Saturday, 30 April 2011

Ardennes Interlude: Day 2

After a successful first day, I was looking forward to a second day of climbing in Belgian. My legs felt surprisingly good at breakfast and once we were on the road I warmed up quickly in the Spring sunshine as we climbed a hill on the outskirts of La Roche.

The road climbed steadily through the villages of Hives and Ortho, with some good opportunities for photography. At one point I was at the front and enjoyed a descent along some wonderful smooth asphalt taking me through some excellent curves to a main road, the N834. Of course, once I reached the road, I realized nobody else was coming along so I had obviously missed a turn. Climbing back up the way I came, I met Robert who coming down to look for me and we rode together to the turn-off, a road it was very easy to miss and which, in fact, was to lead us more or less to a rocky track. Then the rocky track dropped steeply downhill, so steeply that several of us decided to walk it. And, of course, in the end it brought us to the N834.

We continued on this road for a while and then our route took us once more along a gravel path but this was actually quite suitable for cycling so there was not so much complaining. We enjoyed the ups and downs of the route’s nearly empty roads and eventually came to the same road we had used the day before, bringing us back to La Roche.

It was decision time: there was an optional loop which would take us up a tricky climb, the Col du Haussire. At breakfast I had considered skipping this but it was still early in the day and my legs felt good, so why not? Our brave band was down to four and after a false start, we soon found the small road leading up and up and up. The beginning of the climb seemed reasonable but I decided to take my time. It was only 3.3 kms long but about halfway along the forested road it began to pitch up. I could really feel gravity bite but I kept my pace steady, albeit pretty slow. No sign of cramping but plenty of effort involved. I saw the others ahead and I managed to come over the top with a big sprint finish. It turns out that the Col du Haussire is considered the toughest climb in Belgium as you gain 275 m of altitude. Although the average gradient is 8.3%, the steepest part is 18%!

Feeling heroic, we bounced down the rather poor road on the north side and then turned left onto the main road, the N89, which rapidly brought us back to La Roche. It was here that I left the others and rode back to the hotel for a quick shower and packing up the bike and luggage to take me to Liège and the next installment of my Ardennes adventure: watching the pros race “La Doyenne,” the oldest bike race there is Liège-Bastogne-Liège.

Friday, 22 April 2011

An Interlude in the Ardennes

Through a complex series of connections, my Easter long weekend is going to be on big bike adventure. My coach from California, Rob Panzera, of Cycling Camp San Diego, is here with a small group to ride in a ten day Ardennes Classics training camp and then watch the Liege-Bastoge-Liege race on Sunday. I have joined them for two days of cycling, and then I will go off to Liege by myself to meet up with a different group for a minivan tour of the race and a VIP dinner at the famous La Redoute climb. Rob, who has written a coaching book that I will review shortly, offers a great program and support for cyclists, whether in California, Virginia or in Europe.

Organizing my transportation from Düsseldorf to Belgium turned out to be quite a chore as the railway would take ages to get to the nearest town where the group was staying and I would then somehow have to make my way with my bike and gear over there. The solution turned out to be pretty simple as I found a car rental agency in Düsseldorf that would rent me a small car for 29 Euros per day, all inclusive. Of course, the car would have advertising all over it, but it was all the same to me.

So: can anyone guess how much my rental car cost?

Picking it up on Thursday, I put in the TomTom GPS from the office and navigated my way home to pick up my luggage and the bike. The car was an Opel Corsa five door hatchback with no fewer than 92 km on it. Of course, it has a standard transmission but I managed to get back to the apartment with a minimum of fuss and even found a street parking spot directly opposite.

Loading up everything (the Corsa is very roomy with the rear seat folded), I left at 7 pm, an hour later than I had originally hoped. Getting to the autobahn did not go so well this time as I had a couple of stalling episodes. Germans get hysterical if they are delayed for a moment and they immediately lean on their horns if you don’t leap away from a traffic light. En route, the TomTom misdirected me off the autobahn and I had to turn around and that was also a bit complicated doing this in heavy traffic but all things are possible. Once I was on the autobahn, I had no difficulty, although the car is no Porsche and at higher speeds it feels pretty unsteady on its little wheels. But by the time I reached the hotel in La Roche-en-Ardenne after two hours of driving, we were on good terms.

The others were in La Roche itself for a drink, so I enjoyed an excellent plate of pasta with fresh vegetables and then a beautiful Eiskaffee (La Café Glacé in Belgium). The group came back just before I went to bed so we talked for a bit and then I slept very soundly.

