A Flemish Adventure

As I rolled over in bed for the second or third time too many on Friday morning I pondered the famous psychology experiment by Walter Mischel where a group of kids were offered a Marshmallow and then told that they could have a second Marshmallow if they waited alone for a period of time. Those kids that waited went on to be more successful, in general, than those who scoffed the first Marshmallow. I fear that I would very much have been one of the scoffers.

I was already a day late starting this trip. I had finally had it confirmed that my contract in The Netherlands would not be renewed (no surprise given the current state of the Oil & Gas industry, but still a bummer) and the 3 days leading up to the Ascension Day Holiday (always a Thursday) had been a mix of panic, thankless job applications and distractions from any sort of bike packing planning. Thus on Thursday I woke rather late and still had a list of adult stuff to do before trying to turn my concept into an actual plan.

When I lived in Wales, my BFF and I would do a regular ride on Wednesday evening after work (cunningly called the Wednesday Night Ride or WNR). Although there were others who would join if they wanted to, the thought for each of us of depriving the other of the WNR usually meant that we got out every evening rain or shine (or snow and moonlight as it often was). Currently I lack an Adventure Buddy who keeps me from being a responsible adult and so often it can be a challenge to take the first step out of the door and actually get away even though I know that when I’m out, all of the stress and strain of modern life will melt away. One of those boring, successful children would no doubt have been up at 6am on Thursday and on the road by 6.15, scoffing their 2 marshmallows on the way out…

The original plan I had in my head was to get the train to Maastricht and ride the GR5 down through the Ardennes into Luxembourg. I had got the idea off the Bikepacking.com website which had a small feature from a rider that had done the same thing. The GR 5 is part of a network of walking paths that criss-cross Europe (though mostly France – GR = Grande Randonee, = Big Walk). The GR5 runs from Hoek van Holland to Nice and they are marked by a series of red and white blazes on trees, fence posts, road signs, stones or anything else available making for, at least in principle, an easy to follow trail.

However, because life, spending the 80 odd euros it would cost to get me and the bike to Maastricht and then back from Luxembourg meant that a slight change of plan was in order so I shifted the trip closer to home by moving it further up the GR5 into Flanders. With that, I took the cheaper and heavily delayed train to Bergen op Zoom. The gpx file of the route it had taken me an hour to get onto my Garmin was useful to ride the short distance from the station to the trail, but subsequently turned out to be totally useless. (As I went on diverged further and further from the marked trail, eventually ending up tens of kilometeres away. Whoever made that route on Bikemap.net, it is useless! I would eventually find a promising looking version of the route from the website written on some of the blazes but by then I had no way to put it on the Garmin). This led to me somehow doing a lovely 20km loop which eventually, comically so, took me right back to where I had started. No matter, it had been a nice loop. As I tried again I discovered just how different the marked trail differed from my GPS track resulting in countless U-turns and a lot of frustration. The blazes are designed to be seen when walking and so are not always obvious from a bike or at bike speeds. This means that if you lose concentration on the bike for even a few seconds you can very easily end up off the trail, and once you re off, there is no option but to backtrack until you find the last blaze and start again.

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Eventually I found myself on the right trail and heading in the right direction (with the abuse of a woman I had cut up mid U-turn ringing in my ears). The weather was stunning and under a bright blue sky, with my garmin heading up over 30°C I meandered through the fields and woodland paths mostly off road. When the trail is clearly marked it really is a very nice way to make your way through the countryside (though note that it is far from direct. If you want to get to Nice quickly there are far quicker ways, but that is not the point of the GR network). The route takes you through the countryside along back roads, fire roads and in a few cases singletrack footpaths and tends to skirt the edge of a village every 10km or so so that you can quickly divert to a shop or bar for a refuel should you need to (which if you remember it’s a walking path would be every 2-3 hours or so). Toward the end of the day I found myself riding past the Westmalle Abbey and at about 7 decided enough was enough and stopped for the day. Having just made the closing time of the local shop I found a bar and had a few of the famous local beers and watched the sunset over the Abbey. As the light ran out I re-found the trail and rode through a wood in search of a likely looking spot to make my bed. I eventually came across a small picnic area backing on to a farmhouse and stables and decided to call that home. Sweltering in my bivi bag having finished off my rather unsatisfactory rehydrated “hotpot” – read bad smash with brown bits pretending to be “meat” – I drifted off to sleep to the lullaby of the nearby motorway.

Sleeping so close to civilisation meant that I had to be up and away early the next morning. The trail started winding through fields in the early morning light and was really rather pretty, but eventually spent 20 odd kilometers ploughing through small towns and villages which weren’t so fun. However after an hour or so it opened out again and the trail wandered off road through woodlands and marshlands and a few hours before lunch even began to undulate. I stopped for lunch by the Abij van Averbode and found a bakery/charcuterie with fresh bread, local pate some wonderful cakes and cold drinks. Getting going after that was a slight challenge I will admit but the trail stayed off road and interesting which made it easier. There were even some hills I had to stand up to descend! A first for me on a loaded bike and I have to say I was surprised how well the bike behaved on technical (‘technical”) descents. Though it obviously doesn’t leap out of corners with a snarl like an XC race bike, it is certainly not like riding a tank either.

Having lost the trail yet again close to Lummen (3 options, 2 crosses on the obvious options, and the other option didn’t lead anywhere), I decided I’d had enough and broke free of the trail and headed north up toward the closest official bivouac site. I had wanted to try one of these out for a few weeks. I stopped off to pick up some supplies and a jar of Carrefour’s finest Stovevlees (I know, in the sea…) and headed on to the road. The wind had got up by now and made a nasty cross/headwind which I will confess made the 40km road trek somewhat unpleasant. The terrain was just rolling enough to prevent any rhythm and my shorts were starting to chafe places that ought not be chaffed. I will confess to shouting a few expletives into the wind at a few points as the count down of kilometers on the Garmin seemed to run slower and slower.

