TCRNo5Cap210 Prologue

The Transcontinental Race

The Transcontinental or TCR, now in its fifth instalment so affectionately referred to as TCRno5, is a bicycle race.

Around 200 competitors race their bicycles from one side of Europe to another. ..

We don’t race fro Belgium to Greece in a straight line. Where would the fun be in that?

We have to visit 4 mandatory checkpoints. They are to be found atop some of the highest points in Europe and in obscure locations.

This year they are:

START // GERAARDSBERGEN | BELGIUM

CP1 // SCHLOSS LICHTENSTEIN | GERMANY

CP2 // MONTE GRAPPA | ITALY

CP3 // HIGH TATRAS MOUNTAINS | SLOVAKIA

CP4 // TRANSFAGARASAN HIGHWAY | ROMANIA

FiNISH // METEORA | GREECE

And you can watch us as we go!

http://trackleaders.com/transconrace17f.php

There is no set route. It is part of the challenge but it also means you can be in control. I can pick a route with less climbing, assess the roads from street view to see how much traffic is on them. It also means a lot of effort researching routes in unfamiliar countries. I have no idea about border crossings in Eastern Europe and no idea if my route is actually any good. Will I end up lost on a gravel track somewhere? On a banned road and need to turn back? Accidentally route myself through a field? Certainly, probably at least once a day.

The race is completely self supported. That means no outside assistance that isn’t commercially available to all competitors. I need to be on top of feeding and watering myself. Find my own camp spots or hotels. Fix my own mechanicals and most importantly, manage my own mind to motivate myself through. Constantly risk assessing to make sure that I am safe.

img_5317People ask me what my plan is. Do I know where I’m going to sleep. Well, I haven’t got too much of a plan. I have a route and the equipment to sleep pretty much wherever I feel safe. I’ll carry my own food and water and be self sufficient. I plan to be flexible and to take each day as it comes. If I book a hotel room 6 days away, get a puncture, hit an obstacle and have to re route. Well I miss out on my hotel, my money and beat myself up about being a lousy cyclist. So being flexible I think is the way to go.

Live in the now and here and not worry about what might or might not come.

I’m terrified.

It is also just a bike ride.

If long rides and Audax have taught me anything it is not to view a ride as the entire distance. Just ride in the moment. Ride to the next checkpoint/cafe/sleep. Long training rides have also told me that the bad patches are only temporary. And if you’re having a lousy time, chances are most others are too.

Undertaking this while I’m still recovering from an anxiety crisis may not be the best idea. Cycling for me is a pursuit firmly grounded in positive values and therefore a good platform for self exploration. Learning to cope with the unknown will help me overcome my anxiety. I can’t leave my fears at home. I need to learn how to acknowledge them but not let them take over.

When I first committed to doing the TCR I wanted do push myself. I wanted a challenge that I didn’t know if I could complete. Now that uncertainty is what makes it terrifying. But if we only experienced life in situations where we are comfortable, or certain of the outcome our world would be small. Learning to cope with uncertainty, with ‘I don’t know’. To learn how to stop my mind from running away with negative thoughts about failure, possible calamities or mechanicals and instead to start experiencing the here and now. To ground myself in the present moment through my senses and experiences.

Lee Cragie resurfaced this quote from the late race director Mike Hall:

“Enjoy it, don’t lose sight of just how lucky you are to be out there and above all, manage your expectations. If we treat things as a pass or fail test we can torture ourselves over the outcome but if we can consider it more as an experiment with an uncertain outcome from the start then we always at least get an answer.”

Un, dau, tri. Bant a ni!

img_5319I am incredibly grateful to all the support I have received. From my amazing friends who have been patient with my absence from social gatherings (or turning up to them late/in cycling kit!),  from Audax Club Bristol for company on training rides and believing in me. Thank you Rickie Cotter for being the most incredible mentor, friend and happy influence. Cheers to my housemate for being cool with having half the house taken over by cycling paraphernalia.

I’ve also been very fortunate to have the support of Threo, Matchy, Apidura and Rapha.

Threo were the first to come to my aid after the fiasco with Pearl Izimi. Jehu also offered kit to reaffirm my faith in the cycling industry. Then the cycling karma fairies kicked in mega times and Rapha sent me the most amazing TCR kit package. Thank you all! Obviously nice kit is nice but I’ve also just been really chuffed that these brands that have a million other important things to do took the time to support me. The people at Apidura were very helpful in helping me work out what bags and setup would work best with my frame (short person = small frame = limited space).

There’s also an amazing twist to my story. Way way back in Spring twitter friend Jo Burt asked me if I would take part in a panel talking about  the TCR at Bespoked . Here I met a bunch of nutters, felt wildly out of my depth, inadequate, scared, overwhelmed by talking in front of an audience of bicycle nutters when I didn’t really know what I was doing- I hadn’t even ridden very far yet! One of the other panellists was about the same age, also based in Bristol. Liam seemed a quiet soul but clearly capable of some crazy stuff on two wheels. After the panel we exchanged a few logistical emails and I encouraged him to come out with Audax Club Bristol sometime to meet some other TCR entrants. Then one Saturday a few of us planned an impromptu 300km ride. I remembered our earlier conversation and messaged Liam at 9pm (it was that impromptu!), he said he was supposed to he having a rest day but why not?! Long story cut short: 300km, a few club runs, recovery rides, a river swim and bivvy date later and the penny finally dropped! img_5334

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Dignity

May/June has been difficult.

I’ve been off work. Had days where I don’t leave the house. Worried myself silly. Cancelled on friend’s hen nights and birthdays. Cried a lot. Felt lonely and isolated. Dealing with grief that I’d never let myself experience as a child.

Social anxiety. Anxiety and depression.

They’re scary words when they come from professionals.

Many people would disagree with me writing about this or discussing it on public platforms. Your private life should be private.

A song that rings out to me is Dignity by Bob Dylan. What is the right thing to do? I’ve grown up in a time where the boundaries between offline and online life are blurred at best. That doesn’t’ excuse anything. Plenty of my peers don’t openly discuss aspects of their personal life on open platforms. Does that earn them more respect? Do my methods of expression make me less honourable?

Another internal battle is the one between wanting to try and make myself better, focusing on things that make me happy and trying to reinforce that while also being a bit of a mess inside. Then feeling guilty for doing that. Feeling guilty for having a good ride, or a nice time meeting up with a friend for coffee, all while I’m off work. The brave face dilemma.

