Saturday, October 31, 2009

The Lost Boys Tour of Europe 2009: On to Italy and the Mendelpass and Gampenpass


Strudel time!
(photo by Patrick Dominic)

On August 8, we got up insanely early and prepared to leave Rosenheim. The plan was to ride our bicycles to the nearby train station, and have our luggage sent over with a taxi van. There was a bit of panic when the van we ordered did not show up, but luckily there was one parked down the street waiting for clientele so it worked out fine.

It was not clear where we were supposed to meet our big tour bus and we were on the wrong side of the station when he came. Although the driver was very nice, he was surprised that we had come with our bicycles. I had organized this months in advance, so I was a bit annoyed. But there was plenty of room and after removing our front wheels and seatposts ten bicycles were nicely arranged. We got into the large, comfortable bus and headed out of Rosenheim. It was just after 6:30 a.m.

The bus we were using was actually a tour bus that takes people to Bolzano every Saturday for sightseeing and shopping, so all the other passengers were locals. Of course, this being Germany, the bus driver (who was actually very nice) had to apologize as he picked up passengers because he was five minutes late (thanks to us, of course). But soon enough everyone was picked up and we were soon on the autobahn heading south. Everyone settled in and half the group fell asleep.

This was unfortunate as our route was absolutely spectacular. Leaving Germany, we entered Austria at Kufstein and continued along the A13 highway, climbing steadily. Our driver, Ricci, gave a running commentary on the countryside. We passing Innsbruck, host to the Winter Olympics in 1964 and 1976, and I was surprised how built up the Inn Valley looked here. The city has only 117, 000 inhabitants but looks quite urban, albeit surrounded by stunning alpine scenery. Another 30 kms along the highway and we came to the Brenner Pass, marking our entry into Italy. The pass crests at 1375 m ASL.

The drive then took us past Brixen, descending on the A22 and on into Bolzano which, surprisingly, is only at 262 m altitude. The bus took us into a large underground parking garage and we unpacked our bikes and prepared to discover Südtirol, or the Alto Aldige as it is known in Italian. The first trick was to get from the bus station, which was connected to the main train station, to our hostel. One of our group, Mariette, met us with a car and Dr. Chef and I drove over to the hostel with some of the baggage but due to construction and the fact we were not sure where we were going we ended up taking a major tour of Bolzano. In fact, the hostel was just further down the street the railway station was on so in the end everyone walked over. Five in our party had accommodations elsewhere in Bolzano but they were not far away.

The hostel, unlike those I remember from cyclingtouring in Europe in the 1970s, was a modern building with all kinds of useful facilities, including laundry. All of the rooms had ensuite showers and three in our group had single rooms. The large room for four that three of us shared was really nice, with a huge balcony and lots of space for our gear and even desks where we could write. The furniture was kind of IKEA-ish, simple but clean-looking. There was a breakfast room in the basement of the hostel and a large courtyard where we were able to keep the bikes. Internet access was available and there was even a vending machine that provided espresso. It was quite comfortable, conveniently situated and very reasonably-priced. Unfortunately, the single rooms faced out onto the main street and the railway, so there was noise since without airconditioning you really couldn’t close the windows. Our room was quite as it overlooked the courtyard and some apartment buildings beyond.

On this trip, we had been fortunate in having excellent weather but here in the valley surrounded by mountains we found that the climate was very changeable. It was hot when we arrived in Bolzano but soon after arriving in the hostel and sorting out our gear it began to rain. I had not planned to go cycling anyway but wanted to want around in the city, and we proceeded to do this.


Bolzano (known as Bozen in German) is a city of around 100,000 people that is considered, after nearby Trento, as the city with the highest quality of life in Italy. It is the biggest city in Südtirol, the only province of Italy that is official bilingual. Originally part of the Austro-Hungarian empire, Südtirol was split off from its northern half (still called Tirol, in Austria) after World War One and given to Italy by the victorious Allies. In the 1920s, Mussolini brought in a large number of Italian-speakers to settle and dominate this overwhelmingly German-speaking region and this was to have repercussions over the years, including home-grown terrorist attacks, until Südtirol was made it an autonomous region and both German and Italian were made official languages with equal standing. Apparently the Dalai Lama has visited the area several times, considering it as a possible model for a Tibetan province inside China. The cities of Merano and Bolzano are where most of the Italian-speakers are (73 percent of the population, in the case of the latter), while German-speakers are represented by the population in the more rural areas. As a German-speaker myself, I lean towards the German usage but will use both place names in describing our adventures. But not always, as it is kind of unwieldy.


Bolzano is probably not a big tourist attraction on its own although it has very nice architecture and a huge main square, named after the medieval German lyric poet, Walther von der Vogelweide, a famed Minnesinger who, as far as my research has taken me, does not seem to have had anything particular to do with Bolzano. He does, however, have an excellent statue on the Walthersplatz, surrounded by excellent cafés. I have looked up some of his poetry which is written in archaic German but quite lovely. I am curious whether the famous avenue in Berlin, “Unter den Linden,” actually derives it name from his poem of the same title and the linden trees were planted there for this reason. He flourished from c. 1170-1230.

Anyway, we reached the Waltherplatz after only a five minute walk from the hostel. The square is dominated by a massive cathedral, and ringed by the aforementioned cafés and restaurants. Walking further into the heart of the old town, we found ourselves in the Lauben, a medieval arcade section which now houses expensive shops. Of course, we had little choice but to stop for gelato, finding what our strongest rider, Zeezu, would name “the House of Infinite Choice,” a gelateria with flavours of ice cream I never knew existed. Some days we were to hit it several times, since cycling lets you eat anything you want.

I had contacted a fellow www.pezycyclingnews.com author, Corey, who lives in Bolzano about going for a ride and I called from the hostel and confirmed arrangements with him for the next day. I had discussed rides we could get to easily from the hostel and agreed that we would head out to the Passo di Mendola/Mendelpass.


