I sing on the ACTUAL STAGE and nothing bad happens

July 20, 2015 at 11:03 pm | Posted in barbershop, music | Leave a comment
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At two-thirty, I was already bopping around the kitchen. The White Rosettes don’t perform in public that often, and this was a rare chance to show off: my first sing-out. (In barbershop, we don’t call them ‘concerts’. Pay attention at the back.) I’d been busy learning repertoire so I could hold my own in the second half, when the trainees were going on, and Caroline had lent me her swishy dress and heels, so I looked the part.

I applied foundation for the first time in about twenty years, packed sandwiches and three pairs of tights and put my Chorus Scarf on. Margaret picked me up and I made polite conversation with her friends and tried to act nonchalant.

We arrived at Trinity Church in loads of time, ambushing the lovely tea ladies, who weren’t expecting us until later. (They let us in anyway.) Sharon gave the trainees some makeup direction (‘Slap on loads of blusher, and then someone’ll come round and tell you to put some more on’) and we pouted at the mirror in the ladies’ and sang each other’s parts and decided we really needed to move the audience in there, as the acoustic was so smashing.

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Giving it some beans in rehearsal

Sally summoned us to the stage for a warmup, and we sang Joshua and Shine and a couple of other things with a PROPER PHOTOGRAPHER wobbling on a chair and a few good-natured people clapping encouragingly. A chap kindly moved some chairs so Sally could direct without giving herself a dead arm. There was some last-minute stack rearrangement; I found myself in a cosy little bass enclave with Jane, Kate, Emma and Irene around me. Then everyone raced off to change.

Well, the White Rosettes certainly scrub up nicely. It was a real thrill to see everyone in their sparkly frocks. The trainees snuck into the back of the hall to watch. And, crikey. It sounded amazing. I tried my best not to cry in You Don’t Know Me, what with having mascara on and everything, but no luck. Emma shushed me for shouting WOO! at the end of the first half. I couldn’t help myself. I was just thinking, ‘We should be on the TELLY doing this!’

Trainee excitement levels got cranked right up to 11 in the interval, as we FINALLY got to put our velvet dresses on and struggle with our tights and tiptoe around in our high heels. Last-minute lipgloss application and a bit of jumping up and down, and we were ready.

white rosettes trainees

Trainees are GO

And it was utterly marvellous. You might not guess from my usual bouncing-around-being-irritating demeanour, but I always used to have sickening performance anxiety, and I was secretly petrified it was still festering away in my unconscious, like something forgotten at the back of the fridge. But I felt great. My voice was steady; I didn’t do anything stupid; I couldn’t stop smiling. Okay, I’ll admit that when Sally came to sing right next to me, I spent three terrified minutes thinking DON’T MUCK IT UP. DON’T MUCK IT UP. SHE CAN HEAR YOU. But the rest of it was brilliant. I had an absolute ball.

The audience loved us, too. I’m not surprised. We do put on a terrific show. There were custom song introductions from various members of the chorus, and a Barbershop Demystifier, and Sally got the whole audience singing in four parts, and tried to recruit most of the front row. We even made a couple of ladies cry. YES! (Barbershop’s so cruel.)

I think I managed to talk sensibly on the way home. It’s all a bit of a blur. I grinned non-stop for the next two days. I felt cradled by this beautiful chorus, supported and encouraged and cheered on. So much generosity, so much heart. And if you have that around you, it’s impossible not to sing it back out.

I learn some songs

July 9, 2015 at 9:39 am | Posted in barbershop, music | 2 Comments
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The Retreat has been and gone, but life is in no way back to normal. The juggernaut of Convention is rumbling towards us, and rehearsals are a whirlwind of dress-fitting, shoe-swapping, lipstick-testing and furtive questioning about whether we really need MAC primer, or will the stuff from B&Q do?

On top of all this, trainee life continues, a learning curve that sometimes feels more like a climbing wall. It is UTTERLY MARVELLOUS being a White Rosettes trainee. Don’t get me wrong. I wake up every day and think, ‘Is it Wednesday yet?’ I stand on the risers, and the pure thrill of the sound lifts me off my feet. I can’t do the warmup exercises where your lips have to go ‘brrrr’ because I’m too busy grinning my face off. But MY, is there a lot of work to do.

Okay, part of this is my fault. You can take traineeship at your own pace. There’s no pressure. Spend a while learning a song, then learn another one. But I want to know them all, right now. At the moment, Sally lifts her arms and names a tune, and I either think ‘Damn!’ or ‘YES! I know this one!’ The sooner it can be all YESes and no DAMNs, the better.



No-one uses sheet music performing barbershop – it’s all done from memory. So, I’m learning repertoire. The cycling podcasts and cheesy salsa on my ipod have been replaced by tracks called things like Orange_Bass_Words. I walk down the street going ‘Dum dum dum dum dum dum BUSINESS!’ and ‘Gah, NO! It’s ‘ba-da, ba-da, da, da!’ Not ‘ba-da, ba-da, ba, ba!’’. Luckily, I live in Hebden Bridge, where this kind of carrying-on is regarded as normal.

