Wednesday, 2 November 2016

Strava Fondo Challenge 2016 - update

Twelve long, monthly rides

If you read my last post, you'll know about why I set myself this challenge and how my progress was coming along. This post is admitting my failure in yet again not achieving my cycling goals (admittedly with the best excuse I could ever have!).

What I had planned

I was doing fine and had something special lined up for October's fondo. I was going to finish work on Friday 30th September and cycle to a campsite just outside of Newcastle and camp the night. Then on the first of October, I'd get up early and spend all day taking in the sights, sounds and presumably smells of the Northumberland coast and countryside as I rode National Cycle Network route 1 all the way up to Berwick-upon-Tweed. Upon reaching Berwick, I'd camp again and then take the train home from Berwick to Durham, then cycle along the old railways from Durham back home. Sounds ideal! I've never done any of this type of cycling, a sort of mini cycle tour so was really looking forward to it.

What actually happened

Basically, my wife went into labour and gave birth to our daughter, Erin, 7 weeks early! Actually there were signs that the pregnancy was starting to get complicated, so Rebecca needed steroid injections in case the baby came early, one shot on Friday 30th September and one shot on Saturday 1st October. It's just as well as Erin came into the world on Sunday 2nd October.

Tiny toes
Technically, she was born just before 4pm. I was due to be home around 12pm on the Sunday, so I probably could have done the mini-tour and not missed anything! However, that would have been really selfish and ultimately, there are more important things than cycling. Not many, but a few exist!

What is weird and freaked me out a bit lot, is the fact that Erin came as I was about to embark on a cycling trip away from home. When Seth was born, I was supposed to be on a cross country coast to coast trip. On both occasions, I had my bikes prepped, gear packed and all ready for the off.

Going forward

October's distance is not looking too good there...

Well, the Strava challenge is off, but I'll hopefully complete November and December. I will start commuting more regularly as I have barely had any time on the bike since Erin was born. We were through at Durham hospital everyday and with Rebecca having a Cesarean section, she couldn't drive. I did manage one commute and hospital visit by bicycle which felt like a rare old treat! Hopefully I will start to increase my monthly distances again. And if we ever decide to have any more kids, get my cycling trips done the weekend after the positive pregnancy test!

Sunday, 28 August 2016

Strava Fondos - 2016

What is a fondo?

According to Wikipedia, a fondo is "a type of long-distance road bicycle race, in which riders are individually chip timed and have the right of way at all intersections". So essentially it is a sportive, according to this definition. The first one was held in 1970 in Italy and nowadays in Italy, they are held every weekend between February and October.

June's fondo

So what has Strava got to do with it?

As we all know, Strava is an activity tracking service, focused mainly on cycling and running. With these types of activities, there is always a challenge element attached, whether it is trying to beat a personal best up a massive climb or just getting out one or two times a week. The challenge part is purely personal. Of course, you do not have to challenge yourself, but I think it is healthy to set goals and try to achieve them.

With that being said, Strava has a specific challenge section, where you can join challenges as you see fit. Some are vary from month to month, according to whatever large event is taking place (think Tour de France, Olympics, marathons etc) and there are regular monthly distance challenges for cycling and running.

There is a monthly challenge series for fondos. This blog post from Strava introduced their fondo challenge "as a way to promote adventure, exploration and camaraderie on the bike". Of course these aren't mass, organised bicycle rides like a sportive, so strays from the original meaning of fondo somewhat.

My challenge

It was fairly simple this year: just complete each month's fondo. This would mean at least one big ride a month; a way for me to keep a relatively high monthly mileage and using my road bike.

So far I have completed all of them. What I should have done is write a short blog post about each one and I would have kept up my blogging efforts at the same time. But hey, life, whatever.

I needed to plan August's ride, so I decided to see where I hadn't been on previous fondos. I like to go somewhere new. So I spent a couple of hours playing around with GPX files from Strava and Google Maps to produce this little beauty:

This map will be updated with the rest of my fondos as the the year progresses. Wish me luck!

