Wednesday, 1 July 2015

Track Taster Session at the Olympic Velodrome

A little over two weeks ago Ruth and I completed a track taster session at the Olympic velodrome. I’d bought her a couple of gift vouchers for Christmas and we were finally getting to use them after quite a few attempts at the painful booking process (I think it is too popular for its own good).

I’ve never cycled in a velodrome before and always quite fancied the idea. It was quite a bit more intimidating than I was expecting it to be!

As instructed we arrived 45mins before our session was due to start and after signing in and getting changed, we took the tunnel into the centre of the track and watched the final 30mins of the session before ours. People were whizzing round the track, being told to go higher or lower up the track by the instructor and being encouraged to go faster. It looked like they were going pretty quick!

With about 10mins to go before our session we were given helmets and bikes. The bikes were very light single speed Condor fixies that didn’t have any brakes. I haven’t ridden a bike without brakes before and to be honest I wasn’t looking forward to it!

As the previous session finished we went out onto the back straight of the track and lined up ready to start. I suddenly realised that I’d made a mistake of being near the front of the group, but Ruth had made the ultimate mistake of being in the lead!

After a quick introductory talk we started doing laps of the track. We were told to circle around on the apron beneath the track. The instructor was standing on the back straight and we had to pass him on the right hand side each time we went round. He slowly edged up the track each time making sure we could look and move out safely. It was all quite tame until I had to pass him right at the top of the track near the barriers and then absolutely whizzed back down to the apron below and I realised just how steep the track was! My normal reaction would have been to touch the brakes and it was a bit frightening to realise that I didn’t have any and trying to slow my leg rotations to brake was not a natural reaction.

Once the instructor was satisfied we could all handle the bike safely we were called to stop on the back straight. Having watched the previous group on track stopping was something that I was a bit scared about. We had to slow down (without brakes) and because we were clipped in, come to a rest by grapping onto the rail on the inside of the track. Thankfully I negotiated stopping without falling off each time we needed to do it!

The second time we were let loose on the track we were allowed to overtake and it would be fair to say Ruth and I didn’t stay anywhere near the front of the pack for very long! There were quite a few club cyclists in our group and those that clearly don’t know any fear and they went flying round. We were told only to overtake on the straights (as the ends are much more steeply banked), but soon all the rules were being broken and Ruth and I were being overtaken left right and centre.

I was a bit too scared (official excuse - had tired legs from running) to go too quickly, but did eventually decide to overtake Ruth. Over subsequent laps I managed to make up a full lap on Ruth and came round to overtake her again. A couple of people passed me at the beginning of the straight, meaning that I didn’t pull out to pass Ruth until midway down the straight. I couldn’t complete the manoeuvre in time and ended up going round the top of one of the bends. It is very steeply banked up there and I peddled a bit faster to make sure I had enough momentum not to fall off!

After coming to rest again, we were instructed to follow the leader / form a train going round the track, with the objective of being right on the wheel of the person in front of us. I was mid / front of the pack and was a bit scared about how fast we might go, but was more or less able to keep up with the person in front of me.

I wasn’t looking behind, but the train had evidently split, as after a few laps we caught up with a group being led by Ruth and formed onto the back of them. We continued to circle for the next 5 – 10 mins and with the instructor urging us to go faster and a few people in the group clearly getting a bit restless. I didn’t really envy Ruth being at the front of the pack, but she was gradually winding up the pace.

Our session ended 5mins early as we had to let Bradley Wiggins onto the track for a final practice for his attempt at the World Hour Record the following day. Unfortunately I didn’t see Bradley come onto the track, but speaking to a couple of others in the changing room afterwards they had caught a glimpse of him being very slow to leave the track at the end of the session.

I feared that the session might not have been Ruth’s thing and she might have hated it. It turned out she had a good time and I think enjoyed it more than me!

I’m pleased I got to cycle on the Olympic velodrome, but I don’t think I’m enough of a thrill seeker to want to do it again. You just go in circles, so unless you really enjoy the speed I’m not sure there is much in it. I think the sessions would be better if the instructors were less pushy about going quickly and perhaps the sessions were graded so club cyclists and slow coaches could self select into different groups.

Monday, 15 June 2015

Honeymoon Day 3: Riserva Naturale Orientata Oasi faunistica di Vendicari

Ruins of Eloro
When planning our honeymoon I had my eye on a day trip to Regusa, another baroque town in southern Sicily that is, crucially, home to two Michelin 2* restaurants. However, when it came to deciding what to do for the day we instead chose to head to the coast and the Riserva Naturale Orientata Oasi faunistica di Vendicari.

Our first stop was the Greek ruins of Eloro at the nothern end of the nature reserve. Getting there was a bit of an adventure. We had a long drive down an unmade road and then had to negotiate our way to El Loro down farm tracks with absolutely no road signs. We arrived at a small car park next to the beach, pretty pleased with ourselves that we'd got to the right place first time, only to realise that we were the wrong side of the creek and had to loop back round.

