derelict barn and eventually heaved ourselves and bikes back onto the dry track beyond the bog beside another ‘end of public road’ sign for travellers coming from the other direction. A little later the track went alongside the edge of the loch and Mike washed the bright orange mud off his legs. We were going to the Bruichladdich distillery tour later and wanted to look vaguely respectable at least. We washed our socks out but my white ones stayed resolutely streaky orange and will probably never be the same again.

Bruichladdich Distillery

Bruichladdich Distillery

The end of the track brought us to a minor road at which we turned left to the equally picturesque B8018 at which we turned right to rejoin the A847 that would eventually take us back to Bridgend. But first we turned the other way for 2 miles to the distillery at Bruichladdich arriving about 30 minutes before the 3.00 pm tour. We were invited to try a dram or two while we were waiting. It would have been rude to demur so we dutifully tried a couple. I had one called Rocks, introduced in 2007 and designed to drink with ice. As instructed by our host, we tasted the whisky neat first and then again with a couple of drops of water if necessary. I then tried one straight from the cask (if you wanted to buy this one they filled a bottle for you). I can’t recall what it was called but it was from a sherry barrel and was a beautiful reddish colour. I do remember it being very nice and about £55 a bottle. The tour itself was conducted by an attractive young woman (this seems to be the norm) and was very interesting. Mike and I and our wives had done a tour of the Remy Martin brandy distillery at Cognac 12 or so years ago where we learnt that it was the Scots distillers that had set up their stills and showed the French how to do it. The equipment and process we saw and had described to us at Bruichladdich was pretty well identical to what we had seen at Remy Martin. It turns out that Remy Martin had just bought Bruichladdich, so what goes around comes around. Apparently the new owners are not going to interfere in any way with production techniques or processes but bring their marketing and distribution to the party. The process at Bruichladdich is very traditional and uses much of the equipment from the 1800s. The great copper stills are original and the processes are monitored with hydrometers and thermometers, dials and stop cocks. There are no computers and very little stainless steel. Many of the distilleries are now modern stainless steel factories, automatic and push button and employ relatively few people. Bruichladdich still uses wooden fermentation vessels and employs more staff than  any of the others. After the tour we went back to the visitors’ centre to taste a few more malts. I was keen to try Octomore. Up to about 10 years ago Bruichladdich had mainly been producing unpeated whiskies for blending and did not have a reputation for the peaty single malts that perhaps the island is best known for. Octomore is their peatiest offering and I wanted to see how it compares with another one I am familiar with, Laphroaig. Octomore wasn’t one of the offerings at the tasting bar but none-the-less our hostess went off to fetch me a glass. It was very nice and, as best I could tell, I would prefer it to the Laphroaig I buy from my local supermarket. On enquiring I was told the one I was tasting was £109 a bottle. In fact neither Mike or I bought any malts while we were there.

Fiona at our B&B had introduced us to the new gin that the distillery was now producing called The Botanist. Only one batch has been made so far using a still called Ugly Betty. There has been no marketing and the rapid sales have been due almost exclusively to word of mouth. When it was first made available it briefly outsold the whiskies by 3 bottles to 1 apparently. I’m not usually a gin drinker but this is lovely and aromatic. In addition to the usual 9 primary gin elements it also contains 22 wild botanicals sourced from the island by their own team of foragers. One day this is likely to be available in English supermarkets but for the moment there is neither sufficient supply or any marketing. Both our wives, Julia and Cathy, quite like the odd glass of gin so we did the decent thing and bought the gin rather than the whisky. The tour cost £5 (an absolute bargain) but you get this back as a discount if you buy anything. Our tour was just us and two young women who did not intend to buy anything and they very kindly gave us their tickets. This allowed us to get a £5 discount on two bottles each.

It was now 4.00 pm and we wended our way back along the coast road towards home stopping only for an hour or so at the Bridgend Hotel for a coffee and a scone with cream and jam. We had read somewhere that the secret to successful cycling was regular intakes of food and we felt a little scone-power would help us cover the last 2 miles home. By the time we got back to our B&B we had been out for about 8 hours and covered 31 miles on our bikes. For me it had been a perfect day’s cycling. That evening we ate at the only Indian restaurant in Bowmore, the Taj Mahal. Living in Bradford I was expecting to be disappointed. In fact I thought the food was good, certainly in terms of quantity, flavour and service. However, despite both of us ordering medium strength main courses, mine turned out to be rather mild and Mike’s was very hot. He was given a dish of yoghurt to dilute the heat but this didn’t help much. Despite this I would recommend the Taj Mahal but just make sure you get the ‘heat’ you want.

