Monday, 30 April 2007

The Virginia Civil War Century: Alone with History for 100 Miles

In Fredericksburg at the Military Cemetery

Mr. G.C. Moore of the Potomac Pedalers has prepared a cue sheet which presents a 100 mile tour covering some of the famous Civil War battlefields of Northern Virginia. Since I have already ridden Maryland's annual Civil War Century, put on by the Baltimore Bicycle Club, I thought I would take advantage of the superb Spring weather and do the Virginia version as a Do-It-Yourselfer, that is, with no support. Unfortunately, I could not find anybody else to come with me today, so it really was a true DIY in every way! But the starting point, the Stafford High School, was only about 45 minutes by car from downtown Washington, DC, so I could sleep in a bit after yesterday's Skyline Climbfest and still have a good ride.

I rolled out from the High School at 9:45 am, calculating that I would probably be back around 4:30 pm. The route has some surprisingly busy stretches on it and there are signs of suburban sprawl all over, particularly in the stretches around Stafford and Fredericksburg, both reasonable commutes to DC. The very well-prepared cue sheet was easy to cut up into four small pieces, although they tended to slip out from the alligator clip I use to hold cues against the brake cable so I had to stop a few times to reposition them to prevent them from falling out. So I otherwise had no clue where I was and how to get back to the car I was very careful with them.

After the initial busyness of Shelton Shop Road and Mountain View Road, things got much quieter as I rode into the countryside (including a stretch of the interestingly-named Eskimo Hill Road!), stopping briefly on Potomac Run Road to look at the typical swamps found in the Tidewater region of Virginia. There was very little traffic now and I spent a few moments looking at the birds flying around the marshes. But once I left this bucolic stretch, I came to new suburban development just past the commuter train station named, like much else in the region, after General Robert E. Lee.

With 18 miles (29 km) under my wheels, I arrived in Fredericksburg and visited the cemetery located on Marye's Heights. In December 1862 a series of battles took place around the city, most of them ending with disaster for Union forces. With more than 100,000 men available, the Northerners should have been able to take the town but the Confederates had fortified the heights and controlled all access. Unwilling to use their imaginations, Union generals, headed by Gen. Burnside, who would go own to demonstrate startling heights of ineptitude at Antietam and go down in history for his sidewhiskers (reversed to become "sideburns") simply threw more troops at the entrenched Southern forces. The artillerymen on Marye's Heights had a clear field of fire over a half-mile of open field below and not a single Union soldier made it to the stone wall at the base of the hill. The Sunken Road has been reconstructed, along with the wall, and is near the Battlefield Visitors' Center.

Four miles down the road one comes to the main part of the battlefield park, which is very extensive. I rode down the beautiful Lee's Road, passing through dense cool forest, before climbing a bit and heading towards the battlefield at Chancellorsville, which also looks like a big forest rather than a park. Nearby is where the battles at Spotsylvania Courthouse and in the Wilderness took place but they were not on this itinerary.

When I turned onto Road 610/Old Plank Road, I was confronted with an angry headwind, probably gusting at around 20 mph (32 km/h). Unfortunately, the 610 section went on for some 17 miles! At one point I stopped at a country store to load up on Gatorade and rest a bit as I was getting tired. The climbing from the day before and the relentless headwind were beginning to take their toll. This area in Culpeper County seems to have a lot of turf farms. They look very nice, but do nothing to block the wind. Oddly enough, it actually rained on my a little bit although I was riding in bright sunshine. There was one little black cloud and the strong wind was blowing a few sprinkles my way.

By the time I reached Kellys Ford, scene of a major cavalry engagement in March 1863, I was pretty toasted. I rode by the Inn at Kellys Ford, a fancy equestrian place, and stopped for a moment to consult the cue sheet and have a drink near the public boat landing on the Rappahanock River. I saw another cyclist go by--only one of three I was to see all day-- and thought I would follow him and sit on his wheel and recover. While he looked pretty fit he was going so slowly that I just passed him, put my head low and continued grinding into the wind. But things looked up as I passed through the little town of Remington and turned on Road 651/Sumerduck Road. Now I finally had a tailwind, and I made the most of it, cruising at a steady 42-45 km/h (26-28 mph). I passed a very unfriendly-looking US Army training base, the Warrenton Facility and was curious what kind of training they might be doing is apparently something to do with communications and the CIA. According to the Internet, that is.

Suddenly I was at mile 82 (Km 132) of the ride and now I was facing the headwind again. There were a series of little hills through some subdivisions and the miles were just creeping by now. I was concerned that I had taken a wrong turn somewhere--not something you want to do so late in a century ride--but the right road turned up as indicated but it seemed so much further than the 3.2 miles (5.1 km) on the cue sheet. Stefaniga Road, which also had a few little climbs that hurt, was great--3.4 miles of fresh new asphalt!

I was happy to see the McDonalds on Garrisonville Road as I knew that my ride was almost over. It had been an excellent day, with great weather and comfortable riding, and I pulled into the High School at exactly 4:30 pm, as planned. This surprised me as I thought the headwind would have taken a lot of time to overcome. It is far, far harder to ride a solo century than with a group where you can rest in a paceline so I thought my 6 hours of riding was pretty respectable, particularly since I had accumulated nearly 12,000 vertical feet (3650 m) over the entire weekend of riding.

