Sunday, 28 August 2011

An uphill struggle (in Cornwall)

For some reason, one of the reasons people like cycling in Cambridge is because it is flat. If you are one of those people I'll warn you now, the headwinds out here can be evil. I'll take hills over headwinds any day.

When I say flat, the climb into Cottenham from Rampton is 5m. The land is so shapeless, it does take some getting used to. I think it was a couple of years before I finally felt at home here and I have spoken with others that felt the same. It's not like I was born in the mountains, just somewhere with rolling hills.

I do like spending time in the hills when possible so when we decided it was time for a camping holiday in Cornwall I couldn't resist squeezing a bike into the back of the car. Unfortunately, the only one I could fit was my road bike, and that has Tour-de-France gearing on it. It has a double front chain ring, with 39 teeth on the smallest cog and 25T the largest at the back. This 39/25 combination in real terms means that 10mph is the lowest speed you can comfortably go at. Once any significant hill begins, I am out of the saddle and and heaving the pedals round. Lesson learned, I shall get a triple next time.

The landscape in much of the south of England is short sharp hills that over a ride add up to a lot of ascending. Cornwall's highest point is only 420m but you'll struggle to find a flat part.

One of my rides took me via Perranporth, Saint Agnes and it's beach - Trevaunance Cove.  Fabulous views and scenery, steeped in pirate history and now surfer dudes.  

Surfers at Trevaunance Cove, St. Agnes, Cornwall, surrounded by cliffs.

Trevaunance Cove slipway.  Cliffs behind.

I find myself planning a lot of rides in hilly areas. It is a difficult balance, seeing enough landscape but without inflicting an impossible amount of pain on yourself.  I last did that in Normandy, cycle camping with friends. I think we are still friends at least, we had to abort a route I had planned due to too many and too steep hills.

I have learned the hard way that online tools are not always accurate when planning a ride through a hilly area. They can cope with mountains, but the when they are short and sharp, the resolution of the elevation data is not good enough and they begin to under-estimate.

Take this ride via Perranporth, then an anti clockwise loop around St Agnes:

Trevaunance Cove is the last trough in the elevation profile:

Elevation profile of GPS trace.  399m ascent, but only 208m predicted by BikeRouteToaster.

I took a less steep descent in, and then took a steeper road out.  As it turned out, the road out was an impossible climb on my double chainset.  The damp road caused my smooth tyres to spin when I was out of the saddle heaving with all my might.  I was unable to deliver smooth spinning power with such high gearing.  The OS map has (disappointingly) only one arrow on this section of road:  14%-20% (or 1-in-5 to 1-in-7). 

Google Earth is quite a good tool for getting a feel for the landscape.  If you export a GPX file from your GPS or BikeRouteToaster, it can load a GPX file and plot it over the terrain in 3D.  This gives a general feel for the landscape, but its resolution is limited, meaning sheer rock faces will be smoothed out.  I find hills look more realistic if you set the Elevation Exaggeration value to 2.

The total ascending measured by my GPS was 399m.  BikeRouteToaster estimates 208m.  This is quite a typical difference in my experience. Which is right ?

Google Earth's view with Elevation Exaggeration x2

When we all worked from paper maps, we would calculate ascent in one of two ways:
  • The difference in height from bottom to top.  There are some minor descents and re-ascents of around 10m on my elevation profile. Adding up any ascents bigger than 10m, I get a total of 308m.  
  • The other way is to count contour lines passed.  This is tricky in steep areas, but I can do this with the elevation profile above. I count 350m. 

They all disagree, with BikeRouteToaster giving the lowest ascent value.  To be honest, I don't know which value is right. It's a bit like calculating the length of a coastline - it really depends on the resolution you want to work at.  It's what it feels like to your body that really matters. Total ascent is a nice statistic, but the steepness of your route is more likely to make or break your ride - its no fun pushing a bike uphill.

Crackin' ride and a Cream Tea well and truly earned.

Sunday, 7 August 2011

Went to see the Guided Bus running

The Busway officially opened today (Sunday 7th Aug 2011) and I believe there were parties along the track, press launches and I am sure a ticker tape parade somewhere.  I was interested in this great spectacle so decided to pop down to the track to see a Guided Bus actually running.

I tried to persuade my children to go for a cycle but they were uninterested so I grabbed an hour for a ride in the afternoon joining at Swavesey where real people were waiting at the stops. No sign of a bus, so I continued my cycle fully expecting to see a bus en-route. I cycled towards Cambridge, the next stop being Longstanton where there is a large park-and-ride car park.  I estimate there was about 100 cars there.  Again, real people at the stops, although I could see there were a lot of parents with children.  It reminded me of a family day out on a novelty steam train.

Still no bus, so I continued on to Oakington, passing the Cambridge Cycle Campaign ride (no time to stop and chat). At Oakington there were six people waiting at the stops. I had been alongside the track for 20 minutes so far and I had not seen a single bus in either direction.  I needed to leave the track here so this was frustrating.  I checked the timetable and realised that although the frequency Monday to Saturday is very good, Sunday is very poor, once per hour in each direction.  

I overheard one passenger complaining that the machine would not let them buy a weekly ticket. On the other side, another potential passenger thought there was a bus coming in a couple of minutes. I didn't spot this initially but I think they read from the live information signs (like the ones on the London tube network) telling you how many minutes away the next bus is.

