Monday, 12 February 2018

Five reasons to ride your bikes even when it all goes a bit wrong

I wish I'd screen grabbed the weather forecast I read, late on Friday night, as we were going to bed and hatching a plan for the weekend - so that I could have juxtaposed the natty new BBC weather graphics with what actually arrived. 'Sunshine and 7 degrees all afternoon', it proclaimed. After what turned up, I want a refund.

Or do I?

We spent Saturday morning at the gym. Just for once, Katie and I managed to get Wattbikes next to one another, both with working headsets, seat post clamps, pedals - even bluetooth! The final piece of the jigsaw, being able to see one another on Zwift, remained elusive, but we did an hour or so up the mountain towards our Le Col challenge hours, interspersed with some adult conversation and trips to the water cooler to combat the intense heat (none of which later). It hurled it down with rain so we went and got Rhoda some new trainers to ride in, and nipped to Cafe Ventoux for a bit of an outing and something to eat. Katie took the opportunity to see what she might spend her £50 Le Col voucher on - assuming we got some more time on the bike before the weekend was out.

Sunday came, and the sun shone as we sat in church. A bit better than the forecast, we thought. Excellent! We drove home, choosing to ignore the car's temperature warning beep, and threw ourselves into the task of getting everyone's touring kit out at the same time for the first time since last May.

The touring bikes came up from the basement - a feat in itself. Katie's had air in the rear hydraulic brake line. Again.

Ruth's winter cycling jacket was missing. The girls had been sharing one for weeks, which was fine until we wanted them to ride together.

EVERYTHING needed oiling.

Ruth's jacket was still not in evidence.

Rhoda's bottle cage had been robbed from her trailerbike when Thomas Ivor put his foot through one during cyclocross training. Thomas Ivor hadn't tightened the bolts back into the frame, and one was missing on the basement stairs.

Ruth's jacket wasn't in the car. It wasn't anywhere in the pile of coats by the front door. It wasn't in the washing basket, or the cupboard. It wasn't in the girls' bedroom, or their chest of drawers. Running out of places to look.

We had a shortage of serviceable rear lights. About four of them have had the switches fail in wet weather recently. It was looking decidedly dull outside.

Ruth's jacket was not in our bedroom, either. It was not under the settee, nor in the bag we took to her last cyclocross race. It was not in the front garden, or the flippin' fridge. The hunt was becoming desperate and tempers were fraying.

In the end, since all the jacket-searching had cost us so much time we were all 'hangry', we jumped in the car, all each one of us (except Ruth's top half) in full lycra, and went to a well known burger joint which euphemistically calls itself a 'restaurant' but is careful to enhance the eating experience by never bringing to your table everything you ordered. As we arrived there, we were treated to a hailstorm. Words were possibly had with the Almighty, who had apparently hogged the promised nice weather, for the part of the day we had spent indoors, worshipping Him.

I think the children thought that was it, and we were going to go home, take off our cycling kit, put a fire in the grate and spend the rest of the day looking for Ruth's jacket, but somehow, (perhaps that £50 Le Col voucher had something to do with it) Katie and I steeled ourselves to the prospect of cutting back our ambitions for the day's riding, but restoring some honour by being able to say we had ridden, after all. Here's what I think we learned, as we set out under grey skies, which proceeded to dump on us from a great height...

1. There will be 'can't be bothered' days on the road, too. They may of themselves have no particular reward at all - but they facilitate the 'other days' - and you have to do them to reach your goal.

When you reach the end of a tour, you will remember the really tough bits. The stinking great hills. The equipment failures. You'll remember the amazing bits - the natural wonders, a tasty meal, road angels you met. What you're unlikely to remember so readily is the miles and miles you spent just plodding on. The days when getting on the road again was a drag. A nagging headwind. Rain that stops as soon as you've put your wet weather gear on. Even in lovely places, there are boring bits.

The fact is, going the distance is very much about being able to keep on going when the motivation is low and excuse factor is high. If you hadn't done a few hours at 10mph feeling uninspired, here and there, you might be hundreds of miles short of your objective. Sticking with a plan to throw your leg over the bike, even when at the time, it would be much easier not to, is good discipline for days where caving in could kill off your big aspirations.

2. If you don't find the kit you need today, you won't have it for next time, and you'll lose another ride. If one plan goes for a Burton, try and respond in a way that prevents recurrence.