I think that as more and more subdivisions are completed and the sprawl moves even further out it will become difficult or dangerous to do this ride in a decade or so. However, between Chancellorsville and Kellys Ford there is still lovely green forested countryside and that will probably be there for the foreseeable future.

The statistics:
Distance ridden: 165 km (102 miles)
Altitude gained: 1737 m (5700 feet)
Average speed: 27.21 km/h (17 mph)
Maximum speed: 67.71 km/h (42 mph)
Riding time: 6 hours, 3 minutes
Beer consumed: switched to Indian chai iced tea given that it was very hot outside and I was alone

Sunday, 29 April 2007

Saturday Ride on Skyline Drive: The Best Road

The Official Word:

Bicycling is permitted along Skyline Drive and on paved areas in the park, but nowhere else. (The park is preserving the natural world, so no off-road riding of any kind is permitted on trails, fire roads, or grassy open areas.) Because Skyline Drive is a two-lane road with steep hills and many blind curves, park officials do not encourage bicycling, especially for children.

From the National Park Service's Shenandoah National Park website

Well, it seems that the National Park Service is not all that impressed with cyclists using their nice park but on any nice weekend lots of cyclists with a need for climbing make the trip to Front Royal, Virginia to enjoy the beauty of the Blue Ridge and some wonderful road indeed.

Skyline Drive was begun in 1931 and dedicated by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1938. Constructed during the depths of the Great Depression, the road was a make-work project and is considered a National Historic Landmark. It is a two lane road, immaculately paved, and grades seldom exceed 6% (although there are some that do reach 8%). The speed is limited to 35 mph (56 km/h) but there are some sections that are only 25 mph for safety reasons. There are scenic overlooks as the road snakes over both the left and right sides of the Blue Ridge, and rather than guardrails there are gorgeous low stone walls. The road features a whole lot of climbing and is excellent for training. The May 2007 issue of Bicycling featured an article that called the Blue Ridge Parkway, which is a southern continuation of Skyline Drive but not a national park, "the Best Road in America."

Ready to roll! From left: Larry, Melinda and Tim

After arriving Front Royal, I made my way to our jumping-off point, the Stonewall Jackson High School, where I met my friends Tim, Larry and Melinda. The weather forecast was pretty good, with a sun/cloud mix and temperatures around 70F. Although we rode off at 9:30 am in sunshine there was not to be a great deal of it for the rest of the day, which was grey and cloudy and a bit chilly. We joked about Larry and his several layers, including a wool jersey, whereas as the Canadian I was going with shorts and a short-sleeved jersey. It really did not look like a day for armwarmers, but I may also have been willing Spring to start for real.

First climb of the day

After paying our park entry fee, we rolled up the first serious climb of the day. The road up to Dickey Ridge is a steady 5-6% grade but goes on for six miles. Tim and I went ahead a bit and I found that in spite of not getting much of a warm-up I was feeling pretty good. We were passed by two SUVs with bikes on racks on the roofs, shocked that anyone would choose to have their bike driven up rather than enjoy the great climb. We reached the Visitors' Center and waited for Larry and Melinda and saw the SUVs being unloaded and a lot of cyclists getting ready to roll.

The Specialized S-Works Tarmac E5 and me (wearing the official Specialized Riders' Club jersey--whee!)

I am very familiar with this road and ride it several time in Spring for training. We now had a series of small descents before going on to some more longish climbs. Tim and I were rolling on our cool machines (he has a new Cervelo R3), although I was getting a bit of squeaking from various places on my bike. I had picked it up last night from the shop and it seemed that they had stopped the bottom bracket from making an annoying rubbing noise, but now the seatpost was complaining! Well, it is all part of the first few months of new bike ownership and everything will eventually be dialled in.

Tim and his Cervelo R3

We rode steadily, passing the mile markers on the way to the highest point of today's ride, the top of Hogback Mountain (elevation 3385 ft/1031 m). This section of Skyline Drive, the 32 miles (51.5 km) from Front Royal to Thornton Gap, was opened to the public on October 1, 1936. It cost US$ 1.2 million, or US$ 42,000 per mile, and was constructed by three different contractors. The climb up to Hogback, at Milestone 21, is not easy but today Tim and I rode it surprisingly fast, probably taking around 1:50 from the park entrance. We passed three riders with full touring gear grinding up the hill and had enough breath to wish them a good morning. Tim and I decided to go to on to Thornton Gap, the road giving us a nice long descent, and then come back and meet the others before returning back to Front Royal. After we passed the store at Elkwallow we realized that Thornton Gap was further than we had thought, so at Milestone 27 we turned around and headed back.

Melinda and Larry were at the store at Elkwallow as we pulled in, along with several of the lazy riders who had begun at the Visitors' Center. They were actually not all that lazy; Larry said that they were training for a ride that would take them right across the State of Washington. Larry and Tim took a break for a grilled cheese sandwich, of all things, and then we began the very long and hard climb back up to Hogback from Elkwallow. When I rode this on March 31st I found it exhausting but today I felt very strong and could keep up with Tim. After catching up to a very strong and steady 70 year old woman riding a LeMond on Hogback, I went into descending mode and rocketed a good part of the way northbound. At this point, I was getting an annoying rattling from the front end of the bike and pulled off the road to check my front quick release but it turned out to be the stem cover. I tightened it as much as I could with my fingers since neither Tim nor I had an allen key. As we were stopped, two riders went by and I said to Tim we had to catch them, but he suggested that I might want to do that alone.