The internet is many different things to different people.

I’m aware of the dangers and pitfalls that exist. That platforms like instagram and twitter can have a negative influence on anxiety and feelings of inadequacy. Or just the conundrum of how much of your private life you keep private.

When I first wrote about my wobble a TCR veteran reached out to me to discuss how riding helped them to manage their mental health. This was hugely helpful when I was wrestling the decision as to whether attempting the race at this time in my life was the right thing for me. You know who you are. Thank you.

If I post something that reminds me about what it felt like to feel OK, reminds me about what I value: support, community, friendship that sends ripples and I get reminded of this. Messages from friends, let’s meet for a ride/coffee/hug. Things like this remind me why I made the life choices that I have and reinforce how fortunate I am not only to have an incredible support network but that things will get better. This isn’t how I’ve always felt and will not be how I will always feel. I’m thankful that despite feeling like this I don’t pose a risk to my own safety or that of others.

I had a conversation with someone who had experienced similar issues with anxiety and returning to work. We talked at length about the feelings of guilt that you get from doing things to make yourself feel ok. What if someone sees me out and judges me? Nothing looks wrong, I’m not at work, out in the fresh air on a lovely day. Feeling guilty about being off work, the commitments I’m missing, the extra work load I’m putting on my team in my absence. We understood each other completely.

One of the worst things I’ve been told by a GP is ‘you don’t look depressed to me’.

The challenge with anxiety is that your brain just overloads on negativity and pain, feeding off it like some Dementor type creature. If something helps me break that cycle and bring things back to what I value then is it a bad thing? If something reinforces that free running train of negativity of judgement and criticism should I avoid it?

I don’t know what I’m doing.

I don’t know what to do.

I don’t know what the right thing to do it.

I know that I will make mistakes.

I’m thankful to everyone that has supported me and continues to support me.

I think with talking therapy and trying to be kinder on myself that I am making steps in the right direction. I ask that people are kind to me and kind to others. Accept that I will make mistakes. I won’t get it right. I might move two steps in the right direction then take three steps backwards. Or more likely, unclip my left foot and then lean over to the right!

 

 

Super Randonneur

This year I’ve set myself some pretty steep challenges. In January I’d never ridden over 100 miles in one sitting. There was work to do. I knew from other hardened mile munching cyclists that a good way to build up the miles was to enter Audaxes so this became a big part of my preparation for the Transcontinental.

Most would maybe do a 200km event first. Some would never be tempted to ride further. Why would you? 200km can be a full day in the saddle and enough of a challenge for the fittest of riders.

Some would go for a 300km ride, likely to involve some night riding depending on your pace and necessitating reasonable care over your hydration and nutrition.

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Want to ride further? Build up confidence night riding. Have good lights and keep a cool head.

As we all know, muggins here ignored all sensible advice and plumped straight in at 400 and 600km Audaxes. Having done those it was perfectly logical to complete a Super Randonneur series to tick that box. After having done all these rides I do honestly believe that most able bodied people are capable of doing this. You need a reliable bicycle, a strong pair of legs and a strong and resilient mindset.

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It is sensible to increase mileage slowly to avoid injury. I picked up a niggle because I could be more devoted to stretching and foam rolling. Thankfully, nothing serious.

Super Randonneur. Audax UK’s traditional award for the top 10% of hardened night-riders. Ride a series of 200, 300, 400 & 600km all in one season.

So after the 400km Brevet Cymru and 600km Bryan Chapman my ACB friend Telbert took me out on a 200 and 300 DIY Audaxes from Bristol to help me complete my series. Given I’d been experiencing a low patch getting out on my bike in the sunshine was the best thing for me to do, I just needed a little encouragement. After the 400 and 600 riding these shorter distances really let me just enjoy riding being confident that I could complete the ride I’d set out to do.

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The finest Randonneur’s breakfast

A DIY is where you don’t enter an Audax event but pre-notify Audax UK of your ride and submitting a GPS route then sending in your track once you’ve completed. It was a bit of a faff getting my head around the online form but actually it is quite straightforward. I wish Audax didn’t have so many acronyms and unique nomenclature because it can make it seem more complicated than necessary…

200km https://www.strava.com/activities/1014941606

300km https://www.strava.com/activities/1019860114

400km https://www.strava.com/activities/963722339

600km https://www.strava.com/activities/986727147

I know that I’m critical of myself but I have to remember that this is a huge achievement for any cyclist. Given how little long distance stuff I had done before I should be super chuffed. I am, I’m a little relieved that I’ve been able to do it. It wasn’t easy and Audax Club Bristol certainly made it feel easier.

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Long miles are easier when you have good company to share the road with.

I thought I’d reflect a bit on the rides I’ve done for my SR series and what they’ve taught me.

Self sufficiency – you don’t know what the roads will throw at you and it isn’t as scary as it sounds. Pack some food, take plenty of water. Have a good repair kit. On an organised audax there will usually be someone coming up behind you, more likely than not they’ll stop and lend a hand. You can always bodge it until you get to a control.

Look after your bike and your bike will look after you – nothing worse than having to cancel a ride because of a broken spoke/headset/chain etc. Most of these are avoidable with good maintenance. If you can’t do it yourself get to know your local mechanic and buy them chocolate!

Look after yourself. Eat and drink lots. Eat and sleep the night before. On any multi day rides keep your saddle area clean. Look after your mind too.

Just keep pedalling – if you’re able bodied likelihood is that the hardest thing about long distance is the mental aspect. Keep making progress whether that is riding, feeding or watering yourself or sleeping. Try not to waste time that isn’t contributing to progress. You will have bad points and they will pass. The good points will also pass so get used to making hay while the sun shines!

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Keep pedalling and try to keep smiling!

Power. Chances are you use a GPS computer to help navigate (audaxes aren’t signposted and some do go old school with a route sheet and map). These little angels are often not designed with long distance in mind so have an idea of how you’ll keep it topped up with juice. Ditto your phone and ditto your lights if they are battery powered. I run an igaro off my dynamo to charge my gadgets.

Contact points. They will probably give you issues. If they don’t you’re lucky. Feet and ankles will likely swell so think about loosening your shoes. Move your hands around the handlebars a lot, varying your position will stop making any one set of muscles/nerves/pressure points too sore.

