Tuesday 31 May 2011

A Bergisches Land Loop: April 25, 2011

The Sieg River, with the Siegtalradweg on the left

Following our successful excursion to Liège over the Easter Weekend, my friend Nick invited me to ride in his neck of the woods, the Bergisches Land. My first excursion there in October had not gone so well as I fell off my bicycle but I was pretty confident after two days of riding the Ardennes, so I took my little rental car down the A3 towards Cologne in preparation for an excellent day of cycling. I found my way to Nick’s house in Neunkirchen-Seelscheid without any problem and unloaded the Specialized Tarmac. The weather, as it had been for the whole weekend, was superb.

We were to be joined by a third rider but he could not be there as his daughter had been stung by a bee and was off to the hospital so it was just the two of us who pulled out. For a moment the ride went well but on our first tiny hill I suddenly discovered that I could not shift gears with my rear derailleur very well. From all the taking off and putting on of wheels over the last few days the mechanism had gotten out of calibration but a few turns on the adjusting barrel and it was all fine again.

Riding through the quiet green countryside, our ride began with a gentle descent until we reached 14 kms, when the first hill of the day made us work as we made our way up to Göpringhausen, passing an old paper mill on the way. We continued past horse farms and wide field until we reached the picturesque little village of Ruppichteroth, where we stopped briefly to look at the old church and the excellent half-timbered houses. There was a fine flower-bedecked fountain to admire, and after admiring it we left the village (taking us on a route not expected by Nick) we climbed up out of the valley and heading south. Soon we had a noble descent that brought us to Herchen, where we rode for a while on the Sieg bicycle path, a smooth asphalt track that runs alongside the river for around 140 kms.

A break for a fine cup of coffee in Eitorf and then it was time for our big hill challenge of the day as we crossed the Sieg and began an impressive ascent from Bourauel to Hohn, gaining 150 m in only 2 kms. When we got to the top and admired the view, I mentioned to Nick the benefits of interval training on a nice steady hill like this, so of course we turned around and rode it all over again at racing speed. I think my Ardennes rides really helped as I felt quite good on the climb and enjoyed a little sprint on reaching the flat stretch at the top.

After we had recovered a bit from this exertion, we rode into an area that was new to Nick, so we got a bit lost but soon he found the correct way after a dead end in Stockum. There was a lot of climbing left in the course as I found out in Winterscheid as my legs were beginning to make their displeasure known. “Shut up, legs!”, to quote Jens Voigt, and so they did and so we went on, including a rather brutally steep little climb to bring us back to Neunkirchen-Seelscheid. It had been an excellent ride on quiet roads, and a bit of a challenge, covering 85.59 and 1300 m vertical. And of course we enjoyed a great big ice cream each at the end!

Monday 23 May 2011

2011 Skoda Velothon Berlin

Photo: Berliner Morgenpost

As a loyal long-time reader of Germany's TOUR cycling magazine and a former resident of the capital, I was intrigued to read about the launch of the Skoda Velothon in Berlin in 2008. It was meant to showcase the city and allow enthusiastic amateurs to cycle on closed roads past many celebrated landmarks. Now that I am back in Germany, I took the opportunity to sign up for a fun weekend and I am glad that I did.

Renting a car and driving was not the best idea as it actually took longer than the slow trains you have to take if you are transporting a bike but I enjoyed driving the little VW Polo (except during the omnipresent traffic jams and construction slowdowns). The little car cruised very easily at 140 km/h and consumed miserly amounts of fuel while doing it. It took my bike and the usual ton of junk cyclists need when they go anywhere in the back with plenty of room to spare with the rear seat folded down. Having never really driven in Berlin (I did not own a car in the four years I lived there), I was surprised again at just how huge it is and leaving the autobahn I still had 18 kms of in-city driving to get to the friend's apartment where I was staying. Leaving Du"sseldorf at 05:30, I rolled to a stop in Berlin just after 13:00.