I jumped into the big gear (as big as a compact crank will allow, anyway), and headed after them. I caught the first rider easily, passing him on a downhill at 60 km/h or so and then made an effort to chase the second rider, who was quite a bit further up the road. I reeled him in as well and after I passed him he joined up with me. Only then did he realize that I was not the other rider, with whom he had been riding. "No matter," I said, "but you can follow my wheel if you want." He seemed grateful for this but also hoped he could keep up.

At this point I was in full training mode, anxious to raise my heart rate beyond the paltry 150 it had been at for most of the day. I rode most of the way to Dickey Ridge, and only when we came to the last hill did I sit up. The other rider came around and we chatted for a while. His name was Randy and he was riding a very nice Trek Madone with a triple. He was training for Paris-Brest-Paris, the 1200 km ride held every four years in France, and had already done his 200 and 300 km brevet rides.

I was soon joined by Tim across from the Visitors' Center and we enjoyed the screaming 65 km/h descent back into Front Royal. Interestingly, although Tim has lived in the Washington, DC area for four years, this was his first ride on Skyline Drive. This final section of the road is always the highlight of my ride as I have worked hard to improve my descending skills. I find that I have to consciously tell myself to relax so that the front end of the bike does not get jittery and it seemed to have worked very well today. We left the park and rode the short distance back to the high school where we packed up our bikes, unpacked our picnic supplies and waited for the other two, who arrived just a few minutes later.

A well-deserved snack break

After most of our rides we break out some beer and snacks and today we had definitely earned them.

The statistics for the day are--
Distance ridden: 55.7 miles (89.8 km)
Altitude gained: 5905 feet (1800 m)
Average speed: 15.22 mph (24.5 km/h)
Max speed: 45.11 mph (72.6 km/h)
Beer: Hofbrau Maibock, Wild Goose Oatmeal Stout, Franziskaner

Friday, 27 April 2007

The Santiago Road: An Interlude in León

May 20, 2002

As I rode into the city, I was impressed with how hot it was as the sunshine reflected off of the white stone. I quickly found myself in a pedestrian area, which eventually turned into a street named after Generalissimo Franco, the first I had noticed on my travels. I walked my bicycle into a square and admired the magnificent white cathedral but, more immediately, I saw a drugstore across the square and I hurried over. One of the problems of riding around the countryside in hot dry weather under a blazing sun is chapped lips and mine were so bad that they were bleeding. My Spanish is limited as it is but the pharmacist understood with my mixture of French/Spanish/hand gestures and I purchased what must have been the world’s single most expensive tube of lip balm. However, it was worth the money as it worked immediately and I had instant relief.

No cars in León!

Lips back in order, the next thing was to figure out where I might stay. After the refugio in Sahagun and the serial snorers I really wanted to get a good night’s sleep so I wandered up and down the streets looking for a small hotel. It appears that there are no small hotels in León, at least in the old city, and I was hot, sweaty and discouraged. Then I saw a small sign that read “Hostal San Martín” and I thought that sounded promising. I went down a small street a few blocks to the Plaza Torres de Omaña and found the Hostal. It was on the third floor, so I brought my bike inside and chained it to the railing before climbing the stairs with my gear.

The couple operating the hotel did not really speak much English. The place looked very clean and cool and I was pretty exhausted by this point. I was quite shocked when they told me that the room would be 50 Euros but at this point I was beyond caring and did not want to look around any more. The communal bathroom was in the hall next to the small room and was quite wonderful, with lots of marble and several big showers.

I unpacked my panniers and organized my gear, taking some of my dirty laundry into the bathroom and cleaning it as best as I could. This worked quite well since my room had a little balcony and everything dried almost immediately in the blazing sun. I took a long wonderful shower and then napped for an hour, awakening completely refreshed and ready to see the town. The only thing left before going out was to enquire about a laundromat where I could clean some of the larger items. My touring shorts were getting kind of stiff and I was pretty anxious to look after them. The hotel people could not comprehend what I needed at first but then they understand and told me about a laundromat which was near the university, several miles away. But then they were very nice and offered to put my touring shorts in with the hotel laundry since that was all I had. When I came back from my walk around León they were all done and I had nice fresh clothing for the next few days. The Spanish are not well set-up for travellers wanting to do laundry and it is not practical to bring clothing for two weeks straight when cycling.

All practical matters attended to, I was free to wander the streets of León for several hours. The sun was not so intense now in the late afternoon and I was able to go back and enjoy the cathedral, which is a magnificent Gothic structure, the fourth church on the site. It was begun around 1205 and is apparently a 2/3 scale replica of the cathedral in Rheims, France. It was pretty well finished by 1302, although there were some alterations made in the 15th Century for the more modern taste of that later time. The stained glass windows are particularly striking, and apparently the León cathedral has more glass and less stone than any other cathedral in Spain.