Sunday, August 9 was another fine day, although a bit overcast. Corey, wearing his excellent Pez jersey so I could identify him right away, was exactly on time and eventually our group, a dozen strong, was ready to roll–not always the easiest thing to do! Most of us were wearing our beautiful Lost Boys 2009 jerseys, with the Bolzano-Gries poster design on the back. Corey led us at a good pace right through the streets of the old town, and it was good he was leading as I became almost immediately disoriented. Soon we were zooming down some astonishingly good bike paths, broad and well-marked. Bolzano sits at the confluence of the Adige/Etsch and Isarco/Eisack Rivers and the bike routes, with their own bridges, pass back and forth over them. The paths were well-used, judging from the number of cyclists already out on this Sunday morning.


There were some nice little climbs as we made our way to the crossroads of Appiano/Eppan, and with a right turn things started to get serious. As is typical of all climbs, our group broke up into different little units as everyone rode at their own pace. I knew that we would have a week of great climbing and I did not want to blow up on the first pass on the first day. Of course, it was also necessary to stop for photographs, a major part of any trip I take. After the first few turns, we had an excellent view of a small lake, the Kalterer See, below us.


With its summit at only 1363 m (4471 feet), the Mendelpass is open year-round but since the road has a lot of hairpins and is pretty tight in places, trailers are not allowed on it. There are impressive cliffs overhanging the road, and apparently these are rather unstable and major work was undertaken in 2005 to prevent rockslides. At various points I saw long section of gabions holding back the rock. The road was built between 1880 and 1885. There was a fair amount of traffic but drivers usually passed us with room to spare as cyclists are not an unfamiliar sight in this part of the world.



I had a very pleasant climb riding alongside the oldest member of our group. Janice is 67 and she is an impressively strong cyclist, thanks to all those rides in the mountains of Virginia and Maryland she has done. During the trip she never shied away from a challenge and was an example to us all. We cruised up the pass at a steady pace, except when I popped up the road for a photo, and we were joined also by Terry, another older but strong rider. The pass is 14.8 kms (9.2 miles), with a gain of 958 m (3143 feet). Although the steepest section is 12 percent, the average grade is a reasonable 6.5 percent.


The Sprocketboy and Dr. Chef excited by yet more food
(photo by Patrick Dominic)

Reaching the top of the pass, we quickly found the others who had arrived before us already digging into the strudel (a leitmotif of this trip!) and enjoying their cappucini. Everyone was in high spirits as the weather had cooperated, we had had an excellent climb, and in the busy restaurant we could stuff ourselves with giant pieces of cake. This is what holidays are about.

With everyone eventually together again, we posed in front of the pass sign for the obligatory col photo. I chatted with a group of German mountain bikers and we took a group photo of them after they had done one for us. Corey, who had been an invaluable guide as well as excellent company, turned back for Bolzano at this point and on we went.


Zipping up the windvest and putting on the armwarmers and long-fingered gloves, I was ready for the next stretch. We had a reasonably quick descent that took us to Fondo, where our next pass began.

The Passo della Palade/Gampenpass is also open all year and the grade from Fondo is a pretty easy 4.1 percent average. The pass is 13 kms (8.1 miles) long, reaching an altitude of 1518 m (4980 feet), giving an altitude gain of 538 m (1738 feet). The road is pretty straight, taking you through some dense forest and with views of impressive gorges.

At the top of the pass we assembled for our group photo and then began the long and exhilarating descent back to the Etsch Valley far below. The road was excellent and I enjoyed the views, stopping for more photos. The faster riders actually ran into a bit of rain on the descent but except for a few droplets I had no issues. Except for the fact that it was here that my camera batteries decided that they had done enough for me.


Down, down, down the road went and soon (much too soon) we were at our crossroads near Tesimo/Tisnes. The scenery was spectacular, with orchards and vineyards as far as the eye could see, old castles and flower-bedecked (overwhelmed, in some places) villages. At one of the villages, Nals, we arrived just in time for the local fire department festival and of course this meant we had to stop and enjoy the accordion music, the draft beer and the rustic food. I got to indulge my love of chanterelles yet again, this time with polenta. Listening to accordion music at long tables, drinking our beer and enjoying the brilliant sunshine–I could not have planned it better.


A Dirndl Girl with Weisswurst
(photo by Enrique)

We swiftly rolled back on the excellent bike path that parallels the Etsch and found our way back to Bolzano, getting lost on the outskirts of town (a theme to be repeated for the remainder of the week). Our first cycling day in Italy (nearly 84 kms/52.2 miles) had gone well and we celebrated at a rustic restaurant featuring local Südtirol specialities.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

The Compleat Tour de Basement (Part 6): Doing the Italian Job

We are living in an age of great richness when it comes to what we can watch on DVD as we are exiled to the Tour de Basement, riding our trainers.  There are videos that show us indoor training classes, videos that take us outside for training sessions, and others that just show scenery or help us stretch or strengthen our mental fortitude.  Into this mix comes a series of very interesting DVDs from Cyclefilm, based in the United Kingdom and yesterday I enjoyed watching two of their DVDs while training at home.

A Gran Fondo, or cyclosportive, is an organized, long-distance, mass participation cycling event, generally held annually.  A route would not only be lengthy but include challenges such as hard climbs or cobbles.  It generally has food stops enroute and a time limit for participants.  Although technically not a race, riders have numbers and often finishing times are taken.  The fastest riders do in fact ride them as a race and although directed at amateurs, these events have seen their share of pros, both active and retired, participate.  Among the most famous are l’Etape du Tour, which began in 1993 and traces one stage of the Tour de France during that event, usually on a rest day.  L’Etape sees the roads closed to vehicular traffic, which is not always the case.  The only classic Gran Fondos I have ridden were the Eleven-Cities-Bike Tour in the Netherlands(with 15,000 participants), the Tour of Lake Constance and the Tour of Flanders and the roads were not closed for any of these.

These are often huge events.  L’Etape is limited to 8,500 riders, while South Africa’s Cape Argus Cycle Tour is the world’s largest timed bike tour with over 40,000 participants.  The latter is only 109 kms, compared to the typical 180-300 kms length of a Gran Fondo.  Many Gran Fondos offer shorter routes in addition to the “classic” one as well.  The increasing popularity of road cycling and the interest of people in participating in these events has caused a small niche travel industry to pop up as tour companies arrange to get cyclists to these events as part of a trip package.