With the exception of a small amphitheatre, it's quite hard to know what you are looking at. The ruins are in a dramatic position above the coast and it was very pleasant to walk round the mown paths in the field. It doesn't have the feel of a place which is visited very frequently.

Next up was the absolutely stunning Villa Romana del Tellaro. Unfortunately no photos were allowed inside the Roman villa, but the mosaics were absolutely stunning. There were three large mosaics of a Tiger, hunting scene and Hector (a Trojan prince). Almost as incredible as the mosaics was the fact that we were the only ones there. Perhaps there are finer examples in Sicily, but I was surprised there weren't more people there.

Tonnara di Vendicari
After the Roman villas we headed into the nature reserve proper for the first time. Again in the absence of road signs, Becks perfectly guided us towards the Tonnara di Vendicari, an abandoned tuna factory inside the reserve.

This section of the reserve had been well set up for the visitor with bird hides to watch the pink flamingos on the lake and a boardwalk so that you can access the coast. Once we reached the shorelines we headed north towards the abandoned tuna factory. The roof has gone, but a number of striking pillars remain. It was a bit hot and tired as we looked round, but it had a definite beauty in the Sicilian sun. 

Tonnara di Vendicari
Back at the car, and having consumed a couple of snacks to restore my blood sugar level, we drove round to Cala Mosche a small beach in the nature reserve that can only be reached on foot. After a false turn down a dead end track, we arrived at the car park for the beach and set off on foot.

The beach is a 15 / 20 min walk from the car park. The beach was the most popular attraction of the day with around twenty other people sunbathing and swimming in the water. We headed straight into sea for a swim. It was a little on the chilly side so we had to keep moving.

Coming out of the water we sat on the beach reading for a while before I went for a second dip and then we headed back to the car and home to our hotel.

Arriving back in Noto I got a spot in the car park just next to the hotel and had a play with the parking sensors as I reversed in. Win!

4 - on the way to Cala Mosche

Sunday, 7 June 2015

Trattoria Del Carmine, Noto, Sicily

Antipasto misto della casa
Dinner at Trattoria Del Carmine was one of my favourite meals while we were in Sicily. It was our only experience of a family run, unpretentious trattoria. The husband and wife team were cooking the local food that they enjoyed and I was pleased to be able to taste it.

Although at the start of the night I wasn't sure it was going to be one of my favourite meals. We were given a table in an empty section of the dining room, filled with basic furniture. It wasn't the most promising start, but I definitely warmed up to the place.

We ordered the antipasto misto della casa to share as a starter. Considering it was only €6 what arrived was a very generous place of courgettes, aubergines, roasted peppers, salami, aranchini, fritata and cheese. Washed down with a glass of house white from the carafe we ordered it was a lovely start to the meal.

Veal chop, with an orange and onion salad
By the time our main courses arrived a couple of extra tables had joined us in our dining room and our end of the restaurant had started to develop a bit of welcome atmosphere.

Is was one of the few times that I ordered from the secondi section of the menu for my main course and had the filietto de vitello al romarino (€9). It was literally just a pan fried veal steak covered in a little chopped rosemary and drizzled with olive oil with a wedge of lemon on the side. It was well cooked, but I was pleased that I'd ordered the insalata di arance e cipolla (€3) on the side and we had a basket of bread that I could chomp through too.

Pasta with Sicilian pesto and tomatoes
Becks ordered the pasta el pesto Siciliano (€9). The Sicilian pesto is made with almonds instead of pine nuts and (I think) has a local alternative to parmesan cheese in it too. It was a generous bowl of what looked like handmade trofie pasta and I was very happy to help Becks out with a few mouthfuls.

Cannolo for dessert - pistachio and chocolate
Having had an ice cream stop that afternoon, we certainly didn't need dessert, but I couldn't resist the cannolo and at only €2 they surely had to be small? They certainly weren't small, but they definitely were delicious and probably my favourite cannolo of the holiday.

With wine the bill came to an unbelievable €37. We thanked our host, left a small tip and headed back to the hotel happy.

Trattoria Del Carmine
Via Ducezio, 1,
96017 Noto, Italy
+39 0931 838705

Friday, 5 June 2015

Honeymoon Day 2: Noto, Sicily

Porta Real in Noto 
A common theme of hotel reviews in Sicily was how amazing the buffet breakfasts were in all of the hotels. It was therefore with much anticipation that I went down to breakfast on the first morning of our honeymoon. Sadly we'd drawn a bit of a dud with La Dependance (in terms of the breakfast, but not the hotel overall). The buffet was ok, but nothing special. It just made us appreciate the second hotel we staying in even more!