Have you been participating in the Strava fondo challenge, or any other challenges you have set yourself? Let me know in the comments below.

Thursday, 18 August 2016

RideBishop and Velo29 cycle race 2016

A great idea for the town but something missing in this latest edition

In association with Velo29, Durham County Council and Bishop Auckland town council, an annual cycle race is held in the town centre with the market place being the start/finish line and focal point of the evening's activities.

There is a family fun ride held for an hour before the actual racing gets going. This is on the same course as the race for parents and children to enjoy some close roads cycling in the summer sun, to take at their own pace and do as many laps as they like. In advertising, there has been a fancy dress theme for the kids. Last year was superheroes and with this year being an Olympic year, the theme was Rio.

The category C, D and E riders line up on the start line

Lack of atmosphere

Registration for the family ride starts at 16:45 and the ride follows at 17:15, although you could pre-register if you preferred. I finished work, came home, walked the dog and quickly got changed to meet my sister and nephew who were already at the market place. After finding a point I could enter on to the course, I was asked if I had a child with me. I found that a bit odd as flyers state "suitable for children and adults of all ages and abilities", no requirements necessary. Nevertheless, I explained that I was meeting my sister and nephew and was told to wait until he came around on his next lap. So that was a long awkward wait until he trundled around on his balance bike. Why not let me just get on the course and ride till I caught up with them?

There were very small children on their bikes, taking it all in and enjoying themselves. Then for some reason the category C, D and E racers were allowed on to warm up, resulting in a mix of very fast older children warming up with 3-5 year olds. It created an air of danger, that somebody would become a cropper at any moment.

It didn't help the feeling in the air that some local idiots began throwing bottles of water across the course at each other, causing some complaints. The neighbourhood police team were on to this swiftly and put an end to it, thankfully. Talking of local idiots, there were some who thought it best to dismantle safety barriers to cross the course instead of walking 20 metres to the designated crossing point (crossing points were in abundance).

Professional BMXer Matti Hemmings performed some amazing tricks and stunts, a repertoire of skill and balance that had all of 4 people applauding from the dozens strong crowd. I felt so bad for him, he genuinely looked like he'd wasted his time.

In the shadow of Kynren

Personally, I think that this event is great for the town. In previous years, the market pace was packed with people who were both genuinely interested in what was going on and people curious to find out more. Tonight it was more like the small few who genuinely care about cycling, I feel that the focus of the parties in putting on this event was elsewhere, namely the history of England show, Kynren. There was promise of an Alpe d'Huez challenge for the public which failed to materialise. A pump track for kids to take a turn on was all there was for the public to get involved in if they did not participate in the family ride.

The market place is in disarray, with roadworks closing the road through it. In turn this shortened the course slightly. This, and in turn with the decision to reverse the direction of the route to previous years, made the tight hairpin turn even tighter as the exit road was narrower than the entrance road. There were a couple of abandons in the first few laps as riders inevitably fell hard. Some were able to carry on, despite the blood. As the race became stretched out, the riders were able to negotiate this hazard much more carefully.

Speaking of safety, perhaps the council could ensure that the streetlights in the market place could come on earlier, rather than just before the final lap?

The much faster category A race gets underway

Same again next year?

I hope the event returns, but with more focus on promotion and planning. The work in the market place should be finished by then so it won't look like a construction site. Kynren will likely be established and in it's second year so should take care of itself. Perhaps some more investors could be encouraged to sponsor or participate in the cycle event, which could provide more entertainment to the non-cycling die-hards than what was on offer tonight.

However I have to finish by saying well done to the racers who had to put up with some dodgy potholes on North Bondgate, low light and tight turns) to show some impressive endurance to complete laps in sub-60 seconds.

