Tour de Lockdown: How three “mature” ladies conquered the Tour de France. Virtually.

It started with a boot.

On a sunny afternoon not that long into the lockdown in Scotland, I sat on my turbo trainer and casually threw a boot across the garden while recording it for Fiona Russell’s Give COVID the Boot video. At the time, probably because of the glorious weather, I made a vague mumble about planning to ride the distance of the Tour de France while on my turbo. That of course was before I’d checked to see what the distance actually was and if indeed it was doable for a wee 61year old wumman.

But I had given the undertaking on a public video, so I simply had to make the challenge real. I enlisted two of my fellow cyclists from Walkers Cycling Club , mother and daughter Susan and Fiona Walker – to help me ride the 2,200 miles and at the same time raise money for the Trussell Trust. And so the Tour de Lockdown was born.


All three of us had our reasons for taking up the challenge. Says Susan: “On 31st March I received the letter I had been both expecting and dreading telling me that the NHS had identified me as someone at risk of severe illness if I caught Coronavirus. The advice was unambiguous – stay at home and avoid all face-to-face contact for at least twelve weeks. There it was. I was now shielding”

Added Susan (aged 67 ¾): “After several years of health problems, I had been getting back out on my bike, enjoying both social and fitness benefits. The thought of losing that was yet another blow. Having a challenge to address was the perfect remedy, even if I did doubt how well I’d manage in the early days.”

I myself had been working from home after my workplace, West College Scotland went online with its courses. I had decided to use the time to get fitter and since the gym and the swimming pool were not available to me, the turbo trainer seemed a good alternative. I’d had cataract operations in the latter part of 2019 and had kind of lost my cycling mojo as a result. But this challenge certainly gave me the chance to get back on the bike, albeit in the shelter of my garden and garage.

Fiona Walker (45) had been similarly furloughed from her job at East Ayrshire Leisure where she works as a sports centre supervisor and fitness instructor and was missing her daily fitness sessions. Says Fiona: “It very quickly became clear that my work was keeping me fit and active on a daily basis, and the thought of not having that input frightened me. I know how easy it is to lose fitness in a short space of time, and how difficult it is to regain it. The challenge offered me a great way of keeping active.”

The three of us met through Walkers Cycling Club in Ayrshire. Indeed the club arose from the cycling shop founded and owned by the Walker family. Although Susan and her husband John have now retired and the shop – Walkers Cycling – is no more, the club remains its legacy and continues to make its presence felt in the Ayrshire area. In the past few years, Walkers Cycling Club has been instrumental in promoting cycling activities in the county, especially in the discipline of Cyclocross where its now legendary beach park course was twice selected to host rounds of the major HSBC Cyclocross Championships.

All three of us are accomplished cyclists in our own way although I consider myself a relative newcomer, having only taken up cycling in 2009. Susan has been cycling for a good 50 years, and in 1996 she and her husband John joined the ranks of successful Lands End to John O’Groats riders, having ridden the 1,115 miles on a tandem and crossing 25 counties in the process.

LEJOGging along

Fiona Walker has been riding for a number of years. “I rode my first MTB race nearly 31 years ago!” she says somewhat incredulously before continuing: “ I’ve raced MTB XC and endurance, road, TT, CX and track. These days I mainly just do track and CX.” Fiona’s never say die attitude has netted her several awards in prestigious events such as the British Masters Track championships. At this point Susan laughs and says of her daughter: “I remember she used to complain about being forced to join in family cycle rides when she was a child. Changed days indeed.”

One of the most successful aspects of the challenge was that it brought with it significant health and fitness benefits. Says Susan: “To begin with I was managing 5 or 6 miles in half an hour, but by the end I had worked that up to doing 15 miles in an hour, 6 days a week. And I have shed half a stone in the last 10 weeks.”

For Fiona Walker, the benefits have been more in line with mental health: “I’ve suffered from depression on and off for 20 years.” she states. “Cycling has always been a big part of dealing with it. I’m furloughed from work and live on my own, so in the early days of lockdown I had been struggling, especially with motivation. Riding my bike for this challenge has kept me going and having that goal made me ride even when I didn’t feel like it. I always feel better after a ride anyway, and this had the added bonus of being for a particular cause.”