The evening sun was just starting to set as I chalked up 150km and rolled into Opitter and straight up to the first bar I came to. 2 of the local specialties slipped down with ease in the evening sun. The old lady in the Frituur ladled frankly too many chips onto my plastic tray and squirted a large dollop of mayonnaise onto the top and I swung into the garage shop to buy a few more cans of beer (yes, in Belgium you can buy beer in petrol stations). I rolled the short distance to the Bivouac site and was impressed with what I found. There was a decent sized platform with a small roof over one corner, several large stacks of firewood, a few picnic tables and even some specific poles for hanging hammocks. Given that relatively few people enjoy microcamping or bivvying it was impressive to a site so clearly designed with us in mind. Even the long drop toilet was relatively clean.

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I was concerned to see a group of local youths turn up armed with cars, motorbikes and not a small amount of beer. Clearly they were not expecting to see me there and I listened in on their befuddled conversation,

“Dude, someone’s here!”

“what?”

“Another person is in the campsite.”

“WTF?!”

“I know right?”

…etc

 

Luckily for me though they moved off elsewhere and save for a few moments of accordion pop floating over the trees they didn’t bother me too much.

Alone again, apart from the midges, I sat in the warm evening, heating up my stovlees in batches and burrowing in to my mountain of frites.

The next morning I actually slept to a reasonable hour and was woken by a group of mountainbikers on the trail that ran through the site. Bivvying outside of these bivi sites is illegal in Belgium and The Netherlands but, as in most places, if you wait until dusk, clear off at dawn and clear up after yourself you are usually left alone. However, this time I was in a legal site so I could have a “lie in” under my little roof until it got too hot to stay in my bivi bag and then have a leisurely morning making espressos and packing up. I took advantage of the location and did a loop of the Mountain bike trail before finding the local bakery to sample their race cakes before cranking out the 40 or so km to Eindhoven where I had decided to call it quits at 300km for the weekend.

Insert Hobbit joke here…

Thoughts on GR5 and bike choice

Be under no doubt that I enjoyed the weekend and the riding very much, although not mountain biking in the way that most UK or US riders will think of it, it was still very good fun picking my way through the Belgian countryside. The riding was varied and entertaining and had I continued further south (something I think I ll do one day) would have become a lot more varied in height and technicality too. The GPS for the Flemish section can be downloaded here – http://www.groteroutepaden.be/en/route/45/gr-5.html – For an introduction to offroad bikepacking to people in the BeNeLux, I can recommend it!

For a lot of the Flemish section, a Mountain bike, even one set up for XC, was overkill. One of the new fangled monster cross bikes or a Gravel bike with 40c tyres (albeit tyres with a bit of tread as it was loose and muddy in places) would have been good for 95% of the route, only giving a little bit away to a mountain bike on a few sections where the GR5 actually went on single track paths. I suspect that further south a mountain bike would be needed again. Something like a Salsa Fargo or Cutthroat would be perfect!

Not to be down on the bivvy sites but although they are supposed to be inaccessible to cars to discourage parties. I can’t see how this deters many people and certainly hadn’t stopped these guys turning up in a car and on a moto. I’d be nervous staying in one close to a town at the weekend. I suspect during the week you’d be fine. They are a really nice place to stop.

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A Dutch…Adventure?

adventure

ədˈvɛntʃə/

noun

an unusual and exciting or daring experience

verb

 engage in daring or risky activity

What is adventure exactly? I think to most people an adventure requires a certain amount of remoteness. Mountain biking is more adventurous than road biking because on a road bike you can always call your grandmother to come and pick you up if it goes wrong. Living in the most densely populated country in Europe (with the exception of the Islands and small states like Monaco). This sense of remoteness can be hard to find. Any sense of adventure is further reduced because the landscape of Holland (and most of the rest of the Netherlands) is famously flat – the clue is literally in the name. Any elevation is either man made (dykes, landfill sites – I do not make that up) or sand dunes on the coast. A friend who lives in Ghent put it very well when he said “you can see for miles, but there is nothing to see.

However, for 2 weeks of the year Holland (and Flevoland) is transformed into one of the most amazing landscapes in the world, in my humble opinion, when the Bulb Fields are in bloom. What is a wide expanse of green or brown nothing with the odd warehouse is transformed into a sea of different coloured stripes. Photos from the ground – photos in general – really do not do justice to the experience of riding for 50 km through a tunnel of colour and smells on a sunny day.

 

With that idyll  in mind I set off northward on Saturday afternoon with the bike and rode up toward Alkmaar which is to be found about 30km north west of Amsterdam. Through the sky was blue it was still a cold day and the whether forecast predicted that it would mostly stay that way until about midday the next day. It’s fair to say that I ride these roads a lot so it was easy to meander my way through the bulb fields up to Haarlem. A short sprint to get in front of what looked like a horrific squall coming in off the sea was perhaps a warning that the forecast was not entirely accurate.

Once inland the tulips took my mind of that though and it was here that I discovered one the benefits of exploring your own area by bike. I have been through Haarlem train station countless times but the view from the impressive victorian (I don’t suppose the Dutch use the term Victorian but whevs) train station is of the back of an uninspiring office block and as such I have never felt the need to get off the train. However the town centre itself is beautiful.

20160423_151756328_iOSNarrow, overhanging streets radiate out from the central square which into which a large cathedral appears to have been squeezed. With 3 days to go before kings Day, there was a market and a fairground in full swing. After pottering around for a while I continued north to the River (estuary? canal?) Ij and crossed over the sluice gates that keeps the North Sea out of Holland and past the currently rather unpopular (in the UK) TATA Steel Works. I can’t say that this part of the ride was pretty, but these huge industrial plants can have a certain amount of imposing grandeur and the gates themselves – which still have to allow large ships to pass through are an impressive thing to see up close.