Stepping out of the cool gloom of the cathedral back into the streets of the city, I walked around, admiring the impressive remains of the Roman city wall, which was originally constructed in the 3rd or 4th Century and was destroyed and rebuilt many times. The current section dates only to the 11th Century! Next to it is the Basilica de San Isidoro, an 11th Century Romanesque complex, which was built to house the bones of San Isidoro, which were brought into León in 1063. The king of Castile and León, Fernando I, had harassed the Muslims in Extramadura to the extent that they offered him the saint’s bones, not having any gold as their own kingdom was in decline. Pretty lucky that they had some spare saintly relics around...

The church was expanded later in the 11th and 12th Centuries but otherwise was not changed much except by the collapse of its central apse in 1513 and damage caused by the French invasion and by a lightning strike and fire in 1811. As I walked around, I saw several tall columns, and on one of them a family of storks had a huge nest. The baby storks were being fed and I watched them for a while. Nobody else paid the slightest attention.

Another very interesting building in León but quite modern in construction if not appearance is the Casa de Botines, an example of the work of the celebrated Catalan architect Antonio Gaudí. Constructed in 1892, it looks like a grey stone Gothic/Art Nouveau fortress but was meant to be a commercial building, housing a department store on the ground floor and three floors of apartments above.

I spent the remainder of the day sightseeing, enjoying the carless streets and exploring the hidden squares. I even walked past the main refugio in the city, but was happy to finally return to the Hostal San Martín and get a good night’s sleep.

Friday, 20 April 2007

I explain clipless pedals on video...

I am happy to report my second appearance on A Billion Bikes, where you can see me demonstrate clipless pedals, in particular Speedplay Xs. These are very easy to use and I have them on three of my bikes. Speedplay has a good website and, best of all, features a history of bicycle pedals. Whee!

My Friend Barry Sullivan: On the Podium in Taiwan!

In 1996, I persuaded my friend, Barry Sullivan, to take up road cycling so that we could ride the Ottawa Bicycle Club's annual big Rideau Lakes Tour together. This is a 350 km weekend ride from Ottawa, Ontario to Kingston and back. We found a bargain Bianchi for him and after some moderate training Barry, who was doing a lot of running at the time, joined me on my 40th birthday for what turned into a long, wet but fun (in retrospect, anyway) ride to Kingston, on the shores of Lake Ontario.

In the meantime we have been on several postings to various places and Barry has moved up in the cycling world. The Bianchi was replaced by a Giant and now an even better Giant. Barry has gone into training seriously and after moving from Hong Kong to Taiwan he has gotten into racing in a big way and he will be joining us in Alsace for several days of riding in June. And I was delighted when he sent me an unnecessarily modest account of his winning his age group at the North Coast race in Taiwan on March 25th. Having introduced him to cycling I will of course take full credit for this excellent win. Well done, and an encouragement for all of us who have never stood on the podium.

Tuesday, 17 April 2007

Training Camp Week: I ride hills with Squadra Coppi

Nelson County, Virginia

Every year my racing club, Squadra Coppi, has a four day training camp in the green hills of Nelson County, just west of Charlottesville, Virginia, on I-64. I drove up on Thursday to Nellysford, where the Acorn Inn is our base for the camp. After a rather longer trip than I expected, having missed the highway exit out of Washington, I arrived late in the afternoon. Although I had passed through several bands of rain, the weather now looked good. In the parking lot I met Chris Mayhew, a racer and coach from Pittsburgh, and he agreed to come on my exploratory climb of Wintergreen. Chris and Sean, two other Coppis, were in the Inn and they also wanted to come along, although they had already ridden the climb once.

The justly feared climb of Wintergreen

One of my reasons for coming to camp was to climb the big hill at the Wintergreen Resort since I plan to ride this on May 5th when the Charlottesville Cycling Club holds its annual hill time trial. The wind was blowing pretty hard when we left and I was pretty discouraged that I could not maintain the pace line well since my heart rate was jumping up to 172 bpm, more than when I climb the hill itself! The headwind and the lack of warm-up made it hard but I eventually recovered enough to start the climb. Chris Mayhew and Sean rode ahead as they are much better climbers, chasing after Chris Marrow who just blasted off before he turned around at the gatehouse. I felt pretty good doing the climb, checking out spots where I would be able to recover in May and other sections where I might pick up the pace. Chris M. and Sean met me at the top and we had an exciting descent, starting at 88 km/h for me. I felt great by the time we got to the bottom and I was able to take the lead on the way back to the Acorn Inn, holding a
steady 46-50 km/h due to the tailwind. So, first 43 kms in the bag, 930 vertical meters.

On Friday we decided to ride the longer rides that we usually do on Saturday as the weather was looking shaky for the weekend. I went with a rather fast group doing a 65 miler (101 kms), which went up the road to Montebello and then along the Blue Ridge Parkway before descending down Reed's Gap. I was the slowest of the group and found the climbing challenging, although less than last year. But then, it was 1600 m of up, so I guess I should not be surprised I found it hard going.

On Saturday I suited up, but within a mile I realized that I really did not want to do a 24 mile ride in pouring rain. There were pools of water on the road, so that was enough for me. I stayed at the inn and rode the trainer instead for 90 minutes. The rest of the time was spent socializing, watching cycling videos and getting a massage on Saturday night--some pain still in my right adductor. Chris Mayhew spoke to us about training and he had a lot of helpful hints. He also brought along a coffee grinder and a pump-handled steam espresso machine, thereby earning total style points.