This morning we have a very good breakfast to fortify ourselves for the trip ahead. Jo, Robert’s business partner, had sent GPS coordinates for the trip, and I managed to load my Garmin Edge 305 successfully on only the second try. My pleasure was short-lived, however, as when I later wanted to put the unit on my bike, the screen went blank and has stayed that way. After five years I suspect that the rechargeable internal battery will simply take no more charges, so I will probably need to send it to Garmin for an overhaul. I will try to find a spare unit on E-Bay since I do not want to be without a GPS on my rides. I did save the route on the Internet and it is shown in this posting.

Phillip gets us psyched up, Ben in the black Rapha pro kit

Just before 10:00 we met Phillip, who had set up the route for us and lives nearby, along with two British riders, Ben and Anton (a strong rider on a steel Condor bike with mudguards and a 44 tooth small chainring!) connected to the Rapha Condor racing team. They were all discouragingly fit-looking. Phillip had set out a course for 80 kms, with roughly 1500 meters of climbing. He claimed that there would be five climbs. Looking at the profile, this seemed very doubtful as the roads in the Ardennes all go up sooner or later.

Our group consisted of these three, plus Robert, Jo and the group of hobby cyclists from the US: Graham and Sonny from California and Rachel and Kevin from the East Coast. And me.

Leaving our very charming and comfortable hotel, the La Claire Fontaine, we headed north, crossing a small river, the Vespre, before almost immediately beginning a longish climb. It was not terribly steep but coming within 500 m of the start of the ride I could feel it pretty quickly. It has been some time since I have carried this much weight and I was not enjoying the effects very much.

Rachel modelling with the Trojan Horse

There was a fair amount of up-and-downing after this, until we began to get into a serious climb near Heyde. Phillip took us on a short detour, up an agonizing little hill, to see a hotel that has theme rooms. We were all enchanted by the big Trojan Horse, which is not something you see at every hotel. There was also a lovely view. The Ardennes are heavily-forested, rolling hills and there were many flowering trees. And an amazing amount of pollen in the air.

Graham modelling with the Trojan Horse too

Next on the agenda was a quite hard climb of around 9 kms. It was not terribly steep but the length of it and my lack of training were not a good combination. But I could keep Graham and Rachel in sight for most of the time, so it was not discouraging. At the end, a quick short downhill brought us to a café for a break at the 46 km mark in Manhay. I need to practice my French as well as my climbing since the waitress ignored my order for café au lait and mineral water and brought me an espresso and tap water with ice instead.

Kevin and Graham, near our hotel

Back on the bikes, we now had a 5 km climb, followed by a section of fairly flattish road into a headwind. The headwind was a bit discouraging and I was beginning to drag a bit. I loaded up on gel and some other quick-energy foods and felt better as we came into a great stretch of flat to downhill road that ran for about 6 kms, followed by a huge descent that brought us into La Roche. The really good riders blasted through this but I was not encourage by the state of the asphalt and took my time. It seems that in this part of Wallonia the roads are either excellent or pretty bad.

La Roche-en-Ardenne, with its castle ruins, river and colourful kayakers

La Roche was crazy-busy, unlike last night when I drove through. The others had already identified the best bakery, where I picked up a rhubarb turnover and a apricot jam-filled waffle, and then we all met in the main square of the town to eat and recover from the ride. We were on our own as the Phillip and the Rapha boys had left and it was fun to watch the Good Friday crowds enjoying the amazingly warm and sunny April weather.

Happy Ardennes Classics campers (from right to left): Rachel, Kevin, Jo, Rob, Graham

I rode back to the hotel along the river with Kevin and Graham. After a brief nap, I went to the bar to meet the others and we enjoyed some fine Belgian beer and an excellent dinner. The forecast tomorrow is for more excellent weather and another great ride.

Sunday, 17 April 2011

A Spring Sunday Ride to Neuenhausen

Carsten, who is to blame

Carsten, one of the enthusiasts behind the Klassikerausfahrt series of retro-rides here in Düsseldorf, sent an e-mail around yesterday, asking for participants for a Sonntagsrunde of 2-4 hours, leaving from a café directly down the street from my apartment. With the beautiful Spring weather and the guarantee of good company, who was I to refuse?

We met at 11:00, with the idea of leaving at 11:15. Of course, put a group of Germans on tables outside of a café on a bright morning and you know that everyone is going to order coffee. It was excellent, and our departure was not delayed by much.

