Thursday, 31 December 2009

Happy New Year!

In a bit of irresponsible reporting, a formerly-respected cycling website claims here that Jens (!) Voigt believes he will not be able to win the Tour de France anymore.  True fans of Jens (!) know that a little thing like being 38 is no obstacle to him, and we look forward to another season of Amazing Jens (!) Riding in 2010.  Without the faceplant this time, of course.

It has been a case of yet another year flying by and I did not meet all those New Year's Resolutions set last January but I came close (except for the 100 push-ups non-stop).  Highlights on the road during rides totalling 6266.78 kms were many: the Tour des Appalachians training camp; the Cirque du Cyclisme; the Great Allegheny Passage Trail; completing a 200 km brevet and getting totally soaked and quitting a 300 km one; averaging more than 40 km/h for several admittedly-short time trials; the Lost Boys tour of Bavaria and Northern Italy; researching and assembling my wonderful old Raleigh racing bicycle.

Not only do I wish Jens (!) the best for 2010, but every one of you as well.  May your roads be freshly paved, the scenery splendid, and your riding buddies (and cycling correspondents) as admirable as mine.

Tuesday, 29 December 2009

"I do not plan to fall." Is this the world's best cyclist?

By now, we have all read the fascinating New York Times story (here) about Danny MacAskill, a cycling prodigy from Scotland.  He has not won the Tour de France, or a time trial or a downhill mountain bike race or run off with Sven Nys' wife.  But when you see what he can do, I guarantee you will be impressed.  Here is the video compilition of his feats:

In your dreams, Sonny: Riding with Liz Hatch in California

Liz Hatch at Santa Rosa, 2008
Photo © Photosport International

I have been enjoying the recon films produced by CycleFilm for a number of famous gran fondo rides in Europe.  Most recently, I have been going through the l’Etape du Tour ride routes of 2007-2009.  I am waiting for the release of the 2010 version, which will cover climbs in the Pyrenees I plan to do in summer.  Some climbs in this region are included in the older DVDs but the new one has been delayed a bit.  As a consolation prize, CycleFilm’s Markus Neuert sent an e-mail giving customers on-line access to some of his videos pending release of the new l’Etape DVD.  One of these was a film released in April featuring U.S. cyclist Elizabeth Hatch, entitled “Ride with Me.”

Although I have enjoyed the recon videos, I was wondering what this film would be like.  Markus has produced another little video, “From Podium Girl to Playboy,” about a California model who is trying to, well, move up the beauty scale, I guess, but her momentary participation in the Tour of California is pretty much as close to cycling as she got.  On the other hand, Liz Hatch is a professional racing cyclist and with her movie star looks it is not surprising she is the subject of her own film. 

Cycling, as Liz Hatch says in the film, is not in the Big 5 of American sports.  She does not go on to point out the obvious: men’s cycling is not in Big 5.  Women’s cycling is pretty much invisible and, in fact, it is hardly to be seen in Europe either.  While living in Europe for four years I think I was only able to see two women’s races on television, in comparison to excellent coverage of pretty well all major men’s races.  It is hard to be a star in a sport that nobody much cares about.  Her fellow Texan, Lance Armstrong, like him or not, made a lot more people interested in cycling because of his outsized personality as well as accomplishments in the peleton.  There are not many cyclists who can do this.  Liz Hatch understands the art of self-promotion and she even calls herself being “a product” as part of her job.

Of course, cycling is not the only sport with attractive athletes, and a number of female bike pros have been featured as models but Ms. Hatch, who was featured in a photospread in the “lad mag” Maxim, seems to have attracted a lot of annoyed reaction.  The tone of comments on cycling forums on the Internet is pretty mixed, and it appears that what irritates these people is they see Liz Hatch as the Anna Kournikova of cycling, more famous for her looks than her achievements.  Putting aside the fact that Lance Armstrong never earned as much in a year as Ms. Kournikova (who failed to win a Grand Slam singles event in her career), is it such a bad thing that glamour is associated with a sport?  Particularly one that gets very little attention otherwise.  In fact, I cannot think of ever actually having seen a documentary about a woman pro cyclist before.

The CycleFilm production is around 48 minutes, and, as the title suggests, is a ride with Liz Hatch in the San Francisco area.  I wish I could be doing this myself at the temperatures here tonight are -20C again.  I rode much of the same route in 2004, ending my ride in Tiburon at Marin County Brewing before returning to the city by ferry.  In the film, Ms. Hatch is chatting with Markus Neuert as he drives and she cycles alongside.  The route climbs the famous Mt. Tamalpais (the “Mt. Tam” of mountain bike fame) and takes us along the Pacific coast.  Several times she stops for a break and speaks to the camera about herself and her profession.

Liz Hatch looks great on her bike, with her matching team kit.  She looks comfortable on the big climb (making a disparaging comment about her “fat carcass”) and is really fast on the coastal segment.  But what impressed me was her comments about what cycling, and racing, means to her.  It seems she was a wild party girl and on a downward spiral at the age of 24.  She was a big fan of cycling and the death of Marco Pantani made her look at her own life, shake off her depression and launch herself into a career as a pro racer.  It is clear that she loves riding, although considering the beauty of the surroundings in this DVD this is nothing to wonder at!

These details are not in the video: in 2006 she turned pro, and in 2007 joined the Vanderkitten Racing Team, where she achieved her greatest success with four criterium wins in 2008.  In January 2009 she was badly injured in a crash and at the time the video was being made she was still working to come back into form.  By July she transferred to another team and is racing in Europe, and probably missing those rides in Marin County.