My plan of riding a 50 miler on Saturday was obviously pre-empted by the weather, as was my plan to ride up Wintergreen a second time on Sunday since it was coming down in buckets. The drive back was pretty miserable, but at least there was no traffic.

I have booked a bed at the inn for the Wintergreen weekend (May 5/6) so I will be much better organized from that standpoint this year. I enjoy the family atmosphere at the Acorn Inn. The owners, Kathy and Martin Versluys, are very hospitable and the place is decorated with all sorts of interesting things from their travels around the world. Their son, Klaas, is in his final year of high school and as a project he just completed brazing a new bicycle frame for himself. Last summer he, his father and a friend rode all the way around Iceland and Klaas was the team mechanic for that adventure.

Giacamo mans the table and takes the bets

In spite of the poor weather, it was fun to hang out with the Coppi gang. In addition to getting coaching tips, having a massage, eating a lot of pizza and drinking a few beers, there was the Celebrated Electric Cycling Game, a fixture of every annual Camp Coppi.

Wednesday, 11 April 2007

The Santiago Road: The Seventh Day

The Puenta de Canto

Day 7–Thursday, May 30, 2002 Sahagun to Léon
64.96 km, total for trip 609.69 km

At 6:00 am, the first pilgrims were gathering their packs and crashing around in the refugio as I tried to get some sleep but it was no use. We let most of them clear out to begin their walk in the cold morning air and assembled our own stuff without any hurry. We knew that within an hour we would have passed the walkers and left them behind as even a slow cyclist will easily overtake the most determined of those on foot.

We were out on the road by 7:00 am, heading westwards as ever. We passed through an impressive arched gate leaving town and then crossed a remarkable bridge, the Puenta de Canto, over the Río Cea. This structure was commissioned by Alfonso VI in 1085 and was the only bridge across the river until 1992.

On the shore of the river across from the bridge is the legendary site of a battlefield where Charlemagne’s force was reputed to have met a Moorish army. Some of the Christians stuck their lances into the ground the night before the battle and when they awoke the next morning they found that the lances had grown bark and leafy branches. This miracle was not enough to stop Charlemagne’s forces from being annihilated, however.

Bercianos del Real Camino

The route, running parallel to the A231 highway, was not terribly interesting. We rode through the village of Bercianos del Real Camino, which had been given to the monks of Sahagún in 966, and continued on, passing concrete benches and picnic tables, and a gravel walking path for the pilgrims. The road took us under and then over the highway at Grañeros and into El Burgo Ranero, a town with a pond and some colourful houses but little to recommend it. El Burgo is an agricultural town on the great plain of wheat of Castile, but it did not look very prosperous.

The road was empty and the whole area a bit desolate as we proceeded through the villages of Villamoratiel de las Matas and Grajalejo de las Matas, before turning right onto the N601, a busy road with, luckily, a wide enough shoulder for us to ride on. Four kilometers along the road we came to Mansilla de las Mulas, a small town that was originally established by the Romans. It was famous from the 10th Century, when it was retaken from the Moors, for its mule market; hence the latter half of its name. It was a major commercial centre for the region and still maintains the major part of its medieval walls.

Spain: the open road

The next 14 kms. passed uneventfully as we rode through the gently rolling countryside, crossing two rivers and passing through Villamoros de Mansilla, Puente de Villarente and Valdelafuente before rolling into Léon through the traditional route via the Barrio de Santa Anna in what was becoming the uncomfortable heat of midday. At this point Max took his leave and headed westwards as I decided to explore Léon and relax for the remainder of the day. And see about getting laundry done somehow.

Tuesday, 10 April 2007

Book Review: Bike Cult, by David Perry

Bike Cult?–Seems Normal to Me

This is a great book, and it is unfortunate that it no longer seems to be in print. At time of its release in 1995, “Bike Cult” was the first attempt at an encyclopedia of cycling. This fat book (570 rather dense pages) covers the history of the bicycle its high-performance engine (that is, the human body), the bicycle as transportation and, lastly, the culture of the bicycle and the effect it has had on the human spirit.

There have been some changes in bicycle technology since 1995, and of course the tables of race winners is out of date, but “Bike Cult” remains a fascinating look into the origins and use of “the perfect machine.” I enjoyed the lovingly described history, which not only went over the bicycle as a whole but devotes sections to individual parts of the bike, such as handlebars and seats, and the whole question of how a bicycle is steered. It is a mad compendium of information: there is a list of international names for bicycles and related items on page 99, and we learn that the Hawaiian word for bicycle is ka’a paikikala, while in Uruguay it is known as a chiba.

The benefits of cycling are described in detail but there is no attempt to shield us from descriptions of bicycle ailments discovered in the heyday of cycling in the 1890s. However, in these times of great concern about the rise of obesity in America and Europe it is clear that the bicycle offers a solution, particularly when we read that Tour de France riders burn 6,000-9,000 calories per day!

