If you were fortunate enough to catch the Tour de Yorkshire on any of its race days, you’ll have been caught up in a frenzy of excitement, competitive spirit, camaraderie and a more general sense of ‘all is well with the world.’ There’s just something about the stunning, sweeping vistas of Yorkshire, punctuated with stone walls and woolly sheep, that provide the perfect backdrop for a colourful peloton.
And whilst the scenery was out of this world, what made (and always makes) the Tour de Yorkshire magical is the eclectic mix of people who are brought together by the power of sport. There’s no denying the fact that sport empowers people; it gives people a sense of identity, a shared purpose, a feeling of hope and excitement.
No better a place was this in evidence than at the top of the Cow and Calf in Ilkely on Friday 4 May. The 90 minutes before the arrival of the professionals was the highlight of my TDY (and this includes my brief encounter with Mark Cavendish!). In these 90 minutes I witnessed a whole host of amateur cyclists challenge themselves to the 1.2-mile climb with a nasty 17% kick near the end, cheered on by the vast crowds lining the boards either side of the road.
There were cyclists from every walk of life: narrow-framed boys from Ilkley Cycling Club; MAMILs of all shapes and sizes; a man wearing a Freetrade Banana costume; dads towing toddlers in trailers; elderly couples on tandems; young children on tricycles; and women, many solo, on road bikes, on mountain bikes, and on basket and bell bikes.
The person that captured my imagine more than anyone else that day was a woman wearing a blue and white polka dot dress with the White Rose flag of Yorkshire draped over her shoulders. She was on a yellow bike with basket and was, what I can only describe as, a vision of decorum and grace. Unlike myself, who would have been sweating and swearing the entire way up, she drifted past me with ease, standing, in her polished pumps, with 10 feet to go, to give one last flourish before swinging her leg over and casually disembarking, disappearing into a sea of onlookers.
For me, this woman is symbolic of the strong, silent, power of women the world over. For me, this woman represents everything good about women who face difficulty but don’t complain about it, who experience pressure but don’t buckle under it, who compete but aren’t brash about it, who succeed but don’t shout about it.
For me, the image of this woman, an everyday woman riding a bicycle, is the defining moment of my Tour de Yorkshire. The message she gives to all of us is this; it doesn’t matter if you don’t have the right gear; it doesn’t matter if you don’t have the right bike; it doesn’t matter if you don’t have the right size or shape or look. The only things you need are courage and self-belief.
In front of hundreds of people, she sailed up a big mountain in a bike with no gears, wearing a dress. Could I have done this? I’m not sure. But, I’m glad she did. She is an inspiration and I celebrate her.
As I write this, my 74 year old mother is sitting downstairs having a cup of tea. There’s something quite comforting knowing that your mother is in your home; it’s a safe, warm blanket kind of feeling, like the one I had as a child whenever she stroked my back or held my hair from my face when I was sick. It’s not one I have that often, as she lives on the other side of the Atlantic in my Canadian homeland.
My mother is a beautiful woman. Anyone who meets her tells me this. She’s petite, relatively smooth skinned and stylish, her white hair giving her an air of sophistication. Looking at her, one would assume that she’s aged very well, certainly better than many of her contemporaries, whose waists have thickened and ankles have swelled from a more sedentary, sitting down and slowing down kind of life.
But her beauty belies her poor state of physical and mental health and I can’t help thinking that my mother is becoming a shadow of her former spirited self. This is a woman who, in high school, was a track and basketball star. She regales us of stories of her 100m sprint wins and her 3-point shooting. Some of my best memories of my time with my mother are on holidays, exploring the old cities of Quebec and New Orleans and hiking together through the Scottish Highlands.
Now, slipped discs and subsequent back surgery mean she struggles with simple housework, let alone any exercise. Walking even a mile is something she can’t do without pain. But sitting for long periods of time is also uncomfortable, so often she takes herself to bed at 8pm, not to sleep, as that has never come easy to my mother, but to rest. Long days are spent staring out the window or reading romantic novels or watching telly. She admits to me she’s bored, especially at home in winter, when the cold, wind and snow deter her from venturing outside for days on end.
