Sunday, 2 April 2017

Back on my bike

Well hello, it's been a while! I've not been on a bike, not outside anyway, since last October so it felt absolutely brilliant to be back on the saddle this morning. We kept it simple with one of our favourite little local rides to Bridge of Allan for a bit of brunch (sitting outside in the sunshine too, hooray!) and I just thought I'd scribble down a few thoughts following this year's first ride out:

1. I love cycling, but one of the things I don't like is the palaver around getting ready to go out for a cycle. Now, anyone thinking of taking up cycling, please don't be put off by this! I make it much more complicated than it has to be! For example, I'm hopeless at deciding what to wear: will I be too hot/cold?; should I go for leggings, shorts or both?; would fingerless or full gloves be best?; will vest top/cycle top/jacket do, or would long sleeve vest/cycle top/hoodie be better?; or should I go for a vest/cycle top/hoodie combo?; one pair of socks or two?; buff/balaclava or both... and so it goes on. Meanwhile, Alex has pulled on the first bunch of things that comes out of the drawer and is twiddling his thumbs waiting...

2. Actually, Alex is rarely twiddling his thumbs waiting because usually there'll be some last minute palaver with some technical aspect of the bike or another - and it's usually my fault...This morning's palaver revolved around toe clips. Only one of my pedals had a toe clip attached. I think it was because I needed a strap for something back in about December and a toe clip strap fitted the bill nicely! So, while I was faffing around, pulling various layers of clothing on and off, Alex was hunting the house for toe clip straps...

3. As soon as we did get going, it just felt brilliant to be back on my bike. Brilliant. Until, after only a few turns of the pedals I, predictably, had a changing gear issue. 'Alex, which should I be in again, big cog or wee cog...?!' It always takes me a few minutes to get used to the gears again after a long spell off the bike...

4. The first cycle of the year is always a special one (I can see you, you lovely people who cycle most days or at least much more often than me, I can see you rolling your eyes in the air at the fact that my first cycle of the year is in April...) but this morning's cycle was extra special for an additional reason:

5. We were only cycling on main roads for short spells. Every person driving around me today was considerate.  Of course, some of them may well have been cursing the fact that there was a 'bloody cyclist' in front of them, but if they were unhappy about me being on the road they didn't show it. They all gave me plenty of space and some returned the waves I gave as they passed me by. The same can't be said for a fellow cyclist. He showed us no due consideration and nearly knocked Alex off his bike at one point. It served as a reminder that it's people who sometimes behave in an inconsiderate way, not 'drivers' or 'pedestrians' or 'cyclists'. People. Fortunately, most people we come across on our cycles are nice - just like in life really.

6. Stopping for a poached egg roll and a latte mid-cycle reminded me why I don't miss running as much as I used to...

7. I wonder why it had taken Alex and I so long to get back on our bikes when we love being on them so much. Cold weather and rain probably. We're unashamedly fair weather cyclists, and today was just a perfect day for the start of our 2017 cycling adventures...

Friday, 21 October 2016

A little tour of Andalucia

Well, I really have been living up to the title of this blog, as a not-so-serious cyclist, since my return from the Women v Cancer challenge in Tanzania. I've hardly been on a bike since July - not because I lost my cycling mojo, but really just because other things have been taking up my time.

Actually, if I'm being honest, I suppose I did also lose a bit of my cycling mojo for a while...

However, it well and truly bounced back last week when we left Scotland for a few days of cycling, on a self-guided tour, in beautiful Andalucia. We used a company called Cycling Country and I can't recommend them highly enough. They provided great bikes, good maps of fantastic pre-planned routes, lots of hints and tips, an efficient luggage transfer service and some lovely accommodation along the way.

It was only a short trip, but we loved our four days of cycling, mostly around the Alhama de Granada area, then on through Montefrio and finishing off in the beautiful city of Granada. We were never too far away from spectacular scenery, especially when we caught a glimpse of the distant Sierra Nevada mountains. We were also never too far away from the next big uphill climb! So many hills...! Every uphill though was well worth the effort for the thrill of the descent on the other side.