Continuing north I happened upon the bucolic, though unexpected sight of a local baseball game and stopped to watch an innings or two. I was lucky enough to catch a few “bases loaded” plays and one of those moments when the runner is trapped between two open bases and has to keep doubling back and forth, eventually either tricking the fielders and making it home or being tagged out. Not something you see every day in Europe though the similarities between it and a local village cricket match were obvious, right down the picnics and ready availability of beer for the spectators.

 

As evening drew in I stopped for a beer on the beach at Castricum-en-Zee and began looking for a place to sleep. Meandering through the dunes on the Nordzeepad revealed a few likely spots and a short detour away from the path found a small dip over hung by a dry tree into which I made my home. I unpacked the bike and set up camp and started to make something for supper (a gourmet pasta and tomato sauce Jamie Oliver would have been proud of). Looking one way into blue sky however could not hide the fact that behind me the sky had roughly tuned the colour of a bruise and as I started to eat the rain began. There is really no way to be comfortable in a bivvy bag in the rain and I covered up as much of my stuff with waterproofs and tried my best to keep myself in the bag and the food outside – which is pretty much impossible. As the sun went down I snuggled into my sleeping bag and struggled to get warm. Without going into too much nerdery I don’t think I had the right sleeping set up that night and as the temperature dropped to zero and the rain became hail my sleeping bag began to struggle. By doing up every zip and pulling every drawstring tight I managed to generate enough heat to get warm enough to sleep.

Waking up with the sun, I discovered that a herd of horses had shared my bedroom  and were no regarding me curiously. For a brief period the sun had come out so I dragged myself out of bed and packed my kit up with frozen fingers. I’d managed to forget my long finger gloves and leg warmers and will admit that I had a bit of a flounce as I tried to move my loaded bike back to the path. I will admit to leaving it at the side of the path in a hail of abuse whilst I set on a bench about 200 metres away and tried to warm up again.

I only had a short ride into Amsterdam to meet some friends for breakfast and so, for once, time and distance were not a concern. I rode through deserted streets and roads meeting only animals and the odd dog walker, eventually stumbling across a Golden Arches on the edge of Alkmaar. I had heard that MacDonalds coffee is in fact reasonably good and given that nothing else was available and that they had a clean toilet and the heating on full I decided to test it out (it’s true if you were wondering, the cappuccino was more than acceptable). I waited for an unpleasant rain band to pass and set off toward Amsterdam. The tulip fields here hadn’t come out yet but the wind was behind me and the views were pretty enough. I was very conscious about the evil looking rain storm behind me and so didn’t hang around much.

I managed to stay ahead of it until the last 500m up to the ferry, back across the Ij,to the centre of Amsterdam whereupon I was hit by a deluge of wind and hail which along with a puncture by the bulb market put paid to any plans of riding back the The Hague from Amsterdam.

So, Adventure. Had I really had something that could have been termed an adventure? I was never more than a 15 minute ride from a train station that would have had me back at home within an hour and I would be surprised if I had dropped a bar of phone signal.  I could see the sickly yellow glow of a town from where I had slept. Ok, so I was a bit chilly but any fool can be cold in a field.

However,  I had discovered things that I would never have seen otherwise like the centre of Haarlem and the baseball game and had had another day and night away from the stresses of daily rat race existence. For this, I could not say that the trip had not been worth it even if it lacked the exciting or daring qualities that define “Adventure”.

Had I had an Adventure? It had certainly been unusual…

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A weekend with the Rapha Core range

This piece was written for bendelaroubaix’s blog – https://roubaixcycling.cc/ – where a myriad of other reviews, written by another keen amateur cycling in the real world. Drop him a visit.

For 2016, Rapha have released their ‘Core’ range of clothing which is a set of shorts and jersey for both men and women. In a new move for Rapha this range was intended to be a less expensive, dare I say budget, option for people that could or would not buy the full price Classic (mostly wool based), Brevet (designed for long distance/travel) or ProTeam (designed for Team Sky) ranges. Having worn through a pair of ProTeam softshell gloves and overshoes in a few months I returned them to Rapha who in recompense sent me a voucher with which I purchased the Core Bib shorts and Jersey (plus an extra 50Eur).

I used them for the first time on a 100km ride on a dry but cold and windy day in the Netherlands. Rides in the Netherlands may be flat but the dutch attitude to sport means that they are often done at a good pace and so it was a hard ride. I also went on a short 40km smash through the sand dunes on the coast to calm down after the recent fantastic edition of Paris Roubaix. It is only fair to say that I am a Rapha fanboy. I find the cut and materials in the jerseys and shorts extremely comfortable and given that I do not have a Pro cyclists physique, the wool jerseys and quieter designs than our friends in Europe offer suit me a lot better. On the road bike I tend to use Rapha clothing (though the accessories are more of a mishmash) but when I’m on the mountain bike or cross/adventure/travel bike I use cheaper stuff as these sorts of rides throw up more possibility of crashes, thorns or other potential damage. I am a man so, obviously, this review is on the men’s kit.

Jersey.

The jersey is a nice, soft feeling, thin fabric which matches very well with Rapha’s other synthetic base layers. You get a choice of 4 colours and I went for the dark navy blue. Unlike most Rapha clothing it is a single colour with no characteristic white armband. However, for reasons I can’t understand, this band is stitched into the sleeve nonetheless and does have a thick piece of white fabric on the inside of the jersey arm. The best explanation for this is that it is some kind of sweat mop you could use but this doesn’t really seem likely. Labels on the jersey are also very subtle and comprise a simple Rapha logo at the base of the lower pocket. Speaking of the pockets they are well designed and top of the pockets sit relatively high up the back and so swallow a modern smartphone in a waterproof case with ease. As usual with Rapha there is a zip pocket on the left hand side which is big enough for a set of keys and a card holder or a banknote for the coffee stop. One departure from the more expensive jerseys, both in material and message, is the cheesy label which adorns all Rapha kit. In the core jersey it is merely printed on as opposed to a separate label and instead of being a message from a bike racer of old is a message from Mr. Rapha himself, Simon Mottram extoling the virtues of riding with friends. Whilst I agree that (and I quote) “the best rides are rides shared”, the rest of the message about taking turns on the wind, sharing bidons and waiting for people who are dropped seems at odds with the #epic message that Rapha is notorious for. Obviously this has no bearing on the performance of the jersey though.