It’s not the physical deterioration that worries me though. It’s the mental deterioration that comes from inactivity and as a side effect of the myriad of pills she takes for her pain. She’s become forgetful, often repeating the same stories day after day, or even on the same day, and things I’ve taught her one day – like how to turn on the shower or open her email – don’t get applied the next day and, so, we teach her again.
She, herself, was concerned about Alzheimer’s but assures me tests have been negative. But, for me, there’s little reassurance about my mother’s declining mental health. It’s heart breaking. It’s the warm, safety blanket slowly unravelling, leaving me exposed to unfamiliar, unwelcome, cold air that cuts sharply into my chest when I breathe it in.
I realise ageing is inevitable and we’ll all experience it differently. But, seeing my mother age has taught me something important. The key to it is to treat it as something you do not as something that happens to you. Keeping myself physically and mentally active, travelling, meeting new people and learning new skills are vital. And cycling… well, cycling is the ideal ageing antidote, helping maintain muscle and keeping our immune systems strong.
Right now, though, I’ll enjoy my mother’s company. We’ll drink tea and eat scones and reminisce. We’ll feel safe and warm and time will stand still temporarily.
So, winter has been long and rather harsh. In fact, as I write this, the infamous ‘Beast from the East’ weather front is causing havoc across many parts of the UK, bringing icy cold temperatures and dumping inches of snow.
Ironically, I look out my front window to see beautiful blue sky and not a snowflake in sight. Hmmm…. I should dawn my lycra, get out Dexter and go for a ride. I’m not doing that, though. Instead, I’ve decided to write. My writing, like my cycling, has taken a back seat this winter, and I’m feeling guilty about both.
Unfortunately, winter allowed me to hide away, to hibernate in fact. I opted for cosy pyjamas, red wine, warm fires and mindless TV. The mornings were dark. The nights were darker. The children got sick and then we did too. Work got busy and then even busier. I felt more and more lethargic. And this general malaise lasted an interminable amount of time … months and months … before I started to feel relatively human again. I’m not sure if you’d call this Seasonal Affective Disorder or just sheer laziness. I had no energy and no motivation to cycle. I didn’t write and I didn’t tweet.
And, then, something happened. I noticed the days were getting longer. I saw the first lambs in the field wearing their little orange jackets. I spied the snowdrops peeking their white heads through the grass. I heard the birds chirping in my garden. I woke up.
On a beautiful but cold, big, blue-sky day, I clipped in, pushed off and climbed, slowly at first, up the hill outside my house. By the time I got to the top, my cheeks were flushed and my heart was pounding, but I was smiling. I looked around – rolling hills, sheep, chimneys and a church spire. I breathed in deeply – crisp, fresh air. I felt the sun on my face. I saw my husband, way ahead at this point, take a drink from his bottle. I raced to catch up with him and then said, ‘why didn’t we do this sooner?’
This … just this … open road, bike, blue sky, lungs filled with fresh air, the person you love … is all you need. This is what clears the cobwebs, takes your mind off the stresses of life and allows you to reconnect – with nature, with yourself, with what’s really important – your physical and mental health.
And then we pedalled as fast as we could downhill … I almost forgot how exhilarating cycling can be. It’s a bit risky, it’s a bit fast, it’s a bit painful, and it’s entirely perfect for rousing yourself from hibernation. I’m now 53 miles in to my spring cycling campaign and can’t wait for my next ride.
If you’re feeling the same way I was, the best advice I can give you is just do it! Hop on. Clip in. Go slowly up hill and really fast down. Breathe deeply and feel the warm sunshine on your face. Look around and notice all the signs of spring. Remind yourself of how lucky you are to live in such a beautiful part of the world. Smile and ride on.
Let me start this post by saying we love our children, we really do.