Enjoy it! I’ve met so many amazing people on Audaxes. Chat and be friendly. These events aren’t competitive and the people you meet will either have great stories, top advice or both!

For rides 300km and over consider packing: 2x inner tubes, tyre levers, patch kit, mini pump. Multi tool with chain tool, leatherman (or mini pliers for bending things back into shape), a cache battery (even with a dynamo I take a small one of these), lights, spare layers (even in the hight of UK summer the temp can drop siginificantly over night), a rain jacket if the forecast suggests, lots of snacks, sudocrem or something similar for the sore bits, wetwipes, cash and ID, SPF lip balm, some bits of tape and cable ties for bodges.

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Clee hill for my 300km. A frame bag and top tube bag to help me carry kit and spares. Keeping the weight centred on the bike means it has less of an effect on handling but can act as a sail in the wind.

 

Funk

I’m in a bit of a funk. I don’t really know what to do.

I’m one of those people that likes to pile their life plate high on things to do. I usually thrive when I’m busy. Riding bikes, seeing friends, working hard, side projects etc. Normally, I think I’m a pretty resilient human being. Happy to roll with life’s punches. Pick myself up, dust myself off and keep smiling.

Sometimes life throws you hard curve balls like bereavement, assholes and anxiety.

Sometimes it gets too much and something gives.

This time, it was me.

I’d noticed I’d been struggling. More teary than usual. More anxious. I won’t go into detail but one day it became too much.

I’m not sure where I go from here. I have reached out to friends and family who have been amazingly supportive. I’m waiting for therapy and counselling. I haven’t been able to see the GP because waiting times at my practice are so long. I have been spoken to the mental health nurse who has given me some ideas of places I can go for help. The NHS service that links individuals with local charities has nearly a month wait for a telephone consultation. I’m reading a book that my mum got me about Acceptance and Commitment Therapy in the meantime, learning some of the theory behind it before I start therapy.

I know that I am very lucky. I am not writing this to wallow or self indulge my emotions. Nor am I looking for sympathy. I am writing this to be honest.

I know that I am lucky to have a roof over my head, to have income that allows me to feed myself well and indulge my hobbies. I have amazing friends and a top mum. I have good physical health and I’m not looking after children/a disabled relative. But sometimes life is hard. It isn’t always rosy.

I’m still riding, although I have less energy and I’m incredibly anxious. I’ve been very grateful to Telbert for riding with me last week. Just getting me out of the house is an achievement some days. Finding the right balance between keeping busy/distracted, working on myself and time for rest.

When I feel like riding it helps. It is a bit of respite, gets me outside and distracts me. But it is just a fix, not a long term solution. Like a dodgy patch on a puncture. Putting pressure on myself doesn’t work at the moment, so I’m just taking each day as it comes.

 

Bryan Chapman Memorial

When I was around 20 I remember coming across an article about a ride nicknamed ‘Wales in a weekend’. I was completely captivated by this account of three friends riding the Brian Chapman Memorial Audax together. This ride is Wales end to end in 600km. It starts in Chepstow by the Severn Bridge, goes up to the Menai Bridge that joins Anglesey to the mainland and back again to Chepstow.

The mental and physical toughness required to ride up and down Wales in under 40 hours was one thing but I was also fascinated by the complete grass roots nature of Audax. On an Audax there are no banners, no medals, no crowds. Bananas and beans on toast (not at the same time!) replace energy gels and protein bars. Steel is the frame material of choice and you’d be hard pushed to find a deep section carbon wheel. Audax is about understated, hard riding and is supported by an army of amazing volunteers who give up their weekend to help feed and organise exhausted, smelly, dishevelled cyclists.

This write up made a lasting impression on me. I banked it in the ‘amazing things I would like to do one day’ list thinking honestly I would probably never be able to do anything like it – this was years before I became a ‘proper’ cyclist. Nevertheless, I didn’t forget it.

Funny how once an idea is in your brain it stays there and resurfaces years later.

Fast forward about 5 years and I’m a bit more of a ‘proper’ cyclist aka roadie struggling to balance work, commuting, thesis corrections and then my grandmother died…

While I was slowly grinding my physical and mental health into the ground I followed dots along The Transcontinental Race 2016. Read ‘What Goes Around’ by Emily Chappell and Juliana Buhring’s ‘This Road I Ride’. I knew I wanted to do something, to do something for myself, an adventure and a challenge. But was I capable?

I met some awesome women through the Bristol cycling scene. One evening, at a flat party hosted by my friend Janine I said that I was thinking about signing up for the Transcontinental.

I was still unsure. I had never done anything like it before. I sought advice from people like Emily. She came back with something along the lines of ‘you are capable of so much more than you think’.

JFDI. Just Fucking Do It.

I put my TCR application in and before I even knew the outcome I joined Audax UK and signed up for the Bryan Chapman. I’d wanted to do it for so long and if I got a place on the TCR it would be great preparation. If I didn’t get a place on TCR I’d wanted to do this iconic Welsh ride for years and it would be a challenge in itself.

Fast forward 6 months and I’m rolling out of the Bullwark Community Centre in Chepstow.

Now, in true Eleanor fashion I wasn’t completely prepared. I’d spent the entire week leading up to this feeling run down and lethargic with low mood and glands the size of golf balls. But there was nothing actually wrong with me. I decided to drive to the start this time after the nightmare that was getting to the Brevet Cymru and anticipated post ride exhaustion. Except I missed the junction on the motorway, I was too excited at having seen cyclists crossing the bridge that I drove straight past the turning off for Chepstow!

I hurriedly parked the car, pulled my bike out the boot and reassembled her front wheel. Plugged in my dynamo, pulled on my shoes, strapped my seat post bag on and pushed off. Around the corner into the Bullwark community centre and the place was jammed with cyclists. I had time to quickly run inside, grab my Brevet card, run back out and search the sea of lycra for some distinctive Audax Club Bristol (ACB) orange. Friends located just in time. The mass of cyclists surged out of Bullwark, along the quiet residential streets and out of Chepstow at 6am.

Now I can’t compare this to the start of my first Audax, the Brevet Cymru, because I missed the start of that one! But it was amazing. A very understated start, no glamour and no ceremony as around 200 cyclists set off along the road to Monmouth. It was incredible riding with so many others, clearly I wasn’t the only one excited and we steamed along. There must have been around 60 still in our peloton when we went through Crickowell and it was still early enough in the morning that the few cars around didn’t seem to mind too much.