Fiona Walker gets her race face on at the Doonfoot Trofee

A78 TT days

For myself, the benefits have been enormous. As a Type 2 Diabetic, I rely on being active for managing my condition. I took up cycling soon after I was diagnosed and it has helped me maintain a decent blood sugar level without having to resort to medication – something I am very keen to avoid. I was worried lockdown might compromise that so participating in the challenge was very welcome.  While I would never even begin to look on myself as a good cyclist (let’s be honest, you dont see terribly many 5ft1″, wimmin riders with, shall we say, a fine set of boobs)  it has been a great way of getting and keeping a level of fitness someone in their 7th decade should rightly be proud of.  Although I have other fitness outlets as well, I can’t see myself  relinquishing the bike any time soon.

All in all in has worked out well for us. For a start, both of us Fionas managed to get out on real roads once the restrictions were lifted sufficiently. More importantly, not only did we finish the challenge two weeks ahead of our plan, but we have raised in the region of £750 for the Trussell Trust. Additionally, we have managed to keep ourselves fit and active at a time when it would have been too easy to give in to laziness and cake. As Susan puts it: “There’s no such thing as too much cake; just not enough cycling.” The challenge has let us have our cake and eat it.


Now, did I ever get that boot back?

The trouble with kids of today is they just don’t read any more

If there’s one thing guaranteed to get the minnies a-moaning and the tutters a-tutting it is the publication of the results of educational standards surveys. Scoring high in this are literacy surveys, with PISA, Scholastic and SSLN (Scottish Survey of Literacy and Numeracy) being the main culprits. And when the newspapers print sensationalised headlines such as “Wee Johnnie is crap at reading compared to Wee Juan and Wee Hervé” then the howling reaches a crescendo and the inevitable “Ah well it’s because they don’t read any more” accusation is trotted out. Now before I go any further may I just emphasise that I most certainly do believe that regular reading brings many advantages, not the least of which are a expanded vocabulary and a better understanding of the structures of written English. What I don’t buy into at all is that our young generations read any the less than their counterparts in the past. I would also add that if there is a deficit in reading among the current youth, then perhaps it is as much our fault as it is theirs.

There are four main reasons why I would strongly dispute the claim made in the title of this article. The first is the inclusion of the words “any more”. What this implies is that in the past, the nation’s youth shunned the opportunity to go out and take part in whatever the form of enjoyment of the time was in favour of sitting in with an improving book. Nonsense. The simple fact is that the statistics produced by the reports, in particular Scholastic, only show what kids of today are doing, and any comparative data relates only to a very short timespan. The statement “kids of today don’t read any more” carries a heavy insinuation that kids in previous generations did. Yet in the absence of like data from past generations, how can we even begin to make that claim? We can’t, so to a great extent the statistics are misleading – almost to the point of irrelevance as a comparator. What we are left with is anecdotal evidence and when I ask people of my own age what they read outwith school when they were young children and later when they were in their early teens, the responses show me that there is little difference between the generations. Among my own circle of acquaintances (representative, incidentally, of those who were 5-18 across a sizeable span of the 50s, the 60s, the 70s, the 80s and the 90s) the percentages of those who read for leisure are more or less the same as those produced in reference to today. The thought that everyone in past generations of kids and teenagers spent their leisure time reading is little more than a fallacy. Some did and some didn’t. As in all generations.

But at the heart of this is a more basic issue – that of what the statistics actually mean when they refer to “reading’. And this leads to my second objection to the “kids of today …” claim: surveys such as Scholastic are most often referring to the reading of prose fiction. Banished from any sort of consideration is prose non-fiction or anything even educational or technical. To return to the previous generations debate, my husband will openly admit to having not read the “classics” of fiction. He would therefore be considered one of those “terrible kids who don’t read”. What isn’t taken into account is his early love for technical publications and anything engineery which he devoured at age 13 onwards with a fervour that we would applaud in a reader of Austen and Dickens. If they awarded PhDs for academic research using Haynes car manuals, Himindoors would have had his doctorate by age 15. Yet it seems that the pride we should have had in these alternative reading materials is far overtaken by a prejudice against those same publications.