Next day, Saturday, was the day of the Beach Rugby at Port Ellen that we had been told about by the young couple we had met on the ferry. This is the 10th year of the event which apparently has gone from strength to strength. From our B&B to Port Ellen is through Bowmore and up the little steep climb to the distinctive round church (so there is nowhere for the Devil to hide we were told). The road bares right at the church where you can either continue on the very straight main road along the coast to Port Ellen past the airport or, which we did, turn left and climb a little for a couple of miles inland to join and turn right on a quieter and more interesting road. It was on this road that I got my first sighting, I think, of Brian Palmer going back towards Bowmore. A later conversation with Fiona and another sighting on the Sunday probably confirmed this initial sighting was the real man! Only Brian will know if he was at that place going in that direction at mid to latish Sunday morning.

We arrived at Port Ellen and parked our bikes behind the public loos. The format is quite simple. There is a separate men’s and women’s tournament. The teams are divided into groups for a round-robin stage where each team plays all the others in their group. The matches are two halves of 4 minutes each way. There are no scrums or line outs. Once tackled the player must get the ball back to his team within 3 seconds or the ball is handed over to the other team. Fouls and infringements give the ball to the offended against team. A try is 1 point and points for each team are added at the end of the group matches. The group winners, the ones with the most points, go through to the knock-out stages of the main competition. The runners up go into a Plate competition and there is a another consolation competition for teams finishing third in their groups. The eliminated teams can now, as the commentator said, drink even more than they were when they were still in the competition. There are three pitches marked out for the early stages with a halfway line and two try lines.

Islay June 2013 034 beach rugby

The games were fast and furious and great entertainment. There was no messing and the tackling was often ferocious, both in the men’s and women’s matches. The sand was fine, loose and deep and no doubt moderated the speed of running and the force of tackling to some extent but none-the-less a few injuries were suffered, hopefully not too serious. Apart from the games there were two notable entertaining features of the event. The first was the free Bruichladdich whisky and gin tent. I say free but you had to make a charitable donation in exchange for your drinks. Mike and I had a number of gin and tonics and, from the food wagons, a large portion of cracked crab claws. Not quite cracked enough as it happened but Mike had his emergency pliers with him so the day was saved. He generously lent them to one of the eliminated women’s teams that had sat in front of us  and were having a similar problem with their crabs. They charitably engaged us in a little banter which ended abruptly when one of the eliminated men’s teams came to join them. Pity. We had so much to offer. The other notable feature was the commentator who was very droll and entertaining. He had a clever way of dealing with lost property as well as plugging the various items available for purchase. Amongst these were ‘Eat Sand’ T shirts which he informed us were available for men in medium, large, extra large and extra extra large and for the women, extra tight. After the main final we rode home along the bottom road around 6.00 in the evening and called in at the Harbour Inn Hotel Restaurant in Bowmore to book a table for two at 9.30 before going home for a shower and changing for the evening.

We arrived a little early at the restaurant and started the evening sat in the lounge with a Kir each. In the armchairs next to us were four very smart well groomed middle aged men. There was a predominance of pink in their attire and they appeared to be two couples. They were shown to a table in the restaurant a few minutes before us. When we were collected we found our table was next to theirs in the window with a beautiful view over the harbour and the sea; all very romantic. They engaged us in conversation almost immediately and within a couple of minutes they had succeeded in letting us know they all had wives at home, they were Norwegian and members of the Oslo Whisky Society. Likewise we managed to establish in our first couple of sentences that we also had wives at home and were old friends cycling together. We had a great evening with them and ended up in the Lochside Hotel, where they were staying, for a few drams. They absolutely insisted that we must cruise the west coast of Norway as it is one of the wonders of the natural world. I’ve heard this from others but I understand Norway is very expensive.The food at the Harbour was excellent except for one thing. Our main courses came covered with what looked like cuckoo spit. I understand there was a fashion in expensive restaurants to decorate food with ‘foam’ but I thought that died out years ago. I’m obviously wrong. I’m not sure what it adds to the flavour, if anything, but it looks pretty unpleasant, at least to our no doubt unsophisticated eyes. On returning home we had a dram of Bunnahabhian with Fiona who reported she had seen Brian Palmer during the day and told him she had a couple of cyclists staying with her one of whom had been in touch with him on Twitter. He asked her to let us know they (I assume his club, the Velo Club d’Ardbeg) would be going on a ride the next day starting at Debbies Mini Market at Bruichladdich and we would be very welcome to joint them. This was a very generous offer but realistically, given my current fitness and lack of miles, I really didn’t think I would be up to anything like a normal paced club run. If you read this Brian, thanks very much for your generous offer and, if all goes to plan, hopefully I will be able to take you up on it when we will surely visit your beautiful island again.