For participants, there is clearly a significant investment in training time and travel costs, in addition to equipment.  To get the maximum from one of these trips, Cyclefilm has come up with a series of “reconnaissance ride” DVDs to familiarize you with what to expect on the route and it was with great anticipation I opened the box for “the Italian Job, Part 1.”   This contained two DVDs: l’Eroica and the Nove Colli.

I have written here about l’Eroica and my interest in riding this classic course along the bianca strada, or “white roads” of Tuscany.  The DVD is 45 minutes in length and opens with two very fit-looking cyclists, Ian Holt and Ross Muir, in matching kit, explaining that they will be leading us through the ride.  Actually, Ian does most of the talking as Ross disappears pretty soon into the video.  He keeps up a steady monologue talking about the road surface and the climbs as he pedals.  There is some music, with lots of electric guitar in the background.  As Ian rides, every so often a profile appears, with a red section highlighting where we are on the course.  Tips are flashed on the screen, indicating where you have to be careful or where the climbs are particularly hard.  He also gives a nice demonstration of the famous “sticky bottle” technique for getting some speed from your team car.  Since this is a pleasure ride, halfway through the course Ian takes a break in Montalcino with a glass of the local vino.  The route through the quiet Tuscan countryside looks remote but quite beautiful.  The course for l’Eroica is marked with permanent signage so if you want to ride it outside of the Gran Fondo in October with its 2,500 retro bike fanatics, you can do it as Ian is doing it here.



L’Eroica is, of course, meant to be ridden on period bicycles but I, for one, will ride it with a helmet.  I was thinking the famous gravel sections did not look all that bad but then in the second part of the 205 km course the roads look pretty frightening, with some sections of gravel road having sections near 20 percent grade downhill.  In parts of the video, the image is speeded up, particularly in the descents, to get you on to the next segment.  Ian suggests keeping off the brakes and using your knees to turn during these fast downhills.  He also tells you where to try and save energy as you approach the finishing stretch.  As he rolls into Gaiole, where the course begins and ends, light is starting to fade and you feel that you have climbed those 3,800 vertical meters yourself.

At the end of the show we see some outtakes showing the crew, and then we learn that Ross overcooked a turn in the gravel and fell off, images captured on video that he will always be taunted for but a reminder of the trickiness of this course.  I would definitely recommend it for anyone considering riding l’Eroica but also if you enjoy training to beautiful Italian scenery.

The second DVD in the box is the route of the Gran Fondo Nove Colli, featuring the famous nine hills course in Emilia-Romagna.  The program is structured in the same way as the l’Eroica DVD, with Ian Holt, joined by Cameron Fraser and Ross Muir (who finishes the ride this time), riding the entire course and pointing out features to be aware of.  Although this route is entirely paved, I suspect that the challenge at the beginning will be dealing with the 11,000 other cyclists who will be with you.  The three seriously underfed cyclists here are by themselves, yet when they ride side-by-side they take up most of the road!





In terms of the production, we have some more funky rock music in the background, but the sound quality when the cyclists are providing information on the road is distorted badly in the first part of the ride, although it improves after they stop for an espresso break halfway through.  Also, when the course profile appears there is no red marker as in the first DVD so you have to count off the climbs.

Ah, the climbs.  Each of the nine climbs is highlighted as the trio rides them and while individually each col looks manageable, their cumulative effect must be pretty wearing.  As in l’Eroica, there are permanent signs marking the Nove Colli course.  One of the cyclists mentions that the Gran Fondo, held in May, has all its registration space filled by the previous December so it is important to get in early or else to sign on with a tour company.  Ian Holt and Ross Muir are principals of a bike touring company, La Fuga, specializing in Gran Fondo events in France and Italy, and although they wear their own company clothing and the La Fuga name appears in various places, the DVDs are definitely not infomercials.  The outtakes are fun as well: at one point, one of the cyclists plaintively says: “I’m good at beach volleyball” as tall, bikini-clad Italian girls play on the beach in Cesnatico.

The Gran Fondo experience is a marvellous one that I would highly recommend.  And with experienced racing cyclists taking you through the course in the loving detail shown here there is no excuse for not being properly prepared.  At £21.99 (roughly US$36, or 24.50 Euros) for a double DVD set, they are a bit more expensive than some of the other DVDs I have reviewed but are very enjoyable.  “The Italian Job” is actually six DVDs in total and the complete set is £59.99 (US$96.65 or 65.70 Euros); you probably won’t have to come out of the basement for weeks.  Cyclefilms also has a set of three Gran Fondo DVDs, each of which goes for £14.99 (US$24.55 or 16.70 Euros), and cover rides in France, Italy and Spain.

The DVDs may be ordered directly from Cyclefilm at their website.

(Incidentally, I see that they are producing a “rider profile” series and the first will be about Liz Hatch, cycling’s most recent It Girl and the subject of a Maxim photospread.  This probably has better market prospects than a DVD about, for instance, a climber nicknamed “Chicken”.)

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Book Review: From Scotland to Syria by Boat and Bicycle


Rowed Trip
by Colin Angus and Julie Angus


In the realm of adventure travelling, participants have to come up with more and more peculiar trips to attract attention (just check out my review of “Journey to the Centre of the Earth”) or to make a statement. I recently attended a talk by one adventurer who ran across the Sahara Dessert (7,000 kms in 110 days) to draw attention to the region’s water crisis. The idea of having two showers in nearly four months was not appealing to me, but how about a nice holiday to visit the family?

A young Canadian couple, Colin and Julie Angus, decided to do just that. His relatives live on the windswept islands off the coast of Scotland, while her mother is from Germany and father from Syria. Linking these places together would not normally be all that difficult but this is not a normal couple. Colin was, among other adventures, the first person to circumnavigate the world on human power alone, and Julie was the first woman to row the Atlantic, so just getting on a plane and do some short flights was not going to work. Instead they realized that to a large extent you can make your way across Europe by boat by using open waterways, rivers and canals. But the difficulty is in the portages necessary to get from one canal to another. The answer, of course, is riding bicycles and towing the boats. This, obviously, presents some logistical challenges as to how to haul the boats and what you do with the bicycles and trailers once you reach your canal.


