Monthly Archives: October 2013

Helly Hansen Base Layer Review

Helly Hansen Dry Stripe T-Shirt

The other day, I purchased a Helly Hansen Dry Stripe T-Shirt, based on the overwhelming number of positive reviews I’d been reading online. The shirt cost me £22 from Wiggle and seems to be a generally similar price wherever you go.

Base layers, as I’ve learned, can be very useful even in warm weather – but especially so now that we are in the Autumn and coming up for Winter. The Helly Hansen range of base layers features something that HH call “LIFA Stay-Dry Technology”, which claims to be able to keep you feeling dry, even when you’re sweating buckets out on a ride. HH produce a range of base layers, but the two big sellers are titled either “Dry” or “Warm”. I purchased the “Dry” t-shirt so that it can fit comfortably underneath my cycling jerseys, but you can also get them with long sleeves as well.

The shirt arrived within a couple of days from Wiggle, packaged in a little green and white box. The shirt itself feels quite thin and rough to handle (part of the “LIFA Technology, I guess), but is comfortable when worn. I had to place quite a lot of faith in HH’s size guide, which had me down as a “Large” size. Being a bit on the tubby side, I’m used to buying clothes in an “XL” size, but HH’s guide was accurate and the shirt was a snug fit. It is meant to be a bit clingy, since other clothes are worn over the top of it. I decided to test the shirt out on a 40-mile ride out to Reading in Berkshire on a warm day.

The base layer performed admirably when being worn under a standard lycra jersey. I was sweating and puffing all the way round, but not once did I feel wet or uncomfortable with the Helly Hansen on. When I stopped for a quick lunch break, I felt my skin and I was dry. There was no uncomfortable rubbing and I didn’t feel like a boil-in-the-bag dinner underneath my top. I was impressed. I was also surprised that I didn’t feel overheated at all throughout the ride.

The second test I gave the HH was during one of my early morning commuter rides. Setting off from my house at 5.30am almost always means that it’s cold, whatever the time of year, so I wore an Altura Night Vision jacket over the top of my lycra kit. Usually this means I sweat a lot and despite the jacket’s vents and best efforts to keep me cool, the inside is usually wet to the touch by the time I get to my station just 3 miles away. However, wearing the HH underneath, for the first time in just about ever, I was dry when I arrived at the station. I was hot & sweaty, cycling in the cold, but my clothes were dry – the HH had taken it all – and I didn’t feel uncomfortable in the slightest. I have worn it on every cycle ride since.

I only own the one Helly Hansen base layer shirt, but will purchase more as soon as my finances allow. It is one of the best bits of cycling clothing I’ve ever bought. Personally, I couldn’t wear it as a “t-shirt in its own right,” as Helly claim – mostly because I’m a fat bastard and it would make me look like I was wearing a stripey gimp suit – but I can see how cyclists of a slimmer profile could do so. The shirt is warm (even the “Dry” product) but not uncomfortable even in warm weather, where its “wicking” properties come into their own. This comfort is worth £22 of anyone’s money, so do yourself a favour this autumn and join the hordes of happy reviewers on the internet.

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Raising the Class

Professional races are graded by the UCI into four categories, signifying the amount of points and prize money on offer for competing in the race. There is an excellent explanation of these categories over on Wikipedia, lifted straight out of the UCI’s manual, so suffice it to only summarise here.

There are three grades of cycling team acknowledged by the UCI, excluding National Teams:

  • ProTeam – The highest level of professional team, competing at the very highest level of events – cycling’s Premier League. Examples include Team Sky, Garmin-Sharp, BMC Racing, Canondale and Movistar.
  • Professional Continental – A professional team employing at least 14 riders and support staff on a full-time basis. The team tours in specific regions around the world (e.g. Europe, Asia) and can only enter World Tour events along with the ProTeams after being invited by a wild card entry. There are not many teams in this category, with Asia having only one Chinese team (Champion System) and Oceania having none at all. Europe is dominated by French and Belgian teams, and there is no British (team) representation at this level at all.
  • Continental – The lowest grade of team, which may contain a mixture of professional and amateur riders – details are left up to national federations. They never compete in World Tour events. British examples include Raleigh, UK Youth and Node-4 Giordana. Owing to the somewhat more lax operating conditions on these teams, there are many more of them. Like the Professional Continental teams above them, they race events in their specific continental region.