It’s harder than you’d think to learn songs without many words. Basses get a lot of dums. And dooms. And ooohs, and aaaahs, and dooohs. In desperation, I write myself a crib sheet for the latest song. It says things like “Doom-bah, doom-bah, doom, (stay down) bah bah bah (up) doo-wah (down) doo-wah”.

At this point, Liz looks over my shoulder and offers me her special baritone highlighters. I gaze at her in awe as she produces eerie strings of perfectly-tuned double-flatted thirds and augmented seconds. At least basses don’t normally have fiendish notes to worry about (although one teach track goes down to a bottom A, which I can manage, but only if I have a tot of whisky first).

typical baritone part

Typical baritone line

Remembering which order the notes go in is a challenge, though, especially as barbershop arrangements specialise in doing the same thing several times in slightly different ways. I have an impressively geeky mental map for Lift Up My Head, which counts off three different kinds of repeats. Sadly, I’ve not managed to replicate this for any other song. I start Joshua Fit The Battle Of Jericho like a vaguely-familiar car journey, unable to visualise it but daftly optimistic I will remember what to do when I get to each roundabout.

And, unexpectedly, the words give me their own problems. If I know the song, I’m stuffed: one of the warmups is I’m Forever Blowing Bubbles, and every time, I JUST manage to stop myself singing ‘Then like West Ham, they fade and die…’ Meanwhile, my brain regards learning song lyrics as the perfect opportunity to have a bit of a laugh. ‘Great big polka-dot sky’ comes out reliably as ‘Great big coconut sky’. ‘The lamb ram sheep horns began to blow, and the trumpets began to sound’? Lamb ham sheep horns. Crumpets. I’m not even kidding. My ten-year-old points out the food theme running through these errors, so maybe I should start having some lunch before I practise.

I used to be a linguist, so part of me is busy going, ‘Ooh, well that’s JOLLY interesting, because ‘coconut’ and ‘polka-dot’ have a lot in common phonologically, and…’ But mostly I’m just trying to find a way of remembering that it’s FLASH! and then WHAM! and then FLASH! again, and not the other way round. And stopping my boys from singing ‘COCONUT SKY!!’ and guffawing. It’s NOT funny, you two. Cut that out. I’ll pop your sprocket money.


Joshua fit the battle of… oooh

‘Cross diary 34: @RaphaSuperCross. Take your mum

November 18, 2013 at 11:20 am | Posted in cycling | 8 Comments
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Entirely coincidentally (cough), we were visiting my Mum in North London when Rapha Super Cross came to Alexandra Palace. Having comprehensively failed to show her what ‘cross racing was like by weeping and DNSing at the last opportunity, I was keen to make amends.

The sun shone; the wind blew; the boys squabbled. Business as usual, then. Ally Pally was looking glorious in fashion-forward Autumn-Winter 2013-14 style. I got the boys signed on, then went for a ride round the course, immediately sliding over in the Spiral of Doooom™ (plus ça change, then). Good course: lots of charging around on the grass, bit of singletrack, out and up into the woods again, and repeat on the other side.


Brilliant .gif of the Spiral of Doooom, by Josephine Hartfiel (@Josi_Hartfiel). Click it if it won’t work.

Primo (8) had one of his legendary meltdowns halfway round his second lap: I’M NOT DOING IT. YOU CAN’T MAKE ME. I HATE CYCLOCROSS. Me: OK then! I carefully ignored him for a couple of minutes; he climbed back on sheepishly and rode off again. He finished the race grinning about his prizes (Hope bottle and quick-release keyring). I tried foolishly to turn this into a Learning Moment. Me: See, it was much better to finish, wasn’t it? Him (immediately grumpy again): NO. Meanwhile Segundo (5) was busy being my CX role model, soldiering on happily despite being unable to ride half the course.

Rapha Super Cross 2013 - Ally Pally-47

Marvellous Sights of That London

We milled around a bit, chatting to @Tiny_Pigeon and @TomStaniford, and looking in wonder at cyclists with BEARDS (rare sight in W Yorks). @iancleverly came over to say hello. @nik_tweet announced her arrival by smacking me hard on the arse as she rode past. I threw all my kit at @spandelles and went to line up. The women were in with the vets AND the juniors this time; they set us off in three groups, with the women going last. A commissaire called out names and women took their places, including the girl I’d just been chatting to; realising I knew her from twitter, I shouted ‘Ooh hallo @fentinator!’ There was no time to ponder how daft this sounded as my name was next. Yes, dear reader, for the first and very possibly the last time in my cyclocross career, I got GRIDDED. I actually got GRIDDED. I looked over to see @spandelles laughing his socks off. It didn’t matter.