Sunday was to be our last full day and we decided to take it easy and make our way to Port Charlotte about 12 miles away further south beyond Bruichladdich after buying newspapers at Bowmore. Fiona told us the papers probably wouldn’t be in Bowmore until after midday so we set off towards Bridgend where we stopped for a coffee and waited for them to be delivered to the Spa there at 1.00pm. Then it was on to the Port Charlotte Hotel for lunch and a beer and a relaxing hour or two reading the papers. Unfortunately we didn’t arrive until 2.10 pm and the kitchen packed up at 2.00 so there weren’t any sandwiches on offer. We made do with peanuts and crisps and our emergency bananas. Sunday may not be the best day to go there as we were keen to see the Islay Museum but that was shut too, somewhat ironically as it was housed in an old church. Mid afternoon we made our way back to Bridgend stopping only at the Bruichladdich distillery as Mike wanted to pick up two more bottles of The Botanist gin but again we were just too late and the distillery was closed. Mike managed to score his 2 bottles from the Spa at Bridgend while I went over to the hotel to order our coffees, scones, cream and jam. Just as I came out of the hotel having placed the order who should I see riding past and disappearing down the road towards Bowmore but Brian Palmer again. It had been a day of near misses. We had another excellent meal that evening at the Lochside Hotel before home for a fairly early night. We had to rise early next day to pack and have a 7.15 am breakfast to set off in time for the 9.45 ferry from Port Ellen.

So Monday was just a matter of doing the 11 miles along the bottom road to Port Ellen in time for the ferry back to the mainland. This is the only day we had a bit of trouble with the wind and we had to plug into a brisk breeze for the whole ride. However, we had a pleasant unscheduled stop as we went past the airport. Our Norwegian friends from the Saturday evening had seen us grinding along, presumably from a taxi that had overtaken us, and were waiting for us as we rode past. It was great to see them again and have a brief chat and it was a good excuse for a break. We got to the ferry about 30 mins early and boarded with quite a few of the players from the Beach Rugby last Saturday. Some were a bit the worse for wear, for a variety of reasons, but all was good humoured and we were soon disembarking at Kennacraig.

So, for me, a near perfect return to bike touring was over. In the end we didn’t visit all the distilleries we had intended and didn’t try all the whiskies we thought we would although we still managed to drink a fair few. We probably didn’t ride as far as we thought we would either, only about 107 miles in all with 83 over the 3 full days we were there. But we saw much of the island, met and chatted to some very friendly people, tourists and residents, and enjoyed a perfect few days of weather. Mike was excellent company as always and, between putting the world to rights, we had some good laughs and some brilliant cycling. We had the unexpected pleasure of discovering and watching the beach rugby and finding what is possibly the finest gin in the world! Or at least the most exclusive. We had also seen eagles; the island is clearly a bird watcher’s paradise. I would heartily recommend Islay for a holiday, particularly for cycling. The few main roads are relatively quiet most of the time and there are many even quieter single track roads to explore as well as off road lanes. The relative lack of hills might not suite everyone but it makes for good cycling for the less fit or masochistic. And there are some challenges for those that seek them. The scenery is very attractive and often viewed against dramatic seascapes and distant hills. We found the vehicle drivers very patient and considerate. The island and its people are friendly and welcoming and there is much to do and see. As we said to Fiona, we will definitely be back.

