Monday, April 27, 2009

The End of the Beer Coaster?

As someone who has cycled throughout Germany and enjoyed many a fine beer after a ride, it was always a requirement to take a souvenir from the Kneipe, or pub, as a keepsake. In a shocking cultural development, Der Spiegel reported on Friday (a mere one day after German National Beer Day) that the largest manufacturer of beer coasters (also called "beer mats," or, in German, "Bierdeckel") has gone bankrupt:

Tough Times for the Humble Beer Mat


Small, beer-soaked and bedecked with all manner of slogans, the humble beer coaster has long been an essential part of a good pub or bar. But with its leading manufacturer now bankrupt, the cardboard institution may be heading for extinction.

For most of us, beer mats are just an insignificant piece of cardboard tucked under our glass of ale. But some have elevated the disposable coaster, which are a common sight in pubs in Britain and Germany, to a lofty status, considering it an art work, a collector's item, building material -- or even a piece of sporting equipment.

The record for beer-mat throwing stands at 38.26 meters (125.5 feet), while the highest beer-mat tower, created from more than 40,000 mats, stood proud at 9.70 meters. Leo Pisker, an Austrian, has an extensive collection of some 150,000 beer mats from around the world.

But now the economic crisis is threatening the beer mat -- and unnerving its fans. The world's biggest beer mat company, Katz Group, has declared itself bankrupt. Tucked away in Weisenbach in the south-west of Germany, Katz Group, which was founded as a sawmill in 1716, had been in the beer mat business since 1903. Katz International Coasters controlled around two-thirds of the European market and 97 percent of the US market.

Worried beer mat fans are asking themselves what the future holds. Over the decades, a whole scene has built up around the cardboard coasters. Some collectors travel to buy, exchange and admire at swap meets held across Germany. Others flaunt their collections on the Internet.

And despite its small surface area, the beer mat has been daubed with everything from political messages to adverts to saucy slogans. "A girl and a little glass of beer cures all woes," reads one, which features a beer mug-toting girl.

The cardboard beer mat made its debut back in 1880. Friedrich Horn, a German printing and board mill company, created small cardboard mats and printed messages on them. Before long, their simple invention had become a firm fixture under beer glasses across the country. Bar keepers liked them as they protected their tables, didn't need washing and didn't cost them anything -- advertisers footed the bill in a bid to reach new customers.

But times have changed. Beer consumption is on the wane and demand for beer mats is also weaker -- so weak, in fact, that the market leader has gone bankrupt.

However, it is hard to imagine that the writing is on the wall for the paper coasters yet. After all, the humble products have kept bars and tables clean for years -- not to mention the special place they occupy in the hearts of aficionados.

jas -- with wire reports

Of course, this may be only a momentary setback, but Der Spiegel has kindly included a slide-show of 41 different coasters to enjoy here.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

A Saturday Randonnée: Exploring the Rideau Lakes Region

A nice Saturday ride...

After finding a Radonneurs Ontario brochure recently, I was intrigued enough to sign up for an early season ride. I have only done one randonnée, as these rides are called, when I did a 200 km ride in Virginia a few years ago which turned into something of an epic since I popped out my shoulder before I even started the ride!

There is a long tradition to the sport of randonneuring, dating back to the beginning of the 20th Century. With bicycles becoming both more reliable and more affordable, cyclists in Europe (notably France) began to undertake longer and longer rides. Labour laws in France were amended to include paid holidays so people who weren’t able to travel much could see the countryside by bicycle. The challenge became to go greater and greater distances. The famous Paris-Brest-Paris ride, which began as a professional race in 1891, has become an event purely for randonneurs who must complete the 1200 km course in 90 hours maximum. In order to qualify to ride P-B-P, which is only held every four years with the next being in 2011, it is necessary for a cyclist to complete 200-300-400-600 km courses before the event. I signed up to do yesterday’s 200 km event with the Ottawa chapter of Randonneurs Ontario.

Randonneurs are not racers and their bikes are set up to be as comfortable as possible to allow completion of the long course. The rules require the bikes have front and rear lights, and you have to have a reflective vest. Peter, the organizer, kindly loaned me a vest, which went into my left jersey pocket and stayed there for the duration. As for lights, I put on a small battery light from the commuting bike onto the Marinoni’s handlebars, and added a little blinky light to one of the rear seatstays, thereby meeting the letter of the rules. This would not be a set-up to illuminate an all-night ride, but since I did not expect to ride in darkness at all it would be find. I also brought along a very small backpack for food and additional gear. I would have preferred to use my handlebar bag but if I would have put it on it would have blocked the light (which I was not planning to use anyway!). For the longer rides, I would probably used my rear rack with one pannier for clothing and supplies. One element of randonneur riding is self-sufficiency.

Our small band of thirteen riders met at Ashton, to the west of Ottawa, and Peter gave us our cue sheets and our route cards. The latter are marked with the time as you get to each of the checkpoints on the course, of which there would be three between the start and finish today. Everyone was very relaxed and at 7:01 we rolled out as a group. The weather was beautiful, and the forecast was for a hot and sunny day. It was also supposed to be a windy day and leaving Ashton we ran into a rather nasty headwind that was to stay with us for half the day.

Very quickly the group divided up. A new rider, Mark, went off the front pretty quickly and we didn’t see him again for the rest of the day. I was riding with Vytas, a fellow OBC time-trialler, Suzanne, whose husband runs an excellent bike/ski shop in Chelsea, and Bob, on a very nice Merlin, who was wearing a Boston-Montreal-Boston jersey (the U.S. equivalent of P-B-P). Rounding out the group was Guy, on a RANS recumbent. We quickly got into a paceline, led by Bob and Vytas, and the flattish farmland soon became hilly as we rapidly reached our first checkpoint at 66 kms at Maberly, having the lady at the Post Office sign our cards.

I rode for a while with Guy and then went at my own pace for a while on the very pleasant winding road to Westport. I could see Bob further back behind me, his yellow jersey very visible in the distance. I enjoy a screaming descent into Westport, and promptly got lost, backtracking and getting onto Highway 42. I caught up with Bob at the Stagecoach Restaurant in Newboro, our second checkpoint and the midway point of the ride, where I ate one of my sandwiches and then enjoyed an excellent cappuccino and a warm blueberry scone. I also turned around my front wheel which I had installed backwards in Ashton–I just did not want to look a the quick release skewer on the wrong side for another 100 kms! Soon after Vytas, Suzanne and Guy rolled in and ordered some lunch.

Bob and I headed out together and rode through some small Ontario towns I had not heard of–Philippsville, Toledo–and one I knew because of its cheese factory, Forfar. I think that there is not much of anything else in Forfar.

We were in good spirits as the weather was fine and the nasty headwind had become a helpful tailwind. Bob was starting to suffer from some cramping so I went on ahead to Merrickville and said I would meet him at the next checkpoint, a coffee shop called Brewed Awakenings.