It certainly takes some self-confidence to become a pro racer but Liz Hatch does not come across as arrogant but as a sensitive and sympathetic person.  I think for someone to become a professional at 26 is difficult, particularly in a sport so particularly unforgiving.  She talks at times about wondering what she is doing but her love for racing is evident.  She talks about the difficulties that the sport imposes on a personal life.   She talks about her rather old-school training methods, and demonstrates that she is pretty incompetent at peeling bananas.  She talks about her tattoos (being not very with-it, I am uncertain why good-looking young women like to have sentences--an Oscar Wilde quotation on the neck?--permanently engraved on themselves).   She may not be an Eddy Merckx, or, perhaps more appropriately, a Jeannie Longo in terms of wins but perhaps finding happiness in what you do is its own reward.

She does not discuss how women’s racing could become more popular, or talk much about her teammates.  She does touch on doping but it is not clear to me how prevalent it is in women’s cycling.  This DVD is really just a nice day’s ride with a strong and intelligent companion.  After watching it, I think I would like to ride with Liz Hatch.  You might too.

You can get the documentary directly from CycleFilm for €14.99 (including shipping) here.

Friday, 18 December 2009

Monday, 7 December 2009

Better than "Cash for Clunkers"

With my new-found interest in classic racing bicycles, and hard at work rebuilding my c. 1983 Raleigh Team Professional, I simply could not resist translating a story in the November issue of the Germany cycling publication TOUR:

Better than “Cash for Clunkers”

by Jűrgen Lőhle
Tour Magazine, November 2009

Retro is in.  Brägel has also realized this–and turned the trend into hard cash.

In Autumn you always tell yourself that before Christmas comes it is time to get rid of all the junk that should have been thrown out years ago, stuff you never had the heart to part with as you thought that sooner or later you might find a use for it.  Normally, nobody ever gets around to doing this and so the average German basement is stuffed with twenty bags of baby clothing, IKEA bookcases with crooked shelves, mouldy kitchen cutting boards, a bidet inherited from the neighbour, a million plastic throwaway flower pots from the garden centre, along with ancient clapped-out power lawnmowers.  Piled underneath are old television sets and cages or baskets for long-vanished pets.

This national pack rat tendency goes for all of us as well, particularly when it comes to things related to cycling.  Brägel therefore came upon the idea of organizing a “Retro Bazaar.”  “And why should we bother?,” asked Old Hans.  “It’s nonsense for me to buy your old junk, and for you to buy mine.”  Brägel countered by saying that we would advertise it and things would go well, saying: “There are millions of idiots running around out there.  We only just have to find them.”

It sounded like a good idea, and after getting the approval of the Club President (who asked if he could get rid of his wife at the bazaar), we sealed the project with a Hefeweizen and began to collect the treasures in the clubhouse basement.  After two weeks it looked like a scrapyard.  It also smelled a bit as Brägel had brought a bunch of jerseys, the kind that people wore back when winners of the Tour de France had names like Bernard Hinault or Laurent Fignon.

It all ended being an unbearable pile of gruesome trash, or so we thought.  But the bazaar turned into a fantastic success as some pretty close to unbelievable scenes played out.  An old man bought a half-filled and nearly unopenable can of Campagnolo grease for TWENTY Euros simply because you can’t get it anymore.  Old Hans had wanted only one Euro for it but the bidding shot up as three interested parties fought for it.  Another left the clubhouse in tears of joy, carrying out two white leather toe straps for prehistoric quill pedals.  The good man had to be restrained from kissing the Club President--he had been searching for these kind of straps for years.  My old Modolo brakes, which never really stopped that well, brought noises of ecstasy from a bazaar visitor and I took the opportunity to quickly add a “0" behind the “5" on the price tag, and the madman actually gave me a fifty for the old crap.

Brägel himself pulled in a small fortune with a set of white rubber hoods and the matching old Super Record brake levers.  At the end, he even found a buyer for an old Banesto water bottle that inside looked like a science experiment gone wrong.  The buyer claimed that the bottle would have a place of honour in his living room cabinet, next to the Indurain poster.

By evening, everything except the wife of the Club President had been snatched up, and we felt like the inventors of the “Cash for Clunkers” program.  All that was left over were a pair of wheels and an opened tube of chamois cream belonging to Brägel.  “I can’t understand why nobody wanted it,” he said, but although we all had an idea why we didn’t say anything.  In any event, we were all pretty happy with the results and we ended the day with the knowledge that there were bicycle freaks out there even worse than we were.

Of course, this success gave rise to another problem.  Now knowing that for every piece of old junk there was an enchanted buyer to be found, in future we would throw out of even less stuff that we do now.  Could it be that this old bottle cage comes from a limited edition and might be a collector’s piece in 20 years?  Somebody even was thrilled to buy Brägel’s primordial Peugeot frame, something even he was hesitant to bring to the bazaar.  Perhaps in the future there could even be a handy woman who collected wrecks who might take Old Hans home as a restoration project.  Since all Germany seems in retro-fever, all things are possible.