But, if I’m brutally honest, neither our 15 year-old girl nor our 12 year-old boy has been overly blessed with any sort of sporting prowess. And whilst we would love for them to benefit mentally and physically from cycling, as we do, we’re starting to realise that our love of cycling is only contagious in the infectious disease sort of way.
Honestly, we’re about to give up our bid to encourage our teenagers’ healthy lifestyles as it’s ruining our own. Just getting them out of the house is a trial. It’s funny how much homework magically transpires when we suggest going for a ride.
And then, while on the ride, there’s the moaning about the sore bum, the stopping every 10 minutes for a drink, the screaming when a fly hits a face, the slowing every time a car approaches, and the refusal to actually change gears even when it’s in their best interest (because, you know, they know best!). Even balance seems to be a skill that eludes our children.
I swear my son spends more time walking his bike than he does riding it. ‘What’s the point of that?’, I ask him. His reply: ‘well at least I’m getting some exercise!’ Yes, there’s an answer for everything too. At my wit’s end I yell, ‘For the love of God, get on your bike boy!’ Slowly, as he does everything at his own pace, he climbs back on and spins away in his little ring, going nowhere fast.
I should have cottoned on that we may be on a hiding to nothing, when, at the dinner table one evening, our daughter tells us she took multiple attempts to pass her school’s cycling proficiency certificate and our son proudly affirms that he ran into the instructor! When we asked the boy what the upshot was of injuring the very person deciding his roadworthiness, he said simply: ‘we both pretended nothing happened.’
So there you go. Taking a leaf out of that instructor’s book, my husband and I have decided to pretend that it doesn’t matter if our own children can’t cycle. We’re sure there are plenty of non-balancing, non-outdoor, non-aerobic, and non-sweat inducing types of sports our children are good at.
Besides, the cost of our increased blood pressure and anger management classes simply doesn’t warrant the effort. From now on, cycling is our domain; perhaps the only one remaining not infiltrated by kids. Hey ho, at least there’s an upside to being a bad parent.
When Orica Scott’s Van Vleuten was powering up the Col D’Izoard in Stage 1 of La Course, I was glued to the television in total awe of the power she and, equally, Boels Dolmans’ Deignan, were demonstrating and the pressure they were exerting on the rest of the peloton. For me, an amateur road cyclist, it was truly inspirational.
Not only was I witnessing athletes operating at the top of their game, but I was also catching a rare glimpse of female cyclists being able to showcase their talent on a truly international stage, against the iconic backdrop of one of the most beautiful and grueling stages on Le Tour de France and with full television coverage.
Upon discovering that Van Vleuten had the third fastest time on Strava up the Col D’Izoard, only after Barguil and Bardet, I was even more impressed; surely this was evidence that women were as capable as men of not just tackling the big category – or even hors catégorie – climbs but out and out attacking them.
And then a family friend quickly extinguished any spark of hope I held that the status of women’s cycling might be elevated post Van Vleuten’s spectacular win. When presented with the Strava evidence, he replied: ‘well, that’s only because she didn’t do the 112 kms beforehand’.
It was his response and then the disappointing spectacle of the second stage that cemented my anger at the blatant gender disparity that still exists across this sport (and, of course, many others).
Diegnan needn’t have been so diplomatic in her soft critique of the organization of La Course; it was obvious to all who were watching.
First of all, the experimental pursuit style format of Stage 2 quenched any potential for excitement, as Van Vleuten’s substantial 43 second lead and Deignan’s decision to wait for her teammate meant that the race was decided in the first 90 seconds.
Second, for those cyclists hoping to gain more exposure, as they might expect from a fully televised event, they will have been bitterly disappointed. It was only a select few – the leader and the chasing group – who attracted the camera’s attention.
Third, the awards ‘ceremony’ looked more like a primary school prize-giving with nobody knowing exactly where to stand or what to do, including the presenters themselves.
Simply put, these professional athletes deserved better on all three fronts –race format, media exposure and recognition of achievement. What La Course managed to do was shine a big spotlight on the inequality that still exists in the world of professional cycling.