I didn't realise how much I'd missed being on the saddle till I was back on it again. I loved it. Pedalling along between nice wee villages and interesting towns, taking in everything round about me - whether that was nothing very much, or the farm workers picking the cauliflower (so much cauliflower!), or the never-ending patchwork of different crops on the hillsides, or the smell of the pine, or the smell of the wild garlic, or the stunning rocky outcrops and gorges, or the olive groves, or the winding, steep, road on the hill ahead, or the moorish buildings, or the friendly people - and sharing all of that with Alex. Bliss.

I'd hoped to capture some good footage with the GoPro (regular readers might remember how technically challenged I was with it in Tanzania...), but I forgot to take the charging cable and the battery was pretty flat to start with. Silly me. And, during the short amount of filming that I did manage, I've got the camera pointing too far down, so there are some lovely views of my bike bag...

I've attached the Strava profile for each day of our mini tour of Andalucia, for those of you interested in such things, down below. As you'll see, I wasn't kidding about the hills! And, as you'll also see, I stuck to my usual manta of 'slow and steady' throughout...!!

Sunday, 3 July 2016

Cycle Africa

Well, after two long years of waiting, my 'Women V Cancer Cycle Africa' box has well and truly been ticked.

I've actually been back home for the past two weeks, but I've just not known where to start with a blog post.

I didn't want to write a 'we did this, we did that' kind of diatribe but, equally, I didn't want to miss the very essence of the experience, which still feels too big for my limited vocabulary. I guess I'd make a pretty rubbish travel writer!

So I've pulled together a selection of words, footage and photos that'll hopefully go some way towards sharing with you one of the most extraordinary, wonderful and challenging experiences of my life...

I loved Cycle Africa, I absolutely loved it. The whole 9 days. (Only 9 days - it felt very much longer.) Cycling for four and a half days, travelling, being on safari - it was incredible. Even when I was exhausted, scared (cycling through a Tanzanian town in the midst of a torrent of tuk tuks is terrifying...), sore, stiff or struggling to keep the pedals turning - I loved it. Whether it was down to the extended wait I'd had to get there, or the little upset I had before I left (with a doctor daring to tell me that I should be pulling out because of a wee problem with my joints, tsk!), or to do everyone who'd donated to my fundraising efforts proud, or to make my family and friends proud after so much support and encouragement, or the never-far-from-my-mind reason why I'd signed up for this Women V Cancer challenge and the faces in my head of all the people I know or have known who've been affected by breast, ovarian, cervical - and many other types of - cancer, whether it was any of these things or a multitude of others, I was determined to make the very most of every single moment.

Whether I was feeling completely overwhelmed by the breathtaking scenery; feeling excited to be amongst a fantastic group of like-minded women; feeling the buzz - that buzz - that I always feel when I cycle; feeling super excited to stand up on my seat, eat the dust and spot the animals on safari; feeling humbled by the local people and the children who reminded me so beautifully that the poorest in wealth are often the richest of heart; feeling inspired by hearing the stories and seeing the achievements of the wonderful women I was with; feeling excited to, at last, fulfil a life-long ambition to visit Africa; feeling lucky to be forging some special friendships for life or, of course, feeling chuffed to bits when the training paid off and I was able to cycle across the toughest terrain and up the longest, steepest hills I've ever attempted before, I loved it all.

I'm saying I cycled the whole 257 miles, but that's not strictly true. There were a few stretches of 'road' (I use this term very loosely...) where the sand, mud or water was simply too deep for cycling.

In fact, on our very first morning, torrential rain meant we had to walk with our bikes for the first half mile or so as the 'road' had turned into a flowing river of mud! But we'll not quibble over a little bit of 'for health and safety reasons' bike-pushing!

Not long after that photo was taken, and after getting on the saddle at last, I was back off it again...

So the first day brought my first, and luckily last, puncture of the trip. But every day brought other challenges to tackle and, of course, lots of surprises to embrace...