We dug around some more in our basements and garages and a few weeks later brought a few things to show off at the Stammtisch, just in case anyone was interested.  There were a few links from a 1985 Shimano chain, some bicycle cleaning fluid (which smelled so strongly that a few drops would probably contaminate a million litres of clean water), clipless pedals the size of a piece of toast, a saddlebag with the Team Telekom logo, and one of the first bike helmets, looking like a chamber pot with slits.  Also admirable was the VDO speedometer that required at least 20 watts of power to function, or a set of the first version of Campagnolo’s Shamal rims, that would fill up with water until you drilled a hole in them.  All of these are totally retro, and to be found at our 2010 club bazaar.

The 2009 Lost Boys Tour of Europe: Meeting Mr. Freeze

After packing up our gear, we went downstairs to the dining room in the hostel, where a number of German cyclists were breakfasting.  They had come as a group from Bavaria, and had their own special club van and trailer.  I realized that this was the chance to get rid of our CO2 cartridges since we could not take them on our flights out of Europe and they were delighted to get them.  I only hoped that the cartridges would work better for them than they had for Zeezu on the Stelvio!

The plan was to meet the bus around 2 pm at the terminal and head back to Rosenheim, so we had the whole morning available to us to wander around Bolzano and look at whatever we had not had a chance to before.  Unfortunately, it was the actual Ferrogusto holiday, so everything was pretty much closed except, of course, for the numerous churches, which seemed to be doing a good business.

Janice and I decided we would take a walk together through the old city and I had the chance to photograph some of the interesting old buildings.  We found a ver old church and administrative complex that was the local headquarters of the Teutonic Order.  I wrote a paper on the Order during a year of independent study at university and in my travels in Europe I have occasionally come across evidence of the organization, which remains headquartered in Vienna.

We walked past the arcaded passage of the Lauben, the old shopping street, soon reached our goal for the morning, the Museo Archeologico dell’Alto Aldige.  It did not open until 10 a.m., so we still had a bit of time.  We had been warned that it was one of the most popular attractions in the region and to expect a big crowd but there were only a few people waiting on the steps.  We went across the street to one of the few open cafés we had seen.  Unusually, this one was run by a young Chinese couple but, as usual, we had excellent coffees and some fine pastry.  And the chance to hear Italian spoken with a Chinese accent.

Just before 10:00 we crossed the street again.  It was hot and sunny as we stood in line, which had lengthened to around 20 people.  The doors opened and we snaked our way up to the ticket counter quite efficiently.  There was a checkroom handily located so I put my little backpack and camera there and then we paid our 9 Euros each and were in.

The Museo Archeological is in a fine old building but the interior is quite modern as, to a large extent, the museum came into being to house the forensic findings resulting from the 1991 discovery of the frozen remains of a Neolithic man high in the Alps above the Ötz Valley.  When it was discovered that they were 95 metres inside Italian territory, the body and all the related artifacts were moved to Bozen and eventually ended up in the Sudtirol Archaeological Museum. This was a major discovery as not much as known about the people living in this area 53 centuries (!) ago. Fascinating scientific research has provided a great deal of interesting information about the Iceman, his clothing, food, equipment and even speculation on how he died all those years ago.

The displays were exceptionally well done as we were taken through the details of the discovery in a multi-media presentation.  The mummy itself is kept in a special refrigerated and pressurized chamber with a small window, and there are showcases around with details of the objects found around Mr. Ötzi, some of which, including his hat, were discovered on subsequent trips to the spot by scientists.

Of course, everyone loves a mystery and over the years the forensic examinations have shown that Ötzi, who was of an advanced age for the period (being all of 46 years old) was the victim of an act of violence and probably died on the ridgetop from his wounds rather than from exposure.  He might have been part of a raiding party into the valley that went wrong but in any event the story is a fascinating one and the Italians are to be commended for their very fine museum.  In addition to an audio guide, the signage in the building was all in Italian, German and English so it was easy to follow the story.

Although probably the most celebrated mummy in Europe, Ötzi is not alone.  We were fortunate to be in Bolzano at the same time as a special exhibition in the museum: “Mummies: The Dream of Everlasting Life.”  In fact, this exhibition took up 2 ½ floors of the museum and included specimens from Egypt, which of course resulted from a complex man-made process.  Mummification, usually by natural processes, occurred in salt mines or other dry environments.  In some cases, it was caused by insects (there were some small animals on display that had been so attacked) or, as in the case of the famous Peat People of Denmark, by falling into a bog.  Actually, the Peat People also show marks of violence and may have been part of a sacrifice ritual.

If the museum has whetted your appetite for the Neolithic world, you can also visit the Schnalstal archeoParc (, which is located not far from the place where Ötzi was found.  This is an interactive museum located 1500 m above sea level and offers reconstructions of the objects found with the Iceman as well as a reconstruction of an entire village of the Late Neolithic Period.  Every day you can do Neolithic things there, such as bake bread in domed ovens, smelt copper ore and practice your archery.  Different from Disney World for sure, but I am sorry that we did not have the opportunity to visit the park, with its surrounding spectacular scenery, but I will save this for another trip when I have a car to get me there.

After spending nearly two hours in the museum, we headed back into the heat and sunshine and continued our promenade in Olde Bolzano.  Janice headed back to the hostel while I took a few more pictures.  I had seen a sign for a small café hidden away in a courtyard and I went there for lunch.  It was wonderful to sit quietly outside in the sunshine and drink an excellent Först beer while waiting for my food.  I had bought an Italian cycling magazine to read at the train station and I enjoyed going through this, feeling in the total holiday mood.  My enormous pizza Margherita came and I had to photograph it as a souvenir of another superb day.