On the bike they jersey feels great and I struggled to really notice any difference between this and the ProTeam jerseys. Obviously the feel and performance is different to the sportwool jerseys which are a different kettle of fish. The fit is similar to the ProTeam but maybe a tad looser. I found it would flap around my shoulders a little bit but not so that I would really notice unless I had a blog post to write. My Proteam jersey doesn’t do this. The base of the jersey has a wide gripper which keeps everything in place. The sleeves are a modern length (i.e. long) and have no gripper but stay in place perfectly well. In short, without doing a back to back test with a (non aero) ProTeam jersey I don’t think I could’ve told the difference. When “just riding along” I quickly forgot that I was wearing a “budget” option.

Shorts

If anything the shorts are where you can tell that the Core range is more “budget”. The fabric does not have the same premium feel of the ProTeam shorts. Although I don’t own the classic shorts I remember testing some and the fabric on the classic shorts was much thicker. That said this does not make the shorts feel any less comfortable. The pad is the same as in the classics shorts and in my tushy’s opinion is the best pad available. Obviously this is entirely personal but if you get on well with Rapha’s other shorts you will find the same level of comfort here.

One notable difference with the Core Shorts is the cut. I take a size down in the classics/Core range shorts than the ProTeam shorts but the fit is still much less “compressive” than the more aero/more muscle supporting ProTeam shorts. Whilst the UCI ban full on compression wear I’ve yet to see a pair of modern “race” shorts that don’t claim to have some compression benefit. This is not the case with the Core shorts. The other difference is that the front of the bibs comes much further up than on other models, well above my navel. Again this is a personal thing but I don’t much like this. If, like me, you re a cyclist that enjoys Belgian beer as much as Belgian Classics, the high front tended to get trapped below my belly and pull on the bib straps a little. I found I had to keep puling the front of the bibs up to stop the straps digging into my shoulders. Hopefully as I get closer to racing weight (ahem!) this might stop happening. Perhaps a size up would have helped but then the shorts would not have fitted so well everywhere else. I suspect the problem is with the rider here and those with more traditional cycling physiques will not suffer with this problem. When in place the bibs are comfortable enough to be forgettable. As with the arms I find the legs relatively long compared to some manufacturers but they are no longer than Rapha’s other options. Another thing to note is that the leg grippers are very wide. When on the bike they are well behaved but they tended to stick to my hairy leg when putting the shorts on. When looking stuff up for this write up this was something I noticed another user had commented on the Rapha website. (in case you want to know the message on the shorts is much more typically Rapha, some nonsense poem about wind and mist and sweaty pores). All these niggles disappeared on the bike and the shorts settled in place quickly. Assuming they last as well as other Rapha kit, I’ll be very happy.

Summary

In short Rapha have done a good job with the Core kit. Unless I really concentrated on it I could not notice any difference between the Core range and the other, usually significantly more expensive, Rapha kit. To be able to get such a good pad for a relatively low price is a real boon. In my opinion it’s the most important part of cycling clothing. The jersey is certainly the best bargain of the pair as the performance it offers is basically as good as the more expensive options, fit aside. The shorts will also keep most riders happy and it will be up to the individual to decide if the thicker classics, or more racy ProTeam options are worth the extra expense if they are doing longer rides or for those special days. One of the best things about my other Rapha kit is that unlike almost all other manufactures, my oldest kit still looks as good as it did on the day I bought it (and on the few times I’ve used it, I’ve found Rapha’s after care to be outstanding – see above!), on that note, I will be certain to let bender know how the kit stands up to a few weeks and months of club runs, long rides and bikepacking trips.

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A German Adventure

Living in The Hague, as I do (again) Germany is a relatively easy train ride away. Down to the far south of the Netherlands takes about two and a half hours and costs under 30 Eur (+6 for the bike). So for the Easter weekend I decided to go on a short adventure – a #microadventure if you will – to the Eiffel Region (which if you’re not familiar with German geography lies to the south and west of Aachen – 15km over the border from Heerlen back in the Netherlands). I had planned out a route that would take me through the Eiffel, down to the castle in Manderschide then back up to the famous Nurburgring and back to Aachen.

The weather for Friday morning across the Netherlands was far from great so I postponed my train by a few hours hoping to miss the worst of it. Unfortunately, I didn’t really succeed and set off out of Heerlen into a grey misty afternoon. Ignoring my cardinal rule of bike touring – Avoid cities like the plague unless you’re heading into them deliberately – I ploughed into a damp grey Aachen industrial estate accidentally rolling past the Lindtt Factory. The smell of milk chocolate did little to encourage me and I struggled to pick my way through Aachen following the route I had planned. Finding the other side, I met the first example of what was to be the theme of this trip. I had planned to follow a number of bike paths shown on online bike route maps expecting them to be wide, smooth expanses of tarmac on which a bikepacker could make some serious kilometers with relative ease. However, as I left the city, the bike path turned from smooth tarmac into gravel over tarmac, then into a road more gravel than tarmac finally becoming a muddy rocky track as I rode up into the Aachenwald.