Camping was one aspect of the challenge that I knew I would find, well, challenging. I made a new friend for life during the trip in my 'roomie' Sally, becoming especially close when us two tallest girls in the group - just by the luck of the draw - ended up in the smallest tent! It was certainly cosy but, to be honest, the downsides of the camping were far outweighed by all the good stuff; such as the warm Maasai welcome on our arrival at the first campsite, the thrill of having a shower outside with Mount Kilimanjaro as a back-drop, the joy of being entertained by the Maasai and our crew as we sat round the campfire, the sunset, the stars in the night sky, the sunrise and, of course, an actual real W.C.

I often got a bit carried away with the surprises and the unexpected, especially when I was on a bit of a cycling buzz, which sometimes ended up with me getting some well-deserved comeuppance as a result...

I wasn't the only thing to get stuck...
However, even though it sometimes resulted in being stuck in the mud, or slipping in the sand, I really did revel in the 'tough terrain' aspect of the challenge, and - even though it was hard work - I thoroughly enjoyed trying to negotiate the deep sand, the boulder-strewn tracks, and the puddles along the way.

Often, successfully negotiating the hills, or the difficult conditions, was down to the support offered by everyone around us. The Women V Cancer events are about so much more than reaching the finish, and they're definitely not about reaching the finish fast. From the moment we all signed up for the challenge, we were part of a team - working together to raise awareness and funds for three of the charities that support people affected by breast, cervical and ovarian cancers - and that team spirit travelled with us, with bells on, to Tanzania.

We all had individual, personal challenges and goals, but everyone's over-riding aim as a group was to work together and support each other. We varied in age, level of fitness, state of health and emotions - but we were the same in our shared determination to make the very most of it for ourselves, while helping our fellow team members and friends make the very most of it too.

Em, unfortunately for the others, this often meant having to listen to me burst into song, especially on the steepest of hills and the longest, bumpiest of roads...

It wasn't just our fellow Women V Cancer team-mates who were a great source of humour, support and plentiful hugs, we were fortunate to have two fantastic event leaders, Anne and Eleni, who kept us all in check, kept us all going when the going got tough, and kept us all blissfully mis-informed about how far we really had to go or how steep the next hill really was! Anne's briefings in the evenings and early mornings were a joy - but by the end of the week we were taking her estimated distances and elevations with a rather large dose of salt.

As for our support crew, well, what can I say? What a privilege it was to have a fantastic crew of local people from the surrounding villages. They were with us every turn of the pedal, from the moment we arrived - touching down in Kilimanjaro Airport - to the moment we sang and danced with them during our 'Celebration Dinner' on our last night in Tanzania.

They cycled alongside us, changed our punctures, sorted our gears, kept us fed, kept us watered, chased the cows away, sang to us, danced for us, cheered us on, gave us a wee push, and kept us safe. They were brilliant.

It wasn't only the local people who made up our crew that were brilliant, the local people we met along the way were too. Especially the children. Whether we were cycling past isolated small holdings, or Maasai boys herding their cattle, or through busier villages and small towns we would be greeted with a friendly 'Jambo!' ('Hello!'). The kids would wave and holler as we cycled past. It's no doubt that we were a bit of a curiosity, with our modern bikes, our cycle helmets and our lycra.

Cycling in East Africa is mostly a necessity, not a sport or leisure pursuit. We saw bikes carrying whole families - the mother and children balancing nonchalantly on the back - bikes carrying massive sacks of potatoes, wide loads of wood, huge bunches of bananas, a bed (yup, really, a bed, on a bike) and all sorts of other combinations of people and goods. And all of this on the most basic of bikes with none of the luxury that a change of gear affords. It was truly humbling to be passed on the steepest of hills by a young lad on a steel framed, no-gears bike wearing flip flops on his feet and dangling his hands by his side, carrying two young girls on the back. "Look, no hands and no low gear for me!", he might have been thinking as he casually cycled past. But all I heard him say was 'Jambo!'.