This was not meant to be a Klassikerausfahrt but six of the seven riders came with steel bicycles anyway. We had a Peugeot, an Eddy Merckx, a Masi 3V, a Bottechia and my Basso, among others. We rode off into the quiet city streets, our route taking us to the south and west as we passed areas new to me, including the Volksgarten park, the big Stoffeln cemetery and the university hospital. We crossed the Rhine on a bridge carrying Autobahn 46, and then turned a bit north, taking small side streets and agricultural roads through the villages of Derikum and Norf before heading south again through Rosellen, Rosellerheide and Neuenbaum.

We made another turn to the south on a dirt road. The Basso, fitted with 28mm tires and extra cyclocross “frogleg” brake levers was ideal for this and I was able to go surprisingly fast. A bit too fast as I basically rode into the back wheel of Klaus’ Bottechia! I realized that I could not stop fast enough so I turned a bit to the left to go around him–just as he moved left as well! So I bounced off his rear wheel, catching it on the side, and let the bike carry me off the path into the bushes. These stopped me pretty quickly with no damage (I did not even fall off) but I felt pretty embarrassed, although everyone else was amused and I was even complimented on my bike handling skills!

The dirt road turned out not to be what we needed, so we backtracked to the main road and swept through Neukirchen. In the next village, Hülchrath, we took a sudden left turn past a café and there ahead of us was the gateway to a really big castle! Riding through the gate, we were confronted with a massive building. It was really beautiful, surrounded by gardens made dense green by the fine weather. Flowering trees were everywhere on our route today and they were here as well. A group was sitting at a big table and we sat down ourselves to enjoy some cold drinks before continuing the ride.

There was a small sign, erected in 2005, in the gatehouse listing the dates of importance in the existence of Schloss Hülchrath, the best-preserved medieval water castle in Germany. It began in 900 AD, when a fortress was constructed to protect the area from marauding Vikings and Normans, but the first written references date to 1120. It was witness to various wars, and at one point the village of Hülchrath was completely destroyed. By 1688, many of the buildings were dismantled and the remainder was falling into ruin. It came into the hands of an aristocratic family in 1803, which held it for a century, and the last new construction took place in 1907. In 1947, 600 refugees from the former German territories to the East were housed here. In 1955 it came into the ownership of the family that still has it and it is used for weddings and other events and is available for advertising purposes. It was also the home of a Neil Young festival in April, with the Great Man himself going there on April 1! I will have more to say about the sign in the gatehouse and Schloss Hülchrath below, but back to our ride...

Cyclists: always hungry, always thirsty

Leaving the Schloss, our road took us through more villages and suburban housing until we came to Neuenhausen. An impressive hill loomed up above us and, sure enough, we were to ride up it. The road was very good, with some twists and turns, but although I could maintain a decent pace, I was huffing away about halfway up and cursing all those pastries I have eaten over the last seven months.

On reaching the top, we came to big plateau, where the huge turbines of a wind farm were to be found. This was the closest I have ever stood to one in operation and it was surprisingly quiet. The fields were pretty, with bright yellow flowering rapeseed and flowering trees (and, yes, in the distance a smoking power plant). One of the cyclists had a mechanical issue, with a broken spoke on the back wheel. The experts in the group did what they could and we then enjoyed an exhilarating descent down the other side of the hill where I reached my maximum speed for the day of 52 km/h.

Regrouping at the bottom, we retraced our route and rode past Hülchrath again and then rode parallel to the Erft, where I had ridden a few weeks ago, and eventually entered Neuss, a large city opposite Düsseldorf on the Rhine. The group lost a bit of it cohesion here and after crossing the Rhine we all made our way back separately to the café for yet more coffee. An excellent time was had by all and I am glad that I put on suntan lotion, an unusual thing for a Canadian to do in April. Returning home, I discovered that the television coverage of the Amstel Gold race was not over so I was able to enjoy a great finish before my well-deserved shower and beer.

Our route covered 78.03 kms, with 331 m of climbing. The total time was 4:22, with 3:36, giving an average moving speed of 21.6 km/h. The group does not ride a paceline so the average speed is excellent, considering how long it takes to get out of a city. It is very early in the season for me and I feel tired now, but it is a great feeling and I look forward to my next ride with the group.