We covered less than half the distance we had hoped, in the end, but if we had used 'we can't find everything in a hurry' as an excuse, we'd not have gone out at all - and we'd have left ourselves the same excuse for next time, too. In the end, we figured that if we only rode up our street and back, to have done that before the day was out would be a sign that we were able to get moving more quickly, and fully equipped, next time. Today's ride became a facilitator for the next one! (See point 5, below)

Repurpose a ride that isn't going to hit all the original targets. Roll with the blows and do something purposeful with it - even if that's short of, or different to, what you'd hoped. It might mean next time goes more smoothly.

3. What doesn't kill them makes them stronger - children get used to what they've experienced safely, and will be calmer next time. Use incentives.

What is training for, if not a bit of conditioning?! A small dose of hail in the faces, endured by choice and survived, makes for better endurance next time it comes and can't be avoided. Use mitigations (being able to turn round and put the wind at your backs, and doing that before things get ugly) and rewards (hot chocolate and a warm bath at home afterwards) while you have them. If we encounter a full-on hailstorm again, in the middle of nowhere, the children know what to do, and that it will be ok. They won't die. It will still be a good adventure. We were well impressed with the girls' willingness to endure a burst of rough weather and keep going; Thomas Ivor was able to get used to the 'new' sensory input of cold stuff hitting his face whilst riding a road he knows well, and could process his response at his own pace.

Children today are often shielded more than is helpful to them, from the weather. Properly equipped, with careful management (both important caveats!), they can endure more than they think - and if you are willing to do it close to home, out of season, that unexpected storm on your next tour will be far less of a curved ball. Which brings us to the next point...

4. Train hard, fight easy - test your contingencies and ability to deal with problems when you can choose to, rather than when you have no choice! 

Last year, we were privileged to go to visit Islabikes in Shropshire. In preparation for a staff outing, a weekend's off-road touring through Wales, founder Isla Rowntree presided over (and participated in, and won) a competition in which every participant had to change their rear inner tube against the clock, unaided, using only their own equipment for the trip, fully packed up as it would be on the day.  I won't say who found they'd packed a 26" tube on their 29er, but several of the participants encountered trouble they'd not foreseen, and a few doubtless tweaked their preparations subsequently! As Isla pointed out, they'd be glad of the frustration now, if they had a puncture out on open moorland in a freezing cold deluge the following week.

Solving problems you hope you will never have, with a safety net, might lead to packing new or different things (or knowledge!) that improve your chances on tour, when things go wrong. If the things you fear most on tour, you've already tried and found a response for, you have rather less to fear. In our case this time, it wasn't so much equipment based but a test of 'can we ride on in these conditions', in a situation where we could bail out at any time -  and the answer was "yes - and Rhoda needs the peak of her hat adjusting for her when it happens". If that's the worst of it, we won't be so worried next time the BBC forecast turns out to be so lamentably inaccurate!

There is a general level of satisfaction to be had from having 'done it anyway', and if children bank positive experiences of dealing with situations you'd prefer not to deal with, but might have to, everyone stresses less. Even if unbeknown to them, you dialled things back a bit having satisfied yourself it was ok, everyone gets a feeling that nothing can stop you next time. Some days, when you're digging deep, that's what you need upon which to draw.

5. Evaluation is the mother of preparedness - a.k.a. 'Always look in the toy box'.

We got home, got warm, got the girls some hot chocolate and a bath, and Katie set to, continuing the hunt for the lost jersey, finding a number of other things we didn't know we'd lost, along the way, and filling two bags for the charity shop, largely of toys that the girls didn't need any more. At the bottom of one of the toy boxes, patiently waiting all along to be discovered, was a Size 1 HUP cycling jacket.

We made a list, from which the missing jersey was cheerfully removed, of other things that had come to light during the afternoon. Ruth's trailerbike seat needs to go up. Rhoda's gloves are getting tight and she is probably ready for the larger crankset her sister uses. We have a new 11-34t cassette that needs fitting to Katie's tourer, along with bleeding those pesky brakes again. I ended up recording Ruth's heart rate, not my own (although that was instructive, during the ride!). I've got a loose front lamp bracket. We need to sort out some more rear lights, or fix the ones we have. These are all things we can try to fix before our next full team ride, rather than consigning ourselves to repeating them - and whilst it's been decided that the girls are to have special bags to put their cycling clothes and accoutrements in, we will be sure to check the toy box, next time something's gone astray...

