Thursday, August 30, 2007

A Herd of Tin Donkeys: NYCBikes Cross II Blackadder

My Big Black Bike

When I arrived in Washington, DC in September 2002 I was determined to ride the famous C&O Canal towpath. However, I realized after talking with several people that neither my Bianchi road bike or Marinoni touring bike would be ideal and I would need something tougher for the unpaved track.


In late 2003 I began to assemble the parts needed to build an off-road touring bike. Turning to E-Bay, I purchased a brand new NYCBikes Cross frame and then gradually assembled a collection of suitable parts to turn it into my C&O Special. Not knowing much about mountain bike parts, I thought I would go with some of the higher end Shimano pieces and found a clearance sale on Shimano Deore XT parts. From there it was a simple matter to accumulate the remainder and I had a bike shop in DC assemble it for me. Unfortunately, my plan to use drop handlebars and regular shifters would not work out as the cable travel on the Cross would not allow enough tension so I had to go more with a mountain bike straight handlebar setup. It is nice to sit up when going through rough and muddy patches but less so when riding into the wind.

The result is that my $200 frame was embellished with a lot of great-looking new parts and thus was Blackadder, named for the rather rude Rowan Atkinson character in the television series of the same name, born. Unfortunately, the best laid plans...I never got around to riding Blackadder any great distance until this past weekend when we conquered the towpath together. Finally. Otherwise the bicycle has only been used for a few shopping trips and one ride to Alexandria, Virginia. This did not stop the headset from seizing up completely after a single ride in pouring rain last year on Bike to Work Day.

It is surprisingly light and fun to ride. It attracted the interest of a man in Cumberland riding a Specialized city bike. He was about to open a bike store and was impressed to see a NYCBike in town.

Blackadder’s Specifications

NYCBikes 57 cm Cross 2 frame
Shimano Deore XT integrated shifters and brake levers
Shimano XTR front derailleur
Unknown cantilever brakes, squeaky, purchased from NYCBikes
Shimano Deore crankset, 42-32-22
Shimano Deore XT rear derailleur
SRAM 9 speed cassette, 12-34
SRAM chain
FSA headset
Easton EA50 handlebars
Specialized bar ends
Selle Italia Trimatic 3 saddle
Tomac alloy seatpost
Araya TX-350 rims
Ritchey Speedmax Cross tires, 700x35, Schraeder
Ritchey SPD-compatible pedals–yellow!
Cateye Cordless 3 bike computer
Axiom alloy rack
Nashbar MTB panniers
Performance alloy bottle cages

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Git along, Mule: Blackadder Goes Forth

Riding the C&O Canal Towpath

One of the big cycling attractions of the Washington, DC region was pointed out to me before I even arrived here: namely, the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal towpath bikeway. Following the path of the canal through the Valley of the Potomac from Georgetown to Cumberland, Maryland, the route is now a National Historic Park that stretches for nearly 185 miles.

The canal was meant to boost the economic development of the region and was foreseen by such visionary real estate promoters as young George Washington, but it was not to become a reality until the first digging began on July 4, 1828, as President John Quincy Adams inaugurated the project. Ominously, it was also the day that the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad came into existence.

The Presidential Seal of Approval did not mean much as the canal took some 22 years to construct and by the time it finally opened in 1850 it was already obsolete. The grand idea of linking up to the Ohio River and opening up the West never came to pass and the canal remained a regional operation, moving coal primarily downstream, along with some agricultural produce. The canal boats generally returned unladen. As we were to notice, there are very few towns located along the canal and hence not much of a market. In its existence the canal was plagued by labour strife, the Civil War, multiple floods and financial losses and finally ceased operation in 1924.

The original Watergate

In 1971, President Richard Nixon signed the bill making the C&O Canal a recreational park. In the 1950s there had been plans to flood the entire Potomac Valley from Great Falls all the way to Harpers Ferry. Before this could happen, some thought was given to turning the towpath into a paved scenic highway but this too never happened. Luckily more environmentally-minded types had influence. Near Mile 0 stands the ruins of the original watergate of the canal on the Potomac. A few hundred feet away is the hotel/apartment complex named after it, which was to have such impact on Nixon and American history.