Colin and Julie are clearly the kind of people who relish these kind of challenges. They came up with special lightweight trailers that could be easily dismantled, and of course finding a folding bike is not too difficult. Although they do not refer much to the bicycles, which are clearly tools secondary to the boats, the photographs indicate that they used Montague folding bicycles, which are well-designed full-sized mountain-type bicycles, sturdy--and pretty heavy. They soon came to realize that there were no boats on the market that would meet their requirements for seaworthiness, speed and storage of the bicycles and trailers onboard so having no experience in boatbuilding they built a pair of rowboats. Named for two minerals produced by Commerce Resources, a key sponsor, Tantalum and Niobium looked like broadened sea kayaks and were built with the stitch-and-glue technique used for making wooden sea kayaks. I found this particularly interesting as I actually have had a set of plans for a 17 foot kayak to be built in this way for years but my lack of mechanical skill has always made me hesitant to build it. The Anguses, on the other hand, spent only a year in preparation for the trip all told.


Leaving Scotland on a cold windy day on March 9, 2008, they begin by towing the boats and would continue to do so until reaching suitable water five days later. I, for one, would have liked to have been present when the bikes and trailers were folded up and the whole circus transformed into two decked rowboats. Or when they landed somewhere and did the process in reverse. As well, the two boats could be joined up to form a catamaran with a deck where their tent could be erected if there were no camping spots to be easily found.


The book is highly entertaining as Colin and Julie alternate in the telling of the story. From intransigent and useless Scottish lockkeepers, to the enchanting Oxford Canal, to floating overnight near the Hammersmith Bridge on the Thames in the heart of London, you will find the couple excellent company. Their route took them across the English Channel and after suffering through the industrial canals of northern France (and having one of their custom-built boat trailers stolen, of all things) they reach Alsace and Germany, where paddlecraft are actually catered-to by having their own access through locks.  They even rode along two of the nicest bike routes in Germany, through the Altmuhl and Tauber valleys, that I have ridden myself.

But the real drama heart of the story is their cruise along the mighty Danube, which is not blue in the least, but as they head into Eastern Europe becomes polluted and dangerous.  The irony, of course, is that the canals that made their trip possible marked the beginnings of the industrialization of Europe, with all its social and environmental effects.


From orderly Germany and Austria, they find points east more difficult. Although they write that Serbia was one of their favourite spots on the trip, it is regretted that they do not explain why this is since the countries around them, particularly Romania, sound pretty awful. In fact, the nastiest part of the trip, besides the places where they run into bad weather that actually sounds quite risky, is when they reach Romania’s frightening so-called (with good reason) Death Canal. This is more of an obstacle than a highway for them but eventually they reach the Black Sea.

Leaving their boats for shipment back to Vancouver via Turkey, they cycled the final portion of the trip, arriving at their final destination, Aleppo in Syria, on September 18, 2008. They had journeyed a total of 7150 kms, probably using their bicycles more than they had expected.

The expedition was followed on-line by schoolchildren, who asked questions and made suggestions about the trip. There is interesting social commentary, along with a fair amount of history, in the account, alongside stories of the struggles involved in moving onwards. The book includes appendices with distances covered, tips on kayaking or canoeing in the countries the Anguses visited, and even a chapter on how to build a rowboat in your backyard.

For a wonderful slideshow of the trip, go here.  They have several websites devoted to their travels, including the Rowed Trip online journal.


Julie and Colin Angus are now undertaking a 21 city tour to promote the book and I will see them speak in Ottawa on November 19. Their final stop will be in Washington, DC, where they will speak at the National Geographic Society, the organization that named them “Adventurers of the Year” in 2006 on November 24.  I am looking forward to their presentation and learning how they found adventure in a part of the world that might be considered more prosaic than, say, the high Arctic or Mongolia.

(Note: all photos are by Colin Angus and Julie Angus) 


Rowed Trip
by Colin Angus and Julie Angus
Doubleday Canada, 2009

Hardcover: 384 pages 
ISBN-10: 0385666330
ISBN-13: 978-0385666336
Suggested retail price: C$29.95 (but you know where you can do better...)

The Compleat Tour de Basement (Part 5)

Virtual Rides in Vermont and Maine

As the temperature drops and the days go markedly shorter, I can feel my fitness and motivation levels begin to drop.  At this time of the year, it is hard to battle the inevitable and switch from the pleasure of outdoor training to the grind of indoor training.  But, as I have shown previously here in my Tour de Basement™ DVD review series, it is not always a grind at all.  In fact, with the right DVD, meaning great scenery, a challenging course and suitable music, training sessions can fly by.

epicRides™, the productions from Vermont-based epicPlanet.tv, fall fully into the latest trend of outdoor training ride DVDs.  The press release notes that the DVDs are intended to complement indoor drill-type training DVDs and not replace them, but I think the producers are being overly modest.  The two discs I have ridden to so far are slickly-produced, attractive numbers with some innovative features.

The first ride I enjoyed (and I have actually ridden it two times in a row!) is “Epic Vermont.”  From the charming village of Waitsfield, Vermont, you ride with a group of four local cyclists (including a hammerhead in his 70s) towards the Appalachian Gap.  There is a five minute warm-up sequence, followed by ten minutes of easy climbing.  Now begins the serious stuff, with 20 minutes of hard climbing to the top of the Gap.  After the successful ride to the summit, you get to spin downhill rapidly for five minutes and then roll into Bristol, Vermont for the last five minutes of cool-down.


This totals 45 minutes, and one of my criticisms of these kind of DVDs is that while they might be ideal of indoor training in a spinning class, they are actually a bit short for the kind of training dedicated road cyclists need to do.  That said, epicPlanet.tv has come up with some interesting variations on the theme.  Each of the DVDs comes with a downloadable training guide.  Besides the usual disclaimer–do people who actually aren’t very fit buy these DVDs?  Has anyone ever dropped dead while doing them?–there is some background on training zones and how to use them.  There is an image of the digital dashboard used in the DVDs (we’ll get back to this in a moment) and then three suggested training rides: one to improve your VO2 max; another to strengthen aerobic capacity; and the last to serve as a recovery ride.  All of these use the same 5/10/20/5/5 minute sequence shown on the DVD.