Saturday, 14 May 2016

Tracking activity and getting reward wth bounts

What is it?

bounts is fitness rewards service. The basic idea is you create a free bounts account and then connect your favourite fitness tracking apps to the account and then collect points (called bounts - I'll refer to points as bounts from here on out) based on your physical activity.

It was founded a few years ago in 2011 with the aim of trying to get more people active; basically carrot and stick style. It is also supported by Oxford University apparently.

Who is it for?

Anyone who already uses a lifestyle/exercise tracking device to track physical activity or anyone who is looking for a little extra motivation to lead or more active lifestyle.

Is it safe? What do they do with my data?

bounts does make money - there is a paid subscription that earns you much more points, but more on that later. The website and mobile phone applications display adds, but a paid subscription allows you to turn these off.
Another way it makes money is that sports and fitness groups use bounts to try and increase their own membership base. Examples are the governing bodies of the Lawn Tennis Association and Rugby Football Union, plus leisure centre group Everyone Active.

As for your protecting your data:
bounts FAQ page gives the following response:

bounts is a certified data controller registered with the UK Data Commissioner and certified under the UK Government Cyber Essentials Data Privacy Scheme.
We don't sell any personal data.
If you are at all concerned, you can delete your bounts account and any history of connected apps or activity data will also be removed."

OK, this sounds safe and I like the concept - which apps can be connected?

Good question! I will assume that you are reading this blog primarily because you enjoy cycling and will most likely use a Garmin or Strava to record your rides. Well, you are in luck. Here's the full list lifted from bounts' site:

Lifestyle trackers
Exercise trackers

Each app/device explains their activity requirements respectively when you connect to bounts.

Other ways to collect bounts:
  • Social media connections
Connect you Facebook and Twitter accounts to post on your behalf. Don't worry, only one tweet/status update is sent a day. Plus with Facebook, you can decide who sees the updates - set this to "only me" and you still get the points without worrying about spamming your friends. Here is an example tweet:

  • Venue check-ins
If you are a member of certain gyms, you can collect bounts every time you attend. There is a map in the mobile app showing venues around you. In my area, the local recreation ground shows up, which is very handy for dog walking. However, the local leisure centre doesn't show up, so this might be hit and miss. The app requires GPS and Bluetooth to be on for check-ins, so this may be a battery drain. So fa I haven't tried this out.

  • Reward Wheel
Every time an activity is logged with bounts, you receive a credit to spin the wheel (1 credit/activity for free account, 3 credits/activity for paid accounts). The reward wheel gives users the opportunity to win extra points or spot prizes. I have won quite a few "5 bounts bonuses" and one 25 point bonus. You could win up to 1000 bounts in a spin.

  • Just Giving
You can receive bounts for reaching fund raising milestones with JustGiving. So far the only charity supported is Cancer Research UK.

  • Challenges
bounts and some of it's partners can host challenges. Each challenge is different and has different rewards when it is completed. Challenges use different apps to enter so you may not be able to do all of them. FOr example starting this weekend (14/5/2016) there are three active challenges: a Speedo swim challenge (sponsored partner challenge) and two bounts challenges: one which uses Strava or Runtastic and the other uses Fitbit, Moves, Jawbone, Health app and Garmin. Out of these challenges I can only participate in the one which uses Strava. The challenge is relatively straightforward and requires me to complete two qualifying activities in a week. A qualifying activity is 20 minutes of walking, running or cycling above an average speed of 4km/h. As I said, pretty straight forward and not too taxing. The reward reflects this, being 50 bonus bounts. However the other bounts challenge and the Speedo challenge have prize draws as well as bounts up for grabs. It's not a lot but it's still encouragement and a small incentive.

I use one or more of the apps mentioned above - I'm interested in signing up. How many points do I earn per activity?

Here's a handy table to summarise:

Membership level
7000 steps;
1 exercise session;
1 check in

14000 steps;
2 exercise session;
2 check in
21000 steps;
3 exercise session;
3 check in
Maximum bounts per day (based on physical activity only)
5 bounts each
No extra bounts
No extra bounts
20 bounts each
40 bounts each
60 bounts each

You will get 5 bounts each extra for a post on Twitter or Facebook (only one each per day, no spam).