Merrickville was hopping on Saturday afternoon, with all the little stores and restaurants on the main street doing considerable business. It took three tries for me to find the coffee shop but after I was signed in I had an excellent strong coffee and sat outside to wait for Bob. I was joined by a couple from the area who were interested in our ride; they had an Irish Wolfhound puppy who was the centre of attention for anyone who walked by. After a while Bob joined me at the shop and then we were away for the home stretch, with 38 kms left.

Unfortunately 16 kms into the last leg I started to get some bad cramping myself in my right leg and had to ease off the pace somewhat. It stopped hurting and I was able to get the speed up a bit but then my left leg began to cramp at around 195 kms, to my extreme annoyance. But drinking a lot, taking a big shot of gel and spinning more easily helped. At least until we came to our last turn, onto Flewellyn Road. With around 2.8 kms of riding we discovered we had turned into an absolutely brutal headwind, right on the nose. Progress became painfully slow and it was with a sense of relief that I pulled into the parking lot behind Bob. The time was 3:32 pm.

After getting cleaned up a bit and changed, we headed over to Ashton’s Olde English-style pub to have a beer, relax and wait for the others; Mark had already gone. Everyone eventually turned up and I gave Peter back his vest and the control card before getting in the car and driving the 40 minutes back home, eating my two remaining sandwiches en route.

It had been an excellent day: 203 km in 7:19 of actual riding (with a bit over an hour stopped for coffee breaks and lunch), past nice rural scenery including rolling hills and lakes. The Marinoni, which I have not ridden on a long ride since the Mountains of Misery in May 2006, ran like a clock and was extremely comfortable for the whole distance. Maximum speed was 66.2 km/h!

Monday, April 20, 2009

Tour de Appalachians Day 4: It’s Not About the Bike

With the Banner Elk elk

The final day of our training camp began, sadly, with the departure of the Badger, who had to return to Washington on a family matter. But it was another beautiful morning and after a leisurely breakfast the remaining Lost Boys set out on the road one more time. This course was one that would not even come close to challenging our traditional Bad Navigation Practices, since it merely was a ride down to Banner Elk, where we would turn left and ride up Beech Mountain. At the summit we would just turn around and retrace our steps before packing up and heading out of North Carolina on the long trip home.

Beech Mountain has a special place in the lore of American racing because it was here, on a route previously included in the Tour DuPont, that Lance Armstrong, in his first year back on the bike after his bout with cancer but considering quitting, got back his motivation to race. He was joined by his coach Chris Carmichael and racing buddy Bob Roll for his own training camp. Here is the excerpt from his 2000 book, It’s Not About the Bike.

From then on, all we did was eat, sleep, and ride bikes. Spring had just begun moving up into the mountains, creating a constant fog and drizzle that seemed to muffle the piney woods....Toward the end of the camp, we decided to ride Beech Mountain, Chris knew exactly what he was doing when he suggested it, because there was a time when I owned that mountain. It was a strenuous 5,000 foot climb with a snowcapped summit, and it had been the crucial stage in my two Tour DuPont victories...

We rode and rode through a steady rain, for four hours and then five. By the time we got to the foot of Beech, I’d been on the bike for six hours, drenched. But I lifted myself up out of the saddle and propelled the bike up the incline, leaving Bob Roll behind...I continued upward, and the mountain grew steeper. I hammered down on the pedals, working hard, and felt a small bloom of sweat and satisfaction, a heat under my skin almost like a liquor blush. My body reacted instinctively to the climb. Mindlessly, I rose out of my seat and picked up the pace. Suddenly, Chris pulled up behind me in the follow car, rolled down his window and began driving me on. “Go, go, go!” he yelled. I glanced back at him.. “Allez, Lance, allez, allez!” he yelled. I mashed down on the pedals, heard my breath grow shorter, and I accelerated....That ascent triggered something in me... I was meant for a long, hard climb.

I passed the rest of the trip in a state of near-reverence for those beautiful, peaceful, soulful mountains. The rides were demanding and quiet, and I rode with a pure love of the bike, until Boone began to feel like the Holy Land to me, a place I had come on a pilgrimage. If I ever have serious problems again, I know that I will go back to Boone and find an answer. I got my life back on those rides.
We did not expect any epiphanies of our own on this beautiful Spring day, a decade later, but we were excited about the prospect of riding the same roads. We quickly passed down into Banner Elk and discovered we were on the course of a Sunday road race, with cyclists from regional colleges competing. At the traffic light, the policeman wanted to wave us to the right to stay on the course but we laughed and told him we weren’t competing. Although I did tell him, as I rode by, that although we were not racing we were looking very, very good.

Soon after the 3 mile climb to the top of Beech Mountain began. We passed a Baptist church where the congregation was coming out the door. They waved to us, and Duck called out “Pray for us!” which, since he has ridden Beech Mountain before, should have meant something.

Young Jeff humiliates the guy with the compact crankset
photo by Duck


Although we were neither riding in pouring cold rain nor had been on the road for six hours, the Beech Mountain climb is quite brutal. It was far more difficult that the park road up Mt. Mitchell. I was riding with Young Jeff and our progress was glacial as we rode through the switchbacks, grinding upwards, ever upwards. The valley below us opened up as we kept our pace steady, a difficult task given that there must have been sections of the road with gradients approaching 15%. Eventually we came to the top and in the last little flat stretch we saw Duck with his camera and a there was a big sprint finish, easily won by Young Jeff who had come back to life, fuelled by competition apparently.

Happy to have made it up here
photo by Duck


There is not much to look at on Beech Mountain, altitude 5506 feet (1678 m) which has that same dismal air of most North American ski resorts when it isn’t ski season. The place has a year-round population of only 350, but in winter this swells to 10,000. There are 1,800 residential units, so it is the definition of a resort town. Development had started at Beech Mountain in the mid-1960s, but after building roads, sewers and a lot of houses, the developers went broke in 1974. Property owners took over and eventually the utilities were transferred to public authorities and in 1981 the Town of Beech Mountain was incorporated There was a “Realtor on Duty” sign at one development, in case you wanted to make an impulse purchase. Beech Mountain is the highest town in the United States east of the Mississippi and of course we needed photos with the sign, but we soon turned around and headed back to Banner Elk.

College racers (Lees-McCrae College won the team time trial)

The descent was marvellous, needless to say, and the crawling, eternal climb on the way up was replaced by the kind of high-speed two-wheeled rocket flight that makes you smile for the rest of the day. In the blink of an eye we were past the Baptist Church, and then in downtown Banner Elk. We stopped to take pictures in front of the Banner Elk elk statue, and chatted with some of the college students as they watched the racers go by and cheered them on. Soon, too soon, we made the final climb back up Sugar Mountain. Riding past the golf course I could still see some snow on the ski runs.

Not for flatlanders

The Sugar Mountain to Beech Mountain and Back trip was only 31 km (19.2 miles) , or about what I do on two circuits of my time trial course in Ottawa. But I sure don’t put in nearly 1000 m (970 m, or 3182 feet) of climbing in that distance at home! A worthy challenge, even for an Armstrong.