At Mile 0

On Saturday, August 25th, I rode from Logan Circle down to East Potomac Park and followed the shore of the Potomac River westwards until I arrived at the Thompson Boat Center, where oarsmen (and women) were out on the water in their elegant racing shells. I took a few pictures and was soon joined by Dr. Chef, who was joining me on the big adventure. A few months ago I had persuaded him to buy a Fuji crossbike and now he was going on the first multi-day bike tour he had ever done. For my own part, I was riding Blackadder, my NYCBikes crossbike that I had built several years ago in the expectation that I would ride the towpath route but which I had not accomplish in the intervening time. After taking advantage of an excellent photo opportunity a the Mile 0 marker stone, we were off just after 9 am, riding up towards the Parks Service Visitors’ Center. There is a canal boat there for visitors to look at and we began to ride slowly along the towpath, heading west. We passed many old factories and warehouses from Georgetown’s Industrial Age, factories that had been supplied with water by the canal company to run water wheels and provide power.

We cruised along the shaded towpath, which was crushed gravel and dirt and pretty easy riding, but there were a lot of runners and other cyclists on this very hot and humid morning. We stopped briefly to look in at one of the lockkeepers’ houses, which has been restored. There was to be a house similar to this, or the ruins of one, at each of the 75 locks we were to ride by. Once the canal closed, the houses often continued to be used as residences for many years.

The Great Falls

Passing along with no inkling that the urban sprawl of Washington surrounded us, we continued past Seven Locks and soon found ourselves in Great Falls Park. Maryland’s Great Falls are a serious impediment to water traffic on the Potomac, with its rapids and rocks. The Great Falls Tavern is here, and it is also the only stretch where the canal is maintained as it was. Visitors can ride a canal boat and we had the opportunity to look at the Charles F. Mercer as it was towed by a pair of mules. In the old days, the maximum speed allowed on the canal was a blistering 4 miles per hour, so it is no surprise that it took a week for a canal boat to get from Cumberland to Georgetown, even going all night. As the Park Ranger in the boat was explaining to the visitors about the recreational uses of the C&O Canal, Dr. Chef shouted out to made sure he included “cycling” in the list of activities.

We left the mules and their drivers behind and continued on into the heat. Every so often we came across a small campsite where there was a water pump, so we were able to refill bottles as needed although the rust-coloured water was not very attractive. Our route took us past familiar names–Riley’s Lock, Edwards Ferry–where we often begin our rides with our racing bikes in the Poolesville area. Seneca is where much of the red sandstone used for the canal structures was quarried.

We came to White’s Ferry, which takes cars across the river to Leesburg, in the early afternoon. The sun was blazing hot and it was a bit of a shock to come out of the cool shade along the river to an open area. We stopped at the store for lunch and I poured down two bottles of ice tea almost immediately. There was a big line of cars waiting for the ferry when we headed back to the cool, or at least cooler, towpath.

After a while we were in a nice rhythm as we cruised the dirt path. In some places it was muddy and there were often sticks and forest debris, but I found that Blackadder, with his 35mm cyclocross tires, could handle the poor road surface very well. I, on the other hand, found that I had to change hand positions often as my wrists and palms were getting tired from the pounding. Dr. Chef was using a Camelbak and with all the jostling it looked like a better drinking solution than trying to use a normal water bottle.

A highlight of this day was crossing the Monocacy Aqueduct. There were 11 of these aqueducts, designed to carry the canal over creeks and tributaries of the Potomac, and this, at 560 feet, the longest and most elegant of them. It was made from pink quartzite taken from nearby Sugarloaf Mountain, another of our cycling landmarks. The aqueduct looks to be in pretty good condition, in spite of efforts in 1862 by the Confederates to blow it up.

The town of Point of Rocks, where the C&O and B&O fought it out over whether the canal or the railway would get the right-of-way, came next. I have ridden from here often into the Catoctin Mountains. We stopped for some drinks and I photographed the attractive Victorian railway station.

A few miles further and we crossed another aqueduct, the much smaller one over Catoctin Creek. Actually, there is only one arch left and you cross over on a Bailey Bridge erected by the US Army Corps of Engineers in 1981. There are photos of the original acqueduct nearby but it appears that in spite of all the stone laying around there are no plans to reconstruct it.

Soon we passed the Blue Ridge and turning off the towpath we passed a huge number of people carrying inflated tubes. There was a big collection of buses and it was clear that this was a white water adventure centre. We rode past the group and after a mistaken turn headed up a big steep climb, taking us away from the canal and the river to our beds for the night at the hostel in Brunswick, Maryland.

We had just arrived there and about to register when a massive thunderstorm exploded around us. It was good timing and after we had enjoyed hot showers and some cold drinks, the storm had abated and we walked a short distance to the local restaurant for some genuinely unhealthy downhome food. The menu was not vegetarian-friendly but they served breakfast all day, so I enjoyed a huge cheese omelette with home fries, biscuits and onion rings on the side. And there were promotional t-shirts for the town’s Big Event: the Froggy Mud Bog, due to take place the next day.