Quickly getting cleaned up, we headed to the Brandenburg Gate, the most famous symbol of the city. The roads were already closed off and there were lots of cyclists buzzing around the adjoining Avenue of the 17th of June. There was a cycling fair set up with local merchants and well-known international brands hawking their wares, along with the de rigeur beer and bratwurst areas. Within five minutes I had my registration completed and was equipped with my bright green swag bag, which included my 3,000th water bottle and some neat stuff, including shampoon, sunscreen, Sport Beans, and, most important, instructions for the ride itself. I would be doing the ride with two of the Lost Boys who had come to the Pyrenees last summer and I made contact with them so that we would meet up the next morning to get to our start block together.

The cycling fair, and the Brandenburg Gate in the background

Andrew was coming from Leipzig on an early train and this did not work out so well as one of the inexplicable delays that now plagues Deutsche Bahn struck and he would be stranded in Bitterfeld for an hour and a half. I met Dan, riding his fancy new Cervelo R2, outside Andrew's apartment and we rode over to Unter den Linden and found Starting Block D. There are huge numbers involved in this, the 2nd biggest cycling event in Europe, and all around us were people who, as Dan noted, all kind of looked like us. Helmets, sunglasses, colourful jerseys, fancy bikes. And, to our amazement and delight, Andrew somehow managed to get into our Block D in time to start, although there were so many people we could not find him. Thanks to the miracle of cellphones, we told him to look out for us on the right side after the start as we would slow pedal a bit.

A lot of things seemed to be happening at the Brandenburg Gate, and there was cheering for what must have been the start of the race--a group of "promis" were going out first--but eventually our collagues in Block D began to roll out and we were soon off and spinning through the marvellous landmark with its famous Quadriga on top. We turned left and rolled through Potsdamer Platz. Andrew caught up to us pretty quickly and we focussed on holding a good position in the group. With some 13,000 participants divided between the earlier 60 km route and our 120 km one, there were some pretty wide variations in speed and skill levels and several times at this early point we were overtaken by some very fast cyclists riding in disciplined team formations.

Photo: Berliner Morgenpost

Our route took us through the Tiergarten and into Charlottenburg, my old Kiez, and then into the Grunewald. The road became quite narrow here and the majority of the few hills on the ride were to be found here. I lost Andrew and Dan as faster riders forced their way by on the left and slower climbers blocked me in front but I figured I would catch up to them at the food stop.

The ride alongside the Wannsee and then along the no-cars-allowed Kronzprinzessenweg was second nature to me as I used to ride it several times a week. With long straight stretches I was able to go into time trial mode. I wanted to shorten the distance Dan and Andrew were ahead and I was surprised when I looked back and saw that I was now leading a train of a dozen very fast-looking riders!

Past the huge mansions in Zehlendorf and then a sharp right as we rode south to Teltow and left Berlin proper for the Bundesland of Brandenburg. Riding through the typical Brandenburg villages, houses in a single file spread out along the road, we were cheered on by hundreds of spectators. Things went swimmingly as I moved from fast group to fast group until we turned east near Gro"ben and met a fierce headwind. Schluss mit lustig, as the Germans say. "So much for the fun..."

It was a hard slog through open fields most of the way to Ludwigsfelde but I was starting to feel better when I pulled into the food stop. I quickly spotted Andrew and Dan and downed some water. Andrew was not feeling very well and was going to ride slowly. I was feeling pretty good at this point and thought I would ride ahead and see how things looked.

To my surprise, I found myself on a stretch of autobahn and although the wind was still strong it was more from the side than the front so for the next ten kilometres or so Iwent into full time trial mode, holding a pretty steady 34-36 km/h. I kept hoping a group near this speed would come up at some point but except for some of the club riders it looked like after the food stop everything had gotten disorganized and everyone was riding for themselves. I had also seen a surprising number of accidents, with injured cyclists stretched out on the ground or being assisted by ambulance crews. Oddly, none of the crashes took placed on the tricky turns but rather on straight areas in the middle of nothing. Of course, the fact that Germans tend to ride their bikes the way they drive their cars and cut you off after passing probably did not help. I was almost taken out myself by an overtaking group on the B101 autobahn stretch.