Islay June 2013 045 paps

View of the Paps of Jura from Allendale B&B (zoom)

Comparing my old racing bike with the new

My new Giant has a compact chain set (50/34) and a 10 speed block (11/28) and I was a bit worried at the time that I should have specified a triple chain set to get the even lower gears I am likely to need at times, particularly if I attempt some of the hillier sportives. I consoled myself with the fact that I had a triple fitted to my Woodrup racing bike when it was refurbished by Bob Jackson’s in 2002 and would be able to use that on the hillier events if it  proves necessary provided the bike is comfortable enough. This thought prompted me to make a detailed comparison of the two bikes from different eras, one from the 1960s with a Reynolds 531 steel frame and one a full carbon 2013 Giant Defy Advanced 2. The first thing I did was compare weights – Woodrup 10.5 Kg., Giant 8.3 Kg. I haven’t ridden the two bikes back to back yet but I anticipate the Defy will be  stiffer and livelier.

As it turns out the Woodrup will not give me particular lower gears. The triple chainset is 52/42/30 but the 9 speed block is 13-25. This gives me a bottom gear of 31.7 inches compared with the Giant’s 32 inches. The slight difference in gearing may well be compensated by the Giant’s lighter weight and extra efficiency in delivering power to the wheels. Obviously there is scope to put a wider ratio block on either bike, increasing the largest sprocket on either to 30, assuming the gear mechanisms can cope. The Woodrup’s gearing can be viewed here and the Giant’s gears for comparison here. They both open in separate windows.

Another difference is that the Woodrup has 170 millimetre cranks whereas the Giant has 172.5 millimetres. The 170 length used to be considered normal for the majority of riders but these days 172.5 is normal and the 170 as short. I’m not sure how much difference this will make or if I will notice it. However, one article I found suggests that differences in crank length do not make any statistically significant difference in power output but can help when in a low aerodynamic racing position is required for, say, time trials.

However, what is now understood is that, especially in an aero riding position, shorter cranks can sometimes alleviate a common fit problem: if the hip angle is too tight at the top of the pedal stroke, the athlete can be uncomfortable, or is unable to produce maximum power at the top of the pedal stroke.

The position on the Woodrup is rather ‘racier’ as would be expected given that the Giant is marketed as a sportive bike – a bit more comfortable for endurance events and a little less aerodynamic in rider position – where as the Woodrup, in its day, was an out and out racer. The Woodrup’s handlebars are about 2 inches lower with a 2 inch longer reach than the Giant. This is where the shorter cranks might help in stopping my belly bouncing up and down on my thighs!  Also the wheelbase is an inch shorter.

It will be interesting to see how I get on with the Woodrup (I haven’t ridden it for over 10 years) in comparison with the Giant. As I continue to lose weight and get a fitter I may wish to lower the bars a little on the Giant. There is room to drop it up to an inch and the stem was reversed (to slope upwards) to give me a more upright position for the moment. So there is scope for further lowering the bars by re-reversing the stem. However, I suspect that the Giant’s position will just suite me just fine for the sort of riding I want to do in the future.

Bike comparison 002

When I had the Woodrup done up my main regret now is that I went for the new combined brake and gear lever set-up and indexed gears. I should have stuck with the bar-end friction gear changers it originally had. This was once the preferred set up for road racers as you could change gear on the drops without having to let go of the bars. This made changing safer but also meant that you gave your opponents less of a signal that you are going to change gear, often a sign that you are suffering or, possibly about to mount an attack, depending on the circumstances. I may decide to try and equip the Woodrup with equipment more appropriate to its era. Apart from the frame itself the only original equipment are the seat pillar (Campag) and the  toe-clips (Christophe).