Cyclists preparing to head south en masse

Foregoing the Mud Bog since we were generally riding in it, on Sunday, August 26th, we walked back to the restaurant for a massive breakfast. On the bikes again, our trip continued with a thrilling descent followed by some superhuman effort to schlep the loaded bikes over the railway tracks and through the swampy mud to get us back on the towpath. We should have just continued down the road further until a more suitable place to portage appeared but we were eager to go. Not that it made a difference, as within 2 miles Dr. Chef had the first flat of the trip as his back tire went soft

The Firehouse, Harpers Ferry

While he was doing repairs, I climbed up to the big bridge crossing the Potomac to Harpers Ferry, West Virginia, passing a lot of cyclists who were getting ready to ride south. Once the home of one of the United States Arsenals, Harpers Ferry is famous for abolitionist John Brown’s raid in 1857 when he attempted to seize the arsenal and incite a slave revolt. Unsuccessful, he and his man moved into the Arsenal’s fire station and were surrounded by US troops led by Robert E. Lee. Brown, described as a messianic figure, was tried and executed for treason within a week and the raid is seen as one of the matches lighting the fuse of the Civil War to come. Most of Harpers Ferry is now a museum administered by the Parks Service.

I rejoined Larry and as we continued our ride his front tube exploded after a few minutes. This was going to turn into a pretty long day! Repairs again went very quickly and we were off, passing over the aqueduct over Antietam Creek, a short distance from the famous battlefield. Progress was excellent until we had to stop and lift the bikes over a massive tree trunk that had been brought down by the big storm the night before at Milepost 71.

The towpath took us to Dam No. 4, at which point we had to take the Slackwater Detour as the towpath has apparently caved in. We immediately took a wrong turn and travelled north instead of east, as we had expected to do, so we had to return to Dam No. 4 and start over. Unfortunately the correct route required us to go up a very steep hill and then ride into a headwind for quite a while. We followed the road rather than go back to the towpath and turning left on Rt. 63 followed it to Williamsport. Dr. Chef and I have ridden the Cedar Ridge Century in this area twice before.

In Williamsport we located Tony’s Pizza and enjoyed a delicious pizza and a lot of ice tea, covered in splatters of mud as we were. Then it was a simple descent back to the canal. We looked at the Cushwa Basin and the big Conococheague Aqueduct, which has one side knocked out of it, before we rode off into the quiet countryside. Although there were many people around the Basin and the nearby Visitors’ Center, there was no crowd out on the towpath and we soon had Maryland entirely to ourselves yet again. Until we got to Dam No.5, where several people were fishing and others were admiring Lock Nos. 45 and 46.

The massive stone walls of Fort Frederick

We continued until Milestone 112 and took a break at the Fort Frederick State Park. There is a large stone fort here, a reconstruction of the one that stood here as a defence against Indian raiding parties. It had been built by the Colony of Maryland in 1755/56 and had a rather peaceful history, never being involved directly in any Indian attacks and seeing no action in the Revolutionary War. German mercenaries captured in the Battle of Saratoga were kept here, but were allowed to work at local farms. Their existence was subsequently forgotten and they simply blended into the local population. It was at Fort Frederick that Dr. Chef insisted on us photographing each other in the stocks in front of the gift shop.

We rode past Big Pool, a large natural pond that was used for turning canal boats around, and crossed over yet another aqueduct, this one over Licking Creek. We were riding parallel to Interstate 70 and could hear the traffic in our forest idyll. But we persevered and were rewarded with the town of Hancock at Mile 124. This stretched-out village boasts the Park-N-Dine Restaurant, where Dr. Chef insisted we go in and eat some ice cream. Then we went next door for some beer and picked up some submarine sandwiches to fortify us once we reached our destination. We also stopped at the bike shop in Hancock where I insisted that Dr. Chef buy another inner tube.

We had just left Hancock when I suddenly felt the air go out of my back tire, so it was time for yet another repair. I could not find anything that would have caused the hole in the tube so we installed a new one and hoped for the best. I pumped it up but soon realized that it needed more air, so with some additional effort it was up to a rideable inflation level. It was getting late in the day and we wanted to press on to Little Orleans so we picked up the speed.

The towpath has all kinds of wildlife. Besides the numerous herons we saw, and the turtles in the ponds, this area was full of deer, leaping and cavorting about. We watched carefully when they crossed the path as we did not want to have a collision.