I stared at my garmin and the signpost both unquestioningly pointing deeper into the forest. This surely couldn’t be right! Brakes blocks scraped on rims and became less and less effective as they clogged with mud. The slick tyres began to slip sideways across the road as the limit of their meagre grip was quickly surpassed. The wheels – not the most expensive and slightly out of their depth under a loaded bike even on a road – were squirming underneath me as they flexed and the carbon fork, again not the stiffest available, made me feel like the front wheel was only cursorily attached the rest of the bike. Progress slowed to a crawl as for at last 200m the path became actual singletrack, far beyond the warranty capabilities of my road bike, let alone a fully loaded one. It took an hour to go less than 10km. Suddenly the plan to get down to Manderscheide looked like a very tall order.

Mercifully the forest ended and I was back on Belgian roads (unbeknownst to me I had switched countries again) and I slowly rolled into the forgettable (if I’m honest) town of Eupen at around 4 pm. The climb out of the town gently, almost pleasantly, took me up past a reservoir dam and on up into a damp forest. The temperature plummeted and suddenly there were patches of snow on the sides of the road. On up.

The forest opened up onto a moorland with a nature reserve on my left. It was an hour since I’d seen anyone. On up. Signs forbidding cross country skiing in the nature reserve began to appear and I began to wonder where this road ended (and where Germany had gone!) Finally, the road crossed a main road, the border appeared and the hill stopped. In the gathering gloom I began the descent into Monschau – the place I had originally planned to be a late lunch stop. At the bottom of the hill the bike path signs yet again pointed me down a muddy forest track. By this time, I was cold and more than a little bit miserable and sulkily headed into the forest again. As I descended through the mirk I spied a small hut on the far side of the river, crossed by a bridge. A spark in my chilled brain and I marked the spot as a potential camp site. I continued the short way down into Monschau and discovered a genuinely wonderful little town full of cobbled streets and traditional buildings overlooked by a stone castle. Feeling too cold and damp to test the warmth of my sleeping bag I sought out the youth hostel, which was actually built into the walls of the castle overlooking the town, but the manager, beset with the arrogance that comes with knowing that customer service is irrelevant as he has nothing to sell, told me there was no room at the inn (with it being good Friday and all, it was hard not to suspect that this gentleman would have happily nailed our lord and savior to the cross bluntly pointing out that under the laws of the day he was guilty and he only had himself to blame). So I returned to the town and found a local brewery with a very friendly waitress who fed me their own dark beer and a massive plate of Schnitzel and fried potatoes which warmed and cheered me up. Looking outside the rain had stopped and deciding that it wasn’t that cold so I paid up and rode back up the hut to sleep. The bench was narrow but the hut was well sheltered and I snuggled down into my bivvy bag and failed to fall asleep to the roaring river running by.

Next morning, I awoke with the sun and the dawn chorus (I assume, all I could hear was the river) and sleepily packed up and headed back down into Monschau for breakfast.

The original plan was in tatters now. No way could I make the distance I had planned. Because of its tourist center status there wasn’t a lot of help I could get in Monscahu so I saddled up and rode up the reasonable gradient into the town of Simmerath where I found a café and a map shop. Asking around I got a few ideas of where on the map was pretty and worth visiting and so began to formulate a different, more realistic, more relaxed plan. I had forgotten how much riding a loaded bike slows you down and also I had lost sight of what was the fun in bike touring – using the bike to move through beautiful countryside rather than as a tool to get from A to B as fast as possible. Warm, dry and under a blue sky I could appreciate the beauty of where I was and over a coffee and a breakfast Brotchen, I hatched a plan. I would ride around the large reservoir in the center of the Eiffel National Park and ride over a few hills between towns. The paths were again off road but this time were mostly gravel roads and so not quite so stressful on the bike. The roads over the hills were smooth and built with comfortable gradients and I spent a very pleasant day meandering around the area.

After a recommendation I decided to spend the night in (or close to) the small village of Einruhr. Having been given a route by a bike shop I set off up on to the top of the hill overlooking the town and began to follow the supplied route.

As the path left the side of the road I began to notice a similar pattern as the road became less and less “road” and more and more “trail”. Passing through what remains of the village of Wolvenburg – a village requisitioned by the Allied Army after war and used for training the road disappeared completely and I was now riding along slightly flattened grass.

The flex in the wheels caused the spokes to hit the rear derailleur in the easiest gear causing a heart stopping pinging noise every few moments. The train then began to descend increasingly steeply and eventually became a steep rocky forest track down which I slithered at just above walking pace, by now used to this. I slid into Einruhr as the sun was setting and gave up for the day finding myself a bar and wrapping up warm to watch the sunset over the lake. Having identified a likely looking hut on the map I rode up to it just as darkness fell and set up my little camp. Feasting on beef goulash and Einspatze noodles bought from the supermarket and a beer bought from the bar in my little wooden hut overlooking the lake and the lights of Einruhr was a good end to the day.

Sunday dawned to persistent drizzle and having lost an hours sleep to the clock change I struggled to leave the warmth of my sleeping bag. Eventually I dragged myself out and packed up. The plan recommended to me by the lady in the tourist office was to make my way around the lake to the town of Heimbach, 20km away before heading for home. A simple task I thought. This track turned out to be the worst of all and now slick with fresh rain was horrendous to ride. To make it worse, what road bits there were, were all up super steep back road hills which often defeated me with my heavy bike. Again, what was supposed to be an hour warm up turned into a 2 hour slog and I rolled down the hill into the pleasant town of Heimbach feeling very frustrated. Not only were these paths not defined as road, gravel or track on the map, most of them weren’t even marked on the map at all. Having tried to fortify myself with a coffee I began the climb out of the cobbled streets of Heimbach, struggling to regain all the height I had lost. Not only was this road constantly uphill but it was into a brutal head/cross wind that sucked all the energy out of my body. After an hour and a half of what felt like a battle I rolled into the small village of Roetgen and stopped on the church green for a rest and what passed for lunch on a day when the only shops open were petrol stations. Looking at the bike path map board I noticed that there was what looked like a disused railway path between Roetgen and the next village on route and, scowling at my expensive paper map, decided to give it ago. Finally! This was the autobahn for bikes I had been looking for for 3 days. The path followed an old railway and the signs at the end promised a 40km path, straight to the center square of Aachen with no more than a maximum gradient of 2%. What it did nt say was that for me, that whole 40km was downhill! Thus began a glorious hour of riding where I could sit, pedaling gently as I rolled at 35-40kph down through quiet forests into Aachen. I didn’t have to think or worry about the bike or route finding, I could plug the music in (a mix of horrifically cheesy German/Austrian apres-ski anthems I had downloaded from Spotify) and enjoy the sun.