The UCI does not deal with regional or club cycling teams, and they do not feature in UCI rankings. As such, even the Continental teams above should be regarded as being of a very high standard.

To go with these grades of team, the UCI grades races as:

  • WT – World Tour – The highest category of race. ProTeams are obliged to enter. These races include the Tour de France, Paris – Roubaix, the Giro d’Italia – all of cycling’s premier events.
  • HC – Hors Categorie – Open to ProTeams, who are only allowed to make up 70% of participants at a maximum, Professional Continental teams, Continental teams and National Teams of the organising country (e.g. UK Youth)
  • 1 – Open to ProTeams (50% participation maximum), Professional Continental, Continental and National Teams
  • 2 – Professional Continental, Continental, National, regional and club teams may enter

A race may further be designated a category 1 or category 2 race – this simply denotes whether it is a one-day event (Category 1) or a stage event (Category 2). The Tour of Britain is a 2.1 event, meaning a class 1 stage race, with 50% ProTeam participation as a limit.

The main difference between the categories is the amount of prize money and world ranking points on offer – the winner of an HC race will win 100 ranking points, but the winner of a 2.2 race will only take home 40 points. The winner of the Tour de France takes home a whopping 200 points. The scales of points are also different between categories, with the bigger races dishing out points to lower-ranked riders than those in the smaller events.

The grading of a race is entirely arbitrary and down to the judgment of the UCI, and there is little material available to explain the process on their website. It would seem to be down to the level of race organisation, support from sponsors, crowd support (including television potential) and the quality of the course itself. Readers of this blog will have noted that I am fairly anti-UCI, but to my mind, this is one of the only areas of the sport where they have any real influence.

The Tour of Britain is a Class 2.1 event and has been ever since its inception. This limits the field of top-tier riders and the amount of prize money on offer. This grading is no longer appropriate, given the levels of support for cycling in this country, and puts us below tours of Turkey, Denmark and Austria, all given the “HC” class. It also means we sit below Oman, and the mighty Tour of Qinghai Lake in China on the Asia circuit. We are equivalent to the Tropicale Amissa Bongo in Gabon on the Africa circuit. Surely Britain’s current position within world cycling demands a higher grading than this? Unfortunately, after another successful tour this year, the UCI have once again turned down the Tour of Britain’s request for a reclassification, and not even offered an explanation as to why. I’m not suggesting that the Tour of Britain should become a fourth “grand tour” (we don’t have the space for it or the diversity of landscape), but we should have a premier road cycling stage race that forms one of the highlights of the cycling calendar.

Britain is currently pumping a lot of money into cycling as a sport, generating revenue for companies all over the world. We are producing some of the finest riders, in all categories of cycling, ever seen. Public interest in cycling has never been higher in Britain than it is now. Cyclists have won the BBC Sports Personality of the Year award, voted on by the public, on the last two occasions, and three times in the last five years. The 2012 Tour of Britain drew an average of 382,000 viewers for the live coverage and 526,000 for the highlights every daydespite being stuck on a backwater channel like ITV4 which barely half the population can even get, and which draws an average of 1% audience share. We deserve a Tour of Britain that reflects our national status and interest in the sport, and that means one that offers significant prize money and big-name riders coming to town.

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RideLondon Freecycle

Back in August, I took part in the Prudential RideLondon Freecycle, taking in an eight-mile traffic free loop of Central London. Registration is now open for next year’s event, although if you fancy the 100-mile ride out into Surrey, then you’ll have to already have registered as interest has proved overwhelming, with 50,000 people signing up in the first 24 hours alone!