I got an uncharacteristically good start and held my place in the middle of the group for ooh, half a lap, which felt very exciting (normally I’m shelled in the first few metres). While I was the only person who foot-dabbed in the middle of the Spiral of Dooooom, I didn’t fall off (as at least one other person did). Got a bit of a shock coming round one corner to find BARRIERS had suddenly appeared, but, unfazed, I managed to get off and back on again without drawing too much attention to myself. I charged into the woods excitedly and slithered around on one corner; the girl behind me said ‘Well recovered!’*

Rapha Ally Pally 2013

Get me, looking all PRO and not falling off or owt

Quite a few people burnt me up on the long hill, but cowbells were ringing and spectators were shouting REMEMBER, YOU LOVE THIS! IT’S WHY YOU DO IT! and COME ON THE WOMEN! and so I had to, really, didn’t I. I got overtaken loads (including by @fentinator, who said ‘Hallo!’ cheerily as she lapped me) but I managed to reel one woman back in over about a lap and a half and finally finished ahead of her. Result!

The rest of the day passed in a happy blur of eating crêpes, riding around with the boys and shouting encouragement at the elites. My mum had a great time; I found her watching the seniors, literally jumping up and down going ‘This is really exciting! Is this on the telly, ever?’ We erred on the side of caution and skipped the fun race to go home; @spandelles cunningly avoided all post-race pit crew duties by going and getting on a train. My mum cooked the boys’ tea, and I washed all three bikes then fell asleep in front of Countryfile. A pretty good day, in anyone’s books.

* get me, with the SKILLZ

‘Cross diary 33: BRIDE of @RaphaSuperCross

October 23, 2013 at 7:29 pm | Posted in cycling | Leave a comment
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We like Rapha Super Cross. There’s something for everyone: face painting, frites, DJ, mud, terror. Remember the draggy, sloggy, uphill gunkfest from last year? There were a few scores to settle with Broughton Hall. I put my determined face on, and we loaded up the car.

The forecast had been grim all week, but the rain mostly held off. Uncharacteristically, we only took one wrong turn before we found the venue. The boys leapt about excitedly singing the theme from Wallace and Gromit while we unpacked the car. I went off to ride the course (as usual, I had my backpack on; some wag asked me if I was planning a picnic) while @spandelles got the boys ready for their race.

kids on the start line (pic by @spandelles)

They did well; Segundo (5) gave it some serious welly (‘I overtook someone!’) and Primo (8) rode up the banks like they weren’t there. They demolished enormous portions of frites while I tried to read Dutch and chatted to @melaniebbikes and @davewhite99 and queued for the loo and cooled down and generally did all the wrong things.

My turn. The vets went off first, then the women a couple of minutes later. @nik_tweet took a picture of me, grinning unconcernedly.

Me on the start line (pic by @nik_tweet)

I chatted to @alisonkinloch, who was back racing for the first time since breaking her wrist (she eventually came third. THIRD. With a still-painful wrist. I could weep). I got a really bad start, choosing entirely the wrong gear and cleverly positioning myself on the outside of the first turn, and I gradually dropped back over the first lap. It basically just got worse from then on. The course was a lot more fun than last year: tarmac, and steep banks, and twisty bits, and woody bits, and barriers, and thick mud, and bridges. The Rapha chap gave me a highfive as I grumbled past. @antmccrossan called out my name over the tannoy. @bex_love and her kids rang cowbells and shouted for me. But all that couldn’t make up for the despondency of toiling round on my own, watching everyone get further and further away.

Rapha SuperCX 2013 Skipton 21

I *am* suffering. Honest. That’s a grimace of pain. (Picture (c) Jo Allen, used with kind permission)

Soon, of course, I wasn’t on my own any more. The vets were coming. I’m a bit better at being lapped now (‘On your left!’ ‘OK!’), though @crossjunkie did give me a fright (he’s so STEALTH).It was getting hairy in the Spiral of Doom, with tight corners and deepening mud. The spectators were baying for blood, and they soon got it: I lost traction, slid over sideways and just heard ‘NO! YA F*CKER!’ as I landed on the ground with a bloke and his bike on top of me. Oh dear. He disentangled himself and sped off; I picked my bike up and was about to remount when someone yelled ‘SADDLE!’ Narrow escape…

broken_saddle (pic by @spandelles)

Winner of the Most Original Excuse For A DNF competition

So, that was it. I lifted the tape and tried not to cry in front of everyone. Chris Young offered to remove my saddle so I could complete the remaining ¾ of a lap without it. I declined (though I’ve regretted this since; I knew I couldn’t ride the whole thing standing up, but if it had occurred to me to run, I might have had a go). Chris tried to hide his disappointment at my lack of grit. Yorkshire hard men, eh.

Still. Broken saddles turn out to be up there with cute dogs in their knack of getting people to talk to you. I made a load of new friends wheeling my bike about. The chap who crashed into me came over and gruffly offered me a replacement (‘I’ve got loads of saddles.’). We introduced ourselves and made up.

We watched the elites racing, full of awe. Then I demonstrated my true cyclocross skill, which is as a spectator, screaming myself silly at the fun race. DON’T LET HIM GET PAST! CHANGE UP CHANGE UP! GIMME SOME RACEFACE! The sun came out as Wolf Man, Tinkerbell, the MTB tandemists and a motley crew of other hopefuls braced themselves for the wall of foam. It was a fitting end to a great day. And we’ve got Ally Pally next week to look forward to. I WILL FINISH. I will.

broughton hall with 5yo

‘Cross diary 32: I both START and FINISH a race

October 9, 2013 at 8:27 pm | Posted in cycling | 3 Comments
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Yup. I actually made it to the start line. No mechanicals, no illnesses, and no attacks of CBA. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Are you sitting comfortably?

