Sunday 27 September 2009

Time Trial Season Winding Down

One fast guy: Fabian Cancellara, 3 time World Time Trial Champion
photo by UCI

My last time trial of the season was scheduled for today but thanks to the all-day rain (actually beginning during the night) the event has been cancelled.  After all, driving for an hour in the rain, followed by forty-five minutes of "warming up" in the rain, followed by an hour of maximum exertion in the rain before driving back again probably does not make much sense.  Unless you get paid for it.The weather is definitely tending towards Fall since the trees are turning and it was only 3C (37F) when I got up yesterday morning.

So that is the end of the season for time trials for me.  Although I did not make my goal of averaging 40 km/h on the 15 km, on the shortened 10 km course I actually managed to do this not once, not twice but three times, with my highest average close to 41 km/h.  Dreadnought 2, my Leader time trial bike, is already set up on the Kurt Kinetic so that the Tour de Basement can begin.  My performances were better than last year, although my very best time trial was only 2 seconds faster than my best effort in 2008.  40 km/h next Spring for sure...

Fabian flying at the Tour of California
photo by Darcy,©Creative Commons

For some people, riding 40 km/h is clearly not a problem.  On Thursday, my fave pro bike rider, Fabian "Spartacus" Cancellera, destroyed the field in the World Cycling Championships in Mendrisio, Switzerland, doing three circuits of the 16.6 km course in front of his countrymen in the astonishing (to me) time of 57:55.74, averaging 51.54 km/h over the 49.8 km distance. I checked my math on this twice.  For those not metrically inclined, this works out to 32.03 mph.  The next rider came in 1:27 later, even after Fabian slowed down in the last 250 m to wave to everyone.  It would be marvellous to see him go for the One Hour Record.

In today's elite road race he had hoped to get another gold but it was not to be but fifth place is still not a bad effort at all.  Now he can spend the winter building up his strength with cheese fondue and chocolate or whatever it is Swiss champions train with.

Friday 18 September 2009

Everything Old is New Again

As I go about assembling the last pieces for my Ancient-But-Honourable Raleigh SBDU bicycle, I have learned a great deal about classic steel racing bikes.  Some manufacturers have not forgotten about them in this age of carbon and titanium and for 2010 Colnago is bringing forth a fixed/singlespeed steel bicycle, with lugs, that will revive the Super name.

Although fitted with inexpensive Tektro brakes and probably not made in Italy, the new Colnago Super is a very beautiful bicycle.  I have located at least three online retailers who are already listing the model for sale.  At US$1900 you would expect to have some gears on it but, hey, that Colnago name is pure magic.  If I were to make the jump to a fixed gear bike (with a flip-flop freewheel hub), this might be it...

Thursday 17 September 2009

Another sad incident in Ottawa

This blog is about cycling, the joys of which mean a great deal to me.  Nonetheless, we cannot overlook the dangers involved and this was brought home to me late this afternoon.  We were just finishing up for the day in the office when directly outside on Sussex Drive a cyclist was hit by a bus. One of my colleagues saw the incident from her office window.  When the emergency crews arrived (within only a few minutes) it was soon obvious from their actions that the victim was already beyond help.  

Apparently the cyclist was moving across Sussex (which has a bus lane closest to the curb, which becomes a turning lane) to get towards the lane that takes you straight through and was struck by a bus and dragged underneath the front end.  We could see the rear end of the bike under the front tire of the bus. The Ottawa Citizen has a brief report this evening noting it was a female cyclist and the story is that she rode directly into the path of the oncoming bus.

This was probably someone like me, finishing work and looking forward to the ride home.  It could be any of us.  It is very distressing.  Please ride safely, everyone.

Sunday 13 September 2009

Milestones for the Week

It has been a pretty good week as we saw these milestones reached:

1.  On Friday, Ryder (what a great name for a cyclist!) Hesjedal of Team Columbia-HTC becomes the first Canadian to win a stage at the Vuelta a Espana.  Bravo!

2.  Travels with a Tin Donkey saw its 50,000th hit on Saturday.  I have had a lot of fun writing this blog since I began in February 2007 and hope to up the hit-ante with some more good stuff that I have planned.