Near Milestone 127 stands the impressive ruins of the Round Top Cement Company. The area produces excellent limestone so a cement mill was constructed here in 1838 and the cement it produced was used in the last 60 mile section of the canal, as well as the Washington Monument and the US Capitol. There were eight kilns and there were several fires over the years. A final catastrophic fire and the advent of cheaper Portland cement as competition saw the mill close for good in 1909.

At Mile 140.8 we came to the exit for our overnight destination, the Little Orleans Lodge. We were the only guests on this Sunday night. After hosing some of the mud off of our bikes, we got cleaned up and enjoyed our meal of subs and Heineken and Yuengling beer, along with the stories of our host Steve, before I suddenly realized that after 80 miles of hard riding I desperately needed to sleep. I was out for the count by 9:30 pm.

Monday, August 27th, and after an early breakfast we saw that there was fog all around. I tightened up the bolts holding the rack on Blackadder and pumped up the rear tire some more. Steve gave us a copy of the C&O Canal DVD and a book about the rail-to-trail route that runs from Cumberland to Pittsburgh and has just recently opened and we were on our way.

Although we were riding in the area known as the Endless Mountains, we had the usual view of canal, towpath and Potomac. We definitely had a good rhythm going by this our third day on the trail and we arrived at Mile 154.5 and saw a lock marked “63 1/3". A little further ahead and we found Lock No. 64 2/3. Apparently the canal company discovered it needed one less lock than expected and hence there is no Lock No. 65!


After this mathematical puzzle you find yourself riding in a narrow slate gorge and at Mile 155.2 you enter the Paw Paw Tunnel. A remarkable work that nearly bankrupted the canal company by itself, the tunnel, which is lined with 5.8 million bricks in 7 to 11 layers and is 3118 feet (950.37 m) long. It took 12 years to construct. It is one of the longest canal tunnels ever built and still have the original guard rails. I had a light on Blackadder and went ahead as we walked through the tunnel on foot. It was so dark that we did not feel confident about riding through it, even in a low gear.

Cumberland, the Queen City

Out in the fresh air again, we left behind the rocky landscape and had an uneventful ride for the next 30 miles or so and we rolled into Cumberland, Maryland and the end of the canal at around 1:15 pm. We celebrated with photos in front of a canal boat and then celebrated further with some snow cones. We had only to go around the corner to pick up our rental vehicle and were fortunate to be given a minivan. We hosed down the bikes one last time and loaded up the gear. Heading west on I-68, we retraced some of our route but this time could see the impressive green mountains all around us as we headed towards Hagerstown, where we turned south on I-70, passing Hancock, and stopped briefly in Frederick for some good beer and food. The traffic was light and I dropped Dr. Chef off in Rockville before returning the van to the rental people at the Reagan National Airport. Then I found my way out onto the bikepath on the George Washington Parkway and rode home on Blackadder.

The end of the trail

We had had a terrific trip and saw many new things. The weather had been cooperative and we learned that 300 kms on dirt roads is a lot harder riding than 300 kms on asphalt. And I was struck by the tranquillity and beauty of this part of the United States and would highly recommend it for anyone. Well, as long as you have knobby tires on your bike!

Thursday, August 23, 2007

The Lost Boys Dinner

The Badger, the Cannibal, Young Jeff, Dr. Chef--what? no Spandex?

On Monday, the Lost Boys, so named for their propensity to ride in the wrong direction, met for a farewell dinner at the hyper-trendy Belgian restaurant Brasserie Beck in Washington. The event was, sadly, a farewell for me since I am on the verge of departing DC to return to the Great White North.

At my suggestion, we met at Beck to drink a lot of serious beer and maybe eat something. To my surprise and delight, we were joined by Ralph the Badger, who presently resides in Colorado Springs and is recovering from a broken hip that prevented him from joining us in Alsace. Dr. Chef was there and Young Jeff too.

Dr. Chef and Young Jeff, with the "artistic" wine

The beer and reminiscences flowed liberally, and there were frites a' plenty. The Boys were generous and, besides treating me to dinner, gave me some cold weather cycling gear for Ottawa--as tested in the mountains of Colorado--, a package of Tom Danielson go-fast coffee and a copy of the Pro Cycling Manager computer game, which I have heard is brutally addictive and which I cannot wait to install on my new laptop. I, in turn, provided some excellent red wine featuring an excellent Art Nouveau label: a bicycle and a nude woman. As it should be. Cycles Gladiator Wine is a new California label in an old style, with bicycle connections by team sponsorship and events.