Outside Buckingham Palace

For a TWT like me, the London-Surrey 100 is about 50 miles too long, but I was still able to enjoy punting around the capital this summer on my faithful hybrid. The route was an 8-mile circuit which could be joined anywhere. Mine started at the Houses of Parliament, where I then made my way down towards Green Park, along the Mall, out onto Whitehall, along the Victoria Embankment, a short climb up to St Paul’s Cathedral, a twisty route into the City of London, out the other side onto Tower Hill and then back towards the Embankment to do the loop all over again. It was an opportunity to see some stunning scenery without having to ride through London’s notoriously dense traffic.

For me, the first lap I did was by far and away the most enjoyable. Officially, I shouldn’t have started on the course until 9am, but I sneaked on at 8.30 (along with several others who had already done likewise) and was able to enjoy one of the most blissful 40 minutes’ cycling I’ve ever had in London. It was just me, wide open roads, no traffic and a whole city to play in. The second lap was much the same, only more people had started to join the route so there were times when I had to ride slightly slower. I then bumped into my parents, who had decided to come up and have a look at what this whole “cycling” thing was about, and didn’t get away onto a third lap until about 11am. By this time, so many people had taken to the road that it was completely impossible to move at a decent rate, and I found myself practically crushed in a crowd pedalling along at a leisurely 6mph. Unfortunately, children rarely have any idea how to ride in a group, so there were lots of youngsters swerving in front of other cyclists, groups suddenly stopping in the middle of the road, and pedestrians sometimes stepping off the pavements in front of us; it became less about the riding and more about “hazard avoidance”. Sadly, it stopped being fun, and I made sure that my third lap was my last – even though I could have gone twice the distance. The sheer number of participants had just made it impossible to move at anything like a decent pace – and I am absolutely not a fast cyclist!

The roads for the RideLondon event had been closed from 0500 so, in a feedback survey to the organisers, I asked a simple question: why not open the course up from 0700 so that those of us early birds who like to go around a bit quicker can do so – then leave the rest of the day to the families and children? I haven’t heard back and it’s far too early to get detailed plans on next year’s event, but I hope this is the case. I don’t want to see limits placed on numbers, which would seem to defeat the object of a “freecycle”, or any attempts at lane segregation (I can’t see how that could be enforced), or age restrictions, so I think an earlier start time is the fairest for all and balances the desires of “faster” cyclists like me (with the proviso that it isn’t a racing event!) with the needs of those with young children and more “leisurely” participants.

These last-lap hiccups weren’t enough to ruin my day, though, and overall it was one of the most enjoyable cycling events I’ve ever taken part in. The entertainment laid on at Green Park, St Paul’s and Tower Hill was magnificent and while I’ve heard a few complaints in the Evening Standard about road closures and the impact on businesses in London, the numbers taking part and out enjoying themselves spectating dwarfed the complainers. It felt like a one-day festival of cycling, and I was proud to have been part of it.

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Altitude Cycling

I’ve now passed 15,000ft in climbing this year, according to Strava. This may not sound like much to hardcore road cyclists, but you need to remember that I’m a fat bastard on a heavy hybrid with a wife, young baby and round-the-clock job which prevents me from getting on my bike as often as I’d like. I’m happy with myself 🙂

Brasilia, from 15000ft above ground

I went searching on the internet and found this image of the Brazilian capital, Brasilia, from 15,000ft, which is the view I would have if I’d been cycling like E.T. this year.

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Womens’ Road Racing

The other day, I read this interesting article over on Road CC where Lizzie Armitstead criticised the lack of action from the UCI in establishing a proper womens’ professional road racing circuit and called on professional teams to be forced into developing female riders as well. I think she has a legitimate gripe. I’ve always thoroughly enjoyed watching the likes of Jess Varnish, Victoria Pendleton and Laura Trott on the track, and I see no reason why I wouldn’t enjoy watching a proper road racing calendar as well.