Two years ago I would never have dreamed of forgoing sun, sand and sea for a cycling holiday. But, having caught the cycling bug good and proper, that’s exactly what I did this May half-term; worse than that, I was the one to suggest it!
As this was our first foray into an activity holiday, we thought we’d choose somewhere closer to home and decided to base ourselves in Oban and cycle some of the beautiful islands that make up the Inner Hebrides. If you’re thinking of doing something similar, then look no further. Below you’ll find a recipe for holiday success that covers accommodation, cycling routes and places to eat. I can assure you that if the weather cooperates (as it mostly did with us), you’ll have no regrets you didn’t go abroad!
Step One: Book Carding Mill apartment (available on Air B&B) in Oban. It’s a light-filled, high-spec, 1-bedroomed apartment with an amazing view over to the Isle of Kerrera and even more amazing sunsets, which can be enjoyed from the private balcony. It’s about a 20-minute walk into the centre of Oban but only a short distance from the ferry terminal, and even shorter (3 minutes) if you’re cycling. The owners (Finlo and Liz) are friendly and helpful, yet not intrusive, and they even give you access to the garage below to store and maintain your bikes.
Oban by night
Sunset over Kerrera
Sunset over Kerrera
Step 2: Cycle Mull, Lismore and Loch Leven and enjoy putting your feet up and staring out the window on any rest/rainy days!
Mull: This island was so beautiful (and so big) that we actually did two routes on two different days. On our first day, we took the 55-minute CalMac ferry to Craignure (£6.90 pp return/bikes free) and then cycled North to Salen and onwards to Tobermory, where we stopped for lunch. After we fuelled up (see Step 3 below!), we took the more scenic route back via Dervaig and through the trees to Aros.
CalMac ferry Oban
Ferry home from Mull
Coastguard manoeuvres above ferry
Craignure port on Mull
The return trip was definitely more challenging. The steep incline at the back of Tobermory gives you a good feel for what’s to come; we seemed to climb and climb, switchback style, before descending into Dervaig. But once there, the road flattened out and we enjoyed the shady, forested route back to the A-road, joining at Salen again, ready for our sprint back to the ferry. In total, we did 61 miles this day, including a misjudged diversion (we thought we could make it to Calgary beach, but it was further than we thought, so we aborted!). We’ll just have to make sure to do it next time!
Dervaig to Aros.
Looking down onto Dervaig.
Mull again: The second time on Mull we decided to cycle North again from Craignure to Salen and then West to the wee island of Ulva for lunch (see Step 3). Afterwards, we followed the gorgeous coastal road South around Loch Na Keal, before heading inland on the Ben More road, where we started heading up and up and up and thankfully down the other side! Then it was the long Glen More climb and another descent before winding our way, more gently, back to the ferry. Although we felt we covered much more ground this day than our first, this route was nearly the same distance at 62 miles.
From start to finish, this was a magnificent route taking in some truly breathtaking scenery and covering some serious cycling terrain! The climbs were much longer than Day 1 but steadier in terms of gradient, and with so much natural beauty to look at, they seemed to be less painful! Likewise the descents seemed never ending and would have been ideal if not for having to pull over into passing places every so often to allow cars room to manoeuvre past on the single track roads. Having said that, Mull is definitely cycling-friendly, with courteous drivers giving wide berth when passing, meaning there was never any feeling of intimidation.
All in all, it’s a wonderful island to cycle. Our only regret is not being able to stay until the Sunday (4 June) to take part in the Isle of Mull sportive! As the long route is largely the same as our two days combined (but in the opposite direction), maybe I can get away with saying I’ve kind of done it, or, better yet, consider it my reccy for next year!
Lismore: This island might be described as Mull’s younger, sleepier and slightly hippyish sister. It has a laid-back, subtle beauty about it as opposed to Mull’s rugged in-your-face kind of beauty. It’s also much smaller, and, as we soon discovered surrounded by groups of mountain bikers at the ferry terminal, not totally designed for road bikes. The roads, mostly single-track, led to dead-ends (i.e. the sea!) and some were well-worn, muddy and gravelly. Unclipping was required frequently, as well, to open and close gates.