Returning to the hostel, stopping for yet another ice cream on the way back, I joined the others and we walked our bikes over to the terminal.  Unfortunately, there was no sign of the bus and we ended up waiting in the garage for quite a while.  I suspected that there were holiday traffic issues.  It turned out that the bus company had sent me an e-mail to let me know the bus would be late but it had not occurred to me to go on-line at the hostel, regrettably.  We called from the garage and learned that Ricci and the bus would be picking us up closer to 5 pm.

A beer at the Bozner Brauhaus

He arrived at the new time and we quickly got loaded up and on board.  I was worried it would be a long drive back but the traffic was very light as we headed north.  Once again, we passed through incredibly beautiful scenery heading out of Italy and into Austria, but the show ended in three hours as we pulled back into the Rosenheim train station parking lot.

Past masters at this, we organized a van taxi to take our luggage back to the hotel and we all cycled back the short distance to the hotel.  Working quickly, everyone rapidly packed their bikes in their cases and we had one more celebratory dinner at our chic outdoor café across the street.

The next morning everyone went their own way.  I took a cab to the station in the morning and had a comfortable train ride back to Munich, where I caught a flight on budget Air-Berlin northwards, arriving in Berlin for the last, non-cycling, part of my vacation.

Sunday, 29 November 2009

The 2009 Lost Boys Tour of Europe: Cycling the Etschtal Bike Path

Friday, August 14:  Our time in Südtirol was drawing to a close, but there was still another day of cycling in store.  Our plan for today was very straightforward: we would take the train to the end of the line at Malles/Mals and simply follow the Etsch River bikepath all the way back to Bolzano.  Today I would also wear my very chic Stelvio cycling jersey that the guys bought for me at the top of that climb as a keepsake.  There is a profile of the climb on the shirt, and on the sleeves is “2760,” the altitude.  Another plus is that it matches my black-and-red Tarmac.

The weather was beautiful yet again and although the train was insanely crowded we were not as concerned since we would not have to fight to get the bicycles out at an intermediate stop.  We were only five today as the others in the group were on their own, including Glen and Carol, who had been sick but were now taking advantage of the weather to ride the Stelvio themselves.  The train ride took about two hours but the scenery and good spirits of everyone made it go fast.

Getting out in Mals, Zeezu immediately demanded that we stop at the station café since cycling in Italy without an excellent coffee simply could not be done.  We were soon on the road and came to the walled village of Glorenza/Glurns for the second time on this trip.  We had thought of stopping for lunch here but since we had only ridden 3 kms from Mals, we thought we would still keep going.  We continued along the excellent paved bicycle path that follows the Etsch/Adige until we reached Spondigna.  Thinking that there might be a restaurant in Prato allo Stelvio, we turned right and followed the road leading to the Stelvio.  Unfortunately, there were no restaurants to be found in Prato, although there were plenty of ice cream places.

Disappointed, we headed back to the river and the bike path and continued onwards.  After several other false starts, we managed to find an open restaurant in Schlanders where we could sit outside on the patio and enjoy life in Europe to the fullest.

Riding through the endless apple orchards
The path, which in some places turned into gravel, led us through orchards and vineyards as it gradually descended the valley.  Just outside Merano it turned into a series of switchbacks, each curve marked like the Stelvio, as it dropped steeply.  We rode quickly through busy Merano and were soon out in the countryside again, heading for Bolzano.  The path was lost momentarily near Lana, but we soon regrouped.

Me in my new Stelvio jersey, looking like a total Guido
(photo by Dr. Chef)

I was feeling very fresh and went into time trial mode, pulling the others along the excellent path.  We were joined by two locals who sat in on the paceline.  After a while, they pulled around and passed us, and I jumped on the closest wheel.  We accelerated to a steady 40 km/h but then I looked behind and saw that I had lost everyone else in our group, so I dropped back and rode at a saner pace.  Later on, Glen and Carol, who returned from the Stelvio by train, told us that they had seen me leading our little paceline on the bikepath at an impressive speed.

We passed the castle overlooking Bolzano and caught up with the two locals.  I pulled in behind them and cleared my throat, which had exactly the effect I had hoped for: they both accelerated and we pulled in behind and had an armchair ride back to the outskirts of Bolzano, where they left.  Unfortunately, entering Bolzano on this, our last ride, there was no choice but to get totally lost again.  The bikepath signs make no sense at all, and it did not help that there was a construction detour.  A father and his son took pity on us and cycling ahead with Dr. Chef they led us back to the centre of the city and our hostel.

Another beautiful day in Südtirol: 96 kms (60.1 miles) and a surprising 860 meters (2822 feet) of climbing.  Now it was time to pack up the bikes...

Saturday, 28 November 2009

The 2009 Lost Boys Tour of Europe: the Sella Ronda

Me riding the Sella Ronda
(photo by Dr. Chef)

Thursday, August 13:  Having somewhat recovered after our “recovery” ride along the Weinstrasse, I was looking forward with great anticipation to the “Queen Stage” of our trip: the Sella Ronda.  I had read about this legendary route here at as well as getting a first-hand report on sections of it from my friend Will, who rode the Dolomite Marathon earlier in the year.

Although I had looked at a range of alternatives, including buses and trains, it was obvious that to get to the beginning fo this famous circuit we would need to charter a bus.  I arranged to do this but rather than a single large bus we had several minivans, which worked out quite well.  Of course, getting everyone out the door, group-photographed, bikes on racks and people in seats was a major undertaking.  On every trip there is always an issue of some kind and this trip was unique in that two bank cards and a credit card were lost.  On the plus side, there was only one crash, resulting in a bent handlebar, and a single flat tire during the entire trip.  Zeezu thinks we did this to him on purpose to slow him down on the Stelvio, when he discovered that European CO2 cartridges don’t necessarily work with U.S.-designed inflators...