Another acquaintance of mine of the same vintage had a childhood love of “How it Works” magazines, and the more technical the better. That both became successful engineers (one of them a pioneer in the development of computers) is hardly surprising and since neither had any inclination to head to university to “read” English, why should we sneer at their reading choices which seem so eminently suited to their future lives? Both, incidentally, are the possessors of university degrees gained in later life, so clearly the lack of familiarity with The Mayor of Casterbridge did not dent their academic abilities whatsoever.

Perhaps this is getting closer to the nub of things: we are quite frankly so damn snobbish about limiting our definition of “good reading” to fiction that we have overlooked the importance of other types of written material. And Ironically, even within the ivory towers of English literature academia, certain genres are considered more worthy than others. Woe betide my Advanced Higher student who wanted to do his dissertation on Scottish crime fiction only to be met with a fusillade of tutting from his school and the suggestion that this was not “proper” literature. This deliberate overlooking of anything that isn’t from a very narrow list of classic literature, I would suggest, is to the detriment of our kids. More on that later but in the interim, enter PISA and SSLN stage left.

Ongoing literacy standard reviews are the main contributor to the “kids today not only don’t but can’t read” piffle, with PISA and Scotland’s own SSLN (Scottish Survey of Literacy and Numeracy) being the front runners. The 2016 results of the latter (it is administered every two years) indicate that less than half of Scotland’s 13 and 14-year-olds are now performing well in writing and the reading ability of P4, P7 and S2 pupils (the groups who are tested) is lower than 2012.

Note please that these standards refer to Literacy and not Reading per se, and this is where the third of my objections comes in. The results are bandied about as “evidence” of our kids’ failures with little or no regard to how those results are achieved and even less regard for what they are actually measuring. As it happens, to generate the SSLN results for Reading, the bank of tests carried out by the pupils is on comprehension of prose non-fiction. It is not about how much (or how little) fiction they read. In other words they are tested on their skills in Close Reading, or Reading for Understanding, Analysis and Evaluation as it is in the new money – an activity that brings its own set of skills to the extent that it is considered worthy of being examined in later school. The simple fact is that that many schools’ approach to English teaching is heavily focused on Literature – not in itself a bad thing to learn but surely not to the detriment in close reading skills. How on earth, then, can we expect our 2nd Year pupils to do well in the SSLN tests when they do not have the requisite skills to answer? This to me is a fundamental flaw.

Let me pick up the previous thread about overlooking the importance of other types of written material. If the argument is that reading bestows significant advantages with vocabulary and structural understanding, then surely it does not matter what type of reading material is being used – as long as it has a decent standard of writing itself? If kids want to read car manuals or football fanzines then so what? The standard of writing in FourFourTwo is as beneficial to kids as the works of Jane Austen – more so many would argue. We also have to face the very simple fact that we live in a highly technological age and the written word is coming at our kids not in the form of a hardcover book, but on screen. With such a wealth of information available online – information that will more than cover their school study requirements – why should we still insist on printed material as the only valid method? I personally would like to see schools and colleges teach how to do proper internet searches as part of their curriculum, with a focus on how to determine credibility, currency and relevance of information. Let’s face it, it would be a far more worthy skill to have than the ability to read and regurgitate the relevant chapters of your school’s one and only text book on Subject X. The format for the written word has changed – we have to get with the times.

And don’t get me started on that whole “they don’t read because they are too busy on their iPads and phones” baloney. We are very quick, as adults, to discount these media without actually establishing exactly what the kids are viewing. Let’s be honest, did we not play video games? Did we not sneak in extra sessions after our parents had chided us? And let’s be even more honest – do the video games of today not have a substantial educational content that was missing in the original Space Invaders of my childhood? If you try to tell me that Farmville or Sim City teach nothing about economics or Assassins’ Creed teaches us nothing about problem solving, then I will simply assume you haven’t actually tried them. Add to this that the kid actively engaged in a conversation with their mates on whatever social platform, is a kid who is communicating through reading and writing. Perhaps instead of dismissing this, we should use it to our advantage. To assume that all new technology is unworthy and somehow inferior to reading a novel from a narrow list of approved titles and genres is to ignore a whole new world of potential educational and life skills tools. A vast number of modern computer games are following on from the Dungeons and Dragons of my early adulthood by teaching us how to problem solve by using our brains to interpret the options and instructions that we need to read first. And which most kids of today do really pretty damn well.