The free account is a great way to see whether you will get any benefit from the service. A paid membership greatly increases the rate you will rack up the bounts.

I used bounts as a free account for two weeks and then upgraded to the paid plan. Here a link to show the difference in how the bounts accumulated.

In summary:
With a Money Saving Expert referral code (worth 200 bounts), I earned 370 bounts in two weeks with the free option. With the paid option, I earned 505 bounts in two weeks. Removing the MSE referral, that's 170 vs 505, nearly three times as many.
Looking at activities alone, it was 70 on the free plan vs 400 on the paid plan, over five and half times as many.

It looks like the paid plan is the best option?

The paid plan is £14.99 per YEAR or £1.49 per MONTH. I went for the month, just to see how it goes. When that comes to an end, I'll be signing up for a year.

It's all well and good collecting bounts, but what can I do with them?


This is the crux of the whole point of bounts. Is it really worth it? Well, that comes down to your own opinion. Let's look at an example. As a cyclist, I'm partial to a nice coffee now and again. And a bit of cake. When I was researching this blog post, a £10 voucher for Costa Coffee was 2778 bounts:

Previously (before bounts started to upgrade their rewards (their words, not mine), vouchers were available for the following: Tesco, Debenhams, Currys PC World, Morrisons, Sports Direct, Halfords, WHSmith, Amazon, John Lewis, M&S, Boots, Costa Coffee, New Look, Pizza Hut, Primark, River Island, Sainsbury's, Toys R Us and then some.

Looking at what I earned in two weeks as a paid member (505 bounts), I could redeem my bounts for the voucher in approximately five and a half weeks, if I continue at the same pace. Now that might seem a long time, BUT (here's my reasoning) if you were doing these activities anyway, regardless, it's a nice little treat to receive isn't it?

Being a paid member increases the time taken to accrue points significantly. Adding your social accounts helps too. Don't forget that there is also the Reward Wheel.

I'm going to sign up!

Great, I've convinced you!

If you found my post informative, you could use my referral code (I'd appreciate that!). It means we both get 100 points when you do your first activity.
  • deanrowntree24599


  • I have had occasions where I have recorded rides and uploaded to Strava using the website, not the app. When I then check bounts, the bounts are there in my account, suggesting that the mobile app is strictly not necessary. I think if you adopt this approach your mileage may vary. Plus, most fitness trackers have companion apps so I would imagine having the bounts app on your phone as well wouldn't hurt
  • The app is a little clunky; it could do with a little bit more polish
  • The reward wheel is slow, as there is an animation of a wheel spinning around until it slowly stops. Then there is two clicks/taps to spin again. If you have a mountain of credits for the wheel, you will be on a long time spending them all. Try to keep on top of it
  • The bounts team are working on a suggest a venue feature if your gym is not on the map
  • The bounts team seem to be quite active on their Twitter account, answering user questions regularly. Good to know if you have a problem


Almost as if the bounts team knew I was writing this blog post, they sent out an email highlighting where they have been working in the year so far:
  • An upgraded app
    • This aims to improve check-ins, give a more simplified history view of your activities, a sync button to refresh your bounts and a news hub to highlight upcoming challenges. Currently this just serves to be a Twitter feed of the bounts hashtags, which isn't that useful, but the step is in the right direction
  • The support tram has increased, which may explain why their Twitter account is so busy
  • Working with new partners for new rewards
  • Features coming soon:
    • Trade bounts for cash(!)
    • Donate bounts to Cancer Research
    • Earn bounts when visiting National Trust and Forestry Commission sites. I like the sound of this because I could collect points when riding up at Hamsterley Forest
    • A way to earn points by eating healthily. I'm not sure how this would work; perhaps it would link in to apps such as MyFitnessPal

Saturday, 12 March 2016

Bishop Auckland - Brandon bridleway closure

I'm a little bit late to this party because I haven't been down on the lines from Bishop Auckland to Brandon for a while due to various reasons.