The digital dashboard used on the epicRides™ is exceptionally well-designed.  It is simple and does not interfere with the image on-screen.  In the upper left corner is an indicator of the segment (for instance, “HARD CLIMB”) while a thin strip at the bottom has all the other information.  The indicators are: training zone; average grade in the segment; a terrain profile with a marker to show where you are on the ride; and a timer showing elapsed time.  The only unnecessary thing on the screen is the occasional appearance of “bike cam,” which is pretty obvious.  The dashboard cannot be turned off but not only is it unobtrusive I found it very useful and probably the most thoughtfully designed one of its kind I have seen.

Music, as the epicPlanet.tv people note, is a pretty subjective thing.  Some of the DVDs I have reviewed have no music, while some have very good original scores and some of the others make me wish they had no music at all (we can always press “Mute,” of course).  The music on “Epic Vermont” is okay, although I personally prefer trashy, beat-heavy Eurotechno when I work out.  But here too the folks at epicPlanet.tv have come up with something novel.  Don’t like the music on “Epic Vermont?”  No problem–just download a new companion mix from Cadence Revolution, a workout music specialist based here in my city of Ottawa, onto your MP3 player and run it in sync with the muted DVD.  I tried this yesterday after making a CD of the new soundtrack and it worked beautifully.  It is possible that you could get a whole series of different soundtracks for this one DVD so those long winter months will fly by.

The other innovative feature offered by epicPlanet.tv is that you can save the shipping costs of the DVD and simply download it directly from their website to your iPod.

The second DVD I have had the chance to use is “Epic Acadia,” which also has a downloadable training guide.  This ride, through Maine’s Acadia National Park, is somewhat more elaborate than the Vermont one.  Leaving Bar Harbor with three local racers, there is a five minute warm-up, followed by fifteen minutes of rolling hills.  You then get into a power paceline for ten minutes in preparation for 20 minutes of what looks like pretty serious climbing (7%+) up to the top of Cadillac Mountain.  Fast spinning again follows on the descent for five minutes and then a cool down for another five as you come back to Bar Harbor, so the workout totals 60 minutes.



The ride is an autumn one and the trees are in full colour, reminding me of my own rides in Gatineau Park here.  However, the scenery in Maine, with views of the water and the mountains, is much more impressive.  This ride was the subject of another, simpler DVD I have reviewed here.

The dashboard is pretty much the same as for “Epic Vermont,” but there is an added indicator to mark intervals during the climbs in the upper right corner.  This is a valuable feature for pacing climbs.

epicPlanet.tv has recently launched their third production, a double DVD of rides in Tucson, Arizon, totalling 110 minutes.  I am looking forward to reviewing this as well, although the ride up Mt. Lemmon is one I have already done on another training DVD.  The world might be a small place but I hope that there will be less duplication of riding routes from producers.  There is a lot of great riding in areas such as Colorado and Utah and Virginia and North Carolina, if you are looking for adventure in the United States, not to mention the vast number of possibilities in Europe.

So, to summarize the offerings from epicPlanet.tv, these are innovative DVDs produced to a very high standard and useful training tools.  At US$29.95, they are certainly competitively priced.  I liked them so much that I think I will take advantage of yet another downloadable feature: detailed route maps that would allow me to get out to Vermont and to Maine and actually ride the courses outdoors.  After my typical October-April Tour de Basement I will ready for them!

For more information, and to order the DVDs, go to http://www.epicplanet.tv/ .

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Gatineau Park Ride: The Best Way to Spend a Saturday Morning in Ottawa


On Saturday I joined a group of cyclists, all members of the Oakville Cyling Club visiting Ottawa for the weekend, and took them on a loop ride through Gatineau Park.  The weather was cold but clear and we had a great time enjoying the fall colours.  It was pretty early in the day so the traffic that plagues the park at this time of year had not yet materialized.

As usual, the route took us through the park, up Camp Fortune Road and on to Champlain Lookout.  I checked my GPS and for the first time saw that our altitude was 387m ASL.  Not exactly the Alps, but a good view nonentheless!  By the time I got home I had ridden 74 kms and climbed about 1000 m.

I have not had the chance to do group ride since the end of my European trip, so thanks to Tim, Ian, Paul and Robert for the great outing.  I have ridden with the OCC when down in the Oakville area to visit my mother and hope to ride with them again next summer, or when they are back up here.  One of the great attractions of cycling, to me, is the camaraderie of the open road and the good friends I have made in this sport.

(photo by Paul Castonguay)

Monday, October 12, 2009

The Lost Boy Boys Tour of Europe 2009: Rides ‘Round Rosenheim, Part 2


August 7, 2009: After yesterday’s good experience with the GPS routing, I was hoping for more of the same today but unfortunately I must have put in some directions incorrectly as once we set out the arrow kept taking us back towards the hotel.  Eventually we found a road sign that would take us in the right direction, towards the Austrian border and the town of Kufstein, along the River Inn (as in Innsbruck).

The start of the ride was not very promising as we quickly found ourselves on a major highway, Rt. 93, and although we were going very quickly it was not much fun at all.  A interesting sidelight is that we rode past the small factory where high-end Corratec bicycles are manufactured.  Eventually we cleared the intersection with Autobahn 8 and things got quieter and the Garmin was now working properly again.  Soon we reached the turn in Brannenburg that would take us west of the river and into the pre-Alps.  The climb began quite gently.  Dr. Chef noticed a sign that indicated “17%” but I said that this seemed unlikely.


We began to climb quite steadily and, sure enough, came to a section of road that actually was at least 17 percent.  The road was narrow, but there was not much traffic.  This was good as we soon came to a one-way tunnel which was short by quite steep so it was good that we did not have to dismount and lose the bit of momentum we had.

We were climbing the Deutsche Alpenstrasse, which would continue on to Sudelfeld but which we would only take to the intersection for the road to Tatzelwurm.  Some of the stronger riders had already passed the intersection but we managed to get them back by telephone.  In retrospect, we should have continued to Sudelfeld as the climb as quite challenging, but then we would have missed the truly splendid descent via Tatzelwurm through Rechenau and Seebach and Agg, which brought us down to the Inn flood plain and Reisach.  Riding towards the Inn we located the Inn bikepath and found a nice restaurant where we enjoyed lunch.  More beer!  More strudel!