3.  Although he started 12 minutes after me on the Almonte 40 km time trial course in Calabogie today, Doug van den Ham effortlessly overtook me (as did six others, I think).  This is not really a big deal, but what is impressive is that Doug, who started as the last of 20 participants leaving at one-minute intervals, was the first to arrive at the finish line, having passed all other nineteen participants.  It must be that Specialized Transition he rides...

Friday 11 September 2009

Dick and Nick’s Excellent Adventure: A Book Review

While researching the history of my new-old Raleigh, I came upon a reference to the journey of two cousins, Richard and Nicholas Crane, who wrote a book about riding their Raleigh SBDU bicycles all over Asia in 1986 with minimal baggage.  I recall seeing a British television program about cycling in which someone showed how he would jump on his racing bicycle and ride off to India, with a credit card, some spare change and a sawed-off toothbrush, eating local food and sleeping wherever.  This sounded to me in the spirit of the Cranes so without further ado I found a used copy of their book, which has been out of print for years.

“Journey to the Centre of the Earth” is a wonderful book, firmly in the tradition of the Ripping Yarns/Monty Python/Eccentric Englishmen School of Travel.  Why it is out of print is puzzling as it is well-written, colourful, and quite quite mad.  The Cranes, in various family configurations, had raised a considerable amount of money for the charity Intermediate Technology (IT), now known as Practical Action, through original and ambitious athletic adventures, such as “Running the Himalayas,” and “Bicycles up Kilimanjaro.”  IT works to assist the rural poor in developing countries to work themselves out of poverty using their own skills and local resources.

A year after cycling up Kilimanjaro, the Crane cousins were having a drink at the Hand and Shears pub by the Church of St. Bartholomew the Great (could anything sound more cosily like the Shire?) in January 1986 when the subject of the next expedition came out.  This was to be something ambitious yet again, but lightweight, no support crews and completed in two months.  The key concepts that subsequently emerged were: “dangerous without being suicidal;” “exotic without being obscure;” and “awkward, without being impossible.”  A number of ideas were debated and discarded–my favourite being “Mules from Montana to Minnesota”–until they looked in the Guinness Book of World Records and saw reference to “an as yet unpinpointed spot” that is the land most remote from the open sea in any direction.  The Cranes decided to pinpoint that spot and thus began their Journey to the Centre of the Earth, which was apparently somewhere north of Urumqi, in China’s most western province, the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region.

Of course, flying to Urumqi, a city that had 900,000 inhabitants at the time of the trip (since blossoming to 2.3 million and the scene of ethnic rioting in July) and hitching a ride to the CoE would have been too simple.  The Cranes thought: “If we’re going to the most remote place in the world from the open sea, where do we start?”  The answer, obviously, was at the open sea and since the distance would be far too great to walk it was decided to cycle.  The most direct route was from the Bay of Bengal over the Himalayas, through Nepal and Tibet, and on to the great desserts of Central Asia.  This was provided that the Chinese authorities would allow the expedition to enter Tibet from Nepal and continue onwards, which in 1986 was a pretty major leap of faith.  Of course, since they had not yet plotted where the CoE actually way, the Cranes did not trouble to note on their maps how close it would be to the Russian border.  The plan was to get going on May 1 and complete the trip in 50 days.  Considering what it takes for me to organize a simple group cycling trip to Europe, the idea that they could arrange all this in only four months seems amazing.  Two weeks before their departure, they no bikes, no special clothing, no air tickets, no visas for China and India, no Chinese vocabulary, so they did leave things pretty much to the last minute.

Budgeting £2500 each from their own savings, they relied on donations of equipment.  I was gratified that Raleigh’s support was nicely recognized.  Ten days before departure, they went to Ilkeston where Gerald O’Donovan, the Godfather of the Raleigh Special Bicycle Development Unit (SBDU) and the man behind the frames used in Panasonic’s 1980 Tour de France victory, measured them up and built up a pair of Reynolds 753-tubed frames (similar to my Heron) which were then outfitted with an eclectic parts mix. I began to realize how concerned the Cranes were about weight when I read that neither bicycle had a front derailleur but the rider employed the heel kick-down, finger pick-up technique for switching chainrings.  Throughout the book the Cranes are constantly fiddling with drill bits and knives to reduce weight wherever they can even further.  The book includes Appendices listing all their equipment and there wasn’t much there.  The bicycles, with heavy Specialized 700x35C tires,  each weighed 22 pounds (9.97 kg) and carried an additional 18 pounds (8.3 kg) of gear.