Notice of closure

Anyway, as you may be aware, the Eleven Arches construction is well under way and now the section of line leading from the viaduct car park along towards Willington and beyond is closed for the foreseeable future.

The path is fully closed at both ends

However, there is an alternative route that links Bishop Auckland and the line. This uses the A689 which can be quite busy, but the footpath is available. I know that cyclists aren't supposed to use the pavement, but this is wide, not particularly busy and I know you won't be misbehaving on it!
As stated the road is quite busy so be careful when crossing it. The footbridge is available but the many steps aren't practical for cyclists.

There map below shows where the closures are and how to avoid it. The green line highlights a wide track which is seeing more foot/bicycle traffic and with the wet weather is quite muddy, so bear this is mind.

Google Map handily annotated to show alternative route :)

The track incorporates the Strava segment "Brickworks Climb". I made this segment as the track goes around what used to be the old brick works. The track is in relatively good condition at the moment and is totally rideable. But when I made the segment, torrential rain had washed away the top surface, exposing all of the damaged and discarded bricks (see photo below).

This made for a interesting challenge on the Strava segment - picking your line was crucial
The picture below shows you where you would come down from, if you were coming from Bishop Auckland, or where to turn up if you have come towards Bishop Auckland.

At the bottom of the hill, next to the closure

Wednesday, 2 March 2016

Durham City to host stage of Pearl Izumi Tour Series again

Tuesday 31st May is the day that the Pearl Izumi Tour Series returns to Durham City, for the seventh year in a row.

The teams race up the cobbles of South Street in 2013

The Tour Series sees six British professional cycling teams competing in ten town centre races across the UK from Thursday 12th May until Thursday 9th June.

The races all about the teams, which is what makes the series unique. When a team's rider crosses the line first, that doesn't mean that team also wins the round. The rider has pride of the individual win, but the aim for teams to complete the race with the lowest cumulative time with their five riders. Basically, it's the fastest team across the finish in 60 minutes.

This is great news for Durham and north east England cycling fans. In the press release below from Durham County Council, they reveal that the 12,500 visitors into Durham for last years' event spent a very specific estimate of £281,310. How they work that out, I do not know. They also reckon that 82% of the spectators came from outside of Durham, so if you would like to get a good spot, go early and use public transport, or even cycle there! You'll avoid the traffic, closed roads and could even go to the pub for you tea.

The main attraction of Durham's course is the ever popular descent down Crossgate and consequent sharp right hand bend (hay bales are necessary) cobbled and ascent up South Street, where the cathedral looks on over the River Wear. So this is where you'll want to be, other than the finish line.

If you can't make it to Durham to see the live action, highlights are shown on ITV4 and available on demand through the ITV catch up service.

Here are a couple of my photos from the 2013 event:

Heading down into the tight right hander corner. Brakes will be squealing at this point!

Riders will be hoping to round the corner unscathed

Mechanics in the pit lane keep the riders racing with new wheels

Read the full press release here:

Organisers of the Pearl Izumi Tour Series cycling event have confirmed that Durham City will feature in this year's race calendar.

via Council news RSS feed

Sunday, 14 February 2016

Why I haven't posted in a while

I haven't posted for a while and it’s quite difficult to say why, or at least it has been.
The last two posts were were drafts sitting for a while and were easy to get out, whereas before that I was blogging about training for the biggest cycling challenge I had undertaken.

Then, out of the blue, the day before I was supposed to ride the coast to coast to coast, my wife gave birth to our first child, our son Seth. He arrived nearly 6 weeks early and caught us by surprise.

Unfortunately, we only had a week with Seth before he died. This was unexpected, despite his premature arrival he was doing really well and moved from the special care baby ward to the labour ward with Rebecca. Since then we have learned that there is no definitive cause behind why he left us so early.