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Up and down Wales in a weekend = lots of beautiful scenery when it stops raining.

Along the road I met a rider called Dave, he asked if the cap I was wearing (my JFDI cap) was from Casquette magazine. I said it was and he asked if I knew the editor, Danielle. I said I had exchanged a few messages with her and we had vowed to ride together sometime this summer. Turns out he is a friend of the magazine and had given them some advice on a few projects! Small world!

The first control was the Honey Cafe in Bronllys. As the field hadn’t yet spread out very much it was busy. We weren’t sure whether it was a good idea to stop for a proper break here as it could waste valuable time, but when we saw how quickly the organised kitchen was churning out bacon butties we changed our minds. Baconed and caffinated we got back on our bikes feeling more human. The next control was at Llanidloes on the other side of Mid-Wales. This seemed like a really long way away and one of those places so much further North from where I grew up in west Wales that I didn’t know the area very well.

The A-roads we followed took us up a few long slog climbs and the heavens opened. Wales was being typically Welsh. The field had thinned out a bit by now and we had a handful of ACB riders and friends riding in a group. We discussed whether it was raining enough to warrant stopping to put on our rain jackets, by the time it took us not to make a decision it was too late and we were wet through! We needn’t have worried, this time it was just a passing shower.

We were enjoying the smooth rolling A-roads a bit too much and we sped along snacking on trail mix from our top tube bags to fuel as we rode. As we pulled in to Llanidloes at around midday our average speed was just a pip under 28km/h. Unsustainable. We all knew it and vowed to slow down! The climbs in Snowdonia would slow us down anyway and we weren’t even 1/4 of the way through. Pacing is important over 600km.

At Llanidloes the cafe control had turned their car park at the back of the cafe into an al fresco extension. Just another demonstration of how much organisation has gone into this weekend. Other road users bemoan cyclists but we do a lot to support rural businesses and cafes.

Next came the mountain road to Machynlleth which I’d ridden last December on day 2 of Bristol to Bangor. Realising that in half a day I’d covered what took us over 1.5 days to cover 6 months earlier made me realise how far I’ve come as a rider in a relatively short time. P.S. If I can do it, anyone can!

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Covering almost as much ground in a morning in May as I covered in over 2.5 days in December, riding up Wales was a nice measure of progress.

These hills were the first ‘proper’ climbs of the ride and I started to struggle. I was probably feeling the effects of having been under the weather the previous week but I was climbing like a snail. Luckily they all stopped to take in the view across the reservoir where I caught them up and we descended into Machynlleth together. Quick info control and we popped into Coop for some water – all that climbing had dehydrated us.

Someone in Co op said ‘is there an Audax on’. Clearly seeing a couple of cyclists rushing around the aisles in search of 2l bottles of water and chocolate bars is a telling sign! We said yes, we were riding the Bryan Chapman. He then started chatting to us outside the shop, asking us what gearing we were using on our bikes. We didn’t want to be rude but we really wanted to get going. It becomes all too easy to lose dead time to faffing and the boys were growing impatient. From Machynlleth it was into Snowdonia National Park.

Beautiful climbing and the sun came out. We stopped a couple of times to delayer. Leg warmers and arm warmers off. It felt like I hadn’t ridden with bare arms and legs in so long and the feeling of the wind and sunshine against my skin was wonderful. Up to Dolgellau we rode for our first stop at the King’s Youth Hostel. The figure of eight route stops here twice, the first time for food and the second time for food and if you’re lucky – a few hours sleep.

The road up to the King’s Hostel is a tiny little steep country lane, I took note of this as I knew the next time I would be climbing it in the dark with 375km in my legs. Not a nice thought. In the daylight it was a lovely rural lane running along a stream. The air was fresh. We were in the middle of untouched countryside and it smelled delicious! We envied the riders leaving as we arrived, but it wasn’t a race and we were still making amazing time!

The organisers take over the whole hostel and the amazing volunteers, many of them Audax riders themselves (I recognised Ian from the Brevet Cymru) know exactly how we are feeling and go out of their way to make sure we are welcomed and fed. Here, Dave (off of earlier) pounced on me to get a (very unflattering) picture of me in my JFDI cap to send to Danielle. I didn’t see him again until the end.

At King’s we passed over our Brevet Cards to be stamped and filled in a food order. I ordered everything (of course!) and had seconds of the apple pie! The place was full of cyclists and as people would finish and set off again new riders would arrive. We were starting to feel it a bit and shovelled in as much food as we could, we would need it later! A quick bit of faffing to repack and unpack my seat post bag with all the layers I’d shed over the afternoon and we were off again. At this point we had become a group of 7 which was much more manageable. A lot of people ride audax solo and this makes a lot of sense because everyone will ride at their own pace and have different strengths, weaknesses and surges. But so early into a ride this epic I think we were all glad of the company and the support that provided.

As we rolled down the steep tarmac out of King’s other riders were arriving. Role reversal. We wished them good luck.

The next bit of the ride was just stunning. We rode across the wooden railway bridge into Barmouth under blue skies and warm sunshine. Where the bridge ends there is a steep path into Barmouth and here we found a lone duckling sliding down on his bottom his feet unable to grip the steep concrete. I wanted to take him with us but the group didn’t think it would be neither fair nor aerodynamic to have a duckling mascot. We rode on along the beautiful North Wales coast in the sunshine. It was so beautiful. I’d never been here before and I’m determined to go back. It was torture not dumping the bike on the beach to go for a swim!

Rehydrating in the sunshine and as we approached Harlech Jess and I were both desperate for the toilet! Boys can just stop by the side of the road but it is harder for girls and there wasn’t anywhere discrete enough for us to stop so we went off to find a public loo while the men went off to find the info control. Relieved and reunited we plunged into the depths of Snowdonia through Beddgelert (where I inaccurately retold the story of how the place got its name) and up Llanberis Pass. Again, muggins here dropped like a stone on the climb but it was too beautiful not to enjoy the stunning landscapes of Snowdonia. An info control and a group photo at the top of the pass before layering up for the breathtaking descent.

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The outward team at the top of Llanberis Pass.