With these few possessions, the intrepid Cranes launched themselves out of Dhaka, Bangladesh and began the long ride north through heavy traffic, drawing huge (and somewhat frightening) crowds whenever they stopped.  By the second day a bit of friction had developed as the Cranes discovered they had different riding styles and outlooks and although there would occasionally be some stressful moments in the relationship on the road ahead they managed impressively well.  The book was written by both of them contributing different sections, with the authorship usually identified.

From the crowded madhouse that is Bangladesh, our travellers crossed into calm India and then rolled into Nepal.  From tropical humidity and heat they moved into the cool dryness of the Himalayas and then onto the desolate Tibetan Plateau, cycling a road that the Chinese had newly built and opened to traffic only a few months before.  On they ride, relating their adventures with boyish enthusiasm.  Although they had a very positive outlook, the Cranes suffered some hardships as they slept in caves, fought their way through snowstorms, suffered from thirst and hunger and still managed to pedal 200 kms on good days, an impressive athletic achievement as often the roads were poor or even non-existent.   They met a variety of people who were almost always helpful, from nomads to truck drivers to road repair crews, and who must have been entertained by these Brits who did not speak any of their language but who instead cavorted and pantomimed their way across some of the world’s most inhospitable terrain, crossing the Gobi, Taklamakan and Dzungarian Deserts in their quixotic quest.
 One hundred kilometres out of Golmud we stopped to gaze in awe at the emptiness.  It seemed unreal that we had crossed such a large distance of totally featureless terrain.  The road was essentially a continual straight.  Though 3,000 metres above sea level, all the way we saw no hills, no mountains and it was hot, dry and flat.  Nick sat on the edge of the tarmac for a rest.  In deference to the enormity of the cosmos, I took a short walk out across the hard-baked salt crust beyond the telegraph wires.  There was nothing between me and eternity.
I will not tell you how the story ends, but leave it to discover for yourself, but by the time they stopped riding their dependable Raleighs (two flats each during the whole trip, and a gear cable that needed replacement after some children fooled with it), they had cycled 5301 km (3293 miles), of which 1473 km (915 miles) was on dirt, and ascended 26,680 m (87,532 feet).  As a foreigner living in China from 1987-1989, I can say that I was surprised by the lack of interference from Chinese officials as they roamed all over the country but in the end even the ever-cheerful Cranes could not escape the long arm of the Public Security Bureau.  But they remained resourceful and independent to the end, although not terribly clean.  Although the Centre of the Earth may not ever become the tourist attraction they thought it might be while planning their trip in London, this book is a testament to the spirit of discovery, not to mention Ilkeston-built Raleighs.

Journey to the Centre of the Earth
by Richard and Nicholas Crane
Bantam Press, 1987
238 pp., ill.
ISBN 0-593-01291-7

As mentioned, the book has not been in print for years but used copies are easily found if you check or  My copy is hardbound but it came out in paperback as well.  The entire book has been scanned (well, one chapter seems to be missing) and can be found on-line here, which is where I also found the photographs.

Tuesday 8 September 2009

Cycling in Gatineau Park

Enjoying the Labour Day holiday, I took advantage of the excellent weather to ride my favourite area circuit in Gatineau Park, just across the provincial boundary in Quebec.  I met up with another cyclist, Michael, on his new Devinci road bike and we proceeded to cruise up the Camp Fortune climb and then on to Champlain Lookout before turning around and heading home.  It is not quite the Alps, but the roads are excellent and at 8:30 on a holiday morning there is not much traffic to speak of.

To give you an idea of the Park, here is a brief video I made in June when I rode with my friend Barry to the Lookout.  As you can see, it is a popular training route for many cyclists around here.

The Great Allegheny Passage, Day 3

Construction begins in Meyersdale at its main intersection...