While I can reel off many male professional teams from the top of my head – Sky Procycling, BMC, Orica GreenEDGE, Omega-Pharma Quickstep, Movistar, Euskaltel Euskadi, etc etc, I can only name just one professional womens’ team – Wiggle Honda, and it is only through a bit of internet research for this article that I’ve learned of Team TIBCO. Even then, I only know of Wiggle Honda because they are based here in Britain. To my knowledge, none of the big teams I’ve just named have got female development squads and they are some of the biggest names in the sport (Orica are also a co-sponsor on one female team, Orica-AIS, but they are different teams). Only Argos-Shimano in the Netherlands have a direct female equivalent team, but they’re a second-tier outfit relying on wildcard invitations to get into the really big events. As can be seen from the list in this link, there are very few female pro teams.

There are some womens’ sports I don’t enjoy watching, such as football, cricket and boxing – they just don’t capture my attention in the way that the mens’ game does. Football I find too slow, the cricket I find lacks the big hits of the mens’ game and boxing I just don’t like, despite being a fan of the male sport. Yet I do enjoy tennis, athletics, swimming and cycling – so far confined only to the track – immensely. There is no valid argument that can be made to support the position that:

  1. Women can’t compete in endurance sports: they can (ask any marathon runner, biathlete or swimmer)
  2. There would be no audience to watch it: there is (look at the crowds for London 2012)
  3. There isn’t enough money to develop a women’s team: there is (cycling makes more money now than ever before – Armitstead estimates that Team Sky make over £10m per year)
  4. There isn’t enough room in the calendar to accommodate a womens’ schedule: there is.

This fourth point, to me, seems easy to address. Why not simply have a womens’ race set off an hour before the mens’ race in any professional event? The infrastructure would already be there, the planning has already been done – all that would be needed would be some more outriders and a slightly longer period of road closures. For an even braver decision, it could even be possible to have a combined start and mix the female riders in with the men, albeit they should be classified separately, much like happens in the Touring Car championship. Wouldn’t this also give the crowds at road races something extra to cheer and enjoy? I’ve stood out on Guildford High St before for 4 hours just to catch a 2-minute glimpse of some of the world’s best cyclists. If there had been women on the Tour of Britain last year, I might have doubled that.

At present, the situation for womens’ professional cycling is completely unacceptable. Recently, most of the peloton withdrew from the Giro della Toscana on the very final stage of the race, including the overall leader Marianne Vos, because they were expected to negotiate the course in amongst the general Italian traffic. Would we consider making women run the London marathon on a Monday rush hour? They are also forced to ride different courses, different routes, participate in different events (by which I mean classifications) at the same championships and scrabble around for funding – yet when it comes to track cycling, I would argue that Laura Trott is probably the biggest name going right now. This cannot continue for much longer, and I’m not the only one saying so.

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Night Ride to Windsor


A couple of weeks ago, I just decided to head out on my bike for a little night ride and did a 23mi circuit out to Windsor Castle and back, shooting this rather poor effort on the way. The descent down into Old Windsor made the whole ride worthwhile (after a 750ft climb!) and it was spectacular riding around the old castle. Unfortunately I didn’t get to see too much, but the town definitely looks like somewhere I will revisit during daylight hours sometime.

For riding at night, I highly recommend the Lezyne Power Drive XL and no, I’m not on commission from Wiggle.

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North Downs Link – NCN Route 223

On a mild day early in September, I decided to head out on one of the routes over the North Downs from Sustrans‘ excellent book, Cycling in South East England, by John Grimshaw, that I’d been meaning to try out for a while. The route I planned to take ran from Guildford to Horsham in Sussex, a distance of around 18 miles and largely following National Cycle Network route 223. I’ve now ridden many routes on the NCN all over the country and if you’ve never tried one, I urge you to do so. They’re not guaranteed to be traffic free, but they are mostly cycle-friendly and a great way of exploring interesting places on your bike.

I started from the Guildford end of NCN 223, heading south. It took me a couple of attempts to find the correct path, but nothing that caused any significant delays – this was entirely due to me not being terribly familiar with Guildford’s many cycle routes, and the start of the route being located in a park that wasn’t particularly well signposted. Once I was on NCN 223, the route was entirely straightforward, with no real opportunity to get lost on the way.