I over-layered and quickly overheated on the final push on to Menai and the 300km point. At Menai we met ACB club mate Elfyn who’s headset was ‘fucked’ and he was hitching a lift back to King’s for the night. I felt for him. This is a gruelling ride and not where you want your equipment to fail.

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Over the Menai bridge and my first time in Anglesey!

At the Menai scout hall the volunteers were churning out baked potatoes and cheese and beans. Despite their efficiency I still had time to shove a couple of custard creams in my mouth while I waited for my potato (every second counts! time spent off the bike not eating is dead time!!). As we sat and ate conversation fell to fatigue. Jess said she thought 300km was her distance, long enough for a proper ride and any further and you just get exhausted. I said I thought 300km was the tolerance my bottom had for riding. Denise passed the Sudocrem. Water bottled filled we clip clopped outside.

The light was starting to fade. Rain was coming. We turned out dynamo lights on and layered up. I left my armwarmers and a base layer off to try and avoid boiling in my not-as-breathable-as-it-claims rain jacket. This is where it all started to go pear shaped for me.

Back over the Menai bridge and into Snowdonia as night and rain began to fall. I wasn’t managing to keep up on the climbs and slowly watched the rear red lights of my riding companions disappear into the distance. While trying to take a drink and with one hand on the handlebars I was caught in a vicious crosswind that came out of nowhere and was nearly blown off the bike. Rain pelting down, wind battering and darkness thickening I stopped enjoying and started enduring. One from the group held back with me for a while, I was grateful for the shield that he provided against the unrelenting headwind as we rode into Beddgelert. Somewhere along this ride we turned a corner and were faced with a wall of tarmac. I panicked, I had limited visibility in the dark with the rain gathering on my glasses, my chest tightened and I nearly had a panic attack that I wasn’t able to ride up the hill. Being unable to climb a hill and falling off or rolling down backwards is an anxiety of mine that often surfaces to plague me. I managed to hold the panic away but my chest had tightened and stayed like that. I couldn’t open my lungs to gulp the air that I needed to ride. In Trawsfynydd we rejoined the others who had stopped for a modest comfort break and the friendly cyclist stopped to go find some batteries for his headlight. I turned to one of the ACB riders, Martin, and said ‘I’m scared’. My chest was still tight and my breathing was shallow, no matter what I did I couldn’t force air deep into my hungry lungs. From Trawsfynydd to Dolgellau I crawled along, unable to breathe properly, terrified of the unfamiliar wilderness that lay in the darkess, cold and ready for this ride to be over. I felt sick. That jacket potato wasn’t sitting well in my stomach and my insides were grumbling. Was I going to need to stop to throw up?

I wasn’t in a good way. But I knew this road from when I’d ridden it last December and remembered a few landmarks like the turn off for Coed Y Brenin.  I just did everything I could to keep the pedals turning and eventually started ticking off landmarks that told me I was getting closer to a point where I could stop and get warm and dry.

I knew what lay between me and the King’s Youth Hostel, those two sharp kicking hills. I turned off the main road and got out the saddle. I was struggling to get traction on the wet roads that were half covered in vegetation. My chest tightened. Rain on my goddam glasses meant I couldn’t see and there was only light cast in the direction my handlebars were pointed so I couldn’t see around corners. I freaked out, screamed. Made it to the top of the climb and unclipped. I bent over gulping air and fighting back the tears. Rob’s familiar voice came out of the darkness and he put his arm around me. They must have been waiting at the turning for me. It later emerged that they’d had to stop in an Audax Hotel (bus stop) before Dolgellau to rest and eat to fight off the tiredness. Rob bless his soggy socks comforted and reassured me and we rode the rest of the track up to the Hostel.

I removed my seat post bag and squelched into King’s.

It was 1am. Inside everyone was in a bad way. Martin’s knee was bad. Everyone was exhausted and soggy. Now, everyone says 400km is the hardest Audax distance because there is no sleep. That 600km is easier because you get a sleep. But for this ride we had already ridden 400km by the time we even got to the sleep stop! This didn’t seem logical to any of us. We ate in subdued silence. The fortune of being the underrepresented gender meant that Jess, Denise and myself got a bed for the night. Rob was contemplating riding back out into the night (we had passed riders leaving the hostel as we were arriving) but reconsidered that being out in the biblical weather alone at night might not be the smartest idea and he kipped down in the lounge for the night. We agreed to meet back in the main room for breakfast at 5.30am.

I went for a shower. I knew that it would help me warm up and my sore bum reminded me of the need to keep that area clean to avoid infection. The warm shower was bliss. My backside was sore and I gently cleaned myself with a bottle of hotel shampoo I’d packed. I dried myself off with the inside of a soggy leg warmer (who needs a towel?!) and pulled on some dry leggings and a soggy merino base layer. I climbed into my bunk and put my head on the pillow. Despite being utterly exhausted it was hard to sleep, the room was warm and muggy and people were constantly leaving and arriving in the building. I woke up in the middle of the night in a sweat. I must have had some sleep because I was woken by Jess gently nudging my arm to stir me at 5.20am. I wasn’t convinced that the 3.5 hours lie down would have done much for me. I felt hungover, dehydrated from the warm night and legs sore from the previous 400km. One thing I was glad for, the clean and dry shorts I had packed.

I shovelled in some Spanish omelette for breakfast. Martin’s knee was in a bad way and he was going to pull out. I wasn’t sure how I felt about the prospect of getting back on the bike. When I rode the 400km two weeks previous I was wrecked and I wasn’t exactly feeling fresh as a daisy this time!

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Feeling fresh as midge bitten daisies leaving King’s on Sunday morning

Once on the saddle I didn’t feel too bad. Amazed at what a difference a little bit of rest and some clean shorts can make. As we rode down that killer little road I met my friend Grace wheeling her bike. I had been looking out for her all ride and was so glad to see her. I unclipped and gave her a hug. She wasn’t in a great way and was unsure if she was going to be able to finish with a dead Di2 battery. I felt for her but was also amazed at how un-dishevelled she looked.

I quickly caught up with the others and rode into my tired legs. They felt OK, amazingly. I’m not sure how. The rain had stopped and the air smelled like fresh air in mid Wales smells first thing in the morning after a downpour (trust me, this is a thing).