But where are we to ride, given the modern, car-centric world we live in? The section of the book entitled “Bikeable Planet” is beguiling. For a brief and glorious moment, bicycles were actually seen as the best transportation alternative for the West and in some countries they still are. Too often derided as a child’s toy and treated by motorists as a menace, the bicycle can, with proper planning, be integrated into an urban transportation network. Low-cost in terms of acquisition, space requirements and maintenance, the bicycle in operation does not pollute, create noise or horrific traffic congestion. In the United States alone each year more than 40,000 people are killed in traffic accidents. Nonetheless, those who would propose bicycle-inclusive transportation systems are often derided as dreamers or utopian socialists or worse. This section of “Bike Cult” is provocative but perhaps only because our society has gone in such an illogical direction. Even today, Time magazine can run an article about how individuals can reduce carbon emissions, listing 51 ways to do so and not mentioning bicycles.

Author David Perry then takes us on a tour of cycling as a sport, including not only the expected pro racing/Tour de France information, but also strange sports such as Indoor Cycling and Bicycle Polo. Then our long journey takes us into art and bicycles and fashion and bicycles and even sex and bicycles.

There is a Bike Cult website maintained by David Perry, but it is really just a collection of links for the cycling community based in New York.

“Whoever invented the bicycle deserves the thanks of humanity,” said Lord Charles Beresford. And we should thank David Perry for this enchanting and entertaining look at the bicycle in all its forms and seasons. This is the kind of book that gives pleasure every time one opens it, reading at random. Addictive! It went through four printings and there were 20,000 copies made so if you are lucky you will locate one to cherish.

A Serious Athlete--and Middle-Aged!

The cover of the April 2007 issue of Triathlete features Brazilian triathlete Fernanda Keller who has competed in 20 consecutive Hawaii Ironman competitions, placing in the top 10 fourteen times and getting on the podium with six third-place finishes. In 2006 she won the Brazilian Ironman 70.3 and continues to compete at the highest level. She will return in 2007 for Hawaiian Ironman No. 21.

In addition to all of her training, she founded the Fernanda Keller Institute which provides 700 underprivileged children each year with after-school sports programs and introduces them to triathlon.

A major sports celebrity in Brazil, she began doing triathlons in the early days of the sport in the 1980s. And at 43 years of age she is an example of how being middle-aged can really be a synonym for style, strength and beauty. This cheers me up no end.

Fernanda's website is here.

Sunday, 8 April 2007

Book Review: The Six Day Bicycle Races: America’s Jazz-Age Sport, or perhaps, They Shoot Cyclists, Don’t They?

Once upon a time, in a very different America where spectators wore suits and ties and really nice hats to sporting events, bicycle track racing reigned as the most popular athletic pastime in the land after the Black Sox scandal of 1919 turned the fans away from baseball. Basketball was collegiate and pro football was marginal but cycling drew the crowds, brought in the money --cycling star Bobby Walthour Sr. earned four times as much as baseball legend Ty Cobb-- and regaled the nation with its astonishing mixture of speed, danger, film stars, underworld figures and larger-than-life riders and promoters. On a Saturday night an army of carpenters would move into an empty arena or hall and typically assemble 60,000 board feet of high-grade pine or spruce into a track, ready to be used by Sunday evening, the air redolent with fresh-cut wood. By the following Sunday the track was gone, sold for firewood, and the circus headed to another location. And this circus, once front-page news, faded away with the Jazz Age, almost without a trace.

Peter Nye’s latest book is a companion piece to the recent television documentary, “The Six Day Bicycle Races.” It is a very handsome work featuring a superb collection of photographs. Divided into twenty-six chapters, the book begins with the origins of the Six Day Races in England, its importation and enlargement in the United States, and goes on to provide profiles of stars including the Walthour family, Floyd MacFarland, Alf Goullet and Reggie McNamara as well as celebrated promoters Tex Rickard and John Chapman. There are fascinating insights into track construction, diet (stimulants were not unknown) and the work of the mechanics. From this book, it seems that many of the participants were real characters: trainer “Roaring Jack” Neville–so named for his behavior after a few drinks– created stopwatch-based training in the 1890s, coached world champions for three decades and claimed to have never ridden a bike.

In an era that produced dance marathons where participants danced until they dropped, it should be no surprise that track racing was brutally dangerous. In addition to dealing with tracks that were sometimes poorly designed so that control was difficult, riders had to contend with splinters, broken noses and collarbones, and occasional opponents who were not above fisticuffs. The cyclists rode in two-man teams and if one cyclist was unable to continue his partner would wait around and join up with another “orphaned” rider. Racers with broken bones paid their own medical bills. In the words of Reggie McNamara: “What else can you expect from a job like ours? If you can’t take it, you should try your hand at something else. This is a man’s affair.” Of course, the original Six Day Races were contested by solo riders until laws were enacted to prevent anyone from competing for more than twelve hours a day after complaints from spectators who watched exhausted cyclists tip over after falling asleep on their bikes. Promoter Bill Brady of Madison Square Gardens in New York created races with two man teams in 1898 and they became known as “Madisons,” setting the stage for three decades of colorful competition.

With successful races in the United States, with an impressive degree of international rider participation, American promoters took the Six Day Races to Europe, where they met with huge success as well. But eventually the Damon Runyons and the James Thurbers stopped writing about the Six Day Races and interest began to wane during the Great Depression. The last Six Day Race at Madison Square Gardens took place in November 1939. But the story does not quite end there as the tradition of Six Day Races continues in Belgium, Switzerland and Germany, where the crowds drink beer and lustily cheer every brave attempt to lap the field.