That brings me to what I see as the real question – the one that affects us as educators – and it is quite simply this: is it in fact our fault that so many kids profess not to like reading for pleasure? And is it our fault that kids don’t have the skills to interpret non-fiction works? Is it, as I have now come to believe, that WE are the ones who are killing off reading in its traditional form. The Scholastic survey shows that children prefer books that they can see some relevance in – something that can at least equate to what is happening in their own lives and at best can perhaps help them make sense of the world they are experiencing. I should imagine that with very few exceptions, a teacher’s set of experiences is going to be fairly removed from their pupils’. Boring them with a work of literature just because we thought it was good all those years ago is not a good plan. That is not to say we discount the classics altogether. Of course we should be trying to show our young charges that there WAS a big world of literature before Jacqueline Wilson. But if Tracy Beaker allows even so much as one kid see a way out of his or her own current situation, then bring it on. Only after we have dealt with the life experiences of the modern teenager should we be even be beginning to attempt to show them how it was for Elizabeth Bennett, who didn’t have to face bullying on a daily basis; who didn’t need to worry about her social media profile and who, moreover, didn’t need to worry about not getting a job or where the nearest food bank is.

Consider also how English is taught in the average school where everyone in the class does the same text. For many schools, the choice of text is determined either by what the teacher likes combined with being restricted to what is in the English department cupboard rather than what might actually interest the children. Years of cutbacks have meant that for many schools, choice is determined by whether or not there are sufficient books to go round and that they will last another year without disintegrating.

So perhaps before we moan our faces off about kids not reading any more, perhaps we need to examine our own role. As educators we need to cover all the bases. Kids need to learn a whole new range of skills to keep up with modern times if they are to stand any chance of keeping up in future times. While reading for fun is to be applauded, we have to recognise that it is but one past-time that kids will do – when they have time after all the homework we expect them to do so they can pass those exams that seem to be the only focus of their lives. If your kid doesn’t like playing the piano or isn’t any good at it, you wouldn’t try to force them to keep doing it would you? Of course there is a place for reading stories to children in primary school and yes it is nice to introduce them to the niceties of English literature in high school. But to succeed in life (and to pass those bloody SSLN tests) they need to focus on functional literacy first and foremost.

Reading fiction is not bad for our kids. Reading fiction at the expense of non-fiction might very well be.

Hauns aff Halloween; it’s oors!

If you believe the media, we didn’t celebrate Halloween here in the UK before the yanks  inflicted upon us both their unpalatable orange monster (no, not that one – I mean the pumpkin) and their apparent legalisation of child thuggery in the name of trick or treat?  For the many of us here in Scotland who remember the last day of our childhood Octobers with fondness, the very notion of Halloween as “only American” is almost guaranteed to leave us fair birlin’ in oor graves.  Halloween is ours, we cry in a variety of accents and dialects. We took it to that lot over there across the Pond. Not the other way around.  It wisnae yous at a’.     Continue reading

Not just a box-ticking exercise

It was time, I thought, to put together what has become my almost annual blog post. Now that semi-retirement is upon me, I am hoping to become a more regular blogger (note to self – eat more dates)  but part of the problem is I get bees in my bunnet and as a result end up getting side-tracked into doing loads of other stuff.   Most people would see this as a way of procrastinating (if they are being kind: mostly they probably just think I am a complete anorak), and I suppose it is to an extent. But it goes further than that and I never cease to amaze myself with the items that I suddenly need to research as failure to do so will render me bereft of vital knowledge and therefore a flawed human being.

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The Keto experiment Part One: breaking the duck

Towards the end of May of this year I attended a charity Exercise Marathon run  by my friend and all-round jolly good person Paula Lamb.  Essentially,  a number of us  – mostly, but not all ladies and including several ladies of a certain age – signed up to do 12 hours of continuous exercise spread over several different classes throughout the day.   And so off to Crosby I went, partly because I wanted to support the charity, and partly because yet again I experienced that all-too common scenario that bedevils me in which my brain screams “Nooooooo!”  but the word that comes out my mouth is “Yes”.