The greens might be green, but there is still white stuff in the hills

We packed up our stuff, which took lots of time, and helped Duck organize the condo. Soon we were in our cars, headed in different directions. Duck was off to Raleigh, while Tim the Tornado, Young Jeff and I extended our trip together by stopping in Staunton for celebratory burritos and beers at the Baja Bean Company, followed by a brief walk around town. Then they headed to DC, while I was back on Interstate 81, headed northwards. It was a beautiful day, and I drove all the way to Chambersburg with the sunroof open and the Beethoven playing loudly. And thus ended the first Lost Boys Tour de Appalachians Spring Training Camp. There were a few mechanical issues, and some less-than-optimal weather, but it's not really about the bike: with the great company, Duck’s hospitality and a few beers it was all an unqualified success. We all rode well and I for one am motivated to raise my riding to another level higher so that I can take names and kick butt, as they say in North Carolina, next Spring.

Duck and the "Allez, Papa!" sign made by his son







Day 3 of the Tour de Appalachians: Mount Mitchell Calls

On the Blue Ridge Parkway

As a keen amateur cyclist in North America, you will not find all that many rides similar to the legendary parcours of Europe: anyone who wants to ride stretches of the Tour DuPont, a well-regarded pro stage race run in the Mid-Altantic Region of the United States from 1991 to 1996, will have to do their own organization and route-finding. Nothing with the flavour of the amateur versions of the Tour of Flanders or Paris-Roubaix or l’Etape du Tour exists on this side of the Atlantic. The lack of pro routes does not mean there are not some legendary rides. Living in Washington, DC, as I did, meant access to some terrific amateur rides that, over the years, have become well-known as well. I am referring to rides such as the Blue Ridge Extreme, Cheat Mountain Challenge, Mountain Mama and, the hardest of them all, the Mountains of Misery–all of which I have actually ridden. In other parts of the United States you will find the California Death Ride or RAGBRAI or, best of all, the 50 mile Iron Horse Classic in Colorado, which pits cyclists against the Durango-to-Silverton narrow gauge steam train!

Just out of reach from me in Washington are two such rides, both in the Carolinas: Blood, Sweat and Gears, which actually begins in Valle Crucis and circles around Boone, climbing some 13,000 feet. The other ride is the Assault on Mt. Mitchell, which started with some Spartanburg, South Carolina bike club members who decided to ride from the home town to the top of Mt. Mitchell, some 100 miles/160 kms away, and the highest point on the eastern seaboard of the U.S. From those small beginnings in 1975, the Assault has become a must-do for hard-core cyclists but numbers are very limited (750 riders only) and it always sells out: the best way to get a place is to have ridden the course the previous year. The altitude gain is 3425 m (11,237 feet), which is a good ride indeed. The ride is held in May, and it actually is a sort-of-race since transponder chips are used and times taken. You can plot the course for yourself by going here.

With the chance of participating in the Assault pretty well nil for me, I was delighted to discover that Sugar Mountain is not all that far away from Mt. Mitchell. Before coming down for the camp, I persuaded my fellow Lost Boys that we simply had to somehow ride up to the top of Mt. Mitchell since we were so close by. The original plan had been to ride on the morning of Sunday, April 5th and then pack up and leave after lunch. We had planned to do an organized ride put on by the YM/YWCA in a town not far away on Saturday but the weather forecast looked so good for Saturday we opted to ditch the Y ride and go for Mt. Mitchell instead. This turned out to be a very wise idea.

After our usual hearty breakfast, we had some discussion about where to ride from as we would have to drive closer to Mt. Mitchell. We discovered that a section of the Blue Ridge Parkway was actually closed due to a bridge collapse, meaning a 100 mile detour, but it turned out that the road closure was on the other side of the Mt. Mitchell park entrance, on the Asheville side, so we were home-free. Now all we had to do was ride that mountain!

We took two cars and our usual tons of gear and headed off in bright sunshine, taking some smaller highways until we eventually met up with the Blue Ridge Parkway again, following it until we reached Little Switzerland. There was a hotel there, and some small shops still closed for the season. We parked in the big empty lot and got our stuff together for the ride, amid the usual merriment.



Almost ready to leave
photo by Duck

After the obligatory group photo, we headed out into the bright but cold sunshine. There was virtually no traffic on the Parkway and I enjoyed, once again, riding on one of my favourite roads in the world. Fine smooth pavement, little traffic, matchless views that constantly changed, coupled with the feeling that Spring was coming and riding with a really terrific bunch in the clear morning light–what more do you need to justify a training camp like this?



One of three tunnels (except this was a double one) photo by Duck

As we discovered on our first ride on Skyline Drive in Virginia, the Blue Ridge is not flat on top. This means that the road is constantly rising and falling and that a fair amount of the climb to the top of Mt. Mitchell is actually climbing done on the Parkway. We all set a good pace and rolled through the quiet countryside in a great mood–no sign of fog today! There are sections of the Parkway that have barriers that are closed earlier in the year due to the prevalence of fog but there was none of the misty stuff to impede our progress today.

One relaxed kind of rider

It began to get warmer as we kept riding southwards and we pulled over at a scenic overlook to take off armwarmers and have a drink. There we met a bike tourist, riding a Bianchi Volpe triple, and heading northwards. He was a young man who seemed pretty footloose; he had started in Asheville and was just riding northwards. He would eventually stay with some friends in Washington, DC, and then head up the C&O Canal towpath before turning westwards at Cumberland, Maryland and riding the Great Allegheny Passage Trail to Pittsburgh. He wasn’t wearing any cycling-specific clothing, but he didn’t seem to be riding to any kind of timetable either. We wished each other a good ride and the Lost Boys headed back south.

Blue Ridge Scenery, and manly cyclists

We continued to admire the wonderful scenery and the beautiful weather and, before we knew it, the 21 miles or so (34 km) from Little Switzerland to the Mt. Mitchell State Park entrance had passed. The Badger and I let the others go on ahead as we stopped to take some photos. Once we started to ride again, the Badger said a discouraging word and pulled over–he had had his first flat tire of the trip.



While we were doing the mechanical, another rider in a yellow jersey passed by on his way to the summit. The Badger was quite excited because the stranger was riding a Cannondale of similar vintage to his. Tire fixed, we caught up with him pretty quickly and chatted for a while. He had come from Charlotte, North Carolina, and was riding with some friends but they had left this part of the ride for him alone. The Badger and I were feeling pretty good and climbing at a relaxed pace we soon left our friend behind, and passed the ranger headquarters at the park. The initial climb from the Parkway had been moderately steep but now it levelled off a little and we were able to make good time to the top, where the others pretended to have been waiting for hours.




The view from Mt. Mitchell

Mt. Mitchell, at 6,684 feet (2.037 m) is the highest peak in the Appalachians, and the highest mountain in Eastern North America. Until Texas became a state in 1847, Mt. Mitchell was the highest point in the United States. In addition to the State Park, there is Pisgah National Forest protecting the scenic beauty of the area. Unfortunately, the high elevation exposes the plant life to acid rain and the effects of this are quite noticeable.