Anyway, everyone was packed up and we headed off to our appointment with destiny on a beautiful sunny morning.  We drove up along a busy road, the S241, through the Valle d’Ega/Eggental, and it took us through several tunnels as the scenery became quite gorgeous.  My original plan had been to take the minivans up to Canazei and then after riding the Sella Ronda we would come back down this road to Bolzano, but it looked so unappealing as a cycling route that I was glad that I had gone to Plan B, which would bring us over the Nigrapass and down a very quiet secondary road back to Bolzano.

August 15 is Ferragosto, a religious holiday in Italy known in English as the Feast Day of the Assumption.  Before the Catholic Church co-opted it, the holiday was celebrated in the Roman Empire to honour the gods, particularly Diana, and mark the ripening of crops.  Italians are prone to take short holidays during Ferragosto and this was the big week for them.  Corey had explained that visitors come to Alte Adigo in huge numbers and the locals all leave then, and we were about to see this in action.

We climbed the Passo di Costalunga/Karerpass, which we would ride up from the other direction on our bikes, and I pointed out to everyone where the road branched off that would take us over the Nigrapass and back to town.  Soon we found ourselves in extremely heavy traffic, and the minivans crawled along through Vigo di Fasso, where we turned left on the road, S.48, that took us to Pozza di Fasso and Canazei.  It was only 47 kms from Bolzano to Canazei on excellent roads but it took us more than two hours for the trip.  I chatted with our driver, who had been a long-distance truck driver, and he pointed out the beautiful peaks around us.

Leaving Canazei

The traffic seemed to peter out in Canazei and our drivers let us out in a big parking lot that is used for tour buses.  The bicycles were unloaded and I got everyone together to go over the route once more since once we started climbing the group would break up and we would probably not see each other until Bolzano.  The route was simple: a big clockwise circle around the Sella group would bring us back to Canazei and then we would retrace our route over the Karerpass but then turn right on the road to the Nigrapass.  It would then be all downhill from there to Bolzano.

The first climb of the four on the Sella Ronda was the Passo di Sella.  It is 11.4 kms in length and averages 6.6 %, with a height gain of 758 m.  I found myself riding with three others from our group and we worked our way up steadily.  The road surface was good as we passed through some forest but the traffic was holiday-heavy.  Nonetheless, as we rode in single file the motorists were generally quite careful as they passed us.  We were all aiming for the summit of the Sella, which is at 2244 m ASL.  The road we were riding, the S.243, is marked as a yellow, or secondary, one and I was surprised how much traffic there was but this was obviously due to the time of year.  Without too much difficulty I rode a steady pace and we soon came to the top of the summit, which had the usual tourist kitsch shops and restaurants.  There were several big parking lots, full of visitors’ cars.  I was riding with Terry, one of our older stalwarts, and we could not find the summit sign so we just took photos in front of one of the shops.  The summit sign turned out to be a bit further down the road–at a lower altitude!

I stopped briefly in one of the parking lots to put on my windvest and arm warmers and it was here that we had our first view of the fabulous Sella massif.  The mountains are precisely what you think of when the Dolomites are mentioned.  It is a basically a large plateau and in winter you can actually ski around it using some of the ski lifts in the area.  The region is also one where Ladin, known as Romansch in Switzerland, is still spoken.

After enjoying our first unobstructed view of the Sella massif, we then dived down at high speed along the excellent roads towards our next goal, the Passo di Gardena/Grödner Joch.  I caught up to Janice at this point and we road along the quiet road carved into the edge of the massif.  The traffic had vanished; it seemed everyone wanted to just get to the top of the Passo di Sella.  It was also approaching lunchtime, something of great interest to everyone on holiday.

After descending about 400 m, we rode along a flat stretch, the Plan di Gralba, before beginning a gradual climb.  The climb is a gradual 6 kms, with an average gradient of only 4.2%.  After the obligatory summit sign photo (again, the sign was below the summit!), we rode towards the collection of buildings at the top.

We stopped for some water.  The sun was shining and we sat at a picnic table next to a restaurant.  Next to us was a young woman with a very nice Pinarello, but when I complimented her on it in Italian she looked shocked and said nothing.  Maybe my Italian was not as good as I had thought!

We rolled out and enjoyed a series of really superb hairpins.  I stopped to take some photos and Pinarello Girl rode by.  I soon followed but overtook her almost immediately. She was clearly a very cautious descender as she could not have been going more than 20 km/h downhill.  I, on the other hand, found the descent ideal and rapidly increased speed, roaring into the village of Corvara at 70 km/h and enjoying every second of it.  I caught up to Terry, Janice and Dr. Chef.  We decided to press on rather than have lunch in Corvara and headed along a new road, P.244, that took us towards the next pass, the Passo di Campolongo, which would be a climb of 307 m.

Climbing out of Corvara

This pass is also a fairly reasonable one, being 6 kms in length and averaging only 5%.  There was an initially steep part after coming out of Corvara but then it settled down to an unchanging grade so it was easy to set a rhythm.  Nearing the summit, we passed a restaurant where a group of our faster riders called out to us.  We debated staying for lunch but Dr. Chef thought we should press on up the last pass on the circuit rather than try to climb it with full stomaches.  We found the summit of the Campolongo at 1875 m ASL, but it was not terribly impressive.