Wednesday, 7 February 2018

Magic Moments - Rhoda's Rolling!

I don't know whether it's because it's not a natural skill - we are not inherently programmed as humans to ride a bicycle - but the moment your child finally, without really meaning to, sure that you can't possibly let go, motors away from you, finally letting you stand up straight and have your arms back, is a special one for me. There is something seminal in the life-milestone laid as your little one goes off on their own - even if they do go on to ditch the bike ten yards away.

Despite her formidable progress in many areas, including her tolerance and stamina for riding her trailerbike from Vatersay to Lewis last summer, Rhoda has been a bit behind Ruth's curve when it came to pedalling her own bike. Balance biking was no problem for her - indeed she was doing it younger than her siblings - and she learned how to work her brakes very quickly indeed, but where Ruth was pedalling at two (though unable to use her brakes to stop!), Rhoda could slow the bike to a stand nicely, but was in danger of turning four before completing her first lap of the bandstand unaided.

Over the past few months we've been biding our time, just having a little go once in a while to see if she was ready without labouring it, trying both the Cnoc 14 and the 16, the latter rolling and arguably fitting Rhoda better now, but being trickier for her to swing a leg over. A growth spurt having fixed that, something possessed me to give her another whirl on Friday. Mummy was working from home, and gave Rhoda the incentive that she could have chocolate buttons delivered to her at the bandstand - only if Daddy called to say there was cycling to be seen!

When it comes to learning style, Thomas Ivor is mostly 'stick' but with specific 'carrots' (he is best motivated on the bike by anger, sometimes!); Ruth is mainly 'carrot' and a bit of 'stick' when we get to a 'mind-over-matter' sticking point. Rhoda is all about the carrots. Especially if the metaphorical carrots are actual chocolate buttons.

Our approach to teaching children to ride has developed over time. Thomas Ivor had stabilisers and a heavy bike. We've learned a lot since then! 

Rhoda's pedalling technique was something of a headache, because she'd developed a penchant for doing it backwards, but that remedied itself in its own time, part way through our Hebridean trip last summer. Now, it was time to meld that with the balancing she'd been doing for so long. Early signs weren't promising - her initial enthusiasm turned to frustration when things didn't work first time, and I sent Mummy a text warning her not to hold her breath...

In common with many children, Rhoda had a fixation with the risk, in her mind, of me no longer holding on and preventing her from falling. Interestingly, I discovered she was far less concerned about hurting herself than hurting the bike! The answer to this is to maintain contact with the child, under the armpits, so they can feel your touch, whilst you know they are actually taking over the balance of the bike from you. Ultimately, you reach the point where they are so busy riding the bike that they don't notice your touch becoming intermittent, and then before you know it, you are running ahead to give them a target to ride towards. When you are 6'8" tall and stiff as a board, this moment can't come soon enough!

Mummy was duly summoned to the bandstand, and joined in the game!

It is rather easier with two of you, not least because your little cyclist has a tendency to ride inexorably towards whatever holds their attention (often what they least want to hit, in this case the bandstand itself!) and so by having someone behind them, and someone to ride towards, their fixation becomes on the parent they're being encouraged to ride to, not the parent acting as 'catcher'. Avoiding falls at this point is very helpful, if you can pull it off; luckily, Rhoda's bike handling and braking were already pretty good.

At this point, 'little and often' is the key, to embed the child's learning and cement their confidence. Otherwise, you end up teaching them more than once!

From being unable to do it properly on Friday morning, Rhoda was chasing her big sister (who felt very very grown up, offering to ride in her lowest gear to be helpful, and testing our her new heart rate monitor) round the bandstand on the Sunday afternoon.
It's a bit strange, looking back, having that feeling as Rhoda pedalled away that she might be the last child (certainly of mine!) that I get the privilege to share that special moment with, and yet I am also reminded of the torture, by comparison, of teaching Thomas Ivor, who had used evil stabilisers and a heavy, heavy bike. Either way, on we go! Three years ago, Thomas Ivor was re-learning to ride from scratch, on his first Islabike; Ruth was making her first tentative steps waddling along with the balance bike and Rhoda was asleep in the trailer. Now, we have Thomas Ivor doing 100km runs on Zwift, Ruth racing cyclocross and Rhoda, well, there's no stopping her, now! It's a good job, because we have big plans for the team this year...