But, those minor impediments aside, the 18.8 miles of cycling was thoroughly enjoyable over undulating but not arduous terrain, and the views of hairy coos, hills and sea were stunning.
When you reach the north end of the island, you can hop on a council-run ferry (£1.70 pp single/bikes free) and take the 5-minute journey to Port Appin, another perfect stopping place for lunch (see below). Then, when you’re fed and watered, it’s very easy to pick up the signs for Sustran’s Route 78 back to Oban, a distance of approximately 24 miles.
The first part of this route from Port Appin around Loch Creran reminded us a lot of cycling around Cumbria with quiet country roads and glimpses of grand lakeside homes. And then the route leads to the purpose-built cycle path where it runs adjacent to the main road, sometimes right alongside it or even on it for short stretches, and other times tucks in and winds gently through the trees. The last leg, via Glenlonan and Glencruitten, coming up and over the back of Oban, was the toughest and if we did it again we’d certainly look out for the alternative, coastal route from Dunbeg to Ganavan and then into Oban.
Loch Leven: For this one we hopped in the car and travelled North from Oban to Kinlochleven (about 45 minutes), where we parked and traded the car for bikes. It was early evening and the sun was just breaking through the clouds and bouncing off the water, creating a warm, hazy glow.
We did the gentle North side first before heading over the bridge at Ballachulish and onto the A82 (via cycle path) back up the other side of the loch to Glencoe. And then the climb starts … but fear not; it’s not nearly as steep as it seemed in the car or as intimidating as it looked from the other side of the loch! In fact, it was relatively easy and well worth it considering the gorgeous views at the top. All that was left was the quick descent back into Kinlochleven to complete the 20.7 mile loop.
Looking down on Loch Leven
On the cycle path
Step 3: Eat at Cafe Fish at Tobermory; The Boathouse at Ulva; The Pierhouse Hotel and Seafood Restaurant at Port Appin; Ee-Usk at Oban; and take away from the Oban Fish and Chip Shop.
Cafe Fish Tobermory
Rick Stein was right – these ARE the best fish and chips!!
Cafe Fish Tobermory
Cafe Fish Tobermory
Okay, so, as you may have guessed, you need to like seafood to appreciate fully these recommendations! As we do, we were in our element finding quality food at really reasonable prices throughout our holiday. It’s hard to choose a favourite, as they were all amazing, but two places stand out for very different reasons.
TheBoathouse at Ulva: Eating here is simply a wonderful experience from start to finish. First, there’s the 2-minute ferry crossing (£6 pp return to the privately owned island, including tickets to the small museum) with Donald (who, when not operating the boat, watched our bikes, left unlocked on the other side of the waterway, and also cleared tables!). Second, there’s the most beautiful setting with picnic tables on the water’s edge. Third, there’s the fresh, locally farmed seafood, prepared quickly but thoughtfully by Emma and Rebecca, who also happen to be surprisingly young and extremely competent.
Lobster at the Boathouse, Ulva
Signalling the ferry
Views from the Boathouse
The Pierhouse Seafood Restaurant at Port Appin: We owe the staff here a debt of gratitude as they probably saved our marriage (okay, maybe that’s a stretch, but certainly a long and quiet ride home!). You see hubby failed to notice that there was a 2-hour gap between ferry times leaving Lismore over the lunch period. We arrived at 12:30 hoping to catch the 1:15 ferry but had to wait until 2:15 for the next one! As luck would have it, the ferry then broke down and we had to wait another half an hour … on empty stomachs! In an attempt to salvage the situation and his reputation, hubby made a call to the Pierhouse to order food in advance and, thankfully, they honoured that order even though the kitchen was supposed to close at 2:30. We can honestly say it was the best scampi and chips we’ve ever tasted!
If you’re considering your own cycling holiday, I’d say do it for sure. Do as many miles as you feel comfortable with in any one day and in between the cycling enjoy all the other things (eating, drinking, sightseeing and lazing) that you’d do on any other holiday. It’s the best of both worlds, really, and you don’t come home with any extra holiday weight! What could be better?