What we thought was the last challenge of the Sella Ronda lay ahead: the Passo Pordoi.  Although not brutally steep, the pass, at 9.4 kms, is quite long.  The average grade is 6.8% and we would be gaining 638 m.  I rode with Terry and I began to feel tired.  The climbing we had already done and the lack of food were beginning to take their toll.  I tried to ride as steadily as possible but the road seemed to go on forever as we climbed through no less than 33 hairpins.  As I approached the summit I heard someone come from behind and Mariette, one of our better climbers, easily overtook me just before we reached the top.  It was with a sense of accomplishment that we had come to the highest point on the trip at 2289 m ASL.

Dr. Chef enjoys his reward

To celebrate, Terry, Dr. Chef, Janice and I sat down in the first restaurant and enjoyed excellent coffee before we wolfed down big slabs of pizza.  Putting on our warm gear again (cycling in the mountains is a constant put-it-on-take-it-off striptease), we rapidly rolled downhill and headed towards Canazei.  Unfortunately, the traffic had no disbursed since the morning and as we approached the town we were in stop-and-go traffic.  I noticed that a mountain biker simply rode towards the oncoming traffic and everyone shifted over a bit for him.  It looked dangerous to me but I thought as long as he was in front of us we could give it a try.  To my surprise we rapidly picked up speed and were able to get back the stopped cars pretty easily.  Nobody shook their fists at us but some motorists actually pointed out the best way we could take.  Nice to be in a cycling culture!

We rapidly reached Pozza di Fasso and began the ascent of the Passo di Costalunga.  There was some very heavy traffic as we came to Vigo di Fasso but most of it seemed to stay in the town.  The Costalunga has some nasty grades, hitting 10.4%, but after 6 kms it flattened out so that there was only 20 vertical meters in the last 4 kms before the summit at 1748 m ASL.  I had felt a bit tired on the climb but the flat part cheered me up and turning on the road towards the Passo Nigra I felt energized.  This was the last of our six passes for the day and it was actually lower than the Costalunga.  It would be followed by a 24 km drop into the valley below.

It turned out that several of the faster riders had ignored my route advice and taken the busy road back to Bolzano.  This was a real mistake.  Not only was that road quite unpleasant and, in spots, dangerous, but they missed what has to be one of the most beautiful roads I have ever cycled.

The Passo Nigra/Nigrapass is a bit odd in that it is not really a summit but another plateau.  I had expected that we would start descending immediately but in fact the road was fairly level, with some small rollers. We passed a small restaurant, where stopped to get organized, and then began the 24.4 km descent.  The first four kms average 6.8%, then it steepens noticeably.  Some long sections are over 10% as you approach the village of San Cipriano, after which the road is almost level for a while.  The scenery is absolutely stunning and there is no traffic at all.

Finally, with only seven kilometers left on the descent, it steepens up a great deal and soon you are hurtling down the road towards the river.  Turn left and you are on a bike path that sweeps you all the way back into Bolzano.

An impressive profile for a long day...

The Sella Ronda/Passo Nigra has to be one of the greatest cycling routes anywhere.  In his piece at, Jered Gruber said: "If I had one last ride to ride, I would ride here." and it is easy to understand why, particularly when the weather is as superb as it was for us.  Every June the Sella Ronda is closed completely to motorized traffic as everyone celebrates Bike Day.  Our own bike day was certainly worth celebration...we rode a distance of 125.7 km (78.15 miles), enjoying a climbing total of 3539 m (11,611 feet).

Friday, 27 November 2009

My Latest Book Review at Tomorrow we ride

It is rainy in Ottawa (although unseasonably warm) and the training is tapering off.  Time to dig into the library and read some great cycling literature again. has just published my my review of Jean Bobet's "Tomorrow we ride...", a memoir of his life with famous brother Louison, and you can read it here.

Friday, 20 November 2009

The Case for Bicycle Commuting

There is a very good article by Michael Hartford at, which you can look at here.

Tuesday, 17 November 2009

The Lost Boys 2009 Tour of Europe: the Südtiroler Weinstrasse

Wednesday, August 12: After a night of violent thunderstorms (a regular occurrence in summer in this mountainous region, it appears), we had yet another gorgeous, sunny day for our next cycling adventure.  The plan was to do something a bit flatter, given our Stelvio climb of the day before and our plan to ride the Sella Ronda on Thursday.  I had worked out a route to take us along the Wine Street and the profile looked reasonable.

Of course, the profile may have looked reasonable but once again we got seriously lost on the outskirts of Bolzano as the road markings did not make much sense.  At one point we almost ended up in a very nasty tunnel on a limited-access highway but we managed to turn everybody around before we became traffic fatality statistics.  As it was, the road we followed was quite busy but eventually we were able to get off of it and turn towards the west.  After crossing a small bridge we turned south and found ourselves on the Weinstrasse, according to the signs.

This was good but to get to the Kaltern See, the lake on our route, we had to climb up and over the massive ridge parallel to the road we were on.  With Stelvio-tired legs, this was not so easy as the 3 km climb included sections that were 16 percent grade.  At the top we had great views of castle ruins, vineyards and the lake below.

Stealing grapes

A quick downhill run brought us to a restaurant on the edge of the lake, where everyone thought we should stop for coffee and the inevitable strudel.  It was quite hot by now, and it was refreshing to sit in the shade and watch people enjoying the grassy beach nearby.  I was tempted to go swimming myself but instead we got back on the bikes and headed in the direction of our goal for the day, Trento.