Sunshine and second breakfast at the next control in Aberhafesp. My hamstrings were threatening cramp and I was crossing my fingers for bananas. On the approach Jess, Rob and myself were fantasising about what greasy terrible junk food we’d love to stuff our faces with. A few familiar faces at the control and I sat down to a banana and nutella sandwich (such luxury!) followed by a bacon sandwich and a cup of coffee.

From here there were a fair few old climbs into Newtown before the next control at Llandrindod Wells. I lost Rob and Jess on the climbs just unable to keep pace with them on any incline. I arrived at the control as they left. I was riding solo at this point and placing a lot of faith in my GPS, route cards and own ability to navigate. Some soup, a bread roll and some lemon drizzle cake and a chat with some other riders. I knew there wasn’t far to go now, but it seemed further than I was capable of. My knee was also starting to make my brain aware of her presence. I popped some vitamin i (ibuprofen) as a precaution.

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Poor grammar doesn’t go un noticed even when in a state of extreme fatigue.

There were no more controls now until the finish and I wasn’t sure if I was capable of riding that 90 odd km without a proper rest to break it up. I kept telling myself it was only the distance of a club run, but I had over 500km in my legs! I set off by myself into the undulating Welsh lanes. Seriously, Wales. All the hills!

The sun was beating down and I stopped once to take off my arm warmers. I didn’t take off my knee warmers because I thought if my knee was going to be problematic I didn’t want to risk it getting too cold. I met an Islington rider near Boughrood and the company picked up my speed a little. But he dropped me on a climb.

In Abergavenny I was joined by a couple of Pembrokeshire lads who we’d met on the first day. I rode with them on the flats along to Usk. I was enjoying the lack of incline and settled into my TT bars and powered along at 30kph. One of them asked me if I’d ever time trialled. I said I hadn’t but he encouraged me to give it a go. He said he’d once ridden Brevet Cymru with the national 12h TT champion and they’d got back by 3pm!

We rode along and accidentally dropped one of them. His friend stopped to wait for him and I carried on saying they’d catch me on the hill. In Usk I caught up with Rob and Jess grabbing a sit down outside the village shop. As we started along the road to Chepstow (nearly there now!) we experienced a couple of close passes by motorbikes. They dropped me on the climb and the Pembrokeshire boys caught me, and dropped me. As I crested the hill before Chepstow at the alpacas sign a scooter came down the hill telling me there had been an accident and police were turning traffic along. My heart sank, those close passes by motorbikes. What if a cyclist was involved? I also wasn’t going to turn around, I was getting back to Chepstow come hell of high water. I came across the accident and the policeman said as I was on a pushbike I could go through, I asked if a cyclist was involved ‘no, a motorbike’ was the response. I was relieved that my friends were safe.

My knee was in agony as I crawled up into Chepstow. I had an internal argument about which bit of my body hurt more out of my knee and my bum. When who comes up behind me but Robin who I’d met at the start of the Brevet Cymru! We rode into Chepstow and the Bullwark community centre. I unclipped and hobbled into the hall and handed over my Brevet Card for the final time. Relieved. Exhausted.

https://www.strava.com/activities/986727147

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My completed Brevet Card. That’s a long way to go to collect stamps!

I hobbled into the back garden and collapsed on the floor next to Rob and Jess. The amazing organises were concerned about the state of my legs and fussed about, I reassured them I was fine. It took me about 3 hours waiting around the control to feel safe enough to drive home and in that time I met Judith, an incredible rider who has ridden this ride 11 times! Audax royalty as one other rider described. She’s also a bit of an authority on saddles so I picked her brain on that topic! Just as I went to go fetch the car to load up to go home Grace comes around the corner. I was so pleased that she’d been able to finish despite all her setbacks. We had a cuddle and a quick chat. She showed me the kitten that I’d missed at King’s. We both exchanged fears at how hard this ride had been and how would we do the 4,000km Transcontinental if we found 600km so challenging? I don’t know the answer.

After the ride people have congratulated me on finishing my first 600km. I just feel frustrated at not having ridden well. At being dropped on every hill and having had such a bad time on Saturday night in the wind and rain. I don’t feel like I’ve achieved something, I just feel frustrated with myself. I’m disappointed that I let myself have such a breakdown at night. Far from making me feel like I’m better prepared for the TCR I’m worried that I don’t have it in me.

Just ride your bike lots

Back in January I rode some 150 miles home to Bristol from Cambridge. The weather was gnarly and it was my longest trip so far. I was broken afterwards. My bottom was so sore I couldn’t even sit on the turbo at home to spin my legs out. I was tired, constantly hungry because I hadn’t eaten enough while I was on the bike. Legs exhausted. It took me about a week before I could get back on the bike and my legs still felt empty. I tried to chase Grace Lambert-Smith around the lake district the weekend after and boy I could tell that my legs weren’t happy.

I’m not going to lie, I really questioned whether my goals were completely unrealistic and out of my reach. If I want to do the TCR then I’ll need to be tapping more than that mileage daily, for two weeks!

I didn’t have too long to panic because another week and I was off on holiday to sunny South Africa for 10 days to see an old friend get married. Barring a near death experience with a Kudu while driving at night the holiday was just what I needed to have a good rest, some sunshine and forget about cycling for a bit.

Back from holiday, I started to regret the 10 days of eating and boozing. But meh! You only live once.

Once back I made an effort to try and commit to a more regular training schedule. Trying to get in 4 sessions a week, fitting it around work. Longer rides when I can but trying not to burn out. I made an effort to join in on club rides when I could. When I ride by myself I have a tendency to just pootle along, at snail’s pace. Which is great for a fun day out. Not great for a 4,000km race. Riding with a club is a great way to make my brain and my body think that riding faster is a thing.

Riding more means a sense of fun is important! Photo credit Phil Hall.

For the most part I managed to stick with it and kept up pretty consistent efforts over the weeks of March.

In early April, following the death of Mike Hall I decided to off and do the Gospel Pass Audax from Bristol. 225km with 2,700m of lovely borderland hills. This was the most climbing I’d attempted so far in one sitting and boy did my legs know it! More than that, my arse was aware that this was the longest I’d spent in the saddle since January.

https://www.strava.com/activities/922478383

I have a new saddle now, a Specialized power. It is brilliant for relieving pressure on my lady parts and has resolved all discomfort in this area. The downside is that less pressure through my lady parts means more pressure through my sit bones. I’ve been riding this saddle a while and I don’t know if I’m breaking it in or it is breaking me in. Either way I’m not sure how much longer I can persevere.