Wednesday, 24 January 2018

Losing the 'shop around the corner'

We had a slight lie-in on Saturday. Thomas Ivor was recovering from his charity triathlon the day before, and the girls had gone to their grandparents for the weekend, so we could get on with some DIY, and thus, unusually by recent standards, I didn't make the Saturday morning 'club ride' from our local shop, Wellingborough Cycles.

By lunchtime, we decided to go out for some fresh air and food (a morning's paint stripping had left us needing both, rather badly) and at the last moment I elected to stop by the bike shop to pick up my new saddle, which was my Christmas present and which I'd been meaning to fetch for about a week.

We passed the shop and it looked busy - the ride must have not long got back, we figured - and so we went for lunch first, before dropping in for my saddle. As I walked in, something didn't feel quite as normal, and turning round, I saw fewer bikes than usual against the wall, and a sign on one saying 'Closing Down Sale'.

'That's another bike brand no longer worth trying to retail on the high street' I thought to myself, dismissing any notion that it was more than that - but at the counter, proprietor Darren's face was ashen. They'd met the accountants during the week, decided it was impossible to continue trading, and announced the shop's closure to the group ride earlier that Saturday morning.

The thing is, it's hard to tell when your local bike shop is in dire straits, because most local bike shops are up against it all the time, these days. Friends in the distribution side of the trade speak of German warehouses mail-ordering products to the UK for less than the 'trade' price, never mind retail. 

Two tragedies hit us, as with considerable reluctance we picked up a few final purchases to help the guys clear the decks.

Firstly, the human perspective. Darren and his team had built something special. They had lovely premises, well cared for, smartly turned out, and unlike certain of their competitors they always took the greatest of care with our bikes in the workshop, most of which had visited them at some time or another. They were a friendly bunch, and again, unlike other shops, never treated us dismissively, disdainfully or like our children were about to explode and kill all the other customers, when we came in the shop as a team. Thomas Ivor, Ruth and Rhoda had grown accustomed to chatting with Darren about their cycling exploits over a sweetie, or a biscuit, and we really appreciated that. It was heartbreaking seeing the personal cost of over a decade's hard work; peoples' livelihoods, being taken away. 

We appreciated our local bike shop because we knew that a trustworthy, keen, specialist shop close to our home was a luxury these days, and losing that is a tragedy, for us and our community. Of the bike shops in our area, this was the one which had earned our loyalty - it was one we would have travelled to even if it hadn't been the closest. We often contented ourselves with ordering things through them, even if they could be obtained faster and cheaper online, because we saw the value in supporting, in deliberately investing our spending in a business which supported and took an interest in us. At a stroke, it's gone, and it's strangely numbing. My road bike was about to go in for a service, and I have no idea what I will do with it now.

I passed the shop yesterday, to go to the butcher's. The shutters were down and, reminiscent of Meg Ryan's character's shop in 'You've got mail', I looked in sadly at the empty shelves, the counter, the window into the workshop where Darren would usually be found working on someone's steed when you arrived - and yet I was reminded of the old lady in the film, the one who'd worked there all her life, saying "Closing the store is the brave thing to do" - and that's certainly true in the face of the odds; sometimes there is no sense in trying to trade your way out of trouble. In this case, the bike trade seems set on destroying award-winning local businesses who supported and nurtured both individual cyclists and cycling culture in our communities - and we won't know what we had, 'til we lose it. 

Budgets are tight for all of us but we can vote with what we spend. If you still have a 'shop around the corner', look after them. If enough of you do, hopefully they'll still be able to look after you, for some time to come.

Amongst our final purchases was a Wellingborough Cycles race jersey, size 'XXS'. It's a shade big on the lad for now, but Thomas Ivor will wear it with pride and it will remind us to hold in our thoughts the people whose labours and friendship we valued, as they move on to new chapters in their lives. In the case of two of the guys, Tom and James, it's a new way of doing business, because we are pleased to hear that the bike fitting and coaching they offered will be continuing as VĂ©lo Elite, along with ongoing support for our town's de facto cycling club. 