More on Schloss Hülchrath

Additional research after I got home revealed some very interesting facts about the castle. The sign does not indicate what it was used for during World War II but the Schloss’ own webpage notes that various organizations, including the SS, the Reich Labour Office and the Hitler Youth and its female counterpart, the BDM, occupied it. It was an “Ordensburg,” which usually refers to the training centres administered by the SS to develop Germany’s next leaders.

In fact, Schloss Hülchrath had another purpose under the Nazis, which is not referred to on the website or the sign in the gatehouse. It was the primary training centre for the Werwolf operation, established in 1944 as a guerrilla command to resist the Allied invasion and then to conduct sabotage and destablization activities during the occupation. It executed those it felt were collaborating with the enemy. It was believed that the assassination of Franz Oppenhoff, the Lord Mayor of Aachen, who had been placed in office by American forces, in March 1945 was carried by a Werwolf unit from Schloss, although evidence subsequently suggests it was a joint SS/Luftwaffe action. Made up primarily of boys and old men, poorly-armed and led, Werwolf failed to slow down the advancing Allied forces but continued it activities after the surrender. Strong countermeasures by the Allies, coupled with the unwillingness of a war-weary populace to continue to support the Nazi cause, meant that its propaganda effect was probably more significant than its actual accomplishments.

It is curious to me that this very interesting role of Schloss Hülchrath is not mentioned on the sign or in a bit more detail on the website. Germany has not been shy about indicating where activities of the Nazi regime occurred and the creation of the Werwolf operation was the last desperate effort of the Third Reich to find a way to fight even when it was clear the war was lost.

Saturday, 16 April 2011

Bike Town and A Ride to Erkrath

It was a beautiful Spring day today and my colleague Henri picked me up at 9:30 for the one hour's drive to Bocholt and the biggest bike store around. Henri is interested in starting to cycle more seriously and I offered to loan him one of my classic steel bikes to see how he like riding a lightweight bicycle but I suggested that he get a set of clipless pedals and shoes, as well as the usual useful things (particularly a helmet).

Bocholt, located on the Aa River (seriously) is about 100 kms north of Düsseldorf, very close to the Dutch border. Rose Versand, Germany's largest retailer of bicycle equipment, was founded in the town in 1907 and now has 250 employees and a massive mail-order operation. The gigantic 2011 catalogue is 936 pages in size and is printed in German and in English.

As we walked to the store entrance, we passed a vending machine selling Continental inner tubes, which is a great idea if you need a tube and the store is closed. We passed a display of the impressive trailer hitch bike racks, complete with full-sized auto turn signals, that the Germans like so much, and found ourselves entering the nirvana that is Bike Town.

Bike Town is the retail store next to the main office and is three storeys of bikes and accessories, covering 6,000 m² and offering 20,000 items. It has a bike repair shop and a cafe so you could spend a great deal of time there, although Henri and I chose not to ride through the place like this cyclist:

After getting Shimano SPD pedals and matching shoes and cleats, a helmet, gloves, a repair kit and minipump and several other things, Henri was set. I bought an extra SpeedLever (the finest tool ever conceived) and one more storage rack so that I could rearrange the bicycles in my garage. We both took away catalogues and BDR guides to organized rides in 2011 in Germany.

After a nice lunch in Bocholt that involved chanterelle mushrooms, we returned to Düsseldorf and I replaced the Campagnolo pedals, with their toeclips and straps, with the SPD pedals on the Chesini. I added the pump to the frame, as well as the new tool kit and inflated the tires. Henri in the meantime went home for his shorts and jersey and soon joined me. A few minutes of adjusting brought the seat to the right height and now he was set to ride a Real Bicycle.

First lesson was to send him up and down the street learning to click in and out of the clipless pedals. After some initial difficulty getting the hang of this, he quickly found the correct position and was soon getting in and out like a pro. I showed him that we don't ride in the drops very often but he would find it more comfortable to ride the tops of the handlebars or the brake hoods. For a new rider this is a bit nerve-wracking as he felt he was too far from the brakes. He is used to a commuting bike where the brake levers are at hand. As he got used to the bike, and the rapid steering and light handling, he was less apprehensive. Then it was an explanation of gearing and shifting. The Chesini uses Campagnolo friction shifters on the frame and while the shifters work well, these also take some getting used to as you need to reach down for the shift. But everything was coming together well enough that I was confident we could do a ride now.