The road was very nice, but not really all that flat and I was beginning to feel tired between the climbing and the heat.  We passed through the villages of Tramin, Kurtatsch and Magreid and approached Mezzocorona, which seemed to be a crossroads.  We looked for a place for lunch but nothing was open so riding under the autostrada we came to San Michele all’Adige, which looked a bit bigger.  After some searching in this totally dead village we did come across a restaurant that was actually open, although the menu was limited to three kinds of spaghetti.  It was actually quite expensive compared to what we had enjoyed so far but we were all hungry.

And feeling pretty tired.  We asked about where we could find a train station and it turned out we had to return to Mezzocorona for that.  Taking a different road, we got there very quickly and soon a train arrived that took us back to Bolzano for $5 each.

Although it felt like a lot more, we had climbed 524 m for the day, riding 64.52 km in all.  We did make it quite to Trento but this was plenty for a “recovery” day.

A shower back at the hostel and a change of clothing and I felt much better.  After a restorative ice cream at the House of Infinite Choice, we walked over to a restaurant I had put on my list while still in Canada.  It was the beer hall of the Forst brewery, which is actually based in Merano.  A beer hall is not really a very good description as the inside was quite elegant and we sat in the nice garden, looking out over one of the streets of the old town.  The menu was also much better than a typical beer place and I had the opportunity to indulge my taste for chanterelles and polenta.  This was a much more refined version than what I had had at the firemen’s festival and the beer, with a full line to choose from, was probably the best in Italy.  And of course we had to have yet another ice cream on the way home...

The Lost Boys 2009 Tour of Europe: Baths and Hairpins

In every trip to Europe we calculate at least one day off the bicycle in order to have some flexibility for bad weather, sight-seeing or simply recovering (this last is a bit hard to believe, I know).  Waking up the morning after our very successful Mendelpass ride, it looked as if cycling was out of the day as it was raining heavily.  I had learned from a previous trip to always pack a folding umbrella.While in the Black Forest on previous trips, we had enjoyed European spa life and our plan for a rainy day in Südtirol was to indulge ourselves although nobody suffered much from sore muscles yet.  But first several of us decided to wander around Bolzano a bit more.

In spite of the rain, this was great fun as we went to the fruit and vegetable market in the old city and had a good time poking around the beautiful produce, as well as buying some pastry.  The hostel breakfast was fine but basic so we bought some cheese, bananas and other fruit to bring back to our rooms.  After I bought a kilo of  mirabelle plums, I was about to walk away when I spied some gorgeous peaches.  I asked the vendor if they were local and he said that they actually came from Verona.  I was overcome with the urge to try one and since the vendor said they were ripe I did not resist.  A few steps and I had bitten deep into a marvellous fruit that had clearly ripened on the tree.  We turned around and bought a bag of them...

We stopped at the Citta Hotel for a coffee under their elegant arcades and soon the rain let up.  It was late in the morning but some of the group planned to go for a ride, while others of us headed to the main station and set out for our spa journey to Meran/Merano.

Although Bolzano is the larger of the two, Merano is certainly the bigger tourist attraction.  Our train filled up rapidly and we quickly rolled through the orchards and vineyard of the Etsch Valley, arriving in Merano (which is also a transfer point for another rail line) in an hour or so.  Just before you come to the station you pass a large racecourse, an indication of the city’s role as a major entertainment/watering/social place of the Hapsburg empire prior to 1918.  It was walk of about 15-20 minutes to get from the station to the centre of town, and we passed an interesting plaque commemorating the career of the late Marco Pantani, who began to make his mark in pro cycling when he won stages of the Giro d’Italia in the region.

Merano on this day (August 10) was totally packed with visitors.  This was the week when everyone in Italy takes holidays and it seems that a good number of the country’s inhabitants come to the Dolomites–and, as Corey explained, the locals went elsewhere.  We fought our way through the charming streets, lined with solid but elegant buildings and soon came to the original casino/spa buildings, which looked exactly like the kind of place Emperor Franz Josef II would have hung out.  There was a nice garden by the river, including some in-ground palm trees. Merano has a micro-climate and it was already getting quite warm.  Today’s spa finds itself across the river housed in an ultra- modern glass-and-stone building, with a large outdoor area of green lawns and pools as well as the indoor/outdoor thermal baths and sauna areas.

We lined up, got our tickets and checked in.  I always find it interesting in Europe that the thermal spas, which seem so 19th Century in concept (“taking the waters” and all that) have computerized systems for keeping check on how much time you spend (pricing is in time blocks) and which control which areas of the establishment to which you have access.

We enjoyed the thermal pools, which included the kind of water jet massages I had enjoyed in Germany, and swam in the outdoor pools as well, which come in a range of temperatures.  The weather was spectacular but I enjoyed the spa so much I did not mind we were missing some riding for one day.  Then it was off to the sauna area.  Although it was textil-frei, as in Germany, the Italians were pretty anxious about keeping on their towels!

No matter.  Our three hours were up and feeling pretty mellow we sauntered back through the thronged streets to the train station, stopping for a slice of fresh pizza on the way, and returned to Bolzano and our hostel.  After the usual celebratory ice cream, we wandered back to the old city for an excellent dinner at an Italian restaurant, with half the crew having pizza and the other half going for pasta.

