Friday 27 July 2007

The Tour of the Vosges Mountains

July 1, 2007: Canada Day in Mulhouse, France

When I lived in Germany I took part in many organized rides, often of daunting length and usually in wretched weather. Unwilling to pass up this experience with my friends, I found a local club ride last year in the Black Forest and promptly blew up on the course. This year I thought that discretion was the better part of valour and I found a shorter course offered by the ACS Peugeot Citroën Mulhouse on the website of the French cycletouring organization, FFTC. The weekend of June 30/July 1 the club was holding a variety of rides, ranging from 89 to 227 km, and I contacted them to see about signing us all up for the 174 km version, the Col Vosgiens, for Sunday. For many in the group this would be the day after they had landed from the United States, whereas the Thin Man and I would not be suffering from jet lag as we will have come in by train from Berlin.

There was plenty of grumbling as we all get up at 5 am and piled into the van for the 45 minute drive to Mulhouse and the start. The evening before we had put the bikes into the rental van, a Ford S-Max, and amazingly were able to put five bicycles into the vehicle, all with their wheels off and carefully stacked in the luggage area. And there was room for the five of us in the car as well, although we had to put one of the bikes across the rear seat on our laps. We were clearly inspired. Even more impressive, we were able to find the Citroën Peugeot sports complex without any difficulty. Chill, who was staying in Mulhouse, had reconnoitered the area the evening before and had gotten lost several times but we took the exit he suggested. As we switched to a smaller route from the autoroute, I noticed a sign (in the other direction!) to the sports complex and we were soon there.

Registration had opened at 4 am for those wanting an insanely early start for the 227 km randonneur ride but our plan was to leave closer to 7 am. There were very few cyclists around at this point and the helpful volunteers registered us in no time flat. French rides are divided into cyclosportif, where times are taken, and cyclotourisme, which is more relaxed. For many of the events if you are not an FFTC member you must show a doctor’s certificate, as well as signing the usual waiver. But things were pretty low-key in Mulhouse and we did not need any additional paperwork. Before rolling out we stopped for breakfast and then headed past the front gate. The weather looked very good and the roads were well-marked, so we quickly got into paceline mode and headed past the rather industrial suburbs of Mulhouse for the Vosges Mountains to the east.

We soon left the suburbs behind and found ourselves in forest. Most of the mountains are part of a national park and the area is very green and sparsely-populated. We began to climb gradually, enjoying the scenery and the excellent, traffic-free road. The group broke up fairly rapidly, as the Thin Man, Steve Z. and Anti-Gravity Jon are faster climbers than me, Chill and Dr. Chef, but I felt good and knew that there was no need to hurry as we had a long day ahead.

Our first climb took us to the food stop at Col Amic. This area had been heavily contested in World War One and there are some very large cemeteries around. It must have been very difficult to construct trenches and fight in the mountains. The Vosges marked the boundary between Germany and France pre-1914 and the first action in the war in the West took place here. Although there was much less fighting in this area in World War Two there are memorials everywhere to the soldiers lost in both wars.

At Col Amic (825 m above sea level) we loaded up on drinks and bananas; the volunteers were starting to pack up as we left. We continued our ride upwards to the highest point on the ride, the Grand Ballon. I tried to ride as steadily as possible and could see a line of cyclists stretched out ahead as we worked our way up to the top. A brief photo stop at the summit (1324 m) and we had a pleasant downhill ride. We put some speed into it, and unfortunately I began to cramp in my left leg. I pulled off to massage the muscle, and Chill stopped too and we then proceeded together. I was worried that the cramp would get so bad that I could not continue but I drank a lot and worked it out and gradually felt a lot better. We took some pictures and then continued, enjoying the views of the mountains all around.

The next stretch took us through narrow forest descents to La Bresse, where we were again among the last at the food stop, but we quickly sped onwards and found ourselves at Fresse sur Moselle, where a large group of cyclists, doing various lengths of the ride, had assembled for lunch. It was a busy place and while the food was not memorable we were able to relax for a while.

Now the route took us along the young Moselle River on a bicycle path and we rode with some of the locals and soon had a paceline going. There was an older rider (with a pot belly!) and although he was not a great climber he could set a good pace on the flats. There was one final climb at a reasonable grade along a major road, but from there things were generally downhill to the end. We had a wonderful descent but it was starting to look like rain.