The idea of following the Inn bikepath towards Kufstein was abandoned as it became quickly apparent that the nice paved stretch we found became rough gravel, so we returned to the main road and headed south, soon afterwards crossing into Austria and reaching Kufstein, which straddles both banks of the river.  Although it has only 18,000 inhabitants, it looked like a bustling place, overlooked by a large 13th Century fortress.  While scouting out the route out of town, which has a lot of one-way streets, I rode through the cobbled market area, which was very lively.

Turning back towards Germany, we passed through small villages such as Erl and the charming Nussdorf am Inn.  The road was gently undulating and fairly light in traffic.  My legs were starting to get a bit tired by this time but they were to be challenged once more as we came to Neubeuren, which is dominated by an impressive castle (sections of which date to the 12th Century, and which has since 1925 served as a boarding school).  The road through Neubeuren was quite steep and at this point all the traffic we had not encountered made its presence known.  But once over the top it was easy riding back to Rosenheim and the hotel.  We had covered 92 km, with about 1000 m of climbing, most of which was on the hill to Tatzelwurm.





Hello from Argentina!

(photo by Claus Rammel)

It was still early in the day, and the sun was beating down relentlessly.  After getting cleaned up, several of us took the opportunity to go to the “Lokschuppen,” a one-time locomotive shed that has been converted to an exhibition and event centre.  There was an exhibition “Giant Dinosaurs of Argentina,” showcasing some 24 dinosaurs, either in skeleton or reconstructed form, all species unearthed in the last two decades in Patagonia.  Argentina has fossils from all three eras of the dinosaurs (Triassic, Jurassic and Cretaceous) and these included some of the earliest known therapods, the ancestors of T. rex, as well as the largest therapod, Gigantosaurus carolinii, which stood 4 m (13 feet) tall and was 14 m (46 feet) long.  But Gigantosaurus c. was small potatoes compared to the sauropods on display.  There was the weird, spiky Amargasaurus, for example, It was about 11 m long (33 feet) and was very impressive.  But then we left the building to enter a large, temporary wooden structure and were confronted with the skeleton of what must have been the largest animal to every walk the earth.  Argentinosaurus huinculensis was 8 m (26 feet) tall and 40 m (131 feet) long, and weighed an estimated 60 tonnes.  We stood next to it and I simply could not imagine I was seeing a creature this big.  There was no way to photograph it and get any recognizable image.

The exhibition, to celebrate Darwin’s 200th birthday, was a coup for Rosenheim and utterly fascinating.  It will run until October 25 and is worth the detour to get there.

Steve Z. Joins the Greats

Lost Boys Cycle Press International, October 12, 2009

Breaking News, so to speak


In a surprise development, Steve "Zeezu" Zeliadt, one of the Garage team's strongest and most enthusiastic racers, has jumped up a few rungs on the sporting ladder and joined the immortals of pro cycling by breaking his collarbone during a cyclocross race this weekend. Cleverly, this will allow full healing by the time the real road racing season recommences. When interviewed, the Big Z admitted that with Armstrong and Hincapie both breaking their All-American collarbones this year, the pressure was on and time was running out in 2009 for this Seattle-based cyclist to join their ranks.

"Sure, anybody can get road rash," Mr. Zeliadt said while grimacing engagingly, "But a broken collarbone--that's the mark of the champion." And of course he is right: this has been a badge of courage borne by cycling's greatest names: Alex Zuelle, Magnus Backstedt, Tyler Hamilton, Kurt-Asle Arveson, Brett Lancaster, Tony Rominger, Djamolidine Abdoujaparov, Marcel Wuest, Tom Zirbel, Alejandro Valverde, Christian Vande Velde, Saul Raisin, Pascal Simon, Rolf Sorenson, and countless others. Fausto Coppi did it twice, in 1942 and 1951.


And how about Fiorenzo Magni?

Magni might have won the Tour de France in 1950. He had just taken over the yellow jersey when an angry group of spectators accused Bartali of getting physical with Jean Robic, the 1947 winner from France, on one of the climbs. The crowd turned rather vicious and the next morning the whole Italian team withdrew from the race.


Magni was one tough individual. Note the picture of Magni from the 1956 Giro d'Italia where he held a rope in his teeth to help him get pedaling leverage because of a broken collarbone. He finished second overall in the race that year despite the broken collarbone.

Of course, the current reigning World Champion, Cadel Evans, broke his collarbone three times in one year, suffering this injury eight times in his career overall, so Mr. Zeliadt has some way to go to reach the level of the Rainbow Jersey.


All of us at Lost Boys Press wish Steve a rapid recovery with minimal pain (but, hey, isn't the ability to absorb pain the whole point of racing?) and that he will soon be back on his Tarmac, Black Lightning, rallying his Garage teammates, earning the respect of his opponents and the undying adulation of spectators.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

The Lost Boys Tour of Europe 2009: The Roads ‘Round Rosenheim, Part 1


The Chiemgau countryside

After collapsing into bed, and taking care to leave the window open in our non-air conditioned room (after all, we are talking 1604 here), I quickly fell asleep and woke up feeling unusually refreshed.  I normally suffer from very bad jet lag when going to Europe but last year was an exception, perhaps because after landing in Geneva I was forced by my friend Will to walk around in the sunshine and look at Swiss/French cows for a while.  I think that the Mangfall bike path ride had the same effect so perhaps this is the solution to getting me up to speed in Europe.

Anyway, at breakfast it turned out that several people were kept up all night by the loud noises of partygoers out in the street.  My room was at the back of the building, which helped, but these are things you can never be sure of when finding a place to stay.

Today (August 6) the weather was absolutely perfect.  I had been told that it had been a summer with heavy rain in Bavaria but we were enjoyed a hot, sunny vacation.  After the usual German breakfast of buns and cheese and muesli, we saddled up eventually (not always an easy thing with a group of ten!) and rolled past the pedestrian zone and out of town to begin our first long ride.