The good new is, although I did burn myself out a little bit somewhere in the hills around Hay on Wye, two days later I was back on the bike. Ok my legs didn’t feel fresh but I was riding at decent pace and able to maintain contact with the saddle!

The following week my legs still didn’t feel fresh but my numbers on Strava were looking good. I keep on getting personal records (PRs) on local segments and even managed one up a hill! Internally I felt like I wasn’t riding as strong or as fast as I should but outwardly there didn’t seem to be too much to worry about.

Easter weekend came around and I was off up to Scotland with some friends (I might write something about this because Scotland is epic!). While I couldn’t keep up with the boys all weekend/on every hill I managed to stay with them and even beat Jimmy up the Cairngorm climb. My speed was good and my legs seemed to be getting used to day after day of turning the pedals (recovery helped by hot baths, loch swimming and whisky!).

After Easter my school friend Laura was getting married back where we used to live in Wales. I’ve previously written about the challenges in balancing work, bikes and life while still making time for friends. So what better way to put all of this into practice than to cycle to the wedding! It was about 190km out on Friday and 160km back on Monday.

Out https://www.strava.com/activities/951974185 and the last little bit after a pub dinner https://www.strava.com/activities/951973951

Back: https://www.strava.com/activities/955113584

My arse issues still aren’t resolved but at least the skin seems to be healing. My legs keep turning, they even feel strong on occasion.

little things keep me amused on the hungover ride back to Bristol

In summary, I’m building up volume. It seems to be working although I’m not sure how effective it is. I seem to be getting stronger, faster. My body aches a bit, but is also capable of getting back on the bike sooner.

The real test will be this weekend where I attempt the 400km Brevet Cymru…

Mike

Last Thursday night I went to sleep with my friend Chris messaging on Whatsapp worrying that Mike Hall’s tracker had stopped unexpectedly. We had both been dot watching the Indian Pacific Wheel Race Page. Chris is a worrier and only the night before was having kittens that Kristof (another racer and possibly not human) had slept for longer than 4 hours and might have died from a car/exposure/eaten by a kangaroo.

Except I woke on Friday morning to a string of messages from Chris:

“12.54pm fuck fuck fuck

12.54pm I feel sick

6.22am If you aren’t aware already Mike was tragically killed in an accident involving a car. ”

My stomach sank. Everything sank. I checked Twitter/Facebook/Instagram. It was real. Not some nightmare that I might wake up from.

Mike Hall was the most accomplished ultra endurance cyclist. He won every race that he entered between 2012 and 2016, including the World Cycle Race (a race around the world), Tour Divide (twice), and the TransAm setting record-breaking times in each of them.

I never met Mike, but those who knew him describe him as humble, quiet and modest. A huge inspiration and creative influence in the world of ultra endurance cycling. He also gave back to the community with his race – the Transcontinental.

On Friday I decided to ride the route of the Gospel Pass Audax from Bristol. A 200kn+ round route. My legs and heart were heavy the whole way and the feeling hasn’t lifted. Why would the death of a stranger affect me so much? Cycling usually makes most things seem better. I’ve been doing a lot of thinking.

Mike was such a huge influence in the global community of ultra cycling. A gentle giant of the sport. We have lost a pillar of the community.

If you go out for a drive you do not expect to be involved in a road traffic accident. Yet, if you go out on a bike you’re half expecting every car to have it in for you. Doubting whether drivers have seen you. Heart rate jumping every time you see a dozy pedestrian walking out without looking for bikes. People deserve to ride bikes in safety.

My father was killed in a road accident. He wasn’t cycling, he was in the ‘relative’ safety of a car. Except over two decades ago when cars were tin cans without airbags. Is it just incredibly selfish of me to go off and have adventures on bikes? What am I putting my mother through with worry. I got an insight into what it is like to be on the other side of the adventure. A dot watcher. Watching the phone for news of a friend/loved one.

Most people come home from most journeys/races/adventures safe. But for someone as experienced as Mike to be killed in an accident with a car…. Am I kidding myself about the real risks associated with what I’m doing? I can’t put words in his mouth but I don’t think my dad would have wanted me to shut myself away from the world. Nor would he want me sending my mum sick with worry.

I don’t know what to do. Or how to process all of these emotions. Riding helps, but I don’t think that is the answer.

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Making tracks in Mid Wales near Rhayader. Mike’s spiritual home.

 

 

Balancing work, life and bikes

Apologies for radio silence. February was busy and then March it felt like I had been swallowed by a black cloud. I’ve been really struggling with my mood, motivation and finding any time to balance training with work. Now that the clocks are about to spring forward an hour to announce the start of British Summer Time (YES!) I’m shaking off my black cloud and ready to bound into spring.

It has been hard. The cold, dark British winter really got to me. My job allows for flexible hours but when you have an hour commute either side it gets tough. If you have to be in for a 9.30am meeting and all of your friends are off on the Tuesday morning DRK ride, combine Strava FOMO and you start to worry that you’re just not training enough.

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Incredibly grateful to Audax Club Bristol’s weekly rides for some company on cold Wednesday nights.

Something I’ve learned is that there is no point being too harsh on yourself about these things. When the Transcontinental is over I will need to go back to my job, life, family and friends. I also want to keep cycling, keep my love of cycling and think about other events and adventures to do in the future. Worrying myself, letting myself be worried and comparing myself to others will not help. I’ve also got the added pressure of my PhD corrections which also need to be prioritised. All of these things require energy, motivation and concentration. If I’m going to be balancing everything I need to be realistic.

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I got ill. Once I got over the fever and sleeping all day bit I managed to get some route planning done in bed.

So what?

Well I’m trying to manage it all. I wrote down on a piece of paper all the things that I have to do. Then I broke it down, what will I achieve each month, each week, then break that down into a plan for each day the week ahead. It doesn’t always involve cycling and if I feel exhausted or ill I give myself a break.

I have no idea if this strategy will work. I make no pretences about knowing what I’m doing. I’m making this up as I go along. It is more of a coping strategy than ‘how to properly approach training for the Transcontinental’. Let’s be honest. We can’t all be professional bike adventurers. I’m a real woman trying to have a real job, a life and an adventure. Stressing myself out about not doing it ‘by the book’ is not constructive. This is a personal challenge. I’m not competing against anyone else. I’m not racing against anyone else. I’m competing against me

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Where did my motivation go? Oh look! I found it in the daffodils! 