We decided to spend the day pottering around Noto and I was pretty happy to have a day off without driving. We started with a lazy stroll along the main street, taking time to absorb it all after our quick stroll the night before. The number and quality of the Renaissance buildings really is very high.

At the end of the main street is the town gate, Porta Real which more or less marks the end of town. We strolled on a bit further, past a couple of market stalls to a lookout where we took in the view of the valley below and out to sea.

Becks looking out towards the sea
Strolling back into town we sat on the cathedral steps soaking in the atmosphere before deciding to go inside for a look round. The cathedral was started in 1776, but the roof collapsed in 1996 and a large part of the cathedral has been reconstructed since. (The facade was undamaged I believe.)

The cathedral was less ornate inside than I expected. That could have been the prevailing style at the time it was built (as none of the churches we visited were particularly ornate) or due to many features being lost when the roof collapsed. The walls were painted a crisp and bright white, almost bordering on the stark. The church's truly impressive feature being the painted frescos on the ceiling. They were very vivid and bright having been painted within the last decade and not yet dulled by the passage of time.
Becks on the cathedral steps
Inside the cathedral
After the cathedral we headed to the Town Hall located directly opposite. We paid a whopping €4 for a ticket that gave us entry to the Town Hall, Theatre and Museum. Inside the Town Hall you could actually only visit on room, an impressively gilded room that is used for civil weddings and town official functions. Having only been married three days earlier we were possibly a bit too excited by a space which can hold weddings.

Me outside the Town Hall
After the Town Hall we walked to the other end of the main street where we visited the town theatre. It was an unexpected gem. The theatre was relatively small in size, but was elaborate decorated as you can see from the picture of the boxes below.

Inside Noto's the theatre
Outside Noto's theatre 
We had a look in the church opposite the theatre followed by lunch at a small café at the end of the street our hotel was on. They didn't have any menus but we were sold sandwiches made from local ham, pecorino cheese and tomatoes and they were delightful.

We returned to the hotel for a post lunch nap before heading out for a drift round more of Noto. We walked some of the streets up the hill above our hotel where we saw the Chiesa del Crocifisso (below) and also some of the streets below the main drag which contains the cathedral. There could have been an ice cream stop too.

Chiesa del Crocifisso (which we think is just a facade)

Saturday, 30 May 2015

Honeymoon Day 1: London to Noto, Sicily

Noto's cathedral 
We didn't start our honeymoon until the Monday after our wedding. Pushing the boat out for the holiday of a lifetime, we caught the train to Gatwick, picked up some sandwiches in Eat so we could have a picnic on the plane and caught an Easyjet flight to Catania in Sicily. Don't say we don't know how to live!

Arriving in Sicily we belatedly found the Avis car hire desk outside of the terminal building. Although it was a little difficult to find, we crucially got there before the rest of the passengers on our flight and were able to pick up the car without too much of a wait.

I was quite nervous about driving in Italy having heard stories over the year of manic drivers and crowded roads. Overall driving in Italy wasn't nearly as bad as I thought it would be, however, the road signs were completely shocking. Leaving the airport you'd think there would be some signage to the major motorway nearby. There was nothing. Following signs to Syracuse we ended up on a minor road heading south roughly parallel to the motorway. The minor road was a good introduction to learn that no one obeys the speed limits and we were able to connect with the motorway a bit further south and start speeding to our destination.
A practice for the Noto flower festival
It took us just over an hour and a half to get to Noto where we were staying for the first three nights of our honeymoon. Miraculously, considering the road signs, we managed to find our way relatively easily into the centre of town. We drove past our hotel which was tucked down a side street, but realising we had overshot we parked the car a couple of streets further on and walked back to the hotel. (I have a bit of paranoia about getting into small car parking spaces, but there was thankfully a nice big gap for us to swing into.)

We checked into our hotel which thankfully seemed very nice. It looked like one of the best hotels in town, but only has a 3* rating, so I was a bit concerned all those nice looking photos on the website could have been deceptive!

It was already early evening so we decided to head out for a quick walk round town before going for dinner. A baroque town built in the sixteenth century, Noto's (small) main street was gloriously impressive. In the street where our hotel was located there was a practice for the upcoming flower festival and the cathedral was looking lovely in the evening sun as the locals promenaded up and down the main street.
Pane, Panelle e Gamberoricotta al Limone e Songino 
After a short walk round town we decided to head for dinner at Ristorante Crocofisso which we'd selected from the guide book and was supposed to be one of the smarter restaurants in town.

This was my first real Italian restaurant experience (in Italy) and I was a little at sea to begin with. My Italian is minimal and I had no idea what all the dishes were. They also gave us two menus which after a while I worked out was a 'fish' menu and a 'meat' menu. Could you mix and match? Should you order a primi and a secondi? Through a combination of Becks' Italian and our friendly waiter I was soon a little more on track.