This was gleeful and I was almost sad to roll up to the door of Aachen Cathedral and the spiritual end of my trip. After a slight mishap with a barman who refused to bring me a beer without me having a table number (he’d have been the guy holding Jesus down I reckon) I found a bar happier to take my money by the imposing Town Hall and settled down for an hour in the sun with a clay mug of Aachen’s finest.

After my 2 beers I wearily remounted the bike and started off on the final 15ish kilometres to the train station. Finally the brutal crosswind became a tail wind as I turned north out of Aachen, negotiating the outskirts of the city and breaking out on to the same straight flat road I had ridden on Friday. Instead of a damp misty road it was now bathed in evening sunlight and I pondered as I was blown along the road, pedalling lightly but thanks to the wind still making a good pace, why it is that Germany seems to be so low on many British tourists visit-lists. It is a truly beautiful and varied country filled with friendly people yet we seem to look down on it because, as far as I can tell, they have a better football team than us. The war excuse doesn’t hold water for me anymore. The Netherlands was occupied by the Nazis, and even lost notable young diarists to death camps yet the “bitterness” of the war has been reduced to nothing more than a cheesy joke about bicycles. The border between the Netherlands is almost invisible now, heading into Germany it is marked only by the Kerkrade town limit sign and the sharp end in red tarmac as the Dutch Bike path ends and become a German on the other side of the road. There is an old, apparently, abandoned house which appears to still be Dutch, the equally decrepit hotel 100m down the road has German writing on it and the bus stop takes you back south into Aachen rather than North into Heerlen.

The trip may not have been a success according to the original plan but I had had 3 days of adventure which, until the second beer in Aachen had cost me under 100Eur! For 3 days I had not worried about my barren bank account, the uncertainty of having a temporary contract during a major downturn or any of the (many) other things that usually keep me awake at night. For 3 days I had been stress free care free and happy.

The rain storms silhouetted by the sunset to the west of the train made it look like the whole of the Zeeland was on fire…

(I have to give a helmet tip to Yogi and Joosje (@rideinthemiddle), Alastair Humphreys (@Al_Humphreys) and Emily Chappell (@emilychappell) for giving me the inspiration to get off the couch and get out there. Emily’s book, Ride in the Middle, kept me company in the Bivvy Bag and Al’s book Microadventures gave me the idea).

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Musings on London Cyclo-commuting

So tonight was my first commute to work on the bike, 6 years after leaving London after uni. I ve put some of my early thoughts below:-

  • 6 years out of London (3 in the UK, then 3 in The Netherlands) and I’m amazed by the amount of cyclists on the streets now! I used to go round Richmond Park and if it was busy there might be 1 or 2 cyclists 100m in front or behind you. There are now cyclists 10m in front and behind you. Likewise it was a busy day commuting if there were 5 of us at a Traffic Light but now there are commonly 5 or so, and usually moreI like this! I’m not on of those people that thinks cycling should be restricted to those that pass some unwritten taste. Plus it’s very hard to have a SMIDSY when it’s not so much “didnt see you”, but “didnt see 10 of you”. London traffic was always reasonably good to ride in once you’d become accustomed to the various foibles and intricasies but people largely seem to be better than I ve seen elsewhere.
  • It’s insane! I mean seriously it’s insane! it’s dangerous, it’s manic, and there is really is no reason for it. It is not a bike ride (for I’d guess 90% of the people I saw) it’s a flat out race. At one point there must have been 10-15 of us full on sprinting down High Street Ken, weaving in and out of cars, road furniture and whatever else was in the way.

There is a lot of stuff on the internet about turning the UK into The Netherlands (something I would support) but as well as along overdue change in the attitudes of UK road users to other road users but for it ever to work there will need to be a change in cyclists attitude too. A peloton of riders treating Piccaddilly like the Carrefour d’ Arbre is not the way to spread the message of cycling.

  • It’s fun, good god it’s fun. Sprinting around that taxi to squeeze into that gap in Hammersmith was great. Dropping that guy on the trek in the white shorts made me feel like Tom Boonen when he broke away in Paris-Roub….ah crap
  • I need a new bike, otherwise Ill just trash my nice one…as you can imagine, this is a major heartache 😉 Any idea of getting a fixie with no brakes has gone right out the window, there were a number of times I had to order All Ahead Stop! I need a lot of practice before I go pure fixed

Anyway, tomorrow’s a new day and a new commute! Whoop!

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On the Subject of Belgian Mountain Biking, pt 1

(admission – almost none of the photos in this are mine – thanks Google Image)

Welkom/Bienveue

So I ve just got back from 4 days mountain biking in Belgian Ardennes near the towns of La Roche en Ardenne, Malmedy and (in particular) Houffalize. Now, regular followers of the XCO (cross country olympic) World Cup will need no introduction to Houffalize, but Belgium has a very bad reputation in the UK, for reasons that I simply cannot fathom, so maybe a brief introduction is needed.

The Ardennes are small range of hills in the south of Belgium, probably most famous in the UK for the 2 “Band of Brothers”episodes that deal with the Battle of the Bulge and “Baastown”. They are naturally heavily forested but in most cases the tops of the hills are used for farming, both crops and cows. Cyclists will know them as the backdrop for the Liege-Bastogne-Liege (Leuk-Bastanagen-Leuk) and Fleche Wallone races.