The area we were passing through was more heavily-settled than in the mountains and we were particularly taken with the little town of Thann. We blew down to our last food stop, in Leimbach, and there the Thin Man discovered he had a flat tire. Tire repaired, we pressed on but it turned out that the problem was not solved and we stopped to fix it again. Unfortunately, the weather had now changed and it was starting to rain. Dr. Chef jumped onto a paceline going by, Steve Z. and Anti-Gravity Jon were far ahead, and I stood under a garage roof while Chill provided encouragement to the Thin Man. We soon were on our way again and before we knew it we were rolling through the outskirts of Mulhouse and back to the sports complex.

It had stopped raining and we rolled in and got our carnets stamped–although Chill’s had turned into paper mush by this time. My actual riding time was 7 hours and 18 minutes and I was starting to feel pretty tired. I bought a medal as a souvenir and everyone had something to drink and some snacks and a group photo before we piled back into the van and headed back to our gite in Hunawihr.

We got cleaned up and celebrated with a dinner at the restaurant next to the gite and slept very well that night.

Sunday 22 July 2007

Testing the Garmin Edge 305 Bicycle Computer

Today's ride in Virginia, in elevation

Having been mightily impressed with Will's Garmin GPS unit during our rides in Alsace, I have decided to move into the World of Tomorrow and have purchased my own at a reasonable price on E-Bay. The unit is very nicely made, and was easy to install. Mine comes with all the fixin's, including a heart rate monitor and a cadence unit. The bike looks nicer with a single unit on it rather than the bike computer and HRM I had before. The Garmin is very light but I need to tighten up the base a bit as it shifted a little on bumps. It is easy to read and you can customize the screen with very little effort.

Today I rode a PPTC ride from the Plains, Virginia, on the edge of the Blue Ridge Mountains. The weather was perfect and we were a small group of about ten, including two other riders with Specialized Tarmacs, including an E5 like mine. We left from the Plains at 9 am sharp and rode a big circle route around the town of Warrentown. We stopped briefly at a gas station to get the group back together and have something to drink at the 48 km mark. The course was fairly hilly but I felt very strong on it today. After two weeks of serious riding in Europe and a week to recover my legs felt good and I was able to keep up very well on the hills. As we approached the Plains again at the end of the ride I realized that by going five more kms out and back I would get a metric century for the day. The GPS was also indicating 996 m of gain, so I kept riding out on Halfway Road, to discover it has some good climbing in it too!

Once home, I downloaded the data to both the Garmin Training Center software and to Motion Based, a Web-based analytical site also owned by Garmin. A great deal of information can be taken out of the 305 and it was very interesting to read it all. Will will help me with using Google maps to save the route as well but for the moment I have very detailed information about the ride. Downloading was no effort at all, akin to loading an MP3 player. I have attached the chart indicating the elevation today. Oddly enough, the GPS unit showed 1115 m of climbing, while both GTC and Motion Based added quite a bit more, the latter showing 1370 m. So far I am very impressed with the Garmin and hope to use it to its maximum potential as I work my way through the 93 page Owner's Manual.

Saturday 21 July 2007

Giro di Coppi Day!

One demanding course: try riding 50-75 miles on this!

The Men Who Register

One of the toughest but most scenic races in the Washington, DC area is that hosted by my racing club, Squadra Coppi. The Giro di Coppi is a 12.5 mile circuit through hilly, green Maryland countryside and is usually held in oppressive heat and humidity but this year there was a welcome respite as the day was glorious and the racing hard and enthusiastic. I manned the registration desk today and entered the Cat 1/2/3 racers.

James Bellora and the Coppimobile

Cat 3/4 ready to roll out

A Big Winner: Ramon Benitez of Glenwood, MD of the 40+ Masters class
and his prize: the famous Fausto Coppi bobblehead trophy!

Friday 20 July 2007

A Lightweight Tarmac from Germany

In Staufen, next to the hotel where Dr. Faustus was summoned by the Devil,
Frank Siebenhuener stands with his devilishly light Tarmac SL

I thought that my Specialized Tarmac E5 was lightweight but I hadn't seen anything until I lifted up this bike. My friend Frank, who lives in the Harz Mountains of Germany and is shown here in action in the Kaiserstuhl wine district in Baden, is a big fan of Specialized and has a Stumpjumper and a Tarmac. He is an equipment enthusiast and his Tarmac, when fitted with lightweight carbon wheels, clocks in at 5.9 kg (13 pounds), with pedals and bottle holders included. This is so astonishingly light that my Tarmac E5 feels bloated in comparison when you pick it up. The goal in building up this bike was not to spend limitless money but to build a serious roadgoing bicycle with reliable parts and excellent manners. In this he has succeeded but where can he go from here?