We have known each other since 2003 and we have had some great times discovering the Mid-Atlantic backroads. Dr. Chef has come with me to Europe twice and I have gone to Colorado to ride with the Badger. We hope next year we will all finally get together on one fantastic trip: perhaps La Route des Grands Alps. Before then I am hoping they will join me for the Rideau Lakes Tour in June in Ottawa, riding 350 km in one weekend. Of course the irony is is that the Badger is about to move back to the DC area even as I leave!

Good riders all, and a great bunch of guys.

Monday, August 20, 2007

Sunday Recovery Ride in Washington and Virginia

After yesterday’s 100 mile ride on Skyline Drive, I did not feel much like going for a ride but instead did things around the apartment in preparation for my upcoming move. But the weather looked pretty good, and by 3 pm I was determined to go for a short ride. I pumped up the tires on the Marinoni and headed out the door...

One of the things on my “to do” list was to get a photo of myself in front of the Capitol wearing my Fat Cyclist Pink Lemonade jersey, made by Twin Six and really comfortable. The Fat Cyclist has put up a group on Flickr so that those who bought the jersey, which will help pay for treatment of his wife’s breast cancer and ultimately a vacation in Italy for her, can model, preferably showing something of the local environment as well. I found what looked like a good spot and stood on the curb to compose the photo. The first few tourists walking by looked like the kind of people who would have run off with my camera, so I had to wait a bit, standing in the heat, before I found some people who looked more trustworthy. I persuaded one of a pair of tourists, from India, I think, to take my photo and, in return, I took two photos of the two of them. Everyone was pleased with the transaction, and I have posted the photo of me on Flickr.

This done, I headed off to Hains Point, my usual lunchtime circuit, but this time I wanted to get a picture of “the Awakening,” the large sculpture by Seward Johnson, who is famous for life-like bronze pieces. “The Awakening” is a five-piece work that portrays a giant breaking free from the ground. It was temporarily installed at the southern end of Hains Point in 1980 to mark an International Sculpture Conference being held in Washington and has been there ever since. It is wildly popular and people come all the time to sit on the giant’s hand, or on his head and get their pictures taken. I have seen it used in a Nike print ad in running magazines. It was announced this year that the sculpture will be moved to a new development in Prince George’s County, Maryland, but who knows if this will actually happen. I thought it was a good idea to get a photo before it actually does get moved.

Then I crossed the 14th Street Bridge over the Potomac to Virginia. The bridge has a fairly narrow sidewalk/bikepath and the rush of cars make it very noisy and quite unpleasant. It also is awkward to get onto the path, which you enter near the Jefferson Memorial. In fact, the problem is when you return, since the road near the Memorial is one-way the wrong way if you are heading back into town. There are, of course, no signs to indicate this is actually the route to get you over the river.

Crossing the bridge, you turn right and then loop underneath it to join the bikepath and head towards Alexandria. This cloverleaf is one of the oldest in the United States, opened in 1932, and the Mount Vernon Memorial Highway, heading south from Alexandria to Mount Vernon, is one of the oldest limited-access highways in the United States. The northern part, the George Washington Memorial Parkway, was the last word in highway construction when it was built in the 1950s-1960s. (The Parks Service has a nice on-line brochure ("Highways in Harmony"!) about the Parkway) The bikepath, which is actually a multi-use path, was constructed in the 1970s, and is about 25 miles long, running from Mount Vernon to Theodore Roosevelt Island. It is quite narrow, with a lot of tight curves and is extremely popular, so it is a route if you want to ride your bike quickly. Of course, there are always idiots who want to train on the bikepath at high speed and I saw one on, I regret to say, a Specialized.

Nonetheless, it is quite a nice ride. After passing directly around the Reagan National Airport, where people still put out their lawn chairs in the park at the end of the runway and watch the airplanes take off and land, you ride parallel to the river and into Alexandria. Then you are on city roads for a little while before reaching the detour caused by the Wilson Bridge construction, a project that seems to be taking decades. But after you negotiate this you are riding with minimal stop-and-going, along wooden-planked bridges through marshes, past a big picnic area at Belle Haven and some nice residential areas.

At one point, you can look across the Potomac and see Fort Washington, which for many years was the only defensive fort protecting Washington. It was built originally in 1809 but when the British came through in the War of 1812 it was quickly abandoned. The current large stone structure was begun in 1824 and extended for decades afterwards.

The bikepath goes through little forested stretches and even has a few tough little hills in it before you reach Mount Vernon. The Mount Vernon Memorial Highway ends at a big traffic circle and there are a number of commercial structures–gift shoppe, ye old hotel–that are part of Mount Vernon although not constructed by the Father of His Country, who was more involved with the rye whiskey distillery he had built just up the road.