I often wondered what the local people thought of us being there. Everyone I came across was welcoming and friendly, but I couldn't help sometimes feeling like an intruder. The Tanzanian government encourages groups such as ours to visit the country and, in doing so, help give the economy a much-needed boost. But it just felt sometimes that our presence served to highlight the sad and devastating effects that drought, poverty, civil unrest - and interference from the outside world in the form of such things as land-grabbing - has had on the erosion of the Tanzanian people's traditional ways of life, and their perhaps reluctant need for the tourism industry to flourish.

One of the most uncomfortable moments of the trip for me was during one of our school visits. The children had been lined up and were standing in very quiet, unsmiling, lines waiting for our arrival. Poverty abounds in Tanzania, and never was it more apparent in the schools, or on the faces of the children who stood outside the schools. As we walked toward the children, standing in their rows, it felt very much like there was a line drawn between 'us and them', almost like we were curious visitors to an exhibit, rather than friends from afar popping by to deliver some gifts and say hello. After what seemed an age, things became a little more relaxed and, after mingling in with the children, we finished our visit by listening to their songs and singing a few back. Everyone joining hands to have some fun and do the Hokey Cokey finished off the visit in a much nicer way than it had started.

My favourite moments with the kids were the spontaneous, rather than pre-arranged, ones. At one of our snack stops, on the outskirts of a little village, a small group of children had gathered to curiously look on. As 'Jambo' was just about the extent of my Swahili vocabulary, I had to use some other way to reach out to our new friends...

Before I left for Africa, one of the things I was most looking forward to was seeing the animals - animals that I'd only ever seen before in a zoo, in a safari park or on the telly - in their natural habitat. I thought that we'd only see 'big' animals when we were on safari, when the cycling part of the trip was over. So how very special it was indeed to witness a family of giraffes gracefully wander through the woodland at the side of the dirt track road during our second day of cycling.

The safari was everything I'd hoped it would be. I loved sharing it with some of my lovely new friends, and I wasn't at all disappointed with the plethora of wildlife that we spotted. Wildebeest, lions, hyenas, flamingoes, zebra, ostriches, gazelles, elephants, hippos, and so much more. And I had a blast standing up at the front of the jeep, eating the dust and pretending I was David Attenborough!

I'm ever so grateful to have had the opportunity to go on a short safari at the end of the trip - aside from the animals, the views from the rim of the Ngorongoro crater were absolutely breathtaking...

...but the cycling days were by far my favourite.

The training that I'd put in before the trip paid off and - even though I sometimes had a bit of an issue with painful joints - I managed the miles, the hills, the testing off-road, and the tarmac just fine.

We were provided with bikes and I was extremely lucky to be allocated one that was a good fit. Also, I took my own trusty saddle and used every available opportunity to re-apply lashings of chamois cream to my nether regions! So, I'm delighted to report that I had not one bit of chaffing and no numb-bum problems to contend with! Some of my poor friends weren't so lucky, but they carried on regardless, wilting flowers or not!

I've attached the Strava profiles, at the end of this post, for anyone who's interested in such things. But, in summary:

Day One: 54 miles from Moshi to Olpopongi Maasai Village
This day, like every day, we were up at 5am and set off around 6.30am. Every other day we watched the sun rise as we cycled. This day we couldn't see the sun for the heavy rain and dark clouds! However, the rain soon cleared and after cycling for around 20 miles on tarmac - through towns, villages and banana and mango plantations - we found ourselves out in bush land, in a landscape dominated by the beautiful acacia trees. This day finished with Mount Kiliminjaro at our backs and the Maasai people ahead, welcoming us to their village.

Day Two: 52.5 miles from Olpopongi Maasai Village to Arusha
This was the most challenging day, with miles and miles of difficult off-road terrain (even our seasoned mountain bikers found some of the sections impossible to cycle through) followed by a long, steady uphill climb on tarmac and ending with a truly terrifying ride through Arusha in rush hour! There seemed to be no rules on the roads and we had a fair few near misses with Tuc Tuc, motorbikes, mini-buses and bicycles. Nearly every one of the hooting zig-zagging mini-bus's had some sort of Christian slogan, such as 'God Will Save You!' plastered across its back window. 'Praise Bloody Be!', was what I was thinking every time I was nearly knocked off my bike, 'This heathen might be calling you to account on that you crazy bloody driver you!'
Completing this challenging day after a sleepless night in our wee tent made the satisfaction of finishing the toughest day in one piece feel all the sweeter.