It is said that the silent movie is a unique art form in that it has a known beginning and a known end. So too was six day racing in America. This book, constantly filled with surprises and glorious pictures, is an excellent history of a sport that once was in a time so different from ours.

The Six Day Bicycle Races: America’s Jazz-Age Sport
by Peter Joffre Nye, with Jeff Groman and Mark Tyson
Van der Plas Publications/Cycle Publishing, San Francisco 2006
US$ 39.95

Friday, 6 April 2007

The Santiago Road: The Sixth Day

Max, ready to roll

Wednesday, May 29, 2002
Castrojeriz to Sahagun 90.62 km
total for trip 544.73 km

The refugio was dark, dark, dark and not so warm. I was sound asleep when I suddenly was awoken by the sound of chanting. It was a men’s choir singing something medieval and as I began to wake up I had the strange idea that I was still asleep and the music was a dream. It
was quite beautiful but so unexpected. Our host was playing a recording to put us in the proper pilgrim frame of mind, I suppose. We all stumbled out of our beds and the few lights in the refugio were turned on as everyone–probably about eight of us–began to pack up our gear. Once that was done (I was in no mood for a cold shower as I was already cold enough), we trooped upstairs for breakfast. This was also rather monastic–a large cup of milk coffee and an apple. But you cannot really expect much for the token amount we paid for our board and I felt very much in a medieval frame of mind anyway. Everyone was quite cheerful, considering it was just after dawn, and we outside into the cold air we went.

At 6:30 am there was not much going on in Castrojeriz, needless to say. We wanted to take some photos but it was still too dark. We rode around the town in the cold morning air and headed south, where we found the ruins of the convent of San Francisco, which was, according to my guide book, “built over the former palace and gardens of Pedro el Cruel.” Now there’s a great name (although apologists tried to change it to “Pedro the Lawful”)and it turned out he was indeed a pretty nasty fellow. After betraying friends and foe equally, he ended up being murdered in 1369.

We rode back into Castrojeriz now that the light was much better and we looked at various churches, although of course at that time of day nothing was open. We were particularly impressed by the Iglesia de Santiago de los Caballeros, which was ruined but featured carved skulls to warn passers-by of death. Nearby was a fine statue of Santiago as a pilgrim, one of many we were to come across on this trip, and I took a nice picture of Max on his bicycle in front of it.

The road out of town crosses over the Río Odra on the San Miguel Bridge, which has some arches still from the 12 Century and then proceeds on what was a causeway built by the Romans across the marshy flatlands. We climbed a small hill and had a fine view of Castrojeriz behind us and ahead and to the left was the village of Castrillo de Matajudios, the birthplace of the 16th Century composer Antonio de Cabezon. But more interesting was the village of Itero del Camino, which had a charming 18th Century church, built from the rubble of the castle which had been constructed when the village was fortified in the Middle Ages to defend the wheat-rich region around it. Only a square tower remains from the castle and it was not in the best condition, albeit picturesque.

Max and I were very impressed with the wide-open vista. There were green fields on both sides of the ride, gently rolling as far as the eye could see. This wide agricultural plain was named by the Visigoths, who conquered Spain in the 5th Century, the Campi Gothorum, and it remains known today as either the Campos Góticos or the Tierra de Campos.

We passed another old village, Boabdilla del Camino, which dates back before the 10th Century at least, and rode alongside the Canal de Castilla. In the 1750s the Spanish began to construct a series of canals in the Tierra de Campos but by the time they were done five decades later railroads had supplanted water transport for heavy goods. Nonetheless, the Canal de Castilla was valuable for irrigation and power, roles which it continues to fulfill today.

We came to the outskirts of Frómista and stopped by an impressive series of locks. Although it is in the centre of the breadbasket of the Iberian Peninsula, it suffered economic decline after the expulsion of the Jews in 1492 and the loss of its role as an important regional market. The arrival of the canal in 1773 revived the area and it is again a prosperous agricultural centre.

There is not much remaining of old Frómista as it was mainly built in adobe since stone was scarce. However, it does boast the Iglesia de San Martín, a very striking church that was constructed beginning in 1066. It was meant to be something special on the Camino and was designed as a reduced-scale replica of the Cathedral in Jaca. The stone was brought in at great expense and the building is impressively decorated on the outside. We went inside and looked at the interior. It was rather simple but this may have been a result of later restoration. There was a nice 16th Century statue of Santiago Pelegrino to cheer us onwards.

In Frómista we saw much larger numbers of people than we had seen previously on the Camino, including several busloads of tourists. There were quite a few cyclists gathered around the church and I talked with an older couple. They were Dutch, and were riding enormous heavy black Dutch bicycles with full camping gear. To my astonishment, they had actually ridden all the way from Holland, taking more than two months already to reach Frómista. They said that it had been a pretty hard trip since it had rained more or less non-stop for about six weeks en route. They looked at my lightweight bicycle and the man voiced concerns about its durability for the Camino. I had to give them credit for their dedication, but I silently doubted if I would have been crazy enough to ride over the Roncesvalles Pass on a fifty pound bike with another fifty pounds of stuff on it.