Specifications of Frank's Wonderbike:

Frame/Fork: Specialized S-Works Tarmac, all carbon
Bar/Stem: FSA Plasma one-piece unit
Crankset: Stronglight Pulsion, 52/36
BB: xx.light
Pedals: Time RXS Ultime (ti)
Brakes: Zero Gravity ti
Cables: Nokon
Shifters: SRAM Force
Front Derailleur: Campagnolo Record
Rear Derailleur: SRAM Force
Jockey wheels: Diesel
Saddle: Selle San Marco carbon
Cassette: TISO 11-27 ti/al
Chain: KMC X-10SL (gold)
Bottle holders: Bontrager XX light
Bar Tape: Specialized
Wheelset: with Mavic Kysrium ES (6.5 kg)
with Lew VC-1 carbon wheels, Tune hubs (5.9 kg)

And a custom-labelled seatpost!

Dickes B: Home on Der Spree--My Return to Berlin

Symbol of Berlin: the Brandenburg Gate

June 23-June 29, 2007

I lived in Berlin from 1998 to 2002 and have returned several times since. It is an extraordinary place: perhaps not the most beautiful in Europe, but among the most interesting. Its combination of history, architecture, cultural excitement and sheer livability makes it hard to match. Since I was paying a lot for airfare from the United States to Europe for this year’s bike trip, I decided to make the most of it and spend a week in Berlin visiting friends and enjoying the ambiance of the city before catching a train and going west to France.

My departure from home to the Ronald Reagan Airport in Washington went quite smoothly; my new Performance bike case fitted quite nicely in front of the back seat of a standard taxi. But as I rolled up my pile of luggage I could see the dollar signs flash in the eyes of the Continental staff. “A bicycle case!”, they cried, and their tongues lolled out with joy and anticipation. I had read that many airlines had changed their rules about bike cases and instead of them now being counted as the second piece of luggage, they were to be measured and oversized cases would be charged accordingly. Continental deems an oversized bike case to be anything bigger than you would need for a child’s tricycle with the wheels off so I was stuck with a bill for US$ 190 for a return trip for my case. There is not much than can be done about this when you are standing at the airport ready to go on holidays, so out came the credit card...One of the staff wanted to charge me for overweight baggage as well but apparently paying for a bike case covers that. The Performance case, which cost me about US$ 175, is about the smallest I have seen for a full-sized bicycle. It needs a few additional handgrips but otherwise worked very well.

The flight to Newark was fine but then there was quite a delay before we got going on the next leg of the flight. Newark Liberty International is not a very nice place but the charm of the place is probably no different from most big city busy airports. I wandered around for a few hours and then we finally boarded and it was off to Berlin, arriving in Tegel only about an hour late. I had a very pleasant taxi ride and was soon camped out with my friends.

On the flight across the Atlantic I had somehow become obsessed with the idea that I had left some of the parts of the bicycle in my living room in Washington. I could not remember putting components of the stem back in the case after they had popped apart when I dismantled the Tarmac so I spent a pretty restless night on the flight. However, I did know that in Berlin there were good bike shops where I could get anything that I needed. Last year I was on the flight to Europe when I realized that I had forgotten to pack my cycling shoes but we were able to get a suitable pair surprisingly easily in the middle of the Black Forest. So before I took a nap in Berlin, I very carefully took the bicycle out of the case and put it back together. To my delight, everything was indeed there and there was no damage whatever from the trip. I was always apprehensive about shipping my bicycles and with one this expensive the strain is even more apparent. I could not resist and ended up taking a forty minute ride, going past Berlin landmarks such as Alexanderplatz, Unter den Linden and the Brandenburg Gate before returning.

That was one of only two rides I was able to do that week since the weather was wretched. For late June it was very cold and every day there was howling wind, or else pouring rain. I took a few pictures in the brief interludes of sunshine and visited friends and family for the most part.

Since this blog is about cycling, I will focus on the other bicycle-related things that I did. At the intersection of Unter den Linden and Friedrichstrasse is a beautiful showroom that belongs to Volkswagen AG and is meant to highlight their various brands of cars, from Bentley and Bugatti to Volkswagen and all the way down to Skoda. The place is enormous and there is a nice restaurant and an art gallery. An exhibition was about to open devoted to prints by Chagall, Picasso and Dali but of particular interest to me was a little exhibition opening in the Skoda area. There was one of the slightly goofy-looking Roomsters vehicles, decked out in full Team Gerolsteiner colours and festooned with a fleet of Specialized S-Works Tarmac SL bikes, while next to it was a Skoda Octavia sedan with a roof rack and some bicycles marked “Skoda RS.” The area also had a lot of photographs of pro racing, and the motto: “Skoda: Motor des Radsports” (or Skoda: the Motor of Bike Racing).