The Badger attempting to steal the sign...

The mountain was named after a professor from the University of North Carolina who measured it in 1835. Prof. Elisha Mitchell returned 22 years later to verify his figures and tragically fell to his death at nearby Mitchell Falls. Apparently his tomb is at the top of Mt. Mitchell but I did not see any directions to it.



The Lost Boys triumphant
photo by Duck

There is a large parking lot at the top of Mt. Mitchell, but there were only a few cars and some motorcycles, not surprising for this time of the year. We looked around–there is a small natural history museum–and of course had to have pictures taken next to the altitude marker. Then it was a rapid downhill, stopping at the ranger station to refill our water bottles (there is absolutely nowhere to do this all the way from Little Switzerland) and then we zipped back down to the Parkway, thankful for all the heavier clothing that we had brought with us.

Duck and Sprocketboy

The ride back on the Parkway was less easy since we were definitely getting tired. The Badger said at one point: “Well, at least this is the last hill,” which turned out to be quite untrue. On one flying downhill we rocketed past Mr. Volpe, who was chilling out on the grass. But our spirits were good even if our legs were sore and we rolled back into Little Switzerland with a real sense of accomplishment. We had conquered Mt. Mitchell! And it felt like it: 2,259 m (7,411 feet) of climbing over 85.2 kms (53 miles), with a riding time of 4:10. I had a max speed of 68.2 km/h (42.4 mph), which was probably due to tired legs more than the potential of the road!

Today's daunting profile

After the drive back to Sugar Mountain, we quickly got cleaned up and celebrated our last full day of training camp with an Italian dinner at Bella’s, an Italian restaurant just down the mountain (we drove). There was beer a-plenty and I found that I was pretty dehydrated after the ride so I made pretty short work of my first two beers. None of us chose the lasagne as three nights in a row was a bit much but everybody ordered the same thing: a Mediterranean pasta made with black olives and artichokes. Very tasty, and with lots of bread we were well-fortified.

Our well-earned dinner at Bella's

Back at the condo, we watched some historical race DVDs but nobody could really stay awake. Ah, the excitement of training camp!

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Tour de Appalachians: Our Spring Training Camp Continues

Breakfast At Fabio's

Encouraged by our first successful day, we celebrated the start of Day 2 by driving into the metropolis of Newland via the Scary Busy Road and beginning the day with breakfast at Fabio’s Restaurant. This came highly recommended by the Duck, and he indicated that this was a Newland institution. The place looked like a standard Southern greasy spoon restaurant that dated back to the middle years of the last century. What made it different, and probably quite unique in the mountains of the Carolinas, was that the chef and namesake of the restaurant actually came to the area quite recently from Italy. It was not entirely clear to me what Fabio’s origins were, but with a picture of Arosa on the wall and lots of ski memorabilia one can hazard that it was from the North, and that he settled in Newland due to the close proximity of the ski runs in this area.

Hominy Grits with Butter
photo by iirraa, Creative Commons


We didn’t chat since he was busy making our excellent breakfasts. I enjoyed a superior vegetable omelette, and my request for grits set off a small stampede for them at our table. There are few people north of the Mason-Dixon Line, let alone Canadians, who will admit to a fondness for grits: I recall reading an article by a New Yorker once who described grits as “farina dipped in cement.” It is a Southern speciality, since 70% of grits sold in the United States go to that part of the country. For those unfamiliar with it, when you grind corn, the fine grindings become cornmeal while the coarse material is grits. There are a number of mills that still grind grits with stone wheels in the South and these are the best. Every time I cooked stone-ground grits at home, the kitchen smelled like fresh corn. Since polenta is not all that different from grits, I expected that Fabio would have no trouble with grits and they were fine indeed. We finished our breakfast and paid less than we would have for a fast-food breakfast somewhere else in town, and headed back to Sugar Mountain to get ready to ride.

The weather was not looking all that great. The original forecast had been that the morning would be okay and then high winds and rain would follow. It looked like the high winds were already on their way as we collected the masses of gear we needed to get underway. The problem with cycling in such changeable weather is that you want to bring along every possible piece of clothing to deal with adverse weather. Jersey pockets are limited in size so you have to make hard decisions, invariably wrong, on what to bring.

By 11 a.m. we were finally ready to roll but then Tim discovered that his flat tire of the day before had returned to haunt him. There was obviously some piece of foreign matter stuck somewhere and while he fixed the tire we manfully went back inside for another cup of coffee since it was feeling pretty cold outdoors. We eventually got our nerve together, convincing ourselves that since we had come so far to ride ride we would, and once more we made the perilous descent down Sugar Mountain.



The idea of any training camp is to gradually increase the number of hours of riding but to take it pretty easy generally. Our goal had been to do 3 hours on Day 1, and we had clocked about 3:30, and just under 40 miles. Today we wanted to ride for about 4 hours with a bit more mileage. The Duck had to figure out a route that would keep us out of heavy traffic but not take us too far away. Options are limited when you have narrow mountain valley roads, whether in North Carolina or Switzerland. He suggested a route that would take us back through Banner Elk to Valle Crucis again, but then head along some nice roads until we reached the Blue Ridge Parkway. Since the wind was expected to be high, we would ride a road below the Ridge itself, that would take us past Grandfather Mountain and then down to Newland before we would take our much-loved Hickory Nut Gap Road back to Banner Elk and then up the final climb (for which we had now mentally prepared ourselves) to the condo on Sugar Mountain.

This was a good plan but the weather turned it into something epic. There was some very light rain as we rode down the fast descent to Valle Crucis and as the most cautious descender I got to the Mast Store Annex after everyone else. The group took a short break and I went into the store to use the restroom. There were lots of interesting old-timey things for sale and I was hoping that we would return but not on this trip, as it turned out. We now had a very nice stretch of road, taking us along a small river, and going in the general direction of Boone. There were a surprising number of Porsches on the road and Duck explained that you were able to rent them to enjoy the mountain roads. If you couldn’t ride a bicycle, I suppose.

We were enjoying the ride as we passed the Ham House Restaurant, where we turned onto a Scary Busy Road, Highway 105, the main road from Boone to Banner Elk, but we only rode on the shoulder of this for a short distance (and the traffic was not too bad) before we turned left onto Shull’s Mill Road, an absolutely enchanting climb that was to take us from 105 to the Parkway, past a big golf course and then small houses. It is ideal for cycling, with a good surface and nice curves everywhere. Here is what one blogger, a motorcyclist, wrote about one of Duck’s favourite roads:

This is just about the most torturous mountain road in North Carolina, and only snow plows and lunatics drive here in January, but Shull's Mill Road has two things going for it: The 10-mile climb cuts the trip from Valle Crucis to Blowing Rock in half, and it's the driving equivalent of an amusement park ride. True story: in 1982 I was driving a van full of campers down this road when I noticed somebody trying to pass me on the left. It turned out to be the trailer full of canoes that I was towing. Got lucky on THAT one.