I’ve always loved riding a bike. As a child, I had a bright purple one with rainbow coloured streamers flying from my handlebars that took me to my best friend’s house in under a minute. At Uni, I had a red and grey one that took me along the St Lawrence River to the golf course where I used to waitress. In Japan, I had a black one with a bell and a basket that took me to schools in the middle of rice fields where no trains ever stopped. When I had my son, I had a silver one with a carrier on the back that took us along the cycle path on blue-skied days in search of the ice-cream van. And when the kids were old enough to be left alone, I got my road bike and started to develop a completely new relationship with cycling. Whereas I once rode a bike for pure pleasure or for commuting, I now ride a bike for sport. Its purpose is for health and wellbeing and for pushing my limits … things I had honestly never associated with a bike before. Don’t get me wrong, it’s still fun, but fun in an edgier, riskier, faster and harder way. Here’s why I think women should re-evaluate their relationships with cycling and maybe just maybe spark up a new one with a road bike.
I’ve developed this in spades. With every hill I face I tell myself ‘If I climbed the last one, I can climb this one’ and somehow I manage to climb each and every one, even those switchback ones and those never-ending ones. I don’t get off and I don’t walk, partly because I’ve always been determined to ride clipped in, but also because I’ve learned that the burning leg pain will subside, the breathing will slow and the heart rate will drop; it’s just a temporary state. It’s a bit like childbirth; as soon as you reach the top you forget about how horrendous it was getting there!
The sheer satisfaction of knowing that I’ve overcome my fear of looking behind me or riding on A-roads or that I’ve pushed my body to its limits and it’s responded in a way that I never thought possible, gives me a confidence that I’ve never experienced before. It’s a confidence that comes from within, not from being told by someone else that I’ve done something well, but from my knowing that I and I alone can achieve anything I put my mind to.
I’ve remembered how competitive I am. This is one of the reasons I like riding with my husband – we love to race! Okay, he wins most of the time, but sometimes I manage to catch him off guard and power past him on a hill or sprint past him to reach our gate first. I love uploading the Garmin data when I get home and checking my stats and seeing how I rank amongst others. And when I find out I’m on the leader board, especially with the men, or I’m even QOM, then I’m delighted.
I think having children and a safe job and just getting on with the practicalities of life can dull our competitive edge, which isn’t necessarily a good thing, especially if we want to re-enter the world of work or climb the career ladder. But sport reminds us that it’s okay to be competitive. In fact, it’s more than okay; it’s a prerequisite for success!
For me, developing resilience and rediscovering my confidence and competitiveness couldn’t have come at a better time. These qualities have kept me focused and positive as I steer my career, and indeed my life, in a different direction. That’s why I’d urge any woman considering cycling to give it a go. It has the potential to influence your life in so many positive ways. My advice is to just get on your bike and see where it takes you. You may just find a stronger, fiercer version of yourself!
When I first got my bike (affectionately known as Dexter, by the way) I sat in my kitchen, precariously balanced between the wall and the table, and practised clipping in and unclipping over and over until I felt confident enough to tackle the roads. For the first two months I wondered what I was so worried about; it was all working brilliantly and I felt pretty chuffed. And, then, out of the blue came my first fall and then my second … you can see where I’m going with this. Here are my best and most embarrassing reasons for scratching poor Dexter.
1. Completely underestimating the irrationality of drivers
At the bottom of my road there’s a T-junction. The stop sign facing me is a clear indication that oncoming traffic has the right of way. Like any other day before, I slowed down and prepared to unclip. As I looked to my right, I spotted an oncoming car, which, upon seeing me, came to a halt almost in front of me. Well, that was enough to send me into a spin. My head refused to engage my feet and I did a slow motion fall onto my left side. As I lay there, uninjured apart from a bruised ego, I caught glimpse of 4 suited men with huge grins … I’m sure I made their day!