Getting up early, I decided to take a walk through Meyersdale and scout out locations for breakfast.  Although it describes itself as “the Maple City” and has hosted the Pennsylvania Maple Festival for the last six decades, I have to be honest to say that there was not much going on it downtown Meyersdale at 8:30 on a weekday morning.  It was obvious that business has pretty much bypassed the place because of all the shops I walked by with plate glass windows, not one actually had a store operating in it.  The largest set of windows belonged to the local community promotion association, and featured historical photos of Meyersdale and a presentation on a new project: the replacement of asphalt at the main intersection and installation of a mosaic with a maple leaf in it.  As a Canadian, I thought this was nice but it is unclear if it will mean much in the way of additional tourism in Meyersdale.  Many of the buildings were rather rundown so it will probably take additional investment, but since there are only 2,500 people in the town it is unlikely to find a lot of capital.  During the coal-mining era, Meyersdale was a busier place: in 1910 it had 3,700 inhabitants. 

French toast and excellent coffee

After watching the workmen begin the excavations for the maple leaf plaza, I walked past a likely prospect for breakfast: the Java Café, described to me by the lady who rented us our rooms as “Meyersdale’s Starbucks.”  It looked promising, and I walked back to the Burgess House to round up the rest of the crew.

At the Java Café we enjoyed excellent coffee and French toast before our departure.  The bikes were clean (or at least a lot cleaner than when we arrived!), we were rested and fed so it was time to move on.  Climbing the hill up Main Street towards the trail, we passed an enormous old house that was empty and for sale, the sign indicating it would be a good B&B.  It looked like it could hold a significant part of Meyersdale’s population in its 3,000 square feet (279 sq. m).  Even at only US$ 159,000 there were no takers amongst us.  The house is still available for anyone who wants to get into the house-to-B&B conversion business.  You can check it out here.

 Dr. Chef crosses the Keystone Viaduct

A right turn and we were back on the Great Allegheny Passage trail.  One mile down the road and we came to the Bollman Bridge, an attractive cast iron bridge originally built for the B&O Railway in 1871 to serve as a farm road crossing over the tracks.  It was lifted, disassembled and then moved to its present location on the GAP trail, opening for cyclists in 2007 at its current location at Mile 31.  Of course, the structures get even more impressive as next on the trail is the 900 foot (277 m) long Keystone Viaduct, the subject of extensive repair in 2002-3.  It takes cyclists over both the active CSX railway tracks and Flaugherty Creek.

The trail continued to roll downhill, which it would do for the whole day and soon we came to a little tunnel marked as the Eastern Continental Divide.  It is an unusual geographic feature as there are three watersheds, with water flowing to the St. Laurent River, the Gulf of Mexico and to the Atlantic Ocean.  Prior to 1760, the Divide marked the boundary between French and British colonial possessions in North America.  At this point, we were 2,375 feet (724 m) above sea level, the highest point on our ride.  It would be all downhill from here on in as we began to ride the last 25 miles of the trail to our destination of Cumberland.

Dr. Chef and I rolled on ahead and there before us was the portal marking the most impressive railway structure of all: the Big Savage Tunnel.  I had thought that the Pawpaw Tunnel on the C&O was impressive but it was nothing compared to this!  Built in 1911-12, it cuts through 3,300 feet (1005 m) of mountain rock.  The original construction was difficult due to soft, wet mud and sand near the western portal and even today red sand continues to spill down.  After the rail line was abandoned in 1975, the tunnel, which had required constant maintenance, deteriorated but was saved in the late 1990s when a US$ 12 million restoration project was undertaken.  The tunnel reopened in 2003 and huge steel doors were added at each end in 2004.  These are closed from the first Friday in December to the first Friday in April to prevent damage from freezing and thawing, so the tunnel is not accessible then.

Riding into the lit tunnel was an odd experience.  The roadway seemed smooth and I took out my video camera to try and give an impression of what it was like to ride in the semi-darkness for 3/5ths of a mile.  The exit seemed a long way away.  Of course, Dr. Chef took the opportunity to do some screaming to determine if there was much of an echo in the tunnel.  Of course there was.