The route I picked was most of the way to Neandertal, but would bring us up a steep hill before circling back. The weather was ideal, fair and 15ºC and no wind to speak of. Riding the bike path out of town was easy and did not require riding in traffic. Leaving Düsseldorf, we had to deal with cars and buses but it was not so bad. I told Henri to keep a sharp eye out on the road, and also to shift gears before he needed to do so. We rode through Erkrath and then made the turn to the left off the L357 road that took us up the big hill on Metzkausener Strasse.

A ride with one serious climb!

The Chesini has lower gearing than the Basso I was riding but Henri probably had no need of it as he easily kept up to me. The first part of the road is not so bad and I started off confidently but about two-thirds of the way up there is a nasty curve and pitch-up. I was really feeling the 8 extra kilograms I have packed on in Germany since my arrival and was huffing and puffing to get to the top. Heading northwest took us to the intersection with Landstrasse 7, where we turned around and retraced our route. We saw several other cyclists coming up the hill, so it is obviously a local Test of Strength, but we continued along the crest of the hill on Gans Strasse and then turned downhill back to Erkrath. The road is actually a bit potholed so you cannot get the kind of speed you have earned with the big climb.

We retraced the rest of the route back to Düsseldorf and my place. We were on the road for 1:08, covering 23.55 kms and climbing 165 m. It was a good introduction to road cycling for Henri, and a test of his new equipment, and I look forward to doing more riding with him. There are many nice areas to visit here and we might be able to use his car as well to get to some jump-off points, avoiding city traffic.

Tuesday, 12 April 2011

Another Video of L'Eroica 2010

The weather is getting ideal for cycling here on the Rhein, and although I have a lot of events in mind for 2011, l'Eroica continues to dominate as the best single day one. Not surprising when you watch this video of the 2010 ride:

An Amsterdam Interlude

People who know of my interest in cycling tell me constantly that I should go to Holland, which they see as some kind of two-wheeled paradise. I have, in fact, ridden there when I completed the famous Eleven City Tour of Friesland in 1999 on my birthday. This was a very enjoyable event, with some 15,000 participants riding the 230 km course and with excellent organization, but it sure was flat and half of the figure-eight course sure was windy. My attempt to register for the Amstel Gold sportif for next week failed, a course I want to ride because it is quite hilly. I love the idea of the “Limburger Alps.” Not to mention all that beer...

Bike parking at Amsterdam Zentraal station

Anyway, Amsterdam is a reasonable train ride away from Düsseldorf to make a day trip possible and on Saturday I went there with a friend to look around a bit. The only express train to the city arrives around noon, which is just too late, so getting up early we took a series of slow trains that eventually got us to Amsterdam after 3 ½ hours and four transfers. The trains were all pretty packed, suggesting that the Dutch rail system has a capacity issue, but everything ran punctually. It was fun to try and read the signs, which look slightly German but not enough to be comprehensible. From the train, we could see how narrow Dutch roads are, and all of them seemed to be bordered by very well-maintained bike lanes, including ones that were nicely illuminated, even out in the country. We saw a couple of riders on racing bicycles out enjoying the fine Spring day.

Amsterdam Zentraal station is really huge and it took a few minutes to get our bearings and find our way out after the lady at the information desk assured us, to our surprise and doubt, that we would not need a reservation on the express train going back to Germany. Leaving the station, we saw the bicycle parking area to our right and this is where I suddenly realized things are quite different here. There must have been several thousand bicycles parked in rows and rows. The bike station also offered rental bikes and repairs. There was a huge banner as well that stated emphatically that “Amsterdam Loves Bikes!”.

Our plan was to just meander through the city and make our way the 2.5 kms to the Van Gogh Museum. There were huge crowds of people, including vast numbers of foreigners, heading in roughly the same direction, so we turned down a parallel side street. I was quite interested in the fact that the roadway was wide enough for a single car and only ran in one direction, whereas the bike lane was considerably wider. It was also very heavily used and one had to take care not to step into the rush of traffic, which is generally silent. I was struck by the fact that in spite of the crowds the city was extraordinarily quiet. We were struck by something else, which I did not immediately realize: we were walking through the red-light district, which actually has red lanterns illuminating the houses where the bad women are on display. They seemed quite friendly as they waved at me, but I was not in the market for this, nor for the marijuana, whose pungent fumes came from the open doors and windows of each of the euphemistically-named “coffee shops” we passed.