My new bike

On the 8th March I posted here on my thinking about a new bike (buying a new bike) and identifying the Giant Defy 2 Advanced as the leading contender for my money. But due to it having been announced as the magazine Cycling Plus Bike of the Year, they would not be available at the dealers I contacted until late May or even early June. Then Graham Shortt of the Edinburgh Bicycle Cooperative in Leeds commented on the post saying they could get one for me within a few days. So, to cut a long story short, that’s where I collected my new bike on Good Friday.New bike 800

giant stem 002 800

Inverted stem with 10 mm spacer

A week ago I went along to the shop at Chapel Allerton where Graham spent some considerable time helping me decide which size of frame I needed. The problem was that, at 6 foot, I was exactly halfway between two of Giant’s frame sizes – medium/large and large. He produced 2 bikes with these frame sizes and managed to fit them both to the position I wanted. This involved changing a stem on one, inverting the stem on the other, moving and adjusting the saddles of both, and trying a few different combinations of spacers to adjust the height of the handlebars. For each change I took the bikes out for a spin round the block which included a surprisingly steep hill. In the end I road the two bikes adjusted to identical positions and chose the smaller frame. The smaller frame seemed quicker in the bends. The last thing I did was ride them both round the car park in tight circles and the smaller framed bike definitely felt as if it cornered better. I’m not sure why this is and may just be an impression rather than a physical reality. The wheelbase of the smaller framed  bike is just 1.5 centimetres shorter, just over half and inch, but I’d be surprised if this made that much difference to handling and cornering. In the meantime I learned a lot about the modern head set and stem arrangements. The illustration above is of the set-up we ended up with for the smaller frame – the default stem length but inverted (which raises it) and with a 10 mm spacer (which lowers it). For future reference this stem height calculator may be useful,, provided you know the angle and length of the stems you wish to compare and the available spacers.

The other issue we discussed was gearing. As someone who makes regular use of the smallest of the 3 chain rings on my hybrid to get up even quite modest hills I was worried that the fashionable ‘compact’ double chain ring set up wouldn’t give me the crawler gears I need. However, the bike has 10 sprockets on the block giving a theoretical 20 gears. My other bikes have blocks of 5 and 6. In practice you shouldn’t use top and bottom sprockets with the small and big chain ring respectively and there is some overlap so you end up with 18 usable gears. I could have had a triple chain set fitted for about £300 extra or an 11-30 block fitted instead of the 11-28 default for about £40. I decided to stick with the default as the bike is considerably lighter and more efficient than my hybrid and in due course so will I be. I can always get lower gears fitted one way or another later if I need them.

Graham told me about a nice on-line ‘drag and drop’ graphical gear calculator I found very useful to compare different combinations of chain rings and rear sprockets. You can view my 34/50 11-28 set up there. It shows the full range of gears in inches, percentage difference between adjacent gears and how fast you would be going in each gear at a cadence of 90 rpm. A more conventional gear calculator can be found at

So, as should be evident from this post, I was not short of attention, good advice and information from Graham and his colleagues at The Edinburgh Cycle Cooperative. This extended to the advice I got with pedals and shoes as I had never used the ‘new’ clip-less pedals and shoes before, another trip into the unknown. I was also very happy to deal with a worker owned cooperative. And the icing on the cake was when I was advised that, if I delayed buying and collecting the bike until Good Friday, I would get the sale discount on all goods including bikes of 15%!

Since collecting the bike yesterday I have been out on it twice for short rides to check the position and get used to the clip-less pedals. The position may need a little tweak and I will be going back to the shop in due course for a fine tune. Getting used to the pedals may be a bit more of a problem. On my first ride I couldn’t get my foot free as I approached a busy roundabout. I ended up using someone’s front garden path as and escape route before I got free. Embarrassing. I’ve got the hang of that bit now but I still have trouble getting my second foot clipped in when I set off. I am assured this will become second nature in due course. So far I am delighted with the bike. Comparing times and speeds on courses I have done on my hybrid it is clearly an easier bike to ride. Long drags I struggled up at about 4 to 5 mph I went up at 6 to 8 mph. Still not likely to worry Wiggins but a significant percentage improvement for me. Flat cruising speed is now nearer 20 mph rather than 16 and I’ve added a few miles an hour to my descent speeds too but this is probably due to the higher gearing. The bike is marketed as a comfortable but sporty endurance bike but I’m sure it is a better race bike than I’ve ever had before. It will be interesting to compare it with my retro Woodrup racer when I get it out when Spring arrives.

