North London Dirt and Ride London - two ways to enjoy your bike

Brief impressions of both, compare and contrast. And long covid. Maybe


6/12/202410 min read

NLD#7 - First mud

I hadn't really prepared for North London Dirt. I had a bike that would do - my flat bar Kinesis Tripster - and tyres that would be ok if there was no mud at all. 33c mixed use tyres is what I found in the attic, so that's what went on the bike. While I have multiple luggage options I just tend to ride with a small (cheap and ripped) backpack off road as I like to have the weight on my body where I can move it around rather than on my bikes where it moves me around. The main effort I had made was to enter. This required alarm setting and jumping in pretty quick (like 10mins) which is something I guess we have to put up with in the life digital.

The gathering at the start was a festival of hipster gravelistas. Less random and weird bikes this year, people who like this stuff have very much got their gravel bikes now. Only one MTB I saw. And there's the default look. Roadie with cargo shorts, plus bar bag. Numbers of fairlights and masons and a load of carbon. Open ups and stuff like that.

I was at the upper end of the age range - no surprises there - so I was also well down the cool standings. And obviously with flat bars and a back pack I had ruled myself out of any point-scoring gear nerd competitions, but I am comfortable with that. I guess I was cool kid once, so now being 'dad of cool kid' is fine with me.

Actually that's not true. Because I am a bit of an anxious old coot I tend to get a bit defensive. And that means I tend to get a little arsey. This is neither called for or justifed but there you go. I'm working on it.

Anyway, I set off about mid pack, following a group of about five Rahpafarians, wneding our way up thought Finsbury park and up over the Hornsey rise and onto AliPali. Here they stopped to take pics and I surged forcefully around them carrying my 'older guy who was present at the birth of moutain biking and doesn't stop in the first 3 hours of a ride ever' vibe with me. Watch this an learn, young ones.

And then promptly fell off. How? Well I had found the only mud in Alipalli, right at the bottom of a very narrow slot that was about 33c wide. This meant I couldn't really turn the front wheel which tends to have one outcome. I tried but having no real lugs on my tyre meant nothing really happened except that I toppled inelegantly onto the grass in front of the watching crew.

First mud. Humble pie.

Oddly this kinda relaxed me and I got over myself pretty quick. 'Could happen to anyone' one of them said and they were right. From this point I really enjoyed the ride.

Getting over myself was also something I had to do whenever I got to an upward slope. All this year I have been struggling with breathlessness. I will write more about this but basically if I put myself in the red for more than 30 seconds I have to stop and hang my head over the bars to recover. It's confusing and vastly unpleasant. I have been checked over and there is 'nothing wrong' in standard tests. So - maybe - long covid. Apparently it's also a bit of a thing in the 45-55 age group (ok, 45-57 age group) who are athletically inclined and who barely noticed covid when they had it. Long term low level inflammation.

So, where in 2019 when I had done Paris-Brest-Paris I did the whole North London Dirt in one sitting and basically could choose what intensity to ride at here I am five years later hitting the low gears whenever the climb percentages go over 2.

So my aim really was just to make it though and see how my lower level endurance fitness was and take it VERY easy up the climbs. I knew the last half of the route very well and knew there were some kickers in there, so no heroics early on.

I had a puncture. I had some energy bars. Anything slightly technical I enjoyed immensely on my flat bars and could comfortably catch and pass many people on sections where the extra control came in handy. Probably the most challening section in the first half of the ride was the very slippery mud-slick bridleways in Broxbourne forest which had been churned up by a good few hundred wheels before I got there.

This was lovely riding though and also it was nice to just listen in to what people were talking about, watching the many and varied setups and riding styles, I was very much part of the pack now.

The flat or road sections I was fine on. Flat bars are not much of a slow down when you are on a longer ride. It's just as aero to lay your hands on the tops and hunker down as it is on drops. The thing you don't get is positional variety. the thing you do get with flatbars is equipment at a much cheaper rate - generic MTB stuff is so much cheaper than disk-brake STIs!

I had a break at a stall with a milky coffee and a quick chat with some blokes up from the Sarf, the far desolate wastelands of Richmond, who had never been on these roads and never been to Epping forest (aka The Jewel of the East).

Flatbars, CX tyres and backpacks

Part two - breathy slopes

After a very quick stop at the halfway ish point for water I rode onto the familar part of the route - Lee Valley, up through Epping Forest and then over to the proper Superstone wilderness around the North Circular and the river Roding.

After the first bit of Avey lane the ride divereted to go up a small sneaky track that I have often come down over the years - mostly on a MTB. I have gone up it occassionally too on MTB but it's a proper MTB gear climb even when you are not breathing like a full vacuum cleaner so I was left to push up it. Back in the day I would have done nothing less than ride up as far as I could, and then try again, and again.

Oh well, at least riding on the flat was going fine!

After a quick garage detour for some bars and water I rode the bridleways up and over the big dips that take you along the East of the Epping Forest. There was an entertaining detour into the middle of the forest which I knew well from MTB days and this one ridable on a Gbike. However I was bottom gear and grinding on climbs that don't usually slow me down too much.

Finally there was an entertaining detour on the Roding way. Usually I would just ride down the main path here but the brothers had found a few sneaky back turnings that kinda spiralled in and out while above you the M11s underside cut out the sun like a massive black cloud.

As always we learn something new about paths we thought we knew so well on North London Dirt - and that's what makes it worth coming back.