NCN 223 is a route that varies in surface quality, like many others. I found that the further south I went, the worse it became, and I wouldn’t recommend tackling it on a road bike as this route would largely be considered “off road”. For hybrids and mountain bikes, the route should be easy to tackle, but would get very muddy in wet weather. The route is 95% traffic-free, with only a very short section of main road to be tackled at the end toward’s Christ’s Hospital. However, only the northern end of the route near Guildford is properly tarmacked, with much of the rest of the route being an off-road dirt track that follows the route of the old Cranleigh Railway, part of which ran between Guildford and Horsham. There are a couple of disused stations to see on the route, with the largest being near the beginning at Bramley. The other large station on the way can be found at Baynard’s, but this is now in private hands and photography is strictly controlled around the area, with no access onto the station itself.

Bramley & Wonersh Station, closed in 1965. The cycle route runs to the right of the station along the tarmac, and there is a small display of the station's history on the platform.

Bramley & Wonersh Station, closed in 1965. The cycle route runs to the right of the station along the tarmac, and there is a small display of the station’s history on the platform.

For much of the route heading south, I felt like I was riding in a woodland tunnel, but this was punctuated by occasional views out onto the rolling North Downs and gorgeous countryside, linking the counties of Surrey and Sussex. There were no large hills on the way, apart from one particularly short sharp climb at Baynard’s Tunnel, and being a disused railway line, the route was mostly flat or with gentle inclines. The town of Cranleigh makes an ideal stopping point for cyclists at roughly mid-way along the route and boasts a good range of cafes and pit-stops close to the trail. The route also seemed to be getting a fair bit of use from the locals, all of whom seemed friendly and well-used to cyclists on the path.

If the route has one highlight, it has to be the unusual double-bridge outside Rudgwick crossing the River Arun. This came about during construction of the original railway, after the first bridge built crossing the river was deemed unsuitable by inspectors:

“The Horsham to Guildford line was beset with a number of difficulties when it was being constructed, largely due to local landowners dragging their feet on reaching deals with the railway company.

On 2 May 1865 Bannister reported to the board that the line was finally ready to be inspected by the Board of Trade which duly attended two months later. The Chief Inspecting Officer, Colonel Yolland, was unhappy with the traffic arrangements at Guildford and did not authorise public use of Rudgwick Station, set on a 1 in 80 incline, until it was re-sited on an incline of 1 in 130. As the company was contractually obliged to provide this station for the local landowner, it had no choice but to carry out the works, which also included the raising of an embankment and a bridge over the River Arun by 10 feet (3.0 m). This gave rise to the curious ‘double bridge’ over the River Arun just south of Rudgwick.”

Text courtsey of Paul Willis, the Worthing Wanderer

The route is particularly scenic at this point on the route, with excellent views from high above the river in both directions. I stopped here for a while and had a bit of lunch while other cyclists around me stopped for photos. There is no access onto the lower bridge, which goes absolutely nowhere – it was simply never demolished when the new one was built above it – but there is a steep path down to the river below.

Double Bridge over the River Arun

Double Bridge over the River Arun
Creative Commons Licence [Some Rights Reserved]   © Copyright Ron Strutt and
licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence

The final point of note is Baynard’s Tunnel, which I had to ride over and not through. The tunnel has been sealed for decades and is now home to a large colony of bats. This provides the only sharp climb of the whole route. It is quite a poor surface to ride on – very rocky – and there is little in the way of direction as you double-back on yourself. The descent down the other side could also be quite treacherous in wet weather and I found myself bumping down the track far faster than I was comfortable with. Those with young children should take care, but it shouldn’t be enough to put you off riding the route.