The Roomster, which I first saw at last year’s Tour de France, may look a bit odd but it appears to be very practical and you can even get it with an internal bicycle carrier that will allow you to carry two bikes in its roomy interior. It has huge windows and even a panorama glass roof and with a diesel motor would be very economical. Unfortunately these cars are not sold in North America. I guess I need another European posting so that I can buy one.

Now, here is a bike shop!

One of my other stops on my tour of my old haunts of Berlin was Stadtler, a huge bicycle shop in the western part of the city. This was once housed in a tiny ramshackle two-storey building but when I lived in Berlin the store moved to much more spacious surroundings in a former streetcar depot. The space is shared with a big grocery story and Stadtler itself is divided into bicycling and motorcycle accessory departments. It is always fun to walk around and see what is new. When the store opened in 2000, it had not only full lines of accessories–everything from tires to clothing to high-end frames–but also had extensive offerings fo excellent bicycles such as Pinarellos and Colnagos. This time the Italians were not so much in evidence and besides Treks Stadtler had a lot of Cervelos, including the very high-end P3 time trial bike. The store has an indoor test area and if I would have had my shoes with me I would have requested a spin on a P3 with full Campagnolo equipment (including a disc rear wheel), although I did notice the bicycle was chained to its stand. Lowering my sights, I got some excellent Roeckl gloves on sale.

The Thin Man on his tall Moots

I did manage to go for a more serious ride than my brief test spin when I caught up with the Thin Man, a fellow Squadra Coppi team member who is now living in Berlin and who works as a freelance journalist. He has covered a lot of interesting science stories and his stuff is definitely worth a read. When we met I was impressed that he appears to be the Talles Freestanding Moots Rider, although I understand that there are issues with this and that he must substantially dismantle his bike before it will fit into a case.

Me at Schloss Börnicke

We met not far from where I was staying in Landsberger Allee. Of course, the first thing that happened was that my bike computer stopped working as the magnet housing came loose and I lost the part holding the magnet in place, although not the magnet itself. The weather was not so great, being grey and windy, but we headed east through the traffic in the direction of Bernau and had a very enjoyable ride that brought us to Schloss Börnicke, on the outskirts of Bernau. This is an old little castle that needs some TLC and is the scene for alfresco opera productions in summer. We stopped for some photos and then turned around and headed back to Berlin into a brutal headwind. I think I got more from drafting Andrew than he did from me, but we managed to get back before it rained on us. With those 50 kms, my cycling in Berlin was at an end and I took the bicycle apart and put it back into the case.

Another Brandenburg Gate: this one made from chocolate!

On Saturday, June 29th I took a taxi to the Ostbahnhof and settled into the high-speed ICE train heading west. Andrew came on at the new Hauptbahnhof and after nearly eight hours of travelling time and changes in Offenburg and Strasbourg we found ourselves in Alsace in Colmar. A brief taxi ride–it is amazing that you can fit two bike cases, two big bags and three people into a Renault Espace with no problem-- and we came to our gite, or holiday home, in the village of Hunawihr, in the vineyards of France, ready for a week of cycling adventures.

Monday 16 July 2007

Summer holidays--you call that summer?

Back safely from Europe! Well, that was a pretty mixed bag--in 23 days of holidays for me, it rained on 21 days. I have never seen such poor weather in Europe for such an extended time but a holiday is still a holiday. Our spirits were kept high by the beauty of Alsace, along with a lot of wine, for the week we were there. The Lost Boys Tour d'Alsace 2007 was counted by all as a success, with great scenery, good food and excellent company. The group is shown here at the gates of Ribeauville-- from left: Anti-Gravity Jon, Chill, Steve Z., the Thin Man and Dr. Chef.

Dr. Chef and Mr. Chill ride up the hill towards Ribeauville: poetry in motion

Full details of this exceptional week, including our visit to a distillery and to the famous Schlumpf Collection, will be made public in the the next few days, along with tales of my week in Berlin and week in Markgraflerland, "the Tuscany of Germany."

And the Sprocketboy has way too much to drink