On the road in our fancy 2009 custom jerseys

I had prepared a series of routes for the trip and loaded them on my Garmin 305 GPS.  This was a new experience for me and I was not entirely certain it would work.  I had followed some routes prepared by Will last year for the Tour d’Enfer but this was my first solo effort.  There was a bit of confusion getting out of town but as long as I followed the big arrow on the Garmin things seemed to be okay.  I had actually been a bit ambitious and found a route that took us off the main streets and went on the backroads, and had done this by using satellite images from Google.  Amazingly, it actually worked and I recognized the little residential streets seen before only from above.


The Lost Boys (and Girls) 2009

We were soon in beautiful rolling farm country, surrounded by intensely green fields and passing traditional Bavarian homes, often with religious statuary outside.  The roads were truly impeccable and well signposted.  When Will had given me GPS files I had been able to see turns coming but for some reason all I had was an arrow on the computer, which sometimes meant we missed the turn coming up as it took a moment to react.  But everything went pretty smoothly as we approached Frasdorf, near Autobahn 8.  I was bit concerned as the route just north of the highway was pretty complicated and went along unmarked farm roads but, again, it all unfolded perfectly even if I had to concentrate on the arrow most of the time.


At last: a bicycle that fits the Thin Man

We passed under the highway exactly where we should have and the farm roads took us past Bernau am Chiemsee towards Űbersee.  We stopped briefly at a large and very well-stocked bicycle shop where we bought some C02 cartridges, which we could not bring on the airline flight over, and had a nice chat with the proprietor.  Most of the store was dedicated to mountain biking, which is very popular in the area, but there were some nice road bikes, including a Basso.  This was the subject of some amusement in our group as people thought it was connected to former doper Ivan Basso, rather than being a long-established firm.  There was an enormous cruiser-type bike out front and we insisted that the Thin Man try it on for size.  The owner said that everyone thought the bike was very cool but that there were no customers for it.  


Unfortunately, our idyllic ride was to end as we approached the Chiemsee, Bavaria’s largest lake and the third-largest in Germany.  The road, St2096, had looked like a secondary road running along the lake, but it turned out to be a primary artery, with heavy truck traffic and lots of private cars as the area is very popular with tourists.  We got everyone in a single line and headed north towards Chieming and I set a steady pace at the front.  One of the group overtook me after a while, so I pulled in behind him, as did two others, Carol and Glen.  After a while I began to think we were going a bit fast considering we still had quite a distance to ride and although I enjoyed riding at more than 40 km/h along a very smooth, albeit busy road, it was bound to be too much for some of the others.  I looked more carefully ahead and realized that the cyclist pulling us was not actually someone we knew but a local rider going like a bat out of hell!  I slowed down and we found a place to stop where we could see the lake and wait for the others.


Our Gstadt Am Chiemsee lunch stop
(photo by P. Dominic)

Reassembled, we continued on our loop around the lake, now on St2095, and the traffic was quite heavy until we reached an intersection in Lambach.  Our destination for lunch was Gstad am Chiemsee at a restaurant that had been recommended by the hotel staff in Rosenheim.  We easily found the place, which was very close to the shore of the lake, and enjoyed an excellent meal on the terrace, watching the ferries leave for the islands in the lake, Herrenchiemsee and Frauenchiemsee.  The former is famous as the location of one of King Ludwig II’s follies, a full-scale reproduction of the chateau of Versailles.  My father had once worked at the hotel on the island and he took me there in 1972, and I last returned four years after that.

It was quite hot as we started on the road back to Rosenheim.  There were some nice hills but soon at Bad Endorf we were on the busy main road, St2095 again, but the way was pretty straightforward.  The group broke up as everyone rode at their own pace back to the hotel.  An excellent effort on a beautiful day: we had covered 94.67 kms, with 850 m of climbing.

The day was not over yet.  After getting cleaned up, seven us caught a bus we had arranged to take us back to Bad Endorf.  More specifically, we were going to a summer opera festival at Gut Immling, located on the top of a big hill and situated on the grounds of an animal rescue establishment, specializing in horses.  The road up was very narrow and twisty and normally you left your car in Bad Endorf and took a shuttle bus up but our driver was very good and quickly had us right at the summit.  I was a bit concerned about how difficult it would be to get us back down when everyone would be leaving at the same time but he was not too troubled by this.


After looking at the rescued animals, we went into an elegant circus tent that served as the restaurant where we had booked our dinner.  It was a very nice arrangement and the food, although a bit too not-vegetarian for me, was appetizing and plentiful.  I particularly liked the new potatoes roasted with some balsamic vinegar.  For Bavaria, the desserts were a bit limited but okay.


Time for the performance and we went off to an enormous barn-like structure for the opera, “La Bohème.”  The orchestra was at eye level, and the stage was raked up sharply behind the musicians, suggesting that the singers had to be pretty sure-footed.  Set decoration was fairly minimal but effective enough.  I was very impressed by the orchestra, but it turned out to be the summer home of the Munich Symphony, and the calibre of the singers was very good as well.

After Mimi sighfully breathed her last (sorry for the plot spoiler), we filed out and called for our bus, which arrived very quickly.  I have to say that one of the reasons I like travelling so much in Germany is that the logistics can be organized and are very reliable.  Back down the hill we rolled and soon were back in Rosenheim and our beds.

Friday, October 9, 2009

Yet Another Intersection of Beer and Bicycles: Lance Shills Weak Beer

   

Get fit and thin by drinking beer!
("Beer Belly Blues" byDJ@buzztwang, Creative Commons)

It has been announced the Lance Armstrong will now be the spokesman for Michelob Ultra beer and the first commercial is in preparation. Johnny Mellow was previously known for his attachment to Shiner, a beer brewed not far from his home of Austin, Texas in the village of Shiner (pop. 2000). A few years ago, I was in Texas and stopped on a hot afternoon in Fredericksburg. I was offered a Shiner beer and, wanted to try a local specialty, was happy to take it. It was served to me in a huge glass mug, which was taken straight out of the freezer! Needless to say, beer served at this temperature has absolutely no taste at all. It was wet, cold and pretty weak, so I was not very impressed. A subsequent tasting of a Shiner under better circumstances did little to change my initial perception.