After the speed of the descent down Baynard’s, the route continues to the south-east for a few more miles until arriving back onto a main road leading to Christ’s Hospital, which has a local station run by Southern Railways back up towards London. I pressed on a little further into neighbouring Horsham, but for those with the inclination to do so, NCN 223 continues all the way south for a further 20 miles (approx) to Shoreham-by-Sea.

This section of NCN 223 is perfectly suitable for less-able cyclists and for those who just wish for a straightforward country ride. It isn’t up there with the best of routes I’ve ridden, but has just about enough landmarks to keep your interest up, combined with a flat (off-road) track and a couple of useful cafe stops on route.

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If I were to follow a professional cycling mould and make a laughable comparison of myself with a lycra-clad demigod, I would be more of a “Cavendish” than a “Froome”. I can’t climb hills to save my life, and hate them with a passion. As far as I’m concerned, the only good thing about a hill is coming down it.

Of course, I can actually go up hills – but I ride a heavy hybrid and not some sleek carbon-fibre road bike. I guess many of my readers are the same. Recently, I put my (limited) climbing skills to the test down in Mortehoe, North Devon, which has a very steep 20% (1 in 5) hill on approach to the town, rising 654 feet according to my Strava stats.

View of Mortehoe, Devon, looking down the hill from the village

I descended down this hill from my caravan site nearby and had to do much of it on the brakes. My little Garmin practically had smoke coming out of it when I hit 33mph, and I didn’t feel comfortable pushing it any harder. Country roads may be generally less busy than city roads like here in London, but drivers tend to occupy more of the centre of the road in my experience, and are generally driving at speeds closer to 60mph. The steepness of the hill was greater than any other I’d ever ridden down, and the photo here doesn’t really do it justice. I had to adjust my weight by sitting back in the saddle (keeping my back wheel closer to the ground) and making myself more horizontal, rather than my more traditional “sit-up and beg” riding position, so that I didn’t lean too far forward on the handlebars. Once the hill changed to a shallower gradient, it became a pure pleasure to descend down from the hill onto the far eastern end of Woolacombe beach.

This pleasure was fairly short-lived, as I pushed myself too hard coming up a hill on the other side in an area called “The Warrens” and had to stop and collapse on some grass nearby after only riding three miles. I was so out of shape, I even dry-retched a couple of times – something that happens to me quite a lot when I push myself too hard, too quickly, but something I usually get over very quickly. As I sat on the grass, it dawned on me that I would have to climb back up that same hill to return to my caravan. Pride prevented me from calling Mrs Tubby on a rescue mission.

I decided to take a longer route round, but climbing up a slightly shallower hill through the edge of Woolacombe itself. This had the added advantage of making my ride into a nice loop.

For the first half-mile or so, climbing out of Woolacombe with spectacular views over the coast, I felt fine and left my retching behind me. My legs were tired, but nicely warmed-up by now. Unfortunately, my ever-present companion, fatigue, set in after only another few hundred yards, and I found myself sitting on the edge of a hotel flowerbed, desperately gasping for air and contemplating Mrs Tubby’s rescue mission. Then, I made a decision that will seem like the most basic common sense to most cyclists, but had never really occurred to me up until that point: I was pushing myself too hard, and needed to go slower. It didn’t matter if I completed the course in pigeon-steps – the aim was just to complete it. This basic thought hit me as a revelation in its stark simplicity.

I cranked my gear down to its lowest setting of 2-1 (I don’t use the first front gear) and concentrated on each turn of the pedals, inching myself up the hill. Sure, my speed was no longer 10mph (more like half that), but I was going up the hill – and much faster than if I were walking it. I stopped worrying about being quick or pushing myself and just went slowly, enjoying the ride. I made it all the way round the course with only one more stop on a Cat 4 climb (briefly). Having stopped three times in the space of a mile before my simple thought, I now stopped only once in the remaining five miles – despite that being the section of the course with the steepest gradient.

My advice to fellow Two Wheel Tubbies? If you’re struggling up that hill, crank it down into a low gear and don’t worry about it. Go as slow as you like – just enough to keep your balance – and you’ll feel better than if you get off and push your bike along. It worked for me.

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