Houffalize centre

Belgium is well known world wide for being the home of cycle racing and many of the towns or villages have some form or mountain bike trails which are well marked and well mapped (in this respect they are exemplary).

The Ardennes are very different in appearance to the ‘bergs in Northern Belgium/Flanders, the landscape of which tends to be heavily farmed, flat fields and industry (and is possibly where Belgium gets it’s bad reputation in the UK from). Although in my experience the language spoken was pretty fluid, the region is ostensibly French Speaking. Towns are commonly sleepy affairs that all appear to be almost too new.As one might expect from a country famed for it’s beer, you re never short of  bar in a town centre. I don’t know how “rich” Belgium is as a country, but it gives the impression of being somewhat sort of cash, especially when compared to it’s much richer (and highly taxed) neighbours. Any genuinely old buildings seem to be in very poor condition (as are all of the roads) and are being replaced by shiny, new “old buildings”. Given it’s recent history however, that might not be so surprising…

Houfallize after the Ardennes Offensive

Let’s go biking…

Now, I would like you, dear reader, to keep in mind that I had a very nice four days and I enjoyed the riding I did because what follows (in parts 1 and 2) is going to turn into a bit of a rant. The weather was decent enough bit not spectacular. Day 3 in particular was very wet and muddy (no complaints from me)…

Misty days on day 3

Every route (bar 1) that I rode  – EVERY ROUTE – went UP through the forest, usually on a piece of double track or fire road and came DOWN a fire road or a road! Now, unless the world of mountain biking is totally different in Belgium that it has become in the rest of the world, this is insane! The rest of the us have woken up to the potential of specific mountian bike trails that are as fun on the way down as they are on the way up. It’s even spawned a new form of the sport – Enduro MTB – Now am I seriously the only one that wonders what is going on here?

I rode Routes 2 and 3 at Houffalize on the recommendation of the shop. The climbs are often nice enough, roads through farmland or tree line avenues give way to fire roads which in turn give way to tracks that look steep rocky and rooty but are in fact very much rideable. Everyone likes an ego boost every now and again! However, the descents on both of these routes go down wide open fire roads or (sin of sins) tarmac roads.

Route 6 at Houffalize is a nice route with some nice technical bits that have you thinking, the bit of singletrack that runs alongside the road is as good as any man made bit I ve ever ridden and the last descent down off of the top of the XC course is really nice too (more on that in part 2).

If Houffalize Route 6 is the exception to the rule, then the type example of the target of my rant is Route 2 at La Roche en Ardenne. It is only a short route (15km) and starts up a nice road through forest and farmland, then turns off onto a really nice bit of singletrack which goes down for 500m or so. It then turns up a bloody vertical fire road (which seems to be famous on Belgian and Dutch MTB forums – with good reason) which in turn, turns off into a really nice bit of climbing singletrack that meanders up through the forest. It was evening by the time I rode this and the rain had stopped and the sun was coming out and it was a lovely moment.

Super nice bit of singletrack…Guess which way it was ridden?

This went on for a good proportion of the routes total kilometre and then returned to the village down a tarmac road! Those of you who follow me on facebook may have some idea of how miffed I was!!

Well, was about to take everything back, took a pic of some lovely, sinuous singletrack – a sort of singletrack/privateer magazine cover photo shot…

Guess what way the route rode it…Your right

After near 10km climbing, guess what it used to come down?…YES!! A FUCKING TARMAC ONE!!

Seriously, what the flipping flip!!!!

I started on Route 3 at Malmedy on Day 4 and I confess that by then my legs were shot so I pulled off and finished up on route 2. However, the ascents/descents so are were very much fitting the profile of the trip so far (which made my decision easier I must say). Funnily enough though, this led through a really nice bit of rooty single track which was a really nice challenge. Even better, there was a local DH track on the final descent which i did instead (to remains myself that how ever much I watch it on the telly, I can’t ride DH!!). That was an excellent end to the trip.

Malmedy DH (not me riding)

Rant Content…

I really don’t want to be Nationalistic or over patriotic about this, but someone should take whoever plans these course to the 7 Staines or Dalby Forest in the UK and show them what Mountain biking can be like. The rapid growth and success of cycling in the UK can be attributed directly to the growth of trail centres where people can ride clearly marked and beautiful trails.

Deliverance at Glentress

In fact they don’t even need to learn another language, bring them to the man made mountain bike trails in The Netherlands that have been built by small, local bike clubs such as MBC de Noordikers at (in my very limited experience) Noordwijk, Zandvoort  or Zoetemeer which are fantastic trails made on Landfill sites (Zoetemeer) or sand dunes (the other two). I have to confess I had to eat a large amount of humble pie the first time I rode these trails as I was expecting something very simple and boring, but in fact  are all really good, challenging and exciting trails.

Noordwijk

Zoetermeer (thin bars and a bell…classic!)

I don’t want anyone to think centre in Belgium should be so designed, a balance of natural and artificial riding is what is needed but given the potential available, there could be so much more.

Just to make it clear, I had a good time for 4 days and I really enjoyed the area, the people were friendly (save one prat of a campsite manager) and the riding was good, but….To put it simply, it just feels like a massive wasted opportunity!

This rant will continue in Part 2…

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Fun on a 29er

So, having heard all about these new fangled big wheeled 29in Mountain bikes, the opportunity arose to test ride one of them for the first time.

To give you some balance, I ll quickly run through what I ride usually. I have a (26in) Cotic Soda, a Ti Trail/XC hard tail with a 120mm fork. I tend to use 2.1in tyres unless we re off doing something big. I ve loved my bike for 5 years or so and have ridden it in 24hr races, XC races, trail centres, all day natural epics, trail centres, down Snowdon and on trips to Spain/Pyrenees. It is an older version that predates all these new fangled frame designs like tapered headtubes, BB30 and such like. It is a bike known for being a little flex/noodly in exchange for a bit of extra comfort. I ve not ridden a FS bike for a long while.