With the weather looking a bit threatening, I turned around and soon found myself crossing the Potomac on the 14th Street Bridge and going home. My very relaxed 3 hour ride had covered nearly 70 km (42 miles). When the first tourists in a car visited Mount Vernon in 1904, it was a six hour roundtrip from Alexandria!

Sunday, August 19, 2007

Skyline Drive Out and Back Do-it-Yourself Century Ride

50 miles out and then back, up and down

Taking advantage of the absolutely superb late summer weather today, Jeff, Tim and myself (Riders of Predominantly Black Bicycles) headed back to the Shenandoah National Park to do a serious ride on Skyline Drive. The start of the ride is around an hour and fifteen minutes from downtown DC.

The campaign begins in front of the park gates

Our plan to go from Front Royal, Virginia to Big Meadows was a great success. We rode 164 km (just over 100 miles) in 7:05, with around 3,600 m, or 11, 800 feet of climbing. As usual, Tim set up a pretty fast pace at the start of the ride but I was unprepared for our arrival at the first big summit, Hogsback, 23 miles into the ride. This was by far the best time I had ever done for this segment of the Drive, covering it in only 1:40! We were cooking. Of course later we would be cooked!

Tim climbs up to Hogsback

The weather was excellent, a bit on the cool side. This marked the first time Jeff and I had managed to get farther than the Skyland visitors' centre, which is actually the highest point on Skyline Drive at 3640 feet, and where the road is the oldest section of the Drive. We discovered that the nine miles between Skyland and Big Meadows are not flat in the least and we knew that coming back up Hogsback from the south was going to hurt a whole lot.

Gazing out at the Shenandoah Valley far below

We brought some Hammer Gel and Clif bars with us, and added to the sports drinks when we stopped briefly at Elkwallow and Big Meadows. So doing a century does not require much infrastructure or food stops. In addition, there was no need for cue sheets as it was pretty well impossible to get lost: enter the park in Front Royal, go 50 miles and then turn around!

"Bicycling" says riding the Blue Ridge is the best cycling in America--they might be right

I forgot to bring my camera, but Jeff has taken the pictures that you see here, and Mr. Garmin supplied the impressive elevation profile. We really needed our submarine sandwiches and beer at the end of this ride. My computer indicates I consumed 6,500 Kcal of energy during the ride!

Lost Boys on the Roll:
Sprocketboy and Tim/Sprocketboy and Young Jeff





Friday, August 17, 2007

Book Review: One More Kilometre and We're in the Showers, by Tim Hilton

A charming and eccentric book about a cycling communist...

“One More Kilometre and We’re in the Showers” is a typically English book in its meandering, delightful and often elegiac style. Tim (Timoshenko!) Hilton grew up as the child of ardent British communists and this book is his memoir of cycling in the UK from the 1950s to the 1970s.

The account of the Thursday evenings spent forced to listen to dreadful Marxist pontificating is quite funny, in a grim way, as young Tim dreams of getting out on his bicycle, a symbol of freedom, and escaping the Stalinist environment at home. His first bicycle was an ASP–All Spare Parts–assembled by a rider from the local club. Much of the book is about “clubmen,” and Mr. Hilton lovingly rolls through an alphabetical list of cycling clubs, many of which have ebbed and flowed but most of which were quirky enough: the Buckshee Wheelers, who served in North Africa in World War Two and raced in the desert; the Velo Club Pierre; the Out-of-Work Wheelers; the Scrumpy Wheelers; and the mysterious Rosslyn Ladies, who may or may not have existed at all. Many clubs were formed by admirers of a weekly newspaper called the Clarion, founded in 1892, and dedicated to a kind of relaxed socialism and although the name Clarion appeared in many bicycle club names, they were unaffiliated.

England was, at least in cycling terms, astonishingly provincial in Mr. Hilton’s time. Road races were not allowed and serious British cyclists were relegated to time trialling, developing this into a sort of national speciality as they set records from point-to-point. Those who wanted to do mass start races broke off into a new group, the BLRC, the British League of Racing Cyclists, and were seen as rebels, banned from the more conservative National Cycling Union, which was really more interested in cycletouring anyway. Mr. Hilton describes the leading “Leaguers,” such as Percy Stallard and who engineered the first BLRC road race in June 1942, in enjoyable detail.