We had no such issues to contend with but could enjoy the ride. We would probably have enjoyed the ride more if the visibility had been better. Although we were able to see across some of the valleys, the fog was rolling in and it was getting colder. I was starting to wonder why I had bothered bringing a camera since things looked pretty dreary, between the grey skies and the leafless trees.

Duck, Young Jeff and Tim the Tornado had gone ahead but the Badger and I were taking our time. We soon came up to the sign for the Blue Ridge Parkway, and turned to follow Highway 221. The Duck had thought that we would be sheltered from the wind more on this road. If that was the case, we probably would have been blown off the Parkway as it was pretty wild on 221 already. There was thick fog and a strong strong wind that seemed to blow from constantly-changing directions. We continued to climb but were starting to get pretty cold, in spite of our layers of clothing. The bikes were hard to control in the wind but we pressed on manfully. At one point I told the Badger that I was going to have to eat something soon but there, coming out of the fog, was the Grandfather Mountain Visitor Center, and we went inside to join the others in the dry warmth.

A Bridge to Nowhere...

Grandfather Mountain is a privately-operated tourist attraction which functions as a nature preserve and has been designated as a UNESCO Biosphere. Undeveloped sections of it will shortly become a North Carolina state park. At its highest point it reaches an altitude of 5,964 feet (1818 m), making it the highest peak on the eastern side of the Blue Ridge. It is particularly noted for a suspension footbridge bridge that links two of its peaks (Duck tells me that it has earned its nickname of the “swinging bridge”) and for very high surface winds. When we pulled into the Visitor Center, we found out that the park road had been closed due to high winds, but that was not enough to keep us off the roads below!

After warming up to some degree, we left the Center and immediately were on a major downhill that rapidly took us towards Newland. There was no traffic which made things a bit easier. Unfortunately, we found ourselves on the Scary Busy Road into Newland then, and this was not so much fun. The Tornado and I went up front to lead a paceline and promptly dropped everyone but we regrouped in Newland and Duck took us through some back parking lots to get us onto Hickory Nut Gap Road once again, and we felt we were on familiar ground again.

Actually, the fog was so intense we could barely see anything and everyone rode carefully back to the Lees-McCrae College parking lot. Somewhere en route I had seen a sign that indicated the temperature was only 34F so it was not really the greatest day to ride. But all we had left now was the section of Highway 105 from the College to the base of Sugar Mountain, and then the painful climb up to the top.

Young Jeff’s bike had a mechanical, a problem with his cassette, so the rest of us went up to the condo, and Duck and the Tornado drove back down the hill to rescue our stricken comrade. Our plan had been to go to the nearby Italian restaurant for dinner but we were so wiped out by the ride that we decided to just turn on the oven in order to heat up Lasagne No. 2, prepared by Duck’s wife Janice, so we basically just wanted to eat and not go anywhere. Since the oven in the condo seems to be insincere in its heat indication, we had to revert to some microwaving but the lasagne was great anyway. We do not have a video of us thanking Janice for the food since we were stuffing ourselves but it was wonderful. As were the cookies I could not stop eating.

An Epic Profile

Some more beer and some more cycling videos and by 9:30 we were all pretty well unconscious. So ended our Epic Day 2, with around 94 km (58 miles) of riding in 4:22, with 1,989 meters (6525 feet) of climbing. The wind averaged 48 km/h (30 mph), with gust up to 66 km/h (over 41 mph). The forecast for Day 3 was looking good...

Friday, April 17, 2009

My Latest Book Review at Pezcyclingnews.com: Custom Bicycles

I recently had the opportunity to review a beautiful new book on custom bicycles, and my comments have now appeared here at www.pezcyclingnews.com. Enjoy!

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Following Pat on the Underground Railroad Bicycle Route

A long way to ride--a Reverse Snowbird!

A gentleman from Pensacola, Florida, is cycling the Underground Railroad Bicycle Route from his home to Owen Sound, Ontario. Pat Crawford is the Executive Director of the Pensacola public radio/television station, WUMF, and is raising money to help keep the station on the air and buy programming. He is doing daily updates of his ride, which began on April 7, and he is clearly becoming a serious long-distance cyclist as he can't stop writing about food en route--he was even allowed to spend one night locked in a dairy bar! He does regular telephone calls to a public school to tell the kids about his trip and is posting photos of the trip too.

Firehouse at Harper's Ferry

I was intrigued to learn about the URR trip when the Adventure Cycling Association came up with the route, and I understand it is now one of the organization's most popular trips. Having studied American history in university, I continue to be interested in the history of slavery in the U.S. and its repercussions, which of course extend to the present. Canada was important in the story of the Underground Railroad, although I am not familiar with Owen Sound's role in it. I do know that St. Catherines, Ontario, was a hotbed of abolitionism and that John Brown was there shortly before his raid on the Federal Armory at Harper's Ferry in October 1859. There will be events at Harper's Ferry marking the Raid and its controversial leader. I was last at Harper's Ferry during our wonderful C&O Canal Towpath bike trip in August 2007.

Pat is making very good time, having reached Tennessee already, but he will want to take a break before he crosses into Canada to be sure that he has some insect repellant as he will arrive just in time for the black fly season!

Monday, April 13, 2009

Tour de Appalachians: Our Spring Training Camp

After months of stressful work, I finally was able to take some holidays and headed south down I-81 early on Wednesday morning—really early, as I was on the road by 4:20 a.m. Needless to say there was not a lot of traffic and mine was the only car crossing the border at Hill Island ninety minutes later. The U.S. Customs official asked the usual question after I said I was going to a cycling training camp: “Where's the bike?”. Of course, it was in the trunk, as I explained, but then he asked what kind of bike it was. I guess perhaps I do not starved enough to be a serious cyclist or something so he wanted to test me a bit further. I was all set to explain that I had a Specialized S-Works Tarmac E5, full Dura-Ace with Hutchinson tubeless tires, but I thought that I did not want to spend a lot of time at the border crossing so I just said it was a road bike, which seemed sufficient. He was not very interested in the dozen bottles of fine Canadian beer I was bringing but I knew that there would be folks with some enthusiasm for these down the road.

The drive was long but not very difficult. Getting up was actually the hardest part, and my stomach clearly could not believe that we were travelling so soon after going to bed, so I think I had to stop briefly at every rest stop on the Interstate in New York State to deal with digestive confusion. But once I crossed into Pennsylvania the internal rebellion was over and I gradually worked my way through my large collection of travel CDs, which ranged from two versions of Aaron Copland’s “Appalachian Spring,” to some German poetry to banjo music. There was heavy rain as I approached the Mason-Dixon Line, so having put in 9 hours of driving I made a brief stop near Chambersburg, Pennsylvania and picked up an especially strong espresso (and a pastry) at a Panera Bakery at a new shopping mall. The place was packed with extremely large people who had been eating a lot of Panera pastries, and would never have gotten by the Customs agent if they had claimed there were going to cycling training camp.