2. Turning to look behind
It’s not often that I have to do this, as my husband is either on my wheel or, if on a hill, way ahead of me. But feeling rather strong one day, I got out of my seat and pumped past him up a wee incline. At the top I thought I’d look back to see just how far behind I left him and, as I looked over my left shoulder, I steered myself into the nettles on the verge and then into a stone wall. I was stranded in a rather awkward and, needless to say, prickly position until my husband pulled me back up. I know I made his day!
3. Reaching for your water bottle with your wrong hand
Being a relatively new rider, I stick to the same routines. I always unclip my left foot and I always drink with my right hand. Not sticking to these routines would upset my natural equilibrium. The other day, hubby, riding on my left, asked me to pass him my bottle as he had finished his own. My mind was telling me, ‘no, don’t do it’ but my heart was telling me, ‘don’t be stupid’. It turned out my mind was right!
4. Being clipped from behind by your partner
As Wifey Domestique, I’m supposed to alert my hubby to any dangers in the road, mostly manholes and potholes and sometimes the odd lady pheasant or lazy sheep. But when I’m in the groove and cruising along at a good pace, I’m rather reluctant to take a hand from my handlebars and point to the potential obstruction (due to point 3 above). Well, this didn’t work out so well on our last ride, when I slowed to negotiate a big pothole and my husband ran into the back of me. I’m not sure who was most displeased that day!
5. Looking at lambs
Okay, this one hasn’t actually caused a fall yet, but it has caused me to ride off the road, forcing some drastic maneuvering in order to recover. What can I say; how can anyone not love a lamb?
I’d love to hear about your best falls, notwithstanding those that have caused injury! Feel free to share them here.
You may have seen my tweet earlier in the week about overtaking two men on a climb. I have to say I was feeling rather smug at the time. I eased by not one but two burly men and, as I did so, I casually turned and said ‘you alright?’ I was expecting the standard return, ‘yeah, you?’ but instead I got, ‘I think I am. We’re on mile 60 of an 80-mile UK Cycling Sportive’. And that was when the smug little smile was well and truly wiped clean off my face. Here I thought I was getting fitter and quicker up hills. Turns out I’m only marginally fitter than 55 year-old men who have ridden through the Forest of Bowland for hours on end, one of whom, God forbid, didn’t even have on lycra or clippy shoes.
Although my husband and I bought our bikes at the same time, he’s now able to power up hills effortlessly, his cadence unaffected, his breathing uninhibited. I yell, from the bottom, ‘see you at the top’ as I watch his silhouette fade into the distance. And then I grit my teeth and repeat the refrain in my head ‘push, pull, breathe’, ‘push, pull, breathe.’ Eventually (after he’s stopped to have a drink, check his messages and make a phone call) I catch up to him, all red-faced and panting, and say ‘how do you do that?’ and he says ‘I just want to get it over with’. I’m thinking, ‘so do I, but that doesn’t give me super powers.’
I swear there are some hills on which I just want to unclip and walk. The first time I suggested this to him, he simply said, in the gravest of voices, ‘you do that and you’re not a cyclist’. I could see he was actually disappointed in me, like I had suggested selling state secrets. Clearly, ‘you do not get off your bike and walk’ is the first rule of Cycle Club.
So, I dug deep and carried on at a snail’s pace. Sometimes, especially if the wind is blowing ever so slightly the wrong way, it actually feels as if I’m going backwards. The peak, instead of getting closer, seems to move further and further away from me with every grind of my pedal. And really, after a year of cycling, I still feel that I’m expending way too much energy moving slowly uphill. Maybe I shouldn’t measure my performance against a man’s. Or maybe it’s simply the curse of where we live. It’s stunning countryside on the three borders of Lancashire, Yorkshire and Cumbria, but God are there a lot of hills! Strava says that I’ve climbed 11,211 feet in 12 rides. That’s a lot of feet, right?