Developing an alternative vision for cycling in Leeds

I went to a meeting held at the Leeds University Business School a week ago where Roger Geffen, the CTC Campaign Officer, addressed a large group representing a number of local cycling interest and campaign groups to let us know what is going on elsewhere and generally how things are going. The message was generally positive. There seems to have been a dramatic turnaround in the Government’s attitude towards cycling policy due mainly to the Times Cities Fit For Cycling campaign, started as a result of one of their staff, Mary Bowers, being knocked off her bike while commuting to work and being crushed by a lorry, and the extraordinary success of the Team GB cyclists in 2012 including domination at the Olympics and Bradley Wiggins winning the Tour De France, the first Englishman to do so. However, the feedback from the audience painted a rather gloomy picture of cycling in Leeds and a council that seemed largely uninterested in improving the infrastructure and safety for commuting cyclists. Research has shown repeatedly that one of the most important factors, if not the most important, that makes cycling in general and commuting by bike in particular unattractive to non-cyclists is the perception that it is not safe. And Leeds has one of the worst cycling safety records in the country.

The response to this from Roger was that several successful campaigns had been accomplished in equally unpromising circumstances that we could learn from so we shouldn’t give up, particularly with the Grand Depart for the Tour De France coming to our area next year. One thing to take on board is that painting an unremitting negative picture of cycling in Leeds is unlikely to enthuse others to get involved and win them over to our cause. Other successful campaigns also had lots to be negative about but had counter-posed their critique with a coherent, positive and attractive vision of how things could be very much better. Having a strategic positive vision puts the negative account in context. The anger is not purely negative as it is justified by and gets a positive impetus from a comparison with where we could be. It is this positive vision, worked out with a strong evidence based set of ideas and propositions, that can be taken to a broader public and to the elected members of the Council as the basis for a negotiated and agreed plan for cycling in Leeds. One suggestion that came from the meeting was that something like an All Party group of some sort could be formed to review the arguments and evidence and add some authority to a resulting suggested cycle plan.

This is something that the Leeds Cycling Campaign could get their teeth into and take forward. The LCC already has a draft manifesto and its members have a wealth of knowledge and experience riding the Leeds roads and putting their issues and arguments to Council officers and meetings. The CTC has a number of campaign briefing documents to support pro cycling arguments on the benefits and practicalities of implementing cycle friendly policies. In addition there is an increasing number of reports and examples of what can be done and why, many of which have been generated in support of other campaigns. One notable one is the Siemens’s report entitled “London’s Transport: Progress and Future Challenges” which makes cycling central to much of its argument and vision [full report]. At the same time there have been a number of health related reports emphasising the necessity to get people to be more active and that to some extent this means getting people out of their cars. Typical of this is the guidance report (November 2012) by the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE) that states that cycling and walking should be the norm for short journeys and makes a number of policy recommendations to achieve this. The web page Walking and Cycling (PH41) gives full details and recommendations and a link to the evidence behind the recommendations.

What we need now is something persuasive, coherent and reasonably polished to underpin our critique of Leeds’ cycling policy and for our strategy to aim for. Importantly we need to carry on pointing out the problems of cycling in Leeds and the inadequacy of their car centred agenda but this would be contrasted with a vision what Leeds transport policy  could and should be, the reasons why and how we can begin to get there. I think the resources and evidence are in place. There has been a sea-change in government attitudes towards cycling that is already bearing fruit in some cities and areas, notably London. There is an unprecedented opportunity afforded by the coming of the Tour De France to Leeds and the surrounding area in 2014. If there has ever been a right time to promote cycling as a healthy leisure activity and as a practical and efficient mode of personal transport, this is surely it.

Yorkshire media and the Grand Depart

The local media reports varying attitudes towards the Tour De France coming to Yorkshire. Here are two examples. The first, positive, report is from the Wharfedale Observer Perfect time to introduce new cycle strategy and makes a link to the very successful Otley Cycling Club and Lizzie Armitstead’s silver medal in the Olympic road race. The second is in the Craven Herald and Pioneer, Warning issued to cyclists over Tour de France route, reporting on the very negative and ill-informed comments of the Conservative Councillor Andy Quinn. I would have thought that the prospect of thousands of cyclists from all over the UK and abroad coming to the Yorkshire Dales would provide a fantastic opportunity to local businesses, particularly those connected to the tourist industry, with the prospect of attracting many more visitors in the future as well as the period of the Tour.

Buying a new bike

Woodrup racing bike

My 1960s Woodrup, Reynolds 531 steel 23″ frame but with modern equipment.