Tuesday, August 11 was meant to be a red-letter cycling day and the weather played along.  Although it was clear when we got to the Bolzano train station, the clouds began to roll in a bit as we headed back to Merano, where we transferred onto another hyper-modern little train.  Luckily this was the departure station for the train going to Mals/Malles since it rapidly got very crowded.  As we came to more stops it became even more very crowded.  It puzzled me that the railroad would only run a three-car train during what was clearly the busiest season as hikers with backpacks, cyclists with their bikes and locals with baby carriages got on board.  We were unable to sit during the two hour ride but at least we got on, unlike a number of cyclists further up the road.

Our big concern was getting through the crowd and actually getting off the train at our stop.  Luckily we had positioned ourselves to make the rapid escape we needed and soon found ourselves at the station platform in Spondigna.  Of course, before doing anything it was time for a bracing coffee in the little station restaurant, then we headed out towards our goal for the day, one of the world’s greatest ascents for a cyclist, the famed Passo dello Stelvio, known as the Stilfserjoch in German.

Of course, I immediately went the wrong way as I followed the “helpful” bikepath signs and lost everyone behind me.  It turned out that in fact I was going the right way, even if that meant riding some dirt and gravel sections of bikepath before coming into the little town of Prato allo Stelvio.  I waited a bit and eventually joined up with two others from our group and we turned to face southwest and the beginnings of the climb.

I rode this climb in 2005 when I did a week of riding in Eastern Switzerland, with this incursion into Italy.  It had thrilled me then but always wanting to see new sights I was not inclined to do it again but everyone was so keen I agreed.  As I found a different route back from the summit compared to what I did four years ago I thought this was count as undiscovered country.  But of course, to get to the undiscovered part you have to get through the first part.

The ride along the nicely-paved S38 road takes you through the hamlets of Gomagoi and Trafoi on a gentle upwards incline.  Spondigna is at 885 m ASL and by the time you reach Trafoi you have climbed to 1543 m in 27 kms.  Now the serious fun begins as you navigate 48 hairpin turns (each one marked with a sign) and head through some heavily-forested sections.  The road pitches up quite steeply in places (I had forgotten about this–ouch) and then you when you break out above the tree line you see the last dozen curves ahead stacked up in the distance almost like a ladder.  It is an extraordinary sight, both ahead of you and behind, and you will share the road with motorcyclists and sports car drivers (and even buses), as well as with like-minded cyclists wanting to partake of the Stelvio legend.

Although the weather had been somewhat overcast in Spondigna, the route up the valley was clear and it was fantastic.  I felt good and kept pace with Dr. Chef, stopping to take photos as the mood struck, and we soon caught up to a tall rider in a “Flanders” kit.  He was a young Belgian cyclist and we kept each other company all the way up to the top, although it was evident that he was more used to cycling those flatter roads back home.

Even if you have done it before, crossing the summit of the Stelvio (2760 m ASL, the highest road in Italy) gives you a terrific feeling of accomplishment.  After the obligatory pass sign photos, we tromped in to the nearest restaurant for hot chocolate/latte macchiatos/strudel.  Mariette, who speaks Dutch, could communicate with our new Belgian friend, who had very limited English, and he was delighted to accept a soft drink from us.  We seem to have done something for world understanding since he thought that Americans were not very nice but now that he had personal experience with them he found this not to be the case.  Of course, I would like to think it was also the Canadian influence.

Warmed up and, more importantly, dried off, we put on our cold-weather gear since a cold wind always blows over the summit from the Bormio direction.  But today we were not heading downhill towards Bormio, as I did in 2005.  Instead, we rode down the road a short way and turned right onto a very small road, soon passing an unoccupied border post.  We were now in Switzerland!

The 17 km road to Santa Maria, down the Passo di Forcola, has to be one of the most enchanting rides I have done to date.  There is no traffic to speak of and the scenic vistas of the Müstair Valley are exceptional.  The road is quite good until you suddenly hit a section, perhaps 3-4 kms long, of gravel.  This is not something you want on a rapid downhill with curves but all of us managed to get through.  We were then rewarded with some of the best pavement I have ridden on in a long time (Ottawa roads make anything else seem like velvet, except Quebec ones) and we rocketed down the hairpins into the village of Santa Maria.  Regrouping, we turned right onto a main road, Rt. 28, and enjoyed a fast downhill ride that brought us to the border crossing back into Italy at Tubre/Taufers.  The border post here was occupied, as Dr. Chef and Zeezu discovered when they tried to sprint for the border sign, to the extreme annoyance of the guard.  He did not think Americans were so nice, although here I did point out that I was a Canadian.

Rt. 28 turned into an Italian road, S41.  We continued downhill, passing through the walled town of Glurns and turning right to follow the bikepath along the Etsch, parallel to the S38.  Some of the group continued on past Spondigna, but three of us stopped there to take the train back to Merano and connect to Bolzano so that we would get back in time for a classical concert with an orchestra of young EU musicians.  Of course at the Spondigna station we celebrated once again with excellent coffees after figuring out how to buy tickets from the automat since there no longer are any humans representing the railroad at the station.
The loop we rode was just over 69 km long but featured over 2000 m of climbing.  My maximum speed was 70 km/h, which is not bad considering all the tight turns we had to descend.  A glorious day indeed and something I would recommend as one of the best rides in Europe.  We were fortunate as a few weeks later the road was closed to motorized traffic for Stelvio Day and the cyclists who came for that “enjoyed” a ride in pouring cold rain.