We found a small store where we stocked up on our usual bread and cheese and fruit and drank some fruit juice while sitting on the curb. Frómista already seemed like the Big City after the places I had been through, and the road was definitely busier now. We travelled northwest now along the P980, an excellent road, passing several small villages. The traffic became quite a bit heavier as we came to Carrión de los Condes, at the intersection of P980 and the N120, an old friend we had least seen near Burgos.

Carrión de los Condes has quite a long and interesting history, having been occupied at various times by the Romans, the Visigoth and the Muslims, the last arriving around 713. During the Middle Ages it was one of the wealthiest and most important towns in north central Spain. The town appears in the epic about El Cid, a famous general from whom the Kings of Spain still trace their descent, and was described as the home of a nest of villainous counts who married and mistreated the Cid’s daughters. Hence the “de los Condes,” which means “of the Counts.”

The town features numerous examples of Castilian Romanesque architecture and we rode slowly by the Iglesia de Santa Mariá del Camino and the Iglesia de Santiago before crossing the Río Carríon, which was totally dry, over an impressive arched bridge before passing an old monastery, the Monasterio de San Zoila, founded in the 10th Century and which owned most of the town by the 13th. After a long decline, it was turned into a parador, one of the luxury hotels to be found in historic Spanish towns and villages.

We rode out of Carrión de los Condes and rather than follow N120 we decided to stick to the original pilgrims’ route, a path over crushed reddish gravel. The weather had been excellent but now we found ourselves in a treeless, desolate plain, with grain fields lining both sides of the Camino and the sun beating down ferociously. It was around 2:30 pm, the hottest time of the day, and as we rolled down the dusty road I felt sorry for the pilgrims on foot. For us the hard road, perhaps 30 kms, would be a reasonable ride but on foot it would take a good part of the day.

In addition to pilgrims on foot, we passed a French couple with a donkey, loaded up with their gear. I felt pretty confident on the loose gravel, but Max was slowing down so I said that I would cruise on ahead. I stopped for a cold drink at Calzadilla de la Cueza and waited for Max. As we continued, the road became paved again and I picked up the tempo a bit. I told him that I would go on to Sahagún, our next planned stop, and make sure that we had two places reserved before the walkers arrived instead of facing the situation we did in Castrogeriz. With my thin tires I was much faster on pavement than he was, and so I set off.

It was here that I discovered what European Union money can do. I was back on the N120, which was quite magnificent here. It was four lanes wide, with a green space dividing the directions and absolutely no traffic of any kind. I rode perhaps 15 kms on the freshly-paved stretch and was not passed by a single vehicle. I could not understand this since the road was clearly designed for heavy traffic but then I looked to the north and saw, perhaps 3 kms away, a limited access highway with lots of trucks on it. I was very grateful to the taxpayers of the EU who had funded two different roads going in the same direction and provided me with my own private highway, for at least a few hours.

I rolled happily into Sahagún, hot and sweaty but pleased with our progress. I found the signs directing me to the refugio quite easily but everything was locked up and would be for another hour. There was a rather modern statute of a pilgrim out front and I leaned my bike against the wall and read for a while until the door was unlocked and I could go in and reserve our spaces. Being so early, I was able to go and have a shower and find some good spots for us.

The refugio was the former Iglesia de la Trinidad and had been converted to become a gigantic dormitory. After locking up the bike on the ground floor and taking off the panniers, I walked up a big set of steps with several landings and found myself in a large room with a very high, vaulted ceiling and beds everywhere. There was a kitchen area as well as a few showers but it all seemed a bit cramped.

After my shower I waited for Max to arrive and a large number of pilgrims came in, hot and dusty from their long walk. The showers raised the humidity in the place and then some of the pilgrims, who I am certain were Danish, began to cook and the wretched smell of frying pork filled the whole place.

Max was pleased that I had booked us in but very soon after his arrival the place looked totally full. There were probably 200-250 beds and all were taken. After he cleaned up we went outside and looked around Sahagún, finding a grocery store and not much else, although the town was fairly large.

We sat in front of the refugio, wrote our postcards and chatted for a while. Max was missing his girlfriend in Barcelona and anxious to get to Santiago pretty quickly whereas I was starting to realize that as I became stronger and stronger each day on the bike I was covering distance much faster than I had planned. If I kept up the current rate of speed, I would arrive in Santiago much too early since I had a bus reservation for a particular day in order to get back to Bayonne for my flight home to Berlin. I decided that I would spend the next day in León and he was planning to ride through, so we planned to go as far as León together and then split up. This happens a lot on the Camino; I had already travelled with a Frenchman, a German, a Belgian and now an Argentinian.

Sleeping was not a great success. The pilgrims who were walking were always dead tired at the end of the day, even when it was not as hot as it was today. By 9 pm everyone was sweating on top of their bunks, the smell of greasy pork in the air, and as the first pilgrims fell asleep the snoring began. At first this caused some laughter from those still awake but we soon realized that the effect was amplified by the high arched ceiling and eventually the noise of the snoring began deafening. I had not planned on this but I began to realize that the refugios, while really cheap and part of the Camino experience, were perhaps not really for me. I would take my chances in León the next day and see what other accommodation I might find.