In the traditional Yorkshire Points stylee, we drove around (stunning) Temple Newsam park for about fifteen minutes looking for the right car park. Someone followed us, in the vain hope we knew where we were going. It’s all part of the charm. The boys and I went to sign on; my name was under Vets 40-50, rather than Women (apparently my Here Come The Belgians membership has granted me Honorary Bloke status. Result!).

Primo warming up. I won’t mention the ENORMOUS meltdown he had just after this

The kids’ field was so enormous that the under-8s, under-10s and under-12s all had separate races. Segundo (now 5 years old and racing for the second time ever) gave it some impressive welly, chewing the bars: ‘I overtook three people, but then I fell off in the woods and they all went past me again!’* Primo (8) rode most of the climbs (a New Thing for him), though his newly-perfected remount dissolved under pressure*. While @spandelles tried unsuccessfully to feed them sandwiches, I dodged off to do a recce lap. We didn’t race at Temple Newsam last year, but it’s a belter of a course; lots of singletrack, which was fun but not too horribly technical, plenty of tearing across the grass and up and down little banks, and even a horrible up-a-steep-bank-over-planks section. You BEASTS.

Time to line up. I got chatting to a tester called Jess (‘What kind of pedals have you got?’ ‘No idea.’). I promised Nikola Butler I’d try not to bring her down on the first corner. The field was massive; @amyling and I were worried about being overtaken on the singletrack, but the staggered start (40+ veterans set off first, then 50+ and women) and the initial lap round the field seemed to string everyone out enough that it was never really a problem.

temple newsam in the treesAnyway. You should have seen me. I zoomed over the singletrack! I cornered like a pro! I rode up all the steep little banks! (apart from one, where I fell off into a bunch of nettles, nearly taking @Chipps down with me). I lost loads of places every time we went over the planks, ‘cos I can’t dismount on the right hand side of the bike, but hey.


Friends. Aw! Nikola has promised not to tell anyone she is lapping me, here

My remounts were ALL functional, even the ones where I only had a couple of seconds to get back on! I overtook a few people! I stayed out of the way of nearly everyone who lapped me! (apart from a chap who wanted me to ride over loads of tree roots while he took the smooth line; we bumped each other amiably and both stayed upright). A woman behind me shouted GET OFF YOUR BRAKES! encouragingly as we went down a steep hill; she overtook me at breakneck speed and came off spectacularly on the next corner. (She lapped me after a while, and had the decency to promise not to fall over in front of me any more as she went past.)

I love this shot. How pro do I look? If you ignore the grin, that is

It was hard. Ooh. But it was GOOD. In typical fashion, I started getting the hang of it about three quarters of the way through. Crucially, it also felt PROPER. While I wasn’t giving Annie Simpson anything to worry about, I also didn’t feel like I was just making up the numbers any more. I was Trying Hard**, and doing a good job. As good as I could, anyhow.

Afterwards, I chatted to some of my new HCtB teammies, and rode around with the boiz on the grass in the blazing sunshine. I fell off trying to trackstand, and again trying to ride no-hands. We had some sandwiches, and an ice cream. It was too lovely for words. And when the results came in later, I was ecstatic to see I’d beaten some ACTUAL REAL LIVE PEOPLE. Days don’t come much better than this.

* Like mother, like son…

** I put my Garmin on for the first time in a race, mostly to check that I was really working as hard as I thought. It’s quite funny: my HR is basically a flat line across the whole race, at 92-95% of my (notional) maximum. So, yeah. I am Trying Hard All The Time.

‘Cross diary 31: in praise of having a crap time

September 26, 2013 at 11:17 am | Posted in cycling | 8 Comments
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Well. My ‘cross season didn’t exactly get off to a blistering start. Remember that water crossing at Keighley? I womanned right up and rode into it. My front wheel didn’t come out; I did a slow-mo faceplant, picked myself up bashfully, and rode off worrying slightly about the grinding noise coming from my gears. Two recce laps later, the chain jumped off for the third time and jammed solid. DNS. Never mind! I thought. Wakefield next week; I like Wakefield. But the Gods of Snot laughed at my mortal aspirations, and sent down a LERGY upon me, and lo, I DNSd for the second week running.

In between these events I had an ace time with @michgreig at the Velodrome. Most of the day passed in a blur of grinning selfies and sectionable antics, but she didn’t find the riding very jolly.

mich & me

Lowering the tone in the velodrome caff

I love Michelle’s writeup of our day because it does something unusual: it’s honest about having an awful time on the bike. Mostly, judging from twitter, we’re all out there SMASHING IT and being AWESOME. Challenging ourselves, pushing ourselves, (wo)manning up. Of course, we can’t set new PBs or bag QOMs or ride further, faster or grimmer every SINGLE day. So on the other days, we tootle along through the bluebells on lazy café rides. The sun shines, we have lashings of ginger beer, and arrive home tired-but-happy. The odd bad day on the bike is explained through illness, or overtraining, or (occasionally) the weather (though blaming hailstorms for DNFs generally results in a sea of responses invoking Velominati’s Rules #5 and #9). Even the bad days are good, because we’re learning stuff about ourselves and fine-tuning our goals and… you know.