Now I pride myself on being reasonably fit for my too quickly advancing years, and I felt that I would cope fairly well with the exercise sessions.  And in fairness, that is what happened, and I came away from the event quite pleased with myself. It wasn’t an Olympic performance but neither had I let myself down.  But a few days later something happened to change my opinion: someone posted a handful of videos of the event.

And there it was – right in the middle of the screen in one shot during the Burlesque session:

A very large lycra-clad waddling duck. 

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Slacktivism, Clicktivism and why I am hesitant to get cold and wet for charity this month

I am almost invariably irritated by those Facebook statuses that ask you to repost a statement – usually in the form of a bit of text posted in photograph format – on your own wall regarding what are if not out and out good causes, then at least good intentions. Ignoring the additional factor of poor spelling and grammar in several of them, my irritation is four-fold: first on many occasions these items filter down through people who haven’t actually checked their authenticity and as a result I am regularly asked to repost about it being such and such awareness week when in fact it isn’t.  Second, I dislike the almost bullying nature of the way they are written, especially the ones that bleat such statements as: “I bet only 3% of my friends will dare to repost this. I know who you are”.  Third, I resent the implication in many of them that I don’t otherwise care, know about or do anything for charities when in fact I do – regularly and extensively. And the fourth factor is simply that I seriously question what good they actually do.

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Hebridean Adventure: Day Four and Five

Roll out the Barra
Thursday night’s accommodation had been certainly interesting, what with the rather eccentric decoration style which was stuck in an early 70s early B&Q time-warp and the presence of a loquacious Scally called Colin. Our hostess did however produce a marvellous three course dinner that we weren’t expecting and we had the company of a nice Belgian couple. (Quote Scally Colin: “I’ve heard of Belgium. Where actually is it?”) and that set us up for our Day Four trek. The day’s route was through South Uist, over to scenic Eriskay and onwards on the wee ferry to Barra where we would catch the 7pm BIG ferry back to the mainland.

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Hebridean Adventure: Day Three

Islands on the edge
Day Three involved riding down through North Uist and Benbecula, and this should have been the easiest part of the trip as it is not a particularly hilly route apart form a lump at the start of North Uist. We thought that we’d make use of the hour and a bit we had before the ferry to take a run down to a picturesque church at Roghdal which had been recommended to us by a club mate. The trip was in fact essential as we’d been told that it contained a rather risqué artwork. At this point there was a strongish breeze but enough sunshine and warmth to let us overlook this. The ride to the church was only 3 miles but it contained an enormous hill (15%). Because I had just breakfasted well, this section was about the slowest 1mile I have ever ridden. But the church was worth the effort although the naughty artwork took a bit of finding. We rode back at speed because a stiffer breeze had got up behind us, which meant that we got to the ferry terminal a lot earlier than we needed. I say “terminal” – it was really just a slipway with little facilities other than a waiting room which, mercifully, had a toilet. You’re picking up the idea that toilet stops were as frequent as coffee stops on this trip are you? And they weren’t always for my ageing bladder either it has to be said.

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Hebridean Adventure: Day Two

Standing start

Day Two was scheduled as a bus trip up to Stornoway (with the bikes in the boot of course) and a cycle right up to the top of the island and a return via the Standing Stones of Calanais. The total mileage for the day would have been in the region of 110. I say “would have been” as the whole plan hinged on that crucial bus link. Unfortunately Hebrides Transport saw otherwise and had put a minivan on the route instead of the coach and the driver sailed somewhat arrogantly past us. We decided to start cycling with a view to catching the next bus at whatever point it passed us. And yes, “passed us” it indeed did, although I managed to get it to stop a few yards on. The driver was less than helpful and omitted to tell us that if we got as far as Tarbert, the coach would take us up to Stornoway – a fact we only discovered over a coffee in the splendid and extremely well cake-endowed First Fruits café at the pier in Tarbert. Faced with a wait of an hour, we revised our plans and decided that Calanais was a must see and we’d just have to cut short the day’s ride. This turned out to be a good choice as we were able to spend slightly longer at the stones than we might have otherwise, and it cut out the Cleisham hill. It also allowed us to spend quarter of an hour oohing and ahhhing at some cute little piglets which were about the only type of wildlife on the islands that didn’t attack Laura. More of that later.

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