We broke out into the morning sunlight and had a fine view of the Allegany County (yes, the spelling is right), Maryland and the surrounding mountains, having only descended 75 feet (23 m) from the Divide.  The morning mountain fog had not lifted but we still had a great feeling for the land around us.  It looked very wild, considering that the area has been settled since the 1770s.  The road ahead beckoned, but now the descent was more definite and we rolled easily along the crushed gravel trail.  Of course, we all had to stop and take photographs and horse around at the boundary line between Pennsylvania and Maryland, the very famous Mason-Dixon Line.

Most people think that the Mason-Dixon Line is somewhere in the Deep South, like Alabama, but in fact it was commissioned to settle a land dispute between the colonies of Pennsylvania, Maryland and Delaware.  A major surveying feat, it was undertaken under the direction of two Englishmen between 1763 and 1767 and continues to be considered the demarcation of a cultural divided between the Northern and Southern United States.

Moving more rapidly, we passed through the Borden Tunnel and, circling the town of Frostburg, we soon were riding alongside the tracks of the Western Maryland Scenic Railway, a steam train tourist line currently under renovation.  The next tunnel, the Brush, sees the GAP trail sharing space with the rail line.  Soon we entered the Narrows, the dramatic cut in the mountains that leads you down into Cumberland (elevation 625 feet (190 m) ASL).  The bike route swiftly took us into the downtown section of this lively town that has changed its coal and railroad past to become a tourism centre, with a lively arts and entertainment district.

We checked in at the Park Service Office to let them know we had returned and were going to get our cars from the parking lot.  We stopped for the obligatory group photo in front of the canal barge mule and muleteer statue and then rode the last short distance to the cars.  During this, the easiest of our three days of cycling, we covered 52. 83 kms (32.8 miles) in 2 hours and 20 minutes of cycling, plus stops for photographs or to allow Dr. Chef to scream.  Surprisingly, we managed to climb 145 m (475 feet) somewhere along the ride but it must have been a foot here and a foot there since it really was a downhill ride.  Even on the crushed gravel and with our panniers, we still hit speeds of over 50 km/h (31 mph).

To celebrate our succesful ride, we went for lunch at the Queen City Creamery, which is arranged to look like a 1940s soda fountain.  We enjoyed grilled cheese sandwiches and milk shakes and the sorts of food that cycling allows you to consume.  Of course, being a trendy and with-it place, the Creamery also offers an Espresso Bar.

Thus it was shortly after lunch that I said goodbye to my friends as we got into our three cars.  To Mrs. Badger this was her first cycletouring experience and she enjoyed it hugely, rain and all.  For Dr. Chef and me, this marked our completion of the entire 335 mile (539 kms) cycleable route from Georgetown in Washington, DC, to the edge of Pittsburgh, an historic Route to the West.  The Badger had also ridden the C&O before, so this made his trip complete but now he will have to ride the canal towpath with the Mrs.  The area around Cumberland is quite beautiful and I willingly admit that I would go back to ride there again and be challenged by the impressive climbs in the Alleghenies.

It is a challenge for any region facing a decline it its major industries--in this case, coal and steel--to find an alternative.  The developers of the Great Allegheny Passage have taken advantage of existing infrastructure and the area's considerable natural beauty to build something unique.  I was encouraged by all the activity around Ohiopyle but it is clear that there is still some way to go since there are not a lot of restaurants along the trail and hotels are scarce.  This means that if you are coming further than on a day trip from Pittsburgh you might have some issues.  There is a lot of competition for tourism money in the world and it would be nice to see places like Meyersdale and Ohiopyle become better-known and more prosperous.

Driving north, I had little traffic on the smaller highways I took.  Unfortunately, I was hoping to find a truck stop where I could have a shower but the best I could do was to clean up somewhat at a convenience store.  The trip went quickly and there was no back-up at the border when I crossed at Buffalo into Fort Erie, Ontario and by early evening I had arrived at my old hometown of Oakville to visit my mother.  Of course, the next day I took out the Marinoni, polished it up again and went for a ride on the Niagara Escarpment in beautiful weather.  You can never pass up a great cycling opportunity, and our discovery of a wild and beautiful corner of the United States was an example of the pleasure that cycling can bring.