I’ll do anything for free kit but I won’t do that…

Sometime last year I saw an advert for a brand that was looking for ambassadors. That brand was Pearl Izumi. From the information available it sounded pretty sweet.

“We are looking for a diverse group of athletes…”

“Successful champions will receive limited edition Pearl Izumi kit, online discounts, invitations to exclusive events, entrance to races, monthly fitness goals and expert tuition to really test themselves.”

So I threw my hat into the ring and applied. I was successful. Wopeee!

Then today…

“For the 2017 season, you will be pink, black & hi-viz yellow (women) and blue, black & hi-viz yellow (men).”

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Gender isn’t a black and white issue. Nor is it pink and blue.

Now these kits are the same as what had been shown in the promo shots. Perhaps foolishly, I assumed that they wouldn’t do that again! I mean who is that backwards to make that mistake twice?! Turns out Pearl Izumi is that backwards.

So today I requested to withdraw from the programme.

I am not willing to be an ambassador for a brand that requires/encourages individuals to wear colours that are assigned to them according to their gender. 

People are individuals. We are not defined by gender. Yes I wear pink and I am a woman but this is a choice. Not all women wear pink, some men would like to have more choice of pink kit. Some people don’t identify by the gender they were born with, or with any gender at all! We should not stereotype and we should challenge those that do. Research shows that giving children blue or pink to wear affects how others treat them. Gender stereotypes can lead to little girls thinking that brilliance is a male trait. Over use of pink in advertising campaigns actually renders these campaigns less effective at targeting women. The cycling industry has a huge diversity problem. How are we supposed to build an increasingly inclusive cycling community when we reinforce gender stereotypes? 

Gender and stereotypes are not a black and white matter. Nor are they blue and pink. 

In other news, anyone looking to sponsor a ‘difficult’ woman?!

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One of the reasons I love my Casquette cap. It’s YELLOW! Happy yellow.

Solo and unsupported, but not alone.

I have been incredibly touched by supportive and encouraging messages from the cycling twittersphere. Women that I look up to like Kajsa Tylen, Emily Chappell, Rickie Cotter and Juliete Elliot, women that I’ve watched as they achieve incredible things on two wheels are interested in my riding, cheering me on, telling me that I’m made of tough stuff. And also the men, Steve Abraham is never far away when I’m in need of a little encouragement or straight talking!

Someone that I’ve never met said that I had inspired them to ride a 200km solo Audax in February.

Still, my non-cycling friends think I’m insane and I’m still not comfortable telling my mum what I’m up to. She knows I’m doing the Transcon but I’m not embellishing too much about how much I plan on suffering in the saddle. She probably reads this so knows full well what I’m up to, but I haven’t got the guts to tell her directly. Probably because I’m afraid she’ll worry.

There are still a lot of cyclists who think I’m nuts, out of my depth and taken on a challenge that is beyond my capability. Tonight at the Bristol Bike Project a guy asked me ‘How long is your longest ride?’

(FYI this is probably the most common question asked by men after announcing that I’m doing the TCR. Women mostly go ‘WOW! Good luck!’. Maybe this comes form an innate male desire to compare sizes… anyway..  )

There are some reasons why this is a valid question.

  1. It is an ultra endurance cycling race. One does need to be able to travel far and fast.

There are a lot of reasons why this isn’t a valid question.

  1. Yes it is a bike race, but it isn’t just about the physical challenge. A lot of it is up here *points to head*.
  2. Nothing prepares you for riding the Transcontinental like riding the Transcontinental. Yes, experience is important but it doesn’t guarantee success. I posted on the TCR Women’s facebook group to say how intimidated I was to find myself considering athletes like Juliana Buhring (fastest woman around the world) and Shu Pillinger (first Bristish woman to complete the race across america or RAAM) ‘peers’. Shu responded with ‘Most of us are newbies to this race! Welcome to the level playing field’. TCR veteran Fran added ‘And as the last races have shown, experience doesn’t necessarily mean a guarantee for success.. TCR is a very special beast!’
  3. I’m not going to ride it tomorrow. I’m going to cycle my little legs of between now and July. I’m going to spend the next 6 or so months becoming the most competent rider I can be.
  4. If I fail it isn’t a ‘failure’. It will be a bloody good adventure and has been the start of a new chapter in my life where I stop doubting myself and start doing.

SO… in a very roundabout way. The point I was trying to make is:

Yes you are riding solo and unsupported, but you’re being cheered on by friends, strangers, fellow riders. Everyone loves a nutter on a bike and they are willing you to succeed.

The Adventure Syndicate are really the embodiment of this spirit. Emily contacted me around Christmas time asking if she could use one of the pictures from our Wales adventure on the Syndicate’s blog. It seemed appropriate as the Syndicate were instrumental in us getting our act off the ground. Her response wasn’t what I expected (because we look up to our heroes and think they are infallible)

‘This blog post is making me reflect on what it is we’re actually doing, and how we’re doing it, and sometimes I’m not even sure’

Well I think it does come down creating a supportive community of people who will support eachother, answer questions, share advice, encourage and empower. Then this can drown out the voices of the haters and non-believers.

The Syndicate also introduced me to Rickie Cotter who is THE most fearless and endearing person I have ever had the pleasure to meet. Oh and she is an incredible athlete to boot!

Rickie, 24h MTB beast and great taste in jumpers

So often we (and especially I think as women) are told that some things are too much/dangerous/stupid/silly/difficult. No wonder there was a shocking headline last week that little girls feel they are less capable and talented than little boys.

This is why the This Girl Can campaign is so strong. It strikes a message in nearly every woman. That fear of judgement. That fear of failure. The Adventure Syndicate just takes this to the next level my making a niche community for women who like to do unorthodox things on two wheels. I’m a scientist and to use science speak – they lower the activation energy required for an adventure (chemical reaction) to take place.

Other people believe in out abilities. We just need to believe them ourselves! I shall close with a quote from the organisers of London Edinburgh London.

‘My experience is that woman are more capable than they think whilst men are less capable than they say. Believe in yourself.’

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Some of the Adventure Syndicate doing their thing and rocking inspirational stand up!