This devastated us. So much so we couldn’t really function properly and nothing was important anymore. Before his birth, I’d been out on the bike regularly, 3 or 4 times a week, maybe for 4 hours or more at a time.

I tried a couple of rides after Seth died and found it unbearable, breaking down and having to compose myself to ride back home. For a long time I didn't know why this was. But after some time, some counselling and support from my wife I think I figured it out.

As every cyclist knows, cycling gives you a lot of time to you and your thoughts. All of those long hours training at a particular heart rate or keeping a certain cadence gave me time to think of all the fun things I’d be looking forward to as a dad. How I would teach our child (we didn’t know what the sex was) to ride a bike, where I would take the little one for their lessons and all such bike related things. There was obviously all of the other joys of parenthood I was looking forward to. Time on the bike gave me plenty of time to enjoy imagining all of the adventures our little family would have. Hoping our (grumpy at times) dog would become the toddler’s best friend, playing with a ball on the beach. I’d even planned a route from work to the hospital, so I could cycle there and park easily in the midday Friday traffic. It was all about the anticipation of what was to come.

So after all of these things that I’d dreamed of were cruelly snatched away, when I went out on the bike those couple of times I could only think of bad things. Why had this happened to us? What have we done? IT'S NOT FAIR. The pain was unbearable. I’d ride along the leafy tracks in the summer sun and remember the times I’d been along here in the rain and mud, imagining a leafy, sunny day, a dog with flappy ears and wagging tail chasing a balance bike and it would just crush me.

So I stopped riding regularly. I did a couple with a friend who offered good support. On one occasion we went to Glentress mountain biking and rode the blue route. It had obviously been a while since I’d done anything quite so adventurous and I’d been concentrating on not falling off and hurting myself. It was only when we stopped and were having the cyclist’s staple of a cup of tea and cake after the ride that it occurred to me that I hadn’t thought about Seth at all. This was awful, how dare I not think of him? So even going out and riding and becoming immersed in what I was doing was enough to wrack me with guilt, upset me and make me not want to ride. I also participated in the RideBishop event with my family, even making a video. Whilst it was nice to be doing something with my family, riding with my nephew was difficult. again, it was like I was being reminded on what I would be missing out on.

Family, friends and colleagues would all ask, “Are you getting out on your bike?” and I’d reply “Not as much as I used to” and I would hope that I didn't have to explain, because at that time, I couldn't. There were a couple of occasions where trying to explain to them left me in tears. Now when they ask, I think I can explain and it makes sense.

A big moment was cycling to the crematorium where we have a cherry tree dedicated to Seth. It felt like cycling there was somehow introducing Seth to bikes and he could laugh at his dad in his silly clothes. I know that sounds strange, but it helped. Since then I have gradually been getting out more; the trails don’t cause me to choke up.

The point of this post is to share why I’ve been absent, not to say cycling has helped me “move on”. That is an awful phrase. The bicycle has not helped me, it has been talking with my wife, counselling and writing down how I feel in a special notebook I keep. This post is an extension of that. I love cycling, I enjoy blogging about it too. I want the two to work together again, and this is the first step.
I usually set myself some cycling challenges for the year and this year I have decided to attempt to do every Strava fondo challenge, which is one ride per month above a distance set by Strava, typically between 100-160Km. I was also successful in the ballot for a place in RideLondon this year. I had thought that if I didn’t get in I could do it for charity.

I’d also like to say that the charity 4Louis helped us a lot on the day Seth died with what the provided for us. To that end, my wife has decided to jump out of a plane (tandem, with an instructor, not me) to raise some funds to help the charity. If 4Louis can help another family like they did to us, it will certainly be worth it. If you would like to donate to help, you can visit the online donation page here.
(The jump was supposed to be on the 6th of February, but was postponed until the 20th of February due to adverse weather).
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