The subtext of all this is clear. We’re lucky to be bike riders; to be able to roll out of the front door and have fun on two wheels. This is abundantly true. But the flipside can be feeling isolated when you hate it.

The other day, I tweeted about how warmups make me want to cry. How I feel terrible for at least 30 mins at the beginning of every bike ride, and want to climb off and curl up in a ditch. (The last CX race recce I did, I thought I must be ill, I felt so awful: leg pain, chest pain, head pain. I was riding round in tears.) People came out of the woodwork to tell me this was perfectly normal; they all felt like that. So why had I never heard anyone say it before?

Jo Burt sent me his lovely piece on the fear of going out riding. I nodded compulsively all the way through. Lois sent me hers about giving up. Ditto. I wrote last year about DNSing through abject terror. We can’t be the only ones feeling like this. Why is it so rare to read about it?

Failure - The Thing You Experience Before Being Successful

Some of it it must be that weird combination of relief at stopping and selective memory. Every cyclocross race I do, I ride round thinking, ‘This is NUTS. Why am I doing this to myself? God, this is awful. Never again.’ Then it’s over, and within minutes I’m all, ‘Well, that was fun!’

Some of it is the desire to forget the bad bits, to present a happy face (the psychologist Naomi Baron calls this ‘my best day’ in relation to Facebook status updates). In terms of sports pyschology, this is probably important; Jo McRae writes on psychological self-sabotage and ways of staying positive about your riding. And nobody wants to be the one who brings everybody down.

But endless pressure to be positive is tiring and alienating. I moaned recently that I’d been riding all summer and Trying Hard and everything, and I was STILL crap. I got taken to task by a couple of people for letting the side down. In their eyes, if I said *I* was crap, I was not only putting lots of other women off riding when they needed encouraging, but also dissing anyone who wasn’t as good as me, by default.

But everyone has terrible days: days when they can’t get it together, their legs don’t work, and they want to give up. For some of us, these days are far and few between; for others, they’re depressingly familiar. Sometimes, we finish; but sometimes, we abandon, and we don’t have an excuse. Sometimes, we feel the fear, and manage to do it anyway; sometimes, we don’t, and anyone telling us to MTFU just makes us sob uncontrollably.

miffy the fuck down

Merckx The Fuck Up? Or Miffy The Fuck Down?

So this is to say it’s OK to fail. It’s OK to give up. And it’s OK to write about it. No, it’s necessary to write about it. It’s all part of riding bikes, and being part of this odd, lovely little community where people share their experiences and support each other. Happy/ crappy* riding, y’all… (*delete as applicable).

‘Cross diary 30: I plan my racing season

September 11, 2013 at 4:55 pm | Posted in cycling | 3 Comments
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So. This summer I’ve been Trying A Bit Harder, riding a (little) bit further and getting ever-so-slightly faster (downhill, at least). I’ve had 2-3 weeks of, er, tapering, due to a sudden bout of CBA*. But ‘cross season has started, so like all Proper Athletes, I’m formulating a structured, methodical plan of attack.

While I may have been busy PODIUMING over the summer, my sights are set somewhat more realistically for ‘cross. Last year, I was a newbie. My goals for the season were:

  1. Learn to remount (and, crucially, do it in an actual race);
  2. Come not-last at least once.

Avid readers will recall that I met both these goals, overhauling a 73-year-old in the final yards of one race and only getting my shorts caught on my saddle during one other. Therefore, throughout the season I set myself new, ongoing goals, including the following:

Rooty singletrack

  1. Overtake someone;
  2. Ride up steep banks without getting off;
  3. Get round corners without foot-dabbing;
  4. Stop falling off on the DAMN singletrack.

I’m still working on no. 4, but can report definite progress on the others. So this year my goals are more specific. I’m looking at the races I rode last year, and tailoring my plans to the individual courses. (I’ve provided handy links to the race reports from last year, so you can remind yourself of how utterly hopeless I was, for perspective.)

Keighley: Ride the water crossing instead of getting off. Ride up and down the banks without getting off. Ditto the steep descent with a 90 degree bend at the bottom. And the muddy bits. And the off-camber sections. Basically, try and stay on the bike more than 17% of the time.

Wakefield: Stop falling off on the DAMN singletrack.

Brighouse: Arrange lovely, relaxing family day trip to somewhere at the other end of the country.

Temple Newsam: Didn’t do this one last year. From looking at other people’s race reports, mostly SFOOTDS**. And get round the corners. And don’t knock anybody off.

Rapha Super Cross, Skipton: pray fervently that they have changed the course. If not, remember to remove clods of mud from back brakes while toiling over soggy grass. Try not to fall asleep on ground before having chance to hobnob with lovely delightful twitter people.