Oakington Stop.  Passengers waiting.

So I am 2.5 miles from home, and have 20 minutes to get there and shower then go out again.  The bus is two minutes away and I am certainly tapping my feet and continuously looking at my watch. I was a frustrated as you probably are, reading this thinking cut to the chase, show me the bus!  Another five minutes pass and I have to give up. I really had to get home and pelted it back to Cottenham, wind behind at nearly 28mph.

Luckily for you, someone else did see a bus. Here is their short video:

Their description concurs with my view:  The Busway opened today. I went along a few hours after the opening to see if I could spot a bus running along the guided busway, and after quite a wait, I got lucky. It even had passengers on it.

I spent 25 minutes alongside the Busway and thought I would see one in this time.  I am surprised by how limited the service is on a Sunday, one per hour in each direction.  It is actually very good for buses in rural areas, but nowhere near convenient enough for a modern city.  If you want to use it on a Sunday, you'll really need to plan your journey and not miss your bus back.  All that stress and big price (£5.40 return from Swavesey or Longstanton to Cambridge, £3.50 from Oakington).  That's why we all have cars out here, or bicycles of course, but that's not a popular choice for most.

If you want to go Bus spotting, go Monday to Saturday when one should pass every 10 minutes.

Official Busway site including route map and ticket prices

David Jenkins (Councillor): Finally, riding the guided bus

[Update] Great pictures and a video of one passing on Keep Pushing Those Pedals.

Tuesday, 2 August 2011

Selling cycling to an eight year old girl

My son, Matthew (5) is mad on cycling, ever since I bought him a running bike aged around 2 and half he has taught himself how to ride and has fabulous bike skills. It probably helps too, that I will happily lark around on bikes near home pulling wheelies, and playing follow the leader and popping down to the local pond.

Matthew (5) leading the way around Carsington Water

My daughter, Abi (8) can cycle well too, but has been lacking in the enthusiasm she once had a few years ago. Cycling was not something she wanted to do anymore, and she always opts for walking in preference. I eventually tracked this down to one comment from her: "cycling is boyish". She had a point. Perhaps it was pulling wheelies and leaving for work in hi-viz that did it.

Once I had opened my eyes, the inspiration was in our village. The teenage girls of Cottenham are mostly cycling around on fabulous Pashley style bicycles with baskets, flowers, and normal stylish clothes. I started to point out girls on bikes going everywhere. Girlie cycling. Cycling Chic.

Fast forward another six months and we have just got back from a short break at Carsington Water, on the southern edge of the Peak District National Park. It has a 9 mile cycle route and we thought this would be the perfect opportunity to try a longer family cycle.

Abi (8) who hated cycling still grinning after 8 miles.

Abi protested at the thought of a cycle but was eventually persuaded with bribes of the play area, shops and ice creams. Setting off we knew that a third of the route was not particularly flat and decided to tackle that first. Its was actually much harder than we had expected.

The route was on hard packed gravel, with a few loose bits, with short sharp hills that had most cyclists walking. The children had single speed bikes which made it really tricky for them and so we ended up pushing their bikes up the steeper hills at the same time as pushing ours. That isn't easy when one of the two bikes you are pushing has the handle bar down near your knees. We didn't take any pictures here as nobody was smiling.

The downhills were not any easier either. Matthew zoomed off downhill over confident and I found out later he was only using the front brake on gravel, and Abi being a Fen Edge girl, was not used to using brakes to keep a controlled speed and gravity in check. Confidence and skill grew over the day though.

Motivation came in the form of biscuits and breaks, then lunch on a hill overlooking the reservoir. Abi described this 30 metre high hill as a cliff(!) in her diary that evening. It's amazing what a bit of food and a view can do for morale. I hadn't forgotten Cycling Chic either so we started to pick and attach flowers to Abi's basket which she loved.  I think the giant group of teenage Girl Guides helped too.

Luckily, the worst hills were over, and the route went flat on the western side. Now we were zooming along at an effortless 14mph, chatting and laughing all the way to the visitors centre for ice creams.

As it turns out, this cycle was boyish enough for the boy, girlie enough for the girls, and a great family cycle - whatever you wanted it to be.  Cycling, most definitely sold.  And I think quietly, they were proud of themselves for making it past the tricky parts, especially when I pointed to the other end of the reservoir some 4 miles into the distance and they realised how far they had gone.

The flat open section of cycle route at Carsington Water

This safe route around Carsington Water is exactly how the majority of British people cycle. Its a relaxing past time only to be done in complete safety away from dangerous traffic. The last photo, has a road in it on the right hand edge. That 50 metres of separation makes the world of difference to the safety and noise levels.

Whilst driving around the Peak District, on a summer school holiday weekend, it was stark how few cyclists there were on any road with two way traffic separated by a central white line.  I am not surprised.  There are constant undulations and blind corners that drivers hurled themselves round assuming nothing would be around the corner.  These roads are effectively motorways with cycles banned.

But, there is hope. On small single track roads, cycling was popular. We stopped at Wetton Mill which is part of National Cycle Network 54, and it was teeming with cyclists.  The lack of car parking and man-made tourist attractions meant car traffic was low, and thin single track roads meant the traffic was forced to go at 20mph and negotiate their way past cyclists rather than barge through.  Perhaps a small sample of what could be achieved in our cities.