Then a final flat roll through Stratford and back to Stokie. I would have had a beer and a pizza but as I am coeliac I just lay down on the grass rested. In the sun. Nice. Despite crawling up the steeps it was a comfortable ride and the initial worry I had about my breathlessness meaning I would struggle over all was unfounded.

Very much a recommended event but for me a reminder that really I should be riding with others more and finding my local gravelistas - I know East London is not short of them.

Next, Ride 100...

Ride 100 has been going since the 2012 Olympics, for the last few years it has been based in Essex.

As part of my earlier in the new year resolution to get fitter I entered the Ride 100 as a non-charity rider. That's a coll £100, which is more than I would spend on a year of Audaxes, but the lure of closed roads and a target was too much to resist.

That's when I kicked off my training (eg riding to work plus a lot of shed-based turbo training) and also discovered I had a breathlessness issue, which stopped that training in it's tracks. I put on weight, I got some tests, I decided I could ride at low intensities ok (see above) and then I thought well, I could probably manage 160km if I took it really easy.

My aim for the beginning of the year had been more like 'See if I can do it fast (for me) by drafting a lot of younger riders'. Now it was, get around, enjoy the roads.

The night before the event I was singing with my Choir and one of the cyclists in it (there are 5 devoted cyclists in our 80 strong group) said she was going to be doing it. As we live in the same hood we agreed to catch the train down together.

As it turned out we did the whole thing together, which was an unexpected pleasure.

Then the surreal and enjoyable experience of taking the A12 up to Leytonstone. This is one of those horrendous, traffic blocked, fumes belching, neighbourhood splitting inner ring roads that blight the world. But, of course, quite a blast to ride on, the widest road I will every get to ride on.

From there it was familiar roads for next hour or so up to Epping, again with the pleasure of riding on closed roads.

On the rise to Epping a familiar pattern developed - Louise, being an elite level runner and being very light danced away up on the slopes while Lucie and I dropped off the back and then worked on the flat to catch back up.

Stopping at Epping I learned that one's time was not overall elapsed but that the clock stopped at the 'welfare points'. Interesting. So you could do four quick 25 mile rides with big rests in between. Hmmm. So theoretically in a good year I could target a sub 6 hour ride, specially if I was doing a lot of drafting :-)

A hundred is just twice a lap of fifty

Lucie's longest bike ride to date had been 60 miles. She had been saying that she might turn right at the 60 mile route breakoff point, but Louise and I were having none of that! Lucie was riding well and there was no way she wouldn't be capable of a 100, it would just be about managing pace and effort (and good spirits) later on, so we turned left without comment.

I was pleased to see that the general standard of riding was pretty good. It wasn't like the dreaded London-Brighton, which is an accident interuppted by a bike ride. So it was steady comfortable riding to the halfway point, only interupted by five minutes of torrential rain, which had been threatening.

Well I say steady but we were chasing Louise up hills and on the flat - I had been intending to ride slower and steadier than I was going but I had had none of the dreaded breathlessness so I managed to keep up with my 20 year younger triathletes!

The stop at half way was a bit disappointing. The gel sponsor company hadn't turned up so there were bananas and water. You could queue and pay for pizza but that's no good for me. Hmmmm. So much for nutrition en route for £100!

After the halfway marker the inevitable happened and Louise drifted away from us, which is fine of course. Lucie and I were well matched and getting along at a good enough speed so all was well. We were into a light head wind now but we were back through Ongar again where we stopped (outside of the timer zone!) for light refreshments. I'd been living on bars all day and had to have more bars here but at least a milkshake provided a solid protein hit. The cafe was busy but a kind man filled our bottles for us.

From here it was all familar roads again - down to Abridge, up onto the Chigwell ridge, down into Roding valley and up ontp the Epping ridge again. I pushed it a little (not full red) on one climb and was fine - interesting. Then back onto the A12 - now into a growing headwind the wide road now a bit more effort to ride on with the wind coming along it with no hedges to get in the way.

Then back down the tunnels and a final hual to turn left and onto Tower Bridge where all the banners were out, and people were clapping and all the rest of it, good fun!

The nicest moment was a volunteer putting the medal over my head with a wry 'that's the first lap done'. Funny because there have been plenty of rides in the past where that would be true and funny because that was not going to be today! It was great to finish, great to share Lucie's first 100 and great that I hadn't hammered myself into the ground with breathlessness.

Felt like I was getting a bit better and, unlike after the North London Dirt, didn't cough for days after. So maybe on the mend? Who knows!

But generally I was pleased at being able to do 160km a bit faster than I thought I could and not suffer beyond the usual distance fatigue.

After following the masses of cyclists from Liverpool Street Station over to Buckingham Palace we were joined by a Triathalon freind of Lucie's, Louise, who we also just met on the way and, after a quick pit stop in one of the thousands of portaloos on the route, rolled over the start line.

The start experience was all very well organised and deeply impersonal, none of the interaction with organisers that you get with Audax, but then there were 20,000 riders expected (!) so it's hard to complain about that.

It was nice to ride on the road beside the (mad and manic) cycleway that I usually ride along the enbankment on. And then we ducked under the embankment on one of those weird tunnels and popped back up near the A12. On the way to the A12 proper there were some inexplicable holdups with everyone hauling to a stop suddenly. Turns out there were a couple of stops where marshalls were stopping cyclists to enable pedestrian crossings. At this point Lucie had a puncture and we spent the next wee while having our eardrums shattered by enthusiastic marshalls blowing whistles to get errant cyclists to slow down.

Nice out innit

Team choir at start

Team choir at end