Although the pastry tends to be on the really sweet side, I like the Panera chain very much as the food tastes fresh and the ambiance of the stores is quite pleasant. I had planned to have lunch but I had a serious supply of egg salad sandwiches in my cooler and I figured I would just keep eating these on the road. As I got back into the car with my espresso, I saw a Target store and I thought I would stretch my legs and do some quick shopping. I needed some cotton dress shirts and an article in the Wall Street Journal had tested various ones and the Target shirts, the cheapest in the article, came out very well. I had only been in one Target before and I have the impression that all of the stores are huge. It took some hiking to get to the clothing section, where I quickly found four shirts. I then looked at the electronics section and found one of the Flip Mino miniature video cameras I had read about. It was on sale and, in an extremely rare-for-me burst of impulse shopping, I bought it too.

Back into the car, I continued south on I-81 until I reached Staunton, Virginia, a familiar place. A quick stop for gas did not turn out to be quite as quick as I had hoped since I discovered that my credit card could not be used! Back in Montreal, the Royal Bank of Canada was carefully watching my expenditures and saw that someone using my credit card had bought gas in Pennsylvania and then loaded up on stuff at Target to the tune of $250. Alarm bells went off but a lengthy telephone discussion, covering all my financial dealings with the bank in the last, oh, six months, convinced them that it really was me buying all those shirts and gas so I was not left stranded in Staunton.

The rain had stopped soon after entering Virginia and it was a pleasant late afternoon as I drove by the places where I had cycled so often, including Staunton, Natural Bridge, wretched Troutville (surely the least attractive place in the Shenandoah Valley), Roanoke and Christiansburg, gateway to the Mountains of Misery ride. But after this it was Terra Incognita for me as I had never driven so far south down I-81. Although there was some traffic from Roanoke to Christiansburg, it soon petered out and I could look around. There was a sign for Tyler Auto Body, “serving the Lord and you!,” although I could not understand why an omnipotent deity could not do His own repairs, and a big sign for the Draper Valley Pentecostal Holiness Church, differentiating itself from the non-holy churches, and trying to attract custom from the golfers at the nice golf estate next door. As I headed south the scenery was similar, with gentle rolling hills and the Blue Ridge off to the east, but the grass was a bit greener and I saw more trees in flower, something that Ottawa will not boast for weeks. It was warming up and I drove with the sunroof open.

Leaving the Interstate, I drove through downtown Wytheville, Virginia, and soon found myself on the complicated route provided by Mr. Google, travelling tiny roads through the hills, scenery that reminded me of the drive to West Virginia for the Cheat Mountain Challenge last year. I had all the windows open now and the banjo music was playing in the amber light of the early evening. The road was quite challenging to drive quickly and it prevented me from feeling tired. The hills had, in many places, been denuded of native trees (once all hardwoods, I think) and instead vast numbers of Christmas trees had been planted. I guess they have to come from somewhere besides Nova Scotia, but given the hardscrabble nature of farming on the Virginia/North Carolina border, I suppose tree farming makes sense.

After driving for several hours, I finally came to Boone, a North Carolina college town and knew I did not have far to go. One final fill-up, and I was on the road for the last 17 mile stretch to Sugar Mountain. I noticed that the road was climbing pretty steadily and once I was in Sugar Mountain I saw that it started going up pretty seriously. The Duck had given detailed directions to the condo and I was impressed with the brutal 3 mile climb we were going to have to do after each day’s ride as I searched out the unit. I was able to find it surprisingly quickly, perhaps because the Duck’s son had prepared a welcoming banner on the door, which said: “Allez, Papa!,” and featured drawings of our racing bikes.

I had the last of my egg salad sandwiches and relaxed with Duck after my 17 hours on the road, and the others soon made their way in. It was more difficult to find the place in the dark but soon we were all accounted-for, the beer was in the fridge and we were presented with our special custom-made Tour de Appalachians t-shirts! Excellent. Soon it was time to turn in and I was feeling pretty tired by this time.

Day 1: Training Camp Begins!

This was my first time in a ski resort condo and after looking at the place I fear it will spoil me for cycling trips in the future. It was very comfortable, with three bedrooms, a nice-sized kitchen and a giant dining room/living room that was two stories high. There was a balcony and a great view of the mountains outside.

Actually, on the first day the view was not all that great. There was some light rain and our start was delayed a bit as we waited for things to clear up a bit. Duck had said that we might be joined by woman cyclist from the area, news we received with some trepidation: female company might raise the tenor of our society but a local cyclist would humiliate us on these climbs. As it turned out, she did not like to ride in rain and begged off but, being Men of Iron, we suited up. Of course, this was after telling each other how little we had ridden for the year. You never hear a cyclist say: “Why, yes, I have trained a lot this year and am quite prepared to hammer over the biggest mountains.” It is always: “Well, I didn’t get out on the road much,” or “Work has been pretty heavy,” “I never got a chance to overhaul the bike.” In my case, I felt pretty good thanks to all the time at the Tour de Basement, but was concerned that my measly four short road rides had included no discernible climbing. On the other hand, the Badger had gotten married four days earlier and I am sure that there was lots happening in his life beyond cycling, as was also the case of Young Jeff, who claimed not to have exercised, let alone ridden, since Cheat Mountain last August. The Duck rides regularly to maintain his sylph-like figure, while Tim the Tornado has been churning out frightening Big Power in his own Tour de Basement. We enjoyed oatmeal and bagels and peanut butter and had some hot drinks as the weather cleared, a bit.

Avery County Courthouse, Newland, NC
photo by jimmywayne22, Creative Commons


Our ride began with the 3 mile descent out of Sugar Mountain down some very steep-pitched curves that took us past the golf course and dumped us on the rather narrow and quite busy Highway 184, taking us in the direction of Banner Elk. We rode swiftly in single file and just before we reached the town we turned left onto Hickory Nut Gap Road. Meandering past Lees-McRae College (apparently enjoying the highest elevation of any U.S. college east of the Mississippi), and the Banner House Museum (home of one of the earliest settlers of Banner Elk) we found ourselves on a marvellous quiet road that twisted and turned and carried us through yet more Christmas tree farms. This road has been part of the Blood, Sweat and Gears century ride, as well as a feature of the pro Tour DuPont race. There was lots of climbing and descending to entertain us and before we knew it we reached the small town of Newland, the county seat of Avery County, with an impressive courthouse built in 1913.

We were so impressed by Hickory Nut Gap Road that we turned around and rode back over it. We stopped briefly at the athletic facility at Lees-McRae College. There was a big trailer there belonging to the cycling team. Lees-McRae, a tiny college with 882 students, is a major collegiate force in cycling and has won a number of national titles in road racing and mountain biking, as indicated on the trailer. Impressive but if the roads we were riding were any indication, anybody cycling here would be trained up pretty quickly!