"Oma-Opa fiets," aka "Granny-Grampa bikes"

There were a number of bike rental places and we found a shop that sold typical Dutch bikes. These tend to be quite solid in construction and are designed to carry things. The styles range from the “Oma-Opa fiets,” which we think of when the traditional big black (and heavy) Dutch city bike is mentioned, to bikes with big front racks to the Bakfiets, which is a cargo bicycle with a long box in front, over a small front wheel. All of the bicycles appeared to be constructed to withstand direct atomic blasts and had zero sporting pretensions. Observing them in action during the day the reason for this became obvious, as we shall see.

We soon began to cross the series of canals that are such a famous feature of Amsterdam, and many of the buildings lining them were quite marvellous. One place featured not only the usual gables but a huge globe on the roof. The Dutch had a global trade empire at one time, making this tiny nation one of the richest in the world, and the profits of the spice trade, among other things, paid for all these fine buildings. We stopped briefly to sit outside in a nice square to enjoy lunch, which was somewhat more expensive than one would pay in Germany, but the food was good and so was the opportunity to rest our legs and people-watch.

Cheeses, cheeses, cheeses...

Amsterdam attracts a huge number of tourists due to its very central location in Europe and much of the city caters to them. Along with the sex and drugs part, there were a great number of shops selling junky souvenirs and also some local products, such as rounds of cheese that probably weighed as much as an Oma fiets but which I am sure are quite delicious. We did not see a lot of the kind of shopping that would fit some kind of middle ground between t-shirts and fine arts and antiques, and there was the usual presence of multinational shops seen everywhere and which make shopping so uninteresting as local products (besides the crappy t-shirts and wooden shoes) are pushed out.

Continuing along the canals we came to the Flower Market, which offers a staggering variety of bulbs of wonderful decorative flowers, along with the inevitable Cannabis seeds (available as a “starter kit” for neophytes) and then soon found ourselves at the Van Gogh Museum, located behind the grand Rijksmuseum, which is noted for its Rembrandts.

The Van Gogh Museum is really superb. Of the 900 paintings the artist completed in his active period of only 12 years (that’s 3 paintings every two weeks, with no time off), the Museum owns 200, plus sketches, watercolours and a lot of his letters, including those two and from his brother Theo, who acted as his dealer. I am sure at the time of his early death at 37, nobody thought Van Gogh’s art would have much staying power but he was quickly appreciated as a forerunner of modern art. His paintings (along with those of Pablo Picasso) are prominent in the list of the most expensive paintings sold, which would be of some comfort to an artist who, in his troubled lifetime, managed only to sell a single painting.

One of 37 self-portaits painted by Vincent Van Gogh

The Van Gogh Museum houses some of the artist’s finest works, including “Wheatfield with Crows,” and one of the famous “Sunflower” paintings. It is a comprehensive examination of the development of the artist, who came into his own in Arles. There are other excellent paintings by the Impressionists as well, including some great Monets, a nice Renoir, a Seurat, and a marvellous Cezanne picture of Provence.

A Bakfiets cargo bicycle

Leaving the museum, we found a little bakery and bought some refreshments, enjoying them on some steps of a house facing a canal. More people-watching and this time I focused more on the bicycles and how they were used. My suspicions always were that Amsterdam is not the kind of place you would like to ride if you enjoy cycling fast, dashing up and down hills, through curves, feeling the pleasure of speed, the sensation of flying. No, Amsterdam cycling is totally utilitarian. The car has been replaced by the bicycle (along with the streetcar) as the principal beast of burden. It is unlike any other place I have seen, including Copenhagen. No horns blares, no tires squeal from braking. It is eerily quiet for a major city. Nobody wears cycling-specific clothing, nor, without exception, helmets. Bicycles transport you faster than walking but not by much. I saw the odd man wearing a suit and riding, and plenty of women smartly dressed, often wearing short skirts and fashionable boots with heels. Baskets held groceries or small dogs. One Bakfiets rolled by and we saw two blonde children asleep in the Spring sunshine in the front of the box, followed by groceries, followed by the young mother on her saddle pedalling, followed by another child sitting on a saddle behind her!

No sissy Cryptonite lock here! Check out the serious chain and padlock.

There is an occasional ringing of a bell to avoid flattening pedestrians (being hit with a loaded Bakfiets would probably be like being hit by a piano) but everyone is cycling at a very very leisurely pace. Nobody sweats. This is in spite of the weight of the bikes and the fact that every one is also carrying a massive chain and padlock that probably double the weight of the bike yet again. None of the bikes squeaked or rattled but they all looked pretty much taken for granted.