Alexandra PalaceRapha Super Cross, Ally Pally: Another new one. Steps: shoulder bike without concussing fellow competitors. Practise too-cool-for-school Laahndan raceface. See Skipton re. falling asleep.

Sheffield: Another new one. Find out where Sheffield is.

Heptonstall Fancy Dress: Never actually raced this one as always ill. Wash hands obsessively and refuse to breathe in for a week beforehand. Think up mind-blowingly ACE costume.

Todmorden: See Heptonstall, minus the fancy dress. No, sod it. I’ve missed this race 4 times due to illness (2 x winter, 2 x summer). If I actually get to race, I’ll wear the fancy dress to celebrate.

Sounds achievable, doesn’t it? Not too ambitious? True to form, I’m already hopelessly overexcited. This year I’ll be racing proudly in Here Come The Belgians colours, hoping I won’t be excommunicated for getting off and weeping on the cobbled climbs. The 8yo is an old hand, now, but this year marks the 5yo’s racing debut. @spandelles will reprise his role as pit crew-slash-supernanny-slash-psychotherapist. We’re going to smash it. Hup hup!

* Can’t Be Arsed

** Stop Falling Off On The Damn Singletrack

‘Cross* diary 29: I PODIUM

August 2, 2013 at 12:32 pm | Posted in cycling | 3 Comments
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Last year’s Bike Blenheim Palace Festival of Cycling was a beacon of happiness in a rotten summer; the only weekend in six weeks of school holidays where the sun blazed, we tootled around on tandems, and the whole family stopped bickering and had a lovely time. So I was keen to go to its 2013 incarnation, Orbital Festival at Goodwood. We booked tickets, entered races and got excited, but at the last minute the boyf baulked at the five-and-a-half-hours-in-the-car-with-two-squabbling-children-and-two-nights-in-a-tiny-tent aspect, and it looked like it was all off.

Happily, I have some brilliant friends. My twitter pal, the lovely and devastatingly witty @michgreig, offered to put me up at short notice and be my partner in crime, despite never having met me. (Blind faith, maybe, but when you’ve wept with laughter imagining your respective crushes fighting in jelly, you know you’ve found a kindred spirit.)


On Sunday we were on the 7:02 from Victoria, plotting our day and guffawing. We got off at Chichester and drafted a friendly Bromptoneer to Goodwood. At nine-something there were already Bromptons everywhere; it felt odd to be riding a big-wheeled bike. In a fit of excitement, we signed up for a race – the Tutti Frutti scratch race. 45min plus one lap. It’ll be fine! We’ll be fine! Yeah. Yeah!

We wandered round the stands. Everyone was friendly and delightful, with the exception of A Certain Café, who were their usual grumpy selves (but they’re from London, so we probably have to let them off). A quick bimble round the racetrack; 4.5km with a FIERCE headwind in the home straight. Oof. Then back, in time to watch the Bromptoneers lining their bikes up in the sunshine.

The Brompton World Championships is an incredible spectacle; this year there were 750 riders, all dressed up to the nines. It’s a Le Mans start: they set off in waves, running to their folded bike in the paddock, unfolding it and leaping aboard, then charging past the screaming fans (me) ringing cowbells (Michelle) onto the circuit. They did four laps, with some impressive tactics being employed; if you’ve never watched teams of Brompton riders doing through and off, I thoroughly recommend it. We made friends with a little family and screeched GWAAAN ANOOP! every time their son rode past. Someone gave us a free Berocca**. It was all jolly nice.

As the last of the Bromptoneers rolled in, we were in the starting area, hyperactive with nerves. We defused them by joshing with the other competitors: ‘You look a bit pro. No skinsuits in this race.’ By the time we were herded over to the start line, we were all best buddies. A quick run-through of the rules from a marshal (disappointingly, these weren’t No Pushing, No Bombing, No Petting), a blast from his air horn, and we were off. I shot out the front like an idiot and wondered where everybody was for about a third of a lap, before the bunch (including Michelle) steamed past me, working together like pros. Oh dear. I couldn’t hold their wheels and pedalled round on my own for a lap and a bit, before being caught by a girl of about 14 and her dad.

Pride prevented me from letting them go, so I jumped on her wheel***, then went up to the front for a turn. Me! Working with people! Blimey. We steamed round for half a lap then I swung off*** and she came through***; we’d left her dad behind at some point. The two of us stayed together for the rest of the race. At a couple of points she flagged and I waited; after that I took the pulls*** into the headwind and let her do the tailwind sections. FOOL. The bell rang, we did our final lap, I pulled her up the home straight and she tried to come round me. I went ‘Ooh, you BEAST!’ and pulled out all the stops****, just managing to pip her for the line. Cheek. (There’s a photo of me doing this, looking like I’m about to be sick. I won’t inflict that on you. Here’s one I like better, of me doing Oh My God This Sodding Headwind: )

We giggled about excitedly for a while, WOOHOOing at the Brompton presentations and squeaking at people doing backflips on trials bikes. I fangirled all over Michael Hutchinson and Julia Shaw. We were about to go home when our names were called over the tannoy. We were needed for the presentations. Us! Needed! For PRESENTATIONS! We ran over, laughing hysterically, dumping bikes and bags and clattering up the stairs, to be called out onto the balcony for the WOMEN’S PODIUM. Yes, dear reader, I got a kiss, a handshake and an ACTUAL MEDAL for coming in third woman. Michelle, the Pocket Rocket, was FIRST WOMAN. People cheered and clapped and took photos. It was, quite honestly, one of the best moments of my life.