We thank them for all they have done for us, congratulate them on the memorable things they achieved over the years, of which they should be proud, and wish all of them the very best for the future.

Tuesday, 23 January 2018

Thomas Ivor's Triathlon Triumph - #7kFor700k

On Friday, I did a 3x7km triathlon to raise money for the National Autistic Society's '7k for 700k' appeal, to highlight the 700,000 people in the UK who have Autism, like me.

I had a few difficulties to overcome. The day before the event, we had to survey a new route because someone decided that I wouldn't be able to use the gym for the cycle and run as we'd hoped. They also said they thought the challenge was too much at my age, and that they wouldn't have let their own children do it. This made me a bit cross, but actually it spurred me on and I was even more determined to prove that I could do it! We decided that I would do the cycle and run on a traffic free path by the A45. My NAS collecting tin had also got delayed in the post, but luckily that was waiting on our doorstep when we got home. Later, I got my first pair of running shoes, because Daddy said my trainers were looking a bit tired. I collected up all the things I was going to need, and put my batteries on charge.

Next morning, I woke up and had tons of butterflies in my stomach, so I filled it with porridge. After breakfast I started to get my stuff together; I needed so much kit! I packed one bag for each discipline to help with the transitions.

As soon as I said that I was starting at 10 o’clock that day, people started retweeting me and donating online, which motivated me even more.

Before you know it I was ready in the water to start my first ever triathlon.

Daddy set the watch going it went “Three, Two”, I felt like Kevin McAllister: "This is it - don’t get scared now" "one, GO!".

The first stint was 1¼ hours, which was quite easy, so then I went for a brief break while AQUA ZUMBA was happening, because ¾ of an hour of loud cheesy pop music often offends, and they make the water very choppy. I had done 100 lengths, or so I thought. We swapped my Swimtag for another one so I didn't get a flat battery and lose my data.

I had a break in the changing room before going back in the water. The second 'third' was incredibly hard, but my swimming teacher Glenn came to swim with me. Also, to spur me on, Daddy kept me posted on the kind people who were donating to the NAS on my fundraising page. One lady had been swimming in the next lane to me! People were also donating using the collecting tin, which I had put on reception. I had a sign next to me in the pool telling people what I was doing, and why.

After another 90 lengths, I got out for some lunch. I had a tuna sandwich, some blue 'super juice' and more bananas. We swapped my Swimtag again but it was taking ages to appear on the app, which meant that I didn't know for certain how many lengths I had left to do.

The last leg was very dull and boring just looking at the same things over and over again (mostly tiles) and the sun was in my eyes, going one way up the pool. I was also getting tired. It got worse when Daddy came and told me that the Swimtag had uploaded 7 lengths less than I thought I'd done, so I was going to have to do some extra to make sure I did 7km. Daddy then made me do 20 more lengths, just to make sure that I had definitely done it!

It was a good job he did because when we got the final download I'd only gone four lengths over!

I touched the wall for the last time and I was out. My legs were like trifle. Time for the cycle!

I was soon changed and Daddy put some air in my tyres. I tried start Strava but I’d already put my gloves on and could not work the screen! Unfortunately, there was a problem with the bluetooth and my sensors wouldn't work, which always seems to happen on important days!

The path was not the best surfaced of all the paths I’ve ever been on but it was very flat. I went past a lot of geese, swans, blackbirds and squirrels. On the way back though I went the wrong way and had to cross all the roads on the retail park again, which took a long time.

Soon in the distance I saw a man who looked like a man from ‘Ikea’ up by McDonalds, it was Daddy in his blue coat and yellow trousers, who had come to watch me across the roundabout safely. “You’ve gone the wrong way son, that's further!” He laughed.  I had a quick chat with him and got on my way again.

I got to the end of the path and waited for the team to arrive. My sister Rhoda was asleep in the back of the car by now! Daddy gave me a banana in exchange for my bike.

The cycle was my recovery for the triathlon. Now it was time for the pain!

Phone - check
Shoes - check
Gloves - check
Let's go!

The first few strides were awful but I found my rhythm. I felt soon very grumpy and tired, though.
It was dark and all the nice things that I saw on the bike were nowhere to be seen. Eventually, at the end of the path, I saw Daddy’s bright yellow trousers in the distance; I made my way towards him feeling tired.