We turned right at the stop light onto Highway 194 and began the ride towards Valle Crucis. There was a brief climb and when we crossed into Watauga County the road began to rapidly descend, giving us an exhilarating ride into Valle Crucis. We rode past an old stone church which looked like something out of the Old World (built in 1925, it was actually modelled after a Welsh monastery) and soon found ourselves taking a break in front of the Annex of the Mast General Store. This is an institution in the area, dating back to 1913 and in family hands until 1973. It served not only as a general store but as a kind of community center and now employee-owned it has shown that selling candy is always good business: the operation has now expanded to include nine locations.

Here's something you don't see at Target:



What goes down must go up as well and I was a bit concerned about all the climbing we were doing on the first day of our camp. Nonetheless, I felt good on the long climb back up to the county line. Tim the Tornado decided to take a break at the community garbage depot on the way up, suffering from the first flat tire of the trip.

Day 1 Profile

Back together, we rolled through Banner Elk and then began the long ascent of Sugar Mountain. I stopped to take off my rain jacket and then found that my climbing was actually quite good as I was able to maintain a steady pace on the road. There are some quite brutally steep sections and I was worried I might cramp up after all the climbing we had already done but I arrived back at the condo mid-pack and in good spirits.

No rain to speak of, great scenery and good fun: Day 1 of the Tour de Appalachians was a huge success. We celebrated with beer and homemade lasagne, courtesy of Ralph’s new bride, Kim, which was most welcome. Thank you, Kim!


After watching some cycling DVDs, we turned in and slept very soundly indeed.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

My 2009 Racing Season Begins!

Dreadnought 2: My Latest Time Trial Weapon of Choice

Today was the Ottawa Bicycle Club’s traditional Good Friday time trial. I did not ride it last year as Good Friday was about two weeks earlier and there was an ice storm. Today we had sunny weather but a goodly amount of wind (about 20 km/h, or 12.4 mph, from the west, meaning the usual headwind on the inbound leg).

Warren MacDonald, going very, very fast
photo by Jules Gagnon


To my amazement, about 90 people showed up to register! Needless to say, this delayed everything so I got to spend a looooong time warming up--nearly two hours, in fact. We had to indicated what our expected time would be for seeding, and I felt pretty ambitious and went for 24:00. Somebody later told me that everyone was adding at least two minutes to their best times from last season to compensate for the cold (and believe me, it was COLD at 5C (41F), which was closer to 1C/33F with the windchill!), the wind and the fact that it is so early in the season. And that is how I found myself as Rider 49A, with 77 riders ahead of me, and positioned with the scary-fast guys at the back. I figured that I was going to get shelled by the Serious Racers blasting past. One of the participants was the Canadian 15 km record-holder, Warren MacDonald, on his brand new Specialized Transition.

Outward Bound, and looking pretty bundled up for a race
photo by Gilles


As this was my first time at speed, or even on the road, with the new
Leader, I was hoping to really test my position on the new frame and not worry too much about getting overtaken. Actually, I was more concerned about cramping as my workouts have fallen to zero since I returned from North Carolina, much to my extreme annoyance. The drive back was pretty tiring, work has been dumped on me in greater quantities than ever and my wife kindly gave me her cold, but in a milder version that I have fought off. We actually had two days of snow when I came back, which kind of killed my holiday mood.

Riding with my Race Face
photo by Gilles


Anyway, I had a very fast start on the time trial since the smaller frame seems to let me accelerate very quickly. My heart rate hit 174 bpm and I was onto the bars pretty fast, with a top speed of just under 48 km/h (29.8 mph). I am definitely a lot lower and the first part of the course went pretty well although I was having some trouble keeping my breathing under control. I almost caught my 30 second man at the turnaround but then things became a lot more difficult as I hit the headwind and my legs started to ache (although thankfully there was no sign of cramping). It was getting pretty painful but I managed to actually accelerate back up to 37-38 km/h (23-23.6 mph) a few times but by the time I crossed the line (after being passed by only two other riders) I was having trouble holding a paltry 35 km/h (21.7 mph). I did not quite make the 24 minutes, hitting 24:34. Which is, in fact, about two minutes different than my best time last year.

Fighting the headwind coming back
photo by Gilles


Although I think I was beaten by the 71 year old German again, I am pretty pleased with how things went. The new frame is really good but I think I have to raise the seat up and move it back a bit as well. I was getting a sore neck and shoulders so I was not as relaxed as usual and/or I have to get used to the new frame. My legs are pretty sore now (four hours later) but given that I had only four rides outdoors before I went to North Carolina for four days of climbing, I should not be surprised. By the time May comes around my legs will be a lot better and I should get to my next goal of 40 km/h early in the season. I want to get below 22 minutes by the time summer comes.

Lookit that cable travel!

The Latest Tin Donkey: since Dreadnought 2 has finally come out of the basement and been raced for real, I thought it a good time to take some photos of the new bike, which is actually only a new frame since all the tasty parts from Dreadnought 1 were transplanted. I particularly like the way the cables go into the frame, both in the top tube and at the bottom bracket. It looks pretty evil, I think. And although it is probably faster than the old frame, Dreadnought 2 is just as stiff as the first version, particularly with 140 psi in the tires. I am excited about getting a whole lot faster this year--if my legs stop hurting, that is.

Tuesday, April 14th Update:

The Official Results for the Good Friday time trial have been posted and even with my badly-adjusted bike on the road for the first time ever I finished 4th out of 16 in my age group with 24:35, and 29th out of 99 (!) in all categories. The top rider in our group was 90 seconds ahead of me, and 9th overall. The two 70 year olds both beat me! Two of them! Well, at least I cleaned the clock of the guy who just turned 81. I could train a lot better if I was retired, I guess.

As usual, there was a bit of a gap between the first three in my group, and the fourth position (me, for the first time). The hyper-fast guy in our age group did not ride on Friday. The Canadian record holder rode the course in 19:40 (avg. 45.76 km/h) which astonishes me for a cold windy day in early April and must surely be attributed to that new Specialized Transition of his.

Next:

a) I want to beat the 70 year olds, so I need to get my time under 24 minutes pretty fast.

b) My next targets will be beating the two riders who finished directly ahead of me in my age group. I have checked their best times in 2008 compared to mine and they are within reach. Grr.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Paris-Roubaix Weekend

The most brutal of the Classics races takes place on Sunday with the latest installment of Paris-Roubaix. During our North Carolina training camp we enjoyed watching "the Road to Roubaix" (review to follow soon), a DVD produced by a group in Virginia. As part of my Cycling Fan Rituals today, I also watched this short promotional video from Specialized showing Fabian Cancellara of the Saxo Bank team with two colleagues checking out the course on a miserable rainy day in January. Watch how fast he rides the perfectly hideous Arenberg section.

The actual race itself has not been taken place during rain for a few years--but who can forget when mud-soaked Servais Knaven crossed the finish line in the velodrome?--so this video is a good ideal of what things looked like in the Bad Old Days:



If you are not familiar with this extremely hard and quite legendary race, I would suggest the book I reviewed in October 2007 here. There is a cyclo-touriste version of the race held in September and I would be tempted to do it for the keepsake cobblestone you get at the end but the 50 kms for cobbles you have to ride gives me pause. Fabian will get a new Specialized Roubaix if his breaks, but I don't think I could subject my Tarmac to this kind of punishment. Or myself...