Amsterdam is twinned with Toronto but there is no similarity between them. In Amsterdam, it is clear that a conscious decision was made to develop a liveable, human-scale city whose shape is not bent to meet the demands of the automobile. It is a completely different lifestyle, reflecting the crowded conditions of the Netherlands and its lack of energy resources, but nonetheless the Dutch clearly have a very high standard of living.

When I lived in the United States, I recall that when the bicycle was suggested as a valuable addition to the transportation network, the response by doubters was generally along the lines of “Well, this isn’t Amsterdam!,” with an undertone of “This is a country of vast distances, not like that tiny place populated with gay socialist potheads.” As one Congressman huffed: "Bicycles are an 19th Century invention!". Much like, say, electricity and cars. Anyway, Amsterdam is not perfect, certainly, but perhaps it gives us an insight into how the world could look in a future where energy and land cannot be wasted and where we might all move at a more leisurely pace, bells ringing from time time.

Sunday, 3 April 2011

Klassikerausfahrt 03.04. 2011

Getting ready to ride
Photo courtesy of

Today I had the pleasure of joining a great group of around 20 cyclists for the monthly retro-ride in the Düsseldorf area. After yesterday's truly glorious weather, the forecast for today was not nearly as good although temperatures would still be around 12C but there there was a good chance of rain. Leaving the apartment around 10:15, it looked to me like the rain was about to fall but it was still warm enough to wear shorts and short-sleeved jersey.

My weapon of choice was my c. 1987 Chesini, which, since I bought it in October, had only been ridden around 25 kms in total. During the winter, I was helped by my friend Richard to build a new front wheel but it had yet to be tested. Just before reaching Ricci-Sports, the start location of the ride, my rear wheel suddenly pulled forward (am I that strong?) when I accelerated, bringing me to a very rapid stop. The rear wheel is somewhat out of true but I fiddled with the rear brake to get me to the shop, where I could use a flat wrench to reposition it. Otherwise the bicycle seemed very good. I noticed that getting back into the toe clips and straps was taking more practice than I recalled I needed, however!

There were some interesting bikes positioned outside the shop, including a really nice red and white Bottechia owned by Klaus of Eisenherz, who sold me the Chesini, and a lovely golden Gazelle from the Netherlands, as well as some other unusual bikes. The Chesini received some nice comments. I was just hoping on a longer ride it would perform well.

We all trooped into the shop for coffee and chocolate croissants and then it was time at 11:00 to begin the ride. Everyone was very relaxed but we quickly got into formation and headed out towards the west. This took a while as there are a lot of stoplights in central Düsseldorf (and every time we stopped I had to fumble around a bit to get my foot back in when we started rolling) but eventually we crossed the Rhine and were out of town.

Enroute: oldies but goodies
Photo courtesy of

The ride was quite flat but very enjoyable. I took the opportunity to ride alongside a number of the other participants as the traffic was not too bad. We passed through farmland and near some industrial areas and occasionally saw other cyclists. Everyone was good about keeping a lookout for road hazards. Just over 2 hours later we returned to Ricci-Sports for coffee and cake, this being the fine German tradition, having covered just over 50 kms. As we all prepared to leave, the rain began, so the timing was perfect.

After I had adjusted the brakes, the Chesini performed beautifully and by the end of the ride I was having less trouble getting into the clips and straps. I really need to work on this for l'Eroica in October as the Peugeot I will be taking also has toe clips and straps. This is one area (clipless pedals) where there has been real progress over the years!

L t R: Chesini, Gazelle, Gitane

The Klassikerausfahrt retro-ride is scheduled for each month and the next ride will be on Sunday, May 1. Useful information about the rides is posted here.

Of course, after this enjoyable start to the day, I returned home in time to open a bottle of Alt-Bier, make some popcorn, turn on the television and watch the last part of one of the best Tour of Flanders I can recall.

Friday, 1 April 2011

1957 BBC Report on Pasta

Pasta has been the traditional fuel of cyclists since before Fausto was a baby. On this day fifty-four years ago, the BBC issued one of its most famous news reports about pasta in Italy and you can enjoy that celebrated short program here. With Spring around the corner in the Northern Hemisphere, visions of delicious spaghetti will make those training rides all that much more enjoyable. So ride fast but only twist a fork at the table. Tutto bene, tutto bello!

Photo: "Spaghetti," by andreasnilsson1976
Creative Commons