Near the bear statue marking the boundary of Berlin a big crowd had gathered so of course I had to sprint a bit as I went by. I was starting to feel the effects after the 100 km mark and I was working hard to stay hydrated. The weather had been ideal but it was now hot and the sun really beat down as we approached noon.

I felt that I was getting my strength back when we made the turn into the former Tempelhof Airport, which is now a sort of multi-use park with runways. Of course, the runway was taking us due east and I really was battered by the headwind here. It was very cool to ride the entire length of the runway, considering that the last time I had actually been on the runway I had been sitting in a PanAm Boeing 727.

We passed through Kreuzberg and Friedrichshain, passing the O2 Arena and then returning to Mitte and the Tiergarten. As I swung past another famous Berlin symbol, the Siegesäule, or Column of Victory, whose crowning statue, known familiarly to Berliners as the Gold Else, was recently restored to her golden glory, I felt a stabbing pain at the top of my right leg. Stupid cramp! The muscle was seizing up rapidly and I was considering getting off my bike and shaking it out, but with less than 1000 m to go I shifted to an easier gear and found I could spin pretty quickly. The route was marked with countdown signs--750m, 500m, 250m--and I found that I actually had something still in reserve so seeing quite a few cyclists ahead I put on full steam and surged for a big sprint finish. The photos, taken near the finish line, show me with the game face, but I was pretty happy with my ride and I really enjoyed the day out.

Turning in the transponder was easy and I got a receipt for it and my medal. I sat under a tree and had a cold Erdinger (alcohol free), took off my shoes to ease my burning feet, and called Andrew. He was near the Brandenburg Gate with Dan so I rode back over there and met them, along with Dan's friend Caroline, who had very thoughtfully brought some pizza along. Andrew was concerned about the state of his training as he will join us for the next Lost Boys trip this June in Austria but in fact he and Dan, in spite of their talk of riding slowly, only finished 65 seconds behind me.

It had been a great day. I had averaged over 33 km/h for the 118 km course and felt good. I did not stay around for the pro race organized by German former sprinting star Erik Zabel, but it was the first time it had been added to the Velothon progamme. It was won by a young German riding for the Dutch Skil-Shimano team.

Several years ago I rode the Cyclassics Jedermann Rennen in Hamburg which, with 22,000 participants, ranks as the largest in Europe. Now that I have ridden the Skoda Velothon Berlin and the Cyclassics Hamburg, it is a shame a similar event that was to have run in late July in Munich has been cancelled for 2011, although the organizers (which include TOUR) hope to have it on for next year. The cost of an event that basically sees a major city's streets closed for most of the day must be considerable and I found the organization of the Velothon very impressive, and worth recommending.

Monday 9 May 2011

Wouter Weylandt: 1984-2011

In terrible news from this year's Giro d'Italia, popular Belgian professional racer Wouter Weylandt, riding for Team Leopard-Trek, crashed fatally on a high-speed descent 24 kms from the finish of today's stage.

Wouter Weylandt, who won a stage during last year's Giro, became a professional in 2004. He rode for QuickStep as a teammate of Tom Boonen and was seen as a rising star in Boonen's style. I first read about him when he joined QuickStep as an impressive new prospect. A big handsome man with a professional attitude, he had already been visible animating this year's Giro. His tragic death at only 26 (and only four months away from becoming a father) comes as a shock and a sad reminder that the sport we love can be very dangerous and that we should all be as careful as possible out there. Of course, his loss to pro racing is but little compared to his loss to his family and friends and teammates and my condolences go out to them.