I told him about what had happened on the run so far, ran towards him again for a bit of filming, then said farewell once more, turned round and went back on my way.

Some autistic people need music to help them concentrate on the task at hand and on the run back to the gym, I tried to listen to some music on the phone, but to my disgust the only piece of music I had was the Second movement of Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto number 2, which I think is too sad to run to; it sounds like funeral music!

I needed some encouragement but the path was empty; all you could hear was the ‘zoom zoom’ of the cars, so I tried to cheer myself on but I seemed to go slower than I was before. Eventually I came down the hill for the very last time of the triathlon, going the right way this time!

Daddy and Rhoda were waiting for me with my NAS banner for the finish; soon I was crashing through the banner and reached the end of my triathlon. It had taken me seven hours and twenty three minutes including breaks, made up of:
  • Swimming  -7.1km, 3 hours, 8 minutes, 30 seconds
  • Bike - 9.57km, 32 minutes, 33 seconds
  • Run - 8.45km, 1 hour, 3 minutes, 53 seconds
My total time spent moving was 4 hours, 44 minutes and 56 seconds.

Afterwards I felt very tired, happy and thankful that I could now rest but not for long as I have more adventures planned! I raised more than double my original target of £210 on my JustGiving page, which was incredible.

The next day I felt quite achey and tired. Oh, and hungry! I was back in the pool for my swimming lesson tonight, though.

I would like to say thank you to my family @FamilyByCycle, and also to all my supporters who have put their time and money into supporting me and other people with autism. I even want to thank the people who said I couldn’t do it, because then I was determined to show them that it is possible, for a 9 year old to take on something big and succeed!

Thursday, 18 January 2018

Thomas Ivor's 21km charity triathlon - going nowhere, fast!

The National Autistic Society recently launched their '7k for 700k' challenge, in which adults are challenged to swim, run or cycle 7km in a week; Thomas Ivor, at nine, is going to do all three. In one day.

7km on the turbo trainer isn't really a big deal for our long-distance adventurer, but 7km in the pool (4-5 hours, we reckon) is a serious piece of work, which he wants to do now, to reward the efforts of his swimming teachers, Becki and Glenn, one of whom is off to pastures new very soon. From not being able to swim two years ago, Thomas Ivor has gone on to win a race in the Olympic pool in London recently, and now is taking on his first serious endurance distance swim, with an eye on going further in the future. We blame Sean Conway's TV show...

Thomas Ivor swims most days, mid-morning, often during Aqua Zumba (so he can cope with tides and currents!) because he is home educated - it's been like that for well over a year now, because he's one of the 50% of children with a diagnosed Autistic Spectrum Disorder who's had to wait that long for the specialist educational help he needs. As a result, his curriculum is a tailored one, and it's allowed him to master his swimming strokes with regular repetition and guidance from his teachers, who have had to adapt their methods for him, and the wonderful team of lifeguards who have taken him under their wing ever since he won his accreditation to swim in the lanes by himself.

We also want to acknowledge all the folk from the 'adventure community' - some well known names, some less so, but all heroes - who have taken the time to train with, speak with, or otherwise encourage the lad. Many of the difficulties he faces, you would never see, but it all means a great deal to him and helps with his motivation.

So, tomorrow, Friday 19 January, Thomas Ivor is going to do something about his situation, by making the most of it. He's trying to raise a tenner for every km of his challenge, and if Family ByCycle's readers would like to support him, with a donation or a message on Twitter @Thomas_Ivor - that would be wonderful! He will be back to write it up afterwards - probably quicker than Daddy...

JustGiving - Sponsor me now!

Sunday, 1 October 2017

"Ride the bike, Ruth!" - Entering the world of Under 8s cyclocross racing...

Ruth ByCycle is not a little girl to sit around and wait for things to happen to her.  Oh no.  Since she could first talk and walk, she has made things happen.  Some of the things have been very successful, others, not so much.  She learned to open doors, and baby gates because she wanted to get out to have a crack at more exciting things she could see on the other side.  She cut her own hair, because frankly Mummy was taking far too long about arranging a hair appointment.  She helped herself to her brother’s bike packing bags and tried to fit them to her frame when it seemed that Mummy and Daddy had failed to realise that 3 year olds need bike packing kit.