But in addition to now-obscure local heroes, Mr. Hilton also reserves space for the great riders of his generation: Fausto Coppi, in the twilight of his career; Jacques Anquetil, the apprentice-soon-to-be-master; Louison Bobet, of the Spartan diet and training regime; the beautiful Hugo Koblet of Switzerland–Tour de France winners all. It is about Coppi that he is particularly eloquent–il Campionissimo, who was already fading away, a man burned out, when Mr. Hilton saw him race at an omnium in the Parc des Princes velodrome in Paris in the early 1950s:
Coppi was then thirty-four or thirty-five years of age, but appeared to be somehow ageless, or beyond age, his long thin body and melancholy features carved out by years and decades of suffering. The crowd paid him homage. Men and women acknowledged his tribulations and fate. Everyone knew that he was near to his end. There was no cheering....Even an adolescent such as myself realised that the occasion had a sacramental air–a ritual in honour of Coppi’s age, weariness and fragility.
Another fascinating character is the remarkable Beryl Burton, an amateur time triallist who was one of the best cyclists in Britain–man or woman–for more than 25 years. She was obsessive to the point that when her daughter outsprinted her in a local race she did not speak to her for a year afterwards. Her life was all about labour and training, and when she died at the age of 59 in 1996 it was from having a heart attack while riding her bicycle. Legendary in Britain, she never received much notice outside of the UK but then women were ignored by the cycling establishment generally. Women cyclists were excluded from the Olympics, for example, until 1984.

Ray Booty, time trial hero

I was very interested in reading the account of Ray Booty's record in the Bath Road 100, done in under 4 hours in late summer 1956. I had never heard of Ray Booty until I heard Alexander von Tutschek speak at Le Cirque de Cyclisme in June about being a collector in Britain. He spoke of how impressed he had been as a boy with Ray Booty's record (which stood for six years) and that one of the high points of his collecting life was to actually purchase Ray Booty's Raleigh Record used in the ride. Alexander von Tutschek was keen to get the bicycle not only for its historical meaning to him but because he himself is very tall and Ray Booty, at 6 feet 2 inches, was riding a 25 inch (63.5 cm) frame! The bicycle has been restored to what it would have been like in 1955, and there is an excellent description of it, fixed gear and all, here.

Tom Simpson, another Leaguer, also receives attention from Mr. Hilton and you realize why the cyclist still has such a strong grip on the British imagination even today. His dramatic death on Mt. Ventoux overshadows his great success as an international cyclist. He used drugs to drive himself through the races but reading this book you realize the degree of suffering, often for little reward, endured by these cyclists from another era and it is hard to be judgmental. To quote L.P. Hartley: “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.”

Part personal memoir, part reflection on contemporary cycling history, “One More Kilometre and We’re in the Showers” is an idiosyncratic work by someone who clearly loves the sport of cycling. Recommended for all comrades!

Thursday, August 16, 2007

The Lost Boys Tour d'Alsace: Part 3

Strasbourg sweets...

Thursday, July 5

Well, yet another miserable day. The dark clouds still rolled overhead but taking our place in the S-Max, and Chill following in his ‘Onda, as the French call it, we bravely headed out to one of the great goals of the trip: the Ballon d’Alsace.

The Ballon d’Alsace, although not on par with some of the other climbs in the region, let alone the Alps or Pyrenees, was immortalized on July 10, 1905 when it became the site of the first official mountain climb in the Tour de France, the first edition of which had taken place two years earlier. I have done a translation of a German story about that first ride. The Tour de France, nothing if not with a sense of its own history, did the same stretch on the same day in 2005. The climb is interesting not only for its history but because you can approach it from three different directions. Our plan was to start in St-Maurice-sur-Moselle, ride up to the top and then head east downhill to Serwen before turning around and going back up. The idea was to descend again and then circle around and ride another big climb, the Col du Ballon de Servance. Lots of climbing and descending in a very contained area. Or so the plan went...

The drive was pretty miserable, and further than we had expected. It was pouring rain as we drove, and we stopped at a roadside bar on the N-66 for some coffee and with the hope that the rain would relent. As we pushed on, it was clear that this was not going to happen. We parked at the local tourism office in St-Maurice, which was directly across from where the road up the Ballon began and it was here, O My Brothers, that I decided to pack it in and wait in the car.

Basically, it had not stopped raining, it was bitterly cold and I had only brought gear suitable for normal July weather to Europe with me. I loaned my armcovers and windvest to Steve Z. and everyone packed on their raingear. The group bravely headed out on the 13 km climb and I contented myself with figuring out the S-Max’s navigation system.