At least the brewery, founded by Kosmos Spoetzl (!) in 1909 is a local institution. Lance Armstrong has now become the spokesman for a beer produced by the gargantuan Anheuser-Busch InBev, the world’s largest brewer with 25 percent of the global market. And a strange beer it is, being both low-carb and low-calorie. Launched in 2002, this light beer is meant to appeal to people who don’t like beer very much and has come out in flavours (Pomegranate Raspberry, Cactus Lime, Tuscan Orange Grapefruit) to get a part of the wine cooler market. A bottle of the regular Ultra has 95 calories and 2.6 g of carbs, while the fruity ones are 107 calories and 6 g.

Michelob Ultra has gotten into sponsorship of cycling events, including the Tour of Missouri, and has been involved in other events as its ads all suggest it is a beer for the active, sporting type. The beer is cheap and almost colourless and by many accounts has as little flavour as Shiner. I will admit that on some cycling trips or during intense periods of training I have had alcohol-free Erdinger Weissbier, which is made in Bavaria and quite passable, since there is no alcohol to make me feel tired. As one reviewer remarked about Ultra:

Again, what does this mean to us? Your average non-diet mass produced beer such as Budweiser and Heineken have approximately 150 calories and 11 grams of carbs per 12-ounce serving. Guinness clocks in at a remarkably low 130 calories and 10 grams of carbs for a comparable 12-ounce serving. This means that you may as well drink what you want and what you like- even the average 200lb calorie-oblivious dolt can burn almost 100 calories by watching TV or sleeping for an hour.
The review described the beer as being so light it was like seltzer with a twist of corn.


A Belgian Icon
(Mannekin Pis, photo by Hot Grill, Creative Commons)

Michelob Ultra is about one-tenth as popular in the United States as A-B InBev’s Bud Light, a genuinely terrible beer. It is not clear if Mr. Armstrong’s endorsement will help it much but I cannot think in the way that Lance has encouraged Americans to take up cycling, it would have been nice to encourage Americans to drink better beer, such as that of a craft brewer like New Belgium Brewing. On the other hand, New Belgium, which began on a bike ride, probably doesn’t have revenues of US$25 billion a year either.

The Lost Boys Tour of Europe: Giro dell’Infèrno 2009--Arrival in Germany



Bike packed and ready to go!


Following our successful trips to the Black Forest, Alsace and the French Alps, Tour No. 4 saw our first visit to Bavaria and Northern Italy.  The trip for me began with checking in at the Ottawa airport on August 4 at US Airways.  The bike case always attracts excitement from the check-in people so I was sure to be there quite early.  Sure enough, my case was nearly 2 kgs, or 4 pounds, over the limit of 50 pounds.  We are in a damned-if-you-do-and-damned-if-you-don’t situation as the whole point of the case is to protect the bike but having a hardshell case means an overweight charge in addition to the US$ 100 charge to ship the case in each direction.  The agent suggested I might take something out of the case and put it in my other suitcase but when I opened the case and started to look for things he just said to forget it.  I also asked if I could pay the shipping fee for both directions in Ottawa, which would save me some time when I flew back.  This turned out to cause other problems, as we shall see.

Anyway, the flight from Ottawa to Philadelphia was on time, and my flight out of the City of Brotherly Love, five hours later, also went very smoothly and I arrived in Munich on time.  My luggage was unloaded quickly and I easily made my way across from the international terminal to the one for domestic flights, where I met the Thin Man, who was arriving from Berlin.  We took our cases down the elevator to the S-Bahn platform where we waited for our train to Munich Ost.  There we unexpectedly met Carol and Glen, two of our group who were also heading to Rosenheim. 

On the way to the main station we stood to prevent our cases from flying around in the train.  I chatted with a businessman who was very interested in where we were going.  It turned out that during the following week he would also be heading to the Dolomites to ride his bicycle, so a small world all around.


City Museum, Rosenheim, and entry to the pedestrian zone

From the Munich Ost station we got on an Italian train going towards Venice and not ideal for handling bike cases as it has the same narrow doorways to be found on German EC trains.  The train was packed but since we were standing in doorways with our cases it did not matter much.  In half an hour we got off in Rosenheim, where construction at the station meant the cases had to be shifted up and down stairs, never an easy proposition.  At the front of the station we met yet more people from our group as Patrick and Julie looked for a cab.  An extremely helpful Deutsche Bahn person looking after the traffic in front of the station found us a huge taxi van and we quickly covered the 1.2 km to our hotel in the old city.


Our home away from home...

Old is right–the Hotel Gasthof Flötzinger-Bräu is in an old brewery building and has been occupied more or less constantly since 1543, and as an inn since 1604.  There was a large courtyard full of bike cases and other Giro riders were already there, assembling their bikes.  This all went very smoothly as even the mechanically-hesitant got everything together.  I had taken great pains and a lot of foam pipe insulation to pack the Tarmac and there was not a mark on it.  To celebrate, several of us went into the hotel restaurant for a truly Bavarian meal of Käsespätzle (cheese noodles) with big glasses of draft Hefeweizen.  We needed the fortification since we all had rooms that were up at the top of the building, requiring climbing three or four flights of stairs.  No matter–we were here to ride up mountains.




Terry unpacks his Dahon, which knocks down for easy shipping
(photo by Patrick D.)

But not on the first day.  Having had lunch and feeling surprisingly good after the long trip from Canada, I thought it would be a good idea to test out the bikes and ride along the Mangfall bike path towards Munich, find a place for another beer and then ride back.  It was fairly easy to find our way to the Mangfall, which is one of two rivers going through Rosenheim (the other being the Inn) and the bike path, although we discovered quickly that the path was very narrow and heavily used so we had to manoeuver rather carefully.


One narrow bikepath

Leaving Rosenheim and its suburbs we soon passed through Kolbermoor and Bad Aibling, a small spa town, before losing the bike path and the river completely.  After some detours, we found ourselves on a small agricultural road and soon located a beer garden, where we enjoyed our first outdoor Hefeweizens of the trip.

Mission accomplished, we returned to Rosenheim, taking time only to get slightly lost again, and after getting cleaned up everyone met up for an excellent Italian dinner.  The streets of Rosenheim are very lively in the evening (which some of our group would discover goes late into the night when they tried to get some sleep).  An excellent first day, and I was very much looking forward to the first real bike ride of the trip.


Enjoying our first group Hefeweizen!