So it should have come as no surprise that when Ruth, now 4, decided she wanted to enter a race on her bike, Ruth was going to enter a race on her bike.  Or rather, on her brother’s bike.  Ruth had decided that she was going to need something more competitive than her 16” wheels, so 'Merida' was consigned to the cupboard and Ruth pestered Daddy until he conceded that she could have a go on the semi-retired 20” Islabikes Beinn, which, she pointed out, she could test ride on the turbo trainer.  The reach was a bit more of a stretch than ideal, but having taken it for a spin around our usual training ground, the nearby “Secret Squirrel Velodrome”, Tom was happy enough that she wasn’t going to do herself a mischief.

Training with Dan Lloyd. Like a boss.

So it was that we found ourselves headed for the Milton Keynes Bowl on the cold but sunny morning of 30 September.  

Until this morning,  I associated “the Bowl” with concerts - not bike racing.  We arrive in the car park (such is our eagerness that we are uncharacteristically early) and get Beinn the bike out, and some extra layers to keep Ruth warm while we wait for the race to start.  

Kit is very important to our little people.  They want to feel part of things, so Ruth was already fully kitted out in her mini Canyon-SRAM jersey, her tri shorts and leg warmers (again, shamelessly pinched from big brother @Thomas_Ivor) and had been since she arrived in our bedroom at 6am declaring herself “ready”.  Rhoda, likewise, absolutely required full cycling kit for her role as her big sister’s chief cheerleader, but equally absolutely shunned the idea of wearing anything to cover her legs, so it was shorts for her.

“Mummy, I need my Laura Trott plaits”.  I dutifully braid Ruth’s hair to her satisfaction - if it’s good enough for an Olympian, Ruth thinks it will probably do for her first race.  “I need plaits too”.  Rhoda likewise, is soon sporting her own tribute to the mighty Laura Trott - if you need proof of what the influence of successful women on little girls can be, look no further than these two!

We were ready: time to sign on.  We walked through to the bowl from the car park. As well as being Ruth’s first cyclocross race, it was also Mummy’s first time at a cyclocross race.

It is probably time for a confession:  I am not sure I really understand the point of cyclocross racing.  It appears to me that a group of fully grown adults, and a smaller number of children,  take their bikes to chase around a churned up patch of grass over which they ride lap after identical lap and then go home in a muddy mess having gone, well, nowhere.  However, I am not one to stand in the way of a dream, so I donned my wellies and kept my counsel.

Arriving at the gates, I look around and take in the Bowl, filled with what looks like several hundred miles of plastic tape marking out a course that traverses and climbs the sides and bottom of the bowl, disappearing off into trees.  I try to work out where you get into the taped labyrinth for practice.  I can see the start/finish line, but struggle to work out much more than that.  

Clearly the under 8s weren’t going to tackle the whole course (not unless we wanted the race to last an entire week), but which bit would they race over?  The flat bit at the bottom?  How was four year old Ruth going to fare with navigating her way around this?  Good job we came early for a look at the course, I thought.

But first things first:  a very proud Ruth, grinning ear to ear, was hanging Beinn on the bike stand (which it is barely big enough for) by the registration desk and was soon clutching her very first set of race numbers, and a timing chip (which looked rather large) for her (implausibly small) shoes.  We pin and stick the race numbers to her jersey and look around to see where to get into the course to give Ruth a proper look at where she would be going.  Tom set off with her to walk along the course with her.

This was no flat course, and Ruth was soon having to work out that she needed to get off and push her bike up the sloped side of the bowl, before getting back on to roll down again.  This all took quite a long time, and she lost confidence as other kids warming up zipped up  and down past her.  Urged on by her friend Jake (racing in the U10s) and Daddy, she was soon back with us in the start area to be marshalled.

The body warmer came off.  The drinks bottle found its way to Mummy’s handbag (where all discarded items belonging to the children seem to end up, no matter what I do) in the name of "weight saving", and she was ready.

There were quite a few parents watching, but most it seemed were getting ready to race themselves.  At aged 4, racing in the under 8s, Ruth was one of the youngest competitors.  She looked serious as she listened to the commissaire’s instructions.  As the race began, there was such a look of determination written across her features- I have never seen her so intent on anything.  They were off, with Daddy strategically positioned further up the course to help make sure Ruth goes the right way through the taped maze...