Ready to attack the Ballon d'Alsace

Just over an hour later the Lost Boys returned. It was an epic trip but they had only gone up to the top and turned around once photos were taken. The summit, which is only around ll78 m, was 6C, so I could not blame them for the dash up and back. I got cold just listening to the tale of woe, and was disappointed to here that once they reached the top, of course, they could not see anything due to the fog and clouds. So much for our historical ride...







To cheer ourselves up, we piled into the car again and headed off to visit Strasbourg, birthplace of Marcel Marceau, for a few hours. At this point the weather had become quite glorious and we walked around the main square and admired the huge gothic sandstone Cathedral of Our Lady. Of course, at that moment the authorities threw everyone out of the place so that they could give the daily noon lecture on the famous astronomical clock. We passed by an amazing store selling a vast array of cookies and soon wandered off for some food ourselves, enjoying mammoth sandwiches in an ice cream place.

Bergheim

After we did the long drive back to the gite, the weather actually improved enough that I decided to go out by myself and just ride north along the main road through the vineyards. I passed Ribeauvillé, of course, but in Bergheim I turned off the road to take some photos of the town showing the fortified walls. I noticed a sign on a sideroad pointing to a German World War II cemetery and decided to look, riding upwards through the vineyards until the road ended. I had an excellent view of Bergheim and the surrounding Rhine Valley, and rolled back down to the main road, turning right and passing through Rorschwihr and coming to St-Hippolyte, which was about to celebrate its Beer Festival on the coming weekend. I photographed the banner to prove to the others that there actually was beer in Alsace, and turned around. At this point the rain returned but I got back to the gite without getting very wet but with only 21 kms on the bike computer.

Friday, July 6

Of course, now that people were starting to leave the weather improved. The Thin Man had departed the evening before, taking the night train back to Berlin. Chill was drove out, heading back in the direction of Geneva while Anti-Gravity Jon packed up his bike. Dr. Chef, Steve Z. and I were under less time pressure and we agreed to head off to the north for some nice climbs near the town of Villé, which meant retracing my ride of Thursday to St-Hippolyte and then continuing.





The weather was quite good and we reached the first major junction at Chatenois quite rapidly. The next stretch of road, a short piece of the N-59 and then a long stretch of the D424, had the most traffic of any part of our rides and we were relieved to get to Villé. However, the roads were poorly marked here and we departed with some confusion and much consultation of the maps, eventually finding our way to an excellent climb, which took us along the D23 to Urbeis and the Col d’Urbeis (602 m). We turned right on the D214 and were rewarded with excellent views as we climbed further to the village of Le Climont.

Steve Z. had asked me about some creaking noises his bike was making and I had a sense of foreboding. Sure enough, in Le Climont his cassette body failed, exactly as mine had in Maryland a month earlier, and his Tour d’Alsace was at an end. Dr. Chef and I continued on the most direct route back to the gite, passing the Col de Steige (534m) and riding at time trials speeds through Maisonsgoutte and Ville and then back all the way home, with only a moment or two of rain along the way. We did stop to take pictures of us at the Col sign, of course. Once back at the gite, Dr. Chef took the S-Max and went back to collect Steve Z., and that was the end our week in Alsace. At least we had managed to put in 85 km in one day, with a reasonable gain of 720 m.

Saturday, July 7

Mario on his Gios at Haut-Koenigsbourg

Well, things were not quite over. My friend Mario and his wife Birgit arrived on Saturday morning. They were camping a few miles down the road and he was picking me up in preparation for the next stage of my trip, a week in the Black Forest, just across the Rhine. Steve Z. and Dr. Chef were preparing to head off to the Frankfurt Airport with the rental car and we said our goodbyes.




Stork on the prowl

I went with Mario to the campsite--where storks were wandering around, cadging handouts-- and we put on our cycling gear and took our bikes out for a ride, going back up to Chateau du Haut Koenigsbourg and enjoying the descent to Ste-Marie-aux-Mines, the climb back up to Ribeauvillé and then returning to Hunawihr and the campsite in Zellenberg.

There were showers to be had and we got changed. Mario and Birgit packed up the VW Westfalia van and we drove up the street for lunch in Riquewihr, including a wine tasting, before going east and crossing the Rhine into Germany. A short while later we were in Biengen at a very comfortable guest house, and met up with Frank, from the Harz Mountains, and Brett (a fellow Squadra Coppi rider) and his girlfriend Lex, the others in our party. We walked down the street and over an uproarious dinner on a restaurant terrace planned our upcoming German cycling adventures.

Birgit samples the flammkuchen in Riquewihr