It was an enjoyable evening and our waiter was very friendly and helpful. The food was good, however, as we learnt during the week, the standard in Sicily was very high. I'm pleased we had a white linen table cloth experience while we were on honeymoon, but considering at €85 it was over twice the price of the trattorias we ate in most nights, it failed to stand out.

Spagetti with broad beans, carrot and lamb

Ricotta ravioli and pork belly

Pistachio canoli with almond ice cream

Pistachio cake, with pistachio ice cream and pear poached in nero d'avola

Friday, 22 May 2015

Lambeth Palace Open Gardens

Last night Becks and I went to Lambeth Palace which was open as part of the National Garden Scheme.

It was a really pleasant spring evening in which to drift round the gardens which aren't regularly open to the public. The gardens provide a little haven right in the heart of central London and it felt very tranquil even as a Sea King helicopter flow overhead and ambulances made their way to the nearby St Thomas' hospital.

There was an area of more formal garden next to the palace with some early roses in bloom and a lovely herb garden. Further away from the palace was a large lawn which had a path circling round the edge; with planting, bee hives and even a swing along the way to keep you interested.

Entry was £6 and included an enormous glass of wine to enjoy as you walked round. A very worthwhile visit to a garden that isn't open very often.

Wednesday, 6 May 2015

Polar M400 review

I vowed a long time ago that I'd never by another Garmin running watch. I've had at least six and their build quality seems to be terrible (at least in the watches I've had). So when my last Garmin started to malfunction I ordered a Polar M400 which is the top rated midrange watch on the excellent DCRainmaker.

It was a bit of a wrench leaving the Ant+ ecosystem for a watch which uses the Bluetooth Smart protocol, but I managed to recycle all of my old Garmin parts on eBay for a good price and it only cost me £50 to 'upgrade'.

Being a relatively new model, the watch is quite a bit leap forward from the Garmin Forerunner 210 which I was using before (and has been superseded in the Garmin lineup). For an example it has an internal pedometer, (supposedly) allows you to sync the watch via your phone, has customisable display screens and a predictive finish time etc...

I've been using the watch for just over two months now and here are my first impressions.

The Good
Firstly, and most importantly to me, the build quality feels really good. Polar are obviously backing themselves as it has a 2y warranty and is fully waterproofed. Things you didn't get with the Garmin.

The battery life seems really good. I haven't done any exhaustive tests, but I've been wearing the watch daily for the last six weeks and I get almost a weeks battery life out of it while using it for running and a normal day watch.

There aren't any single features which bowl me over, but the watch has a high 'just works' factor. As noted above it is quite a leap forward from my old watch customisable screens, a pedometer etc...

The heart rate monitor strap feels more comfortable.

The Bad
The online service Polar Flow looks good, but is pretty feature poor to be brutally honest. You have only recently been able to add manual activities if you head out running without your watch. You cannot edit the feature of a work out, give them names or flag races to make them distinct from training sessions. I used to use a label in Garmin Connect to mark which shoes I used for a given session in order to track the total distance I'd run in each pair. You simply can't do that with Polar Flow. As a web service they should be able to upgrade it and add some more decent features. Hopefully.

One of the attractions of the watch was the ability for it to sync activities via your phone so you don't need to connect the watch to your computer. I've never been able to get it to work. Step counts sync, running sessions don't.

When you've paused the watch (e.g. waiting at some traffic lights) you can't see any workout details on the screen as you are on a holding page. I can see plus sides to this as it is really clear when you have the watched paused, but I'd prefer to see any activity summary while I'm waiting at those traffic lights.

When you are using the watch as a normal day to day watch there doesn't seem to be a feature where you can see seconds on the watch, only hours and minutes. I'd like to be able to see second when I'm holding stretches and doing strength exercises etc... Seems a very basic feature not to have.

There seems to be a feature designed to stop you double tapping buttons. (The watch ignores the second tap if it is too close to the first, assuming it must be a mistake.) However, sometimes I want to double tap by starting to record and then triggering a manual lap.

It's different
If you are moving from a Garmin to Polar the watch is quite different and you'll need to re-adjust as those instinctive button presses won't work any more and the screens show different information. I found myself using the customisation options to make the screens look more like the Garmin ones I was used to.

From a running standpoint the biggest difference is the average pace that is displayed to you. On the Garmin there was an auto lap feature and showed you the average pace for the current lap. On the Polar, unless you are triggering manual laps, it shows you the average pace for your entire run. I got a bit caught out by this when I was at the Maidenhead 10 mile race and my average pace for the current auto lap would have been more useful - as I needed a kick up the bum because my pace was really dropping, but averaging it over the whole race masked this.

It might sound like I've listed quite a few negatives and there indeed a few, particularly with Polar Flow. However, the build quality and the 'just works' factor mean I am overall pretty happy with the watch.