Rhoda and Mummy begin whooping and hollering:  “Go Ruth!  Whooooo!”.  Mummy realises that she might be the only grown up cheering.  What is wrong with everyone?  Why is no one else cheering?  Wait, no, there is someone else shouting.  That would be Daddy.  We are potentially committing a cycle parent faux pas - I have no idea.  Maybe people don’t cheer?  They definitely cheer at road races.  Does cyclocross have different rules?

The race moves away from the start/finish line, and Rhoda and I set off for the side of the bowl where we know Ruth will struggle to push her bike up and around.  There is an interminable wait (at least three minutes) until we can see Ruth well enough to see how she’s doing.  She is dead last.  She is crying but she is still riding the bike.  She approaches the bottom of the hill and looks unsure.  “That’s it Ruth” - I can hear Tom hollering.  “Jump off and push, now”

“GO RUTH!”  Rhoda joins in.  
“Push your bike to Mummy - good girl - you can do it!”
She heaves.  The grass is wet and she struggles for grip.  She sobs, but she doesn’t stop.  The first child laps her.  She stops while they pass her but then she is moving again.

“Ruthie, Ruthie, Ruthie!  You’re doing it - keep going!”

We are still the only parents cheering.  People are looking.  And frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn. That’s my girl, and I’m going to make ALL the noise for her.

She crests the hill, briefly triumphant.  Rhoda and I are jubilant and immediately make a lot more noise.  Tom (down the bottom) is louder still.

Now, get back on the bike, Ruth, I think.

She is still walking.  She turns and looks doubtfully at the slope back down, now churned by the wheels of the previous 30 odd kids to pass over it (twice by now).   She stops and looks some more. 

“Get on your bike, Ruth”, I venture.

“Ride the bike, Ruth”, I hear Tom shouting from some considerable distance away, and briefly register what a ludicrous thing to shout this must sound to anyone else who came here to watch a bike race.

Ruth has rolled down slopes like this hundreds of times, but in this moment she has misplaced the confidence to do it.  She scrambles down slowly on foot until she is back on the level.  She is still running with the bike.

“GET ON YOUR BIKE, Ruth!” She looks at me.  Tear stained.  Muddy.   I want to go and grab her and hug her and take her home.  “You can do it Ruth -just get on your bike!”  She looks daggers at me, briefly, but then climbs on and pedals away from me. She expects to see a flag at the finish (and so do I - she has taken over 9 minutes at this point).  There is no flag.  So she..... sets off for a second lap.  Just like that,  no fuss.  She’s just as intent as she was for the first lap, as the entire field begins to lap her again.  

I can see Tom jogging along with her.  She is making good progress along the bottom of the bowl, and then, they are back at the slope again.

“You can do it, Ruth, up you come!”

She gets off, she grits her teeth. She wails, she cries, she shouts, she growls, but she does it.  Herself.  She is up.  Other parents look at us like we are a) insane and b) possibly torturing our daughter, who is by now so far behind the field that it is starting to look like she isn’t even in the same race.

“Ruthie! Ruthie! Ruthie!  You’re a star! You did it! Woooohooo!”  

She rounds the corner and again refuses to ride down the slope, and slip-slithers her way back down.  The determination face is there again at the bottom.  She is going to finish this.

Rhoda and I hare back down to the finish area, waiting for the marshals to allow us to cross the course to get back.

Ruth is there, muddy, beaming ear to ear.  She came in last, and probably about a minute after the rest of the race finished, one lap down on most of the other participants, but she did it.  

I ask her what she might like as a treat for completing her first race.  She wants to watch the podium. She doesn’t say it, but I watch her as her friend Jake collects a medal and I can see on her face that she knows that one day that will be her on the podium.

Medals awarded, Ruth is back to business.  “Mummy, I have thought of what I would like. An egg sandwich.  And when we do this next week, I would like to win”.

"Next week?"  What?  We have to do this again?

Footnote: Ruth has indeed been Cyclocrossing again, on a brand new steed. As if we could stop her...

We are very grateful for the warm welcome (and cake!) we all received at the MK Bowl, from the Central Cyclocross League. You can find out more about the Central Cyclocross League on their website, and if you're elsewhere in the country, try the British Cycling website for Cyclocross events listings near you.