At the beginning of my retirement project to get trimmer and fitter (and improve on my current 27% probability of having a ‘heart event’ in the next 10 years) I motivated myself with the decision to buy a new road bike when I got under 15 stone. I anticipated that this should be sometime this Spring and that has turned out to be the case so I have started to look around. Both my current bikes are steel, my old racing bike a 1960’s Woodrup and a 20 year old Ridgeback hybrid. The first decision I have to make is what frame material to go for. After a bit of research I have decided to go for full carbon as I have been persuaded that my budget of about £2000 (I’m selling my Suzuki Bandit 1250) is enough to get a good quality and well specified carbon bike. I also understand that carbon frames are often more comfortable to ride than aluminium as they have more flex and iron out bumps and road buzz better. In fact the better aluminium frames often have carbon forks, rear triangles and seat pillars to make them more comfortable. The downside of carbon apparently is that they damage more easily in crashes and are less easily repaired, if at all. So I just need to make sure it is insured and I don’t crash.

Then there is the issue of size. It used to be quite simple. 2 inches clearance above the crossbar when standing over the bike. Legs straight with you heels on the peddles to get the saddle height. Elbow on the saddle tip and fingers just reaching the handlebars for reach. But mainly it was just a matter of being comfortable, your knees slightly bent at the bottom of the stroke and your hips not rocking when pedalling at speed. But frame geometry and sizes are different now. Using various on-line guides (e.g. Wiggle and Evans) I measured my height (6 ft) inside leg measurement (33) and APE Index (arm span minus height – 0). This gives me a frame size of 56 to 58 centimetres. The ebicycle’s calculator gives me a frame size of 56 centimetres. There are a number of bike fitting services on offer these days that I will look into and say more about in due course but one of the dealers I am considering purchasing from, All Terrain Cycles of Saltaire, have such a service and I may well make use of it. This may also help me make up my mind about another issue – peddles and shoes.

toe clip and strapI have always used toe clips and straps, going back to the 1960s and my club cycling and racing days. I’m used to them, the straps can be left loose for casual riding or commuting  if necessary and you can wear plimsolls or trainers with them to pop down the shops or use the bike on an ad hoc basis. However, with a new bike, I need to decide on whether to get the new clip-less pedals with the appropriate shoe cleats that fit them. I understand that clip-less is more efficient and comfortable and easier to disengage from than a tightly strapped clip. I am used to leaning down to snap the quick release on toe straps but I can see that there would be occasions when there might not be time for this before disaster strikes. Release from a clip-less pedal seems to be quicker and easier but not so easy as a loose strap perhaps. I will probably go for clip-less. This will mean buying a pair of shoes to fit but it looks like they are easy to set up and adjust. With the old toe clip system we used to ride tightly strapped in and before fitting the shoe plates that slot over the ridges on the pedals until the soles were marked. This gave the position to nail(!) the plates onto the shoes. This was more-or-less a once and for all process and quite difficult to make subsequent adjustments if necessary.

Giant Defy Advanced 2

So, at the moment I am thinking of getting a Giant Defy Advanced 2. These are on 14 week delivery as I write this, which is a pain. On the other hand by the end of May I should be down to round about 14 stone so the wait will encourage me to keep going. And in the meantime I can always take the Woodrup out when the weather improves.

A history of blood doping

Click on the picture to go to Blood Doping 101

Click on the picture to go to Blood Doping 101

I mentioned blood doping in an earlier post Markets, Money and Genes last October after the Armstrong confession. Now an interesting 3 part article, A History of the Use of Blood Transfusions in Cycling, part 1 with separate links for part 2 and part 3, has been published by To quote from the article’c conclusion:

Why does the role played by transfusions in the years before Gen-EPO matter? Why does the role played by transfusions during Gen-EPO matter? It matters because it alters our perception of what happened in those years. Many cycling fans have a somewhat rose-tinted view of doping in the years before Gen-EPO, comparing the two eras to pop-guns versus howitzers. Doping is an arms race, and in an arms race you move from pop-guns to howitzers and on past intercontinental ballistic missiles. If blood transfusions were part of the armoury the pop-guns versus howitzers view needs to be reconsidered. You can compare EPO to howitzers if you want, but you cannot say that transfusions were just pop-guns.