I live near Certini Cycles, who remain one of the best bike shops I ve ever been to. As a Specialized concept store they let you demo bikes for free. I was given a 17.5in Stumpjumper Comp. They re full carbon loveliness and come with a 85mm RS Reba fork. At first I felt like the bike could be a smidge to long for me but having messed about with set up and dropped the bars a bit it felt good. After all this is Specialized’s XC race hardtail frame. People rode this bike in the Olympics! (I did nt)

Day 1 – Haldon Forest (trail centre)

I took the bike, and my parents to Haldon forest which is a decent little, if not super, trail centre near Exeter for the bikes first ride. Knocking about in the Skills section I was able to gather some thought on the bike:-

  • Manualling/jumping/drops were notably harder work than I was used to. Although drops were not impossible, they required significantly more body language to get the requisite fore/aft movement to get the wheel off the ground.
  • Grip was exceptional, I pointed it at some stupid things deliberately and just mashed the pedals, it was amazing what it just rolled up.
  • There was a little bermed section there that I rode fast, the bike was undoubtably harder to turn, in fact the first turn I did I went straight on at. This was to be a day of understeer. The bar width was exactly the same as what I ve got on Suzy (680mm) and it really felt like I could have done with another few centimetres each side. Alternatively (given that the frame felt long anyway) a shorter stem could have helped. However it already had an 80/90mm stem (I think) so i couldnt have gone much shorter.
  • To summarise the bike felt like it was on rails – but it didnt always feel like those rails were going around the corner

Moving onto the Blue Trail for the first time (hey, i was with my parents and sometimes you have to be a good son!) gave me the chance to ride the bike flat out. Man these things really do go. Stony surfaces, mud and roots are dispatched with ease. However, it became clear very early that pumping the trail and popping off little drops/rises is near impossible. Climbing is notably easier, in fact it is possible to stand up and chug up trails that had 26ers sliding out. I could almost lean over the front of the bars, roadie style, and not slide out such was the extra grip (almost, its still MTBing after all!).

The “good parts” of 29ers (better rolling, more grip, more inertia etc) all add up to make them seriously quick. To be honest, I did nt notice the effect of the bigger wheels on acceleration to be honest, I’m a big lad who drinks too much beer at the weekend and getting my lardy arse moving is not going to be affected by a few extra hundred grams on the bike. If you re a 55kg flyweight super racer then maybe you ll notice the difference, but not I.

Day 2 – Cann Woods (local DH/jump trails)

Ok so DH might be a stretch but there are some tricky little twisty-turny trails built in some woods near Plymouth that I thought might prove tricksy for the bike. Weather in the southwest has not been at all good so there was a lot of mud around. Again the bike performed brilliantly in the deep mud and over the slippery roots that characterise these woods. Climbing and descending was notably easier due to the better rolling and better grip afforded by the 29in wheels. I have to say that the turning and handling became much easier today. I’d got used to how much I had to turn the bars so did nt have the same problems with understeer. Although I would nt go so far as to say you need to change your riding style, it certainly takes some getting used to. Even so, the front wheel commonly felt a bit remote. The best comparison I can give is when I’m riding the Dutch bike a bit to fast ;). The position was already long and low, I don’t think you could go much more relaxed (I think it’s a 69.5deg head angle) without feeling like the front wheel was attached to the bike in front. That said, for more traditional (i.e. less steep) XC trails it’s fine.

Summary

OK, so would I buy one…?

If I was a racer, definitely! Tomorrow! (they actually had some there with 700 or so off!). They are definitely faster and easier to ride than 26in bikes. Even if you ignore all the scientific reasons, just the feeling of better grip, stability and the bumps feeling smaller allows you to ride sections faster (especially when you re already breathing out your….). Plus, the ability to stay sat down and mash the pedals whereas a 26in rider would need to be standing up is faster. If I was to do a 24hr race, I would be hankering after a 29er. Canyon and On-One have some for extremely tempting prices too! A rigid one would be excellent for the “trails” around me in Holland.

Would i sell the 26in to buy one – No. Recreational rides where the time taken is unimportant are definitely more fun of a 26er. Pumping, popping and bouncing down trails is what makes MTBs fun, this is much less pronounced on a 29er

Would I buy one as n+1?* Seriously tempted! For all day natural rides over places like Dartmoor, Conwy Mountain, the Dales, The Lakes etc, it would be perfect. Essentially you have the benefit of a 140mm FS bike but still in a lightweight, stiff package that can climb nicely.

What puts me off buying one? very little. Keeping Suzy for trail centres and general larking about and having the 29er for racing/long rides would be a rather splendid bike garage – I think 650b could be a perfect sweet spot gaining the benefits of the 29in wheels but being a bit more fun. I’m thinking that a 650b 120mm XC/Trail bike could be perfect – we ll have to wait and see though, possibly for a long time to come!

Other stuff

The bike had SRAM 10spd stuff on it (an X7/X9 mix), I upgraded the Cotic to Shimano XT from 9spd X9  recently and have to say I much prefer it. The SRAM stuff is good, the shifting is the rapid clunky shifting that I remember but I’m a convert to the smoother shifting of Shimano now

As I say, the position would need some work, shorter stem and wider bars would be necessary. Possibly I should try the size smaller.

Santa bought me some Endura MTR shorts with that new fangled sticky stuff on the back. Riding them back to back I can say that that is a simply genius idea and works brilliantly!

Mother bought me some Seal Skin Socks for Christmas and they are simply brilliant!

*the correct number of bikes to own is n+1, where n is the number of bike already owned

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