I know what you’re thinking … when there’s an uphill, there’s always a downhill. And, yes, this does ease the pain somewhat but here too I’m always playing catch up with my husband, who goes hurtling down full speed and fearless. I, on the other hand, exercise the caution of a woman who doesn’t want to orphan her children. It costs me in brake pads but it pays off in living to see the kids grow up!
I’m not ready to face the fact that I may only be a decent domestique on flat roads. I don’t want to be defeated (at least not so badly) by a man or a hill. So, if you have any advice for me on making climbs less painful and more satisfying, please do get in touch. I need your help!
You’ll find no naughty maid tales – or tails (!) – here. I’m a cyclist and Wifey Domestique is my alias. If you’re new to cycling and if you too cycle with your husband then I’m sure you’re smiling knowingly and air high-fiving me right now for such a fitting name. You may have even grunted these words to yourself between gasps for air as you pull your husband along behind you on a busy A-road. Or worse, your husband, like mine, has referred to you as this to all his friends over pints of beer, laughs and lewd comments at your expense. So for some of you this alias requires no further explanation, but for others, let me start from the beginning …
The last year has been a difficult one. Our middle son has been in and out of adolescent psychiatric units and has finally been given a diagnosis of bipolar disorder. Over the course of the year, our whole lives have been turned upside down and consumed by our son’s condition. We became stressed, angry and generally unfit – both mentally and physically. We decided that we needed to do something for ourselves, and my husband, who used to be an avid cyclist in his teens, knew just the antidote – road bikes!
I was more than a little dubious at first; I had only ever ridden a bike with a bell and a basket. And, I couldn’t ever imagine squeezing my wobbly bits into lycra with a built in nappy. I used to scoff at the ridiculousness of such gear as pelotons of middle-aged men in mankinis rode through our quiet village. But I knew we needed an escape and the allure of the beautiful countryside of the Cumbria/North Yorkshire border proved too strong. So rather reluctantly, at least at the beginning, I became a cyclist. That was March, 2016. A year on and Strava tells me I’ve clocked up 1,167 miles and have climbed 48,058 feet. What’s more, I love it!
The only slight downside is the fear, and this is where I get to my alias, just bear with me a little bit longer. I’ve managed to conquer the terrifying feeling of hurtling at high speed down hills; this is now rather exhilarating. And I’ve somehow pushed aside the recurring image of me flying over my handlebars and breaking my teeth (always a worry of mine, even when I’m walking down stairs). But one fear still lingers, fuelled no doubt by hideous stories, most recently told by a cycling friend who was thrown off his bike into oncoming traffic when his front wheel hit the back of his cycling buddy’s (he’s fine by the way – only a bit of road burn). It’s the fear of cycling at the back.
It’s not just that I lack the concentration to focus single-mindedly on my husband’s back wheel, noticing any slight adjustment in speed and adjusting my own accordingly (I’m too busy looking at sheep). It’s also the traffic. Queues of cars sit behind breathing down our necks, ready to pounce at the slightest opportunity. And then there’s the huge cattle lorries, passing a little too close and creating a wind tunnel which rocks my frame and forces me to close my eyes and pray that I’m going to stay upright. Basically, cycling at the back is for the brave; it’s not for me. Not yet anyway.
And so I have earned the title wifey domestique because I’m the one at the front doing all the work. I am to my husband what Geraint Thomas is to Chris Froome (well, almost … give or take about 30 mph). While my husband sits in my slip-stream, pedaling once for every 20 of my leg turns and enjoying the view (of my backside at least), I’m pushing through the wind, head-down, legs and heart pumping, desperately searching for the upcoming B-road onto which I can turn for a bit of respite.
Like me, I imagine there are many more wifey domestiques out there slowly building their confidence so that one day they too can sit back and enjoy the view. Until then, I hope you’ll follow me on my journey from bell and basket to base layers and balaclavas (if you haven’t cycled in the pitch black yet you’re in for a treat).
This blog is for the uninitiated female cyclist. It’s for those who still possess a bit of fear but who want to embrace cycling wholeheartedly and benefit mentally and physically. No topic is off limits, not nasty falls nor naff headgear, not even niggling nether regions!