Women's podium, Tutti Frutti scratch race

Wearing our medals, we rumbled home on the train with ca. 1357 other bikies (most of them on Bromptons, of course, though this didn’t stop the guard having a good grump at us all). Andrew greeted us at the door in a butcher’s apron; the barbie was already on. He listened patiently to the overexcited gabble; we even remembered to ask him how his day had been.

When I got home to the family the next day, the boys responded to my news in typical fashion. 5yo (pouting): ‘But I wanted you to WIN!’ 8yo (kissing my medal reverently): ‘That’s AMAZING.’ It WAS amazing. An amazing weekend with amazing mates doing daft but amazing things. A heartfelt thank you to Michelle and Andrew for welcoming me and making it all possible. You’re utter stars.

* What does all this have to do with ‘cross? Eagled-eyed readers will spot that I raced on my ‘cross bike. More importantly, without having discovered ‘cross, I wouldn’t be doing any of this.

** Don’t drink Berocca if you’re frightened of neon wee, by the way

*** Get me, with the TERMINOLOGY

**** I actually pulled a muscle doing this. No-one can accuse me of not Trying Hard

‘Cross diary 28: I pump up my tyres and I oil my chain

June 19, 2013 at 2:01 pm | Posted in cycling | 3 Comments
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So, you know me. I’m the one who likes getting muddy, and toiling up slopes with my bike on my shoulder, and falling off on singletrack. I do a bit of running. I ride on the road when I have to, mainly to try and get a bit fitter for ‘cross.

But something weird is happening to me. I’m turning into a ROADIE. I find myself idly browsing forums, looking for views on Look vs. Time pedals. Someone goes past on a Dual and I think, that’s the one with the mudguard eyes. I wonder whether I need different handlebars. I still can’t do anything useful, like adjust my gears, but I nod sagely as the boyf tells me that clunk-down-two-gears-at-once-and-have-to-go-up-a-gear-again is a common Campy problem. I start to refer to Campagnolo as ‘Campy’.

Campagnolo Support Van From 1976

Of course, there’s a simple reason for this. Avid readers will remember me buying a new road bike. A part of me still feels embarrassedly ‘all the gear, no idea’ when I’m getting ready to go out on it. Everyone’s pointing and laughing at the slow chick on the cool bike, right? But this evaporates as soon as I am riding it, because the FUN takes up all of my brain.

Nevertheless, it strikes me I lack skillz. I mostly go out on my own, and the tricks of group riding are mysterious to me. (Until recently, I thought ‘through and off’ was when you wobble up the inside of a line of stationary traffic, then topple over at the lights because all your library books are in one pannier.) So when @sparkieturner volunteers to run some women-only skills sessions at Seedhill athletics track*, I know this has my name on it.

We have all sorts of laughs. Mark sets out the cones and we wobble in between them. (Well, I wobble; Lucy manages to nip in and out of them without knocking over a single one.) I practise. Mark moves the cones nearer to each other. It’s like the Matrix. I am Neo. Suddenly, I start to believe that the back wheel will follow the front one. I do it perfectly, raise both hands from the bars in jubilation, and don’t fall off. No-hands riding, too, then. There is no spoon.

We do partner work, passing each other bottles while going along, or giving each other a friendly push. We learn that elbows-out riding is just like that bit in Dirty Dancing. We try to learn to trackstand, to impress our kids.

josh tall bike trackstand

Most funly, we try to go FAST. I’m scared of this on the road. OK, I’ve been doing my TT-for-one, creaking up to Todmorden and back, trying to break 33 minutes for 10 miles. But I don’t dare go for it properly, as buses have a habit of suddenly appearing in front of me. Indecisive sheep loom out of the fog. Potholes materialise like gateways to Hades. Whizzing round a running track turns out to be the answer. The bike wants to go fast, and now I can let it try, safe in its artificial world, where the only thing holding us back is the indignant screaming of my quads and the howling headwind in the back straight. We do through and off in a little group. I’m so excited I keep forgetting to yell CLEAR! and the person behind has to do it for me. We push the pace up and SPRINT for the line, each lap. I’m right down as far as I can get, chin on the bars, pretending I am Cav (the boyf remarks later, ‘You’re just a 12 year old boy.’) I notice that I can wind the sprint up a bit and catch Lucy for the line, even when she starts ahead of me. This feels so utterly PRO I can hardly breathe for glee.