Day Three: 69.7 miles from Arusha to Zion Campsite, Tarangire National Park
This was the longest day, mostly all on tarmac, and I actually really missed the off-road terrain! Setting off from Arusha wasn't too bad as most of the tuc tuc and mini-bus drivers were still in bed. Hallelujah! Most of the day we were cycling through the grasslands then into the Maasai heartland. There were a fair few undulations but I fair enjoyed cycling the ups and the downs alongside our 'Queen of Tanzania', Judy. As the oldest member of the group, she was an inspiration to us all - I hope I'm still able to tackle hills like the trouper she is when I'm a great-granny! The views across to Lake Manyara as we approached the finish were truly spectacular, especially as the sun was starting to set over it. We ended this day at a pretty basic campsite. There was a loo, but the bushes were the more attractive option!

Day Four: 51.5 miles from Tarangire National Park to Mto Wa Mbu Lake Manyara National Park
This was my favourite day. Cycling out of the camp site as the sun rose over the Lake made the early start and the, yet another, sleepless night pale to insignificance! The terrain was ever changing, the landscape around us was absolutely breathtaking, the uphills were hard, the downhills were so much fun and I felt much more confident tackling the sand, water and the rough tracks. Most of my Tanzanian miles were cycled alongside my roomie Sally. We shared many laughs, tears, long chats, quiet times and had lots of fun along the way. We forged a special friendship, and I know we'll share many more good times to come.

However, on this day, Sally really started to struggle with severe pain in her back. She'd forged ahead, just needing to finish the day and get off the saddle as quickly as possible. My other friend Annie and I were enjoying a more leisurely finish, and were accompanied for the last mile or so by a local villager. He just pedalled up beside me, kept his eyes on the track ahead and quietly cycled by my side with his bundle of goods balancing on the back of his bike. It was a special wee moment for me, and I'm sure something a little bit different for him.

Day Five: 29 miles from Mto Wa Mbu to Ngorongoro National Park
Although this was the shortest day, both in mileage and in hours on the saddle, it was a real toughie. The gentle incline at the start, passing under a massive colony of nesting cranes and past a troop of noisy baboons, soon gave way to a long, steep, winding road - the road that would eventually lead to the entrance to The Ngorongoro National Park and our official finish line. Ngorongoro is a deep, volcanic crater - so we were basically cycling up the outside of that crater. There were one or two short, level sections of the road, and one of two really fun downhill dips, but the vast majority of the 29 miles pointed up, and steeply up at that. Much of the last section was spent cycling alongside another of the most inspiring - and youngest - members of our group. Sarah was cycling in memory of her mum, who died last year after being diagnosed with ovarian cancer. Her mum would've been so very proud to see Sarah dig deep and meet this whole challenge head on. Watching her sprint to the top of the hill was possibly my favourite moment of the trip. And it felt pretty good to get there myself!

On our cycling days, my gear was carefully chosen in recognition of friends and family members who've had cancer. Some of them are still here to tell their tales - the survivors - but many of them, sadly, are not. They were all never too far from my thoughts, especially when pulling on my vest or my cycle shirt in the morning, or when I was looking for some extra motivation to get me to the end of a long road or up those steep elevations.

I've been lucky not to have been caught, as yet, in cancer's ever-spreading net. And I'm so incredibly fortunate to be part of the Women V Cancer tour de force. It's a special organisation which encourages women to come together, work together, cycle together, laugh together, cry together, face up to difficult personal challenges, push themselves, and support each other - all while raising much-needed awareness and funds so that one day, maybe one day, we'll see far fewer people affected by this bloody awful disease.

Cycle Africa was an incredible experience, more than I could ever have hoped for, and I loved it. Especially, my friends, when - just like in life - the tough uphill struggles were followed by the fantastic thrill of the ride...

Strava Profiles: