Friday, 18 January 2013

My new commute

I used to commute around 4 miles each way to work, with Devonport Hill being the nearest to a "proper" uphill along the route. In my previous job my commute took in Greenbank Road, from Cattedown Roundabout to Mutley Plain, and Ham Lane, which has a 15% incline, so Devonport Hill (as far as I'm concerned) could instead have been called Devonport Bump.

Still, it gave me some excercise and while not extremely steep, nor very long, the uphill section was a welcome change to an otherwise fairly flat* commute.

*This is Devon - fairly flat does NOT mean the Cambridgeshire Fens, but instead sort of flat, without big hills.

And then a month and a bit ago I moved. I now live in a gorgeous village outside Plymouth, and my commute has changed to 12 miles in each direction. More importantly, it is full of hills, some of which are rated (by Strava) as Cat 4 climbs. Cycling home, the biggest hill I have to ride up means I'm faced with 1.2 miles of continous uphill.

We promised my youngest daughter that we wouldn't make her change school. We've already changed her school once before due to severe bullying, and she's now setlled and doing well. This means a drive is needed to get her to school each day.

I used to drive to her school to drop her off, then I'd leave my car there to cycle the 6 miles to work, but I've recently sold my car. After the Christmas break, and before school started again, I decided to cycle in all the way.

The first trouble I've found riding all the way from home is that I start on a downhill and set off simply by letting go of the brakes. That means in no time at all I'm freezing cold, just as I get to the start of the first uphill. After having struggled up that hill, without having had enough time to warm my muscles up, I have another long downhill ahead of me.

Logic dictates that I should pedal like fury down this hill in an attempt to warm up before hitting a Cat 4 hill, but the reality is that bombing it down a narrow, bendy road through a village is perhaps not the best idea in the world. As a result, I go slowly and carefully, going freezing cold again in the process.

And then I start huffing and puffing up the biggest and steepest hill on my way to work. This hill is rated Cat 4 by Strava, too.
When luck is with me, I encounter no cars, but obviously from time to time I do. When I encounter a car, in some places the road is wide enough for it to pass (and if needs be I'll wait at such a place) but in parts there simply isn't enough space and drivers have to patiently wait for me as I do my level best to get to a spot where they can safely overtake.

So far on this stretch I've not encountered a single impatient driver (thanks guys!) and long may that continue!

This time of year, the sky is brightening as I ride up this hill and before long it isn't completely dark anymore. I love that change from darkness to light!

At the top of the hill I turn right onto a bigger and busier road, and before long I'm breezing down a 1.2 mile downhill. A little while later I'm on a main A-road, shared with all sorts of traffic, including large articulated trucks.

And here is where I need to praise the truck drivers: to date (and long may it continue) they have without fail been very patient and careful around me. Even most car drivers are nice around these parts! Sure, there is the occasional driver that overtakes so closely they almost skin my elbow, but in all honesty those are the absolute exceptions. Most drivers on this stretch of road are very good indeed!

A hill or two later I enter Plymouth, and sadly the standard of driving noticably deteriorates. Most, if not all of the hair-raising experiences I've had on my new commute happen either from when I enter Plymouth, or in the evening before I leave Plymouth.

Eventually I'd make it to the big roundabout before the bridge where almost as a rule some driver will try to bully me out of their way. Just after the roundabout I need to watch out if it had been raining as the drain is blocked and a huge puddle forms. Apparently Plymouth City Council feels no need to fix this, despite the puddle covering the entire bus lane and the entire pavement. This has been the case for a few months now.

I ride on a shared pavement for a while, until after I crossed the bridge, then simply follow Embankment Road into town, to continue via Royal Parade to Union Street and before I know it I'm up Devonport Hill Bump and at work.

My commute in the evening is done completely in darkness, and will be for a while yet. As a result, I'm lit up like a Christmas tree in an attempt to remain as visible as possible to drivers. Fortunately I have a rather good head torch that gives off enough light to allow me to ride at 25mph in otherwise total darkness with safety. I must admit I am looking forward to summer, when I can ride all the way home in daylight, especially as there are some very nice views along the way.

Going home is as you'd expect simply a reversal of the way in, so not long after leaving work I'm dodging buses along Exeter Street. By the time I've crossed the bridge, things have calmed down a lot for me, allowing me to focus on climbing the hill to leave Plymouth.

Once out of the city I'm again riding on an A road, shared with the same mostly rather good drivers (thanks guys - long may that continue!) and before long I reach my turning. After a too brief downhill I reach the BIG hill, which takes me now around 6 minutes to ride up. Of course it is completely dark, and while my head torch is good, it isn't good enough to show the end of the hill. This means sometimes it can feel as if the hill is dragging on a bit!

Once at the top it is a simple matter of taking two turns before I'm slowly and cautiously riding down the same Cat 4 hill I struggled up in the morning. It is a narrow country lane, with moss and pebbles in the middle, where car tyres can never go, and more often than not there's water flowing down it. Also, it being winter, there's a chance of ice, as the lane is never gritted, so you can see why I ride so slowly down it. Still, I can't help but feel cheated by having to go so slow.

Once at the bottom, I have one more sizeable hill to climb through the village. I normally go zooming down the other side and not long after I'm home.

I'll apologise for rubbing it in, but overall my commute is gorgeous and I get to ride on roads that people travel to from all over, specifically to come and ride.
Since I started on the new commute, my times in Strava improved as clearly my fitness level is improving. If nothing else, I'm slowly becoming rather well-practised with hill climbing.

Now I ride a hybrid with heavy puncture-resistent tyres and more importantly I carry 10kg of weight in my panniers each way, so my times aren't fantastically good. Well, except for the 1.2 mile downhill, where apparently I'm now the 5th fastest person! Guess all that extra weight sometimes has some benefit - I never pedal while going down that hill and indeed brake most of the way to avoid going too fast. :-)

Life is good.