 Blue Blur Route

There’s a lot to learn. I’m still scared to get on someone’s wheel (though I’m getting used to the slightly unsettling feeling of staring at the bum in front of me). I have no idea how to position myself coming into the sprint, and I push far too big a gear, ‘cos I can’t think about changing up in the middle of it. I STILL can’t get my left foot into the DAMN pedal. But, astonishingly, I’m not terrible at this. And that makes me too happy for words.

* You’ll remember Mark from the terrific cyclocross skills sessions last winter. There are still a couple of weeks to go on the women-only road skills course: Fridays, 7-9pm, Seedhill Athletics Track, Nelson, BB9 7TY. Just show up with your bike. £5 a session.

‘Cross diary 27: I do a bit of track

June 9, 2013 at 10:33 pm | Posted in cycling | 5 Comments
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So. It’s all about the mud, right? And the sunshine, and the wind in your hair, and the views across the valley, the sheep, the reservoirs, the QoMs. Right? Wrong. It’s all about the TRACK.

The highly successful and much-feared Calder Valley Fell Runners have a little-known radical cycling wing, Calder Valley Velo. CVV booked a private session at the Velodrome, which I managed to inveigle my way into despite having successfully avoided numerous attempts to get me to go toiling up and down mountains, twisting my ankle in rabbit holes, etc.

So this is how I end up driving to Manchester last Friday with four hardy, skinny running types in the car, asking me if I really need the satnav and being altogether too chirpy for before-seven-in-the-morning.

The sun shines. The traffic is fine. We get there very early. A full 45 minutes to get REALLY nervous. I’ve been to the Velodrome lots of times, but only as a spectator. Walking up to reception, I’m conscious of the illustrious people who’ve preceded me across that tiled floor. This is where Chris Boardman must have signed in. Michael Hutchinson stands in this queue for his coffee (Americano, in case you’re wondering). This is where Victoria Pendleton got CHANGED. I don’t feel worthy.

National Cycling Centre - The home of British Cycling and Team GB

The CVVers, blissfully unaware of the weight of cycling history upon them, are busy getting worried about the banking. It does look impossible, when you’re down in track centre. I have my mind on other things, terribly excited about my SILVER rented cycling shoes and the Dolan track bike which has my name on it, on a little post-it. The saddle is just the right height. I feel a bit loved.


Weirdly, I’m fine about the banking. However, I’ve just read Matt Seaton’s book; in one episode, he forgets to pedal while high up and comes off the bike, with fairly epic consequences. Never having ridden fixed, I am so worried about this that I am nearly sick on my shoes. I seriously consider bailing out, right at the very last minute.

Coach appears and summons us genially up to the track. We line up along the handrail and try to get our feet into the pedals (harder than it sounds when you can’t just hook the pedal up with your free foot). Coach gives us an encouraging pep talk (‘Don’t stop pedalling at the top of the banking, or I’ll be scraping you up from down here’) and we are off to do two laps on the flat, dark-blue-painted concrete. ‘One big pull with the left hand and off you go!’ I do a big pull with the left hand and, miraculously, off I go.


Once we’ve managed to stop again (slow the bike by pushing back on the pedals a bit, aim for the handrail, grab a bit of netting by mistake, feel a bit foolish) we are allowed to move out onto the couple of feet of flat boards at the edge (the Côte D’Azur) and from there, up onto the banking. This feels monumental. The gradient starts right there, at a crazy angle – no gradual incline. For the first couple of laps, I’m terrified I’m going to ground a pedal. It doesn’t happen, and Coach shouts at me as I go into the corner, ‘PUSH on the pedals, now! Get some speed up!’ I start trying a bit more.


I steer up the banking and push harder. It’s hot, really hot. Warm wind ruffles the hair on my arms. The corners rear up, again and again; there’s nowhere to rest. A few seconds on the straight, then into the corner again, over and over. I get down on the drops and pull my knees and elbows in, imagining myself bulleting through the air. I’m overtaking people. I dig deeper: I must be able to go faster. The sun shafts through the roof. The boards rumble with other people’s wheels; my wheels make them sing, odd pentatonic harmonies of wood on wood. I’m reeling in the chap in front, inexorably, lap by lap. I must have him. A glance over my shoulder, swing up and out, grip the bars and here I go. Faster, legs. Come on, lungs. My knees are hitting my chest. I put my forehead down on the bars and barrel through. There is nothing in the WORLD to match this.


Coach laughs at me, as I trundle in at the end. ‘Look at that grin.’ Everything aches. I wobble through to the changing room and laugh stupidly in the shower. A couple of CVVers comment that it was fine, but it wasn’t for them, really. I look at them like they are from another planet.

When can I go again?


Later, at road skills training (of which more, on another day), I have this conversation:

Me (grinning madly, jumping up and down): GUESS where I was riding a bike this morning. Go on, GUESS.

Bloke: Gargrave.

Me: EVEN more exciting than Gargrave*.

Other bloke (knowingly, with a smile**): On the track.

* Is Gargrave really that terrific? Never been…

** There are those who Get It, and those who don’t

(Pictures by kind permission of Anna, the partner of Blair Garrett, who organised the trip. Thanks so much, Blair & Anna!)

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