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

GM and Segway Announce the Vehicle of the Future!

Is this the Chevrolet Corvette of tomorrow?

When I saw the headline to this article in BusinessWeek, I thought that it was an April Fool's Day leftover but in fact it is the Real Thing. General Motors, which appears to be in the midst of gently persuading the world that bankruptcy may be a reasonable management direction for itself, has teamed with Segway, builders of the world's most innovative yet overpriced and useless scooter, to develop a two-wheeled urban vehicle, code-named PUMA, for Personal Urban Mobility and Accessiblity. A concept only at the moment, the 300 pound vehicle would run on dual electric motors powered by lithium-ion batteries, reaching 35 mph (56 km/h) top speed and having a range of 35 miles. It appears to be a Super Segway but what is quite startling is that the PUMA concept includes electronics designed to keep these things from crashing into each other, and into pedestrians. The GM VP in charge claims that no airbags or other safety features would be needed--I guess this presupposes that there will be no Hummers or other GM cars on the road when this comes to pass. Given the state of GM's present finances, this might be a likely scenario anyway.



On the other hand, if we did get rid of all the dangerous and threatening traditional cars, we could just simply ride our bikes safely--BlackAdder, my commuting bicycle, can probably carry more shopping than the GM/Segway vehicle pictured while using up less material resources to build and not need any kind of battery. On the other hand, due to its poor-quality Sprocketboy engine, it is not terribly fast, so what we really need is the revival of the Vector HPV.

Vector HPV
photo by Jeff Wills


This was the first human-powered vehicle to reach speeds of over 60 mph (96.56 km/h) and versions of it were used for racing in the 1980s. I remember reading a copy of Scientific American from those days and thinking this was the coolest thing ever--a bullet-shaped tricycle! Of course, the obvious drawback is that you would be flattened by a car pretty fast if you were zooming along the open road at full speed. Secondly, at full speed you would be melting under that canopy. A few of them were apparently offered for sale at some for-the-times startling prices but with today's carbon-fibre technology it should be easier to build a fairing than it was then. And perhaps solar collectors would allow for a powered ventilation system to keep you from exploding with heat. You can read more about it on Jeff Wills' page here, and as well you can look at the original 1983 patent for the Vector.

The Tandem Vector was even more amazing. In 1980 two riders did a demonstration of energy efficiency and took the two-seater on California's Interstate 5 highway. They rode 42 miles (80.78 kms), averaging 50.5 mph (81.27 km/h) . Without lithium-ion batteries either...perhaps GM and Segway could just invest in raising U.S. fitness levels, improving the roads and then building Vectors for us to ride in. This would be worth a bail-out package, in my opinion.

The Lost Boys Tour de Appalachians

I have returned safe and sound from my short training camp at Sugar Mountain, North Carolina. I have acquired a miniature video camera so there will be some action shots here at Travels with a Tin Donkey. A detailed account of the trip will be on-line in the next few days, but until then here is the Duck coming up the Blue Ridge Parkway as we begin our DIY Assault on Mt. Mitchell on a glorious Spring day.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

End of the Month Update

It has been incredibly busy at work, and my training program has not gone according to schedule for the last week. In spite of that, I managed to accomplish a few things: a new book review will appear on www.pezcyclingnews.com on April 3; I managed to get out on the Ancient but Honourable Bianchi for two hours on the Eastern Parkway on Saturday, but my plans to do so on Sunday were wrecked by terrible rainy weather, so it was back to the spinning class for an excellent workout. And I managed to get rid of BlackAdder's annoying squeak.

Any cyclist will tell you that one of the most frustrating things about bikes is how they seem to squeak without rhyme or reason, completely wrecking the Zen of your ride (as the hipsters put it). Last year BlackAdder started to squeak, with the noise coming from the right crankarm area. I cleaned and lubricated everything--still squeaked. I checked my cleats and tightened bolts everywhere. Nothing. Finally, I had the guys at the shop pull out the bottom bracket, clean and grease everything and put it back together. Still no luck.

While riding home on Friday and being driven nuts by the noise, I realized after listening carefully that it was only at the bottom of the pedal stroke that it would squeak. I pushed hard on the left pedal and no sound came from the right; I soft-pedalled on the left and as I pushed hard on the right pedal there was the noise. So on Saturday I pulled off the pedal and looked at it. Sure enough, no grease to be seen. This was rectified and as I got back on for a test ride I was thinking that there were no more options and I would have to just live with this. But--by Jens!--there was no squeaking. Hooray! For someone who has difficulty getting the tools out of the packaging from the store, let alone using them, this was a major thing.

Speaking of Jens!, Herr Voigt won the Criterium International for the fourth time this weekend, equalling the record of Raymond Poulidor. That is a good thing, as fans of pro cycling profess deep admiration for Jens! and his fighting spirit. Jim, the Unholy Rouleur, commented about Jens! this week at BikeSnobNYC in these words:

Key facts about Jens:

- Jens Voigt doesn't fear pain; pain fears Jens.

- Jens Voigt dropped himself once, just to show that, at least in theory, it is possible to drop Jens Voigt. Nobody else has repeated the feat.

- Jens Voigt is only good at two things in road cycling: attacking, and everything else.

- The hardest substance found in nature is Jens Voigt's heart.

- Jens Voigt's will is a good substitute for an anvil, in a pinch.

- Jens Voigt once won a martial arts showdown... against China.

- Lance Armstrong's girlfriend got pregnant by just watching Jens Voigt race on Versus.

- In the original Book of the Apocalypse, the end of the world was denoted by Jens Voigt on a pale bike, but they changed it to four horsemen named Conquest, War, Famine, and Death to make it sound less terrifying.

Well said, Jim!

It is the end of March, which means two things: first of all, I will leave at a ridiculously early time tomorrow and head down across the border and down I-81 to Banner Elk, North Carolina, where I will happily participate in a four day DIY training camp with the Badger, the Duck, the Tornado and Young Jeff. We will ride up massive cliffs, drink copious amounts of beer and feel Jens!-like, with any luck. Of course, this depends on my fitness level, which takes me to my monthly summary of my New Year's Resolutions.

My weight has continued to drop and I am now hovering just above 75 kg, which I said in January that I intended to reach in June. Two months early, but I'll take it. Except for this past week I was able to stick to my training schedule and even managed four rides on the racing bike on the road. I managed, somehow, to do 40 consecutive pushups and have increased my reverse chin-ups to 14. Ski season is pretty well over, so not much I can do in this direction now.

In April, I can look forward to the training camp and finally getting Dreadnought 2 onto the road in preparation for the traditional Good Friday Time Trial, on April 10 this year. I have a netbook computer now and hope to do some posting from North Carolina if I find an internet connection (apparently the local Chamber of Commerce offers free Wi-Fi). It might just be photos of guys drinking beer, though...