Sunday 1 May 2011

Rolling with the Golden Oldies

Today, May 1, I had originally considered doing a bike marathon in the Eifel Mountains but given the signals my body sent last week in the Ardennes, I thought it might be better to work up towards other rides in Berlin and Bonn later this month and in June. The weather has been cooperative and today I took the opportunity to drag my not-unwilling colleague, Henri, who has been equipped to ride the Chesini Olimpiade with clipless pedals, along for his second ride on a racing bicycle. The tour of choice was the monthly Klassikerausfahrt, featuring an approximately 50 km ride at a reasonable speed, a great deal of cake, old steel bikes and good company.

We rolled into the Ricci-Sports shop around 10:30 and there was already a good crowd. Taking advantage of the excellent weather (which has gone on now for several weeks in a row), our numbers were pretty big. There were a lot of interesting bikes, along with the old favourites like Klaus’ Bottechia and Carsten’s Peugeot. There were three Dutch Gazelles, as well as Konrad’s lovely red RIH from Holland, a Puch from Austria, a tricolori Faggin, along with other samples of the Italian builder’s art from Benotto, Chinetti, Gios and Cinelli, as well as my own Basso and the Chesini. I was particularly drawn to a Rickert Spezial, a locally-built bike from Dortmund, an example of which I would love to have in my own collection. Hugo Rickert brazed the Reynolds 531 tubes and his wife painted the bikes, including the lovely lug outlines on this dark blue bike. A feast for the eyes and no Hangar Queens in the bunch. All these bikes are meant to be enjoyed on the road. And it was encouraging to be joined by two youngsters, also riding steel frames, and, for a change, more than a single woman!

After the customary croissants and coffee, the 30 or so riders organized themselves into an untidy mess of a line and headed off into the parade of traffic lights that marks our progress out of Düsseldorf. We rode along the Rheinufer past the Altstadt and reassembled in dribs and drams at the base of the Rheinturm television tower. One rider already fell victim to a mechanical as he hit some glass leftover by careless drunk people celebrating the traditional “Tanz in den Mai” the night before. And a bit further down the road, Henri had an issue with the back wheel jamming a bit on the Chesini but that was just a matter of readjusting the position of the wheel, although the new position meant that we could hear his brake pads whenever he slowed down for a while. I think that he also became apprehensive about shifting after this incident so we have to work on this a bit more.

After crossing the Rhine, we followed some of the same path that I had taken on Carsten’s Sunday ride two weeks ago although I noticed a few details, such as a reconstructed Roman watchtower I had overlooked before. It was good to be out in the country and besides the yellow dandelions we saw some lovely purple flowers adding colour to the green fields. The crops are filling in compared to two weeks ago.

At the furthest point out, in Wevelinghoven, we took a short break for a drink and then continued along the nicely paved field roads that are such a feature of Germany. Surprisingly, things began to happen at this point: a flat, a crash, some riders going the wrong way and even a pedal that fell off! But eventually everybody got back on track and we crossed the Erft once again and headed through ugly Neuss (which only seems to consist of main roads) before getting back into Düsseldorf.

Things became hilarious here. Richard rides like the wind on his singlespeed bike and he was cutting a path for Henri and me through the crowds of Sunday cyclists on the bike path along the river. We were tearing along at a good speed (watching out for roots and small children), when we were overtaken by four very fast riders. Richard knew them and took off and I made a big effort to try and keep up, without hitting any baby carriages or dogs. He told me that the group of four included three pros (local matador Sven Teutenberg among them) and a very fast amateur.
In gratitude for his guidance skills, Richard is presented with a really cheesy handlebar bag

We climbed the big bridge into the Media-Hafen, slowed down by a couple of mountain bikers who were pushing (!) their bikes up but we were able to thread our way through the crowds although the Altstadt was pretty full at this point and all returned to the shop without any further incidents. There was cake and lots of bike talk and another successful Klassikerausfahrt was over.

Henri and the racing bike of his dreams

Henri and I rode back to my apartment and enjoyed a beer and some popcorn seasoned with white truffle oil on the sunny balcony. 59 kms ridden, 150 meters of climbing and a pleasant Sunday was had by all.